Notes on (the New) Activism

The election of Donald Trump has spurred a number of protests, some of them very large, in cities across the United States. Many of the people venting their frustration are participating in protests for the first time. A whole section of the US population has almost overnight discovered that it wants to be political. In protests, on social media and in conversations, it is clear that the liberal white middle class is prepared to mobilize politically, for the first time, really, since the antiwar movement fizzled out under the Nixon administration.

Mixed in with the voicing of anger and shock are important calls for organization so that this new energy can be effectively focused into a political opposition to Trumpism. This call to organized mobilization is even more important, because the American white middle class generally lacks the political skills and knowledge that are necessary for effective and sustainable organization. This is not condemning; it is a starting point. A culture of politics, activism and protest could not survive the general dormancy of the last 40 years, made worse by the isolation that has grown in neighborhoods and workplaces.

Still, many newly active people are recognizing their unpreparedness for effective activism. Many are asking, “Where do we start?”

During the last several decades, there are people who have had to remain active and knowledgeable. People of color, LGBT people, women, immigrants and some workers who have contested their exclusion in a number of ways are a resource of political knowledge and skills that is immediately necessary for today’s circumstances. Rather than reaching out with compassion — which can be supercilious — recently alienated white liberals can make themselves willing apprentices of politics and activism. This requires openness and humility.

These resources are not limited to here and now. Struggles learn from each other. Learning why and how people have mobilized will make creating an important movement for now more likely. Labor movements, movements for women’s suffrage, the movement for abolition of slavery, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party are a few examples. The movement for gay rights, the Arab Spring, the anti-apartheid struggle and the ongoing struggles for land and dignity throughout the Global South are a few more. In every case, there are complexities and contradictions. Out of complexity and contradiction, however, clear political positions were and are articulated that are valuable here and now. People made (and continue to make) important innovations and important mistakes that are relevant to anyone engaging in activism.

Encountering these innovations and mistakes in the work of other movements is not a purely intellectual chore. While actual participation is the most important route to learning, understanding how people have mobilized politically and worked collectively in other instances and making connections to one’s own circumstances can contribute to effective organizing for both political and practical goals. Thinking through these connections together is crucial.

Yet knowing about other struggles is not enough. Already it opens up a division and potential pitfall: those who “know” and those who do not. Participating in such divisions, with their potential for marginalization, weaken movements and cannot counter exclusions in wider society.

As cabinet appointments make it increasingly clear that white supremacy is being rewarded for its support of Trump, the need to contest white supremacy is clearer, as well. There is one pitfall in particular that the newly active white middle class must work very carefully against. This is the reinforcing of white supremacy in a movement opposed to white supremacy.

Consider the recent safety pin debates on social media. Of course, no demographic group is politically homogenous, but there are numerous arguments from people of color, in particular, that the safety pin gesture by white people is self-serving, ineffective and potentially belittling of their ongoing exclusion. In response, safety pin proponents often assert something like, “But this is so marginalized people can identify an ally.” In effect this states, “No, but this is for you.” An observer could ask why the allies do not believe the arguments from those they are purporting to defend.

The form of this debate could apply to more important subjects than safety pins. Marginalizing in activism the structurally marginalized people of our society will not make change. It ensures their marginalization. We can assert the right of any active participant to disagree with their comrades while also acknowledging that the safety-pin argument, “No, but this is for you,” cannot create the politics for ending white supremacy.

This is not to say that white people cannot be important organizers, strategists or communicators, or that they should not participate. Still, we have all heard the complaints against affirmative action, including by white liberals, which deny the value and abilities of people of color. It is common in the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for white and privileged people to dictate the purpose and methods of struggle to people of color and poor people. This has no place in activism. Neither does the tendency to equate technical skills and solutions with political skills and solutions.

New activists will learn that personal power struggles are part of the world of political movements and activism. Among other things, these power struggles can be inflected with white supremacy. White supremacy can also work through, for instance, liberalism, feminism and Marxism. These ideologies and critiques will never take the place of actually democratic politics and practices. Ways of thinking and operating, similar to white supremacy, that support patriarchy, homophobia, classism and xenophobia can also work through so-called “progressive politics.”

Politicization occurs awkwardly, sometimes painfully. It is, in some ways, akin to a stereotypical adolescence. The work of achieving political maturity together is especially hard. It becomes harder as stress, stakes and danger increase. Learning involves encountering and carrying on through discomfort, stress, error, disagreement, disappointment, idleness, critique and attack, confusion, compromise, defeat, betrayal, fear and sabotage. These political obstacles affect, in some way, every movement, everywhere. Organizing is about managing disunity. Unity is never stable. Answers do not come from op-eds, but from face-to-face interactions.

At the same time, activism can build trust, break barriers, create purpose, enliven community and camaraderie, and can even make change. It also teaches the skills and knowledge to do those things, so this is no endorsement of staying home until someone gets it right. We need activism right now, and people committed to effective political organization. For many, this first means learning.