Rediscovering the Art of Democracy

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Rediscovering the Art of Democracy

All speakers and participants at the People's Peace and Justice Convention made it abundantly clear that, without each other, we will not win this struggle for our lives in the 21st Century. (Photo: Food & Water Watch)

Seeking to provide citizens a voice where our political parties fail, the People's Peace and Justice Convention convened over the weekend in Cleveland to create a people's platform ahead of the Republican National Convention. Activists and community organizers gathered to identify issues of economic, political, racial, international, and political justice that both Republican and Democratic leaders fail to address. With so many human rights violations confronting us – from the murder of unarmed black people at the hands of the police to the acceleration of global warming – this lack of national leadership threatens the very existence of all of us.

“We have a politics that is democratic in name only,” said Greg Coleridge, a director of the American Friends Service Committee and one of the main organizers of the event. “The role of citizens in shaping decisions that affect their lives, their communities, and the natural world is becoming ever more narrower. People don't have the right to decide. Our current democracy is only a facade. Here we're trying to give people an equal voice around the table and rediscover the art of democracy.”

In a city that will utilize 3.7 miles of interlocking steel security fences and 5,500 law enforcement officers to corral those trying to make their voices heard at the RNC, the People's Convention provided a much-needed forum for a convergence of micro-movements to share their struggles. Saturday morning saw participants engage in breakout sessions dealing with a broad range of issues, from calls to end corporate personhood, to fraudulent foreclosures, to Palestinian rights, to the prison-industrial complex. Grassroots organizers directly involved with each of the issues led the breakout sessions and helped to empower people to bring change to their lives and their communities.

A dominant message that emerged from these sessions was that we all suffer under oppression in a system designed to fail us. Our shared struggle against a corporate elite that exploits and oppresses us demands that we unite in transforming our world into one of peace and justice.

David Cobb, co-founder of Move to Amend and the 2004 presidential candidate for the Green Party, told his group, “We're trying to create a democracy. We never actually had one. Our institutions are designed around oppression: white supremacy, genocide, and slavery. Only social movements can change those situations.”

“The legal and economic system is rigged. We need transformation, which means we need revolution. Once you admit that, everything else becomes easy.”

In the afternoon participants had the opportunity to draw up the platform points, which would be ratified the following day in a marathon session of direct participation. Once completed in the coming days, the people's platform will be presented to both parties.

“But just as important as producing a product,” Mr. Coleridge said, “is affirming a process. Everything now is so top-down. If you don't have a seat at the table, you can't change anything, no matter what the issue. Anchoring all of this is the right to decide. We must figure out how to decide, how to change democracy from a noun into a verb. How to do it, how to express it.”

The People's Convention also featured keynote speakers who have been fighting for decades for this transformation needed in our society. Poor people's advocate Connie Burton likened the rampant neglect of our inner-city neighborhoods to that of a disease. “When we look at the conditions of people not being able to get affordable health care, when people can't have adequate housing, we see the crumbling of our neighborhoods and schools. That's part of America's infection.”

“How will we move forward? We can't live in silence anymore. Each individual here, and people we are associated with, has to make a decision. What side will you be on? Are you interested in the issue of justice only for yourself, to make it comfortable for you and your family, or will you side with the oppressed as we take over in attacking this issue of injustice so we all can have a better future?”

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, leader of the Hip Hop Caucus and wearing a hat that stated, “Respect My Vote,” arrived in Cleveland after attending the wake of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. As a national leader in the climate change movement, Rev. Yearwood declared, “Climate change is a civil rights issue. People have a right to clean air. People have a right to clean water. People have a right to life. We have a right to decide if we can transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”

“Today, on the two-year anniversary of the killing of Eric Garner, on Staten Island where they have the most trees in New York, it still receives an “F” for air quality. And even though he was on the ground being choked by police and said, 'I can't breathe,' all six of his children have asthma. So either if you're being choked by police or choked by pollution, it is the same kind of crime.”

Rev. Yearwood then called on all human rights movements to unite in solidarity and resistance.

“The climate change movement will not win as a siloed movement. If the Black Lives Matter rally is all black, then we're in trouble. If the LGBTQ rally is only LGBTQ people, and we're not there standing side by side in solidarity, then we're in trouble. If we allow funders to control what we choose as important for our movement, folks that are far removed from the people, we're in trouble. You can't win anything when you are segregated and all broken up. If you can't see it, believe me, your enemy can.”

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink and a relentless opponent of war and the crimes of empire, addressed the challenges we face in building an anti-war movement when we are sure to have a war hawk win the election in November. While Donald Trump frightens us all with his calls for building walls, banning Muslims from coming to our country and confronting terrorism with more war, Hillary Clinton has a track record of military intervention and failure in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Honduras. She spearheaded a $29 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which is one of the most totalitarian and oppressive regimes in the world.

“The peace movement fizzled after the Bush years. When Obama was elected, I say the first casualty of the Obama Administration was the peace movement. The peace movement just died. We have allowed Obama to be pulled in the direction of militarism by the forces that profit from militarism. We can't allow that to happen again.”

Benjamin encouraged those assembled to build a strong movement that “forces whoever is in the White House to take different policies. Then there can be different policies. Let's recognize it's on us to build a peace movement. But it's much bigger than just foreign policy issues.”

She shared visiting where Tamir Rice was gunned down and asserted that we must be against violence at home as well as overseas. “We have to be strong supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “We have to be strong allies of Muslim communities. We have to get the guns off our street. The peace movement encompasses so many pieces of other movements.”

All speakers and participants at the People's Peace and Justice Convention made it abundantly clear that, without each other, we will not win this struggle for our lives in the 21st Century. The time to unite is now. The convention produced a giant leap forward in attaining the goal of solidarity in resistance and reform.

David Schwenk

David Schwenk is a writer and activist currently at work on a book about citizens empowering themselves through direct, non-violent action. He can be contacted at dschwenk76@gmail.com

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