We may not be in power in the government. But that doesn't mean we're powerless.
I was raised in a family that celebrated activism—my maternal uncle was a civil-rights activist, and was jailed with his Black friends during an action in the 1960s; my cousin’s parents were friends and co-conspirators with the Berrigan brothers, the Roman Catholic priests and anti-war activists who went to jail for protesting the Vietnam war, and later founded an anti-nuclear protest group. In high school, friends and I staged a nearly school-wide walk out to protest the Iraq War, and I continued my activism throughout my 20s for all kinds of civil rights and feminist issues. But over time, I found myself slipping into complacency, letting other people take up the mantle of progress and protection because my many privileges allowed me to do so.
Since the election of Donald Trump, however, I am reminded daily of how dangerous complacency is. You’d think I would know better—my grandparents escaped Nazi Germany by the narrowest of margins, while their parents perished in concentration camps. The white supremacists are all too happy to remind me with their swastika graffiti and cries of “Heil Trump” at recent rallies. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports more than 700 hate crimes committed since the election. Meanwhile we white folks laughed at a recent Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, of an Election Night party wherein the white people become increasingly shocked as the returns reveal a surprise Trump victory. Chappelle and Rock—the only two Black people in the room—raise unsurprised eyebrows. Many white people have had the luxury of this complacency, while our friends of color and other marginalized groups have been living the reality of a country constructed on and continually shaped by white (and male) supremacy all their lives.
Resist the Urge to Normalize
The time for complacency is over. Activist Mahonia West, of California, points out that it is crucial “not to normalize Trump, his behavior and his policies.” Everything is at stake. Particularly the rights of the most vulnerable, of all people of color, as well as those who practice non-Christian religions, women’s reproductive rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. “When we comfort and soothe ourselves for no good reason than to feel better, that’s when we’ve begun to change and become more like them, and less likely to act to stop them,” West adds. She is the product of two sides of a family that “suffered, for many, many years under Hitler, Stalin, and Brezhnev’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s.”
These are not normal times.
Let me repeat that: These are not normal times. That a loud-mouthed, openly racist, sexist, xenophobic reality-star billionaire can be president isn’t bad enough, he’s filling his Cabinet with people so diabolically opposed to civil rights and the interests of the hard working Americans who voted for him, they’re like a cast of rejected movie villains.
Despite that, we are already being encouraged, cajoled, and even shamed to “accept” the election results and “move on.” We’re being told our civil rights are bothersome, divisive “identity politics” or “political correctness.” We are asked to “come together” for the sake of the nation, a bitter pill to swallow as we think how readily those who opposed Obama “accepted” his election. Instead, those of us who are waking up, almost too late, need to be reminded of the importance of our burgeoning efforts at engaging in democracy, which includes our constitutional right to speak out against injustice and peacefully protest. Let us take note of the breathtaking efforts of the North Dakota Water Protectors in their standoff against another pipeline. It’s up to us, the comfortable, the privileged, many of whom are yes, white, to stack sandbags against the flood of this horrifying swell of oncoming autocracy.
Every Action Counts
While that may sound overwhelming, even terrifying, every little action counts, from calling your senators to express your concern, to marching in the streets. Grass roots activism may not appear to change the world overnight, but it adds up.
Just two days after the election, New York based writer Julie Schweitert Collazo started a Facebook page called “One Action Every Day,” in which she entreats interested parties in actions ranging from making phone calls to decry white nationalist Stephen Bannon’s appointment, to taking a brief civics lesson in American government. This grew out of “the social worker impulse of understanding that many, many people want to help and would help, but don’t necessarily know what to do,” she says. Collazo’s natural inclination toward activism stems in part from growing up in rural South Carolina to parents who instilled “a basic sense of humanity, decency and equality” that they put into practice in their every day lives. She is also motivated to act on behalf of being in a biracial and bicultural marriage, and raising three biracial children. “I’m married to someone who is a refugee, who is a Black Latino, and I’m experiencing—in a secondary way, but persistently—the intense racism and xenophobia in this country,” she says.
Collazo feels it’s especially important to the newly anointed activists to come to action in ways that feel true to you. “The things you do on a daily basis, like what you choose to watch, or what books your read, or where you choose to make purchases are all forms of activism and resistance,” Collazo says.
West agrees. “At this stage—a few weeks after the election, with Obama still formally in power—I think everything counts. It’s a good time for experimentation, especially for people who are new to resistance and activism, who have just realized for the very first time that we are all dissidents now.”
However, West cautions against cynicism and urges all citizens to continue to support “established governing systems” through donations to candidates’ campaigns, calling our representatives and demanding accountability of our government to name a few, even if those systems may be compromised in the future. She cautions against the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of giving up on our established systems before they’re compromised because “it will have the effect of weakening them. And this is exactly what Trump and his ilk want. “ She believes we should use our established systems of law and governance more than ever.
Beginning the journey to activism—or “engagement,” which Collazo offers as a softer way to think of it, can be the most overwhelming part of the process. Collazo recommends, “You have to look at yourself and say ‘what’s my particular skill set? What am I most comfortable with?”
Simran Sethi, a Denver-based journalist and food writer says she is trying to focus on where her actions “will have the greatest impact.” For her this is to use her own journalistic power, and to hold her fellow journalists accountable to “the normalizing I now see going on,” Sethi says. “I mean [Trump’s] not even in office yet and we’re already sugar coating things. She is and plans to continue sharing on social media what she thinks “are really powerful acts of journalism, and really challenging ones.”
I took to heart West’s suggestion that “People should organize locally…but also tap into larger groups to bolster more coordinated efforts.” An acquaintance from yoga invited me to investigate forming our own small, local chapter of a national organization called Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), formed just after Obama’s 2008 inauguration, to involve white folks in the work of dismantling systems of white supremacy and fighting for racial justice. We are taking fumbling steps forward to begin the work of connecting with leaders of color in our community and align with, bolster, and support their work.
Just as important as becoming and staying active, however, is learning to pace yourself and recharge. “I don’t think it serves anybody on the individual level or the group for your star to burn bright and then crash and burn,” Collazo says. You have to take care of yourself. West feels that “self care is a form of resistance” because staying alive and well “puts it to them every single [time] you do. Every day you dance in defiance, genuinely enjoy a glass of wine with a friend, make street art that makes fun of the dictator, write satire and be you to your absolute biggest and fullest makes them a little more miserable and keeps the world looking exactly like they don’t want it. So take care of yourself, if only out of spite.”
There will always be naysayers who moan that one person, or one action, can’t do very much. And yet individuals taking actions rally others, swell the numbers of people standing up, speaking out and refusing to roll over and take it, and become avalanches of grass roots power.
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