I was there . . .
by Michael "Med-o" Whitson, 2004
Originally published in The Political Edge
The Goddess of Political Lying flies with a huge Looking-glass in her hands to dazzle the Crowd, and make them see, according as she turns it, their Ruin in their Interest, and their Interest in their Ruin.
I was walking down the street and saw a woman in the distance pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. She seemed very agitated. I drew nearer and heard her screaming to no one in particular, “I married a fucking faggot!” I was put off by both the comment and her unpredictable rage. “That’s right, my husband is a fucking faggot! You don’t want to hear me, do you? I’m fat and ugly and you don’t want to hear me!” I actually didn’t think she was either fat or ugly, just a slightly overweight, kinda trailer-trash, thirty-something, white woman. Except for her venomous use of language, she didn’t appear much different from many of my family’s friends that I knew growing up in a small logging town in rural Washington. But it was clear she was crazed, acting out in public, simultaneously out of place and quite at home on the streets of San Francisco.
What made this scene particularly surreal was that it was happening directly in front of my neighborhood polling station during the special gubernatorial recall election of October 2003. I was temporarily dazed by her wild behavior and stopped about thirty feet away from her and the entrance to the polls.
Why was I voting, anyway? Mostly to vote against the collective entity called “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” It seemed so wrong, the Republican power grab to oust Gray Davis and replace him with Arnold. This seemed an incorrect use of the recall mechanism. But why? It was easy to despise Gray Davis on political grounds. He loved killing people; he loved prisons and the prison guard union; he had recently arranged a sleazy, behind-the-scenes, sweetheart deal with energy corporations to “solve” California’s energy “crisis.” Finally, I trusted his milquetoast, perma-smile about as much as a psychic surgeon’s sleight-of-hand substitution of chicken livers for the supposed toxic organs extracted from a cancer patient. Like most of his predecessors, Davis certainly deserved to be recalled . . . but wait . . . no . . . not in this way . . . not by Arnold!
My philosophical quandary and political stupor were suddenly shattered by renewed raging from the impromptu election greeter in front of the polling place. Again she screamed, “I married a faggot.” (Then louder) “I fucked Arnold!” (Even louder) “I gave Arnold herpes!! I gave Arnold genital warts!!!!” She was now in a full, bellowing rage.
This last outburst made it clear. I should stop standing around pondering dilemmas and just go in and vote, damn it! It was both hilarious and tragic to witness the larger insanity of society being transmitted through the emotional antennae of someone over the edge of madness. This realization forced me to respond to a more immediate dilemma. Should I piss my pants laughing or, with equal misgivings, empathize with an inspired nutcase quite off her rocker? Feeling confused by either response, I decided to vote instead. So I marched in and voted “no” on the recall even though it seemed a meaningless gesture. Frankly (and with embarrassment) I have to admit that being inside the polling station felt a lot less compelling than being outside on the street. The entire time I was voting, I was looking forward to more of the unique free speech outside. Sadly, by the time I emerged, the woman was being forcefully shoved into a police car. As they drove her away, I could see her reddened face pressed against the window. She was screaming so loudly I could hear her passionate protestations piercing through the rolled-up windows, “It was me; I groped Arnold! God damn it, I groped Arnold!”
Less than a month later, I was back at the same polling place for San Francisco’s mayoral election. Although a lot less surreal, this time another unsettling incident occurred. Two young women in their early twenties ahead of me inside the voting room gave their names to the first of three election workers sitting at the table containing the voter roll and ballots. Neither could be found on the voter roll. When questioned, each assured the election workers that they had indeed registered to vote (for the first time ever) about a week ahead of the deadline for voter registration. Although I didn’t confirm this, it seemed obvious by their youth, appearance, and the fact they were residents of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that they were almost certainly there to vote for Matt Gonzalez of the Green Party for mayor. It also seemed very likely that this was the only reason they had registered to vote. So it came as a great shock when they were told they were not on the voter roll. One of them said with considerable concern to the election workers, “I really want to vote. What should I do?” There was not an immediate consensus among the workers about the proper procedure to follow. One hesitantly suggested, “Maybe the best thing to do is to fill out a provisional ballot?” The young woman replied even more earnestly, “Are you sure . . . are you sure my vote will count then?” No one in the room replied with easy authority or confidence to her query.
It then dawned on me that the two women were probably in the wrong polling place and that their names would be on the voter roll at the polls across the street. In the previous election I went to the same polling place I had gone to in every election for the last fourteen years only to find out I had been reassigned. I informed them of what had happened to me and suggested they go across the street where their names should be on the voter roll. This explanation evoked a big sigh of relief from the election workers as well as the two women, resolutely determined to vote in their first election. They walked out with a renewed buoyancy and determination in their steps.
These two seemingly unrelated anecdotes reflect a split deep within my political psyche. The mad barker in front of the polls perversely expresses a politics of enragement. The first-time voters conversely exemplify a politics of engagement. Together they illuminate opposite poles in the contradiction called “participatory representative democracy.” The internal contradiction generated by a system fundamentally based on representation while also promoting full participation breeds a crazy political schizophrenia. The ensuing conflicts between representative and participatory impulses lead to gnarly psycho-political dilemmas.
A primary conflict arises between electoral politics and citizen direct action. Electoral politics, because it is rooted in a structure of representation, acts as a brake on grassroots social power. Unmediated participation through direct action threatens to become irrational, dangerous, uncontrollable. This is precisely why the aristocratic architects of American democracy created representative institutions. These institutions act first to suppress and then to mediate direct interventions of passion, rage, riots, strikes, and protests. Such unmediated political participation is contagious unless systems of social control act to curb it. Totalitarian rule is the crudest form of such control. Representative democracy is a more sophisticated and deceptive structure to manage impulses of social outrage. On the surface, it offers an alternative that appears more sane, rational, and egalitarian—the rule of law and equality over the rule of mob and might. The lived reality, of course, is much different.
I feel much more alive as a citizen, much more of a participant by cocreating collective political power at open, public protests. At the core of such acts of resistance and civil disobedience is a personal enragement about social injustice. This is where I most identify with the mad barker in front of the polls going off on Arnold. My biggest concern about acting from political rage is that I will end up like her—hauled off by the police spouting the occasional insight lost amid an avalanche of inspired ravings my fellow citizens regard as utter nonsense. Fear of police violence and imprisonment in response to public protest plays a crucial role in strengthening the popularity of electoral politics. Authorities stigmatize grassroots direct action as crazy and counterproductive. Voting is safer. Voting is fairer. Voting is civilized.
There is widespread confusion among Americans about enjoying the equal right but not the equal ability to participate in elections. This confusion helps sustain the legitimacy of American representative democracy. All citizens eighteen and over (with the exception of convicted felons in some states) have the right to vote, to run for office, to sponsor referenda, to freely circulate their political opinions, and so forth. These are all important democratic rights that theoretically should produce both the opportunity and conditions for political equality. But something very different has happened. The goal of political equality has been subverted by the overarching influences of money and corporate media in determining election outcomes. Coupled with regressive cultural tendencies toward celebrity worship, spectacle, and submission to authority (especially paternal authority keen to manufacture and manipulate public fear), the practice of democracy has taken a serious wrong turn. Any credible notion of broad political equality can’t even pass the laugh test today. Yet the ideology of political equality remains strong.
The principle of one person/one vote as the bedrock of democracy is a profoundly egalitarian one. But American democracy didn’t start on that premise. It has taken all 200+ years to expand the right to vote to all citizens equally. After legalized slavery was ended during the Civil War and the suffrage movement gained the right for women to vote in 1920, America seemed poised to enjoy universal democratic equality. But as the Florida debacle of 2000 showed, even the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has not yet guaranteed the equal right to vote to thousands of African Americans. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the trajectory of American democracy is toward universal suffrage.
The popular acceptance of voting as the culminating moment of democratic participation has always felt false to me. So much so, during the 1992 national election, I helped promote a “National Day of Mourning” that asked citizens to take an additional step beyond the duty to vote. The event encouraged citizens, whether they voted or not, to gather outside of polling places to wail, shake, wring their hands, and so on, as a public ceremony of political impotence. It was a visceral counterpoint to voting as a satisfying expression of political participation, pointedly asking, “Is this the best we can do?” “Isn’t it pathetic that this is what we accept as good citizenship?”
Because the winners of elections do exert real political power, I engage in elections and voting. Here, my deeper dread is that after all the electoral hoopla is stripped away, I’m really in the same predicament as the first-time voters mentioned earlier. Trapped inside a Kafkaesque nightmare, I can only wander from one polling place to another searching for my name on the voter rolls, hoping that my vote will be counted. Even if it is counted, I will be haunt-ed by its likely irrelevance. Will it make any difference at all? How am I supposed to derive meaning from this act?
Apparently, I am not alone in these concerns. Over the last three decades Americans have increasingly stopped voting. There are no longer national elections in which even 50% of potential voters go to the polls. What would have been an unacceptable crisis prior to Watergate goes unnoticed today. An unacknowledged crisis of legitimacy, however, neither sees a problem nor demands change. There is no broad, articulated recognition that American democracy is based on a big lie; that despite its stated values electoral politics does not create, much less allow, a level playing field; that the way economics and class power relations shape election outcomes makes a mockery of democracy; that for most working-class, poor, and marginalized citizens neither voting nor meeting with their elected representatives has any realistic impact on improving their lives. Instead, experts blame the decline in voting on alienated voters, apathetic citizens, and lazy, self-absorbed people happy to enjoy the privileges of democracy—American style—without the responsibilities. While such a view may be warranted in some instances, it is a fundamental error to blame individual failings as the source for an ongoing disenchantment with voting.
Such naïve perceptions are less accepted as you travel south from U.S. borders. A 2004 report on Latin America by the United Nations Development Program reveals widespread distrust of representative democracy. Over 18,000 citizens from eighteen nations stretching from Mexico to Argentina generated harsh critiques of their relatively new experience with democracy. All the nations had emerged from unrepresentative one-party states or repressive military rule over the last twenty-five years. Yet 55% of the citizen respondents across all class lines said they would give up democratic government if it would result in greater economic equality and benefits. Despite gains in civil liberties after the demise of dictatorship, most Latin American democracies have not resulted in equal protection before the law, much less a better economic life for average citizens. Instead, intense social friction has resulted when the “right” of political equality rubs up against the lack of movement toward economic equality. The UN report’s director, Argentina’s former foreign minister Dante Caputo, summarized it this way: Latin Americans wonder “why a system that is virtually a synonym for equality exists side by side with the highest level of inequality in the world.” When was the last time you heard an American offer such a sharp critique of representative democracy? American criticism rarely attacks the institutions of representative democracy. Instead it proposes ameliorative reforms: get big money out of politics; institute campaign finance reform; or create a viable third party. Public discourse gets sidetracked from a deeper vision of equality and democracy.
The fundamental issues that I care about are categorically excluded from any sane engagement with electoral politics—for example, abolishing the buying and selling of human time; dismantling the war economy; private profit; the false scarcity that prevents basic food, housing, and health care for all; a culture of civility that values the arts (especially the art of conflict, inevitable in a complex, multitendency society). These and other core issues are completely off limits within the narrow discourse that candidates, pollsters, and “voters” consider realistic and worthwhile. My experiences of social power are maximized outside of elections where I have developed a practice of grassroots direct action and confrontational politics.
When I vote, it is predominantly a defensive act to prevent a worse candidate or popular initiative from gaining political power. I believe that politicians, parties, and their policies do not lead toward progressive change but rather follow when forced by successful confrontational movements to do so. The system that politicians inhabit is so inherently corrupt and reformist that positive change only occurs when confrontational movements raise social costs so high that it becomes smarter (and cheaper!) to change policies than to keep fighting the opposition.
An important exception to these assumptions occurs where citizens engage with local government. Although rare, here it is possible for citizens to work in concert with a responsive elected official and collectively express grassroots political power. When San Francisco readopted district elections for the Board of Supervisors in 1999, the normal, dominating influence of money and advertising in determining winning candidates was disrupted. As opposed to citywide supervisors, district elections created a smaller, more directly responsive system where candidates could campaign face to face with their constituents. This creates the potential for much greater accountability. The critical mass of money, media, and spectacle that routinely determines electoral outcomes and renders grassroots participation irrelevant exerts much less influence in these decentralized district elections. But at the larger municipal, state, and federal levels such antidemocratic forces are usually unstoppable.
Democracy and the Economy
Economic forces widely perceived by ordinary citizens as being nonpolitical undercut the principles of egalitarian democracy. Much in the same way that “the separation of church and state” has functioned as a compelling ideology within American democracy, the (false) “separation of economics and democracy” has served to bolster the illusion of political equality. Economic influences supposedly external to democracy (such as enormous fund-raising operations and advertising expenditures) have become an absolute requirement for running a successful election campaign. Presidential elections now start two years before the actual election in what is known as “The Money Primary,” where candidates jockey to raise the most money for the approaching campaigns. The blatant antidemocratic impact of these class-weighted economic practices mostly goes uncontested by the citizenry. It is class blindness and a strong, shared belief in the egalitarian ethos of one person/one vote that allows the body politic to tolerate the corrupting power of such anti-democratic, economic forces upon free elections.
The underlying force driving this subversion of democracy arises from the inherent inequalities produced by capital-ism. As the twentieth-century American cultural historian C. Wright Mills succinctly put it: “Politically equality is not possible as long as there is economic inequality.” Unless you can deliver a lot of money or votes, your ability to democratically “participate” is quite constricted. In this way, an individual’s ability to express political power is governed by forces that are in no way democratic. We are not all on an even playing field, despite the rhetoric, when class relations and economic power are excluded in the calculus of democracy. But the civil right to participate on an equal basis is guaranteed. Herein lies the confusing contradiction that allows American democracy to be widely accepted by its own citizens as the fairest and best of all possible systems in spite of its blatant bias toward the wealthy and their interests. The largest blocs of capital manage the “electoral economy” to support the candidates and causes that reflect their interests. Class position largely determines which candidates have the connections and can marshal the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. Apart from a small but slowly growing movement to repeal “corporate personhood,” there is no popular debate to radically restructure democracy that incorporates both political and economic changes.
Maybe it is time to look backward in order to move forward. Revolutionary America was galvanized by the slogan “No Taxation without Representation!” What might the current update be? “No Representation without Participation” expresses a lively contradiction itself. It places primacy on empowered participation while recognizing that in a large, complex society it is neither possible nor desirable for each citizen to be intimately involved in the making of every single microdecision. Not everyone wants to be involved in deciding whether a stop sign should be placed at the intersection in front of my house. We all, however, should be able to participate in the bigger decisions that significantly affect our lives (for example, decide how our shared collective wealth is allocated; what percentage of taxes should go to schools versus prisons, and so on.) A practical tension occurs between the tremendous number of relatively unimportant microdecisions and the much fewer but very important macrodecisions that need to be made. This tension generates the basic argument for representative democracy, that we need a division of labor even in our self-government.
Imagine a democracy that included more than voting on specific referenda or candidates to represent us. As it is, American democracy gives us no voice; no way to participate equally in the larger decisions of our economic lives. Supposedly, the invisible hand of the marketplace cultivates free choice among the jobs, products, and services avail-able to all. This is pure fiction of course, as large blocs of capital systematically design and manipulate the markets and jobs that we get to choose from. Our class status, as well, largely determines the jobs we can get and what we can buy.
Nowhere within the current American ideology of democracy and free choice is there a process to collectively de-bate and make choices about the economy and the work we do in it. Public decisionmaking regarding the overall design of economic production and ensuing work processes is completely absent from our conception of democratic practice. Imagine expanding the notion of democratic practice to ask and answer these two basic questions:
Imagine a world in which such decisions were seen as inalienable, democratic rights. Imagine that our role as producers and citizens was to design and direct our economy—as opposed to the abstraction called “the Economy.” The current core inequalities in representative democracy cannot be remedied through reforms (like campaign finance laws) applied only to the electoral system. The most important step toward creating authentic political equality requires making radical changes far beyond the electoral arena. It is only by first eliminating the inequities of the larger economic system that the conditions for genuine political equality can emerge. Currently, such thinking is completely absent from public discourse regarding democracy. That absence underscores an even greater problem inherent to representative democracy.
“Real” versus “Felt” Social Power
“Real” grassroots social power occurs when people collectively resist repressive institutions and policies and the force of this resistance creates positive changes in the objective conditions of life. The civil rights and anti–Vietnam war movements are well-known recent examples of this in the U.S. Real power is wielded when the reproduction of existing power is successfully challenged. Essential elements of this reproduction are: 1) accumulation of capital; 2) control of social institutions; 3) definition of social norms; 4) claiming of public space; 5) directing the collective imagination and climate of ideas.
“Felt” social power is a less measurable, more problematic phenomenon. It is the belief and perceived experience that purposeful citizen action will result in positive change. It can “feel” powerful to militantly march in the streets with thousands of others. It can also “feel” powerful to vote for an insurgent candidacy that might win. Such felt power starts with desire; specifically the desire to resist the injustices of the status quo and create a better world. This is a necessary but insufficient precursor to the development of real social power. Although important, simply acting on the collective desire for progressive change will not by itself improve objective conditions. This desire and action must be wedded with political contestation in which citizens leverage their collective power to force change upon an entrenched system actively opposing it.
Direct grassroots confrontation often can move from felt to real social power since it is not mediated by a system of representation. Electoral politics not only blocks such movement; it functions to encourage a false sense of felt power. Such false projection often percolates up from a cultural reservoir of unmet yearnings for social transformation. Whether it is Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, or Matt Gonzalez, there is always some candidate who symbolizes the great, unmet hope for truth and justice among progressives. It is both sad and cruel how such yearnings are hoisted upon candidates that either can’t be elected or won’t be able to deliver even if they are. Relinquishing our individual power to leaders and elected officials in the hope that they will fairly “represent” our interests leads to recurrent disappointment.
Unresponsive representation was on stark display in early 2003. Despite massive, spirited demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world opposing the proposed U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration summarily dismissed these protests. Many U.S. and Bay Area antiwar activists encouraged by the large, broad-based turnout against a military invasion then had to face the political impotence of these actions. The intensity of global and domestic protests aimed at preventing a war before it even happened was unprecedented both in its grassroots strength and its failure to change public policy.
The twenty-first century so far has been particularly unkind to U.S. citizens working for progressive change. The Bush administration’s skillful manipulation of 9/11 and public fear has provided fertile ground for the worst fascistic tendencies by both government and the citizenry. A deadening call and response of Terrorism/Security has been invoked with a vengeance. The resulting cultural climate has been a disaster for lovers of freedom. It has left many of us depressed, confused, and looking for something hopeful.
Grassroots direct action is by no means immune to a false sense of felt power. When you are a participant in a spirited, mass protest it is easy (perhaps even natural) to inflate the felt power of that moment. This is especially so when we are hungry for hope. Being a veteran of large direct-action resistance for nearly three decades, I have experienced this over and over. For participants in the antiwar movement(s), especially since 1991, virtually unchecked warmongering by the U.S. military must at least raise some doubts about the usefulness of our actions. At its worst, false inflations of grassroots power go completely unexamined. Direct action can become self-referential, self-important, moralistic, and cultlike. Then the logic of activism for the sake of activism can result in robotic-like protests that may appear militant but have little social meaning outside of an earnest subculture of participants. This is particularly troubling, when in conversations with activists at direct action protests (or the meetings to plan or evaluate such actions) there is no interest or time for political theory or history. More often, there is a strong subcultural bias against such “intellectual” diversions. Like the Nike commercial, for increasing numbers of direct-action protestors, “just do it” has become an operating credo that eclipses the inclusion of theory or history as part of the action in activism. (This should come as no surprise from a culture that popularly elected a body builder/action hero as the governor of the nation’s most populous state.) Just-do-it activists are too busy to let critical discourse get in the way of the urgent need for immediate activist response. This is a breeding ground for inflated, felt social power. Resistance, however well intentioned, that is primarily rooted in immediacy and (re)action is often politically shortsighted. The resulting blurry vision obscures the value that critical historical perspective or a broad-based cultural frame of reference can contribute toward developing successful strategies and tactics.
It is difficult to evaluate the full impact of “felt” grassroots power. Even when objective conditions don’t improve as a result of a protest or movement, there can still be an increase in public awareness. Sometimes that awareness con-tributes to future progressive change. Other times, there is no positive change in popular consciousness or a competing reactionary ideology enjoys more potency instead. The integrated system of capitalism and representative democracy is incredibly resilient and adaptive. When it can’t effectively suppress grassroots power, it tries to integrate and control it. Fortunately, empowered citizens sometimes collectively create a very different outcome.
The Dynamic Movement from Felt to Real Social Power
The experience of authentic grassroots social power is thrilling for most people. How and when it becomes “real” social power is a complex, dialectical process that can’t be reduced to a simple formula. I remember thinking in November 1999 as I was leaving San Francisco to go to the anti-WTO (World Trade Organization) protests in Seattle how this would probably be yet another one of those large protests with no discernable impact. I was never so happy to be so wrong! After years of radical somnambulism in America, a powerful culture of resistance finally asserted itself again. Prior to this uprising, you would have been considered a raving lunatic for professing that effective protest would emerge in the U.S. amid an unprecedented pro-capitalist, economic boom. Yet it erupted that week in Seattle and galvanized a savvy international, grassroots attack upon the WTO both from outside and within the organization. Up until then, the WTO had been a pernicious global capitalist institution on the offensive and taking no prisoners. Nearly six years later it has not recovered and is still defensively floundering; its latest failure was in Cancún in September 2003.
A crucial component of creating real social power is reclaiming public space. Whether at the workplace, on a bus, or in the street, the making and taking of public space is vital. San Francisco’s decade-long Critical Mass bicycle actions illustrate a unique way of claiming public space. It is a monthly, open gathering of 1,000 to 5,000 bicyclists who ride together through the streets of downtown San Francisco. This mass of bicyclists reverses the usual power relations on the street, overturning the norm where they are at the mercy of dominant, dangerous automobile traffic. Instead, automobiles have to wait for bicyclists riding en masse as they create safer and more pleasant conditions not possible in normal traffic. It is an act of resistance as well as a highly visible demonstration of a less polluting, more enjoyable transportation alternative. The palpable experience of felt social power is profound, at least on those streets in those moments. How this alters objective conditions is difficult to gauge. Critical Mass defines itself as a cultural gathering rather than a political action. It has no specific demands. It has no leaders. Yet its mere presence has created a momentum and legitimacy for politicians to try to offer some kind of tangible policy or benefit to this potential constituency. It uniquely expresses social power for participants and observers. Seizing public space in a society that has largely eliminated it in favor of commodity exchange and the banal daily movement from home to work to shopping is in itself a vital assertion of social power.
Perhaps Critical Mass’s greatest expression of real grassroots power has been its spontaneous appearance across the world. It spread to hundreds of cities on five continents. In San Francisco, authorities have been unable to prevent or even control the event despite attempts to do so. It has been unstoppable even when then-mayor Willie Brown in July 1997 orchestrated a concerted media campaign against Critical Mass and instructed the S.F. Police Department to shut it down. The authorities simply couldn’t devise a strategy to control a leaderless, decentralized, highly mobile mass that improvised on the fly without a pre-planned route and that could spontaneously break into splinter groups and just as spontaneously regroup later. The publicity against it and the massive police presence to control it completely backfired. The grassroots response was a larger, more militant turnout than ever before.
There are many more traditional ways collective direct action can catalyze positive changes in objective conditions. The most profound occur when mass movements successfully contest and change both social attitudes and public policies. The women’s suffrage movement and the later civil rights and feminist movements are prime examples of altering oppressive attitudes and repressive laws to expand basic human rights. U.S. history is full of strikes and protests contesting workplace exploitation. The humane reduction of the standard workday and week to eight hours a day and 40 hours a week was a result of ongoing strikes and public protests throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This is an example of felt social power that took decades to become real. Workers felt they had the right to work less and enjoy life more; activists felt this was a popular view; and an oppositional movement felt that through concerted strikes and protests working people could force business to accept their demands. These felt desires only became real as people persistently protested and were successful at forcing public acceptance. The crucial leverage here was literally striking at the point of production. When workers strike business is disrupted and loses money. Even when they aren’t on strike, disgruntled workers can be less productive and more disruptive until their demands are met. At a certain point business realized it was smarter and cheaper to give in than to keep fighting. Still, it took decades of protracted struggle to finally get the 8-hour day, 40-hour week broadly accepted. The value of radical persistence and patience seems forgotten today in our culture of sound bites and immediate results. It is important to remember that it took over eighty years from the initial protests of the ANC until the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa.
Radical persistence and patience shape our approach to social change. Although off her rocker, the opening anecdote of the mad barker in front of the polls captured the sense of rage than can spark us to publicly confront injustice. There is immediacy in rage that demands change now, not tomorrow, and certainly not eighty years later. That urgency is critical to cracking open “normal life,” to inspiring and mobilizing a larger collective response. Yet history illustrates that creating enduring radical change is usually more glacial than like lightning. The necessity to inspire by being on fire, to keep persisting with urgency while still remaining patient, is an inescapable contradiction for those committed to progressive change.
Voting and elections, however, provide a false practice for radical patience. The anecdote of the first-time voters speaks to the skillful co-optation of both radical patience and desire. American representative democracy gives society’s rulers a powerful means to maintain their control: a system calibrated to tolerate spaces of felt power without ever relinquishing real power. It is up to us at the grassroots to see through these deceptions. It is up to us at the grassroots to collectively act upon and claim our real social power.
published originally in The Political Edge ed. Chris Carlsson (City Lights Foundation: 2004)