Organizing for Democracy and Social Justice in Prince George’s County
The Washington Socialist <> January 2019
By Kurt Stand
Maryland politics reflect the contradictions and challenges we face in trying to develop a rooted, independent left politics that can defeat the Republican right on one side and challenge complacent pro-corporate, machine style Democrats on the other. Absent doing so, we get the result we had in November’s election: victory by Republican incumbent Larry Hogan over a progressive Democratic challenger, aided and abetted by a do-nothing Democratic establishment fully comfortable with the status quo.
This problem is highlighted in Prince George’s County where a far too comfortable Democratic Party apparatus — using term limits to jockey positions rather than open up the political process — shuts out dissident voices and relies on low voter turnout and low levels of public political participation to maintain power. Or rather, to remain in office, for power resides far more in the hands of developers and interests outside the county, a reality elected officials too often accept as unchangeable.
Even given this framework, progress has been possible: The state assembly was able to pass legislation, such as paid sick leave and extending the franchise to returning citizens as soon as they were released from prison, over Governor Hogan’s veto and despite the absence of leadership by Democratic State Senate President Mike Miller. And there is no doubt that most elected officials in Prince George’s hold liberal or progressive values and would like to see positive changes for the communities they represent. Yet for all that fundamental issues remain unaddressed — whether it be housing, education, jobs, health care, poverty, criminal justice, inequality, public official accountability — the county and the state are both going in the wrong direction. How to address this issue in a meaningful way is the challenge facing all of us, and a particular challenge facing DSA as we begin the process of building a Prince George’s chapter.
To do so means, first and foremost, working with and supporting initiatives and organizations that are already laying the foundation for transformative politics built from neighborhood engagement. A prime example of this was on display for the nearly 200 people who attended Progressive Maryland’s year-end gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church just outside Annapolis on Saturday December 29. The gathering featured breakout sessions on issues for organizational focus in the upcoming year: health care as a right (with the goal of Medicare for more/Medicare for all), fair elections (getting money out of politics), mass liberation (ending mass incarceration/establishing justice that heals, not justice that hurts), for a living wage (the Fight for $15), and movement building (building political power by encouraging people with progressive values from all walks of life to run for public office).
These areas of focus are not meant to be limiting; smaller groups by area of the state — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles County, Frederick, the Lower Shore, Montgomery and (perhaps the largest in attendance) Prince George’s County — met to discuss how to organize next steps. The Prince George’s group will build on work on criminal justice and education with plans to begin work on health care in the year ahead.
These goals are similar to those of Our Revolution, a connection evident when comparing the Progressive Maryland meeting to a meeting of Our Revolution Prince George’s which was held earlier in December at the New Deal Café in Greenbelt. The 15–20 people in attendance, many of whom were energized by Sanders’s presidential campaign and angered by the lack of mainstream Democratic Party support for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ben Jealous, discussed a wide array of areas of engagement in the state, in particular, education, raising the minimum wage, health care for all, immigrant rights and environmental justice. The primary focus, however, was on the need for structural change to the political culture of the county and the state, for example, public financing for elections, getting rid of misleading “official” sample ballots, changing how Democratic Party leadership is chosen in the state assembly — organizing to make democracy real.
Although Progressive Maryland, Progressive Prince George’s and Our Revolution Prince George’s emphasized different issues, their programs and overall worldview are largely congruent. Our collective goal is to continue to resist Trump and the right-wing agenda in its local manifestations, but to do so by fighting for real, large-scale substantive change in our communities and throughout Maryland. The same can be said for many other progressive and left organizations active in our county and in the state — and for the programmatic work of DSA.
DSA in Prince George’s is smaller and more scattered than is DSA elsewhere in the DC metro area, but we look forward to making more of an organized contribution to our community in the future. Over the past year, we have organized small gatherings of DSA activists in Prince George’s, looking for ways to support the work and initiatives others have taken, to be a force for unity and to bring to bear our broader socialist outlook to frame the interconnected issues we face locally in our state and in our society. This includes connecting our work to broader national efforts, such as challenging the reactionary role in internal Democratic Party politics and on global affairs (especially around the Middle East) of Senator Ben Cardin, Representative Steny Hoyer and others. By their actions they undermine the unity around substantive change needed to combat right-wing Republicanism and its necessary complement of promoting structural changes that would empower people and end corporate rule over our collective lives.