Black Politics Under Clinton

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Chris Phelps interviews Ron Daniels

Ron Daniels, a longtime activist in the Black liberation movement, has for several years been an outspoken advocate and practitioner of independent political action through his leadership of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (P.O. Box 520103, Flushing, NY 11352), which was the vehicle for his 1992 presidential campaign. A former executive director of the Rainbow Coalition, Daniels is currently executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.

ATC editor Christopher Phelps interviewed Daniels immediately after he gave the keynote address to the annual dinner of Metro-Act, a local social justice organization in Rochester, New York, on October 9, 1994.

Against the Current: What is the state of political leadership in the African-American community today? Specifically, what’s your take on the shakedown regarding Chavis in the NAACP? Is that indicative of broader political problems?

Ron Daniels: No. There’s a decided upsurge in progressive consciousness and activism in the African-American community. Chavis captured that in an important way. The membership of the NAACP was increased by 150-175,000 in sixteen months. Of that number, something like 60% were people under the age of twenty five.

The principal reason for Chavis’ dismissal was for the kind of progressive direction that he laid out. He was very strong in terms of an anti-racist position, which the African-American community wanted. There are few leaders currently who are espousing that in a strong and very courageous way: the issues of environmental racism, economic self-support and development, confronting the corporations; direct appeals to youth, gangs, various sectors of the community; and the appeal to operational unity, which was in the final analysis probably most responsible for his downfall, because in that outreach he included, or was unwilling to dismiss, Minister Farrakhan.

The Chavis initiative was an extraordinary initiative, and his ouster from the NAACP is a major loss. We must also say that some of that was self-inflicted. He alienated sectors of labor because he also, unfortunately, quietly and for reasons that are not entirely clear, lobbied for NAFTA. I suspect it was because of his desire to maintain access to the White House, which was something that befell him almost like a disease, because access is not empowerment. Secondly, there was the effort to work around the Superfund with some of these polluters, which was uncharacteristic<197>out of synch with the broader kind of progressive vision that he laid out. Finally, the settlement that he agreed to was just bad. It was a major misjudgment, and he provided enough ammunition for them to actually oust him.

But the thrust was a positive thrust and a harbinger of where Black America is moving. All of the signs are toward a more activist leadership, or at least mass base of activism that will be here for a while. The efforts to continue to build a leadership summit, which he is doing, have some reasonable prospects of succeeding.

The Question of Farrakhan

ATC: What’s your view of Chavis’ handling of Louis Farrakhan? Having him at the table seems perfectly appropriate, but there are questions that I have from reading about it in the media — which may have completely distorted it — about how friendly Chavis was with Farrakhan, how little he challenged parts of Farrakhan’s politics that are antithetical to his own.

RD: What people have to understand is that fundamentally Farrakhan is the mass leader in the African-American community. Barring none. He’s the only one that could fill up anyplace at $10, $20, whatever. The reason for that is not that everyone agrees with what he says. The secret to Farrakhan’s popularity is his guts. He’s willing to stand up and excoriate racism. Though he goes overboard with some of it, he’s willing to indict forces external to the African-American community who have held a stranglehold over our politics and our economic development.

Yet he has some contradictions, and that’s what the summit is about. The summit is not about just being willing to sit at the table. It’s about having political discussions. Cornel West and Minister Farrakhan have had a series of dialogues as a result of the summit. Well, we don’t have to talk about that publicly, but those dialogues are going on. People in the Black community, including myself, see Farrakhan’s contradictions, but we don’t see him as some pariah, as someone who is so reactionary and negative that he has to be ostracized.

ATC: But shouldn’t he be challenged? In the way, for instance, that Malcolm X challenged the Nation of Islam when he broke with them?

RD: There are some people who would say that was not necessarily a good challenge. It was a counterproductive challenge, in many respects.

But the point is, you should not assume that challenges are not being made. The reason that we have summits is so that some of the differences that we have can be discussed privately. It’s not necessarily for the entirety of the world to know what those processes are. If I say to you that Cornel West is having a conversation with Minister Farrakhan, you don’t think that West’s sitting there…

ATC: Agreeing with every point.

RD: Of course not; they’re having discussions about differences and whatever.

The Congressional Black Caucus and Haiti

ATC: About the Clinton administration and the role of the Congressional Black Caucus: after the Lani Guinier incident, one might have expected an irreconcilable opposition and resistance to Clinton’s policies.

RD: They don’t have anywhere to go. Under Mfumi they’ve showed more heart. It’s only been temporary, but at least they’ve tried to stand up on a number of issues, some of which I agree with and some I don’t.

Some of them have pushed on the Haiti policy. They’ve indicted it as hypocritical. I think some of them have pushed in the wrong direction. When they pushed for intervention, I thought it was dangerous. The rhetoric set a bad precedent. Although it is not true that the entire Caucus was pro-interventionist, because only half the Caucus favored invasion or occupation, unless as a last resort.

ATC: What’s your reading of developments in Haiti?

RD: Somalia and Haiti are perplexing for the progressive movement, and people have taken different positions. I hope we don’t fall out with one another because some people took the position that the United States should invade Haiti, which I was vehemently opposed to. But I understood the feeling about the movements being decapitated. I was also in conversation with some of the groups on the ground, the peasant and labor movements; they were taking hits but they thought that if they could be strengthened, that would go beyond Aristide.

My take on the invasion is that I don’t see how anyone could believe that it’s intended to advance the progressive forces. Their whole strategy was an anti-Aristide strategy. They never wanted Aristide. They may not have wanted the most brutal face of U.S. collaboration in place, but even that’s not clear. Allen Nairn’s article in the Nation broke the story — and the major media confirmed — that Emmanuel Constant (Toto), the man who organized the paramilitary FRAPH, was on the CIA payroll. There are some indications that the CIA was very much involved in the [1991] coup. They have never wanted Aristide. The whole socialist, radical message of redistributing wealth — they didn’t want that.

So their objective is to create a more beneficent, benign alternative to Aristide. That’s why they stalled until he only had sixteen months left on his term. They’re hoping that this won’t leave him enough time to consolidate Lavalas into a real, coherent force. They will try through the training of the police and other instrumentalities to put in place something where once Aristide is out of power they can control the election in such a way that something acceptable to the U.S. will emerge.

The wild card in all this is the Haitian people. In an odd kind of way, the U.S. occupation freed them up. It’s out of the bottle now. I don’t think they can put it back in. Our strategy, therefore, should be to push for the end of the U.S. occupation but simultaneously to muster whatever resources we have for the different movements on the ground. We should be suggesting a united front as much as possible among the different groups, but supporting them — the labor movements, the peasant groups, the women, the youth organizations — giving them material, money, or if it’s farmers and peasants, seeds. It’s the little things that give them the ability to survive so they can fight back.

ATC: I think it’s hard for people to visualize that in the case of Haiti — unlike El Salvador or Nicaragua or South Africa where you have a broad national front or a key organization that’s clearly leading the struggle — it’s so grassroots and disparate that people aren’t sure how to act in solidarity. Do you have any ideas?

RD: One of the things, I think, is that we have to introduce ourselves, and I’m learning this, too, to who the groups are.

ATC: The Peasant Movement of Papay . . .

RD: Yes, all those groups. The labor movements, whatever. Some of the religious structures were doing programs that looked like innocuous humanitarian aid, but it was really supporting the sanctuary movement, feeding people, housing people. So food and clothing and seeds and all those things, which sounded innocuous, really weren’t innocuous. We didn’t catch on fast enough.

I think our strategy has got to be a popular movement strategy. There’s no question that the CIA, the U.S. policymakers are trying to create even now the alternative. You’ve got to break the back of the Haitian elite. They’ve got to come to heel. So that’s why in some ways the best strategy would have been armed struggle, if Aristide had been willing to wage it, which apparently he was not in favor of. They are really reactionary, because they actually hate the peasants. They have a superiority complex. Open disdain. It’s a “let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette, attitude. That is the instrument through which the U.S. will continue its mischief. I’m glad that the amnesty law that passed was narrower than the United States wanted.

The people were speaking up. They said, “Aristide, we won’t forgive you if you do this. You cannot.” Aristide has got to be in synch. He helped create it, but now he is also in the middle of it and cannot be too moderate. If he is the people will roll past him. It’s amorphous, but I think the spirit of the Haitian people is toward real, genuine democracy.

ATC: What do you think of the theory that this Haiti occupation was Clinton’s sop to the Congressional Black Congress?

RD: I don’t really subscribe to that. See, the Caucus was split. There were some people like Dellums who were vehemently opposed to invasion.

ATC: But a majority was in favor?

RD: No. According to Dellums, it was about 50-50. That’s what his read was. And a lot of them were seeing it as a last resort. A lot were erroneous in their judgment. Jesse was, too. Jesse was pushing for the invasion. So I just think that was a calculated misjudgment on their part, rooted in some real concerns. It got dangerous at times. Mfumi cited the invasion of Panama and Grenada. I thought, “Oh, God. That’s exactly what I’m fearful of.”

I think the occupation was more a signal to North Korea and other places. I think that Clinton needed to demonstrate some macho, and so therefore the invasion piece was about sending a message to the rest of the world that the oscillation, vacillation was over. We will be firm. That kind of thing. So I don’t quite subscribe to the sop to the Congressional Black Caucus argument.

As for the Caucus, it did raise a ruckus about Lani Guinier for a while, refused to meet with Clinton. They held firm for a period of time on the racial justice act, and got stuff into the crime bill that would not be there had they not fought for it. I still think the crime bill is on balance bad, but all of the prevention stuff was a direct consequence of the Congressional Black Caucus, Latino Caucus and a coalition of progressive activist organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, ACLU, the Prison Project. So they’ve shown more strength, more lobbying, than in previous administrations.

Yet it’s inadequate, and part of that inadequacy is that they don’t have — and are not courageous and bold enough to create — another vehicle. As long as they are in the Democratic Party, then the whole question of patronage, and the ability to get some crumb, some increments of legislation, dictates that they huff and puff and threaten and squeeze, but ultimately crawl back on the plantation. That’s sort of a crude way of putting it, but that’s about where we are.

The pressure on the Black Caucus has got to come out of the mass movements, the kind of pressure that could have come out of the NAACP, some of the youth. I just wrote an article in which I hope the young people form the equivalent of a new SNCC. I think young African Amercans need their own progressive, revolutionary organization. When the masses begin to speak more clearly through organized structures and begin to put pressure on them, then the Congressional Black Caucus will be much stronger and may even break. But there’s no immediate signs of that.

Jesse Jackson and Independent Politics

ATC: What do you think the future holds for Jesse Jackson?

RD: I don’t know what Jesse’s going to do. He has threatened, which I don’t take seriously necessarily, that he’s going to run again for president as a Democrat. He even hinted that the independent option would have the most impact. Even though I don’t have any faith that Jesse Jackson would ever create an independent structure or an organization, I happen to feel that him running as an independent candidate would have inherent benefits — in terms of clarifying issues on the left in a way that cannot be done if you’re running in the Democratic Party and cannot be a candidate in November.

So I am encouraging him, actually, for whatever it’s worth, and it’s probably not worth much, to take seriously his own rhetoric and threat to run as an independent. I spoke to him directly about it. I think that it would help clarify issues and develop a constituency around progressive ideas, particularly if he would run the kind of crusade he ran in 1984. That would really put him in a powerful position, because it would motivate many of the unorganized to come into the political process. Then it would be on us. He would shake the tree. We’d have to harvest it; he’s not going to build an organization.

ATC: What was his response?

RD: Well, you know, he’s saying he’s weighing it. My translation is, Jesse Jackson saying he may run — and may run as an independent — is still leverage stuff. It keeps him in the media, allows him to get headlines and be asked about it indefinitely. And then it’s a little lobbying: “How much money do I get for registration?” Unfortunately, I think that’s what it is.

I wish it were not, and just in case it is not, I keep putting the figures in front of him. I called him when the poll indicated that 53% of the people were for a major third party. I said, “Hey, did you see that?” Polls have indicated that African-Americans are saying that if he does not get the nomination, 55-56% say he should run as an independent. So I’m trying to put the data in front of him in hopes that even if he’s being cautious, he can say, “Wait a minute. Maybe this is the move to make, because it’s no longer being courageous.”

We’ll see what occurs. In the meantime, I think that we still face the challenge as progressives to develop a strategy for 1996. I don’t know whether that means anyone is going to run as an independent candidate or not. I certainly cannot, but I’m still putting forth the concept and I hope people will rally to it, the whole concept of a People’s Progressive Convention, giving ourselves a couple of years to organize it right: I still think we ought to have what I envisioned in 1992 in Ypsilanti, which was small but an extraordinary meeting.

But I’d like see that kind of meeting attract 5-6,000 progressives, with a process being initiated where, community by community, people would have their own local conventions around platform and key issues, elect their delegations, and let that feed into a national convention that would have delegates but also large numbers of observers.

I’d like to work to put that kind of piece together, so you’d have Labor Party Advocates, the New Party, Campaign for a New Tomorrow, the Greens, an array of progressive groups who hopefully would not be threatened because we’re not going to try to promote any one over any other of them. They would all have a chance to hustle their little points of view, and recruit members. Meet their needs, because that’s what people want: to make sure they’re going to grow. But in meeting that need, let’s all be around the table. The important thing would be to have this great gathering of progressives.

ATC: What are the lessons that you draw from your own campaign? What you’re talking about here sounds a lot like what you did in 1992. What are the obstacles you met and how could you overcome them?

RD: [Laughs.] Well, no, what I did in 1992 was run. What I’m talking about here is unfinished parts of what we tried to do. In 1992, it was important to try to run to lay out some ideas, which I feel perfectly vindicated about. In fact, I think a lot of people now feel that I was absolutely correct. People who wouldn’t touch it. They were into “defeat Bush at all costs.” I kept saying that any difference between Bush and Clinton would be incremental and not fundamental.

ATC: In many ways, he’s worse than Bush.

RD: Yes, because Bush could not talk about taxing unemployment benefits. There probably would have been more resistance to NAFTA had there been a Republican running it. And then labor just fell for the okie-doke, man. On health care and NAFTA! After NAFTA: “We’re angry. We’re going to punish him.” He dangled worker replacement legislation in front of them. “Hang on.” Then he didn’t do a damn thing for it. He just cut labor’s throat, and labor went for it. So you’re right, having a Democrat is even worse, because there’s this illusion.

I think that the key problems of running a candidate are still resources, ballot access. We’ve got to be able to break this media thing. There would be times when I was making speeches, when I’d be in the stratosphere — to twenty people! I was convinced that if I could have made that same speech on national television, it would have gotten them. We’ve got to find a strategy that allows us to get our message out. We cannot get around the problem of the dictatorship of the corporate, for-profit media. I think that if we could get a consensus behind someone in 1996 and work out a broad-based coalition of groups that would support a candidacy, then we would have a much better impact than my campaign had. My own game plan would be to see if we can strengthen Campaign for a New Tomorrow and see it as one of the critical centers, because it is a predominantly African-American, person of color formation. If there were a strong affirmation or demand, then I’d be open to running in the year 2000. I’d like to close the century with a campaign that would point to some new directions for the 21st century.

But I’m not obsessed by that, because it’s a brutal process. I would only do it if Campaign for a New Tomorrow first ratified it and then, as we reached out to other groups, they affirmed it. I was always about building the process. This first time I went out there on guts and faith, and I kept saying that I’m only doing this as a way of setting up the process, because it didn’t exist.

A Third Party of the Left?

ATC: When you talk about the kind of organization that you’re building — about participatory democracy, that we don’t just need another party but a party of a new kind, in which people are really involved, get to set the policy, and it’s run from the bottom up — that’s one of the things that I think was a real advance of your campaign over the Rainbow Coalition. If Jesse Jackson were to mount a new independent campaign, do you think that he’s imbibed that lesson?

RD: No. See, on my part it would be a tactical decision that Jesse Jackson running as a popular figure articulating progressive issues would be sufficiently helpful that I would go with it. I would have no illusions that he would build a real participatory structure. It wouldn’t even be a problem, because he doesn’t seem to have the commitment or the leadership style that builds organizations. That’s why I think we should be there harvesting and picking up.

I don’t think today that any of us are prepared to roll over to Jesse Jackson or go rushing in if he says, “I’m creating a new organization.” I don’t think we would do it, even if he said that. I think most of us would say, “We’ll support your campaign, but we’re not going to join your organization. There’s not going to be an organization. We’ll keep building what we’re building.”

Let me just spin out what I see as the most optimistic scenario. I think that all of us have our deficiencies. Labor Party Advocates is going to have its convention next year. In my opinion the whole strategy of . . .

ATC: Exclusively union.

RD: Yes, I think it’s a tactical mistake, a major tactical error. Also I think that there’s a problem encapsulated in that. A whole lack of understanding of the need to have a strategy that our friend at Labor Notes, Kim Moody, talked about brilliantly in an article he just put out. A correct definition of what it means to have a labor movement. If a labor party were doing that, it probably wouldn’t even call itself a labor party, but it would be reaching out to laboring people and communities.

I think that the New Party’s practice in many respects, some of the things that they’ve done in working with people of color and also with other groups, has soured the relationship somewhat. And the fusion idea people don’t like, anyway. Fusion seems like a sneaky way of doing Democratic politics. But I still hold out hope for them.

The Greens I have great respect for. They’re somewhat eclectic in terms of their overall approach, but they’ve now got something like sixty elected officials all over the country. They’re ultra-democratic! But I think that’s good. Looks like the 21st Century Party has disappeared. I don’t even hear it talked about anymore.

What I hope is that out of processes like the struggling to build the Progressive Convention in 1996, that we can form a coalition party. By the way, this is happening in Pittsburgh: New Party, Solidarity, Campaign for a New Tomorrow, they’re all working together, but there’s a lot of discussion going on.

What I hope is that somewhere down the line — just like the New Democratic Party of Canada was comprised as a series of forces, not just a single one — that we will be able to come together sometime in the next several years and put together one party on the left. But it’s not going to happen right away. And the question is, will it be enough to counter the Perots, the right-wing independents who are coming on the scene? They’ll come with much more force, much more resources.

ATC 54, January-February 1995