Some Notes on Resistance
This really happened.
Three days ago, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Within hours, he delivered an ominous, nationalist speech and presided over a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue; signed a vague Executive Order to reduce the costs of the Obamacare to insurance and drug companies; and removed all references from the White House web page about health care, LGBT equality and civil rights. The next day, in response, almost three million people across the globe — half a million of them descending upon Washington D.C. — demonstrated for women’s freedom, self-determination and human rights. Among the largest protests in US history, long time feminist activists and women new to organizing and street protest unleashed their voices and power in a collective vow to resist.
But today is Monday. Many of us are putting away our pink pussyhats, wondering what we can do to prevent settling back into business as usual. We’re not willing to accept a worldview based on the “alternative facts” provided by a Trump White House, but are not sure what form resistance should take next. Groups like Indivisible are providing clear guidance for grassroots political action. But three million people didn’t take to the streets simply because of the flaws in our electoral politics. Deep in our guts, we know that the very notion of democracy is what is at risk.
Friends, if we want to be part of planning our shared future, we are going to need some new rules for the road as we move into 2017. Here are a few assumptions I think we can make about that terrain. And I have a few ideas about how to navigate it
Since 11/9, when the election results were announced, our political terrain has shifted dramatically, I believe both the meaning and the function of government has changed. As I think about how to move forward in the months ahead, here some of my operating assumptions about our government.
- The time for protest is over. Millions of women in the streets remind us that protest speaks truth to power through arousing anxiety about governmental legitimacy. But we no longer have a President, a Congress, and (in some places) no state legislature that is willing to respond to the ways that progressive, feminist Americans think and organize. It does not matter to them if we are one of 500 or 500,000 voices raised in protest against their actions, or whether our cause is morally or politically righteous. Their power to govern does not reside in our consent as the governed. This does not mean that we should not resist. But it does mean the time has come to shift to forms of resistance that are not only public protest. I’ll come back to this idea of non-protest resistance in a moment. But protest — publicly objecting — is not likely to be effective in shaping the way political power will be used by our government.
- Our government is being intentionally dismantled . The President-Elect’s Cabinet appointments — someone who does not believe in Civil Rights to head the Department of Justice, someone who doesn’t know what the Department of Energy does to lead it, an opponent of employment laws as the Secretary of Labor, &tc. — point to something more than liberal versus conservative political regime change. These choices illustrate a plan to dismantle the scope and structure of the Executive Office. One of Trump’s key strategic advisers is Steven Bannon, whose career accomplishment is motivating and providing channels for white supremacist and anti-immigrant hate speech. Bannon describes himself as a “Leninist” because, in his own words, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This means that the most powerful places for social and political change to take place may no longer be through government institutions.
- Republicans are creating a one-party state. The President-elect has been explicit that he holds no loyalty to the Republican Party or its positions, however he is uninterested in fettering their political or social agenda. Into that leadership vacuum have stepped new forces. Nominally gathering under the Republican “Big Tent.” these are neither politically experienced social conservatives nor novice Tea Party members elected by the evangelical vote. These new actors are creating a one-party system by eliminating the ability of democratically elected members of other parties from fulfilling the roles to which they were elected. They have been experimenting with this at the state and local level for the past decade. The appointment of city mangers in Lansing, Flint and Detroit were early experiments eliminating the power of democratically elected candidates by removing the powers of their office. When North Carolinians elected a democratic Governor, the Republican statehouse passed laws to reduce the powers of the office of Governor. This ensures that only one party would control all of government, no matter what the electorate voted. The Constitutionally designed system of checks and balances — a balance of powers between the legislature, the judiciary and the President or Governor to guard against tyranny — seems to be coming to an end.
- This new form of government will be maintained through private citizen violence. Trump’s admiration for Pyongyang style military display notwithstanding, I’m not yet clear about when and how this new form of government will use state violence against its own people. However, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of physical attacks against target groups by non-governmental citizen violence. These include anti-Jewish graffiti, physically violent attacks on gay men, and attacks on Muslim women. These acts have been committed by Americans who explicitly stated their belief that the election of Donald Trump authorized their violence. This belief emerges from candidate Trump’s violent language during his campaign rallies, including encouraging participants to use violence against blacks, Latinos and women in attendance at those rallies. Harkening to Trump’s invocation of the era of lynch mobs, hundreds of acts of violence and hate speech, including threats of murder, leave religious and racial minority communities terrorized. This means the people who will use violence to enforce misogyny, racism and xenophobic nationalism will be harder to identify than police offices or military forces. It will be harder to predict when they will strike and who they will target. And they will not be made vulnerable by simply unmasking them.
If this is our current situation, then what does resistance mean?
It is hard to resist a thing for which we do not yet have language. I am not certain what to call this new group of tyrants who use Donald Trump’s bluster as a diversion while consolidating absolute power for themselves. I don’t yet know how to name the thematic, inchoate violence against Muslims and queer people and withdrawing the temporary privilege of whiteness from Jews. Yet I believe it is important to resist this pattern, even as it is not fully emerged. It is important to resist every where we can, using whatever means we can. As a queer black woman in her fifth decade, I know some practices about what resistance can look like. Here are mine: please take them, reuse them, and share your own.
- Talk back to your TV (and other media). You know how you can’t take black folks to the movies without us talking back to the screen? That’s actually a cultural resistance practice. We learned how to allow what was being said about us in the culture that wanted to contain and subordinate us to come into our living rooms; at the same time we consistently refused to believe what they were telling us about who we were. We did this by talking back, out loud. Refusing to believe “alternative facts” by talking back out loud made us adept at naming and analyzing what was happening to us in the moment, without long reflection or academic permission. Practicing talking back is how we will find the language to describe that which we must resist, in words defined on our own terms.
- Practice democracy locally so we don’t forget what it is. I don’t mean just voting or running for office, Whenever you are in a group making a decision, make the rules explicit so we all can play. This is what democracy looks like. Go to your town meeting, City Council hearing, condo association and see what it feels like to be part of making decisions that affect all of us, together. Remember that we learn the basics of democracy by the time we are six: the idea of everyone having a vote, of majority rule, of choosing the person we want to lead us or speak for us as a group, these are the rules of the playground. If we fail to practice the messy, trying basics of governing ourselves in everyday life, it will take only six years for our children to forget how this “self rule” thing was ever done.
- Be an Underground Railroad. That means becoming willing to harbor fugitives and using what we have to make that possible. You might need to harbor fugitive people seeking respite or freedom from persecution. You may be called upon to harbor fugitive information about how to provide a safe abortion if health care becomes inaccessible or illegal. Connecting to others in a resilient network that transmits information, know-how and work that is real builds community and trust, those atoms of democratic liberty.To be part of this web of connection gives us a glimpse into a future where our kinship with the folks who are most distant and most different from us feels necessary to our own creativity and survival.
- Be a maker. Learn what you can make or fix with your own hands. Do this for two reasons. The first is because nationalist isolationism breeds economic recession and shortages of consumer goods, so your know-how might come in handy. The second and more important reason is that we best understand democratic notions like participation, the public commons, reciprocity, and interdependence when we know them in material ways. Making things requires us to learn about the strength of our individual capacity and also what we cannot do alone. Making things requires engagement that’s more sustained than a computer petition click. So make a blouse or a dinner party or an old computer work again, learn to mend a bike. Then work with your neighbors to make a salt bucket for the icy part of your street, or an alternative way to solve neighborly disputes. Try on some democracy made by hand.
These may not be the forms of resistance that first come to your mind. And they do not exclude other kinds of political engagement, like these 10 actions during the first 100 days of the Trump residency in the White House. But this I believe: we must practice naming what is happening to us for ourselves, and talk back about what we want instead. That self-governance is not an abstract value, it is an action that requires discipline and practice. That we resist every time we practice democracy, even in the humblest of places and simplest ways. We resist when we re-member the practices of freedom, even if we must rebuild them, re-craft them, knit them together from anger and memory, or pass them on in secret from hand to hand.