Keepin' Up With the World 2.0


Building the World House: One Person at a Time…

My First Cup of Coffee…

My First Cup of Coffee

Ben Cronin was right.

I will explain what I mean.

When I woke up this morning, I decided that I would go to campus and play some basketball. Well, as I was walking down N. University, I noticed someone near one of the trash cans. I really could not tell what he was doing—I assumed that he was throwing something away. But, he was not—he was examining a bag to see if there was any food in there. And, as many of us do, I looked, kind of felt bad, and just passed him.

But, for some reason, today—I stopped. I turned around to catch him, and I asked a rather obvious question. I asked if he was hungry and needed anything to eat. He looked at me with this blank stare. I thought he was going to decline, but he sighed, took his eyes off of mine, and uttered, “Yes. Yes I am.” So, I told him not to move and ran off and got what I thought he’d need to make it through the rest of the day (no details because this is not about me).

So, I ran to catch him after waiting for the food to be done. I really do not think he expected me to come back because he moved from the spot that he said he would be at. But, I caught him. Then, I turned around and walked back to my car. There was no way that I could go play basketball because I had become a little emotional and overcome with perspective.

Enter Ben Cronin.

After hanging out with the Civil Rights/Metropolitan History Workshop, I stopped by our department’s social hour to say “hi” to everyone and to gather my belongings from my office. A couple of PhD. students, Ben Cronin and Michael Leese, promptly greeted me. And then, in his own special way, Cronin began talking about having perspective. He was asking us, what are we doing as graduate students. He said, and I am paraphrasing, what we do is important, but there are real people suffering out there and we are not doing anything about it. Of course, I agreed with him then and my experience this morning brought his concerns to the fore of my mind.

What are we doing? Yes, what we do is hard work and important, but it is not okay to use that as a justification for not acting to see and change the world around us—no matter how large the action, or how small. I know this seems idealistic, but just imagine—what if each and every one of us could spare one meal a day? Of course I can hear counterarguments, “We are broke. We are struggling. We donate to charity. They don’t deserve it. They should get a job. Etc.” I say—so what? I would rather table that discussion and do something that is more productive. My policy is, I will leave the door open for you when you are ready to join in the productivity.

And I am not talking about revolution, organizing, or a political campaign. I am talking about small actions to alleviate the daily pain—just one meal a day. If enough people committed to such a small action, then I may only have to donate my daily budget to someone else one day out of the year. Right? I would not expect much. Some people may not even read this or take me seriously. And many of us will continue to walk by homeless men and women and not give anything (which I am guilty for as well). But, what if we all gave enough to one person to last them a whole day? I would not expect any of us to take the person out to eat, just make some sort of arrangements and be discrete about it. And of course, we all cannot afford to donate our money when we have our own families to take care of, our own bills to pay. But I know I can budget a day out (not just on Christmas or Thanksgiving) for someone else—just one meal.

Yes, our economy may be struggling right now. I empathize with anyone who has lost a job and their standing in life. But, there is no reason why anyone should not have a roof over their head or have to go hungry in this country—none—especially if we can ‘afford’ to rebuild other countries after military conflicts. If we can afford to bail out bankers, then we can bail out the many individuals who walk the streets, night and day, looking for the scraps of food that we leave in trash cans. I do not care why the person is in their predicament. We have a responsibility, especially us graduate students who claim to be political and stand for something.

Cronin is right. Chelsea Del Rio is right. What are we doing?

Food for the hungry…homes for the homeless. Safety for the most vulnerable. Love for those forgotten and alone.

Austin McCoy


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Detroit: The Forgotten Center of Crisis and Hope

Detroit: The Forgotten Center of Crisis and Hope

-Austin C. McCoy

Many Americans tend to forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first articulated passages from his famed “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit a few months earlier than the one he performed at the March on Washington. Dr. King addressed a crowd of 125,000 demonstrators after leading a march down Woodward Avenue. Referencing the city’s residential segregation and employment discrimination, King declared, “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.” [1] Despite delivering “a longer and richer version of the ‘Dream’ sequence,” according to the preeminent chronicler of Dr. King, Taylor Branch, Dr. King’s delivery of his “Dream” address in Washington, D.C. overshadowed his Detroit speech. [2]

Many Americans and the media overlooked collective action in Detroit again this past weekend. This time, Detroit was not overshadowed by any stellar oration, but by the media fascination with Glenn Beck’s demonstration. Although most of the media outlets like CNN and the Huffington Post focused on Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” and Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Reclaiming the Dream” rallies, Rev. Jesse Jackson and his organization, Rainbow/PUSH, collaborated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), and its president, Bob King, to organize a march for jobs, justice, and peace this past weekend.

I marched and attended the rally and was intrigued by how the speakers focused less on Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” demonstration and concentrated more on the structural analysis of urban decline, the connections between U.S. foreign policy, and how these issues were linked to Detroit’s current economic predicament. While many speakers at the “Reclaiming the Dream” like Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial sent rhetorical barbs at Beck’s demonstration, those who spoke at the Detroit rally concentrated on a platform to “Rebuild America”:

Jobs: economic reconstruction driven by targeted stimulus, reindustrialization and trade policy that will create jobs, support manufacturing in America, and put workers first.
Justice: enforcement of the law regarding workers rights, civil rights, industrial regulation, and creation of strong urban policy, and fair and just education, economic, and health policy.
Peace: ending the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saving lives and redirecting the war budget to rebuilding America.


These proposals sound more positive than just blaming big government, immigrants, and other people of color, right? Just like Dr. King throughout the 1960s, speakers argued that sound public policy could help alleviate short-term pain and construct more just ways of redeveloping our urban and rural areas.

And similar to Dr. King in the last two years of his life, speakers at the Detroit rally drew connections between the billions of dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan for prosecuting wars and rebuilding their societies without focusing on reconstructing American cities. They also identified the banks that control financial capital and the multinational corporations as responsible for choking America’s cities.

When Rev. Jackson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) declared Detroit the epicenter of industrial decline, they were not being hyperbolic. Detroit has gone from being known as the “arsenal of democracy” to the poster child for government disinvestment, deindustrialization, and capital/white flight. All of these factors contributed to the city’s inability to adjust to broader economic restructuring. [4] Detroit has lost almost half of its population between 1950 and 2002. [5] According to sociologist William Julius Wilson, the city shed 51 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1967 and 1987. [6] Further, as Wilson writes in More Than Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, “less than 20 percent of the jobs are now located within three miles of the city center.” [7] This explains why one notices that the central business district resembles a virtual ghost town after business hours. Detroit has remained racially segregated. And the lack of revenue has led to crises in public education and transit. [8] Detroit has also closed almost half of its schools since 2005. It is safe to conclude that Detroit is spatially unjust for its residents and workers. Now, my recitation of these facts are not meant to contribute to negative perceptions that many Americans unfairly have of Detroiters, but to corroborate Rev. Jackson’s and Representative Waters’s claims that Detroit is a crucial site for redevelopment. Many Detroit activists have been hard at work addressing these issues on a local level. Jackson and his allies are just arguing that they need help rebuilding their city.

Of course, not all activists in Detroit agreed with the march. Longtime Detroit freedom fighter, Grace Lee Boggs, was the most notable dissident. In a challenging and rather inspiring article entitled, “If Not Now, When?,” she argues that we should think “outside the box” like Malcolm X and work in the spirit of Dr. King’s call for a revolution of values. She contends that activists should “stop dreaming and protesting” and work to build “sustainable local communities” and aspire to “live more simply.” [9]

Boggs’s critique of the Detroit march and the strategy she advocates are important. It is true that mobilizing affairs such as marches have their limits and that self-help community building projects can empower workers and residents and address immediate concerns. But her approach should represent one arm of the struggle to achieve justice and rebuild our communities. I also fear Boggs’s strategy runs the risk of depoliticizing itself because of her antipathy for oppositional protest. Yes, we want self-sustained communities, but we want a better political/economic/social system—for everyone. Her article fails to address the question of how we change the system. I agree that we need a revolution of values and conversation around that, but, ultimately, we need some measure of political power (something that some liberals and many leftists don’t want to admit). We can expect some success with provoking Americans to rethink their values, but we cannot expect those who run the system to just change how they think or the way they live. We will have to consider political protests as a supplement to self-help forms of urban revitalization, especially if the visible hands of the “free market” seek to appropriate Boggs’s model should it become “too” successful. Boggs’s criticisms are valid despite my concerns, of course. Boggs and her allies see another path towards achieving justice. And their organizations like the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center and programs such as the annual Detroit Summer push the boundaries of what is possible in our dismal economic climate. [10] They demonstrate that if one can build independent and sustainable communities successfully in Detroit, then one can build them anywhere.

I do not intend to sensationalize the apparent divisions between groups of activists. I maintain that the implicit opposition between engaging in oppositional protests and making claims on the government, corporations, and banks, and organizing independent community-building projects is a false one. Those who prefer protest should do so, while those who favor community-building should focus on that. Dr. King had a way of reconciling two seemingly opposing approaches and outlooks during moments of internal conflict. We should seek to do the same. None of us should focus on our particular strategies so much that we miss the exciting opportunities for creating alliances and offering support to one another. This could be a fruitful combination. And I think we need to advance a multi-pronged approach to prevail politically and address immediate problems facing workers, inhabitants, and our children in impoverished areas.

Structural critiques of the U.S.’s economic crisis that Rev. Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters, President Bob King, and their allies continue to offer, and community building projects spearheaded by activists and organizations like Grace Lee Boggs and the Boggs Center in Detroit, are precisely the ones that are needed to build effective policy proposals and help revitalize our cities. If we work hard to do both, it may become too difficult for Americans to dismiss or ignore Detroit and the struggle for jobs, justice, and peace. Another Detroit and another United States and another left may not just be possible, as the U.S. Social Forum proclaimed this summer at their forum in Detroit, but, in fact, we are coming. Let’s make sure we continue to keep each other honest and follow through.

[1] Quoted in “47 Years Ago in Detroit: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivers First ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech,” Democracy Now, (accessed August 29, 2010).

[2] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 843.

[3] CNN, “Rally Aims to ‘Reclaim the Dream,’” (accessed August 29, 2010). For the “Rebuild America” platform see, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, “Why We March,” (accessed August 29, 2010).

[4] Detroit is also an example of a city unable to adjust to more post-fordist of economic production. This is where companies move towards a slimmer and more decentralized form of production. Post-fordism is also characterized by a shift from manufacturing- to service-based economies. New information technologies and quicker forms of transportation also undergird this economic structure. Chicago also suffered from deindustrialization, but Chicago, unlike Detroit, historically has had a diverse economy, which included (and still does) a robust financial sector.
[5] Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 2005), xvi.

[6] William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 29.

[7] Wilson, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 41.

[8] See the recent Detroit Free Press Editorial, “Statewide, transit needs a big push,” for a discussion of the state’s public transportation woes. See

[9] Grace Lee Boggs, “If Not Now, When?” (accessed August 29, 2010).
Detroit Summer is a multi-racial and inter-generational collective. The program preaches self and social change through collective action. They do so by organizing youth-led media arts projects and community-wide potlucks, speak outs, and parties. See their website for more details: The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center is a non-profit organization that seeks to nurture visionary leadership for community activists and organizers. See their website for more details:

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MLK Meditation #1: His First March on Washington and Why We Can’t Wait

The conversation around Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” demonstration and Dr. King’s legacy has provoked much thought about Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its implications for our current moment. This is the first of a few meditations on Dr. King that I will post in the next few days.

MLK Meditation #1: His First March on Washington and Why We Can’t Wait

–Austin McCoy

While it is true that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington represents one of the most iconic moments in American history, we obscure its meanings and actual goals. We use King’s speech, or at least a few remarks from it, to interpret the event (and by extension, a whole movement) as a collective protest against Southern racism. Yet, when one examines the historical record and scholarship written on the subject, one learns that King intended the march “to arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro” (Quoted in Garrow, 284). Right, the march was not just about decent treatment or civil rights narrowly defined as individual rights, or equal opportunity. Organizers saw the march as one for freedom and jobs—for civil and economic rights. In fact, the march’s two principal organizers—black labor leader, A. Phillip Randolph, and black gay political organizer, Bayard Rustin—conceived of the march as a collective action calling for government intervention into the nation’s economy. The goals of the demonstration included not just the passage of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, but also a federal public-works jobs program (Garrow, 284).*

Dr. King also amplified the March’s calls for government intervention in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. He suggested a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” to eradicate poverty and he called for the U.S. to construct a real full employment economy. Pointing out the contradictions between wealth and poverty in the U.S., King declared, “The energetic and creative expansion of work opportunities, in both the public and private sectors of the economy, is an imperative worthy of the richest nation on earth, whose abundance is an embarrassment as long as millions of poor are imprisoned and constantly self-renewed within an expanding population (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 139).” King also understood how the links between race and class in the southern slave economy created and sustained white poor populations. King’s thoughts on poverty, race, and class in 1964 actually foreshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign that he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were planning in 1968.

The March on Washington and Dr. King’s thoughts in Why We Can’t Wait, resonates with our contemporary moment because the organizers concerned themselves with civil/political and economic rights—freedom and jobs. Thanks to a multitude of interrelated factors—our obsession with growth and financial capital/products, capital flight, deindustrialization, economic globalization, a for-profit health insurance system that only cares more about making money and not fulfilling its purpose and a broken political system, some of us have freedom, and maybe even a job (read: low wage and/or part time employment without benefits), in name. Yet Americans run the risk of joining the ranks of the unemployed and impoverished. The unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest Employment Situation Summary (August 6, 2010), has remained at a stubborn 9.5% (14.6 million people). Job losses have hit blacks (unemployment rate at 15.6%) and Latinos (12.1%) the hardest when compared to white Americans (8.6%). 8.5 million people remain in part-time employment while 2.6. million have “dropped out” of the labor force. Both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated last year that the recession could force more than 1 million people into homelessness.** Yes, Dr. King had a dream, but it seems that many Americans now represent the echoes of a dream deferred. King, Randolph, Rustin and their allies knew that one really did not have freedom if they had little opportunity to earn an adequate living. That’s why we can’t wait. Because, at the end of the day, taking care of oneself, one’s loved ones and each other remains the foundation for achieving a just society. Demanding the rights to a living wage, government insurance of full employment, adequate housing, decent public facilities and spaces (schools, transportation, parks, etc.), and just metropolitan (urban/suburban/rural) development all fall within the aims of the March on Washington in 1963. We can’t wait.

Unfortunately, our obsession with a few phrases from Dr. King’s “Dream” speech obscures these points and Dr. King’s views about poverty, class and racial oppression. If one listened to Glenn Beck, one would think Dr. King calling for a full employment economy, government intervention and defending preferential treatment for black Americans is Dr. King in rare form. But anti-poverty, full employment and the recognition of the relationship between class and racial oppression remained persistent themes in King’s speeches and writings until the end of his life. After placing the March on Washington, King’s “Dream” speech, and Dr. King’s thoughts into context, we realize that those who continue to make demands on the government, Democrats and Republicans, and corporations for economic justice are the ones who really carry the torches lit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, SNCC, and the Black Panthers. Glenn Beck is just an impostor who has wet dreams about leading a civil rights movement and achieving individual glory.

* The march was not without its shortcomings, however, as male leaders marginalized (black) womens’ concerns and excluded them from speaking at the affair.

Works Cited

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Mentor, 1963.
David Garrow. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

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Every Day Must Be Martin Luther King Day

I thought I would repost my latest MLK Day piece with this robust conversation about King’s legacy and Glenn Beck’s demonstration occurring. More thoughts about all of this are possibly forthcoming…

Every Day Must Be Martin Luther King Day*

There is little doubt that Martin Luther King Day has been one of my favorite holidays over the last decade. It is one of the few holidays where Americans from all backgrounds are encouraged to participate in community service projects, attend events, and engage in critical personal reflection about what they have done to improve their communities. This is also a day when we learn the most about King’s legacy in very creative ways. Besides the customary news segments, I have awaken to a variety of tweets, blogs, and Facebook statuses urging us to remember King’s vision for a just society. This is great. However, I want to suggest that, if we want to really fulfill King’s “Dream,” we have to remember the tumultuous dreams that were expressed at the end of his life, not just a couple of lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, or the colorblind ideals that he expressed. This means we will have to continue to ask the tough questions about society and confront the very ideals that we hold dear.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Black Power, and the deepening of poverty, King suggested that Americans needed to undergo a revolution of values. He advanced arguments in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and his last speeches that would drive today’s conservatives and liberals to probably brand him a “progressive wingnut.” King suggested that any economic system that “produces beggars needs restructuring.” His disdain about our preoccupations with individual wealth also led him to include materialism in his infamous triplets wreaking havoc on American society and culture—“materialism, militarism, and racism.” He recommended that we “begin the shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society.” King urged us to finally place people over profits. He also detached human rights from property rights (many conservatives conflate the two) and advocated for Americans to walk away from the reigning private property regime. Regarding capitalism and communism, King argued that we needed to go beyond both in order to establish a just society. Although many Americans have come to believe that King represents something to all of us, he clearly challenged everyone to go transcend their ideological loyalties. We have to go beyond the usual political categories, the celebratory mass text messages, and the great tweets and Facebook statuses – we all must become visionaries.

King also challenged us to reconsider our beliefs in national identity and how America should interact in the world. King advocated for the construction of the “World House” instead of the “empire of liberty.” In Where Do We Go From Here, he contended that “our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional” and that “this call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.” Now, one should also pay attention to the context in which he makes this statement. King did not mean that Americans should “forget” or look past their national, sectional, and racial identities through a “colorblind” (or even “post-racial”) lens. Even though King disagreed with some aspects of the movement, he validated certain positive features of Black Power and he maintained that, before we could “go beyond” race, we must work out our racial differences and come to grips with our tortured history—two requirements that the American people still struggle with.

King’s views on American foreign policy also remain controversial. He branded the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” when he delivered “Beyond Vietnam” in April 1967. King suggested that America devote more of its resources toward addressing global poverty, which would be to the consternation of many Republicans and Democrats who take joy in beating the war drum. But his call for America to lead the world in combating poverty also came with a disclaimer against what we would probably consider neoliberalism. King argued that any aid should “not be used by the wealthy nations as a surreptitious means to control the poor nations.” He declared that “money devoid of genuine empathy is like salt devoid of savor, good for nothing except to be trodden under foot of men.” In other words, America’s (we can add the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well) current model of distributing aid is usually laden with ideologically-charged requirements such as the promotion of abstinence as a precursor for AIDS funding or requirements that often put heads of state in the unenviable position of having to devote more of their nation’s natural resources to paying off international debt. Aid is not aid if it promotes ideology, whether it’s “democracy,” free markets, or abstinence. King may call that “a new form of paternalism and neo-colonialism that no self-respecting nation could accept.” Hopefully President Obama will take heed to these words when he determines America’s future role in Haiti’s development.

We should also take note on how Martin Luther King tapped into a longer style of Black Leadership where one served as the conscience of Presidents and the nation like Fredrick Douglass. Unlike many of the so-called black leaders who followed, King was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Even though a white Democrat would sign both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, King did not believe that he owed the Democrats his patience and loyalty. We should carry ourselves in the same manner. It was shameful to engage others in debates about health care reform because many others seemed more interested in kowtowing to a minority of Americans indifferent to the trials and suffering of millions because the present bill was “better” than what we had before. It was also disappointing to hear liberals chastise and demean progressives for having high expectations and pushing the President and Congress to live up to their campaign promises. King cared more about justice than political expediency or winning elections. It’s safe to say that King would not have quit his protest efforts if a Republican were President, or if conservatives controlled Congress. King sought to create political opportunities through popular agitation; he did not wait until more Americans became more favorable towards civil rights or “turned” liberal. We need to create more political opportunities by continuing our political organizing and engaging the public. We also need more positive and offensive thrusts for fundamental change, not defensive reform. Instead of serving as cheerleaders for Democrats and Obama, we need to do the less glamorous job of serving as the conscience of a nation. Like Lani Guiner and Gerald Torres wrote about the people of color in America in their book, The Miner’s Canary, each of us represents the miner’s canary. We have to put ourselves in position to say that the Democrats, nor the American people, will live to see the light of day if they forsake us.

So, how do we live up to King’s tall orders? Well, that would take a whole book to explain, but I believe that it is important to offer a few suggestions. First, we have to continue our political organizing efforts and agitation. There is a constellation of local, regional, and national organizations (and individual activists) who remain engaged in the fight for environmental justice, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics, antiracist organizing, etc. I may suggest that all of us who are active should seek means to link ourselves together as much as possible, whether it is through larger conferences like the US/Global Social Forums, or via the internet like the ZCommunications activist community. I believe that both the constellation of the various social forums, national organizations like the resurgent Students for a Democratic Society, Jobs for Justice, and what I would consider the cyber commons, represent the best efforts of establishing a “World House.”

But there is still much mind/intellectual, cultural, and political work that needs to be done. The “private” has reigned as the intellectual and organizing idea of Democrats, Republicans, and capital over the last thirty years. This overemphasis on the private has encouraged Americans from all socioeconomic, racial, and political backgrounds to emphasize “free markets,” profits, property, corporatization, individualism, and citizenship based narrowly on “taxation.” The reign of the private has also led Americans to castigate any and every public institution serving the common good, whether it’s our public school system, Social Security, or even our universities. As King would propose dialectically, we must rethink, reclaim, and reconcile both the “private” and the “public.” We must recreate common spaces where people can enjoy themselves, where ALL of our children can receive an outstanding education, where workers in all areas can control their working conditions.

We also must move towards transforming American democracy. Our current definitions of citizenship are too narrow to be considered as democratic. It seems that the only “deserving” citizens are those individuals who claim to be “God-fearing taxpayers” or the corporations and “small businesses” who “give” us jobs (that sounds kind of feudal, doesn’t it?). And thus, they are the only ones who should reap the benefits from public policy. This logic supposes that they should be the ones to determine the course of the nation. We tend to forget that citizenship includes a social component, one that forces us to govern ourselves beyond our own individual concerns. Our definition of citizenship should reflect our responsibilities toward other human beings, not just our checkbooks, wallets, religious faiths, political parties, or our employers. Citizenship must always be bent toward securing justice and not just defending what’s “ours” (rights, finances, property, privilege). That means, for example, any person should be allowed to marry another. People from LGBTQ circles, those not native to this country, and those who have paid their debts to society should all be able to enjoy the sweet fruits of citizenship, not the bitter nectar of discrimination and ostracism.

We all must reconsider our notions of democracy and seek to practice what scholar J. Phillip Thompson III calls “deep democracy.” I wonder if, at times, democracy only works for some of us if we win, or if it is practiced among our small groups, or for other leftist groups who only seek to cannibalize others. We need to continue the various methods of linking the multitude of organizations and movements together—social forum, local, regional, and national MDS/SDS, as examples—and continuing to develop more just and equitable means of collective decision making. It is difficult to advocate for democracy if we are unwilling to practice it within our own organizations and amongst people with whom we disagree. The point of democracy is to bring our distinct experiences to bear on a common political system and to talk across difference, take ownership of institutions, and make decisions with others who are different from us for the common good (as the most broadly defined). This is the meaning of practicing deep democracy.

Ultimately, we have to bend all of our actions toward achieving justice and rebuilding society. Unfortunately, this cannot be done in one day, one year, or during one or two Presidential terms. Building the World House is a multi-generational project. Therefore, we have to extend the Martin Luther King Day holiday beyond the day itself. The only way to properly honor Dr. King would be to make every day Martin Luther King Day.

*I gathered King’s quotations from his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and his speeches, “A Time to Break the Silence” and “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Third Parties and Coalition Politics

Yesterday I read an article on Race-Talk–“A Third Party: The Choice for the African American Masses”–about the prospects of Black Americans establishing a third political party. The author—Frederick Meade—expressed concern about the Democratics’ repeated failures to address Blacks’ concerns (for which I agree with his critiques of the Democrats). He suggests that African Americans create a third party in order to dramatize their power as a constituency and implicitly use their collective power as leverage withinthe two party system.

Meade seems tohint at creating a party that would remain independent. He states,

“The function of a third party, in itsgreatest capacity, would serve to conceivably eclipse the position of the Democratic Party in its perceived station as an institution of choice, for the socially dispossessed and of those seemingly concerned with the welfare of the masses.”

But Meade devotes the remainder of the article to discussing the short term effects and implications of such action, which include neutralizing the Democrats and possibly pushing themto enact policies that address African Americans’ concerns. He writes,

“A less speculative and perhaps more conception of such a party, would maintain it function – in the short term – to erode a segment of the black Democratic voting base. An evolvement the Democrats can ill afford to experience, as the black vote often serves as the critical force this band relies upon, insecuring electoral triumphs over political rivals in highly contested races.”

Now, I posted the story on my Facebook page and then commented, “the return of the leverage argument…,” because African-Americans have had this discussion in the recent past, especially during the 1970s before, during, and after the 1972 Gary Convention that assembled a multitude of African-American activists and organizations hoping to develop a black political platform. Black Americans resumed this discussion during the early 1980s in the aftermath of Harold Washington’s mayoral victoryin 1983 and right before Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy that fall.

So, I basically spent most of the day just thinking of Nik’s question because I find it an intriguing, relevant, and very pressing for African Americans and the independent Left trying to organize in the “Age of Obama.” I am not fundamentally opposed to a third party (I actually argued for an independent third party amongst afew of my friends as we watched Obama’s 2004 DNC speech.), but I grew interested in what others thought after I responded to Nik. So, I present myresponse to you all. And I welcome disagreement and correction…


I agree with the author’s critique of the Democratic Party and I don’t mind the leverage argument in theory, especially if you’re going to create an independent institution to pressure the Democrats, or both parties, to adopt certain policies. I am not always sure if a third party, especially one organized around ‘race-first,’ always works if your goal is to punish one party or the other. And I mean that nationally. Third parties on a local level could function that way because the organization can play on both sides of the fence, so to speak. It could always support their local candidates and remain free to influence one of the two established political parties if the organization chose to in state/county-wide or national races.

Nationally, establishing third parties for the sake of leverage may be risky because it leaves their supporters, and supporters of established parties, politically vulnerable. If you’re a third party and you “take” enough votes away from one of the two established institutions, then you could end up marginalizing yourself politically because you’re seen as the cause of the consequence (Dems or GOP losing). Your national leaders also run the risk of losing the political capital needed to remain relevant among a broad cross-section of the American public. This outcome could be especially detrimental if you don’t have strong local bases of support.

And thinking about the specific case of African Americans, or people of color,there could be incredible blowback, precisely because we/they are virtually marginalized within the Democratic Party already (Meade is correct.). What I am afraid would happen (because of how salient race/racism is-we do not live in a “post-racial society”) is just the opposite—that established Democrats (black and white since individual blackpoliticians have risen up the Party ranks) would just blame African Americansas as a whole when they lose and use it as an excuse to marginalize black concerns further because, in essence, both parties adhere to a spoils/patronage system.

Fielding a third party is a tough sell politically. You’re virtually telling a vulnerable group to sacrifice their vote and possibly four years of GOP rule, and further political marginalization and material divestment in the short run just to make a point. During these times of economic uncertainty, we need to be in the process of addressing our citizens’ short term concerns because that is what is at the fore of their minds, questions like, “Will I be employed next year?” Of course, my analysis would be different if we truly had a multi-partyparliamentary system where winning parties would have to collaborate with otherparties just to govern.

The best way fo rthe disfranchised and marginalized to make political parties pay attention in our system is through targeted and effective activism and building powerful social movements and/or institutions. We only need to look at Civil Rights-Black Power, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Rights and Liberation (even the Tea Party) despite all of their flaws. Yes, the government can coopt your leaders and program (which is what leverage/influence really is), but that also remains a possibility if you become an effective third party. A third political force would have to find ways to deflect or absorb attempts at cooptation. This is why electoral reform should be on our agenda on the left and for any third party. Social movements and institutions also allow one to remain open to influencing another party’s platform over the course of an election year.

And if we’regoing to build a third party, I prefer it to be more of a “rainbow”party that allows for a space for different racial/ethnic groups to expresstheir concerns. To prevent the potential pitfalls of coalition, this party would need to aspire to work through differences (not around them or suppress them) to create common ground, not seek to solely and simply erase our differences with some sort of progressive colorblind/post-black solidarity. I envision forging a broad coalition of interested individuals within the LBGTQ communities, people from inner cities and select rural areas, persons from various racial/ethnic and religious/spiritual groups, select unions and workers (documented and undocumented), leftists, the youth, and the poor (especially) around the values of equality (broadly speaking), equal protection for everyone underthe law, equal access to resources, inclusion*, respect for publicspace/institutions, “deep” democracy*, fairness, civility, economic sustainability, and (social) justice to name a few…and a concrete platform, preferably determined as democratically as possible.

I also imagine a very decentralized party that is bottom heavy, allowing its members to adapt to local conditions, and act regionally if needed. Confrontational political activism would also have to remain as a crucial part or the politica lrepertoire (I believe the “division” between political activism and self-helpis a false one as well.). Creating this party, or political force, would take intense work because there are real dangers in coalition building since socia lmovements/institutions/political parties tend to reproduce normative social,cultural, and political power dynamics/inequalities (See Stokely Carmichael’s and Charles Hamilton’s chapter, “The Myths of Coalition,” in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, for a still pertinent critique of coalition politics.). Coalitions should never be the ends, nor should the concept become a disciplinary mechanism aimed at dissidents.

I should remindeveryone that this type of coalition is not that new. Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. tried to organize a multi-racial/ethnic/class/religious coalition in his Poor People’s Campaign. The Black Panthers sought to work with radicals fromother racial/ethnic groups. The late Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, explicitly sought a “rainbow coalition” of blacks, Mexicans, white liberals, women, select labor unions, and some LGBT activists. Black mayoral candidate, Mel King, also tried to do the same in his losing effort to become mayor of Boston in 1983. Jesse Jackson formally institutionalized his Rainbow-PUSHcoalition/organization during the 1980s. And activists Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover penned an article calling for a “neo-Rainbow” organization in 2005. And I am sure there areplenty of organizations and small parties who are currently working on creating such coalitions.

I know Meade alludes to more of a coalitional-type party, but the third party would have to be explicitly multi-racial/gendered/sexual/classed/circumstance/etc. (especially rhetorically). It would truly be a test of our democratic capacities (and critical self/collective awareness), but that should be seen as an opportunity that we welcome, not run from. We would pride ourselves in not resembling the GOP who rely on contrived and implicit homogeneity or the Democrats who are also not afraid to discipline their constituencies when they step out of line (ex. Gibbs chastising the “professional left”).

I’m not saying that third parties could never work. I’d expect one would have to work at it for a minimum of 5-10 years with the same amount of enthusiasm as one would during the Presidential election years. We’d have to work like every year is an election year because you have to build from the ground up and resist the temptation to field a presidential candidate for a while. You may be able to snag a seat in Congress if the numbers are in your favor (Bernie Sanders) and you’re a strong organization.

Unless you’re a revolutionary party and don’t care for such things, you have to build your national infrastructure (starting with a robust network of local parties), build an electoral base, pick up seats locally to acquire easy political capital (legitimacy and power to have a base to negotiate from when needed), and work to change the electoral system, especially the winner-take-all scheme. We would also have to work at taking corporate money out of the system (the “best democracy we can buy” phenomenon).

Of course, all of my observations and suggestions sound good in theory (maybe?) and we would have to see how things play out in practice, in real time and space.

…And like I said, I will always remain open for sort of effective organizing whether it’s movement- or party-building. So let the powers that be choose their poison.

*Inclusion is important because we need to rethink what it means to be a citizen of this country—we need a form of citizenship that recognizes all who work in this country (and I mean all) allows them to bear the fruits of their labor and share in the costs. Thinking creatively about immigration will allow us to do this.

*Urban studies scholar, J. Phillip Thompson, III, defines deep pluralism/democracy as “the process through which marginal groups attain roughly equal power in intra- andintergroup political deliberation, and gain consideration of issues previously ignored or suppressed, such as the legitimacy of established political, social,and economic institutions and policies. See page 23 of his book, Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities,and the Call for a Deep Democracy.

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