Don’t Let the Resistance to Trump Become Hands Across America

Don’t go home, don’t shut down


The day after his inauguration, almost three million people marched in protest of U.S. president Donald Trump. It was the largest single protest in the country’s history and, despite White House insistence to the contrary, triple the size of Trump’s own inauguration crowd.

That’s a great start to what I hope will become a powerful movement resisting America’s orange fascist demagogue.

What must not happen is for the movement to metastasize. This needs to be like the 1960s civil rights movements and Vietnam war protests rolled into one —

— and not another fucking Hands Across America.

Three days before Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017, a guy from California traveled across the country and set fire to some junk in front of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Newspapers ran distorted headlines claiming the man had attempted to set himself on fire, as well. Cops stopped the guy before he could hurt himself too badly. He sustained burns, but was cogent enough to ramble to the press about protesting Trump.

That’s 2017. Back in 1960s, young men burned their draft cards in protest of an unjust war in Vietnam. Women burned their bras to stand against the patriarchy. In 1963, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself ablaze outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon.

In 1965, Quaker and peace activist Norman Morrison left his home in Baltimore with his baby daughter in tow. He arrived in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2 of that year, went to the Pentagon, eased his daughter aside and set himself on fire in full view of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s office.

“He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing,” McNamara later told filmmaker Errol Morris. “His wife issued a very moving statement. ‘Human beings must stop killing other human beings.’ And that’s a belief that I shared.

“I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.”

The Morrison family was ready to sacrifice everything for a cause. It haunted McNamara for the rest of his life.

To be clear, I’m not saying we should set fire to ourselves to protest Trump. But we should remember these three stories because of the distinction they draw between then and now. We must summon Morrison’s courage, even if we don’t borrow his tactics.

I’m less worried about self-immolation than I am about losing momentum. In America, especially the past 40 years, activists tend to go home after they win a small victory. We raise enough money, or enough awareness, and go back to eating too much and watching sit-coms.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. The resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is a testament to the power of resistance. Americans — including military veterans — came together to stop an unjust incursion onto native land.

They’re ready to fight, which is good because it looks like that battle’s about to begin again.

This. This is resistance.

No single moment typifies the bad behavior of the dilettante activist more than Hands Across a America — a moment in May 1986 when millions of Americans linked arms and promised to end poverty or something. People felt pretty good for a few minutes that day, but you’ll notice that there’s still a lot of poverty in the United States.

The project was simple — participants across the country would link arms for a few minutes around noon on May 25, 1986. The goal was to stretch the human chain from the Statue of Liberty in New York City to the port of Los Angeles. Organizers charged $10 a head to get involved and promised to use the proceeds to feed the hungry.

“This is just the beginning,” chief organizer Ken Kragen told The Washington Post back in 1986. “When today is over, roll up your sleeves and go out to work in your community. We have to move from the big event to the person on the street.”

Costs for organizing the event spiraled out of control. Getting millions of people in America to hold hands at a specific time in the era before the internet turned out to be an expensive pain in the ass. Plus, it was hard to keep track of who had and hadn’t paid their $10. Some organizers lost money.

John Yellowhorse, a justice of the peace on the Arizona-New Mexico border spent a ton of cash on the event only to have almost no one show up. “I’ll have some people chasing me for a while,” he told The Washington Post. “But I’ll just hide out somewhere.” At the time, he claimed he owed around $20,000 in unpaid bills related to the event.

The Washington Post’s 1986 article about Hands Across America is incredible. It paints an honest portrait of the best of intentions going terribly wrong. Read it and pay special attention to the section about Dallas. A local reporter asks a homeless man what he thinks of the whole thing and the guy tells the reporter it’s bullshit.

“Hands Across America? Brown had heard of it, he said, and he thought it was a rip-off. ‘The thing is phony,’ he said. ‘They gonna give any money to a black guy like me? Where’s the money gonna go? Where’s the money always go?’

“Hands Across Big D seemed above all a celebration of self. By the time the line stretched down Main Street, past the gleaming bank towers and department stores, past the infamous grassy knoll and down the hill toward the Triple Underpass, the still-haunting site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the sidewalks were jammed with middle-class Texans in search of a good time.”

Hands Across America was a celebration of selfishness masquerading as a charity drive. That’s what I’m worried about in the current climate — that we’ll slip and let our protests become excuses to get together and have a good time. That rage will calcify into inaction.

In the end, Hands Across America raised $34 million to help fight hunger and end poverty. After recouping its costs, the organization had $15 million to distribute. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but in context it feels … hollow.

Organizers wanted to raise $50 million. Hell, the Coca-Cola Corporation alone kicked in $8 million.

‘’It was a net good,’’ Robert Hayes of the National Coalition for the Homeless in New York told The New York Times in 1987. ‘’But they spent too much to raise too little and promoted a national extravaganza empty of content.’’

The Women’s March is a strong and powerful start. But we must resist the impulse in ourselves that promotes the hollow spectacle.

Stay defiant.

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