Populism2015 Conference: Progressives Have “To Be Aggressive Again”

Terrance Heath

The Populism2015 conference started with a bang Saturday night, as more than 750 activists and member of four national progressive organizations came together to announce a new populist alliance around the Populism2015 agenda.

National People’s Action, Campaign for America’s Future, Alliance for a Just Society, and USAction, together with other allied organizations are unveiling the Populism2015 Agenda that has the potential to energize millions of people in the coming year who are looking for — and not finding yet in the public debate — real solutions to the triple crisis of growing inequality, a broken democracy and a planet in peril.

The energy and excitement in the room was palpable, as national radio commentator, writer and public speaker Jim Hightower greeted the roomful of activists at the opening plenary. “Welcome, you corporate greed whackers, you right-wing butt kickers, you agitators for America’s proud progressive values — economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity or all people,” Hightower said, “Welcome to Washington, where the powers that be have turned radically regressive and repressive. It’s no longer enough for us to be progressive, we’ve got to be aggressive again, getting right in the face of the powers that be, on behalf of the powers that ought to be.”

“Now is the populist moment in America,” Hightower said. “Our opportunity is to build a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-issue, multi-mad-as-hell people’s movement.”

Hightower closed with these words from Patty Smith’s rousing anthem, “People Have The Power.”

People have the power,
The power to dream, to rule
To wrestle the world from fools.

George Goehl, Executive Director of the National People’s Alliance put into context what Hightower defined as “the populist moment in America,” indicating that the modern populist movement has arrived at a moment when it’s most needed. “We come to Washington with people and the planet we love under historic attack,” Goehl said. “The corporate class, they’ve lost all restraint. They are the ones pillaging and looting our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our planet, and it has to stop.”

“We live in a time where the money of a few billionaires drowns out the voices of the masses,” Goehl said. “A time when the same banks that were ‘too big to fail’ crashed the economy, and they’re now bigger than ever. The same banks that stole a generation of wealth from African-American communities. We live in a time when more African-Americans are locked up than at any point since slavery. When we in this room know who should be locked up — Wall Street bankers and trigger-happy cops.”

“We’re not going to lie,” Goehl concluded. “These are tough times. But we didn’t come here to wring our hands, we came here to join hands.”

Alliance for a Just Society Executive Director LeeAnn Hall and Janice “Jay” Johnson of Virginia Organizing took the stage next. Hall introduced Johnson, a community leader from Newport News. “Jay Johnson has led Virginia Organizing on the streets and in the boardroom,” Hall said. “To give you a flavor of her fight-back, she led a New Orleans funeral march from Richmond to the capital grounds, because the legislature failed to take action on minimum wage.”

“We need a national movement, like we’re trying to build here,” Johnson said. “And here’s some things that national movement needs to be. It needs to be grounded in and owned by community organizations that are committed to building power within their states. It needs to be committed to a critical investment in leadership development. Nothing happens in this country without an informed citizenry. We need a national movement that is independent politically and financially.”

“I’m going to bring home an issue that has meaning to me,” Johnson said. “As you may have noticed, I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. All of my life people have been telling me to wait for old people to die and young people to grow up, and it’s not working. We need a national movement that takes on racism head on.”

Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future told activists what Washington leadership has been up to recently. “Washington is sort of a strange place,” Borosage said. “We got a new Congress. They came, and they said they were going to be very responsible. So, you know what they did last week? What they thought was one of the great priorities of the country? We have record inequality, right? We have a record number of people in poverty. We have low-wage workers that work full time and can’t lift their families out of poverty.”

“So, did they lift the minimum wage?” Borosage asked, “Did they empower workers to organize unions? So, what did they do? They passed a repeal of the estate tax. You know who the estate tax applies to? Estates of $10 million or more. So, they thought the biggest crisis facing the country is that people who have $10 million or more worth of assets are paying too much taxes.”

“There’s a lesson here,” Borosage concluded. “I’ve been in Washington a long time, and I know one thing better than most. Change does not come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. And that’s you!”

Borosage introduced Fred Azcarate of USAction, who in turn presented Angelica Rivera of Citizen Action, “a proud, Latina single mother. I am what real power looks like. And look around,” pointing to the crowd of people, many of whom were wearing T-shirts with the logos and slogans of the community organizations they belong to. “This is what real power looks like.”

Rivera related recent successes in ending racially biased “pushout” policies in Buffalo, N.Y., schools, and fighting plans to turn the cities poorest schools into charter schools.

“We won,” Rivera said, “And we’ll continue to fight, because what good is it if we’re fighting for education, and instead when they graduate they’ve got jobs they can’t even live by. When they graduate, they’ve got loans and their still in chains. These are our kids, our schools, our communities, and we decide. ¡Sí se puede!”

Finally, the conference honored National People’s Alliance President, Rev. Dr. Eugene Barnes, for 15 years of work with NPA. Rev. Dr. Barnes left activists with words to guide and inspire them throughout the conference and beyond. “Change never comes from the top,” Barnes said. “It comes from the bottom. And you and I, we’ve been on the bottom, but we’re rising up. As long as you continue to do what you’re doing, there’s going to be a difference made in this world.”

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