by Roxane Assaf-Lynn
PHOTO ROXANE ASSAF-LYNN People’s Summit Chicago 2016 ~ Exec. Dir. National Nurses United Roseann Demoro at the mic
“I’m looking at a sea of thousands of people. I don’t know how this is losing. If this is losing, then give me some more of that.” Rosario Dawson ~ People’s Summit 2016
A flotilla of conference tables stretched unbelievably toward infinity at Chicago’s immense McCormick Place convention center – unbelievable because of the number of attendees it suggested for the People’s Summit of June 17-19, 2016. Thousands.
Social justice advocates and veteran political activists looked at each other quizzically, as though wondering if they were the right place. Already dazzled by the line-up of speakers – global rock stars of social change and grassroots organizing, they queued up for a catered roll-out of savory meals and gourmet snacks laid out in hall after grand hall, a maze of smartly detailed spaces. For the peace camp, it’s usually a cramped basement and tepid water with a crusty bowl of hummus, not upscale cruiseship fare in a decorated airplane hangar. Emmy-winning documentarian Josh Fox was in the house for a screening. A dance party was set to start near midnight. Could this be happening?
Yes, it could. Thanks to the nurses’ union. As the first nationwide union in the U.S. to endorse Bernie Sanders as presidential nominee, National Nurses United (NNA) is unapologetically progressive.
While nurses do feed well, it was the banquet of ideas that nourished the imagination at this summit. Bold propositions came from the likes of best-selling author/filmmaker Naomi Klein, Juan González of “Democracy Now!” and Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. The Nation magazine’s John Nichols was in form to deliver as rousing an address as his fiery head could blast.
Chair of the People’s Lobby Tobita Chow called for the nationalization of banks, saying that Bernie Sanders would merely break them up – yet another market-based solution. Instead Chow encouraged confrontation with multinational corporations and banks. “I say take them over; gain control,” he asserted. “Ask questions. What do we want to do with all this capital? What do we wan to invest in?” In his view, multinational organizing is the order of the day.
Political scientist Frances Fox Piven put matters into historical context saying, “The Black Freedom movement finally made good on the promises of the 19th century.”
Venerating the power of coalescence, she said, “Politicians are afraid of the movements and afraid of their mass appeal.”
The NNA wasn’t the only backer for the event. And there was an admission fee of $100 unless you could pay more (or less if that was too much). But the legions of smiling volunteers posted at every table, entry point and break-out session were more often than not nurses, nurses and more nurses.
One young RN Allysha Almada took the stage with her story of frustration and triumph. A Huffington Post article published in October 2015 lays out the details of her California hospital’s union-busting campaign and her eventual firing, despite stellar employment evaluations and patient care advocacy.
Almada has since been reinstated, no doubt in part thanks to her being invited to a White House Summit on Worker Voice. In an interview at the Chicago summit, she said, “I was able to present a stethoscope to President Obama engraved with the message, ‘Listen to nurses. Nurses are the heart of patient care.’”
Cuban-Puerto Rican-American actor/activist Rosario Dawson, who just two months earlier had been arrested by police at a rally in Wasington, DC, said she is impressed with the Summit’s “calling to encourage courage.” Born to a teen mom into Manhattan squalor, the “Rent” star said corporations and businesses have a long-game going, while communities are “stuck in the cycle of reaction.”
Not everyone was satisfied with the scope of issues addressed at the People’s Summit. National security policy analyst Gareth Porter took issue with its shortcomings in an article for Truthout, posting to his Facebook page on June 28:
I attended the “People’s Summit” of activists associated with the Sanders “revolution” in Chicago in the hope of finding a large number of people interested in taking on the permanent war state. But I found that it was more of an afterthought for the conference than a major concern for the conference organizers. So I’ve written an op-ed for Truthout explaining why it would be a very big mistake for the movement to fail to adopt a strategy aimed at eliminating the extraordinary power the war state institutions have accumulated.
As could be expected during a presidential election campaign period, the focus of the summit frequently came back to the politics of the day. Expressing incredulity at what she called “this narrative of ‘You lost; You’re sore losers,’” for the campaign to nominate Bernie Sanders as the Democratic Party’s candidate, the singer/film star Dawson drew a thunder of cheers with, “I’m looking at a sea of thousands of people. I don’t know how this is losing. If this is losing, then give me some more of that.”
Sanders Surrogate and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner brought the house down with, “I’ve never met anybody like the nurses,” who she said, “took nursing to a whole ‘nother level.” Applauding the union’s stance on single-payer healthcare, she declared, “We will not accept anything less.” It was clear from the start that she would get the audience leaping from their seats, opening with the incantation, “Power to the people! We will fight on!”