February 6, 2017
If the two weeks since Donald Trump’s poorly attended inauguration as President feels like months or even years, you’re not alone; we’ve been subject to a fire hose of executive orders and decrees that include an unconstitutional ban on travel from Muslim countries, restarting work on the Dakota Access Pipeline, appointing former Breitbart editor and unabashed white supremacist Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council, firing the acting Attorney General for doing her job in opposing the travel ban, an outright war on reproductive rights and many more chillingly fascist decrees. Many believe these orders are designed by Bannon, to create one “shock event,” after another, which keeps our eyes off their many other nefarious actions like further corporate deregulation and giving back the mentally ill their gun rights. “Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos,” according to Boston College history professor, Heather Richardson, whose Facebook post went viral. “People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies.”
In that scramble, our energies can become diffuse, and we are encouraged to give in to “outrage fatigue” which is intended to get us to stop fighting back. On the other hand, these events have inspired massive new waves of non-violent protest: at word of the travel ban, lawyers working pro-bono to support incoming travelers and civilians flooded airports like Seattle’s Sea-Tac, LAX in Los Angeles, JFK in New York and SFO in San Francisco to voice dissent. The largely Yemeni-owned Bodegas of New York initiated a strike on Thursday to protest the travel ban, and every day I see signs of people waking from the slumber of complacency motivated to do something, if only they can figure out what.
Despite what seems like a daily assault from our own government, showing no signs of letting up, as Trump botches important speeches on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the start of Black History Month, we cannot give in to the overwhelm they want us to feel. If the goal of shock events is to divide, we must do everything we can to stick together.
I spoke with four activists and community organizers who have been at their work for years to glean strategies we can all use to stay active, engaged and empowered.
Organize, Don’t Just Mobilize
Mobilizing around issues, such as the recent executive orders is a good first step. If you’re emboldened by outrage or disbelief, it might just be the energy you need to do something. However, King Hunt, an organizer with the Black Star Liberation Party, Black Lives Matter and a performance poet in LA, makes a clear distinction that after just showing up, to see real change, we need to do more than just show up from time to time. “Mobilizing leads to reform, organizing leads to revolutionary action. We don’t do this for concessions, we do this for change, which means moving away from being protestors and activists and rather moving towards becoming organizers, and getting involved in local organizations working directly with the community,” she says. She mentions such groups as: Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Black Star Liberation Party (BSLP), Black Lives Matter (BLM), Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), White People for Black Lives, Brown Berets, Afirm, etc.
While the left and the right wing both run on passion and ideologies that are at times vastly opposite of one another—staying engaged in those “fights” can often just lead nowhere. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t mobilize around issues when they’re important to you, though be clear about your motivations on a specific issue when you call your Congress people so you can firmly express this. If your issue is abortion rights, for example, then Planned Parenthood, or a local women’s health clinic, might be the place for you to put your time and money. Don’t forget to attend city council meetings, board and commission meetings and look for local groups organizing. In my town, we’re co-creating a local chapter of SURJ, Showing Up For Racial Justice, and Indivisible, a progressive spin on the tea party’s tactics.
Action: Make a list of your top three issues, and what you think you can give to each cause (i.e. time, money, phone banking, letter writing…)
The Power of Protest
While public attitudes about protest are mixed, most activists feel that protest is necessary, and we should never give it up—turning out in the streets and even non-violently disrupting the regular flow of business often sends a message the only way politicians will hear. Miriam Yeung, the former executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and soon to be Activist-in-Residence at Smith College says, “No rights have ever been won without the full commitment of people’s bodies.” From the suffragists, “who were thrown in jail and beaten up” to today’s Black Lives Matter activists, she makes clear, “We will need more people willing to risk civil disobedience to step up and put their bodies on the line.” Of course she’s aware that not everyone can do this, and cites her own partner, Abby, whose act of resistance was to knit the now famous pink “pussy” hats for the women’s march. “If knit is your verb for resistance for now, then go for it. Find a community of support around your verb and tell people about it after you’re done.”
Action: Either commit to showing up for a protest that aligns with one of your three goals, or offer to make signs for someone else who is going in your community.
Align with Time-Tested Organizations
Alongside protest, however, Hunt says folks should align with existing groups rather than trying to recreate the wheel on your own. “It’s really important to work underneath people who have been doing the work, and that you can learn from,” she says. For most folks it makes the most sense to start locally within your own community, where most great acts of resistance begin. In doing this you can build what Hunt calls “alternative political apparatuses” which can empower people even when the government imposes oppressive laws. Connecting with existing organizations links small groups to more powerful activist engines, increasing the power to make change.
Action: Find one to three organizations in your community, or online, that works around your three target issues and sign up to volunteer with or learn more about them. Check out The Resistance Manual and these politically-minded apps.
Focus, but Keep Intersectionality in Mind
Undoubtedly you feel strongly about multiple issues, from women’s rights to civil rights, to the right for all to have affordable healthcare. In practical terms, you may only be able to focus on strategies to deal with one or two at a time. “The more that you can narrow down and be clear about what you can and cannot do, and are willing to do and are interested and curious about, that can help you identify where you want to connect,” Luz Guerra, a long time feminist and activist who has trained hundreds of organizers around the country and internationally, tells Dame.
However, Davis points out that in her own realm of environmental work, “Long before white environmentalists began to focus on sustainability, environmental justice activists understand that…it is all connected.” So while you may focus your own activist lens in one direction, be open to “the broader realization of intersectionality,” she says. All of our rights are connected and we can effect more change when no one is excluded from the fight.
Action: Pick from this list of books on intersectionality and begin reading.
Hunt feels it’s extremely important to “Do something every single day, if only educating yourself.” Political education, in specific, is crucial to “inform the vision [you] seek to organize around.” We need to know the history that has shaped our political, social and racial realities in this country.
Listen to Diverse Stakeholders
We are a nation divided right now, more than ever, struggling to understand each other and frustrated by such dramatic differences in values. It may take significant time and effort for people on the left and the right to begin finding some common ground. “We’ve been pitted against each other,” Guerra says. “I think having an awareness of the rhetoric that’s gotten us to where we are is important.” She admits “The people on the right have done a really good job reaching the hearts and minds of people and speaking to their fears.” Though that’s turned out to have alarming consequences, it’s clear that progressives have to learn to listen to the people who voted Trump in in some way if we have any hope of flipping seats blue in 2018 and 2020.
Davis agrees, “It’s important to frame a vision that appeals to diverse stakeholders, and this is best accomplished with compelling and accessible stories. In the telling of stories understanding is cultivated, experiences shared, and the realization that no matter our differences we are more alike than different.”
Davis echoes the sentiments of other great activists, like Georgia Representative John Lewis, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King for civil rights in the 60s (and was brutally attacked by police), “This may sound hokey but no matter the problem, the answer is love, not the romantic kind but the hard, tough love that embraces justice. We cannot have true love without justice and there is no justice without equity and integrity in the society. We must demand this of ourselves and our leaders.”
Action: Make an attempt to talk to someone whose values are not your own, and see if there is one issue you agree on.