Always an advocate for justice

August 25, 2011

Shaun Joseph pays tribute to a Miguel Luna, a city council member who was always at the disposal of his constituents, and the working-class struggle.

PROVIDENCE CITY Councilman Miguel Luna died on August 18, after suffering a massive heart attack that left him incapacitated for over a week. He was 53. He is survived by three young children, his mother, three sisters, a brother, and 17 nieces and nephews.

The Providence Journal called Miguel "an advocate for socially disadvantaged people." He would have hooted at that: "Socially disadvantaged? Is that what they call poor people these days?" Plus--I don't think he'd mind me saying so, even if he were still in a position to mind--he wasn't an "advocate" for the poor so much as one of them. Council members receive a small part-time salary, but if you do the job properly, it's full-time, meaning that the position is typically restricted to various species of capitalist.

Miguel just made do without much money. The press said he died "unemployed," but even they seemed embarrassed to say so, since everyone knew he was always at the disposal of his constituents. And not just his constituents: Miguel was a sure-thing presence at every big rally or picket line, usually dragging some other council member in tow, so that the organizers could usefully claim that they had the support of a plural number of council members.

Miguel Luna marching at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Miguel Luna marching at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (Shaun Joseph | SW)

I got to know Miguel well in August 2009, when we both traveled to Honduras as part of an international delegation of human rights observers organized by the Quixote Center. This was shortly after a military-led coup d'etat had seized power from the popular reformist president Manuel Zelaya; a massive civil resistance movement had been organized very quickly, and the resistance wanted internationals to observe because that helped keep the golpistas (coup-makers) from acting completely crazy.

I had helped mobilize antiwar activists to support a resolution Miguel introduced to the city council denouncing the coup. The resolution passed unanimously, which was actually comically easy: most council members probably didn't know anything about Honduras--or indeed any location east of, well, the East Coast--but if a modest handful of people were shouting at them to vote for something, and nobody was shouting at them to oppose it--why not? Still, Miguel seemed awfully impressed, so when he was invited on the delegation, he invited me along as well.

What you can do

Donations in Miguel Luna's memory may be sent to: Luna Children Educational Trust, 167 Roger Williams Ave., Providence RI 02907.

MIGUEL WAS particularly dedicated to revolutionary movements in Latin America. He grew up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of the U.S. client Joaquín Balaguer. In a piece for, he describes being threatened with death three times in his own country--the first time at age 10, when a policeman put a rifle in his mouth. His father, terrified for his son's life, even beat him to keep him out of politics. After moving to the U.S., Miguel determinedly organized solidarity with progressive movements in Latin America, especially the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and, later, the Bolivarian movement associated with Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez.

Miguel was a Democrat, for which I felt duty-bound to harass him, although he actually hated the Democratic Party machine more than I did, since he had to personally interact with it. Miguel considered himself a socialist, not a liberal or "progressive" or whatever. I believe he, like those of us in the International Socialist Organization (ISO), ultimately wanted the left to break free from the Democrats, but our big difference was that neither of us thought that the other was taking a particularly realistic path.

"Shaun," he told me once at dinner, "we need our own thing, separate from all these liberals."

"We do have our own thing," I said. "It's called the ISO."

"No, I mean something that everyone can join."

"Everyone can join the ISO."

"Can I join the ISO?"

"No, of course not."

We laughed, and basically agreed to disagree. We lost touch a bit during last year's election season; Miguel backed the mayoral campaign of Angel Taveras. Taveras was destined to become the first Latino mayor of Providence, and got substantial progressive support, although I (rather correctly) thought he was a neoliberal flunky. It would have been impossible for Miguel, given his position, to do anything except back Taveras, which to me seemed a decisive argument for not getting oneself into the kind of position Miguel was in.

I saw Miguel at a meeting shortly after the election and asked him, somewhat mean-spiritedly, what he thought of our new mayor. With a knowing smile, he replied, "I think he's good-looking." I should say that when Taveras launched his brazen attack on Providence teachers, Miguel didn't hesitate to support the teachers.

MIGUEL'S DEATH, although in itself an awful coincidence, in the broader context of Providence city politics probably draws a line under a whole modus operandi of the city's left-liberal establishment, consisting of the "progressive Democrats," the trade union officialdom, the NGOs and nonprofits, the Alinskyite "community groups" and so on.

In last year's election, seven of the council's 15 seats turned over to first-timers; Miguel's death will presumably make it a majority. This is significant because previous councils, although not particularly progressive, were at least willing to assert their independent power and privilege against the mayor. Although this was motivated by mere cretinism often enough, it also meant that the mayor could be stymied in his worst or least popular initiatives.

A mostly neophyte council--with freshmen concentrated particularly in the most working-class wards--is not likely to be able to block a mayor with an extraordinarily ruthless agenda fully backed by the city's most bourgeois elements, particularly the East Side moneybags. Indeed, the council's political weight during the crisis over teacher firings and school closings amounted roughly to zero.

On the "civil society" end, we also observe a big turnover, as a generation of "executive director" types continue on with their careers, making way for a new class. At the risk of being unkind, we must say that the newcomers by and large cut a less impressive figure than their predecessors. Having received their political training in the late 1980s to early 1990s, the departing generation was influenced by a (usually Stalinist) "hard" left that was declining but still on its feet.

This rendered them, if committed to the Democratic Party, at least more cagey about how to give it a hard time. Their heirs, by way of contrast, are steeped entirely in the perspectives of the NGO/nonprofit "soft" left. Hence they face a political machine that is less willing than ever to grant concessions, without the intellectual equipment that helps one to effectively demand concessions.

The Providence working class, then, faces an immediate crisis of political representation, without much likelihood of being able to resolve it in the near term. The silver lining of this dark cloud is that, by being left to its own devices, the working class has the opportunity to rediscover its own devices: its organization, its politics, its tradition. But it would be tempting fate for socialists to try to foresee too far into the future--better to dig in where we think we can make a difference, and see what happens.

In Honduras, I was always hurrying Miguel up so that we wouldn't be late to something or other. One time I tried to stress the importance of punctuality by saying that, when the revolution comes, it will be very important to be on time. "Shaun," he replied thoughtfully, "when the revolution comes, we'll be caught with our pants down."

I think he literally didn't have his pants on yet when he said this--he really was awful about time--but it was a good point regardless. I'm sorry Miguel never really got to see the U.S. working class moving ahead of us, while we on the left joyfully raced to catch up.

Miguel Luna, presente!