Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
Breaking Out of the Confines of Official Politics
There’s an interesting story told in the currently running history of the Supreme Court on PBS about the history of Civil Rights legislation and litigation that rings with relevance to all those concerned with the war in Iraq and the fate of humanity today. This strikes me especially after having spent two weeks on the road with Liam Madden and Anastasia Gomes speaking to college students and other young people about the challenge before this generation to stop the war now and drive out the Bush regime.
The PBS series includes a span from the betrayal of Reconstruction, consolidated with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, to the ruling that “separate but equal” had no basis in the Constitution in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.
Against a backdrop of inhuman segregation, lynchings, and night-riding terror of the KKK, the Southern Democrats filibustered civil rights legislation from the 1920s through the 1950s and the President would not intervene. The NAACP turned to the courts, but when Earl Warren was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1952 no one expected him to usher in a period of great civil rights “activism.” Warren had, after all, been appointed by Eisenhower and had been involved with the internment of the Japanese.
But larger forces were at work. The country and the world were going through dramatic underlying economic changes and profound political changes in the wake of World War II. As the U.S. spread its influence around the world under the banner of being the “leader of the free world,” the grotesque inhumanities suffered by Black people within its own borders became an international embarrassment. This was a large part of what compelled the Supreme Court to rule in Brown v. Board that segregation, “separate but equal,” violated the 14th Amendment.
Still a whole year went by before the court ruled on how to enforce this change. And even then, school districts in places like Prince Edward County closed for over a decade rather than desegregate. By 1964—ten years later!!—only one in a thousand Black school children went to integrated schools.
The complete standstill imposed on civil rights by official politics was only changed when students from across the country sprung into independent political activity. They stopped petitioning Congress and the courts and instead began the Freedom Rides. In the spring of 1960 they defied segregation and opened up a decade of courageous struggle and upheaval that everyone was compelled to take a stand on. Their righteous sacrifice and moral stand rocked the politics of the nation and stirred people to their very souls.
Today many stand on a comparable ground and are looking off a precipice at the specter of an escalation of the war on Iraq and the widening of this war into Iran. The people’s political will has crashed directly up against a President who has openly stated his intentions to create his own facts of wider war on the ground and against a Congress that won’t even pass a symbolic resolution to oppose the war, much less end it.
It is stunning how quickly the lessons of history have been buried and how many of this generation are stuck and confined once again by waiting for official politics, waiting for someone in Congress, waiting for the next elections, and relying on the deathly slow workings of a political process that refuses to yield to their wishes.
At almost every stop on this speaking tour, even after soliciting enthusiastic nods about how fast and how far this regime has taken the world in a horrific direction and the need for a movement from below to stop the war and drive the regime from power, the students’ questions almost always start in the same place. “Who do you think we should vote for in '08?” “How do we weigh which candidate to support when we can’t find candidates that are both pro-choice and anti-war?” “Which symbolic anti-escalation resolution being debated in Congress do you think would be best?”
Like the impasse on Civil Rights imposed from above, today’s impasse on the war must be upended through massive political resistance, protest, selfless struggle and upheaval. The future depends once again on people refusing to wait and to act only within the killing confines set by the ruling class political parties—but this is woefully little understood!!
And we don’t have two years or even a few months to wait to reverse this dangerous dynamic—the time to act is now.
This week Howard Zinn wrote an article that blistered the “nattering” about unity and bipartisanship coming from the Democrats and called for a bold action to immediately reverse the present course. He wrote:
"The time is right, then, for a national campaign calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Representative John Conyers… is now head of the House Judiciary Committee and in a position to fight for such a resolution. He has apparently been silenced by his Democratic colleagues who throw out as nuggets of wisdom the usual political palaver about ‘realism’ (while ignoring the realities staring them in the face) and politics being ‘the art of the possible’ (while setting limits on what is possible)."
Impeachment can be “put back on the table!” The war can be ended! Torture, spying, and theocracy can be rejected, repudiated and reversed! But this will only happen if there is diverse and determined mass action by the people determined to bring this about—regardless of what seems “viable” right now within the halls of power. And only if there is a flowering of a whole different vibe, a whole different ethos, a whole different sense of what is worth living and struggling and sacrificing for. In an era of legalized torture and widening war, maintaining our morality and human dignity depends on refusing to hide behind the hopes that those in the halls of power are going to fix things and instead confronting our responsibility to take history into our own hands and refuse to go along.
This week the students are taking giant steps towards this with a student strike against the war on February 15 at UC Santa Barbara, Columbia University, and other campuses across the country. World Can’t Wait and the Mission of a Generation tour is joining with this needed ferment as an important part of creating the kind of political situation where the war is ended and the Bush regime is driven from office. But whether this strike helps usher in a new period of struggle and resistance that grows and galvanizes society even in the face of the ridicule and contempt of those wedded to “official politics” or whether this tremendous step gets swallowed back up by the great vacuum of the 2008 elections is yet to be determined.
Any demand—whether ending the war, impeaching the president, or reversing the growing theocracy—can be taken up in a way that hands over the people’s initiative to the paralyzing influence of politicians who keep people’s sights lowered, their activities safely channeled into electing a Democrat in '08, and their anger and energies suffocated. But these demands can also be fought for in a way that assists people in breaking out of these deadly channels in favor of setting our own terms and remaking the political terrain through mass independent political action—the same way once done by the Civil Rights movement.
Those who recognize the stakes and implications of these two different paths have an important—and woefully underappreciated—political weapon in the Call for the World Can’t Wait movement to Drive Out the Bush Regime.
The political message of the World Can’t Wait Call stands out on the political terrain today for telling people the truth not only about the intolerable crimes and fascist trajectory this government has unleashed, but also that “politics as usual cannot meet the enormity of the challenge” and that only mass resistance by the people holds the potential to bring these crimes to a halt. Not only the diagnosis of the Bush crimes in the World Can’t Wait Call, but also the Call’s prescription must start setting terms much more broadly throughout society today. In the next period this Call should be seen by millions who sign and circulate it—and who, through doing so, build World Can’t Wait chapters of their own.
The Call speaks powerfully to the historic time we are living in and to the lessons of history, which “is full of examples where people who had right on their side fought against tremendous odds and were victorious. And it is also full of examples of people passively hoping to wait it out only to get swallowed up by a horror beyond what they ever imagined.”
This regime has no right on its side and is now widely hated by people here and around the world. We cannot, as Howard Zinn also warns, “put limits on what’s possible” and go along with and accept the crimes against humanity being committed in our name! It’s time for people to act like the future is in the balance. It’s time to act with the determination of people consciously taking the responsibility ourselves to bring all these horrors to a halt. Let us seize the moral high ground as we fulfill the challenge put to us by history and captured in the WCW Call: “We, in our millions, must and can take responsibility to change the course of history."
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