The story of America is a fight about power

I was honored to be recognized with a Social Justice Award at last night’s New York Gala for the Center for Popular Democracy, and here is what I said, after an introduction by Maya Harris:

Thank you, my friend Maya, for those beautiful words, and thank you, Center for Popular Democracy, for the indispensable role you in bringing the voices and muscle of community-based organizing groups to the national policy table. If the power of working-class people and communities of color is not front and center in what we call the progressive infrastructure — with the resources they deserve — we can’t win or sustain the victories on which our collective future depends.

You’d have to go back a long way in this country to find a moment like the one we are living in, where big money and the right were as nakedly hungry to remove any restraints on their power.

The history of this country is a fight about power. First, to expand who has access to it. The words of the founding vision were grand, and inspire to this day, but they rang hollow while democratic power was limited to while male property owners. Social movements, ancestors to those that CPD stands with today, fought to expand that power to include African-Americans, women and others. When I worked in the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we worked to claim the Constitution’s protection for young people, the disabled, and LGBT people. That work is never done.

In claiming the constitutional vision for all, we also fight to check power. The power of the state to silence, discriminate, imprison and kill. The power of corporations to oppress, injure and rob. The power of mobs to terrorize. It was barely 100 years ago that free speech gained any meaningful protection in America; just 63 years ago, the year of my birth, that racial equality found strong support from the highest court in the land; just 50 years ago that we began to recognize any limits on the power of police and prosecutors.

We are still fighting in each of these spheres, still making the most basic — if I may say, the most biblical — of demands: do not kill us, and do not steal from us. The bad news is that despite our gains — indeed, I believe, because of our gains, and the fear of the few when faced with the advancing hopes of the many — the power we are trying to fight has risen up over the last few years more virulent and determined than ever. The good news is that any illusions we’ve had to fight about what we face have been crumbling by the day.

Not too long ago we were weary of explaining that we are not living in a post-racial America just because Bull Connor and his fire hoses, and segregated buses, lunch counters and classrooms were no more. Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, equated with their opponents by a President who demeans Latinos, Muslims and Blacks; voter suppression in state after state; so many Black lives crushed by police violence. The tenacity of white supremacist ideology and practice can no longer be denied.

Not too long ago some women whose careers were made possible by hard-won feminist victories were denying that debt and calling feminism a thing of the past. The torrent of stories about the degradation and abuse that women face in Hollywood, corporations, publishing and yes, from ostensibly progressive men and organizations, give the lie to that powerfully. Gender equality must be front and center in every progressive struggle.

Not too long ago, corporate power tried to soften its edges with tech and social media companies immersed in every aspect of our lives and with the activism of some business interests in speaking up about LGBT issues from Indiana to North Carolina. But as we’ve seen the power of social media to threaten, as well as advance democracy, and the way that fossil fuel and financial companies are seizing control of Cabinet agencies and writing their own rules, it’s clearer than ever that citizen control of democracy is at stake.

I try to be an optimist, and have lived through many ups and downs in my forty years of progressive activism, but I’m fearful for the future of my country and our world. What makes me hopeful in this dark time is the people power that CPD represents and supports — resisting oppression in the streets and town halls, replacing the right through the ballot box, and renewing democracy to make it work for every one of us. I’m proud to stand with you in this fight.