Monday, September 22, 2014

Moving Above the Snake Line to the Higher Ground: Moral Mondays Comes to Indiana



Harry Targ

America is facing an economic, political, moral, and environmental crisis as deep as any since the Civil War. Extremists have mobilized money and power to increase the concentration of wealth, decrease economic justice, promote war abroad and police violence at home, expand racism, sexism, and exploitation, and end all efforts to protect the fragile environment.

Enormous amounts of money, largely provided by the Koch Brothers but also coming from some of the largest corporations in the country (insurance, energy, drugs, investment, water and on-line), created the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the 1970s. Billionaires David and Charles Koch have used their money to transform American politics primarily at the level of state governments. Their father, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the infamous John Birch Society of the 1950s and 1960s that railed against alleged “communists” such as former President Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

ALEC has created think tanks, funded political candidates who support their extremist agenda, prepared detailed legislative programs on every public policy issue, and held conferences to recruit and curry the favor of state legislators. This forty year semi-secret movement has led to the capture of thirty state governments (governorships and state legislatures). Since 2010 these state governments have launched an assault on workers, women, people of color, and youth.

In Indiana, at least 16 state representatives and 9 state senators have had ties to ALEC. Former Governor Mitch Daniels and his successor Mike Pence have attended and/or spoken at ALEC and other Koch Brothers events.

As a result of ALEC, sustained assaults on the well-being of Hoosiers since 2004 have included: the decertification of public employee unions, the passage of right-to-work legislation, the creation of charter schools, the shift of educational resources from public schools to private ones through the establishment of vouchers. Also attempts were made to privatize welfare services and some Indiana toll roads were leased to foreign corporations. In addition Indiana politicians have promoted laws limiting the ability of Planned Parenthood to provide health examinations to poor women and blocked any regulations on coal power plants particularly adjacent to minority communities. Indiana initiated some of the first voter ID laws in the country making it more difficult for Hoosiers to vote and the current Governor decided not to expand Medicaid. (see Bryan K Bullock, “the Ultra-Right-Wing State Nobody Mentions,” Truthout, July 1, 2014).

These long-term trends in various states have sparked the emergence of resistance.  One form of resistance is the Moral Mondays movement which began in North Carolina and has spread all across the South and in parts of the Midwest. North Carolina’s movement was convened by the NAACP in 2006 to start a conversation about political and economic justice. By 2013, North Carolina’s movement grew from 16 organizational partners to over 150. Activists began a weekly protest against the North Carolina legislature’s extreme agenda and during the spring legislative season over 1,000 workers, ministers, men, women, minorities, educators, health care professionals, fast food workers, and others were arrested for civil disobedience in the North Carolina State House. Most of the arrests have just been declared unconstitutional.

Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, has emerged as a powerful spokesperson for the Moral Mondays movement. He articulates the view that the country is in the midst of the third reconstruction. The first, after the Civil War, brought former Black slaves and white workers together to write democratic state constitutions. They practiced a “fusion” politics;” that is working to unite people around shared issues and values and unity around race, gender, faith traditions, and the common passion for building a real democracy.

Barber reports that the fusion movement of the 1860s and 1870s was destroyed by Klan extremism and rightwing plantation supporters of the old slave system. The second reconstruction emerged in the 1950s after Brown vs. Board of Education and succumbed to a new round of extremism resulting from candidate Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of the 1968 election season. 

Now, Barber says we are in the midst of a third reconstruction. Moral Mondays movements in North Carolina, and 13 other states in the South and Midwest have begun to build a new fusion movement that draws together workers, women, young and old, black, brown, and white people, documented and undocumented, environmentalists, people of faith and atheists, and the LBGT community based upon “moral” and “constitutional” agendas. He argues that whatever an individual’s personal religious or political values, most people hold to a moral core that addresses economic justice and freedom. And, the federal and most state constitutions clearly state their commitment to democracy and justice. The moral and constitutional dimensions are not, he says, about political parties or ideologies but about these fundamental traditions.

Rev. Barber spoke about his vision in Indianapolis at a two-day mass meeting of the newly created Indiana Moral Mondays on September 19-20. On September 19, he briefed Hoosier activists who had been meeting for months to plan for Rev. Barber’s visit as the “kick-off” to a new Indiana Moral Mondays movement. On Saturday, workshops were held on the Moral Mondays issues at Crispus Attucks High School. After the workshops hundreds marched from the high school to the State House. There Rev. Barber spoke passionately about the need for an Indiana Moral Mondays. The assembled supporters also heard supportive words from National Organization for Women (NOW) president Terry O’Neill and Indiana NAACP State President Barbara Bolling Williams. Hoosier activists commented on the specific needs of fast food workers, African-American youth, and health care workers. Indiana advocates for Medicaid expansion, labor rights, and environmental justice also addressed the rally.

As the new Indiana Moral Mondays movement proceeds in the months ahead it will be addressing a five-point core agenda similar to that embraced by Moral Mondays movements in other states:
  • Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability;
  • Provide well-funded, quality public education for all;
  • Stand up for the health of every Hoosier by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state's communities;
  • Address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation or sexual preference;
  • Protect and expand voting rights for people of color, women, immigrants, the elderly and students to safeguard fair democratic representation.
In his Saturday, September 20, afternoon speech to the 400 people rallying at the Indiana State House, Rev. Barber said he was told by his son, an environmental physicist, that if he ever got lost in mountainous territory he should walk to higher ground. This is necessary, Barber reported, because in the lowlands snakes congregate but if one climbs above the “snake line” snakes, being cold-blooded creatures, cannot live.

Referring to the snake line metaphor in an earlier speech Barber declared:

“There are some snakes out here. There are some low-down policies out here. There’s some poison out here. Going backwards on voting rights, that’s below the snake line. Going backwards on civil rights, that’s below the snake line. Hurting people just because they have a different sexuality, that’s below the snake line. Stomping on poor people just because you’ve got power, that’s below the snake line. Denying health care to the sick and keeping children from opportunity, that’s below the snake line” (Dave Johnson, “Let’s Get Our Politics Above the Snake Line,” Campaign for America’s Future, July 22, 2014).

Rev. Barber urged the newly formed Indiana Moral Mondays coalition to “go to higher ground,” where poverty is ended, everybody can vote, children can be educated, the sick can be healed, and everyone is respected.

People left the rally with a renewed passion to move above the snake line to a higher ground.  They vowed to build a powerful new political voice in the state: Indiana Moral Mondays.