by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, May 2011) One hundred and fifty activists from a wide range of community organizations met at Trinity Cathedral on Saturday, April 16th for an all day conference to “Save Our Communities.” Organizers of the event called for a change in spending priorities to provide more dollars toward the needs of local communities. They called for “books, not bombs; jobs, not jails; and families, not foreclosures.”
A statement in the program for the event said, “50% of the discretionary federal budget goes to militarism and war, but the threat of terrorism is not declining. This kind of government spending is killing local communities. It’s time to get our priorities straight.”
Commenting on the need to shift priorities, local activist Gail Long called for greater equity and for rich people to pay their fair share of taxes.
Local sociologist George Zeller dispelled the myth that cutting taxes creates jobs. He said “Ohio cut taxes twice and has since lost over 200,000 jobs. “Anyone who says tax cuts create jobs is wrong,” said Zeller.
Asked about the recent tax cuts given to American Greetings and Diabold to stay in Ohio, Zeller called the tax give-a-ways “a race to the bottom.” Asked why the State of Ohio didn’t enter into no compete clauses with other states, as it has been suggested that communities in Northeast Ohio do in order not to give away their tax dollars, Zeller said, “That’s not the way the United States is run.”
Larry Bresler of Organize! Ohio said that while the State of Ohio’s budget cuts are outrageous, the federal budget cuts being proposed are even more outrageous. He said of $43 billion in cuts being proposed by the Republican House, two-thirds would be born on the backs of low-income residents. He said cuts were proposed for medical programs for the poor and senior citizens, Pell grants for college students and food stamps. “There are no cuts proposed for defense spending and no effort to make the rich pay their fair share of taxes,” said Bresler.
Local radical Don Freeman expressed his thoughts that President Barack Obama will only react to pressure. “He will do what it takes to get re-elected,” said Freeman.
Long time activist Norma Freeman, thought President Obama would reach a point where he would “draw a line in the sand,” and say no to more cuts in social programs.
The Save Our Communities coalition said that rather than calling for further tax reductions and cuts in government spending, they believe “the answer is not to cut taxes. Instead, we should spend tax dollars differently, by investing in people. It is time to change the conversation.”
Keynote Speaker Bill Fletcher, a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist, said that we have been in a protracted class war in this country for the past 30 years. He said there is a dominant section of the capitalist class that wants to destroy the achievements of populist movements. He said Republicans have become a hard right wing party that want to “repeal the 20th Century and move government back to the time of William McKinley – before the progressive era.”
Fletcher said the Republicans made a mistake in Wisconsin by deciding, “… to move now to destroy the unions.” He said they thought they would stun everybody now and in two years when the elections rolled around people would have forgotten.
Fletcher said this would have probably worked except for one thing “the Arabs.” The people of Tunisia revolted. The Egyptians just showed up in the square and stayed there. Fletcher said, when people in the streets in Wisconsin were asked what inspired them, they said “the Arabs.” Without the example of the Arab youths, the people of Wisconsin would have probably had one protest and gone home, said Fletcher. The legislature probably wouldn’t have had the courage to leave the state without the mass protests that ensued.
Fletcher urged activists to not only be protesting in the streets, but also to realize that they are in a struggle for power and they must learn to adjust to changing circumstances. He said the objectives of the opponents of their social movements were very clear. “They don’t just want to weaken us. They want to annihilate us. They seek to preserve and strengthen the wealth of those at the top.”
Fletcher then cited some statistics concerning the distribution of wealth both internationally and nationally. He said that the top 225 wealthiest individuals in the world have more wealth than the bottom 47% of the world’s population. In the United States the income of the top 1% of the population has grown by 275% while the income of the bottom 90% of the population is flat or has shrunk. “Given a situation like this, why are there not more people in the streets?” Fletcher asked.
Fletcher characterized those leading the effort to consolidate power in order to cut government and taxes as being callous. He said, if maintaining their wealth means casting aside Cleveland, they would do it. The budget cuts proposed by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Representative Paul Ryan call for removing the social safety net. “If you have diabetes, you are out of luck; no job, forget it. As far as they are concerned, people can die. They seek to remove obstacles to their further wealth,” said Fletcher.
Fletcher called for engaging young people and creating new leadership in the social movements. He called for an intergenerational movement. He urged electoral work for “candidates that represent what we believe.” Fletcher urged activists to create organizations “to train folks to run for office.” He urged activists to “make impossible demands and work to make impossible demands possible.”
Fletcher urged organization and persistence to work toward goals. Fletcher said he thought the populations of Ohio and Wisconsin have been stirred up. He urged Ohioans to “go beyond resistance – you should be thinking about a counter offensive,” he said.
Fletcher called for a collection of new and younger leadership that has learned the lessons of the past.” Fletcher said with 90% of the population not benefiting from the current direction of the country, “there is no question that the movement will re-emerge.”
The coalition of groups that formed the Save Our Communities forum emerged from the event with a number of goals. According to a post conference statement by Cleveland Peace Action, one of the groups in the coalition, those attending the forum made a number of decisions for future action including a decision to support the “Move the Money” New Priorities Campaign. The campaign calls for city councils throughout the country to pass resolutions demanding that the federal government stop war spending and cut defense spending by 25%.
Among the actions plans was call to support a community shutdown in Cleveland in the Fall of 2011 in support of ending wars and occupations and shifting budget priorities.
The action plan also called for opposition to budget cuts in the State of Ohio and support for people paying their fair share of taxes and the closing of tax loopholes. The action statement urged Ohioans to contact their state legislature. The document especially urged those with personal stories of how state programs have helped them to contact their legislators.