If We Had A Bell:
The Democracy Charter
CIO Poster: The Campaign for FDR's Second Bill of Rights.
By Zach Robinson
December’s National Coordinating Committee (NCC) meeting opened December 4, 2009, by taking up Jack O’Dell’s essay “Democracy Charter." O’Dell, a member of the CCDS National Advisory Board, participated by tele-conference. The following day, the NCC considered a resolution outlining a plan of work around the Democracy Charter. It generated strong support and was adopted by the body.
In his NCC presentation, O’Dell pointed out that these times of multiple crises are pregnant with hopes as well as fears. He characterized the 2008 elections as a “moment of promise,” and said that the strategic goal of the Democracy Charter is “to enable the coalition that achieved that moment to become a movement… to transform the electoral victory into a movement of direct action inseparable from electoral activity.”
Segmentation developed in the progressive movement under conditions when focused, issue-based activity yielded tangible results. In today’s conditions, however, a segmented structure can reduce the effectiveness of movement campaigns. For example, facing expansion of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, the peace movement would seem naturally allied with organizations seeking better funding for public schools. Yet fears that their constituency might not understand the classic guns-vs-butter problem can make leaders in the education movement shy of taking an anti-war stance. And some in the peace movement may not be sufficiently aware of how lack of real educational opportunity creates people who can be treated as cannon fodder by the military.
Pamphlet to populate the South African Freedom Charter.
The various activities of the progressive movement have always had something in common: the democratic aspirations of diverse constituencies. Yet it requires special conditions for that general commonality to take on an organized character greater than the temporary alliances of numerous electoral campaigns over the last few decades. In his historic speech at the 1963 march on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.” That is the urgency of today. Deep economic and environmental crises reach all aspects of human society and by so doing, provide the material connections and the psychological basis for organizing a realignment. The Democracy Charter is a touchstone.
By bringing the many struggles together under the banner of expanding democracy from a formal to a substantive level, the strategic concept of the Democracy Charter opens a way to organize the greater unity that is needed. O’Dell writes, “The Charter proposal is designed to acknowledge and enhance the effective work that is already being done in many areas of Movement activity. When harnessed to the grassroots organizing tradition, the Democracy Charter can bring new energy that is transformational in its possibilities for social change in our nation.”
President Roosevelt’s 1944 “Second Bill of Rights” is a key point of historical reference for O'Dell, as it is for Michael Moore in his documentary film “Capitalism: A Love Story.” O'Dell related Moore’s answer to the reporter who asked, in light of his blistering critique of capitalism, what it was that he wanted: a higher form of democracy.
At the end of World War II, labor unions led a massive mobilization in favor of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. But after his death, that promise was buried by the Cold War’s nuclear-armed military alliances and McCarthyist pressure toward political conformity. The Cold War stifled the hope for progress that was embodied in the diplomatic alliances and popular movements that brought victory against fascism in the 1940s.
Chartist mass meeting, Kennington Common, London,
1848. The Chartists were a British working class-based
organization that backed the six-point People's Charter.
Chartists met with Frederick Douglass during his European
tour of the 1840s. Rising political consciousness in the
Chartist movement prompted Marx and Engels to write the
Communist Manifesto in 1848. This movement laid the
foundation for mass opposition to British intervention on
behalf of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.
Yet, as O’Dell writes in his essay, three signal events of 1955 made a breakthrough: (i) the Montgomery bus boycott in the U.S., which, through direct action, put realization of the Reconstruction-era Constitutional amendments on the agenda, (ii) the Congress of the People in South Africa, which ratified the Freedom Charter that guided the anti-apartheid movement, and (iii) the Bandung Conference, in which representatives of 29 African and Asian countries articulated a 7-point manifesto that gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement, establishing the prospect of a victorious struggle to abolish colonialism. This history shows that united action behind a people's agenda can change the balance of forces.
The NCC resolution cites views of several panelists at the July, 2009 symposium “Building the Progressive Majority” in San Francisco. Bill Fletcher, co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and the Black Radical Congress, characterized the Democracy Charter as a polemic against post-modernism, the notion that there is no over-arching way of linking struggles. He urged us to integrate the Democracy Charter into discussions with our constituencies, and to develop working people’s assemblies and working people’s agendas. Steve Williams, executive co-director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), said that the Democracy Charter can build a core of people active in working class communities, in communities of color, and gay and lesbian communities who will build a progressive majority. Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the nuclear disarmament group Western States Legal Foundation, noted that the Democracy Charter contributes to a causal analysis of the levers of social change, and to a comprehensive vision that allows people to see the interconnectedness of issues in a way that undermines neo-liberalism, individualism and privatization.
The NCC resolution projects a role for the CCDS in launching the Democracy Charter into a national conversation in such a way that it can be owned and acted upon by a much broader array of social forces, building connections among the progressive majority. The resolution outlines a plan of work on two tracks. One track is based on winning endorsement by noted figures. The other, primary track is based on a step-by-step organizing process of outreach to local activists in labor, the human rights movements, peace and multi-issue formations. The grassroots organizing proceeds from developing a cadre of activists who can promote work around the Democracy Charter, offering the Democracy Charter to their local organizations for study. The goal is to organize across the country 500 educational meetings of 5 people each. Building on this framework, regional conferences can be held with the Democracy Charter as a central organizing document. This work would culminate in national meetings. For example, the Democracy Charter can be brought to the People's Assemblies being organized in preparation for the meeting of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, and then to the Detroit national meeting in June, 2010.
We have a bell to ring all over this land!