On rhetoric and strategy in social justice and leftist spaces.

I happened upon a piece of rhetorical analysis by Stephen D’Arcy written in January that examined the differences between social justice activists in what people call the New Left era (1960s through the early 1970s) and today. The gist of the article is that the language used by contemporary leftists departs from that used in the New Left era in three ways: the shift from the systemic to the interpersonal; the shift from the collective/community to the specific; and the shift from the quest for an ultimate victory over oppressive ideologies and behaviors to the challenge of mitigating everyday impacts, or microaggressions in today’s parlance, of those ideologies. It is an amazing piece of writing and I suggest that folks check it out for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

D’Arcy invites the reader to do just that, and in that spirit, I have some relatively brief observations (a brief blog post from me; shocking, I know!): Continue reading

He Also Ran: A post-mortem on my first run for public office.

I had not intended on running for any political office in Alabama. Why would I? I am a relative newcomer to the state, my political roots are elsewhere, and the prospect would have been difficult enough as a pretend socialist, to say nothing of being a real one. But as 2013 continued to unfold and I watched the Alabama Democratic Party lurch from screwup to screwup, I started to give the idea more thought.

“I mean, it ain’t like I would have to campaign campaign. I would simply place my name on the ballot, create a design for ‘signs’, and see where it takes me. And it’s a run for the State Democratic Executive Committee; how hard can that be?”

Anyone that knows me could tell you that this sort of minimalist thinking was not bound to last very long. But nevertheless, on January 28th, I announced that I was in it to win it:

After I decided to run, I thought I needed to try recruiting a team of progressives and young folks to run along with me. So I went to College Democrats meetings and tried to give as fiery a speech as I possibly could to get people motivated to join me on the June ballot. I ended up recruiting three other young Democrats to run for seats in either Tuscaloosa or their home counties and, after collecting their $50 filing fee and paperwork, I headed off to the state party headquarters in Montgomery to officially file the paperwork to run.

The paperwork that I filed on February 6th to run for the SDEC.

The paperwork that I filed on February 6th to run for the SDEC.

My brief time spent at headquarters crystallized all the reasons I had decided to run in the first place.

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This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Why anywhere is better than Birmingham for DNC 2016.

When one thinks of Alabama, what comes to mind first? Is it the Civil Rights Movement, which made the state ground zero for its organizing efforts? Is it that movement’s most recognizable leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is it The University of Alabama or Auburn, which holds a combined 17 national championships in Division I-A football? Is it the steel mills that once served as the backbone of the state’s industrial power, or the space and rocket research that we are known for now? Maybe it is the musical tradition of this state, with natives like Lionel Richie, Percy Sledge, and Hank Williams, Sr.?

Nah. If you are a liberal or some other sort of left-leaning individual, Alabama is probably known first and foremost as one of the most conservative states in the Union. After electing Republican governors for most of the previous two decades, Alabamans helped House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn), along with Senate counterpart Del Marsh (R-Anniston), storm the statehouse in 2010. That election gave the Republicans near total control of state government, with a supermajority in both houses and nearly all the statewide constitutional offices. In 2012, the defeat of former Lieutenant Governor and then-President of the Public Service Commission Lucy Baxley meant that there were no longer any Democrats holding statewide office in Alabama. And while there has not been any polling on the gubernatorial race here, it is safe to say that Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has this pretty well locked up. He will likely be assisted by the fact that, for the first time in Alabama history, there will be no Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. That’s right: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who became one of only two nominees for the federal bench since the Depression to be blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, will sail into his fourth term without even so much as a campaign.

The situation is pretty damn ugly for Alabamans on the Left. But news came through today that put smiles on many a Democrat’s face today: Birmingham is one of the six finalists to host the Democratic National Convention in 2016. This would seem to be great news. As the mayor’s chief of staff put it, “You have to look at Denver pre and post-convention, Charlotte, pre and post-convention, and then you’ll get a sense of what it means to a city in terms of economic impact and pride to those who live, work and play in those cities. And then there’s the impact that you can’t measure. It has both short-term and long-term effect.”

Who could pass up an opportunity to go after something like that? Positive economic benefits in the short- and long-term! A shot in the arm to Democrats across the Yellowhammer State! A commitment to make a play for the South!

This sounds fantastic! And yet here I am, proceeding to write about why Birmingham would be, in the words of Alabama native and never-was candidate for governor Charles Barkley, a TURRRRRRIBLE decision to host the DNC in 2016. Continue reading

School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

(This piece originally appeared at Hack The Union.)

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

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Power of the People: Remembering Senator Martin Nesbitt

I didn’t know him personally, but I had watched and listened to him. And I was moved. In a time when complacency and silence plagues much of mainstream political discourse, even in public service capacities, I had always been moved to listen to Sen. Martin Nesbitt speak. Not only did he speak, but also people listened in my home state of North Carolina. In a time where we are still fighting against the stereotypes associated with using a southern accent, he did not hide his drawl.  As I think about how quickly and what a shock his illness and death occurred, I continue to return to Joan Didion’s words in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

While life certainly changes fast, one thing that will steadily stay in my mind about Sen. Nesbitt is his work for keeping the people, the grassroots, at the forefront of the political and policy conversations for my state. He made strong statements in the North Carolina General Assembly during points when it would be easy to be silent, to feel silenced, to feel like it would do no good. Yet, he did not forget to speak up and speak up loudly. He will be missed. As I think about the upcoming elections and moving North Carolina forward, not just in a “is this candidate electable” way but in a “is this candidate electable AND gives a damn” way, I think about Sen. Nesbitt’s work; I hope that we carry his work with us as we press forward.

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Rest In Power: A Remembrance of Chokwe Lumumba

When it comes to politics and policy, I would not consider myself to be a particularly cynical person. Far from it actually; my faith in the power of social movements and grassroots change would not be as strong as it is if I did not hold to the notion that we will see an ultimate victory over the inequalities and oppressions that plague our society. I believe in people, and I believe in communities.

However, it would be accurate to assume that I do not have much faith in politicians or the political parties from which they emanate. I am, after all, old enough to remember a Barack Obama who said that he would walk a picket line as President and repeatedly affirmed his support for a public healthcare option. The breadth of politics today has become a game of Team Blue vs. Team Red, and opposition is based less on ideas than the jersey you wear when you take the court. After all, if it were a Republican Congress and President that had signed a bill that slashed food assistance for low-income families, funded the government on the backs of government employees, and ended unemployment benefits that are still necessary in a sluggish economy, many of the Democratic cheerleaders for “bipartisanship” and “compromise” would be a bit more muted in their praise.

So suffice it to say that when a city councilman named Chokwe Lumumba announced that he was running to be the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city, I was skeptical. Having met Chokwe through her work at the ACLU of Mississippi, my wife told me that he was a legit radical. As I looked him up, that much became evident: student radical who once occupied buildings at Western Michigan University in protest of the paucity of Black faculty; former second Vice President of the Republic of New Afrika; founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; and the lawyer for the Scott Sisters. There was no doubt that this was a person who went the extra mile for his community. Yet as I observed his campaign, I came to the same conclusion that I am sure a lot of other people came to:

He won’t win.

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How The UAW Lost Chattanooga.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

“Neutrality should mean ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit’ not ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit as long as you use the outhouse’” -Brett Banditelli

There is no question that the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) failure to organize at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN is significant. It is the first time UAW has brought a strategic campaign targeting the so-called “transplant” automakers to a National Labor Relations Board ballot since it lost to Nissan in 2001.* Secondly, it is the UAW’s first new campaign in the South since that crushing loss. Thirdly, this election was touted as a new model by both VW executives and UAW leadership, seeking to create a “works council” at the plant in Tennessee similar to ones in existence at every other VW plant. More on that last point later.

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