What went wrong with the meeting Wednesday night was miscommunication.
That there was no busload of people from Flint was disappointing, but could be overcome. That the teachers present—if there were teachers present—did not choose to speak removed from the evening some of the feeling of direct contact with the issue, but not entirely. For example, two seniors from Cass Technical High School, the leaders of the We the Students movement that walked out of classes in support of the teachers involved in the sickouts, spoke briefly but forcefully about their concern for all students in the DPS system and the critical importance of opposition to the conditions of the schools.
Nor was there a lack of agreement in the room concerning the outrageousness of the crises in Flint and the Detroit schools. In fact, the only motion of the evening, raised by White, was to acknowledge agreement on that point. The motion carried unanimously.
But those present were not prepared to commit to action, though one speaker proposed boycotts and another stressed the importance of transporting water to Flint. Those I spoke with, mostly students, said they were in attendance to learn more about the issues or to hear the SEP’s position. In other words, with notable exceptions, the people in attendance were wary. Wary of any party, perhaps, and in many cases wary of a “socialist” party, I suspect. “I’m here to listen, but I’ll make up my own mind,” said Lauren, a student at Wayne State.
For their part, the SEP fell short of reading and responding to its audience. Both Porter and White are eloquent and effective speakers, and each laid out clearly the position of the party. It was white who said repeatedly that the interests of the working class can never be served by making appeals to the ruling class or their functionaries in the Republican and Democratic parties. But while the evening had some energy and was an “extraordinary event,” as White said, the SEP’s representatives miscued in two ways.
First, while their analysis of the two crises was detailed, introductions were in order. There seemed to be a presumption on the part of White in particular that for the most part the crowd knew who the SEP were and what they stood for. Certainly after Jones elicited the broad admission of ignorance of the term “grassroots,” a more rudimentary presentation was called for. Instead, after quick words of appreciation, White proceeded to critique each of the positions and suggestions expressed by the speakers from the audience, going so far as to challenge the efficacy of Jones’s hunger strike. This intellectually valid but tone deaf approach not only raised defensiveness in the speakers, who all took turns in rebuttal, but put off much of the audience as well.
Second, as one of the speakers said in his rebuttal, “You’ve got to show me something.” Indeed, the SEP came in with no proposal for action whatsoever. Instead, they relied entirely on ideas from the audience. It was very democratic of them, but a party claiming to advance the interests of the working class should have spent five minutes brainstorming some form of protest or direct action. Especially if it is going to feel so comfortable dismissing the ideas the audience does offer.
One had the feeling that White expected to be talking to an already galvanized working class, an audience such as he might have expected in 1912 or 1935, but not in 2016. The people are becoming restive, traditional channels for controlling the demands of workers, such as unions and the Democratic party, are being rejected in favor of independent action. But the people of Flint and the teachers of Detroit have not yet fully made common cause. And where they have, it is largely over the issue of race and not class. Even the term “working class” itself required clarification and fleshing out. Certainly the college students in the audience do not identify as “working class,” and most would not want to given the negative connotations that term suffers in our mainstream culture.
It was mainstream culture the SEP seemed unable to communicate with. Certainly most of that culture, from the Super Bowl to careerism, masks the hard realities we are faced with and obscures the real interests all of us non-CEO’s share. White’s insistence on the SEP’s adherence to Trotskyist, not Stalinist, ideas left many in the audience behind. Reacting defensively, speakers then began to reject “all those names,” leading to the comforting mainstream failure of anti-intellectualism. And it was precisely anti-intellectualism the SEP wants to call out in its class analysis.
What will have to happen for a truly effective opposition to form from the isolated outrages we face will be an educational effort that recognizes its starting place. Unforttunately for all of us, there will be no shortages of crises in our future with which to try again.