“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

An Interview with Greg Guma

Greg Guma has worked for the twin causes of peace and justice through journalism, essays, politics and civic activism over the past several decades. A resident of Burlington, Vermont for more than 40 years, he edited the Vermont Vanguard Press from 1978 to 1982.  He also published a syndicated column in the 1980s and 90s and from the mid-90s to 2004 edited Toward Freedom, which was then a print magazine covering global affairs. Guma organized one of the first independent media conferences and served as CEO of Pacifica Radio.
In 2003, he published Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, And What We Can Do. Even though the book was released 14 years ago, Guma feels the trends and dynamics he dissected then remain relevant today.
Question: In “Uneasy Empire” you talked about the growth of an American Empire and the dominance of organizations like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and huge corporations in that empire. You see corporate globalization as crushing the power of the individual and placing it in the hands of transnational corporations and governing bodies that work on their behalf. Are you saying something about scale in our economy?
“Scale is an issue on a number of levels,” Guma said. “The world government we see around us seems to be in a period of realignment, and some of the old architecture is being taken down. Uneasy Empire is a globalist perspective. There are many problems that transcend national solutions. A global governance regime to handle this would be very big, but the real issues are access and accountability. Donald Trump is currently trying to establish an alliance of rogue states. He’s also continuing a long-term centralization of power, even though it’s based on ad-hoc relationships among power groups.
“Some of Trump’s paranoia about China is sincere. There are problems posed by China’s rise, but the models that dominated in the past have been threatened by corporate globalization. This scares many people.  There was a challenge about 15-years ago to all of this (beginning with the Seattle WTO protests). It reached a high water mark before 9/11. Since then there has been a populist upheaval in response to the forces that control our lives and this in turn has led to a resurgence in authoritarianism. It often seems like the United Nations is irrelevant in all of this. But there is a chance for a democratic globalist solution if we reform those institutions. The authoritarian model is destined to fail.”
Guma feels President Donald Trump’s nationalist-populist style of politics and the left leaning crowd behind Senator Bernie Sanders are both reacting against the type of globalism that only benefits corporate America. However, Guma also thinks Trump’s administration is accelerating this trend.
“Trump’s regime is radical,” Guma said. “He’s letting many positions go unfilled and putting people in charge of agencies who want to destroy them. There has been an increase in smaller wars in the past 30 years. This helps companies associated with the defense industry and defense contractors. Going forward, I think we’ll see more small wars, environmental refugees and competition for resources. We know we need to establish bonds in our communities and build a different future, but right now we are stuck psychologically.”
Question: I’ll bet you feel the military-industrial complex is very much a part of the trends you are talking about in “Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization and What We Can Do?”
“The U.S. as a declining hegemon,” Guma said, “and will become more of a mercenary state. We have matured as a global power. We once used soft power solutions like the Marshall Plan, aide and trade, but now we’re moving more and more toward military solutions. The US was considered a good partner in the past and there was more mutual respect. But Trump is accelerating a trend that would have happened anyway: He’s making us untrustworthy.
“Nation building is not something we do anymore. The American empire advanced through diplomacy and trade. Now we have a small arms race going on. We see the transfer of weapons to other countries and more arms proliferation. When you deconstruct a regime and you don’t have anything to put in its place you create a lot of chaos. This is a phenomena of growth and decay. We’re seeing it now in the decay of the corporate global system. Something will need to be built in its wake.”
Question: Now that we’ve heard the bad part, what do you recommend to combat the trends you’ve dissected?
“It’s going to happen at the local level,” he said. “It’s good to have an eye on the big picture, but where we should spend our effort is where we live and where we can see change occur. This was a lesson I lived in Burlington, Vermont. In doing the peace work we did, we thought we would improve our lives. We were able to change the local culture and also have a ripple effect that changed the state.”
Since the late 1960s, Vermont citizens have created an economy with a strong local flavor. There are a number of consumer cooperatives, community based agriculture projects, local businesses, alternative media outlets and social action oriented non-profits in the state. People worked on the local level for a new type of economy and Guma feels it created something better.
“We had an influx of new people in the 60’s and 70’s,” said Guma. “Then you see this proliferation of activity around the environmental movement and the peace movement. We pushed agendas at town meetings. Vermont has a strong tradition when it comes to Town Meeting, and we used it to put peace proposals onto the ballot. This gave people a model to look at and led to a more tolerant, open culture. You can create something local that will spread.”
Question: I’ve heard people talk about thinking globally and acting locally. Can this work for those trying to create a more peaceful world?
“We did it here in Vermont,” Guma said. “What we did was to use local initiatives to create something like our own foreign policy. We brought forward a series of initiatives to define what we wanted in a foreign policy. Local governments can have a big impact. We look stances on many issues. For example, we took an anti-interventionist stance on Latin America, opposed apartheid, and formed groups to educate citizens on these issues. We also had Sister City programs to promote tolerance and understanding. If you do this over a period of years it starts to change consciousness.”
In addition to working in journalism, Guma also owned a bookstore that was often used as a hub of social activism and spearheaded the establishment of a peace and justice center in Burlington. He later worked as a coordinator of that center. Guma remembers the effectiveness of the 80’s nuclear freeze movement. City councils in Vermont, and later around the country, passed resolutions promoting a freeze in the number of nuclear weapons in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Guma said a similar effort would be effective in the movement to ban nuclear weapons.
“The circumstances are totally different now due to the freeze movement of the 80’s,” he said. “People’s ideas on nuclear arms changed. Even Ronald Reagan changed his mind. This was a real victory for the peace movement.”

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Birth of Burlington’s Assemblies

Burlington’s Neighborhood Planning Assemblies are back in the local spotlight, and likely to be a contentious issue in the 2018 race for mayor of Vermont’s largest city, culminating on March 6.

Last Fall, an “assembly of the Assemblies” demanded a formal role in deciding the future of Memorial Auditorium, a major local venue for 90 years. Since then, Infinite Culcleasure, one of two Independents challenging Mayor Miro Weinberger, has announced that “more public investment should be made to strengthen existing neighborhood assemblies.” And Progressive-backed Independent Carina Driscoll says, “We need to empower our Neighborhood Planning Assemblies so that they may again be actively involved with public engagement, city planning and prioritizing city resources.” 

NPAs, as they have become known over the years, officially became part of Burlington city government in the summer of 1983. The idea had been percolating for a while and didn't become reality without some struggle, then and afterward. But during an "assembly of the Assemblies" at City Hall in late June that year, about 100 people successfully discussed and largely agreed on basics like how often to meet, the rules for making decisions, and whether NPAs should operate exclusively on a ward level.

These volunteer founders had gathered, in ward groups, then as a committee of the whole, to hammer out long-delayed bylaws. It was a rare moment. People from competing political factions were sitting face-to-face, conversing civilly with neighbors. Surprisingly, there were few serious disputes, and more areas of agreement than expected.

Pressure to create neighborhood assemblies had been building for years. In 1976, while I was the city's Youth Coordinator, they were proposed as a way to coordinate social services. In 1981, neighborhood power was part of the Citizens Party platform and became an issue in the elections that gave Bernie Sanders his first victory. The top issue in my own City Council campaign was neighborhood participation in city planning, specifically "formal review of grants and the municipal development plan by neighborhood groups."

Shortly after Bernie's election as mayor, a conference of independent local groups proposed that neighborhood assemblies be formally established within local government.

Decades after they became part of local government, NPAs continued to
 host forums for mayoral candidates, including the author, in 2015.  
Bylaws were supposed to be drafted during planning sessions that began in early 1982. But debates over priorities for community development funds, not to mention political infighting and campaign fever, pushed the process back. Lack of coordinators or established procedures also didn't help, making it difficult for neighborhoods to call their own meetings. Meanwhile, both the Planning Commission and Mayor's Office convened selected NPAs to act as sounding boards for issues on their agendas.

Haggling between the Old Guard-dominated Planning Commission and newly created Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) further complicated the process. In Spring 1983 the Planning Commission, still dominated by allies of the previous administration, put forward a structure proposal that would restrict NPAs to quarterly meetings and keep them under firm control. But CEDO, initially developed as a means to divert funds and power from the Commission, also succeeded in assuming responsibility for coordination of NPA activities. By then several had already begun to set their own agendas, pass motions, and provide advice on city projects. Now they would have $15,000 each to use or invest in neighborhood improvement projects.

Just two years earlier, Vermont's largest city basically had a one-party political system controlled by a Democratic clan with a small group of developers and merchants. Now it was in the midst of a social and political realignment. An independent socialist mayor was in his second term and the City Council operated with a fragile three-party balance of power. 

The new political environment had sparked a renaissance in public participation, which in turn was producing programs for youth, women and the elderly. About 50 percent more people had voted in the recent local elections than had turned out just two years earlier, and Mayor Sanders received 52 percent in a three-way race. Meanwhile, dozens of Town Meetings across Vermont adopted resolutions to freeze nuclear weapons, legislate peace conversion, cut off aid to El Savador, and regulate nuclear waste shipments. To date, 184 of the state's 245 towns had gone on record to freeze nuclear  proliferation.    

In Burlington, independent neighborhood groups that focused on issues from road-building to crime and housing conditions had already changed the relationship between local citizens and their representatives. Now the question was whether these self-organized vehicles of popular power would or should become a formal part of the city planning process.

Some who attended the founding congress were suspicious about an apparent lack of publicity prior to the event. But two pro-Assembly City Councilors in the room -- Maurice Mahoney, a Ward 1 Democrat, and Terry Bouricius, a Ward 2 Sanders ally and Citizens Party member of the City Council -- offered assurances that the Council was eager to see these "mainly advisory" bodies operate "efficiently." Anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin also attended. He was skeptical, but wrote a draft preamble for the bylaws that was adopted with few changes.

Working in Ward subgroups, participants in the assembly congress made preliminary decisions that day about who could participate (any voter registered in the ward), how often they would meet, and what constituted a quorum. Agreement also emerged that NPAs should set their own agendas, but remain responsive to mayoral or council requests, and that their purview could stretch from down-to-earth projects like tree planting to review of Master Plan revisions.

Many things remained undefined and unclear at this point. But the experience of working together for a day, determining how they would function, tended to convince most people who attended that NPAs would at least not be easy for any one faction to manipulate. In fact, when newly elected Assembly coordinators sat around the Council's horseshoe table to deliver status reports at the end of the evening, some in the audience publicly speculated , hoped or feared that it might evolve into a second City Council.

The list of coordinators read like a roster of upcoming local leaders. Judy Stephany had been the Democrat's candidate for mayor the previous March. Two other coordinators were recent City Council candidates. And Tim McKenzie, who had run for the state legislature, currently headed Sanders' Progressive Coalition.

The plan was to have these coordinators meet to follow up on their wards' proposals, then convene the assemblies again to ratify the final document. Once that was done, NPAs would operate with relative independence, guiding community developments and responding to official requests. 

Despite the cooperative atmosphere in which NPAs were born, there were obvious lingering questions and reasonable concerns. In the long term, for instance, would they be representative, or become tools for outside interests to engineer consent? What would happen to attendance as time passed? And if they proved effective, would their powers expand? 

Mayor Sanders certainly had doubts. Specifically, he was hesitant to empower groups that might not have a progressive character or could be overtaken by opponents. Others on the left, notably Bookchin, wondered instead whether they would evolve as proactive, popular organs or become institutionalized and reactive. 

The Sanders administration ultimately decided to embrace the NPAs, offering money and a limited decision-making role. Basically, it gave them some room to grow. But their status, advisory bodies operating under the auspices of a city office, meant that much of their time and energy would be spent evaluating proposals from the administration and large local institutions.

This essay appeared in the December 2017 issue of 05401 PLUS, a Lake Champlain region magazine. Greg Guma participated in the development of NPAs and attended the founding congress. He is a long-term Burlington resident and author of Dons of Time, Spirits of Desire, Uneasy Empire, and The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. 

Graphic: March 1981 Campaign flyer