I filled up my tank, but as so frequently happens, the receipt printer in the pump was out of paper. So I pulled into the sole HP parking spot in front of the 7-11 to go in and get a receipt from the counter.
The HP space was already partially occupied by a folding table, at which a Black man was soliciting signatures on ballot initiatives. “Sign up to recall George Gascon,” he called to me as I got out of my car. I made some snarky comment about a Black man working against Black interests and went into the store for my receipt and some lottery tickets.
When I came out, there was no one else around for the man to harangue about the Gascon recall petition. Rather than driving away, I asked him what was so bad about George Gascon. “He’s dangerous, he’s soft on crime,” the man said.
“How is he soft on crime” I asked. “What do you actually know about Gascon?”
“Not that much. I’m from Florida, just out here for the job.” He said.
“You’re here from Florida, to gather petition signatures?” It seemed incredible to me.
“I’m good at this work. They brought me here because I’m good at it. I gotta take care of my kids, and this lets me do that.”
The man was black, and he wants to take care of his kids. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s from Florida – that could just be a claim to excuse for not knowing the people against whom he’s gathering signatures. But it is a response that defines a big problem in activating poor and minority political activism.
“Have you given your kids ‘the talk’ yet?” Is it presumptuous of a white man to ask that question of a black man?
So we have identified a couple of very real life issues that are not as simple as putting labels on things. Here is a Black man trying to raise children, and to do that he is helping police unions try to recall a District Attorney who is trying to rein in police violence against Black people and commercial fraud and exploitation of poor and minority communities.
It’s easy to say that a Black man shouldn’t be helping the police unions recall a D.A. who is trying to reduce police violence against Black (and other minority) communities. But he’s got a paying job at which he feels he is good. He’s not in some dead-end factory job working only until his employer can get a robot to replace him.
Regardless of my question, he has given or will give his children “the talk,” warning them what to expect and how to behave in interactions with authority figures, uniformed and not, in our “free” society. But before and after “the talk” the children need a home, regular healthy meals, proper clothes, actual health care.
All that costs money. Money requires work. The children need him to have the best job, earning the most that he can, while feeling fulfilled. How reasonable is it to ask him to forego a job now available that gives him the opportunity to deal with people, in an area with lots of upper middle-class White and Asian motorists, handling government regulated paperwork, requiring attention to and compliance with rules while talking to people about substantive issues.
For the sake of principle, should he be asked to take a minimum wage job at McDonalds, slinging unhealthy food to other people’s children? Or maybe go to work in an as-yet un-unionized Amazon warehouse, with its attendant risks of repetitive motion injuries or PTSD?
Politics is the art of the possible. And for many poor people, work is the act of the possible, taking the best job available to meet immediate needs while hoping, and perhaps putting some spare time effort into working for a better future.
I chatted with the man for a few minutes. He was good at the job – he asked for my opinion without sharing his own. A good salesman lets the customer talk themself into the sale. But he didn’t sell me on signing up to recall Gascon.
A good salesman also uses available tools to sell his message. A day or two ago, I walked out of the Smart & Final store in West L.A. to find another signature gatherer. He was soliciting signatures for legislation providing better health care for hospital and hospitality workers. I signed while barely talking to him. Unlike the man at the 7-11 in an upscale area, this man was working close to a sidewalk tent encampment. I signed only because he was wearing a T-shirt touting SEIU membership and a claim that the SEIU supported the bills.
The T-shirt was part of the message. If you support better lives for the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, sign here.
“Defund the police” hasn’t sold well in most impoverished neighborhoods. Poor people suffer negative interactions with law enforcement all the time. Black impoverished communities routinely suffer the most police violence, and Black households routinely complain that they are provided with inadequate policing. Their interest is in BETTER policing, not less policing. The phrase “defund the police” does nothing to promise better policing. It sounds like “less policing.”
Sure, activists can explain that what they mean was shifting funding to improve other social services with the intended result of less need for policing. Certainly a worthy goal. But there is nothing in the phrase “defund the police” that suggests any improved funding for social services or for better schools for the Florida signature gatherer’s children.
A catchy slogan that appeals to “revolutionaries” can backfire when played to the general public. But self-imagining “revolutionaries” have crafted such problematic slogans since Karl Marx came up with “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Most peasant farmers were already well familiar with the concept of dictatorship, long before anyone thought up the idea of proletariat. Offering them something – dictatorship – with which they were already familiar, and hated, but driven by a new kind of dictator, was a nonstarter from the jump.
The proletariat, just beginning to emerge in the market economy when Marx envisioned their triumph, was supposedly going to become the majority. So “dictatorship by the proletariat” aka dictatorship by the majority, was an oxymoron, an oxymoron asking people to accept an entirely new definition for “dictatorship” without telling them that the phrase offered a new definition.
Much like asking the majority to accept “defund” as meaning “better funding for social services.” A new definition without explaining it, leaving people who already felt that they receive inadequate police services feeling like they would be receiving even less than the inadequate services they receive now.
That’s neither a solution to the problems people already feel, nor an indication that the people offering the phrase understand the problems and are able to offer practical, real solutions.
George Gascon, too radical for some, too mainstream for others, is trying to offer actual police reforms – real steps to rein in police violence, to impose accountability. As we head into a campaign cycle, “the left” hasn’t yet come up with any slogan or tag line to defend those efforts, and is giving away ground to the police unions and corporate moneymen who oppose any reforms.
At the national level Democrats are doing the same thing, allowing people who want the death penalty for women’s healthcare providers, and who oppose basic pre- and neo-natal care for babies to claim they are pro-life. They are NOT pro-life. But they have been allowed to falsely claim that title for decades, mostly for business fundraising purposes.
Democrats NEED good slogans to sell good policies as effectively as Republicans sell bad policies. But Democrats need to learn to aim their slogans at their desired voters, rather than at their already convinced pals.