Faith Moved Me to Action: My Bernie Story
Donald Trump's Presidential victory caught me surprise, and made me feel I really know nothing about politics. Nevertheless, through much of 2015 and 2016 I thought I did, and thought I was putting my shoulder to the wheel towards making a positive contribution.
I became involved in Bay County for Bernie since its founding at Bernie Sanders' televised speech July 30, 2015. Over thirty years ago, I was involved in anti-gentrification activities with the North Mission Association in San Francisco, and helped organize the North Mission Artists' Coalition (NOMAC) in support. Beyond serving on Mountain View Community Television's board a decade later, I haven't been involved in politics other than fulminating in the pixels of Bad Subjects. Opinion and textual advocacy, rather than marching.
We began to discuss musical events, and at first envisioned Polka for Bernie in heavily Polish-American Bay City until the polka musicians we approached angrily revealed themselves to be Republicans. Still, I helped organize two free Sounds for Sanders musical events, at rock clubs in my town Bay City, MI and about 20 miles south, in Saginaw. The first, at Bemo's, was a couple weeks before the one-month cutoff for voter registration, so was a reminder to all to Register to Vote. My workplace band opened, followed by a Mexican American rapper called Amerikon, then a terrific tight rockabilly/outlaw country band the Hellbound Drifters. My co-organizer was the manager of a BBQ joint, so brought pulled pork for everyone, and another volunteer brought salad. Members of Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee's re-election team were working the room, though Kildee was a declared delegate for Hillary Clinton. Still, that showed that Bemo's was the center of political action that afternoon.
At the second gig, at White's Bar on the Sunday before the March 2016 Tuesday Primary, my band opened, followed by soul singer Lavel Jackson (about to tour, and play cruise ships, as one of the Dramatics), local favorites the Barbarossa Brothers, and Celtic Punks the Tosspints. I had hoped Lavel would have drawn more of his female fans from the Saginaw's east side, for I wanted our part of the Bernie campaign reaching out to African Americans, but despite him posting the event on his Facebook page, none of them showed up. Some of the Tosspints' angriest and saddest songs are about their Desert Storm veteran guitarist's PTSD. In any case, it was a fine event.
The proof of its efficacy? Bernie won Michigan!
Bernie has proven popular all over Michigan, with long lines forming outside his appearance in Ypsilanti. My own alma mater high school in Ann Arbor closed early so kids could get home before spillover crowds clogged streets in front of the UM facilities across from the school where Bernie spoke. It is interesting that he got the majority of Arab American votes in Detroit and Dearborn, where I believe there are good relations between Muslim and Jewish communities. Yet it was satisfying to know that our corner of Bay County for Bernie did our part, helping to push him towards November's Presidential ballot.
I wanted to see Bernie Sanders win the California Democratic Primary in May, just as he did my Michigan. So about 60 days before it, I wrote an impassioned plea to all my California friends, almost three dozen, on Facebook. I think of all my activist, or at least sentimentally progressive, friends out there and I want them to put their shoulder to the wheel to make it happen. They are mostly involved in art, writing, music, so that's what they would do best and most honestly as a political statement. I urged my California musician friends to repurpose my Sounds for Sanders graphics for Get Out the Vote concerts that they organize. I urged poets and polemicists to orate, versify, preach the Bernie message, and publish, in books, broadsides or spontaneous little handbills like communist Jack Hirschman used to pass out to all and sundry. "Can I compose a poem for you about Bernie Sanders and the beautiful gold scarf you're wearing today?" I wrote a pro-Bernie letter to my university's newspaper, and welcomed mi Californios to recirculate it, and adapt as necessary, under their own byline. I urged muralists and artists to organize Sanders murals, toss up Sanders graff and stencils, design and wheatpaste Sanders posters and small flyers, I urged fashionistas to make Sanders shirts, and give them to the homeless, who are always visible on the city streets. Or to curate a pop-up art show (Visions of Bernie's America?) in some space or coffeehouse, just to get people talking about our politics. Bicycle parades for Bernie. In other words, that which they normally did creatively, to do it with a Bernie beat the next sixty days. And to work to involve others in the Bernie vote who are not like them, not merely their friends, whom they don't normally talk politics to in daily life (shopkeepers, bus drivers, police, whomever). I enthused, Go for it! Just do it!
Yes, the campaign needs people at phone banks too, but I didn't do phone soliciting myself and I don't particularly appreciate political calls to my home, but I appreciate that action also helped Bernie's (and the other candidates') primary victories so far. I hoped every one of mi California/os could have pushed Bernie over the top too...but alas, the state didn't.
Bernie didn't win the Democratic Party's nomination at the July convention in Philadelphia, but he put up a good fight, and pushed the party platform to the left. He pragmatically said the next step was to vote for Hillary, and continue organizing. The best thing about Bernie's campaign is that we will still be around, and know each other. And we can stay as organized as we are now if we want to, and give it some thought.
At one point, someone posted on the Facebook page of Bay County for Bernie a picture of a Bernie mural in the Pacific northwest, a big cartoon of him vigorously dancing, as if skanking to Ska. "Mike, we should do one of these!" In agreement, I posted that if someone got permission for a wall approximately 8' x 20', a team of three of us could accomplish it in a weekend. No one picked up the challenge, found a wall; I'd expected to read of a certain shopkeeper who'd given permission if we agreed to repaint the wall after the election...but no luck. Sigh.
How can we sustain the activist community we've built? The success of Edward Bellamy's futuristic political novel (set in 2000, published in 1888) Looking Backward inspired "Bellamy Clubs" clubs around the United States. These gatherings advocated socialism (but not under that name), the nationalization of industry and private property, and crime treated as society's medical issue. So how do we carry on, not dedicated to one guy's election, but to carry on the fight in various fronts on the economy, the ecology and the society?
I've long hoped to involve my university's left intellectuals in an institute that counters the right-wing blather that the newspapers and broadcast media gobble up, that emanates from the well-funded Mackinac institute of Midland, MI. What if every Bernie organization around a college or university (or group of literately skillful intellectuals in a union or neighborhood organization or whatever) morphed into brain trusts that issued progressive position papers under a suitably respectable name?
Saginaw's racial segregation seems to hobble its own progress, but cultural events like our Sounds for Sanders held at Whites Bar there—and ongoing cultural celebrations like the REVIEW Music Awards—nicely stand against that tradition. A black Republican has said he's tired of white people who don't see racism, and black people who see nothing but. Real progress in this region will start when that's overcome, but I'm probably not the first to say this.
Something I like a lot about my Bernie bunch is the conviviality. They like to gather to watch debates or primary election returns in Irish pubs. I remember Irish expat Paddy Nolan's bar in San Francisco 35 years ago, called the Dovre Club because it was housed in the corner of Dovre Hall, an old Finnish-American hall in the Mission district now serving as the murals-bedecked S.F. Women's Building. Occasionally I even tended bar there, a good training for politics. Upon its stools could be found a lefty newspaper muckraker (former Ramparts magazine editor) taking his daily elevenses several hours before settling down to work at his typewriter, a gay political machine campaign manager (host of a scandalous 50th birthday party with odd live-sex entertainment), a Jewish conservative City Supervisor, Latina feminists from the Women's Building, among a roiling, rowdy convivial mix of neighborhood shipyard workers, gravediggers, contractors and salt of the earth. Democrats of all stripes should congregate around strong drink and crunchy food.
Shortly after conceding at the Democratic National Convention in July, 2016, Bernie launched his Our Revolution PAC in a TV event similar to that which began his July, 2015 campaign. Bay County for Bernie folks gathered, and it was fun to hear their firsthand tales of the Convention in Philadelphia (Mary Ellen Cain's is here). It soon became clear that this was like Emily's list, approved candidates to whom the faithful were asked to make campaign contributions, to increase the progressive footprint in the Senate and Congress.
A few weeks later I remarked on Facebook how I hadn't gotten any info from Our Revolution, whereas I seem to get mail soliciting funds from what feels like every Democratic candidate in the nation. I hadn't sent Bernie contributions online, which was evidently the mail vehicle for solicitations, but then I'm surprised nothing came via US Mail.
The relatively decentralized Bernie campaign (I don't remember a campaign official ever telling our bunch what to do next) was mirrored in Our Revolution, for our local just sad down in a living room and proposed area liberal Democratic candidates to support, and important issues like closing the risky Enbridge oil pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac.
I proposed more concerts, but there was insufficient interest in the small group gathered, nor among the venues and the other activists I approached. Maybe the Bernie campaign had burned them out by summer. Our group's intended Voter Registration guide to the Michigan ballot somehow never got written and produced. A barroom gathering intended to raise funds for a couple of progressive Democratic candidates for the Michigan legislature, in Midland and up north, saw drinks and snacks ordered and elbows bent, but never got as far as passing the hat.
We shall see if the new Presidential administration prompts or re-invigorates local activism...or if we'll all let Bernie Sanders down after he made the past year and a half so memorable and inspiring.
--November 22, 2016
Mike Mosher teaches art making and media administration in the American rustbelt that the misguided Democratic party somehow ceded to Trump in 2016.