WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE FEELING THAT WE’RE NOT DOING ENOUGH?

June 14, 2018

This was a headline in my Facebook newsfeed this morning.

What’s Going on at the Border is Numbing, but Going Numb is a Luxury We Can’t Afford — Dahlia Lithwick, Slate

A crying Honduran toddler is sandwiched between her mother and a large white border patrol vehicle. Her mother is being searched with her hands against the vehicle, her arms stretched stiffly above her daughter. The gloved hands of a border patrol agent appear to be pinching the waist of the mother. Mother and child can’t touch each other. The mother’s body frames the child, but can’t offer any comfort.

History has shown us that we must stop fascism before it consolidates. We are straining against two windows — the window of the “Reichstag Fire,” when the regime can bring the hammer down on dissent, and the window of normalization when people simply start to accept the horrors going on around them. Right now it looks like the second window is closing first. As long as this regime stays in power, both of those windows are inching and in danger of slamming shut.

*

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, when I was still hoping this was a nightmare I could wake up from, I read a statement from Refuse Fascism that changed my thinking about what this election was about, and what my life would have to be about under this new reality. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence have assembled a vicious cabal that has put forth positions and begun initiatives which demonstrate they fully intend to shred political and social norms with catastrophic consequences … There is a method to Trump’s madness that echoes Hitler. Fascism advances in stages through outrage, shock and intimidation, followed by brief periods of normalization where people accommodate to the new situation the regime has imposed.”

I started out as a lurker, watching Refuse Fascism from a distance, following them on Facebook, signing their call, reading their emails. I was heartened every time I saw their black and white “NO!” signs in photographs of various protests, and disappointed when I saw the news media or mainstream organizations ignoring what they were calling for — sustained, non-violent mass protest to drive out the whole Trump/Pence regime. Nothing short of that would stop this regime from escalating their attacks and consolidating their power.

A year and a half later, we see this borne out with the family separations at the border. The seeds of this policy can be found in Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, when he called Mexicans rapists and ranted about MS-13. It isn’t only the families separated at the border, the concentration camps for the children and the prisons for their parents. It’s the thousands of people in Puerto Rico who have died from this regime’s racist neglect after Hurricane Maria. It’s the continual evisceration of environmental protections under Scott Pruitt. It’s the Handmaid’s Tale reality brought into being through Mike Pence’s Christian fascism. It’s the open white supremacy of Trump and his followers. It’s Jeff Sessions and his grotesque remaking of the Department of Justice. It’s Betsy DeVos destroying the foundation of a secular public school system. It is an entire fascist regime creating a new normal and daring us to stop them.

After months of wondering what to do, finally my conscience told me that I needed to put my energy into Refuse Fascism. Slowly I took more initiative, helping to pass out materials and becoming a more vocal advocate for this movement. I can’t underestimate the profound effect the presence of Refuse Fascism has had on my state of mind. Knowing there is an organization that is setting people’s sights on what humanity needs us to do, not alone but together, has kept me from falling into despair. It’s safe to say that at this point, most people I know don’t fully agree with me. I’ve been told to write my novel, to concentrate on work, to try to find joy in the day to day, to not get too caught up in this idea that we are facing a fascist future. At one point, when I became involved in organizing a November 4th protest that came under heavy attack from Infowars and armed right-wing militias, my marriage almost dissolved. And to some extent I did retreat back into my private life. I did go back to my novel. I did re-evaluate how much I really wanted to risk.

But things kept getting worse, and the sick feeling inside me wouldn’t go away. If I kept retreating, could I still call myself a good person, or was I just being a good German?

*

In her article in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick writes, “Most of the women I know are as heartsick about the obscene actions taking place at the borders as I am. I think a year ago we would have been out on the streets, were the government stealing the children of asylum-seekers and refugees and sending them halfway across the country or stacking them up like lumber in detention facilities. But today, I worry, we are horrified but numb. We want to be told what to do.”

I struggle with that last line. Often I think people don’t actually want to be told what to do, that they want the diagnosis without the prescription. At other times, I think we are being told what to do, but it isn’t a match for the the crisis we are facing. We are told to call our representatives, to vote in a Blue Wave, to donate money to people who will pass a bill or bring a lawsuit, to support grassroots organizations that will try to rescue as many people from this as they can. I would never tell anyone not to do these things, but all of these are actions by proxy. We give our power to someone else who we hope will solve this for us, even when they have shown us their inability to do so. When we do hit the streets, we are told that this is no substitute for electoral power.

And then, speaking as a woman of color who has been around progressive movements for a long time, there is a prevalent message about lanes of justice and people needing to stay in them, that we must let those who are most affected by certain policies be in the front lines against their own oppression. Those of us who are not directly affected are urged to hang back and be good allies. How does that work exactly when whole groups of people are being rounded up in front of our eyes? How does that work when you have a regime that has a systematic strategy of taking people off the streets and destroying their ability to fight back?

*

If we have the luxury of looking back on this time, we each will have to contend with what we did to stop the crimes we knew were happening in our name. Most of us know that we are not doing enough, even when we are doing something. Even when we are writing and meeting with our representatives and going to protests and donating money, this feeling that we are not doing enough is accurate because of the relentless speed and determination of this regime to tear the ground out from under us. They will not stop unless we make them. There is no easy way around that.

I imagine a future young person asking me what I did once I understood what was coming. I want to be able to say that I did everything I could possibly do, that I risked everything I could possibly risk, that I did what was necessary. But those are questions for hindsight, after a generation has failed to meet their moral imperative.

We haven’t failed yet, but we will fail if we don’t try. In South Korea, they protested every weekend and didn’t stop until their president was gone. In Egypt, it took 18 days of protests to get rid of a regime that was in power for 30 years. Refuse Fascism is calling for people to flood the public square and demand that the regime responsible for these crimes relinquish their power. This is not a pipe dream but a proven method for ousting tyrants: “Imagine tens of thousands beginning in several cities and towns, with marches, candlelight vigils, rallies — students, religious communities, immigrants, everyone with a heart for humanity in the streets and not backing down — growing from thousands to hundreds of thousands and eventually millions. Our actions will reflect the values of respect for all of humanity and the world we want — in stark contrast to the hate and bigotry of the Trump/Pence fascist regime. The whole world will take heart.”

Sophie Scholl (pictured below) offers both inspiration and a warning. By the time she sacrificed her life in resistance to the Nazi regime, it was too late for a different outcome. If there had been thousands of people like her in 1933 instead of 1943, who could have inspired thousands and then millions more, they could have made Hitler a footnote in history. The sooner we get together to match the determination and ferocity of this regime with our own relentless non-violent resistance that forces them out of power, the less we will ultimately lose. The longer we wait, the greater our risk of losing everything.

Sophie Scholl was a young political activist in the White Rose Society, a non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. Before her execution in 1943, she said, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”