Black Radical Congress Draws 2000; Push to Privatize Social Security Makes Headway

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at
Mon Jun 22 00:06:11 PDT 1998

[This is the only media account of the BRC I have been able to find. Perhaps others could post what they come across.]


By Lola Smallwood Chicago Tribune Staff Writer June 21, 1998

More than 2,000 people came out for the Black Radical Congress held Saturday in the University of Illinois' Chicago Circle Center and headlined by the likes of author and Harvard professor Cornel West and famed poets Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.

No longer led by a line of 20-something firebrand intellectuals not content with talk, the Black Radical Congress now represents a matured movement built on analysis of modern-day problems and dedicated to consensus before moving forward.

"We are very familiar with the description of the problem," said Jamala Rogers, chairwoman of the Black Radical Congress National Continuation Committee. "We are here to write a prescription for the problem, and it's clear a lot of folks want to do something and want to be radical in their approach."

The three-day conference coincided with Juneteenth, or June 19, the day freedom was announced in Texas in 1865, nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Participants discussed ways to free people of color and the working poor from the clutches of capitalism, poverty and powerlessness.

Juneteenth events included a Black Expo, a marketplace of black businesses that drew thousands to Soldier Field, and a South Side street festival sponsored by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, where about 200 people gathered for fun and food.

While people enjoyed festivities outdoors, serious dialogue ensued between gray-haired and college-age activists and scholars during 30 workshops at the Black Radical Congress. Topics ranged from police brutality to environmental racism to examining the role of the church in the black movement.

"I came to the conference because of the amount of institutionalized oppression that now has gone beyond our national borders," said Michelle Y. Holliday, a research post-doctoral fellow at the U. of I. at Chicago. "I feel overwhelmed by this conference."

Conference organizers, expecting a crowd of 400 to 500 people, also were overwhelmed by the response.

Though leaders were reluctant to talk about the method in which the new Black Radical Congress agenda will be constructed or when it will be launched, they said the goals are clear.

"With the level of capitalism, unemployment, homelessness, we are in crisis," said Manning Marable, a Columbia University history professor and co-convener of the conference. "We are living in a society that clearly has failed the people. The Black Radical Congress is a statement of a necessity for a broader movement."

=========================================== The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- June 22, 1998

Effort to Privatize Social-Security

Makes Headway, Surprising Rivals



WASHINGTON -- Economic Security 2000's teach-in

Monday in Baltimore marks the group's nearly 4,000th

event in the past 18 months to push an overhaul of Social


The organization once unleashed dozens of campaigners

through a rock-concert crowd here to gather petitions for

their wonkish cause: changing Social Security to allow

workers to invest part of their payroll taxes on their own. It

is now a leader of a crusade of conservative, youth,

business, and libertarian groups that is relentlessly goading

the public, lawmakers, the media and business leaders to

support the "privatization" of Social Security, in one form or


The combined effort has ranged from the publication of

dozens of think-tank papers targeted at policy gurus to

teach-ins aimed at college freshmen. The effectiveness has

surprised the privatizers and their critics alike.

Just a few years ago, the notion of privatizing all or part of

Social Security was such a remote possibility that

traditional defenders of the system paid it little heed. Now

the landscape has been reshaped, catching supporters of

the traditional system off guard. Former Social Security

Commissioner Robert Ball, a privatization opponent and

author of one of the most comprehensive plans to reform

the system without privatizing, acknowledges a "certain

complacency" among those who support the current

system. "There are already 15 privatization plans out there,"

he figures, "and it is getting to be dangerous and


An Opponent's Compliment

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.) concedes, "We are now

behind the eight ball. They have done a masterful job." And

Tim Fuller, executive director of the Gray Panthers, an

activist seniors' group that strongly opposes privatization,

puts it bluntly: "We have been sandbagged."

Participants in the debate over fixing Social Security

basically split into three camps. The first, call it the

tinkerers, would save the New Deal program by trimming

benefits, raising the retirement age, lifting taxes, and, in

some versions, allowing the government to invest trust-fund

assets in the stock market. (All the payroll taxes collected

now go into Treasury bonds.) Hard-core privatizers, would

let workers invest most of their payroll taxes themselves,

substantially diminishing the tax-financed government

benefit program. A third group would create individual

accounts to exist alongside traditional Social Security. In

some plans, contributions would be in addition to existing

taxes; in others they would be in lieu of a portion of existing


Privatization foes worry that even a small move toward

individual accounts will unravel public support for Social

Security. But that may be happening already. Public-opinion

polls, story and op-ed counts in the news media, plans

outlined, events held, money raised, congressional sponsors

all indicate the privatizers have commandeered the debate.

"If the debate stopped now, it would appear as though some

form of individualized retirement accounts would be in the

final mix," says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, director of Americans

Discuss Social Security, a group that is neutral on the issue

and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

An Assertive Group

Privatizers have certainly been assertive. Economic

Security 2000 has dispatched representatives to more than

500 radio talk shows, set up radio programs in some states

that exclusively discuss the topic, placed op-ed articles in

more than 200 newspapers, and met with more than 70

editorial boards. The Cato Institute and Heritage

Foundation have published dozens of reports pushing

privatization, and raised millions of dollars to advance the

cause. While opponents contend Wall Street and mutual

funds are funding the effort, evidence is scarce. Most of the

money comes from general foundation, business and

grass-roots donations to organizations such as Heritage,

Cato and Economic Security 2000.

In contrast, privatization opponents have been quiet. The

most visible deed was an informal meeting held several

months ago to kick around some ideas. The various

opponents haven't met since, and have yet to endorse any

reform plan.

Organized labor, which had been widely expected to lead

the antiprivatization battle, has been AWOL. And the

powerful American Association of Retired Persons, likely to

oppose large-scale privatization, may have dealt itself -- and

its deep coffers -- out of the picture by agreeing to Mr.

Clinton's request to serve as an "honest broker" until this

winter by holding forums around the nation.

To be sure, privatization opponents are finally showing some

sparks of resistance. AFL-CIO officials and others say their

passivity is calculated, explaining that an 11th-hour

advertising blitz may be more effective than a protracted

debate. "This issue ripens in the fall," says Gerald Shea, an

AFL-CIO Social Security expert. Emboldened by their

victory against a California initiative to limit the use of union

dues for political purposes, senior AFL-CIO officials have

suggested a campaign of nearly $30 million this fall

opposing privatization.

'Sense of the Congress'

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) plans in coming days to

introduce a nonbinding "sense of the Congress" resolution

laying out some vague principles behind reform, such as

"any solution must be equitable to people of all ages." The

left-leaning Economic Policy Institute is launching a Web

site. Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D., N.D.) is planning to introduce

legislation for a long-term fix without privatization.

But the tinkerers' efforts may be too little, too late.

Heritage and Cato are planning to swamp the labor effort

by pushing their donors to contribute to a $100 million ad

campaign. Further, more and more lawmakers are locking

themselves into positions in support of individual accounts.

"Once a congressman gets locked in it, it becomes very

difficult to change his view," says Wendell Primus of the

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning

advocacy group.

Defenders of the current system panic when they peer into

the crystal ball of public opinions. One of the nation's most

influential defenders of the current system, Sen. Daniel

Moynihan (D., N.Y.), surprised all sides with a complex plan

that would allow for an element of privatization. Although

staffers for Sen. Moynihan now concede the effort was

perhaps premature, privatization proponents could hardly

contain their glee. "This is, by far, the most important

development in advancing privatization thus far," says Bill

Beach of the Heritage Foundation.

"It has been very harmful," acknowledges the AFL-CIO's Mr.

Shea. "I think it had a very different effect than the senator


Privatizers are clearly aware that the timing is opportune:

As more Americans have successfully invested in the

markets in recent years, they are less fearful of losing

retirement money through bad investments. "In 1983,

private stocks were an exotic thing," says Michael Tanner of

the Cato Institute. "But thanks to programs such as

401(k)s, there is now a new confidence in how the stock

markets work."

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