Rev. Sam Johnson of Michigan United open the plenary session with a prayer. “Heavenly Creator,” Johnson said, “We give you thanks for another opportunity to gather with like-minded people. People who are standing for causes that mean something to you. … I believe, Lord God, that today you see people of different faiths and people who ascribe to no faith. Yet we are all here to stand for the suffering, to stand for those who are downtrodden, to stand for those who are marginalized; to lift the people and save the planet!”
Toby Chow, with the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network, came to the stage with good news and bad news.“The bad news is, we live in a triple crisis” of off-the-charts inequality, hijacked democracy, and the global crisis of climate change. “So what is the good news?” Chow asked. “We are the good news in this time of crisis.”
Chow shifted gears to the focus of the afternoon. “If this movement is going to succeed, we need three things. We need a platform. We need an agenda that spells out what we want. So, this afternoon we are unveiling our progressive populist agenda to put people and the planet first. Second, we need a plan that tells us how we’re going to use this agenda in our organizing. And third, we need people.”
George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action came to the stage to discuss inequality. “We’ve come to D.C.,” Goehl said, “to let folks in on a little secret: inequality is not new. … What’s new is that the issue is front page news. What’s new is that it’s not about charts and graphs. This isn’t about numbers. This is about human lives. This is about dreams deferred, hope diminished, and stripping away of people’s human dignity. And that ain’t right.”
Goehl said there are two questions progressives must ask of any candidate. (1) What are you going to do to rebalance the relationship between everyday people and corporate America? (2) Second, what is your plan to address structural racism in America? “There’s a new populism rising in this country, and this new populism has to be equally committed to class, race, and gender. Everybody in, nobody out.” Goehl then introduced Rep. Keith Ellison.
— NPA (@NPAction) April 19, 2015
Rep. Ellison talked about his recent experience in Ferguson, Missouri, encouraging people to go to the polls to vote for city council, in an election that ultimately saw turnout double — from 20 percent to 40 percent — and two African-Americans elected to city council. In Ferguson, Ellison said, “it looks like the problem is just a problem of race, but it’s fundamentally a problem of democracy. The majority of the people had no say in the operation of the city. And I’m telling you right now, we’ve got the fight the ‘Ferguson-ing’ of America, folks. We’ve got to fight the Ferguson-ization of our whole country.”
“We need a renaissance of civic engagement,” Ellison said, “but it’s got to be on a righteous platform, like this one. … I hereby endorse this platform. Populism2015, this is our platform.”
Nathanael Doehling of TakeAction Minnesota started with a chant: “Anything is possible! We believe!” Doehling spoke out against the felon disenfranchisement in his state that keeps him and over 40,000 others from voting. “The system isn’t broken in my eyes,” Doehling said. “We need to change the language we use. The system isn’t broken. The system is set up to work the way that it is. It’s up to us to use this platform to change that system. We need to change it from serving pockets to serving people.”
— ONE Northside (@ONENorthside) April 19, 2015
Jean Ross of National Nurses United offered a first hand perspective on the flesh-and-blood consequences of inequality. “We share with you our values,” Ross said, “of caring, compassion, and community. … The reason why National Nurses is so committed to this fight is that our members see every day the kind of mess that we’re in because of inequality. It’s our members who see first hand what happens with a torn safety net. If you want to see what austerity policies do, come with me. Walk with me into any emergency room in this country, and I will show you: These policies kill people.”
Vien Truong, Environmental Equity Director of the Greenling Institute, pointed out that the economic and environmental points of the platform are based on the same simple question: What kind of world are we leaving to our children? Truong brought the issue home, explaining, “It is because I love my town so much that I’m pissed off when corporations abuse it.” Truong related her experience working to make polluters pay in California, yielding millions of dollars to help low-income communities “green up.” “We’re not waiting for DC to change,” Truong said, “we’re waiting for them to catch up to us.”
Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage closed the plenary with a simple question to the activists gathered. “What is this platform about?” Borosage asked. “Power,” was the one word answer. Borosage reminded activists of this passage from abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1857 speech, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress.”
… If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
“One question,” Borosage asked, “are you ready to submit quietly?” The answer was a resounding, “No!”
“We’re going to build a movement, and make that demand,” Borosage continued, “We have the people to drive that demand into the political process … we have the plan to move than program … and to shake the boardrooms of corporations and the bordellos of Wall Street.”
“We’re not talking about redecorating here, but challenging organized money with mobilized people” Borosage said, and “making finance serve the people instead of savaging them.”
With that, the conference unanimously ratified the platform, and as the band struck up a celebratory tune, activists stepped out into the Washington afternoon with new energy, and a plan of action.