I just came home from a meeting of progressive activists in rustic Dyer, Indiana, and I must say, my spirits are a bit higher than they were throughout much of this past week. The group calls itself the Progressive Coffee Caucus. They meet once a week at a local coffee house to debate, educate and organize.
Since Dyer is an hour from my place, I rarely go to the meetings, but a childhood friend contacted me the day after the election asking if I’d be interested in attending, so off we went.
While I would like to paint a picture and provide a bigger, more interesting narrative, for now, I’m going to give you some bullet-point reflections in the most meaningful way I can.
I haven’t wrote much over the past year or so. From 2013-2015, I wrote well over 100 articles and I think that level of output was unsustainable. Plus, I quit smoking cigarettes at the beginning of 2016 and only now am I getting back to a regular writing schedule. Basically, I associated writing with cigarettes and that habit had to be broken.
Additionally, I’ve been doing a weekly radio program on the Progressive Radio Network called “Meditations and Molotovs,” so that takes up a lot of my energy and I’m able to express myself for an hour a week. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that I will be writing more often as I’ve found my groove again. Further, we’re now fighting Fascists, so it’s important for everyone to step up their game.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I feel much different than I did when Obama announced that he was sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December of 2009. Liberal Elites and even many progressive activists have a funny way of expressing themselves: Rachel Maddow sheds crocodile tears for the LGBTQ community, but shows virtually no emotion as she defends Obama’s horrific foreign policy decisions. This, to me, is typical of the Liberal Elite. But also my progressive friends publicly bad mouth protesters who happen to maybe smash a window or burn a car.
In many ways, this is another perfect example of how the media operates: bombing children is acceptable; breaking a window is not.
Back to activism: I’d like to provide this short list of what I’ve been hearing and seeing from friends, family and activists in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. Please, expand, share and critique this list. Ask questions. Send me emails. I’ll respond, as I usually do.
- Within the first 24 hours of Trump’s victory, I heard from more people than I had in the previous two weeks. Friends, family members, long-lost friends, acquaintances, former co-workers and even my neighbors came to my apartment, called, sent texts and emails, Skyped and Facetimed. The overwhelming sentiment expressed by most: we need to do more. And whatever we’re doing, without doubt, isn’t working. It’s unfortunate that it takes a Fascist-sexual predator win the White House to get people excited about political organizing, but that’s just the way it is. So, I’m going to try and make the best of this new-found energy and motivation. The key, now, is to plug people into effective organizations and movements who share similar values and goals. Of course, that’s the most difficult part as organized labor is disorganized and the Left leaves people with very little options. And this brings me to my second point: the Democrats.
- Some people on the Left were right about Bernie’s Democratic insurgency: the DNC, the media, the elites and their henchmen were never going to allow Bernie to win the nomination. The entire system was genuinely rigged against him and his supporters, leading to wide-ranging disillusionment. Should activists spend their time trying to reform the Democratic Party? I don’t know. I guess the question is: can the Democratic Party be reformed? I’ve been active for ten years, and during that period I’ve heard people talk about “reforming” the party, with little to no success. In fact, an argument can be made that the party continues to lurch further and further to the Right. That’s been the case for decades. To be clear, I don’t address this issue from an ideological standpoint. I’m genuinely interested in building radical political movements and structures and I cannot see how this will be done through or with the Democratic Party. Plus, we’ve been here before: McGovern, Carter, T. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Obama, and now, Bernie. The difference with Bernie is that he actually helped set in motion many millions of people who otherwise wouldn’t have participated in the process. Some of this has to do with his message. And some of it has to do with the economic-ecological-
geopolitical-racial context in which we find ourselves. Unlike everyone else mentioned on that list, Bernie’s campaign has already resulted in many benefits for local activists and organizers. Today’s meeting is a perfect example: many of the attendees met each other through the campaign. Now, they’re ready to continue the fight through different mediums and modes. This is exactly why I encouraged leftists to go to Bernie events throughout the primaries.
- We have to battle the notion that elections = politics. For many people living in regions similar to Northwest Indiana, leftwing political infrastructure is nonexistent. Radical spaces – cultural, social, political or otherwise, simply don’t exist in Northwest Indiana, hence people retreat to electoral activism. For them, at least it’s concrete. There are clear winners and losers. However, it’s apparent to me that people need more education about political-social-cultural movements, where they come from, how they were formed, what they’ve accomplished and how activists in today’s world operate within them. To me, this could be one of the more important tasks. Throughout the 2015/16 primaries, I consistently spoke to first-time activists who didn’t really know what to think of movements like Occupy or Black Lives Matter. Today, the same is true of the anti-Trump protests. Several people at today’s meeting were either confused or unaware of the role public protests play in community organizing. We need to educate people about single-issue campaigns, direct actions, civil disobedience and how these efforts have been, and could be, connected to electoral strategies.
- People need meaningful training sessions and workshops. At the end of the day, working on electoral campaigns is easy work, at least intellectually speaking. Let me be very clear, knocking on doors, making countless phone calls, attending house parties and fundraisers takes time, effort, resources, money, sanity and physical labor. That’s undeniable. However, knocking on doors, phone banking, attending fundraisers, hosting house parties and posting things on social media requires very little in terms of creativity. Building alternative institutions, political or otherwise, is a truly difficult task, and it requires an infinite amount of creativity. But this must be an intentional effort. Leadership development is a serious issue. Again, developing new and emerging leaders within movements, communities, small groups, etc., is an intentional process. Understanding how to interact with and what to expect from allies or supposed allies is essential. Understanding how power works is essential. All of this must be learned through intentional education. Furthermore, if activists want to engage on all levels, they’ll need to attend workshops and trainings on strategies and tactics. The Immokalee Workers organize differently than SEIU, who organizes differently than NGOs or Code Pink, to use a few examples. Newer activists would be wise to learn about the origins and histories of the major unions, non-profits and community organizations who dominate Left/Progressive political spaces.
- The Liberal Elite bubble is much different than leftwing or progressive bubbles, but the bubbles exist, and they’re part of the reason Trump won. First of all, the Liberal Elite missed the boat. They spend their weekends on Martha’s Vineyard and rarely leave Manhattan or the Beltway, unless they’re flying to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Liberal Elites such as Chris Matthews or Thomas Friedman don’t spend much time in the South or in the Rust Belt. But that’s also true, to some degree, of progressives and leftists. At today’s meeting someone said something to effect that they don’t spend time with Trump supporters. Obviously, that’s part of the problem. In order to expand our base, thus our capacity, we must be willing to reach out to communities the Left rarely reaches. The first step in doing so will be dropping the overly-sensitive, politically correct nonsense (and here I’m not talking about someone’s right to say racist shit, I’m talking about pettiness) because it turns so many folks off. I know plenty of people who don’t work with Black Lives Matter because some BLM groups can be too dogmatic and/or unwilling to hear various points of view. The same is true of Anarchist, Communist and Socialist groups. We live in an increasingly segregated, both racially and economically, nation. Often leftwing and progressive political groups represent these racial schisms in American society.
- Another point I’d like to make is that people should tap every available resource. If they know organizers who can do training sessions or workshops, they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out. The same is true of educators or artists. We need everyone to share their skills and talents. We also need a vision for the future. And that vision should be based on commonly shared values and principles. Strategies and tactics follow. Here, once again, I would say that most people at today’s meeting weren’t aware of a collective set of values or principles. Right now, there’s a basic motto that everyone should just work together, but that will quickly become a problem as everyone isn’t going to always be on the same page, and I would argue that’s more likely to happen without a shared vision and values. Let’s use a simple example: if/when there’s another terrorist attack, are people ideologically, morally and politically prepared to take a different path than we did after 9/11? Some Democrats will want war. Many liberals will as well. And yes, even some progressives. Why wouldn’t I support a military response? Beyond the obvious reasons, because I value international solidarity and understand that the U.S. Empire is a force for death and destruction, whereas many liberals and progressives believe the U.S. Empire can be used for good. Another example would be a financial collapse. In 2008, progressives didn’t know how to respond to a financial collapse. And still to this day progressives have a wide-range of ideas about the economy. Some people at today’s meeting believe in capitalism and want minor reforms. Others believe in capitalism but want significant reforms. Others want a Socialist State. The point is that some of these positions are in direct opposition to each other. And this isn’t an ideological point – this is a practical point about organizing. It’s easy to say, “We’ll work on things we agree on, but avoid the things we disagree.” And while that may be a good motto for a single campaign or short-term goal, it’s not a successful strategy for building organizational capacity in any meaningful manner.
- Even the basic things are important. Coming into today’s meeting, I noticed there wasn’t a sign-in sheet. Also, there was no agenda, official scribe or anyone keeping track of who wanted to talk. We lacked a meeting moderator, which resulted in some people shouting over each other while others were never heard from, or barely spoke. This isn’t uncommon, so I’m not trying to beat up on anyone or anything like that. I’m just using my most recent experiences to highlight some issues I’ve been thinking about for some time. This is a matter of being effective or ineffective. Often, people who aren’t activists will attend one or two meetings or events before deciding whether or not they’re going to put more of their time and effort into an organization, election, single-issue campaign, cultural project, etc. I’ve seen this many times over the years: I’ll bring someone, or several people to a rally, protest, meeting, whatever – only for them to never come back because the event was completely disorganized. This is a major problem. To be clear, today’s meeting wasn’t that disorganized, but some of what I’m seeing is very similar to what I’ve seen working with previous movements and organizations. A decent portion of this has to do with a lack of structure and organization. Some people will show up for meetings, just to express themselves. And that’s fine. Some people will only attend protests or big rallies. That too, is fine. Some people will only be interested in doing direct actions. Even more will be willing to do basic tasks. And some people will do all of the above or many different things. The point is to create spaces and organizations where people feel comfortable and productive. People at today’s meeting, like all people, only have so much time they can devote to things outside of work and family, so the less time wasted, the better. Otherwise, people will stop coming to events, or whatever group or movement you’re a part of will remain stagnant and never grow beyond its core members.
- It’s okay to challenge people. On the drive home from today’s meeting, my friends and I were talking about the fact that everyone is busy as hell these days. It’s true, everyone is busy, particularly new parents. I’m not married. I don’t work a normal job. And I don’t have kids. All of those things are very intentional choices, but I don’t expect the same from everyone else. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that I don’t challenge people to do more with their time. I expect the same treatment. If I’m not spending enough time doing what I should be doing, and this is true in all aspects of my life, whether that be training martial arts or attending more political events, I expect my friends and family to confront and challenge me to do more. That’s also what political movements should do. Right now, we need as many people in the struggle as possible. As Derrick Jensen says, what’s important isn’t whether you’re radical or liberal, it’s whether you’re involved or not involved.
- In order for people to get involved and stay involved, those of us who are already active must continue to critique and alter our existing organizations, methods and so forth. That way, we have something viable for people to plug into once they decide to get involved. My friend Roberto who organizes in Chicago always tells me, “Vince, activists have to do shit. It’s really that simple.” What Roberto is saying, essentially, is that organizations and movements are successful or unsuccessful not because they have the best ideology or the fanciest rhetoric, but because they actually do things that have a positive impact on peoples’ lives. If groups want to grow, they have to be active. And they have to understand what their communities want. Going into a community and telling people to care about the TPP might not be the best way to get people engaged. For instance, people living in Town X might not care that your activist group considers the TPP the biggest issue of our time, or the best issue to address. Town X may be experiencing systemic racism and extreme poverty. In that case, the way to immediately connect with as many folks in Town X as possible is to address the issues folks in Town X care about.
- On an individual level and as a collective effort, we must continue to educate ourselves. And a big part of this is reading. I’ve noticed that many activists, once active, stop reading and learning. They understand injustice and they know how to spot injustices, but they lack the will to further educate themselves about the broader world, new ideas, concepts, and so forth. This is a serious problem in the U.S., more so than overseas. For example, no one at today’s meeting, including myself (and I spoke too much as it was), mentioned that Trump’s victory must be understood in a global context. The rise of neo-Fascism is a not a phenomena limited to the American context, as many people reading websites like ZNet understand. But it’s important to recognize that many other people do not understand, and they need to be educated. Many times, American activists limit their worldview and political understanding to the nation-state level. Geography is partly responsible, but so is history, ideology, culture and education. Here, we can’t expect people to just “figure it out” on an individual level. As always, there must be an intentional effort to educate – both individually and collectively. The individual should take responsibility to constantly educate themselves but the collective must simultaneously educate the individual.
I hope this list of reflections was somewhat useful. I also hope people can add to this list.
I’d like to know, what are other groups doing? How are people and communities responding to Trump’s victory? The answers will and should be wide-ranging. I think the more we can talk to each other about these issues – what’s working, what’s not working – the more effective our movements will be.
And PLEASE, for the love of everything Satanic, write about what you’re thinking and doing as activists and organizers, artists, and so on. I’m not talented, but I write because I have all of these ideas in my head, like I’m assuming most people do, and I just want to get them out.
It’s beyond clear that no one has a lock on good ideas. No one has the answers because the answers don’t exist. There are good ideas and bad ideas and mediocre ideas depending on context and circumstances.
People often ask, “Well, what’s your solution?” Usually, I say, “I have some ideas about how to build more effective and vibrant political movements.” If people are willing to explore those ideas, well, I’m more than happy to do so. But if people are looking for simple answers, or dogmatic ideologies, I can’t be of any help. We live in an extremely complex world. Therefore, we need complex people to create complex movements capable of operating in such a world.
Most importantly, we need to understand that we’re working with an ecological clock, and it’s ticking. To put differently, we’re faced with the greatest paradox in human-political history: it takes decades to build effective political movements (under normal circumstances), but we don’t have decades to build a new political party or to reform the Democrats or to waste our time with piecemeal reforms. The science is clear: we’re running out of time.
In the end, this is why it’s vitally important for activists to organize with organizations who are doing important and effective work. As individuals, we have only so much time on this planet. Let’s make every minute count.
Our lives depend on it. The next generation depends on it. And the living world depends on it.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer and activist who lives in Michigan City, Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org