‘People’s Congress Of Resistance’ Draws Grassroots Activists
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Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 67th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Jodi Dean, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of multiple books in political theory, and Brian Becker, the co-director of the ANSWER coalition, cofounder of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the author of Imperialism in the 21st Century and other books.
Sarah Jaffe: Well, we will get to imperialism shortly. You two are part of the group convening the People’s Congress of Resistance in September, so tell us to start with a little bit about how the idea came together for this event?
Brian Becker: We’ve both been partnering, along with a number of other co-conveners, for the past almost six months now. It was obvious, certainly at the moment that Donald Trump was elected, that a massive grassroots movement had come into being, resisting against Trump’s odious and reactionary and racist and misogynist policies. … People were in the streets instantly, they were in the airports, they were reacting en masse to Trump’s plans to “take this country back” many, many decades. The demonstrations were such in terms of magnitude that perhaps as many as one out of every three people [in Washington] had participated in a protest.
But we saw that this protest movement was also … being co-opted by Democratic Party elites who saw in the movement a vessel for their own electoral goals in 2018 and 2020. They almost instantly turned the “resistance” against Trump, which was progressive and grassroots and made up of front line fighters, into something that was more or less reactionary by focusing on Russia — the narrative that the reason Trump won (he of course being the most unpopular candidate in US history) and the reason that Hillary Clinton lost was because of the collusion of foreign powers.
So we felt the need to create a pole within the grassroots resistance movement that gave a coherent political vision. We thought activism by itself will not necessarily lead to the profound radical change, the political revolution that millions have been clamoring for as expressed during the Bernie Sanders campaign, but could be rendered harmless and co-opted by the Democratic Party. So the People’s Congress of Resistance came together by conveners who are activists and organizers and leaders, who said Trump is a problem, but he’s not the only problem. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party elites — those who dominate the political system — are [also] the problem and the Congress represents those two parties and their lock-hold over the political process in America, so we’re creating something different … a People’s Congress made up of front line resisters whose voices are never heard in Congress and who are never represented in Congress.
Jodi Dean: I’ll just add two things to what Brian said. First, we all saw when Hillary Clinton said she was part of the resistance, that was the most blatant kind of co-optation of grassroots politics into the Democratic Party, and it was about then as well that the effort stopped being really visible as a radical pushback against elite politics, the politics of the millionaire class in general. It’s important that there be a much more radical statement.
And then the second part is much more down-to-Earth from the local level, where I live in Geneva, New York, one of the things that we found in local-level resistance is that the weekly protest in front of our member of Congress’s office (he’s Tom Reed, he’s been one of Trump’s right-hand men, total supporter from early on) never said a word against him. The politics of that response, of protests of Trump in front of Reed’s office kept becoming vaguer and vaguer, it kept being something like “Love Trumps Hate,” which is not a politics at all. It was clear that it was time to rechannel these energies back in a more radical direction.
Tell us a little bit about the planning for the event. What is the weekend going to look like?
Brian Becker: We’re expecting somewhere between 700 and 1,000 people. It’ll take place at the Blackburn Center at Howard University, in Washington, DC. We believe we’ll have representation for almost all 50 states. We’ve spent a lot of time doing organizing and mobilizing and outreach to the areas where the progressive left movement is not strong but where many progressive and left activists are fighting; in other words we’ve been going into red areas in red states. We hope to make the “red states” really red someday [laughs] because the oppression and the suffering of the people is so great but the political organized left has been weak there for a long time, it wasn’t always weak there but it has been recently.
We’ve done a lot of organizing and outreach, I think it’ll be an assembly that unlike many sort of traditional leftist gatherings will have a very large component of working-class people, large number of Black and Latino people, poor white people from different areas of the country, areas that are dominated by Republican politics.
In terms of the planning we have a very good group of conveners who have come together, people who don’t have identical views on all things but have united around the manifesto that has been issued because we believe that it gives coherence and definition to the “political revolution,” which was a vague but popular formulation during the Sanders campaign, we’ve been meeting together for many, many months, going through and sort of hammering out what it is that we all stand for, what our common ground is.
We’re just working this week in terms of looking at all of the different parts of the Congress. Of course it will be partly a speak-out from those whose voices are never heard in the US Congress. It’ll be partly deliberative in terms of coming up with plans so we can build a People’s Congress movement that goes beyond the event itself. In other words we want to organize around the manifesto in particular because we believe that activism by itself, as great as that is, if it doesn’t have a rudder, if it doesn’t know where it’s going, where it doesn’t have a goal, will ultimately ebb as all mass movements do ebb, and it will be dissolved into those who are actually providing leadership and as Jodi said, the Democratic Party is poised to take advantage of all of this energy.
We want the manifesto around which we’re organizing (similarly to what happened in the Labour Party in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising surge there) to become a focus where people really talk about it. They educate each other. They study together. They use it. And as we coordinate with and show solidarity with all the grassroots resistance movements that are going on every day (we don’t need to start them up), we want to integrate the manifesto concept and this concept of an independent political movement into that kind of work.
So let’s talk about this manifesto that you put out. How that was put together?
Jodi Dean: One thing, in addition to having resonances with the Corbyn campaign, I think another site of resonance is with the platform of the International Women’s Strike committee, particularly in the US organizing, which was a really tremendous platform and document and again, in my small town we did organizing around the Women’s Strike using that platform because we thought that what was so strong about it was that it gave a politics of the 99 percent to the January 21st Women’s March. That was pretty open and vague, and for some people it seemed like a Hillary event, but what the International Women’s Strike did was actually give a strong antiracist, anticapitalist, anti-transphobic politics to that. It gave it a socialist substance. That’s another one of the currents that goes into the manifesto for the People’s Congress.
The substance of it has many currents that go into it and really reflects the diversity from the conveners, with folks who’ve been involved with Stop Police Terror, people who’ve been heavily involved with immigrant struggles, feminist work, Native American work, the plethora of actual front line struggles on the left that somehow get disarticulated at the national level.
At the national level, people tend to present all of these different strains as if they were opposed to one another, and the fact that all of these struggles actually are struggling for a real “society of the many” gets lost. And so that’s one of the things that having this diverse bunch of conveners actually represents: These are different elements of what’s actually a single struggle.
We’re talking the morning after Trump’s Afghanistan speech, so I feel like we should start with imperialism, largely because in the Obama years, we saw the antiwar movement really fade, and people missed that one of the things that turned people off to Hillary Clinton is that they thought she was hawkish. Trump is going even further down that road, yet many left movements have had a hard time integrating a critique of imperialism into their work.
Brian Becker: I think there’s a tendency by socialists who want to reach into a broader mass of the population to downplay imperialism and US foreign policy. There’s a tendency to deal with bread-and-butter issues at home and sort of turn away from (or in some cases embrace) imperialist foreign policy. This is a death knell for the movement. We live in the center of US imperialism; the idea that we can fight for housing rights or social justice or higher wages or community control of the police and not talk about US imperialism is not only naïve but it also leads the movement straight into the graveyard. The imperialist foreign policy of this country so dominates politics and becomes a rallying point for the Democratic and Republican elites to reach into and amongst the masses of people and generate a national chauvinism and a reactionary patriotism, and an embrace of imperialist concepts. We must, as a movement, tackle this straight on.
So right now we’re going to focus a lot on imperialism, solidarity with the people in Venezuela, the people in Latin America who want to be independent and free. We’re going to demand that the US get out of the Middle East. We’re going to demand the closing of the military bases. They’re not for national defense. The last time the US mainland was invaded was the war of 1812. These are imperial outposts. We want to preach the message that working people in America have more in common with the working folks in other countries who are targeted by US imperialism than we do with the military-industrial complex.
Jodi Dean: I’ll add that one of the things that is interesting once one starts thinking about how left politics is built out of front line struggles, then you start to see that anti-imperialism is already immanent within it. So for example, all climate politics requires a global approach. We cannot get to a solution to dealing with climate change if US imperialism is dominating global politics. Dealing with climate change must be global and it requires a cooperative effort, and you don’t get to cooperate with people if you’re bombing them or in trade war. Already climate change politics, emphases on environmental justice have a global frame.
The same thing with anti-racist politics. It’s really quite explicit that it’s not just a politics that seeks equality for Black and Brown people in the US; you can’t be killing Brown people all over the world if your politics is anti-racist. That automatically opens up to an anti-imperialist politics. The same thing with feminism. What’s really been crucial to so many feminists who take a more global perspective is the way that US imperialist policies facilitate impoverishment of women all over the world, violence against women all over the world. Anti-imperialism is a current already in the movements and bringing them together helps draw that out.
Connecting the dots from imperialism abroad to mass incarceration and policing at home, in the last week or so we’ve seen aggressive policing against Black people’s movements and the very, very hands-off policing of the white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Jodi Dean: I think it’s been clear to people of color all over the country that the police don’t work for them. The police reinforce a version of state power that is white supremacist. Many white people have been able to deny that or repress that or try to say, “Oh well that’s only in some extreme cases. It’s not the norm. It’s not really OK, but it’s an exception.” And we’ve been seeing this now for a while, right? Ferguson was one of the more recent eruptions of this into public consciousness, on one side, and then we see it with respect to really enabling the direct assertion of white supremacy in Charlottesville.
So in some ways it’s more like the confrontation in mainstream politics and it’s an eruption of what has been known for quite a while as the basic condition of policing in the US.
Brian Becker: American capitalism has some unique characteristic features. For the past 400 years, since it was implanted on the territory of North America, American capitalism has been based on the enslavement of African people and of course the theft of Indigenous people’s lands and then their ultimate genocide. America was a police state, a racist apartheid slave state, for the majority of Black people for the past four centuries. It’s a lesser part of the country’s history where civil rights and Black people being treated as equal citizens, at least in the law, has existed. It’s only been since 1964 that apartheid has been legally banned in America.
So we have a situation where one out of every four prisoners in the world are incarcerated in the United States: 2.3 million people. Another 5 million are somehow connected to the law enforcement system, either probation or parole, that’s a huge part of the population. Disproportionately Black people because the police state that always existed for Black people still exists because Black communities are so heavily policed … thus the majority of arrests happen in the Black community. …
And I think it’s a conscious decision by the capitalist so-called “justice” system to contain the Black population because the Black population has been the motor for movements of social change over the past centuries. And so of course at the People’s Congress of Resistance we’re going to have many ex-prisoners. We’re going to have prisoner families there. We’re going to have representation from political prisoners. We’re going to have at least 10 families; moms whose children were killed by the police in the last year or two. They’re mobilizing. We’re raising money for them to come from all over the country. This will be a preeminent part of the People’s Congress because again, there’s no poor people [in the US Congress]. There’s no immigrants there. There’s no locked-up DREAMers there. For the most part, there’s no working-class folks and of course the Black community has been historically underrepresented.
On your platform, you include reparations for slavery and Native sovereignty. There’s a tendency from certain parts of the left to argue that concepts like reparations are going to be divisive and scare people off.
Jodi Dean: If we think about a society for the many in the United States, what does that have to look like? It has to look like the society that people would want to produce. And if we’re going to produce one that is desirable, a good place to live, then we have to confront directly and honestly the dual legacy of the US founding, which was in slavery and genocide. The most direct ways that we have of confronting head-on the fact that the country was anchored in slavery and genocide is by taking up the two answers that have been put forward as just the starting point of confronting it, namely Native American sovereignty and reparations. That’s the way that you can even start the conversation of how do we build a society for the many. Confront the basic crimes that have been at the basis of the entire country.
Brian Becker: The people who say that reparations for Black America, for instance, will alienate people, they’re not talking about [alienating] Black people. They’re talking about a certain segment of society. It demonstrates who we’re aiming for. In other words, to build a really powerful viable social movement, yes we want people from all classes and all sectors to be it, but the things that really make history change are when the masses of people, meaning the poorest, the most oppressed, those sectors of society, come onto the political stage. That’s why the sort of semi-revolution, the civil rights revolution happened, when Rosa Parks refused to give that seat up to a white man, the next nine years the masses of people came into politics. And so the Congress of the United States, which was compositionally the same as it was when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, nine years later voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act — the two most progressive pieces of social legislation. It was because the poor, the masses, the working classes, the Black community in particular came into political life. That’s what makes change possible, and that’s who we’re orienting toward with the People’s Congress.
One of the most remarked-upon and radical planks in the Corbyn manifesto was calling for renationalizing industries, for collective ownership, so I wanted to wrap up by talking about that plank in your platform.
Jodi Dean: I want to approach that question a little bit from the side. In social conversations, family events and stuff, and random conversations in gas stations, I’ve ended up talking to some Trump supporters and they always say something like, “What we really need is for the government to be run like a business.” “We really need a businessman in charge.” One person will say that’s the good thing about Trump and another will say, “Yeah, he’s not doing well, but I would never run my business that way, he needs to do X, Y and Z to run his business differently.” And the thing is, if you think about it, actually, the capitalist economy is terrible — it destroys more wealth than it produces, as we saw directly in the 2008 crash where trillions left the economy, more and more people are thrown out of the workforce. It produces all sorts of waste goods we don’t need. And so people say the government should be more like a business? No! It’s ridiculous.
So the thing to think about is in fact how badly capitalism works, how badly businesses are run. Everybody is miserable about all sorts of different aspects, whether it’s cable companies, airplane transportation, the fact that so many goods fall apart so easily, giving more incentives for there not to be a cap on fossil fuels, so if we think about how capitalism is run, it’s an utter disaster.
And so in fact what we need is the democratic people’s control, for people’s interests, of the basic system of production in this country. Capitalism is in crisis right now. We’ve got a financial market that is out of control. We have an inability of the capitalist system to deal with climate change. This is why we actually see the fragmentation of the two major parties is that they’re not able to grapple with the crisis that capitalism is in. So we begin with nationalizing the industries, the major sectors of the economy because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to move forward.
How can people get involved and attend the Congress?
Brian Becker: The principal way people can get involved is to go to the website, congressofresistance.org. The site has the manifesto. It has the conveners. It has our call to action, our vision. It also has logistics information. If you’re coming, you can register online: We have two registration fees, $50 or $100. If you can’t pay anything, no one is going to be turned away for lack of funds — that’s why we set the registration fee high. We have low-rent hotels there on the website. It’s all there.
People are coming from all parts of the country. We’re having car caravans. It’s so exciting, from all over the country. It’s going to be a real grassroots front line assembly.
And how can people keep up with the two of you?