We are living in extraordinary times. The gulf between rich and poor has widened to its greatest since the Gilded Age: executive salaries have skyrocketed 23% in just over a year, while wages (when adjusted for inflation) have lost ground since the 1980s. Based in large part on a corporate-backed, state-focused legislative agenda called American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) unleashed by radical conservative legislators and governors, women’s reproductive rights are facing an unprecedented, nationwide assault. Public education is being dismantled, and its carcass fed to private enterprise. The assault on collective bargaining, which began and has succeeded in Wisconsin, is the first step in what promises to be a protracted dismantling of public sector workers’ rights across America, followed by the rights of private sector workers. And last but not least, efforts to restrict voting rights are well underway. On a federal level, social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are on the chopping block—and under a Democratic president, no less, who habitually acquiesces to corporate influence.
Extraordinary times indeed. Pennsylvania is no exception.
Governor Tom Corbett, according to the July 3rd, 2011 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, issued his “maiden budget [which] makes deep cuts in aid to schools and colleges and slices millions from social-service programs that provide job training, health care, shelter, food, and counseling to the poorest citizens.” His cuts also include $212 million from community colleges and $220 million from the state’s 14 colleges (which include University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, Pennsylvania State University, and Lincoln University.) The evisceration doesn’t stop there, however. Governor Corbett wants to cut $900 million from special education, teacher training, tutoring, and other aid to public schools. In other words, he’s willing to destroy the future of our state’s children and young adults, all so he can pay back his corporate benefactors, who happen to be the charter school corporations that largely funded his campaign for Governor. Corbett is willing to feed our public infrastructure to free-market capitalism, so that a select few reap large profits at the expense of the working and middle class.
This is class warfare, and it’s time Pennsylvanians begin fighting back. But how do we fight back effectively?
We often cling to the misconception that real change comes from parliamentary measures and the ballot box. But in so doing, we each shoulder a forgetting that meaningful reform, be it in labor struggles or the civil rights movements of our past, were not accomplished through legislation. Reforms were, and will always be, achieved by direct action. In spite of itself direct action has at times turned violent (as the struggle for labor rights illustrated), but just as often it manifests its message in non-violent civil disobedience: sit-ins, marches, boycotts. The machinery of government is slow, and it suggests through its impotence the need for responsive measures. The groundwork for peaceful, radical reform techniques has already been paved for us in historical stone. We as a people now need to find the courage to throw ourselves at “the machine.”
Our American ancestors did it in Selma, staring down police brutality, angry segregationists, and lynchings. Exploited factory workers in early textile mills of New England at the birth of the industrial revolution did it. And now our Arab brothers and sisters are doing it.
Imagination and a commitment to non-violence are the only guidelines:
Crash a governor’s press conference with your school choir to poignantly illustrate the impact cuts to education programs will have on public schools.
Organize a church group to pray-in at a fracking site to rail against the immorality of natural gas corporations who don’t pay an extraction tax, while Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens suffer a 50% cut in low-income health care services.
Hold a teach-in inside a bank, like US Uncut Philadelphia (of which I am an organizer, in the interest of full disclosure) has done on numerous occasions, and invite media to draw attention to the fact that major banks like Bank of America don’t contribute any income taxes despite paying their investment bankers billions of dollars in bonuses.
Stage a sit-in at the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, or the state capital, protesting how our state loses hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue because PA-based corporations don’t pay their fair share (unlike small-business owners and the working class.)
Organize a rally of small business owners to protest against large corporations exploiting tax loopholes.
How do we organize into a non-violent force that our government must reckon with? I’ll use the Egyptian revolution of 2011 as an example.
The main thrust of Egypt’s Arab Spring demanded that Hosni Mubarak step down as leader. He represented the corruption and tyranny that was oppressing the Egyptian people, and that made basic necessities like food, education and employment unreachable. There’s a buzzword that covers things like that: it’s called freedom, right? The Egyptian activists’ strength, in my humble analysis, relied on three key factors: 1) their ability to frame their demands into one succinct statement; 2) that statement’s simplicity bonding otherwise disparate interest groups together to rally as one, building a coalition for Mubarak’s ouster; and 3) the movement using their growing numbers to solidify a mass presence who would no longer be ignored.
We are now in a struggle to regain our freedom from corporate aggression. Basic necessities like education, health care, and gainful employment are becoming increasingly inaccessible to a growing swath of Americans, and while the solution to these problems is admittedly complicated, there is one demand that activists both in Pennsylvania and across America can rally behind: corporate America is gaming the system. As a result, our country’s revenue stream has starved, and it has little allowance left for those basic freedoms and necessities. It also cannot be denied that normal channels to redress grievances are failing in large part because these corporations hold a tight grip on the levers of government. We must make it clear that we will no longer be ignored, and that the time for passive opposition (letter writing, petitions, and even voting) alone simply will not do anymore. Come August, when Congress breaks for recess and comes home to hold town halls with their constituents, we must make our message loud and clear: We will not tolerate corporations gaming the system at the expense of working-class Americans and our most vulnerable neighbors. And we must proclaim and make good on our promise to engage in non-violent disruption in order to ensure that we are taken seriously.
Like Tahrir Square, which brought together the Muslim Brotherhood, trade unionists, students, women’s rights groups, and others, so we must be unified and strong behind our message of corporate fiscal accountability, because it is this issue that Americans of all stripes—be they small business owners, students, teachers, public employees, the unemployed, church groups, etc—can, and must, rally behind.
Political scientist Gene Sharp (whom Egyptian activists credit in-part with galvanizing them to resistance) writes in his brilliant book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice And 21st Century Potential: “While individual acts may at times not have much impact, the defiance of organizations and institutions—for example, trade unions, business organizations, religious organizations, the bureaucracy, neighborhoods, villages, cities, regions and the like—can be pivotal.”
This piece is cross-posted at Raging Chicken Press.
Dustin M. Slaughter is the Founder of The David and Goliath Project