Let's build a movement together.
On Saturday, May 5th, 2012 a coalition of 80 community, labor and social justice activists gathered at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland, Oregon to participate in a Community Assembly to Create a People's Budget. One of the event's main objectives was to educate participants on the often opaque decision making that produces the City of Portland's annual budget. Another major objective was to show how budgets produced through genuine community participation contrast sharply with those produced behind closed doors, with little (if any) community input.
Participants also had an opportunity to educate each other about the struggles each faced in the current climate of economic austerity, imposed upon the citizenry by the same social and economic forces who demanded, and quickly received, massive bank and corporate bailouts. Students and parents from the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women talked about their ongoing struggle to take their school off the budget chopping block. Community activists from Right 2 Survive and Right 2 Dream Too described how cutbacks to already skimpy basic services for Portland's most vulnerable citizens heaped even more burdens on the already extraordinarily difficult lives of Portland's unhoused community. Laborers from Laborers' Local 483 showed how funds diverted to "urban renewal" projects result in the layoffs of city maintenance workers while further enriching bond-holding "investors."
The event's organizers also presented their research findings. The Community Assembly's "Where's the Money" group connected the dots on how urban renewal financing provides both investment opportunities and tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations while shifting tax burdens onto working people and main street businesses. Event organizer Shamus Cooke contrasted the "cuts only" approach--pitting vulnerable members against each other to fight over budgetary "crumbs from the table"--with community driven participatory budgeting initiatives. Although participatory budgeting approaches vary, the most democratic of them allow community members to control the entire budgetary process--from raising revenue to distributing funds and services.
Throughout the five hour presentation, participants were encouraged to "share ideas on priorities & strategies" in table discussions and "report out" sessions, where a representative from each table shared concerns of the group from her/his table to the rest of the assembly. The assembly ended with a discussion on next steps: "short, medium and long term strategies" collaboratively decided upon by the assembly's participants.
A Brief History
The inaugural Community Assembly event on Saturday, May 5th was the culmination of more than six months of intensive planning involving close to a dozen labor organizers and social justice activists. Work began in November 2011 after the Occupy Portland Labor Solidarity Committee tasked a group of volunteers to form a subcommittee to organize and launch a participatory "people's budget" initiative. On November 20th, Mark Vorpahl--a local union steward, anti-war and Latin American Solidarity activist--distributed a link to The Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Kit to others on the newly formed committee.
Vorpahl explained that he wasn't necessarily suggesting the committee follow the template provided by the Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Kit, but felt it could serve as "an example that we can use to adapt what is relevant to our project, exclude what isn't..." He also suggested the committee "bring unions, community groups, and, of course, the various constituencies of the Occupy Movement together in forming this project." Committee member Jennifer Sims saw the "success of the Peoples Assembly coming from including the jane's and joe's of the neighborhood," adding that the "Peoples Assembly ... could be the way to connect the people to the (Occupy) movement." Vorpahl boiled the down the email discussion to a handful of clarifying questions, which included:
- Why (do) we need a Peoples' Assembly?
- What would a Peoples' Assembly look like and do?
- Who are we going to approach as partners in building this?
- What are our next steps towards putting this proposal together?
The first several organizing meetups took place at the Lucky Lab tavern in Southeast Portland, but eventually moved to the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. The meeting schedule also changed from weekday evenings to early Saturday afternoons, and participation grew from "three or four (people) in a bar" to about a dozen labor organizers and community activists in a church. The date for the inaugural Community Assembly event was initially set for Saturday, April 7th but moved to Saturday, May 5th to allow more time for outreach and organizing.
On Friday, May 11th, primary organizers got together in a downtown Portland conference room for "an excruciatingly long meeting" to debrief themselves on People's Budget event and discuss "next steps." There was general agreement that the event attracted an ethnically diverse group of community activists, but participation by representatives of labor organizations was relatively scant. Written feedback from participants was generally positive, sometimes even enthusiastic, with minor exceptions. Most organizers thought the event's presentations were effective, although event facilitator Trudy Ann suggested that we might ask presenters to consider putting their presentations through a "dry run" as part of the preparation process for future assemblies.
Organizers identified numerous opportunities for improvement. Erica suggested that organizers speak directly to the concerns of each labor organization they reach out to. Greg felt organizers should make stronger connections with private sector organizations. Lisa felt strongly that main street business owners must be brought into the mix. Shamus pushed for clarifying the overall focus, while Mark wanted to see clearer demands, and not linger over "what's possible." Luis saw the need to craft a clearer analysis. Dave couldn't refrain from making wisecracks.
Consensus centered on clarifying focus, crafting a strong analysis, taking the "show on the road," and building a strong, diverse movement. The "next steps" organizers agreed on were to produce a "horizon" or vision statement, write a report summarizing the May 5th event, engage participants--especially those expressing interesting in getting involved in the "continuations" process--in "one on one" dialog to pull in their input, and focus on "three or four" main ideas to fight for.
Building a Unified, Grassroots Movement
- * Dave's Notes - This section currently under development. (See additional notes below).
Effective movement building begins with a lot of hard work by outstanding volunteers endowed with dedication, talent, discipline and organization. Volunteers are the heart, soul and backbone of any legitimate community organizing effort. In fact, the inaugural Community Assembly to Create a People's Budget event on May 5th was produced with all-volunteer effort.
Each of the primary organizers dedicated a great deal of time and energy to make the Community Assembly inaugural event a success. Two volunteers in particular, Trudy Ann and Lisa Neef, performed event planning and outreach tasks that went well beyond what is customarily expected of volunteer grassroots organizers.
In order to build on this initial effort, even more is required. In taking our "show on the road," increased administrative demand is likely as event planning, facilitation, community outreach, training, research, documentation and information management claim a larger share of the workload. As organizing ramps up, organizing efforts will also benefit greatly by access to an office or dedicated meeting space. For these and other reasons, we must add funding to the mix.
Areas immediately identifiable as potentially requiring additional capacity beyond the purely voluntary:
- Administrative talent
- Office / dedicated meeting space
- Office expenses, materials, etc.
- "Show on the road" activities include planning, organizing and facilitating the following kinds of activities:
- Upcoming assemblies
- Post-assembly actions and follow-through events
- Alliance building
- Collaborative content development
- Connecting organizations, groups and people
- Connecting communities, near and far
Organizing Is Essential
The purpose of a Community Assembly is to bring people together in order to craft a common vision for their community. Each community is made up of people with potentially conflicting agendas. Even so, the primary "stakeholders" found in each community will likely share common concerns. These stakeholders are folks rooted in the community who are committed to the well-being of the entire community. Their first allegiance is to the community as a whole, rather than to any corporate or financial entity that fails to demonstrate a deep commitment to their community.
Most people living in any given community share similar concerns. People want to live in safe, clean neighborhoods with amenities like parks, a reliable transportation infrastructure, adequate commercial districts (shopping, work), and so on. Parents want to enroll their children into good schools. Heads of households want secure employment at a living wage.
So why are these basic requirements under almost constant threat in so many communities? Why do our business, financial and political "leaders" fail to champion these basic, community centric values? Why do some of our most prominent religious institutions not only fail to condemn, but often even champion the military, financial, business and political policies that assault our communities with such profound economic dislocation and cultural degradation?
Follow The Money
Economic democracy depends on coming to a clear understanding of how the wealth of a community is distributed. The surest path to cui bono? (who benefits) from a given economic arrangement is to carefully examine where the revenue comes from, and what it pays for.
- Who is taxed?
- What is taxed?
- What are those taxes paying for?
- Who is subsidized?
- What is subsidized?
- Where is wealth concentrated?
- How is the tax burden distributed?
- Who shoulders the heaviest tax burdens relative to income?
The last point is particularly important. For instance, let's say you have an annual income of $500,000 and U.S. tax policy changes so that your tax burden comes to an astronomical 80% (significantly more than double the current rate). Despite paying such a whopping tax bill, you'd still be left with a $100,000 annual after tax income.
Now let's imagine your annual income is only $25,000 and your tax burden is 15%, the actual 2012 rate. Your already modest income of $25,000 is reduced to just $21,250 after paying your $3,750 tax bill, an income which falls below the 2012 poverty level for a family of four ($23,050).
What this simple example shows is that it's possible to significantly raise tax burdens on high earners without turning them into paupers. As we've just seen, the $500,000 per year earner is still relatively affluent, even after paying a whopping $400,000 of that income in taxes. But the more modest earner can potentially fall into poverty after paying just a fraction of high earner's tax rate.
We're told that we shouldn't tax the high income earners because they are the "jobs creators" whose prosperity will "trickle down" onto the rest of us, enriching all. What has actually happened is a tiny fraction of our population vacuumed up much of society's wealth while a vast majority saw incomes stagnate or worse.
In late May, 2012 Business Insider ran a brief column with a startling headline: "100 Million Americans Without Jobs." The comments that followed carried some of the usual dismissals one encounters whenever America's current economic status quo is presented in less than flattering light. One commenter even suggested that Americans have "become a nation of crybabies looking for handouts, wanting to see failure and recession."
"Crybabies" notwithstanding, plenty of Americans do want jobs, not handouts. Unfortunately, both are in short supply. There's plenty of work to do, of course. There are roads and bridges to repair. There is a massive public transportation network to build. There are buildings to retrofit and make more energy efficient. There are windmills put up and solar energy devices to make. There are kids to teach and college students to educate. There are clinics to build and sick people to care for. There's all sorts of work to do that remains undone. Why?
Urgent tasks are ignored and valuable work is left undone, even though there are plenty of folks ready, willing and even eager to roll up their sleeves and start working. That's because we allow ourselves to live under a kind of dictatorial regime. It's a dictatorship that imposes unavoidable costs for absolute necessities like food, shelter and other essentials but fails to universally make available the means to pay for them. It's also a tough taskmaster; this tyrannical relationship leaves many out in the cold. Literally.
Exiles on Main Street
The key constituencies for any grassroots organizing effort focused on social and economic justice are the marginalized communities who suffer the brunt of the injustices dished out by the dominant culture. They often include ethnic, racial and other minorities, low income people, unemployed workers, students and working class folks. Organizing and mobilizing people from these ranks is imperative. But are we wise to organize solely within this "choir" struggling communities?
Part of any grassroots organizing effort aimed at correcting economic disparities might consider including small business owners who are rooted in the community. In some respects, small business owners are natural allies. Small businesses are often better equipped to respond to what folks in a given community want more effectively than any large, bureaucratic corporate entity or government agency. Their size frequently makes them dependent on the community they serve. Just as with more marginalized folks, many of the same economic fluctuations are also beyond a small business owner's ability to control.
In many significant respects, however, small business owners are often not a natural fit for alliances of social and economic justice advocates. Small business proprietors and other members of the petit bourgeoisie will often identify with those further up the economic food chain. Indeed, the middle and upper classes tend to only notice poor folks after they get in the way. Whenever poor folks do get in the way, the typical response is to get them out of sight and out of mind as quickly as possible. So how do we build solidarity with our community's more fervent "go-getters"?
When conditions for working people in a particular community begin to degrade, the impact on main street businesses is almost immediate. Small business owners whose livelihood depends on the overall economic vitality of their community have a symbiotic relationship with others in the community. The vitality of the entire community is affected by the health of each of its participants.
We can juxtapose symbiotic, often healthy relationships between community members with the potentially parasitical and destructive relationships imposed on a community by entities that are not rooted in the community. The parasite could be a large corporation, major financial institution, big box store, criminal enterprise, agency of the Federal government, and so on. Because of their size and clout these large entities have the financial, political and legal wherewithal to move into a community to extract what they can get while giving back less than the value they extract.
For example, when Wal-Mart moves into a neighborhood, it drives many small businesses out. Much like the income disparity among individual earners--in which the top one percent takes 23.5% of the nation's income (the wealth gap is even worse, with the richest 1% of the American population owned 34.6% of the country's total wealth)--a relative handful of large corporations take a greater share of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) than the all of the nation's small businesses combined.
- We might ask ourselves...
- How are such high income and wealth disparities rationalized?
- What can possibly justify one person, like a CEO of a major corporation, getting paid 380 times what the typical employee earns?
- What does that high-earner, the one who is paid more every day than another earns each year, actually contribute?
- Is it appropriate to regard a force that manifests such gross disparity as a hostile force?
- If so, why would we invite such hostile forces into our communities to operate on their terms?
- Are we looking for economic salvation? If so, from what?
What We're Up Against
|| The American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated. In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed.
|— John Gray, "A shattering moment in America's fall from power"
Think Tanks: Paid to Tell You What to Think
Money has dominated politics in the United States since the nation's founding. But in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court, in their Citizens United decision, essentially guaranteed that big money would have a much freer hand in determining the outcome of U.S. elections. For instance, "Koch-related organizations plan to spend about $400 million ahead of the 2012 elections" trying "to defeat Obama, which is more than Senator John McCain spent on his entire 2008 campaign."
Over the past four decades, Right-wing "think tanks" and other pro-corporate front groups have so successfully "pushed an agenda that spread wealth at the top and insecurity below" that one of the genre's early innovators declared "mission accomplished" and closed up shop during president George W. Bush's second term. For those pushing pro-corporate, anti-democratic policy agendas the loss of one front group was little cause for deep concern; organizations pushing out a continual flood of right-wing propaganda have proliferated exponentially over recent decades.
One such corporate front group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), provides a useful case study. With nearly one-third of all sitting legislators, or more than 2,000 legislative members representing all 50 states in their pockets, ALEC shows the seriousness pro-corporate forces place on controlling the legislative behavior of each state to the fullest extent possible.
Hate The Government; Worship The State
Part of what stops us from acting in our own collective self-interest is the result of a massive campaign of social conditioning. For decades, Americans have withstood a relentless propaganda campaign to hate government but worship the state. Although a nation state and its government are synonymous in the minds of most folks, on closer examination, subtle distinctions emerge.
Rhetoric denouncing "big government" is frequent and often explicit. In contrast, state worship is encouraged by frequent appeals to patriotism (called "tribal nationalism" by at least one historian), and often manifests as fervent flag-waving, mindless jingoism, notions of "American exceptionalism" and the like.
What particular purpose is served in conditioning Americans to hate "big government" but worship a powerful state?
Government implies the existence of a governed people. A government organized as a democratic republic implies the existence of a citizenry endowed with the rights to control that government. For those who wield state power, citizen control is dangerous. For elites obsessed with control, the engaged citizen is an unwelcome interloper. A citizenry with dangerous ideas, like the right to direct control over its own government, might get out of hand.
In contrast to government of the people, by the people and for the people, a nation state implies a territorial authority endowed with power. Economic power. The power to make laws. The power to imprison. The power to make war. The power to kill. The state is a force too big to challenge. Alongside the small, weak citizen, the state is too important to fail.
The implied responsibility of the citizen of a powerful nation state is to pledge unwavering allegiance to that state. The state promises to "protect" the citizen in exchange for unquestioned loyalty. The highest duty of the loyal, allegiance-pledging and flag-waving citizen is to die while protecting state interests.
Organized Money vs. Disorganized People
A U.S. President, not known for idle chat, once claimed "the chief business of the American people is business." But which "American people" did president Coolidge ("Silent Cal") refer to? In fact, the chief business of American corporations is business. The primary motive is is profit.
In contrast to the narrow concerns of big business, the American people--like people everywhere--have a much wider variety of interests. Most folks want to live meaningful lives, raise their children is good neighborhoods, and have the wherewithal to take care of themselves and their families.
So why do corporate interests take precedence over all others?
A brief historical review of human civilizations reveals that in virtually every society throughout time a tiny group of elites find ways to gain and maintain control over everyone else. These elites enforce the rules that the rest of society must abide by. Groups of elites come and go, but the problem of the few maintaining control over the many persists.
Often the elites governing a society sink into such corruption that they become a menace to the people they control. The fascist regime that controlled Nazi Germany is just one of many examples of how terribly wrong things can go when elites go mad.
Sometimes a failing regime, after it loses all legitimacy, will fade away relatively quickly. The former Soviet Union is a perfect example. After a fairly brief period of Glasnost and Perestroika in the late 1980s and early '90s, the Soviet empire heaved its final gasp on December 25, 1991. A major superpower simply vanished from the world stage.
In September 2008 another dominant global order suddenly collapsed: global financial capitalism. Its collapse unleashed the greatest destruction of the global economy since the Great Depression. The calamity exposed this regime as a massive ideological and criminal fraud. But unlike the former Soviet Union, global financial capitalism refused to simply dry up and blow away.
Financial speculators have built an astoundingly lucrative global casino that provides them with unimaginable riches. An entire ecosystem of banks, insurance firms, pension funds, politicians, CEOs, corporate directors and others inhabit this global casino. The notion that the orgy of obscene profits it produces might come to an end is utterly unbearable to all of its players. The party must go on at all costs, no matter how many lives it snuffs out, regardless of all the communities it destroys. It must continue even if the entire living world is laid to waste.
Free Market Globalization
An anti-democratic economic and social order has "infested" a growing number of economies across the world. It's a "globalized" marketplace characterized by extraction, consumption, widening inequality and massive exploitation. "Resources" are extracted to the point of depletion, provoking continual social, political and environmental mayhem in the process. Billions of ordinary people are transformed into consumers of products and services, with each consumer heavily conditioned to feel an unquenchable thirst for "more." A relative handful of multinational corporate entities profit while countless humans and other living beings, and their habitats, are degraded or destroyed.
The fact that pro-corporate forces have captured virtually all major governments across the globe has unleashed profound consequences. They've brought an economic order variously characterized as "free-market capitalism," "neoliberalism," and "predatory capitalism." These "free-market" arrangements produce anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian and utterly ruthless social policies. As a result, predatory capitalism has become an existential threat to all living beings inhabiting our relentlessly persecuted planet. It's a threat that will not voluntarily go away or quietly begin to reform itself, although biospheric collapse might kill it.
A neo-feudal social order is taking shape as familiar historical trends reassert themselves: extreme wealth concentration; social, economic and political domination over societies by a tiny clique of "elites"; environmental degradation and collapse. Indeed, for much of the planet's human population, these conditions have never entirely gone away. Now in the "rich," developmentally "mature democracies" these chickens are coming back home to roost.
As wealth and control over resources concentrate into fewer and fewer hands, control over one's own economic livelihood rapidly evaporates. This creates a "race to the bottom" effect as growing numbers of economically imperiled people attempt to sustain themselves by any available means. As this wretched race (to the bottom) accelerates, it leaves leaves expanding human and environmental catastrophe in its wake.
A complex society striving to build and maintain any sort of healthy democracy relies on a number of primary institutions, including education, media, religious, legal, political, military and economic. If we judge the legitimacy of these institutions by their capacity to deliver the greatest benefits to the largest number of people, they are all failures.
For instance: instead of instilling a genuine desire to learn, schools teach pupils to passively accept a culture of rigid hierarchy, domination and control. Too many church "leaders" focus more energy on demonizing folks they've already damned rather imparting the universal principle of doing "to others what you would have them do to you." Doing so ensures that the "flock" is kept divided and conquered.
Foreign military invasions are perpetrated to gain geostrategic advantage or to pursue resource domination, actions that degrade the actual security of the "homeland." Legal systems are degraded to favor those with sufficient political and economic wherewithal to corrupt the law. Politicians, much like harlots, sell themselves to anyone ready and willing to pay. Economic systems are rigged to favor a tiny elite at the expense of everyone else.
It's instructive to look at our society's relationship with our major media. Major corporations have captured all of our primary media organizations. These are private companies that sell products to make a profit. They are not in the business of delivering vital information in order to serve the common good, especially if such information potentially threatens profits.
Put another way, we've allowed a handful of big businesses, motivated by profit and social control, to manage the information (including disinformation, propaganda, sales pitches and so on) we're exposed to. This is insane. Corporate-owned media companies have produced one of the most propagandized and heavily deluded societies the world has ever known.
- ↑ ECONOMIC AUSTERITY IN AMERICA: The Portland Community Begins to Fight Austerity
- ↑ Learning from the South: Participatory Budgeting Worldwide – an Invitation to Global Cooperation
- ↑ Participatory budgeting from Brazil to Britain: What can you learn for your local authority?
- ↑ Globalizing Participation: “Exporting” the Participatory Budgeting Model from Brazil to the Dominican Republic
- ↑ The Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Kit
- ↑ Tax Rates for the 2012 Tax Year
- ↑ 2012 HHS Poverty Guidelines
- ↑ 100 Million Americans Without Jobs
- ↑ What Kind of Job Creation Do We Need?
- ↑ How Many People Experience Homelessness?
- ↑ Kiss up, kick down
- ↑ The Invisible Poor
- ↑ Tapeworm Economics - Our economy has a negative return on investment
- ↑ The Wal-Mart You Don't Know - The giant retailer's low prices often come with a high cost. Wal-Mart's relentless pressure can crush the companies it does business with and force them to send jobs overseas. Are we shopping our way straight to the unemployment line?
- ↑ Share of the Nation’s Income Earned by the Top 1 Percent - The top 1 percent of American earners controls as much of the nation’s total income as it did on the eve of the Great Depression. Now, however, their money comes from skyrocketing paychecks more than from unearned income, as it did in 1928.
- ↑ Small Business GDP: Update 2002-2010
- ↑ CEO Pay and the 99% - CEO pay went up in 2011. Again.
- ↑ A shattering moment in America's fall from power - The global financial crisis will see the US falter in the same way the Soviet Union did when the Berlin Wall came down. The era of American dominance is over.
- ↑ Who Rules America: The Class-Domination Theory of Power
- ↑ GOP groups plan record $1 billion blitz
- ↑ The Quiet Coup d’Etat
- ↑ Goals Reached, Donor on Right Closes Up Shop
- ↑ Resources For Studying Right-Wing Funding and Policy-Making
- ↑ Business and Environmental Policy: Corporate Interests in the American Political System - "Moreover, in recent years, nationally based organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provide direct assistance to state legislators and firms eager to minimize any state government engagement in environmental protection." 
- ↑ A Novel Form of Government: Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism
- ↑ The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia - How America's biggest banks took part in a nationwide bid-rigging conspiracy - until they were caught on tape
- ↑ Capitalism: A Ghost Story - Rockefeller to Mandela, Vedanta to Anna Hazare.... How long can the cardinals of corporate gospel buy up our protests?
From Article: Each new corruption scandal that surfaces in India makes the last one look tame. In the summer of 2011, the 2G spectrum scandal broke. We learnt that corporations had siphoned away $40 billion of public money by installing a friendly soul as the Union minister of telecommunication who grossly underpriced the licences for 2G telecom spectrum and illegally parcelled it out to his buddies. The taped telephone conversations leaked to the press showed how a network of industrialists and their front companies, ministers, senior journalists and a TV anchor were involved in facilitating this daylight robbery.
- ↑ The Global Financial Crisis and After: A New Capitalism?
- ↑ The Violence of Financial Capitalism
- ↑ Video: Russia's Neoliberal infestation just another face of evil- a destructive force "Russian faux Left" bit.ly/ytXBaA
- ↑ BIOSPHERE COLLAPSE, not “Climate Change”.
- ↑ NeoLiberalism and the Counter-Enlightenment: The Counter-Enlightenment, its Economic Program – and the Classical Alternative
- ↑ Tariq Ali on riots in England: Why here and now?; Neoliberalism’s chickens coming home to roost
- ↑ Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty
- ↑ The United States: An Impoverished, Delusional Society
* ↑ The material beginning with Building a Unified, Grassroots Movement is currently under development. The views expressed belong to Dave Myers and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Community Assembly organizers.
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