All told there might have been 600 community college students and members of the public who came in waves through the 4-hour September 25 Teach-In on “The Power Of Your Vote.” At times this discussion of the importance of getting active around the 2020 election almost filled the 277-seat Laney College Forum auditorium.
They heard powerful stories told by their peers, their teachers and community activists about the never-ending struggles by oppressed and exploited groups throughout the entire history of America for social and economic justice — long-past struggles like those that legally freed the slaves, more recent struggles like the battles for civil rights, current struggles that touch them personally, like the travesties happening around immigration, the tragedies of homeless students and teachers, the outrages of people priced out of needed health care, the apocalyptic extinction possibilities of climate change and never-ending struggles like safeguarding democracy by demanding that all citizens enjoy the right to vote.
Some stories were real tearjerkers – undocumented immigrants willing to risk everything they had ever known for a chance at a better life, Students wanting an education so much that they couch surf or sleep in their cars in order to attend school. Students struggling to rebound from horrible encounters with the U.S. system of mass incarceration. Students who have seen so much violence in their young lives that they couldn’t imagine a life without it. In this year of danger and discontent there was so much to talk about.
In Oakland the problem is gentrification with rapid and high rent increases, wrote student Kah’lea McClendon. “My parents are not lazy. Both of my parents have jobs, none of them are addicts, and none of them are bad people; but we still were homeless for three years.” The camera focused on Emma Denice Milligan, sitting in intense pain in her power wheelchair, stumbling with her speech impediment, bringing her story of how Dr. Ronald J. Robinson kicked her out of Summit Hospital after two weeks of failing to find the cause of her pain with the statement to her and her uncle, “She’s a drain on hospital resources.”
Why voting matters was the focus of the Teach-In, planned by a Teach-In Committee of students, teachers, administrators and community volunteers in conjunction with the college chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. In a country as diverse as ours, with an economic system as exploitive as ours, and a political system as broken and captured by money as ours, why the hell would voting matter? To provoke discussion about that question, the planners used a combination of personal stories, newspaper articles, videos and small-group discussions that tried to merge the lessons of history – some ugly and others inspirational – with the optimism of the millennial generation and the demand for change being increasingly expressed by the growing number of once optimistic people now being pushed out of the economy by gentrification, robotization, and the fascist system of harsh controls being pushed by our two-party system. Among the videos shown was 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You!” speech to the United Nations. Last year she was sitting in protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
“It’s a city within a city, temporary homes made permanent residence, located in Emeryville, California,” said student Jalana Spencer. “We call it Tent City . . . People live in squalor. Garbage is everywhere, welcoming rodents and things that feed. Portable toilets are overflowing leaving a pungent stench in the air. Dirty faces without names, it is an eyesore. Tented communities are popping up everywhere, blocking roads, trashing streets and making an unsafe environment for everyone around. Many people living in these communities are in need of medical care and financial assistance. There are many circumstances leading to how they ended up in their situation and we as a community should be more aware and understanding.”
Ethel Long-Scott, one of the founders of the Teach-in Committee and MC of the first two-hour session, kicked it off with a short welcoming speech.
“Many of us have watched the Presidential debates,” she said. “The 2020 election, which we are seeing take shape right now, promises to be the most momentous in our history since the 1860 election brought us Abraham Lincoln as president and ushered in the U.S. Civil War.
“Back then the political system let the slave-owning south control the country by relying on the legal fiction that a slave owner had 3/5 of a vote for every slave he owned. Today, our political system gives corporations — through their influence in both major political parties — a deadly hold over our government, relying on the legal fiction that corporations are people and have more rights than humans do.
“Major splits are developing within the Democratic Party about how to proceed in the 2020 campaign. One strategy is to defeat Trump by compromising with corporations and supporting corporate-funded so-called middle of the road candidates like Biden. Another strategy is to confront the corporations and build on the working class mobilization unleashed by the Sanders campaign in 2016.
“Meanwhile in the neighborhoods more folk are organizing into strands of a movement, and working to pull those strands together. They are struggling to gain control over what people really need, led by a vision of a better society and a safer world. The bottom line is that there can’t be political democracy without economic democracy. Whoever controls your bread and butter controls you. People are waking up to the fact that they need to fight to be in control of the things they need to survive. We need political power, and voting our needs is key to generating a social movement aimed at securing the political power we need.
“Why is this happening?” Long-Scott asked.
“Because more and more of us are falling into a new class, a class of people no longer needed by a market-based, profit-based corporate economy that’s replacing more and more human workers with robots and artificial intelligence. Because corporations no longer employ us, they are driven to use fascism (corporate sponsored terror and dictatorship of government) to control us.
“What we the people need is … a plan, and a narrative. We also have no choice; we have to unite to succeed and survive, unite under the banner of our shared real needs. United, we are the social force for a new economy that serves the needs of all people and the planet. That’s why our vote matters today.”
Or as a discussion paper noted, “In this election year and in the coming years, your vote will have great power if we can channel our political energy toward a common goal; transforming our society so that all people have full access to all the resources of society to fulfill our basic needs of decent and dignified life on a healing planet.”
Dr. Kimberly King, the Laney psychology professor and Umoja (unity) program director who MC’d the second 2-hour session, said afterward she was getting “lots of excited responses from students . . . who attended. Several Umoja students were thrilled by the speakers and the perspective of coming together as poor people across colors to fight for what we need and deserve.”