What connects the recent movements that have shaken the foundations of US inequality? In her acclaimed book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, Sarah Jaffe introduces us to the people making trouble from Wisconsin to Ferguson, from Occupy Wall Street to Moral Mondays. Click here to order what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.”
Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble is one of the most essential books of the year — an extensive, vivid overview of “trouble-making” organizers and movements from the 2008 financial crisis until, if not quite today, then the moment the book went to press. Each chapter not only covers a movement or group of campaigns, but also provides a concise but nuanced historical summary of the issues at hand.
It’s a book that feels “necessary” indeed, almost overdue. Whether we realized it or not, we have been in need of a book that traces the connections between the Wisconsin Capitol occupation and the campaigns waged by Walmart and fast-food workers, that looks honestly at what the Tea Party has had both in common and in conflict with protesters at Occupy Wall Street and in Ferguson, and that gives due credit to Moral Mondays and Black Lives Matter.
And we have been in need of someone like Jaffe to do it, someone who understands intersectionality and class struggle, who resists simplistic narratives and avoids backseat organizing or condescending lectures about strategy, instead largely letting the people who made these movements happen tell their own stories. She spoke to Truthout about some of the issues raised in Necessary Trouble including racism, horizontalism, and why climate change is a class issue.
Joe Macaré: Necessary Trouble is in many ways an optimistic book, one that on the whole celebrates a range of movements and campaigns. Was that a conscious choice or did you just find more to uplift than to critique?
Sarah Jaffe: This is a book with an overarching argument about this historical moment more than a book meant to be a deep dive into any particular movement. If I had 100,000 words to delve into Occupy Wall Street or Moral Mondays or any one in particular I might have spent more time diving into critiques of particular aspects of each one, but that just wasn’t the book I was writing.
“Trying to understand why people feel a certain way isn’t trying to excuse them. It’s part of the job of journalism.”
I don’t think I’m uncritical or cheerleading in this book, yet I am optimistic. I remember the 1990s, the early 2000s, the things you just couldn’t say in polite company. The world is a different place now. Things are still hard, people are still struggling, but people are fighting and that is, as Jane McAlevey says, the best news I’ve had in a long, long time.
The Tea Party are a fascinating presence in your book: You treat their initial anger at the financial system in good faith, but you’re clear about the racism that quickly became prominent and how the politicians, who were elected in their name, acted. What can we learn from the Tea Party’s story?
There’s a tendency lately to treat racism as either/or, as something that only bad people are, rather than something that is a quality of the society we live in that none of us can escape. That doesn’t mean we can’t fight it, but it means that it’s something we all have to grapple with, not just the people who like Donald Trump.
So I think people can be racist and be advocating policies that I think are wrong and harmful and also be angry at many of the same things I’m angry at. We can never convince those people that progressive policies are better if all we do is wag our fingers piously and call them names. Trying to understand why people feel a certain way isn’t trying to excuse them. It’s part of the job of journalism.
The politicians who call themselves Tea Partiers are largely opportunists who saw a chance to hitch themselves to something that looked like a rising star. The wealthy ideologues who dump money into elections were doing that already and had been for decades. Your average Tea Party protester wasn’t calling for privatizing Social Security. Opportunist politicians and billionaires who claim to come bearing gifts aren’t just a problem on the Right, and I think the biggest lesson we can take from the Tea Party is to be wary of them.
You also show how white people’s reluctance to acknowledge racism as an issue has caused setbacks, from labor’s Operation Dixie to Oath Keeper groups that split over whether or not to show solidarity with Black protesters in Ferguson. What have been the hallmarks of movements and campaigns where solidarity across racial lines has been possible?
My favorite example is in Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, a book everyone should read about the Communist Party in Alabama during the Depression years. The Communist Party had a lot of problems in the US, but what it did in the South, particularly, was take the struggles of Black workers and Black sharecroppers as key to the class struggle it wanted to wage in the US. So the Communist Party in Alabama was made up of those workers, and they fought against lynching and police violence and false arrests alongside labor struggles for fair wages and equal treatment and inclusion for Black workers in unions. That wasn’t a sideline struggle, it was the struggle.
“If there isn’t just one leader, then it’s harder for things to fizzle if something happens to one person.”
I was saying that we tend to personalize racism. We think of racism as people who say racist things or join racist groups or show up at a Trump rally with a sign saying “Build the Wall.” We don’t think of racism as where houses are built, what kind of a mortgage you get and what kind of air you breathe. We spend a lot of time trying to cleanse ourselves from the original sin of racism rather than trying to come up with ways to fight to change the systems that maintain it.
You identify many of the movements in the book as having a “horizontal” structure, to one extent or another, almost to a defining extent. “Horizontalism” has not been without its critics, but what are the advantages it has given these movements?
Horizontalism, I think, in this moment, is a response to a deeply hierarchical society in which people feel taken advantage of by and failed by elites. Chris Hayes wrote about this period as the “Twilight of the Elites.” If our ideas about meritocracy are wrong, if the people in power have proven themselves catastrophically unworthy of that power — the financial crisis being the latest, biggest example — then maybe we need some new structures.
But it’s been hard to implement. In practice, a handful of people tend to get anointed leaders of the movement by the media, whether they in fact are or are just really good at getting themselves interviewed. Reporters tend to move in packs and so once one outlet calls someone a leader, everyone else will rush to follow — not even always in bad faith, but because they are busy and very few people get the luxury of being social movement beat reporters.
Consensus process, particularly 100 percent consensus, is unwieldy and most groups seem to have scrapped it after Occupy. Watching the different organizations of the Movement for Black Lives experiment with organizational forms is really fascinating, but I don’t know that anyone has “solved” the problems yet.
I think horizontalism and the viral character of these movements — their tendency to spread across the country and the world very quickly — go hand in hand. If you don’t have to wait for the leader to come to your city and start a protest, you can just plan one, call one and connect to people online to get them to turn out. If there isn’t just one leader, then it’s harder for things to fizzle if something happens to one person; which is a real concern, as we’re starting to see activists brought up on harsh charges and facing serious sentences.
“We don’t really know the shape of things while we’re in them.”
One movement that is less horizontal featured in a chapter of the book is Moral Mondays. What’s exciting and worth emulating about Moral Mondays?
As a feminist and someone who came of age politically in the 1990s — peak culture wars — I’m really fascinated by a movement calling itself “moral” that embraces queer and trans rights and abortion rights as issues. I also appreciate the southern-ness of Moral Mondays, since there’s an annoying tendency, particularly in the Northeast, to disparage the South and make jokes about letting it secede every time some reactionary policy happens in the South. Ignoring the reactionary policies being implemented in the North and West Coasts, of course.
Moral Mondays has been emulated not just in the South but in Illinois and New York, where people have felt a real connection to the idea that they can make demands that are not just based on the law or the constitution but based on a real idea of justice and right.
The question of whether — and how — to engage with electoral politics is one with which various movements in the book wrestle. What has the Bernie Sanders campaign shown about the opportunities and limits of movement engagement with elections?
It’s certainly the question on everyone’s mind these days, I think. I’m writing to you on the train to Seattle right now, so heading for Kshama Sawant country, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that her election has had an impact on that city.
“The struggle is long and hard and successes are signposts along the way.”
I grappled with the question of elections the most — really trying to answer it — in the chapter that groups the Wisconsin movement and the Chicago teachers together, because both of those had an unsuccessful move into electoral politics. I posited in that chapter that we would need to see candidates with more of a grounding in the movement in order to have movement electoral successes.
Since then, we’ve seen the #ByeAnita campaign in Chicago and the parallel campaign in Cleveland to get rid of Timothy McGinty, and both of these were basically run without endorsing their opponents, which is really interesting. The Teaching Assistants Association in Wisconsin tried to do the same — endorsing Scott Walker’s ouster without endorsing Tom Barrett, the Democrat running against him — with less luck.
As far as Sanders goes, in the last week I’ve had several conversations with people who are really grappling with where to go next after Bernie’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic nominee. There is no doubt that people were really drawn into something there that felt real and important and new to them, and I don’t think that energy just disappears. The question of where it goes is going to be one I’ll have my eye on for the next couple of years, for certain.
If electoral campaigns are not necessarily the end goal, are there better metrics to assess the success of movements? Is it turning out big crowds, passing legislation, providing direct aid to people, or something else?
“Success” is such an interesting question. Pretty much everyone, at the time I was pitching this book to publishers, thought that Occupy was a “failure.” By the same metric people think Bernie Sanders is a failure. I think both of those assumptions are wrong.
I think it was my friend Jesse Myerson who said a few years ago that we don’t call the Civil Rights movement the bus boycott movement. Montague Simmons of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis said “It’s not 1964, it’s 1954.” We don’t really know the shape of things while we’re in them. Writing this book gave me the opportunity at some points to reflect back a few years and in others, I really had to struggle to figure out a place to stop, a way to evaluate, because things were and are so very much in flux.
“The same wealthy class that exploits our labor and fraudulently forecloses on our homes has also destroyed the climate.”
But in terms of the demands of these movements, we really see what I think of as a range of demands, sometimes for one very particular immediate thing — vote out Anita Alvarez, fire Bill Bratton, raise the minimum wage to $15 — and then something medium-term — a union contract for fast-food workers, say, or closing a prison or a jail — and then the ultimate goal, something like abolishing police, abolishing capitalism. So do you evaluate the movement based on the immediate goal, the medium-term one, or are you totally disingenuous and do you say “Well Occupy didn’t create the revolution so it was garbage?” The struggle is long and hard and successes are signposts along the way, often toward an ultimate goal that I hear many people saying they know they won’t be around to see.
Right now we’re seeing the return of camps as a tactic, this time used by Black-led movements against police violence: Freedom Square in Chicago, Abolition Square in New York City, and the (recently evicted) #DecolonizeLACityHall. Why do you think tents have gone up again and what are the advantages of an “occupation”?
I just wrote a long piece about this so I’ll just say briefly that I think at a time when public space is more and more scarce, privatization reigns and social institutions like labor unions are in decline, the fact that people come together to hold a space to be political in public together is really meaningful. Like horizontalism, it seems to illustrate the desires that protesters have for a society that feels more equal and more connected.
The book points out several examples of how organizers identified connections between different issues and used those to bring in new people and find new targets for actions. Which connection of overlapping or intersecting issues do you think is most exciting and important right now?
I can’t say enough times that the Vision for Black Lives document is an amazing piece of work that everyone should read and engage with.
It almost feels like it misses the point to pick out a particular connection, because the point is that these things all overlap. But one of my favorite bits in the book is Mychal Johnson from South Bronx Unite, an environmental justice organization in New York, who notes that Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a police officer on Staten Island, grew up in a heavily polluted area and suffered from asthma. The South Bronx too has the highest asthma rates in the country and when fighting the location of yet another polluting business in their community, South Bronx Unite used the slogan #WeCantBreathe, citing Garner’s last words and noting that the people who are the first victims of environmental degradation are usually Black and Latinx people, in whose communities trash dumps and factories and hazardous waste are situated. Inequality, he said, is in the air we breathe. That same community flooded during Hurricane Sandy, with that polluted water flooding back onto their streets.
You describe climate change in the book as “the ultimate intersectional issue” — can you say a little about what that means?
When I proposed this book, climate change wasn’t a chapter. I realized very quickly that it needed to be and eventually I realized that it needed to go last, because it sums things up in a way. The same wealthy class that exploits our labor, sells us bad mortgages and fraudulently forecloses on our homes has also destroyed the climate. Those people are not going to be the ones who suffer the most for it, because they have the money to get out of the way of the disaster.
I went to college in New Orleans. I was gone by Hurricane Katrina and I remember watching it on TV and wondering what had happened to my neighbors and my friends — this was before you could mark yourself “safe” on Facebook — and remembering an old rumor that the city had rigged the levees to blow in the Lower Ninth Ward in the case of a storm like this one. Not true, but a fairly good metaphor for how things happened. The working-class Black people who mostly lived in that neighborhood were the ones who suffered the most. An unequal society will not deal with tragedies and crises equally, so to fight climate catastrophe we need to change the relations of power that we live under.