Putting Out the Political Dumpster Fire With Radical Love
A conversation with organizer and digital strategist Winnie Wong about net neutrality, the unstoppable power of the Women’s March, and why job number one for radicals and progressives is taking over the Democratic Party.
The fourth in a series of interviews with transformative activists, organizers, writers and dreamers from the New Left and Freedom Movement of the 1960s through the radical social and political movements of today.
Download the free Radical Democracy digital book, featuring 18 original interviews with activists and organizers from the Civil Rights and New Left Movements of the 1960s, through Black Lives Matters, Occupy and more. With 165 Shareable quotes and graphic memes, and an archive of manifestos and other radical documents.
Winnie Wong is a radical digital strategist and activist, and a founding organizer of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy. In the 1990s, she was involved with Food Not Bombs, a global movement opposed to war and poverty. She is also involved with Women for Justice, Films for Action, Democratic Socialists of America, and a host of other progressive and radical causes and groups.
Winnie co-founded the popular People For Bernie Sanders collective, and created the viral political hashtag, #FeelTheBern. Active on Twitter and with over one million followers on Facebook, People for Bernie remains an influential organizing and messaging hub of the Left.
Radical Democracy spoke recently with Winnie about resisting the Trump agenda, an emerging political program from the Left, and the need for an inside/outside strategy to transform politics in the United States.
Radical Democracy: Since we spoke last, Trump was elected, and almost everything has changed. What’s your thumbnail impression of the state of the movement, thirty days into the Trump presidency?
Winnie Wong: We now have an administration and a government that does not prioritize the needs of people at all — only the needs of corporations. It’s literally America, Inc. For them, it’s about the absolute privatization of our public goods, and they’re moving quickly to make that a reality. They’ll continue to shock with tactics and rhetoric designed to divide us — and we’re already seeing this with an onslaught of racist, and in some cases, unconstitutional Executive Orders. The threat of a Muslim Ban remains very real, and under Trump ICE agents are yanking women and children from their workplaces, schools and even churches. It’s inhumane. We have a lot to resist, and we have a couple of years to do it effectively. People need to keep their feet in the street, pressuring both Democrats and Republicans to oppose Trump. Then we need win in 2018 — and we are going to win in 2018. We don’t have a choice, because everything is at stake.
“If there is any hope for the American Left to build power right now, then the white men who have dominated left politics over the past few decades need to get out of the way and let women and people of color lead.”
RD: There’s been so many protests and other actions since the election — it’s been amazing. The Women’s March on Washington was quickly organized, drew huge numbers, and really took over the entire narrative of the Trump inauguration. It feels like the movement came out of the post-election gate with a major success, an historic success, really.
WW: The Women’s March was organized to take place the day after the inauguration. It all came together in a very short amount of time, they had a very small team, and did an extraordinary job of organizing. One-point-one million people in D.C., seven-hundred-and-fifty thousand in Los Angeles, several hundred thousand in New York, twenty thousand in Vancouver, eight thousand in Missoula. It just goes on. The aggregate number for North America is two-point-seven million, and about five million turned out globally.
It was the largest turn out for a day of protest in history. The millions of women and men who made this possible have a lot to be proud of.
One thing that People for Bernie did well in the wake of Occupy Wall Street was really normalize the practice of decentralized organizing. The Women’s March was confederated under this model, and this is precisely why it was so powerful.
RD: There was a Mission and Vision Statement published, along with a set of Unity Principles. Taken together, they form a sort of agenda or platform, in some ways similar to the Vision for Black Lives. Can you talk about that a bit?
WW: I was not a part of the Women’s March national organizing team, and so not involved in any of the day to day operational work leading up to the march. But Linda Sarsour did ask me to come on board and help construct the platform. I’m one of 18 activist co-authors of the Unity Principles, and I’m really proud to see strands of my radical politics translated into parts of that document. It was a profoundly rewarding experience to work with amazing women like Alicia Garza, Alida Garcia, Monifa Bandele, Carmen Perez and all the other women at the table. The messaging behind the Women’s March really comes from women of color activists who are fighting on the front lines of the struggle. There isn’t a white man at our table, and if you look at the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, there are certainly no white men there.
If there is any hope for the American Left to build power right now, then the white men who have dominated left politics over the past few decades need to get out of the way and let women and people of color lead. It’s critical that we build together and create a united popular front that is multicultural and multigenerational, and that’s exactly what the women of the Women’s March on Washington are doing.
RD: Reading the Vision Statement and Unity Principles really frames the march as not just about opposing Trump, or about “women’s rights” in some vague sense. It’s powerful, it describes both a philosophy and an agenda, and points a way forward.
WW: One of the achievements of the Women’s March platform was successfully moving the messaging from identity to economics, centering the economic realities and concerns of women, and women of color in particular, which is extremely important. For more than a decade, neoliberals have held American women voters hostage to the single topic of choice, of reproductive rights. We successfully shifted the narrative from choice to economics, moving the Big D women’s groups like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood, to the Left. This was a huge win, really. It’s forcing everyone to talk about race and class.
“Change never happens on the inside until there are millions of people on the outside, participating in the movement, and demanding it. This really is what democracy looks like.”
RD: Along with the Vision for Black Lives, the Women’s March documents feel like the beginning of platform or program emerging from the Left. An important and necessary development, I think.
WW: Without organization there can really be no real political program. What I think this platform will do, just like the Movement for Black Lives platform will do, is push the Democratic Party as we know it further to the left. And if that doesn’t work, there are back-up plans coming down the pike. I can’t talk too much about that now, but many of us in the movement recognize that we are playing both offense and defense, and plotting our various courses accordingly.
There’s a core group of Women’s March activists who are continuing to work not just on political messaging, but are defining through practice what a powerful women’s bloc opposing Trump can do. We will not be out-organized. We are organizing every minute of the damn day, plotting out how we can inform the 2018 elections, culminating in a wholesale replacement of Trump’s garbage-fire government in 2020.
Right now, we have to make sure that Keith Ellison is elected as DNC Chair. If he’s not, we’re doomed, because the others are likely to maintain the status quo. It’ll be business as usual, with the same revolving door of consultants telling Democrats how to do politics, with no accountability to the people. That’s not good.
If that does happen, I think we’ll have to unleash some different tactics into the world. But if Keith is elected as DNC Chair, then we have some hope. We can rebuild the organization from within even though the various structures of the party are greatly eroded.
RD: Some folks on the Left have been calling to abandon the Democratic Party, and form a true “People’s Party”…
WW: It would be much more difficult to build an organization from scratch that could rival the DNC than to go inside the party and rebuild from the bottom up. I think that a lot of radical activists don’t really understand what it takes to build organizational infrastructure. It’s challenging and made more complex because we have this thing known as a constitutional democracy. So you can’t just go in there and say, “Hey, I’m a radical activist and we must have a third party!” It’s just more efficient if we can go inside the party and reform it from within. I say this as a person who is extremely radical, and I think that most people believe me when I say that I’m not a ideological Democrat, nor have I sold out to the establishment in any way.
“It was remarkable to see elected D’s show up at the “No Muslim Ban” rally and attempt to mic check. It’s truly a LOL moment every time I see Chuck Schumer take the podium, and begin to sort of do a rally cry, “Whose streets? Our streets!” I mean, OMG. It’s too much.”
RD: It’s definitely harder for the Democrats to continue to ignore the people right now. It seems like a major development that in addition protesting and organizing in huge numbers, we’re articulating these agendas, or platforms, that are coherent and overlapping.
WW: Yes, the various platforms are coherent, overlapping, and intersecting. There is a movement of movements emerging, and this is terrifying to both the opposition and to corporate Democrats. Traditionally, they’ve had only one movement with muscle and resources to deal with, Labor. And today, much of the Labor movement in America is in paralysis.
It’s important to remember that these platforms are pushed forwards by millions of real people. The Women’s March platform has a social movement behind it, the Movement for Black Lives platform has a social movement behind it, and the Democratic Party recognizes that these people are the electorate. These people are going to kick them out of office, or keep them in office, or primary them, or make their lives a living hell by occupying their offices and their phone lines. These actions are not going to subside, and if necessary, they will intensify. Change never happens on the inside until there are millions of people on the outside, participating in the movement, and demanding it. This really is what democracy looks like.
RD: We were talking earlier about women, especially women of color, taking the lead. There seems to be a lot less male resistance to that now, within the movement, then in the 60s, for example.
WW: Well, lets look at Bernie. Right now we need millions of women and people of color to stand in front of Bernie’s economic messaging. It’s very important that they are the messengers instead of him, and no one understand this more than Bernie himself. He’s been nothing but an ally to the Women’s March. He showed up on the streets, he never informed any of the organizers that he was going to march, never demanded backstage access. He just marched.
Bernie’s not a clicktivist. He’s an ally of movements. He is a movement organizer. He just also happens to be an elected official who has risen in the ranks to become a leader in the Senate. And now that he’s got that whip, he’s whipping, oh my Lord, and we’re on the outside whipping with him. That’s why we’re starting to see even the big money Democrats fall in line. It was remarkable to see elected D’s show up at the “No Muslim Ban” rally and attempt to mic check. It’s truly a LOL moment every time I see Chuck Schumer take the podium, and begin to sort of do a rally cry, “Whose streets? Our streets!” I mean, OMG. It’s too much.
None of this would be happening if the social movements weren’t effectively pressuring Democrats from the outside. We’re really moving away from the era of milquetoast, petition-based organizing — which changed almost nothing — to an era of action-oriented protest. And this is very, very important. Protest is the defense, electoral politics is the offense. We have to do both, boldly and in tandem. We need do everything with the utmost creativity, and we can’t stop until we win.
“Without the Internet, we’re nothing. Without net neutrality we lose. Period. Full stop. We need a free and open Internet to do the work that we do.”
RD: Can you talk about some ways the movement is successfully moving away from petition-based organizing towards action-oriented protest?
WW: We have to start using our digital tools in a much more responsible and intentional manner. People for Bernie has led in this effort, and we will continue to do so. We don’t collect emails to tell people to do nothing, or to give us three dollars. We collect emails, and then we ask people to go knock every door. That’s actually the name of a new organization that’s starting up, led by Becky Bond. Knock Every Door is doing big, grass roots organizing against the Trump and the Republican agenda, starting now. They are mobilizing young volunteers to knock on doors and begin organizing in communities well ahead of the midterm elections. It’s very smart.
RD: It’s another good example of how important net neutrality is to organizing. The Internet, especially social media, is how five million people got out into the street so quickly…
WW: Well, without the Internet, we’re nothing. Without net neutrality we lose. Period. Full stop. We need a free and open Internet to do the work that we do. The architects of the Internet and the defenders of net neutrality are the people who have created the conditions which allow us to organize and build our resistance communities to scale. This is the truth of the matter. There’s no if, and, or buts about it.
In order to resist the Trump regime’s efforts to dismantle a free and open Internet, we have to keep building our movement of movements, and we are doing that. We’ll take it to the streets if we have to. We saw what happened in 2010, when organizers led the effort to stop SOPA and PIPA, and we’re going to have to redouble those efforts. It’s going to be the fight of our lifetime, if it comes to that.
RD: The new head of the FCC is Ajit Pai, who makes no bones about being against net neutrality. How fast will he try to start rolling it back?
WW: It’s going to be a very complicated fight for him. The first thing that they’ve done is take away affordable internet for those who need it the most, poor folks, by cutting programs like Lifeline — which is absolutely absurd and inhumane. Next they’re going to move to start attacking Title II, and that should be a long battle, because it’s much more complicated, and there are so many stakeholders in that fight. They want to make sure that big telecom providers get priority in the distribution of their content, but a lot of people are going to resist, especially the Facebook community. I’m not entirely sure how it will play out, but Facebook has a very important role to play in this fight because they are responsible for distributing content for so many publishers that pay to play, and they also have the audience of so many people who don’t pay to play. It’s a very complicated algorithm issue that they’re going to have to work out. I’m not sure they even can, because Lord, if there was a Facebook strike, that would not be good for Facebook, or indeed the publishers. So we are looking at that.
Arguably, we’ve come so far now with net neutrality, that it might be too late for them to put the lid on it. People are too woke.
“These legacy media outlets have really done the American public a great disservice by not reporting on the things that working people in this country grapple with every day. There should be nightly news reports on what poverty in America looks like, or how many people in America are actually living without healthcare.”
RD: At this point, it seems like it would take intensely draconian actions to disrupt online organizing…
WW: It would have to be an Internet blackout. They’d have to shut the Internet down. Giuliani’s been appointed some sort of White House web czar, and he is no rocket scientist. I mean, Rudy Giuliani versus the ACLU? Get out of here. Give me a break. I don’t think he even understands how the Internet works.
RD: My fear is that with Giuliani, Trump’s setting up his own little private-CIA, because he knows he’ll get whatever response, whatever intelligence, that he wants from Rudy. They will come up with the answers Trump wants to hear.
WW: Absolutely. There’s probably some notion, from these monsters, that they can create some new structure which will target activists, particularly digital activists, or at least pose some kind of psychological threat to them. But we’re living in such an overtly transparent age now that it’s going to be very, very challenging for them to go after any digital activist who is using Creative Commons or Fair Use to protect themselves. I mean, they’d have to go after their boss, Donald Trump. This is not 2011 now, where you can go after one activist for sharing a link. If you go after one activist for sharing a link, under CFAA you have to go after six-hundred million of them. So, I think it will be very difficult for the Trump regime to target high-profile radical digital activists. They would like to, but I think their challenges are going to be too much. So, good luck to Rudy Giuliani, but he’s not going to win this fight.
RD: Trump’s White House is obsessed with calling information they don’t like “fake news,” and presenting their own set of “alternative facts.” How big of a problem do you think this is?
“We can ever flinch from saying neo-fascism — we should never use the term “alt-right”. We should always use “neo-fascism” and “white supremacy”. We should never, ever flinch from what is real and true.”
WW: I shudder to think about what whitehouse.gov is going to become in the next three years. What are they going to do, distribute links through Breitbart? Force Facebook into being a publishing partner with whitehouse.gov? I don’t think so. That’s not going to happen.
Our best line of defense right now is CNN and the New York Times, legacy media properties that understand that they now have to do what they’re supposed to do, which is report news. CNN has seen their ratings go through the roof since their sort of freeze-out from the White House. They decided that if they can’t have an exclusive interview with Donald Trump, they’ll just go ahead and report live from the confirmation hearings.
These legacy media outlets have really done the American public a great disservice by not reporting on the things that working people in this country grapple with every day. There should be nightly news reports on what poverty in America looks like, or how many people in America are actually living without healthcare. While they can’t be bothered to tell the stories of working-class people, they are the best line of defense against a Trump administration that wants you to swallow the alternative facts created by a team of propagandists. These people are fucking absurd, and they are dangerous. But Trump can’t stop the printing press. He can’t tell Mark Zuckerberg to stop Facebook for a day just because Steve Bannon is pissed off that his propaganda isn’t reaching the right audience segmentation.
RD: We’ve been talking about oppression, propaganda, and the word “fascism” is getting thrown around a lot. Is that accurate? Are we really facing full-blown fascism, or is it something else?
WW: The rise of neo-fascism is real. Period. Not just in America, but all over the world. I don’t think that we can ever flinch from saying neo-fascism — we should never use the term “alt-right”. We should always use “neo-fascism” and “white supremacy”. We should never, ever flinch from what is real and true. We have a president who has chosen a Cabinet and who is leading an administration that is rife with fascists and white supremacists. Full stop. Jeff Sessions is a white supremacist — and I’m not going to equivocate about it.
RD: At the same time neo-fascism has arrived at the White House, democratic socialism is becoming popular, almost mainstream. People are looking for alternatives to the status quo, on all sides.
WW: Racism and fascism are married in a blood pact. The late activist Fred Hampton once said, “We fight racism with democratic socialism. We fight capitalism with democratic socialism.” And that remains true today.
RD: It seems like an important piece of the puzzle, to not only have large movement centers of power, like the Women’s March or the Movement for Black Lives, but also organizing groups like Democratic Socialists of America.
“We have to offer a viable alternative to neoliberalism, and I’m committed to helping to design and shape this program, I can tell you that right now. I’ll keep doing it for as long as it takes until it’s totally normalized.”
WW: DSA is an extremely important piece of the movement puzzle right now. DSA has increased it’s membership to nearly twenty thousand dues-paying members, and that’s very, very important. Twenty thousand people sign petitions all the time, but twenty thousand people who are committed to paying dues and committed to organizing is non-trivial. That is the difference between clicktivism and socialist-led organizing.
There are DSA chapters springing up all across the country, in red states, in rural areas, in urban centers and on college campuses. It’s important to understand that democratic socialists are the ones training new organizers to join the resistance movement. They’re base-building. This is very, very, different than signing a petition. When you base-build, you win.
RD: Right. We can get three million people to mobilize, to show up on one day for a march, but twenty thousand members implies a commitment to organize groups of other activists, so we’re suddenly talking about a much bigger thing.
WW: That’s right. The Democratic Socialists of America are committed to creating organizers. That’s what they do, and it’s extremely important work leading toward the 2018 and 2020 fights at the ballot box. DSA is a very important part of our community — certainly they are working very closely with People for Bernie and our allies at National Nurses United.
RD: And we can’t forget that it was Bernie Sanders that started this huge surge in interest in democratic socialism.
“The reason why we’re in this dumpster fire in the first place is because of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. Clintonism is dead, dead, dead, and dead.”
WW: Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. This is not a mystery. This is not a secret. There will be a political program built around democratic socialism in this country. We have to offer a viable alternative to neoliberalism, and I’m committed to helping to design and shape this program, I can tell you that right now. I’ll keep doing it for as long as it takes until it’s totally normalized.
I didn’t spend a year of my life campaigning for a democratic socialist, and help to normalize the “s-word”, so that corporate Democrats could wipe it off the slate and resume their scheduled program of neoliberal talking points and weird emails about Russia. The fourteen million people who joined me in voting for Bernie Sanders during the primary didn’t do that, either. They did not donate 216 million dollars to a corporate Democrat. They’re committed to Bernie. These people are self-organizing, and they’re comfortable being identified as democratic socialist activists.
RD: Right. While the democratic socialists are self-organizing, the corporate Democrats are busy trying to keep what power they have left, trying to keep control of the Party.
WW: Let’s be clear about one thing. The Democrats are running around in circles. They haven’t run the party in years — the consultants have run the party. There are several Democrats who are trying to organize, and they’ve been met with resistance from the corporate wing of the party.
The reason why we’re in this dumpster fire in the first place is because of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. Clintonism is dead, dead, dead, and dead. There’s no possibility for the corporatists to make a comeback in the Democratic Party. Not as long as the Berners, the BLM activists, the Occupiers who are showing up for environmental justice, the Women’s March marchers, and all the people that are showing up at town hall meetings, keep organizing. And as long all the people that are taking their rage to the streets, vote. There’s no proximity between the millions of people who are a part of these movements and the agenda of Clintonism. None at all.
“When we show up for each other, we win. That should really be the modus operandi for people who are not just resisting Trump but resisting neo-fascism, resisting white supremacy, resisting oppression, resisting neoliberal austerity.”
RD: We started off talking about the Women’s March, and just recently the March organizers announced a general strike of sorts, A Day Without a Woman. Any insight?
WW: There are many people now talking about what a general strike might look like, even if they don’t come from a traditional labor union, who have usually orchestrated general strikes. Because we live in this great Internet moment, anybody can look online and find the definition of what an organized strike is, and begin to organize toward a strike in their workplace. I think that the women’s strike is one example of what that can look like.
But again, it’s one of many general strikes that I hope to see over the course of this year. Most of all, I would love to see a big teachers’ strike led by the public sector unions of NEA, UFT, AFT, and smaller local unions to happen. I mean, Betsy Devos? Unacceptable.
RD: It would be great if teachers can take a lead on this, not only for the Devos/Department of Education situation, but for the whole idea of organizing, of general strikes. I think we’ve got a moment to seize here…
WW: My plan is to show up for every strike. That’s my M.O. for the rest of 2017: show up for everything. I think that should be what all activists, new or seasoned veterans of the movement, commit to: show up for everything. Show up for each other. It’s the only way that we’ll win. When we show up for each other, we win. That should really be the modus operandi for people who are not just resisting Trump but resisting neo-fascism, resisting white supremacy, resisting oppression, resisting neoliberal austerity.
We need to show up for each other. We fight everything with solidarity. We fight sexism with solidarity. We fight capitalism with solidarity. We fight hate with solidarity. We fight all the bad things with solidarity.
Solidarity is love. Love is solidarity. It’s that simple.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Olson is producer and publisher for The Radical Democracy Project, connecting progressive and radical social and political movements of the past with those of today through a variety of media.
Excerpted from the soon to be published ebook, Radical Democracy: an inventory of transformational ideas, documents, quotes and conversations