Videos and Transcripts: Bruce Dixon and Kali Akuno, "Atlanta's Post-Election Reflection"

NOTE: Kali Akuno's video and transcript is halfway down the page.

BRUCE DIXON, Managing Editor, Black Agenda Report

Hey, I'm Bruce Dixon. I'm an old guy, I might be the oldest guy here except for one person. After a time, you get used to being the oldest guy in the room, it's alright. I'm originally from Chicago, I've only been in Atlanta about 10 years so I still feel new here. I do Black Agenda Report, which you can find at http://www.blackagendareport.com, and as of recently, I've just joined the Green Party of Georgia who were silly enough to put me on the state committee! We'll see what we can do with that.

I'm going to start talking about our election here. Our new mayor is Kasim Reed—I've never met him in person, but I've talked to him on the phone. I wrote a story about maybe in 2005 or 2006, really two stories. What prompted me to write about him was that when he was in the State Senate, he introduced two pieces of legislation: one that would make it a felony for anyone to look for a job in Georgia with a false ID, automatic five years if you've got a false ID, another that would introduce a special tax on money sent back to Mexico—don't ask me how he was going to do that, it really sounded impractical, but that was the legislation. I called him on the phone and asked him, “Why are you doing this dude? What's up with this?” And he said, “I'm doing this to protect Black jobs.” That's what he said. This is your mayor. During that time he was still in the State Senate.

His bio, his campaign bio, said that he was a “civil rights lawyer”--well everyone knows what that means here, right? What do we think of when we hear “civil rights lawyer,” Thurgood Marshall, right? The idea was that he billed himself as a civil rights lawyer. In fact, he was a civil rights lawyer, but one for defendants. He worked for the firm Holland and Knight, with offices in New York, Tel Aviv, Beijing, Tokyo, and Atlanta. His job was to defend the corporate violators of your civil rights. He defended Cracker Barrel in some notable [discrimination] lawsuits. OK, so this is your mayor. That's who the brother is.

On the national level, We're all Americans, we all used to hearing how our country invades other people so that little girls can go to school and terrorists can be fought, and everything. But if you know we're to look, there's this thing called a National Security Document that you can go and find online that explicilty says what the US government's purpose and method is—to be able to fight overlapping wars to guarantee free trade and access to other people's resources. If you were looking for the same level of honesty on a local level, the public document that you want to look in is your Mayoral transition team reports. I don't think the transition team report for Mr. Reed has been produced yet...but I'm sure it will be available on the first of the year.

I did, however, take a long look at the previous mayor's transition reports and Kasim Reed figures in that because he was the chairman of the committee that produced them. Kasim's chief of staff is the principle author of Shirley's transition report from 8 years ago. That transition report was called the “Bain Report” because it was produced by the Bain Company, or something like that. It was pretty dull reading except for a few things. Basically, it called for privatizing everything in sight. Park districts, parking meters, garbage collection, everything that hadn't been privatized already in Altanta was going to be privatized under the Franklin administration. They didn't use the word “privatize”--they used the word “monetize” and the term that they used was “targets for opportunity.” It happened that the previous mayor Bill Campbell did a deal that privatized the water and that unravelled in spectacular fashion during the first few months of the Franklin administration, forcing the city to undo that deal. That gave privatization or monetization, or whatever you want to call it a bad name and a bad ring to it. So the Franklin administration did not get to proceed with those plans as it might have.

We're talking about the same cast of characters here. We're not talking about anything new. You can look through the old report, just like you'll be able to look through the new one, and I don't think you'll ever see the word “gentrification.” I don't think you'll ever see it because that's either not a concern of theirs, or maybe because it is...who knows. I think what it shows is that the kind of politics we have and the kind of ruling group that we have in Atlanta politics now is bankrupt. They have nowhere original to go. They aren't going anywhere that people want them to go, but it's OK because there's no news media, no news reporting and therefore very little public conversation about where we should go. So there's no place for contradictory voices to be heard and not many places where ordinary people can even voice their opinions where other ordinary people would hear them. After all, that would be the function of journalism and there is no journalism here just as there is no journalism in much of America and no local news.

What we have in Atlanta, just like we have in many other places, is a ruling group—many of them Black, although not all—who don't have answers when it comes to how to create jobs, good jobs at good wages. They don't have them. The Bain Report 8 years ago that Kasim's chief of staff produced and Kasim signed off on because he was the chairman, said that the two leading job producers during Franklin's administration was transportation—maybe--and retail. Now anytime somebody says retail is going to be an engine of job growth or a principal way to produce jobs, you know they're pulling your leg. OK, when you go build a store somewhere, you don't create new jobs, all you've provided is just another place to shop. So people who were shopping somewhere else, may start to shop there, and wherever they were shopping before, those jobs will go away. What you're doing is just moving the same money around, moving the same jobs around, and using eminent domain to do it, usually at the public expense.

Our ruling group in Atlanta has no idea how to create jobs. They have no idea how to develop neighborhoods for the people that live in them now. If you go to the site of the US Census and you look at the American Community Survey for 2008, which is the latest year that is available, you'll find out that of the top ten biggest concentrations of jobelessness, 2 are in Chicago, 2 are in Detroit, one is in Toledo, 1 is in Cleveland, and one is in Atlanta. How about that. Now Atlanta has been proudly ruled by Black mayors and African-American prominent business class folks for a whole generation now. We don't really have much to show for it. We don't have much more to show for it than Chicago, which hasn't, Toledo, which hasn't, or Cleveland, which had and now hasn't. There's just really not much to show for it.

When you look at the census poverty statistics for Atlanta, you see that the gap between white and Black incomes in Atlanta is the widest of the 40 top US cities. There are four times as many Blacks under the poverty level in Atlanta than whites, just a fact. Atlanta has the fourth highest percentage of Blacks in poverty. So if having Black mayors makes a difference, I don't know exaclty how you make that case that it does. A friend of mine said “We've had a generation of great Black leaders in Atlanta,” but I don't know how you support that. The figures don't.

Where do we go from here? Well, there are many possibilities. We can go home and watch American Idol. We can go sell insurance...or we can look for a way out. Politics are how people take care of their collective business all over the world. It doesn't matter what kind of economic and social system you have, whether you have kings and dictators or elected officials, or whatever, they all have political parties in all these places. So, for that reason, I recently decided that I was going to become part of the Georgia Green Party and here's what we're going to try to do. We're going to try to make an alternative.

Some wise member of the audience asked a minute ago, “if you don't like Kasim Reed, were there any better choices?” The answer was, “of course not, there weren't. They were all bad choices.” Now, who here plays cards? Come on...who plays cards here for money sometimes? I'll raise both my hands. Would you come to my house and play twice a month if you knew I cheated? Many people say it's wise to not expect much from our elected officials and our political process You should be smart and know that if they do promise something, they're just promising it to get elected. It's going to be OK if they don't do it. That really is taking a big steaming you-know-what on the concept of democracy. It really is. We do have a right to ask for what we want, demand it, and get. We do have a right to try to make these people do what's right or to fashion a way outside of them if necessary to make the right things happen. It happens, though, that the folks in charge have stacked the game, they're cheating, they don't want to hear from you so they'll often give us choices that aren't choices.

Anyways, the Green Party. What's the diferrence here? Here's what we're going to try to do. We're going to try to make issues out of some things that are not issues now, that we think Democrats won't touch. We're going to make an issue of out Black mass incarceration. We think that this is something that's on the mind of every Black family in this country. I had two kids go to jail. When my daughter wrote me, I was still living in Chicago and working at City Hall, she said “Dad, I'm about to get sentenced and I need letters so they can mitigate my sentence.” I went around to my friends and asked them to write letters for my daughter and found that many of them had kids in prison too. And siblings, and uncles, and aunts, and I knew them for years and years but they'd never talk about it. They had never mentioned it. I had been to their house and they had been to mine, but they never mentioned this. So I didn't find out about it until I asked them about this.

This is something that's happening to every Black family out here. It's something new, it's not something old. I will be 60 years old next year...in 1970 when I was 19 or 20 years old in Illinois where I lived there were 7,000 people in the state prison system. By 2000, there were 46,000. That's a seven-fold increase in a generation. Black folks my age, we did not have to face the same kind of criminalization, the kind of penal regime that young folks are facing now. We just didn't have to face this. It was a whole different thing, this massive criminalization of a whole class of people has happened on our watch and in the last generation. It was accomplished without a real political debate over what was happening because the rap is that it's a response to crime, but really crime did not multiply 5 to 7 times, crimes rates have remained essentially level for decades. During the periods when crime rates went up, states were jacking their incarceration rates and during the periods that crime rates went down in some states, they were also jacking their incarceration rates along the same path. So crime rates are actually irrelevant to the incarceration binge.

Anyway, we're going to come up with candidates. We're on the hunt right now looking for people in Savannah, Albany, Columbus, metro Atlanta, Dalton, in every place around the state to run for office, to run for state legislature, to run for sheriff, to run for solicitor, to run for judge, on the platform that says “maybe we need to reduce the number of people in our penal system and jails.” Georgia, according to a Pew Center report released earlier this year, leads the nation in the number of people in prison, parole, court supervision, and various forms of community corrections. This is an issue that nobody will touch and I think that if we touch it we can build a kind of mass following. We'll also be waging some interesting campaigns against privatization—the wholesale privatization of everything in the public sector, not just prisons, because all of these privatizations are really theft.

Finally, we're going to get together with some people and somebody is going to launch a new newspaper in the Atlanta area, perhaps in other areas of Georgia—it will probably be a chain thing, like on the model of the Brumby neighbor papers, which are staunch Republican papers. Who knows about the Brumby papers? It's an interesting financial model, but we're looking at that and looking at some other models. It won't be a Green Party paper...any more than the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a Republican newspaper [laughter], OK? But it will be a weekly newspaper eventually and we're going to need that to get our message out and and tell our story. So that's my version of where we are and where some of us might go.

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KALI AKUNO, National Organizer, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement

We're going to talk about - in the short time I have - national, and to a certain extent, some of the international applications of this election cycle. But before starting that, I want to do a poll of the room, and engage us in some debate as we get into the question and answer period.

So, I want to get a sense of how many people thought that this election mattered tactically? [Some hands raised] Bruce says, "no." [audience laughs] Now, how many people here thought the election mattered strategically? Only one. Not that many people thought that it mattered strategically, right?

I want to challenge a certain aspect of that. Bruce put out a piece about a month ago that I thought summed up some of the pieces - I won't go over that again. But I would tell people to reference that, and go back and read it as part of some of the conversation after this discussion to look at this election more strategically and what it meant. Not in terms of politics, or even program, but what it means in terms of demographics and in terms of the economic base of what constitutes the greater Atlanta metro region.

And, particularly speaking from a Black working class perspective, what does that mean for us strategically going down the road: in terms of alliances, in terms of program, and ultimately in terms of politics and ideology? What does it mean that in ten years this city probably will not be majority Black. What does that mean, particularly given the history of Atlanta?

This city is known primarily for one particular thing. It's really the birthplace or at least the centerpiece of strategy for the past hundred years of the Black middle class. As Bruce said and lays out brilliantly in that piece, their politics and program fundamentally have failed. They're bankrupt. So where does another politics, platform, program come from? Where does that emerge from?

Ultimately I think it's going to have to emerge from the social struggles on the bottom. But we have to acknowledge that those social struggles - in Atlanta as they are everywhere - are weak. They're very fragmented. They're split amongst a number of different ideological forces that, although not particularly stated, are acted on and practiced. They may not be articulated in terms of if you ask somebody on the street, "Where are you at politically?" They may not necessarily answer, but they answer in practice by how they engage civically. So this question of what Moki was saying - you have all these Black middle class forces which I'm assuming fundamentally were in that room, who were speaking about voter turnout, but the don't have a program thats going to mobilize anybody.

We need to speak to the reality that they haven't had a program for forty years. The reality is they do not want to organize and have never really organized because they don't want to be accountable to a working class base. They are not going to fight for the larger social transformation that would satisfy the material needs of that base. They're just not going to do it. We saw that very clearly from Gary, Indiana in 1972. That whole program was jettisoned. That whole politics of what they are doing now, has pretty much run its course in the end.

So, I would argue to a certain extent that Kasim Reed represents the last of a dying breed. And this was a strategic initiative of a certain sector of that class to hold on - and probably rob and loot as much as they can over the next four years through the extension and expansion of the neoliberal program to totally dismantle what's left of Atlanta's public sector. You can see some aspects of that in how hard and ruthless they went after the homeless shelter run by Task Force for the Homeless. And how hard and fast they've been trying to develop, through Georgia State University, the whole downtown expansion. You can see some of the broader aspects and then there are plans to integrate the broader metro region even more than it is now.

So we really need to look at that and analyze it more critically, and then also put in a national context. This base that some of us have to relate to, in regard to these imperfect structures, the alliances have been in place at least since the 1940s, have moved most working people - at least, most nonwhite working people in this country - toward the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party right now is going through a profound shift.

There was some illusion put out there, primarily by the media, that Obama represents a new tidal wave, a new orientation, a new program amongst the DP. If we look at just Atlanta we see that is not necessarily the case. There is still a great deal of interal struggle over which way this party is going to go. Who is the social base and what are the alliances within it? And why this census piece is so important for them.

Better believe that the Obama forces, and the Democrats in general, are pouring millions and billions of dollars into community organizations right now, which is fundamentally changing our community organizations orientation towards census work - which is short term. They are trying to re-do districts to ensure that come 2012, they have a reasonable opportunity of recapturing hte White House, the Senate, and some of the local governorships and the congress. Now I am going to argue that they are going to fail, and they are going to fail miserably. They don't have a program that speaks to people's basic needs.

We can see this primarily through how they have engaged this whole healthcare debate. If they polled the base and took the base seriously, the base had been saying for over forty years: "Single Payer," in one form or another. Single payer, single payer. And they did the exact opposite. Now Obama supposedly did all this great organizing, according to the mainstream media, this whole new, great reinvention of community organizing.

He had this list, supposedly of about 25 million people that he can call and activate and mobilize. He could have done that at any single moment over the past seven to eight months over health care. Why didn't he? Because he doesn't want to. Because he doesn't want to be accountable to that base and what that base is ultimately demanding. And he's not going to be accountable to it, but his point is to make sure that we don't have it and can't tap into some of that energy and direct it in a particular way.

Now briefly to wrap up, going forward and looking at some things. I think BLOCS [Building Locally to Organize Community Safety] is an excellent example of engaging in mass work that we need to look at. But I also think there are a couple of other critical issues that I want to encourage everyone here to engage and look at that relate to the national and international picutre. Close to 25% of the banks that have failed since 2005 are in the state of Georgia. That means something - I don't have time to go into it right now, but that is one fourth of all the banks that have failed in this country are in this state.

The greater Atlanta metro region comes in #11 in terms of foreclosure in the foreclosure crisis. That's a major restructuring of capital that's going to profoundly change the color and composition of Atlanta over the next couple years. If we don't engage in a major way to protect the neighborhoods and the composition of the neighborhoods as it presently exists, through foreclosure defenses or putting people back in their homes, and relate to some more national campaigns that are related to that. One of which the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is involved in and trying to get off the ground here in Atlanta is the national Take Back the Land Campaign so we can talk about that a little bit later.

So the other piece of what we need to look at over the course of the next couple of years and look at in a more critical way is some work that has been advance here for a good number of years but I think it is even more critical now some of the work that Atlanta Jobs with Justice has been doing around transportation, healthcare, public education. I think we need to look at that more critically particularly as it relates to public transportation because that's one of the next pieces that's on the privatization agenda. And that's on the agenda for the next two to three years, not five years or six down the road. That's something Kasim Reed is going to have to grapple with and either see how he's going to control the board in order to raise fees or do go in a way that's more profitable for this particular sector, which is to privatize it.

And so we need to deal with how that relates to policing, how that relates to housing particularly for folks who depend on public transportation as their only means to get to work. We need to look at that in a comprehensive way and those are the critical social struggles we need to be engaged in to transform the power relations in the next couple of years.

Atlanta

Hi, I used to live in Atlanta, so it was fascinating to read the update on what's going on there. I first came to Atlanta in 79, so I saw a lot of this political machine that's ruled Atlanta. Its been one continuous line ever since Maynard Jackson became the first black mayor back in the early seventies. The same group has held power continuously since. They've always seemed to have a hand in the till, and they've never had any long-term vision for what to do.

Its a shame really, because the black middle and upper class in Atlanta should have been leaders on what new management could do for an urban city. That instead its devolved to the point where Cracker Barrel's defense attorney is the mayor is very sad. Sorry, I lived in the south for forty years, so I know exactly what Cracker Barrel is and was and what it represents. Very sad indeed.

I wish you luck with the Green Party there. Although its not the first attempt to organize working class people against this machine. The name Reginald Eaves pops up into my old-as-Bruce brain. And back when I was leaving Atlanta, the Greens had I thought an excellent candidate in that mayor's race. I forget the name, but she was a university professor, I think in economics. Fascinating lady to sit and listen to. Its rather sad to hear that it sounds like you are starting to build from the ground up again. That seems to be the problem with the Greens. 15 years worth of effort, and there isn't much solid to show for it these days. It always seems to be someone new talking about what they hope to build. I hope you have better luck.

Gloria Tinubu

The mayor candidate back in 2001(?) you're thinking of is Gloria Tinubu. I went to school with her children, Femi and Titilayo and so was a supporter but couldn't vote at the time. Along with the local attention to the Nader/Laduke campaign it seemed like a bright time for independent politics in the state. Unfortunately, as you note, it basically withered on the vine. I think this is due to a combination of machine politics and third party efforts focusing on the most bureaucratic tasks of party-building - rather than trying to organize a social base, many have focused on precincts, etc etc - looking at people as voters within the rigged electoral system rather than as people, workers, neighborhoods, communities with political interests that must be expressed through social movements.

It's staggering to think that a Black candidate won with only 700 votes in an election that was split on racial lines. But then you "zoom out" and realize that the demographics of the city have utterly changed in the past 10-15 years - due to the policies of previous (middle-class, pro-"business") Black administrations. Especially the destruction of public housing, which I wrote about here.

With these conditions, it's a tough road to rebuild the strength of communities that could put forward a political alternative to the long line of sellouts in city government - and also make bridges to rural, working class Black, white and latino communities...

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