SOMERVILLE DIVESTMENT PROJECT: WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO WIN?
SOMERVILLE DIVESTMENT PROJECT: WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO WIN?
by John Spritzler [www.spritzlerj.blogspot.com]
As you know from previous posts, I have been working with a lot of very dedicated people in the Somerville Divestment Project (SDP) to get the City of Somerville, MA, to divest from Israel, and our petition drive to put a divestment question on the ballot was recently killed  by a judge without even the pretense of a legal basis. This post is an attempt to think about how we can actually win this fight despite the powerful forces arrayed against us. I have long thought it will take a revolution to stop the U.S. government from supporting Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Here I examine the many different ways that people in Somerville responded to our petition campaign, to evaluate the meaning and significance of these experiences with respect to the question of what it will take to win, and the tougher question of whether it is indeed possible to win. I look forward to this discussion continuing both within the SDP and with all of you who read this.
The heavy handed way the City of Somerville recently squashed our effort to get the "divestment from Israel" question on the ballot is but the most recent example of the undemocratic reality of our society: wealthy and powerful people act with as much ruthlessness as it takes to have their way when it comes to strategic social control policies, like support for Israel (important for elite social control of the Middle Eastern population), a U.S. foreign policy that attacks genuinely democratic forces everywhere in the world, Orwellian warmongering and preserving capitalist inequality domestically. These are non-negotiable policies. I believe most Americans--whether they think a revolution in the United States is possible or not (and most do not)--understand that it would take a revolution to make the kind of changes we really want.
It will take a revolution, not just a divestment campaign, to stop the U.S. government from supporting Israel. Yet the current strategy of the SDP is not based on this premise. Why is this?
One reason is that, when confronted with extremely vicious attacks on people, such as the Israeli attacks on Palestinians, we naturally tend to react by focusing just on those attacks and not the larger problem which needs to be solved to actually stop the attacks. This tendency to ignore the larger problem because of the extreme nature of the worst attack can, however, weaken us and prevent us from even dealing effectively with the latter. For example, there was a disagreement recently within the SDP about whether to oppose only Israel’s most atrocious attack -- its post 1967 occupation (of Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem) -- or to oppose the more fundamental problem of Israel’s racist character both within and without the “green line.” Some people thought that the occupation was such a horrendous attack on Palestinians that it alone should be the focus and that bringing up the issue of apartheid Israel would distract from and weaken the effort to help Palestinians in the occupied territories. (True, there were those who made this argument disingenuously as a sophisticated way of deflecting criticism away from the Zionist idea of a Jewish state, but others were sincere and not simply trying to defend Zionism.) Some people left the SDP over this question when it voted to do the right thing: to expose the apartheid nature of Israel itself, not just its post-1967 occupation, and to embrace the Palestinian right of return. Similarly, I think we need to realize that the way to truly help Palestinians in their struggle against apartheid Israel and its indispensable ally, the United States, is by building a movement that exposes the entirety of what is wrong about the policies and goals of the rulers of the United States (which involves how they attack the values and the well-being of Americans in all walks of life, as well as attacking Palestinians and others around the world) and aims for the revolutionary goal of overthrowing the power of the American plutocracy and thereby abolishing the anti-democratic direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Another reason why the SDP does not currently consider making a revolution to be our strategic goal is because many of us think a revolution in the United States is impossible, so why base a strategy on promoting one? Because of this belief, we just do the best we can to express our outrage at Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and try to educate the public to share our outrage and join us in expressing it. Nobody argues that this will solve the problem; it just feels like the right thing to do.
Actually it’s not true that nobody argues that this will solve the problem. I confess that I myself have done just that. When people asked me what good it would do to sign the divestment referendum question petition, I pointed to the divestment movement against apartheid in South Africa and told them that since that campaign succeeded so could we. It was a convincing argument, but I knew it was misleading. For lack of a revolution against its capitalist ruling class, conditions for most South Africans have actually grown worse now than they were under apartheid  (the same capitalist ruling class is still in power, after all) which is why workers there are engaging in general strikes and other struggles against the post-apartheid regime.
Revolution is necessary. But is revolution possible? I know many SDP members think it is not, but I would like to say why I think it is. The question is key, because building a revolutionary movement is very different from what we have been doing.
Why do I think revolution in the United States is possible?
I think a revolution is possible in part because of the experiences we’ve had while collecting signatures for the divestment question. Let’s look closely at how different kinds of people responded to our campaign. There were various responses, all quite interesting and revealing of the possibility for making a revolution in the United States.
The ones who hated us
Ardent Zionists responded to us with their racism and dishonesty and intense hostility. But they are a very small minority of the general population , and it required a Hitler and decades of high-powered manipulation to create that level of racism among organized Jewry. They may never support a revolution, but we don’t need them to succeed.
The ones who disagreed with us
Lots of people engaged in conversation with us about divestment, some signing the petition and some not, but very few individuals approached the question from a selfish point of view of “what’s in it for me” (I personally only ran into one such person.) For the most part, whether people agreed or disagreed with us, they did so because – given the facts as they understood them (which were often quite wrong or incomplete) – they felt their position was the one that was fair, just and morally right. The values these people used to decide what is morally right were the values of equality and democracy and solidarity, not the capitalist values of selfishness, inequality, competition, warmongering and top-down control by lies and manipulation. People disagreed with us for a number of reasons. Some people defended Israel because they thought it was the only democracy in the region. Some defended Israel because they opposed the killing of innocent civilians by suicide bombers. Some defended Israel because they thought it was anti-Semitic not to. These and other reasons many people gave who disagreed with us all represent positive values (democracy, dislike of bigotry, sympathy for innocent victims) applied to a faraway conflict by people who do not know the true facts of the situation. These people differ from us not in their fundamental values but in their degree of knowledge about Palestine/Israel. Until these people know the true facts about Palestine/Israel they will not, of course, be interested in making a revolution to stop the U.S. from supporting Israel. But these same people, if they had hope it were possible, would very likely support a revolution to make the world more equal and democratic in the parts of their lives where they have direct knowledge of how unequal and undemocratic it truly is today.
The ones who agreed with us
Forty-five hundred people in Somerville, a town with about 40,000 registered voters, signed a petition saying that a sharply worded mince-no-words referendum question calling Israel an “apartheid state” should be on the ballot so people could vote to divest from Israel. Until we did this, the common wisdom was that it would have been impossible because, as “everybody knows,” pro-Israel propaganda has brainwashed all Americans. Apparently many Americans are not so brainwashed after all.
In conversations to convince people to sign I often said I thought that the U.S. government supported Israel because Israel’s unprovoked attacks on Palestinians fomented a race war and war was a classic method of social control. The typical response to this was something like, “Oh yeah, like Bush’s war on terror to control us.” People – far more than I think we realize – know we do not live in a democracy and know that an elite ruling class manipulates us with lies, and would support a revolution to make a more equal and democratic society if they had hope it could be done.
Another interesting thing about the people who signed the petition is that some of them wouldn’t sign at first until they heard the Palestine/Israel conflict framed in class rather than racial terms. (See my account of this in Fighting Zionism with a Class Analysis on the Streets of Somerville). This means that there are a lot of people who would support us if we began talking about class conflict inside the United States and the need for a revolution. Many of these people have no doubt kept their distance from the SDP because they perceive us as being interested in something very different, a far-away issue which they associate with a race war (because that's how the mass media frame it: "the Jews versus the Arabs") more than the class war.
The ones who ignored us
Some people paid us no attention; they would just walk right past us as if we were invisible when we stood in public places holding our clipboards with the sign saying “Petition for a Ballot Question,” or if we rang their doorbell they would see us holding the clipboard and either not open the door or close it right away after seeing us. Why? From the fact that they ignored us rather than expressing any hostility towards us, I think it is reasonable to infer that they were focused on issues much closer to home, personal issues or issues related to immediate family, friends or neighbors, which they perceived as being not political but within the realm of things over which they might actually have some control, as opposed to larger and more distant issues that people doing “political stuff” care about and over which, “as everybody knows,” ordinary people can never really have any control. They probably perceived us as being naive or nutty and not worth their time to deal with. (Given the reality of how the electoral system is used to control rather than empower people, this is a perfectly understandable attitude. I myself have not been a registered voter since Jimmy Carter was elected, and not because I don’t care about larger issues!) A lot of these people probably share our values and would take an interest in larger issues if they were convinced that it were possible to really make a difference, but until then they’ll stay on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about human rights violations far away; it means they feel hopeless about changing things like that. A revolutionary movement needs to give such people hope that they now lack, which is a formidable but doable task as I will discuss below. The point is that it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion about these people -- that they are “apathetic,” that they do not give a damn about anybody but themselves; if that were true it would indeed mean that they would never support a revolutionary movement. But there’s no evidence that it is true.
“Red state” people that we never encountered in liberal Massachusetts
“Sure, people in liberal Massachusetts might support us if we were for revolution, but we’re still way outnumbered by those conservative red state people.” This might be the number one reason people dismiss a revolutionary strategy as unrealistic. The ruling elite work very hard to create in us this sense that we are a hopelessly small minority if we want a revolution or even if we merely oppose the direction our society is moving. As long as we think this way we remain too demoralized to put up a real fight; we are neutralized as a threat to the ruling class.
The elections work to create this false sense of being outnumbered. Big money ensures that a pro-establishment politician will be elected president and then after the election the press tells us that we are the minority and should just give up. But as we all know from collecting signatures on the petition, lots and lots of people are not registered to vote either because they are ineligible or (like me) they don’t think it’s worth the bother (OK, ok, if I lived in Somerville I would have registered to support our referendum question.) Of registered voters, only about half vote. Those who do vote cannot vote anti-establishment because neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party candidate is anti-establishment and the other candidates have no chance of winning so people figure “why waste your vote.” Many of us despair because of all the votes that went to Bush instead of Kerry. But a lot of those votes were like the one cast by a young black woman recently from Mississippi who works on my floor as a public health professional at the Harvard School of Public Health. A few days before the last election I facetiously asked people at work, “Have you decided who to vote for yet?” When I asked this young woman she surprised me by saying that, actually, she hadn’t. Then I asked her, now seriously, what was the main issue that would determine her choice? To my surprise again, she replied, “stem-cell research.” A lot of people voted for Bush for reasons that had nothing to do with the war on Iraq, since both candidates were pro-war. Yet people who worry about killing stem cells also worry about killing innocent people in unjust wars.
Another way we are made to feel alone is the way the liberal and conservative wings of the elite work in tandem to use the issue of homosexuality to drive many good people with fundamentally anti-capitalist values to view the explicitly pro-capitalist Republican Party as their friend and champion. Many people think there is something very wrong with our society equating the value of heterosexuality and homosexuality as the basis for a family, as our society is now doing more and more by celebrating same-sex marriages and teaching young school children with books like Heather Has Two Mommies. They object to this because if a gay or lesbian couple want to “have a child” they can only do so by bringing a child into the world who (because the couple is infertile and must either buy sperm or an egg from somebody else) will unavoidably have the bond between its natural mother or natural father broken. Lots of people think these bonds are important and the special value of heterosexual families is that only they can create and strengthen these bonds. (I agree.) But when people hold this reasonable view the liberal corporate press (like the Boston Globe) and liberal politicians call them homophobic bigots. The only politicians who treat such people respectfully on this issue are the ones advocating tax cuts for the rich.
Who are these people who demonstrate against same-sex marriage and who win anti-same-sex marriage referenda with 70 to 80% of the vote in many “red” states? A couple of years ago I went to their demonstration at Boston’s City Hall to find out. They were protesting a pro-same-sex marriage rally at City Hall. I went to the middle of their group, with an anti-war button on my chest, to the big banner two people were holding that opposed same-sex marriage. Demonstrators handed me a bumper sticker that read, “Power to the people, not the courts,” which I thought was a pretty good slogan. I went up to one of the banner-holders, a young man in his twenties, and asked him, “Do you support the Pope’s opposition to the war in Iraq?” To my surprise, he said “Yes, absolutely.” We started to talk and I discovered he thought the war was an unjust war and that Bush had lied to get us into the war. The other banner-holder, an older woman, said she supported the war. Then some demonstrators standing behind me started telling her why she was wrong, how the government had lied about 9/11, how the military jets didn’t scramble, etc. etc. When it was over I learned that there was actually more opposition to the war in Iraq at this anti-same-sex marriage demonstration than there was on the floor where I work at the oh-so-liberal Harvard School of Public Health (where in fact there were a number of people who supported the war.)
People in “red” parts of the country not known for being liberal or left are far more inclined to revolution than one would ever know from reading the establishment press. One good example of this is the new organization, Solidarity Now!, formed by seventeen people in August of this year, most of them veterans of some of the bitterest, hardest-fought labor struggles of the last decades centered in the Mid Western states. The organization includes Larry Solomon, the respected president of UAW Local 751 at the Decatur, IL Caterpillar plant during the long struggles of the 1990s, and rank-and-file members who led the fight at the Peoria Caterpillar plant (and who, I learned during a conversation with them, are as opposed to Caterpillar’s production of military bulldozers for Israel as any of us.) The organization also includes Billy Robinson who led the two-month strike and four-year lockout of UAW Local 2036 at the Accuride plant in Henderson, KY, and Tom Laney, a retired Ford worker and former Committeeman of UAW Local 879 (Twin Cities Assembly Plant) and veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. These seventeen people (all white, mostly men , mostly quite religious Christians, and mostly from the Mid West) began their founding meeting with Larry Solomon leading them in a prayer. The organization issued a “Call for a New Solidarity Movement” which says it will “build solidarity in the workplace, across industries, across races and genders, across employed and unemployed, across generations, across borders, will be independent of union officialdom, will take action to support the values and struggles of working people, [and will] fight to revolutionize society and create a true democracy based on equality and solidarity.” It also says that, “Capitalism, the system under which we live, like Communism, is undemocratic to the core. It offers only more war, inequality, and fear. We need to create a democratic alternative to both systems.”
Somerville Mayor Curtatone and all the others who embrace capitalism and its values
There are, obviously, some Americans who believe in capitalism and competition and selfishness almost like a religion, and sycophantic individuals like Somerville Mayor Curtatone who might not believe in anything except wanting to ingratiate themselves with the people who have real power. (Mayor Curtatone, for example, would probably have been just as willing to accept an expense-paid trip to Ramalla paid by Hamas as his actual trip last summer to Israel paid by Israel if he thought it would have endeared him to the American plutocracy.) Fanatical pro-capitalists include, of course, the actual plutocracy who rule the United States, but also people with less money and power who aspire to rise up by climbing over others. These people are domineering anti-social selfish bullies -- with the law on their side and people like Rush Limbaugh and William Buckley singing their praises to high heaven. They are the ones who make life miserable for others. In our capitalist society they have lots of power and self-confidence way out of proportion to their numbers, which are small, certainly no more than 20% of the population and probably far less, depending on how strict a definition of these jerks one uses.
How do I know these creeps are just a small minority? Think about it. If most people were like them and embraced capitalist values of greed and dog-eat-dog competition as the guiding principles of their lives, what would our society be like? It would be a nightmarish hell where everybody was stabbing each other in the back. It would be a world devoid of any positive human relationships of love or trust or caring for one another, even devoid of simple cooperation on the job or among friends. Such a capitalist “paradise” could not long exist; even economic production would be impossible since it requires a certain degree of trust and cooperation by workers. In our own lives we can see plenty of positive human relations, inside families, among neighbors and friends, and among our co-workers on the job, relations of trust and friendship and mutual aid and even love. All of these positive relations are attacked by capitalist culture and power and often they succumb to it, but the ones that exist do so only because of people resisting capitalism in their everyday lives by trying to shape the small corner of the world over which they have any control with their very anti-capitalist values of equality and solidarity and democracy. Typically, people do this without thinking of it as “political” and without seeing the revolutionary significance of what they are doing: that were they to succeed in these efforts on a large scale, by joining with the millions of other people who share their anti-capitalist values, it would constitute a revolutionary transformation of society and it would overthrow capitalism and the plutocracy that rules over us.
The important point is that if the SDP were to embark on the path of building a revolutionary movement, it would not mean turning ordinary Americans around 180 degrees in their values and actions (which I agree would be a futile task) but, on the contrary, it would mean helping people to accomplish on a large scale what they are already trying to do everyday on a small scale.
How is a revolutionary strategy (i.e. one whose first priority is strengthening a revolutionary movement) different from our current one?
Our current strategy engages people in an arena – history and events in Palestine/Israel – far from their direct experience. We are the experts on a topic they know little about. We ask people to learn from us about something far away, and to take some local action (like voting for divestment) to express their agreement with us about it. There is a limit to how many people will be interested in doing this. A revolutionary strategy, in contrast, engages people in the arena which they know a lot about, and into which they have tremendous insights from direct personal experience.
With a revolutionary strategy, our goal would be twofold: 1) to help people apply their insights about life and class conflict as they experience it directly towards understanding the anti-working class and social control aims of our corporate and government elite who claim to be trying to make the world better for us with MCAS and market-driven health care and the war on terror and support for Israel and so on; and 2) to help people gain the confidence that it takes to make a revolution, specifically confidence that they and their values and aspirations are morally right and the values and goals of the ruling elite are morally wrong, and confidence that they are not a hopelessly isolated minority but in fact the great majority in wanting to see a revolution in the United States. We wouldn’t just be asking people to vote or take some other action for divestment; we would be asking them to see themselves as part of a movement with revolutionary aspirations and literally billions of friends and supporters around the world, a movement that aims to make a fundamentally better, more equal, democratic and mutually supportive world for everybody from Somerville to Palestine.
In our current strategy, educating people about Palestine/Israel is the focus whereas in a revolutionary strategy it would be a supplementary activity but not the focus. I agree it would be a very important supplementary activity. Educating people about Palestine/Israel certainly helps strengthen a revolutionary movement. It does this by exposing the truth about the foreign policy goals of the American plutocracy. Our government touts its support for Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East,” as proof that it promotes democracy and equality around the world, but as a result of our educational efforts people are learning that support for Israel is, on the contrary, support for an apartheid, racist and anti-democratic regime. But a revolutionary strategy would do more. It would connect the conflict in Palestine to the class conflict in people’s lives in Somerville, to all of the reasons for making a revolution, from the wrongness of our government’s foreign policy to all of the ways that the ruling plutocracy attacks the values and security and well-being of ordinary Americans. It would help people see that the struggle of working class Palestinians and working class Israelis (granted, hindered enormously by the Zionists’ success in making Jews fear Palestinians more than they fear their own rulers) and working class Americans is a common struggle with common values against a common enemy, whom we outnumber and whom we can therefore defeat.
A revolutionary strategy means learning how to do things that none of us are skilled at yet: it means learning to see how the values of the majority of Americans are the opposite of the values of the ruling class (despite the establishment media framing issues like same-sex marriage, affirmative action, immigration, standardized testing in the schools and abortion etc. so as to obscure this understanding ) and learning to articulate this in ways that resonate with millions of Americans, convincing ordinary Americans that they are joined by millions of others in wanting a revolution, and instilling in them the confidence that they – not the ruling plutocracy -- are the people who ought to rule America. I am not suggesting that doing this is easy. But I do claim that it is possible.
How can there be a revolution in the U.S. when the rulers have the 82nd Airborne Division?
If a mass, popular revolutionary movement along the lines described above were to develop in the United States, then it could persuade many Americans in the military – both soldiers and officers – that it, the revolutionary movement, and not the official political establishment, is the legitimate authority in the land, in other words the true incarnation of We the People. Such a revolutionary movement could neutralize much of the military and win over enough soldiers and officers in the military to make a revolution. The crucial element in the power equation between the people and the rulers is not the size and strength of the military but rather who will the soldiers obey when push comes to shove. History is full of examples when rulers with overwhelming military superiority were overthrown because they lost the political battle: the Shah of Iran, the Communist regime in Poland, and the Kerensky government in Russia are some examples. The failure of the U.S. military to conquer Iraq is another example of how a popular mass movement can prevail even against a foreign super-power’s military.
If there is not a revolution in the United States, and if the U.S. therefore continues to prop up apartheid Israel, it will not be because revolution in the United States is impossible. It will be because people never tried. That would be a real tragedy. Let’s fight to win!
1. The City of Somerville arbitrarily and without any basis in state or municipal law declared that our petition form was invalid and that signatures collected before August 10 were invalid. We went to the Superior Court to request a preliminary injunction to require the City to begin counting the 4500 petition signatures we had collected (so that City officials wouldn't be able to use the excuse of not having enough time before the election to count them when we won the decisive decision in court later.) The City argued that our divestment question was "inflammatory" and that merely having it on the ballot would harm the reputation of Somerville. Despite giving no legal basis for his decision whatsoever, the Judge ruled for the City, thereby squashing the referendum campaign for this coming 2005 City election.
2. Writing in 2001 in the journal World Development, Michael Carter and Julian May concluded:
"Just over five years ago, South Africa's first freely elected, post-apartheid government inherited an economy marked by deep economic inequality and levels of poverty and living standards characteristic of much poorer economies... Using the KwaZulu-Natal Income Dynamics study of approximately 1,200 black households over 1993-98, this paper finds that poverty rates have increased from 27% to 43% among this cohort, and that the distribution of scaled per capita expenditure (or well-being) has become less equal."Michael R. Carter and Julian May, World Development Vol. 29, No. 12, pp. 1987-2006, 2001
3. In June 2005 working class South Africans staged a general strike against unemployment and poverty. In August the gold miners went on strike for wages and living conditions fit for human beings, specifically for a "living-out allowance" so they can live with their families instead of living the way they must today and the way it was during apartheid--far away from their families in barracks, in conditions that promote the spread of tuberculosis and AIDS.
4. In a 1990 Gallup poll the average American thought that the United States population was 18% Jewish; in truth it is no more than 2.5% and the intermarriage rate for Jews is around 50%.
5. I mention the race and gender of these seventeen people because if they were all, say, black women, then skeptics about the possibility of revolution might say this organization’s existence proves nothing, since “everybody knows” that blacks tend to be revolutionary but they are a minority while the majority, white men, are reactionary. On the other hand, skeptics might wonder, “Why no blacks or more women?” The answer is simply that UAW members in southern Illinois, Kentucky and Minnesota are mostly white men, and it is UAW members in this region who, because of the betrayal by the UAW international of their struggles, decided to form this new kind of organization. If the organization spreads, so will its racial and gender composition.
6. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal separately with these issues. But some examples of how a revolutionary movement might handle some of them can be seen in the following:
Affirmative Action -- or Class Solidarity?
You'll Never Be Good Enough: Schooling and Social Control
Market-Driven Health Care and Social Control
Why Are Families Under Attack?