Tag Archives: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The political ground is shifting: Chicago rejects the Democratic party machine


The Democratic party establishment is struggling to keep control of its message. In last year’s congressional elections, a number of left candidates gained office, including Ilyan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have been speaking out against Trump’s anti-immigration policies and facing hostility and attacks from Republicans and the media.

Former president Barack Obama joined the fray on Saturday, accusing the left of enforcing standards of political “purity” by suggesting that rightwing Democrats could become targets for reselection in the party primaries. He was responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of 26 Democrats who joined a Republican vote for undocumented immigrants to be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they attempted to buy guns.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic party strategists believe that centrist policies are needed to unseat Trump, and have sidelined left positions such as the abolition of ICE, Medicare for all, free public higher education, a $15 minimum wage, and action on climate change – all of which are now part of mainstream discourse, thanks to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidential nomination. However, the evidence from last week’s municipal elections in Chicago indicate shifts in both the party and the electorate.

On April 2, Chicago voters elected Lori Lightfoot by a landslide as the city’s first African American woman and openly gay mayor. But they also elected at least five socialists to the city council, fragmenting the Democratic party machine controlled by outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Intercept reported that three members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won runoff races, joining two others who won outright last month. Jeanette Taylor, a community activist who led a month-long hunger strike to reopen Dyett high school in Bronzeville, won the 20th Ward. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, another well-known community organizer, replaced an incumbent in the 25th Ward who had held the seat for more than two decades. In the 40th Ward, Andre Vasquez toppled one of the most powerful members of City Council and an Emanuel ally – Pat O’Connor, who held the seat for nearly forty years. In addition, “there were a handful of candidates who have significant ties to the labor left and other political movements that predate the rise of DSA, like the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike.”

Chicago has long been ruled by a monolithic Democratic party machine, with close ties to the Clintons and Obama. Rahm Emanuel served as Obama’s chief of staff before running for mayor. His decision not to seek a third term enabled a host of challenges to incumbent aldermen with strong connections to the machine. According to In These Times, the challengers ran on demands raised by social movements in the city, including instituting an elected, representative school board and creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council to oversee the Chicago Police Department. “They also built on the work of community organizers who have opposed large-scale tax increment funding (TIF) projects that often fund luxury developments. One of the most controversial TIF projects is a proposed $95-million West Side police and fire academy, a priority of the outgoing Emanuel administration. Local residents and activists argue that this funding could be better invested in schools, mental health facilities and other resources.”

The election was hard fought, with Emanuel’s allies spending heavily on television and digital advertising to support candidates aligned with the political establishment. But candidates from the left were able to break through the patronage system and created a city council more representative of the city’s diversity. “In the largely Hispanic 33rd Ward, democratic socialist Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez ended the night ahead of incumbent Deb Mell, who was appointed by Emanuel after her father and former Ald. Richard Mell stepped down in 2013. The Mells have long served as a powerful political family in the city, and Rodríguez-Sanchez’s potential victory stands as a shot across the bow to the machine.”

Emanuel’s grip on the party was loosened after he suppressed police video of the shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 17 times while walking away from officers. Emanuel’s refusal to take any serious action against the notoriously corrupt and violent Chicago police department lost him the support of the Democratic party’s base. According to University of Illinois history professor Barbara Ransby, “The Laquan McDonald case was really the pivot of this election in a lot of ways. It was the issue that Rahm Emanuel couldn’t run away from. And he couldn’t run away from it because of the relentless pressure by a whole network and coalition of organizations, from Black Lives Matter Chicago to Assata’s Daughters to #LetUsBreathe Collective to Black Youth Project 100. So, putting the pressure on Rahm not to run, or letting him know that this was going to be the fight of his life if he did run, was part of what shaped the election as it unfolded.”

The newly-elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is a former prosecutor and also has questions to answer about her role as chair of the police board and reluctance to prosecute police, despite promises for police accountability and reform. Aislinn Pulley, lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago, commented: “We should view this election cycle as the beginning of a seismic shift against the neoliberal project that has resulted in privatization, militarized policing and destruction of many of our community institutions and resources.”

Ransby writes about the new cohort of activists like Pulley in The Nation, where she explains that many of them gained their first experiences of organizing in campaigns to oust State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Police Chief Garry McCarthy for their roles in the Laquan McDonald case. Another critical issue was “the 2015 City Council Reparations Ordinance for survivors of police torture, which was the culmination of a five-year struggle for accountability in the Jon Burge torture scandal. And it is impossible to escape the shaping influence of the Black Lives Matter Movement (now a part of the larger national coalition, the Movement for Black Lives), which not only birthed a new political ethos—one that goes beyond simplistic notions of representational race politics—but also emboldened a new grassroots force of powerful leaders, many of them women.”

While the old guard still clings to power in Chicago, in certain areas it was decisively defeated. The key to this success was activists’ grassroots mobilizing on issues important to citizens, incorporating left solutions to the city’s urgent social and economic problems. Decades of political corruption won’t be overturned in one election cycle, but last week’s results indicate that voters are moving away from identity politics and responding positively to a new generation of activists with a bottom-up, left agenda. Obama and the Democratic leadership are out of touch with the changes in the party and the electorate. Bernie Sanders is still the candidate who has the most appeal to the overwhelming desire for change.

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Filed under African Americans, Black Lives Matter, chicago teachers, Democratic Party, Fight for 15, Obama, political analysis, Rahm Emanuel, Uncategorized

Ilhan Omar and Chris Williamson: A Tale of Two Parties


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It’s very instructive to compare the difference in treatment of Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar (above) and Derby North MP Chris Williamson. While Omar got crucial support from within her party in defence of her right to speak out about the influence of the Israel lobby (AIPAC) in Washington, Williamson was pilloried by the Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson and hung out to dry by centrist MPs when he defended the reputation of the party against accusations of being “institutionally antisemitic.”

The Democratic leadership of the House had drafted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism in what was seen as a direct rebuke of remarks Omar was alleged to have made. But other Democrats pushed back: Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote, “We must not equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.” New York Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’”

The reaction from the left of the party forced the inclusion of Islamophobia and the hatred of “African-Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, immigrants and others” in the resolution, which passed the House by an overwhelming 407-23 last week, with only Republicans voting against. NBC News reported that Omar issued a joint statement with fellow Muslim lawmakers Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and André Carson of Indiana, calling the vote “historic on many fronts. It’s the first time we have voted on a resolution condemning Anti-Muslim bigotry.”  They also said they were “tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy. … Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress.”

In the speech which attracted the attacks from the Democratic establishment last week, Omar said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby … that is influencing policy?” Immediately after she made this remark, Democrat Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Ilhan Omar sits, as well, then accused Omar of making a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” And Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) claimed on Twitter that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

She also faced hostility for tweets published on March 3 saying, “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks … I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” Paul Waldman commented in the Washington Post that “she didn’t say or even imply anything at all about Jews. She said that she was being asked to support Israel in order to have the privilege of serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which was true. … Her argument, to repeat, isn’t about how Jews feel about Israel, it’s about what is being demanded of her.”

Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies and Jewish Voices for Peace pointed out that, in any case, the attacks were nothing to do with what she had actually said. “It’s about the fact that she is a Muslim African immigrant, a Somali refugee, who is talking about Palestinian rights, who is talking about the power of the Israel lobby, and the big pharma lobby, and the lobby for fossil fuels. And that’s not OK. … She was talking about members of Congress, not Jews, who are forced to pledge some kind of affiliation, support, loyalty, whatever you want to call it, to Israel to maintain the privileging of Israel in U.S. foreign policy … She wasn’t talking about any individual people, Jews or otherwise, having so-called dual loyalty. She was talking about the kind of pressure that is brought to bear on members of Congress to be uncritically supportive of Israel; a kind of pressure that does not exist for any other country in the world.” Moreover, because she is a Black Muslim woman who wears her hijab in Congress, she is more likely to attract false accusations because she conflicts with the accepted image of a Congressional representative.

In the UK, when Derby North MP Chris Williamson said “we’ve been too apologetic” over antisemitism allegations, seeking to stress the history of the party in fighting all forms of racism, 38 centrist MPs demanded his suspension from the party, and got it. Williamson was targeted because he is a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has been touring constituencies throughout the country calling for democratic reselection of parliamentary candidates. It was because of who he is, not what he said.

In the US, Democratic congresspeople now more adequately reflect the diversity of their constituents, thanks to the primary process of selecting representatives which elevated Moslem, Native American and Latino candidates to Congress. It’s different in the UK, where the parliamentary Labour party represents a New Labour consensus that is both anachronistic and hostile to supporters of Corbyn. Anti-imperialist politics upsets these MPs partly because of the influence of organizations like “Labour Friends of Israel,” which acts as a pro-Israeli lobby within the Labour party.

The aim of the anti-semitism smears is to silence critics of Israeli foreign and domestic policy, as well as the state’s quasi-diplomatic efforts to influence government support. In the US, this aligns with the “decades-old strategic ties between U.S. and Israeli military, security, geo-political and nuclear goals. Those ties—between the Pentagon and the IDF, the CIA and the Mossad, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump with their shared antagonism to Iran and eagerness to partner with Saudi Arabia—are all far more important in maintaining the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance than any embrace of Israel by the U.S. public,” notes Bennis.

While in the US the controversy has opened up a media debate about whether AIPAC’s influence in Washington is too strong, even the New York Times calling out its boast that it was responsible for encouraging the Democratic leadership to go after Ilhan Omar, the media in the UK is uniformly blasting Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour party, and even equating anti-capitalism with anti-semitism. This campaign merges the hostility of centrist MPs to the enhanced power of the party membership with the sheer panic of the establishment at the prospect of a government collapse over Brexit which could result in a Corbyn-led Labour government. There could not be a stronger argument for the re-introduction of mandatory reselection for Labour MPs, in preparation for the inevitable general election.

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Filed under anti-semitism, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, British Labour party, british parliament, Democratic Party, Israel, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, Uncategorized