Winnie Wong.
They Lit the Bern, What Comes Next?
Issue #
214

Winnie Wong calls herself a practical anarchist. She speaks in short intense bursts, an activist warrior slashing her way through the thicket of establishment politics toward a future that somehow has to be won. Charles Lenchner identifies as a “full-spectrum socialist” who will adopt the best strategy in a given moment to build the power of the working class. A former director of communications for the Working Families Party, his preferred voice is one of bemused irony that masks an underlying seriousness of purpose.

They both were active in Occupy Wall Street. In 2013 they began collaborating on bringing OWS’s battle cry of the 99% vs. the 1% into this year’s Democratic presidential contest in which Hillary Clinton was expected to stroll to an easy coronation. 

They launched Ready for Warren, an online initiative that stimulated a groundswell of interest in Elizabeth Warren, the Wall Street-bashing senator from Massachusetts who ultimately declined to run for the White House. When Bernie Sanders jumped in the race a year ago, the anarchist and the socialist shifted gears and used their online organizing skills to help build a nationwide grassroots infrastructure to support Sanders’ nascent campaign. Their efforts included creating 200 pro-Sanders Facebook pages and giving away the passwords to his supporters, much to the surprise of Sanders campaign staffers. 

“I knew that decentralizing would change everything, and that’s exactly what we did,” Wong recalls. “It was dangerous but effective.”

The prolific duo also launched the now-ubiquitous #FeelTheBern hashtag and started the People for Bernie Facebook page that currently has over three quarters of a million followers and more user traffic in some weeks than the official Facebook pages of either the Sanders or Clinton campaigns. 

As the Democratic primaries wind down, Wong and Lenchner are at it again, helping to organize The People’s Summit in Chicago from June 17-19. This gathering of thousands of Bernie supporters, including many of the key groups that have backed his campaign, will seek to consolidate for the energies stirred by Sanders’ historic run for the long haul. While they scoff at being considered leaders of what has become a highly networked movement, Wong and Lenchner did see the potential of the Sanders campaign before almost anyone else. So I checked in with them recently to get their respective thoughts on the path traveled so far and how the Sanders movement might evolve in the future.

John Tarleton: It’s been a long primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton that has upended many people’s expectations. Why convene a People’s Summit at this point?

Winnie Wong: There has been an ongoing conversation among National Nurses United, People for Bernie, Democratic Socialists of America and a number of other groups about doing something between the California primary and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to ensure that the participation in this moment would not dissipate and that we could figure out what to do next en route to a contested convention, which we’re certain will happen.

What would you like to see happen?

I would like to see a progressive platform supported by elected officials who will be attending the conference, as well as soon-to-be electeds who are running for office and progressive political organizations that will be attending as well. It’s going to be a big space with people from many different backgrounds and political allegiances coming together to agree on a new progressivism for America.

The Left is prone to splintering in many different directions. How do you avoid that, if it’s even possible, after the unifying force of a campaign is no longer present?

I think over the last year the Left has become less cynical. It’s going to be the job of the facilitators to make sure we are creating a space where participants are able to be productive rather than cynical and regressive.

Will more people running for office be one of the legacies of the Sanders campaign?

It won’t be the legacy of the Sanders campaign because the Sanders campaign doesn’t get to call the shots. It will be a decentralized movement. There’s no way we can achieve political change in this country unless people from social movements commit to tackling electoral power effectively and strategically. The recent ousting from office of district attorneys in Chicago and Cleveland were both electoral battles led by organizations that emerged out of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Once social movements start to become more certain of their power, they will be unstoppable. You will see it not just from movements led by people of color, but also the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, the environmental justice movement.

Hopefully these movements will be more inclusive and will open up more space for more people of color to participate and the big picture will emerge that all our issues are connected and that capitalism is the root problem.

From your vantage point, what role did Occupy Wall Street play in setting us on the course we are on now?

The arc of the past five years has been remarkable. I believe it started with Occupy. It was there that single-issue activism became multi-issue activism. For the first time in many years, decades, you had housing activists working alongside trans activists, working alongside environmental justice fracktivists. It wasn’t always pretty but what emerged out of that experience was a deeper understanding of the influence of money and power over not just politics, but over everyday life, the 99 and the 1 percent. The Sanders campaign electrified the world by electoralizing those concerns. 

You are an anarchist, yet at the same time you are comfortable working in the electoral realm.

Anarchy is a way of life based on the broad principles of cooperation, solidarity, resilience building, decentralized coordinated activity. We are applying that operating system to this campaign.

Creating 200 different pro-Sanders Facebook pages and then handing control of them to his supporters. That’s the opposite of what would have occurred in a normal top-down political campaign.

I knew that decentralizing would change everything, and that’s exactly what we did. We sensed there was a broader public that was ready for a Sanders messaging campaign, but it was also very clear to me that their participation in the electoral process would be dependent on whether they were able to create the messaging themselves. Social media has been both an organic ally, and a game-changing tactic. 

I gave the passwords to everybody. It was dangerous but effective. It worked. It changed everything. I think the Sanders campaign was like, “Holy fuck!” and then had no choice, in some ways, but to follow our lead.

Unleashing the #FeelTheBern hashtag was another powerful intervention.

It carried the movement narrative co-created by hundreds of thousands of people across multiple platforms on the Internet. The establishment media incorporated the hashtag into their feeds and after that, there was really no looking back. 

We encouraged people, pressured them even, to use the hashtag and this gave us an inkling of what a distributed strategy might look like. We always knew it was going to work, we just didn’t think it was going to work this well!

Yet this isn’t really about Bernie in the end, is it?

I am not a Democrat. I’m not a Bernie or bust person. Bernie Sanders has brought the S-word, small or large, to dinner tables across America every night now for a year. No one has ever done that before. Still, he is a tactic. He’s a means to an end. I think he’s aware that he is a tactic.

A tactic to what end?

To help us move toward building people power, community power that will put us on our way to a better place. 

I don’t think that things are ever really going to be rosy again. We’re well past that. Just look at the rising sea levels, shocking forest and brush fires, ocean acidification and all the other signs of an accelerating climate crisis that is continuing to unfold.

We’re not doing enough, so we have to do something. Electing Bernie Sanders and building local politics is something. 

We can create a transitional world and in that time, our culture and people can adapt to these new very challenging realities. At the core of it is a redistribution of wealth so we can have transformational changes like a guaranteed basic income and Medicare for all. If we don’t create conditions that are more just and palatable to human existence over the next 20 years, then our day-to-day existence will dissolve into violence and strife, and it’s not going to be pretty.

Charles Lenchner

John Tarleton: It’s been a long primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton that has upended many people’s expectations. What do you hope the People’s Summit can achieve?

Charles Lenchner: Tons of groups have sprung up and worked together and accomplished a great deal. However, there hasn’t been an opportunity for anyone except campaign staff to actually gather in a relaxed setting, get to know each other and decide collectively what the next steps are going to be. 

Can individuals attend? Or is the conference intended for a select list of groups?

It’s open to everyone who wants to network with people who support Bernie Sanders’ political revolution and to develop a sense of collective. This is an opportunity to figure stuff out not as you stroke your chin deciding what’s best, but in a relationship with the social forces that you want to be aligned with.

What would you like to see happen?

My goal is to see as many of the groups that have emerged in the wake of the Bernie campaign survive and thrive as possible. In order to do that, they might need training and resources and support. They need to stitch together a mindset that they deserve to exist and figure out how to actually accomplish that. Historically, most entities tend to fade before long in the wake of a presidential election. Finding a way for this political cohort to survive and grow and be active for years to come, pushing for progressive policies, is no small feat.

What would be the basis for that? Political campaigns have a singular focus on winning votes that eventually comes to an end. 

My advice would be de-center the candidate and focus on the movement, which is totally in line with what Bernie Sanders has been saying.

If you belonged to a group of 10 people who canvassed your neighborhood, can we get you 10 people to meet and decide what to do next and not look to others for solutions or direction? Can we have a situation where the activists in a particular city or state have a democratic process to decide what their participation in the general election will look like and who they are going to support? We could get a thousand groups meeting and deciding whether what a candidate has to offer is worth it to them. That would be an amazingly empowering process. 

The Left is prone to splintering in many different directions. How do you avoid that, if it’s even possible, after the unifying force of a campaign is no longer present?

A central problem for the U.S. Left is that we have many organizations, but it’s often unclear who they represent. Contrast that to Europe where a party might only have a few percentage points in parliament but they represent someone. What Bernie Sanders has done is create an electoral map of the Left. The people that voted for him are now in a patchwork of electoral districts that are 70 percent for Bernie, 30 percent for Bernie or whatever. To fully digest this, we need to make sure that in all the areas that Bernie was strong, there’s a legacy not only of voting but of organization, that people who came together through the Sanders campaign find a way to craft sustainable political efforts that are locally based.

How would things look in two or four or 10 years if this happened?

I’m looking at the Spanish municipal elections of last spring, where you had grassroots coalitions come together, figure out what they believed in, what their platform was, and then recruit a candidate. They now control the largest cities in that country. 

Think about how different that is from the American system, where the process of figuring out whom the candidate will be is preceded by lots of jockeying among insiders and by the time you have a candidate, she or he is already compromised. So could we create a situation where grassroots coalitions form, decide on their principles and points of agreement and then say “Who wants to run under our banner?” In other words, create the electoral machine that isn’t built around specific candidates. That’s a task that potentially Bernie supporters would glom onto fairly easily.

The other thing to do is to figure out where you have corporate Democrats who endorsed Hillary and who are vulnerable because their constituents are overwhelmingly pro-Bernie and then get ready for campaigns to unseat those people or push them to adopt more progressive policies. 

Do you have a sense of whether the Sanders campaign will inspire people who share his values to run for office?

It’s already happening. The Sanders campaign proved that you can run against the party establishment and do pretty darn good for yourself. Look at Debbie Medina in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She’s been a community organizer there for 30 years and is now running as a democratic socialist against a longtime incumbent state senator. This wave of support for democratic socialism is going to draw people into running for office who otherwise might not have done so and will also at the same time help surface massive support for these people.

Can the Democratic Party actually be transformed from within? 

The United States is the heart of a global empire. I don’t think our forces have the kind of power to actually overthrow the rule of the 1 percent and institute a real democracy. But I do think we have the chance to win many things by fighting for them, and those things will improve people’s lives in many material ways, whether it’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, paid sick days, free public university tuition, making sure that we have protections for transgender people, immigrants and others.

You recently wrote that one of your goals is to see the elimination of the Democratic Party apparatchik class. Can you explain what you meant?

(Laughs) In the old days of real, existing socialism, an apparatchik was someone whose task was to figure out how to serve the needs of the Party and in turn he or she would be rewarded with promotions within the Party. It was the way compliance was enforced throughout society, because in -every social pyramid there were apparatchiks figuring out how things ought to be done to serve the folks upstairs.

So changing that means having a class of people who are loyal to what the people downstairs want. That’s the opposite of an apparatchik. We don’t need people who are like, “Oh, can we demand this?” No, figure out what the people you serve want and do that instead and don’t do it because it’s a part of a career ladder. 

The reason why corporate Democrats are so powerful is not because there are so many people taking graft from corporations. It’s because there is a whole pyramid of power from on high at the Democratic National Committee all the way down to the local level through patronage politics. So if you want to go after that, you have to have a broad vision of what it means to take away that career ladder.

FIRST CHICAGO, THEN PHILLY

The People’s Summit will be held in Chicago from June 17-19. Some travel scholarships are available. For more information, see thepeoplessummit.org

Meanwhile, organizers in Philadelphia will host a People’s Convention on July 23, two days before the Democratic National Convention kicks off in that same city. For more, see thepeoplesrevolution.org.

— Indypendent Staff

______________________________________________

RELATED ARTICLES

My Third Degree Bern: Hope in a Time of Crisis
By NIcholas Powers

After a Chaotic Primary, Outraged Voters Confront NYC Board of Elections
By Jessie Rubin


The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.