Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The People's Republic: Vermont & Bernie Sanders

A revealing look at the rise of Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement that changed Vermont

Available from Maverick Media

Recently mentioned in...

Mother Jones: How Bernie Sanders Became a Real Politician
New York Times: Bernie Sanders' Revolutionary Roots
CNN: Can Bernie Sanders Win Black Voters?
Politico: 14 Things Bernie Has Said about Socialism
Politico: Bernie Sanders Has a Secret
Washington Post: Sanders is in with the enemy, so old allies say

Bernie Sanders' election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 caught the attention of the entire nation and inspired progressives throughout the world. Originally published in 1989, just before Sanders won his first race for the US House of Representatives in 1990, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution was the first comprehensive analysis of Sanders' mayoral years and the progressive movement in Vermont. It remains the most intimate and revealing. 

Greg Guma's exploration of the "revolution" goes far beyond Sanders and his impact on Burlington. The factors behind the initial surprise victory, the tension between leftist ideals and pragmatic politics, the evolution of an effective political coaliton outside the two-party system -- all these topics and more Guma investigates, with an eye on global political implications as well as the immediate local impact. The People's Republic is for all those interested in progressive politics and political history, not to mention those in places where a similar "revolution" is possible.

A fast-moving description that illustrates one of the great efforts at innovative government of the past fifty years…
--Pierre Clavel, Cornell University

If you were going to create somebody to write about Bernie Sanders’ years as socialist mayor of Burlington, you might make him a fortysomething Vermont journalist and bookstore founder and former government worker who almost ran for mayor of Burlington himself…That’s what you have in Greg Guma.
—Mark Satin, New Options

A treasure house of first-hand information and perceptive, if often controversial analysis of great value to anyone concerned to explore realistically the possibilities for combining third-party electoral politics with other methods of working for justice, peace, environmental sanity and genuine democracy.
– David Dellinger, author/activist

If you are at all interested in Vermont and Burlington, and public policy, get this book.
– Phil Hoff, former Vermont Governor

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Debs and Sanders: Revolutionary Campaigners

To understand Bernie, consider Eugene Debs

“To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.-- Bernie Sanders, 1990

Read more: 14 Things Bernie Sanders has said about socialism

Bernie Sanders has a plaque honoring Eugene Debs on the wall of his Senate office in Washington. It is an abiding admiration, stretching back decades. Before becoming Burlington mayor in 1981 -- but after four "third party" races for statewide office in the 1970s -- he produced and narrated a 28-minute documentary, Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926.

For a better understanding of Sanders' philosophy and style, it helps to know a bit about the political figure he admired as a young radical in Vermont, during and after the Vietnam War.

A century ago, American politics was dominated by men who could command a public stage, telling jokes and stories with ease, making arguments and issuing indictments in long speeches. Of course, most of them relied on prepared remarks, but Eugene Debs seemed to speak from the heart. No tricks or effects, just electrifying straight talk.

Much like Bernie Sanders, Debs could inspire a crowd. He could be angry and funny, sarcastic and sentimental, sometimes poetic or even prophetic. But his target was always the same - big capitalists and their bankers, judges, politicians, editors, and even conservative unions leaders. He called on workers to join a moral struggle against "wage slavery." Industrialists were making a mockery of democracy, he charged, using their control of production to pervert the will of the majority.

For more than 30 years Debs was the most visible (and often controversial) spokesmen for a socialist vision in America. Critics said he was a menace, an apostle of anarchy and chaos. Eventually, he went to prison for his anti-war beliefs. In the end, the movement to free "democracy's prisoner" launched the American Civil Liberties Union and changed the terms of free speech during wartime.

In 1894, Debs first took center stage in the growing struggle between industrial capitalists and their workers. It was during one of the most dramatic and disruptive labor protests in American history -- the American Railway Union strike against the Pullman Palace Sleeping Car Company.

By 1901 he had moved from preaching about a cooperative commonwealth to openly promoting socialism as leader of the new Socialist Party of America. By then a "professional revolutionary," he ran for president every four years. The party had 150,000 members by 1912, and had elected hundreds of people as mayors, councilors, commissioners and state representatives. 

As the centerpiece of the ongoing Socialist campaign, Debs often toured the country in a Red Special railcar filled with posters, reporters and party dignitaries. At the height of the tours he gave hundreds of speeches a month, consistently mesmerizing his audiences. 

In 1912, Debs kicked off his fourth presidential campaign to a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden and received a half-hour standing ovation. It was the same everywhere he went.  He painted vivid word pictures of worker slaughter in mines and mills and the impending battle between "the multi-millionaire and the pauper." He touched an emotional core for anyone concerned about the new concentrations of wealth, even if they were skeptical about his socialism.

Part of the appeal was his claim to be part of the working class. Debs was largely self-educated and began working on the railroads at fourteen. From there he became a union leader. But his message also had appeal for middle class men and women (even though the latter couldn't yet vote). 

Critics saw socialism as an alien ideology, imported by immigrants. But Debs challenged that notion. He was a midwesterner, fighting capitalism in the spirit of Tom Paine and Walt Whitman. To back it up, he lived a conventional middle class life with his Kate in Terre Haute, Indiana, a small industrial city.

In the turning point presidential race of 1912, Debs argued that both Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, and Theodore Roosevelt, running on his reform "Bull Moose" party platform, missed the main point -- that workers and owners were natural enemies with irreconcilable interests. Both were trying to ease the symptoms of injustice, but ignoring their cause.

That year Debs got almost a million votes, doubling his 1908 tally. It looked like the Socialist Party and Debs were here to stay. But then came World War I, and in its wake Debs ended up in federal prison in 1919 for speaking out against war. A year after that, as a movement built for his release, he ran for president again. Before the end of 1921, he was released by President Warren Harding.

Although Debs didn't get as far as Bernie Sanders in persuading Americans to join a political revolution and consider socialist solutions, he began the dialogue. Debs also provoked a national debate about the meaning of the First Amendment. In a post-war age of oppressive conformity, he sparked the birth of the modern civil liberties movement and convinced many people that society should better protect those who dissent, especially when they refuse to support the majority in the heat of war. 

It's easy to see why Bernie Sanders, already the longest serving Independent in US congressional history and leading US voice for democratic socialism today, still admires him. But he has some distance to go to match Debs' enduring impact and legacy.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Taking Charge: Bernie Sanders' First Term

The race didn't look serious at first. Democrat Gordon Paquette was running for an unprecedented sixth term as Burlington mayor. Restaurant owner Richard Bove had opted for an Independent bid after losing the caucus. Joseph McGrath, a relative unknown, was also in the race as a Northender concerned about crime. And former Liberty Union candidate Bernie Sanders was piecing together an Independent coalition.

Doonesbury, July 1981
The 1981 ballot was crowded: a referendum on waterfront access, a nuclear freeze advisory vote, and a 10 percent property tax increase, among other items. But Paquette blocked an article asking voters whether to separate two road projects -- the northern and southern connectors -- so that the northern route could be finished first. A Fair Housing Commission proposal was delayed at the last minute, with the promise of a special election later.

On March 3, things turned out differently than anyone predicted. After rapidly gaining credibility, winning neighborhood allies and receiving the police union endorsement, Sanders squeaked to victory. But he hardly knew a soul in City Hall and would have just two allies on the City Council.

His campaign literature urged, "It's time for a change." At his first post-victory press conference, he added, "No more boring meetings."

Month One: The Pomerleau project for the waterfront came under fire as the new mayor took office in April. The Council meanwhile declared a hiring freeze due to the defeat of the local tax increase, and two different housing commission items were placed on a special election ballot.

Sanders set up task forces to develop ideas and used a personal braintrust to look for ways out of the fiscal bind. Most councilors were cool to this new presence in city government, and greeted him in early April by firing his new secretary because he had failed to go through the proper channels. She was soon reinstated.

May-June -- Confrontation Politics: Although Sanders had run on a "no tax increase" platform, he found that a five percent increase was the best he could do. It was one of the few times that he and the Council majority agreed. On Reorganization Day, they even parted company on his nominees for key city posts, initially rejecting future City Clerk James Rader and Assistant City Attorney John Franco -- without asking for their qualifications. For Sanders this was an obvious sign that the Council planned to stonewall his administration.

In late April, the two housing initiatives were both defeated, largely thanks to a scare campaign, funded by local landlords, that brought in California consultant Bernie Walp. Despite demands from neighborhood groups the Planning Commission was sticking with its municipal development plans. Further fueling divisions an anonymous publication, The Flea Press, covertly circulated slanderous commentary through official channels.

Eventually, the Council did approve two Sanders appointments, Steve Goodkind as Health and Safety Director, and David Clavelle as head of Civil Defense. But Sanders would have to keep working with key Paquette aides like Frank Wagner and Lee Austin.

Summer -- Digging in: Bernie was making a name for himself with TV appearances, print features, even a July 5 Doonesbury strip. At home his biggest success was organizing a series of successful concerts in Battery Park. Meanwhile, he began a dialogue with the university and hospital officials and testified against a 30 percent Blue Cross rate hike. He also learned enough about the proposed McNeil wood chip plant to support its construction -- despite the arguments of environmental activists.

A campaign to organize retail workers was launched, toxic muck in the barge canal blocked progress on the southern connector, and the city's urban renewal developer demanded (and received) a property tax break based on citywide appraisal inequities. Sanders actively supported the retail workers drive, especially when a local lawyer began advising business owners on how to combat unionization. Both the campaign and opposition eventually faded away.

Sanders was becoming effective but clashes with the Council majority persisted. By September his allies were busy planning a strong challenge in the next Town Meeting Day council races. His two supporters on the City Council -- Independent Sadie White and Terry Bouricius, who had won as a Citizens Party candidate -- needed more allies.

  • Watching the returns in 1982, with Jane Sanders to Bernie's left.

Fall -- Before the storm: Although voices were lowered, the City Council's monthly budget review remained a challenge to the patience of all involved. The Flea Press vanished once its author, pollster Vincent Naramore, was discovered. But the atmosphere in City Hall was still tense.

In September Sanders unilaterally appointed his partner Jane Driscoll as Youth Coordinator, a new "volunteer" position that would be funded by having Driscoll seek money from foundations and grants.

Near the end of the year a questionable letter by City Clerk Wagner raised new questions about the funding of the southern connector. Meanwhile, a voter registration drive by the Citizens Party and Sanders supporters prompted the Voter Registration Board to impose new restrictive rules. Campaign '82 had begun.

Council Upset: Citizens Party and Sanders backers formed the Coalition for Responsible Government to develop a unified slate of candidates. The result was a crop of Council and School Board hopefuls that covered every ward, plus more competition for minor offices than the city had ever seen.

Local election experts doubted that Rik Musty and Zoe Breiner could defeat incumbent Democrats Joyce Desautels and Russell Niquette. But the Council majority had alienated voters by blocking Sanders; "give the mayor the chance to do his job" became a persuasive campaign theme. Over 100 volunteers canvassed the city with tabloid newspapers and staged an impressive get-out-the-vote effort.

Days before the election the Superior Court ordered the Voter Board to add all newly registered voters to the checklist. In Montpelier, an attempt to revoke Burlington's right to impose a Gross Receipts Tax turned into a "home rule" victory and PR plus for the Sanders team.

When the votes were tallied, there were now five Sanders supporters on the Council, along with five Republicans. After the runoffs, the Democrats were left with just three votes and Sanders had the ability to sustain a veto.

A New Broom: Tax reform had been Bernie's promise. In 1982 he tried to deliver. But his Gross Receipts proposal was narrowly defeated in June, again thanks to consultant Bernie Walp.

The city's new treasurer Jonathan Leopold and his assistant Barr Wright (later Swennerfelt) phased in a cash management system, central purchasing, and other innovations that improved the local financial picture. City Clerk James Rader started a city-sponsored voter registration drive. Housing inspection picked up and the mayor set up an economic development committee that included business leaders and his own people.

Some Democrats remained unimpressed. Writing to Rutland mayor John Daley, State Senator Thomas Crowley warned his colleague to "watch this group from Burlington." Opposition to the southern connector was just a front, Crowley wrote, and "they have apparently targeted Rutland as Bernie Sandersville number 2."

Nevertheless, the Sanders administration was not turning out to be the radical regime predicted. Instead, Sanders was courting city workers, a move that angered many department heads. And he was opening City Hall to various groups that hadn't previously been welcome. Workers' Pride Week in late September was an attempt to increase the self-respect of working people. In general, however, Sanders' team spent its greatest effort refining city management and saving money.

More progressive initiatives were proposed, things like rejection of crisis relocation planning, establishment of neighborhood assemblies as advisory bodies on matters such as community development, and contributions from tax-exempt institutions like UVM. The Council sometimes agreed, at least in principle, realizing that too much obstruction was not in anyone's best interest.

Toward the end of 1982, as people began to focus on the next mayoral race, Sanders announced that his team had discovered a $1.9 million surplus. Auditors were hauled in for a special Council session. The surplus turned out to be real. It had been growing for years without official notice.

Not much was happening on the waterfront. Pomerleau and friends were backing off their plans due to public skepticism. But Sanders' proposal to implement interim zoning under Council control failed to win GOP or Democratic support. The mayor had successfully blocked the condo and hotel plan, as promised, but no alternative had emerged.

In less than two years local politics had been transformed. Burlington had a three-party system -- with some hazy dividing lines. Some Democrats were moving into the Republican camp, others were supporting Sanders programs or the mayor himself. Hundreds of people were participating in various councils and neighborhood meetings. And the whole state watched with increasing fascination.

Sometimes Council sessions were still boring, but not often, and especially not once the electoral battle for City Hall began again.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Nonviolence & the Road to Independence

Each year, as fireworks celebrate the Declaration of Independence and people discuss how the United States began, the spotlight normally turns to “revolutionary” leaders and the “armed struggle” waged more than two centuries ago. But as usual, the real story is a bit different. The movement toward independence in the “new world” actually began a decade before the “shot heard round the world” and involved thousands of people. By the time things turned violent, substitute governments and firm alliances were operating in nine colonies.

Early colonial campaigns weren’t mere passive pleading. They were demands, backed by nonviolent actions that forced Britain to change its laws. Through economic boycott and the development of new government structures, John Dickinson wrote in 1767, colonists could pressure parliament by “withholding from Britain all the advantages they get from us.” One pamphlet circulating at the time urged colonists to “bid defiance to tyranny by exposing its impotence.”

Many colonists were already following this advice, refusing to comply with the new Stamp Act, a direct tax on all sorts of licenses, publications and legal papers, by resisting use of the stamps. According to Britain, the duty would be used to finance British troops “protecting” colonists from Indian “hostility” and French expansionism. Resistance began even before the Act was official. This grassroots movement, which essentially nullified the law, involved a massive refusal to import British goods and the beginning of economic self-sufficiency in North America.

The forms of political defiance and direct action included civil disobedience and, in some cases, threats aimed at stamp distributors. No one was killed, but the threats and scattered attacked on property were effective deterrents. By November all the stamp distributors resigned, while ports and newspapers remained open despite the absence of stamps. Debts to British merchants were left unpaid. The Rhode Island Assembly resolved that only colonists could tax colonists. In order to avoid mass prosecution of resisters, however, George Washington advised that colonial courts be closed.

Despite the absence of violence, the threat to British rule was obvious. Power was swiftly being diffused through many substitute governments. Town meetings took to passing laws that were more widely obeyed than British regulations. By early 1768 more than four million pounds was owed to Britain’s merchants, who pressured the King and parliament for action. The Stamp Act was repealed, but Britain simultaneously proclaimed that the right to tax the colonies still and would always exist. What couldn’t be defended on the ground was brandished on paper.

The Townshend Acts, a 1768 attempt by new British Prime Minister Charles Townshend to impose an external levy, met just as much resistance. The new Acts placed a tax on imported goods such as lead, paint, paper, glass, and tea. This time it wasn’t merchants who initiated the campaign but mechanics, artisans and workers. The main method was non-consumption, along with development of economic alternatives along self-sufficient lines. When goods weren’t bought and those on household shelves weren’t used, merchants were forced not to import the boycotted items. Within a year the Massachusetts legislature denounced the law, calling for united action, and Virginia voted for strict non-importation, notifying other colonies of its decision.

Non-importation put a squeeze on British merchants until the Acts died in 1770. But this time Britain was a bit more clever: All taxes - except the duty on tea – were repealed. Falling short of total victory the colonists became divided about the success of their campaign. In the confusion resistance disintegrated as Britain doggedly held onto its right to tax.

Despite the setback colonial fervor persisted in other resistance efforts. The Committees of Correspondence, established years earlier as underground governments, maintained a network for expressions of solidarity, protests, mutual aid, and new ideas. In 1773, Britain provided the catalyst to test these emerging organs of popular power.

The East India Company, an early international monopoly, was in financial trouble. To help the influential business, Britain’s parliament passed an Act controlling prices in order to give East India a colonial monopoly. The law manipulated the market so that even smuggled tea was more expensive. The Boston Tea Party was an early response; Bostonians in Indian garb dumped 342 chests of tea overboard. Britain responded by closing the Port of Boston and increasing repression.

The colonies mobilized, helped by their previous experiences with united action and Paul Revere’s rides to “give you all the news.” Many communities – New York, Philadelphia, Charlestown, Wilmington and Baltimore among them – pledged moral and economic support. Money, rice and sheep flooded into Massachusetts as Britain tried to undermine self-government.

Defying Britain, a Massachusetts Town Meeting resolved to cut off imports and exports, and called again for economic boycott. Revere rode to New York and Philadelphia with news of the Suffolk Resolves, soon adopted by the Continental Congress. All coercive laws were unconstitutional, the Congress had ruled, and are not to be obeyed. People were urged to form their own governments and deny taxes to the so-called “legal” governments in their regions.

Although the Resolves raised the possibility of war, the thrust remained nonviolent – boycott, tax resistance, non-importation (sometimes including slaves), and development of substitute local governments. The Continental Association, formed at the end of 1774, incorporated these approaches and added legal enforcement of “non-intercourse” along the lines used earlier in Virginia.

As this brief review suggests, the movement for US independence emerged from the grassroots, from people in neighborhoods and communities, colonists who made personal commitments and participated in hunger strikes, non-consumption and other heroic acts of resistance. It was an enormous and sustained struggle, one of many nonviolent campaigns that have profoundly influenced world history, although “official” accounts rarely give them recognition.

Civil resistance – also known as “nonviolent action” or “people power” – has proven effective, though not always successful on its own, in many colonial rebellions, struggles for labor, civil and women’s rights, campaigns to resist genocide and dictatorship, and other battles for independence and freedom. Indian nationalists used it in their struggle against British domination, various European countries used it to resist Nazi occupation, dissidents in Communist-ruled countries used it to increase freedom – and ultimately end dictatorships in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Mid-East and North Africa used the same tactics.

These movements weren’t passive or submissive, and most of the people involved weren’t pacifists, saints or natural leaders. They were ordinary people in extraordinary situations, using diverse methods – from protests and vigils to the creation of parallel or “de facto” governments – to challenge and ultimately overturn illegitimate authority. In the American colonies two centuries ago, people were well on their way to winning the War of Independence before the shooting even started. There are clearly lessons here for the domestic and global struggles we face today.

Happy Independence Day!

To learn more about recent nonviolent struggles and the potential of civil resistance, consult the work of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, author of Waging Nonviolent Struggle and other books.