Prosaic Politics During Revolutionary Times

OK, we’re all probably being a little too dramatic about the possibilities of Occupy Wall Street, but damn if it isn’t inspiring. THE media story of the moment is now about economic inequality, not budget cuts and austerity. That alone is a victory. Anti-bank activists have been fighting some of these same battles since post-World War 2, FHA redlining policies led to the block-busting and panic peddling of the 1960’s. Major victories came in the early 1970’s with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), but our work to fight back equity theft, predatory lending and the foreclosures caused by the Wall Street securitization bazaar has had only mixed results. Our organizations need to leverage the energy and the media attention of the Occupy movement, the benefits could lift our work to a much higher level. This is an era where direct action and civil disobedience is being lauded (and creatively used!) The time to act is now!

So what have I been doing? Some mucking around the edges of the battle to stop Governor Cuomo from giving N.Y. millionaires a $5 billion tax break on December 31st. He’s threatening to allow the high income tax surcharge to lapse, putting the state back into severe deficit. But the battle is just starting and seems to have only really been joined by our NYC colleagues able to use the Occupy Wall Street crowds to bolster the cause. My main event of the past month has been much more quotidian–planning and putting on a candidate forum.

The forum, for the candidates running for the two Common Council seats representing the Southside (3rd and 4th districts), was held on Tuesday and came off reasonably well. From a leadership development perspective, the meeting was a success. Six residents planned and ran the meeting. The group of leaders helped draft the five questions we asked each of the candidates. Each question was posed to the candidates by one of our leaders and another leader sat at the front table and facilitated the meeting. They all did a very professional job.

I wish I could say the same thing about the performance of the candidates. One was an obvious newcomer to city issues and was not able to intelligently answer any of the questions. One was an affable politician, making the most minimal connection to the questions as humanly possible–fearing a commitment to anything might possibly alienate a potential voter. One spoke in orotund phrases with a polished speaking voice–saying absolutely nothing of substance: artisanal bullshit. Another had 20 ideas for each of our questions and attempted the difficult feat of being both warm and a policy wonk. I’ll leave you to figure out which candidate fits each description: check out the best coverage of local candidates at the S.U. Maxwell School website Democracywise.

Perhaps now is not the best time to assess how local electoral politics can change our society, but my usual belief in the efficacy of organizing citizens to demand change from their local pols is being sorely tested. The Common Council and the Miner administration are openly (and childishly) feuding. The Mayor is highly intelligent, but does not work collaboratively with either the Council or the general public. The Council is petulant at its treatment by the Mayor, but doesn’t generally pull its own weight either intellectually or in work ethic. The result is a Mayor that is consumed by austerity fever–scared that the city’s eroding cash reserves will force the state to seize control of the city’s finances. Her only response is to cut services. The Council has been marginalized, so is not in a position to propose needed work on developing additional revenues.

What is an organizer to do? I guess the only answer in what many on the left are calling “a movement moment” is to occupy something. Action, brave thinking and enthusiasm must replace traditional organizing schemes if we are going to carry the day. If the four candidates for office at our forum are the best we can cough up (only one decent one in the group–again I’ll let you decide who that is), we certainly aren’t going to win anything following the same old patterns.

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