Movements Create Change: Interview with Eric Mann on Bernie Sanders


Chief editor Dae-Han Song interviews the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s Executive Director Eric Mann (a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement) on his thoughts about Bernie Sanders.

In the beginning, many did not think Bernie Sanders stood a chance at getting the Democratic presidential nomination. While Clinton is still favored to win, there is quite a bit of momentum behind Sanders. Who is supporting Sanders? What is behind his popularity?

The 60s were the product of the 26 years of the 60s. The reason why I call it the 26 years of the 60s is that I consider the first break in the imperialist domination of the world to be in 1954. In 1954, in the battle of Dien Bien Phu[ref] In the battle of Dien Bien Phu the Vietnamese were able to defeat the French and drive them out.[/ref], for the first time a full blown Communist led, Asian, of color, Third World, conscious movement defeated the fascist imperialist in such a pointed battle that it was a decisive shift towards the Third World. 1954 was also Brown vs. Board of Education that ended the legal apartheid system. 1955 was the murder of Emmet Till which was a decisive factor in changing Black consciousness. 1955 was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 1955 was the Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Nations.

The oppressed are still the oppressed, the oppressors are still the oppressor but the balance of power shifted. The reason I raise this is that for white people, the question is not about the Cold War or Vietnam, it’s not “What are you going to do about the Third World?” “What are you going to do about Black people?” The question for white people is: “What are you going to do about white supremacy and imperialism?” That period ended in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Here we are in 2016, 36 years later. And there are cracks in the system as there have always been. But there have been three big phenomena: one is Occupy, the second is the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the third is Black Lives Matter. There is a profound disconnect between the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Black Lives Matter. There is a profound disconnect between the Bernie Sanders campaign and the work of the Labor/Community Strategy Center or the People of Color Summit. I have been doing this work since 1980 since 1990, since 1996, at no time have we met Bernie Sanders as allies, at no time have we met the Occupy movement as allies. So, in fact, Black Lives Matter had to jack up Bernie Sanders about his total absence of racial consciousness. What I would consider white racist populist consciousness. So, the phenomenon of Bernie has been the white part of the settler state rising up against economic inequality. They are not talking about the assassinations, about the 2.5 million people in prison – a million of whom are Black.

Hillary Clinton is reaching the Black bourgeoisie in a very reactionary way, but at least she knew that Black people exist. Bernie comes from an all white state. He wasn’t interested. And now, he is trying to get better on race. He has made some movements on race. On some issues he is better now, then Hillary. He is getting the support of Black intellectuals like Cornel West, Spike Lee. I am glad he is moving forward. I agree with Michelle Alexander that Black people should not vote for Hillary. I agree that Hillary is not a friend to Black people: Bernie is the counter-weight to Hillary who I consider the main danger.

We are fighting to free the 2.5 million. We are fighting for Obama to cut emissions by 50% of 1990 levels by 2025. We are fighting to stop the police state and the surveillance state. And Bernie Sanders’ people are not speaking about any of this. They don’t give a damn. When you tell them that we want to cut emissions by 50%. They say it’s the Republicans that we have to fight. These white kids don’t have consciousness around these issues because they don’t give a damn. In the 25 years we have been busting our asses off in Los Angeles, have we seen them at the MTA[ref] MTA is the Metropolitan Transportation Agency that is in charge of public transportation in the Los Angeles area.[/ref]? Have we seen them at the City Council? Have we seen them in demonstrations against police brutality? They don’t have any political consciousness. They hate corporations, but they don’t hate the imperialist racist state. So, Bernie Sanders people are at best allies, but they are not our movements. Hillary is an opponent. Trump is an enemy. Bernie Sanders is a weak, weak ally.

Of all the forces, the Bernie Sanders people are the ones that we have the most struggle with because they are people that can at least be moved on some issues. So, I want Sanders to continue, I don’t want him to drop out. I think the Black people that are trying to push something are pushing Bernie: Cornel West, Spike Lee, Black Lives Matter. They are trying to push Hillary too, but that’s more complicated.

It sounds like you are saying that the candidate with the greatest potential for engagement with the social movement is Bernie Sanders. Is the Labor/Community Strategy Center engaging with Bernie Sanders during the primaries? Is it planning on doing so in the future? If we were as strong as I wished we were, we would have invested more time in engaging the Bernie Sanders campaign, but we are having a lot of trouble building our own base right now. We chose to go to Paris[ref]The 2015 Climate Change Conference was held in Paris, France.[/ref] to struggle around climate change. It was the right choice. Right now our campaign is to get the Department of Defense and Obama to end the 1033 program[ref]The 1033 Program is part of the US Defense Department. It transfers excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.[/ref]. We are about to send a letter to the Sanders campaign to end the 1033 program, so it gives us something to talk about. So that it’s not just abstract. It’s not just “how do you feel about this?”

We have to get our demands on the ground so that we have some basis such as the demand that 100,000 Black people be able to return back to New Orleans[ref]After Hurricane Katrina, many Black people were displaced from their homes and been spread all over the United States. They have not yet been able to return. The right of return is the demand that the government create the conditions that make it possible for Black people to return to New Orleans.[/ref]. It’s not about whether we are going to work with Bernie or not, it’s about whether Bernie will take on Obama around cars[ref]The increase of public transportation and reduction of car production as a way of reducing emissions is one of the demands of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and the national Fight for the Soul of the Cities campaign.[/ref]. We are moving over the next two or three months to make more of a national demand and not just focus on Los Angeles. Our intention is to be a factor in the presidential election by bringing in an independent program. Again, we are very aware of our weakness. We don’t have a movement that experienced making demands on the president of the United States. During the 1960s, the Black movement was calling on the president to pass the Civil Rights Act, calling on the president to get out of Vietnam, calling on the president to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party[ref]The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a US political party formed in 1964 to challenge the legitimacy of the Mississippi Democratic Party which banned Black people from participating despite them being 40% of the population. They raised their demands with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.[/ref], calling on the president to put voter registrars on the South, calling on the president to put a stop to the harassment of the Klan[ref]Klan refers to the Klu Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that terrorized Black people while concealing their identity by wearing pointed hoods.[/ref]. Even if you were organizing in Philadelphia or Detroit, you were not mainly making demands on Philadelphia or Detroit. You were making demands on President Kennedy, President Johnson. Today’s movement has lost that. We have no historical capacity to raise demands on anybody. So for the past seven years, we haven’t raised any demands on Obama. We have demands on Bernie and on Hillary.

How are you building that power? Is there some sort of building of infrastructure or the building of alliances between various social movements across the country around a particular set of demands or program? Is there some sort of convergence? No. Right now, we are focusing on a major victory in Los Angeles. We have forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to give back all weapons they received under the Department of Defense 1033 program. We chose to escalate, so we are not calling it a victory, we are calling it a breakthrough. And now we are calling for a 50% cut in the Los Angeles School Police Department budget. That gives us more leverage to go national, because we are the ones that won something. No other police force has given back its weapons. So that is a victory. To turn it into a real victory, we need Obama to end this national program. The problem is that the big groups around the country are almost religiously local and the groups that are national are stuck in the “beltway”[ref]Beltway refers to organizations with their offices in Washington DC which focus mostly on advocating and lobbying the federal government.[/ref] [i.e. Washington D.C.] with deep, deep links to the Democratic Party and will not make any major demands on President Obama, so there is not a convergence, but we are trying to organize one.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Obama, or Hillary, the real question is what is the movement going to do? Let’s put the responsibility back on to the movement. Whether it’s Trump, Hillary, or Sanders – each of them offers their own strengths and challenges. If Trump gets elected, it’s not the end of the world. For example, Black people that were less militant during Obama, might have more space because they are not tied to the president. Each of the candidates represents different contradictions and opportunities. So, we don’t need to debate about whether it’s Hillary or Sanders, we have to ask ourselves “what is our program?”

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Interviewee: Eric Mann (Executive Director, Labor/Community Strategy Center) Interviewer: Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, World Current Report)