Craven: Waking The Giant

May 9, 2017

Recent demonstrations in Vermont and across the country show newly invigorated grass roots movements around issues of climate change, economic inequality, health care, and rights for women and people of color.

Indeed, as Massachusetts’ U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren noted during a recent interview with Bill Maher, it wasn’t Democratic Party politicians that challenged Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act - or Obamacare. It was the hundreds of thousands of people who mobilized in town halls and on the phone, to tell elected officials, including Republicans, that they would pay a political price if they took health care away from 24 million Americans.

The outcome remains uncertain. But we’ve entered a new era in politics. The Trump sweep into power exposed a startling degree of miscalculation and missed opportunity by traditional Democrats. Even now, I’m surprised that Democrats have not led calls for specific innovative changes to save and improve Obamacare.

A new normal has also taken shape for elections. Gerrymandering and increased voter restrictions cement a political status quo in many districts. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allows hundreds of millions of unaccountable private dollars to flow into campaigns.

Jacob Smith, Jon Erickson, and Kathryn Goldman’s ambitious new Vermont film, Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Making of a Political Revolution shows activists working to build an independent 21st century American progressive movement. It captures the drama of a West Virginia woman, Sabrina Shrader, who was born into generational poverty and lives in a rural community ravaged by food insecurity, opiate addiction and more. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Shrader stepped out of the shadows to run for a seat in her state legislature.

The film also takes viewers to a sit-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and into a Los Angeles police commission hearing, where family and community members ask how a young African-American woman, Wakiesha Wilson, died in police custody.

The filmmakers central throughline is the Sanders campaign. And they suggest that much is possible when electoral politics intersect with movements working for social change.

The film includes thoughtful analyses by CNN commentator Van Jones, former New York Times op-ed writer Bob Herbert, Democracy Now chief, Amy Goodman and others. Combined, these multiple voices point to a turbulent time – but also, perhaps, a singular moment of opportunity, if coalitions and alliances can unite sometimes disparate voices in a coherent public conversation, to forge a mandate for effective change.