The People’s Summit: Progressive, Independent, On the Move

“Stay connected. We’re building a new world.”

-RoseAnn DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses Union

These were literally the last words spoken from the stage in the last plenary session Sunday morning of the first—but not the last—national People’s Summit. These words, so simple and so short, are about as good a summary of what this historic event was about as you could give.

Other words used by people I spoke to as the Summit wound down Saturday evening and Sunday morning were: historic, marvelous, values-based, hopeful, unified, positive and powerful.

This was a gathering for people and groups which supported the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign, though anybody could come, and at least one group, the Green Party, which did not support Bernie had one of the 25 or so organizational tables. And there were a lot of us—somewhere around 3,000 people. That is the number used by the organizers in advance, and it seemed accurate. The big room where we met for plenaries had 3,000 seats, and these were almost all filled during the high points on Saturday.

Half of those 3,000 were members of the National Nurses Union. They held an assembly of their own on Thursday and Friday and then joined with everyone else as we arrived late Friday and early Saturday. At the opening plenary Friday evening, all of the non-NNU speakers—Juan Gonzalez, Naomi Klein, Rosario Dawson and John Nichols—spoke effusively about the significance of NNU’s leadership to the organizing of, commitment of resources to, and membership participation in this historic event.

It was very special to have so many working-class women, very diverse racially, taking an active part in the sessions. As spoken about Friday evening from the stage, the fundamental role of nurses—to take care of sick or in-need people, until death if necessary—was a kind of metaphor for what the Summit was all about: to make the connections and keep building the energy of the Bernie campaign so that we could heal our sick and wounded world and all its people.

This Summit was called when the Sanders/Clinton race was much more up in the air than it is right now. Given that, and given some very strong emotions due to the closeness of that hard-fought race and the outrageous tactics of more than a few pro-Hillary Democrats and establishment media, it was significant that there was so much positive energy all throughout.

Bernie made no appearance at the Summit, not even by Skype. One person made this point to me Sunday morning, seeing it as a good thing, a sign that this is not a movement dependent on one person. It’s a leaderful movement.

Early on in the outreach leading up to the Summit the organizing groups—National Nurses United, Peoples Action, People for Bernie, Food and Water Watch, Democratic Socialists of America and Progressive Democrats of America—had projected that a major task of the Summit would be the development of a “people’s program.” Wisely, however, in my view, this did not turn out to be the case. Instead, through lots of plenaries, lots of small and medium-sized sessions, informal discussions, movies, singing and other people’s culture, this was a weekend for making connections, discussing strategy, being inspired, being challenged, hearing about people’s experiences with and take on the Bernie campaign, and “building a new world.”

At one point Sunday morning something was put up on the big overhead screens in the plenary room that articulated what the leaders of the Summit saw as “Our Pathways to Real Change:”

  • Electing people from our Movement at all ballot levels to achieve the power to govern – people who share our vision, represent the diversity of America, and are committed to co-govern with a People’s Movement
  • Running bold issue campaigns on private and governmental entities that demand what we need (not just what is considered politically/conventionally possible)
  • Using Direct Action and Civil Disobedience to directly confront governmental entities to win needed concessions from them and power over them
  • Building lasting people’s independent political power organizations (rather than relatively temporary campaign structures) to defeat the big money of the right-wing infrastructure

Was the Summit all about keeping the people’s movement within the Democratic Party? I asked that question of Michael Lighty, Director of Public Policy for NNU. I asked him how this initiative, in which NNU played such a major role, related to the active involvement of NNU’s founding organization, the California Nurses Association, in the Labor Party of the 1990’s.

Lighty said that “some of the same impulses are driving our leadership to this movement. This kind of initiative is more appropriate at this particular political moment, but a lot of the Labor Party program and motivation are driving this.”

When I asked him about the harsh public criticism of presumptive Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein—tweeting on Saturday on the #pplsummit twitter site that the People’s Summit represents “sheepdogs for the duopoly” to keep the people’s movement inside the Democratic Party—Lighty said: “Third parties are a tactic. We shouldn’t elevate them into a principle. We haven’t precluded a third party; it’s on the table. NNU has endorsed Greens, and the Green Party of Chicago has a table here.”

The question of what to do if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination and the White House race is between neo-fascist Trump and neo-liberal Clinton—the only two who can win—was an issue talked about throughout, but a good deal less than I expected. The general sentiment was that we needed to prevent Trump from winning even though nobody liked or trusted Clinton.

Becky Bond called for us to beat him decisively to prevent lots of wanna-be Trumps from popping up all over, and we could not trust Clinton to do that. We needed to play an independent, defeat-Trump role. We should do this work via our own efforts, which will also mean we are building our independent, mass-based groups at the same time.

It was no small thing that throughout the Summit there was seemingly unanimous agreement that we needed a multi-tactical movement that ran candidates for office, held them accountable via mass-based independent organizations, organized campaigns on issues and used direct action and civil disobedience as made sense.

At least half, maybe more like 2/3, of the plenary speakers were people of color, and it was similar as far as women. I would estimate that ¼ to 1/3 of the attendees were people of color and well over half were women. Young people were also significantly represented on the stage. Speakers spoke about racism and the need for a consciously anti-racist movement, as well as sexism, heterosexism and other backwards ideas and actions. Intersectionality was a world heard often.

Echoing the call made by Bernie in his live-streamed speech Thursday night, there was open encouragement throughout for people to consider running for political office, at all levels.

There is no question that this event will strengthen the efforts of the Bernie supporters at the DNC in Philadelphia in a month, both inside and outside the convention. At one point RoseAnn DeMoro asked for people willing to consider civil disobedience at Philadelphia to stand up.

One of the most emotionally stark and revelatory moments of the convention occurred when plenary speaker Dominique Scott, an African American student from Mississippi speaking for United Students Against Sweatshops, was asked how she felt about a possible choice of Trump vs. Clinton. “Distraught, caught between a rock and a hard place,” were some of the words that came out, as she struggled with her feelings. In response, a spontaneous loud wave of applause and a standing ovation from mainly young people throughout the room made clear the intensity of feeling among millennials and others about this prospect.

Just before I left the convention center Sunday to head to the airport, I spoke to two young African Americans who looked to be in their early 20’s, Lonoah Lomax and Erica Nanton from Chicago. I asked them first what they thought about the weekend. They replied that it was “powerful,” and they particularly appreciated the presence of so many movements and the intersectionality that seemed very natural among us all.

I asked what they thought about what Dominique Scott had said. They responded, “It was the biggest dose of honesty. Young people are hungry for honesty. Speak the truth. Young people are more likely to take risks, hold people accountable. We don’t have as much fear as older generations. We hate manipulation by anybody or by any system. We want something true.”

I asked them what they would do if Bernie didn’t get the nomination. “Write in Bernie” was their answer.

Whatever happens in Philadelphia, whatever happens on November 8th, the People’s Summit movement is here to stay. RoseAnn DeMoro made it clear that NNU intends to continue giving leadership, which is a very good thing. In her short Sunday morning presentation she talked about future People’s Summits, “double, triple” the size of this one. And she put out a call for a National Day of Action in February, 2017, local actions in the streets around the country to hold accountable whomever wins office in November.

We are staying connected. We are building a new world.