Eugene Puryear interview: launching a new movement for change

Liberation sat down with Eugene Puryear on Nov. 5 to discuss the outcome and significance of the D.C. for the People campaign for the seat of D.C. Councilmember At-Large.

Liberation: Eugene, the purely grassroots D.C. for the People campaign received more than 10,000 votes, how do you assess the campaign overall?

EP: Our message from the very beginning was that win or lose, the purpose of this campaign was to rebuild a people’s movement in D.C., to give voice to the struggles of low-wage workers, of tenants, against racist displacement, police abuse, and to help unite the activists and organizations across the city. I’m certain we were successful in that effort and that we’ve really helped launch a new era of organizing and resistance in the District.

We ran a serious campaign with the hope of giving this movement a presence in the Council, and in the process created a real grassroots momentum and buzz. This was on account of months of outreach, going door to door, putting up posters, debating, speaking out, marching, and more generally it was built on the collective sacrifice of volunteers and supporters. It was really incredible to see and be a part of.

Hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock and made this campaign powerful. It was a harbinger of what’s coming.

How do you evaluate the results for D.C. for the People?

We ended up with over 10,000 votes across the city, and I consider those conscious votes for the D.C. for the People program — not people voting out of party loyalty or because of big-name recognition, or the endorsement of any celebrities or traditional electoral institutions, or because of advertisements and expensive mailers. To the contrary, we came out ahead of candidates who spent a lot more money than us, who received more institutional support, and who started with more name recognition. There were 15 candidates, most of whom ran serious campaigns, so I’m proud that in that crowded field 10,000 people came out and consciously decided to show their support for us.

On Election Day, our campaign was present at around 75 polling stations throughout the city on an all-volunteer effort. That’s really something. We also performed the best in the wards and precincts that are the most oppressed areas of the city, and in the places where we have the deepest community ties.

We always knew we faced very long odds and ultimately those candidates with more money, institutional backing, corporate media support, and links to the Democratic Party machine came out ahead. We had none of that. Also 65,000 people only cast one vote for the two open At-Large Council seats. We saw throughout the campaign that many working-class Democratic Party voters agreed with our fighting message and part of our job was to remind voters they had two votes. But the Democratic Party’s literature deliberately obscured this and the corporate media didn’t really mention it, so that reinforces my point about our voters being conscious of what they wanted when they showed up.

Kshama Sawant, a socialist, was elected to the Seattle City Council one year ago, and the late Chokwe Lumumba, an open revolutionary, was elected as mayor for the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Here we are 1 year later with the D.C. for the People campaign. You openly campaigned as a socialist and had a strong showing. Is this is a big deal, the fact that socialists are making dents in the electoral arena, and what does it portend about the revival of socialism?

This is absolutely a big deal. For almost a century, there was a de facto ban on socialism in American political life. These campaigns are a sign that in the minds of millions the black mark has been at least partially removed from the image of socialism. It is a sign that many people are willing to push the boundaries of what is deemed “practical” by conventional wisdom to try and solve the problems facing them.

D.C. for the People was a grassroots campaign, with lots of volunteers, young and old, who devoted their time without compensation. It seemed somewhat more like a movement, or the beginning of one, rather than a traditional campaign. How did a campaign like this one relate to the tasks of movement-building?

That movement feel is certainly true and exactly what we were trying to do with this campaign. It was not built through any traditional institutions. It tapped into a broader desire of people to stand up and fight back, and encouraged those people to play an active role in the historical process. Rather than passively accepting what is put forward by the two major parties as a solution or salvation, many people are asserting their own needs and their own desires, their own program. This shift from passive to active is the essence of how movements are built and electoral campaigns such as ours can help crystallize that.

The ultimate program of socialism is to reorganize the economy so that the major industries and banks are nationalized and put under public control, and for the working and poor parts of the population to exercise political power. The 10-point program you ran on, however, calls for a $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing, the rights of returning citizens, etc — in other words, the program did not require a socialist reorganization of society. They were demands in the here and now. How does the 10-point program fit into a socialist vision for the struggle of poor and working people?

That is correct that this was not a socialist program per se — although of course under socialism many of these program points would be bedrock rights and principles: the right to housing, a decent job, childcare, the fight against all forms of discrimination and bigotry, etc. In our current capitalist society, these are not rights but rather privileges only guaranteed for the rich. This 10-point program spoke to the gulf between rhetoric and reality in the capitalist system. All of it could theoretically be accomplished right now under capitalism. To the extent that it is not, to the extent that the political system offers resistance to these principles, this is a confirmation of the basic fact, as outlined by socialists and communists, that the governmental structure in and of itself is an obstacle to meeting people’s needs.

So while we hope, as part of a movement of poor and working people, to accomplish as much of this program as we possibly can, experience and history teaches us that the institutional limitations of capitalist government will prevent even such “common sense” solutions to the problems of working people from being implemented.

I want to ask you about your view on the issue of socialism and democracy. The dominant view in our society is that socialism, while advocating for a certain kind of equality, strips people of their democratic rights: the right to vote, the right to representative and accountable government, etc. I’ve heard D.C. for the People volunteers arguing that the 10-point program expands the definition of democracy. Can you elaborate?

In his speech at the 1963 March on Washington that was unfortunately never given, current Congressional representative John Lewis recognized that the for poor Black people in the South the right to vote, if granted, would still be hollow unless the issue of poverty, economic dispossession and dislocation was addressed. What is the right to vote if millionaires and billionaires can influence elections purely by the size of their bank account, when the poor are unable to gain the same level of access and response from elected officials? Socialism is a recognition of the fact that the very term “democracy” is politicized and that its meaning is not limited to Western capitalist conceptions. We believe for there to be true equality it has to exist not just from the perspective of representation but resources.

How should this limitation of the existing “democracy” be remedied?

The landlord and the tenant he is evicting both have a right to vote every 2 or 4 years, but there is not a democratic and legal right to affordable housing. What we’re saying is that affordable housing and a good-paying job should be a constitutional right as an expansion on the Bill of Rights.

Wealth is created collectively, by those who work for businesses and corporations, and purchase from them. So in a society with enough wealth to provide food, clothing, shelter, the essentials to all people, it can’t be truly democratic — that is, of, by and for the people — if it doesn’t enshrine economic rights as basic rights. The scarcity and deprivation forced on one section of the population, while another section enjoys easy access to institutional power — this is inherently undemocratic.

In the last few years there’s been a concerted effort by labor and community organizations, and low-wage workers themselves, to make the minimum wage a living wage. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage now is far lower than it was in the 1970s and poverty is increasing. D.C. for the People made the demand for a $15/hour minimum wage a central part of the campaign. What do you think can make it reality? Do you see this primarily as an electoral effort?

It undoubtedly will have to be an effort of a broad-based coalition, involving many of the same social forces who were part of this campaign. Everywhere a living wage has been won, it has been won by people on the streets, only with the assistance of elected officials who chose to act as part of this movement.

There are very powerful forces in the corporate sphere who produce unending streams of willfully inaccurate material on this subject. The only way for us to overcome their influence over those who have been tricked by this, and the politicians they have bought and paid for, is to create disturbances on multiple levels and of such a magnitude that providing this truly basic need — to not just survive but to live — becomes a prerequisite for any semblance of order. We have to say that outside of these needs being met, business as usual will not be able to continue. In other words, we have to meet the power of the corporations head on with the power of the people.

I have two final questions that are somewhat disconnected. One, D.C. for the People was not just unorthodox in that it was a large-scale grassroots effort by political and community activists. It was also unorthodox because you are also a known peace activist, and have been a leader in the U.S. antiwar movement for years. We all know the history of how Dr. King was vilified when he came out against the war in Vietnam, and made the point that you cannot have a real war on poverty at home, while conducting colonial-type wars abroad in Southeast Asia. How important is the connection between peace and social justice? Had you been elected to the Council here in D.C., where the federal government is seated, would you have continued to function as a peace activist?

The connection I think is clear, and this has certainly been reflected by my experience by the deep and broad antiwar feeling of the population of the District. The military-industrial complex and the endless wars waged by the U.S. government siphon away the economic resources that are desperately needed in our communities here. These wars, with their countless moral outrages, besmirch all of our names.

As Dr. King said, there comes a time when silence is betrayal. I think it’s the duty of all people, whatever their station in life, to speak out against these injustices. So I would absolutely have been a loud voice on these issues.

I would also add that it is doubly important for the representatives of residents of the District of Columbia, who lack statehood and therefore have no voice inside the national legislature to oppose these policies. From my perspective this makes it critical for the District-wide elected officials to reflect and express the very significant sentiments of D.C. residents against war and militarism.

That leads into my final question. The 10th point on your program is for statehood and you ran on the ticket of the Statehood Green Party. People outside the District may not know that this majority Black city could not vote for the President until the 1960s. Even today no members of Congress are elected from D.C., so we have the entangling of a sort of colonialism and a majority Black city. How important is statehood?

I view it as extremely important. If we are in fact citizens of the United States, it is criminal that we do not have the full rights that all other citizens enjoy. And further, we lack the freedoms and powers that all municipalities below the federal level enjoy. From this basic reality it’s clear our political and democratic rights are abrogated every day.

Secondly, the resources of those who work in the District of Columbia, but do not live here, are, unlike every other city in the United States, denied to us. This exacerbates the legacy of white flight — read: racism — that starved inner cities with the connivance of state and federal officials around the nation, and heavily impacted Black communities and set them on a course of devastation. Statehood is necessary for both democratic reasons, economic reasons, and to right what has in fact been an historic wrong done to the District of Columbia.

Are there other notable aspects of the election you’d like to mention?

Yes, voter turnout was extremely low. Here in D.C. Only 32 percent of registered voters cast ballots. To look at the more oppressed areas, in Ward 8 only 21 percent of voters cast ballots and in Ward 7 the number was 26 percent.

Mid-term elections always have lower turnouts, but we are looking at a potential record low across the board, with a few state-based exceptions. It is worth noting that even in a hotly contest Presidential years like 2008 and 2012 roughly 40 percent of voters still did not vote.

While there are many implications to draw from this, the first is that the electorate in these situations is usually a more conservative audience. That is a relative term in D.C., which is a very liberal municipality, but the fact remains that in this context 10,000 for an open socialist is quite substantial.

The key fact, however, is that this mass abstention clearly exposes the political system as being more or less bankrupt. Very large numbers of people, as shown in the mid-terms, simply do not believe politicians and formal “politics” can make a difference in their everyday life. This speaks not to the deficits of voters, but instead with the failure of politics to transcend the banal “lesser of two evils’ see-saw that delivers very few results to the people.

As Pew Research notes, the “party of non-voters” is heavily young, of color, and poor. And it makes perfect sense. The declining conditions of these sectors of the population in the past 30 years, only superficially addressed with tiny reforms, seems inadequate and the status quo electoral scene is thus of little or no interest.

To engage this “party of non-voters,” a bold politics with solutions that meet the scale of their problems presented in a sustained way and outside of a purely electoral frame is necessary.

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