Alice Embree on Political Activism : Carry it On

Alice Embree, holding sign, participates in anti-war vigil at Texas State Capitol, March 19, 2008. Photo by CodePink/Austin.

On my political activism:
Carry it on

By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / April 6, 2010

[On March 30, Long-time Austin activist David P. Hamilton wrote an article in The Rag Blog announcing his “retirement” from political activism. He discussed his disillusionment with Barack Obama, whom he worked hard to elect, and with American democracy, which he considers “irretrievably corrupted.” For David, the passage of a health care reform bill that he considered a sham was the final straw, and — at 66 — he said he’s “passing the torch.”]

I’m responding to David Hamilton’s retirement notice posted on The Rag Blog last week. Everyone should get to retire or take leave from the movement for social justice. It’s never been a paid job and the benefits certainly haven’t included major medical or dental care.

We don’t need burn-out. But we desperately need persistence. We all must find a balance between what replenishes and what depletes us. For years I have identified with Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” But, her guidance in “Spring Offensive of the Snail” may be more important.

I cannot live crackling
with electric rage always.
This time we have to remember
to sing and make soup.

We can’t lose faith in the struggle for social justice because Obama delivered an expanded war and a Wall Street bailout and failed (never really trying) to deliver a public option for health care. If our faith was in electoral politics, it was misplaced.

My post-retirement activism has been both rewarding and difficult. Bush’s election in 2000 was discouraging, but was nothing compared to watching the hopes of a worldwide peace movement dashed in March 2003 and Bush re-elected in 2004.

I have found strength in the efforts of others — Cindy Sheehan sitting in a ditch near Crawford; CodePink with their theatrical stunts and dogged determination. I’ve found hope in an emerging GI movement that I support with work on a Killeen coffeehouse. I’ve turned out for Texas State Employee Union campaigns and felt the solidarity of a statewide union. I’ve supported the organizing efforts of immigrant workers. I’ve picketed a private prison that housed children and seen it shut down by persistent community organizing and dedicated attorneys. In El Salvador I was an election observer to an historic left victory. I’ve chronicled some of this for The Rag Blog.

At the same time, I’ve been dismayed by the escalation of war and the inept presidential leadership on health care. I’ve been saddened by the earthquake in Chile and truly disheartened by the election of a right-wing president in a country I care for. There have been plenty of setbacks.

In Austin, the beloved “progressive” city, I’ve watched East Austin get re-shaped by developers with hardly a murmur from progressives. Dismissing the term “gentrification” as too polite, union organizer and writer Bill Fletcher, says: “We need to stop the class and racial cleansing of our cities… where workers are being driven out of cities…” A piece of this might be ending — in the simple name of democracy – the costly, at-large electoral system here. Austin is the only large city in Texas with this legacy representation.

Decades ago, Mariann Wizard wrote a farewell poem to Austin entitled “Sweet Suck City.” That is what I often think of this town, so steeped in its own coolness.

On March 8th, I was impressed by the International Women’s Day event in San Antonio — it’s 20-year staying power, its link to the current struggle of hotel workers, its multiculturalism. I’m sure it’s easier to admire that coalition from afar than to invest the day-to-day effort it takes to maintain unity. But, trust me, I haven’t seen anything like that kind of coalition work in Austin, Texas.

So where does this take us? What is to be done? For starters, make some soup, tend the basil, and then read Howard Zinn’s, You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train.

Walk the dog and then think about what small thing you can do. Give a donation to the Workers’ Defense Project. Host a fundraiser for Iraq Veterans Against the War. Help Killeen’s Under the Hood Café. Help subsidize community organizers who want to attend the next U.S. Social Forum in Detroit.

This struggle isn’t about Obama. I heard Bill Ayers describe Obama very well at a SXSW panel. “He’s a centrist and an ambitious politician.” Ayers recounted Obama’s answer to a campaign question about whom Martin Luther King, Jr. would support. Obama responded, “He’d be building a movement.”

Bill Fletcher, a labor union strategist, said Monday, “As a socialist, I know something about socialism. Obama is not a socialist.” But, Fletcher didn’t apologize for voting for Obama. During the election season, I registered voters, made some calls, walked some precincts and went to a county convention. Those hours spent were a drop in the bucket compared to meetings, vigils, marches, fundraisers, and other events invested in social justice causes.

I believe that electoral politics is a game stacked for capitalist centrists. We don’t have proportional voting in this country that allows smaller parties to gain some long-term representation and traction. We have a winner-take-all, electoral-college system. And now, with the Supreme Court decision, corporations will be given even more decisive electoral power.

Progressive change has always happened in this country through organizing and demanding change of politicians. What we need even more than activists at this time are organizers. We cannot concede organizing to the right wing.

A union friend of mine reminded me that the left often likes to hold up a flag and see who will come to them instead of going to people. Whether it’s through “working people’s assemblies” as Bill Fletcher suggested or through other means, this is a time not to mourn, but to organize. Fletcher reminded a roomful of union folks that F.D.R.’s New Deal didn’t happen in a vacuum. Union leaders came to him with a set of demands and he said: “Make me do it.” They organized. He responded. That’s how change happens.

But do remember to tend the basil, enjoy the grandchildren, and make the soup.

[Long-time Austin activist Alice Embree is a contributing editor to The Rag Blog and a member of the board of the New Journalism Project.]

Also see “David P. Hamilton : On My Retirement from Political Activism” by David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2010

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9 Responses to Alice Embree on Political Activism : Carry it On

  1. Ray Reece says:

    Kudos for this post, Alice. You might have included the Hemingway dictum that "Retirement is the filthiest word in the English language." Especially retirement from the moral imperative to fight for the good from cradle to grave. In avanti alla vittoria, as the die-hard leftists here in Italy say. Onward to victory.

  2. Since I summoned the cojones to run for office a number of times, you could say I voted with my feet on the question of electoral politics.

    The times I won, did I make all the change I’d hoped? No. There were limits imposed by the system and by my colleagues. But I’m proud of taking it to the limits.

    Now I’m an old fart with a slew of grandkids and I’m double retired, from doing and from teaching. But I’m still writing and still reading about the deeds of others with admiration.

    And still proud of Obama. He is no more and no less than I thought him to be and anybody who can’t see and feel the difference in Washington needs a heart transplant. He is not, say, Fred Harris.

    Harris joked that he got creamed because “the little people could not reach the levers.” That was before the levers went to a black box with no paper trial programmed by a corporation with political ties.

    Yeah, there’s plenty to be pissed off about and plenty more work to do.

    I don’t think David is really gone for good. Like us, he really believes that stuff he’s been writing all these years.

    And like Alice says, we live it the best we can.

    I think I shall have some soup.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Alice, like you, I’ll just keep on keeping on. One’s energy need not be exhausted & one’s efforts need not be huge to be useful. Small efforts can indeed contribute to meaningful personal, social and political change. In fact I’d argue for small efforts by large numbers of people over the sacrifice of mental & physical health, wealth and/or hppiness by a few.

  4. Mariann says:

    Well said, and as always in a sisterly way.

    I think David’s analysis of the health care debacle was right on, but as for giving up the fight? Think globally, act locally; don’t get caught up in the shell games of “power”.

  5. Jay D, Jurie says:

    I wrote a separate e-mail to David after his posting, wishing him well, understanding that as we advance in years we do tend to slow down, but also expressing sadness that his decision reflected his disillusionment with Obama and the pace of social change.

    I reminded him of my own Rag Blog post, “In the Wake of Martha Coakley,” January 26th, wherein I made the point that progressives cannot expect the Democratic Party leadership, tied as they are to corporate interests, to “do the right thing.” Especially if we believe in participatory democracy, then we have to assume responsibility for the change we want, not vest our hopes in others. Especially not in a failed “representative” system.

  6. Jan says:

    We are an nonprofit representing the Azerbaijani-American community, and are trying to do research on health care, taxation and social security issues. Basically, through our research, we are overwhelmed with tons of information, and in order to be able to clearly and concisely formulate the choices to our members, we would be very interested in seeing some one-pagers outlining the pro’s and con’s on these topics. It would be also interesting to see what are other similar nonprofits thinking and doing. Being a grassroots organization, with a diverse membership, we need to be able to “keep it short” and easy to understand for busy people who don’t particularly like or enjoy politics. If you have some tips, pointers and such information, could you please email it to me directly , or via our website

  7. Alan L. Maki says:

    The struggle for peace, social and economic justice is about Obama. Obama is nothing but a worthless con-artist and flim-flam man acting at Wall Street’s behest in carrying out these dirty wars and failing to address the real aspirations, needs and problems of working people.

    Obama has been actively engaged in trying to push back decades of gains made by labor and the civil rights movement… as such, Obama has worked to maintain and further entrench ideological, systemic, institutionalized and structural racism… Obama’s failure to enforce affirmative action through the enforcement of Executive Order #11246 has created horrendous new poverty for people of color already suffering the most with capitalism on the skids to oblivuion as this economic crisis worsens while Obama’s wars rage on.

  8. Leslie C. says:

    Gee, Alice, I thought I had posted a comment on how much I appreciated this article, but I guess I didn’t, so here it is, belatedly.

    I, too, was motivated by Bill Fletcher. I hope we can carry foward some of the energy local union people (and others) got from his appearances. I’m fortunate to be in pretty good physical shape at my age and feel a responsibility to use my retirement actively.

    Hey, good picture of you up there!

  9. Glycotech says:

    The left is a lot more disappointed in Obama than he deserves. When you have a health care system that delivers far more drugs to its people than any other country in the world, and yet ranks 72nd in the world, further analysis is required than just getting more drugs to the people through single payer. Obama has changed the nature of the game and the left steadfastly refuses to look at what he has done, focusing on what he has not.

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