From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject The Birth of an Extraordinary Modern Progressive Movement
Date October 30, 2020 1:40 AM
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[ The past four years have birthed a progressive movement so
extraordinary it just might survive the forces that threaten its
extinction.] [[link removed]]

THE BIRTH OF AN EXTRAORDINARY MODERN PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT  
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Rebecca Traister
October 26, 2020
The Cut
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_ The past four years have birthed a progressive movement so
extraordinary it just might survive the forces that threaten its
extinction. _

The Women’s March on January 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., Photo:
Brain Allen/Voice of America // The Cut

 

THE STORY of an awakening must begin with how many had been permitted
to sleep in the first place.

I often think back to a _Saturday Night Live_ episode from October
2016
[[link removed]],
which aired after the release of the _Access Hollywood_ tape.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was the guest host, and in the cold open, he
directed a line from his fanatically beloved musical _Hamilton_ at a
photo of Donald Trump, declaring with ferocity, “You’re never
gonna be president now.”

You could feel viewers, _Hamilton_ fans, Democrats, those who for
whatever reasons could still afford to believe in norms or justice,
laugh with the giddy conviction that a man who grabbed women against
their will could never be president, perhaps forgetting that grabbing
women against their will had been a habit of presidents all the way
back to the characters depicted in … _Hamilton._ It would be less
than four weeks before those who had felt the confidence that misogyny
and racism were disqualifying in the United States had that layer of
assurance stripped from them.

But even after the election, the fantasies of salvation and order
persisted: Someone powerful — Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, George
W. Bush (suddenly looking good by comparison, which should have been a
big warning sign), _Hamilton_ itself (remember when the theater
audience booed Mike Pence
[[link removed]]?),
Jill Stein (she took all the money, folks!), patriotic Republicans,
the Senate, the military, capable advisers who would keep him in check
— _someone_ was going to fix this, right?

I was not someone who had believed Donald Trump was never gonna be
president; I had spent a long time fearing his victory and the
punitive force of the party he was leading to power. And yet, with
shame, I vividly recall being assured, in those early months of 2017,
by someone who claimed to know, that both Obamas were _on it, _that
they were “talking to people” about what to do. Rationally,
I understood it to be fanfiction — wasn’t the fantasy of Obama
as savior part of how we got here? — yet the desire to believe that
someone with institutional power and a moral compass and a brain was
in a position to protect the nation was so strong that, against my
will, something like relief briefly washed over me.

Part of that feeling came from an inglorious but sharp desire to
abdicate responsibility, to not be alert and vigilant and scared, to
retreat to some comforting state of confidence that, even in the face
of a long history that suggested otherwise, the people would be ably
stewarded through the worst of what might be coming. The desire to
sleep is strong.

Four years later, any notion of salvation feels pulled from a fairy
tale. The Obamas would not save anyone; Robert Mueller did not save
anyone; Ruth Bader Ginsburg
[[link removed]] and John
Lewis are dead
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and when they were alive, they weren’t capable of saving anyone
either. There were no noble Republicans and too few ferocious
Democrats. The fantasy that there are xxxxxxs in place —
individuals or institutions — has been correctly obliterated,
leaving little barrier between America’s people and an awareness of
their vulnerability to a plunderous ruling class.

This has been the terrible gift of these years. Trump himself is
nowhere near the beginning nor the end of the horror, but his reign
was a blaring alarm for millions; all the bright lights turned on, the
covers ripped off. Those who had been privileged enough to snuggle
warm and dumb beneath the blankets of an imagined postfeminist,
post-civil-rights, post-Obergefell, post-Obama Camelot found
themselves suddenly exposed: cold, shivering, and wide-eyed with fear
and realization that the system they’d been taught responds to the
will of the people was in fact designed to be able to suppress it.

For millions, the awakening was sudden, bracing, and extremely rude.
 

The Muslim Ban Airport Protest, January 29, 2017: Saudi Arabian
Airlines passengers on a flight from Jeddah were greeted by protesters
as they arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Protests
erupted at airports around the country following President Trump’s
executive order restricting travel from several Islamic countries.
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images/B) 2017 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.
 //  The Cut
THROUGH ONE LENS, the shock of the past few years has been a right
wing getting ever less apologetic about its commitment to
authoritarian, anti-democratic minority rule. Trump and his party have
surely broken some long-standing American norms and institutions, let
others corrode, and encouraged the ones that were left to function as
they were built to: keeping power in the hands of the few.

But through another lens, what has actually undergone a startling
change has been America’s people, their thinking about the Republic,
and, in some cases, their places and responsibilities within it. Some
significant portion of the population has been roused to protest —
or at least awareness — at a scale that has been seen rarely in our
past and that has historically had the power to bring social and
political change so eruptive and transformative that those in power
will do anything to quell it.

On the first full day of the Trump administration, the U.S. saw the
largest one-day protest in its history. The Women’s March
[[link removed]] —
with its pink hats and furiously clever signs and overwhelmingly white
vibe and head-spinning roster of speakers, from Madonna to Angela
Davis — drew more than 4 million into the streets in the U.S.;
nearly 200 more demonstrations occurred across all seven continents.

It’s not that the event marked the revivification of American
protest culture or progressive organizing: That story started long
before Trump gave his chilling inaugural address to a sparse but newly
empowered crowd of brutish acolytes. There had been the Seattle WTO
protests in the late ’90s and antiwar demonstrations of the Bush
administration. The birth of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy
movement, the Fight for Fifteen, Standing Rock, the Climate March of
2014, SlutWalks, Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole to pull down the
Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, and the Say Her
Name campaign to acknowledge black female victims of police violence;
Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of the national anthem in
the same year that Bernie Sanders’s failed primary campaign against
Hillary Clinton took on the dimensions of a left-wing social movement
… all of that happened during the Obama administration.

But the spirit of unrest bloomed explosively in the Trump years, in
regions and minds long arid of political — let alone progressive —
engagement. And the strains of dissent wound round one another in
intricate, uneasy ways. The white originators of the Women’s March
itself had been pushed by a group of co-chairs who came from other,
more deeply rooted protest movements to go further
[[link removed]] with
the event’s stated aims, to proclaim that a “women’s movement”
must also by definition be a movement for Black and Indigenous and
Palestinian lives, for climate action and in opposition to economic
inequality.

And so when, about a week after that first big eruption, Trump issued
a travel ban on visitors coming from predominantly Muslim countries,
many people new to public displays of fury were quicker than they
might otherwise have been to rush to the airports to raise their
voices in protest, joining lawyers who had set up shop on the floor
trying to help those detained.

In those early months, there were so many protests every weekend, all
over the place, for reasons that were ambient but loosely tied
together. For a brief time, it was weirdly easy to discern how
connected it all was: From a ten-day span in late January and early
February 2017, my phone shows pictures of crowds in pussy hats
shouting “Immigrants are welcome here” at an anti-ban protest in
Washington Square Park, and again at Battery Park (“Muslim rights
are human rights”) and at a Yemeni bodega strike in Brooklyn
(“Fight ignorance, not immigrants”), and then at a protest winding
its way through the streets of Philadelphia, with placards spelling
BLACK LIVES MATTER pasted in the windows of an office building in
Center City and a man holding a sign that reads THIS JAWN IS YOUR
JAWN, THIS JAWN IS MY JAWN.

Later that month, during the confirmation hearing of Jefferson
Beauregard Sessions to be Trump’s attorney general, Elizabeth Warren
would attempt to read a letter
[[link removed]] written
by Coretta Scott King objecting to Sessions’s 1986 nomination to the
federal bench. She was stopped by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,
whose reasoning would give form to an Etsy-ready battle cry: “She
was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she
persisted.” Then the protests got specific. In March, women dressed
as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel
[[link removed]] showed
up at the Texas Senate building to protest a ban on second-term
abortions (a measure that has since been defeated, though not because
of the handmaids). And in Washington, D.C., as Congress considered
overturning the Affordable Care Act, crowds clogged the halls of the
Senate and flooded the phones, pressuring senators until the repeal
measure failed and seeding in protesters the notion that action could
produce real victories.

 

From left: The Bodega Protest, February 2, 2017: At least 1,000
Yemeni-owned bodegas and grocery stores across the city shut down on
this day to protest the president’s so-called Muslim ban.
Photo: Andres Kudacki  //  The Cut
The Texas Abortion Protest, May 23, 2017: Activists dressed as
characters from The Handmaid’s Tale gathered in the Texas Capitol
Rotunda to protest anti-abortion legislation.
Photo: Eric Gay/AP Photo/Copyright 2017 The Associated Press  //
 The Cut
But in August 2017, white supremacists marched through
Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us” at
a Unite the Right rally, and anti-fascist protesters fought them in
the streets. Twenty-year-old DeAndre Harris was beaten in a parking
garage by members of the right-wing extremist group League of the
South, and 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer was run over by
a car and killed, and the starker risks of direct action were made
horribly clear.

The capacious fury spread and took new and astonishing forms. In fall
2017, the Me Too movement surged in the wake of New
York _Times_ and _New Yorker_ reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s
serial predation, revelations that surely landed more powerfully given
that an admitted groper was in the White House. Stories of sexual
harassment and assault spilled out with tidal force,
powerfully reshaping the dominant understanding
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how the systems that cover for abuse create an unjust professional
sphere. Some powerful people — mostly powerful men — lost jobs in
Hollywood and the Senate and the media. The stories reverberated for
restaurant and hotel employees and flight attendants and on the Ford
factory floor; for months, each story seemed to make room for more
stories, compelling more people to come forward.

Years of organizing, including by Fight for Fifteen, were behind the
resurgence of the labor movement in some sectors, but Me Too helped
fast-food workers, Chicago hotel housekeepers, and Silicon Valley
employees draw attention to and amplify longtime complaints about
ubiquitous harassment in their industries. In 2018, West Virginia
teachers — some who cited either the Women’s March or the Sanders
campaign as models for large public actions — kicked off a wave of
teachers strikes that would roll, over more than a year, through
Kansas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and California.

Youth activism had been electrified by Occupy and the Sanders
campaign, and in March 2018, March for Our Lives, in response to
a school shooting in Parkland, Florida
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that left 17 dead, became the nation’s largest-ever protest against
gun violence. That summer, as images of terrified toddlers separated
from refugee parents at our southern border made their way to the
public, protesters staged more direct actions — interrupting the
dinners of administration officials. California Congresswoman Maxine
Waters
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them on: “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a
department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a
crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not
welcome anymore, anywhere.” When nearly 600 protesters took over the
Hart Senate Office Building atrium, chanting “Abolish ICE,”
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren joined them;
Representative Pramila Jayapal was among the 575 arrested that day by
Capitol Police.

According to the protest historian L. A. Kauffman, it was that month
— June 2018 — that the number of arrests for civil disobedience
jumped from an average of 120 per month to more than a thousand. The
fall would see hundreds more taken into custody as women (and some
men) gathered to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Brett
Kavanaugh
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a conservative Federalist Society judge accused by Christine Blasey
Ford of having assaulted her when they were teenagers. Protesters
filled the halls of Congress and the steps of the Supreme Court,
screaming so loudly during the confirmation vote that it had to be
paused.

The impulse toward activism and political participation also sowed
electoral seeds. In the wake of 2016, record numbers of women ran as
first-time candidates, and a record number of them won. The blue wave
of 2018
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which saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley,
Deb Haaland, Katie Porter, Lauren Underwood
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Lucy McBath, Rashida Tlaib, and others driven into politics by fury at
economic inequality and racism and sexism and climate denialism and
Trump himself — was the biggest Democrats had enjoyed since the
Nixon administration.

Some of those candidates had been endorsed by a new youth climate
group, the Sunrise Movement, which was building support for a Green
New Deal, a far-reaching and urgent congressional resolution calling
on the federal government to make drastic changes to reduce carbon
emissions, digitize the power grid, and create green jobs. A week
after the 2018 midterm elections, Sunrise occupied Nancy Pelosi’s
office and, in February 2019, confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein
about her lack of support for the measure, a video of which was viewed
more than 9 million times. In September 2019, 16-year-old Swedish
climate activist Greta Thunberg
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a massive one-day climate strike that inspired 6 million students to
walk out of their school buildings globally and 1,100 different
strikes to take place across the U.S.

And then came 2020 — a deadly pandemic, lockdowns, hospitals way
above capacity, illness and poverty heaped disproportionately on
America’s most vulnerable. As millions found themselves shuttered
inside, scared for themselves and their loved ones, glued to their
phones, they got a vivid view of violent racism: watching Ahmaud
Arbery get shot while jogging, hearing George Floyd call for his
mother with a knee on his neck, and reading about 26-year-old Breonna
Taylor, roused from her bed by police officers who had entered her
apartment in the middle of the night looking for drugs that were not
there, being hit by six of their bullets and killed.

Even in the grip of fear and grief, with a full view of pandemic peril
and the risk of punitive police response and rhetorical backlash, what
made most sense to millions who saw those images and heard those
stories was to take their fury to the streets.

Over the course of this past summer, Americans insisted that Black
lives matter
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2,275 cities and small towns across this country, many of which had
never seen a civil-rights protest before. “We’re experiencing a
moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice that has brought a
new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country,” said
Kamala Harris in her first address to the nation as Joe Biden’s
running mate, while in _The Atlantic, _Adam Serwer argued
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“Trump’s presidency has radicalized millions of white Americans
who were previously inclined to dismiss systemic racism as a myth, the
racial wealth gap as a product of Black cultural pathology, and
discriminatory policing as a matter of a few bad apples.”

In June 2020, police took more than 10,000 mostly peaceful protesters
into custody across the United States. While the arrests were
symptomatic of so much that the protesters were objecting to, they
also changed the way many people understood their civic responsibility
and their relationship to the state: Tens of thousands of Americans
had their first direct encounters with police. So many other thousands
protested publicly for the first time (polling suggests that nearly
one in five Americans attended a protest between 2016 and 2018 and
that 20 percent of them had never done so before); money poured into
bail funds. Parents brought their children to marches. People wore
masks and videotaped their fellow protesters being hit and dragged
away by cops; they worked on campaigns for the first time, registered
voters, volunteered to be poll watchers; they read books about
structural inequality and tried to learn what intersectionality meant
and had their view of history challenged by the New
York _Times_’ “1619 Project”
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a rethinking of the American narrative so potent that members of the
Republican Party, including Donald Trump and Senator Tom Cotton, have
moved to ban it. And as the country changed, so did public opinion:
Polls showed majority approval for the protests — about 67 percent
of Americans voiced some support for the BLM movement — a change in
weeks that was greater than it had been in the previous two years,
indicating that even Americans not in the streets were hearing the
cries of those who were. Those levels of approval have shrunk (now
about 55 percent of Americans say they approve) but not disappeared
three months after the height of the protests and after months of
backlash law-and-order messaging.

We have been encouraged to see the Trump years as a period of
right-wing radicalization. But it’s hard to discount those who began
in the moderate or merely apathetic center who have now considered,
and in some cases strongly support, policies including the Green New
Deal and Medicare for All; they have read, in mainstream publications,
arguments for abolishing the police and prisons. So many Americans who
had never before engaged actively — learning about, participating
— in civic and political life and movements to expand liberty and
justice have now done so.

So while the beginning of this period (the Women’s March
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and its bookend (the BLM protests of the summer
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may feel a million miles apart in spirit and style, a startlingly
durable, historically rare thread has connected them: a continued move
toward public acknowledgment of inequality, an energetic critique of
the systems that govern us. And, with all that, a shift toward the
left (or something like it) and some recognition that we are tasked
with acting on behalf of our own civil rights and liberties, are
responsible for saving our democracy ourselves. We are wide awake now.

 

The Climate March on Washington, April 29, 2017: An estimated 200,000
people marched from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for the
People’s Climate Movement to protest President Trump’s
environmental policies and demand a clean-energy economy.
Photo: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images/Astrid Riecken  //  The Cut
The Wall Protest: April 29, 2018: Supporters and detractors of
Trump’s immigration policies protested on both sides of the Mexican
border wall. These pro-migrant caravan demonstrators rallied in San
Diego.
Photo: Bill Wechter/Getty Images/2018 Getty Images  //  The Cut
EXCEPT IT WASN’T all as neat or noble as that.

For one thing, that “wokeness” got weaponized pretty quickly,
turned to a slur, a mocking of the very state of consciousness, which
was made to look silly, indulgent, feminine, faddish, and stupid. And
while that characterization is the quickest weapon of any opponent of
a moral crusade, the caricatures pack their punch because they are not
entirely pulled from thin air.

The arrival of these crowds of people who suddenly cared, very
broadly, about various forms of amorphous inequality was theoretically
great, but what were they there to fight for? What were their demands?
Why did they keep making signs that said PROTEST IS THE NEW BRUNCH?
Were these crowds of angry people prepared to really dig in? For what
and for whom and for how long?

A lot about the nature of the fury — much of it directed so
specifically at Trump, a man who was cartoonishly terrible and
dangerous, sure, but not so wildly different from plenty of people and
policies that had foregrounded his rise, suggested that this was not a
long-haul investment in change-making, nor that it was tied to deep
moral commitments to justice. For many, it was merely a way to channel
their dismay — and perhaps their embarrassment at having been caught
by surprise at his election — into something that felt good and
self-flattering.

Predictably, a lot of this is about white women — the Wine Moms and
Resistance™ warriors mocked most viciously by their white leftist
sons (sons who perhaps believed that Joe Rogan’s endorsement could
be critical to reaching Ohio voters but that their mom’s weekly
meetings of door-knockers were hilariously bourgeois).

It is true that foremost among those who shot out of their beds on
November 9, 2016, as if someone had put a fire poker to them were
America’s moderate, middle-class white women, who were shocked (in a
way that plenty of Black and brown Americans would never have been)
that someone like Trump could triumph over someone like them. Some of
these white women had never been politically conscious before but have
since rebuilt their lives around activism and political engagement.
Some, easing in via the Women’s March and then electoral politics,
have come to an increasingly complex, progressive view of the world
and its inequities.

I reported on a group of newly activated white suburban women
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in summer 2017, when they were organizing around Jon Ossoff’s
special House race in Georgia. Many have remained politically driven
since Ossoff’s loss, working for Stacey Abrams
[[link removed]]’s
2018 gubernatorial campaign and to help Lucy McBath win the House seat
that Ossoff had lost a year earlier. Some describe how the Trump years
have sharpened both their understanding of an unjust system and how
much they’d previously done to uphold it.

“Jon was this young, good-looking white man who felt comfortable to
us,” 51-year-old Jenny Peterson told me in November 2019, observing
that “that probably made it easier for us to jump in for the first
time. But once we were in, we began to realize how much we had to
learn.” She recalled how, while knocking on doors for Abrams and
McBath, she met a Black elementary-school teacher, just two years
older than she, who said, “I never thought I’d see a white lady
from Roswell talking to me about voting for two Black women.” Their
conversation prompted Peterson to learn about the history of
segregation in her own white suburb.

“There I was, Linda Lollipop on the doorstep, finding out how, two
miles from my elementary school, the body of the last Black man
officially considered to have been lynched in Fulton County was found
in a creek. I’d thought of myself as so aware, but there was all
this I was clueless about because the system had been set up so that I
wouldn’t learn it. And so that by the time I did, I’d be so
entrenched in keeping what I felt was mine that I wouldn’t question
it.”

One of the transformative aspects of this period has been that, by
participating in protest or activism, in challenging white patriarchal
power structures rather than simply supporting and profiting from
them, some of these women have gotten a glimmer of what it might be
like not to be middle class and white: “I’ve never been in a
situation where I’ve looked at so many faces and seen zero
empathy,” one white woman told
[[link removed]] BuzzFeed’s
Anne Helen Petersen this summer about participating in a Black Lives
Matter protest that drew violent opposition from a biker gang in
Bethel, Ohio. “There was just no recognition that they were speaking
to other human beings … And it was so bizarre to have a guy in a
Confederate bandanna tell me that I better watch where I go, because
he’s going to take me to his truck and tear me apart.”

What these white women were experiencing for the first time — the
dysphoria of exclusion, alienation, and threat even when they are at
home — is familiar to millions of Americans. The growth of movements
doesn’t always, or perhaps doesn’t often, stem from altruism,
compassion, an impulse toward solidarity, or a keen moral compass; a
lot of it is born of self-interest, the realization that it might just
be your body on the line.

But for all the white women who have been genuinely and deeply altered
in these past four years, there are legions whose only reaction has
been to Trump’s vulgarity and not to any of the pre-Trump inequity,
along with plenty of others who appear to be in it for the likes, the
retweets, the expensive T-shirts.

 

The Family-Separation Protest, June 21, 2018: Demonstrators brought
their own children, wrapped in Mylar blankets, to the rotunda of a
building on Capitol Hill to protest the thousands of children
separated from their families and “held in cages” at the border.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images/2018 Getty Images  //  The Cut
IS IT POSSIBLE for protest culture to expand too exponentially? Of
course, that’s a part of the criticism of many who look askance at
the Resistance™ and subscribe to a more puritanical take on activism
— that its power stems from clarity of purpose. They point to how
much support for BLM has receded since the summer, most notably among
white people, how interest in strong gun-control legislation has faded
since March for Our Lives, how many eventually grew numb to the horror
of child separation. If performance of solidarity is a feel-good patch
for people whose commitments are more shallowly rooted, their presence
may be as much of a hindrance — an aberration that permits the
fantasy of success where no progress has actually been made — as a
help.

And yes, a lot of this has been cosplay. For many, gestures (like the
empty black squares on Instagram) have stood in for action. Plenty of
comfortable people, white people — previously somnambulant, now
throwing their fists in the air — don’t really want that much to
change, let alone want to commit to doing any actual work; they just
want the photo of themselves throwing their fists in the air.

But if movements must be mass in order to make a transformative impact
— and there is plenty of evidence that that is true — that mass
will need to include the hypocrites and fair-weather friends and
grifters and performance artists, too; human beings are messy, and if
you want a movement of the people, there’s no getting around …
people. Isn’t one of the goals of progressive activism to shift
public opinion so thoroughly, to make certain unjust hierarchies so
intolerable, so socially unacceptable, that even nonprogressive
people, for nonprogressive reasons, feel they must bend to those moral
standards? It would be great if people did the right things for the
right reasons; short of that, it would be preferable that they did the
right things for bad reasons.

I go back and forth about whether it’s possible to genuinely feel
hope about this period when I look at the country on a precipice. But
it’s the uneasiness of these questions — the seesawing of optimism
and pessimism, the internal contradictions and often painful
untangling of intentions between those who are now very loosely
affiliated with progressive protest — that are, to me, the surest
sign that something real has happened to the American consciousness in
these past few years. It’s because this process has been so fraught,
because paying unwavering attention has been so unpleasant, because
staying engaged as our shortcomings are laid bare is hard, because it
took bearing witness to brutality past and present to create this
spasm of resistance — and yet, so many are still looking directly at
it — that I believe we are experiencing our last shot at a Great
Awakening.

There is a writhing mass of contradiction and imperfection and
disappointment before us. These complexities don’t expose cracks in
revolutionary movements; they strengthen them. Inter-left factional
fights are not out of line with the history of the movements we were
taught to regard as righteous: the women’s movements that emerged
out of Black women’s thinking and then were reconfigured around the
perspectives and priorities of a white middle class; a civil-rights
movement in which women, queer folks, and gender nonconformists were
consciously sidelined; a gay-rights movement that erased Marsha P.
Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie to foreground the
heroics of white cis men; a labor-movement history that is so often
told as being about coal miners and teamsters and too rarely
acknowledges the propulsive efforts of young female mill workers in
Lowell, Black washerwomen in Atlanta, and flight attendants today.

That this is the maddening history of progressive movements does not
mean that we should resign ourselves to hypocrisy and internal
inconsistency as some sort of twisted inheritance; rather, that one of
the most hopeful things about this period is that we have not yet
walked away from this knottiness because it is too hard, nor have we
accepted it as part of the cost of doing business. In these years, the
hypocrisies and inconsistencies have been loudly and insistently
called out — starting with the whiteness of the Women’s March;
through to this summer, when critic Zoé Samudzi noted that the
“Wall of Moms” in Portland, Oregon, who placed their bodies
between police and protesters and sang “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
as a lullaby, were using an “affective power” reliant on “white
women’s innocence” and the sanctity of white motherhood as its
driving force; and into the fall, when _Eloquent Rage_ author
Brittney Cooper critiqued prominent Black men like Ice Cube, who were
voicing support for Trump, for being “enamored with the kind of
masculinity that Trump performs … which is to say they wanna be
patriarchs or male dominant in the way that White men are.”

Aspects of this process keep getting referred to as a “reckoning”
because it’s a lot easier to say _reckoning_ than it is to say
“having all your biases laid out on a table and correctly picked
over because it’s time we addressed this shit head-on.” But a
feminist movement will be stronger for having been forced to wrestle
with the movement away from a carceral system. Activists will be
forced to think harder and with more nuance about advocating for the
imprisonment of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor
[[link removed]],
because they are doing so in the midst of a movement that is
also questioning the very existence of policing and incarceration
practices [[link removed]].
None of this is clean or easily digestible, nor should it feel good
— alliances can fall apart and descend into angry recrimination. But
they don’t have to.

“Argument isn’t an obstacle to the work of historians,” the
historian Nicholas Guyatt recently wrote
[[link removed]] in
the New York _Times _about the raging fights over publication of its
“1619 Project,” “it _is_ the work of historians.” It is also
the work of activists, as many of those activists have long known. It
was in 1983 that Audre Lorde wrote that would-be allies facing their
mutual anger “without rejection, without immobility, without silence
and without guilt, is in itself a heretical and generative idea. For
it assumes that we come together as equals on a common basis to
analyze the differences and to change the distortions that history has
created around them. It is these distortions that separate us. And
what we must ask ourselves is: Who benefits from all this?”

Abusive power structures are built to impede reform and reimagination,
in part by ensuring that those who might want to bring them down are
also implicated within them. Only drastically incomplete movements
could neatly pull at discrete threads of inequity without also pulling
up a whole gnarled root system of oppression and complicity. This is
it, what so many have just woken up to: an entire system designed to
resist uprooting.

And in this, the presidency of Donald Trump has been enormously
useful. As a grotesque embodiment of an outrageously powerful
tradition, he is a walking showcase of the ways in which so many
oppressive interests — capitalism, misogyny, racism, homophobia,
transphobia, xenophobia — are inextricably intertwined. And at least
some of the millions of people who have been persuaded that they
shoulder some responsibility for removing him have come to see that
they also bear some responsibility to act against the forces he has
shown them clearly for the first time.

 

From left: The Youth Climate Strike, September 2019: About 500,000
people, including the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg,
gathered in Montreal as a part of the global Climate Strike, a
weeklong series of demonstrations demanding climate action.
Photo: Eric Demers/Polaris  //  The Cut
The Wall of Moms, July 23, 2020: The Wall of Moms, a group of mostly
white mothers, linked arms to form a barrier between law enforcement
and Black Lives Matter protesters at the George Floyd protests in
Portland, Oregon.
Photo: Octavio Jones/The New York Times/B) The New York Times  //
 The Cut
TROUBLE IS, this potential inflection point, the kind that perhaps
happens once a century, in which a critical mass of people are awake
to inequity and have been convinced that they bear some responsibility
for making the nation better, is happening as the state structures
designed to suppress the masses have grown terrifyingly stronger.
While the majority has been opening its mind — perhaps, in fact,
because the masses are coming to consciousness — the minority has
been extending its power to override that majority.

Trump lost the popular vote, but won the presidency thanks to the
Electoral College, an institution originally designed to suppress
majority opinion and keep power in the hands of those voting for
white-supremacist interests. In four years in the White House, he has
appointed a quarter of the federal bench — thanks to a Senate that
confirmed those judges and also successfully blocked more than a
hundred judicial appointments made by Barack Obama, a president who
was popularly elected twice.

This month, Trump got to appoint his third justice, delivering a 6-3
conservative Supreme Court that will shape law for a generation.
Barrett will be confirmed by the Senate, a body that has become ever
more representative of minority white power over a diverse majority.
Her confirmation alongside Roberts and Kavanaugh will mean that
one-third of the Court will be composed of justices who worked on the
legal team that helped Trump’s Republican predecessor in the White
House, George W. Bush, win the presidency via the Electoral College
and a Supreme Court decision. Bush, in turn, nominated Roberts to the
Court; he is now chief justice. So presidents chosen by a minority of
Americans will have shaped the future of Americans’ rights to vote,
unionize, gain access to health care, and prioritize the survival of
the planet over the profits of corporations by empowering judges who
helped them override democracy — and can be counted on in the future
to do the same.

A majority of Americans believed Trump should be removed from office,
but the Senate — which does not include representation for
Washington, D.C., with a population larger than Vermont’s and
Wyoming’s, or for Puerto Rico, home to more Americans than at least
21 other states — voted to keep him there. A majority of Americans
didn’t want Kavanaugh confirmed to the Court, yet there he sits; a
majority didn’t want Trump to nominate RBG’s successor before the
election, but here comes Barrett and her commitment to a chillingly
conservative jurisprudence.

Now that the mechanisms are nearly all in place, well oiled and
humming along efficiently, the roar of the public is growing louder,
and those at the controls are getting more open in their aims and no
longer need to dress up their project, which is exerting minority
control and doing away with even the window dressing of a democracy.

“Democracy isn’t the objective,” Senator Mike Lee tweeted in
early October. “Liberty, peace and prospefity [_sic_] are.” Lee is
not alone in his recent open disdain for democracy. “Our Founding
Fathers hated democracy,” said Washington GOP gubernatorial
candidate Loren Culp, a small-town police chief, the week before
Lee’s remarks. “Because democracy is mob rule. When the majority
rules, the minority is trampled on.” This lays it bare. The language
of “mob rule” is what authoritarians use to cast themselves as
victims of a roused populace: “Mob justice” is what critics called
Me Too; it’s how the right has long referred to the Movement for
Black Lives; Trump called those who protested Kavanaugh’s
confirmation “an angry mob.” Lee’s formulation is an old trick,
the casting of the oppressors as the oppressed.

Tension around whether to leave questions of governance and justice to
an American majority is long-standing and extends back to the
founding. But in a grotesquely stratified nation, the real worry is
about whether to put the protections or rights of an oppressed
minority to an empowered majority; it was this dynamic that, for
example, led to the failure of some gay-marriage referendums before
the tide of public opinion shifted. But protections for the
marginalized are not what Lee and Culp are defending, as much as they
may be straining to make it sound that way. Instead, they are
explicitly arguing against the ability of the governed to select their
representation and implicitly arguing for the unchecked authority of a
political regime. What does any of this have to do with the awakening
to protest and civic activism? It’s how it gets beaten back, made
ineffectual. It is also what produced it, to some degree. The question
is: Who will win?

When I was in high school, there was an afternoon on which I was
leaning slightly on the trunk of a friend’s parent’s car, talking
with the friend. All of a sudden, the car started moving backward; I
realized in slow motion that I was being run over. I began screaming,
my friend began screaming. The car just kept coming. It lasted only a
couple of seconds, but I have never forgotten what it felt like to
have that metal rolling into my body, the realization that there was
nothing I could do to stop it, that my own muscle was unequal to the
job, and that there was a good chance that all the yelling in the
world wouldn’t be able to halt this car’s slow reverse.

The metaphor is surely infelicitous, given that it was a car that hit
and killed Heather Heyer, that police cars were used in cities and
towns all through this country this summer to literally run through
barricades and protesters. But this is what it means to empower state
institutions to simply run through people and their protestations.
This is a Kentucky police department that simply doesn’t impose
repercussions on officers for murdering Breonna Taylor; it’s a Trump
Justice Department that steps in to defend the president against rape
charges; it’s a governor and Trump-appointed judges in Florida who
can just overturn the will of voters by imposing a poll tax on former
felons whom Floridians had overwhelmingly elected to reenfranchise in
2018. At every turn, there is a tool available to those holding power
to stop the people from exerting any of their own.

So here we are: In the same period that Americans have been snapped to
consciousness at a level larger than any we’ve seen in 60 years,
what they have awakened to is a nightmare: the sounds of children
screaming at the border; men gasping that they cannot breathe; women
revealing that “there were mass hysterectomies” and that what
remains “indelible on the hippocampus is the laughter” and making
deathbed wishes for a nation, destined to be ignored.

But the nightmare hasn’t just been the ghoulish viscera of
suffering. It has also been the closing of escape hatches, diminishing
paths to resistance. The awakened and panicked and furious populace
may suddenly be running as fast as it can through corridors it has
been taught are the paths to progress — voting, organizing,
unionizing, bringing lawsuits, registering voters, marching, giving
money, educating themselves — but the hallways are collapsing.

It is surely self-regarding and myopic to think today’s situation is
more dire, or has a clock on it ticking any more loudly, than it was
for previous generations of Americans who, awake to structurally
supported violence and inhumanity, fought for better and produced
victories, incomplete and temporary, but victories nonetheless. But as
the ice caps break apart and so many of our states burn and flood,
it’s hard not to ask, with hope and desperation: What — if
anything — will we make of our latest, and perhaps last, chance at
social revolution?

 

A March for Black Trans Lives, June 14, 2020: Also referred to as the
Brooklyn Liberation March, the crowd of 15,000 stretched several
blocks from the Brooklyn Museum down Eastern Parkway.
Photo: Michael Noble Jr./Getty Images/2020 Getty Images  //  The Cut
THE GOOD NEWS is that the minority power, the institutions, the right
wing, would not be calcifying around authoritarian rule so brazenly if
they didn’t understand the genuine disadvantages of being on the
wrong side of public opinion. They see an opposition populace — if
not yet an organized opposition party — that is finding new ways to
fight them.

The uprisings of the past few years have already succeeded in putting
a new generation of combative Democrats in office: The Squad and Katie
Porter and Marie Newman and Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush are in a
position to materially alter their party at a federal level, to lead
it, and to bolster the efforts of already pugilistic, energetic
Democrats, including Warren, Sanders, Jayapal, and Barbara Lee.
Meanwhile, candidates and organizations have taken advantage of the
recent interest in electoral politics to push more Americans’
attention toward their state legislatures and local government.
“Five years ago, if you’d mentioned that Cobb County sheriff to
me, I would have been like, ‘There’s a sheriff?’ ” one white
woman outside Atlanta told me in 2019. “Now I can tell you his name
and who’s running against him” and that at least seven people have
died in his custody since 2018.

There are also new economic tools on hand: Sanders broke records
during the primary with small-dollar donations; in the month that he
announced Harris as his running mate, Biden did too. In the two weeks
after Ginsburg’s death, ActBlue raised half a billion dollars, and
Jaime Harrison, a Democratic challenger to Lindsey Graham in South
Carolina, broke a quarterly record for any Senate candidate, raising
$57 million with an average donation of $37, a haul that shows
Democrats’ changing relationship to fund-raising not only against a
party long funded by billionaires but also to non-presidential
campaigns. If, as _Citizens United_ assured us, money is speech,
then Democrats are hollering. In October, McConnell complained to
lobbyists about his party’s Senate candidates being swamped by
small-dollar donations.

Money hasn’t just flowed to the Democratic Party: During this
summer’s protests, the civil-rights-advocacy organization Color of
Change quadrupled its membership from 1.7 million to 7 million and
received hundreds of thousands of individual donations. Bail funds
around the country received more than $90 million in the first two
weeks of June. Even some of the left’s billionaires have redirected
their financial energies; longtime Democratic Party donor Susan
Sandler announced in September that she was donating $200 million to
racial-justice organizations. “When our government, corporate, and
other societal institutions are responsive to — and frankly, fearful
of — the people who must bear the brunt of inequality and injustice,
then better priorities, practices, and policies follow,” she wrote.

If Democrats win, there is a blueprint, being vocally presented by
activists, of what can be done to break the right’s stranglehold on
power: passage of a Voting Rights Act; the overturning of _Citizens
United_; statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; the end of
the judicial filibuster; and court reform not simply on a federal
level but at the State Supreme Court level. There are even more road
maps: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college and paid
family leave and subsidized day care and a wealth tax and prison
abolition. Some of these ideas may still be considered radical, but
they nonetheless have entered the mainstream lexicon.

 

The Black Lives Matter Protest, June 2, 2020: A Black Lives Matter
protest in Manhattan. This photo was taken between 70th and 71st
Street on West End Avenue.
Photo: Steven John Irby  //  The Cut
AND OF COURSE there are past models for the unlikely victories of
people over the mechanisms built to keep them powerless. Enslaved
Americans won liberation despite the legal and political erasure of
their very humanity; poor immigrant workers extracted protections and
concessions from corporate behemoths; those barred from participating
in democracy via the franchise have, by waging a battle that lasted
centuries and continues today, gained their ballots.

But what these models also suggest is that there will be enormous
suffering, sacrifice, and loss ahead. A fight to keep moving forward
in the face of institutional obstruction will be arduous,
discomfiting; it will take an extremely long time. And that’s not
the kind of reality that is going to easily compete with brunch for
millions longing to simply return to “normal.”

This is just one of the reasons to fear that Trump and the Republican
Party will win in 2020 — with or without the help of the Supreme
Court. Yes, because this outcome would offer the right further
unchecked power over people and the planet. But also because if enough
people believe the problem was Trump — and not the interconnected
inequities he embodied and exposed, not the authoritarian, right-wing
power grab he made so visible and unadorned — and if the effort to
defeat him fails, too many will think their exertions were for naught,
rather than understanding them as a crucial early stage in organizing.

But there is a twinned risk: the risk of winning on Election Day.
Because if Trump is defeated, if the Senate goes to Democrats, the
temptation for too many will be to curl back up and return to slumber.

Coalitions have fallen throughout this country’s history, both after
crushing defeats and in the wake of terribly incomplete victories.
Activists have treated first-step wins — the _Roe_ decision or the
election of a Black president — as glorious endpoints rather than as
the beginnings that they are. It is so easy to forget that, as
Florynce Kennedy observed, “Freedom is like taking a bath; you’ve
got to keep doing it every day,” and that when the fight is for
something as fragile as liberty and dignity for the structurally
oppressed, there will always be forces strategizing to strip it away
again as soon as possible.

And so perhaps the grimmest read of what has happened in these past
four years paradoxically offers the greatest hope for an engaged
populace going forward: that the results of this right-wing project
may be so calamitous, so disastrous for so many millions — a 6-3
Court; corporations given free rein to drill us into destruction;
rising seas and raging fires and rampaging plagues — that returning
to unconsciousness is simply not going to be possible.

_*This article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New
York Magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
[[link removed]]_

_[REBECCA TRAISTER is writer at large for New York magazine and its
website The Cut, and a contributing editor at Elle. A National
Magazine Award finalist, she has written about women in politics,
media, and entertainment from a feminist perspective for The New
Republic and Salon and has also contributed to The Nation, The New
York Observer, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue, Glamour
and Marie Claire. She is the author of All the Single Ladies
[[link removed]]
and the award-winning Big Girls Don’t Cry
[[link removed]].]_

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