How to change

A conversation with Michigan City, Indiana, community organizer Vincent Emanuele about change -- how it's made, how it's thwarted, and what to do about those it terrifies

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Family game night and soup kitchen at the PARC community center in Michigan City, Indiana

Shortly after the election, I received an email from a place called Michigan City, Indiana. Like you, perhaps, I am bad with email. But this one grabbed me.

“My name is Vincent Emanuele and I'm a writer, community organizer, and antiwar veteran,” it began. Vincent had been “actively working with progressive-left movements since coming home from my second tour to Iraq and refusing a third with the USMC back in 2006. I've organized with the antiwar movement, Occupy, BLM, union efforts, Standing Rock, Bernie 2016/2020, and various other mobilizations, projects, and campaigns.”

He described Michigan City as “a very harsh rust belt town that's been ravaged by deindustrialization, the war on drugs, and drastic cuts to social programs.” And into that environment Vincent had tried to breathe some new life. In 2017 he and a friend had started something called PARC, which stands for Politics Art Roots Culture. They host “poetry readings, live music, watching boxing matches, documentary film screenings, barbecues, and the like,” Vincent told me. “In short, we're trying to create a community where one no longer exists.”

Lyrical Liberation, a regular slam poetry event at PARC

Vincent was emailing me because, during the pandemic, the normal activities of the center have had to morph. It has temporarily become, as all things must, a podcast. He wanted to interview me for it. I said yes. But when we began to record the interview, I couldn’t help but play interviewer myself and ask Vincent questions of my own. What resulted was one of the more stimulating conversations I have had in a long while. Vincent shares what he knows and wonders about, I share what I know and wonder about, and we see what we end up with.

As the pandemic has worn on, I have found myself devoting more and more of my time to such conversations, finding them generative and hopeful in a dismal moment. I used to travel a lot and learn that way. Now I do it on the other end of a Zoom.

It’s hard to capture the wide range of things Vincent and I got to talking about, but here is a sample: Why, in the view from Michigan City, you shouldn’t seek to reach out to Trump voters or try pointlessly to understand them, but rather just try to do things with them. How the local Democratic Party lost touch with the community, failing to change people’s lives and then coming off as condescending about people’s frustrations. How big philanthropy thwarts social change in local communities like Vincent’s. And how bringing America back from this cold civil war will require far-reaching economic transformation combined with a cultural project of giving millions of Americans a “replacement ideology” for old chauvinisms.

It’s an unusual, fertile, meandering conversation. And we’ve taken the original transcript of the podcast and edited it down for length and clarity, so that you can digest it in written form as well. Our full conversation can be heard here. I am eager to hear what you think in the comments.

And a programming note: I will be doing my regular live chat/webinar/Zoom-where-it-happens thing today at 1 p.m. New York, 10 a.m. Pacific time, and 6 p.m. London time. They’re really compelling! Subscribe today to join us. Subscribers will get login details beforehand.

The view from Michigan City: a conversation with Vincent Emanuele

We began by talking about my critique of plutocrats and big philanthropy, and then Vincent brought up the connections he saw between that critique and the situation in Michigan City.

VINCENT: We see how this plays out locally. We're speaking to you from Michigan City, Indiana, a devastated Rust Belt town that's felt all of the worst impacts of neoliberal economic policies, the War on Drugs, and everything else over the last four decades. And even here, locally, we see how this plays out, where our local power company, NIPSCO, has a coal-fired power plant that people have been trying to close for some time, polluting the hell out of the west side of Michigan City, which is a predominately Black and poor neighborhood, dumping coal ash all over the local ecology. And yet they have their tentacles in everything: they fund sports leagues, they fund after-school programs. And so there's always this problem when we're doing local organizing that a lot of people see NIPSCO, they hate NIPSCO because they get the terrible bills from NIPSCO every month and they know that they're polluting, and yet, at the same time, that very entity could be funding the local after-school program or softball league.

ANAND: And I think what's really interesting — just hearing that story, and there are so many different stories I hear like that in different parts of the country — my guess would be, maybe I'm wrong, that a lot of people who experience what you've experienced would not necessarily use the language you started with of neoliberal whatever.

VINCENT: That's right.

ANAND: So there's this set of things that a lot of people have experienced or gotten in their lungs or experienced in terms of things happening to their hours or work or their school. But those of us who are critics of a neoliberal order have not done a great job, and the word "neoliberalism" almost comically captures this, of providing frames, organizing frames, easy, accessible ways of understanding this that allow people to see that reality as part of that story. Again, tell me if I'm wrong, but a lot of the people who experience those things, my guess would be, are also skeptical of activist government initiatives to help those things.

VINCENT: 100 percent.

ANAND: And this is what's very interesting about America, where you have these, by European standards, extreme examples of slash-and-burn economics and neglect, and people literally carry it in their lungs and on their faces and in their hands, but, compared to other rich countries, people are more skeptical of public fixes to their own problems. And some of this, a lot of this, is the power of big companies and the false consciousness created by billionaires. But a lot of this also — and this is the more optimistic point — amounts to a failure on the part of those of us who want an alternative to make our offer to folks like you're describing compelling.

VINCENT: We're in a trifecta-controlled Republican state in a deeply red county on a blue island that existed for a long time. Democrats had controlled Michigan City for decades, and just this last election cycle, a Republican won as mayor for the first time in 48 years. Our mayoral election was in 2019. So for the first time in 48 years, a Republican won the mayorship, and Democrats continue to lose seats. The numbers of people voting for Democrats continues to go down.

ANAND: Why do you think that is?

VINCENT: There's a few reasons. There are structural reasons. For instance, in the early ’70s, Indiana was one of the top seven most densely unionized states in the country. That's gone down. The unions functioned as that get-out-the-vote political apparatus in states like Indiana.

ANAND: And gave identity to people also.

VINCENT: That's right. And community. I mean one of the reasons we opened this community center that we're sitting in today — the only reason we're doing podcasts is because of the pandemic — we spend most of our time in the real world, talking with people, holding social events, creating social bonds and trust.

I watched an interview with you recently where you talked about the deep social bonds, trust, and relationships that progressive movements lack today. And one of the reasons we opened the community center was to build those kind of communal relations and bonds and trust, and not just around community-organizing efforts, but watching each other's kids, having holiday parties, watching movies, barbecuing together, watching sports games together.

We're trying to build up from the bottom in a place where community has been devastated. I mean these towns like Michigan City or Gary, Indiana, were towns that existed because an industry was here. Gary, Indiana, exists because of U.S. Steel. Michigan City exists because of the Pullman train factories. All of those things are gone, and people have moved and the population has gone down, and so with that and with the decline in unions, you no longer have union halls where people go and hang out together. People no longer go to the community churches. There are no more community centers.

So part of this is the structural role that the unions played, but another part of this is just a lack of community — hyper-alienation that's been created because of these policies that devastate communities.

ANAND: It's something I actually think about a lot, and it's not an area I'm an expert in, so forgive me, but I thought about this a lot in the Trump era, and I got in trouble for saying this on Twitter. I was critiquing the Democratic Party emails that I would get. And I got really criticized because these emails are apparently very effective at their mission. They successfully raise money, they were more successful this time than last time, and people were like, "What the hell do you know, criticizing these emails?"

But I was not criticizing them as being bad at fundraising. I was criticizing the fact that the only thing I was being asked for in emails from the Democratic Party, over four years of the worst, most scary, emotionally draining, miserable period, one of the worst such periods in American history, the only thing I was being asked for was to chip in five bucks. In a way, I was not critiquing those emails so much as the absence of all the other emails that I could imagine.

Why weren't there emails from the Brooklyn branch of the Democratic Party saying, "Today, Trump said XYZ about ‘shithole countries.’ We're gathering in Fort Greene Park at 5:00 p.m. Bring an instrument or a song from your favorite ‘shithole country’ that's not actually a shithole country, and let's celebrate all the cultures that make up this great land.” I was never once asked that. And I know there are other groups that do that. I'm just asking why the Democrats aren't doing that. Why aren't there medical vans on Saturdays, where the Democratic Party organizes medical people to give free mobile health clinics, to demonstrate the values of Democratic healthcare policy in advance of being able to implement it? Why is there not more show than tell?

VINCENT: On the local Democratic Party — I'll give you a sense, just real quick: In 2008, Barack Obama wins Indiana, first time Indiana went blue in 44 years since L.B.J. Since then, Citizens United, gerrymandering, union decline, so on and so forth, Right to Work legislation passed. The institutional infrastructure that used to get the vote out and do the kind of mobilizing events that once existed no longer exists within the Democratic Party where I live.

What we've seen is that the people now running the Democratic Party locally are largely highly professional, upper-middle class, people who have very little connection to the thousands of people in our city who work in fast-food restaurants, strip malls, gas stations, and various other gig jobs, or are not working at all or working in the black market, selling drugs, doing whatever they’ve got to do to make a living. The disconnect between the people I meet with within the party who make decisions and the people that I know and work with and live next to on the ground is profound.

ANAND: And you're not even talking about Washington Democratic Party officials. You're talking about your local Democratic officials.

VINCENT: Yes, local, county, and state.

ANAND: Wow. That's scary. That certainly demystifies why you may be bleeding Democratic votes over time.

VINCENT: It's not surprising at all. And then when they knock on people's doors and they tell them to punch 10, which in Michigan City means you vote for an all-Democratic ticket, they then talk down to the people who ask them, "Hey, I've been voting Democrat for 40 years, and I'm still getting screwed. What do you think?" And they say, "Well, if you're an idiot, vote Republican; if not, keep voting Democrat." That's not hyperbole. That is straight-up how they talk to people, and it's one of the reasons why, again, it's this very elitist view of where people are coming from.

Even local union officials. If you talk to union officials and you ask them, "Hey, why are 50 to 60 percent of your union members voting for Trump?”, they'll say, "Because they're fucking idiots." It's so opposed to the kind of organizing principles that I was trained with. It's astonishing, really, how tone-deaf they are.

ANAND: I connect with that, and I can agree with that and also very easily realize that I'm guilty of what you’re describing. There was something about Trump over these last four years where it was just so perpetually infuriating and maddening that, in my heart of hearts, I don't feel like the people who voted for him just think differently from me. I think they made my kids less safe. In my mind, I'm not sure why, morally speaking, I would treat differently someone who pushed my kid on the street versus someone who voted for Trump. Those are just two different ways of violating my kid. And we have relatives who I put in that category.

But you're right that my attitude on that, which is part of my own coping mechanism, is not going to win them over from that position. Yet that's complicated, because I think there is this tension between telling the truth and reeling people in. I just wonder how you wrestle with that in your community, where you don't want to go soft on Trump, you don't want to say this is not dangerous, you don't want to say this is not fascism or this is not racism, whatever it is, but a lot of those points of truth-telling are also conversation stoppers.

VINCENT: They are. I would say that this is best dealt with through actual campaigns. In other words, we're currently engaged in a tenant-rights campaign, which is far different from the Democratic Socialists of America campaign that we're also starting. This is a single-issue campaign that we're working on in Michigan City, where we're trying to organize a very specific apartment complex where people are being taken advantage of by their landlords.

Tenants rights campaign, Michigan City

In that context, when you're talking with individual tenants, the conversation centers around their material interests, trying to find common ground, trying to find some solidarity and build a sense of collectivity and, once people are in action, actually moving and doing something, something positive, in other words, not just sitting down with Trump supporters and saying, "Hey, let's have a conversation about how we fundamentally disagree on any number of things.”

So if we're going to just sit down with local Republicans or Trump supporters and debate them back and forth about whether Trump's a fascist or not a fascist or whatever, that's going to get us nowhere. If we go to specific institutions, like a housing complex or a school where parents, both Trump supporters and Biden supporters alike, might actually want some more funding for their school, we try to focus on that issue, while not allowing Trump supporters or anyone else to say ignorant, offensive things to people or anything like that — that's not allowed, of course.

But let's do this around a common interest, not just for the sake of having the debate or conversation, which I've found hasn't been very helpful.

ANAND: What it makes me think about is there's almost two categories of issues in American life today. Imagine a huge machine that we call the Polarizer 6000, and any issue that you put into the Polarizer 6000 gets fully “optimized” for an age of division. And so a bunch of issues, most of the major issues, have already gone through the Polarizer 6000: inequality, capitalism, healthcare for all or not, critical race theory. Anything that has gone through that, the camps are fully baked, people do not easily move back and forth, people are not necessarily interested in moving others back and forth, and maybe there's a once-in-a-lifetime political figure who changes a little bit of the calculus, but, generally speaking, things are baked.

But then there are some issues that have not yet gone through the Polarizer 6000. I would say a wealth tax is, interestingly, one of those issues, in part because it's relatively new in mainstream discussion. 

But another area where there's a lot of stuff that hasn't gone through the Polarizer 6000 is local issues -- local issues that don't fit those big categories. So it's interesting to think about: how do you use those issues that are not yet polarized, or potentially not even polarizable, to get people to have conversations that might actually pull some of the other issues back from the polarized state?

VINCENT: The kind of anger and resentment that's boiling in the undercurrents of society, in the towns and cities where mainstream reporters and journalists don't spend much of their time, scares the shit out of me as a combat veteran, as someone who has spent time in war — an unjustified, immoral, and illegal war. I worry that we are well along the path of people willing to take up more violent acts in this context, far beyond, say, what people in the mainstream media or corporate press might be willing to recognize.

If you talk to most of the working-class poor people where we're from, there is an anger and resentment that is visceral and deep about both political parties and elites in the media. Some of this is fed by Trump's rhetoric, of course, but a lot of this existed prior to Trump.

My question to you, because you get to talk to people in that billionaire class, people who have this kind of wealth and influence, is there a concern on their behalf that this is getting far beyond, "Hey, let's do some minor programs and help people out"?

The concern I have is if we don't do major programs for areas like this and allow them to continue to slip into extreme poverty and all the rest, I'm worried about the response.

ANAND: I will put it this way. I don't see America’s current course as being compatible with both peaceful survival of the country as one entity and continued representative democracy.

And that’s because of the failure to do the kind of radical economic reforms that you were alluding to, taking away the oxygen of pain and resentment. But it's not, of course, just economics. There is an enduring issue of white supremacy and entitlement that fuels a lot of these things. The chief domestic terror threat, as the government has said, is white supremacy.

And so we have to deal with that, and not just deal with it by cracking down on gangs and groups, but we have a huge problem in this country of tens of millions of white people who have lost one way of understanding their place in the world. Rightly lost it, in the sense that their way of understanding and being in the world was rooted in dominance and superiority, and through progress that has been taken away. But I think those of us who want the future to arrive as quickly as possible have not done a great job of replacing the bad way of seeing oneself that we are taking away through progress with other ways of seeing oneself.

I believe that a society owes people whose conception of themselves or of their place in the world is being stolen by change. I think it's not just that those people have to figure it out for themselves. That's the libertarian approach to social change. I think it is on all of us to help people see who they will be on the other side of the mountain.

It's the same with men. We have rightly taken from a great many men a way of being a man that was how their dad was and how their grandfather was, but that we don't deem acceptable for them.

But when you take from people a complete, coherent, if dangerous, way of seeing themselves in the world, of understanding who they are, of recognizing themselves in a larger whole, if you take that because it's tainted and it's bad and it's disfiguring of others, you owe them a replacement. I think people don't always like to hear this because they're like, "Well, we don't owe them anything." If you're a chauvinist pig, why do I owe you a replacement ideology? But the reason is we're all fucked if we don't give it to them.

We feel those people don't need to be fussed over any longer because history has been about fussing over them. And I dissent from that because I think attention to those psychic wounds is where the only hope of salvation of the American project would lie.

VINCENT: I couldn't agree more. My gay friends who are much older than I told me this, and they've been saying this to me in this era of Trump. They said, "Vince, do you know where the gay movement would be today, where the LGBTQ movement would be today, if we cast off every homophobe we talked to since 1975? Do you know where we would be today as a gay movement if we canceled, didn't speak to, or banished all of the people who said the most horrendous things to us or asked us really ignorant questions about whether we were capable of raising kids or any number of things?"

And that has stuck with me. I try to always maintain the mindset of an organizer, because, for us, being right is not good enough. For me personally, being on the right side of history or just speaking the truth is not good enough. I want to see the changes, I want to see a better world, I want my nephews and my friends' kids to grow up in a better world, and I'm not going to die happy saying, "Well, at least I had the best argument against colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” It’s like, no, what did we do to actually change those things?

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full episode of my chat with Vincent Emanuele on PARC’s podcast here. And find out more about PARC’s work and how you might connect with it here.

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Photos: Courtesy of Vincent Emanuele