Strategic Acts of Resistance: A Case Study
Recently, I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. Tour guides and informational placards told the same story: that one day, Rosa Parks decided to sit at the front of a segregated bus and refused to change seats. And that moment seemingly launched the rest of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
What many tour guides and most American history classes won’t go into detail of is how Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus that day was an incredibly well-orchestrated tactic that leaders in the civil rights movement had deliberately planned. The following is an excerpt of an independent study paper I wrote when I was in law school to demonstrate how desegregating the city’s buses was part of a much larger strategic resistance:
E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, intended Parks’ arrest to be a test case to allow other black citizens to challenge segregation on the city’s public buses. Nixon’s strategy continued by mobilizing local ministers, while Jo Anne Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council and teacher at Alabama State College, mimeographed leaflets calling for a boycott.
Right after the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955, E.D. Nixon and fellow black community leaders began discussion about the need for a federal lawsuit to challenge the City of Montgomery and Alabama bus segregation laws. They began to search past case law hoping to challenge the constitutionality of the aforementioned laws.
And as useful as Rosa Parks’ case was in providing them with the much needed catalyst to a local—and what became a national—civil rights movement, it was decided that it would not make ideal case law because of the criminal status of her case. Nixon and the other activists did not want the case to be dismissed because of the criminal status.
So, activists consulted with two attorneys who routinely did work for the NAACP. Four cases were eventually chosen, all women having disputes with the National City Bus lines system in Montgomery: Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, Claudette Colvin, and Susie McDonald. All four women agreed to take part in a civil suit against the city of Montgomery and W.A. Gayle, the mayor, was named as the defendant in the case.
They pursued a declaratory judgment that Alabama state statutes and ordinances of the city of Montgomery providing for and enforcing racial segregation on “privately” operated buses were in violation of Fourteenth Amendment protections. The cause of action was eventually brought under Reconstruction era civil rights legislation, specifically 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 1983.
About a month after the case was filed in U.S. District Court, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and around 90 of his followers occurred. The simultaneous convergence of the pending suit and organizing on the ground resulted in nationwide publicity and recognition for the budding civil rights movement in the Deep South.
In June 1956, a three-judge panel sent down a ruling in Browder v. Gayle. It stated that the bus segregation laws in the city of Montgomery “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment.” This case soon became the catalyst to the ultimate ruling made in November 1956, where segregation on buses was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court, and was prohibited. It took one month for the ruling to reach the city of Montgomery, and the buss boycott ended the very next day.
Community organizing was the impetus for pushing the Montgomery bus boycott into the forefront of American consciousness and jurisprudence. The Montgomery bus boycott leveraged a strong theory of change:
- clear target identification (National City Bus lines)
- an effective escalation strategy (creating a highly public-facing resistance campaign that would: hurt the bus company financially, gain a lot of public publicity for the movement, and the opportunity to ultimately file suit against the city of Montgomery to codify change into law) and
- strong tactics that furthered the strategy (choosing Rosa Parks as the public-facing resister of this strategy, identifying other resisters who were better candidates to file suit, organizing the community with leafleting and conversation so that people en masse would boycott and hurt the company’s bottom-line)
I bring up the above case study because for resistance to be truly effective, it needs to be strategic as hell. And what is the longer-term end game for resisting a Trump presidency? That’s what the movement needs to immediately figure out.
(Also, another read related to effective historical resistance: To Resist a Trump presidency, ask: “What would the abolitionists do?”, Washington Post, November 18, 2016).
So, What’s the Strategy to Resist Trump?
Exactly two weeks ago, Trump was elected. In the aftermath that followed, there were protests that took to the streets. I actually think these protests were a necessary demonstration that there is a significant part of the American population who will actively be resisting Trump over these next 4 years.
But after the initial shock of the first few days wore off, so did the majority of the protests. What’s the theory of change?
This is something the resistance movement will need to grapple with in upcoming weeks and months. And of course, time is of the essence.
Some Current Resistance Strategies Discussed on the National Level:
- Impeach Trump
- Demand Much, Much More Progressive Leadership from the Democratic Party and get as many Dems into leadership positions in 2018 and 2020
- Electoral College Reform
- Hard Advocacy on Issues Affecting Impacted/Marginalized Populations in the US under a Trump Administration
Of course, the above four strategies are not the only ones on the table. But I feel they are the main ones the resistance movement needs to heavily focus on to stop the momentum that Trump has been gaining.
The amount of disintegration has already been so overwhelming—from Trump’s cabinet picks to policy he already is proposing in his first 100 days of office.
But in order for progressive populism to win over Trump’s authoritarian populism, clear theories of change with effective strategies and strong tactics must emerge on a massive scale.
We’ve seen some organic progressive populist moments happen in recent years: Occupy Wall Street and when Bernie Sanders emerged as a candidate in the primaries are just a couple of them. But the movement needs to fully capitalize on these moments and ensure longer-term strategy and outcome.
Certainly, when Trump actually does take office, I anticipate that some of these populist moments will occur on its own because proposed policy will be so outrageous, etc. But the resistance movement also must be pro-active and be on the offensive. The more people who are part of the resistance, the more effective the resistance movement will become.
Essentially, the next four years will be unlike any other time living in America—where a state of hypervigilance must be enacted, and any normalization of Trump must be wholeheartedly refused.
And when national, state, and local strategies emerge, resistance will need to be all hands on deck. This is needed to replace the authoritarian populism that Trump is currently leading.
Priming Ourselves for More Resistance
While clearer theories of change emerge, there are many things we can do that still demonstrates resistance that we can enact ASAP:
- Calling out racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, etc. behavior
As we all know, hate crimes have surged since Trump has been elected. It is more important than ever to call out unacceptable behavior on behalf of ourselves and others:
- How to Fight Back in Trump’s America, Jezebel, by Lauren Evans, November 13, 2016
- Someone Made a Guide For What To Do When You See Islamophobia And It’s Perfect (this is also great for all types of harassment)
- Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry, Southern Poverty Law Center, January 25, 2015
2. Sign up for organizations’ rapid response alerts/emails on vulnerable issues that will be targeted by Trump (and donate if you can!)
There are groups that are doing great rapid response work (asking you to sign a petition/make a call) whenever an opportunity comes up to inflict necessary wrath, e.g.:
— Planned Parenthood
— American Immigration Council
— …and so many more (ideally, there will be more coalition building in upcoming days to more centralize the resistance effort)
3. Organize, organize, organize & have strategic one-on-one conversations
I am interested in organizing to both energize the base as well as make strategic alliances with those who we can work together with.
— Join an emergency community meeting via AllOfUs: sign up here
— How to talk to your loved ones about a Donald Trump presidency (the holidays is a BIG opportunity)
— White People Elected Trump. Now What? (chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice: white people organizing other white people)
4. Be critical of media that is normalizing Trump
- Normalizing Trump: Why the Washington Media Must Break the Fluff Cycle, November 12, 2016
- John Oliver makes the case against normalizing Trump, Vox, November 14, 2016
- 60 Minutes is Already Helping Normalize Trump’s Presidency, Media Matters, November 13, 2016
5. Boycott Trump enterprise
- Want to boycott Trump? There’s an app for that, NBC News
- This Shopping Spreadsheet is a One-Stop Way to Boycott the Trumps, Huffington Post
The last part of this immediate series will be specifically on how the Trump administration will affect immigration. Onward.