A new administration is taking office in the midst of an unprecedented public health catastrophe and an economic crisis, and in the immediate wake the heels of one of the most polarizing presidencies in U.S. history. The day of the inauguration, Laura brings together reverend and community organizer Ronnie Galvin with author, activist and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor for a lively conversation about what it’s going to take for the Biden Administration—and Americans in general—to address the challenges at hand. This episode also features excerpts from Laura’s interview with U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA).
In This Episode
- Ronnie Galvin, Democracy Collaborative Fellow; Managing Director of Community Investment, for the Greater Washington Community Foundation
- Astra Taylor, Writer, political organizer and filmmaker, Film: “What is Democracy?” ; Co-founder of The Debt Collective;
- Karen Bass (D-CA) Congresswoman
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Where to Watch
You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, January 24, or on your local PBS station.
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Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, January 24.
– This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge and unity is the path forward.
– There cannot be the kind of unity they’re calling for until we reckon with how we got here.
– The American democratic system is not equal at all. Well, how do we actually make democracy itself more fair?
– What would it look like to actually take the principles of democracy and embed them into our economy?
– The movement never ends, it’s a lifelong forever struggle. That’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders Show. The place where the people who say, it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it, welcome.
– Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. Welcome to the show. This week, we’re recording on Inauguration Day as a new administration takes office in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, a global recession, and after one of the most polarizing presidencies in American history. We’re gonna be talking about what happens next. And I, for one, am reminded of what FDR said in 1936, ”we’ve talked a lot about an organized mob, but what about organized money?” FDR said, ”the one was just as bad as the other.” So to tackle that, and we’ll hear more from FDR, we’ve invited reverend and community organizer activist, Ronnie Galvin. He’s a fellow with the democracy collaborative and the manager of Community Investment for the greater Washington Community Foundation and author, activist, Astra Taylor. We’ll also hear later in the program from California Congresswoman, Karen Bass. From community organizer and physician’s assistant to Congress, and even being considered for vice president. Karen Bass is one of the best inside-outside organizers there is. Karen Bass later on the program. But first Ronnie Galvin, Astra Taylor, welcome. To begin Astra, where is your head? What is top of your mind? Climate, crisis, COVID, Biden and Harris, which?
– Well, right now I’m having mixed emotions. I’m incredibly happy to see Trump and his cronies leave the White House. He’s now the former occupant of the White House, he flew away, that’s something that we need to celebrate. But I’m also ready to fight, to push the Biden administration to meet the moment. And the things that are top of my mind are democracy reform. We need to make sure that movements have the power to push for the legislation we need. So I’m thinking about the filibuster and how that needs to be eliminated so that all of us and all of our great ideas to make the situation better can actually be enacted, and then I organize around indebtedness. So I’m thinking a lot about the different kinds of debt that need to be canceled so that again we can get back on our feet and survive and thrive.
– As I’m reflecting on the moment Laura, I’m most proud of being Black in America, right. I mean, Black folks showed up once again during this last election cycle, perhaps outside of maybe our indigenous sisters and brothers, amongst the people who’ve been most traumatized by this so-called democracy have been the ones maybe to save the best prospects for democracy. And so really proud of that. Really proud of the fact that Kamala Harris, an African-American and Indian woman of color is assuming the position of vice presidency. And so a lot of excitement and pride and hopefulness. The other thing that is that I’m weighing in my mind is this question of what kind of country are we going to be going forward? We have learned a lot about how this country operates in the course of this pandemic, right? We see who the winners and who the losers are and how the structures are actually working against Black people and indigenous people, LGBTQ people, poor people and things of the like. And the question is whether or not we’re going to, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last book, ”are we gonna teeter toward chaos or are we gonna trend toward community?” And that’s a real question right now, and I’m unsure about which way that this thing is gonna go.
– What Borosage wrote in the Nation Magazine, the same issue that you had a very good article in, that really the survival of democracy in the United States depends not only on whether Donald Trump is impeached or disgraced, but on whether government can be seen to work for people again. Talk about what it needs to do, in your mind, government, in order to regain any kind of trust or belief of the American people.
– I mean, in the short term, right, we are in this endless election cycle. So right now we’re breathing a sigh of relief, we’re welcoming a new administration but we know 2022 is just around the corner. We have a year of fighting for policies 2024 and we know that the Democrats are at risk of losing this very slim majority that they have if they don’t deliver policies that improve people’s lives in a big way. So to do that, we’re going to have to think about, not just the legislation we want but the actual rules of the game. How do you get things passed in the system? We’ve stopped thinking about democracy as something that we keep expanding and transforming. I mean, since the civil rights movement did amazing things, it gave us a multiracial democracy for the first time even if we know that it wasn’t perfect, but we’ve kind of stopped at just wanting access to the ballot box. Getting people to vote, so we spend millions of dollars, getting out the vote in places like Georgia the state I’m from, instead of thinking, well, how do we actually make democracy itself more fair? What can we actually do to make our democracy more responsive, more accountable, and more sort of small d democratic? So we were thinking about trying to get to the horizon of one person, one vote, let people vote. And my slogan that I’d like to see us take on moving forward is one person one equal vote because the American democratic system, so-called democracy as Ronnie just said, is not equal at all, right? We know that if you live in a rural, disproportionately white, conservative state like Wyoming, your vote for Senate counts a whole lot more than if you live in a populous state like California and New York. I also know that the Senate rules are so twisted that because of the filibuster, which I mentioned, Republicans even when they don’t have a majority can sabotage legislation really easily. So I think we need to think about one person, one equal vote. We need a democracy reform. There’s something called H.R. 1, which is for the People Act that was already passed in the House that would re-enfranchise former felons, it would reinstate some of the Voting Rights Act, it would take away some of the corruption of money in politics, not nearly enough, but these are the things that we need to make our democracy to reach towards that horizon of democracy.
– So Ronnie to you, I mean, Astra is going to go there as well, but we all know that you can be equal in principle but if you don’t have the means, not just to cast a vote but to live an equal type of life you’re only equal in name, if you’re even that. So what needs to happen at the level of people’s economic equality, a question that King was super concerned with in that last book, Chaos or Community?
– Yeah, absolutely and I think there’s an intersection here between Astra’s comments about democratizing the democracy, if you will, and democratizing the economy. We are still working to democratize our political system but where we have failed to really integrate the practice and the values of democracy is in our economy. And so what would it look like to actually take the principles of democracy and embed them into our economy? And what that looks like is whole communities that have been left behind, left out of, suffered extraction in the current capitalist system… How do we actually build into those communities the prospects and the opportunities for ownership. And not just the kind of ownership that comes out of the Eurocentric rugged individualism ethic but ownership that is shared ownership, that is families and Blocks and communities and workers owning enterprises together and generating wealth. Wealth, , wealth and power go together. And so to the extent that we’re able to bring democracy into our economy in the form of cooperatives and publicly owned banks and whole communities building wealth, I think our whole democracy wins as a consequence.
– All right and so now I get to play my favorite clip from FDR in 1936 speaking in Madison Square Garden about the banksters. Here’s FDR.
– We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.
– FDR on his way to the most successful democratic administration ever, one that is eulogized and remembered by lots of people, not perfect, but took a lot of good steps in the right direction. He was talking about welcoming the hatred of the organized money in politics. What we hearing on Capitol Hill even before this first 100 days has gone by is a language of unity, unity, unity. Different. Talk about it.
– I mean, I think as activists, as people who want to democratize our political system and our economy, and I think Ronnie is so right about that, we also have to welcome the hatred of centrist Democrats. We have to push them. We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to make people uncomfortable and to call attention to the ways that these financial powers have their tentacles in both parties, right? They often make equal donations to the Republicans, to the Democrats. So we absolutely need to build the power to fight back against this financial power structure. But the things that we need moving forward – universal health care, job guarantee, to strengthen the power of unions, to take money away from the owning classes, green new deal – these require investment, this requires resources and that’s a difficult thing to win in a world where economic power is so concentrated. I organize with the Debt Collective, which is a union for debtors, and our theory of change is that under our conditions of financialized capitalism that more and more of us are driven into debt to meet our basic needs. And so there’s a way in which we can understand that our debts, the debts we take on to go to school, to put food on the table, to pay for our healthcare, are somebody else’s assets, are the assets of these economic royalists. And if we band together, we can build power to make demands for debt cancellation, for the public goods that we need so we don’t go into debt. So I think we have to be very creative. There’s not one silver bullet that’s going to get us out of this mess. We have to engage in all of these strategies.
– So what I’m hearing there from Astra is we really have to grapple with some of the big trends in our economy. It’s not only the tax breaks and the militarism and the sort of denuding of our tax coffers put in place in the last four years under Trump, but this shift to incredible power in financial management hands, in the hands of finance institutions. Not just big corporations making things but increasingly banks, and investment firms, and hedge funds. Those are the people who look super poised to benefit from what’s happening in our communities, Ronnie. I mean, how do we confront the mass unemployment, the hundreds of thousands of small businesses in trouble, and all this financial capital kind of waiting to pounce?
– We’ve already seen statistics that 41% of Black businesses in major metropolitan areas are gone and they’re never coming back. How can we buy those businesses and actually hold them in a company while this disaster continues to happen around us? And in some cases, how do we help them become stronger and move them from, where it’s appropriate, individual LLC sole proprietor types of companies to community controlled companies, spinning them off after the pandemic and all the disaster has passed. So that’s a piece of legislation and practice that the folks at the democracy collaborative are working on. But Laura, if I could, you asked asked Astra this question about unity, unity, unity. I am suspect of that. We’ve heard from the Biden administration that they don’t really want to look back so much, they wanna look forward. Well, that’s been part of America’s challenge particularly with Black and indigenous people of color. Like there’s been this refusal to actually look back at the conditions that created the pain that we’re seeing right now. And so to the point, maybe in a different way Astra I’m agreeing with you that there can not be the kind of unity that I think they’re calling for until we reckon with how we got here. We reckon with the history, we reckon with the system that produced these outcomes and in the United States and all over the world right now, there’s a resurgence of a conversation around reparations and reparative justice. And if that’s not on the table given the pain that Black people and indigenous people are suffering and frankly, all of us have suffered, I don’t know how we can actually get to unity.
– So Astra, I want you to talk a little bit more about, or a little bit about, the Strike Debt campaign that you’re launching. And it did occur to me as I looked at the unemployment numbers the most recent in December, was 156,000 jobs lost, all female and probably disproportionately women of color, that the Strike Debt around education and medical debt might be especially relevant to those women.
– We don’t believe anyone should be forced into debt to survive. We believe also that most of us don’t live beyond our means, we’re actually denied the means to live because we’re denied good paying dignified work, we’re denied healthcare, we’re denied education. At this moment though, I mean, that was already a crisis. We were already talking about the student debt crisis before COVID, but it’s reaching epic proportions because when tens of billions of jobs evaporate overnight and the paychecks do to, well, what happens? Those bills you are already afraid to open just pile up, right? And we know that these half measures, these moratoriums on evictions or pauses in student loan payments aren’t enough because what we know is going to happen is a whole bunch of back-rent is going to come due and well, if people couldn’t pay where are they suddenly going to come up with 10 months of back-rent? So we need cash payments to people coupled with debt cancellation because otherwise, as research shows, those cash payments just go straight to pay the bills.
– So can Joe Biden just do that? Can he do that with an executive order?
– Absolutely. So we are speaking today on day one of the Biden administration and it’s striking to me that two of the policies, the big executive actions he’s taking, are merely continuing two inadequate Trump policies. He’s extending the CDC eviction moratorium and he’s extending Trump’s pause on student loan collections. This is sad. Talk about a lack of creativity, a lack of using the power at your disposal. The CDC moratorium is taken in the name of public health, it requires people to affirmatively apply for it, it’s confusing, it’s not being put into practice. To just continue it just shows that you don’t understand what it means to be facing homelessness in a pandemic, I mean, every eviction is violence. The same with student loan suspension, Joe Biden was given the power by Congress in 1965 in the Higher Education Act to cancel all student debt, and the fact is talk about not remembering history. A few generations ago, college was free in this country. In fact, that’s the basis of higher education in this country. We have a lot of bad things in our past, but a lot of public universities were founded to provide free education to people. We as organizers have to also always call him out on his power. He has the power to erase every penny and if he doesn’t erase every penny of student debt, it’s his choice.
– I’m reminded that Charlottesville insurrection, going back to Charlottesville, this all didn’t start when the mob that came to Washington. It was in response to a city council initiative, not just to remove a Confederate statue, but also to pass a 4 million, just 4 million reparations bill, that would have particularly focused on investing in low-income and communities of color. That wasn’t pretty. Washington this January wasn’t pretty. Are we ready to handle that? ‘Cause all those folks you talked about that need to give up some power and some money are not going to do it easily without fighting back.
– To this question of are we ready, I think Black folks are getting ready. The question actually is Laura, who’s the “we”? And so, there is a question, and we’ve seen this throughout history, whether or not our white sisters and brothers are ready to actually do two things, right? To take the position of defense when the backlash comes in solidarity with us or will they choose actually their white sister and brethren who are actually in revolt right now? And we’ve seen white folks make this choice against us over and over and over again. And so it was part of the reason why I have this hesitancy when I hear the current administration calling for unity. I’m like history tells us that it’s not actually likely to happen and yet we’re hopeful in this moment. Are we going to finally recognize, believe and understand that we’re all we got? That we have each other’s back? We should be rallying around each other, we should have a sense of common destiny with each other, and we should be concerned about each other’s well being. And that, right now, these are questions. And so I’m not sure if everybody’s ready, but I can tell you that black folks have been getting ready and we’ve had to be ready because we’ve had to exist in the face of an empire that was built for our destruction.
– And I would say brown folks and immigrant folks and indigenous folks would probably say, Amen. But are we ready Astra? Are we white folks ready? And if you think we’re even maybe just a little bit ready, what’s your evidence?
– I’m not sure that we can count on people ever to just willingly let go of privilege. That’s why I’m for building power from below to force people to let go of that privilege. I’m sorry, let’s build the power and abolish the penthouse suites, abolish the pyramid-shaped economy and society. So I’m skeptical of that kind of persuasion. I welcome class traitors. Come into the movement, but I really think this is something that is a struggle and we can’t just ask nicely, which is why the calls for unity rings hollow.
– All right, well, I want to thank both of you. That was a fabulous answer, Astra, and it leads very well into the conversation that I had not so long ago with representative Karen Bass who talked about the amount of power that has been built in her lifetime through inside-outside organizing and how perhaps we don’t always know how to use it. That interview coming next. Thank you so much Astra Taylor, Ronnie Galvin, great to have you. People who want to know more about our guests you can find that information at our website, LauraFlanders.org. Thanks for being with us today. You live at that intersection of movement, work, aspiration, to radical social change and systems shift and elected office. How do movements and electeds like yourself best work together in a moment like this?
– Well, we absolutely need each other. I mean, the movement is the outside pressure. And in my opinion, the best public policy is made on the issues that we care about. The best public policy is made with an inside and an outside strategy. And so most notable for me is I absolutely plan to get back to the business of transforming policing in the United States, and I certainly know that the outside movement wants much more change than I know is feasible in Congress, it’s important for them to push and it’s important for me to work in inside.
– It seems as if women of color are the forefront of that, specifically the ones who seem to be coming from movement and moving into elected office. It’s not just a coincidence in my view, or is it, what do you think, why is that the case?
– I do think that we have the emerging populations and emerging leadership that now is being organized. And I also think as a movement we’ve reached a level of sophistication where we’re running for office and winning. I remember before we used to run just to make a point . And we actually have positions of power now. My problem, my beef is, that we don’t necessarily know what to do with it. And in terms of the inside-outside strategy, I don’t think the movement activists have learned how to use the power that we have. I don’t think they strategically use the relationships. So those of us that are in elected office, we could have a much more strategic relationship with the outside than we do. For example, when I was in the state legislature and I was speaker of the house in the catbird seat, I’d see activists come up and protest or have meetings in the Capitol and I would say to them when I could see them walking down the hall, ”hey, why didn’t you call me, why didn’t you tell me you were coming? We could have sat down and planned it all out. I could have told you who not to waste your time with, who to talk to. I could’ve made sure you had meetings. I could have done all this!” So my power that I had wasn’t even utilized and people didn’t even think. It was like, oh yeah, that’s right, you got the job .
– Listen up people, use your electeds, have a relationship with them. We end the show every week, or most weeks, Congresswoman, by asking people what they think the story will be that the future tells of this moment. What is your sense of the moment we’re living in?
– It’s very hard for me as an African-American to not see this moment through a racial lens, and really the last four or five years. The fact that a segment of our population was so traumatized by that Black family that lived in the White House for eight years that they resorted to four years of a white supremacist in the oval office and a resurgence of the white supremacy movement. So it’s hard for me to not view this moment from that lens. Now that’s the negative. The positive is I’m tremendously hopeful and all of the emerging activists I look at the movements and say, ah, people like me will be able to retire. Because there’s a tremendous wave coming along and to me if you’re truly committed to social and economic justice, then you are deeply concerned about who’s coming after. And my focus, I want the next iteration of my life to be devoted to doing everything I can to nurture the next generation because you realize that the movement never ends. It’s a lifelong forever struggle, and so you always have to make sure that there’s troops ready to carry on.
– We look forward to talking to you again and really, really appreciate your time today congresswoman.
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