By Max Freedman, 215 PA Member
In her seminal 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell, esteemed writer Rebecca Solnit chronicles the resilience of, and networks formed by, communities in times of disaster. She discusses, among other events, the near-spontaneous genesis of outdoor soup kitchens and mutual aid efforts in the wake of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She also shows ample evidence that the local police and additional military officers deployed to the city sought to protect its property, not its people – and that both the government and elites feared the power that the people could grasp with society so firmly uprooted.
While the San Francisco community effectively resisted the crushing hand of military intervention, the most heartbreaking parts of A Paradise Built in Hell explore government apathy, and then aggression, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Following the levees bursting and the vast majority of the city flooding stories high, police – not to mention the Bush administration – all but abandoned the not-coincidentally majority-Black city. They later violently prevented residents from leaving the area after their homes were destroyed. Worse yet, white vigilantes in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood openly bragged about hunting and killing Black people for sport. If the hurricane itself was a disaster, Solnit argues, the government response and vigilante attacks transformed the storm’s aftermath into a catastrophe.
It’s an analogy that’s easy to extend to the 2020 presidential election. The 2016 election of Donald Trump was a disaster, and the administration’s response to the first global pandemic in over a century has created a catastrophe. Trump’s rhetoric has also legitimized white supremacist vigilantes (who have killed protestors) akin to Algiers’ self-described hunters. While ample COVID-19 mutual aid networks have offered support where the government hasn’t, the catastrophe has continued. That’s largely because many people – progressives and leftists included – have mostly continued living their lives, working their jobs, seeing their friends and families, and taking vacations.
To be clear, I’m not above this all. I fully admit that I am among this crowd. However, none of us can afford to uphold the current and former status quo if Trump claims victory in the 2020 presidential election, whether due to widespread voter suppression, government efforts to nullify or destroy submitted ballots, or weak non-Republican voter turnout. Because make no mistake about it: A second Trump term wouldn’t be a repeat of the current catastrophe we’re in – a portion of the population eventually recovers from a catastrophe. A second Trump term would start an American apocalypse – the full eradication of the rights that conservatives have worked to erase ever since The Civil Rights Act of 1964 first passed.
At this point, everyone not among the 43 percent of Americans who approve of Trump’s presidency likely need no convincing of a second term’s dangers. Less discussed is the importance of continued, severe protesting if Trump wins and how to go about such protesting. And there are lessons to be learned from the disaster responses of years past, perhaps even more so from more recent disasters than older ones.
Many have said that the long-brewing disaster of police brutality was a public health epidemic long before COVID-19 was, and not long after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd this year, organizers occupied a portion of Seattle as a temporary autonomous zone. (Police murders of Black men have far from stopped—cops murdered Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philly between this article’s editing and publishing.) Activists, local government officials, and passersby all described Seattle’s temporary autonomous zone, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), in glowing terms. The area’s medical services, classes, food offerings, and workshops recall the innovations of San Francisco’s people in the wake of the 1906 disaster.
Although the same local government that first praised CHOP ultimately mandated its dismantling, the fall of the protest site occurred after extensive national media coverage. Similar sustained, in-the-street actions could likewise activate the national media and keep protesters’ messages at the front of the American conversation no matter how dire circumstances get after November 3. Such sustained protests could actually work: In November 2016, millions of South Koreans took to their country’s streets to protest against then-President Park Geun-hye. Within a month, Geun-hye was impeached, and three months later, she was sentenced to 24 years in jail.
While these examples point to the power that people have in catastrophic times, protests this massive are newer to Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z. Although this country has seen sustained protests such as the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1960s, even the starkest 21st-century progressives typically go home after a few hours of protest (see: this summer) and return to their normal lives. Never once have I engaged in the level of sustained protests that the far left rightly calls for, but I and the hundreds of millions of Americans who oppose the goals of the current presidential administration need to set goals of our own and commit to stepping far outside our comfort zones this November.
By definition, this will be uncomfortable. More accurately, it will be terrifying and dangerous. Much of the protesting we may well have to do in November will risk arrest, violence and, if similar post-election protests in Belarus are any indication, torture and murder by the police and military. But the people of Belarus have yet to back down, and we, for once, can’t either. Putting our bodies on the line remains among the most effective forms of fomenting change.
Scarier and more unusual yet, we’ll need to not just occupy the streets, but withhold two of the very basics of our usual days: working and spending money. These strikes could easily fail without union leaders taking the charge, but that doesn’t minimize their importance. If anything, the extent to which the Trump administration and many of its wealthiest supporters favor extensive corporate deregulation and prioritize profits over people all but mandate radical protest methods.
Local action councils and other group plans for extended, widespread non-violent direct actions and civil disobedience may prove crucial for properly taking a stand. Our protests to date have at most achieved minor strides: Even though left-leaning demonstrations have become far more frequent since November 2016 and corporations now swear superficial fealty to the Movement for Black Lives, the status quo remains. That’s in large part because the people and companies in power line their pockets as long as we continue to do their work – and without widely coordinated efforts toward national resistance, little will truly change.
Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava deftly explain this worker-company relationship and outline how working and spending strikes should operate in a recent essay for The Intercept:
We should plan for and encourage forms of mass action such as work stoppages, consumer boycotts, and rent strikes that target the corporate class. The message from us to them needs to be clear: If you stand by and allow Trump to steal the election, we will threaten your profit.
Piven and Bhargava also call for organizations to “create bail funds and recruit lawyers” and for ordinary people to “organize mutual aid…to support people who take [protest-related] risks, many of whom already face great hardship.” They too note that “Democratic Party operatives, good-government types, an army of constitutional lawyers, and other self-appointed experts” will urge the opposite of all these things: No taking to the streets, no boycotts and stoppages and strikes. But Piven and Bhargava have the far better idea – to drive Trump out of office requires more.
To be clear, the candidate who isn’t Trump isn’t ideal in the least. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has long supported the destructive, racist war on drugs, and many women have accused him of sexual misconduct. But if even legendary abolitionist Angela Davis plans to vote for Biden since he “can be most effectively pressured” by progressives and leftists, then we can’t go home until Trump is out of office. And once we’re home, we’ll need to keep putting pressure on the people in power. A non-Trump presidency doesn’t get us out of hell, but it might just let us take baby steps toward something like paradise.