Posted on July 19, 2011
At a "Rebuild the Dream" meeting, Brooklyn progressives ponder whether they have to act like the Tea Party in order to inspire change.
“One of the virtues of being on the liberal side of politics is that total obedience isn't required," Deepak Chopra writes in a recent column. “There are no hidden agendas. Ideology doesn't lead to unreason.”
This virtue, however, can become a liability when it comes to building a movement. Liberals, progressives and lefties of varying generations rarely agree on what truly constitutes fair-trade coffee, much less how to go about changing the current political climate.
In walks Van Jones, and his “Rebuild the Dream” movement. At the June 23rd launch, Jones went through the four lies that form the backbone of the Tea Party movement. He compared the first lie about America being broke to telling people in a burning building that all the exits are locked when they're not. Asking the super-rich to pay taxes hurts the economy was the second lie and the third was focused on the 'patriotic' anti-government rants of the Tea Party. The fourth and final lie, that we're helpless, formed an introduction to the Dream initiative. The movement will be comprised of non-Tea party sympathizers, 'ordinary Americans' who will come up with solutions to solve the social and economic problems that affect our country. He made no qualms about this movement being the more reasoned, but still impassioned answer to the Tea Party and this sentiment wasn’t lost in the follow-ups to the launch.
I attended one of the Dream meetings July 16-17 in downtown Brooklyn. The address was the former headquarters of the New York ACORN organization, now home to the newly established New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Skip Roseboro, former vice president of NY ACORN, led the meeting of an inter-generational, mostly white group. A total of 20 people settled down around the table as Roseboro -- who apologized for not being quite prepared for the meeting -- introduced himself. Introductions, we were told, should include our thoughts about what the American dream means to us, which led to an interesting range of issues being brought up.
A Park Slope (an upper-middle-class community) resident advocated for an agrarian-based community. Julia, an attorney, wanted a “government that looked after everybody.” Melissa, a young mother and Bed Stuy resident, lamented that we spend millions on war, while the library closes at 5pm. Rosalie, an older woman who later handed me a flier for an upcoming protest, joked that we’ve resorted to a “distorted Calvinist approach [where] those at the top win.” She said we need to focus on “regaining the influence of workers.” Adam, a 20-something who works in marketing and Tammy, a disenchanted Obama campaigner, both agreed.
The preliminary concerns of the gathering seemed realistic enough, until Julia, the attorney, insisted that we are the Tea Party of the left and suggested we learn from them. Robin, a filmmaker, replied, “The Tea Party is astroturf, it’s funded by corporations.”
A spirited discussion of how to really go about change got underway. With little time to air complaints, one-liners that attempted to sum up ardent focuses and next-step actions were shouted around the room: “Policy, not party politics,” “We need to take over town hall during the August recess," and “Politicians won’t tax the hands that feed them.”
Skip Roseboro attempted to rein in the focus and talked a bit about his ideologies. “The most important thing to remember is that we are presented with two choices, both of which are negative--there’s always a third choice.” He’s referring to an often used introduction to third-party politics promoted by Working Families Party (where he’s a board member). He offered his own suggestion to change and to establish “a framework to fight back,” where we disagree indoors and present a united front outdoors.
And here Chopra’s virtue/critique comes in. In our little microcosm of the liberal community, Roseboro highlighted a problem facing progressives in the room and in the country: knowing when to rally and when to compromise. Our varied focuses and attempts at a succinct explanation of our ideologies came to a head an hour and a half into the meeting. Mariana, a teacher, interrupted with a call back to reality and a plea that we get something accomplished today by 2pm.
We broke into groups divided by the four separate areas defined by the organizers of the movement. The goal was to offer our suggestions to solve, promote or fight against the issues facing us. After the meetings the solutions were sent to the "Contract for the American Dream" website and the best ideas were rated by dream meeting participants all over the country. How did our little community compare with the final consensus gathered and rated from the 25,000 people in 1,500 meetings nationwide? Here’s the comparison:
1. Good jobs now
Nationwide: “Substantially reduce military spending.”
Brooklyn: “Too-big-to-fail banks have never been held accountable for the recession. Fund community based efforts. Reach out to religious community on the issue of jobs.
2. We all pay our share
Nationwide: “Be sure that corporations pay their taxes.”
Brooklyn: “Focus on stock market tax and transactions. Strong visual messages that explain economy in layman’s terms.”
3. Strong communities
Nationwide: “Eliminate corporate personhood.”
Brooklyn: “Invest in people and in education. Host community events with food. Get schools involved in public issues. Free child care.”
4. Working Democracy
Nationwide: “Stop paying corporations to offshore American jobs.”
Brooklyn: ““Limit corporate campaign contributions. Work on voter access and election fraud. Bring other organizations into the coalition.”
After the group presentations, we were charged to think about what specific activities we should be involved in and what skills we could bring to the table. We decided on another meeting at the end of the month and a Google group to keep in touch.
So after a rocky beginning, the members of the gathering channeled their frustrated energy in the areas they care most about, revolted (politely) against the designated leader and verbalized thoughts and ideas into clearly defined suggestions. Whether or not that would materialize into action remains to be seen. Moveon.org and the other organizers have followed up with those who signed up, encouraging members to take part in local actions and to mobilize for the upcoming August recess. As the contract’s ideas continue to be rated and added to, it seems the organizers of the larger movement are leaving it up to the gatherings to decide their next steps, while suggesting deadlines of actions to rally around. No particular DC rallies to go to, no simplified Tea-Party call to action circulated.
A more hands-on, directed approach can seem antithetical to a progressive ideology, but it might be necessary to get something done. Is the Rebuild the Dream initiative the much awaited culmination of all the anti-Tea Party efforts? Is it another forum for lefties to air our grievances and go home to a defeated reality? Can we figure out when to rally around or against a person or one defined cause?
Though he didn’t emerge as the group leader, Roseboro channeled Chopra’s sentiments in learning how and when to implement our much cherished freedom of expression and when to buckle down, listen, and act on a more or less agreed upon action. “Rebuild the Dream” might very well be that long awaited opportunity for progressives to prove that the tactics that made the Tea Party successful can be adopted and capitalized by the left , in order to act on the change we've been talking about for years.
Rae Gomes is an editor and writer for AlterNet who co-edits the "Ten Things" column at the Nation.
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