The continuing cry to “drain the swamp” in Washington has not yet seen the results many hoped for. Stalemate and name-calling continue. Laws are made or changed not by action of elected representatives, but by Executive fiat. Both Republicans and Democrats are in disarray, unable and unwilling to unify around a program for America. Petulant presidential midnight tweets have replaced fireside chats, while the media jumps on any perceived misstatement. It is important to understand that we, the people, must rely on ourselves and not on politicians of any stripe if real change is to take place.
I have some experience with Washington. From 1968 through 1971 I was my union’s Executive fiat a registered lobbyist, in our nation’s capitol. I was a one-person office with an answering service. My union, the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, had a few urgent legislative issues, but it left me lots of time to pursue issues not directly related to the ILWU, but which the union’s progressive leadership supported: opposing the war in Vietnam and the war surtax to pay for it, supporting the Poor People’s Campaign, occupational safety and health.
I was there when LBJ decided not to run for re-election, when Martin Luther King was assassinated and witnessed the resulting uprisings, when Bobby Kennedy was killed, when the Democrat Convention in Chicago turned Mayor Daley’s goons loose on peaceful demonstrators – my wife, whom I did not know then, still has a big knot on her head from a Chicago police baton, and when Richard Nixon was elected with his “secret plan” to end the war by invading Cambodia.
When I arrived the first thing that happened was that a legislative aide to a Republican senator from Hawaii, where the ILWU was strong, showed me the ropes – how to travel the private subways, how to get a haircut from the barbers that serviced Congressmen, where to have lunch (the Carroll Arms), how to pose as staff to get a seat in a crowded hearing room. Heady stuff, not only designed to welcome me to our nation’s capital, but to seduce me into becoming one of the in-crowd. Imagine if I were a newly-elected official!
In the three-and-a-half years I was there I believe I had just three accomplishments: I wrote one sentence of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (and later used it to block the imposition of weak safety rules on the docks), With the late Marvin Rogoff, I helped found National Labor for Peace, and, just after the invasion of Cambodia, I got to yell “Peace now!” in President Nixon’s face and watch that suntanned smile just crumble.
In 1971 I had an opportunity to return to California, to represent real workers in Salinas, and I left DC gladly. I had learned that one either becomes part of the swamp, or you get out while you can before the mosquitoes bleed you into submission. The best people I had met during my term were the multiethnic activists of the Poor People’s Campaign, people like Peggy Terry, Reyes Tijerina, Doug Youngblood, Rev. Ralph Abernathy. I stood silent and watched on June 24, 1968, when 1,000 policemen with teargas and bulldozers leveled Resurrection City to the ground, arresting over half of the remaining occupiers.
One of the lessons that gradually became clear to me is the difference between movements and institutions. That lesson should be remembered today if we are to effect any real change in the way things work, or don’t. A Movement is made up of people in motion, galvanized for change. Call it a union, or a civil rights push, or a Tea Party, the dynamics are the same: people want change and are willing to put themselves out to obtain it, sometimes at great risk.
The Movement is successful. A union is established to give workers a voice, a community is integrated, a rebel with a cause is elected to political office. That gives rise to the Institution. The union needs a headquarters and staff, the civil rights group needs an office and staff to monitor progress, the Tea Party candidate is now sitting smack in the middle of the swamp. And the mosquitoes are hovering.
All too soon the needs of the Institution and the needs of the Movement diverge. For instance: an outspoken union shop steward is fired for no good cause. A Movement response is for the rest of the workers to walk out or sit down until the shop steward is reinstated. But from the Institution’s perspective that kind of action could get the union sued and more people fired, so they refer the case to the grievance procedure which can involve lawyers and take many months to resolve.
The civil rights organization that evolved from the Movement fears being set back, seeing its gains taken away, so the leaders learn to accommodate, to compromise. The leaders like being leaders – the powerless attaining some power is a heady thing, so they “go along to get along” and enjoy hobnobbing with the elites. They are sure their members, the Movement, do not really understand the pressures of the real world, so the leaders begin to rely on the elite’s experts and begin making decisions for the Movement that more directly benefit the Institution.
The Tea Party candidate faces censure and ridicule for taking positions outside of the accepted party-line. At the same time the trappings of privilege are bestowed, with the implied promise that more will come if you moderate your politics just a little bit. Just a little. If you don’t you will not be able to deliver anything of value to your constituents. The media will gang up on you. It’s your choice….be effective or be a fool. Look at what they’re doing to Supervisor Ally Miller. In what rational world can the employee – Mr. Huckelberry – trash his employer with such impunity?
Without a strong Movement that is active and involved, there are not many people who can withstand those pressures, the ever-present carrot and stick. That, then, is up to us, we who care enough to comment regularly on ADI, who care enough to go to meetings, to talk to allies and potential allies, to keep the Movement going, to keep our leaders honest and accountable. Younger generations use social media to keep things going..
It ain’t easy. Maybe term limits can help, maybe infusions of rank-and-file campaign cash, or withholding of it, can help, but there is simply no substitute for grassroots, boots-on-the-ground (literally and virtually) organizing. And that is not the leadership’s job – they are already two steps removed from our real world. It’s up to us, to you and me. Always was. Always will be.