An ode to the de-escalators in the face of Trump

David Turnbull
Jan 27, 2017 · 6 min read
photo by Julia DeSantis

On the morning of January 20th 2017, we gathered a few blocks from the Red Ticket holders’ gate outside the Trump inauguration and steeled ourselves for a morning of confrontation. We stood in a circle of silence amidst the frenetic energy of pre-action anxiousness. We stood quietly, breathed slowly and deeply, grounding ourselves, thinking about what had brought us to this day.

We were the “de-escalators” group within the hundreds-strong climate bloc of #DisruptJ20. We were a group of about 25 who had volunteered to be the buffer between irate Trump supporters hoping to attend the inauguration and our friends who planned to be locked arm-in-arm blocking their entrance.

It would be a tough job and we weren’t entering it blind. We’d seen the year of Trump rallies where protesters were pushed and punched, spat upon and harassed. We’d seen the vitriol of the campaign, the ugliness of the rhetoric, the anger in the masses.

But we had been asked to step into this role by the queer leadership of this action, and those of us with the privilege to do so heeded that call.

Early in the preparations for this action, my friend Linda (who co-led the action with the brilliance that comes from years of experience and dedication) looked at me and said, “David, this role [of de-escalation] is where you as a cis white man need to step up and use your privilege.” Generally speaking I’ve learned it’s wise to do what Linda says and this was no exception.

There are folks who are targeted by many supporters of Donald Trump, and by the man himself — people of color, queer folks, women, Muslims, to name a few. And then there are white guys like myself. We’re simply not facing the brunt of the Trump wrath, plain and simple.

In this action specifically, there was an expectation of direct and heated interactions with frustrated or angry Trump supporters. Some in the group would be faced with potentially traumatic interactions laced with misogyny, homophobia, racism or all of the above. Others of us would be impacted by that anger and intimidation differently than, simply because of the way we are seen in the world. Those of us with more privilege can use that reality in our collective work of resistance, and we were called upon to do so in this action specifically.

So I brought that advice to a planning meeting a few days before our action, when we were dividing the larger group of action-takers into roles. I explained why I had been urged to step up to convene the group of de-escalators. I challenged the other white guys in the room to think about whether they could step up too, just as my friend had challenged me. And thankfully many did, in addition to an impressive group of women, people of color, and other folks who don’t identify as cis white men.

These opportunities to exert our privilege in importantly useful ways will only continue to present themselves as we move forward. We must be ready to seize these opportunities when asked, and use our privilege wherever we can to support the resistance movement. It’s not easy — there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before to understand what privilege is and how to step up the right way but also step back as well. But we have to do to that work.

The action came and the altercations with Trump supporters kicked off early and often. But the de-escalators stood up and buffered the group of actual blockaders from the brunt of it.

photo by Brandon Wu

It’s amazing how predictable the interactions came to be. You could pick out the Trump fans who were going to try to ram through the crowd out of the corner of your eye, without even seeing their faces. The way they walked gave them away. Straight line, quickened gait, head down. They were getting through, or so they thought. Of course, they didn’t. The de-escalators intervened, and our line held strong amidst the shoving and threats.

photo by Julia DeSantis

After each altercation the de-escalation buddies would check in with each other, asking how their partner was doing, making sure they were physically unharmed…and mentally sound too. This wasn’t an easy job, staring down fanatics who were just severely inconvenienced on their triumphant day. But with camaraderie and support came strength.

photo by Jake Conroy / RAN

At the end of the day, we left the Red Gate relatively unscathed. There were some rattled blockaders who had been tossed around at the beginning of the action, and one de-escalator had a cut on his forehead from a camera that had been thrown by an angry Trump supporter. But overall, we were in good health and strong spirits. The work of the de-escalators had helped the blockaders do their job, risking arrest but thankfully not risking attack.

We claimed victory — a small one, but a victory nonetheless. We had accomplished our goal of disrupting our gate, showing that Trump will face escalated resistance every single day of his Presidency. We left energized on what could have been a profoundly depressing day. We cheered as we heard news of major disruptions at other areas of the city, all part of a largely successful #DisruptJ20 effort that played a part in creating the images of a sparsely attended inauguration.

photo by Brandon Wu

I learned a few things on January 20th and in the days leading up to our DisruptJ20 action. I learned about using my privilege to protect and support my friends. I learned that de-escalation is a tool that will be just as vital as lock-boxes and email lists in the days to come. I learned that on days of profound sorrow, being with community in action and collective resistance can bring inspiration.

Even in the mere week since the inauguration, I’ve found myself relying on de-escalation techniques…to de-escalate myself. Every hour it seems there’s a new, triggering action being taken by Trump. Every hour, I feel my pulse quicken, the tears starting to well, my mind starting to race.

I take deep breaths. I think about why I’m doing the work. I feel the ground beneath my feet. I look to my community, finding inspiration in the resistance.

And I soldier on. It’s been a week but it feels like it’s been a year.

In the Trump years, we’re going to have to face down our enemies. We’re going to have to rise up, be bold, and stand up in defiance.

We’re going to need resisters of all kinds. We’ll need bold action takers, brave people who stand up in defiance, put their bodies on the line and stand tall. We’re going to need strategic thinkers, planning the resistance and steering the ship. Hell, we’re going to need folks to escalate things and take bolder action than we’ve been comfortable with before. And, while no one could have predicted it until this week, apparently we’ll need subversive tweeters too.

But we’re also going to need calm heads and cool tempers, clearing the path for action. We’re going to need de-escalators and I am damn proud of the group we had at the Red Gate on January 20th.

The tools of de-escalation will do us well in the days ahead: Look them in the eyes. Keep your cool. Take deep breaths. Use your privilege where you’ve got it. Check in with your community. Hold your ground. Engage.

And most importantly: Resist. Resist. Resist.

Me and an animated Trump supporter. photo by Julia DeSantis

David Turnbull

Written by

Campaigns Director at Oil Change International (@PriceofOil) and Oil Change USA (@StopBigOil). Board Chair, @USCAN. (...but these words are just mine…)

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