In the first segment of this week’s Marc Steiner Show, we discuss how the left can make its voice heard in the incoming Biden administration with Bill Fletcher, a racial justice, labor, and international activist and author of numerous books, including “They’re Bankrupting Us!”, and organizer and activist Shana East, a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign and the founder of the grassroots campaign Illinois for Bernie.
In the second segment, we talk to Rennie Davis, one of the members of the Chicago 7 and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” recently released on Netflix.
The following is a rush transcription and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show right here on the Real News Network. It’s good to have you on with us once again. Today, we’re going to take a look at the political struggles that lay ahead of us in the wake of this election, and then take a journey back to our not so far distant past to look at another historic battle on the left that has consequences to this day. First, we’ll take a look at the growing chasm between the centrists and progressive democrats and its effect on everything from potential cabinet departments, to race in America, to the Green New Deal, to health care, and more.
We’ll be talking with both Fletcher Jr., a racial justice, labor international activist, and noted author, and with Shana East, who’s an organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign and the founder of Illinois for Bernie. Stay with us. They have some very sharply different perspectives and really important ones. You don’t want to miss that. Then, we journey to the past to look at The Trial of the Chicago 7. That was recently released as a film on Netflix. We’ll be talking with Rennie Davis, who was one of the co-defendants in that trial back in 1968, when activists demonstrating at the Democratic National Convention were viciously attacked by the Chicago police, and then put on trial for conspiracy. At least eight of them were, down to seven, and we’ll talk about that in that segment. Please, enjoy our first conversation [inaudible 00:01:17] in this next election that we just finished, and enjoy.
Today, we’re going to talk with our two guests. Bill Fletcher has been a racial justice, labor and international activist for a long time. He’s written numerous books, including “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions, Solidarity Divided, and the mystery novel that I love, The Man Who Fell from the Sky. We’re also joined by Shana East, who’s an organizer and an activist, who’s a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign, founder of grassroots campaign, Illinois for Bernie, and a battle on the DNC. Shana and Bill, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
Shana East: Thanks for- [crosstalk 00:01:57]
Bill Fletcher: Great to be on the program.
Marc Steiner: Let me just begin. Here we are just barely passed this election. Donald Trump has not conceded and probably will not concede until the last minute, if he ever concedes. It already seems that we’re seeing a dynamic play out here with the centrist forces inside democratic party and the progressive forces inside the democratic party at odds. We saw Abigail Spanberger from Virginia, and other centrist democrats who barely won, accuse the progressives of being the reason that they lost. Medicaid, Medicare for All, New Green Economy, and the rest.
You have AOC and other progressive congressional leaders saying, “No. It’s the opposite. Every time we campaign for Medicare for All, we won. We’re not the cause. Your lack of having a central focus for working people is the cause”, so let’s talk about what the cause of what’s going on here. Also, I’m going to add into that equation. You can agree or disagree with this, is the kind of overwhelming strength and organizational ability of the right in this country that has been building for the last 50 years. What does that leave what happens in this interregnum and beyond? Shana, since this is your first time here on the show, let me start with you.
Shana East: One of the exit polls I thought was pretty interesting showed that people who voted for Biden overwhelmingly were doing so to vote against Trump, so I think one issue the democratic party is having and that they’re going to need to reckon with is that they’re not giving people a platform. They have a symbolic platform, but they’re not speaking to people’s basic needs right now at this time. I think that’s what’s going on between the progressives and the moderates is that the moderates are more corporate driven, and the progressives are more trying to address the basic needs of the people.
Bill Fletcher: Let’s start with Shana’s first point. Yes, this was a broad front at the national level against Trump, and Biden and his people were masterful. I think that what people have to understand is that the anti-Trump front did not correspond to the down-ballot of elections. In other words, you’d have people that would vote against Trump but vote for conservatives down-ballot. That’s not really surprising, and that speaks to a weakness in the democratic party’s approach of programmatically, that we needed candidates, I would argue, down-ballot that were much stronger more to the left. That’s why I agree with AOC 100 per cent.
The other thing though I want to say about the election, Marc, I want to get this in, is that this was an election around race, revanchism, and a rejection of reality. I want to focus on that last part for a second, because I think that a lot of people don’t really want to accept that 70 million people voted against reality. They voted against the reality that we have a COVID-19 pandemic. They voted against the reality that we have an environmental catastrophe. They voted against reality. Now, people can say some people were willing to tolerate various views that Trump had, whether they believed them or not, but the reality is that people were prepared to take that step. That speaks to this very broad, right wing populist base that’s out there. It’s been out there for a long time, as you were pointing out, and we’re going to have to come to grips with it.
Marc Steiner: Let’s explore that a bit more and what that means to “come to grips” with all of this. If you look at the selection, it’s clear that in these states that we’re on, the edge going the other way. Wisconsin and Michigan, and perhaps now we’ll see that happen in Georgia. The black vote and the black communities of color, especially in [inaudible 00:06:24] American communities in some other states, like Arizona, are the reasons that the democrats actually won, that flipped it over.
Bill Fletcher: They’re part of the reason.
Marc Steiner: Part of the reason. I’ll let you jump back in on that. [crosstalk 00:06:34]
Bill Fletcher: What has to be figured out … No one is quite sure just yet. What it looks like is that Biden was able to flip back in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan the vote that had gone for Trump in 2016. I say that very cautiously, because what’s not clear is whether he flipped the voters, or whether what happened was that the segment of the electorate that had been demobilized by the Clinton campaign in those areas ended up becoming re-mobilized in this election. We don’t know. The union vote nationally seems to have been around 57 to 60 per cent for Biden. Yes, the African American/Latino vote was central, but something else happened in those swing states, and I think it’s going to take some time to unpack what it was.
Shana East: Bill’s giving Biden a little too much credit. I honestly think it was a lot of grassroot organizing going on, like the Poor People’s Campaign and other groups. They were mobilizing, organizing, registering people, and educating them to vote. They weren’t saying vote for Biden or Trump. They were just registering people to vote, and there was a high percentage of people who voted in this election that had never voted before. I don’t think it was so much the Biden campaign as a lot of work happening on the ground in those states.
Bill Fletcher: I don’t disagree, Shana, but what I do think is that the Biden campaign did something that Hillary missed in 2016, which is that they kept their focus on the swing states. When you have an electoral college, which is one of the most undemocratic mechanisms that one can imagine, they needed to do that. I agree with Shana, and I think that we can see, particularly in Arizona and a number of other states, where these non-democratic party organizations made a substantial difference in terms of mobilization. You can see in Florida, where there was insufficient attention to that by the democratic party, and why it hurt.
Shana East: I also think Hillary Clinton had a different public profile than Biden. Not as many people really know about his past, I think. He was kind of like a meme during the Obama years like, “Oh. Funny uncle Joe.” Hillary Clinton was hated from when she was a first lady, through her sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, or other sexism that she had encountered throughout her public life. She was just not a great candidate, I think, at that time. Yeah. I think that was part of it as well.
Marc Steiner: Let me push the point a bit further, because I think it’s really important for us. We don’t know all the answers yet. This here is going to take, as you said … there’s some analysis coming up post-election, what really happened. This is a question about that, and it’s also a question about strategically what happens next. I remember doing a series of programs about up to 60 million people who voted for Barrack Obama in 2008 who did not vote in 2016. Disillusioned, many of them in communities of color and maybe young people … Disillusioned and saying, “I’m done with this.” Many of them came back in this election, we think. We don’t know. We think.
You have a situation where most people on the left, and most progressives and the people on the left within the democratic party as well, decided to fight for Joe Biden, and even with some of them [inaudible 00:10:36], “Beat Trump. Battle Biden”, and all kinds of things in between and around there. The question is what happens now? As I said earlier, you have an extremely well organized and powerful right wing. Donald Trump got the second most amount of votes of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. Biden got the first obviously, and you’ve got democrats that in some sense are in disarray, very split. The future is really uncertain, that the court’s packed by the right on top of all of that, and the diminishing power of labor. They’re trying to get back, but there’s a diminished power over the years, so where do you see the struggle going? I’m curious. Where do you both see the struggle going between now and January 20th when the new president is sworn in and beyond? This is not going to be an easy time.
Shana East: What I do in my work and what I’m focused on is organizing poor and low incomes folks. I think what we need to do is organize around a set of demands that work for working class people. I think people in power stay in power, because they continue to divide that class, us. We need to work and work against that, and be incredibly disciplines in fighting against those people who wish to divide us.
Bill Fletcher: I think we’re going to have a few challenges. The defeat of Trump does not mean that right wing populism has been defeated. I would argue that it remains the principle problem right now that we’re confronting. We’re going to have a secondary problem with the centrist democrats. The centrist democrats are going to be the ones that are going to be essentially promoting the idea of, “Let’s reach across the aisle to the republicans. Let’s try to cut a better deal, be nice-nice.” They’re going to be the ones that are trying to tone down the left rhetoric and left directions, and I think we’re going to have a battle with them. I think we have to understand that there’s a difference in terms of the battle.
The right wing populist movement seeks our annihilation, and I don’t use that term as a euphemism. They seek our annihilation, so we are in really the fight of our lives. The fight of our lives didn’t end on November 3rd. Then, also this issue with the battle with the centrist democrats is pivotal, because it’s a fight over strategy. It’s over the soul of the democratic party. I think that fight needs to be pursued along the lines of what Shana was raising. There need to be very concrete demands and pressures on the democratic party and on Biden-Harris to move in a direction that we need. I am very worried that what will happen is a version of what happened when Obama was elected. It was sort of like Obama was going to be the adult in the room, was going to be sticking out his hand to McConnell, and trying to make nice-nice. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We can’t afford to make that mistake again.
Shana East: I think moderate dem’s created Trumpism. I think the democratic party lost tons of seats during Obama’s terms. I think now we can see, in the exit polls and whatnot, this time more low income voters moved to Biden. It’s not really a mandate for Biden. I see it as a mandate for the working class and for the democrats to begin to fight for our needs.
Bill Fletcher: Shana, I agree with that, but I would say this because of things that I’ve been watching the last few days. I think it’s really important that we articulate that Biden has a mandate for change.
Shana East: Yeah.
Bill Fletcher: The reason I say that is that every time the republicans get elected, whether they have the popular vote or not, they always position themselves and say, “We have the mandate from the public”, and this almost always goes un-contradicted. Democrats get elected, and then we start going through this hemming and hawing and, “Do we really have the mandate? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we have a slight mandate”, or whatever. To hell with that. We got to say, “No, no. We got the mandate. We got the mandate for change.” You know what? Audacity will be our watch word. Audacity. Not putting out our hands. No. We’re going to move. We’re going to move fast, so I think the way that we progress [inaudible 00:16:02] is going to be very, very important.
Shana East: But it’s not just the rhetoric of change that we need, which is what the democrats tend to do. We need actual change, so will they do that? I don’t know.
Bill Fletcher: Who knows, but that depends on us.
Shana East: It depends on us the people to put the pressure on them.
Bill Fletcher: Right. Exactly, but I’m saying that we’ve got to frame this, because the imagery becomes really important. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, but from that point on there was almost no discussion, except maybe parenthetically, about the fact that this guy had no popular mandate. Nevertheless, we allowed that to happen. I’m saying we can’t allow it to happen.
Shana East: But Trump was very good at creating the illusion that he had the mandate.
Bill Fletcher: Every good movement relies on propaganda. Every good movement. He pulled it off. We should learn likewise.
Marc Steiner: Let me pick up on this point here for the two of you. There are a lot of ways to think about this. The question is how does it happen? I think there are a lot of people in America who look at the progressive “agenda”, the Green Economy, dealing with systemic racism, getting to the root of that or getting rid of it, saving the planet, and all that … People believe that it’s couched in ways that many people would support, taking away the ideology for a moment. The question is if that’s the case, and that’s one of the reasons that progressive democrats are winning where they won by pushing that agenda, then what does that mean strategically now? Is there a cohesiveness enough in the left, in progressives, inside the democratic party and the out, to make that happen, which you’re suggesting, Bill? How do you do that? How do you build this cross-racial class alliance that you’re talking about, Shana? It seems to me that there’s a huge gap between the rhetorical nature of our conversation together and what the political reality is that we face.
Bill Fletcher: I think that what we lack is organization, and we meaning the progressives. We remain very fragmented. In order to move the kind of agenda that’s being raised here, it’s not just about echo chambers, although echo chambers are very important. It really is about organization. Progressives frankly, Marc, are very divided about electoral politics and about how important electoral politics is. The right wing is not divided about it. What happens is that it’s very difficult for progressives to develop a coherent electoral strategy. Take DSA, for example, the Democratic Socialists of America. A very large organization, and at the 2019 convention comes up with a Bernie or Bust platform, only going to support Bernie, and no comprehensive electoral strategy to guide what their chapter should be doing around any of these other elections.
We’ve got to move beyond that and thinking about the fight for power at the municipal level, county/state level, as well as a national. We can’t just be engaged every four years when there’s a presidential race. I think that really weakens our ability as opposed to the right, which beginning in the late 60s, the so-called new right developed a very comprehensive, multi-level strategy that had electoral work, litigation, and mass movements all as part of their effort to reshape the entire discourse within the United States. We seem to think on progressives, all too often, that it’s one or the other. It’s either electoral politics or mass action, street heat or lobbying, and not understanding that all of these things have to be in play.
Shana East: It’s going to sound like I’m just shamelessly plugging my group, but the Poor People’s Campaign is doing an excellent job with our fusion movement. We’re not working in individual silos on these issues. We’re talking about ending poverty, ending ecological devastation, ending the war economy, and fighting the false moral narrative, like all together in one campaign. The other thing is I think we need to start talking less about left versus right and more about right versus wrong. I think these labels further divide. We’re already divided on the left … Progressives, liberals. Bill’s right. The right is incredibly organized My approach, and the Poor People’s Campaign approach, is to just get rid of those labels. We talk about the issues, and we invite in anyone who’s willing to fight together, because we need to unite. We need to unite around an agenda that we all can fight for.
Bill Fletcher: I hear you. I don’t think it works. We can get rid of any labels we want. As the right shows all the time, they call Joe Biden a socialist. Joe Biden a socialist, right? I mean, I repeat that. Joe Biden? The point is that we can remove whatever labels we want. Those labels are not self congratulatory. They basically are to identify political tendencies. I think that if you don’t want to call yourself a leftist, you don’t call yourself a leftist. The reality is that the other side will. The other side knows that we are talking about fundamental social transformation and not in a fascist direction. That’s just the reality.
Marc Steiner: Before we get into specifics here, which I want to do before we conclude our conversation, I’m going to back to what Shana just said though. What you’re saying here is in a sense a strategy that goes back. All of us in this conversation, the three of us in this conversation, have all spent considerable time as organizers either in labor, community, or somewhere else. Let me give two quick examples of what I’m talking about here, because it has to do with race and the right, racism in this country, the working class, and how you build a movement. I’m thinking about it in Baltimore, we had a group called the Tennis Union Group back in South Baltimore in the early 70s that we organized. It was the first interracial tennis group in the country. I mean, in Maryland. It ended up actually changing the laws, and we all these direct actions, and brought people who were divided by one major street, between black and white, together in one group despite the racism. People worked together to change things and actually built a movement, and actually dealt with racism because of the movement itself.
I think about the Mississippi Woodworkers, but people don’t even know about this struggle very much. There was a struggle that I was in and out of, where they were white and black, almost 50/50, in Mississippi. Racism divided them. The women got together and forced the union to address what they had to do and push them into becoming a multi-racial union that allowed white and black to be elected, every other year, president or vice president. I’m saying this, because I think part of the problem that, Shana, you’re trying to make is that you have to build this movement that maybe is just outside of all the typical left and right, but the reality also politically is what Bill is saying, is the left and right is our reality given the massive power of the right wing. In this battle, as Biden is president and Kamala Harris is vice president, how do the two of you take those ideas and come together in a strategy that makes something work?
Shana East: To go back to Bill’s point, I think our enemy or whoever will use these labels to divide us, or as a tactic or whatever, but I think to be able to have a true big tent campaign or organization, you have to truly be willing to let people in who you don’t see eye-to-eye with on every single issue, but you might have the same views on the economy, systemic racism, or the Green New Deal. You just have to, or else I don’t feel like you’re serious about building power. The democratic party has had a very difficult time being open minded when it comes to even progressives within their own party, and that’s a big mistake. I really truly hope they’ll use this time to reflect on it, because this election shouldn’t have been this close. I mean, we’re dealing with comic book villains here, and it was this close. Fingers crossed we’ll be seeing some reflection from the democratic party.
Bill Fletcher: I think that the level of union depends on which battles we’re talking about. As you know, Marc, I’ve been a trade unionist for all of my adult life, so I know something about organizing workers. I didn’t walk into a shipyard waving a red flag, suggesting that there needed to be the immediate introduction of the dictatorship of the proletarian.
Marc Steiner: You didn’t do that?
Bill Fletcher: No, no. Actually, I stayed away from that. I understand a little bit about organizing struggles. You begin, when you’re doing base order organizing with where people are at. I’m talking about the level of strategy, so forgive me. I’m talking about the level of strategy, not at the level of individual battles or even campaigns. There’s a lot of campaigns that we’re going to be engaged in where we have to look always very broadly, and we always have to be non-sectarian, anti-sectarian in our approach. That said, history has demonstrated time and again that there’re many battles where the racial divide can temporarily be overcome, but in the absence of a more comprehensive analysis that is grasped by the rank and file, it collapses.
One of the examples that I always cite, that is to me iconic, was the Packinghouse Worker’s Union, which was a union that really got race. They were organizing workers, mainly white and African American, but they got race. They integrated the fight around racism into the way that they operated in terms of their demands and everything else. I contrast that with many other organizations that take a centrally tactical approach, either trying to avoid directly dealing with race … You know, sort of, “Let’s find common demands that won’t piss off anybody, and let’s join together and sing Kumbaya.” The other extreme is where people ignore the importance of building alliances at all. This is one of the problems in the current moment, I think in some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement, where there are forces that don’t appreciate that we’ve got to build an incredibly broad movement in this country of 350 plus million people.
It’s not going to be just African Americans that are going to pull this one off. We’ve got to walk this balance, but at the level of strategy, I think we have to understand that there’re some folks that are going to side with us on some battles, but they’re not going to be with us for the long haul. That’s okay as long as we’re aware of that, and we’ve got to be pushing the democrats, as a party, to the left to be addressing these issues that are rooted in the struggles of working class people. I think that they’re saying right now that voters that were making under $100,000 tended to be on the side of Biden, and those above … Trump, which made perfect sense, and it also completely contradicted this whole narrative about how the Trump base was all these white workers that were running around crazy.
Shana East: I agree with Bill. It can’t just be about mobilizing people. We definitely need to work on strategy. I think a big part of that is studying our history and the education into what has happened in past movements. During this COVID shut down time, I’ve been studying just leading up to the Civil War, during the Civil War, and reconstruction. I just have found it to be so relevant still today, and I think that’s something that we should all be taking time right now to look at, because during reconstruction, we had the largest re-distribution of wealth in history. How do we do that? People talk about this time being so polarized, but what time could have been more polarized than that? We also can see, coming out of that, the largest transformation. It gives me some hope. Obviously, later reconstruction fell apart and Jim Crow, but the people can win demands if we work at it.
Marc Steiner: Here we are in this interregnum period, and anything can happen between now and inauguration day. We don’t know what fight the right is really going to put up towards the end of this. We haven’t seen what’s bubbling. I mean, little signs of bubbling to the surface, but we haven’t seen it really blow up. We’ll see what happens in the coming month-and-a-half. Having said that, the question is what will progressives do at this moment? When Biden becomes president, he could institute the Vacancies Act, put who he wants in the cabinet, and not kowtow to the right on who he nominates. He could adjourn congress, do all kinds of appointments, and he could do these massive amounts of executive orders turning things over. It seems to me that somehow the progressive movement, in terms of the democrats, have to come up with a strategy to push that if anything is going to begin to change. Share your thoughts on that. Bill, go ahead. I see you nodding.
Bill Fletcher: I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s exactly what has to happen, and it goes back to what I was saying about audacity. I think he’s going to have to move very quickly. I think that this next period is very dangerous and that there could be anything from right wing terrorist attacks to assassination attempts, other kinds of provocations, to a generalized obstruction. What we’re seeing right now … You know, the failure of GSA to sign off on a transition. Things like that. That could really muck things up. I think that we’re going to have to keep very, very much on alert.
If the right wing starts any significant mass mobilizations, we’re going to have to out organize them. Anytime they show up, we have to have double the number of people on our side that are showing up, because what I believe that they’re going to try to do is to discredit the legitimacy of the election and to try to carry out various things. We saw some of this during the Obama administration, where there were various forms of local obstruction and the suggestions of laws that actually don’t exist that give authority at the local level to failure to implement various statutes. I think that’s what we’re looking at.
Shana East: I think we’ll definitely see Biden do a lot of executive orders to try to get things back to where we were at with Obama. I can see the names being floated for his cabinet are not from the progressive wing, so that’s disappointing but predictable. My fear is that he’ll reverse some of these Trump orders, and then people are exhausted. They’re just going to kind of be like, “Okay. Thank god. What a relief”, and then any valid criticisms of Biden are going to be met with, “Well, at least it’s not Trump.” That’s my fear, because Trumpism isn’t going away. Trump was an incompetent authoritarian, so we could be seeing Trump run again. We could be seeing Tom Cotton or Pence. Someone who would be a more competent authoritarian coming out in response to more years of moderate dems. I think the antidote is definitely what Bill said, pushing as hard as we can left, pushing for a working class agenda.
Marc Steiner: I like to see how this conversation unfolds in the coming weeks and months as we see what happens between now and January. I think that what you both have said here are really important, and I do think, as Bill has said, we are facing a real potential for serious violence and danger in the immediate future. There’s no question in my mind about that. That could be right there. It’s too quiet right now, which makes me very nervous. It’s always quiet before a storm and a fight, as I’ve always experienced in my old life here. I think that could be the case, but I think there is a struggle ahead of us. You all have outlined it, and I just really a)appreciate the work both of you do out there and that you are doing. It’s really important. Shana East, I’m glad you could join us here. It’s really good to have you with us, and we look forward to having you many more times on the air with us. This is great.
Shana East: Thanks Marc.
Marc Steiner: And we continue to have many PPC people on, Poor People’s Campaign, because we do a lot of work with them. Bill Fletcher, it’s always a pleasure to have you with us. You have a history of organizing, and your strategic thinking is always important for us to listen to and hear.
Bill Fletcher: Thank you. A pleasure.
Marc Steiner: I thank you both so much for joining us. It was great. I hope and trust you enjoyed that conversation. Let me know what you think. You can write to me at marc with a c @therealnews.com, but before you do that, check out our next segment today. We’re talking with Rennie Davis, who is one of the original members of the Chicago 7, or Chicago 8 when you count Bobby Seale. He was a former member and founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Now, the Trial of the Chicago 7 that was recently released on Netflix, as I said earlier, takes us back to that moment in time that’s supremely relevant to what we face today. It tells the story of what happened to the anti-Vietnam war protestors in the August of 1968 who were attacked by the police, and then had his leadership put on trial.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of Chicago 7 was recently released by Netflix, and it takes us back to a moment that is supremely relevant to what we’re facing today. It tells a story of what happened to the anti-Vietnam war protestors at the August 1968 democratic convention. For people who were not there to witness it, it really opens up many doors it seems. It tells a story of violent police attacks from demonstrators, how fellow government and the city government of Chicago conspired to infiltrate anti war groups and incite violence. In the courtroom itself, Black Panther’s Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton, their treatment is illustrated in this film. It all serves as a really [inaudible 00:37:22] reminder of the deadly racial disparities experienced by protestors that we still face today. It sounds eerily familiar to what we’re witnessing today as well.
The film, from the creator of The West Wing and the writer of Th Social Network, is characterized as a historical legal drama, so the expectations that entertainment will often trump facts, no pun intended, this is further complicated here, because the trial itself was plagued by lack of transparency with a judge who was clearly out of his mind and rabidly biased against the defendants. Here to talk about that film and to connect the dots of those movements happening now and then, here’s Rennie Davis. He’s one of the original members of the Chicago 7, and he also was a leader of SDS and the organization called ERAP, which I was part of way back in the day, and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War, and joins us here today. Rennie, thank you for joining us and taking the time today.
Rennie Davis: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Marc Steiner: Take us back for a moment, and take us back to that time in 1968. Describe, just for our viewers, the feel of that moment. What was taking place? Why were people in Chicago? What were the demonstrations about? What was the whole atmosphere of the moment like in that county?
Rennie Davis: There was a recognition that our government was out of control in Vietnam, and it started with students, but it was spreading through the whole country. Johnson was president. He was orchestrating the war, and a sitting president nobody was going to challenge. The anti-war movement really became the only voice. We believe, and I believed, that it would be possible to bring a half million people to Chicago to protest the war. Literally, it’d be a rank and file walkout of many democrats would join us. I was a coordinator at a large coalition. We had 150 national groups participating. Martin Luther King was in our coalition. We had put on large scale demonstrations with no incidents. We were committed to non violence. We were able to do this, but what came out of left field was basically sort of similar to today … Just a mayor who decided to take the First Amendment and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, throw it out the window, and deny permanence.
We had a difficult choice. Do we go stand up for the First Amendment? Obviously, our numbers were going to be seriously reduced, mostly young people with tremendous courage. We knew we were going in to a hot zone, but we went. What happened was, on the opening day, we were camped out in a park, curfew came in the park at 11 o’clock or 11:00 PM, and police gathered. They came, beating, clubbing, and gassing. It wasn’t just demonstrators who were being beaten. It was also news men, like people who everybody knew. All the major networks had their lead anchors in the park with us. They were beaten. I watched people sitting on their doorstep outside their home, just trying to see what was going on. They were gassed and beaten, and this was a television event. It’s hard to explain it. More people watched what was happening to us in Chicago than the moment that was watched on television when the first man landed on the moon. It was just a gigantic event that had a huge impact on the country.
There actually was a Gallup poll that showed a majority of the country supported the government in a distant war two weeks before this demonstration, and two weeks after the demonstration, the same Gallup poll showed a majority of the American people now supported our position, which was to get out, come back, and wrap it up. It was a huge impact. After it was all over, there was a study by a presidential commission who caused the riots in Chicago. It’s probably the best thing ever written about me. I was in charge of permit negotiation. I actually worked with Ramsey Clark and his office. They’d get permits, so this commission described it as a police riot. That was sort of the final declaration of what was going on. With that, the new administration, the Nixon administration, decided to invite myself and seven others for a new law that had just been recently passed when Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots exploded in 100 cities in America.
This law was passed, and we were the first victims of this law. It made it a crime to cross an interstate line, to use interstate commerce. There was an amazing argument. If you were a speaker, like myself, and you crossed the state line to make a speech, and there was a riot that resulted, which might happen two years after you spoke. Your intention was described by what you wrote or what you said. A riot was defined in the assembly as three or more people, one of whom threaten to violate a law. You could add three kids on the street corner, one raising a clenched fist, and that could constitute the riot. If I came in and made a speech, and that happened, then I could face five years in jail. If I was charged with conspiracy to do this, which we were also done, then you could add another five years. We were facing 10 years in prison. The New York Times, on the opening day of the trail, called it the most significant political trial on American history. It certainly lived up to it.
Our query was mostly young people. We had literally millions and millions of people just cheering us on, and it was so powerful and profound. We had bail, so I could speak every night. A small turnout was 10,000 people. If the governor called out the National Guard, because I was speaking, then I would speak in a stadium. This was every night, and basically at the end when Nixon invaded Cambodia, the Chicago 7, as we came to be known because Bobby Seale was severed from the trial, we went from eight to seven. We called for a student strike, and 90 per cent of American universities and colleges went out on strike. I’m just giving you a little feel for this period and the enormity of the support that we had. Basically, fundamentally what we did was we put the government on trial. With the election a few days away and people panicking that this might be our last election today. Certainly, everybody’s on the edge of their seat with what’s going to happen, and the fear … It’s a profound message right now that human beings, in large numbers, really can stand up and make a difference.
Marc Steiner: The parallels to what’s happening at this moment are pretty incredible to me. What you just said … People look to that election in some similar ways, even though I think what we’re facing now is some real questions of neo fascism and authoritarianism. It’s a very scary moment we’re all in, but there are a lot of parallels to what’s going on with the Black Lives Matter movement. In some ways, the 60s was the explosion of [inaudible 00:45:52] around race and racism in America and the depth of it. I think now we’re seeing people, even in a greater degree, seeing how deep and profound it is and how it really affects the entire society, which is why you had 23 million people in the streets after George Floyd across the country and across the world. I wrestle a lot with 1968 and 2020 have to say to one another.
Rennie Davis: Yeah. I really agree. In one way, people who were defendants or family of the defendants … I think about Jerry Rubin, who was a defendant. His son. Jerry and the movie is portrayed as a drug addict who teaches demonstrators how to make Molotov cocktails, and they’re just some terrible things. From the insider point of view, we were kind of aghast by many things. I’m kind of this nerdy guy who’s afraid of his own shadow. It’s pretty hysterical. I think they did a pretty good job of Abbie Hoffman. I liked his character. It was good, but I’m supporting Netflix and this movie. One, it brings out memories. The timing is impeccable to have the voice of the Chicago 7 return right now at this time, and it does in a good degree … I think the movie would have been far more powerful if it just stayed closer to what actually happened. Nevertheless, for many people like ourselves, it brings up the memories of that time. For a new generation, it’s truly inspiring to see that happened then, and it can happen again today.
Marc Steiner: I was thinking about what you just said. When you look at your portrayal as this little nerdy kid, which wasn’t you, to Tom Hayden as being somebody who just talks about having elections, which he really didn’t do.
Rennie Davis: That’s right. That was hysterical.
Marc Steiner: To Dave Dellinger throwing a punch.
Rennie Davis: Yeah. Right.
Marc Steiner: Who was a man whose life was dedicated to being a non violent pacifist activist, who was looked up to by all the other defendants and many of us, and sidelining people like Froines and Wiener. I didn’t know Wiener, but I did know Froines back in the day pretty well. That part of it kind of bothered me, but it didn’t seem to bother folks who were looking at it fresh. Maybe it’s just us old farts who get bothered by that.
Rennie Davis: Yeah. That’s exactly right. When I want to get a little depressed about the movie, I just go to my Facebook page and watch all the people. “This is the greatest movie” and “Thank you.” It’s having a really positive effect on so many people, so I welcome opportunities to talk like this or kind of set the record straight a little bit, but the spirit of the Chicago 7 is alive and well.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that folks aren’t familiar here … I was thinking a lot about the portrayal of Bobby Seale and how that happened in this movie. I want to talk a bit about that. First of all, as I told you before we started, I watched for the first time this 1987 movie, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8. That was traumatic. It was [inaudible 00:49:49] of the court documents, really well acted, and then interspersed with some real commentary from you and Tom Hayden, Dellinger, Bobby Seale, and the others.
That was all in there, but one of the things that I think people didn’t really, or at least I didn’t get from this movie but maybe other people did, is the effect of what happened to Bobby Seale in that trial and the horrendous nature of how he was gagged and bound. The fact that this was a time when Fred Hampton, who led the Chicago Panthers, was murdered when the trial was going on, and at the same time the Panther 21 trial was exploding. Afeni Shakur actually defended himself, which is what Bobby wanted to do. That part of the moment really didn’t come through, and I think that was so vitally important to how it speaks today, but also it’s vitally important in terms of what it meant then.
Rennie Davis: Right. Just to quickly take your listeners who may not know this, Bobby Seale was chairman of the Black Panther Party. I had invited a member of [inaudible 00:51:06] to come and speak in Chicago. At the last minute, he couldn’t come, so he asked Bobby if he could take his place. I had never met Bobby Seale at that point. Bobby came and made two speeches, and with all the hectic and everything going on, I didn’t even get a chance to say hello to Bobby during the time. For those two speeches, now he was facing 10 years in jail. Part of this was the conspiracy, which meant that Bobby and I planned this together in secret to have riots in Chicago. Bobby had a lawyer who was very gifted, was facing gall bladder surgery, and asked for a continuance. The judge turned the continuance down, so Bobby decided to represent himself. What happened was it started slowly, really.
Basically, a witness would be on the stand and mention Bobby’s name. Bobby would stand up to cross examine the witness, and then the judge just would go into a hysterical fit. There were huge Marshals … I mean, big guys in the court room, about 30 usually at a time. They would be ordered by the judge to put Bobby back in his seat. This is how it built, and it built slowly but steadily as Bobby was literally being forced to sit down. You don’t quite get this in the movie. You get a sense of what it is, but not the drama that was going. Then, one morning, Bobby is late coming out. He doesn’t have bail, so we’re all sitting there at the table waiting for him to appear, and out he comes. He’s in a chair and carried by four Marshals. He’s chained and gagged in this chair. They just sent him. He just comes in, and he puts him right next to me. He’s got a gauze in his mouth with pressure band aids all wrapped around his head, so he can’t talk, but he can talk.
He says, “I demand my right to represent myself”, and the jury can clearly hear him. With this, you kind of get in the movie that it all might have happened in one day. It didn’t. This was stretched out about four days, and basically it gets more and more en-chanced . Literally, by the fourth day, there was literally blood coming out of the side of his mouth from this pressure. It would just go on for hours beforehand, forcing this gauze into his mouth, and then more and more band aids. Still, at the end, he goes, “I demand my constitutional rights.” I mean, he was so gargled, but he could definitely be heard by the jury. The most important thing, Marc, really was that he was heard everywhere. He was heard throughout the continent of Africa, South America, Asia. All of Europe heard him. Canada heard him. The United States … Everywhere in the United States. Here was a black man chained and gaged in a federal court room in the United States, because he could not represent himself. You do not get that enormous power that was happening on a global basis from the movie.
Marc Steiner: Also, during their trial, Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police.
Rennie Davis: He was, and this was probably the most upsetting, single thing that happened to us. We came to trial one morning and got the news, and it was pretty difficult just to contain ourself. I always felt myself to be pretty even-keeled, even though we were all united against the war in Vietnam. If there was ever a speech where I’m more or less lost, then it was that way. [inaudible 00:55:08] at noon in front of the fellow court house. We were just beside ourself. Basically, Fred Hampton was asleep in bed, and 30 police men just came storming in to his apartment and murdered him in bed. We had no words for it. We were just so stunned by the violence of the police force.
Marc Steiner: Talk to me a bit about the effect that trial actually had on that moment in history, and then also fast forward into now. How much has not changed, especially when you talk about the kind of police and state violence that you see on the screen every day, the rise of right wing militias, and all that taking place? What hasn’t changed, but also just how profoundly that your trial, of the eight of you, did change America?
Rennie Davis: Yeah. I guess both are true. Basically, there has been really significant change, and it just seems like droplets. It’s not a downpour change. We’re still facing all the same issues, and now perhaps it’s more serious than ever before. We’re actually going into a time where it just seems like not only is the republic eroding, but the republic really could end, and yet the message is still the same. We’re all here, and we can basically be intimidated, go underground, or say nothing, or actually we can mobilize ourself to basically change the outcome. It’s the same message that we had in ’68. We did change the outcome in ’68, and we can … in fact, we must do it again.
I was a community organizer at that time. The last thing in the world I thought I would ever change, but I could see what was coming. I let that basically sink in, and I realized that this is where it’s going. It wasn’t something that we concocted in a conference, a planning meeting, or anything. It was an event, and I would say it’s very similar today. We’re going into a moment where it’s a really good idea to look up and notice the horizon, because events are coming. Of course, we all want a back seat, and we all want to go back to normal, but not according to the events that are right in front of us that we can see. I don’t think we’re ever going back to normal. This really is a time like no other. Basically, just to give you a quick sense, everybody knows it’s warming up. Everybody can figure out that warming up means accelerating droughts, but you really need to understand that means aquifer depletion is going to accelerate. That means food distribution chains are going to begin to snap.
I’m not a doom’s person. I’m totally optimistic, but when I see events coming, I see everybody has to eat. People that you would not even imagine are going to start to think, “You know, I think I have to grow my own food.” That means that they’re going to be moving towards intentional communities, because you’ve got to hook up with each other. In those intentional communities, they’re already existing all over the place but not in the millions and millions. That’s what I see coming. Intentional communities that basically want to live, grow, and thrive in an age of extinction is going to become the network that’s going to create a nation for a new way of living on earth. It’s a long term vision that is the place where lots of people are now putting their hoped for the future of the human race. We could actually create the future of humanity out of this present time.
Marc Steiner: Rennie Davis, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Good to see you.
Rennie Davis: Yeah. Good to see you too again, Marc. Thanks.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. Good to see you doing still well, and thank you so much for joining us here on the Marc Steiner Show on the Real News today. It’s good to have you with us.
Rennie Davis: Okay. Thanks again.
Marc Steiner: Thank you for joining us today on the Marc Steiner show. For producer, Erica Blount, and video editor, Seba Pituscan. I’m Marc Steiner from the Real New Network. Thanks so much for joining us. Let us know what you think, and take care.
Studio: Will Arenas, Adam Coley
Production: Ericka Blount
Post-Production: Sebastian Pituscan