The Political Moment, Summer 2016
South by Southwest Experiment
On the occasion of the New Mexico Accountable Governance Summit
Defining the “political moment” in which the 2016 New Mexico Accountable Governance Summit takes place helps us to move from moment to movement. “Accountable Governance” demands responsiveness to the conditions endured by everyday people in their day to day lives. This document attempts to capture many of the underlying currents facing our communities, including those that have been building for quite some time, and those that have dominated news headlines as of late.
The summer of 2016 could be characterized as a period of upheaval and turmoil across the entire political fabric. The period has been encapsulated by deep racial tensions around the televised police shootings of black victims like Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Soon thereafter, several high profile shootings of police officers took place in Dallas and Baton Rouge. In addition, 49 mostly Latino LGTBQ victims were killed in mass-shooting in Orlando, Florida. Yet overall crime trends across the country are dramatically down over recent decades. Are things getting worse, or are they getting more coverage through mediums such as social media in the hands of directly affected people?
Serving as a backdrop to this all, much of the country has found itself in shock and awe at the rapid rise of Donald Trump to the Republican presidential nomination, using a campaign based on fear, hatred and anxiety about the country’s well-being. Earlier in the summer British voters successfully removed themselves from the European Union and many attribute the “#brexit” to widespread fear-mongering about immigrants. As if to reveal the foundation of where much of the angst was coming from, Iowa’s U.S. Representative Steve King wondered aloud on national television about what contributions any “subgroup of people” had made to civilization in comparison to Europeans and their descendents, a blatant premise of white supremacy.
Although those election year subjects dominated the headlines, many other undercurrents have built for some time. President Obama, the nation’s first black president, is entering his final year of office, yet has had to work for the entirety of his term with an oppositional Republican majority congress that has voted more than 60 times to repeal access to affordable healthcare. In addition, Citizens United opened a flood gate of big money into elections, resulting in an onslaught of negative campaigning onto the airwaves and contributing to a downward trend in trust in government to address the issues that matter to everyday folks. As a result, many have turned away from federal policy as being of much help to their everyday struggles.
Did Barack Obama’s election to President of the United States represent a transition into a post-racial America? Simply and straightforwardly, “no.” Since the year of his election, 2008, the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. The imbalance is increasingly clear to our communities: that the color of one’s skin and the amount of wealth that one has determines access to and the power to hold accountable the educational, economic, and political systems of this country.
Many of our communities are faced with the reality of decreasing resources, low-paying jobs and little opportunity for economic advancement – a situation that has worsend for decades. The acute economic effects are seen in terms of unemployment, underemployment, cuts in school funding and local cuts in social services. Billion dollar deficits at the state level have been seen across the United States. The right consolidated its takeover of state politics in the 2010 and 2011 elections and has diligently worked to dismantle participation of working families and communities of color in any democratic process, including making voting increasingly difficult through measures such as Voter ID and decreased voting opportunities. These forces present a major challenge in terms of securing living wages or increasing benefits through democracy, and they further reduce the opportunity for any increase in programs or services to benefit poor and working families and the unemployed.
Education and Mass Incarceration
Basic survival tools such as education are under severe threat. The fight for a quality education is happening all across the country, as we see the effects and struggles everywhere for students of color spilling over at the intersections and state borders politically, socially & economically. The fight for early childhood education is increasing as Head Start programs and other services lose funding, making it harder for students to be prepared as they begin their transition into public school. As education funding continues to decrease, schools are forced to consolidate, forcing the closing of many schools, which also increases the number of private and charter schools that operate outside of the public process, making it more difficult to influence school decisions. Some states have seen an almost 30% decrease in their public education budget, with statewide losses of over $9 billion causing school closures.
Increased police and military presence and zero tolerance policies continue to push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. This results in students who are inadequately prepared for higher education or the workforce, and creates pathways for juvenile detention, unemployment, and jail. There is a direct relationship between low funded schools in underfunded areas producing underprepared students. While there has been a decrease in the number of students of color dropping out of high school, there has been an increase in the number of students of color dropping out of college by their sophomore year.
The agenda is clear and the moves are strategic in the attempt to privatize public education and profit from systems that tear communities of colors apart. Many states have found themselves funding prisons at higher levels than early childhood education and mass incarceration is finally beginning to receive the criticism it deserves. Our brothers and sisters are missing, locked up at disproportionately higher rates than whites for the same crimes. They are not dead, but rather locked behind bars, unraveling the threads of our families and the often privatized prison system is doing just what it was designed to do as a multi-billion dollar industry.
Environmental & Food Justice
Our people continue to live in frontline communities that suffer the greatest impacts of environmental degradation, pollution, and contamination. Polluting industries continue to exert their political influence against a shift to more renewable energy. In addition, our communities have always suffered from poor health, obesity, heart disease, breast cancer, and high blood pressure. The provision of processed foods in our schools and the decrease in SNAP benefits created by the politics of the right stand in stark contrast to Farm Bill legislation that delivers millions to private corporations.
We see a cut in services being used as a tactic politically against poor people. If there is no value in it for White America, then it does not have value. We see this with displacement and gentrification taking place throughout urban centers with no regard for the well-being of poor families and working individuals. When gentrification takes place, we see investments from private individuals and corporations that build expensive condos and apartments, and luxury hotels and attractions on formerly public spaces. People of color and of low wealth can no longer afford to live in areas where they have historically lived, and lack access to transportation permitting them to get back and forth to institutions such as hospitals, banks, markets, etc.
In addition, since 2011 we’ve seen the extreme right dominate politics and policies to limit women’s access to reproductive health, forcing clinics to shut down and eliminating the already limited access that women and families have to low cost health care and health education.
Empowering a True Majority
Our communities have never stopped experiencing systemic racism, yet our promise lies in the empowerment of what promises to be a new American majority with a fresh set of values around equity and social justice. Among our best chances to get from where we are to where we need to be will require a great deal of grassroots organizing such as that carried out by organizations such as those that make up the South by Southwest Experiment – SWOP, SWU, Southern Echo and the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable. We will share the exercise of the power we build as a majority in a democratic and accountable manner, in knowledge and unity. This specter is what scares the opposition the most.
Moving from moment to movement will require taking a very disciplined look at how we steer the ship in a different direction. We must start with school board, city councils, state representatives, and so on to build a process recognizing that if we can take control of states, we can make policy at the state level. But we must also pull these states together in a way that can impact federal policy. We must be seen as a coherent entity, from Mississippi, to Texas, to New Mexico, from the South, to the Southwest – historically the most colonized and exploited regions of the country. Only borders separate us, but the injustice spills over far beyond borders. We must appreciate the role of all the local organizations and the roles they play to bring people onto the playing field and into spaces such as this Summit, especially young people as they make up the building blocks for a sustainable and just future. The foundation must be strong and our vision must be long-term and sustainable.
How will we protect the accomplishments achieved by the social movements of the past 150 years and more? How do we impact the growing concerns over access to primary and secondary education and ward off the student loan debt that cripples students of color? How do we protect the rights of the LGBTQ community? What is the solution to the continuing police violence and intimidation in black and brown communities? How do we ensure the safety of immigrants? How do we advance conditions for workers? How do we achieve a living wage, quality education, and safe food and water? These things are all in the balance. Our reality requires change that can impact our peoples’ daily lives and we cannot rest until our people begin to experience the improvements directly, and beyond.
Leveraging 21st Century People Power
Despite the daunting political landscape, the growing acceptance and understanding of 21st century technology and its contributions to people power shines a light on many promising possibilities for galvanizing our people. Social network systems like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and PokemonGo have the power to bring people together and to move together in ways unseen for generations. There is a growing recognition that social networks, much like the concept “you are what you eat,” emphasize that “you are what you’re connected to.” While this has proven semi-powerful for Donald Trump and his personal Twitter account, our strength in numbers and our understanding of the connectivity of movements like #blacklivesmatter promises to be even more powerful.
The rapid nature of this societal transformation – far faster than the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries – is breath-taking, and it is one that is dramatically more accessible to our people – because our lives are related via social networks! Our networks are our power! They enable us to move beyond the outdated model of a soap box and instead alow us to listen to our people and to understand them. They enable us to connect, to lift up ideas in new ways, and to hold systems accountable. It’s not easy to intimidate a network. The concept of a few people in a room determining the future of our governance is quickly losing its power. Instead, the power of mapping networks and matching them to the political map could be the X factor in empowering a true majority going forward.
Moving Forward: The Vision
It has never been beneficial to keep fixing and patching systems that are inherently broken. There needs to be a coherent inspiring vision of what the country is about, providing access to the “fundamental tenets of a free society: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our country is changing rapidly demographically and this provides great opportunity to build progressive state-level power. We must take full advantage of this shift by ensuring that our youth both understand the roles and responsibilities of elected and public officials and also see themselves inside a process that in turns helps their own communities to prosper.
The disengagement of our communities in the political process exacerbates the inequities we see in the state as elected officials and public continue to ignore the concerns and challenges of our families. We must go beyond mobilization strategies that emphasize getting people registered to vote, and create pathways and pipelines for political participation and decision making inside of our own communities. We must create, build, and sustain momentum with the courage and boldness demonstrated by those who have come before: Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, Assata Shakur, Céser Chávez, Berta Cáceres, Emma Tenayuca, and so many others.
This is our time! This is our moment! This is our movement!
This document is the result of a collective process through which the youth of the SxSW Experiment partner organizations engaged in listening and dialogue sessions within each of the partners. Special thanks go to Kameisha Smith and Curtis Hill of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Holmes County, Mississippi, Janelle Astorga Ramos of the SouthWest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Bonnie Hernández of the Southwest Workers Union, San Antonio, Texas.
© South by Southwest Experiment, July 2016