I spent the weekend in Washington, D.C. with hundreds of thousands of friends, family and comrades. We weren’t there to celebrate the inauguration of the 45 President of the United States; instead, we were there to kick off four years of righteous defiance and resistance. Friday saw angry and militant protests in D.C., where protesters were tear gassed and arrested en masse by capitol police. Saturday saw half a million or more attend the Women’s March on Washington and millions more marching across the United States and around the world. Both were inspiring shows of different kinds of force, but the resistance to Donald Trump’s administration faces a few key orders of business if it is to become a powerful movement of dissent. In this piece, I hope to briefly outline the tasks before us and humbly suggest how we might best respond to them.
1. The trap of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The size of the Women’s Marches across the United States and beyond was staggering. The march on Washington was three times the size of the Inaugural crowd. Between 10 and 25 thousand marched in Charlotte, over 250,000 in Chicago and upwards of 750,000 in Los Angeles. Trump’s approval ratings are low, at 37 percent on Inauguration Day itself. Not only is his approval low, but the active disapproval and outright contempt directed towards him is unprecedented. This has been read by some as a sign of a reawakened Democratic giant. That’s dangerous. As unpopular as Trump was, even during his campaign, the Democrats still lost on election day. They nominated Clinton, making the two candidates the two least popular in US history. Channeling this kind of energy into the Democrats is what they want, but a terrible strategy for the rest of us. The Democratic Party, the party of “America is already great,” is no acceptable counter to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” If we’re serious about women’s rights, the movement for Black lives, and movements for LGBT liberation and environmental protection, then our aim lies neither in America’s past nor its present. The Democrats are not an answer to Trump–they are another wing of the capitalist state he now leads. They are not an alternative; the Clinton and Obama administrations have been major proponents of the processes of neoliberalism that created Trump’s movement and base. The Democrats want to remain relevant, but their establishment, capitalist politics can only feed into Trump’s racist, nativist capitalism.
2. The trap of self-imposed counter-culturalism and anti-politics. For a long time, the left was hunted in this country. McCarthyism and the targeting of the Black Panther Party in particular illustrate this historical trend. When the left has grown strong, the American state has worked swiftly to suppress it. It is out of this legacy and out of a need to preserve the self that another unfortunate tendency has emerged. Quite apart from the previous trap of the Democratic Party, this self-imposed counter-culturalism is resists organization altogether. It that resists the dirty work of coalition-building. This politics bases its identity on its marginal social position rather than on resisting models of exploitation like racism, sexism and capitalism. Pettiness replaces solidarity and gets called radicalism; individual identity replaces collective revolution. In its embrace of individuality, it is another wing of liberalism, not the same as but also not divorced from the liberalism upholding the Democratic Party. One particular manifestation of this tendency was a viral photo taken from the Women’s March on Washington, in which a sign read: “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump.” The sign isn’t wrong–53 percent of white women who voted voted for Trump. And the poster brings up important questions about who has been contributing to the work of resistance, long before November’s election. This kind of criticism is absolutely crucial to our movements, but criticism must orient itself towards an end of liberation. Ultimately, that kind of petty politics on its own is no problem, and even potentially beneficial, allowing people who have been marginalized to heal on their own terms in their own way. While we cannot tell someone how to heal, and have no right to police emotional responses, we must nevertheless recognize that from the perspective strategy, such tactics are no substitute for organizing. Petty politics become anti-politics, and ultimately neoliberal, when they effectively encourage demobilization and moralizing indictments of demographics. It looks like radicalism, but it actually consists of guilt, shame, essentialism, and an active effort to resist solidarity. For many, the Women’s March was their first protest. If the resistance wants to succeed, it should not close its doors to those folks but work to bring them in. As Malcolm X put it, “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
3. The trap of marching. If a march is a photo opportunity that has a start and an end and isn’t carried back into our communities to organize and mobilize power, then it is doomed from the start. Movements aren’t about creating dialogue, they are about political power and an over-emphasis on marching replaces power with idealistic notions of “visibility” and “appeal.” Marching as an only tactic is a surefire way to fail, because it doesn’t in-and-of-itself challenge the status quo. When protests become parades, they lose the combativeness necessary to create real social and political change. During the Charlotte uprising, for example, after three nights of tumultuous protests, police backed off and allowed marches to proceed, because they wanted people to march. Marching could be contained, directed, and pacified. To win, we will need a diversity of tactics, not just triumphant marches that prioritize spectacle over movement. We need the Women’s March and the more radical, passionate protests of the day before.
4. The trap of not marching. I have been particularly susceptible to this final trap in recent months and it is something I’m challenging myself on. Marching takes a lot of energy—more emotional than physical—for little or no return. And yet the massive numbers in D.C. and everywhere else reminded us that “we are many, they are few.” When we take to the streets, we can close their shops, obstruct their traffic, and control space. I was first brought into politics during the 2011 Arab Spring, witnessing from afar the power of protesters in North Africa and the Middle East. There is power in protest, especially in mass mobilization that has the ability to paralyze streets and cities. Marches and mobilizations are not the totality of revolution, but they are a tool that should not be dismissed. Yesterday, at the very least, cut through some of the paralyzing feeling of isolation many had felt since the election. It furthermore humiliated the Trump administration, with his new Press Secretary taking the podium to downplay the size of the Women’s March and inflate the turnout to his Inauguration. Millions protesting across the United States didn’t topple Trump, but it did produce real results, if marginal. And they are a glimpse of what we can do when we continue to grow and continue to develop a political program based around an incisive critique of capitalism and its functionaries: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigrant Nativism, anti-Native settler-colonialism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.
A Facebook friend of mine posted on Saturday that “Today’s actions, today’s numbers, were monumental. If the movement isn’t radical enough for you, then get out there and radicalize it! If it isn’t organized enough for you, then get out there and organize it! Pooh poohing this level of popular participation doesn’t serve the goals you’re trying to accomplish in the slightest.” Let’s radicalize the liberals and organize the radicals. When we integrate the broad appeal and mass scale of the Women’s March with the ferocity and militancy of the anti-Inauguration demonstrations, we will have the power to defeat both Trump’s right-wing agenda and the capitalist order that created him.