Thoughts on Alabama and its Democratic Disintegration.

My wife and I are housesitting this week as it is Spring Break and the homeowners are on a business trip. The homeowners have cable, which is something my wife and I got rid of over a year ago. So we have spent a good amount of time watching the stuff that we used to love when we had cable: mostly The Food Network and BBC World News. On Friday night, however, I tuned into Alabama Public Television to catch Capital Journal. It is a fairly boring show in a state with fairly boring politics.

But something interesting happened that I had never really noticed before. At the end of the show, they brought in their two analysts to discuss goings on at the statehouse. One person covered the Senate while the other reported on the House. While the two reporters referred to the party labels of the leaders in the Legislature (obviously, all Republicans), they would only refer to the leaders of the Democratic caucus as “the leader of the minority party”. When they talked about amendments being offered to the charter school legalization bill that has become priority number one for Republicans, they talked about the “amendments offered by the minority party” and the fact that the bill had such an easy time in the Senate was because of the “outreach that Republicans made to the minority party”. Only a couple of times did the reporters mention the actual name of the “minority party”, and even then they were referred to by the much-hated “Democrat” truncation.

I am not in a position to know the political leanings of either reporter, though the fact that they were both Black leads me to disbelieve any partisan motivations on their part. So it left me with another, more realistic, and more terrifying option: the Democratic Party in Alabama is so dysfunctional, so irrelevant, so crippled by the factions that continue to bicker over the tiniest of stakes, that reporters on the state’s oldest political talk show on television are not even compelled to mention its name when discussing goings-on in our halls of policymaking. The two-party democracy as we know it in this state quite literally only exists on paper.

Needless to say, it is a great time to be a socialist organizer in the Yellowhammer State.

An Open Letter On ‘Right To Work’ To All Union Members And Allies

To every union member and allied working person in the United States:

I hope this missive finds you well. As those of you who follow the news know, Wisconsin has become the 25th state to allow those in workplaces with unions that fall under the Wagner Act’s jurisdiction to not pay dues while still receiving the hard-fought benefits that come from a union contract. This is a terrible state of affairs, not the least of which because historical union bastion states of Indiana and Michigan preceded it in implementing similar laws. While I am confident that we will eventually reverse this development, this is not why I am writing you. I am writing you about the use of the phrase, ‘Right to Work’. Continue reading

The Invisible Profession: The demise of teaching in the public sphere.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

teachers credit union.001

This message began appearing on signs throughout Tuscaloosa County in the last couple of months. The new name is apparently imbued with a bit of history itself: the city of Tuscaloosa was founded on the fall line of the Black Warrior River in west Alabama in 1819. It would eventually become Alabama’s second state capital in 1826, and the University of Alabama was established in the city in 1831. With Stillman College, a historically Black university, opening its doors in 1875 and Shelton State Community College doing the same in 1950, it made sense that the city would be home to a robust financial institution specifically catered to the city’s grade-school and post-secondary teachers. Thus we have the Tuscaloosa Teachers’ Credit Union, which opened its doors in 1953. 

This specific change does not seem to be altogether that shocking or scandalous. An institution starts as one thing, broadens its focus, and changes its name to reflect this development. Big deal, happens all the time. Look at the Government Employees Insurance Company, for instance. In and of itself, these kinds of developments aren’t catastrophic, but they are a reflection of the ongoing siege against public education and the erasure of educators from public life.

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#GeneralStrike: Why an old tactic could bring about new changes

This was a piece that I wrote several months ago, but never published. There is no time like the present, though.

Boots Riley tweets

Back when I was a liberal posing as a socialist in my early 20s, I would always sneer at the suggestion of a general strike by the leftists I hung out with. After all, the only thing approaching a national general strike that I had ever read about in American history books was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. That strike, which began in West Virginia with workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, ended with President Rutherford B. Hayes calling out federal troops to suppress the strikes and states passing laws to ensure that such interstate cooperation amongst the working class would be rendered illegal in the future. Plus, my experience in organizing for the Democratic Party had embittered me to the notion that low-income families and communities would ever join such an action. My thinking was, “Hell, I cannot even get these folks to vote for shiftless, do-nothing Democrats! What makes y’all think these folks would willingly walk off their job to support their neighbors?”

But as the conversation surrounding the non-indictments of police officers in the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown has become focused on possible solutions and methods for obtaining those solutions, I find myself being thoroughly disappointed. If I am not reading something on body cameras or hiring “smarter” cops (as if the systems producing state violence are somehow no match for your run-of-the-mill MPA student), I am reading about meetings with the President where it is difficult to discern whether the florid rhetoric was matched by any real binding commitment to anything other than technocratic tinkering around the edges. Phillip Agnew exhorts that if the demands of the group in that meeting are not met, then they will “shut it down”.

But shut down what? And how? The protests that have caused major traffic backups in major American cities are exhilarating to watch, for sure. Many of us could only dream about such an occurrence unfolding nightly before our eyes a year ago, and yet here we are. It has been a sight to see. But anyone who has done community organizing or political organizing can tell you that such micro-level actions are not sustainable for the weeks, months, and possibly years that it will take to see change through this system of ours. And despite all the rhetoric of needing to “decenter” people who are either indirectly affected or unaffected in movements for change, the fact is that it will require a coalition of communities and causes to right the systems of injustice that have pulverized and demoralized us for so long. That means communists, socialists, liberals, communities and activists of all colors, low-income, middle-income, and many more will be needed if we plan on “shutting down” anything.

Given this, as well as the perspective that comes from shifting ideologies and growing older, I have come to see that the only way this will come about is through economic pressure and direct action that focuses solely on the accumulation of capital. No amount of liberal technocratic edge-tinkering will bring justice to communities like Ferguson, Brooklyn, or Phoenix so long as it leaves the status quo relationship between state and citizen in place.

Therefore, I join others in supporting the call for a nationwide general strike. There are, however, two big things that would have to be put into place before such an action could be successful. After all, this would be a massive undertaking for a country that has never seen such an occurrence.

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The Dead End of Identity Politics.

Pull up a chair. I have a story to tell.

Sigh.

Sigh.

A former colleague of mine posts this on Facebook. Makes you wanna give it an eyeroll or two, right? There is nothing in this critique that one can use to organize or build community around; rather it is simply one more scold in an atmosphere full of them. I challenged the person who posted it to find me something similar on how you can build bridges or educate the mass of people that we will actually need in order to build a coalition for change. She replied that she was not necessarily using it to exclude folks from spaces; fine, I said. I do not understand how one can post something like that and say with a straight face that they “are not trying to exclude”, but I was ready to let it go.

A socialist organizer friend of mine weighs in on the fourth point. I read it and….huh. It kinda does sound like the poster is blaming white LGBTQ+ individuals for their own oppression. I mean, I can kinda see the point (these struggles are connected, and one oppression fuels others), but it was made in such a bombastically ridiculous way as to lose the point entirely. And knowing the struggles that white LGBTQ+ youth endure in the South, this particular admonishment came across as being very unfeeling and insensitive.

The response that he gets from others? Google It, basically. Maybe I should not have done this, but I basically told the person who said that to stuff it. Like, this mess gets very old, very fast. When another person, a queer Black woman, came in and left a big block of text stating that it was perfectly within her right to tell people to Google It, and how I was apparently devaluing intracommunity work by stating that it is an organizer’s job to educate, I stated the following:

Everyone cannot be an organizer. Fine. But please, do not politicize your laziness and comfort.

Her response?

Did you just call me lazy? Did you not hear me say that I am a queer Black woman….

What conversation is there to be had around that? It is as if the mere existence of her identity inoculates her from any critique. How did we get here?

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Alabama, the Socialist: A brief vision for giving Dixie its Heart back.

I have done enough complaining about the politics of Alabama. To be sure, there is much to complain about: the Legislature is an oversized clown car, the state supreme court has apparently decided that nullification is a thing, elections are a joke, and the opposition to Republican rule in this state is decimated to the point that Alabama is probably the closest thing you will find in America to a one-party state. If you are someone who cares about the dignity and worth of other human beings, it is a tough place to live and engage in politics.

I hope to make a small dent in Republican hegemony in this state by reviving the Tuscaloosa organizing committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sounds ridiculous, I know; how can I expect a state to embrace socialism when it will not even embrace the tepid centrism on offer from the Alabama Democratic Party?

The truth of the matter is that any organizing on the left in Alabama, or anywhere else in the South for that matter, is going to be a decades-long proposition. Democratic party units at the state and local level have atrophied to the point that they have taken on some of the characteristics of third parties: struggling in fundraising, being overly dependent on a big name to revive the party, and simply not competing in many districts and elections. Those structural issues tank the party long before we get to talking about ideology, an arena in which the Democratic Party in the South is nothing short of atrocious. This sets the political paradigm firmly on the right end of the political spectrum and ensures that progressive and leftist ideas are not only ignored, but openly derided. Changing the discussion and dislodging this accepted political filter is not something that can be done in an election cycle. It would be folly to even suggest it.

That is why I am going to begin the process towards changing the debate now. My vision is just that: mine. Being a socialist means that you are always strategizing around the formation of coalitions and thinking about how to include as many voices as possible in political decision making. The vision that I lay out here may not be the one that guides the DSA in Tuscaloosa. But I think that it is important to start discussing what a socialist vision for Alabama looks like and how we might put it into action.

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Call-outs and Claiming Easy Victories

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” – Amilcar Cabral

Building on Doug’s excellent post, I’d like to add the following.

There’s a strike that’s going on right now. United Steelworkers have, as members, folks who work petroleum refineries across the country. What they are fighting for is nothing less than the right to come home at night after they work. The fact of the matter is that the company is fighting to have the right to burn these workers to death in unsafe refineries. Here’s another fact: looking at the photos of the picket lines, depending on the area, the majority of the workers are nonwhite. The home of the largest refinery in the US, Port Arthur in Texas, is 44% African-American per the last census, and other refineries are sited in similar, predominantly minority municipalities.

This strike has a multitude of stories that can be told about it. A nonwhite workforce given a difficult, dirty, and dangerous job to do that keeps our whole world running. Dangerous, polluting industries located in places where the majority or the plurality of the population isn’t white. Working people bravely standing up to perhaps the most powerful industry in the world to protect themselves from being immolated in the name of higher profit margins.

And yet, these stories aren’t being told. Instead we get yammering thinkpieces about the meaning of Patricia Arquette’s backstage interview at the Oscars. We get a flood of pieces on Beyoncé and why she should have won the Grammy over Beck. We get more ridiculous opinion about Kanye West, both pro and anti. It’d be pathetic if it wasn’t for the fact that this shit is taking up space for things that are actually important.

What Doug said is absolutely right: this politics of superficialities that call-outs are a part of does not achieve a damn thing. I suspect folks default to this mode of thinking because it requires no struggle or sacrifice aside from dicking around on the Internet. You know what’s not easy and requires actual work? Taking on oil companies. Fighting private prison corporations to break up the school-to-prison pipeline. Lifting the ongoing siege against American public schools by those who would see them privatized. Engaging in these fights requires commitment. It requires effort to be exerted. It requires courage, as these entities are powerful and can potentially harm you in many ways.

Easy victories are usually victories not worth having, and call-outs are nothing if not easy.