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LIVE from Atlanta: Netroots Nation hears from Ben Jealous and Elizabeth Warren

Good morning, and welcome back to our continuing live coverage of Netroots Nation 2017, taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Attendees are once again coming together in the Centennial Ballroom for a morning plenary session with Elizabeth Warren and many other distinguished speakers.

The Rev. angel Kyodo williams, author of Radical Dharma, returned to open the session and warm up the crowd. She referenced the news of the weekend’s white supremacist march on the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Acknowledge a lot of us are feeling some anxiety about what may be going on in Charlottesville,” referencing the white racism march on the University of Virginia there. “We are standing with them.”

Williams said it wasn’t an accident that the right continued to use the strategy of distraction to try to split the attention of people on the left, but warned that it wasn’t possible think our way out of distraction. “We have to have a practice,” she said. “We have to know what matters to us so we don’t get distracted.”

Williams said those looking to resist the efforts of the radical right and hate-filled white supremacist groups need to “take care of ourselves and we do the work that allows us to be resilient, that allows us to be sustainable.”

Democratic Representative Stacey Evans then took the stage to speak about her candidacy for Governor of Georgia. Evans is competing for the Democratic nomination with fellow State Representative Stacey Abrams, who was enthusiastically received by the convention during Thursday’s evening plenary.

Shortly after Evans began her speech, protesters walked to the front to confront her with signs comparing her to Department of Education head Betsy DeVos and chanting “Trust Black Women”. In the hall, at the front tables, the protesters’ chants drowned out the audio of Evans’ speech, but on the livestream, only Evans’ rebuttals and the larger crowd noise were audible.

At first, Evans tried to disarm it with a joke.

“Oh, come on,” Evans said. “Betsy DeVos is scared of bears. I’m not scared of bears. I’m scared of Republicans.”

That didn’t dissuade the protesters at the front of the room, and some in the audience began a sporadic counter chant of, “Let her speak! Let her speak!”

Evans made attempts to continue with her speech, appealing to Democratic values “Do we want to drown out each other, or do we want to drown out Trump?”

But even with the microphone, she spent the first five minutes of her time without control of the room of ability to continue her prepared speech.

“The South has her problems,” Evans said, “but I can think of another movement that started right here,” referencing the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, she drew a contrast with the protesters in front of her, who she characterized as unwilling to engage in dialogue.

Evans did eventually return to her prepared remarks, determined to finish her speech and offering a biographical sketch. Evans comes from rural Georgia, utilized a scholarship to go to law school, and first won election to the state Legislature in 2010. She spoke of uniting despite differences against common enemies.

The Rev. williams then came back on stage to ease the tension stirred up in the convention hall prior to the introduction of the next speaker.

“This is what democracy looks like, y’all,” she said, while noting she would have confronted Evans differently (and more respectfully).

“That is peaceful protest, and that’s all right.”

Williams made an effort to bring the two sides together, pointing out that Repfdxdngzgi d Evans, a white woman, didn’t ask to have the protesters removed as they demonstrated, and she pointed out they were right to ask to trust black women. But if there was going to be a conflict, it was a sign that a conversation needed to happen between groups who might be from different styles of disagreement as much as different values.

“We need to conflict well.”

The next speaker, Vice President of the National Education Association Becky Pringle, was not interrupted and proceeded to give a very passionate speech.

Pringle reminded the crowd that the NEA is the largest union in the nation before going on to list some of the worst threats to education (both existing and looming) coming from the Trump/DeVos regime, which took power in early 2017.

Explaining how she views Trump, Pringle quoted the poet Maya Angelou (“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”)

Already, she said, the administration had made it clear their agenda was to destroy public schools, cutting the budget for federal education dollars, as well as denying a safe learning environment for trans students, jeopardizing Title IX protections, trying to privatize the education for students with special needs, and most ridiculously, supporting guns in classrooms to protect against grizzly bears.

“We should have believed them.”

Pringle said that as disheartening as recent developments have been, progressives have to find a way to mount an effective defense.

“We need you to demand every public school looks like our best public schools!” Pringle said. “When they say we can’t afford it, call them up and tell them you could afford it for some of our children, but not for all of our children.”

Pringle pointed out that’s easy to feel inspired by accomplishments in the past but it’s much more difficult to be inspired in the present.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat, it wasn’t a quick or easy fight for those who worked to end segregation and Jim Crow laws.

“For three hundred and eighty-one days they walked, and their feet bled. … They demonstrated they were willing to do whatever it takes to bring about a better world,” Pringle said. “It is our time to demand what’s right.”

In order to do that, progressives need to support the right to collectively organize and be the most dangerous collective voice against the regime and the forces that want to slowly eviscerate our public schools (and our colleges and universities).

“Our babies are depending on us to be worthy of them,” Pringle said.

“There’s no turning back.”

Ben Jealous, former NAACP president and a candidate for governor of Maryland, followed, echoing Pringle’s sentiment about needing to be strong in the wake of the psychic damage of the Trump election.

Referencing the Serenity Prayer, he said the most important thing is to know what you can change — because Republicans certainly do.

“They now have enough governorships [38 of 50] to re-write the Constitution if they can get their state legislatures to go along with them,” Jealous said.

The paucity of executive branch control not just at the presidential level but in the state level has resulted from Democrats losing their way in what they talk about and care about, Jealous said.

Progressive figures of the past like John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. weren’t just on fire for fighting civil rights injustice, “they were also on fire for ending poverty and expanding opportunity”

Their successes were centered in economic justice, and in all of the disagreements looking back to the past for the best way forward, that model seemed pretty clear.

“In other words,” Jealous said, “I would suggest that we run as Democrats. Republican-lite just don’t cut it.”

Originally from Baltimore, Jealous said that his family was able to go from his mother growing up in housing projects to him attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in one generation. It took hard work but also a context in which hard work could be enough for success.

That included as affordable higher education for everyone, high school education that readied graduates for the contemporary labor market, and union jobs that were plentiful and easy to find so more things could be affordable for more people. Now, people had to be lucky just to get by.

Jealous said this message would be appealing not just to the people in the room but across the nation, from downtown Chicago to the Ozarks where a room’s color diversity tended to be restricted to the camo pattern.

Paraphrasing his colleague the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, he said, “If someone is fool enough to ask ‘Is it race or is it class?’… just say ‘Yes’.”

To illustrate this, Jealous told the story of speaking with a Trump voter whose most important question was whether Jealous supported single-payer healthcare.

When Jealous said he did, the man replied, “I’ll vote for you, and I’ll organize other Trump voters to vote for you, too.”

Jealous elaborated that the man, his company’s financial manager, told him that despite believing in a robust private sector, he had come to realize that healthcare must be a provided as a public service for the benefit of all.

That Trump voter gets it. If we continue to rely on large, for-profit companies, we will have a healthcare system that serves the few instead of the many. Small business owners need healthcare provided as a public service to control their costs.

With that as an example, Jealous said rather than running toward the right or the left on the issue, to win he was going to “run toward the people.”

That includes getting more people involved and represented. Jealous listed margins in close states Hillary Clinton lost in the 2016 presidential election, then pointed out those margins are exceeded by the number of unregistered people of color in each of those states, sometimes by a factor of more than twice as much.

“The antidote to massive voter suppression has always been massive voter registration,” Jealous said. “So let’s go do it.”

When Saturday morning’s keynote speaker U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren came up on stage, she echoed Jealous’ theme of running towards the people.

Warren pushed back against a New York Times opinion piece that argued that in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and continued minorities in Congress, Democrats needed to “return to the center” and ditch identity politics.

She said, that thanks to the efforts of progressives like the 3,000 cheering Netroots Nation attendees in the room with her, the party isn’t going back to milquetoast centrist policies like gutting assistance for the needy or lukewarm support on women’s reproductive choice or groveling on Wall Street for corporate scraps.

“We wanted a movement, and now look around,” Warren said.

Progressives are now the heart of the Democratic Party, but Warren said there didn’t need to be a choice of either the disaffected white working class or Black Lives Matter, or a run to the center to split the difference between them. The same message of protecting people from over-powerful forces already spoke to both.

“We can care about the dad who’s worried that his kid will have to move away from his factory town to find decent work and we can care about a mom who’s worried her kid will get shot at a traffic stop,” Warren said.

“The system is rigged against both of them and against their kids.”

In all of the economic games of recent decades, most people haven’t seen those benefits. Rather than being a place where everyone can get a fair shot, the feeling is that our nation’s institutions on Capitol Hill only work to the benefit of the rich and powerful. Warren contended that’s why Trump was able to appeal to lots of people who should have been Democratic voters.

But the system is rigged even more now more than it was before November, Warren said, including against those more vulnerable than working class whites: LGBTQ+ Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, poor people, people of color.

“Spare me the argument about whether we ought to be trying to bring back folks who voted for Donald Trump or turn out people who stayed to home,” Warren said to rousing applause. “We can’t do either of those things until we show that things change and that we will fight to change them.”

“We have to show people that when we get the chance to lead, things will get better. And that starts by showing we have backbone — not just backbone when we stand up to Donald Trump, but backbone when we put forward our own agenda.” (In other words, having the courage to campaign on our own ideas.)

And what are our ideas?

Warren was generous with her examples. She mentioned strengthening the basic social contract on labor, demanding for equal pay for equal work, protecting access to reproductive health services, allowing everyone to purchase affordable prescription drugs, and having a criminal justice system where people’s lives won’t be ruined by a bag of marijuana or ended by a traffic stop.

“We don’t have to tiptoe anymore.”

And, possibly channeling former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Warren declared: “Mr. President, we’re never, ever, going to build your stupid wall.”


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