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Glimpses of the 2016 World Social Forum

With 200 simultaneous workshops spread among a dozen university buildings in several Montreal neighborhoods,  it was a little challenging to recognize the scope of the 2016 World Social Forum.  Nonetheless, it was clear from day one that thousands of people were there, and that it feels good to be part of a global social movement bringing together people dedicated to human rights, social justice, alternatives to predatory capitalism, and a halt to climate disruption.

We couldn’t see or experience it all, but here’s a few glimpses we captured along the way…


“I Went Looking for Ghosts and Found Coffee”

At the Forum’s opening ceremony we were drawn to a group of people with a banner about the 43 students kidnapped and presumably killed by police 2 years ago in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.  They invited me to attend a session with David Schmidt. 

Although—or perhaps because—he was raised in a fundamentalist family with aP8110109 profound fear of demons, Schmidt says he’s been fascinated by ghost stories since he was a boy.  It was the stories about fantastic creatures and weird occurrences he heard from Mexican friends that prompted him to visit a village deep in the mountains of Oaxaca.  There, he not only learned about the spiritual lives of the region’s Mixtec residents, but he also learned why so many people are forced to emigrate and about the raising of coffee.

In later travels, he learned about the benefits of fair trade for coffee growers.   One could say he’s become an evangelist for fair trade coffee, which he says has been a great boon to the Mixtec village where he had lived.  “Now when I go back it’s not a ghost town anymore.”

He’s a good writer and an excellent story-teller.  You can find out more from his website, Holy Ghost Stories.


Dismantling Corporate Power

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There were dozens of sessions coordinated under the umbrella, “People and the Planet Before Profit.”  I tried to get into one called “A North-South Dialogue on Extractivism,” but all the seats were full and people were already standing in the doorway.

Instead, I went down the hall to “Corporate Rights or Human Rights? The case of Investor State Dispute Settlement.”  This forum on the impact of bilateral investment treaties and the investor rights provisions of multi-lateral “trade” agreements brought together three dozen well informed people from several countries.  As trade justice activists have been pointing out since NAFTA went into effect 22 years ago, P8110129these agreements allow investors to bring claims before private tribunals (also known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process) if they believe laws or regulations hamper their potential for profit.  The process is based on commercial arbitration practices, not on judicial review. A United Nations database lists 696 “Known treaty-based investor-state arbitrations,” 26% of which have led to rulings on the side of investors.  

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama plans to put before Congress during the “lame duck” session after the election, includes an Investor Rights/ISDS chapter, as does the pending Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) and TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that the Obama administration has been quietly negotiating with the European Union.   

Given the dominant role played by Canada-based firms in the global mining industry,  it was no surprise that extractive industries merited a lot of attention.  The session was the first I heard of a global campaign called “Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity!”  This campaign critiques P8110133voluntary corporate codes of conduct and is calling for a “binding instrument” through the UN to hold trans-national corporations accountable for human rights violations.    

The concept is not just backed by radical NGOs.  It also has support from the UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution in 2014 “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”  The Working Group’s next meeting will be in Geneva in October.  


Wandering the Halls

In the evening we tried to attend one of the 22 “Grand Conferences,” or large lectures featuring major speakers.  Our choice was “Change the System, not the Climate,” with Naomi Klein and others on the agenda.  In the tunnel underneath the Judith Jasmin Building at the University of Quebec at Montreal,P8110145 we found a line of people waiting to get in.  Working our way to the end, we snaked through corridors, up stairs, around corners, walking for 5 or 10 minutes before reaching the end, where we introduced ourselves to an organizer from Quebec City who works on climate with retired public sector workers. 

After another 5 or 10 minutes moving forward in line we were told the crowd capacity of the hall had been reached. But we were also told we could stay in line and attend a different “Grand Conference,” this one called “Education, Environment and eco-citizenship: the art of living together.”  That sounded interesting.  But again, after a few minutes we were told the room was at capacity, so we wandered some more in the below-ground corridor that connected several UQAM buildings.  Soon we found ourselves back in a line, which we followed into an auditorium that turned out to be the forum on “eco-citizenship.” 

There, the program was in French, with no translation.  Given the limitations of our French comprehension, we decided to leave and spent an enjoyable hour browsing tables set up by left-wing (mostly anarchist-leaning) bookstores.  We also met Ricardo Levins Morales and bought a couple posters.  (Visit his Art for Social Justice website.)


Workers of the World Take on “Free Trade”

On Friday morning I decided to check out a forum on “unions and trade P8120176agreements.”  This time I got there early enough to get a seat and a headset; the session was going to have translation.  The panel had a French-speaking moderator and speakers came from Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, the Basque region, Tunisia, and Mexico. Then there were “interveners” from Argentina, Colombia, and Belgium.

Because the translation was not well done (especially from Spanish to English) I may have missed a lot.  What I got was a well-informed but pretty standard discourse on why “free trade” agreements are bad for workers.  A few key points:

  • Some Swiss communities have declared themselves “TISA-Free Zones.”  TISA is the “Trade In Services Agreement,” a profoundly dangerous proposal that obviously has gotten more attention there than in the USA.
  • The labor chapters of the trade agreements are weak.
  • There is a need for convergence of labor with different struggles, e.g. climate.
  • The advent of the neo-liberal trade agenda has created a need for unions to work together, including along North-South lines.  It’s about time!
  • There will be a “Continental Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism” on November 4.  More info here in Spanish.

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There were several topics I would have love to hear more about:

  • How are labor movements responding to the opposition to neo-liberal trade agreements that are rooted in nativism?
  • What have we learned from successful and unsuccessful resistance to other agreements?
  • How is labor building alliances with other sectors that would be harmed by privatization and deregulation of services in a Trade In Services Agreement?

Unfortunately, there was no time left for questions or discussion after the 6 panelists, 3 interveners, and 5 more short speeches.


Border Struggles and Migrants Rights

The afternoon workshop on migration benefited from a good facilitator, 4 speakers who were able to deliver their comments clearly and briefly, and a good translator (once we got the proper headsets instead of the ones that were translating the speakers in the adjacent lecture hall). 

Stefanie Kron, the moderator, started out by noting the exclusion of hundreds of Social Forum participants from the Global South whose visas were denied by the Canadian government, an example of harsh policies targeting migrants.  She also noted the “externalization” of border controls by the EU and the US governments, such as the US push on Mexico to increase the number of migrants it arrests and deports crossing its southern borders (see my recent article).  On the other hand, she noted the rise of transnationally connected movements for the rights of migrants.

I was impressed with the comments of Mostafa Henaway, from the ImmigrantP8120224 Workers Center, a Montreal group that’s been around for more than 15 years.  He described problems with guest worker programs in which the rights of workers to migrate is tied to specific employers, a condition which makes it risky for workers to demand just conditions.  Nevertheless, organizing is going on, including a hunger strike protesting indefinite detention.  He also noted that Canada is the 2nd largest exporter of arms to the Middle East, giving the country some share of responsibility for the violence that has caused so many people to flee.  

Later, in response to my question about building alliances between movements for peace and movements for the rights of immigrant workers, he observed that the immigrants’ rights movement in Canada is rooted in anti-xenophobic sentiments that flowed from the beginning of the “war on terror” after the 9-11 attacks.  

P8120255Rosa Nelly Santos, from Honduras, talked about the large numbers of people who have fled due to hunger and terror.  Thousands of migrants have just disappeared; their families don’t know if they died on the road or what.  Her organization, COFAMIPRO, brings together mothers to search for their missing children. 

She also emphasized that the right not to migrate, i.e. the right to have a decent, secure life at home, has to be an emphasis along with the rights of migrants.   

In the end, Stefanie Kron outlined 4 points for further attention:

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  1. Opening and preserving legal channels for migration,
  2. Strengthening trans-national organizing,
  3. Raising the visibility of the migration issue within the Social Forum process, and
  4. Organizing additional trans-national gatherings.

Sounds like a good agenda to me.


“People and Planet Over Profit”

The final official event we attended was a Convergence Assembly on free trade and extractivism.  In Forum-speak, a “convergence assembly is a gathering focused on presentations of initiatives for action.  These assemblies aim to broaden the coalitions of civil society that work in related fields and wish to act together.  They are a step to build or reinforce an international network of actors of change that give themselves priorities of action.”

What that meant in this case was a lively program with short speeches touching on resistance to pipelines in Canada, tailings dams in Brazil, mining in Guatemala, and “free trade” agreements everywhere.  The November 4 Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism was promoted, as was the call for a week of action to confront corporate impunity when the inter-governmental working group on transnational corporations meets in Geneva in October.

This assembly had good translators, effective facilitators that kept the program moving at a quick pace, a few minutes for participants to meet people in nearby seats, and even an open mic time for participants to speak about their own projects.  Throughout the program, one activist added to a global map every time a new campaign was described and the projectionist located relevant web pages as actions were announced.  

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This was one of 22 convergence assemblies that took place during the week.  It was a good way to end the day.


When the Forum ended, organizers reported

The World Social Forum (WSF) is very proud of this 12th edition of the WSF, the first to be held in a Northern country.  The event counted 35,000 participants, including 15,000 who were present at the opening march, where 125 countries were represented. Let’s remember that at the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, 20,000 people took part in the event. Therefore, considering such numbers, the organizers are more than satisfied as to the results of a first World Social Forum held in a Northern country.

In total, 1,300 self-managed activities took place, as well as 200 cultural activities and 6 parallel forums, the organizers said.  In addition, the planning involved 26 self-managed committees. 

By next week we should be able to find a calendar of initiatives posted on the World Social Forum website.  See you there!

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As we walked into Manchester’s Veterans Park, where yesterday’s Black Lives Matter march would begin, the first person we saw up close was a white man carrying a large rifle.  He was approached right away by Matt Lawrence, one of the activists who had volunteered to be peacekeepers (or “ushers”) for the march.

Organizers of the march had asked people not to bring weapons, Matt calmly explained.  The rifle-bearing man said he was there to help the police with security.  He would be joined by others openly carrying weapons throughout the next two hours. 

As the Back Lives Matter crowd swelled to more than 200, the number of counter-demonstrators grew as well.  By the end, a group of men who were apparently members of a motorcycle club were attempting to goad activists into heated arguments about whether or not “all lives matter.” 

Several members of Manchester’s police department stood by, generally on the edges of the crowd. 

For the duration, a small group of peacekeepers, identified by their white arm-bands, kept an eye on the counter-demonstrators, often walking and chatting with them.  At other times they placed themselves between the two groups as way to provide a buffer, diffuse tensions, and discourage the anti-racism activists from engaging in the types of heated arguments that could have easily escalated into violent conflict that would put lives at risk and interfere with the march’s purpose.

Given the recent events in Dallas and provocative statements from the city’s police chief, this was not an idle concern. 

By the time we left at about 9 pm, most of the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators had already departed.  Two activists were still arguing in a generally calm manner with a young woman carrying a large rifle.  But by then it was clear that the march had successfully created an opportunity for people to express outrage against the pattern of police killings of Black people.  Participants, many of them young, felt the strength of people coming together in a call for change.  It was loud, spirited, and peaceful, which had been the organizers’ intent. 

A few observations:

First, it was constructive for the organizers to be clear that the march was intended to be peaceful and to post guidelines on Facebook:

-if confronted by a counter protestor or violent person, remain calm and peaceful and try to keep moving

-if someone comes at you with their fists, weapon, etc, step back and call for one of the ushers to take control of the situation until law enforcement arrives

The explicit guidelines made it easier for peacekeepers to do their jobs.

Second, peacekeepers demonstrated several techniques that proved to be effective. 

– Talk one-on-one with people who appear hostile.  Introduce yourself.  Try to make a human connection.  Keep them busy talking to you. 

– Remind activists that the purpose of the action is best served by refusing to take the bait from hostile counter-demonstrators looking for a fight. 

– Stay calm and help others do the same.

In a Facebook post after the march, Alex Fried reflected on peacekeeper training he had received several years ago.  “I’ve never had to use the skills I gained in that training until tonight,” he wrote.  “I went up to one of them and introduced myself. I kept my hands open and in front of me at all times. We shook hands and spent the march together. I talked with him about his life, his political opinions, his childhood growing up in NH, and his job working for a weapons manufacturer. As much as possible we kept the armed protesters separate from the march.”

I’ve seen plenty of counter-demonstrators over the years, but last night is the first time I’ve seen them show up with weapons.  If that’s a sign of things to come, let’s get more peacekeepers trained.  

 

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The movement of fast-food workers demanding wages of at least $15 an hour made a spirited visit to Concord, New Hampshire this afternoon.

About 35 workers and allies chanted and marched down Loudon Road from HazenP5050187 Drive to East Side Drive and back again on the other side.  The route took us past Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s, and other establishments that currently depend on low-wage workers. 

The Granite State actually abolished its minimum wage in 2011, which means that the base pay for most workers is $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum.  The base pay for tipped workers is even less.  Attempts every year since then to restore the minimum wage and raise it have been unsuccessful, largely due to effective lobbying by trade associations of businesses that pay low wages.

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“You can’t survive on $7.25.  Live free or die!” was one of the chants.

Others included “Hey McDonalds, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”  P5050127(The names of other businesses can be substituted.) 

The marchers went inside at KFC, where they chanted for several minutes before leaving voluntarily.  At McDonalds we were locked out.  Several members of the Concord Police Department met up with us at Burger King, where they explained the rules regarding trespass and disorderly conduct to labor organizers who no doubt were already familiar with the law.   

Today’s demonstration was organized by SEIU Local 1984, the Granite State

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Organizing Project, and the United Valley Interfaith Project. 

GSOP and UVIP have been holding monthly “Fight for $15” protests in Concord, Manchester, Nashua,P5050098 and West Lebanon, but typically with smaller groups and a less confrontational approach.  The monthly actions generally take place on the 15th of the month.   

For more information, contact

GSOP at 603-668-8250 or http://granitestateorganizing.org/

UVIP at 603-443-3682 or

http://www.unitedvalleyinterfaithproject.org

More photos:

 

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“One Day Longer, One Day Stronger”

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With an inflatable corporate pig hovering behind them, hundreds of IBEW and CWA members with their allies rallied at the State House yesterday calling for a fair contract with FairPoint Communications.

The two unions went on strike ten weeks ago following months of frustrated bargaining before and after their contract expired on August 2.

“In April, FairPoint came out with their one contract proposal,” IBEW leader Glenn PC190063 Brackett said, waving his index finger while speaking from a stage attached to a Teamsters truck parked next to the State House.

The unions made three comprehensive proposals and even offered $200 million in concessions, Brackett said. But the company has refused to deal and lied to the public along the way. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of consumers have complained to the Public Utilities Commission that the company, which took over Verizon’s New Hampshire landlines in 2008, is not providing the services for which it is getting paid.  Vermont’s E-911 system has been among the casualties, as has the City of Nashua’s internet service. 

“This company has no credibility,” Brackett charged.

“The corporation is in North Carolina and this morning they have internet.  They’ve got 911 and their telephones work,” Brackett said.  “Why?  Because FairPoint does not provide services to the communities in which their executives live.” [see video] 

“How long will the State of New Hampshire allow its public safety to be threatened by a company frPC190054om North Carolina?,” Brackett asked. 

Strikers and supporters took a few circuits around the State House lawn, chanting and chatting, while  Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and retired IBEW member Linda Horan greeted them as they went by.  Other political figures in the crowd included State Representative Renny Cushing and State Senators Jeff Woodburn, Donna Soucy, and Lou D’Allesandro. 

The crowd left the State House at about 12:30 pm and walked a few blocks to the FairPoint office on South Street, where they chanted some more and tauntedPC190065 strikebreakers who were looking down from company windows. 

The conflict is not just about wages and benefits.  Central to FairPoint’s strategy is its intent to outsource jobs now held by union members.  The unions points out that the service problems consumers are experiencing now will become the norm if FairPoint can hire unqualified contractors to perform functions now carried out by experienced union workers. 

The conflict over contracting out is emblematic of developments in the larger PC190064

economy, where outsourcing via staffing agencies is becoming the norm in ever larger sectors of the labor market.  Strong unions are about all that stops the slide toward a disposable workforce.

That may be why clergy from the United Church of Christ have decided to speak up about the FairPoint strike.  In a column published in the Valley News, they wrote:

So here we are today: hedge fund corporate owners versus dedicated New Hampshire (and Maine and Vermont) workers who have the courage to take a stand to protect the kinds of jobs that sustain families and strong communities. Shades of Moses standing up against Pharaoh’s hard heart, perhaps? Or David versus Goliath? Or Jesus challenging the greedy money changers?

According to the Concord Monitor, a spokesperson for Governor Maggie Hassan said she is “concerned about the disruption in FairPoint services and its impact on the state’s communications infrastructure, our public safety systems and economy, as well as the company’s overall commitment to the people and businesses of New Hampshire.”

“One day longer, one day stronger,” the strikers chanted.  That’s great spirit, but some emergency funds for workers on strike more than two months will help.  You can contribute to the IBEW/CWA Solidarity Fund by clicking here.

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My story about yesterday’s march in New York City is here

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REPORT FROM THE PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH

“A healthy movement has lots of creativity,” Judy commented as we walked down New York’s 42nd Street toward the conclusion of the People’s Climate March.  By that measure, the movement to reverse climate change P9210418is pretty healthy.

Today’s march featured lots of costumes, chants, street theatre, props, dances, puppets, and marching bands as well as slogans galore on banners and signs, many of them hand-made.  Many marchers carried signs that read “I’m marching for…” with a blank space each person could fill.  Organizations also brought printed placards for their members to carry to spread their own messages.

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“To Change Everything We Need Everyone” was an official slogan printed on hand-hed silk-screened banners and large ones carried high above the marchers.    Vanessa Simwerayi, for whom this was her first big march, saidP9210232 she was impressed with the big flat screen displays at several intersections showing solidarity marches taking place all across the world.  “Climate is something everybody has to face,” said Vanessa’s brother, Addy.   Marchers were more diverse in age than race, but it can certainly be said that the climate issue is getting significant attention from an aroused public. 

Participants paused for a moment of silence at about 1 pm, followed by everyone waving their hands and shouting, making a mighty roar that rolled up the avenue.P9210216 

Slogans and chants gave more attention to fracking and tar sands than any other issue, at least in the sections of the march I observed.  I was glad to see a couple P9210355 groups of marchers with banners calling attention to northern New England’s local tar sands threat, the prospect that the Portland-Montreal pipeline could be re-purposed to carry tar sands-derived oil for Montreal to South Portland, Maine. 

Addy Simwerayi said he was pleased to see local community groups calling attention to other social justice issues.

Without a rally at the beginning or end of the march, it was impossible to see or feel the size of the crowd.  It also meant that the march’s message was delivered through the aggregation of varied messages rather than the words of official spokespeople. P9210227 (2)

Stretching for blocks along Central Park West, marchers assembled in good spirits waiting for the procession’s late start.  Our section of the march didn’t start to move until about 2 pm.  Eventually the march started down the avenue and chugged along in high-spirited fits and starts for  a couple of hours, down Central Park West, east on 59th Street, South on Sixth Avenue, and west on 42nd Street to its conclusion on 11th Ave.  Volunteer ‘peacekeepers”  wearing orange t-shirts were dispersed through the crowd to provide information and intervene in the case of unpleasantness.  Unless you count a guy with a battery-powered P/A system haranguing marchers that they should be attending to homelessness and the perils of tobacco instead of the climate, I didn’t see any unpleasantness.

For most of the route marchers occupied the width of the major streets and avenues, with metal barricades separating marchers from pedestrians and onlookers.  New York police were very much in evidence, but didn’t have much to do other than keep their barricades intact.  

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The New Hampshire contingent was organized largely by 350 NH, the local arm of the international action group.  Riding back on the bus, fellow travelers with  internet access reported march organizers were saying there had been more than 300,000 marchers.  From her seat on the bus, Sarah Hubner commented, “I just hope somebody was listening.” 

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Democracy Movement Takes a Message to Senator Ayotte

NASHUA, NH — The “Democracy for All Amendment” failed on a procedural vote today in the US Senate, but not before a dozen New Hampshire activists made one more attempt to get Senator Kelly Ayotte to support overturning the US Supreme P9110119Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

“Corporations are not people.  They should not control our political process,” Representative Sylvia Gale of Nashua said to the group assembled at City Hall Plaza at 9 am this morning.

The group was small, but they are part of a large movement of people concerned that “corporate people” and the wealthiest Americans have the legal ability to drown out competing voices in the political process.

“I don’t have a lot of money and I want my voice to be heard,” explained Fred Robinson, who drove to Nashua from Goffstown to participate.   

“Democracy should work for people,” offered Dr. Thabile Mnisi-Misibi, an ANC member visiting from South Africa.

The contingent of 13 people walked with signs and chants througP9110155h the downtown district to the Senator’s office.  There, they delivered a petition with 12,000 New Hampshire names calling on Senator Ayotte to support the constitutional change.   

“This is an issue for all of New Hampshire, and Senator Ayotte needs to get involved,” said Dan Weeks of the Coalition for Open Democracy, the group which led the organizing of today’s action.

Weeks handed the petitions and supporting material to Simon Thomson, an aide to Senator Ayotte, who met the group on the sidewalk outside her office.

Dan Weeks presenting petitions to Simon Thomson.

A similar action took place last week at Senator Ayotte’s Portsmouth office.

Ayotte voted Monday for a motion that allowed consideration of the amendment to go forward, but today joined her GOP colleagues voting against ending debate, thereby blocking the measure from an up or down vote on its merits.   New Hampshire’s other Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, was a co-sponsor of the amendment proposal.

The notion that the Supreme Court believes corporations are people, that money is speech, and that therefore corporations can spend without limits to affect election campaigns has provoked a reaction expressed through petitions, resolutions, and proposals for constitutional change.  SJ Resolution 19, the proposal defeated today in the P9110141US Senate, is just one of a couple dozen advanced by members of Congress in response to Citizens United.  Some groups, such as Move To Amend, have made it clear they think it doesn’t go far enough to reverse corporate constitutional rights.  But it was the only proposal likely to get considered in the foreseeable future, so many groups calling for constitutional change were on board. 

Writing in his blog at The Nation earlier this week, John Nichols said:

The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.

No one expected the amendment to get the two-thirds vote it would need to pass or get a vote at all in John Boehner’s House of Representatives.   But the fact that any vote took place is evidence of a significant expression oP9110133f public sentiment that the“Citizens United” decision did serious damage to fundamental issues.  The questions now are whether the movement will grow or fizzle, and whether the pro-amendment groups will intensify their demands for more aggressive language or head down the familiar road of further compromise.  A decision to water down the language in hopes of gaining votes at this point would be a huge mistake.

“Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken,” wrote Nichols, who will speak at an AFSC dinner in Concord on September 27.  “When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.”

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