By Joel Segal, former senior legislative assistant to Rep. John Conyers, 2000-2013, National Director, Covid-19 Emergency Response Group
When I worked with Rep. Conyers in Congress from 2000-2013, we had a very spiritual and close working relationship; we both were adherents to the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, had a legal background, were community organizers, had a sense of humor, loved books, and loved jazz. We both felt a deep moral responsibility to fight for the people who were left out, the voiceless, the invisible, and the “least of these” by introducing progressive legislation and organizing dynamic coalitions to pass these bills or to impact the policies of the President.
Conyers and I both understood the power of coalition building “inside and outside” of Congress; and bringing in celebrities and dignitaries to garner press coverage and ramp up coalition building on issues such as universal health care, global HIV/AIDS, Jobs For All, Hurricane Katrina, and Resident Physician Work Hours.
I brought in rock star and activist Bono through the Congressional Black Caucus to work on global HIV/AIDS, because it was not a policy priority in Congress or with George W. Bush; even though thousands were needlessly dying in Africa because the people did not have access to anti-retroviral drugs.
That all dramatically changed when Bono entered the picture, and Dr. Paul Zeitz formed the Global HIV/AIDS Alliance. Rep. Conyers and Rep. Barbara Lee sponsored scores of Hill briefings, and Barbara Lee’s Hill staffer Michael Riggs and I began organizing a now heralded Global HIV/AIDS Coalition “inside and outside of Congress.”
I pitched the Movie SICKO to Michael Moore, because I felt that Members of Congress needed to see and feel the pain of the uninsured, most Members didn’t understand or feel the crisis. Again, SICKO was very successful in waking up Congress and the civil society about the crisis of the uninsured. SICKO created a sense of “urgency” to pass legislation to cover the uninsured. Michael Moore’s film was brilliant, transformative, and powerful.
Rep. Conyers called me a few months ago before he passed away at the age of 90, and said that he was thinking about me. I was touched. We had a very sentimental conversation about all the political battles we fought together in Congress, and talked about how were a great team. I said we were like “Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” his most cherished jazz idols. I deeply loved and venerated Rep. John Conyers; he was a political and organizing genius. I miss him everyday. We continued to work together after I left his office for 7 years.
When Dennis Kucinich was in Congress, I witnessed his political genius for years, he worked closely with the grassroots, and consistently spoke “truth to power.” Kucinich fought for a Department of Peace, against the War in Iraq, and Medicare For All Single Payer. He did what was right for the people: Kucinuch’s north star was always the well being of American people and humanity.
The Progressive Democrats of America were all former Kucinich staffers. Kucinich ran for President on single payer, and during the Presidential debates, he was solely responsible for Obama and Hilary Clinton agreeing to support universal health care, neither were advocating for it before Dennis entered the race. No Kucinich, no Obamacare, and a well organized single payer movement.
Same with Rep. Alan Grayson, who always spoke “truth” in the face of unbelievable peer pressure in Congress; especially during the battle for passage of Obamacare. Alan Grayson was a master of the legislative process, and knew how to use House floor proceedings covered by C-SPAN to speak to the hearts and minds of the American people.
Grayson was a master orator, he was poetic and profound when he spoke on the House Floor, and knew how to garner press coverage on controversial policy battles like Obamacare.
I couldn’t wait to hear Rep. Kucinich, Alan Grayson, Keith Ellison, Maxine Waters, and Senator Bernie Sanders speak on the House Floor, as I wrote Conyer’s speeches, bills, and floor statements all day and night. Thank you C-SPAN! When these social justice warriors spoke, you could truly feel their passion for social justice.
What would John Conyers do in Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic if he was there? Conyers would leverage his Congressional gravitas and experience to build a serious coalition inside and outside in Congress to address the Covid- 19 pandemic.
John Conyers would call progressive Members of Congress into his office, take out his legal pad, and ask a series of questions about where the nation is in regard to Covid-19, and what to do about it. He would intensely listen to his colleagues and take notes. Then Conyers would tell them that he wanted to meet on a regular basis, talk about next steps, and organize a series of floor speeches, press conferences, and town halls and symposiums with civil society.
Conyers would call Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and other artists to recruit them into the cause. He would call civil rights icons like Jesse Jackson, Walter Fauntroy, Reverend Joseph Lowrey, Marcus Raskin, academics, economists, policy experts, and activists to ask for their perspectives on crucial social justice issues. Then he would call his senior staff into his office, put on jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, bring in food and drink, and we would have intense discussions for hours on how we needed to organize coalitions inside and outside of Congress in order to win.
We all need to seriously examine the John Conyers theory of change, because it worked for him for 40 years. He was egoless, a dynamic coalition builder, and he understood the art of legislating in a conservative Congress.
I believe that in order to effectively address the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to replicate the Conyer’s model. We need to have a series of strategy sessions with former Members of Congress and current Members of Congress who know how to win—experience is a great teacher. We need a series of strategy sessions and policy discussions with Members of Congress, Hill staffers, and community leaders on Covid-19.
We need to hear the voices of real people and local and state elected officials who can tell Members of Congress the many challenges they are facing in the age of Covid-19, so Members of Congress can draft legislation and amendments to address those challenges. And, we need Members of Congress, celebrities, dignitaries, and ordinary citizens to be visible on CNN, MSNBC, the national media, and social media on a regular basis to be a voice of the people.
We can do this. I propose that the Covid-19 advocacy movement act with a sense of unity and urgency in order to test, treat, and protect all of the people. That we have a series of Zoom town halls meetings with Progressive Caucus Members, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and former Members of Congress that include House and Senate Majority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. And Stenny Hoyer and James Clyburn.
And, there needs to be a comprehensive Covid-19 emergency “humancentric“ response plan from an engaged civil society movement, and this plan needs to be shared with progressive Members of Congress, adopted by the Democratic Leadership, and effective Covid-19 legislation passed in Congress with all deliberate speed. We need a rapid response media operation, funding for grassroots organizers and lobbyists, and a unified Covid-19 front so we have the critical mass and moral authority to win—no matter what obstacles stand in the way.
The universe rewards moral movements, because the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice if we bend the arc!