Published on Sunday, January 21, 2001
Inauguration 2001: A Citizens Oath of Office
by Robert Jensen
On Inauguration Day 2001, standing on the steps of the State Capitol just a few blocks from the governor's mansion that George W. Bush recently had vacated, about 1,000 Austin residents raised their hands as I administered a Citizens' Oath of Office:
"I do solemnly pledge that I will faithfully execute the office of citizen of the United States, and that I will, to the best of my ability, resist corporate control of the world, resist militarism, resist the roll-back of civil rights, and resist illegitimate authority in all its forms."
Bush's inauguration in Washington earlier that day made it clear to all of us that whatever radical and progressive political organizing we had done during the eight noxious years of the "New Democrat" administration of Clinton must be intensified during the toxic four years to come under a Bush administration.
The possibilities for that organizing were plainly visible from looking at the range of people in the spirited, noisy and passionate crowd -- from Democrats to the Radical Anarchist Marching Band. On the platform, representatives of the NAACP and Green Party, the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Texas Radical Action Network, the National Organization for Women and International Socialist Organization, all spoke to a common theme: the need to build a popular movement to challenge power and keep alive radical and progressive politics.
While many in the crowd voted for Al Gore, there was a consensus that a Democratic Party which has moved so clearly and consistently to the right -- embracing reactionary domestic policies, such as Clinton's so-called welfare "reform" law, and pursuing brutal and inhumane foreign policy, such as the ongoing bombing/sanctions policy toward Iraq -- is not going to be at the forefront of a progressive movement.
In Austin we chanted, "He's not my president." But I also said that if Gore had been elected, for me the chant would have been the same. The politicians of both major parties who have surrendered the promise of real democracy to corporate interests will never be leaders of the people.
If Bush is not our president, and Gore wouldn't have been either, the question is clear: Who can be our leader?
At that moment, I asked the people in the crowd to turn to the person next to them, then turn to the other side, and then to look at themselves. If our movements are to be truly popular movements, leadership will come from us. It will be diffuse. We will all, at some point and in some fashion, have to step forward to claim both the right and the obligation to lead.
Popular movements don't search for leaders, they produce leaders. Such movements -- to abolish slavery, win labor organizing rights, end wars -- have won real gains for human freedom and justice, not because of leaders but because of the moral vision and courage of all the people who did not turn away from the struggle.
The last phrase of the citizens' oath we took in Austin echoes the "Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority" issued in 1967 by Americans struggling to end their government's barbaric attack on the people of Vietnam. Those were grim times, certainly no less scary and threatening than the situation we face today. But people struggled, fought, resisted -- against the grain and against the odds.
The powerful have added new weapons to their arsenals -- structural adjustment programs and World Trade Organization rules whose effects are as lethal as a B-52 bombing run. Just as their strategies for domination and control have "matured," so have our analyses and strategies for fighting back.
But the essence of the struggle is unchanged, and our pledge should conclude with the same words as the 1967 pledge: "Now is the time to resist."
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/freelance.htm.