“I want to tell you something, sisters and brothers,” former Ohio state senator Nina Turner belted from the stage on the first day of the People’s Summit in Chicago in early June. “This kind of journey that we’re taking here today, we have our highs and our lows, but I want you to know that we are on the precipice of history. That all great things that have happened in this country or in this world have not happened because of the grass tops, it has happened because of the grass roots. And we must fight on.”
The People’s Summit, an annual event in its second installation, brings progressives from every corner of the country for speeches, rallies, and political and organizational workshops. It is primarily organized by National Nurses United with the help of other reputable progressive groups and people.
The focus of the three-day gathering of the American Left, both rhetorically and pragmatically, was on building a tangible, successful progressive movement in a country spiraling into right-wing extremism. And there was a sense of momentum in the air. On the day before over 4,000 people convened in the Windy City for the summit, elections in the United Kingdom rattled the world as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party made significant gains in a contest expected to reinforce a conservative majority and obliterate Britain’s Left movement. The opposite happened: the Tories lost their majority and the Left in Britain - and round the world - was galvanized. The shockwave could be felt 6,000 miles away.
“[The Labour Party] won those seats not by moving to the right, not by becoming more conciliatory,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said during his speech at the summit. “They won those seats by standing up to the ruling class of the UK.” A day later, the People’s Summit picked up where Corbyn’s campaign left off.
‘Why we’re here’
While a common purpose connected those making the pilgrimage to Chicago, a plethora of varying causes as diverse as the people themselves were what drove them out.
From issues as broad as the need for universal health care to those as specific as a the dangers of pipelines in Virginia or western Massachusetts, a broad set of problems and challenges disturbed the attendees of the summit, and they came looking for a way to fight back.
At the basic level, the People’s Summit represented a rallying cry, a protest, a celebration of everything progressives and humanitarians stand for.
“I’m here because it’s hard and this is a place where you can feel the love,” said environmental activist and documentarian Josh Fox. “That is why I’m here, because we need love. Love will conquer fracking, love will conquer the Dakota Access Pipeline, love will conquer Trump.”
At a practical level, bringing together the massive and diverse group served for both organizational networking and educating.
In a general sense, the causes of the people at the summit were the core motifs of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. The question was how fight for those causes in a way which could yield finite success during a time where even the most modest of liberal gains have been under intense siege by the Trump administration and the Republican party as a whole.
“We have to go beyond looking at the latest controversy, the latest crazy thing that various people might be saying,” Jane Sanders said. “And look forward with our vision, and share our vision. Not focus on what’s wrong, focus on what we’re going to do when we take it back.”
Turning a movement into change
The second day of the summit served as the event’s jam-packed apex. Participants staggered in groggy-eyed around 8 a.m. for breakfast before a slew of speeches and panels.
After the morning activities, the people broke up into different working groups and political education sessions. The group sessions were dedicated to an array of topics, from tackling big-moneyed corruption in elections to fighting for environmental justice, learning the best ways to organize issues campaigns to running successfully for local office.
One of the sessions, “Big Organizing Beyond Bernie,” focused on identifying the successes and failures of the Sanders presidential campaign to move forward with future causes. The session was led by Becky Bond, former Senior Adviser to the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, and featured a panel which included Maris Franco of Mijente, Melanie Garunay of the ACLU, Larry Stafford of Progressive Maryland and Zack Malitz of #KnockEveryDoor.
“This is not a career path for those looking for money, looking to climb the career ladder,” Bond said. She noted that “big organizing” is based on the belief that a large, “untapped population” in the grassroots will get active for progressive change if the campaigns are properly organized.
Bond emphasized the urgency with which activists needed to work with if they were to have success combating the Republican-controlled government.
“We need solutions as radical as the problems we face,” she said.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, huge swaths of concerned Americans took up that sense of urgency, and quickly began jumping into whatever fights would take on the administration. Perhaps the most prominent of groups to gain a boost in support following the election was the ACLU. Shortly after the inauguration, the ACLU launched PeoplePower.org, a grassroots platform to build a resistance Trump and others seeking to violate people’s civil liberties.
“A lot of these folks [who joined the ACLU organization] are new,” said Garunay, Digital Organizing Director at the ACLU. “They haven’t organized before, are new to civic engagement and community organizing. And they don’t necessarily have the on the ground awareness of the local groups.”
The challenge currently facing the ACLU’s grassroots wing is the same challenge facing all groups seeing a major influx of activity: How do we effectively organize and coordinate with those who have been doing this kind of work for a long time?
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“That’s a case where it will be extraordinarily helpful for us to have a staff on the ground that can help build those relationships,” Garunay said. “We’re trying to develop tools so that people can talk to each other and coordinate when there’s so much activity happening, so that they can begin doing the kind of long-term work that this era requires.”
Until 2018 and 2020, most fights will need to take place at the local level, where activism and organizing can still influence power.
“Right now it’s really hard to win at the federal level because of the Trump administration,” Bond said. “And so we need to be active locally...People want to do things together, in person where they live. When all of this energy moves into the state and local level, it gets really complex.”
Stafford illustrated the power of grassroots organizing in the face of institutional and political opposition with Progressive Maryland’s triumph in the battle for police reform in the state.
“We started working to pass actual legislation to hold police accountable and change local policies in Maryland,” Stafford said. “A lot of the General Assembly wasn’t hearing it. They didn’t think it was a major problem in Maryland. Somewhere around that time our governor came out and said it wasn’t problem at all in Maryland. He said ‘Ferguson has nothing to do with Maryland.’”
And then, in spring 2015, Freddie Gray was killed, and Progressive Maryland’s cause was thrust into the spotlight. “It became very clear that what happens in Ferguson and what happens around the country has a lot to do with what happens in Maryland,” Stafford said. The new pressure for reform from Progressive Maryland and other activists pushed the statehouse to create real change legislatively.
Another movement to emerge in the fallout of the 2016 election was the response to the organizational failure of the Hillary Clinton campaign. After those flops were brought to light, #KnockEveryDoor was formed.
“#KnockEveryDoor was conceived in the stunned weeks following the election,” Malitz said. “We were hearing stories from inside the Clinton campaign about the campaign’s decision to use very narrow targeting to try to talk to the smallest number of voters to win. And that proved to be a dramatic miscalculation. At the same time there had been this shift of voters from Obama to Trump, which was a real mystery and also real important in the outcome of the election.”
When it became clear that the DNC would not do the digging into the voters responsible for the shocking 2016 election result, #KnockEveryDoor formed and began using techniques developed on the Sanders campaign to find out through canvassing.
“There isn’t a centralized campaign,” Malitz said of #KnockEveryDoor. “Instead it’s a platform that people can use for their own campaigns.”
And the progressive movement was represented by more than the organizations, new and old, dedicated to battling for a more just society. It was the people prominently representing California, who have been incessantly phoning their legislators, pressuring them to come up with the funding for a proposed statewide single-payer health care system. It was the dozens of people at the “Down Ballot Revolutionaries” session who stood up, committing to run for office over the next five years. And it was the rest 4,000 participants, those lacking the direction, or lacking the wherewithal to be that difference, who came to Chicago to find out how to be a part of the promise of a “political revolution.”
The Revolution rolls on
A line snaked through over a half mile of the McCormack Place convention center halls, halting eagerly outside the doors of the Arie Crown Theatre, where Bernie Sanders was slated speak at the event’s climax. The 4,000 strong were chomping at the bit, getting short-lived chants going to keep themselves sane until the gates finally opened for the masses to pour in. And after they did, a cross between a political rally and a sold-out rock show ensued. RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, introduced the Vermont senator.
“What’s America thinking about?” Demoro asked the crowd. “The thing going on in most people’s lives...is, ‘How is my life going to change? Will it ever get better?’ That’s what people are thinking about. Our nation is ideologically adrift, and it seems like nobody is home. We all know that Bernie is not, and never has been about himself...Bernie, throughout his life, has fought for us, and often he’s fought alone. And I want you all to remember that as you’re out there in your own communities, sometimes feeling like this is an impossible struggle. So tonight, this is our revolution, this is our country, and we’re taking it back. So with that, please welcome Senator Bernie Sanders.”
The raucous crowd erupted as the opening riffs to Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” streamed through the PA (“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together”). Sanders took the stage to the familiar chants of “Bernie, Bernie” and prolonged applause.
“I gotta tell you, you guys look beautiful,” Sanders told the crowd, “and it looks like we are gonna make the political revolution.”
Through nearly continuous, unrelenting applause, Sanders went on to deliver a 50-minute speech, hitting on all the points central to his presidential campaign just a year before, as the adoring crowd, many with teary eyes, admired their political champion.
“The fight we are engaged in now is a tough one,” he said. “No question about it. We are taking on a powerful billionaire class, whose greed has destroyed the middle class of this country, whose greed says that it is not enough that the top 1 percent today owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. It’s not enough, they want it all. And what we are saying today, we are going to stand up to that greed, that recklessness, and tell the billionaire class, that this nation belongs to all of us, this democracy belongs to all of us. And when we stand together, and not allow demagogues to divide us up by the color of our skin or the country that we came from or our sexual orientation or our gender. When we stand together, there is nothing that will stop us.”
Notably rambunctious throughout the speech were the “Draft Bernie” folks, looking to enlist Sanders to split with the Democrats to form a new “People’s Party.” At points, they spilled out into the stairwells of the theater, flashing signs and flags.
“I want to thank all the Draft Bernie people,” DeMorro said after the speech. “I’m with you...I always say, heroes aren’t made, they’re cornered.”
Sanders rattled off some of the early electoral victories through Our Revolution, his progressive organization launched a year ago. He also mentioned some of the disheartening losses, like that of Rob Quist in the special election for the Montana House seat. (Virginia candidate for governor Tom Perriello would be added to that list a day later after losing in a primary.) But in the early going, despite the setbacks, there is an undeniable sense of optimism among American progressives, especially those attending the People’s Summit in Chicago. Surprising victories at the local and state levels in Mississippi, New Hampshire and New York have represented tangible electoral victories, while the flooding of state Democratic Parties in California and Massachusetts have made the idea of pushing the political spectrum to the lefts seem like a possibility.
The next day, the People’s Summit concluded, and 4,000 participants scattered back across America. Nothing had changed on the surface. Donald Trump was still president, and it would be a year and a half before the resistance could have the chance to retake any legislative body. But the dream was reaffirmed, the beliefs reinforced and, most crucially, a plan had been set in motion to take back the country, and perhaps fulfill Sanders’ Political Revolution.