Tuesday, July 27, 2010

'Who Will Thread the Needle?' Getting the Charter Movement Organized at the Grassroots

Mark Solomon promoting the Charter at Workshop

The Democracy Charter at the

United States Social Forum in Detroit

By Mark Solomon
The Democracy Charter, formulated by civil rights legend Jack O’Dell, was introduced to an activist audience at the United States Social Forum in Detroit on June 25, 2010. The content and potential of the Charter as an organizing force for a resurgent progressive majority was quickly registered by a distinguished panel and was explored with vigor by an engaged audience.
The session began with reading of a statement from Jack O’Dell who underscored the systemic crisis of a faltering economy, environmental degradation, the staggering burden of endless wars and the withering of democracy. He insisted that an expansive, robust democracy (“the people shall govern”) was the answer to that many-sided crisis. Reflecting his profound sense of history, he noted: “At the heart of the Democracy Charter is the ‘dual authority’ represented by the social change mass movements of the people. … That dual authority has been the essential element in defending and enlarging democracy throughout the nation’s history.”

Our Panel: Carl Davidson (standing), Tim Johnson, Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Frances Fox Piven

The panel and the audience faced a large blow-up of the 13 points that constitute the present draft of the Charter – expanded and deepened social policies to assure full employment, an end to bigotry and racial violence, total education for all, universal health care; a foreign policy of peace and cooperation, restoration and preservation of the environment, expanded public ownership of resources strategic to the nation’s health and economy, the airwaves maintained as public property – as well as other points that address needs crucial to salvaging and extending democracy.
Emphasis was placed upon the process inherent in advancing the Democracy Charter. Panelist Bill Fletcher, Jr., stressed that the process required a coming together of progressives to explore, debate and agree upon what is needed. The process breaks down fragmentation, opens communication among disparate groups and individuals and at this moment is possibly more compelling than the outcome. Small group discussions across the country about the meaning of the Charter and how to improve it could eventuate in “people’s assemblies” that would reflect the reality of race, class and gender – the essential categories upon which the battle for people’s rule is based. Audience members stressed the democratic essence of a process where the participants themselves fully control the outcome of discussion.
A major workshop theme was the role of the Democracy Charter in linking issues and movements. Panel member Carl Davidson described the Charter as a vehicle for expressing the needs of a progressive majority and as an organizing tool to coalesce that majority. He also noted that the Charter could serve as a counterpoint to Glen Beck’s reactionary “Nine Principles and Twelve Values” that is being used to organize groups around the country. Panelist Jackie Cabasso of United for Peace and Justice said that the relationship between a collapsing economy and militarism is becoming a central concern of peace activists and is increasingly obvious to large sectors of the population. She also noted that the prologue to the Democracy Charter pointed to the Bandung Conference of 1955 (the same year as promulgation of the South African Freedom Charter, the inspiration for the Democracy Charter) that gave birth to the non-aligned movement against colonialism and underscored the poisonous presence of racism in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also, the connection between assaults on democracy and weapons of mass destruction was captured by the observation that “no population was ever asked to vote on possession of nuclear weapons.”
Panelists and audience engaged in a thoughtful and probing exploration of the agency needed to successfully launch and sustain the Democracy Charter. Bill Fletcher pointed to the role of the South African Communist Party in 1955 in helping to make the historic Freedom Charter a major political project. Panelist Tim Johnson said that an advanced force was needed at a transformational moment when the movement for a deeply expanded democracy transcends the existing capitalist system but does not yet establish socialism. With no existing major left party in this country, an audience member asked if it were possible for socialist groups to cooperate in helping launch the Charter. Another audience participant said that “advanced forces” need not be solely based in organizations, but could be individuals and informal groups with an understanding of the intent and potential of the Charter. Another member of the audience said that “more conscious” groups and individuals should come together to facilitate discussion of the Charter without in any way imposing their views on a widening circle of participants of all ages.
Panelist Frances Fox Piven and Bill Fletcher engaged in an illuminating exchange. Piven affirmed the present version of the Charter as a vibrant program that in her view did not provoke controversy. Yet, she insisted that in general charters do not come first before movements arise, but arise out of existing movements. Those movements, she said, function laterally, without the imposition of vertical lines of authority. Fletcher countered that no one was suggesting that that any force impose its will on the process of advancing the Charter. The challenge was how to get diverse forces talking about it. The crucial question was: “Who will thread the needle?”
While the debate was not fully resolved, it underscored the scope of the challenge to make the Democracy Charter the pivotal focus for a resurgent progressive movement. Members of the audience addressed that challenge with thoughtfulness and commitment. One participant argued for the need to respond to the most urgent demands of working people, from which an embrace of the Charter could grow. Another audience member focused upon the forthcoming One Nation march in Washington on October 2 as a challenge to the Charter’s diverse agenda and to the “conscious forces” working to expand a primarily jobs agenda to embrace peace, an end to a militarized economy and environmental survival. That expanded agenda was viewed as essential to mobilizing a massive force to counter the Tea Party movement and to set the stage for a successful challenge to right wing efforts to capture the 2010 elections.
The content of the Charter was also addressed. Tim Johnson noted that the present assemblage was self-selected and that it should not be assumed that more diverse constituencies would uniformly accept all thirteen points in their present form. An audience member called for additional points to defend labor’s rights and to call for urgently needed electoral reform.
The workshop ended with a plea to all participants to become involved in a deeply worthwhile effort to spread and build the Democracy Charter. It was reiterated that in regard to the issues there is a progressive majority that has to be nurtured, focused and unified. The Charter with its call for people’s rule through expanded democracy gives greater coherence and content to the fight to turn the country around. Audience members were invited to join the Democracy Charter Grass Roots Organizing Committee, to organize small group discussion in their own spheres, to interact with the Charter website (www.democracycharter.org), to solicit endorsers of the process and to help give coherence, direction and solidarity in building a unified movement for democracy, justice, peace and equality. The people shall rule!


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