Activism

Unity and Division in the Ninth Ward

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Eugene V. Debs

I wasn’t going to say anything aloud about the ninth ward, Minneapolis city council race. I don’t ignore electoral contests exactly but they don’t dominate my attention, either. You see city councils, legislatures, courtrooms and negotiating tables are what I call “moon spaces.” The moon gives you light to work by but it doesn’t actually generate any. It’s all solar power beaming in from the streets, workplaces, school yards and prison yards. It also finds its way in from corporate offices, police departments and land speculators. Moon spaces are where the existing balance of power gets recognized and codified. I work in the “sun spaces.” Getting someone into office can indicate a shift in power but doesn’t cause it. It can be useful, though, to have allies in those spaces. We just have to remember their nature.

A campaign for office can sometimes affect the unity and resilience of the communities it is based in. That gets my attention. Alondra Cano and Ty Moore, two activists with roots in grassroots organizing, are leading contenders for an open seat in my ward. They have each attracted a strong following among activist types of various stripes. Each of their campaigns is the product of slowly maturing trends in the political environment and as such could create some interesting opportunities. In the closing days of the campaign, its tone has deteriorated to the point where it could easily leave scars, making it difficult to bring folks together later even around issues we all agree on. In the heat of the moment people can lose perspective, turn tactical differences into principles and come to see those who support the other camp as clueless at best and betrayers at worst. I’ve seen many divisive struggles in my day and would like to make some observations from a perspective that emphasizes unity and resilience over the long term. There’s nothing wrong with passionate debate and sharp disagreement. Gotta keep it clean, though.

As is pretty common, there are two sources of division. The first has to do with the differing strategic placement of the campaigns. The second is about how they conduct themselves. Each should be addressed separately.

The differences between the campaigns – and the reasons smart people are attracted to both – are rooted in real histories of struggle, solidarity and betrayal. They don’t fit comfortably in the caricatures that have been assigned them (Alondra the Democratic climber, Ty the Old Left fossil*). The main reason it’s worthwhile discussing is that the tensions evident in the campaign are expressions of our time. They’re not about Ty and Alondra. They will continue to appear in various guises over the coming years. We might as well get to know them.

Ty’s is an outsider campaign. It’s based on the principle of building independent political power in open opposition to the class elites that hold sway. With a record of participation in the anti-foreclosure movement he would challenge the use of city resources – especially the police – to enforce the will of the banks. His is seizing a moment when the legitimacy of the way things are has been badly shaken and people are more willing than they have been in years to embrace bold politics. Alondra’s organizing has gained her an expansive root system organically linking her to Latino and immigrant communities. Her experiences with poverty, motherhood, immigrant organizing and public education produce a relationship of trust with people traditionally marginalized in the political system. For many Latina/os, at any rate, her office would feel like an extension of the neighborhood.

Neither of these are trivial matters. Democratic politics is timid and loyalist in the face of corporate power. The party is eager to adopt, absorb and “re-educate” community activists who wander too close. Whatever the mayor and council may think, the police are the most powerful component of city government and challenging them will be strongly discouraged. A bright new star with street cred will be enthusiastically showered with all kinds of assistance. It is equally true that white dudes, no matter how advanced their analysis, do not represent communities of color. He can do some effective coalition work around issues, but Ty would not greatly affect the internal alignment in communities of color. I’ve been around long enough to remember the ambitions and reactionary politicians of yesteryear striving to become the (“Hispanic”) power broker at city hall. It matters whether the first child of that community to step into office is beholden to conservative business interests or those of working and poor people. All US politics is racial and gender politics.

Ty’s stepping up has been electrifying for community folks in the cross-hairs of the banks. It is both a pragmatic matter and a source of hope to have someone to rally around who would risk his career to have your back. It also represents a long overdue step away the two-party merry-go-round. Alondra represents the aspiration of all communities to represent ourselves; to support leaders who know viscerally the realities of our lives, not outside champions to raise our banner for us. She also personifies the tradition of relational organizing that forms the root system of working class communities.

These contrasts offer plenty of material for debate about the pathways and pitfalls of making change. Especially since, in my opinion, each candidate’s strength is the others weakness. The hope of doing this was lost, though, when Ty’s campaign grabbed an opportunity to attack Alondra and try to discredit her. A real estate lobby had sent out a mailer backing her campaign and Ty attacked without checking it out. Corporate front groups are, by their nature, opportunist and pragmatic. If a socialist candidate supported the right to bear arms (as many do), the NRA would happily throw money to back them in order to defeat a liberal who was for strong gun control. In this case Alondra was lambasted as a shill for Wall Street banking interests. Now, it would have been fair for Ty’s campaign to ask what made the realtors more afraid of Ty than Alondra. That could have gotten into some useful issues. As it is, the campaign has degenerated into the kind we are all too accustomed to.

I don’t think this (and some subsequent moves I’m critical of) have done my brother Ty any favors. At the same time my sister Alondra’s growing list of DFL heavy hitters do make a scrappy street fighter’s heart droop. How effective either of them can be (should one of them win) will depend on the solar power of the activist street to keep them honest (and yes, third party victors are subject to the same co-optive pressures as major party ones!). Important contradictions, blind spots and challenges have been brought to the surface. They need to be processed in order to make them into nutrients for our movement, and not toxins. We might as well get used to it. There’s plenty more where those came from.

*In Puerto Rico we have the annoying or endearing habit of calling all public figures by their first name. In addition to knowing the candidates I am a captive of my native tradition.

Originally posted to Opine Season on November 4, 2013

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