A Cleveland Spring - One Year Later Part 2 The Egalitarian City: Radical Reform in Cleveland

Submitted by Randino on Mon, 10/23/2017 - 08:55.

 Part 2: The Egalitarian City: Radical Reform in Cleveland.

            It is easy to oppose something.  Proposing an alternative is a whole different matter.  However, it is vital if you ever hope to be taken seriously by a public whose support you must win.  We can’t successfully oppose the various schemes of the Masters of Cleveland, if we don’t oppose the vision and strategy behind it with an alternative vision. 

            It is beyond the scope of this essay to lay out a comprehensive alternative.  Such an alternative must be shaped in a democratic process informed by past and present organizing.  What we can do is lay down markers on the values that we want to use to shape a strategy of radical reforms.

            Reforms and Radical Reforms.

            The term radical reform might cause a conceptual car crash in the minds of some.  Reforms in the ordinary sense are usually inoffensive creatures that tweak the status quo without really changing much.  The term radical reform originated in post WWII Europe, where the left concluded that for the time being, the revolution had been put on ice and the left had to have something to do until history went into hyper drive again.  One of its leaders spoke of a “long march through the institutions”. Radical reforms were the boots for that march. 

            A radical reform is a reform that seeks to redistribute wealth and power within a society.  It is not revolution.  It is reform that uses the system against the system.  Its goal is not tweaking.  Its goal is real change within the current society.  The right has used radical reforms throughout the period of its dominance.  It has redistributed power and wealth from the non-wealthy to the wealthy.  It has worked to destroy the ability of anyone who might object to the power of the wealth, to resist that power.  Citizens United and the war on organized labor and the emasculation of regulatory agencies are perfect examples of radical reforms implemented by the right.  Their values favor traditional hierarchies of race, gender and class.  Their values favor the corporate and the private over the social and public. 

            We must use another set of values to guide the creation of a new governing philosophy for Cleveland that would implement a program of progressive radical reforms.  These values should include but not be limited to:

Demilitarizing and de-policing society.   Our present society is not interested in dealing with social problems, much less addressing the underlying causes of those problems.  From the New Deal to the Great Society the answer was a program.  Since then the answer is a jail cell.  Law enforcement and the prison system have metastasized into institutional Godzillas roaring and stomping through our lives.  As one former Baltimore policeman commented in an interview, it is impossible to spend 24 hours of your everyday life in America without breaking the law, which puts you into the cross hairs of law enforcement.  If this is not bad enough, these Godzillas have formed an unholy alliance with the military and the private security industry as we see with our militarized police and a private security industry dominated by military veterans.  The law enforcement response to the Standing Rock Sioux protests of the DAPL pipeline was a classic example of these developments. The result is America has become a quasi police state. 

            What is most infuriating to critics of policing in America in the wake of a series of police shootings of unarmed African Americans is that it seems that the police can act with complete impunity, with few if any worries that they will be held accountable.  Police shootings that range from the questionable to outrageous seldom end up in court and almost never result in convictions.  It is easy to believe that police are above the law.  The theory is that we are a society where civilian leaders exercise authority over the police. The reality says just the opposite. The police are in control, they call the shots and they are answerable only to themselves.

            It is up to question, if you can back your way out of a police state.  Such states create constituencies of their own, especially within communities where decent jobs are few and far between. One person’s oppression is another person’s opportunity.  Law and order comes out of a basic civic laziness that does not want to face up to, much less deal with our problems.  We must break the law and order habit and favor solutions that don’t require more laws, more police and more jail cells.  Basic to those solutions must be a total reinvigoration of civic society, democracy and the very way we define the role of the citizen.  We must build walls between the police, and the military and restrain or abolish private security companies.  Then we might have a chance to get out of the law and order hole we find ourselves in.

Rejecting the Austerity Regime.  In the mid-1970s an article appeared in the magazine Business Week that was prophetic.  The message was that the public had to settle for less in wages and public services, so that corporate America could have greater profits.  The authors said it was going to be a hard notion for people to swallow, but they managed quite well in ramming it down the public’s throat.  We have lived under an austerity regime ever since.  The mantra of this effort was “public sector bad, private sector good.” Privatizing everything has meant sealing off more and more public services from democratic accountability.  That is the fine print that the backers of austerity and privatization never want to talk about.  We must reconfigure the conversation to say that the public sector is good and should be expanded, while working to make that public sector accountable and open to democratic input from the people. 

            We must liberate democracy from the ghetto to which it has been confined.  Most people spend most of their lives in authoritarian institutions about which they have no say.  

            We must begin this democratic break out by challenging private power at its heart in how our economy is run and explicitly advocating for a society of equality of condition, and a rejection of our present oligarchic order.  

            Regarding the economy, we need to democratize how enterprises are run by giving employees a say in the day to day operation of the enterprise.  CEOs should not be regarded as gods and rewarded like potentates.  The right to form unions should be sacrosanct.  Employee owned enterprises and cooperative businesses should become major if not dominant parts of our economy.  Banks should be nationalized as public utilities recognizing, to paraphrase Mayor Tom Johnson, that either you own them, or they will own you.  The economy should exist to serve the people. The people should not exist to serve the economy.  

            Regarding equality of condition, we need to reject the notion that equality means everyone has an equal chance to participate in a dog eat dog social jungle of all versus all.  We should pay heed to Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis who said that you can have a plutocracy or you can have a democracy.  You can’t have both.  Great concentrations of wealth are inherently incompatible with democratic life.  No matter how they are taxed or regulated, they will inevitably hijack and distort the larger society.  We must retire our social Darwinist ethic, that participatory greed is the path to a good society, and embrace a new social vision of a society of the broad middle where no one is poor and no one is rich, but all have enough for a good life.   

De-pacification.  I call the era we are leaving post-Kucinich Cleveland.  It was a thorough going repudiation of urban populist politics and the community organizing movement that rolled through the city in the 1970s.  It was a counter insurgency campaign.  And it was very successful.  Those who have always run the town, reasserted their authority with a vengeance. One feature of this campaign was to use the non-profit sector as token proof that the Masters of Cleveland did care for the unfortunate, just so long as the unfortunate and their advocates remembered who was in charge.  The rise of the non-profits was central to the drive to privatize public and social services.  Now, in a pacified Cleveland their services are no longer as needed as they once were.  They are being starved of funding and forced to merge with each other for survival.

            There was no greater example of the triumph of passivity and how far civic activism had fallen that the weak response of the public to the killing of Tamir Rice by the Cleveland Police.  The silence was especially deafening in Cleveland’s African American communities.  I was at the rally that was held in front of the Justice Center after the final decision was announced to not prosecute the two police officers responsible.  Long time anti-racist activist Art McCoy was stunned by the small crowd that attended, and openly wondered where everyone was and what was wrong with his community that their response to the decision was so pathetic.

            Today we have a city whose rate of voter participation is a disgrace.  The marginalized poor have been reduced to civic squalor by the temporary labor market, the minimum wage economy, the inherent instability and insecurity of rental housing, and a justice system that has turned thousands who have passed through it into exiles in their own land under a regime of permanent punishment.  Throw into the toxic stew a street level nihilism where people look to guns to empower and protect them in an impoverished world of all versus all. Racism, our original sin, is still pervasive, powerful and debilitating.  We have a city hall that has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Greater Cleveland Partnership.  We have a city administration whose focus is limited to downtown, and a hand full of favored enclaves colonized by the affluent.        

            De-pacification requires a rebuilding of our civic infrastructure in a massive campaign of democratic education.  When they say privatize, we should say democratize.  We should help the mass of Cleveland residents learn how to be citizens, not mere residents.  We should help educate them in the skills of organizing, running meetings, and to change the way they look upon themselves from victims and spectators of society, into participants.  It will not be easy breaking the habits and mind set of passivity. But without it, nothing else will be possible.

Fighting for our language.  One of the most pernicious features of our society is the corporatization of our language.  I witnessed this transition in the non-profit and public-sector world and it made me empathize with the last humans in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There was something odd that had changed with people I had known for years.  Their eyes reflected that they had not become plants, but their language changed totally.  Organizations became corporations and evaluated themselves against the criteria used by modern corporations.  Clients became customers. Programs became products.  The communities you served became your shareholders.  Businessmen became entrepreneurs.  Clerks became sales associates.  You were not asked by a business if you found what you were looking for while shopping.  You were asked how your “experience” was. 

            We cannot succeed in combating the Masters of Cleveland or democratizing society using corporate speak because if we use corporate speak we will also think using corporate think.  We need to not only change the distribution of power and wealth.  We need to change the very language we use to make it a tool for democratizing society, not maximizing shareholder value and shutting people up. 

Towards an Egalitarian City.

            Cleveland for the past generation has been ruled by a politics of nostalgia for the days when it was an industrial power house.  In pursuit of this dream city politics have been focused on currying favor with our local plutocracy and thinking up one scheme after another to bribe the suburban middle classes and affluent to return to a city its parents and grandparents fled to avoid the colored and the poor, to obtain decent housing and schools, and to get away from the pervasive pollution that was part and parcel of its industrial greatness.  The drive to reclaim a mythic past has meant that no one has asked what else Cleveland can be other than a cheap knock off of that past.  A progressive movement in Cleveland must start to propose and fight for an alternative governing vision for the city that does not rely on the beneficence and permission of the Masters of Cleveland, but relies on the imagination and energy of a mobilized, educated and democratic majority of the ordinary citizens of a city that I call the hometown of the humble. 

            We have laid some of the foundation stones of the movements that will bring about a city that is for the many not the few, where democracy is a reality not a slogan, and justice is a realized dream, not a nightmare.  We have much, much more to do but at least we have started. 

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