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Howard Zinn on the struggle for a better world
"The signs of resistance"

February 16, 2001 | Page 10

HOWARD ZINN is one of the best-known activists in the U.S. today. He's a veteran of the labor and civil rights movements and has been an opponent of U.S. military adventures overseas for more than half a century. He's the author of numerous books and articles, including A People's History of the United States and the play Marx in Soho.

Howard talked to Socialist Worker's ANTHONY ARNOVE about the fraud of Election 2000, the fight against George W. Bush and the struggle for a socialist future.

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WHAT DID you think when you heard that the U.S. Supreme Court was handing the White House to George W. Bush by stopping the recount of the vote in Florida?

IT'S SO ironic that those five justices who haven't given a damn about the equal protection clause of the Constitution up to this point--who have resisted using it for Black people, for women, for poor people--suddenly were invoking the equal protection clause to make sure that the votes weren't counted in Florida.

That's how Bush became president. It is a kind of flagrant violation of the notion of free elections.

If this took place in a Third World country, we would have looked at it with horror and said, "Look at those people. They don't know how to have free and democratic elections like we do!"

DID THE schemes to prevent voting by African Americans in this election remind you of your experiences fighting for voting rights during the civil rights movement?

ON THE face of things, the situation is supposed to be very different.

Before the huge demonstrations all over the South that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black people in the South--especially in the deep South--simply weren't voting. If they tried to register to vote, they were beaten, their lives were threatened, and they would lose their jobs. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act--spurred on by the years of mass demonstrations and mass arrests. So presumably, this was a very different situation compared to today.

Black people in Florida voted in this last election--and so, superficially, the situation seems to have changed dramatically. But the reality is that more subtle tactics to prevent Blacks from voting have come into being, and this is what we saw in Florida. While superficially they have a right to vote, the reality is that large numbers of Blacks are disenfranchised.

This is a common situation in our society. People struggled to get their legal rights, they achieved their rights on paper, then the reality of power and wealth comes into play, and those rights don't mean very much in the crunch.

I suppose the lesson of that is never depend on your legal rights--never think you can point to a legal statute or the Constitution and say, "Look! This is what it says and this is therefore what I'm going to have." Because whatever the Constitution says and whatever the statutes say, whoever holds the power in any given situation is going to determine whether the rights you have on paper are rights you have in fact.

WHAT HAPPENED the last time the loser of the popular vote for president snuck into the White House because of the Electoral College?

THE REPUBLICAN Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden and needed one more Electoral College vote to win. But in a special commission, the Democrats gave every disputed electoral vote in four states to Hayes so he could win.

In return for the electoral victory handed to them under dubious circumstances, the Hayes administration agreed to withdraw federal troops that had been in the South since the Civil War enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments and permitting Blacks to vote. These troops were withdrawn from enforcing Reconstruction and were then used to break the 1877 railroad strikes--and also to go Whest to take over Indian lands.

In short, the Republicans, who represented the industrial interests of the North, made a rapprochement with the Democrats and the white South--at the expense of the newly freed slaves, at the expense of working people and at the expense of indigenous people.

Despite the hullabaloo over who wins the election--then, as now--ultimately, the two parties worked it out among themselves at the expense of everyone else.

HOW IMPORTANT is the person sitting in the White House to what happens in the next four years?

THERE'S HARDLY anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens.

The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which overthrew the "separate but equal doctrine" of segregated schools, came during the Eisenhower administration. It came with a Republican appointee as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--came with Republicans joining Democrats on the Supreme Court. And why did that happen? Was there a sudden burst of enlightenment that hit the brains of the members of the Supreme Court and suddenly told them: "Oh my God, we've misinterpreted the 14th Amendment"? The only reason that happened in 1954 is that the world around the Supreme Court had changed.

In 1954, even though the civil rights movement hadn't begun in earnest--it was in the next year that we had the Montgomery bus boycott and several years later that we had the sit-ins that were the heart of the movement--there were already rumblings of discontent in the South. Black people were challenging segregation in many different places and were risking their lives to do so.

At the same time, the United States was involved in the Cold War with the Soviet Union--this contest for influence in the Third World, which is a nonwhite world. By 1954, it was very important for the United States to demonstrate in some way to these Third World countries that it was doing something about racial segregation.

In other words, there are all these pressures, internal and external, that operate on the Supreme Court and on the government. It isn't simply a matter of the judges closing themselves in from the world, sitting in their chambers and reading the words of the Constitution over and over again until something becomes clear to them. Their minds are much clarified by the things that are swirling around them in the world.

AT THE protests in Washington, D.C., against Bush's inauguration, there was a real feeling of resistance and optimism. Do you sense that?

I THINK whether you're optimistic or pessimistic depends on what you're looking at.

All the things that appear in the newspapers and most of the images that you see are images of "important" people. If you take seriously these images on television and what you read in the newspapers, that's very disheartening. Because what you're hearing are things that confirm the status quo. You're not hearing signs of resistance to it.

But there are thousands of things that are going on all the time that aren't reported in the mainstream press and that aren't reported on the major media. There's evidence of an enormous amount of energy in towns and cities all over the country--energy of people who are doing things that are noble and helpful to other people.

There was an enormous amount of attention given to every word the president uttered on Inauguration Day, every image of everybody who was in the inauguration party. But there was just a flash on the demonstrators, although there were thousands and maybe tens of thousands of demonstrators.

The reason people felt some sense of optimism in Washington was because they were in the midst of people who were carrying signs against war and against stolen elections. They were in the midst of people with spirit and originality--not simply listening to the tired clichés of the president's inaugural address.

So if you pay attention to that and don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the images of the great and near-great in Washington, D.C., you can get a sense of an enormous potential for change in this country.

WHAT DO you think the prospects are for class politics and socialist politics to reach a wider audience?

I THINK the opportunity to discuss socialism is here in a very important way. I think the fall of the Soviet Union 10 years ago has given us a much better opportunity to talk about socialism in a way that isn't tainted by Stalinism--by a police state and the gulag. We can return to that refreshing vision of socialism that was given to us before the Soviet Union came along--by people in this country like Eugene Debs, Helen Keller and Jack London.

It's a vision of socialism that can inspire people--that inspired several million people in this country at the turn of the century. I think we have opportunities to do that.

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