A Cleveland Spring? One Year later
Part 1: The Year that Was.
A year ago, in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention in 2016, I wrote an essay that asked if Cleveland was experiencing a “spring” of insurgent activism. Was the civic ice age we had been living in since the era of Kucinich, finally melting? After a frenetic year of activism in Cleveland – largely inspired by the horror of the Trump victory – it is time for an assessment.
The Horror, the Horror
The sum of all our fears came true with the election of Donald Trump as President. People were stunned at the abrupt cancellation of Hillary Clinton’s coronation. Hillary – the amazing living resume – did not take the oath of office, but America’s Monster from the Id, did.
The response from the progressive community resembled the panicked residents of Houston and Florida racing to board up buildings and stock up on supplies. In Cleveland, the local version of the Women’s March in DC was the largest demonstration to ever occur in Cleveland history. 15,000 people gathered and marched from public square. It was to be the start of a train of demonstrations, rallies and protests that has continued to the present.
On the ground, groups mobilized for war. Organizations experienced a surge in new members and volunteers. New organizations such as the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, and Indivisible organized on the run and had to confront the fortunate problems of starting an organization, while being mobbed by new members. Even the local of Democratic Socialists of America experienced a surge of interest.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Democratic Party mainstream tried to rationalize the unexplainable. It was all Bernie’s fault!! It was the white working class! They are just a bunch of racist Neanderthals!! Why can’t they think and act like college professors? And this is how they show their gratitude for NAFTA! It was misogyny. It was the Russians. It was Jill Stein. Left out of the list of the guilty, however, was Clinton Inc and its flacks who drove the party into a ditch. Or that Obama won two federal elections in a row, while the Democratic Party in the states collapsed. Nope. It was all the Russians’ fault. We were blameless. Hillary in 2020! Get your bumper stickers now.
The problem with the response aka The Resistance, is that it is centered on the man, Donald Trump. As loathsome as he may be, he is but the ultimate outcome of the past 50 years of American politics and society. No one wants to talk about that, because they might have to recognize the many authors of this disaster on both sides of the political divide. That dirty job must start however, or we will never get out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. But first we must quit digging.
Building an opposition.
The Cleveland area is seeing the development of a network of progressive coalitions, organizations and campaigns that simply did not exist before 2015. A network that is made up of young people who have finally broken the death grip of the baby boom generation on Cleveland activism. A network that does not hesitate to get its hands dirty in the dark and bloody ground of electoral politics, but can pivot on a dime and throw up a picket line in front of your offices, or launch an initiative campaign. Some of the main actors in this opposition are,
The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. The caucus is the child of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in Cuyahoga County. It does not consider itself a caucus of the local Democratic Party, even though most of it electoral work supports Democratic candidates, and even though most of its efforts to push a progressive agenda are aimed at the local Democratic Party. In this it is a true practitioner of the inside/outside modus operandi of Bernie Sanders which drives the DNC crazy.
The caucus is a whirling dervish of activism. Its list serve runs weekly updates on what is going on in the Cleveland area with meetings, campaigns, demonstrations and anything else that a local activist might be interested in. Its offices are available to every conceivable group working for social justice and change. You can walk in the front door and find the front office occupied by some nice, older ladies doing a mailing for a state-wide initiative, while in the back-room hell-fire and brimstone anarchists are meeting. It is, in short, a place to stand to operate the levers of social change.
The leaders and activists of “the Caucus” as it is most often called, consciously aim to create a progressive political machine for the long haul. With a membership of over three thousand, it will be challenged to activate that membership into a true political machine, and in the future to replace the current leadership with a new one as founders age and pull back. But, for an activist of my vintage, there is simply nothing I have ever seen that comes close to playing the role that the Caucus plays today.
SEIU 1199 has been in the thick of practically every campaign and insurgency in Cleveland. A predominantly African American local of the Service Employees International Union it is noted for its militancy, its red shirts, and its drummers who liven up any demonstration they attend. When it comes to signature gathering they are an absolute machine.
Indivisible was begun by former Congressional staff people who wanted to take what they had learned inside the Beltway about how politics is played, and make it available to the public. It was a massive success after the 2016 elections and has become one of the largest progressive organizations in the Cleveland area.
Cleveland Black Lives Matter. Cleveland Black Lives Matter came out of the mad police chase and subsequent murders of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell on November 29, 2012 and the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on November 22, 2017 by police who received a call that there was a man in a Cleveland park with a gun. Rice had a toy pellet gun. In both cases officers were disciplined, but none were tried and convicted in what is the norm in Cleveland and the nation for police shootings of unarmed African Americans. Cleveland Black Lives Matter is small in size, but large in moral witness and persistence. It bird dogs police behavior, demands accountability from police and politicians, and deploys a powerful message that black lives do matter and the existence of two systems of justice – one for the affluent and white, and one for the poor and black – is unacceptable. It has recently been very active regarding police abuses in Euclid, Ohio.
Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT). Public transit is a social justice issue because it is a necessity for poor communities of color. It is also a major target for conservative politicians pushing austerity budgets. Cutting public transit is an article of faith for these dyed in the wool haters of the poor and cities. As one conservative think tanker once put it “American has a mass transit system. It is called the automobile.” CPT began fighting the Opportunity Corridor redevelopment program that was designed to ease the commute of staff persons of the Cleveland Clinic from the eastern suburbs to the clinic. In the process, the transit needs of low income communities near the clinic were either totally forgotten or made much worse by the project. Its activists gathered signatures against the Q riding the trains and buses of the Regional Transit Authority RTA. They are accumulating more and more technical expertise on a very technical set of issues.
Democratic Socialists of America. One of the oddest characteristics of this time is the rebirth of American socialism. The greatest indicator of socialism’s return has been the explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Michael Harrington’s old group that just managed to hang on to life through the dark reaction of the Reagan and Clinton era. Socialist meetings nowadays need bigger venues than the living rooms of the past, and are no longer dominated by the elderly veterans of the 1960s, but by young people.
Socialism has never been a majoritarian movement in the United States. The US has never had the mass based labor, socialist and communist movements of Europe and other parts of the world. But at many times in US history it has been a player whose influence has far exceeded its numbers.
The broadly defined American left has been mislabeled and misunderstood because it has been analyzed according to criteria used to describe the left in societies that are vastly different from American society. It should be described using American criteria as ranging from wild eyed liberalism, to left populism, to the various socialist and anarchist tribes. Throw in for good measure anti-racist organizations such as Black Lives Matter, feminist and LGBQ groups and the more militant environmental groups.
In its stance towards capitalism, the American left runs from anti-corporate to anti-capitalist. Socialism plays a unique role within this broader movement. Socialism is the sharpening stone that keeps the cutting edge of the American left sharp. It does not carry the heavy burden of respectability. It is where activists go for answers to questions that arise but are not answered in the daily grind of issue organizing. Socialism is an essential ingredient to a viable left and progressive movement. You can’t have one without the other.
Hands down, the two most significant fights in the past year were the campaigns for the $15 an hour minimum wage for Cleveland, and the fight against the Q arena renovation deal. Both challenged the power of the Masters of Cleveland, and asked of institutions and individuals who viewed themselves as liberal or even progressive, the question posed in the old labor song “Which side are you on?”
The Fight for $15 or How Cleveland City Hall Screwed Democracy.
When I first wrote about a Cleveland spring a year ago, one of the most promising campaigns at the time was the Fight for $15 led by the firebrands of SEIU 1199. They fought their way through all the barriers thrown in front of them in Cleveland City Council, and finally did all they needed to put an initiative on the ballot on May 5th. The final proposal was for Cleveland to raise its minimum wage, gradually, until it reached $15 an hour and then it would be pegged to increase according to the consumer price index (CPI). It was a compromise from the original proposal. But the Masters of Cleveland were not in a compromising mood. They wanted to kill it before it multiplied. There is nothing more intolerable to those who have always gotten their way than to not get their way.
A city council composed entirely of Democrats – the alleged Party of the People – voted in favor of a regime of cheap labor in Cleveland. What was particularly disturbing for me after having worked in the non-profit field for most of my life, was how many non-profit leaders supported the Masters of Cleveland on this issue. “When I first met you, you were a socialist. And now you are against the Fight for $15????? Say it ain’t so!!” For me it was a final spade of dirt thrown on the grave of any illusion I had that there was anything inherently progressive about non-profits or the people who led them.
What really made me crazy was an attitude that Clevelanders had that we are such a bunch of losers, living in such a loser city, that we dare not ask for anything that will make our masters angry or even mildly annoyed. If we do, someone will throw a switch and we will be sent to a lower rung of hell. We have been groveling for so long that we dare not look up from the muck. It made me think that the official song of Cleveland should be the opening chorus of Les Misérables – “Look down, look down, don’t look him in the eye......!”
The Great Fear was that the initiative might succeed. That the peasants might ignore the argument that additional crumbs of bread would cause an economic stampede for the doors and send Cleveland back to the bad old days when it was the Mistake on the Lake. As if anyone in many of the neighborhoods noticed any appreciable difference between then and now. Since the people could not be trusted, and the foes of Fight for $15 did not have the courage of their convictions to go mano a mano against the initiative in a campaign, they ran off to the State House in Columbus and made common cause with people who hate Cleveland and its inhabitants. Mayor Jackson and Council President Kelley had their lobbying firm in Columbus – led by William Batchelder, a notorious former conservative Republican state legislator – slip a measure to forbid local governments from raising their minimum wages into a bill to ban sodomy with animals. Which passed into law. Pre-emption, where state legislatures remove home rule powers from local governments is usually the bane of local politicians. In this case it saved the day, ended the initiative campaign and preserved Cleveland’s status as a great place to work for nothing.
The Q controversy: The Mother of All Battles.
This is the campaign that dominated the news for most of the winter, spring and summer of 2017. It stopped in its tracks a major renovation of the Q arena for the Cavaliers NBA team, that was backed by the full might of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, most politicians, the building trades and the voices of reason in the media. There are few examples of that ever being done in Cleveland, at least since the demise of the Kucinich administration.
The coalition of the Greater Cleveland Congregations, SEIU 1199, the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, and other allies managed to collect 20,600 signatures from Cleveland residents requesting a vote on the Q renovation deal. They did it in under twenty-six days. That is mind boggling to anyone who has taken part in such an effort. The campaign then won a decision in the Ohio Supreme Court when the City Clerk refused to accept the signatures, and the City of Cleveland sued its own clerk with the hope that the Ohio Supreme Court would agree with the clerk and would thus kill the petition campaign. It did not work out that way, and the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert pulled out of the deal in a ruse that proves his genius in playing the game of brinksmanship. The city establishment panicked, cursed GCC and predicted the end of civilized life in Cleveland. Just when we were the closest to winning a major campaign, GCC lost its nerve, broke ranks with the coalition, settled for a pittance and a promise from the county, and withdrew the petitions. Gilbert bet on GCC crumbling under pressure and his bet paid off.
As bitter as this defeat was, it still meant that the future would not be like the past. None other than Crain’s Cleveland Business newspaper stated in an editorial that the way the city has done development projects, over the past 25 years, was no longer viable. When even Crain’s notices that the ground has shifted, then it has shifted.
Part 2: The Egalitarian City: Radical Reform in Cleveland.
It is easy to oppose something. Proposing an alternative is a whole different matter. However, it is vital if you ever hope to be taken seriously by a public whose support you must win. We can’t successfully oppose the various schemes of the Masters of Cleveland, if we don’t oppose the vision and strategy behind it with an alternative vision.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to lay out a comprehensive alternative. Such an alternative must be shaped in a democratic process informed by past and present organizing. What we can do is lay down markers on the values that we want to use to shape a strategy of radical reforms.
Reforms and Radical Reforms.
The term radical reform might cause a conceptual car crash in the minds of some. Reforms in the ordinary sense are usually inoffensive creatures that tweak the status quo without really changing much. The term radical reform originated in post WWII Europe, where the left concluded that for the time being, the revolution had been put on ice and the left had to have something to do until history went into hyper drive again. One of its leaders spoke of a “long march through the institutions”. Radical reforms were the boots for that march.
A radical reform is a reform that seeks to redistribute wealth and power within a society. It is not revolution. It is reform that uses the system against the system. Its goal is not tweaking. Its goal is real change within the current society. The right has used radical reforms throughout the period of its dominance. It has redistributed power and wealth from the non-wealthy to the wealthy. It has worked to destroy the ability of anyone who might object to the power of the wealth, to resist that power. Citizens United and the war on organized labor and the emasculation of regulatory agencies are perfect examples of radical reforms implemented by the right. Their values favor traditional hierarchies of race, gender and class. Their values favor the corporate and the private over the social and public.
We must use another set of values to guide the creation of a new governing philosophy for Cleveland that would implement a program of progressive radical reforms. These values should include but not be limited to:
Demilitarizing and de-policing society. Our present society is not interested in dealing with social problems, much less addressing the underlying causes of those problems. From the New Deal to the Great Society the answer was a program. Since then the answer is a jail cell. Law enforcement and the prison system have metastasized into institutional Godzillas roaring and stomping through our lives. As one former Baltimore policeman commented in an interview, it is impossible to spend 24 hours of your everyday life in America without breaking the law, which puts you into the cross hairs of law enforcement. If this is not bad enough, these Godzillas have formed an unholy alliance with the military and the private security industry as we see with our militarized police and a private security industry dominated by military veterans. The law enforcement response to the Standing Rock Sioux protests of the DAPL pipeline was a classic example of these developments. The result is America has become a quasi police state.
What is most infuriating to critics of policing in America in the wake of a series of police shootings of unarmed African Americans is that it seems that the police can act with complete impunity, with few if any worries that they will be held accountable. Police shootings that range from the questionable to outrageous seldom end up in court and almost never result in convictions. It is easy to believe that police are above the law. The theory is that we are a society where civilian leaders exercise authority over the police. The reality says just the opposite. The police are in control, they call the shots and they are answerable only to themselves.
It is up to question, if you can back your way out of a police state. Such states create constituencies of their own, especially within communities where decent jobs are few and far between. One person’s oppression is another person’s opportunity. Law and order comes out of a basic civic laziness that does not want to face up to, much less deal with our problems. We must break the law and order habit and favor solutions that don’t require more laws, more police and more jail cells. Basic to those solutions must be a total reinvigoration of civic society, democracy and the very way we define the role of the citizen. We must build walls between the police, and the military and restrain or abolish private security companies. Then we might have a chance to get out of the law and order hole we find ourselves in.
Rejecting the Austerity Regime. In the mid-1970s an article appeared in the magazine Business Week that was prophetic. The message was that the public had to settle for less in wages and public services, so that corporate America could have greater profits. The authors said it was going to be a hard notion for people to swallow, but they managed quite well in ramming it down the public’s throat. We have lived under an austerity regime ever since. The mantra of this effort was “public sector bad, private sector good.” Privatizing everything has meant sealing off more and more public services from democratic accountability. That is the fine print that the backers of austerity and privatization never want to talk about. We must reconfigure the conversation to say that the public sector is good and should be expanded, while working to make that public sector accountable and open to democratic input from the people.
We must liberate democracy from the ghetto to which it has been confined. Most people spend most of their lives in authoritarian institutions about which they have no say.
We must begin this democratic breakout by challenging private power at its heart in how our economy is run and explicitly advocating for a society of equality of condition, and a rejection of our present oligarchic order.
Regarding the economy, we need to democratize how enterprises are run by giving employees a say in the day to day operation of the enterprise. CEOs should not be regarded as gods and rewarded like potentates. The right to form unions should be sacrosanct. Employee owned enterprises and cooperative businesses should become major if not dominant parts of our economy. Banks should be nationalized as public utilities recognizing, to paraphrase Mayor Tom Johnson, that either you own them, or they will own you. The economy should exist to serve the people. The people should not exist to serve the economy.
Regarding equality of condition, we need to reject the notion that equality means everyone has an equal chance to participate in a dog eat dog social jungle of all versus all. We should pay heed to Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis who said that you can have a plutocracy or you can have a democracy. You can’t have both. Great concentrations of wealth are inherently incompatible with democratic life. No matter how they are taxed or regulated, they will inevitably hijack and distort the larger society. We must retire our social Darwinist ethic, that participatory greed is the path to a good society, and embrace a new social vision of a society of the broad middle where no one is poor and no one is rich, but all have enough for a good life.
De-pacification. I call the era we are leaving post-Kucinich Cleveland. It was a thorough going repudiation of urban populist politics and the community organizing movement that rolled through the city in the 1970s. It was a counter insurgency campaign. And it was very successful. Those who have always run the town, reasserted their authority with a vengeance. One feature of this campaign was to use the non-profit sector as token proof that the Masters of Cleveland did care for the unfortunate, just so long as the unfortunate and their advocates remembered who was in charge. The rise of the non-profits was central to the drive to privatize public and social services. Now, in a pacified Cleveland their services are no longer as needed as they once were. They are being starved of funding and forced to merge with each other for survival.
There was no greater example of the triumph of passivity and how far civic activism had fallen that the weak response of the public to the killing of Tamir Rice by the Cleveland Police. The silence was especially deafening in Cleveland’s African American communities. I was at the rally that was held in front of the Justice Center after the final decision was announced to not prosecute the two police officers responsible. Long time anti-racist activist Art McCoy was stunned by the small crowd that attended, and openly wondered where everyone was and what was wrong with his community that their response to the decision was so pathetic.
Today we have a city whose rate of voter participation is a disgrace. The marginalized poor have been reduced to civic squalor by the temporary labor market, the minimum wage economy, the inherent instability and insecurity of rental housing, and a justice system that has turned thousands who have passed through it into exiles in their own land under a regime of permanent punishment. Throw into the toxic stew a street level nihilism where people look to guns to empower and protect them in an impoverished world of all versus all. Racism, our original sin, is still pervasive, powerful and debilitating. We have a city hall that has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. We have a city administration whose focus is limited to downtown, and a hand full of favored enclaves colonized by the affluent.
De-pacification requires a rebuilding of our civic infrastructure in a massive campaign of democratic education. When they say privatize, we should say democratize. We should help the mass of Cleveland residents learn how to be citizens, not mere residents. We should help educate them in the skills of organizing, running meetings, and to change the way they look upon themselves from victims and spectators of society, into participants. It will not be easy breaking the habits and mind set of passivity. But without it, nothing else will be possible.
Fighting for our language. One of the most pernicious features of our society is the corporatization of our language. I witnessed this transition in the non-profit and public-sector world and it made me empathize with the last humans in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There was something odd that had changed with people I had known for years. Their eyes reflected that they had not become plants, but their language changed totally. Organizations became corporations and evaluated themselves against the criteria used by modern corporations. Clients became customers. Programs became products. The communities you served became your shareholders. Businessmen became entrepreneurs. Clerks became sales associates. You were not asked by a business if you found what you were looking for while shopping. You were asked how your “experience” was.
We cannot succeed in combating the Masters of Cleveland or democratizing society using corporate speak because if we use corporate speak we will also think using corporate think. We need to not only change the distribution of power and wealth. We need to change the very language we use to make it a tool for democratizing society, not maximizing shareholder value and shutting people up.
Towards an Egalitarian City
Cleveland for the past generation has been ruled by a politics of nostalgia for the days when it was an industrial power house. In pursuit of this dream city politics have been focused on currying favor with our local plutocracy and thinking up one scheme after another to bribe the suburban middle classes and affluent to return to a city its parents and grandparents fled to avoid the colored and the poor, to obtain decent housing and schools, and to get away from the pervasive pollution that was part and parcel of its industrial greatness. The drive to reclaim a mythic past has meant that no one has asked what else Cleveland can be other than a cheap knock off of that past. A progressive movement in Cleveland must start to propose and fight for an alternative governing vision for the city that does not rely on the beneficence and permission of the Masters of Cleveland, but relies on the imagination and energy of a mobilized, educated and democratic majority of the ordinary citizens of a city that I call the hometown of the humble.
We have laid some of the foundation stones of the movements that will bring about a city that is for the many not the few, where democracy is a reality not a slogan, and justice is a realized dream, not a nightmare. We have much, much more to do but at least we have started.