Composting for Progressive Movements & Challenging Sonoma County’s Corporate Power Structure. A Presentation by Norman Solomon

On June 20, 2015 the Coalition for Grassroots Progress (CGP) hosted an event at Heidi Overman’s lovely restaurant and catering venue, Fourchette, in an industrial business park at the northern end of Petaluma, California. Some may know the site as the former location of Lydia’s Sunflower Center.

The event was an organized for two purposes: first, to recognize the remarkably effective work in political and community organizing achieved over the past decade by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which culminated in the election in November 2014 of a progressive majority on the Richmond City Council.

This victory came about despite a record-setting expenditure of over $3 million on the campaign by the Chevron corporation to elect its own trio of candidates. Chevron is the eighth largest corporation in the world. All three of Chevron’s candidates were defeated.

The second goal was to learn what progressive and allied activists, community organizers and leaders can do to achieve similar successes here in the North Bay.

The Raucous Rooster and New Press/Nueva Prensa will soon be publishing a broader perspective of this event, which was hosted by Santa Rosa Councilmember Julie Combs, and featured Richmond Councilmember (and former mayor) Gayle McLaughlin & Margaret Jordan of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, as well as Alice Chan and Anna Givens, both of the Coalition for Grassroots Progress.

Author, activist, political candidate and Marin County resident Norman Solomon addressed the crowd at Fourchette on the subject of community and political organizing and what CGP and allies can learn from Richmond progessives.

Julie Combs, Norman Solomon, Gayle McLaughlin & Margaret Jordan at the CGP/RPA event on June 20, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Pat Mitchell.

Norman Solomon:


What Margaret [Margaret Jordan, of the RPA] was talking about in terms of differentiating between conventional electoral campaigns and what we need, I think, is absolutely crucial.

One way I came to think of it is that the usual candidates, the usual campaigns conceive of and articulate, whether explicitly or not, that social movements are, or should be, subsets of a candidate’s campaign for office, and that’s totally bass ackwards.

Electoral campaigns should be subsets of social movements, and if we vere off on the wrong track we’re going to go in a very different direction. Of course there are so many things that need to be done, so many movements that need to be built, so many ways that we need to build coalitions, but unless we can find ways to coalesce that are effective, then we are going to end up in the same sort of cul de sac.

A Chinese strategist said long ago that when you’re in a struggle with an adversary, don’t do what you most want to do, do what your adversary least wants you to do.

So often, because of our acculturation and dare I say it, there are some design flaws in human beings, we do what we most want to do, or what we were taught to do or what we were role-modeled to do, and that takes us down that path that sees, among other things, social movements and people as accessories to one particular campaign.

The most successful social movements, melding with and making use of electoral campaigns, clearly see that win or lose, any particular electoral campaign should leave compost in the garden, and when you leave compost in the garden you can keep growing and you can keep seeing how this is an entire process.

The sort of training, the role-modeling we’ve got, the stop and start [referring here to electoral campaigning].

What’s it like to stop and start a train? It’s tremendously inefficient and it doesn’t work and yet we constantly every year, every two years we’re encouraged to jump onto the train and get it rolling, building it around individuals, presumably individuals we really like that we campaign for. But it’s not about them.

It’s really about the ways that we can challenge the entire structure, which includes what Dr. King called the madness of militarism, and when I heard from this podium a few minutes ago the very astute observation that there are some forces way beyond our particular localities that limit what we can do, as important as it is, in our local areas, I thought of what King said when he made the comment more than four decades ago that the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.

And we can say now that the bombs in Afghanistan and Yemen and  Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, they continue to explode at home in terms of the decimated budgets, the upside down priorities, the shattered bodies and minds and spirits that come back to our cities and our suburban areas and our rural communities. Yet unless we can build social movements that include a strong, growing electoral arm we’ll continue to descend further and further into what Dr. King called the madness of militarism.

All of these ways in which we are dealing with the multifaceted corporate power in our midst create daunting challenges to put it mildly. And let’s face it, in Sonoma County there is a huge power structure. It is about profit, it’s about who owns the real estate, it’s about who controls the city councils, the boards of supervisors, and not only is it crucial that we get people elected who are part of and responsive to social movements, but on those precious occasions when we’ve been able to elect people who are truly part of progressive social movements we also have that responsibility when they come up for reelection to support them.

Julie Combs [Santa Rosa City Councilmember up for re-election] needs our support and she’s going to get it.

And as we look at our successes, unfortunately, compared to the scale of the problems they’re pretty darned small. The obstacles are such that we may feel powerless, which is exactly what the power structures and people at the top with them want most from us. We’re encouraged to feel powerless, we’re encouraged to feel it’s just too impossible.

In fact, it is possible, as Eduardo Galeano, the late author from Latin America commented about. He saw graffiti that said “Let’s save pessimism for better times.”

We can’t afford the immobilization that pessimism creates and is fomented. Part of it I think is a pessimism that keeps us in a rut and it’s really hard to see the broader context.

We’re working our part of the garden. We may feel we’re working very, very hard. Other people are doing other things in other parts of the garden, and especially because of the mass media and the electoral political culture, we’re diced and spliced and there’s a sense of factionalization. And that works totally against one of the most essential ingredients, which is solidarity within communities, between communities, nationwide and truly globally.

I was lucky enough a couple of weeks ago to go on a nine, ten day whirlwind tour of five different countries with a number of whistleblowers who not only, and I don’t particularly like to say, spoke truth to power, they spoke truth about power.

They were intent, and are intent on organizing to counter anti-democratic power [that comes] from the top down. It’s become a sort of cliched phrase, speaking truth to power, but at this point I don’t quite get that.

Power knows what it’s doing. Chevron knows what it’s doing. They know the truth of their own priorities and they are in fact planning and manipulating to implement exactly the human toll that’s inflicted by their anti-democratic power.

It’s much more important for us, not to look up and speak truth to power, but to speak to each other about power. No wonder we have a negative view of power because we have experienced it as so negative, top-down.

But in fact it’s bottom-up power that’s our hope, for social justice, for the environment, to prevent climate change from destroying the future on the planet.

I’ve been working a lot in recent years to challenge the unfortunately now bipartisan perpetual war.

When have we heard lately someone saying “I wonder when the war is going to end?” Even during the Vietnam War we’d hear people say “When is the war going to end?” When was the last time you heard somebody ask that question?

We don’t ask it anymore because war has become so ongoing, and so endless, the military facets of war.

And it is a reality at the same time that class war waged from the top down, is perpetual. It’s 24/7, 365, and with all the bread and circus, the media distractions that come down on us, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s inexorable, it’s going on constantly and without eternal vigilance in our capacity to organize effectively we’re going to continue to live in a world of oligarchy, monetized racism, destruction of the environment and all the other ills, including a savage healthcare system that we really, really want to change.

When I was meeting with some people at a public event in Germany about ten days, two weeks ago, I was on a panel with a member of the Green Party and a member of the Left Party, and later got to speak at length with Martina Renner.

I think Martina Renner as an elected official is a kindred spirit with Gayle, with Julie, with others who come out of and are part of social movements. She’s responsive to her base. She asks them what they think. She thinks of herself not as an elite elected official, but as was said to and about Joe Hill when he was in prison, “You’re in there for us. We’re out here for you.”

I don’t mean to compare being an elected official to being in jail. Sometimes even being a candidate can feel that way.

I went on from there to Reykjavik, and met with Birgitta Jonsdottir, who is in the parliament.

The day I met with her there was a rally, keep in mind the population of the entire country of Iceland is smaller than the population of Sonoma County. There’s about 300,000 people there.

Birgitta was re-elected about a year ago as a member of parliament and when I visited with her, there was a big rally, and I mean it was a big rally by Icelandic standards – about 250 people outside parliament, in a city approximately the size of Santa Rosa.

What were they protesting? They were protesting a new law, just being presented from the top of the Icelandic government, to ban strikes in the public sector.

I asked someone standing right next to me, “What proportion of public workers in Iceland are unionized?” The answer was 100%.

You can see why the neoliberal agenda in Iceland is now pushing banning strikes from the public sector, and there were a lot of nurses and others out there raising hell, because they’re not going to go quietly.

What Birgitta told me was that when they organized effectively, by the way, the name of the party is the Pirate Party. They did it in a way that said we’re going to speak truths that are off the media map and of course we’ll be marginalized at first.

In fact, there’s now only two or three members of the Pirate Party in the Icelandic parliament. Their popularity in the latest, I think it’s the Gallup poll in Iceland, is 31%. They’ve risen because of the truth that they’re speaking and the way that they’re addressing the economic and social environment that is in many ways unspoken, unaddressed by all the other parties.

I’d like to just close by saying that I think we have a tremendous opportunity in the North Bay, to learn from Richmond, to learn from elsewhere in the country, and to recognize at the same time our unique situation.

We’re somewhat spread out in the county itself. There are ways in which the propaganda system is even more pernicious in Sonoma County. The daily newspaper is in the hands of the corporate forces.

I’m just constantly, when I get an email from the Coalition for Grassroots Progress, just pleased and I feel gratified that this coalition has grown out of our electoral campaign in 2012 for Congress. And much more important than that, the Coalition for Grassroots Progress is continuing to grow and develop a precinct campaign. You know that song, Daddy What’s a Train? I fear there’s going to be a song, Daddy, What’s a Precinct?

You know, thirty, forty years ago there were concepts of precinct captains in a lot of parts of the country, and for better or worse people were engaged in their particular precinct and there was a process.

More and more, the major political parties have just been engaged in media campaigns, advertisements and throwing money at elections.

The Coalition for Grassroots Progress at is infrastructure that we can build on. Anna Givens and Alice Chan and others have just provided such important leadership, so as you head off from our event here today, and as you reflect on this in the days and hopefully decades ahead in some way, I hope that you’ll keep in mind that nothing can be accomplished without organizing. It’s not about, “this was a good speaker”, “this was a good event” or “this was a good logo or website” or anything. If most of the people in this room set their minds to challenging the destructive corporate power structure of Sonoma County, this county could undergo a political sea change. It’s really up to us. Thank you.


[This presentation was transcribed and edited o-so-slightly by Christopher Fisher. The title was an organic outgrowth of the presentation, entirely concocted by Mr. Fisher]

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