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Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. On this show, we talk about building the relationships and analysis that we need to create movements that can win. Today, as we wrap up our third season of Movement Memos, I wanted to share some final thoughts on 2021 and our experience of outrage in the COVID era. Because the last two years have been a remarkably dystopian ride and most of us still have a lot of emotional baggage that we haven’t unpacked yet. So I wanted to close the season with some thoughts for the activists who are tired and feeling discouraged. This is not a pep talk. But it is a check-in about where we are, where we’re headed, and how we can get right with ourselves on this journey.
We are almost two years deep into a pandemic that has transformed our experience of the world. In some cases, it has changed the way we see other people, and deepened ideological divides. We began the year by watching Trumpian rioters attack the Capitol as part of a failed right-wing coup. Since then, we have watched right-wing anti-vaxxers worsen the pandemic amid an ongoing global crisis. Researchers estimate that 163,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented by vaccination in the U.S. since June 2021. We have a confirmed death toll of over 800,000 in the United States, and yet we see proud op-eds from conservatives with titles like, “Where I Live, No One Cares About COVID.”
When it comes to protecting their constituents from COVID, Republican officials have failed miserably, but as an authoritarian project, the Republican Party has made significant gains during this era of crisis. Emboldened by the same “stolen election” narrative that launched an insurrection, Republicans have introduced at least 400 voter suppression bills in 49 states. According to Voting Rights Lab, seven states have enacted tougher voter ID laws and 14 states have created or expanded election-related crimes in a manner that could potentially suppress votes. About 55 million people live in states that enacted more restrictive voting laws this year.
Meanwhile legal abortion access hangs in the balance, and right-wing attacks on the mere discussion of racism in public schools are illustrative of what’s at stake in our pandemic era culture wars. Historically speaking, pandemics are eras of factionalization and political extremity. For the right wing, the pressure cooker of the pandemic has been incredibly fruitful. With so many people at home, googling for answers, fixated on social media, the pandemic further popularized conspiracy theories and conspiracy-obsessed groups. Thanks to a whistleblower, we now know that Facebook’s own research has confirmed that the platform’s algorithm pushes new conservative users into “rabbit holes” of radicalizing content, including QAnon conspiracies, in as little as two days.
Left of center, we have witnessed some hard-fought battles, and some important victories, such as the recent unionization of a Starbucks in Buffalo, but also, a great deal of exhaustion and resignation. While there are people organizing relentlessly in defense of abortion access and voting rights at the local level, we have not yet seen a national response commensurate with these threats. Normally, I would expect the pending demise of Roe or the resurrection of Jim Crow to generate a robust response from liberals and leftists alike. And yet, while Republican outrage causes havoc and potentially rewrites the rules of political ascension, the outrage of liberals and leftists often comes in reactive fits and bursts. I often find myself looking back on comments some officials in Washington made to Axios, after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. The officials said that with the guilty verdict, they were confident that outrage over police violence would now play out in the same manner as liberal outrage about gun violence — after a major shooting, there are a few days of intense clamour, and then people are reliably distracted by the next big story.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about outrage, how we express it, and what it means to us. Recently, I read an article in Politico in which the author argued that Republican moves against abortion will not rally pro-choice voters at the polls, as some liberal pundits have predicted. In the piece, Julie Roginsky, a former top adviser to New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, said:
I wish we lived in a world where outrage mattered. But I think we live in a post-outrage world, and voters today are affected only by that which directly affects them, which is why the economy, affordability and cost of living is such a major issue for so many people. While a lot of people will express sympathy for that 12-year-old girl in Texas who got raped but no longer can terminate her pregnancy, it’s not what motivates them to go to the polls, sadly.
Could the jolting reality of a post-Roe world re-energize enthusiasm around abortion rights at the polls? I honestly don’t know. But I did find myself rattled by the words “post-outrage world,” because those words touch on possibilities that are both real and frightening.
Outrage is obviously part of our daily lives. For some, it’s a matter of routine. If you’re on Twitter, you may learn who the so-called main character of the day is — someone whose offensive words have gone viral such that we all get to take turns throwing metaphorical rotten fruit at them, once we figure out what the hell everyone is talking about. So we make our joke, or fire off our rageful critique, and if we’re being honest, the satisfaction is usually short-lived. I have indulged in that kind of discourse plenty of times, and to say it usually isn’t generative would be the understatement of 2021. Because these conflicts avail us nothing and do nothing to address our pain. And we are carrying a lot of pain.
Our biosphere is being killed, and it is killing us in turn. The Biden administration recently held the largest-ever auction of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico’s history, while claiming that it was legally required to do so. That turned out to be a lie, and it’s a lie that feels representative of the Biden experience. A campaign promise of “no more drilling, including offshore” gave way to the administration auctioning off an area of the gulf twice the size of Florida.
Even among people who did not expect much from this administration, the abandonment of issues that were the subject of popular alarm under Trump can stir pain and resentment. Many of us are aching for each other, for millions of lives lost to COVID, and for the Earth. We are hurting. And we have to honor that hurt in real ways.
I am determined, in the new year, to develop very intentional practices and rituals around outrage, grief and trauma. We absorb so much horrific imagery and terrible news, and most of us are not adopting personal practices, or group practices, that provide the emotional outlets we need. Whether we want to or not, we are going to spend the coming years engaging with the traumas, resentments and unprocessed grief of the pandemic in our movement spaces — either in intentional ways that help us heal and grow, or in messy, unintentional ways that cause derision and disrupt our work.
Our movements could make gains by offering people a place to connect over our pandemic-related hurt and dysfunction in collectivity. This society is not offering us any popular reckoning with the events of the last two years because the people that govern this society do not want a reckoning. They want us to cosplay normalcy. We have to build movements that offer an alternative to the consumerist zombie approach to mass trauma.
Most groups and organizations I have talked to this year have agreed on the need to incorporate grief work into their organizing, but almost none of them have actually adopted new practices or routines to help their members cope with grief. Some simply don’t know where to begin. The scale of loss we’ve experienced is staggering, and the denialism of some people in the face of so much death, can be difficult to reconcile. But I think it’s important to remember that anger is one of the ways grief manifests itself, and that some of us lean on it because it’s easier to be angry than it is to feel sadness. You can get into a debate on social media with a stranger and feel like you’re winning when you’re angry. It’s hard to feel like you’re winning when you’re sad.
Some people have told me they are feeling sad or weary because they feel like the transformative potential of the pandemic was not realized, or was squandered on electoralism. But the transformative power of the pandemic is not behind us. Some researchers have pointed out that a pandemic can actually suppress unrest in its early stages. Concerns about spreading the illness and exploitation of emergency powers by repressive governments can mean fewer protests. International Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers claim that, during the pandemic, the number of major unrest events worldwide has fallen to its lowest level in almost five years. Their study also found that, historically, the risk of upheaval increases with time. I found the following observation, which was published in the IMFBlog in February of this year particularly interesting:
Looking beyond the immediate aftermath, the risk of social unrest spikes in the longer term. Using information on the types of unrest, the IMF staff study focuses on the form that unrest typically takes after an epidemic. This analysis shows that, over time, the risk of riots and anti-government demonstrations rises. Furthermore, the study finds evidence of heightened risk of a major government crisis — an event that threatens to bring down the government and that typically occurs in the two years following a severe epidemic.
I’m not saying we should let the IMF be our guide, but based on this analysis, all of the political extremity we have already experienced in the United States during the pandemic has happened during the tamest days of the COVID era.
Right now, many of us are angrily grieving the loss of factory and warehouse workers — including Amazon workers — who died last week because they were ordered to remain in the path of a winter tornado, so that they could keep working. As we reflect on how drastic those storms were, and how workers experienced those events, we also need to remember that, in other parts of the world, more heavily impacted by climate change, this kind of grief and rage has been building since long before the hardships of the pandemic. I believe a game-changing era of global political upheaval is looming.
Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s the right that seems poised to change the shape of the system, and topple any semblance of democracy. Their gains are discouraging, but there are many ways to organize against them, and many ways in which they must be fought. One of the great narrative battles of our time will be waged between those who depict migrants and refugees as an invasive threat, and those who would build global solidarity with displaced and oppressed people. The organizing of prison and police abolitionists, and activists working to end surveillance, is also of critical importance right now.
We have to ask ourselves who we want to be in relation to this moment. What does our outrage mean to us? What shapes should it be taking? As we enter the new year, I hope we will opt out of unworthy conflicts more often. When confronted with the outrageous, I hope we will take constructive actions, and I hope that when our feelings run to extremes, that we can manifest that extremity in powerful ways, including the kind of broad-scale direct action and mutual aid efforts we are going to need in the years ahead. I also hope we can shake off any remaining illusions people may have had about the Biden administration and neoliberalism as a path to salvation. We have delayed the onset of right-wing authoritarianism, but those forces are still on course, and the nature of neoliberalism will continually deliver us to the same destructive ends: organized abandonment, the mass manufacture of premature death and a natural world strip-mined for resources. To reject those ends, we have to do more than fend off right-wing advances. We have to play offense with a bold vision for the future. Without world-changing demands, we are practicing a politics of surrender in apocalyptic times.
In 2022, our organizing must be visionary and courageous, but also welcoming. We must be willing to grapple with the imperfections and contradictions of building communities and coalitions. We must remember, as grassroots strategist Ejeris Dixon has told us, that we don’t always get to choose who helps us survive. We also need to prepare ourselves for an increasingly catastrophic future, and to understand, as Chicago organizer Monica Cosby suggested on the show last week, that when we can’t yet see or envision a light at the end of the tunnel, we sometimes have to work with those around us, to make our own light.
At the close of 2021, the right is poised to treat the pandemic as a political portal, and the left is not. That’s a disturbing reality, but it is not a fixed condition. We have a great deal of power, but what passes for democracy in the United States is about to crash into the wall, and hollow rituals of self-expression will not save us. We need to deepen our commitments and our relationships in the new year, and to strap in for what’s bound to be a rough ride. We need a bold vision for an unstable world and it must be a vision we are willing to fight for in collectivity. There are countless storms ahead, and to survive, we will have to anchor ourselves to one another.
As we end this year, I think a lot of you are probably feeling the same love, rage and grief that I’m feeling. I think the question for 2022 is what we plan to do about those feelings beyond merely expressing them. What will we contribute to? What will we build? Who will we get to know or deepen our relationships with? What is the world worth to us? And what are we worth to each other?
I know a lot of people like to get down on New Year’s resolutions, but I’m a big fan of making commitments. So I encourage people to make at least one commitment, as we head into the new year, with regard to how we spend our time and how we vent our outrage into the world. If you spend a lot of time taking shots at people on social media, and it’s not helping you feel any better, could you redirect a little of that time? If there’s an issue you’re passionate about, like voting rights, climate justice or prison abolition, and you are not actively engaged with that work, will you re-budget some time toward that issue? Or create a ritual that gives you a more meaningful outlet for your anger or your hurt?
Maybe that’s something we can work on together.
I want to thank our listeners for joining us today and throughout this third season of the show. Movement Memos began just before COVID turned our worlds upside down, and we have done our best to create something useful for the moment we’re living in. Building a plane in flight is tricky as hell, so I am more grateful than I can say to everyone who’s on this journey with me. We’re going to take a break for a few weeks, but we will be back in January to talk about prison abolition, organizing, mutual aid and how we can fight the continued rise of right-wing power. I am honored that I get to engage in these conversations, and that there are people out there who find them useful. I am inspired by your messages and by your efforts. So please take care of yourselves, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Kelly Hayes is the host of Truthout’s podcast “Movement Memos” and a contributing writer at Truthout. Kelly’s written work can also be found in Teen Vogue, Bustle, Yes! Magazine, Pacific Standard, NBC Think, her blog Transformative Spaces, The Appeal, the anthology The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom and Truthout’s anthology on movements against state violence, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Kelly is also a direct action trainer and a co-founder of the direct action collective Lifted Voices. Kelly was honored for her organizing and education work in 2014 with the Women to Celebrate award, and in 2018 with the Chicago Freedom School’s Champions of Justice Award. Kelly’s movement photography is featured in “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit of the DuSable Museum of African American History. To keep up with Kelly’s organizing work, you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.