Defying freezing temperatures and bone-chilling winds, more than 100 people rallied January 9 in downtown Richmond, Virginia, then marched a mile and a half to the State Capitol. Winding their way through the city's financial district, the protesters - black, Latino, white, immigrant and native-born - marched behind a 12-foot multicolored banner that proclaimed "Jobs! Peace! Justice! No to budget cuts & layoffs! Make the big corporations pay their fair share!"
The march and rally were organized by the Virginia People's Assembly, a statewide coalition of labor, community, civil rights, immigrant, prisoner advocacy, faith-based and antiwar organizations. The protest, which received extensive media coverage, was the only unified, public opposition to the devastating cuts in state jobs and public services that are expected to come out of this year's session of the Virginia General Assembly, which convenes January 13.
While most of the protesters came from the Richmond-Charlottesville area, there were also delegations from Roanoke and Blacksburg to the west, Petersburg to the south, Prince William County in Northern Virginia and the coastal Hampton Roads area.
The state's present two-year budget already has been hit with $7 billion in cuts under the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine, who leaves office January 16 to become full-time chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The next state budget, for the years 2010-2012, is projected to face a shortfall of $4.2 billion, which Kaine had proposed filling by enacting $2.3 billion in new cuts along with a $1.9 billion tax increase.
Tax increases already have been ruled out by incoming Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his legislative allies, so even deeper cuts will have to be proposed. Since half the state's general fund budget goes to local governments, this means billions more in cuts to cities, towns and counties that already are in deep financial trouble. These local governments depend on property taxes for the majority of their local revenue, which has been declining as property values plummet due to the battered housing market. Now the other major source of local revenue, state aid, is being slashed, translating into devastating cuts for local schools, roads, social service programs and public safety.
The state faced a similar budget crisis when the Virginia People's Assembly was founded in the fall of 2008 as an initiative of the community-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality and labor-oriented Richmond Jobs with Justice.
In 2009, the deepest projected cuts and layoffs were partially averted by an influx of federal stimulus money. No similar federal help is expected this year.
Meanwhile, Virginia's corporate income tax rate of 6 percent is one of the lowest in the country - and hasn't been raised in 30 years. While that has meant inflated profits for the state's giant corporations, it's also why Virginia's tax rate for individuals is one of the most regressive in the country. That's why the central demand of the VPA protest was that the General Assembly raise the income tax rate on the state's largest corporations.
Before the march on the Capitol, some 60 activists from across the state gathered at St. Stephen's Church in the city's Church Hill neighborhood for a mass meeting called the 2010 Virginia People's Assembly. After brief presentations by each of the three members of the VPA administrative staff, solidarity messages were read from Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO and co-chair of the statewide, multi-issue South Carolina Progressive Network, and from Black Workers for Justice, which is building grassroots-based people's assemblies in North Carolina.
As they did at last year's founding gathering, assembly participants then divided up into what the VPA calls focus groups, representing labor, the black community, immigrant issues, prisoner advocacy, students, health and the antiwar movement.
This year a new focus group was formed, to represent women's issues. More groups will be formed as people step forward to suggest them.
Members of each focus group discussed their common concerns and additions or changes to the multi-issue People's Agenda developed at last year's assembly. They also selected up to three representatives to serve on a Continuations Committee, which meets every three months in person or by conference call. The CC selects the all-volunteer staff, which meets monthly.
Between the annual assemblies, the VPA functions as a multi-issue network, providing a means of statewide communication between the various communities and organizations. Over the past year, the VPA was active in garnering support for protests against the construction of a regional immigrant detention center in Farmville, mass protests by the black community in rural Powhatan County around the murder of a black teenager, and a march protesting police brutality against immigrants in Prince William County.
Multi-issue coalitions are not uncommon in the US, but what's unique about the VPA is its politics and organizational structure. While embracing a wide range of causes, the coalition emphasizes the common issue of class, actively promoting the interests of working people and the poor. The involvement of antiwar activists as a specific focus helps address the challenge of uniting the antiwar movement with domestic struggles, something that peace and antiwar organizations are grappling with throughout the country.
Most importantly, the VPA recognizes the special oppression faced by communities of color, women and the LGBT community.
At the 2010 Assembly, when it came time to discuss new demands for the People's Agenda, it was agreed that there would be no general group veto of demands raised by the focus group representing the black community. This focus group structure, with political autonomy for communities of color, is how the VPA concretely applies the principle of respect for the right to self-determination of oppressed communities. For similar reasons, it was also agreed that men would not be vetoing demands raised by the Women's Focus Group.
While the 100 people attending the VPA's rally and march didn't set any attendance records for protests in Virginia, the fact that these actions took place in very challenging weather conditions - and that they represented the only broad, united opposition to the projected budget cuts and layoffs - resulted in an unusual amount of positive media coverage. There were reports on all three national network-related television news programs; the city's daily newspaper; several radio stations; and the city's two black-owned newspapers. The Richmond Free Press, arguably Virginia's most influential black-owned paper, had run an editorial promoting the VPA and its march and rally, complete with contact information.
While VPA representatives plan to attend General Assembly sessions to monitor bills affecting, in particular, labor and prisoner issues, the main focus of the coalition will be deepening its roots in cities, towns and rural areas across the state. In particular, it will encourage the development of local people's assemblies, which can then link up to build a genuine, grassroots-based mass formation - one truly capable of challenging the state's corporate powers.
For more information on the Virginia People's Assembly, visit www.vapeoplesassembly.org.