Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Conyers controversy

Que vergüenza..

The Conyers Controversy and Progressive Unity

Mark Solomon
August 12, 2007

Perhaps the moment has arrived for reflective reconsideration of the conflict on the left over the recent sit-in at the office of Rep. John Conyers, Jr.

In contesting Rep. Conyers' decision not to offer a
resolution to impeach George W. Bush, protesters and
some of their supporters invariably described the
congressman as another "good guy" Democrat. Given the
quality and reach of Conyers' record and his distinctive
political roots, that borders on willful ignorance.

From an auto worker family (John Conyers, Sr. worked at
the Ford plant), Conyers embodies and represents the
twin pillars of Detroit -- the African American
community and the labor movement -- that historically
have driven the radical and progressive dynamics of the
Motor City and constitute the foundation for a resurgent
progressive movement in the entire country. (Full
disclosure: I have known Rep. Conyers for nearly a half
century dating back to the first picketing of
Woolworth's in Detroit to protest the chain's jim crow
policies in the South.)

The second most senior member of the House, Rep.
Conyers' congressional service stretches from before the
Watergate impeachment process to recent efforts to
convene a commission to investigate impeachable offenses
by the Bush administration. Conyers was a founding
member of the Congressional Black Caucus and is
considered its dean. His major contributions to a
progressive agenda include the Violence Against Women
Act of 1994, the Motor Voter Bill of 1993, the Martin
Luther King Holiday Act of 1983, the Alcohol Warning
Label Act of 1988, and the Jazz Preservation Act of
1987. He is a principal author of the Help America Vote
Act of 2002 to protect voting rights of oppressed
nationalities and citizens with disabilities. He is also
the leading congressional voice for institutional
reparations to the nation's African American community
for the crime of slavery.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Conyers
introduced the "Military Tribunal Authorization Act of
2002" to limit Bush's efforts to define military
tribunals and proposed legislation to protect
whistleblowers who report FBI malfeasance. He is the
primary author of "End Racial Profiling Act" that bans
racial profiling nationwide and introduced the "Hate
Crimes Prevention Act" to place a range of hate crimes
under federal investigative and prosecutorial

Fighting for constituents under economic siege, Conyers
has challenged Bush administration attempts to undermine
worker safety standards, substitute flextime for
overtime and virtually eliminate collective bargaining.
He is currently formulating legislation to protect
workers' pensions and health care from Enron and
Worldcomm type bankruptcies. He is founder and chair of
the Congressional Universal Health Care Task Force and
under its banner has introduced HR 676, the Medicare for
All Single Payer Health Care bill that is the
legislative standard for the rapidly growing movement to
provide medical services for all and take the profit out
of health care.

In the global arena, Rep. Conyers has been an
inseparable participant in the movement to end the Iraq
war and bring US forces home now. Among a handful of
House members he has spoken forcefully against the war
at major peace rallies. He was signatory as a plaintiff
in a lawsuit that challenged the House resolution
authorizing the invasion of Iraq as unconstitutional.
Conyers has fought for fair US trade with Haiti and has
worked hard to secure multilaterally funded economic aid
for that nation severely victimized by the global

While Conyers has been justly criticized for questioning
Jimmy Carter's characterization of Israeli actions
towards the Palestinians as apartheid, Conyers
practically alone has resisted the Israeli lobby's
attempts to force Congress to march in lockstep in
support of Israel and in implacable hostility to the
Palestinians. Glen Ford, the prominent progressive
African American journalist, recently stated that in the
last few years a corporate-AIPAC offensive has
intimidated a major segment of the Congressional Black
Caucus. Ford went on to note that a recent AIPAC
inspired bellicose resolution denouncing Iran was voted
favorably by the entire caucus with only Conyers
declining to vote for it.

Conyers, of course, is not purely above the hard
political world of vote counting and deals. Neither he
nor any other member of Congress could survive
politically or achieve any meaningful legislative
advances if oblivious at all times to the realities of
partisan politics and the demands of party leaders. At
times compromises and accommodations merit sharp
criticism. But that cannot diminish the significance of
Conyers' congressional role. He and Rep. Barbara Lee,
represent the crucial conjunction of the movements for
racial justice and peace, movements whose unity is
absolutely essential to building a progressive majority.

More than a year ago, Conyers joined with 28 other House
members to call for launching an impeachment process
against George W. Bush. That stemmed from hearings on
impeachable crimes that Conyers was forced by the then
Republican controlled House leadership to conduct in a
crowded basement room. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood (one of
the sit-in protesters) noted: Conyers and his staff
"wrote the book" on impeachment. With that awareness,
one can reasonably question why the protesters did not
ascribe some weight to Conyers' assessment that the
current positioning of various forces in Congress would
frustrate the chances for advancing impeachment.

Some on the left have contended that Conyers should have
placed an impeachment resolution before the Judiciary
Committee despite substantial obstacles and that such an
act itself would focus a strong, inhibiting spotlight on
Bush and his accomplices. That is a weighty argument but
it does not account for the potential damage stemming
from failure of the chair to win the support for
impeachment by a majority of his own committee. Such a
defeat would constitute a setback for a range of efforts
to resist the unconstitutional acts of the Bush
administration. Before the showdown on impeachment,
Conyers pleaded for "three more votes" to advance the
resolution. There is merit to the claims of critics of
the sit-in that the protesters should have focused their
efforts on attaining those three votes.

One of the most controversial aspects of the debate over
the Conyers sit-in is the charge of racism directed at
the protesters. The existence of racism is inseparable
from its historical roots exemplified by the ideology
and practice of institutional oppression. A protest
directed against a relatively empowered African American
politician is arguably not racist. But a statement by a
prominent leader of the protest that Conyers "is no
Martin Luther King" is racist. As many have noted, that
statement is a crude reflection of the historic practice
of empowered whites to arrogantly select and define
Black leadership. By linking Conyers to King, the
impeachment controversy was framed in racist terms --
terms that insulted both Conyers and King. The statement
by another protest leader that Conyers "betrayed the
American people" is more subtle in its negative
implications, but perhaps no less racist. It reflects a
historic posture of dominant white entitlement in
commanding prescribed behavior from African Americans.
The author of this declaration apparently had no
interest in respecting or considering Conyers' estimate
of the positioning of various forces on the impeachment
issue nor did she fully consider the congressman's
record as a leading progressive voice on the issue
before leveling the charge of "betrayal."

Reverend Lennox Yearwood has eloquently explained his
decision to sit in and court arrest at Rep. Conyers'
office in terms of a moral compassion to demand
impeachment of this immoral administration. There comes
a time, Yearwood argues, when one must stand up to the
best of friends and allies such as Conyers in advancing
a vital cause. That viewpoint, represented also by
others, is worthy of respect. Yet it is not fully immune
to questions and reservations. Few if any progressives
would argue against impeachment (nearly all would like
to see the impeachment of the entire Bush crowd
immediately), but on a tactical level, there is no
consensus for it in the peace movement and among a broad
range of progressives. The major antiwar coalitions have
not prioritized impeachment, choosing instead to focus
on efforts to end the war and occupation of Iraq and to
prevent a war on Iran. The protest at Conyers' office
represented the tactical priority of a segment at best
of the antiwar and progressive movements, therefore
limiting its moral authority.

The sit-in had to be weighed in moral and practical
terms against the damage in relations, potential and
real, among diverse progressive forces. Efforts to
obliterate the divisions, cast along racial and ethnic
lines, between peace and justice movements have been
weakened. The image of predominantly white activists
assailing a leader of antiracist legislation to
eliminate racial profiling and hate crimes, to advance
universal health care, to bring the troops home from
Iraq -- has doubtlessly widened racial fissures as well
as disagreements among left and progressive forces of
varying racial and social backgrounds.

However, the Conyers controversy can be a catalyst for
renewed determination to forge a progressive majority by
uniting various movements. It can spark a heightened
awareness of the need for peace and justice activists to
not only speak to each others' concerns, but to act
forcefully upon them. By building upon the conjunction
of peace and justice exemplified by political leaders
like John Conyers and Barbara Lee, by recognizing and
acting upon the reality that rebuilding areas devastated
by Katrina is inseparably linked to ending the Iraq war,
by demanding justice for immigrants and for all working
people, by working to prevent environmental catastrophe,
by fighting the attempted legal assault on six Black
teen agers in Jena, Louisiana, activists in all
political arenas will be advancing a just, sustainable
world. Such actions and commitments point the way to
unity of all progressive forces that can in the coming
weeks and months crystallize, consolidate and advance at
the grass roots the demand for impeachment -- the arena
where all progress begins and where all who work for
justice and peace should be engaged.


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