Disjointed, despairing, determined, devoted

IssueDecember 2016 - January 2017
Feature by PN


Thousands of people protested in central Chicago for over eight hours on 9 November after Donald Trump was elected US president. Five people were arrested, two for obstructing traffic, according to the Chicago Tribune. The crowd gathered first outside Trump Tower Chicago, a 98-story luxury hotel and apartment block, owned by Trump. Slogans included: ‘No Trump! No KKK! No racist USA.’ Protests continued in the city for four consecutive days. PHOTO: Albertoaldana [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Following the US presidential election on 8 November, PN asked some US activists for their reactions to the victory of Donald Trump.

ImageDiana González, Vermont state representative (in the Vermont house of representatives):

Reflecting on the US national elections is difficult. In attempting to reflect on the situation I keep writing disjointed thoughts and sentences, similar to the way the past week has been. There are so many articles and reflections on why Trump won that it is already tiresome. And yet, reflecting makes it possible to move forward.

Last week Wednesday, 9 November, I woke up at 4am to my partner sitting up in bed. My head felt filled with cotton balls. I asked: ‘Did he win?’ My partner whispered: ‘Yes.’ We then held each other in silence.

Almost half of all eligible voters were either disenfranchised because of voter suppression tactics or believed they don’t matter in the elite system of politics. Trump tapped into fear, disconnection, and economic despair so intensely that people who voted for him either overlooked his incitement of violence or believed violence will solve despair.

And we have seen interpersonal street and school violence increasing in the past week. This violence is not simply being revealed, but is being created and cultivated through this election. And just as it is manufactured, it can be dismantled.

This weekend I decided to offer a workshop on nonviolent intervention, and within 12 hours there was double the capacity signed up, multiple organisations asked me if I could offer a workshop for them, and friends in multiple states reached out so they could also provide a workshop in their area.

My communities are scrambling to get paperwork in order, plan for loss of legal rights, and figure out how to mourn. We are also trying to re-build connections and fight.

As people all over the world reading this newsletter you may be wondering what you can do. As I grapple with what to do in my own communities, I encourage you to grapple with what to do in yours. We need to build communities of political action and connection.

Feeling like we matter on the small level makes it possible to feel like we matter on the large level.

Protesters from ‘United We Dream’, the largest immigrant youth-led organisation in the US, chanted ‘Undocumented and unafraid’ as they marched near the White House in Washington DC as part of an anti-Trump demonstration on 10 November, after the US presidential election was declared. PHOTO: Jesusemen Oni/VOA via Wikimedia Commons

ImageErika Thorne, Training for Change, Minneapolis, Minnesota:

Stubbornly, I didn’t expect it. Like Brexit. Like the Colombian Peace Accords being voted down. (‘[My] country handed to the ultra-right,’ as Andrea Parra, Colombian human rights lawyer, put it.)

Rage at the twin toxins of the campaign: white supremacy and misogyny (hatred and attempted destruction of female essence, in any gendered identity and in nature).

Terror that every child and young adult of color faces even more threats, taunts, beatings, deportation, murder at school and in public.

Terror that every girl and young womon faces even more threats, taunts, sexual assault, violence, murder at school, in public, at home.

Terror that every trans youth faces even more threats, violence, murder, suicide at school, in public, at home.

Disturbed sleep, night after night. Scary dreams. Pay attention to my disrupted gut, heart, body, spirit. Pay attention. This foment will eventually source my strategic actions.

Need my friends, colleagues, multi-racial, gender-queer communities more than ever. Sometimes I haven’t known how crucial they are to my survival. Today I know it.

Hope & direction from Standing Rock Water Protectors; Movement for Black Lives platform; a George Lakey article on Waging Nonviolence; strategic thinking by KMOJ commentators (a Black community radio station in Minneapolis); fielding a rush of calls for training from white activists waking up, committing to our work of taking responsibility for white supremacy and shifting white people; challenging cisgendered men to do the same; activists and officials at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco saying: ‘We understand the difference between the American people and their government – US will be cut off as we organise in the rest of the world until US government is ready to come to the table.’

Climate solutions are already led from outside the US, by people of colour – the global majority.

Commitment to build class-crossing coalitions, keep supporting people of colour-led movements & multi-racial coalitions, keep organising white resistance & solidarity, refuse my imperialist belief that the US is the centre. Instead, keep centring people of colour, wimmin, the global majority.

Finally, to share in the care of all of us and all of nature.

ImageAba Taylor, executive director, Winchester Multicultural Network, Winchester, Massachussetts:

I spent the night in shock and terror, responding to and juggling text messages between family, friends and colleagues who were like me, watching the election outcome unfurl, like witnessing a horrible train crash in slow motion for hours on end. I had to get on a plane the next day for a national racial justice conference and I was devastated to be away from my daughter, as I wanted to do nothing but hold her close to my chest in what felt like a national crisis.

Fifteen years ago I stood on the rooftop of my Brooklyn apartment and watched the twin towers fall. The way I felt last Wednesday morning after the election was like watching the pillars of what I thought was this American society collapse. All I could think about was how much I wanted to protect my daughter and millions of other children and people of colour.

I know that many people who voted for Donald Trump had varying reasons for electing him, even if they claim not to endorse some of his more reprehensible rhetoric. Last week, I believe it was Linda Sarsour [Palestinian-American and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York] who urged that liberals should not subscribe to part-time progressivism – in which one supports this cause or these people, but NOT those other people.

In the same way, it is beyond me how 60 million people – minus the overt racists who now call themselves white nationalists (an ironic sense of ‘nationalism’ when you have folks at Standing Rock literally standing up for and protecting the very terrain of this country) – of Trump supporters who can validate their decision to support a blatent symbol of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, white-collar fascism, by compartmentalising the things they agree with Trump on, versus the things they don’t explicitly or publicly agree to endorse. If Hitler himself positioned his words and actions as undermining a problematic system, would that make the Holocaust OK?

Hearts are broken and yet the communities I’m most personally and politically connected to, immigrants, undocumented folks, people of colour, queer and trans* people, working class, Muslims, feminists of colour, cultural workers, are so resilient, and ready to face reality and continue working to rise above the systemic oppression that we have already been fighting for generations.

We will continue our struggle against state-sanctioned violence, discrimination and inequity. The country’s selection of Trump as a leader is indeed an upset, but it’s not new news, just more information. We understand that now more than ever the fight for social justice is about overcoming our fears and divisions, bridging communities and struggles, and effecting real change, real equity.

ImageCathy Breen, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, New York City, New York state:

Thank you for asking me to write something about the election. Honestly, I hardly have the stomach for it. I believe the last year-and-a-half of campaign media attention has taken a heavy toll on us as a country. We have been subject to relentless bickering, viciousness and hate. There has been no escaping it. It felt like one long horrific nightmare that one couldn’t wake up from.

With the arrival of Wednesday morning’s official election results, it seemed like a gloom descended on us in New York City. Many were stunned, speechless, as was I. The unimaginable had happened. I heard from one of the young volunteers who comes to us here at Maryhouse that people were crying on the subway. Other people around the country were jubilant at the results. If nothing else, the campaign and election results showed us how deeply divided we are in the US. I was disturbed how debates were framed by the mainstream media. There was no mention of alternative parties being considered. It became an issue of voting for the lesser of two evils.

Had Clinton taken the election, I feel it would have been the status quo for us in this country. Just more of the same. With Trump at the helm, however, it seems we are in for a revolution when he begins to initiate his campaign promises. Ten thousand people marched yesterday, Sunday, in the streets of NY City. People are frightened and the media seem to delight in capitalising on this fact. Some have likened it to a reality show.

When I think of our children, when I think of the rest of the world watching this debacle month after month, how can one not be heartsick? We want them to be exposed to goodness, kindness, integrity, honesty, authenticity and goodwill. We want them to grow in moral character, in trust and in faith. The complete opposite of what they have been bombarded with for months on end.

Do you remember the documentary series A Force More Powerful that came out some years back? This two-part documentary demonstrated how nonviolent movements have brought unprecedented change, from the lunch-counter sit-ins in the US to Gandhi’s strategy of non-co-operation with British rule. For years I have asked myself what needs to happen in the US in order for us to unite as a country to bring revolutionary change? Maybe it is exactly a collapse of empire that might now be underway. How can we be forces of needed change, but of nonviolent change?

ImageKathy Kelly, Voices for Creative Non-Violence, Chicago, Illinois:

During the long and enervating campaign season, I sensed, with foreboding, that aspects of Trump culture would persist no matter who entered the oval office. Trumpism, to me, encompasses reckless negligence regarding climate change and global warming; willingness to torture people; unpredictable, inconsistent views about foreign policy; further entrenchment of the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex; a readiness to dismantle Obamacare; contempt for Muslims; and a xenophobic attitude about building walls to exclude new immigrants.

Now, however, with Trumpism set to exercise control over the legislative, judicial and executive branches of US government, I am frightened to recognise that the US, ruled by autocracy, could be nearing fascism.

I’ve looked at my own housemates and realised that each one has reason to feel anxious, very anxious, about what seems like a perfect storm looming in the near future. Then I learned that a close friend, peace activist Medea Benjamin, became a victim of a hate crime the night before, in Fresno, California. While Medea made a presentation at a local mosque, talking about her book which details abuses by the Saudi government, vandals broke into five cars in the parking lot, shattering all the windows and stealing all of Medea’s books and belongings that were in one of the cars.

Surely our first concern must be for our endangered planet, but just as surely, I worry for personal friends who could very likely find their lives altered by harassment and persecution.

For decades, I have lived in community with gay people, new immigrants, people seeking asylum, people struggling with mental illness, and people scarred by the US prison system and various wars. How will we realistically protect one another during Trump’s administration? How will those already struggling with illness and despair, often because of income inequality, cope with even more discrimination against impoverished people?

Yet we must maintain hope and strengthen our resolve to work together for a world of justice and peace. I feel stirred every time I imagine the sacred water protectors determined to maintain their encampment at Standing Rock, infused by love for the environment and a dignified insistence on their right to create a prayerful presence. And I’m grateful for my young friends in Afghanistan who have shown solidarity with the water protectors standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The future is impossible to forecast. But I believe the warning signs will move people to energetically resist compromise with Trump’s outrageous campaign promises. I hope such resistance can be fostered, even more widely than it now exists, through regular planning meetings, both local and regional. We must continue resisting environmental degradation, war, torture of prisoners, and cruel income inequities. It’s likely that many people will be surprised by how much meaning and purpose they find if they are newcomers or returnees to communities of active involvement.

Entrenched institutions such as the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex and the subservient mainstream media institutions have tentacles deeply embedded in US civil society.

Our society is like a train hurtling toward an abyss. We simply can’t expect leaders that have already made compromises with militarists and greedy corporate elites to stop the train, help people disembark and then pull up the tracks. We must continually build alternative institutions that help us live simply; share resources radically, prefer service to dominance and uncompromisingly protect all living beings.

Betsy Leondar-Wright, Class Action, Boston, Massachussetts:

I’m so devastated by the election outcome that I’m having trouble doing my everyday work.

Throughout US history, we’ve had waves of rightwing populism, when people bought into explanations of their economic hardships that scapegoat other marginalised groups and reject traditional elites. This election was a rightwing populist upsurge that few of us saw coming. We underestimated the number of voters willing to accept racism, sexism, Islamophobia and immigrant-bashing in a candidate.

But we also saw a surge of progressive populism – the kind that criticises economic systems and the rich – in the strong showing for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the popularity of senator Elizabeth Warren. And that can be our source of hope now, that the progressive populists could organise social movements and take over the Democratic Party.

The mainstream Democratic Party used to have more progressive populism in its platform, its rhetoric and its political actions, from the 1930s through the ’70s. But I’m one of many leftists who started criticising the party in the ’90s for its turn to the right, for ignoring working-class and poor people harmed by deindustrialisation and making trade deals like NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement, came into effect 1994] and the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership, not yet in force]. In particular, the national Democrats ignored white working-class men, the only race/class/gender cluster who actually has lower income today than their fathers and grandfathers.

Democratic leaders didn’t treat falling wages and unemployment as true crises. After the crash they accepted the bailout of ‘too big to fail’ banks and they didn’t push enough for a bailout for foreclosed homeowners. Gradually over the last 30 years the Democratic Party began to get more of its campaign funding from Wall Street, big corporations and wealthy individuals, and began to operate under the delusion that a coalition of well-off coastal liberals and urban people of colour could swing national elections – which clearly isn’t always true. They took union support for granted, not realising that the rank-and-file don’t necessarily vote with the leaders.

Many Democratic leaders also fell into the cultural classism that some of us coastal liberals fall into, of regarding the Midwest as a flyover zone full of gun owners or Christian fundamentalists who are too stupid to have a reasoned political conversation with. It’s important to remember that Donald Trump won the majority of votes from college-educated and high-income whites as well, so we need to be on the alert for classist demonising of white working-class people. This is a white rightwing populist uprising that cuts across classes.

Those of us who didn’t see this coming need to ask ourselves whose voices we hear on a regular basis, why more of the voices of the disaffected rural and Rust Belt white people weren’t on our radio programs, in our newspapers, on our Facebook feeds – and in our personal circles. We didn’t hear them.

We need to stop huddling in our liberal echo chamber talking about how ‘they’ got it wrong and we are right about everything.

Instead, we reach out and build ties of solidarity, both personally and politically: ties with people already being targeted by street harassment from emboldened bullies who are spray-painting racist slurs and yanking off head scarves; ties with those who may be politically targeted for deportation, stripped of union rights, health coverage, abortion rights, religious freedom and affirmative action.

But we also need to reach out and build personal and political ties with those Trump voters who aren’t committed haters, but whose economic woes and worries we can empathise with. Our first Unitarian Universalist (UU) principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hardest to put into practice with people we have profound disagreements with. We may need to put aside disagreements over gun ownership and find common ground in preventing Wall Street and multinational corporations from taking over our democracy and our economy.

It will take a mass progressive movement to turn our country in a healthier direction. Only a multiracial and cross-class mass movement can limit how much damage the Republican Senate, House and president can do in these coming years. A mass movement could light a fire under the Democratic party to nominate progressive populists like Bernie Sanders and senator Elizabeth Warren. We need a responsive party that is loudly pro-labour, that pushes for full employment policy, that will be firmly anti-sexist and anti-racist, that will tell the truth about how crucial immigrants are to economic growth, and that will treat income inequality as a national crisis. The movement and the party I’m imagining would put forward a progressive populist message that will make sense to economically struggling people of all races and regions.

It’s too early to know what effective resistance will be organised to stop the rightward lurch of our country, but when it happens, when you get invitations to join organisations, to boycott, to go to protests and to speak up, please say yes. All of us will need to say yes, say yes, and say yes again.

This is drawn from remarks Betsy Leondar-Wright made at First Parish UU Church of Arlington, Massachusetts on 13 November.
www.classism.org. www.uuclassconversations.org

Topics: Activism