Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option

The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation. That alone is reason to fight, rather than surrender to despair

Last month, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden had a public dialogue about republic, transparency, whistleblowing and more. In the course of it, Snowden who was of course Skyping in from Moscow said that without Ellsbergs example he would not have done what he did to exposure the extent to which the NSA was spying on millions of ordinary people. It was an extraordinary declaration. It meant that the results of Ellsbergs release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 were not limited to the impact on a presidency and a war in the 1970 s. The consequences were not limited to people alive at that moment. His act was to have an impact on people decades later Snowden was born 12 years after Ellsberg risked his future for the sake of his principles. Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.

The most important consequences are often the most indirect. I sometimes wonder when Im at a mass procession like the Womens March a month ago whether the reason it matters is because some unknown young person is going to find her purpose in life that will only be evident to the rest of us when she changes the world in 20 years, when she becomes a great liberator.

I began talking about hope in 2003, in the bleak days after the war in Iraq was launched. Fourteen years later, I use the term hope because it navigates a way forward between the false certainties of optimism and of despair, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both. Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; despair presumes its all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing. Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we dont actually know what will happen, but know we may be able write it ourselves.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. Its informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it. Hope looks forward, but it draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections. It means not being the perfect that is the adversary of the good , not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory , not presuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.

We are complex beasts. Hope and anguish can coexist within us and in our movements and analysis. Theres a scene in the new movie about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, in which Robert Kennedy predicts, in 1968, that in 40 years there will be a black chairwoman. Its an astonishing prophecy since four decades later Barack Obama wins the presidential election, but Baldwin jeerings at it because the style Kennedy has presented it does not acknowledge that even the most magnificent pie in the sky might comfort white people who dont like racism but doesnt wash away the ache and indignation of black people suffering that racism in the here and now. Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movements mission as rooted in grief and fury but pointed towards vision and dreams. The vision of a better future doesnt have to deny the crimes and sufferings of the present; it matters because of that horror.

I have been moved and thrilled and astounded by the strength, breadth, depth and generosity of the resistance to the Trump administration and its agenda. I did not anticipate anything so bold, so permeating, something that would include state governments, many government employees from governors and mayors to workers in many federal departments, little town in red states, new organisations like the 6,000 chapters of Indivisible reportedly formed since the election, new and fortified immigrant-rights groups, religious groups, one of the biggest demonstrations in American history with the Womens March on 21 January, and so much more.

Ive also been worried about whether it will endure. Newcomers often think that results are either immediate or theyre nonexistent. That if you dont succeed straight away, you failed. Such a framework constructs many give up and should be going when the momentum is build and victories are within reach. This is a dangerous blunder Ive insured over and over. What follows is the defense of a complex calculus of change, instead of the simple arithmetic of short-term cause and consequence.

Theres a bookstore I love in Manhattan, the Housing Works bookshop, which Ive gone to for years for a bite to eat and a superb selection of used volumes. Last October my friend Gavin Browning, who works at Columbia University but volunteers with Housing Works, reminded me what the name entails. Housing Works is a spinoff of Act up, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, founded at the height of the Aids crisis, to push for access to experimental medications, bringing awareness to the direness of the epidemic, and not run gentle into that bad night of premature death.

What did Act up do? The group of furious, fierce activists, many of them dangerously ill and succumbing, changed how we think about Assists. They pushed to speed up medication trials, deal with the many symptoms and complications of Aids together, pushed on policy, education, outreach, money. They taught people with Aids and their allies in other countries how to fight the narcotic companies for affordable access to what they needed. And win.

Members of Act Up, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, at the Gay and Lesbian Pride March in New York City on 26 June 1988. Photograph: The New York Historical Society/ Getty Images

Browning lately wrote: At the start of the 1990 s, New York City had less than 350 divisions of housing set aside for an estimated 13,000 homeless individuals living with HIV/ Aids. In answer, four members of the Act up housing committee founded Housing Works in 1990. They still softly offer a broad array of services, including housing, to HIV-positive people 27 years later. All I insured was a bookstore; I missed a lot. Act Ups work is not over, in any sense.

For many groups, motions and mutinies, there are spinoffs, daughters, domino effects, chain reaction, new models and examples and templates and toolboxes that emerge from the experimentations, and every round of activism is an experiment whose outcomes can be applied to other situations. To be hopeful, we need not only to embrace uncertainty but to be willing to know that the consequences is a possibility immeasurable, may still be unfolding, may be as indirect as poor person on other continents getting access to medicine because activists in the USA stood up and refused to accept things as the latter are. Think of hope as a banner woven from those gossamer threads, from a sense of the interconnectedness of all things, of the lasting effect of the best actions , not only the worst. Of an indivisible world in which everything matters.

An old woman said at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street were fighting for a society in which everyone is important, the most beautifully concise summing-up of what a compassionately revolutionary, deep democratic movement might aim to do. Occupy Wall Street was mocked and was regarded as chaotic and ineffectual in its first weeks, and then when it spread nationwide and beyond, as failing or failed, by pundits who had simple metrics of what success should look like. The original occupation in lower Manhattan was broken up in November 2011, but many of the encampments inspired by it lasted far longer.

Occupy launched a motion against student indebtednes and opportunistic for-profit colleges; it shed light on the ache and barbarism of the financial breakdown and the American debt-peonage system. It called out economic inequality in a new way. California passed a homeowners bill of rights to push back at predatory lenders; a housing defense motion arose in the wake of Occupy that, home by home, protected many vulnerable homeowners. Each Occupy had its own involvement with local government and its own projects; a year ago people involved with local Occupies told me the flourishing outgrowths still make a difference. Occupy persists, but you have to learn to recognise the myriad forms in which it does so , none of which seem much like Occupy Wall Street as a crowd in a square in lower Manhattan.

Similarly, I think its a mistake to regard the collect of tribes and activists at Standing Rock, North Dakota, as something we can measure by whether or not it defeats a pipeline. You could go past that to note that simply delaying completion beyond 1 January cost the investors a fortune, and that the tremendous motion that has generated widespread divestment and a lot of scrutiny of hitherto invisible corporations and environmental destruction constructs constructing pipelines look like a riskier, potentially less profitable business.

Standing Rock was vaster than these practical things. At its height it was almost certainly the biggest political gathering of Native North Americans ever seen, said to be the first time all seven bands of the Lakota had come together since they defeated Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876, one that made an often-invisible tribe visible around the world. What unfolded there seemed as though it might not undo one pipeline but write a revolutionary new chapter to a history of more than 500 years of colonial brutality, centuries of loss, dehumanization and dispossession. Thousands of veterans came to defend the encampment and help prevent the pipeline. In one momentous rite, many of the former soldiers knelt down to apologize and ask forgiveness for the US armys long role in oppressing Native Americans. Like the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island at the end of the 1960 s, Standing Rock has been a catalyst for a sense of power, pride, destiny. It is an affirmation of solidarity and interconnection, an education for people who didnt know much about native the same rights and incorrects, an affirmation for Native people who often recollect history in passionate detail. It is a confirmation of the deep ties between the climate movement and indigenous rights that has played a huge role in stopping pipelines in and from Canada. It has inspired and informed young people who may have half a century or more of good work yet to do. It has been a beacons whose meaning stretches beyond that time and place.

To know history is to be able to see beyond the present, to remember the past gives you capacity to look forward as well, its to see that everything changes and the most dramatic changes are often the most unforeseen. I want to go into one part of our history at greater length to investigate these questions about outcomes that go beyond simple cause and consequence.

A water protector at Standing Rock, where thousands gathered to protest the Dakota Access pipeline and its menace to the Missouri river. Photograph: Pacific Press/ Rex/ Shutterstock

The 1970 s anti-nuclear movement was a potent force in its period , now seldom recollected, though its influence is still with us. In her important new book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, LA Kauffman reports that the first significant action against nuclear power, in 1976, was inspired by an extraordinary protest the previous year in West Germany, which had forced the government to abandon plans to build a nuclear reactor. A group that called itself the Clamshell Alliance arose to oppose building a nuclear power station in New Hampshire. Despite creative tactics, great movement building, and extensive media coverage against the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, the activists did not stop the plant.

They did inspire a sister organisation, the Abalone Alliance in central California, which used similar strategies to try to stop the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The groups protested against two particular nuclear power plants; those two plants opened anyway.

You can call that a failure, but Kauffman observes that it inspired people around the country to organize their own anti-nuclear groups, a motion that brought about the cancellation of more than 100 planned nuclear projects over several years and created public awareness and changed public opinion about nuclear power. Then she gets into the really exciting part, writing that the Clamshell Alliances most striking legacy was in consolidating and promoting what became the dominant model for large-scale direct-action organizing for the next 40 years. It was picked up by the Pledge of Resistance, a nationwide network of groups organized against US policy in Central America in the 1980 s.

Hundreds more employed it that fall in a civil disobedience action to protest the supreme courts anti-gay Bowers vs Hardwick sodomy decision, Kauffman continues. The Aids activist group Act up employed a version of this model when it coordinated bold takeovers of the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration in 1988 and the National Institutes of Health in 1990, to pressure both institution to take swifter action toward approving experimental Aids medication. And on into the current millennium. But what were the strategies and coordinating principles they catalyzed?

The short answer is non-violent direct action, externally, and consensus decision-making process, internally. The former has a history that reaches around the world, the latter that stretches back to the early history of European dissenters in North America. That is , non-violence is a strategy articulated by Mohandas Gandhi, first used by residents of Indian descent to protest against discrimination in South Africa on 11 September 1906. The young lawyers sense of prospect and power was expanded immediately afterward where reference is traveled to London to pursue his cause. Three days after he arrived, British females battling for the right to vote occupied the British parliament, and 11 were arrested, refused to pay their penalties, and were sent to prison. They made a deep impression on Gandhi.

He wrote about them in a piece titled Deeds Better than Words quoting Jane Cobden, the sister of one of the arrestees, who told, I shall never obey any laws in the making of which I have had no hand; I will not accept the authority of the court executing those laws Gandhi declared: Today the whole country is laughing at them, and they have only a few people on their side. But undaunted, these women work on steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise And he saw that if they could win, so could the Indian citizens in British Africa fighting for their rights. In the same article( in 1906 !) he prophesied: When the time comes, Indias bonds will snap of themselves. Notions are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, gallantry is contagious. When we represent those qualities, or their opposites, we impart them to others.

That is to say, British suffragists, who won limited access to the vote for women in 1918, full access in 1928, played a part in inspiring an Indian human who 20 years later resulted the freeing of the Asian subcontinent from British rule. He, in turn, inspired a black human in the American south to study his ideas and their application. After a 1959 pilgrimage to India to meet with Gandhis heirs, Martin Luther King wrote: While the Montgomery boycott was going on, Indias Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change. We spoke of him often. Those techniques, further developed by the civil right movement, were taken up around the world, including in the fight against apartheid at one objective of the African continent and to the Arab spring at the other.

Participation in the civil right motion of the early 1960 s shaped many lives. One of them is John Lewis, one of the first Freedom Riders, a young leader of the lunch counter sit-ins, a victim of a brutal beating that broke his skull on the Selma march. Lewis was one of the boldest in questioning Trumps legitimacy and he resulted dozens of other Democratic each member of Congress in boycotting the inauguration. When the attack on Muslim refugees and immigrants began a week after Trumps inauguration, he demonstrated up at the Atlanta airport.

Thats a lot to take in. But let me set it this style. When those women were arrested in parliament, they were fighting for the right of British females to vote. They succeeded in liberating themselves. But they also passed along tactics, spirit and defiance. You can trace a lineage backwards to the anti-slavery movement that inspired the American women suffrage motion, forwardright up to John Lewis standing up for refugees and Muslims in the Atlanta airport this year. We are carried along by the heroines and heroes who came before and opened the doors of potential and imagination.

My partner likes to quote a line of Michel Foucault: People know what they do; often they know why they do what they do; but what they dont know is what what they do does. You do what you can. What youve done may do more than you can imagine for generations to come. You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, tint, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, timber to build a cradle or a house? You dont know. A tree can live much longer than you. So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that is a consequence of accepting that new idea about what is true, right, only remake the world. You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.

Schoolchildren dress as Gandhi during festivities to mark the 143 rd anniversary of his birth. Photograph: Babu/ Reuters

Thats a style to remember the legacy of the external practise of non-violent civil disobedience used by the anti-nuclear motion of the 1970 s, as with the civil rights movement of the 1960 s, which did so much to expand and refine the techniques.

As for the internal process: in Direct Action, Kauffman addresses the Clamshell Alliances influences, quoting a participant named Ynestra King who said: Certain kinds that had been learned from feminism were just naturally introduced into the situation and a certain ethos of respect, which was reinforced by the Quaker tradition. Suki Rice and Elizabeth Boardman, early participants in the Clamshell Alliance, as Kauffman relates, were influenced by the Quakers, and they brought the Quaker practice of consensus decision-making to the new group: The notion was to ensure that no ones voice was stillness, that there was no division between leaders and adherents. The Quakers have been since the 17 th century radical dissidents who opposed war, hierarchical structures and much else. An organizer named Joanne Sheehan said, while non-violence educate, doing actions in small groups, and agreeing to a situated of non-violence guidelines were not new, it was new to mix them in combination with a commitment to consensus decision-making and a non-hierarchical structure. They were making a way of operating and coordinating that spread throughout the progressive activist world.

There are terrible narratives about how diseases like Aids jump species and mutate. There are also ideas and tactics that jump communities and mutate, to our benefit. There is an evil word, collateral injury, for the people who die unintentionally: the civilians , non-participants, etc. Maybe what I am proposing here is an idea of collateral benefit.

What we call democracy is often a majority rule that leaves the minority, even 49.9% of the people or more if its a three-way vote out in the cold. Consensus leaves no one out. After Clamshell, it jumped into radical politics and reshaped them, building them more generously inclusive and egalitarian. And its been sharpened and refined and used by nearly every movement Ive been a part of or witnessed, from the anti-nuclear actions at the Nevada test site in the 1980 s and 1990 s to the organization of the closing of the World Trade Organization in late 1999, a victory against neoliberalism that changed the fate of the world, to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and after.

So what did the Clamshell Alliance attain? Everything but its putative objective. Tools to change the world, over and over. There are crimes against humanity, criminal offences against nature, and other forms of destruction that we need to stop as rapidly as possible, and the endeavors to do so are under way. They are informed by these earlier activists, equipped with the tools they developed. But the efforts against these things can have a longer legacy, if we learn to recognize collateral benefits and indirect effects.

If you are a member of civil society, if you demonstrate and call your representatives and donate to human rights campaigns, you will see political leaders and magistrates and the powerful take or be given credit for the changes you effected, sometimes after resisting and resisting them. You will have to believe in your own power and impact anyway. You will have to keep in mind that many of our greatest victories are what doesnt happen: what isnt constructed or destroyed, deregulated or legitimized, passed into statute or tolerated in the culture. Things disappear because of our efforts and we forget they were there, which is a way to forget we tried and won.

Even losing can be part of the process: as the bills to abolish bondage in the British empire failed over and over again, the ideas behind them spread, until 27 years after the first bill was introduced, a version ultimately passed. You will have to remember that the media usually likes to tell simple, direct tales in which if a court regulations or an elective body passes a statute, that action reflects the actors own beneficence or insight or evolution. They will seldom go further to explore how that view was shaped by the nameless and unsung, by the people whose actions built up a new world or worldview the way that innumerable corals build a reef.

The only power adequate to stop the Trump administration is other members of civil society, which is the great majority of us when we recollect our power and come together. And even if we remember, even if we exert all the pressure can potentially, even if the administration breakdowns immediately, or the president resigns or is impeached or melts into a puddle of corruption, our work will only have begun.

International Womens Day 2017. Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/ Getty Images

That job begins with resisting the Trump administration but will not aim until we have made deep systemic changes and recommitted ourselves , not just as a revolution, because revolutions dont last, but as a civil society with values of equal opportunities, democracy, inclusion, full participation, a radical e pluribus unum plus compassion. As has often been noted, the Republican revolution that allowed them to take over so many state houses and take power far beyond their numbers came partly from corporate money, but partly from the willingness to do the slacken, plodding, patient run of building and preserving power from the ground up and being in it for the long run. And partly from telling stories that, though often deeply distorting the facts and forces at play, were obligating. This work is always, first and last, storytelling work, or what some of my friends call the battle of the narrative. House, remember, retelling, celebrating our own narratives is part of our run.

I want to see this glorious resistance have a long game, one that includes re-enfranchising the many millions, perhaps tens of millions of people of color, poor people, and students disenfranchised by many means: the Crosscheck program, voter ID statutes that proceed from the deception that voter fraud is a serious problem that affects election outcomes, the laws taking voting rights in most nations from those convicted of felonies. I am encouraging to note many idealistic activists bent on reforming the Democratic party, and a new level of participation inside and outside electoral politics. Reports say that the offices of elected official are inundated with calls and emails as never before.

This will merely matter if its sustained. To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. That they matter even when the consequences arent immediate or obvious. They must remember that often when you fail at your immediate objective to block a nominee or a gas pipeline or to pass a bill that even then you may have changed the whole framework in ways that induce broader change inevitable. You may change the tale or the rules, give tools, templates or encouragement to future activists, and make it possible for those around you to persist in their efforts.

To believe it matters well, we cant assure the future. We have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles and resources, and stories of valour, brilliance, perseverance, and the deep pleasure to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in our pockets, we can confiscate the possibilities and begin to stimulate hopes into actualities.

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