A Cleveland Spring?
by Randy Cunningham
It is not easy being an activist in Cleveland. This is a tightly managed town where we politely wait for the lights to change before we cross a street – even if there are no cars coming. It is supervised by a sophisticated elite that has perfected the art of discreetly pulling strings. Talking back to one’s betters is frowned upon from in Cleveland. Even the death of Tamir Rice at the hands of the Cleveland Police did not cause much of a disturbance of Cleveland’s placid waters.
There have been exceptions to this record of passivity. There have been times where a folding chair is not just a folding chair. It is a tool of political discourse. This was the town that elected Dennis Kucinich Mayor in the 1970s and it is hard to imagine someone who was more the opposite of “go along to get along” politics. He reduced the governing business elite to a state of sputtering apoplexy by not genuflecting to them upon demand, and thus insured his overthrow in one of the most famous examples in American urban political history of how to do a coup d’état. This period also saw the rise of a movement of Alinsky style community organizing that harassed our local Masters of the Universe. Unfortunately, Kucinich and the community groups never played well together, which enabled the movers and shakers to pick them off one at a time.
What commenced in the early 1980s was nothing short of a counter-insurgency campaign that even the CIA would have to admire. Community organizing was defunded. The non-profits were brought to heel and reminded of who they depended on for funding. Even the mildest mannered advocacy programs fell under suspicion of sedition. Kucinich was sent into the political wilderness and other politicians took note of his fate. But most important of all, the campaign changed the very language of civic discourse in Cleveland. Programs became products. Clients became customers and the modern corporation became the model for how the public and non-profit sectors should operate. Empowerment was out, and economic development was in. The block club organizer was replaced by the heroic entrepreneur.
But no matter how clever or powerful an elite is, the crown always rests uneasily upon the royal head. Like the statement on King Solomon’s ring - “This too shall pass” - we may be at the beginning of the end of a 30-year counter-revolution.
What we have seen recently has been a series of discreet events that by themselves can be dismissed as flashes in the pan, but together give evidence of a democratic restlessness that is the stuff of hope. Some the items of interest are:
The Hugo Boss Victory. When it was announced that Hugo Boss was closing its clothing factory in Cleveland, the response was not to just accept another in a long line of plant closings in Cleveland. A labor and community mobilization commenced that succeeded in keeping the plant open and finding a new buyer for it. People are still working at the factory. They are too rare in the annals of recent American history. They survived what few have survived.
Bishop Lennon Meets his Match. The retirement of Bishop Anthony Pilla brought to town a new Catholic Bishop whose specialty was closing urban parishes in a religious version of austerity economics. He had success in his work in Boston. He met his Waterloo in Cleveland where parish after parish decided to not go quietly into that good night, and fought back. Some succumbed, but many more won hard fought fights to stay open, even winning cases before ecclesiastical courts at the Vatican. This was quite simply one of the greatest democratic victories won in Cleveland in decades and was made all the more remarkable in that it was won within one of the most autocratic institutions in the world.
Feeling the Bern in Cleveland. The Bernie Sanders campaign did not carry the day in Cleveland’s 2016 primaries, but it did challenge Cuyahoga County’s senile and compromised Democratic Party and has since created a new opposition with the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. It is a campaign that intends on becoming permanent. If it succeeds in achieving even half of its ambitions, it will provide for progressive activists in Cleveland what they have never had. An electoral vehicle for addressing their grievances and for building real political power – not just the ephemeral power of street protest.
End Poverty Now, the RNC and elite panic. The End Poverty Now March for Economic Justice held during the Republican National Convention was the largest street protest Cleveland has seen in several decades. The activists who planned and organized it were surprised that we still had it in us. It happened under conditions of police and security overkill that spoke volumes about the fears, insecurities and outright panic of our ruling circles. That it even happened was a victory and opened space for further activity. It was a return of the repressed.
Raise up Cleveland – on a collision course with the neoliberal city. The campaign to raise the minimum wage in Cleveland to $15 an hour has revealed how city leaders may talk a good game when it comes to dealing with poverty and the low wage economy of Cleveland, but when there is a solid proposal for dealing with it they put on the brakes. The public is treated to the same ands, ifs and buts that have been used since time immemorial to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. SEIU has mobilized a rare campaign that has deep roots in the African American working class and has caused the Chicken Littles of City Hall to declare that civilization as we know it will end with $15 an hour. Hold onto your hats. It is going to get interesting.
Too soon to tell. That was the reputed answer given by Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai when asked what he thought of the French Revolution. It is too soon to tell what all these developments will mean in breaking up the civic ice age that has prevailed over the past three decades. It is our obligation to widen whatever cracks have been opened if we want to live in a just and democratic metropolitan area. So get out the crow bars and jack hammers. We have work to do.