Ujima’s plan to transcend neoliberalism in Maryland
The Democratic Party has consistently dominated Maryland politics for over a century. Maryland is the fourth most heavily Democratic state in terms of demographics in the nation, ahead of Massachusetts, home to the Kennedy political machine, and behind California, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Democrats have reliably controlled the Maryland General Assembly since 1920—the longest period of control for a single party in the United States. Even Maryland’s conspicuously Republican governor, Larry Hogan, was elected with sizable Democratic support. Hogan has served two consecutive terms and gained a deceptive national profile as a Republican willing to oppose Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Baltimore, the state’s defining metropolis, has been continuously led by the Democratic Party for nearly a century, with Democrats holding mayoral office in every election since 1967 and unilaterally controlling the City Council for the past seventy years. The Ujima People’s Progress Party, a party led by Black workers, is campaigning for recognition on Maryland’s electoral ballot, bucking the neoliberal status quo by engaging with struggle, community base building, and building power with poor and working people.
Ujima (Swahili for “collective work and responsibility”) was created in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic election as the nation’s first Black president. The party formed in response toBlack workers being sidelined by the Obama administration and the Democratic establishment wielding political power throughout Maryland. Ujima’s platform is grounded in advancing social and economic justice by building community-based power with activists, organizers, educators, students, workers, and the unemployed. The party is a self-described “365 da[y] a year movement” that forgoes corporate funding to operate, devoted to being “a genuine grassroots, community effort to build the first Black worker-led electoral party for social and economic justice in Maryland.” Nnamdi Lumumba, the party’s State Organizer and former City Council candidate, affirms that Ujima exists to ensure that political possibilities for Maryland residents are not reduced to Black faces in high places:
“Once Obama won, and his agenda and worldview were in line with capitalism and white supremacy, you find that the system itself keeps running. … [I]t’s not enough to just get Black people into office.”
Despite the fact that Baltimore’s recent political leadership has included several Black mayors, the city remains a stark testament to how Democrats’ neoliberal policies have failed to confront systemic racism, entrenched poverty, segregation, economic, and political disenfranchisement. Seven out of Baltimore’s last eight mayors were Black, although it is revealing that Martin O’Malley, author of Batimore’s infamous “Zero Tolerance” crime strategy, and the city’s only white mayor in a thirty five year period, was the mayor considered electable to statewide office as governor.
In this way, Baltimore stands as a vivid example of racial capitalism, a term defined by the late scholar Cedric J. Robinson, describing how capitalist exploitation and white supremacy reinforce one another to create today’s world order grounded in genocide, violence, slavery, and imperialism. The city has been characterized by racialized and class-based oppression throughout its history, from the days of slavery, FHA-sponsored redlining birthed in Roland Park during the 1930s, mass unemployment decimating Black communities in the wake of manufacturing closures from the 1970s onward, to the 2015 Uprising confronting Freddie Gray’s death as a result of police brutality.
Baltimore’s poverty rate remains stubbornly high, measured at 23.1 percent, almost twice the national average of 12.7 percent, according to Urban Institute findings. Economic opportunity continues to be stratified along racial and class-based lines throughout the city. Neighborhoods that are over 85 percent Black receive almost four times less than the level of capital investment of either mixed or majority white neighborhoods. Low-poverty neighborhoods receive one-and-a-half times the level of investment as high-poverty neighborhoods do. The unemployment rate of Sandtown-Winchester, the area where Freddie Gray lived and died, was most recently measured at 14.3 percent, more than twice the national average (3.7 percent), and double the city’s overall unemployment rate of 7.7 percent.
To confront these conditions, Ujima is waging an arduous campaign to be formally recognized as a political party on Maryland’s 2022 electoral ballot. State law requires any party seeking certification with the Board of Elections to submit a petition signed by 10,000 registered voters. Doing so is no easy task. Ultimately, several thousand additional signatures will need to be collected, as the Board of Elections usually renders a substantial portion of the list invalid. The less glamorous work of collecting and verifying signatures is a hard sell for potential volunteers who could support Ujima’s political goals. Lumumba describes Ujima’s ballot initiative as requiring strong administration. Fundraising and building coalitions with other grassroots organizations are essential to the campaign.
Ujima persists in this fight as an alternative to the capitalist allegiances of the Republican and Democratic parties. Maryland’s voter population is 30 percent Black and 11 percent Latino. Black voters have traditionally supported the Democratic Party by default, viewing it as the most rational choice to oppose racism and implement policies that create a reasonable standard of living. However, the Democratic Party has historically conducted closed primaries to elect its nominees in Maryland. Doing so has the effect of disenfranchising a sizeable majority of the voting population. According to 2011 electoral records, 295,260 registered Baltimore City voters (80 percent of the electorate) were unable or chose not to participate in the Democratic primary that year—of these voters, 77,643 were not registered as Democrats. This contingent of voters, disenfranchised by institutional politics, is a collectively untapped mass of power, yearning for political engagement beyond election cycles. Nnamdi Lumumba views building a Black-led workers’ party as the best method of creating momentum for a political movement that may not correlate to final tallies on Election Day. Lumumba believes that with ballot access, Ujima could “unlock a wider progressive left movement” to confront the corrosive social relations of capitalism and white supremacy.
Lumumba reflects on the initial momentum that coalesced in Baltimore during the robust protests in the wake of the 2015 Uprising, following the police killing of Freddie Gray, and again in 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd, recalling hopes for, “…people’s political consciousness to [become] heightened enough to realize they need organization to respond to systemic racism and capitalism.” For Ujima, this means recognizing that U.S. capitalism and imperialism will not crumble by only engaging in marches and protests, but through a sustained movement of working, poor, and oppressed people. An invigorated coalition of activists devoted to transcending these obstacles would greatly enhance Ujima’s organizational capacity, particularly in its quest for ballot access. This people-fueled movement would also strengthen Ujima’s wider aims to offer alternative political solutions to a neoliberal cycle of dysfunctional complacency that perpetuates systemic poverty. The fact that Baltimore cycled through five mayors within a decade, two of whom resigned due to corruption scandals, illustrates how unsustainable the status quo is.
Ujima’s solution to Maryland’s political monotony is creating a different model for engaging in electoral politics by agitating the current political system and shining a spotlight on sites of struggle. In addition to building administrative and financial resources for its electoral petition drive, Ujima is actively involved in grassroots community organizing efforts throughout the state. Party activists regularly engage in organizing around police brutality, food sovereignty (Ujima created a community refrigerator for residents in West Baltimore), and housing (advocating for a 50 percent budget cut to the Baltimore sheriff’s office for depriving tenants facing eviction their due process rights). Ujima has also led demonstrations throughout the state in solidarity with Amazon workers pursuing unionization. The party’s method for staying engaged on these myriad issues is relying on its member base of grassroots activists to relay their own projects and fundraising needs to Ujima’s statewide network during bi-weekly meetings.
Ujima views political education as central to transforming consciousness. The Fannie Lou Hamer Political Education Series has been a staple of Ujima’s outreach efforts for years. Workshops are hosted monthly on various topics, including education, militarism, imperialism, police brutality, international solidarity, and Black liberation movements throughout the diaspora. Ujima’s emphasis on political education, while fervently engaging with grassroots struggles, highlights the party’s objective of building a new political reality in both theory and practice, as described by Lumumba:
“We should be building not just candidates, but political committees, to engage people with questions about [our communities]…How can I make sure working-class people are having food security? [We then take] police brutality, housing, child care, into the electoral arena—pushing for socialist policies, while still engaging with people’s political consciousness.”
Those wondering how an elected-Ujima member would approach public office can look to Diamonte Brown for a tangible preview. Brown is currently the president of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union (BTU) as well as being an Ujima member. Diamonte Brown mounted a campaign to oust BTU’s former president in 2019. Outgoing president Marietta English had served in the role for 21 years. Brown ran as a member of the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a social justice-oriented caucus within the BTU that aims to expand the union’s focus to community needs in Baltimore, such as food security, houselessness, racial justice, and safety. BMORE’s slate of candidates out-organized the neoliberal factions of the BTU, winning 19 out of the 41 seats on BTU’s board, and capturing the presidency with a count of 901 votes for Brown and 839 votes for English. The victory was politically earth-shattering. English challenged the veracity of the election and the final results had to be affirmed by the American Federation of Teachers.
During her tenure as president, Diamonte Brown has been involved in reforming the Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) system. Brown has joined advocacy efforts with the Voices Towards an Elected School Board (VOTES) coalition, a network devoted to increasing student members on the school board, restructuring the BCPS school board from an appointed body into being a hybrid appointed-elected board, and giving student members equal voting rights as adult members. VOTES successfully advocated for the passage of SB157, a bill that would have altered the selection process for student members and increased the voting rights students could exercise on the board. However, Governor Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the legislation on May 27. Brown sees teachers’ unions as being perfectly positioned to work with parents (guardians) to support the highest quality educational experience possible for their children:
“Oddly, teachers unions are sometimes mischaracterized as having competing demands with parents of students. I would argue that we have the same demands as parents, which is that our students should have the schools they deserve. In order to get our children the schools they deserve, teachers unions remain essential in advocating and organizing with parents, students, and community members to get the resources, funding, staffing, culture, and power necessary to improve working conditions, student learning conditions, and our communities.”
An Ujima victory on the Maryland ballot could ignite other socialist workers’ parties to organize throughout the country and challenge the established duopoly in our politics. The Ujima People’s Progress Party provides a meaningful example of a party steeped in socialist thought while agitating against the political status quo, and building power with poor and working people. Baltimore has also proven to be a fertile testing ground for third-party campaigns in the recent past. Joshua Harris, a Green Party candidate for mayor, won approximately 10 percent of the vote during the 2016 General Election—the highest percentage won by a third party candidate at the time. Franca Mueller Paz, a teacher, and activist sought to oust a Democratic councilmember during the 2020 election with a highly visible and energized grassroots campaign. Ultimately, Franca did not win the seat but captured 35 percent of the vote, expanding the previous threshold for third-party support in an unprecedented manner for a city where Democrats are viewed as the only viable political option.
Ujima’s goal to gain ballot access may seem like a longshot. However, more than half of Americans (56 percent) believe that third parties are necessary to counter the infectivity of both the Democratic and Republican parties. All the more reason for investing in grassroots power to transcend the neoliberal status quo.
Featured Image credit: Photo by Elvert Barnes; modified by Tempest
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Phillip Clark View All
Phillip Clark is a lifelong Baltimorean, writer, and activist. He is completing a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Policy, and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore and is a member of the Baltimore AfroSocialists and Socialists of Color.