We dumped Trump. But now our struggles will feel harder

The playing field for changing American political life is about to shift dramatically.

If your agenda has included both resisting Trump and building a just, sustainable, antiracist, liberated world, you’ve just lived through a dramatic four years where one problem—the president of the United States—probably occupied a lot of your mental space. That space was crammed with a seemingly endless series of moral/political crises, from a sudden travel ban, to the attempted rollback of Obamacare, to racist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso, to the literal break-up of refugee families before our eyes, to the drastically mishandled COVID pandemic, and in a final burst of sparks both an attempt to grab power despite electoral defeat and a sheaf of last minute executive action, symbolized for me by the leasing of Arctic indigenous land to oil companies on January 6, 2021. Alongside all this has been a dumpster fire of a presidency marked by petty corruption, vindictiveness, foreign entanglements, and the endless, surreal production of belligerent tweets and speech.

Up til now, America has had a 2016 problem. How to manage the consequences of troubling (to say the least) president elected without even a plurality of votes, who showed no signs of seeking broaden that coalition, but instead focused on using the available levers of power to advance corporate power, a narrow-minded religious vision he evidently had little faith in, an authoritarian vision of state that attracted him greatly, and the nativist, racist, and antiqueer agendas that had hidden behind codewords and euphemisms for decades. The tools for dealing with that problem ranged from mass street protest to fights in the courts, but their leading edge was an electoral effort that reclaimed one house of Congress in 2018 (with an extraordinary 8% vote margin) and the White House in 2020 (with a more modest 4.4% vote margin). Despite temporary and quasi-permanent structural barriers to one-person/one-vote democracy—respectively, redistricting and disenfranchisment, and the Senate and Electoral College—this effort succeeded.

But as I said, the problem is about to change. And that change is going to be disorienting for many of us who have nothing but glee over the end of the Trump presidency.

I’m writing here to keep us—those who want more than a “return to normal”—oriented as the political world takes an Inception-like 90-degree turn and the forces of gravity seem to turn against us.

The compass I keep in the back of my mind is this: think about the scale of the problem you are confronting. How deep does it go? How far back in history are its origin points? How wicked in the problem, and what other problems are clustered around the same causes?

It helps that my adult political life began around the time of the Seattle global justice/antiglobalization protetss against the World Trade Organization. Adbusters magazine, one of the creative epicenters of that mobilization, circulated the image shown here. In the center is the kind of error message produced by 20th century Apple Macs when they crashed, with the text “System Error—Type 1945 (progress).” The end of World War II also marked the foundation of the global economy, through the World Trade Organization (then, the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It was the handoff point from a war-time, state-organized economy to the era in which mass consumerism would accompany continuing militarism. And it was the debut of a United States-led global order incorporating the majority of countries into sometimes colonial and sometimes dictatorial, but self-branded “free” world.

In Seattle, we were confronting a process that was “writing the constitution for a single global economy,” as WTO head Renato Ruggiero put it, written behind close doors in the interest of corporate power. We were also confronting a process endorsed by both political parties. It was the culmination of a neoliberal vision of globalization, championed as much by Clinton’s New Democrats as by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (The Democratic party assumed that Seattle, a city then much more identified with Boeing than big tech, would be the perfect showplace for the debut of globalization.) When we surrounded the meetings with nonviolent blockades, a Democratic president, governor, and mayor collaborated in calling in the National Guard, flooding the streets with tear gas, and arresting six hundred demonstrators.

Flash forward three tumultuous years to the authorization of the War on Iraq. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic Senators and 39% of Democratic Representatives joined nearly all Republicans in backing the new war. The global antiwar coalition lacked a partisan home in the United States, but it built on the global justice movement’s transnational ties and experience in taking the streets. The media baptized global public opinion “a second superpower” that was challenging the unilateral US government. Within the United States, though, we never amassed the votes to block the war, but just as in Seattle, our protests gave other countries the space to step away from or denounce the war. Later, Barack Obama made opposition to the Iraq War a core part of his appeal in 2008.

The point is, whether confronting war or globalization, we knew we started from a point of institutional weakness within representative government, but potentially widespread support in the country at large. Protest was our natural arena since congressional votes and court cases would often run against us.

International arrivals as a protest space, SFO. Jan 2017.

The last four years have been different. I could feel this when people protesting the Muslim travel ban flooded airports, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Already in the first week of the Trump presidency, a range of institutional actors were shifting their stances around protest: local officials extended transit hours for people protesting at the airport, technology executives from Google’s Sergey Brin on down were showing up to back the protests, state attorneys general were filing for court injunctions against the ban. An exceptional wave of donations and subscriptions was rising to support advocacy organizations like the ACLU and journalistic outlets like the New York Times.

2017 and 2018 proved to be an experiment in what would happen when a radical faction controls the executive and legislative branch of the US government, but faces opposition from many other institutions, notably bastions of professionals. Journalism, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley were all filled with critical voices. Certain Federal courts issued injunctions limiting executive power. #MeToo emerged, a movement with extraordinarily broad participation and a target on the kinds of harrassment and abuse practiced by the president, but also elite men of all parties and sectors. Speeches by Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, the not-necessarily-political awards ceremony of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, frontally challenged the president. (These signs reassured me about the parallels to fascist authoritarianism in Europe: Hitler and Mussolini had succeeded in part because of the total moral collapse of major institutions. Ours held up by comparison.)

The broad alliances of the past few years have now done their work, pushing Donald Trump kicking and screaming to the edge of the political stage and to a now-inevitable exit from the White House. But they won’t last into the next round of struggles. Because we will no longer be confronting just 2016 problems. Some of the people we voted for will reinforce the structures of power we aim to dismantle. Some people who joined us in the streets since January 2017 will drift away now that they feel they have an ally in the White House. And some of those who fought with us against Trump will now see our visions as the real problem.

The Black Lives Matter protesters of 2020, perhaps our country’s most widespread protest mobilization, knew this already. As Trump has never stopped reminding us, these protests usually take place in “Democrat cities.” They face off with a bipartisan consensus around mass incarceration and militarizing the police—System Error Type 1969 (New Jim Crow)—and require uprooting the systemic racism built into our country the beginning. Call it System Error Type 1619. Active movements call into question settler colonialism (Type 1492). As disappointing Biden appointments come in, we will be reminded of our other long-term struggles against unwarranted corporate power, wealth inequality, mindless consumerism and its destruction of the planet. All of these will require acting beyond political parties and mainstream institutions, as well as leveraging them where we can.

One more thing: it’s not the case that the older a systemic problem is, the harder it is to fight. We’ve lived through extraordinary changes to order of gender, sex, and sexuality—systems who symbolic origins are lost to time and unidentifiable with a familiar date—in the past fifty and the past fifteen years. Fights that were once only imaginable in the streets and in our own families became fights in the courts and eventually were embraced by the lighting of the White House. Successful movements transform fundamental shifts into collective common sense. Let’s keep our eyes on horizon as the world shifts around us.

Top image by Riske Mustamu from Pixabay

From “race riots” to multiracial urban rebellions (pt. 1: LA 1992)

1992

In 1991–92, the beaten Black man was Rodney King and the perpetrators were Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano. The fires began across Los Angeles on the afternoon of their acquittal.

The morning after the LA riots began, a trusted friend at my high school asked if I “beat myself up last night.” (I’m biracial.) Because that was the paradigm for understanding a Black-led uprising in response to police brutality: a race riot. As in Tracy Chapman’s “Across the Lines” (1988):

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

On the streets of South Central LA, but above all at one intersection, Florence and Normandie, the antagonism of the first day did run on race line and target white, Latino, and Asian civilians for violence and humiliation. The beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his trailer and beaten until his skull fractured, became the first national symbol of the riot, a chromatic negative of King’s beating made flesh. This brutal scenario had evolved out of a nearby confrontation with police earlier in the afternoon, but took on a momentum of its own.

In fact, “virtually all of the victims [at Florence and Normandie on that first day] were struggling Hispanic and Asian immigrants who spoke little or no English,” (per U.S. News) but the national narrative was set: “black rage, white fear,” as a New York Times headline would read on May 4, 1992. In any case, it was cast as a “race riot” — a term that can encompass and conceal many historical events under a single category: white massacres of post-Civil War freedmen communities (from Memphis 1866 to Tulsa 1921); genuine clashes of white and Black civilians aided by white-dominated police forces (Detroit 1943); and Black uprisings against police violence (notably the Long, Hot Summer of 1967). The framing of “race riot” conceals questions of power, authority, and domination within the guise of ethnic antagonism. The only question left in this frame in that posed by a distraught Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”

And yet, the six days of civil disorder in Los Angeles was many other things.

The anger and fearlessness and outrage were contagious and they spread widely. They targeted not just racial adversaries but first of all the police, and secondly an economic system that excluded many. On the same morning-after page of the New York Times that cast the riots as “racial disorder,” there was the account of a “rainbow of rage”:

Read More »

Watching the Maidan protests in Ukraine

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

Martin Luther King Jr., revolutionary

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:

Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.

For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.

Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.

Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.

Martin Luther King, 1968:

There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.

In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.

This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.

See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.

Links: BP Oil spill in photos, maps

Smoke billows from controlled burns of spilled oil off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico on June 13. (Sean Gartner/Reuters)

The Christian Science Monitor has published a gallery of fifty-five photos of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s various effects in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s dramatic and informative even if you’ve been following the spill as closely as I have. Many of the photos, like this one above, also provide a rare sense of the scale of the oil that’s been added to the environment, and the experiment in pollution that is being conducted right now.

Other spill resources:

  • New York Times’ Oil Spill Tracker interactive map—Note that the past seven days have seen a dramatic new landfall from Mississippi to Florida
  • SkyTruth (blog.skytruth.org) attempts to study oil pollution using satellite maps. The site’s early estimates have now been corroborated by the government’s scientific panel’s recent upward revisions in its estimate of the quantity of oil being released.
  • Treehugger.com’s Timeline of Unfortunate Events during the spill.

Sixty days into this disaster, I should have more to say, but there is a massive stream of commentary out there already. I would just add that: 1) The spill adds an entirely set of reasons to limit oil drilling, especially in remote areas, related to safety, disaster response, and local environmental impacts which is different from the climate and global warming issues that have driven the debate. 2) I witnessed some of the appallingly inadequate planning discussions (via public meetings of the Minerals Management Service) a decade ago. There are serious issues for long-term planning here. 3) Those of us thinking about strategies for addressing climate change should get much more serious now about large, but not global, energy policies—like drilling in the Gulf, or airport expansion, or every-increasing miles traveled by cars—instead of only fixating on overarching policy frameworks like carbon markets or taxes.