After the shutdown
The shutdown is has ended. But is the corporate takeover of our political system no longer an issue? During the past couple of years, hundreds of schools have been closed around the country and programs such as Food Stamps are under attack as the budgets of cities, states and the federal government are squeezed while as much as hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue, maybe more, are lost to tax havens, high-end tax evasion, and tax cuts for the uber-rich and companies that have replaced American workers with low-wage workers in other countries, some of whom are essentially slaves.
by Tom Over
October 26, 2013
So, it still matters what protesters against the shutdown had to say about community involvement and activism as they gathered on Tuesday, Oct 15, in front of the John Bricker Federal Building in downtown Cowtown. The shutdown, that particular manifestation of the abuse of power is over, at least for now, but the broader problem of a government hijacked by big money persists, showing no signs of abating. So, what these and other ordinary folk have to say about community involvement and activism matters, whether we care about justice through our religious faith or through a nonreligious love for humanity and other life on this sacred planet.
I asked Randi Gregory, who works with Ohio Fair Share, for her opinion on why there were about 30 people at the protest, instead of 3,000 or 30,000.
“A lot of people might know about the shutdown, but at the same time, they’re struggling and trying to make ends meet,” said Gregory. “Maybe they couldn’t get out here today because they’re at work or had to be with their kids. Plus, a lot of people are frustrated. They’ve become disillusioned. They feel like even if they did come out here and stand on the corner, it’s not going to get anything done. But I believe in us putting the message out here, because the people that were the loudest are the ones who wanted the government shutdown. So we have to be louder.”
To do that, maybe we need more than the relatively small number of people who are professional (or vagabond) activists? Gregory agreed.
“The way you get people out here is by building relationships.” she said. “You have to talk with people and let them know how this specific shutdown is going to affect them personally. Many of us are not motivated to take action until we see how it’s going to affect us or people we know. For those people who are busy, running to work and who have kids, you have to let them know that, for instance, if you’re a mom working outside the home with a little kid in Headstart, this can affect you. If you can’t pay for childcare and can’t get your kid in Headstart, what are you going to do?“
Gregory added that, even if an issue doesn’t affect us personally, some of us, such as Rosa Blockwood, who lives in north Columbus, will still get involved because of our concern for people in general.
Blockwood, a retired educator who taught elementary students with special needs and whose career also involved working in the Ohio Department of Education, said the shutdown hadn’t affected her directly but that she was “out here for the people who can’t go to work and also the people who need jobs but can’t get them because of all the things this shutdown has caused.”
Directly affected by the shutdown was Rebecca Slisher from Groveport. It was hurting her husband’s business, which sells companies robotic components.
Slisher agreed that a movement strong enough to influence public policy needs to include a broad swath of society, not be comprised mostly of the small minority of people who are full-time activists.
“My husband and I travel a lot on business. I’m out here because I’m in town today.”
Though it can often be a challenge, she finds ways to get involved while traveling.
“Last week my husband and I were in Ashville, North Carolina,” Slisher said. There was an immigration rally going on. I got a hold of some people there and asked how I can help. They were trying to make sure that one young man who’s a college student won’t be deported. They gave me his deportation number. I wrote to a representative in Chapel Hill saying, ‘I’m not your constituent, but I’m just asking that you please listen.’”
Here in Columbus on High Street, Slisher held a sign that read “Hands off Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.”
To a person, each of the women at the protest against the shutdown agreed there is no substitute for engaging in-person, in the wide open setting of the streets or in meetings of organizations.
Gregory said Ohio Fair Share met with a coalition of groups including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Progress Ohio, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), Organizing for Action, Blue Dublin and others.
“ We came together to figure out what we can do to get people engaged and fired up and angry so they’ll come out here,” Gregory said.
But is an anger-based social movement viable long term?
“People getting angry, that’ll be the spark that’ll get them off their couch, to get them out,” Gregory said. “But over the long term, people will stay engaged because, though we might not get everything we want, we’ll at least have small local wins, and we’ll have media coverage, and we’ll see that we’re getting our voice out there. We’ll see that the politicians are talking about us.”
Another point of agreement among the protesters was that a grassroots movement to undo the concentration of political and economic power needs to be trans-partisan.
Maggie Geyer, who volunteers for Enroll America and for Ohioans for an Affordable Future to advocate for Medicaid expansion, said she tries to avoid getting bogged down in labels such as “liberal” and “conservative.”
“It’s just the minority of people causing all of this trouble. The Republicans are infighting about this. It’s just a small group of people trying to get what they want no matter what. Today I’m out here protesting the government shutdown, but my focus is on making people aware they have insurance options under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). I had a long conversation with my neighbor yesterday and she said, ‘I didn’t think I had to enroll. I thought it would be automatic.’ Some people still don’t understand,” Geyer said.
Regarding the need for a trans-partisan grassroots movement, Gregory said, “I think people in general are wary of labels. We should focus on the issues, instead of being partisan. If we want more funding for public education and we want to do something about food insecurity here in Central Ohio, that shouldn’t divide people. Everyone should be able to agree that, here in America, we shouldn’t have kids going hungry.”
Blockwood--retired and in her 70s, but once an educator, always an educator-- said learning about the issues by doing a lot of reading is a way to resist being divided and conquered.
“We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided, because we don’t know our history, Black History, or other history. So we keep repeating it. You see this in Washington, ridiculous things. By now we should know better.”
Blockwood said when we learn about an idea we should talk about it with others. When it was suggested people need to also work with others in our communities to test and apply those ideas, she agreed and added that doing that requires finding common ground with those with views different from ours.
That led to the idea of tolerance which is related to compassion and, if you will, ‘love.’ Blockwood was asked if she saw the protest against the government shutdown as a spiritual issue.
“There’s a book I’m reading,” she said. “It’s a biography of Jesus. The writer looks at Jesus not as the Biblical figure, but looks at the kinds of things he did —if you will—as an activist. So I’m not reading about Jesus in a typical, religious way.”
“Yeah, I’d say it’s love, or a feeling for social justice,” Gregory agreed. “It's fairness. It’s like our name, Ohio Fair Share. We should pay our fair share (of taxes) and receive our fair share (of public services). We all need to be taking care of each other. I don’t have any kids, but I’m still concerned about Head Start because I might some day, and I care about other people’s kids. I went to pre-K. It was there for me. Kids who have it are more likely to not experience joblessness. I grew up in public housing, but I was able to get a scholarship and get a good education because my government helps me. That stuff is impotant. I want to keep it going for others that come behind me. It’s about fairness. It’s that basic.”
Gregory said everyone uses ‘social services’ in some form or another.
“You might not be getting Food Stamps but you’re using the police, the roads, the fire department, water, libraries,” She said. “All those things have to be paid for."
Gregory was asked what she thought about possible philosophical tension between anarchism and progressivism, philosophies represented among the small group of protesters.
“I’m definitely not an anarchist,” she said. “I believe government can do some great things. Republicans say, ‘get the government off our backs’ or ‘no big government,’ yet when it comes to the issue of marriage equality, they seem to want government to be involved in our personal lives. But as far as the economy and public services, that’s what the government is for. I believe in a free market and in people being able to start a business and make money to support themselves. But big corporations shouldn’t be able to take advantage of everyday people.”
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