Article 25

The Week America Awoke

In Uncategorized on 10/27/2012 at 1:33 pm

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Demonstrators converge on a California port in support of a general strike. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The big slide

By Robert Park

(A political fantasy)

Gathering Storms – Fall 2009

 

The economic slide was continuing. The banksters were winning, returning billions so they could do it all again. Cutbacks were everywhere. Jobs were absent, foreclosures epidemic. Small-business credit was missing and funding for education disappearing. Just when you’d think the corporate boosters would finally shut-up, they were getting louder, disrupting “town meetings,” attacking Obama’s incredible shrinking health-care reform. Why are these citizens so angry all of a sudden, when they should have been all along? How do they get it so wrong? What part of overwhelming corporate power, private manipulation or ruling class don’t they get?

But just about every opportunity for the new president to affirm his campaign pledges, his vision, was turning into stunning disappointment: on jobs, torture and client torturers, labor rights, cyber-spying on Americans, endless war, health care and climate change. Seventy percent of Republicans liked his Afghanistan policy; 25 percent of Democrats did. To fix the banks, he brought in Larry Summers – oracle of Harvard, the economist who helped engineer the meltdown of 2008. Invited the insurance companies to fix health care. Time after time, he came out of the fog going down the same track George had been on. Instead of growing his base (those people stopping evictions, launching boycotts, fighting coal, supporting strikes), he abandoned them. People were getting desperate. When was something going to give?

Long Beach

It started to give in Long Beach, Calif., and it wasn’t from the top, or the bottom. The labor council there had been on a roll for some time. Longshore workers had disrupted ship transport several times, protesting not only war but also the flood of goods from really-cheap-labor China. Remember the Christmas panic of 2006 when Wal-Mart couldn’t get its stuff from China through Long Beach? The California nurses’ union had terminated Governor Terminator, and hotel and office custodial workers in L.A. had won victories. But the revolt began when owner-operators of the big 18-wheelers finally couldn’t take no more on diesel prices and decided to blockade the Long Beach shipping terminal with their thirsty rigs. Normally, the dock workers might have said “these guys aren’t even union, and they’re costing us work,” but it just seemed like blockading the terminal wasn’t enough. Within hours they had supporting picket lines on the entire L.A. waterfront, including all rail access. The L.A. labor council called an emergency meeting of union leadership in Southern California. Everyone agreed it was time for the right change and it wasn’t coming from the Bama: “We didn’t elect this guy to be respectable.”

Of course, making demands was natural – that’s what unions do – and lots of clever ideas were welling up: immediately stop all foreclosures; create community mediation centers for re-negotiating financing agreements, with mandatory arbitration; force retroactive corrections so families already devastated can begin to recover; create a huge national program on energy efficiency for people’s houses, apartments, commercial buildings. The idea that smart green design, construction and development can create good jobs and displace huge amounts of energy demand was catching on.

Someone said it, a term that only flickers in the deep recesses of older workers’ memories: “general strike.” Most union members had never heard of it. The exec board came up with some names of retired guys who could maybe provide a little history for the big rally. Sam Loppet from the west coast ILWU (dockworkers) helped lead a citywide work stoppage back in the late ’40s. There was Joe Demassi from the Teamsters in San Francisco and Margie Frumkin from the canning operations. Why didn’t we think of this, someone said.

“Yeah, we let the little trucker-capitalist fuckers lead the way. We should be ashamed.”

A brief clip of an L.A. labor council exec board member talking about a general strike had slipped onto the national news. The guy was perched on the hood of a purple Freightliner with chromed high-rise exhausts surrounded by hundreds of truckers and supporters with 300 trucks lined up behind them and the giant shipyard container-cranes standing idle in the background beside gleaming white ship superstructures. People asked: What is a general strike? Is it legal? What can they do to us? How does it spread? Have there been general strikes before? Did they win?

Orange Bowl blast

Southern California labor councils were paddling hard to catch the wave. Their rally had mushroomed until it filled the Orange Bowl. After four hours, people didn’t want to go home. The significant numbers of people leaving the stadium early were only parents with seditious children or people who had to go to work and weren’t quite ready for a general strike. It was a different country, and people wanted to move there. You could see expressions of grieving as they left. It was like a Billy Graham extravaganza except these guys were talking about fixing this life, not the next one, and it wasn’t faith-based – taking somebody’s word for it.

“These guys had charts and graphs and history I never heard of. Great things that have happened before.”

In Cincinnati, railroad workers shut down the Mill Valley yards to advance the popular agenda. When local officials, including Sheriff Leis, Prosecutor Joe Deters, some rogue federal officials and invited thugs put together a posse to go in and take them down at 5:30 a.m., with National Guard backup, they were met by thousands of workers who had a different plan. The labor council there had gotten a call from an AFSCME member handling the phones at District 1 police headquarters the previous afternoon, tipping them off. Injunctions were withdrawn, thugs who beat workers were being held, people were encouraged.

In Boston, they rallied at Fenway Park with lots of inspiration on everything from stopping evictions to sustainable local farming to defending the Internet. A few weeks later the first Wal-Mart invasion took place not far from Roxbury (a long-time black community) and South Boston (Irish Catholic headwaters). Unemployment was over 35 percent in Roxbury (up from its usual 22 percent) and 18 percent in South Boston. The food went first, wiped clean, even the healthful stuff, followed by children’s clothes, garden vegetable plants, seeds, tools and car parts; DVDs were low priority. Leaflets announcing, “Free food at Wal-Mart, 3 p.m.,” had appeared, and word spread fast. The traffic jams kept the cops out for 45 minutes. Black folks caught on as soon as they arrived; white folks from Southie, after careful consideration, joined the party. When the first cruisers arrived, all they could do was call for back-up and watch the stuff pouring out of every possible orifice in the giant box, including the truck docks out back. No cameras or cell phones allowed. After a huddle with store managers, the officers started opening trunks to extract bullhorns and weapons of mass coercion.

But guns started appearing from other places, too. White guys, hard-core NRA-ers, were thinking, this is an emergency, this is e-x-a-c-t-l-y why we need the right to bear arms. The black guys didn’t need a theory. The cops put away their tools. Bill Shea, the secretary-treasurer of the Boston Labor Council, was pretty sure history was happening right before their eyes and called an urgent meeting. The guys recalled the drill from the past: Some people rise up, the police whack them down, more people complain loudly, and the police union comes running to the labor council for cover. They decided to do it differently this time. After an hour and a half, they issued a statement: “No police officer should shoot at, beat or otherwise harm the citizens of Boston who are collectively attempting to deal with very difficult circumstances. When ordered, police officers should refuse to place themselves in positions of danger, as in confronting unruly mobs, and instead try to encourage peaceful resolutions and public safety. The Central Labor Council will defend appropriate police behavior with the full force of the organized labor movement. We call upon public officials to aggressively address the crisis we are facing today in foreclosures, unemployment and food and we’ll hold them accountable for their inaction.”

The showdown

The White House called a strategy meeting on health care. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and Harry Reid were there, plus the Democrats drafting worthless bills, including major Senator Max Baucus. They did the usual dance: We don’t have the votes, they’re hurting us on the government-control thing, projected costs, what can we do? Where to cut and space, what compromise does us least harm? After 40 minutes, Obama’s chief of staff, David Axelrod, was flustered.

“If you’re talking about looking good, the American people already support publicly funded health care – ‘Medicare for all.’ There’s a groundswell of support for single-payer out in the unions. Mr. President, you yourself said single-payer would be the ideal way to go.”

(Baucus:) “Oh, come on. Get real. We’re not going there. We have commitments, we have … relationships … You don’t just go off and invent some whole new game. Where the fuck have you been?”

(Axelrod:) “Where’ve you been? Where’s your buddy Grassley?”

(Baucus:) “What’s that supposed to mean?”

(Axelrod:) “You know what it …”

(Obama:) “Hold it, guys. We gotta stay focused here. Have to figure what we can get, if anything, that’s a plus but keeping all the players on board.”

And so they stayed the course.

Meanwhile, the organized base of U.S. capitalist reaction, the Republican National Committee, was going for the kill. It looked like Obama was toast; it was just a matter of staying their course. Racism was still working. If they could just deep-six health-care reform, that would stop the stinking liberal advance. What a relief!

But not so fast: They weren’t the only ones with a roadmap. All across America, labor leaders were conferring with constituents, dissidents and each other. It wasn’t just in Boston, L.A., Philadelphia or Cleveland. They were letting go of Democratic coattails and talking with the scorned N.A.A.C.P. and abused ACORN, with environmental activists, community organizations helping people survive and dissident candidates until recently invisible or mute. They were networking people angry for the right reasons into an avalanche-in-waiting. Not every labor council was breaking free. In Cincinnati, coattail hanging-on was alive – but on life-support. Last September, their famous annual Labor Day Picnic, traditionally stage-managed for minimum scary progress, was targeted by the Democrats for a safe Obama appearance.

The single-payer crowd called for a national gathering in Milwaukee. It kept growing in numbers, days and scope. The AFL-CIO’s Trumpca and 250 union activists from 35 states were there. Thirty-nine members of Congress showed up. In no time a superb demand on health care was crafted and packaged for Obama, and that was just the first page. Jobs, foreclosures, drone warfare, fair trade and climate change got added real fast.

Talk turned to Obama. Was he ever a class-conscious advocate for justice? Was he ever more than a Harvard Law-trained dilettante in social reform? Opinions were bolstered by anecdote and text search but the answer wasn’t compelling. Probably something like “smart, well-informed, trying to achieve an historic progressive transformation within a system where complex relationships have to be nurtured. The masses’ unrealistic expectations have to be balanced with the accustomed privileges of inherited wealth and acquired power.” Someone asked, “So, do we keep this plan a secret until the press conference?”… The traditional union approach would have been: a) request a meeting with the Democratic leadership, b) politely present their concerns far from the light of day, c) go home reporting to select exec boards that hope is on the way and get out the vote (“GOTV!”).

One of the more aggressive community activists raised her hand: “If this whole thing is gonna work at all, we have to have people totally involved, put our demands out to everyone, plaster them everywhere with explanations.” Union guys from Boston, remembering their Howard Zinn tutorial, were nodding in agreement and rose in support of the notion: “We should broadcast our objectives and force the president onto a different track, send him flying forward into the future … into history.” (Howard Zinn, people’s historian)

For Obama, it was to be real simple: “If you want to get re-elected or ever have another Democratic majority, here’s what you’re going to do. The Dems’ free ride on labor is over. The lesser-evil disease that has afflicted generations of people and organizations fighting for progress is about to be eradicated from most metropolitan areas. If we get another Republican plague, ’cause you guys can’t fight for the people, we’re going to make you pay, really big.”

When the coalition of 1,267 organizations announced a press conference for Wednesday morning on the steps of the Capitol, they immediately got an audience at the White House. After introductions, the 13 delegates thanked the president and quickly laid out their demands (an easy-to-read 15-page paper was already public):

  • Stop all foreclosures; claw-back or compensate for lost homes of the non-rich
  • Big-bank nationalization, criminal prosecutions, finance regulations
  • Universal, publicly funded (single-payer) health care
  • Energy conservation, green reconstruction and mass transit; going carbon-free
  • Labor law for workers’ rights
  • Fair trade
  • End empire now
  • A cyber bill of rights

The king of smooth responded for about 49 seconds before someone interrupted.

“Excuse us, Mr. President, we really appreciate your hearing from us today. We know you have a busy schedule. But we didn’t come here to respectfully request, negotiate, discuss, or tap your intellect; we came here to tell you what you’re going to have to do.”

No one could remember agents of the working class ever telling a president what he had to do (they’ve all been he’s). The banksters and big pharma did it all the time, of course, but were polite and nuanced when they presented their prescriptions. Never crass threats, ultimatums. They didn’t need to; the money did it for them.

In case he didn’t get it, they bared their game.

“We’re going to publicly denounce your administration as a fraud, as at best a naive and willing tool of the rich, the ruling class, the bankers, insurance companies, big pharma, agribiz, the billionaires’ club, the people scamming America. Your administration is totally impotent against big money. Unions, civil rights organizations and community activists will no longer be the engine that automatically puts Democrats in office. We are going to document the betrayal by the Democratic Party and your administration that has appeared at every turn.”

Then they threw out one negotiable:.

“We are giving you four days to make over your entire political persona. We know you can do it. You might have once wanted to do it. And now we are going to make you want to do it. Put Bidden strictly on funerals and green-building dedications. (They wanted to say, “Tell Rahm to shut the fuck- up.”) If you do this, we will share a press conference fanning the national rising, but we need commitments. Collateral. Credible demonstrations of intent. You better come out swinging, or we will walk, for the last time. Due diligence won’t be enough.”

Just enough discussion followed to convince the Bama that these people were absolutely clear on their goals – and very dangerous.

The DNC was on the phone immediately. Nancy Pelosi was on her way over, her buddy Harry Reid was turning his plane around and Biden was in hiding, working three phones. Rahm Emanuel was lurking; Larry Summers was already on the French Riviera; Commerce Secretary Gary Lock was making pleading calls to CEOs, and CIA’s Panetta was collecting intel on foreign health-care subversives. The Blue Dogs were sniffing and growling, curling their lips and nervously pissing on the statuary, but stepping backwards. The right-wingers were scared. This wasn’t wimpy liberalism; this was radical tectonics that couldn’t be distracted or derailed by the usual Republican trashy mouth. To some, it was terrifying. It looked like the liberals had finally discovered wedge issuesbased in material reality, not on sexual repression or racial folly.

(Karl Rove:) “This really could be fatal.”

Just last week they thought they had Obama on his knees, bleeding. Now everyone knew something big and bad had happened but weren’t sure exactly what. When cornered by Fox News, Al Franken, finally a senator, replied, “What’s wrong, guys? You think maybe you screwed up again? How many times do you expect you can swindle America in one decade and get away with it?” Here was a guy who could sling it right back without lying, and the words were smarting, slashing and burning. Took down Ohio’s slick pimp Boehner like he was a drunk Dan Quayle. When the gloves come off, it’s so easy to cream these creeps without even yelling, so long as you’re not trying to preserve some phony game, “relationships.”

The lobbyists were working overtime and not even charging hours. They had to get a handle on this thing fast but it kept slipping away. They didn’t know what offers to make, what threats to try, checks to write. Networking wasn’t working. High-level corporate strategists were in private conferences, not reachable. The banksters initially figured it was just a mistake; but when calls didn’t get returned or questions promptly answered, they started to piece together an alternate reality.

“What if they’re on to us this time? What if they go after our game?”

ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, commenting on the chaos within the Democratic Party, sounded like a horse-race announcer, but he wasn’t clear where the horses were going or how to tell who’s winning. It was especially challenging because some horses were changing colors – even riders.

Some were skeptical: “He’ll never do it.” Obama had smiled back at them with his usual strong conviction and nice teeth, but there were hints of regret, his eyes darting amid unexplored options.

“He’s way too engaged to make such a huge break. You don’t just walk away from these people; they have money, means, ways to force your hand.”

“But his whole agenda is coming apart. What does he have to lose? It’s either do something really dramatic or he becomes another Colin Powell nobody, jerked around by the ruling crackers. Huge missed opportunity.”

(Hillary:) “Well, I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s totally bizarre, really. What do they expect us to do (smiling, looking for smiles and finding none)? Mr. President (laughing), you don’t think we can go along with this, do you?”

(Panetta:) “We better be really careful. Terrorists might take advantage of this.”

(DHS boss Janet Napolitano:) “I’ll ramp up the D.C. surveillance triggers.”

(Obama:) “I don’t think so. They’re not the problem, the people are. They think we can be forced to do things, ah, differently. I mean, do we want to preside over … ah… endless decline, advancing defeat? Well, I need to give all of this some considerable thought.” (Looking grim) “Thank you very much. Let’s, ah, convene again in the morning. Dave and Rahm, would you, ah, join me after lunch in my office?”

In NYC, the executive committee of the Committee on the Present Danger was caucusing with Jim Baker III, Madeline, Henry and Zbig.

(Jim:) “This is the situation you never want to be in; the great error that W made was pushing the envelope too far in too many places without adequate theoretical foundations or contingency planning. Never was any good at business plans. Now we’re in a difficult position. Just about any attempt to change the direction of this thing helps it grow.

(Henry Kissinger): “Exactly. We have to proceed very carefully so as to not make the situation worse, while at the same time taking absolutely ruthless measures when appropriate, if necessary.”

(Madeline Albright:) “There’s got to be a way to rein in the lower-level leadership in the unions and some of the local Democratic committees. I just can’t see how to do it –  and it’s not just unions; there are community groups springing up. We don’t have operative political or police infrastructure at that level. We’ve lost control of Internet debate.

(Zbig Brzezinski, the Bill Clinton guy who cleverly armed the Taliban against the Russians:) “Yes, and the pressure to resolve this at the global level just isn’t there yet in the boardrooms.”

Makeover at the top

It would be a race to recapture the minds and hearts of the working class before they contaminated everything with a new layer of slime. Large swaths of the people had been so badly treated for so long they might be incapable of rallying to their own cause. Pushing Obama forward was the citizen rebellion growing out on the streets, capable of obliterating his career; but pulling him as well was a glimmer of spectacular transformation, a glorious place to be loved for all history. He had almost totally forgotten such a place.

Two Cabinet members were fired and barred from their offices with agreement that the actions would not be public for another week, and they were strongly discouraged from talking to the media. Late nights turned into all-nights. Bob Grates and generals Jones, Petraeus, Mullen and McChrystal were replaced by unknowns, demoted to operations logistics. Holbrooke was pulled from the Afghan theater and named ambassador to Cuba with orders to apply his pouty face to immediately ending the blockade, on condition that civil liberties in Cuba be at least as good as in Honduras or Colombia or Iraq –  a pretty low bar.

Old habits die hard. Fifteen years of centrist scam mongering and schmoozing with the enemy aren’t easily reversed, not to mention severing ties to the hands that feed. Worst of all, Obama had to unlearn the compromise thing: backing off and waffling when the bad guys say mean things. Instead, disable and dismember. Seize their hooks and turn them around with quick insightful jabs and revealing anecdotes much more interesting than their stupid myths and scare-bots.

(Next: Shock and Awe)

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