WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Our movement for justice and freedom has endured through many moments of defeat and marched forward to victory after victory. Now is the time to do the same, Progressive Maryland's executive director counsels. Our movement’s strength is not dictated by the electoral success of any single candidate -- it is determined by all of us as we work every day to make our state and our country a closer reflection of the values we share. In going forward a powerful lesson from this cycle must be: Never again to trust the Maryland corporate-Democrat machine -- instead we must build our own independent political structure outside of the Democratic Party.
/By Larry Stafford/ In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King wrote one of his most seminal works “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?”. The book follows several major achievements of the civil rights movement such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and along with these victories the long-fought battles, ups and downs, of a struggle for human rights and dignity. In the speech of the same name King grapples with the great strides he and the movement had achieved, juxtaposed with the great challenges African Americans still faced, saying, “the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.” Today in Maryland, after the results of Tuesday’s gubernatorial race, the modern-day gardeners who tend to that plant of freedom wrestle with the same question, as we are not yet able to see our hopes and dreams in full bloom.
I’m aware that some may see our current moment as one of defeat and despair, but that assessment ignores the great victories we have achieved both on the ballot and beyond. On the ballot this year Maryland passed both same day registration to make our elections fairer and more accessible as well as a measure to ensure revenue generated from casino gaming reaches students and teachers in the classroom. In Baltimore City voters approved the creation of a Fair Elections Fund to level the playing field against large donor influence in elections. We also elected progressive state senators including leaders who defeated long time established incumbents supported by Maryland’s Senate President. In Montgomery County our movement elected the most progressive County Executive in County history and in Baltimore County Johnny Olszewski won as a progressive reformer in Maryland’s largest swing jurisdiction. In the halls of Annapolis, Maryland has passed a right to earned sick leave, voting rights for people who were formerly incarcerated, and a measure making community college tuition free for many Maryland residents. Returning to the ballot box, we cannot ignore the fact that our movement was able to nominate Ben Jealous, the most progressive Democratic nominee in Maryland history, in the June primary, despite the shackles of machine politics, despite the media narrative and what polls predicted, and despite his lack of ever running for or serving in office. We have a great deal to celebrate as a movement, yet “the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.”
Today, as Dr. King once did, we find ourselves asking “where do we go from here?” Understanding this question in the context of King’s words in 1967 is important. Our movement for justice and freedom has endured through many moments of defeat and marched forward to victory after victory. Now is the time to do the same. Our movement’s strength is not dictated by the electoral success of any single candidate -- it is determined by all of us as we work every day to make our state and our country a closer reflection of the values we share. Together we must learn from our losses and grow stronger as we continue forward. In going forward one of those powerful lessons must be: Never again to trust the Maryland corporate-Democrat machine -- instead we must build our own independent political structure outside of the Democratic Party. Maryland’s Democratic Party is controlled by machine bosses in Annapolis and at the federal level who are themselves controlled by the same corporate interests that benefit from Hogan’s reign as governor. This election cycle brought that unholy alliance into full view as Democratic elected officials offered both full and tacit support for Hogan’s re-election. The Maryland Senate Democratic Caucus spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail uplifting incumbent Senators partnerships with Hogan including mail sent by the Senate President himself in his safe southern Maryland district. This goes along with the fact that Democratic coordinated canvasses in various parts of the state often blatantly left Jealous off canvass talking points and refused to carry his campaign literature and signs while engaging voters.
Because of this we must now untether ourselves from any reliance on the Maryland Democratic Party for our electoral success. In addition to this we must build our own progressive political infrastructure that can match and surpass the voter contact capabilities of any political party in our state. By 2022 we must build the capacity to persuade and turn out over 1 million Maryland voters. To do this we will need to grow our volunteer and leadership base significantly over the next four years. We will continue to use the ballot line offered by the Democratic Party, but function within and outside of it whenever it suits our strategic interests.
Our electoral and political work must be tied to our work in directly and indirectly meeting the needs of Maryland through policy reforms, systemic change efforts, and harm reduction efforts. We need to be what a party should be as we coordinate with progressive elected leaders to make change happen at the local and state level. During the upcoming legislative session, we must fight for the vision Ben Jealous campaigned on and use the years in between now and 2022 to raise the political consciousness of Maryland voters in terms of what this vision can mean for us all. To do this, we need to create a cohesive and coherent platform that the majority of Marylanders want and need. We must also create a long-term strategic plan that will enable us to build the political power to wrestle against the obstacles that will stand in the way of our vision for the future. As Gov. Hogan attempts to unravel the progress we’ve made or implement his Republican agenda through policy, appointments, or executive actions, we must also be prepared to fight back against him and any of his corporate-Democrat collaborators. Because of the reality of Tuesday’s election results. many issues Marylanders face may not be addressed by the state for some time. It will therefore be critical to prepare to meet those needs through creative strategies that help feed the hungry, defend against injustices, and help meet the unmet needs of Marylanders. As we build our capacity for making systemic change through policy and elections we will also need to develop the leadership capabilities, campaign know-how, and political education of our movement. We will do this through a Progressive Leadership Institute which will work to strengthen our movement from the inside out and enable us to have an even stronger progressive movement for years to come.
These are just a few of the next steps that will need to be taken to prepare for the fights to come. This is not a complete answer on where we go from here as that question will be answered in the coming months as we set out to strategize through small and large meetings across the state. However, in this moment it’s important to recognize our history and to see that there is hope for a better future. Another Dr. King quote that is often sought in times like these is his famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, that quote is often taken out of context and therefore robbed of its full meaning. To get a better perspective one must understand the source of the quote from King. In this quote King was actually paraphrasing the words of an abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker, delivered in 1853. His original quote stated “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” In Parker’s words from which King drew inspiration, the key is that he does not simply know for sure that justice is an inevitable outcome of the universe’s trajectory, but it is something that he can divine by conscience. Parker worked and fought as an abolitionist, fighting against a system that had endured at that point for hundreds of years in the country. There were times when he may have not known if slavery would ever come to an end, but he knew that he could “divine it by conscience” -- in other words by his thoughts and actions he could make his vision manifest. We cannot assume that progress will come by chance, but instead by our hard work, intelligent strategy, and the collective discipline it takes to push forward towards a world free of student debt, mass incarceration, and with guaranteed healthcare for all. The roadmap to a better future lies not with any one of us, but all of us and we must remain united in order to grow stronger for the journey that lies ahead.
Larry Stafford is executive director of Progressive Maryland.