At the corner of Park Avenue and Read Street in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, you will find a boarded up window that has been painted over and tagged with two quotes. The first one, “Be the change you wish to see”, is marked in red and will be recognized by many as Mahatma Gandhi’s words. And spelled out in between those lines, marked in black, is a saying from Muhammad Ali: “What you’re thinking is what you’re becoming”.
Baltimore is a city where people are not afraid to be radical, to dream the impossible, to make the impossible possible. I’m thrilled to be the new statewide organizer for the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. My background as an activist has covered a number of issues, from pressuring the World Bank to develop a rights-based set of standards for its loans, to the student occupations and uprisings in the UK during the winter of 2010-11, to direct action campaigns to stop climate change.
There is a common thread that is interwoven with the issues I’ve organized around in the past and our current healthcare crisis. They all reflect the results of a failed political and economic project that academics and activists call neoliberalism. Since the 80s (and even before then), we have been taught by our political leaders to believe that the purpose of government is to facilitate business interests, and that, as the late Mark Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism, “everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business”. For former Baltimorean David Harvey (whose essay “A view from Federal Hill” is essential reading), neoliberalism is an attempt by the rich to generate wealth for themselves by privatizing public goods. We are repeatedly told that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) to the current economic order, yet Fisher explains that “what is currently called realistic” – that is, the dedication to market-based solutions that now characterizes public policy – “was itself once impossible” and that “the current political economic landscape… could scarcely have been imagined in 1975.” The Alter-Globalization movement, which materialized in the late 1990s, responded to TINA with the slogan “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”
In the UK, where I lived, worked and studied for eight years, the Alter-Globalization movement evolved into The Camp for Climate Action. Climate Camp changed my life forever when I entered their 2009 summer camp with a backpack and a pop-up tent, after seeing it advertised on a poster on my way to work. Organizers had surprised everyone, including the police, by erecting a tent city on Blackheath Common, formerly the gathering point for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which nearly sacked London.
Climate Camp introduced me to prefigurative politics, which show a commitment to enact change by embodying the principles of the society you wish to see into your political organizing. If another world is possible, activism can and should show us what that world is going to look like. One example of this is the use of safer spaces policies, which originated as a solution to tackling oppression within activist circles. Another example is consensus-based decision making, which contrasts with the anti-democratic processes by which many controversial political decisions that negatively impact our communities are made.
Climate Camp’s model was to build action camps next to the sources of the UK’s largest carbon emissions, from power plants and airports to banking institutions that fund disastrous fossil fuel projects around the world. But the camps were also utopian spaces that showed us what a sustainable society can look like. At Blackheath, in the shadow of London’s financial hub at Canary Wharf, you could watch a film at the bicycle-powered and solar-powered cinemas, charge your phone from the windmill on site, have your medical needs attended to in the medic tent, eat delicious meals made from unwanted vegetables, drop your kids off in the kids space before heading to a workshop, borrow a tool from the tool library, and use the most luxurious compost toilets I’ve ever come across.
How to incorporate prefigurative politics into a healthcare campaign? There are many possibilities. We are at a moment that makes it easy to feel scared, isolated, and powerless. If it is indeed time to resist fascism, caring for one another must be part of that resistance. In order to see a transformational change to a caring society, as activists, we must first transform our relationships with one another. For us to “be the change”, as Gandhi says, we also must see the capacity for change in our friends, families, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, even in total strangers. The good news is that we are seeing an acceleration of mass movements at a scale that hasn’t happened for decades. From #BlackLivesMatter and the 2015 uprising, to the airport protests at BWI, to #ADayWithoutImmigrants, Baltimore is a tinderbox for radical dissent.
This month, the Healthcare Is A Human Right campaign hosted an event at a local bar, where we watched a CNN debate between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders on “The Future of Obamacare”. I enjoyed being able to meet some of our supporters for the first time and to hear their stories. From the social workers that came out because they feel their patients deserve better, to the small business owner struggling to meet costs, to the multiple sclerosis patient whose well-being depends on expensive prescription drugs, everyone agreed that it’s time to move on to a single-payer system.
As ACA draws intense political scrutiny, our campaign is concentrating on promoting a national improved Medicare for all (NIMA) system, as outlined in House Bill HR-676. And while we were excited to see Senator Sanders declare that “Healthcare is a human right” on CNN, we also know that over the next few months, we will have to push Senate Democrats to introduce a companion bill. When the Democratic National Committee came to Baltimore to hold a strategy forum two weeks ago, we held a rally in support of HR-676 outside of the Convention Center.
With a new administration in power, 2017 brings a great detail of uncertainty about the future of health insurance in the United States. Much of the national conversation on healthcare right now is focused on preserving the reforms of the Affordable Care Act, protecting the people who were able to access healthcare for the first time because of it, and fighting against the politicians who plan to repeal and replace it.
At the surface, the mobilization of progressive movements in support of Obamacare may come across as an endorsement of market-based solutions over a single payer system. Yet this is not the case. 58% of people polled nationally are in favor of replacing Obamacare with a single payer healthcare system. And the fight to protect Planned Parenthood shows an acknowledgment – one that spans across race and class barriers – that access to free or affordable reproductive care is a basic human right.
Even Trump voters, often unknowingly, support many of the principles that characterize HR-676. A recent Kaiser Foundation survey found that people who voted for Trump named transparency, equity and wider healthcare networks as improvements they would like to see prioritized. The report also found that Trump supporters who became qualified for Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act were highly satisfied with Medicaid, and were concerned that a repeal of ACA would result in losing coverage. Respondents also expressed reservations about some of the Republican proposals that have been floated in the news. What the Kaiser report suggests is that the reason why many Americans do not explicitly endorse a single payer system has less to do with any ideological dedication to market-based solutions, and more to do with the way in which we have all been taught to accept that There Is No Alternative to them.
This gives us all the more reason to change the narrative and to expand the dimensions of what is commonly considered practicable, or possible. Mark Fisher wrote at the end of Capitalist Realism that so long as TINA haunts and immobilizes the public imagination, "even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect".
As an organizer, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years is that in order to be successful, social movements need to be more than a rally against something, or a call for a return to the previous status quo, especially if the previous status quo was characterized by economic inequality. According to a recent report from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, Obamacare reduced Maryland’s overall uninsured rate from 10.1% in 2012 to 6.7% in 2015. The Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare will put the lives of millions of people across the country at risk, and we need to fight that. But we must also fight for the 33% of uninsured noncitizens in our state, and the 23.6% of Latinx residents who remain uninsured.
Where mass movements that originally materialized to defend public goods from right wing governments have succeeded, that success often depended on their ability to develop and fight for a visionary alternative. And when it comes to fixing our healthcare system, it’s crystal clear that National Improved Medicare for All is that alternative.
Brittany Shannahan is the Statewide Organizer for the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign. An educator, social scientist and historian, Brittany has been involved in a variety of social movements in the US and the UK since 2009. You can follow her on Twitter at @ecoshenanigans.