Potential and Contradiction

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Tim Schermerhorn

THE MILLION MAN March’s effect on my job was significant. They had to go to ridiculous stretch runs expanding the running time between trains. There were places in the New York subway system where people waited an hour for trains.

In the afternoon they declared an emergency, which means they can force people to work. After refusing to work overtime I then had to wait fifty minutes for a train to get home.

A significant aspect is the estimation that between a quarter and half a million people withheld their labor on that day. That would make it, regardless of the ethnic association of people, the most significant labor action in my memory.

On the other hand: When asked by workers on the job I would say that any time our people are in motion I am in favor of it; however, there are problematic things you have to look at here. Several people said yeah, Tim, I would expect you to be critical of the exclusion of women, the lack of agenda–I was just checking you for consistency.

Conservative Churches and Worker Radicals

I didn’t attend the March–because of the time I’d spent in our recent union election–but I’ve had a lot of input from people. Many people I know were involved in several forums in the discussion about whether to go.

I think we should recognize that some things of which we’re critical in the mobilization for the March were, in fact, responsible for a significant part of the turnout. I know from individuals in my job and community that there was a layer of people there who had never been to anything, who had no organizational connection to it other than through their conservative churches.

One of the most significant aspects is the movement of conservative religious institutions joining in a tactic, a massive march in Washington, in which they haven’t participated in a very long time–and the fact that they saw fit to mobilize along with the Nation of Islam.

Nevertheless, it is also significant that there were hundreds of thousands of individuals down there who went with their own agenda. I know that a contingent from New Directions in TWU went down, wore New Directions t-shirts, called it a Black workers’ March, etc. When I informed them I wasn’t going they said, good<197>you can tell us
how many people come to work.

It was a significant day for a huge number of people–and for many of them, the absence of an agenda was what enabled them. It was something they could go along with.

A Real Opening

There were a significant number of people who were critical of Farrakhan’s politics. Theresa el-Amin (an activist in the North Carolina-based Black Workers for Justice–ed.) happened to be at a meeting in D.C. and was leaving town the morning of the March, when all these people were coming in.

So she pulled out a position paper she had on women in the March and gave it to a few people. Several of these men approached her and asked for more copies. After she gave all those away, she started to distribute Justice Speaks (the Black Workers for Justice newspaper); and after running out of those, she says, men came to her and asked how to contact her to get more material.

This is the part that is an indication of a real opening, of how this event filled not just a vacuum of leadership in the Black community but addressed a significant lack of response to what had come down on Black communities in particular. People feel they have to do something.

There’s a collective of old Panthers in New Jersey who said that even though we don’t have a mobilized community as we had in previous times, this gave you the feeling of it. A community in motion felt so good to people who are organizers that was what mattered. Sometimes you have to participate, if only to get that feeling even though it’s not your politics.

Mixed Results

The people I work with have recognized that there is a significant difference between their politics and the organizers of the March. And they left wanting to build organization.

On the other hand, people have told me about the behavior of the Nation of Islam since the March. When Castro spoke in Harlem during his UN visit, the leader of NOI in New York brought a number of the Fruit of Islam (NOI security) to crash the program with him and flex their muscles.

In fact, a confrontation was avoided and he was allowed into the event in a controlled way, not on his terms. But this is apparently what they’ve been doing lately: A number of people from small political organizations told me that NOI has been showing up at small events and forums and pushed people around.

People see that as a real negative aspect. So I think we have to look at the real elements of all of it. During the period when the NOI was most popular in the Black community it was because they reformed a lot of gangsters that preyed on the communities themselves. So any analysis we have should try to be clear on the positive aspects, and the openings for left organizers, but also look at the opposite effects.

ATC 60, January-February 1996