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Local Democracy Engines: Creating Politics That Work for Average Americans

August 9, 2013
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The Honorable George “Rithm” Martinez – First active MC elected to political office and 2012 candidate in New York City.

The Honorable George “Rithm” Martinez, America’s first active MC to be elected to political office and a 2012 candidate for the US House of Representatives, continues his conversation with By2015:AMERICA’s Lead Coordinator. The subject is how to implement his “Block by Block” community organizing solution.

George “Rithm” Martinez: This is my jump off. You know. Talking about how best to empower our communities to solve the problems within our communities without the government is the issue that I talk about daily. Like since before we did OutTime 2008. [Note: OurTime 2008 was an award-winning voter registration and political literacy initiative in Anchorage, Alaska. The focus was on first time voters and people of color.]

Kokayi Nosakhere: Word. So, set it up so that our Readers know that you know what you are talking about.

GM: Aight. Let’s start with: We’re not stupid. By “we” I mean every day cats. The “average American.” We’re watching the two political parties fighting and nothing getting done. Nothing that really concerns us. Everything happening in Washington [D.C.] comes across as corrupt. They talking to themselves: Democrat and Republicans. Not to us. So we find ourselves working to get their attention. This is backwards!

And, when they do talk to us, it’s some off the wall nonsense that no one can relate too or that works to distracts folks from being able to address what’s really important to our own interests. Members of Congress debate employment reports that are based on BS numbers while voting to bailout crooked banks at the same time. This has the people hoping for anything that sounds meaningful from government like how the government is going to make a job for me, put food on my table or give me health insurance: what’s the point when we don’t control those politician’s agendas in the first place?

And, every issue gets super polarized by the media for reasons that make zero sense to the average American. So we tune out leaving many people feeling helpless and alone. These dynamics work to disenfranchise citizen’s constitutional right to petition our government for redress of grievances. Why would we when we know they don’t care about us?

For example, to bring it back to your issue: child hunger, they talking about cutting food stamps. Both parties are talking about cutting food stamps. Both parties in both the House and the Senate. That just doesn’t make sense to the average American. It sounds corrupt and evil.

How are you taking food out of the mouths of people? You cannot even spin that. It doesn’t come across as even a conversation starter. It leaves them reaching into the political bag of tricks to try to justify cutting food stamps to any one of the 50 million Americans dependent on them. How about not building a few bombs or ending the War on Drugs to find the savings. Not something that helps people eat. This is basic.

KN: (laughter) I hear you. And that’s exact what I hear on the ground. A lot of frustration that government is unresponsive and just out to hurt the people who are vulnerable. I spit facts and statistics and the people I am speaking too nod their heads. They get what’s wrong. They are directly experiencing the pain. They don’t get how a politician doesn’t get it. The elected official comes across as a monster because only a monster wouldn’t return a phone call when I am in crisis and trying to get out of crisis.

GM: Right! That’s the average American’s biggest compliant. I’m hurting. You say you wanted to be in a position to help. I take time out of my day from trying to secure food, clothing and shelter and what do I get? A busy signal. Or, I’ll call you back. Or worst: no response at all. So, government, as much as people look to it for solutions comes across as a whole lotta nothing. Ya’ll taking money outta my paycheck and want to wage wars instead of create jobs. This disconnect is partially due to the reality that the mechanisms for citizen engagement have been flooded with corporate dollars because of legal rulings like Citizen United which ruled that “corporate persons” have the right of free speech and can thus spend money to influence elections through the use of super pacs and such.

KN: Okay, so, that’s enough of explaining the problem. I think Readers will know by now that you know what they are dealing with and can articulate what they may have a hard time articulating. What’s a solution?

GM: The solution is: you and I on the ground have to connect and organize community resources in a way that enables people to help themselves. Nobody wants to be part of a corrupt system that seems to be hurting others. We need to create what I call “local democracy engines” which would enable us to remix and control local political systems from the ground up while we reduce our reliance on government at the same time.

KN: How is that different from government?

GM: The difference is the sense of empowerment. Many in the Occupy Movement got this part wrong. Yes, we the people view the interest of corporate power as hurting those of us who cannot oppose that power. So, we need to use the People’s Assembly not only to grow consensus about how to confront that corporate power, but to build our own.

Our version of the People’s Assembly is different and can be used to gather people and take a needs assessment of the community and what skills are available. That means, we ask how many gardens exist, for example with By2015. We ask how many people know how to garden? Where are the suitable empty lots, seed supplies, etc? Take that and begin figuring out how to produce our own food without asking the government for anything. We should be proactively engage in local government politics too this way we can begin to use laws like eminent domain to reclaim empty spaces that can be used for growing food. Imagine that in many localities its illegal to farm on your lawns. We can change laws to get government out of the way of our own empowerment.

One of the things that you are running into, Kokayi, is the fact that there is no precipitating event. No court verdict like in the Trayvon Martin case that ignited the national conversation about Stand Your Ground or gun control.

You have a lot of issues competing for people’s attention. Like survival. Without a crisis event, a nexus, to pivot on, child hunger doesn’t rise to the top of their to do list. But what does rise to that level is living with dignity and taking back their political power. We can end child hunger along the way as a first priority, a sort of canary in the mine. If you recall, back in the days miners would use canaries to see if the air in the mine was toxic. If the canary went in and died it was poisonous, if it came back out it was safe to go in. So if a community could be prepared to address its own child hunger, it would be prepared to address most of its other issues.

KN: That’s what we are hoping The Walk for America’s Children will do, allow us to have the conversation on the ground with people.

GM: Yes. And, remember, be kind with People. As crazy as it sounds, this might be the first time in their lives that they put any attention on why child hunger exists, let alone a solution to help them grow their power to address other relevant issues at the same time.

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