Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Democracy Convention – Day 1

Opening Ceremony / Keynote Addresses

The Democracy Convention in Madison, WI opened tonight with a moving performance of the Call for Peace Native American drum dance group. Two dancers, from tribes located in Wisconsin, combined ritualistic music with dance, including a Circle Dance with more than a dozen hoops, symbolizing unity and harmony of all people of all races and backgrounds.

Mayor Paul Soglin of Madison provided greetings to the hundreds of attendees. Observing what has taken place in Wisconsin since the beginning of the year, he said the actions of Governor Walker over the last 6 months was the result of what happens when we don’t pay attention. The 2 lessons he’s learned since the beginning of the year are (1) investing in infrastructure and education is what improves society and (2) we can’t let conditions take care of themselves.

Ben Manski, Chair of the Convention and Director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, felt that the event was the culmination of hard work of many people involved in many individual movements for democracy that had matured – beginning with resistance of the WTO in Seattle.

Tom Hayden, drafter of the Port Huron Statement which called for participatory democracy, not simply representative democracy in the 1960’s, commented that democracy in the US today is fragmented with our democratic structure build on a historical and present destruction of people and cultures – from Native Americans to the nation’s we are at war with at the moment.

There is a current conflict between the progressive and reactionary forms of populism, Hayden said. Democratic movements always divide over those who’ve been radicalized and want more and those who are moderate and are content with modest gains. Victories of any size also fragment movements. The ruling class is also divided in times of social turmoil – between moderates who are willing to make concessions and solidify most of their power and wealth and those who are absolutists, feeling that to give in on any demand represents a loss of status and power. These absolutists make up a countermovement – which is what we’re experiencing today with attacks on progressive/populist economic and political programs and rules.

One of the major struggles between progressive populist movements for democratic change and counter-movements is over memory, since a large part of current movements is based on the memory and lessons learned from earlier ones.

He said authentic social change always begins with participatory democracy on the margins and ends up impacting representative democracy (elections). Unlike other nations, one device that has always undercut the growing movement for democracy has been war. The US frontier/expansionist culture has been effective at distracting attention from domestic concerns and diverted class and social conflicts by pushing people of color and the poor off “to the frontier” to fight wars or settle lands.

He was encouraged by the recent AFL-CIO statement against the Afghanistan war but cautioned us to pay attention to the “Long War” Pentagon doctrine (calling for perpetual war for 80 years – we’ve 10 years in). The domestic effects of this Long War doctrine are reductions of civil liberties (and difficulties in organizing) and in further domestic economic and social deterioration.

He ended by noting the similarities between the 1950’s and today. Just as the awareness and actions of the Beatniks and Montgomery bus boycotts were the precursors of the organizing for peace and civil rights of the 1960’s, what happened in Madison earlier this year may very well be the precursor to the more profound movement for change in the period ahead.

Cheri Honkla, founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia and organizer of many poor-people’s marches nation-wide, was the final speaker. She said we are living in truly historic times. We must stop trying to adjust to a lower standard of living. To be silent in these times is to betray the millions who are without work, health insurance, or a home while bankers received trillions.

She said fear is being used as a weapon to silence and terrorize us. History has shown when people are no longer immobilized by fear, movements happen. Overcoming fear has allowed thousands of families she has worked with to take over abandoned homes and fight foreclosures. Our quest should be to create an entirely new cooperative society – where people are in control of banks and other institutions that currently oppress people.

By the way, Honkala is running this November to become Sheriff of Philadelphia – so she can stop throwing people our of their homes due to foreclosures.

On a personal note, I have the good fortune to be staying in a cohousing community in Madison called Arbco Commons. With the inspiration and perspiration of several Quakers and others, the 3-year old 40-unit facility is a center of intentional community living and activism in this area. More information about the community is at

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