Megaphone: An Interview with Ben Manski of the Liberty Tree Foundation

Interviewed by Jacob Perl

Before Occupy Wall Street, there was the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol last year — with hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites mobilizing for months on end to defend working and poor people against attacks on their wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights by Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the legislature. In the thick of that struggle was the Liberty Tree Foundation, founded and led by Ben Manski, 37. Manski was co-chair of the Green Party of the United States from 2001 until 2004, and has worked for a number of environmental, social justice, pro-democracy, and education advocacy organizations. He is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and is active with the Speak Out! Speakers and Artists speakers bureau. In January, 2011, the Liberty Tree Foundation helped to launch the Wisconsin Wave (wisconsinwave.org), a coalition of workers, students, farmers, small business owners, the unemployed, retirees and others against corporate control of government and budget cutbacks that hurt the working majority. Manski was interviewed by Jacob Perl in September, 2011.

Jewish Currents: Liberty Tree describes itself as focused on “building a democracy movement for the United States.” Don’t we already live in a democracy?

Ben Manski: In the United States, ‘We the People’ do not actually govern ourselves, and whatever democratic rights we do have are under threat. In my home state of  Wisconsin, for example, it’s very clear that the people have, by a large majority, rejected the anti-labor policies that have been implemented by Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature. The political process is so dysfunctional that those in office are refusing to listen to their constituents, even when thousands of Wisconsinites occupy the State Capitol.

One thing we can do is wait until the next election, or file a recall petition and bring the next election date forward. Many people in Wisconsin are working on that. [By mid-January, 2012, more than a million had signed petitions for the governor’s recall, assuring an early election. —Editor] The other way you can step up is to say, “You’re an elected official, and you’re ignoring your constituents — every poll shows that — and so we don’t really have a functioning ‘government of the people’ in our state.” This is the kind of moment of realization that has moved people, throughout history, into direct action.

What’s happening is that a second capitol building has been established in our state. There’s the beautiful State Capitol building at the center of Madison, built as a temple of democracy by the progressives of the LaFollette era, but the real capitol is further down the street at the headquarters of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC). That’s the major corporate lobby, and what we’re seeing is the unfolding of their strategy for the rapid destruction of the State of Wisconsin through austerity and corporatization. Everything the WMC has been wanting to do for years they’re doing all at once, because they have a moment in which legislators and the governor are willing to do whatever they’re told. If our movement is to stop them, we’re going to have to take action not only at the “official” capitol building but at the unofficial one.

JC: One element of democracy is that individuals have rights that can’t be superseded, even by the majority. Many libertarians use this to argue that  regulations aiming to create economic justice infringe on individual rights. How do you deal with this tension?

BM: The real question is whether you can have democracy in a society in which you have gross inequality. You can’t have mass impoverishment and instability on the part of the majority of Americans and still have democratic self-rule.

The left has to start dealing with property rights issues in a serious and up-front way. It’s one thing to define property rights as applying to those things that enable a people to be free: ownership of a home, a means of conveyance, enough financial capital to have some independence and freedom of action and movement. But the majority of Americans are with us in saying that we don’t want major corporations’ property rights to dominate our economy and determine the course of our politics.

Our job is to state this clearly, and to strengthen forms of economic democracy that exist or are emerging. We need to present a vision of a cooperative commonwealth: how a genuine democracy would bring power down to where people live, work, eat, and play, rather than centralizing power on Wall Street, or in Dallas or Abu Dhabi or wherever.

These are the kinds of innovations we’re supporting through the Liberty Tree Foundation. I founded the organization seven years ago, during my last year in law school here at the university in Madison, because I had come to recognize that while we were winning any number of significant victories, we were losing the larger struggle for democratic self-governance — and that if we lost that struggle, or forgot that it was the essential struggle, we would, in the end, lose on every other front as well.

I came to this understanding from work I had done in many sectors of the progressive movement. I had spent years in the depths of the radical environmental movement with Earth First! I had spent time doing abortion-clinic defense and farm-labor organizing and support. I had been inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square — and I was very disturbed by how the U.S. federal government turned its back on the Chinese students and workers who rose up there for democracy.

I had done a lot of work with the student movement in the 1990s, and with efforts that led to the so-called “Battle in Seattle” in 1999 — the demonstrations focused on the World Trade Organization. I also coordinated the Democracy Teach-Ins for four years in the late 1990s, which took place on hundreds of campuses around the country and focused on the issue of corporate rule and the corporatization of higher education, and I worked on the Olympia Round on Corporate Rule, which we held the weekend after the Seattle protests to plan going on the offensive, post-Seattle.
Out of those networks came further work.  Much of the resistance to the stolen election in Florida in 2000 was coordinated by some of the same people who were part of that 1990s-era movement.  Then, in 2004, it became clear to me that unless there were preparations ahead of time for the presiden-tial elections — and the likelihood of a repeat of Florida 2000 — voters would be at the mercy of whatever the Democratic nominee decided to do. In 2000, of course, Gore had conceded; now we feared that Kerry would do the same. Liberty Tree’s first campaign was ‘No Stolen Elections!’, which focused on the day after the elections, to make sure there would not be a repeat of a stolen election — or, if there was, to make sure we’d be there to contest that theft. We were successful in laying the groundwork for what became the Ohio Recount. There were Ohio election officials who went to prison for what they did to suppress the vote and manipulate the results. But the 2004 presidential election was stolen in Ohio.
Liberty Tree’s strategy since then has been to work to strengthen pro-democracy campaigns. In education, for example, there are campaigns by students, faculty, staff and community members to demand democratic governance and full funding for our public education system at every level. We’ve helped build a network of people who are working to make local government more participatory. We were the first to organize conferences about participatory budgeting, for example, which is now being implemented in a number of municipalities around the country.

JC: Participatory budgeting means that citizens, rather than government officials, actually create the budget and determine the spending priori-
ties . . .

BM: Through a democratic process. We’ve also had a very active campaign around democratizing military defense. We’re working with military service members, veterans, military families, and others to seek the defederalization of the National Guard. We’re also seeking to organize a national war referendum amendment to the Constitution, and the withdrawal of U.S. military bases from foreign countries.

Last summer, after a very politically hot winter and very hot spring in Madison, we brought all these different networks here for the first national Democracy Convention (democracyconvention.org) — which was sort of a bar mitsve, or coming-out party, for the democracy movement.

JC: Are there Jewish roots for your political work?

BM: Some of my earliest political memories are from the years my family lived in Jerusalem. One is the moment when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat reached the agreements at Camp David — I was a young kid at the time — and people were coming out of their homes and crying with joy.
I also remember a struggle that went on in our neighborhood, Neve Sha’anan, which is right down the hill from the Knesset. There was a decision to expand a dirt road that went through our neighborhood into a four-lane highway so that a supermarket down the road could be better served. The neighborhood was very strongly opposed, and we had demonstrations. There’s a photo of me as a young boy holding up a picture of a piece of earth-moving equipment in flames. The driver is safely off to the side in the picture, unhurt, but apparently some neighborhood kids had actually gone out and set the bulldozers on fire. That left an indelible mark in me. It made me realize that with direct action you really can get the goods — and that if you train everybody to serve in the military, those skills can be applied in other arenas as well.

From my earliest age, I knew about what had happened to my grandfather’s family, in Lida, Poland, from which he had fled at the very brink of the Holocaust, between 1939 and 1941, to come to the United States. He repeatedly said to me that you can’t sit safely at home and watch the world pass by, because eventually the world will come to your door. As a child in Israel at the end of the 1970s, I certainly learned in school about the resistance to the Nazis — which is something that’s not taught in American schools as much as it should be. I was also influenced by Israeli patriotism and nationalism: I sang all the songs and I wanted to fly fighter planes for the IDF. It was a confused perspective — we were taught that Israel loved peace, we spent time cutting doves out of paper, at the same time that we were taught to have a very palpable fear of Arabs — sometimes justified, other times a very dangerous fear to harbor, dangerous for Israel’s own security.

Here in Wisconsin, Jews have always been a very small sector of the population but have played an important role in progressive movements. For many years, I was proud that the state had elected two Jewish senators, Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl, and nobody seemed to notice or care that they were Jewish. Wisconsin had a Jewish governor in the early years of the Civil War, Edward Salamon, who was a radical abolitionist. We elected Victor Berger, the first Socialist Party member in Congress. The Zeidler brothers were Socialist mayors of Milwaukee.

Here in Madison, there is a strong Jewish community that has been rejuvenated from generation to generation, in part because of the strong draw of the University of Wisconsin and its radical reputation. During the protests, the Jewish community has had a very positive role. My rabbis, Laurie Zimmerman and Renee Bauer, helped to lead the first religious services that took place inside the capitol during the occupation.

Still, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have been involved in walk-outs, sit-ins and strikes across the state, and despite the fact that two Republican senators lost their jobs and I think the governor is likely to lose his, the Republicans don’t seem to have slowed down much.
They continue to attack unions and the public sector across the board, and to promote legislation that further diminishes the right to vote. Maybe they’ll try to do away with elections entirely at the local level — as they have in Michigan with their emergency management legislation, with which the state can essentially put municipalities into receivership.

JC: What’s next for the democracy movement?

BM:: People in Spain, Israel, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, Russia, and elsewhere are in the streets demanding democracy. We’re very aware of these as democracy movements, and we know that we all have a common stake in changing the structure of power relations in our country and in the world. That means our movement has to be assertive and aggressive, because the reality is democracy has been under attack for many years, and many of our democratic institutions have already been undermined. We can’t simply “protect” democracy, because we don’t have it in most areas of our lives — even in our elections.

I think there’s a need to embrace fully the concept of reform at a constitutional level, and to step up our level of direct action. This requires us to create new funding sources, because the established players in the progressive movement don’t necessarily support these approaches. The generational struggles that labor is going through, between those who want to build a new labor movement and those who have power and relative wealth within the existing movement, are being reproduced within the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and, really, every sector of the progressive movement.

I’m still under the influence of that Jewish nationalism of my youth, enough to feel the belief that there is something special about the United States of America — nearly all of it resulting from the work of revolutionaries whose footsteps I want to follow in. I’m talking about the genuine revolutionaries of the 1770s; the universal suffrage movement and the women’s suffrage movement; the radical abolitionist movement; the civil rights movement of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — as well as more recent movements that have worked to expand the circle of personhood, such as the queer liberation movement and even the animal liberation and animal rights movements. They’re pro-democracy, too — they may actually represent the final pro-democracy struggle, to get us to recognize the rights of nature and of other living beings on the planet.

Jacob Perl is a poet and nursing assistant in Wisconsin who works as a journalist with the community radio station in Madison.

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