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Whenever society is on the brink of change, those who benefit from the status quo get very scared. This is easily explained by the behavior engaged in by the powerful. Police violence against the labor and Civil Rights movements was and is still rampant.
In 1831, after Nat Turner, who was enslaved at the time, led a rebellion against slavery in Virginia, white mobs killed over 150 Black people and state legislatures rushed to ban education for the enslaved out of fear that educated Black people would realize they could take their rights back. After the Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black people as well as white abolitionists because they were afraid of giving up any of their power.
In Appalachia during the early twentieth century, striking coal miners managed to terrify the bosses and law enforcement. Law enforcement would not have killed 50 during the 1912 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Coal Miners’ strike and over 100 during the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain if they weren’t scared, nor would the Colorado National Guard have carried out the Ludlow Massacre against striking workers in 1914. Over 1,100 labor organizers were killed in the fight for labor rights because bosses were scared.
If one fight can be won, so many more fights become more possible. The same people that are interested in keeping Black and Brown people, queer people, disabled people and religious and other minorities in the margins of society are the ones trying to stop workers from gaining their rights. None of us are free until all of us are free!
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed many parts of the New Deal to appease the labor movement, precisely because he feared the backlash that would occur if he didn’t. The labor movement surged again after World War II with over 5 million participating, and in order to prevent it from fundamentally altering society, politicians unleashed the police on strikers and passed laws to micromanage the labor movement into irrelevance.
During the 1950s and 60s, when Black Americans once again rose in substantial numbers to demand the rights they have always been entitled to, and never been given, the police response was intimidation and violence, borne out of fear. On March 7, 1965, police violently reacted to Civil Rights organizers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala. Former Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who unfortunately died in July 2020, was given a permanent head injury that day by a police officer protecting the interests of the status quo. It’s not a coincidence that many Civil Rights leaders, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, were assassinated. It’s been established that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) targeted and spied on King, among other leaders. These assassinations and beatings wouldn’t have happened if the people in power weren’t terrified at the prospect of change.
In recent years, society has been on the brink of change too, both in Washington and across the country. When Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, the mainstream media, Democratic National Committee (DNC) and local parties colluded to stop him. Although there is no evidence of direct vote rigging, the DNC initially only sanctioned six debates, many of which were scheduled on weekends or around major holidays. Former DNC Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida who’s bought by payday lenders, big sugar and alcohol companies, allowed Hillary Clinton’s campaign a significant amount of control over DNC press releases and her successor, Donna Brazile, allegedly shared debate questions with the Clinton campaign beforehand.
And, after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), at the time a socialist bartender from the Bronx, defeated Representative Joe Crowley (D-NY), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) banned Democratic vendors from helping primary challengers, although this ended in 2021, the party remains hostile to primary challengers (mostly). This has not been applied equally to those who challenge progressives from the right. Additionally, in Seattle’s 2019 City Council elections, Amazon spent $4.1 million trying to defeat progressive city council candidates. None of this would have happened if those in power weren’t afraid of progressive, populist leaders holding electoral power.
Outside of electoral politics, the national movement against police brutality in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police also faced an extremely violent police reaction, and many Democratic lawmakers responded by passing laws cracking down on police brutality. Although none of the laws went far enough and many reforms were rolled back after police backlash, politicians of the political repercussions of not doing so. They were right to be scared after Representative Jamaal Bowman’s (D-NY) campaign picked up steam due a blasé comment from former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-NY) at a Black Lives Matter protest, which was caught on hot mic.
“If I didn’t have a primary I wouldn’t care,” said Engel.
Bowman defeated Engel handily on June 23, 2020.
The recent pushes for unions at corporate giants like Amazon and Starbucks have also led to fearful, reactionary behavior from corporate. Amazon rigged the union election in Bessemer, Ala., in April 2021, which led the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a do-over election, which ultimately failed a second time. Starbucks has engaged in union-busting behavior so extreme that the NLRB has ordered them to negotiate with stores that voted against the union as if they had unionized, which is unprecedented.
We should continue to push for the kind of change that makes those in power uncomfortable, because it works! Electorally, in labor organizing and on the streets, we should keep forcing change.
This year, there will be many elections. State Representative Summer Lee and City Councilmember Gregorio Casar have won Congressional primaries in Austin, Tex., and Pittsburgh, Penn., respectively. Lee will be the first Black congresswoman from Pennsylvania.
In Oregon’s 5th District, based in Bend, progressive activist Jamie McLeod-Skinner defeated Representative Kurt Schrader (D-OR), one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. McLeod-Skinner is openly gay and criticized Schrader for blocking the Build Back Better Act. Going forward, there will be more primaries, with exciting candidates running for congress. Amy Vilela in Nevada’s 1st district, State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou in New York’s 10th district and Stephanie Gallardo in Washington’s 9th district (I get to vote for her!) are running, among many others. Vote for them if you can!
Whatever you can contribute to making the world a better place, you should do it. Every step we take towards making the world a better place counts.
Note: This article does not touch on the resistance to capitalism outside of the United States, which has been even more intense. It’s important not to forget the work put in by those most directly affected by our brutal system. I also want to be clear that things like the DCCC being against progressive challengers is not comparable to events like the assassinations of Civil Rights leaders and massacres against union members. All are good examples of the powerful retaliating against change agents, but each is a very different experience.