Twenty-three- year old Nelini Stamp became an activist at the age of 17 when her family was evicted from their apartment in New York City. She is one of the young generation of organizers who responded quickly to the call of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“I went down there and didn’t realize it was going to change my life,” said Stamp, who is a member of the Working Families Party. “I started sleeping on cardboard (and began) pressuring labor organizations and community organizations to come on down and check it out.”
“We don’t need demands,” she explained in response to mainstream press criticisms. “If we tell them demands, it’s saying they have the power. And we have the power because we have strength in numbers.”
Stamp was among the 2,0000 veteran and newly emerging leaders from around the country who came together recently in Washington, DC to spark what they hope will become a national coalition and movement to “ Take Back the American Dream” from bankers, corporate CEOs and the lobbyist-owned politicians who have turned that dream into a nightmare.
“Something is happening” in the country, something the Occupy Wall Street protesters represent, a turning point, said Van Jones, a leader of the coalition who became nationally prominent for his work in the Bay Area for green jobs for urban youth.
“You knew at some point there was going to be a pain threshold that ordinary people would hit,” said Jones, predicting a rising wave of protests and new progressive candidates in races across the country. “You are going to continue to see the sleeping giant stand up…They had the Arab spring. Welcome to the American autumn.”
The new coalition came out of the national “Take Back the American Dream” conference held Oct. 3 – Oct. 5 at the Washington Hilton. Prime movers include Jones, who heads Rebuild the Dream, designed to serve as the “hub” or support group for the coalition. Jones, now based in the Los Angeles area, served briefly as Obama’s “Green Czar” before he was sabotaged by attacks from Fox television and Glenn Beck.
Other key players are MoveOn.org, a non-profit advocacy group with 5 million members that pioneered the use of the Internet to raise millions of dollars for progressive candidates; and Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive public policy think tank, whose board includes leaders of the AFL-CIO, The Nation magazine and the NAACP.
The 10-point program, Contract for the American Dream, reflects a focus on the country’s immediate and desperate economic, health and social needs: Tax Wall Street speculation, rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, expand Medicare so it is available to all, invest in public education, strengthen Social Security, invest in green technology, create decent paying jobs, end the wars and rebuild the country and strengthen democracy.
The 10 demands are product of tens of thousands of ideas submitted last summer. Over 130,000 people participated in submitting and ranking proposals. Nearly 1,600 house meetings were held, reaching into every Congressional district in the country, to evaluate and finalize the contract, according to Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director.
Underscoring the demands is one the coalition’s basic messages, Ruben said: “America is not broke – our democracy and our economy have been hijacked by the wealthy few.”
“This is the newest force in America,” he said, calling for nationwide demonstrations on Nov. 17. “We’re going to draw a line in the sand saying we will not accept yet another budget agreement that cuts everything but the handouts for the rich.”
According to Robert Borosage, Co-Director of Campaign for America’s Future, we need to understand that because this calamity was man-made, we ourselves can solve it. “We need a politics that is disruptive, that challenges this order. If ordinary people do extraordinary things, we can win.”
Among the 70 labor, environmental, political, human rights and other groups that already joined as partners in the American Dream movement are the Sierra Club, AFSCME, Planned Parenthood, Change to Win, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Common Cause, Code Pink, Communication Workers of America (CWA), Ella Baker Center of Human Rights in Oakland, the Hip Hop Caucus, Peace Action and Youth Speaks.
The strategy is not to require groups to change what they do or believe but to bring them together under a single banner, as Jones explained. People are already fighting back, he said. “The only question is whether we are going to fight together or continue fighting alone.”
By developing a coalition that allows for independent action on the part of its partner groups, this month’s founding conference managed to avoid the furious battles over strategy, priorities and beliefs that so frequently derail attempts to build unity.
Some critical observers have questioned whether this group will in fact be a smoke screen to lure young people and other disillusioned Americans into supporting the Democratic Party and Barack Obama.
On the opposite side, others raise concerns that the organization might undermine the president, already the target of unrelenting attacks, giving aid and comfort to those who are seeking a Republican presidential victory in 2012.
According to Jones and the other leaders the American Dream movement, neither of these criticism are true. The 2008 campaign slogan never was “Yes, he can,” but “Yes, we can,” Neither the president nor any of the elected officials can turn around the situation by themselves.
“We finally have a people-powered, people-owned independent political movement. It’s not based on any political party and not beholden to any political party (or leader),” said Jones at the closing of the conference. “ Something bigger is at stake,” he said. “We have to rescue America: middle class, working class and poor folks.
“Outside the context of a mass movement Washington is helpless to oppose” the threat to liberty from economic and corporate power, he said. “Bankers have flooded (Washington) with 20,000 lobbyists, who have more influence than 300 million Americans.”
Richard Trumka, a third generation coal miner and head of the AFL-CIO, brought the assembly to its feet when he called for making job creation a national priority.
“Work isn’t just what supports your family,” he said. “It’s what defines us, it’s who we are, it’s how we contribute to the world. It’s our legacy.
“The harm (of joblessness) is deep, and it’s long lasting. We, the people, are angry, and who can blame us? (But) where will our anger go, toward hatred and extremism? Or toward building a future for everyone?”
Many participants appeared to be deeply moved by what they saw and heard at the conference.
“I was one of those people who (previously) was quite discouraged,” said East Bay resident Judy Pope, a member of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. “I’m 65, and everything I care about is under extreme threat.
“I’m very encouraged to come here and see a lot of young people and people of color doing a lot of phenomenal things,” she said. “It seems that we might be coming together.”
One of the young activists who spoke at the conference was Gaby Pacheco, 25, who organizes youth in Southern Florida into the national United We Dream Network to fight for the Dream Act, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to attend university.
Born in Ecuador, she came to the U.S. with her parents when she was seven years old. Though a college graduate in special education, her undocumented status means she still is unable to teach and pursue a career providing music therapy for autistic children.
To support the Dream Act, she and three others last year walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC, taking their arguments to members of Congress.
As a result of her outspoken leadership, federal immigration (ICE) police raided her home.
Because I started speaking, they selectively came after my family,” she said. “Immigration rounded up all of us. I remember seeing my parents and two sisters taken away in a white van. We have lived in the United States for 20 years, but my dad was put on an ankle bracelet.”
Determined and not intimidated, she proudly says her organization has already stopped 125 deportations this year. “I think there is hope,” even though the deportations are worse now than they were under Bush, she said.
“We’re going back to President Obama to say `follow through – you can be our friend,’” said Pacheco. “There’s a lot still to do to push our elected officials and President Obama.”