I worked for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and voted for George McGovern in 1972. Until this year, that was the only presidential vote I have remained proud of. I was also in the streets to protest the Vietnam War. I heard Dr. Benjamin Spock speak and Jimi Hendrix sing on the Washington Mall in November, 1969, and felt helpless two years later when Richard Nixon defused the anti-war movement by ending draft call-ups while continuing the war. My question to my generation over all these years has been, where did the youthful commitment of so many of us go?
Fast forward to 2016. I’m still a street protester. I worked and voted for Bernie Sanders, and I attended The People’s Summit held last weekend in Chicago. My purpose here is to share my perspective, not to give a detailed account. A full video of the event is available herefor those who want it. If I am a little less glowing in my report than some of my younger friends, it’s because I’ve been there before.
The Summit was very well organized. For three days, younger and older activists and Berniecrats heard highly inspirational speeches and panel discussions, then participated in random discussion groups or self-selected breakout sessions. The physical arrangements were excellent. We lived the life of the 20% at trade shows and business meetings, and we were assured that those serving us were members of a union.
The National Nurses Union was the key organizer of the event, and it seemed over half of the people I spoke with, other than those I knew already, were nurses. This was clearly a reach-out by existing activist groups to the Berniecrats with two goals. The first was developing a strategy to go forward from here. I believe many of the organizing groups also had a strategy of recruiting younger activists, at least into their viewpoint if not into the organization itself. It is in this area that I have a key question: Should older activists try to direct this wave, or should we ride along and help as best we can?
The question of how to vote this November was clearly present in the minds of all, although not on the official program. When it was addressed, it brought out a key difference. Three panelists, Frances Fox Piven, Tobita Chow and Becky Bond, declared their intention to vote for Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee, with only the student activist, Dominique Scott, stating she could not do so. The strong reactions from the audience indicated most were sympathetic to Scott’s position.
Many speakers intentionally built a wave of enthusiasm. Nina Turner did this effectively by leaving the podium and walking about among the audience. Some of the most moving moments were personal testimonies from activists, in general on Saturday and related to racial inequality on Sunday. Many were refreshingly younger than the program speakers. Jim Hightower, in the final slot late on Sunday morning, didn’t get as much reaction as I have seen previously, I’m sure due to the scheduling.
The entire program concentrated on domestic policy and economic inequality. Only Tulsi Gabbard, in one of the best-received speeches of the event, concentrated on the neoconservative foreign policy of remaking other nations and the resulting drain on the resources we need to renew our own society. No one addressed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which entails such a risk of preventing the achievement of our progressive goals.
Democratic Socialists of America invited Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative as one of three speakers in their breakout group, where she was highly effective, calling the Democratic Party the "second-most anti-Socialist, pro-capitalist party" in the country, also taking the position of not voting for Hillary. Other than that, though, the DSA, like many groups, seemed to have recruitment into the existing organization as a goal. (Full disclosure: I’m a DSA member.)
Concerns were expressed in the "Media and the Movement" breakout group over the mainstream media and the need for activists to go out and report on events ourselves if we are to have actual, unfiltered news.
One key goal was to recruit progressive down-ballot candidates so that we can build from the bottom to the top of the political spectrum, much as the Tea Party did in 2010. The importance of this was acknowledged, and an electronic poll showed that 365 of the 1,015 people who took the poll committed to run for public office within the next five years.
The Sunday morning session, presented by persons of color, stressed the need to address racial, cultural and economic inequality together. While all leftists will give intellectual assent to this, hearing it from the perspective of those who have suffered the most was uplifting. I learned that the counties which had slavery remain the poorest counties in the South, which correlates with poverty much more than the current racial composition of the county.
One question not addressed was why African-Americans supported Hillary Clinton so strongly in the primary election campaign. There are conventional views, but I would have liked to hear the perspective of these activists.
The final breakout groups were by state. The Illinois group was yuge, with about a hundred tables. The program presented by key left-leaning public officeholders was the People and Planet First Budget, developed prior to the Summit. In this case, it was productive to have this starting point, and those at my table felt we could work in this direction. Most importantly, we plan to come together again on Oct. 1 to review and plan further action.
A few groups felt their position was not adequately represented and organized unofficial breakout groups of their own. I spoke with a young lady from Socialist Alternative who felt that way, despite the fact that DSA included Kshama Sawant in their breakout. The press has reported that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein offered to speak but was not invited. The Green Party was present at a table and at least given some minor mention from the podium.
While I have pointed out some concerns here, I am very glad to have attended the Summit, pleased to have seen so many young faces, and at least moderately hopeful that it has advanced the Political Revolution to the next step of working together to achieve the goals we all believe in so passionately.
Vince Hardt is a member of Occupy Naperville in Illinois.