It started at the airport.
Donald Trump’s first incoherent stab at an executive order restricting immigration unfurled in chaotic, terrifying fashion late on Jan. 27. Word spread; people mobilized. Across the country, from JFK to LAX, protests swelled into the thousands. Elected officials made speeches. Taxi drivers went on strike. And, eventually, one by one, travelers from Iran and Syria and Somalia were released from secondary detention and sent on their way—the ones who weren’t packed back onto a plane, that is.
At O’Hare, a squad of volunteer lawyers worked laptops and iPhones at a makeshift workspace across from the international terminal’s McDonald’s. In that bureaucratic limbo in which everything and nothing seemed to be happening all at once, the mood was grave. But the sense of collective purpose was unmistakable, and exhilarating.
Rebecca Kristall, a corporate lawyer with a toddler in tow, had gotten word of the immigration ban and the ensuing airport mobilizations via Action for a Better Tomorrow, a statewide advocacy organization focused on congressional politics that launched after the election as a Facebook group, and that now has chapters across Illinois. Her husband had been at the aquarium with their daughter when she got the email, and she texted him immediately: “When are you coming home? We need the car. We’re going to the airport.”
“This country was founded by immigrants!” she added. “This stuff that is happening right now, this is not the America I believe in.”
As the lawyers worked, more and more people poured off the trains carrying placards, flags and babies. “No hate, no fear! Immigrants are welcome here!” they chanted. Something was happening. That much was clear.
By the next day it seemed that, by all accounts, it was the start of the #resistance.
Or did it start at the Women’s March? After weeks of careful planning by coalitions forged of longtime activists and newbies across the country, the emotional impact of millions marching in solidarity, in pink hats or in black, in D.C. or in South Bend, was undeniable. And emotion, as we now well know, is a powerful mobilizer.
Or did it start Nov. 9—as thousands of gut-punched people took to the streets as if of one mind, converging at Trump Tower, pouring into the streets from Pittsburgh to Oakland?
Or did it start at Standing Rock? In Ferguson? In the Wisconsin Capitol building? In Zuccotti Park? Or even earlier, in 1999, in Seattle, during the WTO?
Across the country every resister—every veteran activist or newly activated warrior—has a personal origin story.
But only months into the Trump presidency, there’s still no answer to the question of how to mobilize so many from so many points on the political spectrum in solidarity to effect real, lasting progressive change.
In the weeks following the election I was invited to join more mailing lists, reading circles and secret Facebook groups than ever before in my life. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t alone.
One afternoon in February, in Chicago, I and at least 100 other people jammed into the overheated community room of a branch library on the city’s northwest side. A few of them were wearing pink hats—but only a few. It was the first big meeting for the neighborhood chapter of Indivisible, a grassroots national campaign devoted, like Action for a Better Tomorrow, to changing Congress. Before the meeting started, the air practically crackled as people shed their puffy coats into heaps on the ground and fanned themselves with the day’s agenda, eager to begin. But as soon as the facilitator reached a critical bullet point—what are you willing to commit to doing, and when can you do it?—the room fell into confused silence.
Indivisible is emerging as one of the most effective new organizing strategies on the newly activated left. More so than some pre-existing advocacy groups. More so than Bernie Sanders’ oddly inert “Our Revolution.” Certainly more than the Democratic National Committee. It’s based on principles hastily outlined, post-election, by a clutch of former Capitol Hill staffers, (including one, Angel Padilla, who used to work for my congressman, 4th District Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez). Tearing a few pages from the Tea Party playbook, the group created a manual for jamming the gears of government.
The tactics are simple: Show up at town halls, keep the pressure on, let your representatives—even the progressives—know that you are always watching. “It’s the Tea Party inverted,” the founders explained in a New York Times op-ed. “Locally driven advocacy built on inclusion, fairness and respect. It’s playing defense, not to obstruct, but to protect.” In other words, a simple, easy-to-replicate template for activism, for people fired up for change but largely lacking existing social or political networks to channel that energy into action—what veteran organizer and union lawyer Marshall Ganz describes as “a plausible pathway to action.” Four months after the election, the guide has been downloaded more than a million times, and there are Indivisible chapters in every congressional district except one.
For a while in that community room, though, the facilitators were having a hard time clearing the brush from that plausible path. The mission of the meeting (“what next?”) was hard to grasp and harder still to move beyond circular questioning and individual agendas. For a span, it all felt hopeless, as though the wheels of activism were doomed only to spin deeper into the mud.
It was maybe half an hour before someone put pen to the whiteboard, and issue-specific groups were hurriedly convened: health care over here, immigration rights over there. But after those 30 minutes of graceless whacking through distress and dissent, the path was clearer. The event produced only small tangibles—emails were exchanged; hypothetical next steps were hastily hammered out. It did not deliver the adrenaline hit of a successful protest, by any stretch. But it offered something better and sadly more suited to the times: an object lesson in how to persevere, and work through, discouragement.
The meeting ended with another rousing round of chants: “Tell us what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” It may not have been the most appropriate move in a neighborhood public library, but it worked.
The importance of managing expectations and discouragement, conflict and burnout is the spun-steel thread that runs through any useful primer on 2017 resistance.
Months after the travel ban, airport legal teams carry on out of the spotlight. Calls go out on Twitter for volunteers. The Day Without an Immigrant protests on Feb. 16 marshaled thousands (millions?)—but the impact of the March 8 women’s strike was hampered (at least in the U.S.) by charges of elitism and confusion about the strike’s goal. The nomination of Betsy DeVos, an utterly unqualified and ethically compromised person, as Secretary of Education, generated enough public outrage to almost-but-not-quite torpedo her appointment, but the equally ignorant Ben Carson slid into his position with barely a bump. And what about the disastrous raid in Yemen that killed both a Navy SEAL and Nawar al-Alwalki, an 8-year-old U.S. citizen? Or the burning of the camp at Standing Rock. Or Trump’s not-so-veiled insinuation that anti-Semitic vandalism at cemeteries and bomb threats at Jewish daycares were some sort of “false flag” feints? What about the vicious, pointless, racist murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, and the presidential silence in response? Or, speaking here from Chicago, what about the ongoing chest-thumping threats to strip Chicago and other “sanctuary cities” of federal funding?
As much as the left is spurred to action, it’s an unavoidable truth that even in good times, let alone, say, yesterday, it can at times be easier to simply absorb the shock waves and move on with daily life, especially if daily life wasn’t going that well long before Nov. 8. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Despair demands less of us, it’s predictable and, in a sad way, safer.”
Couple that with the acceleration of the unbearably bitter Bernie vs. Hillary debate into an intractable enmity between moderate liberals and the more radical left—looking at you Nancy Pelosi, but also at you, Glenn Greenwald—and it’s not surprising movements stall. Much like health care, it’s not news to anyone with skin in the game that it’s stunningly hard to build the perfect big tent for a movement, one that centers people of color and gender and sexual identity while also appealing to the white working class; one that foregrounds economic justice but doesn’t alarm those Democrats who were, relatively speaking, doing just fine under Obama and are only now waking up to the idea that the wheels of Washington could easily reverse course and crush them in their path.
It’s certainly been hard for me to sort out. Like many, I’ve longed for a charismatic leader to emerge and tell me what to do. But when, in the time-honored tradition of procrastinating writers, I put a Facebook call out for “leaders” people have turned to for inspiration lately, the answers ranged from Theodor Adorno to James Baldwin to Masha Gessen to Mariame Kaba to “my mom, seriously.” As one person commented, “The cool thing is, there ain’t no one person.” Notably, no one mentioned Chuck Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in Washington.
Seeking clarity, at the end of February I went to a panel on civil disobedience hosted by a feminist bookstore on the city’s north side. It didn’t help stamp down my increasingly urgent panic, but as the disparate panelists—two lawyers, an organizer and a novelist—sought common ground, it cast the challenge ahead in starker relief.
“The Democrats helped us get here. Liberalism isn’t enough,” a direct action organizer named Kelly Hayes said at the panel. “So now we’re in a moment where establishment Democrats are calling themselves the resistance. This isn’t how we’re going to win.”
You could see uncomfortable awareness shimmy through the audience, 60 or so people, mostly white, most bearing the good teeth and shoes of relative comfort: She is talking about me.
“We can’t simply participate in moments any more,” Hayes continued, her voice shaking with emotion. “Building culture, building community in addition to taking action is what movement work looks like. An event like the Women’s March, or a major sit-in downtown, we need this.But we also need to be actively figuring out how does each of us contribute to the subversion full time. What do you have to give to the resistance? Because there has to be an actual resistance.”
“Imagine a reality in which the values of social justice do not need to be defensively guarded by a righteous few—because those values have been woven into the fabric of society itself.”
That’s longtime grassroots organizer Jonathan Matthew Smucker, whose book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals tries to offer strategic answers to that pesky question, “How do we get there?”
Much of his answer boils down to a central premise: that “the larger social world must always be our starting place and our touchstone. We have to meet people where they are at.”
Solnit again: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act.”
So, in the face of despair and division, where does “the resistance” go from here, in search of hope?
To echo Smucker, and many others, it goes home. It goes local. Because the most effective organizing doesn’t get done on Facebook, or in Congress—it happens face to face, door to door, neighbor to neighbor. As my friend Bob, a lawyer and longtime community organizer is fond of saying, “Signs don’t vote.” And there’s no moment more fraught with uncertainty than the space between ringing a doorbell and a door opening to reveal another person as confused as you are.
On the morning of the Indivisible meeting, I went out canvassing with a group from Grassroots Illinois Action, a long-standing progressive group focused on mobilizing voters around neighborhood issues, like funding the local park beach. Canvassing, as anyone who’s done it knows, can be boring and lonely, especially in February. Door after door is closed in your face or never answered at all. Without an election to organize around, the morning canvass centered on the drab task of collecting names and emails, and encouraging voters to get involved in local politics by attending an upcoming house party or info session.
I worried this wasn’t sexy enough to open many doors, and, sure enough, my partner and I rang doorbell after doorbell to little response. And then, we got to unit “F” in a bank of confusingly numbered townhomes. We buzzed, and the door opened tentatively. We were in the wrong place, the homeowner told us. She wasn’t the name on our list, but did we want to come in anyway? She opened the door wider to reveal about a dozen women clustered around a table, making signs and writing postcards. It was their Women’s March group. They were working on next steps, they were mobilized and they were eager to hear what we had to say.