By Shea Howell
August 21, 2016
Democracy has always been more of an idea than a reality in America. Still, this election year reflects some of the worst aspects of our history. Full-throated campaign speeches spew hate, uttering comments once whispered sheepishly in private conversations. Corporate money flows, fostering cynicism.
But focusing on electoral politics misses the far more sinister efforts afoot to destroy democracy. This election is only one small piece of a larger, counter revolutionary effort to reassert white supremacy, refashion political processes to benefit private interests, and consolidate wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller minority.
It took the long, hard fought battles of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Women’s movements to push America closer to a country of, by, and for the people. These movements focused sustained effort on reshaping the political processes outlined in the US Constitution. That document originally legalized the idea that liberty for white men meant slavery, dispossession, and dehumanization for people of color, Indians, women, immigrants, and poor people. It was not about democracy, but economic liberty. But from the very beginning, people fought to expand whose lives mattered and to take responsibility for the direction of our country.
In response, the forces of counter-revolution have asserted themselves, finding new ways to control, distort, and destroy those who seek a world of justice, peace, and communities rooted in respect for life and love.
In Michigan these tactics of distortion and control are being refined on several fronts beyond voting. Over the last four decades, we have witnessed right wing legislators using economic sanctions to create crises, especially in cities reflecting African American and progressive political power. These crises become a pretext for setting aside all normal democratic processes and all effective local governmental controls. The Emergency Manager laws in Michigan, applied to both school districts and municipal governments, have been directly responsible for the dismantling of public education, the shifting of public functions to private corporations, and the poisoning of the people of Flint. They have disenfranchised more than 50% of African American voters.
At the same time processes central to advancing direct democracy are undermined. The right to petition has been attacked. Everything from the font size to the methods of certification has been challenged. Counter petitions, using the same language are routinely introduced to confuse voters. Legislation is crafted to reverse the will of the people and to preclude further petition efforts.
Actions, initiated by people at the city level are made “illegal” by these same right wing legislators. Catching rain water, making honey, and limits on developers who use public money are all targets for state actions.
Courts are no better. They wrap themselves in procedural maneuvers so that those who take action against unjust laws are mired in years of court-delayed rules. Currently the 9 people arrested for blocking water shut off trucks have spent more time awaiting a trial, than the city spent in the bankruptcy process. The people who dared paint “Free the Water” on a defunct water tower face felony charges, while the police officers who shot a young girl sleeping on her couch walk the streets.
Democracy, as constructed by the power elites, is increasingly reduced to “managed engagement.”
Yet across the country, the energy for a different America is clearly emerging. It is emerging in neighborhoods, community gardens, cooperative businesses, and artist projects as people struggle together to make decisions about their lives.
Drawing on many of these community based experiences, the Movement 4 Black Lives has issued a broad vision to transform our country. Taking up the call of for a radical revolution in values against racism, materialism, and militarism, this vision reflects a renewed commitment to authentic democracy. Rooted in intense collaborative discussion and debate, it reflects the kind of community driven democracy that is emerging across the country as people create new ways of living together. Democracy is evolving in ways that cannot be as easily controlled as the ballot box. This is our best hope.