Peralta Community College District's Only Student-Run Publication
Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

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    Despite stigma, socialists succeed in Oakland and beyond

    Seattle politician Kshama Sawant raises 15 grand at Oakland rally, credits Sanders campaign

    by KR Nava

    Universal healthcare. Common ownership. Social democracy. Equality. Unity. For the people.

    Walk up to a group of Laney College students and ask them what they think socialism is about, and those are the answers you’ll get. History, it seems, has sloughed off the stigma of socialism.

    At a roundtable interview with six Laney students from Professor Scott Godfrey’s Political Theory class, the students agree that they’d have no problem voting for or supporting a candidate despite — or even because of — their association with socialism.

    And how do they feel about the most prominent politician associated with the term, Bernie Sanders?

    Maurice Berk-Wakeman puts it succinctly: “He has common sense.”

    Berk-Wakeman is a 16-year-old student concurrently enrolled at the Oakland School for the Arts and at Laney. He identifies himself as a liberal democrat, and even though none of his comrades at the roundtable identify with the same label, they all seem to be on the same political page.

    Bernadette Steele considers herself a moderate, while Shawn Gray chooses instead the label of independent, but both express liberal — and even socialist — sentiments. Cristina Grappo and Eric Saechin identify as a conservative Democrat and a liberal respectively, but both feel they’re betted defined by the policies they support.

    Meanwhile, Suraksha Basnet, a Political Science major at Laney hailing from Nepal, doesn’t align herself with a label at all. “I believe in democracy,” she says, “but I would definitely make changes if I was a leader of a country where I gave democracy to people: I would define it with my own words.”

    Even those who are pillars in local socialist organizations choose unique, contrasting labels. Erin Brightwell, a prominent organizer in Oakland’s branch of the Socialist Alternative party, chooses simply the term socialist. Alessandro Tinonga, who attended Laney from 2009 to 2012 and is an active member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), chooses instead international socialist, defining himself by the fight for “a world that’s free from pollution, where everyone can get an education, and everyone can have a very healthy life.”

    In other words, the students in the roundtable and the individuals involved in socialist organizing together form a microcosm of politically-minded left-of-center folks in the United States: They’re all liberal in some way, they’re all at least mildly idealistic, they all disagree with each other on one point or another, but do so respectfully — and they all think they’re right.

    “I think I’m right. But all the people who picked up their stuff from their parents also think they’re right.”

    “I picked up almost everything I believe from my parents, I think like most people did,” Berk-Wakeman says. “And the thing is I think I’m right. But all the people who picked up their stuff from their parents also think they’re right.

    “But I think I’m really right.” The group laughs.

    And yet what Berk-Wakeman picks up on is a problem plaguing all of modern politics, especially in U.S. progressive circles.

    What does being right mean when you’re on the left?

    Workers Divided
    This question seems to be on the minds of all the socialists under the roof of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland on September 19. They’re here as part of a rally for Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city councilmember who runs under the Socialist Alternative party.

    But the elephant in the room seems to be Senator Sanders. What does it mean for him to have staked out a peculiar and complex position as a very socialist-friendly politician running for a very socialist-unfriendly party?

    Socialist Alternative, the ISO, the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), the Project for a Working People’s World (PWPW), the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality and State Repression, and other socialist or socialist-friendly organizations all have showings at the event. And each group seems to see Sanders from wildly different vantage points.

    The PFP gives out flyers for an October 3 event called “Bernie and Beyond,” described as asking the “hard questions” about Sanders. The ISO advertises an event on the same day called “Should you vote for Bernie Sanders?” — a question they’re not asking rhetorically. The PWPW distributes a double-sided diatribe about the dangers of supporting Sanders that begins with the declaration, “It is practically certain that Sanders will not win the nomination of the Democratic Party.”

    In contrast, invoking Sanders’s name during the event often compels joyous hoots and hollers. Yet when Chris Hedges, a renowned international journalist and one of the evening’s speakers, admits — albeit with a bit of reluctance — that he does not support Sanders, another rousing cheer goes out from a section of the crowd.

    If one of the most dangerous aspects of party politics is groupthink, then the people in this room have certainly dodged that bullet.

    Workers United
    Still, these are a united people with shared goals. After decades of working to ensure that the socialist ideology survived in the public consciousness, now — whether because or in spite of Sanders — socialists can focus on making socialism thrive. And Kshama Sawant is key.

    Quoting United Kingdom Socialist Party Deputy General Secretary Hannah Sell on the recent election of leftist Jeremy Corbyn to the head of Britain’s Labour Party, Brightwell kicks off the Sawant rally by declaring that “socialism is making a comeback.”

    “War, desperate poverty, and instability are the realities of life in large areas of the world. It is no wonder that working people are demanding an end to the domination of the 1%.”

    “If you a take a serious look at the world, [this] is no surprise,” Brightwell says, her voice calm and moderate. “Workers’ living standards are actually going down… A system of brutal racist policing continues to steal the lives of Black and brown people.

    “War, desperate poverty, and instability are the realities of life in large areas of the world. The land, air, and water all of us need to survive on this planet are being destroyed in the name of profit. It is no wonder that working people are demanding an end to the domination of the 1%.”

    Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
    It’s not only this broad vision that seems to have drawn people to the event, but also the way that socialists have found ways to strike the roots of these problems at the local level.

    “Raising the minimum wage, trying to get single payer healthcare, fighting for women’s right to choose, stopping the racist attacks against people of color — I think that all these fights in one way or another are fights against one part of the capitalist system,” Tinonga says.

    Seraphina Cobeen, the night’s first speaker, wants to show Bay Area residents how to win these small fights that end up making huge impacts. A working class activist leading the organization 15 Now’s charge for a $15 minimum wage in Berkeley, Cobeen calls on locals to learn from Sawant’s success in achieving that very goal.

    “Here in the Bay Area, these movements have special urgency. The massive profits generated in the tech industry have caused rents to skyrocket,” Cobeen says. “This sharp rise has pushed low-wage workers out of their homes, and forced them to commute long hours to work the service and retail jobs at the business that have gentrified their former homes.”

    Pointing to the fact that Oakland, Emeryville, and San Francisco have all passed ordinances to raise their minimum wages in the last year, she concludes: “The mood is ripe for a higher minimum wage!”

    “We need to present an alternative to those who favor money over people. That is what Kshama Sawant is doing in Seattle, and that is what we are doing in Richmond.”

    The next speaker is Gayle McLaughlin, who served as mayor of nearby Richmond for eight years and who has now returned to its City Council — despite a reported $3 million being funneled into the election by Chevron against her.

    (Chevron, of course, owns an oil refinery in Richmond, and is the largest employer in the city.)

    Despite the odds, McLaughlin, a co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, has managed to both “leftify” Richmond’s local government and help pass the first new rent control ordinance in California in 30 years.

    “We need to join efforts to broaden and strengthen our movement, and present an alternative to those who favor money over people,” McLaughlin says of the left bent to local politics she’s pushing for. “That is what Kshama and her colleagues are is doing in Seattle, and that is what we are doing in Richmond.”

    This is the recurring theme of the evening: solidarity across cities and goals. It’s brought home by Sawant in her neat summation of the ideal strategy for strengthening her and her allies’ political efficacy.

    “My sisters and brothers, a sense of victory, a sense that we could have an impact, is extremely critical for us to be able to build a movement,” she says at the climax of her speech.

    “We won’t always win every struggle, but we have to win some — in order to show the way, in order to show that we can actually succeed. And that is what we’ve done in Seattle.”

    The room’s energy by this point is certainly one of concurrence, of a therapeutic commiseration over a common enemy.

    “[The event] shows how much hunger there is for a change in the political system towards candidates who actually represent working people.”

    “We raised $15,000 for a candidate who’s not even running for office in California,” Brightwell, who served as the event’s chairperson, says of Sawant’s success. “She’s out of state! We raised $15,000 from ordinary people for a candidate in Washington.”

    Brightwell believes that naysayers who color socialism or socialist politics as too radical or too unrealistic are ignoring reality.

    “If you look at Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant’s record in Seattle, we’ve already proven that it is possible,” she says. “[The event] shows how much hunger there is for a change in the political system towards candidates who actually represent working people and who don’t take money from corporations.”

    Wars at Home and Abroad
    Laney College students seem to all find Sawant’s success as a positive reflection of their home. “The Bay Area in general is an open and accepting place, especially in Oakland; I’m not surprised,” Steele says. The group concurs.

    “There’s a lot of liberals out here, especially with how diverse our community is. They’re basically willing to take anything that makes change,” Saechin says. “[Having Sawant here] is better than having no one to speak up for them.”

    Kevin Lee, a lifelong Oakland resident and Kinesiology major at Laney, believes “it’s a reflection of the times and the environment. You have a populace that wants change and what they’ve been receiving for generations has not been significant. If you have Democrats and Republicans, and that’s all you get all the time, and it’s not working out for you, and you see someone in between — yeah, you’re going to flock to them.”

    B.K. Elias, another Oakland resident and Laney student, also sees it as an outgrowth of a local impulse for a new political paradigm.

    “It may seem refreshing to have another way of looking at life or have a possibility of changing a system that many believe to be flawed,” she says, herself included. “Unfortunately, I have a very hard time trusting what any politician has to say.”

    It turns out that politics for many Laney students is tinged with a warmth toward socialism, yet heavily influenced by a much colder skepticism. “People want real change,” Taija Horne says of Sawant’s success.

    Horne, 32, is a Psychology and Social Work major at Laney, and she’s convinced that there are no answers in mainstream politics. “We’ve dealt with Republicans and Democrats for long enough and it’s always the same,” she says, citing perpetual war, political corruption, and the Citizens United ruling as markers of a broken political system. “We are finding out that Democrats do about as much as Republicans, which is nothing.”

    Yet despite these criticisms, Laney students as a whole seem very open to the idea of supporting or voting for Sanders, who’s running as a Democratic candidate and so is now part of mainstream politics.

    The few holdouts do so for personal reasons: Grappo says she’d be comfortable with Sanders in office — if she were in office beside him. Basnet, who plans to return to Nepal, says it doesn’t matter to her.

    “Everybody’s talking about the candidates and who they want, and minimum wage going up, and employment,” she says, “but no one realizes that the next President of the United States is going to impact the rest of the world in a very big way.”

    “There will be no progress until we break the militarism of those who engage in endless imperialist wars.”

    “You’re saying we’re more focused on us rather than everybody else?” Gray asks Basnet.

    “Yes. [We live] a very comfortable life as it is. But the President of the United States makes a lot of other people’s lives very uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s not just about raising the minimum wage. of Americans.

    “It’s about thinking about the rest of the world and thinking about how they are going to be impacted by Bernie Sanders or whoever the next president is going to be.”

    She is not alone in thinking this way. Concerns over U.S. imperialism and the global effects of U.S. foreign and military policies come to a head during the most stunning, rousing part of Kshama Sawant’s rally: a speech given by Chris Hedges, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his work at The New York Times covering global terrorism.

    “There will be no progress, there will be no reform, there will be no return of our democracy,” Hedges says, “until we break the militarism and the war profiteers and those who engage in endless imperialist wars.”

    Hedges urges the room to think seriously about how far they’re willing to go to destroy what he calls the U.S. war machine.

    “We had the bloodiest labor wars of any industrial country: hundreds of American workers were killed, thousands were wounded, tens of thousands were blacklisted,” Hedges says dramatically — and deadly seriously.

    “We’re going to have back to our roots. We’re going to have to find that kind of courage. And we’re going to have expect that kind of response.”

    Finding Time to Fight
    Laney students by no means paint themselves as warriors. When it comes to joining a socialist movement or organization, the students at the roundtable fall justifiably back into their chairs.

    Laney students have jobs, and often more than one; they have spouses and children. They have families to support; some simply struggle to support themselves. Is it fair to demand that, amid these injustices, they put more on the line?

    Tinonga, an active member of the ISO, knows all too well the intersection of pressing, personal off-campus demands and a passionate political drive.

    The ISO Club’s “No Cuts Laney Coalition” culminated in a 1,000-student walk-out. Laney students marched into downtown Oakland, protesting statewide cuts to education.

    Tinonga enrolled at Laney College in 2009, and was in the process of getting his Labor certification when he left the school to work for a nonprofit. “[But] the reason I was able to get that job was because of the skills I learned at the Labor program at Laney,” says Tinonga.

    Tinonga also started Laney’s ISO Club, the effect of which could be felt all across Laney’s campus over the course of its four-year run from 2009 to 2013. It put on ambitious events, often in conjunction with the Black Student Union, including a visit from Dr. John Carlos, one of the Olympic athletes who raised their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Tinonga recalls that event drawing in hundreds.

    But the ISO Club’s greatest achievement may be the 2010 creation of the “No Cuts Laney Coalition,” culminating in a 1,000-student walk-out. Laney students marched into downtown Oakland, protesting statewide cuts to education, and there joined with a contingent from the other Peralta Colleges and UC Berkeley.

    Tinonga remembers them shutting down downtown Oakland for most of the afternoon. Tinonga says that this work at Laney College, as well his time there, reinforced what he believed about working class people.

    “When they actually see [that] powerful Marxist politics are kind of a guide to change the world,” he says, “I think that people actually, despite all that commitment that they have in their life, find time to make activism part of their life.”

    Now is the Time
    At Socialist Alternative, Brightwell knows that colleges like Laney represent wellsprings of political students aching to see — and make — impactful change happen.

    “Working class students are so squeezed these days financially, worse than 20 years ago… so it’s a little harder to reach [them], but it’s definitely a demographic that I think we need to find a way to talk to,” Brightwell says.

    But if socialists are going to organize students like those at Laney — to echo McLaughlin’s words — now is the time.

    Their Oakland, Their Now

    Affordable housing, gentrification and displacement, police brutality, cuts to education: Laney students all agree that these are the most pressing issues of their Oakland, and their now.

    It just so happens that these are exactly the issues socialists have decades of experience dealing with. And it also happens that Laney students’ now is the time when their political consciousnesses begin to evolve in groundbreaking ways.

    When students get to Laney College, from wherever they come, that the mood is ripe for real, meaningful change.

    Tinonga, for example, began his journey right before college, and had it catalyzed by the beginning of the Iraq War. Brightwell’s journey was sparked by her time at UC Berkeley, when the Rodney King riots highlighted for her the entrenched nature of poverty and racism in the U.S.

    At Laney, both Steele and Gray were called to politics after taking their first political science courses. Horne’s and Saechin’s entries into politics were inevitable, brought about by their 18th birthdays and their newfound ability to vote.

    Whether because they’re at this politically evolutionary age, or because they’re taking classes with those students who are going through this process, or even because they never abandoned or forgot that political spirit in the first place: when students find themselves at Laney College, something important clicks.

    It’s around this time when the rich political climate and broken social landscape of the Oakland that surrounds their school’s campus triggers something revolutionary in students.

    In other words, it’s when students get to Laney College, from wherever they come, that — now echoing Cobeen — the mood is ripe for real, meaningful change.

    About the Contributor
    In the fall of 2019, The Laney Tower rebranded as The Citizen and launched a new website. These stories were ported over from the old Laney Tower website, but byline metadata was lost in the port. However, many of these stories credit the authors in the text of the story. Some articles may also suffer from formatting issues. Future archival efforts may fix these issues.  
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