FREE SPEECH ZONE | Idealism is pragmatic and activism matters – leadership from below has created some changes at the top


As social justice, indigenous and environmental activists, our ongoing struggles bring too few quick and meaningful victories. Fighting colonialism, racism, sexism and classism within established institutions often feels as effective as throwing spitballs at a hurricane. These institutions are built on the very isms we want to destroy. Working so hard and having so few tangible victories can easily lead us toward a pitiful combination of mass discouragement and meager goal-setting. However, if we look at recent movement history and tangible cultural changes, we can observe that grassroots activism has been, and continues to be, effective and invaluable. We, the people, have been and will continue to be, on the right side of history.

Currently, we can see evidence of changes once only advocated in smaller radical circles moving into the so-called mainstream. The more-than-a-century’s-old grassroots feminist movement is certainly now witnessing concrete victories. The record number of women entering Congress as elected officials is strong evidence of the movement’s effectiveness. And now, possibly the most conservative institution in the US, the military, is allowing equal opportunity for women to function in combat roles and therefore be in line for promotion to the highest levels. “Boo” to the military but “yea” to the feminization of the military.

The anti-corporate globalization movement, which reached a dramatic crescendo in 1999 in Seattle, is fundamentally changing the way people critique modern economic institutions. In the 1980s and ’90s politicians proudly advocated free trade, and many people sheepishly followed. Thanks to grassroots educational activity including dedicated union work, people are recognizing that free trade, or, unchecked corporate power moving freely across national boarders, results in outsourcing important local employment opportunities. Gone are the days when politicians promote the IMF, the World Bank, or any banks for that matter, as leading the world in a positive direction. And now, the big economic summits like the G8 and G20 are largely closed to the public and require huge security operations to protect the policy-makers from a much wiser and resistant population. Thanks to activism from below, few now think corporate globalization is a good idea.

Related to anti-corporate globalization activists are anti-corporate personhood activists. These activists are giving voice to the growing critique of big money’s influence on the political system. People are increasingly aware of the massive and growing corporate funding of the two major political parties and are educating themselves about the countless corporate-friendly policies coming from government… policies that connect all aspects of government to corporatism. These days, it is rare to hear people argue that the Democratic Party is a meaningful alternative to fascism’s A-team. The word on the street is that Republicans are monsters and Democrats are monsters with lipstick… both major parties are selling out main street for large financial institutions. However, Move to Amend reports on its website that 231 local and state governments have passed resolutions against corporate personhood and another 116 governmental bodies are works in progress. If anti-corporate personhood activists ultimately do find a way to eliminate the money factor in the political system, we will be liberated to much more effectively work on urgent issues.

Many people, especially younger people, are not waiting for authentic solutions within the system and are attempting to build bona fide alternatives outside the system. So, while the corporatized system is failing to meet the world’s many and growing needs, we have promising grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More, which are taking up crucial leadership roles to help the fightback against state and corporate tyranny. Some think Occupy Wall Street has been successfully disassembled by police and local ordinances; however, in some ways, the Occupy Movement is simply reloading and positioning to re-assert itself in a more mature and sustained way. Over the last year, while Occupy activists have been largely removed from public view, Occupiers have continued to organize in homes and community spaces and are focusing on issues like student debt, housing rights and pressing environmental concerns.

Regarding the environment, it wasn’t more than 25 years ago that anti-global-warming activists were marginalized and summarily removed from public debate… not anymore. Since James Hansen’s speeches in congressional committees in 1988, conversation and debate around issues of global warming are ascendant. In the mainstream, from conversations in local bars to President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address, people are making arguments to help reign in the power of the fossil fuel industry and corporations that are making profits at the expense of our planet and our progeny’s future. Activism, like the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas has made, and is still making, a difference. With the addition of the indigenous perspective brought out as a result of the Idle No More Movement, it is possible to imagine that the most profitable industry in the history of the world may finally be facing an obstacle it can’t lie and buy its way around. Soon the carbon barons will learn what we already know… if humankind is to survive, our prodigious polluting days must be emphatically limited.

On main street, evidence of important cultural changes, including consciousness of the value of indigenous peoples, is springing up in unexpected places. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), I was recently at a meeting of RPCVs at a local restaurant. While I sat with a group of random returned volunteers, conversation turned toward some history about the first people of Minnesota, the Dakota. 150 years ago, targets of a genocidal state apparatus, 38 Dakota warriors were simultaneously hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. All the people at our table expressed dismay that our exposure to the event and the entire Dakota-US War of 1862 was not part of our formal educational experience. One astute former Volunteer suggested we learn more about the history of colonization in the US by reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Howard Zinn. The shared desire of learning about indigenous history and other expressions of interest in indigenous people strike me as a new and encouraging cultural phenomena. And this grassroots change is indicative of the local zeitgeist. In December and January, city governments in Minneapolis and St. Paul, each passed resolutions declaring “The Year of the Dakota” in remembrance of the period around the Dakota-US War of 1862.

Similarly, I recently attended the opening of an art exhibit at The American Swedish Institute here in Minneapolis. The opening featured photographs of the Sami, the only recognized indigenous people of Scandinavia. Two white artists presented to a large, mainly white, middle-class audience. The artists spoke about the Sami and then, with extensive commentary about Idle No More, seamlessly linked the struggle for indigenous rights across the world. Idle No More, a movement founded by 4 grassroots First Nations women in Canada, has spread into a global movement. In Minnesota we have had several well-attended rallies supporting Idle No More including rallies taking over the rotundas at the Mall of America and the Minnesota state capitol.

And at the state capitol, inside the political machine, we too can observe signs of hope for change. Less than two weeks ago, Senator John Marty, chair of the Minnesota Senate Environment and Energy Committee, held a pair of hearings focusing on Minnesota’s status vis-a-vis global warming. In the hearings, there was frank talk about concerns surrounding global warming including effects of global warming on Lake Superior. In the hearings, enough environmentalism came through that the ecocidal spirit of denial was forced to take a back seat to scientific evidence. It seems that it is only time before the politicians will pay more than lip service to address the world’s deepest problem.

How fast we can move from more honest discussion to actual corrective action is not clear, but, what is clear is that the conversation is swinging in the right direction. Change is in the air, and that change must be attributed, at least partly, to tireless work beginning in the only place where these conversations can initially take place, away from the thwarting influence of entrenched powers and at the grass roots. Activism matters!

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