Sens. Warren and Sanders, Rev. Barber inspire at New Populism Conference

WASHINGTON, D.C.– There was an embarrassment of riches in the vision of the speakers May 22 at the Washington Court Hotel. Activists who are global economists, NGO leaders and union representatives spoke at the New Populism Conference, which was organized by the Campaign for America’s Future and supported by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

About five hundred activists crowded into the hotel ballroom where speakers included Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Maya Rockeymoore, President of Global Policy Solutions. All hammered the same theme: the majority of us have been “shafted,” “the rules are rigged” and the “oligarchs” are smoothing the path to a complete take-over.

Rockeymoore underscored that in the neoliberal view, capital (and therefore the corporation) is important and workers are not. The X and Y generation have been so badly economically screwed by the great recession they will not recover for the rest of their lives. Black families have been excluded from the economy for 80 percent of U.S. history. The Supreme Court is in the back pocket of the Republican majority that has taken over state government in multiple states.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke of the moneyed interests who spent more than $1 million per day for one year to fight the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she envisioned and fought so hard for in 2011. Understandably, as the CFPB has already returned more than $3 billion dollars directly to consumers since that time.

Warren asked why trade deals are negotiated secretly and answered that if citizens knew what was really happening, they would oppose them. She reminded us that rebuilding the middle class, equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage are not just slogans but legislative bills. She urged the audience to “make (legislators) vote as often as possible” on these and other progressive issues.

CWA president Larry Cohen had just returned from Berlin where the International Trade Union Confederation was discussing free trade agreements and their disastrous effects on workers. He led us through talking points from CWA’s latest booklet, “50M people building a movement for Economic Justice and Democracy.” He told stories of T-Mobile workers unionization struggle, getting Terry McAuliffe elected as Virginia’s governor and protesting Wells Fargo’s predatory lending practices – practices “that have dragged one in five home mortgage’s underwater.”

Kica Matos, director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change and Sophia Zaman, president of the U.S. Student Association echoed these thoughts. Zaman’s talk was titled, “Big Debts, Lousy Jobs, Catastrophic Climate: The coming Millennial Revolt.” She pointed out that millennials are diverse in personality and background, but share an economic burden. Today, the more than one trillion dollars of student debt surpasses total credit card debt. Young people have technology’s latest toy, but lack food, housing, heat. Millenials grew up with their parents losing jobs and financial institutions refusing to invest in jobs. “Apathy,” she said, “is a myth, alienation is real.”

What the millennial generation needs, she concluded, is a strong progressive movement; one that supports quality union jobs, reduction of student debt, divestment from fossil fuels. In return, progressive youth are building power that goes beyond elections.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, of the Moral Monday movement, closed the day by rallying the troops.

They thanked the participants for our long history of progressivism and activism and cautioned, in Sanders’ words, “Now is not the time to turn our backs on the political process.” Rather we need to continue to push the middle class’s issues of jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, raising minimum wage, creating more daycare, making higher education free, and amending the constitution to end the unlimited power of billionaires.  “There are more people living in poverty than ever in U.S. history,” he said, but by increasing workers’ participation in elections by only 5 percent (from 60 percent to 65 percent) progressive goals can be achieved.

Rev. Barber explained that right wing “deconstructionists” understand populist power better than we do. The first reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) and the second from 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education) to 1968 when Nixon instituted the Southern Strategy. By voting Obama into the presidency, the U.S. electorate brought about the promise of another reconstruction period; by recognizing our power and by working through “transformative coalition and fusion politics,” we can find the on-switch for those harmed and kept down by the anti-human legislation being passed in North Carolina and elsewhere.

The “new populism” spoken of at the conference was described, defined and delivered with hope and realism. The closing chant, “Fight back, go forward,” seemed to symbolize the thought of the day: we have to keep marching up the road to freedom, but the view and the company are getting better all the time.

Photo: Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaking at the conference. Campaign for America’s Future Facebook page.



Cindy Farquhar
Cindy Farquhar

Cindy Farquhar is a progressive community activist in Baltimore.