If you wanted to know what a dynamic and emerging progressive majority of Americans looked like, the place to be was the National Mall at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on the beautiful and sunny Saturday afternoon of Oct. 2, 2010.
It was a sight to behold. Pulled together by the ‘One Nation Working Together’ coalition of some 400 groups, an estimated 175,000 people filled the area. They were the country’s trade unions, civil rights, women’s rights, and community organizations, peace and justice groups, and many more. The focus was jobs, justice and education, with sizable contingents against the wars as well.
“I hope they look at the mall today,” stated the Rev. Al Sharpton from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, referring to the GOP and the Tea Party right, “because this is what America looks like, not just one color or one gender.”
A rainbow of nationalities, men and women, young and old, and with a solid core from all sectors of the working class filled the area. The crowd’s mood was upbeat and militant, and they let it be known with a range of voices, from old-fashioned liberals to the socialist left, that they were fed up with the right wing assaults from Tea Party, the GOP neoliberals and the Blue Dog Democrats going along with them.
“This gathering is a wakeup call for the American people,” declared Harry Belafonte, in one of the strongest and most critical speeches of the day. “”Do we really believe that sending 100,000 troops to kill innocent men and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes any sense?” he continued, clearly and sharply criticizing Obama’s concession to the war machine. The actor-singer went on to attack the “crippling poison of racism” and “the undermining of the Constitution and the systematic attack on our most inalienable rights….At the heart of this danger is the Tea Party which is coming close to achieving its villainous ends. On November 2, in the millions, we must overburden our voting booths, and vote against those who would have us become a totalitarian state.”
I arrived at the mall early, before 9am, along with Randy Shannon from Beaver County in Western PA. We drove to D.C. to participate in a conference of political economists on Jobs and the Economy at Howard University on Friday. But now our task was to get as close as possible to the mall, where we were assigned a space for a literature table. We lucked out. There was one legal spot left only 50 yards from our spot, so I snatched it.
Teams from other groups were arriving to do the same. Leslie Cagan and Mike McPhearson from United for Peace and Justice and Vets for Peace stopped to greet us.
“We’re just around the bend,” said Leslie. “If anyone needs a sign linking the war and jobs, send them over. We have plenty.” Next to stop was Aaron Hughes of Iraq Vets Against the War. “Greetings, Brother!” he said, and handed me a stack of handouts explaining their new campaign to get adequate benefits for returning soldiers with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. I put them on the table, along with an array of political books and literature from the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Our most important item for the day was our new booklet making the case for full employment as the progressive path out of the crisis.
Randy took off to meet incoming buses from our area. Among the thousands arriving from the East Coast, South and Midwest, there were four from Beaver County—organized by a coalition of the United Steel Workers, the Beaver-Lawrence County Labor Council, the Beaver County NAACP, the Minority Coalition, SEIU, and our 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America. The USW had other buses and vans from other counties near us, and they, together with local civil rights groups, were fully engaged in building this event. Most important, they were also working to build new jobs coalitions to fight at the county level for new manufacturing startups. The Oct 2 rally was only one part of a wider and ongoing effort.
As I put the finishing touches on our book display, the busloads started pouring in. A huge throng of several hundred SEIU1199 healthcare workers from the Boston area, mainly Puerto Rican and African American, surges by. “Comrade Carl!” says Rafael Pizzaro, an old friend and an SEIU organizer, as he came over to give me a hug. “It’s great to see the CCDS table here!” Pizarro was one of the early Co-Chairs of CCDS; he said he’ll stop back later, and he did. I got $2 from him for the jobs booklet.
SEIU1199 was one of the initiators of today’s events, together with the NAACP and La Raza. It has largely through their prodding, along with the USW, that the national AFL-CIO came on board. But you could clearly see the clusters of SEIU locals everywhere in the crowd, with their distinctive purple T-shirts. Everyone was color-coded—red for the communications workers, sky blue for the NEA teachers, navy blue for the steelworkers, yellow for the NAACP, and so on.
The next surge was hundreds of African American youth from community colleges in the DC area, full of excitement, carrying banners demanding jobs and funding for schools. A few stopped to talk, eager for things to read. I got six of them to sign up for our email newsletter.
By this time I can hear the sound kick in from the main stage. Several bands, both rock and hip-hop, are warming up the growing crowd. But I’m far enough back that it’s not overwhelming. Besides, the messages were on target:
“Most of my childhood friends died over some dumb stuff, it’s like we all on some slum stuff, whatever happened to that we shall overcome stuff?” rapped Black Ice, a poet getting his politics out. “What’s a young boy to do when he want to do right but there’s a lock on the right door? When he has the heart of a soldier and the aggression of a prize fighter but no one’s taught him what to fight for?”
When a group of about 20 young people carrying signs from one of the new Students for a Democratic Society chapters passed by, one of them looked at me and the table, then at me again, comes over and said, “Hi, you’re Carl. I’m one of your Facebook friends–nice to meet you in person!” We both get a laugh out of this, and he picked up some literature. But I met five or six more ‘Facebook friends’ the same way throughout the day. “Facebook is cool,” I’d always say. “But to do serious organizing, you still have to talk with people face-to-face.”
One middle-aged union guy came up, wanting to learn about socialism. “Well, you can look at our ‘Goals and Principles’ statement, it’s only a buck,” I said. “But if you really want to get into it, read this book, ‘After Capitalism,’ by David Schweickart. It goes for $20, but it’s the best single thing on the topic for today’s times.” He bought both, signed the email list, and moved on. Now if I could multiply that by a hundred, it would make my day.
Another older guy in military fatigues stops and picks up a book on Afghanistan. We talked some about the war, then I asked him where he was stationed. “I was at the Pentagon,” he says, “but I just retired. I was finally able to get disability when they made some changes about PTSD.” I handed him one of the cards Aaron Hughes left, and said ‘You need to go talk with the Iraq Vets against the War, they have a new campaign on PTSD,” and pointed out their table location. He headed for it.
Around 1pm I got some relief. Janet Tucker, the CCDS national coordinator, who’s a retired nurse from Kentucky, arrived to help with the table. I decided to move around, and take stock of the event.
Standing at the World War Two Memorial at the rear of the mall, I could see that the entire area on both sides of the reflecting pond is completely filled, even under the trees, all the way from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But looking back at the Washington Monument, I could see large groups still arriving, meaning that buses are still unloading. Whatever the final count, I guessed it was somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, and that made it a success.
The Code Pink area was a visual treat, as always, and the variety of signs and banners was also remarkable. Most stuck, more or less, to the official themes of jobs, justice and education, but a good number targeted the wars. One banner was especially interesting:
“Money for Jobs, not for War or Sanctions against Iran!,” it read, and was carried by members of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran. One of them, Phil Wilayto, later wrote up his experiences with it:
“I was closely watching the faces of the people passing by our banner,” said Wilayto, “remembering the times years ago when I would attend a union rally with a banner about Vietnam, or the Middle East, or Central America or some other area of the world where the U.S. rulers were sending our young people to fight for Wall Street’s profits. Some of those encounters had been painful. Literally.”
“Today was very, very different. One big burly white guy, an auto worker, stopped and stared at the banner, then pulled out his camera and took our picture. Walking away, he smiled and gave us the thumbs-up sign. Others waved and smiled. Not one person showed any hostility.”
The large outdoor TV screens along the mall helped a lot for those listening to the speeches. There were two overlapping but distinct messages coming from the platform. One was that everyone needed to get out the vote in November against the GOP. In that sense, this was a rally to expand and fire up the voters in the Democratic base. The other was to push Congress and the White House on jobs, immigrant rights and peace, no matter which party held the balance of power.
After harshly denouncing the ‘moneyed powers’ on the right, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka appealed to both union workers and progressive groups for broad unity: “Promise you won’t let anyone quiet us or turn us against each other. Promise to make your voices heard for jobs, justice, and education today — and on Election Day,” he declared. “Our best days are ahead, not behind us, and we will fight for them, and we won’t let anyone stand in our way.”
Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen spanned both messages: “In the past 47 years, workers’ rights have been all but crushed,” he said. “Today, only one in 15 workers has bargaining rights. The U.S. is at the bottom of the global economy in protecting the rights of workers to organize and negotiate. We know that a minority in the U.S. Senate has prevented even discussion of 400 bills passed by the House of Representatives, including the Employee Free Choice Act.” This raised a sore point labor has with the Democrats and Obama, the foot-dragging on EFCA. But Cohen concluded,
“We will build one nation together. We can make progressive change on November 2. We can work for democracy in the U.S. Senate.”
Walking back to our table, I saw the Progressive Democrats of America table, with their head guy, Tim Carpenter, sitting under a tree. He wants to know what happened at the Howard University conference on political economy. “It looks like we’ll have a new full employment bill out of Conyers office by January. They want help organizing town meetings on it all around the country.” “Good!” he replied, “That’s right up our alley. It’ll fit well together with the ‘Medicare for All’ work. And it will help us grow with the unions.”
I also ran into a large group of workers in UAW jackets. “Where are you from?” I asked. ‘Saginaw, Michigan,” one replied. “That’s a long, tough bus ride,” I said. “Yes, but the spirit here makes it all worthwhile,’ he answered, as they moved on.
It summed up the day for me. Back at the table, about a dozen people from one of our Beaver County buses stopped by. There’s a retired IBEW electrician and former mayor of a small borough, three social workers, one Vietnam vet who works on the Ohio River locks and dams, a home day care provider, among others They all picked up stuff to read for the ride back.
By 5pm, it’s time to pack up. Just as I’m placing books in boxes, Medea Benjamin from Code Pink stops by on a bicycle. “What’s Code Pink up to next?” I asked? “Israel, Palestine and Gaza,” she replied. I let her know about our Beaver County Peace Links project to put a billboard on Ohio River Boulevard demanding a cutoff of military funding to Israel. She moved on, and in 15 minutes or so, we have the truck loaded, and were on the highway before six.
There’s always a point at the close of these big mobilizations when I take a critical look at whether it was worth it. This one definitely was a step forward. Cindy Grundy, one of our Peace Links stalwarts, noted: “On the ride back, when we stopped in Breezewood, PA, I felt a great sense of solidarity with other people on other busses. There were nods and eye contacts with so many strangers who were now my brothers and sisters. I didn’t feel this to this degree the last time we went to DC.”
I also heard from Steffi Domike from the USW staff, who served as a van driver for 10 retired steelworkers living near Pittsburgh. “This group was very excited about the event,” she concluded. She brought them to our indoor jobs rally of 500 building for Oct 2 two weeks back. “They stayed to the very end, way after the speakers were done and everyone else was rushing to the doors. These guys had retired in the 1980s, having worked from 20-50 years for Jones & Laughlin Steel; many of them had worked their last years up at the Aliquippa mill after the Pittsburgh mills had closed down. They were excited to see such a big community coming together, but they also were wondering if anyone with the needed resources would actually come to Beaver County to help back new manufacturing endeavors.”
Time would tell, but in any case, we’d have to fight for it. But given the diverse forces brought together locally in building this rally, we had a decent shot at it. That was the point of it all.
[Carl Davidson is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a national board member of Solidarity Economy Network, and a local Beaver County, PA member of Steelworkers Associates. If you like this article, make use of the PayPal button onKeep On Keepin' On.]