After an intense weekend of speeches and discussion about the future of the progressive “political revolution” sparked by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the People’s Summit ended Sunday with a charge to continue to keep “the Bern” blazing through a myriad electoral and justice campaigns.
“The media keeps asking us what are we going to do. And the answer is simple: We are going to change this country,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, one of the principal sponsors of the People’s Summit, at the closing plenary.
Sunday’s closing ceremony reflected the extraordinary nature of a conference that perhaps was best captured in a comment by Shaun King, a New York Daily News columnist and a Sanders supporter, in a breakout session Saturday. In previous presidential campaigns, the supporters of the losing candidates fold up their tents and move on to other campaigns and issues. “Never before, after a victory or a loss, have people said, ‘I’m not finished,’” he said.
That was the tone DeMoro set at the beginning of the summit Friday.
“Regardless of who is in the White House, we need to learn the lesson from the Obama years, Where that movement was built on hope and change,” she said. “The moment he got into office, the movement went away and Wall Street occupied the White House, and like termites they ate away at the foundation of democracy. The most important thing here is there will always be termites and we can never go away, regardless of who is in the presidency.”
Later, that evening, DeMoro told OurFuture.org that while Sanders was not at the conference, many of its goals came up in a private meeting with Sanders that DeMoro was a part of. Sanders pledged at that meeting to remain deeply engaged in the summit’s outcome, particularly by supporting candidates who vow to pick up the summit’s agenda in congressional races.
“What’s different about this moment is that there is a new urgency about the issues,” she said, particularly about a lack of good jobs, which is creating anger across the political spectrum.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” she said. Today’s unemployed and underemployed “feel there is a certain level of desperation when you can’t take care of yourself and you can’t take care of your family, and you end up doing one of two things: you go around looking for scapegoats or you try to organize yourself to change things.”
Becky Bond, senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, said in a Saturday plenary that one of the lessons of the campaign is that “people are willing to do something big to get something big.”
Another lesson is the decentralized nature of the Sanders campaign structure, which now that the campaign itself has wound down leaves behind an infrastructure of newly trained organizers as well as lists of volunteers and financial contributors that will be primary assets in the campaigns that grow out of the Sanders electoral effort.
One of the most electric moments of the summit came when Sanders supporter Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, stepped off the plenary stage and walked through the crowd of an estimated 2,000 attendees, invoking a demand for elected officials to be “doers of the deed,” as she walked through a list of progressive agenda items in a rousing, sermon-like tone. “We need to elect people into office who actually give a shit about the people they represent,” she said.
Many of the breakout sessions captured the agenda items that summit attendees were expected to take back to their communities. The topics included ending voter suppression, stopping mass incarceration, ending racial and gender inequity, health care for all, the Fight for $15, climate justice, and fair taxation.
Heather McGhee, president of Demos, used her Sunday plenary address to encourage progressives to change how they talk about racism and racial disparities in the economy by recognizing that “in our interconnected society, racism is bad for white people, too.” She challenged progressives to “work harder to fight this zero-sum mentality” that the work of reversing institutional racism only benefits people of color.
“Economic inequality for all is what we get when we choose to drain the swimming pool for all rather than let black people swim,” McGhee said. She later added that “the racial panic of this moment is challenging our progressive movement to shed its self-imposed colorblindness” and make a more forceful and compelling argument that “my children’s dreams are no threat to yours. We all do better when we all do better.”
This summit offered no comfort to the leaders of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the leadership of the Democratic Party — and that was the point. There was no unanimity among attendees on the issue of whether to changes party processes from within — as Sanders supporter Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is doing with her #ReformTheParty campaign — or remain outside agitators ready to blow up the party from outside.
“I’m going to suggest strongly that you vote against Donald Trump,” DeMoro said in her closing remarks, acknowledging the shared frustration that the attendees did not have a major party candidate they felt they could be for.
Nonetheless, Steve Cobble, a longtime progressive activist who was a key figure in bed launching the Sanders campaign and was also a leader in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, said that he was impressed with the positive spirit of the summit. “I thought there would be more overt anger and bitterness” about a rigged political system and nominating process that would lead people to throw up their hands. Instead, “people seem quite ready to keep fighting. … I don’t get much sense of quit out of anybody.”
Cobble cites two previous losing political campaigns as reasons he is optimistic about the prospects of the post-Sanders movement. The first is the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign; though he lost in a landslide, the remnants of that campaign were built into the successful Reagan presidency in 1980 and conservative infrastructure buttressing that candidacy. The second is the Jackson campaign, which had been up to that point the largest and most successful presidential campaign by an African-American candidate; the work the Sanders campaign to build and consolidate the black vote laid the foundation for the successful candidacy of Barack Obama, Cobble said. “Bernie is paving the way for a democratic socialism in a millennial generation to have a significant role in the progressive movement for the next four decades.”
“Even if this nominating process is coming to a close, the fights that we are involved in to deal with stopping the deportations, for real action against climate change, dealing with mass incarceration and structural racism, those fights are not over,” Bond said in an interview. “So we’re still working.”
Plus, she added, the intent is for those fights to not continue in isolation. “The people who worked to elect Bernie Sanders are not single-issue activists. They are really engaged people who understand that we have to solve all of these problems together.”
DeMoro said from the stage, to cheering from the audience, that “we’re going to have a lot more People’s Summits” and that she expects the next one “to double or triple in size.”
“We’re organizers, and what we know as organizers is that we need to grow to have more power,” Bond said. “If we want to win bigger things, we have to get bigger. That’s our mandate, to grow so that we can win.”
Veteran progressive columnist Jim Hightower rallied the crowd at the end with a declaration of victory. “We have not won the White House – yet,” he said. “But we have won something much bigger. We have won the future. The future is ours.”