There’s a saying that has worldwide currency: “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” Supposedly, legendary Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich originated the phrase during the Napoleonic Era, but in his version it was Europe that caught a cold when France sneezed. In the African-American community, the phrase has undergone a modification: “when white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia.” Both versions became fairly popular during the financial crisis of 2007-2008 as the repercussions of the collapsed housing bubble reverberated out from the floor of the Wall Street stock exchange to shake both the global economy and American neighborhoods of color.
I think there’s another widely shared saying that applies to the black community: “a canary in a coal mine.” Canaries are more sensitive to carbon monoxide than humans and therefore can serve as an early warning signal. Beginning in the early 20th-Century, coal miners began bringing canaries to work with them in the hope that the birds would tip them off to dangerous leaks in time for them to make an escape.
This was my experience during my time with ACORN in 2004-2005. I was hired to work on the political end, technically as part of the affiliated Project Vote. But the North Broad Street office I worked out of in Philadelphia was primarily occupied with providing basic services to the black community. Chief among these was help dealing with predatory loans, particularly mortgages that were sold based on confusing or misleading terms that led to ballooning payments down the line that people could not afford.
At the time, I thought the problem was almost wholly that people were being hoodwinked into foreclosure traps, but I didn’t understand why so many loans were being granted to people who clearly couldn’t afford them. I did not know about mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations so I didn’t get the incentives people had to sell as many mortgages as possible with no regard for whether they’d result in default. All I knew back then was that it was a gigantic problem in the black community and ACORN was acting as an advocate for people who were desperate to avoid losing their homes. The housing crisis was brought on by the collapse of credit standards, but before the investors in bad debt got burned, the black community suffered the consequences. If I had known to look, this would have tipped me off to the larger catastrophe to come.
I left ACORN at the beginning of 2005 to start a blogging community called Booman Tribune (now known as Progress Pond). It was run on the same platform that Daily Kos was using at the time. I became a member of Daily Kos on March 25, 2004 and I began publishing my own writing there that year in the free time I had when I wasn’t doing my work organizing Montgomery County, Pennsylvania for Project Vote. From the beginning, my site attracted people who were at least somewhat dissatisfied with Daily Kos, but I saw the two sites as basically part of the same movement. We were mainly concerned with three things. We wanted to end the war in Iraq; we wanted to push back against a supine media that was far too intimidated after the 9/11 attacks to hold the Bush administration to account, and we wanted to inject some spine into the Democratic Party that seemed to be perpetually fighting from a fetal position.
At first, it was enough to be able to push back against Republican lies, critique the Democrats and media, and add our own voices to the conversation. Many people who had been impotently shouting at their television sets felt suddenly empowered by the new blogging medium and the free publishing and ready-made audiences we were providing. But soon we decided to take it to another level.
The transformation began in Las Vegas, Nevada. From June 8–11, 2006, the Daily Kos community and some other fellow travelers held the inaugural Yearly Kos convention. It was a magical time for most of the attendees. Many people put their pseudonymous user names on their name tags because we only “knew” each other from the virtual space of the Daily Kos website. All across the convention center, there were expressions of joy as people were able to put a user name to a real name and face for the first time. There were politicos and professional organizers in attendance and on the various panels, but this really was an event for ordinary people who were looking to get politically involved in the real world for the first time.
The conference focused on giving us the tools to do this, but the real magic came from the networking. I don’t know how many political groups and innovations and tactics can be traced back to that first conference, but the list must be considerable. When we left, we felt united and energized for the midterm fight of 2006, which proved to be enormously successful.
In 2007, the Yearly Kos convention was held in Chicago and it had already matured. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder noted at the time that “YearlyKos has, in two years, outgrown its bonding session phase, it’s ‘Let’s Make Fun Of The Press Stage,’ and even its focus on national activism.” The biggest sign that something had changed was the presence of presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. They all showed up to participate in a blogger-led forum. The Democratic Party had taken notice, and the convention was populated by hordes of operatives for the first time.
I attended the next two conferences (re-dubbed as Netroots Nation) in Austin (2008) and Pittsburgh (2009). However, when the conference returned to Las Vegas in 2010, I decided that I did not want to have any further involvement. The reason was fairly simple. By that time, a fairly big schism had opened up in the progressive Netroots over the presidency of Barack Obama. From the beginning, my focus had been on winning elections and then supporting the winners. But it became apparent that for much of the progressive online movement, the primary motivator was in challenging power no matter who held it. One day they were spending all their energy challenging Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld, and the next they were spending all their energy challenging the administration of Barack Obama.
I certainly understand that impulse. I see the indispensable value in it, too. But I wanted to focus my energy on helping Barack Obama succeed and get reelected, and I discovered that I was spending a lot of my time defending him from unfair attacks from other progressives. I didn’t feel like we were on the same team anymore. I remembered the people I saw and employed at ACORN back in 2004 who were living on a razor’s edge, and I knew they saw things the same way that I did. They supported the president and they believed in him. Given the choice, I was going to side with them and not join the Tea Party in savaging the president.
My concern that the Netroots had lost the narrative seemed to be confirmed in November when the House majority we had helped recruit, vet, fund and elect in 2006 was swept out of power. For the next decade, I watched the Netroots Nation conference from the sideline. There were things they did that I admired and other things that made me cringe, but their fight was no longer well-aligned with mine.
However, when they finally decided to hold the convention on my home turf of Philadelphia, I decided to show up and see for myself how things have changed. The first thing I noticed was the program they handed me when I registered as a member of the press. They had included two full pages of instructions on how attendees should behave. On the first page, I was informed that “during social events and discussions” I should “keep an empty chair or open space in (my) circle for newcomers to help them feel welcome.” I was told that I should be “thankful when (I) am held accountable” from the people “(I) may have harmed.” There was a lengthy section on “Creating Safer Spaces” that warned me that I “may unintentionally make someone uncomfortable.”
There was another page that explained how I was to interact with people with a disability, “racialized communities,” “transgender/gender nonbinary” people and “Bi/Pan/Fluid/Queer (Bi+)” people. Much of this information was thoughtful and helpful, but these tips were also primarily about how to avoid giving offense.
I noticed a few things that struck me as either kind of inaccessible to the uninitiated or fairly contentious to the majority of voters. For example, I was warned not to “lump BIPOC/Sunkissed peoples into a grouping.” That was the first I had heard of those terms. I was informed to “remember that everything we are doing is on stolen land and these imposed borders hold thousands of distinct Indigenous nations.” I thought perhaps that retelling of history could be slightly more nuanced. I wasn’t sure how many people would agree that if they were accused of racism they should not defend themselves or their actions but “stay calm and listen.” I hadn’t considered it likely that I would face this problem. Along this same line, I was to “accept discomfort” because “equality feels like oppression to those who have lived with privilege.” That is certainly true, but the imperative to accept discomfort didn’t sound too welcoming.
Of course, I understand where all this is coming from. I also understand why they told me not to “gawk” at people who are doing things that are “culturally different,” and to “be positive about all relationships–monogamous, polyamorous, or anything else.” I accept that “It’s polite to ask: ‘What is your name and pronouns,’ before assuming and using pronouns and gendered words.” But there was just something about the overall presentation of these instructions that didn’t sit right with me.
I took some screenshots of the program and sent them to two friends of mine, both of whom I’d describe as to my left in general. The man responded, “it makes you want to bang the inflatable slide emergency exit on the plane, grab a drink, and say ‘fuck you all.'” The woman texted back, “a bunch of amoebas who crawled out of a California fuck-puddle.” I concluded that I wasn’t taking the hardline on these new bylaws.
Truthfully, it’s hard to accurately convey my reaction to reading the program before I had even ventured into the crowd. It seemed like the conference was primarily concerned with educating people on how they should behave and that there were almost infinite opportunities, no matter how unintentionally, to run afoul of the guidelines. But this didn’t actually worry me for personal reasons. I don’t generally give unintended offense and I don’t beat myself up about doing unintended things. I was more concerned about why all the focus was on issues that have no direct relationship with winning elections. I was also wondering what my old acquaintances at ACORN would think about the new nomenclature and rules about the usage of words. In my experience, the most marginalized people in Philadelphia were focused on getting the police to clean up drug corners and City Hall to install new traffic lights. They were trying not to lose their homes to foreclosure and to avoid losing the public pool and local library branch. All this stuff in the program seemed pretty far afield from their concerns, and I could only imagine how it would play outside the progressive cocoon of the conference.
I decided to attend my first panel discussion: NEVER GIVE UP: LESSONS FROM THE MOVE FAMILY.
For those of you who are not from Philadelphia, you may not be familiar with the MOVE family. Somewhat amazingly, the best explanation I could find online was published in Teen Vogue in May 2019. In 1985, the city of Philadelphia dropped two bombs on this family’s rowhouse, setting fire to gasoline stored on their roof, and burning down an entire city block of sixty homes. All but one of the family members were killed, totaling six adults and five children.
But the real story began seven years earlier when the police tried to evict the MOVE family from a separate home and a police officer was shot dead. To this day, the MOVE family insists that they did not have any functioning guns in the house and that the officer died as a result of friendly fire. There are apparently some witnesses who support this version of events, but a jury did not hear from them and convicted nine members of the household to lengthy jail sentences.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, MOVE’s problems originated with the fact that they were the world’s worst neighbors. They created smelly compost piles, brandished guns, and used loudspeakers and a bullhorn to blast “profanity-laced political diatribes” in the middle of the night.
“MOVE was a pain in the neck for 25 hours a day,” a neighbor whose house had been burned in the  fire told *The New York Times* in 1996. “But we didn’t believe the police should have come in here like it was World War III. Those children in that house weren’t criminals.”
Under the notoriously racist mayorship of Frank Rizzo, the family was characterized as terrorists even though they espoused a nonviolent philosophy based on back-to-the-Earth principles. Yet, when they were blamed for killing a cop, the debate about them was mostly decided.
The bombing in 1985 was more socially and politically complicated. By that time, Rizzo had been replaced by Philadelphia’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode. The black community understandably took pride in Goode and it didn’t rally to MOVE’s side when they were bombed. Had Rizzo bombed them, the reaction would have been much different. As one of the panelists said, the city would have rioted like after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Either way, bombing the rowhouse was not the first option.
Clashes with their new neighbors and with law enforcement ensued. In May 1985, following over a year of surveillance, police obtained arrest warrants for four of the house’s occupants, including Ramona Africa, who as a result went on to serve seven years in prison.
A gun battle broke out between authorities and those inside. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the fire department blasted the house with 1,000 gallons of water a minute for nearly six hours. Police responded to MOVE’s gunfire by throwing smoke grenades and firing at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house.
If you’re following along here, you’ll realize that Ramona Africa’s entire family was killed by the Philadelphia police department and then she was sent to prison. There were all kinds of investigations and recriminations in the aftermath of this tragedy, but no one was ever held accountable. Even the burned-out homeowners who shared a block with the MOVE family never got justice. Philadelphia became a national joke and the subject of late night punch lines. And Wilson Goode was reelected.
What’s important to realize is that while virtually no one thought the police department acted reasonably or responsibly, there were also almost no people who thought well of the MOVE family. For many, they were cop killers. For others, they were dangerous radicals who shot at police rather than surrender to lawfully obtained arrest warrants. Still others saw them simply as a weird cult, which is pretty hard to contest if you look at their belief system. And, of course, to their immediate neighbors, they had been “a pain in the neck for 25 hours a day” whose poor decisions had led to the destruction of their homes. To say they had few allies in the Philadelphia metro area would be a gross understatement.
But here they were at the Netroots Nation conference presenting their very one-sided version of history and pitching their philosophy of eating only raw vegetables. I wondered who was responsible for agreeing to this panel and whether the candidates who would be attending the conference were prepared to be attacked by the right for guilt by association.
Nonetheless, the panel was very interesting. I was actually quite impressed with all four of the panelists in their own way. Megan Malachi of Philly REAL Justice was particularly engaging. Charismatic and highly intelligent, I agreed with the vast majority of what she had to say and was intrigued by her perspective on a variety of issues. Most compelling, however was the perspective of Michael Africa Jr. whose story is unlike any I have ever heard. His mother was eight months pregnant with him when she was arrested in 1978. Michael was born in prison and separated from his mother shortly thereafter. He was only recently reunited with her and his father when they were released in 2018.
The most riveting moment of the discussion came when someone asked Michael to share something personal about his experience being reunited with his parents. He spoke of a piece of furniture in his hallway where he sometimes sits in the morning before work. He was sitting there one day a few weeks after his mother moved in with him when she came out of her bedroom in bare feet. At that moment, he realized that he was seeing his mother’s feet for the first time. As his friend put it, he was learning things about his mother at 40 years of age that most people learn as babies.
As poignant as moments like this were, much of what the panel wanted to discuss could have been appropriately handled by any number of other activists, organizers or academics. In fact, the most interesting elements of the presentation that weren’t historical or personal in nature, were all about broader themes than anything particular to the MOVE family. I came away personally impressed with the presenters but still mystified about why a conference that is supposed to be about political outcomes was allowing this family and its defenders to have an unchallenged forum to argue that they’d been wrongly imprisoned after the 1978 death of a police officer and to pitch their idiosyncratic philosophy. Part of me felt grateful that James O’Keefe was otherwise occupied that day at the White House Social Media Summit.
The general feel of the convention was also unfamiliar. Gone were the pseudonymous name tags and the Daily Kos users meeting in real life for the first time. Virtually everyone in attendance came with some kind of agenda and were already linked to some preexisting organization. There were still plenty of sessions dedicated to the grunt work of politics, from working with voter files to drawing good district maps to harnessing data from field work to making sure that our elections are secure. There were panels on turning out the youth vote and winning back blue collar voters. The problem was that at least the white blue collar voters would be “banging the inflatable slide emergency exit on the plane” rather than joining this political movement.
On Saturday, the main event arrived when presidential contenders Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay Inslee appeared (in that order) in a candidate forum in the main ballroom. Of the three, only Warren has much of a pulse in the polls, and she really could not have had a better performance. While the others received a somewhat enthusiastic response, Warren entered to a thunderous ovation. She was completely relaxed, dealt with surprises and interruptions with impromptu and off-the-cuff humor that brought the house down, and was flawlessly conversant and responsive on the issues. She easily outclassed the others, although both Gillibrand and Castro were impressive and well-received. Gillibrand might have made news by immediately endorsing reparations, but that would require the media caring enough about her campaign to make it into a controversy. Meanwhile, Castro agreed that ICE should be abolished, which was a crowdpleaser in the hall, but obviously a more dubious position to carry into a general election against Trump. There weren’t very many people around to hear what Jay Inslee had to say because as soon as Warren finished there was a humiliating mass exodus from the hall. Perhaps people were just hungry after sitting through the first three presentations, but it also seemed to send a statement about the lack of interest the Netroots Nation denizens have in another white male president.
I don’t want to give the impression that the conference was a complete freak show because it wasn’t like that at all. I spoke with longtime friend Adam Bonin who informed me that it was the biggest conference they had ever held, and it was extremely well organized with many excellent panels. What it wasn’t, however, was anything close to what it had been in the beginning back in 2006 in Las Vegas. Daily Kos began as an unapologetically pro-Democratic Party community where ideological fights were discouraged. The biggest influx of users I ever had at Booman Tribune came after founder Markos Moulitsas dismissed the “sanctimonious women’s studies set” who objected to sexist advertising on his site and told them to go find another home. Now the conference he inspired was setting a new standard for sanctimony. It was hard to find much of the original purpose.
For one thing, there was almost no cognizance of how the whole thing worked as a successful political movement. When we started, we wanted tools to help us do what the party and the media were not doing, which was making the case against the Republicans to the American public and winning them over to our side. This conference made some pretenses in that direction, but was basically indifferent to whether their positions were tenable for Democratic candidates in most contested districts and states. They seemed more interested in policing each other than in convincing outsiders. For all the worthy panels on climate change and immigration and gun violence and the rights of disabled people or the LGBTQ community, there was little recognition that beating the Republicans is the first prerequisite for making progress.
I came into the Netroots from the world of community organizing. I know there is an inside game and an outside game. You can organize around issues or you can organize around power. There will always be a role for both. You can try to elect Democrats while also trying to reform the Democratic Party at the same time. That’s how I saw the mission at the start. That’s still how I see the mission. But that’s not a balance I see with Netroots Nation. They are not interested in reforming the system or overly concerned about short-term political consequences. They’re going for revolutionary change, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead.
Ten years ago, I left Netroots Nation when I concluded that they weren’t on my team. I still admire most of the people who run the thing and the vast majority of what they’re trying to do, but I see them as more of a liability in the fight against Trump than an asset. I think back to my job at ACORN and about the people in need that I want to help, and I know that most of them can’t relate to the convention’s culture at all. They’re my canary in a coal mine. I wish I didn’t feel that way, but I do.