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February's Lowdown

February 2015, Volume 17, Number 2

Written by Jim Hightower


"A merging of the tributaries that run toward justice"

What Occupy, the Climate March and #BlackLivesMatter have in common--and why that should inspire us all

Plutocracy hangs out with his good buddy, Authoritarianism. After all, when a rich few are in control of a country's government and are also grabbing practically all of the nation's wealth for themselves, the many, who are being subordinated and systematically robbed will have anger issues to contain and rebellious impulses to squelch. Thus, plutocrats maintain a trigger-happy, symbiotic partnership with those authorized to patrol the streets in riot gear and confront the people with the state's arsenal (which these days includes not just pistols and night sticks, but assault rifles, flash grenades, concussion bombs, helicopters, tear gas, armored tanks, drones, and other weapons of war).

But authoritarian plutocracies are a foreign phenomenon, right? Nothing like that is possible here, right? The Constitution of our democratic republic shields us from such an overbearing regime. Right?

Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri, about that. Or ask workers who've been trying to form a union at Walmart or McDonald's. Or ask someone in an impoverished big-city neighborhood that's not merely patrolled by police but is effectively occupied. Or ask protesters who're simply trying to be heard outside the Democratic or Republican national conventions but are instead herded by cops into distant corrals and kept there under guard.

More and more Americans today are having a rude awakening from their gauzy dream of "America the Beautiful, Home of the Free, and the Land of Opportunity!" Instead, they find themselves living in a place where the alien, anti-democratic forces of plutocracy and authoritarianism are brazenly pushing themselves forward to create a new USA: The United States of Corporate America.

During the last 35 years or so, an oligarchy of elite corporate executives and their immensely rich investors has incrementally been tightening its grip on our people's rights, opportunities, communities, elections, legislatures, courts, media, wealth--and even on our air, water, food, and lives. For roughly the last 15 years, however, both the plutocrats and authoritarians have abandoned incrementalism, muscling-up with an audacious intake of power supplements that have strengthened their grip into a chokehold.

Consider just a few of these changes that have skewed America's balance of power and wealth almost totally in their favor, largely by throttling the dreams and democratic possibilities of the majority of people--i.e., the poor and the endangered middle class:


Citizens United Stop and Frisk
NAFTA/CAFTA Privatization
Voter suppression laws Police militarization
Perpetual war Bans on unions
Tattered safety net The Patriot Act
Too Big To Fail Jobless recovery
Too Big to Jail Surveillance society
Brokewindows policing Poverty wages
Legalized tax dodging Jailing minority youth
Crumbling infrastructure Deregulation
Corporatized higher ed Mandatory arbitration
Debtor's prisons Exorbitant student loan rates
Payday loan schemes The attack on reproductive rights

All of this adds up to the enthronement of the rich, the normalization of inequity and the imposition of a surveillance society--squeezing the life out of our core values of democracy, equality, and justice.

Blowin' in the wind

"I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality." -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham jail

And that would be that, except for this: You! As the Lowdown has been documenting from Day One of its existence (March 1999), the democratic hope and strength of our country is in the rebellious spirit of grassroots people, groups, and coalitions. From coast to coast, day-in and day-out, tens of thousands of feisty Americans like you (including a critical infusion of leadership, creativity, energy, and passion from young activists, people of color, and immigrants) are out there, speaking up and standing against the armed robbery of the people's rights and the grand theft of the American Dream.

The good news is that people are not only organizing and mobilizing against the ever-growing myriad of plutocratic/authoritarian outrages, but more often than not, we underdog populists are winning. Equally important, the sheer audacity of ordinary people challenging the self-serving power structure is inspiring others to take heart and take part.

Like wildflowers in a field, such inspirational outpourings as "Occupy," "Black Lives Matter," "Fight for 15," "People and Planet First," "People's Climate March," "I Can't Breathe," and "Moral Mondays" are seeding and spreading a radiant movement with the potential to become an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its separate parts. Each one has attracted widespread public support that reaches far beyond any particular grievance, any group of activists, and any community directly involved, for each one has tapped into the broader anger about injustices, inequality, and insecurity that most people have experienced in their own lives.

Taken together, the diverse rebellions by those battling everything from poverty wages to police brutality, from fracking to bank fraud, are fundamentally altering the nature, language, content, and context of America's political dialogue and dynamics. Because of their efforts and growing support, we live in a moment when momentous progressive change might be possible. I sense something unusual happening across our country: The cultural winds are shifting.

If true, this is a very big deal, for a culture's underlying sentiment and dominant assumptions are much deeper and more influential on a society's actions than mere politics. Our country's many progressive advances (such as the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the 1920 ratification of a woman's right to vote, all of the labor and safety-net laws of the 1930s, progress for African-American civil rights in the 1960s, and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975), were made because grassroots pushes gradually altered the prevailing public belief, finally causing the tectonic structure of the zeitgeist to shift.

The what? Sorry to get all philosophicalistic on you, but the zeitgeist is what Bob Dylan was referring to in his 1962 "Blowin' In The Wind" hymn for the Civil Rights movement, foretelling the imminent passage of anti-discrimination laws. It's a philosophical concept advanced by several Big Thinkers of the 18th Century (Hegel and Voltaire among them) who rejected the prevailing theory of the day that history is determined by the heroics of a few "Great Men." Rather, the zeitgeisters concluded that history is us, produced when the social circumstances of a time lead a mass of society to alter what it accepts as right and wrong. It's a cultural shift, imperceptible at first, that gains energy, mass, and speed, moving society from acceptance of "what is" to a broad public yearning for another way, an alternative "is."

Movement creates change

A snapshot of inequality

Money is like manure. For wealth to help nourish a healthy society, it can't be stored in a few big silos... [read more]

We're now experiencing one of those transformative moments toward a new "is." Since the 1969 "Stonewall Riots" (a brutal police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar that prompted those in the bar to fight back), a slow-but-steady movement for LGBT rights has built up, gradually increasing its pressure on what was considered rock-solid public opposition. Then, in just the last few years, the movement's advance finally broke through the old mindset with such a jolt that even same-sex marriage has become broadly accepted as part of the social mores of today's America. Same-sex nuptials are now authorized in thirty-six states, the uptight Supremes are about to embrace them, and politicians who ran from them yesterday are rushing to officiate at today's ceremonies. Even the Pope recently said of gays in the clergy, "Who am I to judge?" Led by young people (teens, college students, and others), being gay has zoomed in a handful of years from being depicted as a hush-it-up abomination to a "Hey, s/he's my friend" acceptance.

The ones who are always the last to realize that the cultural ground is shifting are those who are living in splendid isolation way above the ground--i.e., the 1-percenters and the .01-percenters who are contentedly controlling the levers and pulleys of the old order. No surprise then that those presently ruling over us from Wall Street, Washington, and the corporate suites are pushing ahead as usual, blithely unconcerned about the distress, discontent, dismay, and defiance rising among the many down below.

The social mores of these obtuse elites were framed back in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan's misty fantasy of "Morning in America." In that yesteryear, the steady progress in our nation's historic journey toward egalitarianism was abruptly diverted down the slippery slope of elitism: First, Reagan cheerfully crushed the air traffic controllers union, signaling to corporate busters-in-chief that it was now open season on worker rights. Then taxation of the rich was declared to be taboo; the very concept of "government help" was reduced to a comic punch line; slashing the public safety net became the national sport of politicians; mass incarceration of the young and the poor (especially minorities) was adopted as a neat solution to poverty; the bad economic policy (and worse morality) of raw, unfettered capitalism was repackaged as "supply-side economics" and preached as the Word of God; and "greed is good" echoed throughout certain zip codes as the exultant battle cry of the super-rich.

Of course, as this RME creed of Rich Man Entitlement took hold in corporate boardrooms and chambers of government, it unleashed the doubly devastating force of downward mobility and political impotence on the majority of Americans--surging first into already hard-hit poverty communities, then accelerating straight through the previously secure working class, and presently storming unimpeded into the professional, managerial, and small business class.

After more than three decades of imposing layer after layer of elitist supremacy over more and more people, the corporate ethos has been revealed to most of America's poor and middle-class families for what it is: Greed, accompanied by an obscene contempt for the un-rich. That is what has moved the zeitgeist, and it's also what is moving previously complacent people into a new age of activism.

Flowing together

Protest is the language of people who are not being heard, and it's amplified by their anger at being intentionally marginalized. But the broad and deep discontent that is being expressed in the rising number of high-volume street actions is spurred by more than just fury at one's own mistreatment. There's also a defiant rejection of what the rich are doing to all the rest of us and a steely resolve that we will not surrender America to them. People in the streets today are out to reclaim and rebuild the all-in-this-together society that ought to be and still can be.

We old heads who took part in the good fights years ago (for civil rights, labor justice, peace, the grape boycott, women's equality, Earth Day, no-nukes, and much more) might be puzzled by the present uprisings. For one thing, most have no clearly identifiable "leader" who personifies and speaks for the cause--no MLK, Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Gaylord Nelson, et al. Rather, they take pride in having multiple leaders, making a point of developing and moving up all who want to help direct the organizing and mobilizing.

Likewise, the groups and coalitions mostly have come together spontaneously, as opposed to being orchestrated by traditional top-down institutions of progressive activism (unions, churches, advocacy organizations, etc.). Their decision-making tends to be remarkably democratic, with diffuse participation and an emphasis on consensus. This overall openness to bottom-up organizing has resulted in something that progressive causes have long wished for, but rarely produced: Genuine diversity. These campaigns-- largely initiated and run by women, the young, people of color, the immigrant community, and the poor--all of whom have usually been shunted aside or relegated to background roles.

New organizing structures and leaders produce new ways, and recent protests have moved with a dazzling tactical savvy, dexterity, and spontaneity, thanks to so many participants who've grown up in the web-based world of social media, crowd-funding, swarm organizing, and other forms of non-hierarchical, democratic networking. Rather than, say, one big march on Washington, these protests tend to have simultaneous marches and actions in multiple cities (including in red states), and they are increasingly coordinated with international groups doing the same thing.

Crowds are formed in an instant by hundreds of people communicating directly--texting, Tweeting, Tumblring, Facebooking, Instagramming, Snapchatting. Like flocks of birds, they show up suddenly, and rather than proceed along a planned route of march, they adjust their actions on the fly--do this, go over there, form four groups going in different directions, do die-ins at three banks, re-group for a pop-up rally at city hall, etc.

Most significantly, people in these rebellions have figured out that they really are "in this together." At the root of each of their struggles is inequality--millions of people and entire communities have lost control over their own destinies to a tiny elite. There is a shared moral outrage over the corporate usurpation of our personal and democratic power, our freedoms and opportunities. Low-wage, three-job workers, for example, also tend to live in the neighborhoods dealing with intense and threatening police occupation and/or environmental threats. It's all one fight, unified by what commentator Charles Blow rightly terms "a rejection of the obscenity of economic inequality," and a "chafing at grinding political intransigence and corporatization."

Particularly impressive is the diverse coalition of Americans rallied by a new generation of multi-racial coalitions of activists to confront the intimidation, repression, and wanton violence by out-of-control, military-minded police in black and brown neighborhoods and towns. Groups like Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders literally sprang to life from that darkness, from the random abuses, imprisonments, and killings of black and brown people--and from a deep commitment to the idea that America can be better than that. They reached out with their communication tools, authentic passion, and the universal power of their message to turn what was perceived as a "black and brown problem" into a newly acknowledged American problem--one that mocks our democratic pretensions and is eating away at our essential social cohesiveness.

Of course, impoverishment, institutional bias, and repression remain entrenched, but the dynamism of the upstart groups is already shifting the cultural winds. They've stirred a still-expanding cross-section of the country to stand up and speak out: Star athletes are wearing "I Can't Breathe" jerseys, and such top musicians as Alicia Keys are putting their celebrity into the cause with protest music and videos; some white and black evangelical ministers are exploring ways to integrate their congregations; and a left-right political convergence is forming against turning local police into armies (indeed, many police departments are at least considering a shift in their training and techniques from military force to community engagement). Also, a crass attempt by a New York police official to turn the public against those who dare to protest thuggish cops and officials racism backfired on him, with an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers (across racial and gender lines) expressing dismay at this self-serving, divisive ploy.

Another significant sign of change is the willingness of activist groups to grasp (at last!) the commonality of their diverse causes and the sensibility of supporting each other. The Sierra Club, for example, has long been infamous for its organizational whiteness and aloofness from non-environmental outrages. Yet, a few years back, it broke that pattern to join with the United Steelworkers Union in a blue-green alliance for good jobs in several emerging, environmentally sound industries.

And last year, Sierra president Michael Brune put the Club on the line in support of the rising Black Lives Matter movement. "All people, regardless of race," he stated, "deserve a clean and healthy planet. They also deserve to be able to live their lives without being fearful of the police, and without being subjected to discrimination. Those two issues are not separate."

Black Lives, Dream Defenders, and other new groups are not only changing attitudes and strengthening the old groups, but changing the zeitgeist. If we become ONE cause, we will defeat the plutocrats and the authoritarians. Rev. William Barber, a strong movement voice and indefatigable grassroots organizer for the America that ought to be, thinks we're finally headed that way. As head of North Carolina's NAACP and one of the leaders of the very impressive Moral Mondays movement, Rev. Barber says: "Deep within our being as a nation, there is a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls. That is why today we are seeing a merging of the tributaries that run toward the great stream of justice: People are flowing together. We are flowing together because we recognize that the intersectionality of all of these movements is our opportunity to fundamentally redirect America."


Do something!

There are just a few of many new groups and old groups re-examining our ways of organizing to expand our democracy and protect America’s long-held promise of egalitarianism. Visit their websites, sign up for their updates, and contact them to find out if there are actions in your area.



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