No sooner did President Obama take office than the first cracks in the wall of his new administration appeared, as he surrounded himself with close advisers – including most of his senior cabinet officials – with close institutional connections to the right-wing Jewish lobby, The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and/or the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the very same cabal of neoconservative warmongers that President Obama was elected to replace and oppose. The writing was, for informed progressives, already on the wall.
In the months that followed, many leading progressive journalists began to pick away at the emerging cracks in the Obama administration's façade, as our new president consistently swerved to the right on practically every major policy issue dear to his base. The critique of the system by activists Bill McKibben, Chris Hedges, and many others began to shift our vision for hope and “change we can believe in” to the American people themselves. The distant rumbles of a new American progressive movement echoing the civil rights and anti-war movements of the '60s could already be heard.
A few years later, with the nation plunged into what appears to be a sequel to the Great Depression and another presidential campaign season taking shape, signs of mass populist resistance to the global dominance of the robber-baron class are widely in evidence, both here and abroad. In this exclusive Truthout interview, the October2011 Coalition co-founder and physician Margaret Flowers discusses the conditions that helped bring this emerging movement of citizen activists into being and outlines the key differences between October2011's mission and that of superficially similar emerging “movements” such as Van Jones' Rebuild the Dream.
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Ron Boyer: This is shaping up to be the Autumn of Mass Resistance – the formation, at long last, of an organized progressive movement of dissent in America. Global warming activists were recently arrested in Washington, DC, in an unsuccessful action to undermine the US-Canada oil pipeline deal. Van Jones is coming to town around October 1 with the Rebuild the American Dream movement. And your planned October2011 mass nonviolent civil resistance action starts right after that, beginning on October 6 in Freedom Plaza. Is this the beginning of an “American Autumn” to build upon the “Arab Spring”?
Dr. Margaret Flowers: We certainly hope that this will be the Autumn when there is an American awakening. People across the country are inspired by what we are seeing around the world and in the US. In addition to the actions you mention as well as the protests in Madison, Wisconsin and other Midwest state capitals, Americans across the nation are protesting the direction of the country on a wide range of issues.
In fact, America has been in revolt for some time now. Many are not aware of this because the corporate media doesn't cover it. There have been protests and occupations to fight for jobs, education, health care, clean energy and a clean environment, immigrant rights and against big finance for years. These actions have been bubbling up around the country and hopefully they will erupt into a strong and persistent action in Washington, DC this fall.
RB: What do you hope to accomplish in Washington, DC, on October 6? A lot of major progressive leaders are part of this action – Cornel West, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Cynthia McKinney, Code Pink, Chris Hedges; these are serious leaders. Is the massive nonviolent civil resistance action planned for October 6 a few days of mass protest, or is it a nonviolent occupation of Washington by people who are prepared to throw their bodies onto the gears of this increasingly “odious machine”?
MF: This action is being organized because we know the urgency of stopping the exploitation of people and the planet. The movements that have been pushing for proven solutions to our crises are all facing the same obstacles: corporate control of the political process and media. We are experiencing what Chris Hedges calls a “corporate coup.” And so in the face of this, we are prepared to do what is necessary to nonviolently resist this corporate power. Some of us who are organizing this action, myself included, are ready to put our bodies on the line to stop this machine.
This action is called “Stop the machine! Create a new world” because it has two components. We will stop the machine through nonviolent resistance. This includes teaching about non-cooperation which is something that everybody can participate in to some extent. People can choose to what extent they are ready to act. And we will create a new world by developing specific solutions to each of the 15 crises outlined on our web site. Participants can join one of the 15 committees and work on developing solutions to each crisis based on the evidence of models that are working in the US and around the world.
This action is a beginning. It is the start of an independent movement that will use nonviolent tools to affect change, which include developing local solutions and local and sustainable economies. We have no choice because the standard tools of democracy are no longer effective.
RB: Progressive leaders appear to be coalescing on the subject of serious political organizing, but there are just so many pressing issues. Isn't there a danger that leaders on specific policy issues may end up competing with one another for support instead of bringing a lot of actions under a united, single policy umbrella?
MF: The October2011 Movement is working in solidarity with many movements. We support the September 17 call to occupy Wall Street. Members of our movement stood with those who are protesting US involvement in the Alberta Tar Sands. We also stand in solidarity with the revolutionary democracy movements around the world.
People are calling for an end to the corporate control of political parties and the government's neo-liberal agenda that has been pushed on us for these past few decades. In the activist community, many are coming to the same conclusion, that if we are to be successful in our agendas for peace and justice, we must unite our efforts and take on corporate power in a strategic way.
Those who have signed onto this action understand the need for solidarity and that the broader struggle is more important than a single issue, but also is necessary in order to make progress on any single issue. Our ultimate vision is to achieve peace and social, economic and environmental justice which includes the issues important to all who stand with us. But to get there, we first have to end the corporate stranglehold on our political process and media.
RB: The machine you speak of has a lot of momentum in shaping the collective global reality and worldview that supports violence against other nations, violence against the earth and our habitats and now what appears to be increased preparation for violent oppression on the domestic front, beginning with aggressive undermining of democratic institutions. As an American citizen, how do you begin to resist the machine of the American state, with its apparent hubris and passion for Empire and military intervention?
MF: There is a war being waged by the power elite on the people and the planet, both in the US and abroad. The people of the United States are being subjected to economic sanctions, although many may not have thought of it in that way yet. These sanctions take the form of lack of jobs, lack of affordable education and healthcare, loss of homes and financial stability. The beginning of October marks the onset of both the eleventh year of the Afghanistan war and the 2012 federal budget which provides unlimited funding for war but austerity for programs that provide for basic human needs.
October2011.org believes that in order to address the multiple crises in this nation and around the world – because US policy affects the whole world – we must build a broad-based and independent movement and a strong independent media. Some are saying that humans only have the equivalent of one more generation to turn our current situation around and so we are acting with a sense of urgency. We don't have time to hope that if we elect the right person or people that they will do the right thing to address our human and planetary needs. Each of us must begin to see ourselves as the solution and do what we are each able to do to build a movement that not only stops the machine with consistent non-violent resistance, but also creates a better world.
RB: How would you differentiate what October2011 hopes to achieve from what Van Jones is attempting to organize in his partnership with MoveOn? It seems like there might be some significant overlap between your policy and action objectives. And Jones just invited the Rebuild the Dream membership to join him for major planned actions in DC, immediately in the days before the October2011 Coalition plans to launch its program. Isn't there a potential to undermine each other rather than build on the needs of what I would think is a shared constituency?
MF: Some people have expressed confusion about Rebuild the Dream and October2011.org. Rebuild the Dream is actually the yearly Campaign for America's Future Conference which costs over $1,000 just for registration and hotel. We have not seen a specific call to take action from them and many of those who are most affected by what is happening in this country would not be able to participate in their conference.
Many of the people who join Rebuild the Dream and organizations like MoveOn that are behind that effort, support the same things that the October2011 Movement supports. We welcome those people to join us on Freedom Plaza on October 6 and the days that follow. However, the leadership of Rebuild the Dream is going in a very different direction than the October2011 Movement. Rebuild the Dream's first priority is to elect Democratic Party politicians, while our priority is to stop the corrupt machine that includes the Democratic Party. October2011 recognizes that the system is corrupt and that working with either of the corporate-dominated, big money parties will not create the movement we need to change the direction of the country.
We must first build an independent movement that shifts the power away from the corporate control of government before we can even consider electoral work. We welcome those who support building an independent movement that will challenge both big business-dominated political parties to join with us.
RB: That's an important distinction, like the gap opening since the early months of the Obama administration between those who believed it was still possible to work within our current system of government and those for whom the term “liberal” is now a euphemism for what we used to call a “moderate conservative Republican.” George W. Bush and his family were easy targets for progressives, but when a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat like Barack Obama turns out to be far to the right of a Republican President like Dwight D. Eisenhower, you have to ask, what's wrong with this picture? Especially after his administration's refusal to fight for single-payer health care,
MF: A specific example of where October2011 differs with MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream is in the area of health care, one of my top priorities. The majority of people in the US support improved Medicare for all, also known as single payer. This is one of many issues in which the people want real change but the Democratic Party leadership refuses to consider real change that would end insurance company domination of health care. If you read the Rebuild the Dream platform, you will see that they have taken the single payer term “Medicare for all” as well as other single payer language such as the administrative savings of a Medicare for all system. It is not until the last line of their health care summary that you find they are not really advocating Medicare for all, but rather they merely support giving people the choice of buying into Medicare. This is essentially a public option which is very different from a national improved Medicare-for-all health system. The public option is the same thing progressive Democrats were pushing in 2009 that was rejected by the single payer movement because it fails to address the fundamental problems with the health care system in this country.
By using the language of real health care reform – Medicare-for-all – Rebuild the Dream misleads people into thinking they are advocating for single payer and fools well-meaning people into using their energy against their own best interests.
We've seen groups like MoveOn use these tactics before. They use progressive language or convince their constituents not to ask for too much and then compromise for the Democratic Party agenda that protects corporate power. This is not something to treat lightly. Tens of thousands of people in the US are suffering and dying needlessly each year. We are already spending enough money to provide high quality comprehensive health care for every person living in the US. We should not be protecting corporate power and political parties at the cost of human lives.
RB: It's probably hard to rebuild the dream when it's actually turned into a nightmare.
To borrow a metaphor from your profession, it increasingly seems that our entire democratic system is on life support at this point. Or, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the corporatist plutocrats riding the poor and middle classes into the ground are “in the saddle and ride humankind.” The corporate aristocracy appears to be convinced that they've got us right where they want us.
MF: The October2011 Movement is about being independent, clear in our language and uncompromising in our call for transformative policies that are proven to address the crises faced by the United States and the world. October2011 is a people-led movement, not a top-down organizationally-led movement. If you look at the polling on a number of important issues, supermajorities of the people in this country support solutions that would address our crises, yet the politicians are going in the wrong direction on each issue. The people are making better decisions than the rulers. That is why we believe in creating a truly democratic society, one in which people have a voice in how our resources are used and have more control over the economy. We must have self-confidence in our abilities to make decisions about the issues that affect our lives. We are advocating an end to corporatism and militarism. We support policies that put human needs before corporate greed. And we invite all who support our call for a peaceful, just and sustainable world and who believe in the strength of nonviolence, to join us.
RB: When you demonstrate at Freedom Plaza, I assume the state could respond with suppressive and perhaps violent police actions, as it has elsewhere – in Tahir Square, Greece, most recently in London. Are you prepared for that?
MF: It is possible that there will be violence. But if violence occurs, it will not come from us. It will come from the national security state, either overtly or covertly through provocateurs. If the security state feels threatened, it will likely use the tools it has always used: infiltration, deception, assassination. If I believed there was another way to effect real change, I would do it. But there isn't. People in other countries, like Spain and Greece, have faced violence. We will have to do the same. And we will do what we can to protect ourselves through nonviolence training and peacekeepers.
The truth is that people in this country and around the world face violence every day as a result of US policies. The most obvious violence is that done by our private and public military. Less obvious is the suffering and death that result because of US foreign and domestic policy: supporting dictatorships, selling weapons, privatization of farmland, allowing destruction of the planet for profit, corporate welfare instead of providing jobs and healthcare or stopping foreclosures. To be silent in the face of these atrocities is to be complicit with them. I am not willing to be complicit. I know that many others feel the same way.
RB: One of the similarities between you and Rebuild America is that both organizations have recently developed basic policy platforms. In comparison to Rebuild the Dream, can you lay out the major issues and the October2011 Coalition's collective position statement in a nutshell?
MF: There is a huge difference between October2011 and Rebuild the Dream. Rebuild the Dream and the organizations that belong to that well-financed group, which I would not call a movement, are using language to make people believe that they are independent of any political party when it is a fact that they and their funders operate for the Democratic Party. Their platform uses language to fool people into thinking that they are working for real change when it is actually either in line with the Democratic platform or will be changed as time goes on to be more in line with the Democratic platform. We have seen this before.
October2011 is an independent movement that is not allied with any political party. It is being organized by people and no organization has any control over the platform. In a nut shell, we are working to end US militarism and the corporate control of our political process and empower people so that we can implement evidence-based solutions to our crises which will lead to a peaceful, just and sustainable world. We believe that policy decisions should be made by those who are affected by them and by those who are knowledgeable about the data to support effective policies. And we believe fully in democratization of our institutions.
There is a list of 15 core issues on our website. We will have 15 committees, each working on a single issue, who will develop specific policy statements. These will be presented at nightly assemblies for consensus approval. This is similar to the model used by the 15M protesters in Spain. This will outline our broad vision.
On the october2011.org website, there is an article called “We Stand with the Majority of Americans.” It shows that on 7 key issues there is polling data that shows consistent supermajority support. However, Congress is headed in the opposite direction in each of the 7 issues! This shows both that Congress does not represent the majority of people and that the majority of people would do a better job of ruling than Congress.
RB: Can you tell us where the October2011 Coalition came from? It seems very well organized to me, apparently a disciplined yet decentralized action of individual citizen volunteers. But there is also a central Steering Committee as well as a host of major progressive leaders who've formally pledged to be on the ground in DC on October 6 when the action begins.
MF: I think the easiest way to look at October2011 is that this is an idea whose time has come. Many of the organizers and endorsers of the movement were reaching similar conclusions, in part inspired by actions across the country and around the world. We believe that history is knocking at the door.
My personal involvement came about through my work as an advocate for single payer health care. I was very active during the 2009-10 health reform process. I was working with many others to try and have single payer health care legislation as part of the debate. Single payer was initially shut out and we had to engage in civil resistance in order to expose this. Congress and the leadership did not want single payer proposals compared to the bill they developed because single payer is superior; it is universal and will effectively control health care costs. Unfortunately, it would decrease the profit margins of private health insurance and the pharmaceutical corporations who fund the campaigns of our leaders.
After the health bill passed, a bill which failed to address the fundamental problems with health care in the U.S. but instead was a huge benefit to those corporations who are currently profiting on health care, I traveled around the country speaking about single payer. People asked me what it would take to win single payer and I found myself responding that health care needs to be part of a broader peace and justice agenda because health is determined by more than access to care. Health is largely affected by social determinants such as education, a clean and safe environment, adequate income and being treated with dignity. I came to the conclusion that in order to mobilize the number of people needed to challenge corporate power and to achieve a more just society, we must join together and use the tools employed during the civil rights movement.
In December of 2010 Chris Hedges contacted me to ask if I would be his jail support because he was planning to join the veterans in an action at the White House opposing war. I said yes but then thought about it more. I decided to join the veterans to show what it means to stand in solidarity. I met wonderful, committed people through that action and we continued to meet afterwards. We were all feeling that symbolic actions are no longer effective and that we must be more strategic in our thinking.
We decided to plan an occupation to mark the eleventh year of Afghanistan war different from the typical weekend protest and as we contacted people and other organizations, there was an amazing amount of support for the idea. October is also the beginning of the new federal budget which includes unlimited spending for the military but austerity measures for human services. It is a perfect time to call for our resources to stop being used for war and exploitation and instead to be used for human and environmental needs.
Many people who advocate for peace and social, economic and environmental justice encounter the same obstacle: corporate power. By working together strategically we'll be able to take on this power. As we've worked together to plan this action and build this movement, many people have joined us to voluntarily organize and offer their talents. There is no person or group funding this. We work through committees and decisions are made by consensus. We are sincere that this must be a people-led and independent movement.
Dr. Margaret Flowers is a Congressional fellow of the Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization of 18,000 physicians, students and health professional that advocates for universal, single-payer health care. She can be contacted at [email protected] For more information about the October2011 Movement and the planned actions in Washington, DC, starting October 6, 2011, see the official web site at october2011.org or visit the “Stop the Machine” page on Facebook.