Date: Tue, 10 Aug 1999 11:40:10 -0400
From Politics to Protest
By Dr. Manning Marable <email@example.com>, Along The Color Line, July 1999
More than thirty years ago Bayard Rustin, the principal architect of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., suggested that the time had come for the Civil Rights Movement to move away from its focus on civil disobedience, economic boycotts and social protest. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act had created the conditions for African Americans to make the transition "from protest to politics." The goal was not longer to pack the jails, but to mobilize voters for the election of black officials. In a 1966 essay in Commentary, "Black Power and Coalition Politics," Rustin urged blacks to "stay in the Democratic Party.the party of progress."
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of black elected officials nationwide has soared from barely one hundred to ten thousand; the number of African Americans in Congress has increased eight-fold. And despite legal desegregation and the partial integration of U.S. civil society, millions of black, brown and poor Americans continue to feel disempowered by the two party system and by conservative government policies pushed by both the "Contract With America" Republicans and the "new Democrats" represented by President Clinton.
Today, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor George W. Bush of Texas, has a substantial lead in public opinion polls over Vice President Al Gore. There is some speculation that former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley would be a stronger Democratic challenger against Bush. This political uncertainty at the national level is why I believe that the question of whether Bush, Gore or Bradley will succeed Clinton in the White House is really the wrong question. Given the Clinton-Gore administration's disappointing record on issues like welfare "reform" and health care, it will be extremely difficult to convince more than 40 percent of the black registered to turn out in November, 2000.
Much like David Dinkins's narrow electoral defeat by Rudolph Giuliani in the 1993 mayoral race in New York City, it may be impossible to scare Democratic "core voters" into voting for a politician who does little to inspire their hopes for a better life.
I am not arguing that there are no significant differences on public policy that separate Gore from Bush. Clearly such differences are real and undeniable, except perhaps to the sectarian left. Nor am I saying that electoral politics is unimportant. I'm old enough to remember when the vast majority of African Americans couldn't vote, and I am not nostalgic in the least for Jim Crow segregation. It is rather the overemphasis on electoralism itself, at the expense of other forms of political engagement, that creates the no-win situation for progressives. What's urgently needed is coalitional political work around issues that cut across the lines of race, class, gender and region. Much of that necessary political work will take place in sites of resistance and struggle in communities and workplaces, rather than at voting booths.
The democratic left-the broad network of liberal and progressive organizations and constituencies, from the NAACP to NOW, from lesbian and gay rights activists to the left wing of organized labor-has largely become divorced from the activist traditions of social protest. We need to think about the presidential campaign in 2000 not from the vantagepoint of whether we can elect Bradley or Gore, but how we can best defeat Bush, and perhaps shift the balance of power in the House of Representatives. In other words, we need to mobilize our constituencies to fight for issues that matter to them--police brutality, living wage jobs, health care, public transportation, etc.--that push centrist Democrats like Gore further to the left.
Our best and most effective role in the struggle to defeat the Right is to place before the American people an alternative approach to how the society should be run, with social fairness for everyone. One example of this was provided this spring in New York City, with the civil disobedience demonstrations surrounding the shooting of Amadou Diallo by four white police officers, which led to the arrest of more than one thousand people. The April 15th demonstration march across the Brooklyn Bridge attracted about 20,000 protesters. The most striking characteristic of this gathering was its multiracial and multiclass composition. At least one third of the marchers were white and Latino, and there was a heavy representation of union members-city employees, hospital workers, construction workers, and teachers. This mobilization achieved some modest but important concessions from the Giuliani regime; but more importantly, it created a potential basis for joint work and dialogue around future political issues in the 2000 campaign.
For years, black and liberal politicians have tried to mobilize voters by frightening them, saying that we need to vote for someone we don't want in order to defeat another politician we like even less. This is a "no-win" strategy that will always marginalize us from the centers of power. We should focus instead on training thousands of youth activists, represented by programs like the AFL-CIO's "Union Summer" and the Minority Activist Apprenticeship Program of the Center for Third World Organizing. We should be working with activists in ACORN and the New Party to fight for a living wage.
Social protest, community organizing and political activism, not electoral politics, are the keys to bring about fundamental change in U.S. society.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, New York City.
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