As another winter seems to loom in the United States, the pandemic is going to continue much longer than expected; the climate crisis is intensifying rapidly; and many organizers who turned out the vote for Joe Biden in 2020 feel like Donald Trump’s defeat had limited impact as thousands of Haitians are being deported. Many of us are having trouble holding on to hope that things can be changed by fighting for the transformative social justice that we need.
But activists across a variety of movements — including abolitionist, feminist, labor and environmental organizing, as well as movements for justice for Black, Indigenous, queer and trans people — are adamant that giving up is not an option. That is because, as Water Protector Debra Topping put it, these long-term struggles are about “trying to live.” There is a lot at stake, but experienced organizers say there’s so much more to gain through collective action.
Topping (Nahgaajiiwanaang, Fond du Lac Reservation), is the cofounder of RISE Coalition and Nookomis Andoopowin (meaning “Grandma’s Table”) in northern Minnesota, where Anishinaabe people and their comrades have been actively resisting the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline for eight years. “I am in this battle to win it, for our future. It’s really just that simple,” Topping says. The pipeline’s route from the tar sands in Alberta to its terminus in Wisconsin crosses treaty territory, wild rice beds, and other land critical to the life ways of the people who have historically been its caretakers. “As Indigenous [people], this is all we have. So, the whole creation, our whole migration story, as to why we are here on the western shores of the Great Lakes, that’s just because of the Manoomin, or the wild rice.”
Line 3 began operations on October 1 and damage from the pipeline has already been reported, including at least 28 spills and a punctured aquifer that has not yet been repaired since it was discovered in January. But the opposition is undeterred: A large mobilization is occurring at the White House for October 11-15. For Topping, the struggle to stop Line 3 is one part of a larger, longer struggle, for water, for wild rice, for her grandchildren, for culture, for the land, and for life itself — that of her community but also that of all life.
Another activist, Vincent “Tank” Sherrill, a member of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC) says that “you’re not doing this work for yourself, you’re doing it for everyone.” The BPC is an organization led by and for people imprisoned in the Washington state prison system. Founded in 1972 in the midst of the Black power movement, the BPC emphasizes mutual respect, education, self-worth and unity. As a group, they have been able to work with outside organizers, advocates and politicians to push for changes inside prison, although Sherrill is careful to emphasize that abolition (and not reform) is the goal of his work. One part of the BPC’s educational program has become a separate nonprofit, University Beyond Bars, and the BPC’s Teaching Education and Creating History program has recently been featured in the documentary Since I Been Down. Sherrill says the group’s work has achieved a grudging respect from prison administrators, in part because the concrete practices of transformative justice in the BPC’s ongoing work have created peace and a reduction in violence. Talking about what keeps him going as a prison abolitionist and organizer inside the prison, he says, “The prison culture exists, we created another culture; we refused to actually give in to that negative culture. That alone is a fight worth fighting.”
The current moment might feel grim, but overall, these organizers have a positive view of their work and feel energized by it.
“What gives me hope is everything we’ve been up to,” says Miski Noor, co-executive director of Black Visions, an organization for Black queer and trans people and their families that strives to dismantle systems of violence and build up community connection to define safety together. Noor celebrates the citywide people’s assemblies that Black Visions has recently organized in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was part of the organizing around an important ballot measure, proposal 2, to amend the Minneapolis city charter. The amendment, backed by a broad coalition, would remove the minimum funding requirements for the Minneapolis Police Department, currently only under the control of the mayor, and replace it with a department of public safety, which would be under the control of the city council and mayor like other city departments, creating the possibility to shift some responsibilities and funding away from the police and toward alternatives.
Noor sees the amendment, along with these assemblies, as steps toward abolition, part of learning to imagine and create safe communities for ourselves, a process they say is long-term work: “This isn’t going to be over this election season, or the end of this year. It’s going to continue for a long time.” The assemblies are exciting for Noor because they “build our muscle of collective decision-making and therefore community governance … how to show up for each other, be more present in each other’s lives. That feels really inspiring and exciting.”
Organizers acknowledge that the fear, and the risks, are real as well. And fear can mean a lot of things — the fear of reprisal, or the fear that what we do will be pointless. Sometimes it’s hard to engage in activism because we’re afraid that what we’re up against is simply too big, or too powerful.
Roger Williams, a Midwestern labor organizer who asked to be identified by a pseudonym in order to preserve his ability to organize covertly, pointed out that when we keep things to ourselves, “fears kind of spiral and become far too acute or large in size to really be able to think about by yourself.” As a school paraeducator, Williams is working to build democratic union power centering the needs of workers, students and families in education to resolve such problems as chronic understaffing and poor teaching and learning conditions in schools. He says that when dealing with fear, “Being able to talk to other people really helps out for perspective. It also just gets things off your chest and makes it so you’re not the only one facing your fears and your problems, and, usually, other people you talk with have similar kinds of fears that you do. And that provides a certain amount of communion, potential for solidarity.”
This is true across a range of contexts. A few years ago, a friend and I asked prominent Honduran human rights and land defender Martín Fernández Guzmán how he copes with the constant surveillance, death threats and stalking from the Honduran government that he has endured as a result of his work. Fernández is the joint general coordinator and cofounder of the Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia, an organization in northern Honduras that is working to create grassroots alternatives to corruption and extractive development by providing legal, material and other organizing support to communities defending themselves against land concessions for dams, logging or other extractive industries. His answer to our question was simple but instructive, “We’ve learned not to let our fear inhabit us.”
All of these activists shared a common perspective: Persisting despite repression is a collective task, and something that we can learn and teach other.
The organizers Truthout interviewed confronted a range of risks. Xiaowen Liang of the Chinese feminist movement has had her social media account banned, and says that although she feels relatively safe because she lives in New York, she fears she may be denied reentry when she returns to China to visit her family. Liang described the difficulty of forming organizational ties of any kind, using as an example the supporters who tried to show a presence outside the court for the plaintiff in a recent high-profile sexual harassment case in China but were afraid to talk to each other if they didn’t know each other. Liang says that the Chinese government makes it so that people are “not allowed to care,” and describes regular harassment from the local Chinese police at activists’ workplaces and homes for speaking out on issues of sexual harassment or other issues she sees as related to basic fairness. Liang and other feminist organizers have also experienced intense cyberbullying related to their public statements.
Topping described feeling targeted by the everyday violence of heteropatriarchal white supremacy; she felt just being an Anishinaabe woman was a risk given the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in North America. She said she also feels there is “always that imminent danger for any Water Protectors.”
Noor too said they felt at risk in the world in general because of their identities. They described harassment and violence experienced by the police, whether being hit with projectiles at protests, or surveilled with stingray technology that intercepts all cell phone signals. Like Liang, Noor’s comrades have also been followed home by the police.
In Williams’s case, the hazards are more about being bullied by the principal or harassed until work becomes unbearable and people give up. Williams described a work environment where making demands beyond workers’ ability to organize and follow through — “going too far too fast” — could lead to being yelled at and demeaned regularly by the boss directly and indirectly, teachers or other workers who are friendly with the boss reporting on conversations, and an overall risk of sticking with a negative status quo.
The way that Sherrill described the risks of organizing inside the prison — a place where organizing is literally against the rules — is simultaneously an example strategy for handling these risks. He says that organizing presents “a risk of some privileges being taken from you, but that’s all they are.” Sherrill cultivates a perspective where he sees going to solitary confinement or transfer to another prison as a loss of privileges, and says, “If you’re conscious and you’re doing this work, you’re constantly preparing everybody. You’re preparing yourself for this, and at the same time, you’re preparing your loved ones for this. So they will know what to expect, when things happen, or don’t happen, inside prison.” Along the lines of what Fernández said, Sherrill understands and accepts the risks of the work he does, and keeps them in perspective in relationship to its benefits.
Other ways that people have coped with the risks, fear and challenges of movement work include allowing oneself to feel the feelings; not indulging too long alone in negativity; engaging in healthy personal practices like therapy; personal and collective study; feeding each other well; finding a confidante(s) who is going though similar things; and faith in the strength of one’s ancestors and the Creator. Everyone agreed resoundingly the best antidote to the risk of organizing is to talk to other people and to do something about it.
So why keep organizing if there are so many risks and there continue to be so many social injustices?
“I think I would be afraid anyways.… Cause either way, I will be targeted, marginalized, criminalized for my identities,” Noor said. “I would rather not be immobilized by that fear, and actually get with folks to change … the things that do harm me, hurt me, are violent towards me.”
Liang put it even more succinctly: “Because I realize there are still a lot of things I can do. Then why not? It’s not like there’s nothing I can do about it.”