By David Swanson
I’ve been a reader and contributor to the Black Commentator since it began, as well as to the Black Agenda Report, which split off from it. The July 23rd sit-in in Congressman John Conyers’ office, in which I took part, has led to quite a brouhaha in both publications. Last week the Black Agenda Report printed a column I wrote about that action, and the Black Commentator published a column by Rev. Lennox Yearwood who also took part, as well as a response from Larry Pinkney criticizing our efforts and specifically denouncing me as racist and arrogant. This morning the Black Commentator published various readers’ responses, more opinion from Pinkney, and an article of mine about impeachment (despite my arrogant racism, I guess). Also last week, Rev. Yearwood and I discussed this topic on the Pacifica Radio show “Voices of Vision,” and this morning Pinkney and I are scheduled to discuss it again on the same program.
I’m white and leftist, progressive, liberal. White progressives fall very far short on confronting racism, police brutality, racial disparities, protection of black voting rights, the demand for justice for Katrina victims, and all causes that address racism. While I have probably tried harder to bring white activists to these issues than some, I have fallen far short.
But here’s the problem. Big solutions on these and many other issues of social justice have to be forced out of Washington, and anything we manage to force Congress to do will be vetoed, and if not vetoed signing-statemented, and if not signing-statemented simply not enforced. There will be no justice for anyone on any matter as long as Bush and Cheney are in office.
When I first got involved with the Black Commentator I was working as the communications person for a national grassroots community organization made up largely of people of color called ACORN. And we were organizing effectively. We were forcing changes out of corporations, local governments, and sometimes state governments, on issues like predatory lending, housing discrimination, living wages, and schools. But every time we would take one step forward, Congress would take two steps back. While ACORN and other groups are building the strength to effect change nationally, I chose to work directly on national issues full-time.
Congress recently passed a small partial and gradual correction to the plummeting minimum wage, but only at the cost of funneling another $100 billion into the slaughter of the people of Iraq. We have killed a million Iraqis and 4,000 US troops. And those serving in our military are disproportionately poor and minorities, and they have all been lied to by recruiters. They are not engaged in defending our country, and most of them will not receive the funds and education they are usually promised. Meanwhile, the war has been a key tool in a massive shift of wealth from the poor and those in the middle to the very wealthiest Americans. The expense of the war has meant a shortage of funds for useful programs across the board. In Virginia, where I live, the state legislature is so pinched for money that it’s put in place $3000 speeding tickets. And who do you think will disproportionately get pulled over?
The war has also been used to justify everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to the elimination of civil rights. We now have a president and vice president who claim the right to detain people without charge, torture them, and murder them, as well as the right to turn the Justice Department into a machine for cracking down on black people who try to exercise the right to vote.
Bush and Cheney and their policies and their war are least popular in that segment of our population that always answers polls more wisely than anyone else: black people. Glen Ford, who runs the Black Agenda Report once pointed out to me that prior to the invasion of Iraq a poll asked whether you would support attacking Iraq even if it meant killing a large number of Iraqis. Among African-Americans, a full 7% said yes. From that point on, polls have not published opinion results on the occupation of Iraq broken down by race. Nobody wants the public to see so clearly that this is a white people’s war.
Of course, it is also a white people’s peace movement, and a white people’s impeachment movement. But much less so than it appears on your television. The Congress Members who have taken the lead on ending the war and impeaching Bush and Cheney are disproportionately black. Of the six Judiciary Committee members signed on now for impeaching Cheney, four are black and a fifth is from a majority-black district. These representatives are responding to the demands of their constituents.
The racial divides in the activist community are a problem we need to address, and a lot of the problem is simply racism of our own. There is also a huge wealth gap that becomes a race gap and comes from the fact that some people can afford to be fulltime activists while others have to work three jobs. But key to the divide, I think, is the degree to which minority groups are focused on their own immediate domestic needs. If I have any arrogance here, this is – I think – where it comes out. I want to tell people that even though they might be able to win a new affordable housing program if they devote their limited time to it, and even though they need that housing urgently, they should stop to consider how Germans in the 1930s who focused on a local housing project look now in retrospect. See, I want to grab people by the collar and shake them a little and say “Can’t you see fascism coming? Can’t you see that little tweaks to wage laws will never begin to make up for the drain on poor people’s money and blood that this war is and the next war will be?” I’m willing to say that’s arrogant, but I can’t seem to shake my conviction that it’s right.
There are all sorts of levels of unfairness in this. The best members of Congress, most likely to stand up against injustice, represent the poorest minority districts. So, wealthy white people who have the time to be activists and who have the domestic comfort to allow them to focus on international issues end up lobbying first those Congress Members, and then asking that their constituents do the same. And too often, the same white activists fail to devote the same energy to assisting with those constituents’ pressing needs. This is horribly unfair, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. And yet it looks to me like we are all likely to suffer greatly if we do not somehow find a way to pull ourselves together and block what Bush and Cheney are doing.
Now, many people, white and brown and black, are engaged in national activism, lobbying Congress for various things. The whole labor movement has dumped endless resources into lobbying Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. I want to grab John Sweeney by his well-pressed collar too and shake his well-fed self and shout: NOTHING IS GOING TO GET PAST BUSH AND BECOME LAW. I don’t know how to say that any more clearly. Another year and a half of passing horrible bills that are signed into law and passing good bills for show that have no chance is a spectacle that must be condemned. And it will be condemned and will seal the fate of the Democratic Party and whatever hopes anyone may have harbored for it. Pushing impeachment now does not require that you consider the Fourth Amendment more important than the right to organize, only that you recognize that your bill is going to be vetoed. Pushing for impeachment does not require that you find signing statements more threatening than our campaign finance laws, only that you recognize that a bill for public financing of elections would be vetoed. Demanding impeachment in September does not require that you consider the slave labor being used in Iraq to build a US embassy more unjust than the history of slavery in America, only that you recognize that Bush would veto any bill for slavery reparations.
Pushing for impeachment also does not require, as Pinkney suggests, that you believe the result will be a utopia free of health problems, with equal rights and prosperity for all. Of course impeachment will not instantly solve all of our problems, but failure to impeach is guaranteed to worsen them – all of them. Failure to impeach will establish that the people have no more say whatsoever in their government. The result will be a disaster for all of us, and you know as well as I do who will feel it first.
Pinkney proposes that instead of impeaching Bush and Cheney we “really change the system.” Who could disagree? But that’s not exactly useable advice. How does one go out and work all day to “really change the system”? We can organize people. We can try to organize people to take over the streets and shut down the city of Washington, D.C.. That would at least change the traffic reports that day. But what would those people demand as a condition for letting the cars back on the road? I can think of nothing better for them to demand than the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. That will be a beginning, not an end, to a struggle for a socially just utopia.
Now, Pinkney’s main criticism is of white people publicly targeting John Conyers. He probably objects to black people publicly targeting John Conyers as well. It just bothers him more for white people to do it, because of the general shortcomings of white people. Pinkney is not wrong about white people or about racism, but he is wrong about John Conyers. John Conyers is not, as Pinkney claims, just one vote like any other on the Judiciary Committee. He is the chairman of the committee, a very powerful position. He decides what work the committee does or does not do. Of course, he chooses to take his orders from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, but we protest and criticize and sit-in at Pelosi’s office all the time. People are camped in front of her house in protest. A leader of the peace movement has moved to her district in order to run against her in the next election. We routinely disrupt her press conferences and accuse her of disobeying her oath of office. Nor have any Judiciary Committee members or other congress members been given a pass.
Pinkney recommends that we go after Judiciary Committee members who, unlike Conyers, are opposed to impeachment. But that misunderstanding is exactly why we’ve heightened the pressure on Conyers. He has been playing both sides of the street on us. He has convinced many good people that he both wants impeachment and will not impeach. Three days before the sit-in at his office, he told a crowd in San Diego that if we persuaded three more Congress Members to sign on for impeachment, he would act. In May we organized a town hall meeting in Detroit with hundreds of people and Conyers scheduled to speak. He came early, left before it started, and told a reporter on his way out that he supported impeachment. In January he told a half a million people on the National Mall “We can fire Bush!” and then explained to a reporter that what he meant was that if we wait until 2009 Bush will leave. None of those half million people thought that was what he had meant. He has persuaded millions of people that he wants impeachment. I spoke to one of his staffers last week who told me Conyers will never impeach.
Now, clearly there is some part of John Conyers that wants to impeach. That does not make him our friend. And he is inclined to, at the very least, wait until Nancy Pelosi or a huge number of his colleagues demands it. That does not make him our enemy. We can have great admiration for him and feel great frustration with him, but he remains nothing other than an elected public servant in a position of enormous power with quite possibly the fate of this democratic republic resting in his hands.
I don’t know, but I suspect Pinkney would be OK with people protesting Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell. I don’t think protesting Chairman Conyers is taboo exclusively because he is black. I suspect the reason is, rather, that he is a black official who has done a tremendous amount of good over the years. That he has. There can be no question about it. And he shouldn’t be criticized for failing where almost all of his colleagues are failing, just because we’ve come to expect more of him. But we’ve come to expect more of him on this issue because he has encouraged us to. John Conyers has a book in the stores right now documenting Bush and Cheney’s impeachable offenses. Conyers led the push toward impeachment when the Democrats were in the minority. A lot of people worked very very hard to elect some truly awful Democrats so that the party would have a majority and Conyers would chair the Judiciary Committee and impeach. I’ll admit that it bothers me that he has played us for fools.
But the point now is not to abuse Congressman Conyers. Nor is it to demand that he live up to his best past performances. The point is that Congressman Conyers has not retired. On the contrary, he’s blocking justice by sitting in the one office that can start impeachment and refusing to do so.