THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE IN KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE…

25 06 2017

This report makes extensive use of a paper written by Barbara Bridges and Joel Kennedy, who pulled together most of the basic information and are quoted at great length in it, to the point where it’s hard for me to separate out their contributions from mine. The fairest way to put it is to give them credit as co-authors. Thank you both for your co-operation!

Not long after last month’s broadcast (which you may have heard as a repeat two weeks ago), I found an essay by two Knoxville Green Party members, Barbara Bridges and Joel Kennedy, about the consonance between Knoxville’s “2017 City Council Movement” and the Green Party’s “Ten Key Values.” None of these candidates have been active in The Green Party, but, to me, that doesn’t matter much. The ideas are  FAR more important than the brand.

knoxpeoplepower

Community Movement spokesperson Louise Seamster told me

This group emerged from the Political Caucus arm of the group Rescue and Restoration, a Knoxville community organization dedicated to rescuing the most vulnerable inhabitants of the city from bad public policy and restoring the black community to its former glory. Members have been working for several years on this specific idea: to elect a slate of candidates to city council in a year when 5 incumbents are term-limited.  The work really took off this January with the first People’s Assembly. We are also looking ahead to running candidates at more levels of government next year!

Right now our decision-making process is two-fold. Within our core group we meet frequently and basically employ consensus decision-making models, and we hold open weekly meetings in a community space for this purpose. But our more public process lies in our development of People’s Assemblies, which have happened twice so far this year. Our first People’s Assembly on January 21 brought over 100 people out on the rainy day of the Women’s March! Its success was a clear sign that people are looking for new avenues to participate.   The second People’s Assembly was convened in April, and we learned about the city budget and the participatory budgeting process, and talked in smaller groups about what life is like in our district.

As our movement grows, the People’s Assemblies will become a primary means for the people of Knoxville to educate ourselves on issues, to build our analysis of problems and solutions, and to create avenues for all to participate in decisions. We like that this opens up the political process to people who are unable to vote, for whatever reason (including young people!), and that it broadens participation from a narrow focus on electoral politics. The Assemblies and related decision-making processes will be the main way our city council representatives will be kept accountable to our movement, and a great way for them to get feedback on proposals. We are also conducting research, learning from similar movements in other cities, from the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California to the Jackson Plan in Mississippi, to growing Tennessee movements such as Concerned Citizens for Justice in Chattanooga and Put the People First in Memphis. We are looking into processes like participatory budgeting and community benefit agreements that we’d like to bring into Knoxville, to expand the people’s voice in local decisions. These processes of learning from one another and coming to agreements are absolutely foundational to our goals as a group: our methods are the embodiment of our goals.

I’d add that Nashville’s Nashvillians Organized for Action and Hope certainly belongs on that list, but apparently our homegrown activists have not yet registered on their Knoxville compatriots’ radar. That’s a sign of the fact that this movement is just getting started. Once popular democracy advocates across the state are better connected, and form an organic, from-the-ground-up alternative to the Republicans’ dominance of the state,  things could get really interesting.

Back to Knoxville. On its Facebook page, the 2017 Movement  tells us:

…we’ve got 4 candidates committed to fighting to implement the people’s platform: Seema Singh Perez (District 3), Amelia Parker (District 4), Zimbabwe Matavou (District 6) and Dr. John Butler (District 6)!

There are nine seats on the Council, so even if the Movement wins all its races, it will still need to persuade at least two other council members to turn its ideas into law. As Bernie Sanders showed when he became mayor of Burlington and enacted his program by finding allies among the city’s Republicans, popular democracy movements can cut across traditional political divisions, and change the whole narrative about what “liberal” and “conservative” mean.

Of course, they may not win all, or any, of the seats they are contesting. This year, Knoxville has seen a huge upsurge in the number of candidates running for Council–thirty-one people have entered the race for the five open seats, whose incumbents have been term-limited out of office. The last time there was an election for these seats, in 2013, only the incumbents and two others filed to run, and the incumbents all prevailed. This year there are no incumbents, so things are wide open.

So, who are the 2017 Council Movement’s candidates?

Here’s Amelia Parker’s campaign biography:

“Amelia has worked in the field of human rights for close to two decades, working both at home and abroad. In 2000, she traveled to Ghana to work for the Legal Resources Centre, where she researched the right to work of Sierra Leonean refugees, as well as the human rights implication of water privatization in Ghana. Also during the early part of the 2000s, she served as a Legislative Coordinator for Amnesty International – USA for the state of Tennessee. In 2006, she joined the staff of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Washington, DC as program coordinator where she designed and implemented human rights programming such as the Genocide Teaching Project, which trained law students to teach the lessons of genocide in area high schools, as well as organizing conferences and workshops (on) racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, public education following natural disasters, etc.. Most recently, her focus has been on the domestic implementation of human rights laws in the U.S.

In 2007, she published an article concerning racial inequalities in the U.S. public education system and U.S. non-compliance with international treaty norms, which led to her being a contributing author to the U.S. Human Rights Network’s shadow report on U.S. compliance to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2008.

Amelia went on to lead one of the oldest grassroots organizations in Tennessee, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) for four years, where she helped lead the organization through theory of social change and visioning workshops as well as anti-racism trainings, exploring what it means to be an anti-racist organization. Following her time at SOCM, Amelia became executive director of Peace Brigades International in 2014. Amelia is on the Board of Directors of the Birdhouse Community Center, an active member of the Coalition to Stop School Pushout, and is a founding member of Black Lives Matter Knoxville.”

ameliaparker

She manages to omit mentioning in this extensive curriculum vitae that she has a Doctorate of Law degree from American University, with specialties in international human rights and gender law. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being “overqualified” to serve on a city council, but I’m quite impressed with her background. Taking care of Knoxville is a worthy level of responsibility, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves to be capable of much more than that in the years to come.

Seema Singh Perez says of herself,

My family has lived in the 3rd district since 1976. We emigrated from India when I was 2 and I am now a naturalized citizen of the US. I attended West Hills Elementary School. Bearden Middle School, and Bearden High,  and studied psychology and religion at UT Knoxville.  I have lived in other cities but always considered Knoxville home and returned to raise my family here. My husband and mother are local small business owners. My husband employs people from programs in the city that help disadvantaged youth. My mother runs a behavioral health center, one of the few private facilities that accepts TennCare. I coordinate the Batterers Intervention Program, a court ordered program for perpetrators of domestic violence. (It’s a one-year) program that is an alternative to jail.

I have decided to be involved in local politics because I wanted an active role in changing and affecting policy to be more responsive to underrepresented people.”

seemaperez

One of the 6th district candidates is Zimbabwe Matavou, whose campaign bio, yet to be publicized on the internet, says this about him:

zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Matavou at a community for

“Zimbabwe Matavou was born and raised in Knoxville. His family was displaced during Knoxville’s urban renewal phase. He has been the proprietor of two radical bookstores in Knoxville. He has served on the Committee for the Development of the Black Community. He is President of the Black Business / Contractors Association. Zimbabwe is an advocate for neighborhood development, which he defines as public policy initiatives which place neighborhoods at the center of economic development rather than the central business district. Economic development, education, and politics are essential elements of any neighborhood development agenda. For Knoxville specifically, development efforts should focus on the restoration of communities in the Park City, Mechanicsville, and Lonsdale neighborhoods, which are historically underserved areas with predominantly underrepresented populations. Tax increment financing and other municipal subsidies for outside developers should be SUSPENDED in the downtown area. Downtown Knoxville is a thriving bustling economy that does not require government incentives to encourage businesses to locate there. Instead, those same tax deferments and other economic incentives for business owners should be directed into restoring locally owned neighborhood businesses in Park City, Mechanicsville, and Lonsdale. Those three neighborhoods should be central to any public policy debate or decisions in Knoxville.”butlerdoesit

I don’t mean to lessen my appreciation for Ms. Perez or Mr. Matavou, who I believe are well qualified to make decisions for the greater good of Knoxville, but Rev. Butler, like Ms. Parker, has an extremely impressive resume. It’s so impressive I don’t have enough time to run through it all, so I’ll give you the highlights.

He left a thirteen-year career as Commissioned Officer in the US Army to enter divinity school, and has been an African-Episcopal Methodist Minister for over twenty years. During that time, he has served on numerous government panels, across a spectrum that runs from making sure that older citizens are receiving proper care and services, through AIDS care and energy efficiency, to making sure that schools and communities provide for at-risk youth. He has taught college, chaired the local chapter of the NAACP, run rural re-development programs, and raised a family.
There are individuals in Tennessee who could play the role, and assume the stature, of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays founder Rev. William Barber, and Rev. Butler is definitely one of them. Our laughingstock legislature deserves a conscience. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. I hope Rev. Butler gets the chance. Serving on Knoxville’s City Council would be a good platform to start from.

At first I was surprised by the fact that the 2017 Movement has these two very different candidates, a mainstream preacher and a political radical, running in the 6th District, but then my Knoxville correspondents, Louise and Barbara, explained the peculiarities of Knoxville’s electoral system to me. While each Council district votes for its preferred candidates in the primary, on August 29th, the top two candidates then face off in a city-wide election in November. Barbara points out that this is “inherently racist and undemocratic.” It allows Knoxville’s white majority to choose the least threatening minority representatives, whether they are the first choice of their own community or not. That’s bizarre, but we’re not going to change it in the course of this election cycle. Rev. Butler appeals to more mainstream African-American voters, while Zimbabwe Matavou appeals to voters who are more secular and politically radical. They are working together. Their aim is to be the joint winners of the District 6 primary, ensuring that one of them will make it onto the City Council.

Candidates Parker and Perez asked for Knox County Green Party endorsement, and received it. Butler and Matavou didn’t ask, but Knox Greens are firmly behind them, and the 2017 Movement. Let’s take a break with a song that’s popular with the Movement 2017 folks, and after that I’ll talk about the relationship between their goals and the Green Party’s Ten Key Values.

music: Fabolous – Make Me Better ft. Ne-Yo

So…let’s compare the Green Party’s “Ten Key Values” with the City Council Movement’s platform. Again, my thanks to Barbara Bridges and Joel Kennedy, who wrote the paper on which this post is based, and whom I am frequently quoting verbatim.

The first of the “ten key values” is Grassroots Democracy. Here’s one way the GP expresses that:

All human beings must be allowed a say in decisions that affect their lives; no one should be subject to the will of another. We work to improve public participation in every aspect of government and seek to ensure that our public representatives are fully accountable to the people who elect them. We also work to create new types of political organizations that expand the process of participatory democracy by directly including citizens in decision-making.

This quote from the Knoxville group’s manifesto echoes and enlarges that:

It is time to make effective changes in the way our government is run and manipulated by special interest groups. It is time to open the local budget process for public input and transparency regarding how public funds are spent. It is past time to bring community voices into political decision making. As local residents and engaged voters who live, work, and pay taxes in this city, we publicly declare that ‘WE THE PEOPLE’ know best how to run our own communities. We have a right to be heard and represented in our city’s daily governance, which includes city management, budgeting, and development. We insist political decisions regarding our lives and our communities are not controlled by large corporations or their local, state, and national representatives. We are committed. We affirm to correct our course and invite others of goodwill and intent to join us and add their energy, vision, courage, and commitment to our process of building better communities.

The second of our key values is Social Justice And Equal Opportunity:

As a matter of right, all persons must have the opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, any discrimination by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, religion, or physical or mental ability that denies fair treatment and equal justice under the law.

And, from the 2017 City Council Movement Mission Statement,

The 2017 City Council Movement was developed from the political caucus of Rescue and Restoration. Rescue and Restoration is a community organizing effort established in 2014 to address health, political, education, and economic issues that affect predominantly African-American communities. The Movement’s Mission is to strengthen the people’s political power by holding elected officials accountable via organizing, education, and participatory democracy; and secure political representatives who maintain practices and implement projects that demonstrate viable effective economic and social impact on people of color, the working class, and marginalized communities.

Ecological Wisdom is the third key value:

Human societies must function with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society that utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation. To this end we must practice agriculture that replenishes the soil, move to an energy-efficient economy, and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems.

From the 2017 City Council Movement’s People Centered Platform:

“We seek to improve access to mental and physical health services, especially primary and preventive care; high-quality public education; healthy food; transportation; housing, including alternative housing options; a healthy environment; safety; technology, including city-wide broadband internet; and recreation.”

Those are all aspects of a healthy city ecology.

croppedcouncil

candidates Parker, Butler, and Perez

The Green Party’s statement on Non-Violence reads

It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence. We will work to demilitarize and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments. We recognize the need for self-defense and the defense of others who are in danger. We promote non-violent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and will guide our actions toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

As the campaign biographies I cited earlier demonstrate, all of the 2017 Movement’s candidates have a strong grounding in non-violence. Helping domestic violence perpetrators and racists come to grips with their conditioning,  campaigning for greater recognition of  human rights violations by the US government, mobilizing a Black Lives Matter chapter, campaigning for grass-roots community development as an alternative to stricter police enforcement and a corporate-dominated economy,   and steering an active NAACP chapter, to touch on a few details, are all part of the daily  work of transforming a society based on fear and domination into one based on love, equality, and mutual respect.

The fifth of the Ten Key Values is Decentralization, about which Greens write:

Centralization of wealth and power contributes to social and economic injustice, environmental destruction, and militarization. We seek a restructuring of social, political and economic institutions away from a system controlled by and mostly benefiting the powerful few, to a democratic, less bureaucratic system. Decision-making should, as much as possible, remain at the individual and local level, while assuring that civil rights are protected for all.

 

Here’s how the Knoxville group calls for the application of those general principles:

✫ Expanding democracy and civic engagement

✫ Pursuing transparency, public input and oversight

✫ Focusing on alleviating poverty & improving our health and well-being

✫ Funding projects that benefit whole neighborhoods & communities

✫ Democracy in action through participatory budgeting, community assemblies & public workshops & forums

✫ Supporting equitable and transparent access to all city services

Those are topic sentences for agreements that need to be negotiated later, but that’s how the rubber meets the road when you’re transforming a hierarchical, centralized economy into a democratic, locally controlled one.

Community-Based Economics is the 6th of the Ten Key Values, and it’s very much an integral extension of “Decentralization.” Decentralization isn’t about dethroning the kings of industry and leaving a thousand local barons in control. It’s about dethroning the thousand local barons and allowing people to control their own lives, and to join with their neighbors and co-workers in controlling the community institutions that affect them all. Here’s how the Green Party states it:

We support redesigning our work structures to encourage employee ownership and workplace democracy. We support developing new economic activities and institutions that allow us to use technology in ways that are humane, freeing, ecological, and responsive and accountable to communities. We support establishing a form of basic economic security open to all. We call for moving beyond the narrow ‘job ethic’ to new definitions of ‘work,’ ‘jobs’ and ‘income’ in a cooperative and democratic economy. We support restructuring our patterns of income distribution to reflect the wealth created by those outside the formal monetary economy – those who take responsibility for parenting, housekeeping, home gardens, community volunteer work, and the like. We support restricting the size and concentrated power of corporations without discouraging superior efficiency or technological innovation.

These are bold steps to actually undertake, and are made difficult by the expectations and legal structures of our society. It takes power to make such things happen, and until the Movement, or those who appreciate its ideas and ideals, actually take power, this key value is more of an aspiration that a reality. When the Movement’s candidates speak of  “Social change” and “policies that are more responsive to under-represented people,” and “neighborhood development,” I think they understand that bringing in chain stores and other large corporations that pay low wages and send their profits out of the community does not develop a neighborhood in any positive way, is not a policy that is “more responsive” to the needs of “under-represented people,” and is not in any way desirable “social change.” It’s not quite fashionable yet to call openly for transforming America into a co-operative, rather than a competitive, society, but this is the language we find in the waters that swirl around such a sea change.

Here’s the Green Party’s statement on “Feminism And Gender Equity:”

We have inherited a social system based on male domination of politics and economics. We call for the replacement of the cultural ethics of domination and control with cooperative ways of interacting that respect differences of opinion and gender. Human values such as gender equity, interpersonal responsibility, and honesty must be developed with moral conscience. We recognize that the processes for determining our decisions and actions are just as important as achieving the outcomes we want.

 

There you have it folks. The Green Party’s Feminism statement uses the c-word: co-operation. It is most definitely a “feminine” value, and there are many accounts of human pre-history that look at the evidence and suggest that we started going astray when the male hunters stopped listening to, and deferring to, the grandmothers, and thus went from being a co-operative society to being a competitive one.

Once again, the Knoxville Movement shows us the way this value plays out in daily life.

Two its four candidates are women.

A majority of the leadership and many volunteers are women.

Its main issues, housing, health, and education, are addressed from women’s perspectives.

Those three statements are adapted from information sent to me by Louise Seamster, a member of the group who has answered many questions for me in the course of putting this story together. I think her use of the phrase “women’s perspectives,”  both words plural, is a subtle but very important signal, and the decision to view these issues from a  feminine perspective is only the beginning of that. The fact that the words  are plural shows comfort with the reality of multiple perspectives . That’s  one of the “mental places” where the personal and the political meet.

2017

The Green Party expresses the eighth of the key values, respect For diversity, in these words:

We believe it is important to value cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity, and to promote the development of respectful relationships across the human spectrum. We believe that the many diverse elements of society should be reflected in our organizations and decision-making bodies, and we support the leadership of people who have been traditionally closed out of leadership roles. We encourage respect for all life forms, and increased attention to the preservation of biodiversity.

The Knoxville movement says of itself:

All four of our candidates are people of color. The Knoxville Movement’s essential focus is on building the local political power of people of color, working class, and marginalized communities. All four candidates support equal rights for LGBTQ folks.

 

Knoxville is a majority-white city in the very whitest part of Tennessee. Its African-American and other non-Caucasian communities are a significant minority, but very much a minority, and have been systematically oppressed by both the conscious and the unconscious exercise of white privilege.  Tennessee, as a state, has elected a legislature that is infamous nationwide for its gratuitous attacks on those who are sexually, racially, culturally,or even just politically out of compliance with their narrow, reactionary view of How God Intended It To Be–not just individuals or demographics, but even whole cities have been denied the right make their own decisions.

In Knoxville, and through most of the rest of the state, appeals to candidates in “the traditional political class” have gotten nowhere. “Traditional” politicians in America, Democrats as well as Republicans, are pretty universally wedded to the corporate agenda, and are not interested in jumping ship and being genuine populists. It’s time for people to take government into their own hands. It’s too important to be left to professional politicians. And if the prostitu- I mean professionals–don’t want to give it up, we the people have ways to nonviolently contest their desire to keep it, and those ways will, in the end, win.

The ninth of the key values is, “Personal And Global Responsibility:”

We encourage individuals to act to improve their personal wellbeing and, at the same time, to enhance ecological balance and social harmony. We seek to join with people and organizations around the world to foster peace, economic justice, and the health of the planet.

Candidates Parker and Perez, in particular, have done work that connects changing people’s minds with changing social policy. One great weakness of our government’s adoption of a large part of the Civil Rights and feminist agendas over the last fifty years is that the importance of facilitating the psychological changes that needed to accompany the legal changes got lost, and unscrupulous reactionaries hCWmanipulated white Americans into resenting those who have just acquired their justified rights when the real problem is the selfish reactionaries who are ripping off everyone without regard to race, creed, gender, or sexual preference.

Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967

The other great weakness of government-enforced racial and gender equality is, of course, the deletion of the part of those movements that understands that capitalism is inherently hierarchical and exploitive, and that all efforts to create a kinder, gentler capitalism will ultimately be undone by people who have been raised to be selfish. And no, I’m sorry, I don’t have a short answer for how to change that. Another time.

The tenth, in a way the culminating, Key Value is “Future Focus And Sustainability”:

Our actions and policies should be motivated by long-term goals. We seek to protect valuable natural resources, safely disposing of or ‘unmaking’ all waste we create, while developing a sustainable economics that does not depend on continual expansion for survival. We must counterbalance the drive for short-term profits by assuring that economic development, new technologies, and fiscal policies are responsible to future generations who will inherit the results of our actions. We must make the quality of all lives, rather than open-ended economic growth, the focus of future thinking and policy.

From the 2017 City Council Movement Goals:

1. Organize people of color, working class, and marginalized communities to build local political power for the specific purpose of greatly improving these communities.

2. Establish a community-led process that models democracy in action.

3. Elect public representatives who maintain community accountability and adequately represent the needs of all residents including racially diverse and economically challenged communities that have been traditionally underserved.

4. Engage all public officials in the process of improving services to these communities.

5. Host city-wide and district workshops, forums, and assemblies; and restructure civic engagement in marginalized communities for the purpose of achieving these goals.

I’ve been involved in a City Council race here in Nashville, and I know that these elections tend to focus on short-term issues: street repair, zoning, and community services. It’s difficult to get people to think in terms of the long-term sustainability of the systems they have lived with for their entire lives, whether it’s the economic system, the political system, or the social system. It’s difficult to change the trajectories of those systems, even when we can clearly see that they need changing, but the first step in the process is setting up mechanisms that will allow more long-range vision to be part of the political process, and the Community Movement’s goals are the ones that, if enacted, will start that process into motion.

So yes, there are plenty of parallels between The Green Party’s ten key values and the Knoxville Community Movement.  Does that mean we think they “should” be Green Party members?

No. The Green Party is not, ultimately, about creating a brand. The Green Party is about spreading ideas, and those ideas are the same ones that crop up whenever people ask themselves what a more equitable world would look like. Our ideas are as generic as water. We don’t care if we get the credit, we just want to see the job get done, and the Knoxville Movement is doing it. We wish them every success.

Music: Bob Marley, “Get Up, Stand Up

Material: “Glory

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