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Activists Discuss Debt Debate, Wonder How We Let Right Control It

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine (mgconlan [at]
Congressmember Bob Filner, San Diego labor leader Lorena Gonzalez and three other speakers appeared as part of a panel convened by Activist San Diego for their regular meeting August 15. The ostensible purpose was to discuss the recent debate in Washington over raising the nation's debt ceiling, but it soon turned into a discussion of how the Right managed to take over the debate, frame it the way they wanted and get virtually everything they wanted -- including promises of large cuts in government spending that will only worsen the economy and risk not only a double-dip recession but an outright depression.
Filner, Gonzalez Headline Discussion on Debt Ceiling

Activist Meeting Focuses on How the Right Won the War of Ideas


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO, left to right: Lorena Gonzalez, Floyd Morrow, Corinne Wilson, Dr. Jeff Gordon, and Congressmember Bob Filner at Activist San Diego August 15, 2011.

“Where did we go wrong?” said San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council secretary-treasurer Lorena Gonzalez at the start of Activist San Diego’s August 15 discussion of the debt-ceiling crisis in Washington and what severe cutbacks in government spending are likely to do to the economy. Lamenting the way the Right in San Diego has successfully been able to demonize organized labor as “an outside force” responsible for all the city’s economic woes, Gonzalez said, “A lot of it is our inability to reach out to people who once understood our movement and what it stood for.”

Bob Filner, who’s ending his 20-year tenure in Congress to run for Mayor of San Diego in 2012, was similarly self-critical. “I’ve never seen anything like the stupidity on their side — or the unwillingness of our side to confront them in a way that would make sense to the American people,” he said. “We went into this [debt-ceiling] debate, and for some reason we ceded the playing field to the other side at the beginning.”

Filner criticized President Obama for not demanding a rise in the debt ceiling last December as a condition for extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, and also for refusing to invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as giving him the power to pay America’s debts whether Congress raised the debt ceiling or not. “We ceded them the complete playing field,” he said.

According to Filner, the slogan he wanted the Democrats in the House of Representatives to use was one that would tie the debt-ceiling crisis directly into America’s three budget-busting wars in Muslim countries: Afghanistan and Iraq, which Obama inherited from Bush; and Libya, which he got us into himself without even asking for the fig leaf of a Congressional resolution. “It was, ‘End the debt — end the wars,’” Filner recalled. “But because we had a President who didn’t agree on this, the [Democratic House] leadership didn’t pick it up.”

Though the ostensible topic of the meeting was the debt ceiling debate, which ended August 2 with a deadline deal and the subsequent downgrading of America’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, most of the comments addressed a broader sense of crisis in the country and a desperate search for strategies that will put progressive and Leftist perspectives back into the public debate. Activist San Diego’s recently elected board president, long-time activist Jeeni Criscenzo, wanted to focus the debate around Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which holds that capitalist ruling classes deliberately foment crises like the debt-ceiling debate to scare people and keep them from challenging the ruling class’s power, but no one but Criscenzo herself cited Klein’s analysis.

Instead, the speakers — Filner, Gonzalez, former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow, Corinne Wilson of the Center on Policy Initiatives, and single-payer health advocate Dr. Jeff Gordon — talked primarily on what the Right has done to win the debate over economic and social policy in the U.S., and what the Left has to do to get back in the game. Gonzalez drew a parallel between what the Republican House majority is doing in Washington, D.C. and what Republican politicians and their media handmaidens have already done in San Diego to demonize organized labor.

“What we’ve heard in San Diego for years is now going on in Washington,” Gonzalez said. “The other side is good at identifying a common enemy. We progressives don’t like to speak in ‘war’ terms. We try to bring people together.” In contrast, she argued, the Right seeks scapegoats so that people blame all their problems on those below them in wealth and income, not those above — and in San Diego in 2011, that’s organized labor in general, and specifically public-employee unions.

“Everything wrong in San Diego is [supposedly] due to the trash collectors who take home $27,000 per year pensions with no Social Security,” Gonzalez said. “They’ve become the poster children for why you can’t get your potholes fixed.” Gonzalez also noted that unions couldn’t blame the real culprits — the politicians who voted increased pension benefits for workers without any way to pay for them, and the developers and other corporate rich whose mega-projects were built with the money siphoned off from workers’ pensions — because the politicians are also the people they have to negotiate with for their workers’ wages and benefits.

Instead, she said, “we kind of hunkered down and said we’re not going to point fingers at the bosses.” What’s more, she added, “We defended things that should never have been defended” — the giant pensions that went to city administrators and elected officials — “and now our blue-collar and white-collar workers may lose their pensions and retirement security” in part because of the labor movement’s strategic mistakes in responding to the Right’s challenge.

Gonzalez also argued that the Republican agenda of ceaseless public budget-cutting will make the economy worse, not better. “Virtually every economist will say the only way we’re going to get out of this recession is to spend money,” she explained. “Instead, we have cut back, especially in the public sector. Private-sector jobs have crept up, but the cuts in the public sector have kept unemployment high. These [budget-cutting] discussions will not only affect the programs they cut, but people’s jobs as well.”

Another reason the Right has essentially taken over the national agenda, Gonzalez said, is that they’re a lot better than the Left at holding their elected officials accountable. “We tend to look at elections like a tournament,” Gonzalez said — using a sports metaphor in a room so unrepresentative of the American majority that few people there follow professional sports. “Election day is just drafting, the day you complete your team. If you put together your team and then walk away, you start losing.”

Filner, who has held elective office virtually continuously since the 1970’s, agreed that the Left needs to do a much better job of making sure the politicians they help elect actually do what they’ve promised. “It’s your job to keep us honest,” he said. “When John F. Kennedy came in, he was not as liberal as Obama. He was not interested in civil rights. We got in the streets and forced him to be interested in civil rights. I got on a bus to Jackson, Mississippi and spent several months in the state penitentiary, but we got rid of the whole structure of segregation. We have to do the same thing today.”

According to Filner, there are actually more abuses that should be challenged by direct action today than there were in the 1960’s. One of them, he explained, is foreclosure. “I think the foreclosures are illegal,” he said. “We gave the banks billions” — someone in the audience interrupted and said, “Trillions!” — “and people feel so powerless they just drop the keys behind and leave.” He recalled a demonstration he organized to keep a woman in his Congressional district from being foreclosed on, that drew 200 people and led the county sheriff and the bank to decide to let her stay.

“I saw a sense that we could change things,” he said. “There wasn’t that sense of powerlessness. The sheriff and the banks would be back, but that day we won, and people were saying, ‘When are we going to do this again?’”

Corinne Wilson, whose job title at the Center on Policy Initiatives is a real mouthful — “research and policy lead/construction campaigns director” — presented her organization’s recently released report on foreclosures. Available through their Web site,, the report estimated that 56,689 foreclosures will happen in San Diego between 2008 and 2012 and they will cost property owners, even if they’re not foreclosed on themselves, a total of $19.2 billion in home values. What’s more, the state and city will lose $117 million in property taxes, both from the foreclosed homes themselves and the loss of value by their non-foreclosed neighbors, and the total cost to local government of the foreclosure crisis — both in lost tax revenues and additional city services, including putting out fires in foreclosed homes — will be between $134 million and $855 million.

How does that happen? Wilson cited statistics that “if there’s one foreclosed home that stands vacant, it negatively impacts all home values within one-eighth mile from it. … Just as we released the report, a foreclosed home caught fire and damaged the homes around it. That comes out of our municipal budget. Our local budget crisis is also a foreclosure crisis, and thanks to Proposition 13” — which requires property taxes to go down if a property’s assessed valuation goes down — “it will impact for decades our ability to raise money for public services.”

Former Councilmember Morrow reminisced about his boyhood in the 1930’s — “I was born in a tent with a dirt floor” — and his long history of progressive activism, including organizing for the Kennedy for President campaign in 1960. As an early victim of the radical Right — after three terms on the San Diego City Council he was defeated for re-election in 1977 when he was Queer-baited by a so-called “Christian” publication called The Church News — Morrow spoke with authority on how the ascendancy of the Right has coarsened American politics.

“There’s no place in our politics for the intemperate, hateful politics of Koch [Charles and David Koch, the ultra-Right industrialists who have largely funded the Tea Party],” Morrow said. “The only traction the Tea Party has is Sarah Palin lucked into being governor of Alaska — where they collect the social dividends from their natural resources and every citizen receives tax revenue from the oil companies. We need Social Security, health and education. If you think education isn’t worth it, try ignorance. Without education, you have the new barbarians.”

Dr. Gordon, who was slated to talk about health care, spoke instead about the growing levels of economic inequality in the U.S. and how the destruction of the middle class is threatening to create permanent unrest and spark the kinds of street riots recently seen in Great Britain. In comments that led two audience members to denounce him as racist, he said, “I worked in Black communities in the 1960’s, and they were functional communities, but when the Blacks lost their jobs [through the de-industrialization of cities like Detroit and Indianapolis], those communities fell apart and the ‘ghetto culture’ was foisted on them by the loss of their jobs.”

According to Dr. Gordon, the destruction de-industrialization has wrought on the African-American community is coming to the white population as well, as the Right’s economic policies relentlessly attack the middle class and leave America with a handful of wealthy people at the top and a huge number of people with little or no income — and little or no chance for advancement — at the bottom.

“Young men who don’t have jobs — what do they do?” he said. “Ask the people in England. It’s been a year since [the British government] went on an austerity program, including the devastation of social services. What are those people going to do? You’re already starting to hear about ‘flash mobs’ and rioting and curfews in places like Minneapolis. If we don’t organize and fight back, we’re going to be hit hard when we hit bottom.”
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