The Politics of Revolution: The future of SC Dems lies in the hands of black activists

20 mins read

By: Michael Bailey

Is it possible to spot a revolutionary leader when their transformative work is just underway?

Brandon Upson, Ra Shád Gaines, Jason Belton, Craig Khanwell, Stephanie Denise, Alonzo Canzater, Jazz Johnson, Lester Young, Lawarence Nathanieal, Raquel Felder, Nocola Hemphill, Carol Coakley, DeAnna Miller Berry, and Leo Jones are just a few of the politically-emancipated activists throughout South Carolina who created grassroots organizations and organizing efforts that bucked the norms of party loyalists and resulted in creating an opportunity and a blueprint to transform the Democratic Party into an organization focused on reenergizing and expanding the democratic electorate in this state. Their work was more than noteworthy, it was, in fact, revolutionary and it continues today.

This multi-generational coalition of activists have either created organizations or led grassroots movements that were instrumental in helping turn out an unprecedented number of voters this past November. They built on the hard-learned lessons of this political season and laid the foundation for organizations and movements that speak to the current and real needs of black communities across the state, not just the South Carolina Democratic Party’s desire to elect democrats.

SC black democrats must recognize that we have a number of black activists throughout the state who are fighting for us because they love their communities and love us. They’re in the hood everyday trying to make life better for the individuals that still live there. They’re not on T.V. and radio bragging about how they made it out. 

This is not meant to be a personal attack on anyone but a wake-up call to everyone. Everyday, we should and do celebrate everyone from our community who has pulled themselves out of poverty through education and hard work to achieve prosperity and/or fame. So, I am by no means diminishing those accomplishments. What I am saying is that it’s time we showed love to those individuals who are still on the frontlines trying to make a difference. 

The sole motivating factor behind this group of activists is to empower black communities by expanding the black electorate. Their work was not done at the behest of, or funded, directed or coordinated by the Democartic Party. They didn’t wait on the Democratic Party chairman to give them permission to take action in their community. They didn’t wait on the DNC to send some young white Beltway consultant with a checkbook, who had never stepped foot in South Carolina to tell them the best way to reach the black voters in their communities. They created a plan and took decisive action out of love. It deeply saddens me to know that after 60 something years since the phrase was first uttered, “Love is still a revolutionary idea.” 

The late Cuban revolutionary turned dictator, Fidel Castro, once said, “A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.”

While I would never agree with the rhetoric of a communist dictator like Castro, it must be acknowledged that he got it half right. Because, while a revolution by its simplest definition can easily be summed up as a society’s struggle to hold on to the past versus accepting the future, on a deeper level, it’s more about new ideology versus old thinking. It’s about boldly stepping into the unknown versus aimlessly holding on to the comfort of the known. It’s about a vision of what could be, versus what is. 

It’s the vision of what could be that inspires this group of revolutionary activists.

They’re not seeking leadership positions in the South Carolina Democratic Party. They’re not out to become career politicians. They’re not out to line their own pockets. Their only desire is to serve for the sake of service.

Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina often says, “Just as in a relay-race, our job as elders is simply to pass the baton to the next generation. We can’t tell them how to run their race.” 

These enterprising activists are without question running the race on their own terms. They have shown us that “we” the black community of South Carolina have a vanguard of battle-tested social justice soliders, whose allegiance is not to a political party but to the black community and to the luminaries of the civil rights movement whose shoulders they stand on.

Despite the tremendous contributions made by these activists to turn out the vote in this year’s election cycle, the state Democratic Party leadership hasn’t thought to welcome these revolutionary activists into the party’s so-called “Big Tent.” Partly because many of them don’t possess the USC and Clemson pedigree that the party appears to prefer.

Don’t get me wrong, SCDP does follow the national Party’s Big Tent philosophy that says, “everyone is welcome.” However, the problem with this ideology is that, despite everyone being welcomed under the Big Tent, the leadership table under the tent is small and mostly segregated. 

Let me explain, to be an effective organization there must be diversity of thought and beliefs. The party currently has a good bit of racial and gender diversity but lacks inclusion and the real diversity of thought that can make it effective. This is the key reason SCDP hasn’t reached its maximum potential as an organization. It is why the state party constantly loses election after election and nobody says a word. It is why party participants are discouraged or blackballed for asking the forbidden question, “Why do we keep amassing these losses and who’s responsible?”

Diversity of thought among party membership is frowned upon and often flat out rejected.  

It’s time “we,” the black voters, which make up 61% of the democratic electorate in this state, demand not just change but revolutionary change. We need to call for real diversity and inclusion and offer the leaders and representatives of these newly formed organizations and movements a seat at the table. This cadre of activists should be invited to participate at a higher level in the party so that they can advocate and negotiate on behalf of themselves and the vast diverse constituencies of black voters they represent and speak for.

Iron sharpens iron and this group of sharp grassroots leaders can only make the party a sharper more powerful force within South Carolina.

The SC Democratic party would be well-served to recognize and value the contributions of these grassroots activists because they are proven leaders well positioned to breathe new life into the party. They are poised to revolutionize the party’s outdated message and methods before the Democratic Party finds itself obsolete and irrelevant in black communities across the state.

It’s time we speak up for those who are fighting with us and for us. We can no longer afford to be silent. 

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal… In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

                                                                                      Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

So, who are these new revolutionaries? Let’s meet them and examine their efforts.

Ra Shád Gaines and Brandon Upson co-founded Amplify Action, an organization that’s inspiring legions of African American males to embrace civic activity and increase political engagement. Upson and Gaines are both leading voices in the exodus movement of young black progressives who have been disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s slow and half-hearted attempts to create a real progressive agenda. They believe they can do a better job and get more done outside of the constraints of party politics, and the truth is, they can and they have! Upson has built a grassroots organization that is capable of conducting voter registration and mobilization campaigns with military-like precision. Upson is more than a great organizer, he’s a Grassroots General. Perhaps he’s so strategic and efficient because he is a former Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Specialist of the South Carolina Army National Guard. Yeah, you read that right. This young man is the real deal. Gaines is a progressive firebrand who has held so many positions of leadership and possesses so much political and policy experience he was considered a ‘Political OG’ by the time he turned 23. Now slightly older and more seasoned, Gains lends his expertise to Amplify Action to help the organization transform black male voter apathy into action and voting power into powerful policy.    
Jazz Johnson and Alonzo Canzater are an organizing duo whose love for their community is only eclipsed by their love for each other. Johnson is one hell of an organizer. It was once said that she could organize a military invasion at night during a hurricane and it will come off without a hitch. I guess that’s why her Twitter handle is @shessoorganized. Canzater is the founder of an organization called B.A.S.I.C. that is anything but basic. B.A.S.I.C. stands for Brother’s and Sister’s focused on Improving Communities and its members are tirelessly dedicated to their mission. Together, Johnson and Canzater organized a series of innovative voter registration events. Their most notable event, Ride-to-Register, registered numerous new voters by bringing a lineup of hand-detailed custom cars through historically black neighborhoods that have largely been forgotten by elected leadership.
Craig Khanwell and Jason Belton co-founded the Vision Walkers, a visionary organization that is just as visionary in its mission. The Vision Walkers have articulated and translated politics for an often ignored constituency. It was once said that “Belton went from coordinating plugs and connections to organizing voter registration and elections. In layman’s terms, he helped young men come away from street organizations and get involved in political organizing and voter outreach efforts. Khanwell, on the other hand, can be considered the organization’s moral compass and righteous hammer of truth who helps ensure members adhere to strict personal and professional conduct while interacting with the community. To take a direct quote from Khanwell, he “ensures that the organization continues to have ‘the testicular fortitude and ovarian audacity’ to stand up to elected leaders who abuse or neglect their constituencies.” The Vision Walkers’ ultimate goal is to awaken the sleeping giant and harness the power of the apathetic vote of thousands of disenfranchised individuals living in marginalized communities across the state.    
I like to refer to Lawarence Nathaniel and Raquel Felder as “Troublemakers” like the kind the late great Rep. John Lewis talked about in his famous phrase, “Go out and start some Good Trouble.” Nathaniel and Felder are both driving forces at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement in South Carolina. They have made certain that the national BLM organization’s mission is felt in the Palmetto State as they hold true to the organization’s goal of eradicating white supremacy and building local coalitions of power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by vigilantes and the state. 
DeAnna Miller Berry, Nocola Hemphill, and Carol Coakley are all veterans of Tom Steyer’s Presidential campaign and are die-hard community activists. Berry and Hemphill are now both leading their own campaigns as they run for mayor in two different rural South Carolina counties. Their work to raise awareness of the unique challenges and hardships facing rural South Carolinians has brought attention to issues like a lack of quality healthcare facilities, quality drinking water, and broadband access just to name a few. Coakley is a political operative and consultant who works behind the scenes with these young ladies to bring about change and is a driving force in both their political campaigns. If South Carolina had a political “Squad” like AOC and her cohorts in the U.S. Congress, these young ladies would be South Carolina’s version. 
Lester Young is a man whose story and work is about Redemption. As a formerly incarcerated individual, he now represents a different kind of ‘Trap Star,’ in a manner of speaking.  He has made it his life’s mission to save other young men and women from falling into the societal traps that claim so many of our young brothers and sisters and hands them over to an unyielding and unforgiving criminal justice system. Since his release, he has worked tirelessly on issues involving criminal justice reform and lobbying elected officials and business leaders to create laws and policies that benefit and aid those returning home from prison with meaningful employment opportunities.
Stephanie Denise is the Diva of getting-shit-done. She’s an advocate who embodies the word activism. She has dedicated herself to fighting a slew of issues facing black communities such as breast cancer, police violence, women’s rights, economic equality, education, voter protection and these are only half the issues she championed this year. She may not be affiliated with law enforcement, fire or emergency medical services, but when it comes to issues of social justice, she is one of the black communities’ First Responders. Stephanie is the living embodiment of Fannie Lou Hammer and Modjeska Simkins mixed with a little Angela Davis on the side. Within political circles in Richland County, she has been unofficially deemed an “essential worker.” 
Leo Jones is a relative newcomer to the political arena but his Million Man March to the SC State House this June was a sight to behold. He’s a local photographer who knows how to capture the heart of a subject and reach the core of the community. And the brother brought style back to the struggle.  In a scene reminiscent of the marches led by Dr. King in the ’60s, Jones led a multi-racial group of thousands of young and not so young men and women through the streets of downtown Columbia calling for justice. Dressed in their Sunday’s best and with arms interlocked, it was a powerful site and Jones was a commanding presence. As a photographer, Jones captures the essence and style of a new generation of black business, fashion, and entertainment leaders. As an activist, he captures the message of the movement, the pride underneath our pain and the deep-seeded desire to see real social change for the black men, women, and families the current system has left behind.  

Michael Bailey is the founder of The MinorityEye and serves as the Chief-Curator of Information. He leads the editorial staff and works as a multimedia journalist who specializes in producing news stories and personal profiles that highlight the cultural, social, economic, and political experiences of minorities living in South Carolina and beyond. His extensive media, business, and political background has made him a well-respected voice and an often sought-after commentator on issues impacting people of color.

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