Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is the Push-Back" Beginning?

All across the country, the crowds are gathering: in Times Square, at statehouses, in public plazas. The causes are multiple. My question is this: could they be the beginning of a grass-roots “push-back” that matures into a new civil rights movement? God knows, we need it.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, congregate to bear witness to the unequal treatment of blacks and whites in our courts, so sharply illustrated by the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer. The familiar dilemma of “driving while black” for African-American males now joins the even more unsafe adventure of “walking while black.” Of what comfort are those (so recently eroded) voting rights if you can’t even let your teenager go down to the convenience store for a snack in his own upscale neighborhood?

On successive“Moral Mondays,” crowds have stood outside the North Carolina statehouse protesting the draconian cuts to unemployment insurance and other right-wing moves. Hundreds have been arrested. We’ve seen similar statehouse rallies in Wisconsin and Texas as well over similar issues. 

A widespread vulnerability

The working poor, more and more of the middle-class, women, blacks and latinos—we're all now directly in the cross-hairs of the not-unrelated forces of international big money and narrow-minded politics. We can feel it in the harsh bite of the right-wing desire to “starve the beast” that provides a social safety-net against vagaries of the Almighty Market. We experience it in the vicious edge of a deeply embedded racism that flares forth afresh on the internet, in political speech and action. We feel it the dawning fear that the new economic “normal” presages an expanding, inter-racial underclass.

The protests are diverse: women’s rights, voting rights for people of color and college students, truly equal rights for blacks in the court system. What they all reflect, however, is that many of the major social reform achievements of 20th century progressivism are now threatened with roll-back.

Most Americans are actually unaware of the manifold ways these achievements have made middle class prosperity a reality, but they will, as funding continues to be cut and laws undone. Is it possible that these different streams of protest could coalesce into some sort of mass movement?

Relying on more than the courts

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine has suggested that the reason the gay rights movement has been successful is that it was, in fact, a mass movement. Not so much via large rallies (outside of Gay Pride parades), but by millions of people “coming out.” It succeeded through the influence of this mass action as well as the court system, and the two are as inseparable as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By contrast, he says, the civil rights movement of the 60s shifted from the streets to the courts after the Jim Crow laws were abolished. The time has come for renewed mass action.

This time we really are all in this together. The desire to limit access to voting hits many groups; the movements to limit women’s health choices is color-blind; the passion of conservatives to undermine the social safety net is no respecter of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Is a renewed, interracial civil rights/economic opportunities movement in the making? If so, what are the next steps?

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