Ehrenreich, Hightower, Cohen Speak at Metro DC DSA Bernie Rally


By Kurt Stand

Over 100 people attended Metro DC DSA’s “We Need Bernie” rally on Thursday, Oct. 24 in support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president.   Held at Busboys and Poets’ 5th and K Street location, the event provided an example of the depth of support for Sanders and for a genuinely progressive agenda rooted in civic activism. The rally also highlighted the relevance of democratic socialism to building a political alternative for our country.

The first speaker, Andy Shallal – owner of Busboys and Poets, peace activist and former DC mayoral candidate – raised the need to do more than just build support for Sanders, arguing that we ought to use his campaign to build a movement of direct action and public engagement that challenges the injustices everywhere visible in our society. Shallal also noted the need to address and overcome one of the critical weaknesses of Sanders’s campaign: the fact that it still has not developed sufficient support in communities of color, a fact emphasized by the overwhelmingly white composition of the crowd (which stood in contrast to most of the progressive forums held at Busboys).  He stressed that this should not serve as an excuse to withdraw from supporting Sanders, but rather should serve as a reminder to incorporate the message of Black Lives Matter in all work on behalf of his campaign, to address the issue of racism in its specificity – that (as he put it during the Q & A) is, understanding black and white as political categories.  By beginning the program in this fashion, Shallal underlined the seriousness of the rally, this event being more than a cheering session for Sanders (though indeed it was that too) but also a discussion of what is to be done, how to continue the organizing.

Barbara Ehrenreich, founding national co-chair (and current honorary chair) of DSA, followed with a talk that emphasized a theme that has long been at the heart of many of her books, including Nickel and Dimed: inequality.  Ehrenreich talked about the one-sided class war waged by corporations against working people and the importance of Sanders highlighting the disparities which have seen wages stagnate while profits rise, a reality that translates into millions struggling to get by while those who already live in luxury want more for themselves and less for everyone else.  This inequality, Ehrenreich noted, hurts all working people, but especially impacts on women, on blacks, on immigrants, on the already poor; Sanders’ insistence on that reality having already shifted the debate within the Democratic Party to the left.  She added, however, that Hillary Clinton disqualified herself from any pretense of being a progressive or a feminist by her support (never disavowed) of Bill Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which was racist and misogynist, blaming poor women for their poverty.  

Nonetheless, Ehrenreich’s message was consistent with that of Sanders’ campaign, focusing not on attacking others but on the importance of his policy reform proposals: taxing corporations and the wealthy to pay for universal social insurance programs, educational benefits and infrastructure plans, all of which will help the vast majority of Americans.  Certainly, she concluded, Sanders is not perfect – noting, for example, his inconsistent policy on the Middle East – but the question is not perfection but of recognizing how principled Sanders has been through the years in most arenas, and of using the opportunity his presidential run provides for further organizing on behalf of social justice for all.

This was a theme taken up by Larry Cohen, recently retired president of the Communications Workers of America, as he called upon the crowd to seize the moment Sanders’ campaign represents, a moment of hope that many in the room have long been working to create.  Currently chair of Labor for Bernie – the national initiative to build support for Sanders within the trade union movement – Cohen reminded those at the rally that Sanders was talking directly to working-class people about the issues that affect them:  massive student debt for their children, fear of running out of money when they retire, the danger of job loss, the difficulty of asserting union rights at work when employed.  The resulting insecurity alongside the too many defeats unions have suffered in recent decades have led many in labor to become defensive, which only leads to more defeats.  Sanders’s campaign, however, provides an opportunity for workers to go on the offensive, which is the reason his message resonates so strongly with many of them – and the reason why union support for him is growing, especially on the local level.

Moreover, Sanders is speaking to a wider working-class social agenda. Cohen noted his consistent opposition to “free” trade pacts, his support for labor law reform and campaign finance reform, his opposition to the Iraq War and his statement that climate change is the greatest danger to US national security. Sanders’s campaign, in all these aspects, is a campaign against corporations undermining US democracy, and in all respects represents a challenge to the system by bringing people back into the process. Therein lay what was perhaps Cohen’s most important point, that Sanders is creating a decentralized movement that enables people to act to bring about change – action that is key not only to the possibility of a Sanders victory, but also key to any possibility of carrying out his agenda.

Restoring American democracy was at the center of keynote speaker Jim Hightower’s presentation.  Former Texas state agricultural commissioner and publisher of The Hightower Lowdown, the progressive populist has long scored the corrosive impact of big businesses on U.S. politics and economy and has long been a fierce advocate of the needs of American working families, and of the need for people to take collective action to regain power from our country’s elite.  

He reminisced about buying a Bernie button when Sanders was running for local office as an independent socialist in Burlington, Vermont many years ago, and thinking then as now that buying a button (or attending a rally) is a good first step only if followed by other steps, by organizing.  Hightower’s support for Sanders in this presidential run stems from his support for Sanders’ call for a political revolution to put our country back in the hands of the people rather than allow it to remain in the hands of the wealthy, the unelected small minority, who have bought control of the political process.

Following the speakers was a lively Q & A session on a host of issues relevant to our collective engagement, ranging from differences over foreign policy to concern over how a focus on the national election might impact local campaigns; from more discussion of Black Lives Matter to questions of how to sustain the work now being done.  And the question of democratic socialism came too, with Cohen mentioning that Sanders will be making a major presentation defining his views, but noting that in short form it means building a system rooted in universal social justice and political participation.  DSA Deputy Director (and local Metro DC DSA member) David Duhalde came to the front and added that DSA strongly supports Sanders’s calls for labor and political rights, for national health insurance and an end to college debt, but that we see these as first steps to a socialism which will make the US more fully democratic and egalitarian.

The event was organized by a committee of Metro DC DSA members and is itself projected as a step in the process. More actions will be taken in the future, hopefully involving many of the 100 + who came, listened and took part in the local “We Need Bernie” rally.

Kurt Stand is a member of Washington, DC DSA.

This article previously appeared in “The Washington Socialist” newsletter.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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