A Message of Hope for the New Year

An Interview with Kevin Zeese

Kevin Zeese has long amazed me because of the number of things he does to make a better world. Mondays he does a radio program with Margaret Flowers called Clearing the FOG, which is one of the best alternative programs in the world, informing people of what is happening beyond the narrow scope of the corporate media.

Months before the Occupy Movement began, he was organizing activists in the City of Washington to occupy Freedom Plaza there.

Daily he puts out Popular Resistance, informing people of the latest news around the corporate media and organizing activists across the nation.

Kevin is in touch with activists involved in a great many activities– opposing war, championing the environment, in short addressing the public interest so ignored by corporate media and government.

I thought I’d interview him to start the new year.

Jack Balkwill: What is the most important issue for activists in 2016?

Kevin Zeese: First, thanks for the nice introduction.  On everything you list I did not act alone. In movements, no one should take credit because it is always a group effort that leads to success.

When I was part of organizing the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC about 50 people met on a weekly basis from April 2011 through Occupy 2011 to plan it. I deserve no more credit than anyone else developing that occupy.

And, when we began occupying, others joined in and decisions were made at a General Assembly. Popular Resistance came out of that after we met with fellow occupiers from different encampments as well as activists working on different issues.

I found the same thing in my work against the drug war. We formed the Alliance of Reform Organizations (ARO) which was made up of all the groups in the movement. ARO was leaderless. We all shared information and began to think like a movement, not just an organization. We need to act cooperatively and my work succeeds when more people are participating to make it happen, and I am just one participant.

Always the most important issue is building a mass transformative movement. We need a revolutionary change in our values. A mass movement is the root of all the progress we need to make; with it, anything’s possible; without it, our power is diminished.

So, whatever issue you care about, realize it is connected to other issues and work on it in unity with others. We need to build solidarity across issues as we are all confronting the same problems of a corrupt government and economy that cannot respond to the multiple crisis situations we face.

If you look at the front page of Popular Resistance, you will see all the fronts of struggle and recognize we are all part of a movement for economic, racial and environmental justice. The movement is doing work to both stop mistaken policies and create new institutions and approaches to our problems. We call this two track approach: Stop the Machine, Create a New World, the name of our Facebook page (please “like” it).

There are multiple issues that are at a boiling point in 2016:

(1) The killing of people of color by the government through police violence. #BlackLivesMatter continues to do great work and social justice activists need to follow their lead and support them.
(2) The collapse of the economy, which we are covering regularly on Popular Resistance (see here, here, here, here), as this could be worse than the 2008 collapse. How should the movement respond? What should we demand? It is an opportunity to demand a remaking of the economy.
(3) The climate crisis was not resolved in Paris, which produced an empty shell that activists now need to fill with real, aggressive policy changes that remake the energy economy and stop top-down energy supply, democratizing energy while creating a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy.
(4) We will see more mirage elections in 2016 with two Wall Street candidates selected, despite strong populists in both parties. It is time for people to wake up and challenge the corporate duopoly that continues to protect the status quo while using rhetoric of change. People need to stop falling for the duopoly scam.
(5) The US Empire is in a shambles, acting in desperate ways that risk bigger wars and destruction around the planet. It is not only the Asian military pivot surrounding China, the NATO filling Russia’s borders with bases and missiles and continued violence in the Middle East, but also the economic Empire of the TPP and other trade agreements. The movement needs to come together to stop the TPP in the first few months of the year. This would be a tremendous people-powered victory over transnational corporations.

JB: What do you say to people when they tell you the system is so corrupt it’s not worth fighting?

KZ: They are right about system-wide corruption. The economic system is corrupt to the core and the political system takes legal bribes – campaign contributions, promises of future jobs, employment for family and friends – and is deeply corrupted as a result. Systemic corruption is the reason that we need to fight.

The elites in the system know they are corrupt. They fear us, knowing that every day more people understand their corruption. The system is losing its legitimacy and facing imminent crisis moments. If the economic collapse that is predicted occurs – bigger than 2008 – then the opposition to the government will multiply. More people will be mobilized and the system will fear for its survival. This is an opportunity for radical transformation for which we must be ready.

The transformation does not only have to be electoral — in fact, that may be the least important. If people followed the models of the Zapatistas and the Kurds and created their own direct democracy institutions, like local assemblies that began to bring people together to improve their own communities, they would grow to become the legitimate forces. Illegitimate government would be recognized as the non-problem solver; and people would realize they have power.

On the electoral front, people need to understand we live in a mirage democracy with rigged elections. Don’t put much faith in it unless it is radically changed. We need to move to a 21st Century model that involves much more direct democracy rather than relying on representative democracy.

We see the seeds of that in things like participatory budgeting, where people at the local level actually decide where tax dollars are spent. We can also learn from countries like Spain, Greece, Portugal, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela where movements have taken over governments. This is a constant struggle, as we can see in Venezuela, but in all these areas we see much more people power and influence in government. These are all imperfect models, but there are lessons for us in each.

JB: Tell us about a victory in recent years for activists that might not be known by those who read or watch corporate media.

KZ: There have been many victories and we need to celebrate them. One thing I learned in my early work against the drug war, which was after I got out of law school and worked for NORML during the Reagan administration. There is victory in every action we take if we take on the issue as effectively as we can because the movement grows and it is always about growing the movement to reach a tipping point where we have enough power to fully win. Now the third rail, untouchable issue of ending the war on marijuana is becoming a reality.

Among the victories was stopping the northern portion of the KXL pipeline, various new laws in 24 states to prevent police violence and an increase in prosecutions of police who commit violence, and the increase in wages across the country and winning the critically important battle for net neutrality. These were people-powered victories that showed when we act together we have the power to defeat corporate interests.

Another ongoing series of victories is seeing local people, who have not been involved in activism, working along with experienced, often young, energy activists, taking on big energy companies in an aggressive way. This is a victory. In fact, polls of energy companies point to people blockading and challenging their energy infrastructure as their greatest problem. This slowing down and complicating carbon-energy infrastructure is an ongoing victory.

Groups like Beyond Extreme Energy are bringing out of the shadows the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a corrupt federal agency that works for the energy industry (in fact all its money comes from the energy industry it is supposed to regulate). FERC officials have been admitting to the media they are under attack and have a problem with people-powered protests. Now, we have to unite these local and national struggles and stop all energy carbon infrastructure and force a rapid 10-year change to a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy.

The small victories we see across the country on these issues will combine into a much bigger victory.

The fight against fast track trade authority for the TPP and other corporate trade agreements produced a very important victory even though fast track was passed. The Obama administration was not able to get fast track without a major compromise. The US Trade Representative had wanted to keep the TPP and other trade agreements secret until four years after it became law, instead they were forced to make the text public before Congress considered it.

Right now people can read the TPP and analyze it. We are finding that everything we had said about the TPP was true – except it was even worse. Now we have the tool of transparency to defeat the TPP and we also have the timing of an election year – again this was not when Obama wanted it to be considered. Election years are notoriously difficult. Obama will make a big push, beginning in the State of the Union, but the largest movement of movements against corporate trade ever was built during the fast track debate and have a good chance of victory if people mobilize. Sign up at FlushTheTPP.org to get involved with this historic victory.

JB: This is an election year. Is it worthwhile for activists to participate?

KZ: We should not put all our eggs in the electoral basked. Much more important is building our own alternative structures like assemblies that are not government but people-powered, that solve our own problems. Similarly, worker cooperatives that are democratically run so that people control their workplaces.

These direct democracy institutions created by the people would have tremendous positive influences on people’s lives and on building resilient communities. So, elections should not take the place of building the mass social movement that is essential to radical transformation of the economy and culture

But, election years are an opportunity to put issues on the agenda. #BlackLivesMatter has done a great job of refusing to endorse a candidate while confronting candidates from both parties at public events and forcing the issue of police violence on the agenda. This is an excellent example of how to use campaigns in a confrontational way to change the political culture.

The election year is also an opportunity to show how corrupt the corporate duopoly, the Republicans and Democrats, are. They, along with the corporate media that works with them, limit the political agenda and protect the status quo.

When people understand the depth of their corruption it continues to undermine the legitimacy of government as bi-partisan corruption becomes more evident. This is the first time in history that polls show more than half of Americans consider themselves independent of the two parties and each party has under 30% of the people saying they consider themselves a Democrat or Republican. This is a major change since Nader first ran pointing out the tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum nature of the parties [ed. note: Kevin was the spokesperson and press secretary for Ralph Nader in 2004]. The public is getting it and understanding reality is the first step to mass mobilization.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has helped to deepen the national consensus of the corruption of the economy by targeting Wall Street in his rhetoric. This is a lynchpin of the current government and economy so building that consensus has been helpful. He should also be criticizing US Empire because the empire economy does not serve the people. He has not been as helpful in building the consensus around the corruption of the Democratic Party since running inside the party has kept people in a Wall Street party that people should be fleeing in even larger numbers. This will change when the rigged reality of the Democratic primary system kicks in and he is defeated like every insurgent who has tried to change this corrupt party from within. People support his ideas so his loss will not be because he is too radical, indeed he has shown he is not all that radical, he’s basically an FDR Democrat in his positions.

Sanders will lose because the Dems rig their primary system in ways that have stopped every insurgent candidate since the early 80s. How do they rig their primary? Three examples:

(1) Super delegates make up 20% of the delegates needed to win the primary but they are people who do not answer to the voters, they are party officials.

(2) Frontloading the primary system with 23 caucuses and primaries in the month of March thereby requiring about $100 million in spending to compete.

And (3) Limiting the number of debates to six, usually timed for low-viewership, when in the past there have been over 20 debates with large viewing audiences.

My hope is that when people see how Sanders was robbed by a corrupt party this makes even more people leave the Democratic Party. We need to break the stranglehold of two Wall Street parties over the government.

Third party campaigns still do not get a lot of traction in large part because of the rigged nature of elections. Corporate media play a big role in not covering them. Thankfully, media is diversifying a bit with foreign media, independent media and citizen’s media so third party views will get out more than they did in the past but it is still not a level media playing field.

And, of course, the duopoly puts in place laws to make it hard for there to be competition against them, especially ballot access laws which take a great deal of financial and volunteer support for compliance.

A major impediment is the monopoly of the duopoly over the presidential debates. The corporation, misleadingly labeled the National Commission on Presidential Debates, is controlled by Republicans and Democrats and funded by big business. There is litigation to end their monopoly but we need to see a movement demanding open debates. This would make elections more valuable because we would hear more than corporate ideas. We would actually hear new ideas pushed from the bottom up.

As we have seen in countries that have changed their government based on movements from below and kicked out the business-controlled parties, elections are not the full answer. Such governments have done a lot of good in sharing wealth, encouraging cooperatives, changing budget priorities and diversifying media. Among other things, it is essential that the movement not stop.

The social movement remains of critical importance even if electoral wins occur. Every government needs to be pushed from below or it will be corrupted from above. As I said at the beginning of this interview – mass movements for economic, racial and environmental justice are the most important thing for us to develop. This is ongoing no matter who is in power within the government.

JB: With war and “defense” eating up the lion’s share of government spending, where do you see us starting to chip away so that resources are freed to address public interest needs?

KZ: The biggest secret in the United States is that we live in the largest empire in world history. The US has 1,100 military bases and outposts (800 bases) covering the planet while the rest of the countries have only 30. In fact, the UK and Rome, when they were the world’s largest empires, each had less than 40 bases. The US has bases on every continent. Military bases cost $120 billion annually; i.e. “as much as four times the amount spent on Social Security, Unemployment & Labor ($29 billion); nearly twice as much as Housing and Community ($63 billion); four times as much as Science ($30 billion); and 1.7 times as much as Education ($70 billion).” At a time when US infrastructure is falling apart, the economy is faltering and we need to rapidly transition to a carbon-free, nuclear-free democratized energy economy, this is a misuse of tax dollars.

The secret of the US being the biggest empire in world history is important because it also hides that we are an “empire economy.” This means that the empire serves big business; the result: transnational corporations which profit overseas hollow out the domestic economy. That means the oligarchs overseas become vassals who profit from transnational corporations but whose people and environment are put at risk. An empire economy puts the profits of corporations ahead of the necessities of the people and planet; and it is why 55% of domestic discretionary spending is spent on the military.

If people understood the US was an empire, the Asian Pivot, moving 52% of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific and developing military alliances with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Indonesia and others would be understood.
The same with the US move through NATO to line the Russian-European border with bases and missiles as well as the US supported coup in Ukraine. People would understand that the US is the aggressor, not Russia.

They hide the empire from the people of the United States – it is never mentioned in the media or by elected officials – because if the people knew the US was an empire, they would oppose it. First steps to ending US militarism is for the American people to see the reality of the US Empire, understand what it costs them and realize we are the only nation in world history to have bases throughout the world.

JB: What do you see representing hope for activists who may need inspiration?

KZ: We are at a stage in world history where we understand better than ever how movements succeed. It has been more than 100 years since Gandhi first used the strategy of nonviolent resistance. He was the beginning of modern movement history (there were movements before Gandhi, as well, that we can also learn from). As a result, we now have a lot of history where movements have won and movements have lost. We can see some of the commonalities of winning movements. We now can develop a strategy to transform the nation.

The key is for a movement to be a mass movement, not a fringe movement. History shows that if 3.5% of the people mobilize by getting involved in a movement that represents supermajority views of the public, then that movement has always won whether in a dictatorship or a democracy. Some win with less than 3.5%, but they have always won when they reached that level.

And, we have learned from history the successful ways of building a mass movement. It requires a strategic approach. For example, there are power blocs that hold the current government in place; e.g., business interests, political parties, workers, law enforcement, the military, media, religious groups, nonprofits, students. When we seek to grow the movement, we also need to seek to weaken the power structure by using tactics designed to bring people from the power blocs into the movement.

Research has also compared violent movements with nonviolent movements. The latter succeed at a much higher level. Why? It is hard to get 3.5% of the population to participate in a guerilla war. And, if the goal is to weaken the power structure, then violence usually has the opposite effect as it unifies the power structure. We saw that during occupy. When the police were violent the occupy movement grew. It pulled people to us. When police were attacked, it rallied the government and public to unify against the movement and the movement got smaller. The issue is not violence, property damage or nonviolence as a tactic; the issue is effectiveness. What tactic will accomplish the goal of growing the movement so it cannot be ignored?

The good news is that since the occupy encampment phase, the movement has grown significantly. Our guess is that at the peak of Occupy we had 350,000 to 400,000 people involved. That is a tiny .01% of the public and look how it created fear in the power structure and put new issues on the political agenda. We follow the movement every day at Popular Resistance and our guess is that when the various strands of the movement are counted; e.g., Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, Our Walmart, Climate justice etc. then we are probably over one million people active today.

This is still a long way from 3.5% but it is definite growth. Public awareness is even larger as the ideas of the movement have hit mainstream political culture. One key to our strength will be if we can unify across different issues; and we saw much more of that as well. People realize all issues are connected and that we are blocked by the same power structure.

The other good news is that Bill Moyer, a long-time activist, who developed the eight stages of successful social movements, shows us that we may be closer than we realize to success; and helps us to define what the movement needs to do now. We seem to be in stage six of the eight stages of successful social movements – stage seven is success.

So, the good news is we are growing, winning progress and getting stronger. If we continue our progress, 2016 will begin the era where the mass social movement cannot be ignored.

Jack Balkwill is an activist in Virginia. He can be reached at libertyuv@hotmail.com Read other articles by Jack.