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The Teach-In Lives!

Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, and the ‘Tree of Corporate Destruction’

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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“This tree’s really the tree of American life,” Piven explained. “And you can see it’s been poisoned, it’s been polluted by corporate interests. Corporate influence has grown over the last 30 years especially.” In their rapacious exploitation of labor and the environment, the corporations had starved the public sector through austerity and drowned the American consumer in debt. “The tree of corporate destruction is endangering our future,” Piven said. “The future of young people, the future of our society, and the future of our planet.”

Piven handed the mike to New York state senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx, a charming 35-year-old whose day job is teaching political science at Pace University. Rivera, who did graduate work at CUNY under Piven, was the emcee for Fight Back USA. He introduced Judson Memorial’s minister, Reverend Michael Ellick.

Ellick’s biography on the church website says he became a man of the cloth after trying his hand “as a courier, a fast-food cook, a fact-checker, a fresh juice delivery person, a copy editor, an event planner, a barista, a financial analyst, an Internet help desk, and even an assistant at a Marine Biology lab.” Finally, after earning an M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary, then studying for seven years with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Ellick discovered his calling as a William Sloane Coffin wannabe. “The question that is in front of us,” Ellick said, “is whether or not we will remain a democracy, or will the growing trend toward plutocracy​—​a government run by the rich​—​continue to become entirely official.”

“As a Christian minister here,” Ellick went on, “I know my political tradition gives an unambiguous mandate to serve the poor in all capacities. Because we are gathered here in this space, I wanted us to start with a brief moment of prayer. Let us pray: O God of many names, instill in us the skillful means and steady heart to believe in the days, the weeks, and years ahead.” Amen.

Next up was African-American studies professor Cornel West, who’s been a leftwing fixture since the publication of Race Matters in 1993. He became an icon in 2002 when a new president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, fired him for neglecting scholarship in favor of making hip-hop albums. West landed on his feet at Princeton, where he’s written a memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, assembled an anthology, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, and appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and the videogame Enter the Matrix. In the science-fiction series West portrays an elder statesman who serves on the governing council of the underground city of Zion. “Councillor West” dispenses advice to the weary band of humans fighting the robot armies. He delivers faux-philosophical lines like “comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.” He’s hilarious.

In his greatest role, however, West portrays Dr. Cornel West, renowned public intellectual, racial oracle, and philosophical expositor of the American pragmatist and Marxist traditions. West has been doing this shtick around the country and in various media for decades, but this was the first time I’d caught a live performance. The experience was captivating.

West approached the lectern wearing his trademark three-piece suit. A gold chain hung from his vest. His afro was teased to dizzying heights. The strands of his scraggly beard pointed in every direction. He gave Gustavo Rivera a bear hug and moved toward the microphone. Then he gripped the lectern with both hands, hunched his back like a feline’s, and launched into a dizzying, ecstatic, boisterous, compelling, totally incomprehensible monologue.

West’s voice is a remarkable instrument. He whispers, speaks, bellows, screams, and hisses in volumes ranging from barely audible to jackhammer loud. Unfortunately the church’s poor acoustics and West’s erratic delivery combined to make his lecture unintelligible. He unleashed a torrent of words from the stage. Picking out a few phrases from the din required total concentration. “I am here because I believe like you that many of our brothers and sisters of all colors are suffering and in misery that’s .  .  .​ ​not .  .  .​ ​necessary .  .  .​ and we plan to do something about it,” West said. “We approach this day fundamentally committed to what brother Martin Luther King was committed to: unarmed truth.”

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