On Friday at midnight, I joined students from nearby universities and high schools to gather with members of local unions and community organizations at a parking lot on the New Haven shoreline. Soon we would set off to Washington for One Nation Working Together, a nationwide march for jobs, education and economic justice. Bagged lunches were packed. Phone numbers were exchanged. Seagulls nested. Interstate 95 roared above. Spirited lefty musician Bill Collins thrilled us with a rock rendition of "Solidarity Forever." The cold made it hard to participate, and so I huddled with friends and watched. Little did I know that the performance had only just begun.
At 8 am we arrived in DC. The wide morning sky and movie-set city blocks gave no hints of the crisis in Washington or the impending activist struggle which intended to combat it. Downtown was more utopian than even a naïve tourist could hope. Rows of big screens and loudspeakers towered over swaths of ralliers stretching half a mile back from the podium atop the Lincoln Memorial. Because of the surrounding sound system, screens and security fencing, you couldn't see the stage unless you were close. This meant that most people witnessed each speech in three acts: first, the voice; second, out-of-sync lip-motions on screen; third, the echo from the loudspeakers.
Even more extraordinary was the motley crew of ralliers on hand. Known and unknown labor unions and socialist parties were joined by smatterings of civil rights activists, college students, public education advocates, environmentalists, Catholic progressives, Israeli settlement objectors and African aiders. At least at first, this one rally to fit all felt more like a thousand species at a common food source than a movement.
The icon of this play was a boy who stood by the walkway to the Mall with a stack of small signs reading End War. Free merchandise was in good supply at the march, and a woman casually asked the boy if she could have a sign. The boy said, "That'll cost you a donation."
We live in a capitalist world. Pennies are pinched for peace. Mass anti-corporate uprisings feel like Times Square. Solidarity is spectacle. Modern contexts shape modern social movements.
That was the beauty of October 2 in DC, a day away from the mainstream liberal consensus on campus. One Nation felt more symbolic than real, more like theater than grassroots action. And yet AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was wrong when he told us that "We signify our one nation." We are our one nation, as real an America as any.
Though we are not inevitable. Without reimagining the present so as to channel anger and disillusionment leftward, our nation cannot, as NAACP President Benjamin Jealous put it, "get votes off the sideline and onto the battlefield."
Speaker and singer Harry Belafonte recalled the right's history of "insidious attack" on disenfranchised minorities and silent majorities. Power is, indeed, insidious. Its demagogues prey on disillusionment and uncertainty. Its vast cross-spectrum media conglomeration mutes action and voice with words and numbers. Power transforms diversity into division. Once power divides, it is able to conquer, or at least commodify and contain, one by one.
The results are visible. When we forget that the struggle for gender equality has been one of active contestation and coalition-building across race and class, feminism loses its support—and its meaning. Nation writer Jessica Valenti argues that "by pushing a vote for Clinton on the basis of her gender alone, establishment feminists…opened the door for conservatives to demand support for Palin for the very same reason."
Power divides the young and the old alike. In the Yale Herald, Zola Quao, a black female student, writes about confronting a white homeless man on the street in New Haven and feeling a curious reversal of historical domination. Hers is a lesson for all students—black, white, male, female—who attend "elite" universities. If we fail to locate where our historical oppression intersects with what we see on the street, then the status quo which built the academy will conscript us into its ranks.
Conveniently, the difference and diversity that made One Nation feel like a disassembled puzzle are the same forces that create the possibility of a victorious American left. The spectacle of the Grand March, initially disorienting as it may be, unites our disparate voices in harmony. It's the presence of others that invites us to clamor outside the box, and toward something higher. The result is a movement that transcends categories and campaigns. Upon encountering the Warsaw ghetto, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: "The race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men."
What we need is a united left organized around new cultural patterns and new teachings. This demands that we look beyond our own "race problem" and connect with others. For me, Saturday's frenzied, incomprehensible, half-mile-long pool party with colorful signs and big screens was a kaleidoscope of Warsaw ghettos. My contingent of New Haven students and laborites had gathered in solidarity before, but never as notes in a melodiously cacophonous national medley.
I stood up, walked around a bit, saw more kitschy signs, grabbed some to put up in my room, and got closer to the stage. Jesse Jackson thundered forth. The loudspeakers echoed. Workers from SEIU 1199 in Tennessee cheered. Socialists screamed. Journalists scribbled something about Glenn Beck. Lincoln looked down knowingly. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, said, "Feel your own power!" A sign said, "Hell yes, we can."