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New mood in heart of beast

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Issue 1712

Anti-capitalism in US

New mood in heart of beast

“I HAVE never experienced anything like what is happening today, from selling a socialist newspaper to being part of something much broader than any of us have ever been involved in. Things are breaking wide open.”

That’s how Sharon Smith of Socialist Worker’s US sister organisation sums up politics across the Atlantic. The recent week of protest outside the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles was the latest expression of “real struggles, real movements on a number of fronts”.

The great protest against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle last November marked a decisive shift in the mood. Then came the 16 April Washington protest against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

There have also been growing campaigns and protests on other issues. Half a million marched in April over gay rights. Campaigns over the death penalty have won some success, and last Saturday saw tens of thousands march in Washington against racism and police brutality. Workers have begun to stir. Some 87,000 telecom workers along the East Coast struck and won against the giant Verizon corporation recently.

Official politics in the US will be dominated in the coming months by the forthcoming presidential election. The new mood is forcing its way into that usually sterile exercise. Ralph Nader is standing in the election against the Democratic and Republican parties, which are run by and for big business.

His anti-corporate platform echoes the spirit of the Seattle protests and the developing movement since. “The most important thing to understand is that the population is far to the left of the two main parties and the politicians in Washington,” says Sharon. A measure of that came in a poll about the protests outside the Democratic and Republican party conventions.

Almost 33 percent of people said they “were proud” of the protests, despite the negative media coverage. Among those aged 49 or less the figure jumped to over 42 percent. The movement is more than protests. “There is a feeling that we are beginning to score a few victories,” says Sharon, “and of discovering what moving forward feels like. Take the Verizon strike. The settlement is definitely better than workers are used to.”

There has been success over other issues. In Illinois, around Chicago, “We won a moratorium on the death penalty,” says Sharon. “There’s now a bill in Congress calling for a seven-year moratorium. A while ago people didn’t believe you if you said we can end the death penalty. There is a real shift in the political climate on the ground. It began before Seattle. It congealed around Seattle. Now it’s happening on a range of fronts.”

A new layer of activists was a key feature of the Los Angeles protests at the Democratic Party convention. “Probably a majority of those involved were Nader supporters, many from within the activist networks,” says Sharon. “But there were also more people who’ve never been on a demo. They want to get involved, and to do something to build the Nader campaign in their city or on their campus. We’ve helped hold meetings and are hoping to form local committees around the Nader campaign.”

Todd Chrtien in California explains, “If Nader gets five million votes, that means the movement can have five million activists. There is a massive opportunity to reshape the left in the US and give the movement the experience, numbers and organisations we need to go forward.”

The various movements are part of a general shift in US society, but they are not a single, coherent whole. “There is not as yet much crossover” between many of the strands “such as anti-globalisation, pro-Nader, anti death penalty and anti police brutality campaigns,” says Sharon. “That’s a description of now, not of where it could go.”

Signs of where it could go were clear in Seattle, when workers, students and environmentalists came together. Todd tells how, during the Los Angeles protests, “I was moved to tears on many occasions as I watched people crossing boundaries put up by the system, between students and workers, activists and new people, people of all races, young and old.”

Activist and intellectual Medea Benjamin is standing for Senator in California on the same platform as Ralph Nader. Todd describes how socialists helped organise “a Students for Nader/Medea meeting in Los Angeles. We got over 100 students from 42 campuses to attend at three weeks notice. Medea spoke and basically said, ‘This is a new mass movement. We are part of it. This is the most exciting time in my life.’ Standing ovation, wild applause, chanting. This will be repeated on hundreds of campuses.”

A significant number of workers were on the Los Angeles Democratic Party convention protests. Many of the workers’ marches were officially supporting Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore.

The workers’ marches were “meant to be pressure on Gore, but also to raise their own grievances,” says Sharon. But “among many of those who say they’ll vote Gore to stop Republican candidate Bush there is openness and excitement about the Nader campaign and the issues it raises.”

There is now a growing debate in the US within the movement about how to take it forward, and what kind of tactics and politics can lead to success.

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