Since posting the piece to my blog yesterday about not voting, I’ve been called a “cynic,” a “traitor” and stuck in a “castle,” etc. I guess when someone’s about to pull the lever for a politician she thinks sucks slightly less than the next guy, it’s better to blame some red for the miserable debacle of our elections.
It’s OK, really. After more than 25 years of being a socialist I’ve been spat on, sucker-punched and called every filthy epithet in the book. I had come to accept it as an occupational hazard of sorts, but lately socialism is having a definite revival and many more folks are curious, not hostile about these ideas.
Nonetheless, I loathe being called a cynic and this charge rankles like none other. It is invariably slung at socialists around Election Day, when the political debate in this country reaches its nadir. All politics is condensed in this period into what happens during the 5 minutes or less that it takes to vote. Yet politics is so much richer and complex than that one simple act of pulling a lever or punching a ballot.
I consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours a year activists spend organizing protests, rallies, speak outs, fundraisers, meetings, speeches and the like to be the most crucial political acts a person can undertake. It is the stuff from which genuine change is made.
Usually activists meet and organize in small numbers for years with little or nothing immediate to show for their efforts at resistance until the accumulated baby steps, ideological cracks and other shifts in society at large seem to give way and more noticeable and substantive change seems to suddenly and spontaneously erupt.
Look at the efforts of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). It began about 15 years ago with the idea that prisoners themselves and their family members, alongside activists, could mobilize to shift public consciousness in this country by exposing the racism and class inequities at play and the innocence of so many of the death penalty’s victims. Over the years, they’ve played a modest but very important role in reducing both the number of death sentences and support for this horrid Medieval practice.
Gallup now reports the lowest support for the death penalty in the U.S. since it began tracking it 30 years ago and today 30 percent of Americans oppose it in all cases, in contrast to 16 percent when the CEDP began its work. Dozens of exonerated death row prisoners hail the CEDP as a tool in having freed them from hell.
The Boston anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure group City Life/Vida Urbana and the newly formed Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC) have won real gains in both of those cities through education, organizing and taking direct action. Just last week, Cook County Sheriff and mayoral candidate Tom Dart halted all evictions based on foreclosures from GMAC, JPMorgan and Bank of America just days after the CAEC protested at his office.
There are dozens of other examples I could offer of grass-roots activists taking on the system today and making small, but real gains. And then there are moments when the gains are enormous, as when an international solidarity movement combined its efforts with the Black workers of South Africa to bring down apartheid. Or the sit-downs, marches and endless petitions that combined to achieve civil rights in this country. Only later did politicians and the courts codify what was won on the streets.
Naturally, these gains are not enough. It’s why I’m not simply a movement activist, but a socialist in movements. So long as we live under a system of profit, racism, wars, poverty, bigotry and oppression of every conceivable sort will persist.
Whether someone votes next Tuesday or not is not the decisive question in my opinion. I don’t vote for the Dems because history has taught me that this is not where real power lies and real change is made.
The American socialist, Eugene V. Debs, had a good line about this sort of thing. He said, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it, than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” I find Debs’ logic irrefutable.
Take a plunge into activism and join me and others this evening at NY’s LGBT Center at 6:30PM to organize the next US boat to break the siege of Gaza (The Audacity of Hope).
I’ll be speaking Friday, Nov. 5 at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, on Fighting the Right. Details to come.