Original Richardo Levins Morales

View from the Ground: Ilhan, Antone and the Price of Inclusion

The liberal centrist will join you in demanding relief from the injuries of the system as he protects the very interests and policies that cause those injuries.
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, celebrates with her children after her Congressional 5th District primary victory, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. [Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP]

Essay and art by Ricardo Levins Morales / Reposted with permission from author’s blog

[Editors note: On Tuesday, Rep. Ilhan Omar won the Democratic primary in her Minneapolis-area district.]

The glossy four-page election mailers have been hitting my mailbox faster than I can say “recycle.” They are promoting Antone Melton-Meaux’s primary campaign against Rep Ilhan Omar. The latest piece attacks Omar for “pushing for her own agenda and ideological beliefs, even if it means getting nothing done for her community just to wage a symbolic battle.” Melton-Meaux, by contrast, the flier says, “believes that Washington has too many ideological purists on both sides.” This message – that he is ideology-free (in contrast to all the extremists out there) seems to be his big selling point. It is also a ruse, concealing the deeply reactionary politics underlying his campaign. These brochures, by the way, were paid for by “Americans for Tomorrow’s Future” (whatever that means) who exist, according to their web site, to promote candidates “who advance America’s positive role in the world, including through support for our strategic alliance with Israel.” We’ll come back to that.

There is little mention of policy positions in the pro-Antone literature. Each new piece hammers in the message that Ilhan is simply disgusting, self-promoting and out of touch. Melton-Meaux is depicted as a mediator, a listener, someone who “brings people together.” With that contrast in place the voter is supposed to decide “which one do I like,” conveniently distracting from the real question raised by the campaign: “which side am I on?”

I generally prefer to keep my distance from electoral politics. For me, the power to shift the direction we are headed is found in the streets, barrios and prisons more than the halls of congress. There are times, though, when what happens at the polling booth (or mailbox) has a direct impact on the national balance of power and therefore on the lives of people I care about. This is one such campaign. It’s important, therefore, to decode the “non-ideology” being offered by the challenger.

The deepest political fault line separating Melton-Meaux from Omar is the one between the struggle for inclusion and the struggle for transformation, a long-standing divide within colonized, exploited and marginalized communities. Inclusionists demand equal participation at all levels of the empire and its institutions while transformationists call for fundamental change. Under the racial capitalist politics of the United States, competition among populations is necessary to keep the threat of real solidarity at bay. The price of inclusion, therefore, is always betrayal. A marginalized population or individual hoping for a seat at the political table must make a public display of throwing other victims of the system under the bus. Without that ticket, no one gets in.

New waves of immigrants, for example, quickly get the message that if they make common cause with Black folk they’ll be treated like Black folk. Solidarity inevitably develops but it often takes a second generation to figure out the nature of the trap. The second absolute requirement for inclusion in the system – a variation on the first – is that you must not interfere with the global functioning of the empire.

Martin Luther king Jr.’s refusal to accept these rules led to the massive backlash he experienced in his final year. Not only had he refused to turn his back on poor people of all races (launching the Poor People’s March on Washington) but he went even further by refusing to betray, as he described them, “little brown Vietnamese children.” The backlash was instantaneous and ferocious. A hundred and sixty eight major newspapers denounced him, as did the national board of the NAACP. He was condemned by “moderate” Black leaders for “grandstanding,” seeking the “limelight” and trying to promote his own celebrity. King was accused of risking all the hard won gains of the movement by meddling above his rank and hearing cries of pain that were better left unheard.

The Democratic Party began organizing meetings for the purpose of isolating King within the movement. “They had a conference of preachers in Detroit.” recounts Andrew Young. “They pulled together all the Negro newspaper editors to support the administration’s stand.” The Cincinnati Enquirer declared that since winning the Nobel Peace Prize King “has specialized in speaking in Olympian tones, rather than addressing himself to the practicalities of the civil rights movement.”

This line of attack echoes loudly in the campaign against Ilhan. Instead of engaging with Dr King’s political and moral arguments they simply attacked him as an opportunistic publicity hound.

This line of attack echoes loudly in the campaign against Ilhan. Instead of engaging with Dr King’s political and moral arguments they simply attacked him as an opportunistic publicity hound. While Vietnam was the political loyalty test during King’s time, today it is Palestine. As the pace of Israeli military and police killing of young Palestinians (for the simple crime of being Palestinian), rural land grabs, building demolitions and the destruction of wells and olive groves picks up (home demolitions have seen a marked increased since the start of the pandemic), supporters of Israel have intensified their efforts to suppress voices critical of the apartheid state.

A week ago Israeli government soldiers leveled a coronavirus testing center at the entrance to Hebron, the epicenter of the pandemic on the West Bank just as it was nearing completion. It had been intendedto ease the pressure on overburdened hospitals struggling with a second wave of infections. The day before they demolished a covid testing station in Jenin. These kinds of actions by the occupying regime have become so standard that they didn’t cause the slightest ripple of concern in the US media or political worlds. Congresswoman Omar’s audacity in defending Palestinian human rights is a shocking challenged to the bipartisan forced silence of Washington.

The hundreds of thousands in donations bundled for his campaign (and unknown amounts independently spent) by groups such as NORPAC (dedicated to “the shaping of important and concrete pro-Israel policies”), Pro-Israel America and a lineup of generous Trump and Mitch McConnell donors are an investment in re-establishing that silence. The candidate shrugs iyt off, saying they support him because “I listen.”

Mr Melton-Meaux’s class politics also deserve some attention, especially his time as a law partner at Jackson Lewis, “widely known as one of the most aggressively anti-union law firms in the U.S.” according to the New York Times (a part of his resume somehow omitted from his campaign bio). Jackson Lewis is “management’s go-to firm for anti-union campaigns” says a professor who witnessed them in action against a faculty organizing drive at the U of New Mexico. Their client list includes literally thousands of corporations in every industry. They also provide pro-active services like seminars on how to keep your company “union-free.” As a longtime labor activist I have encountered these union-busting law firms. They do not play nice.

Jackson Lewis isno mere bit player in the field of preventing and destroying unions. They have, for decades, been at the forefront of the corporate class war against working people’s standards of living, safety protections, job security and their right to organize. They employ “captive audience” meetings, intimidation, deception and – according to one lawsuit – illegal firings. The Melton-Meaux campaign’s response is that his own cases didn’t directly involve busting unions. Instead, he defended large corporations against worker claims of racial and sex discrimination, harassment, hostile work environments, wage theft and illegal firing. As a corporate lawyer he argued for non-disclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases. As a candidate he opposes them.

What’s missing is any sign of remorse for having been part of a leading powerhouse in that inherently unethical field; no angry letter of resignation; no heartfelt apology to the many thousands of working families still suffering from the damage these well-heeled “economic hit men” systematically inflicted on the entire working class. Candidate Melton-Meaux’s expressions of empathy for low wage workers ring hollow without a denunciation of his former employer and a commitment to reverse the harm done. As James Baldwin put it “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”

The proposals that Ilhan has championed, which are widely popular outside the political class, include such things as “Homes for All,” “The Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All.” What they have in common is that they address the big-picture causes of the problems that afflict our communities. That means, of course, that they threaten vested interests and are therefore labeled “ideological,” “self-promoting,” and “publicity seeking.” “Her focus is on broader issues that tend to enhance her celebrity to the detriment of the local interests of the district.” according to one of Melton-Meaux’s local supporter. This idea that addressing big issues means ignoring local ones cries out for a response.

Addressing childhood asthma on the north side won’t lead to lasting change unless it’s coupled with something like a Green New Deal, to ensure that we’re not fighting the same battle ten years from now. How will these children’s medical bills be covered as they grow, without a program like Medicare for All to completely replace the parasitic health insurance industry of today? There is no realistic way to address the crime and mental health crises that send people scrambling to call 911 without universal access to stable housing. And you can’t deal seriously deal with the under-funding of schools unless take on the massive tax breaks for the rich. It’s all connected. The shadowy federal police bundling protesters into minivans on US streets are blowback from US support for such practices in Central America. And that “strategic alliance” with Israel? It includes training US police forces – including the Minneapolis tactical cops who murdered Terrance Franklin in an Uptown basement. Naming these connections is not a “distraction.” It’s the key to transformative change and the duty of anyone aspiring to to “progressive” leadership.

Melton-Meaux’s slogan should probably be “Platitudes, not Policy.” His self-positioning of being unburdened by ideology makes as much sense as a midwesterner claiming to have no accent or white people believing they don’t have a racial identity. It just means that your ideology fits so comfortably within the dominant one that it appears to not exist. His repeated chant about his “bringing people together” rather than “dividing” is equally empty of content. Everyone in politics or activism both brings people together and divides. The question is who you are uniting or dividing and in the service of what agenda. In the non-ideology of liberal centrism “bringing people together” always means reaching out to your right, no matter how far you need to reach. It does not apply to those on your left. Those people must be removed from the stage, not with clear counter-arguments but by hammering on the message that they are disgusting creatures with no real principles or ideas.

Antone’s local supporters seem comfortable with that strategy. When I’ve looked on line to find their political analysis of the race I find that they mostly have a lot to say about Ilhan’s motives. I learned that “she lusts after the dangling carrots,” she’s “out to appease white audiences,” “She’s not from America. She’s following a different doctrine,” “I’m glad she’s been revealed as the snake she is.” She “craves…,” “will do anything for…,” attention, to sell books, for the limelight. “It is really just about her and not her constituents and not our country as a whole.” “Vote that horrid woman out!”

Whatever people’s beefs are with Ilhan I’m in no position to judge. Whether they rise to the level of her being pure evil is doubtful, although I suppose if you repeat it often enough some people will start believing. (Incidentally, have you ever heard these kinds of insults directed at a male politician? Asking for a friend.)

Justified or not, though, this election isn’t about them. The interests of the people of the fifth congressional district are barely a blip on the radar of the concerted multi-million dollar effort to remove Ilhan. This is a battle over the balance of power on a large scale in which locals are pawns not drivers. It is, of course, part of the strategy to remove all the members of the squad from office. Large right wing donors are not careless with their money. They know that a middle-of’-the-road “progressive” is not a threat to their interests.

The liberal centrist will, with his left hand, join you in demanding relief from the injuries of the system while with his right one he protects the very interests and policies that cause those injuries.

Melton-Meaux has shown that he is comfortable with things that no one should be comfortable with. They are consistent, though with centrist ideology (and yes, there is one!). The liberal centrist will, with his left hand, join you in demanding relief from the injuries of the system while with his right one he protects the very interests and policies that cause those injuries. That is to be expected. With young, working class and dark skinned activists and organizers getting elected this is the perfect kind of candidate to undermine them. Offering watered down versions of each radical proposal as the “realistic” alternative.

That local activists would fall for this “non-ideological,” “uniter-not-divider” koolaid is alarming. A tactical alliance with the enemies of justice doesn’t usually turn out well. At least not for “little brown Palestinian children,” working people, or even the communities of the fifth district that cry out for big solutions. Don’t believe otherwise.

Ricardo Levins Morales

Ricardo Levins Morales is an artist by trade, a healer by temperament and a troublemaker by necessity. His art can be viewed and purchased at these web sites: RLM Art Studio (main site) and Ricardo Levins Morales Fine Art, hosted by Fine Art America.


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