It’s been a hard, strange year for progressive activists, and this week’s Netroots Nation conference seems to be reinforcing that sense of strangeness.
Instead of gathering in Denver, Colorado, as was originally planned, the conference’s organizers and attendees are congregating remotely, using a website powered by Socio that integrates with videoconferencing powerhouse Zoom.
Thursday’s keynote address (which took place from 2 PM to 3:30 Pacific Time) sought to celebrate the victories progressives have won in recent months and recognize some of the powerful Black figures leading the progressive movement.
Alongside Arshad Hasan, one of Netroots Nation’s board members, attendees were welcomed virtually by Colorado’s U.S. Representative Joe Neguse.
Neguse reminded his listeners about the vital importance of progressive energy in the battle to defeat Trump in November, and pointed to recent electoral successes by progressives as a symbol of hope for the country.
“My belief in the promise of America remains strong,” Neguse said.
The subsequent keynote discussion was hosted by Maurice Mitchell, the executive director of the Working Families Party, who interviewed three “unapologetically Black, unapologetically progressive candidates” for elected office: Pennsylvania State Representative Summer Lee, Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman. Mitchell described the group as “the biggest, baddest, blackest panel of the summer.”
The candidates were asked about co-governance, and all agreed that elected progressives need to work closely with grassroots activists to succeed.
Both Jones and Bowman quoted U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley: “Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Elected progressive politicians offer activists access to the structures of power, and in return activists can exert pressure on the streets to pressure other officials to work with progressives.
The panel discussed a set of topics that ranged from reparations, reconstruction, white supremacy, and the role of Black people in the progressive movement.
Jamaal Bowman pointed out that the U.S. has always been “reconstructing” itself in one way or another throughout its history, but that the task is now to ensure that people of color are not “left out of the equation… this is our moment to rebuild our nation into the country we know it is capable of being!”
The conversation soon moved to the relationship progressive activists and organizations have with the establishment of the Democratic Party, especially with the party’s expected nominees for the presidency and vice presidency.
Summer Lee, who has beaten back powerful forces to remain in her Pittsburgh area seat, reminded everyone that establishment figures who preach party unity don’t always practice it themselves.
She described being “indoctrinated” against supporting a primary against an incumbent once she was sworn in – only to be surprised at the fact that the state Democratic Party refused to endorse her in her re-election bid.
On the national level, Mondaire Jones openly admitted that a Biden-Harris ticket “was not our first choice” as progressives and promised to leverage all the pressure he could upon Biden as soon as he enters the Oval Office.
He said it was “shameful” that the national Democrats have not committed to basic progressive principles, and called on grassroots activists to hold “self-described progressives” in Congress to account.
Mitchell asked the panelists about the role of Black progressives in the post-Trump era, how to not only “change the complexion of Congress, but change the direction of Congress.”
All three panelists agreed that progressive leaders best represent the needs and issues of Black communities, and also that “problematic” Democrats are far easier to pressure with grassroots activism than white supremacist Republicans are.
Mondaire Jones made the case that we are living in “a Black moment and we have to make it permanent, because when we have more people for whom policy is personal, we get better policy.”
Jamaal Bowman wrapped up the panel by reminding Netroots Nation that the other side are organizing, strategizing and mobilizing to stop progressives.
Bowman’s warning was an apt introduction to the next segment of the evening, as Jessica Byrd of Three Point Strategies interviewed her old boss and current leader of Fair Fight Action, Stacey Abrams, who rose to fame in 2018 after her gubernatorial ambitions in Georgia were thwarted by blatant voter suppression.
Byrd started the interview by praising Abrams’ impressive résumé and political achievements, not least of which was the fact that “you got Oprah to canvass for you!” (Abrams responded to this remark with a nonchalant shrug).
When asked how to inspire Black Americans to vote, Abrams launched an eloquent defense of the power of voting, and tied voting directly to the protest movement on the streets, saying that “voting is protesting at the ballot box.”
She expanded the discussion beyond the realm of voting, imploring Netroots Nation attendees to participate in the 2020 census and encourage friends, co-workers and family members to take part too.
The conversation moved on to a discussion of the current state of the United States Postal Service (USPS), the nation’s mail system.
Abrams noted that some version of the postal service has existed for as long as the U.S. has as a country, because “the way you knit together a nation is communication.” She blasted the Trump regime’s efforts to privatize the USPS, saying “when you hear someone say “privatize a public good,” they want to take it from those who can’t afford it.” Abrams deconstructed the various ways that Trump and his cronies have been undermining the USPS, and along with it the 2020 election, in minute detail – describing Trump and his postmaster general Louis DeJoy as “a pyromaniac and an arsonist.”
Abrams used the example of the Post Office to lay out how the Republicans attack public institutions: “One of the tricks is to break something and then complain that it’s broken… you set something on fire, then complain that it’s burning!”
Abrams laid out a simple strategy to respond to the Republican attempts to undermine voting. “Remember that voting by mail starts in September…get your application in the moment it’s possible… the minute you get your ballot, find out if your state has drop boxes… we need to make sure they can’t steal it.”
She encouraged progressive candidates with some campaign tips.
She said that candidates can’t just plan for scenarios A, B, or C, but must “plan for scenario Z!” She reminded candidates that good team leaders not only inspire those who follow, but set a good pace so that people can make it to their targets. She also encouraged everyone to remember that progressive politics is not about winning individual battles, but about moving the front line in a long war.
Byrd wrapped up the evening with a touching reminder to Abrams of the many Georgians who love and support her, and want to one day vote for her again.
Netroots Nation 2020 continues tomorrow and will conclude on Saturday.