Charlottesville, Parkland, and Schlesinger

The August 13 “The Daily” podcast from The New York Times, “A Year of Reckoning in Charlottesville,” was disturbing. Though anti-racist protestors now hold most positions of power, including the Mayor’s office, it seems in Charlottesville “the left is eating itself.”

Wanting to find some alternative analysis of Charlottesville one year later, I googled the issue and found very little. But I did find a substantial July 21 Times article,  “Year After White Nationalist Rally, Charlottesville Is in Tug of War Over Its Soul.” That article includes:

Nikuyah Walker, the first black female mayor of Charlottesville, has vowed to address centuries of racial and economic disparities.

“She wants to totally transform the status quo,” said Dave Norris, an early supporter who served as the city’s mayor from 2008 to 2012. “But what she’s up against is a community that’s rather fond of itself and rather enamored with the status quo.”...

Activists [including “anti-capitalist activists who were fired up in the rally’s aftermath”]  continue to dominate City Council meetings, venting their outrage at everything from a community engagement session that they felt was too corporate, to a flier advertising ornamental trees that they viewed as promoting gentrification.

At a City Council meeting in May, a mostly white crowd of activists heckled the founder of Charlottesville’s public defender’s office after he appealed for civility. They protested the newly-appointed police chief, RaShall M. Brackney, the first black woman to serve in that role, even though she has the support of Ms. Walker….

An attempt by the Justice Department to share “best practices” for healing used by Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore with neighborhood groups was criticized by activists for failing to take dismantling white supremacy as a starting point. And Ms. Walker declined to attend an event about bridging political and racial divides organized by the Listen First Project, a national nonprofit group.

“We’re not ready to heal yet,” Wes Bellamy, a city councilor who is an ally of Ms. Walker’s, said at a Council meeting last fall….

All that indicates the need for new strategies. Fortunately, an August 15 article, “‘Let Us Have a Childhood’: On the Road With the Parkland Activists,” illustrates an alternative. This article about the students’ summer bus tour reported, “Since the shooting, state legislatures have passed at least 50 gun regulations, largely because of public pressure created by the Parkland movement.”

Three elements to their movement stand out. First, “At every stop, they emphasize that gun violence can’t be addressed without addressing what fuels it: racism, poverty, substandard schools and mental health services. They speak daily about intersectionality, systems of oppression, the school-to-prison pipeline.” Second, the March for Our Lives proposals for action are specific and “winnable.” And third, they affirm the need for students and teachers to be more attentive to those who are alienated. When a counter-campaign to a one-day student walk out emerged calling for students to “walk up, not walk out,” David Hogg tweeted, “Walk up AND walk out.”

The wisdom of that strategy is reinforced by “The High Table Liberal,” a review by Sean Wilentz of a new biography of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the historian who was a close adviser to President Kennedy and an activist in the Democratic Party who stood strong on many liberal issues, including opposition beforehand to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War, and Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill.

Wilentz writes, “Schlesinger’s enthusiasm came with a historian’s understanding of how protest movements had to respect and work with the realities of power in order to accomplish great reforms,” and quotes Schlesinger, “It is indispensable for the liberals to bring pressure on a [Democratic] president to do things and to complain about his slowness to act: this is indispensable in order to enlarge his range of alternatives.” Wilentz continues: “But liberals also had to understand that ‘theirs is a contributory role,’ and that finally it remained to presidents ‘to feel the balance of pressure’ and turn dreams into realities.”

Wilentz sums up his evaluation of Schlesinger:

Without ever losing sight of the crucial activities of agitators and social movements, he demonstrated how it finally took liberal political leaders to overcome obdurate privilege and plutocracy. He explained how political purists, insistent on fundamental principles, actually undermined the realization of those very principles, and how in the fight for democratic change purists became prey for demagogues. He was drawn to power politics not as an end in itself but in preference to powerless politics.

In the constant struggle to build bridges between liberals and radicals, these two historians offer valuable lessons.