Sanders and the struggles to come

April 5, 2016

Lichi D’Amelio describes the conversation at a Sanders campaign-sponsored event in Harlem that took up questions which will be with us long after the election is over.

THE DAY after a 25,000-strong Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx--the first by a presidential contender of either main party to take place in the borough in half a century--I was lucky enough to score a press pass for to the Harlem Women's Roundtable Conversation hosted by the Sanders campaign.

The panelists included Donna Hylton, a criminal justice advocate in Harlem who spent 27 years in prison; Rosario Dawson, actor and co-founder of Voto Latino; Tessa Thompson, actor and self-proclaimed "female agitator"; and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. While the event was invite-only, some 110 people crammed into Harlem's Row House restaurant to discuss the role of women of color during this election cycle and beyond. (A video of the event has been posted on YouTube.)

The attendees were primarily women of color who were there to talk about issues affecting them and their communities--incarceration, immigration, equal pay, health care, access to educational opportunities and more. The panelists discussed the differences, as they saw them, between Sanders and Clinton--and they pushed back against the idea, so prevalent among liberal commentators, that women who want to see progress against discrimination have some kind of duty to vote for Clinton.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander (Miller Center)

Donna Hylton offered the staggering statistic that women--African American women, in particular--are the fastest-growing population in U.S. prisons, with their numbers increasing by 680 percent since the beginning of the mass incarceration boom. She pointed to the passage of two crime bills and the dismantling of welfare during Bill Clinton's presidency--all measures supported by his wife Hillary--as major factors in this dramatic increase.

Tessa Thompson talked about the various discussions she's had when people learn she's a Sanders supporter and say: "Aren't you a feminist? I'm confused." Her response:

It's not a question of identity. There's no question in my mind who's the feminist in this race. Because feminism has to do with the consciousness of capitalism, of colonialism, of racism--all of these issues have to be a part of this conversation when we talk about how we cast our votes and why.

Rosario Dawson added: "We can't just be thinking of women within our borders, but all across the world." She talked about the Iraq war, which Clinton supported, reminding the audience that it "hurt and killed hundreds of thousands of people" and "started the creation of ISIS."

Dawson spoke to the political polarization taking place during this election, attributing it to the ongoing effects of the 2008 economic crisis and bailout of Wall Street that have left large numbers of people "really hurting right now." Donald Trump, Dawson suggested, gives people license to embrace backward, racist ideas. "People are going behind Trump because he's saying, 'You're fired,'" she said. "People are going behind Bernie because he's saying, 'You're hired.'"

PERHAPS THE most significant aspect of the event was the atmosphere of genuine discussion of the issues, not just "getting out the vote" for the campaign that sponsored it.

This was underlined by the organizers' decision to invite Michelle Alexander, who has been clear that she won't endorse any candidate from either party. As Alexander said at the event:

I have to say that I was surprised when [the event organizer] called me to participate in this dialog because I had declined to endorse Bernie Sanders. But she said, "It's fine with us if you don't endorse. We want to have a serious conversation about these issues of social justice, and we value your perspective, and you can say whatever you want."

I've been around enough campaigns to know that that kind of thing never happens. Our campaigns typically are entirely choreographed or an act of political theater, where everything is scripted and people are told what to say and how to say it...So for her to invite me, I was surprised. But I shouldn't have been, because this isn't like any other campaign.

Her point is well taken. The genuine enthusiasm and far-ranging political discussion generated by the Sanders campaign is unusual for U.S. elections. And given Sanders' political self-identification, socialists, in particular, have a lot to be excited about.

But it also means that we have our work cut out for us now that the myth of the American allergy to socialism has been punctured. The question is how we can use this moment to push the political discussion beyond the confines of just electoral politics.

While Alexander hasn't, to my knowledge, ever described herself as a socialist, I think her comments during this event were a model for how to answer that challenging question:

I think one of the most important things for all of us to keep in mind is that these problems can't be solved simply through elections...

My concern with endorsing candidates is that, given our two-party system, we are often seduced into believing that if we just vote for the right guy--or the right gal--then everything will be fine, when in reality, we are going to have to build a new party or an independent movement.

I hope that women of color, the folks in this room, the people who have been doing brilliant, beautiful, bold courageous work on behalf of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the people who have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dreamers, the trans folks, the LGBT movement--that all of these folks will commit themselves to building a long-term, coordinated movement that will sustain this political revolution well beyond this election season.

That to me is the work that we have to be committed to in the long term if any of these goals--universal health care, ending mass incarceration and all the rest - will ever become a reality. Because it's not just about a single election, it's about building a new movement and potentially building a new party if we're ever going to have a democracy that truly is of, by and for the people.

I think she's exactly right. Alexander is in no way dismissive of what the Sanders campaign represents, and crucially, she links it to the movements that came just before it.

But she stops short of accepting the inherently short-term framework of electoral politics--and challenges people to think about how today's opportunities can shape the political landscape for the left in the long term.

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