The People's Summit 2017

Submitted by Randino on Thu, 06/15/2017 - 08:29.

 People’s Summit 2017

by Randy Cunningham

            Is there a renaissance of the American left happening?  I have seen many a false dawn in the past, but even this old sceptic is starting to wonder if in the words of a song of his youth “something is happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear” is appropriate for today. If you want to see what is happening there is no better place to see it than at the annual People’s Summit that I attended over the weekend of June 9 to the 11th in Chicago with fellow activists of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.  It is another of a long list of spin off developments that came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, but it is becoming the equivalent for the left, what the CPAC conference is for the right. 

            The summit was at its best when it came to star studded plenaries that knocked your socks off.  It still has a lot of work to do in how to organize workshops, where the real work of networking, exchanging experiences and developing campaigns is done.  But this is only the second summit that has been held, so it is just learning to walk, not run. 

            There were many all-stars featured in the plenaries.  Chokwe Lumumba, the Mayor Elect of Jackson, Mississippi will become famous in coming years.  He is a dynamic political leader and a “blow the doors off the room” speaker.  He defeated 16 rivals in the primary, and got 94% of the vote in the general.  He wants to turn Jackson City Hall into one of the most radical in the country.  He said we have to rescue ourselves.  His political strategy is to draft an agenda for ourselves and then draft a leadership that will enact that agenda.  If you want to know how pathetic our City Hall is in Cleveland, just listen to a speaker like Lumumba.  And then weep.   

            Then we had the Nina Turner tornado whip through the summit and she always stirs up the audience and was a proven tonic for foot sore and travel weary summit goers.  She was one of the stars of the weekend, second only to Bernie and Jane Sanders.  One of her classic statements is that our present political situation is painful, but it is the pain of giving birth to a new, brighter era.

            Van Jones has both turned me on and off for years, but he is one of the best speakers on the American left.  His presentation was a reprise of some of his favorite themes.  He described how the Democratic Party cannot win without the African American vote, but if a political party can take your support for granted, they can abuse you at will.  Jones calls this “trickle down justice.” African Americans are expected to support the numerous issues that the left champions, but how often does the left show solidarity with the African American community on topics such as police violence.  Not nearly enough was Van’s answer.  Van continued this broad theme by condemning the demonization of those communities that supported Donald Trump.  Communities such as the coal mining communities of states such as West Virginia.  He described how coal miners with black lung had a near miss with losing their benefits, before last minute legislation finally passed.  His question was why wasn’t this a cause celeb on the left?  Then he described the opioid epidemic where communities in Appalachia are running out of space to store bodies for burial.  This has been happening to communities that supported Trump, and as in the case of black lung, has been ignored except for people like Bernie Sanders and Van Jones.  We must get past the last election.  We cannot demonize those who supported Trump because when we do we are no better than Trump when it comes to dividing us and stirring up hate for entire groups of people.  We must counter it with the power of love and inclusion.  This was Van at his best. 

             One of the points that was made time and again by speakers in the plenaries and workshops is that we don’t want the same old, same old offered by the Goldman Sachs wing of the Democratic Party.  To the party establishment everything was fine before Trump came along.  The primary duty of the party was to defend the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society and Obama.  Once we got back to those bed rocks all would be fine.  An example of this attitude is the uncritical support of Obamacare, and the unrelenting hostility shown to Medicare for all by party leaders.  The response heard at the summit to this stance was that everything was not fine before Trump and that a lot of what made it bad were measures supported by both the GOP and the Democratic Party. 

            Speakers said we needed to go on the offensive.  We need to demand a whole new set of reforms and policy changes that would leave the same old, same old behind in the dust.  We must present a progressive vision that is just as audacious as the reactionary agenda pursued by the GOP and the extreme right.  Offense was the best defense, but it also was a game changer for a revolution in not only public policy but in the values of the overall society. 

            This was not a summit of the academic left.  This was a summit of the activist left.  It represented a new-found interest in “walking with both feet” as an old movement saying puts it.  What that means is that a movement must be both in the streets protesting but also actively pursuing power on the electoral arena. A recent book is called Hegemony: How-to do. A Roadmap for Radicals by Jonathan Smucker.  Its message is that we should not be about speaking truth to power, we should be about coming to power.  We should be focused on a term rarely heard on the left – winning.  And in the United States that means contending for electoral office.  It means preparing to govern.  

            One workshop that was packed was one that should sound very familiar to progressive caucus activists.  Transforming the Democratic Party drew a crowd of around 500 people to hear a panel of battle hardened electoral activists that included US Representative Pramila Jayapal from Washington State, Rob Quist from Montana who gave the GOP the scare of its life, and Ben Tulchin who was a pollster for Bernie in 2016.  Some of the high points that came from the workshop were: (1) The Democratic Party operates like a club, is not friendly to non-insider input, and operates by rules that enforces the status quo.  It is important to become fluent in those rules and work to change them. (2) It is vital that we decide in contests to back one progressive candidate and not dilute our power through multiple progressive candidates contesting in primaries or general elections.  (3) Personal contact and boldly going where you haven’t gone before are critical.  We need to have candidates who can talk with regular people.  Quist was told that one county’s GOP was meeting at a local restaurant. This did not deter him. He walked through the door, sat down and had one of the best exchanges he had all campaign.  He left feeling like he got a few votes there.  Moral of story: don’t wall yourself off in your comfort zone.  (4) Jayapal told people to not only do all the above, but to keep protesting.     The final night was an old-fashioned revival for the Bernie faithful and the Bernie faithful are faithful but they are not reverent.  Remember that at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last year, Bernie was booed when he told people to support Hillary, but was then given a standing ovation when he concluded his speech!!!  Bernie gave The Speech – which if you have heard it before, you know.  The man is consistent and persistent.  All during the speech people in the audience were shouting things to him about do this and don’t do that.  I found it annoying after a while.  But still he brought the house down.  He showed no mercy for the Democratic Party calling its established strategy a total failure, citing the miserable election results it has turned in up and down the ballot. The evening concluded with a presentation from Howard Zinn’s The People Speak, with readings from past activists archived by Zinn.  The acapella performance of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War by Lia Rose was one of the best renditions I have ever heard of the classic. 

            This new period of left activism is still sorting itself out.  The coalition of groups that sponsored the event ranged from the National Nurses Union – which is central – to Food and Water Watch, to the new Sanders Institute, to Democratic Socialists of America among many, many others.  There is an effort being made by all to play well with one another.  There is no appetite or use for the sectarian battles of the past, that only benefited political reaction and were frequently manipulated by the police.  The one continuing problem is that while there was a lot of racial and ethnic diversity among speakers and attendees, those numbers need to be doubled, tripled and quadrupled in the future.  And then doubled, tripled and quadrupled again. The dominance of the white left remains a problem.  The old silos of race remain formidable.  One good thing about the summit was the dominance of the proceedings by young people.  A prayer of mine has been answered.  The death grip of the Baby Boomers on the American left has been broken.  Any attempt to fully assess and report on a gathering such as the People’s Summit is like taking a bite out of an elephant.  But this is what my bite showed me.  Every lefty in America, owes themselves a trip to the next summit. 

Randy Cunningham is an activist with the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and a co-chair of the Cleveland Democratic Socialists of America chapter.  

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