The more than 30,000 environmentalists, trade unionists and others who organized against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 were overwhelmingly peaceful, law-abiding protestors.
We’re back to building a mass movement, only this time with women’s leadership and on a scale almost unprecedented in our history.
It took five years of a genocidal war in Vietnam to see the kind of turnout the historic Women’s Marches generated on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated.
More than three million people—about 1 percent of the U.S. population—took to the streets in protest. This was followed by spontaneous demonstrations at airports across the nation after Trump’s ban on immigrants targeted war refugees like my parents, who escaped the Holocaust when they came to this country. After marching with 100,000 sisters and brothers in the rain in San Francisco I’ve been waiting to see where things go next.
I had something of a flashback the other day watching local TV news coverage of a riot in real time as about 100 black bloc “anti-fascists” hijacked a protest by 1,500 U.C. Berkeley students against another racist, misogynist editor from Breitbart News (no, not the one in the White House) who was invited to speak by campus Republicans.
The small, organized squads of black clad anarchists, whose activities at times devolve into looting and physical attacks on people, have been around since the anti-Globalization protests of the late 1990s. The New York Times gets it wrong, however, when it reports that the anarchists “mounted a huge demonstration in Seattle against the World Trade Organization” in 1999. The more than 30,000 environmentalists, trade unionists and others who organized that protest, not to mention the dock workers who shut down all the West Coast ports in solidarity, were actually not among the several hundred anarchists trashing Starbucks outlets and provoking a police riot in response.
While I understand their roots in the European autonomous movements of the 1970s the black blocs also remind me of the Weathermen of the late 1960s just before they went underground to carry out a series of bombings. In 1969 I was at a protest in Boston where the Weathermen stood in the back of the crowd throwing bottles and billiard balls to provoke the police to attack us. At least the current black bloc provokes violence from the front of the crowd. As we used to say about certain street militants, “If they’re not FBI provocateurs they’re losing a good source of income.”
As bad as things are looking in the new Trump era, there is an unprecedented sense of solidarity on the left. We need to hang together, and remember the lessons of our own progressive history, if we are going to push back the far right.
I went to my first protest fifty-two years ago when I was thirteen years old. We took over the Brooklyn Bridge to demand construction jobs for black workers and I was hooked. At twenty I was organizing protests against Nixon and the Vietnam War at the Republican Convention in Miami Beach. A buddy and I were working out street tactics in Flamingo Park in South Beach when two old Jewish men in their seventies came up to us. South Beach was populated by low-income pensioners and immigrants, like my grandmother, at the time. “Marbles” one of them said.
“When the police horses charge, throw marbles under their hooves.” “It’s very effective,” the second one assured us. “We used to do it in Union Square (in New York City) in the 1930s.”
Turns out the cops and National Guard didn’t use horses that night, just CS gas, mace and riot batons. Still, I’ve always appreciated those gentlemen and their well-intentioned (if pre-PETA) advice from the old left to the New Left. So as I’m now an official elder myself having just received my new (but not yet privatized) Medicare card I’d like to offer some suggestions to the millions of new activists who are building the new American Resistance.
1. Three cheers for the street movement
Building an extra-parliamentary movement of the streets in the coming years will be critical to transforming Goldman Sachs Democrats into the social democratic party we need at our side. Already, we’ve seen Democratic politicians being called out in town hall meetings across the nation. And we need to keep playing an inside-outside game so that every protester also shows up in the offices of her members of Congress to remind them that there are political consequences to their actions and that in the next election the popular vote could also be the deciding vote no matter how hard they try to suppress voting rights.
2. Build a new media
In his classic 1979 study of media, “Deciding What’s News,” sociology professor Herb Gans wrote that American media share a number of common values, including maintaining the social order and maintaining a strong national leadership. That explains, for example, why network television producers kept cutting away from shots of protesters lining the route of George W. Bush’s January 2001 inaugural parade after the Supreme Court mandated his presidential victory over Al Gore. Crowds carrying signs reading: “Hail to the Thief” and “Illegitimate” would not help restore faith in the established leadership, and so were not shown. This media deference to power may reassert itself as Trump and his Petro-Oligarchs begin to figure out how to more effectively control the levers of state power.
While the media is beginning to respond to attacks on the press by the Trump White House, given what they didn’t to do in the election—the alleged journalists moderating the presidential debates failed to ask one question on climate change for example—we can’t trust mainstream media to do the work of our movement.
Social media can help bypass the corporate media information dam. It can also unfortunately reinforce people’s preexisting biases which is a threat to the left as well as the right.
That’s why we need to replace fake news sites with factual insights from people and news outlets who respect and know how to provide accurate investigative news content, whatever its impact, while continuing to speak truth to power.
3. Form affinity groups
At most demonstrations people tend to march alone or with friends in loose affiliation but without a plan on how to act collectively if a situation becomes dangerous. Exceptions include the Standing Rock Anti-pipeline actions in North Dakota where non-violence training was required for Water Defenders.
Affinity groups are a simple way to work with and protect your friends and comrades in a wide range of settings and circumstances. Generally they consist of four to nine people who can split into smaller groups of two or three if necessary. They agree on plans for how to respond to different situations, for example, leave a protest if it gets tense, get arrested voluntarily in a planned or unplanned situation, practice mobile civil-disobedience (try and avoid arrest while shutting down streets or targeted offices) or defend themselves if attacked by vigilantes or police. Generally we want to build massive protests and strike actions that are too large to contain or threaten but safety always needs to be a consideration. Affinity groups of close friends or family should plan to work and run together for years to come (at least the next four).
4. Understand infiltration
We shouldn’t be overly afraid of the police, private security or the FBI watching us or infiltrating our organizations. It will almost certainly happen —it has during almost every other time of widespread dissent in America from the Molly Maguires to Black Lives Matter. Still, while not letting oneself be intimidated or become fearful, which is the intent of secret police everywhere, it’s worth getting familiar with common sense security procedures and how to do effective background checks, and to respect your own sense of suspicion for people newly arrived on the scene who seem too ready to promote the next confrontation, organize the check book or spread vindictive gossip.
One time when we were organizing a major anti-war protest a woman from a Chicago peace group named Shelley who was supposed to also be with the Communist Party went off to lunch with a militant Maoist couple named Gi and Jill from New Orleans who had a plane. She came back to tell me she’d decided they were truly great revolutionaries. I thought that was an odd political mix. Later we learned all three were FBI informants. Learn to be alert but not afraid of infiltrators and informers. Also, we need to keep supporting and encouraging Edward Snowden-like whistleblowers with inside knowledge to step forward and expose government attempts to infiltrate or otherwise undermine citizens’ First Amendment rights.
5. Understand surveillance
What you can say or do on the phone, online or in street situations has changed dramatically since the FBI was burglarizing our homes and tapping our phones in the sixties and seventies. Yes, that was a directional microphone sticking out of the empty apartment across the courtyard where our landlords had just let some plumbers in at 6 am as we planned a march in San Diego. And, no, as we later explained to the landlord couple, “We are not heroin dealers as the FBI told you, we are anti-war organizers.”
Today you probably won’t spot anything as obvious as a mike. Airborne and ground-based “Stingrays” or cell site simulators used by government agencies along with CCTV cameras can turn demonstrations into real-time intelligence gathering bonanzas for the government. In addition people often use their cell phone cameras and post videos online without considering the consequences. Understanding the basics of live and online security and the vulnerabilities of mobile devices has become an essential of smart citizenship and dissent. Sometimes it even makes sense to leave your cell phone/tracking device at home.
The good news is 95 percent of what social movements do is to grow in public and transparent ways while the whole world watches. In light of that wider public interest we should probably let the police be the ones to dress all in black with balaclavas covering their faces. No need for civilians to imitate the military death-squad look. If you want to protect yourself from gas or pepper spray wear a colorful bandana or a gas mask.
Personally I’m not a fan of the Guy Fawkes masks. He wanted to blow up Parliament to restore a Catholic King, which is to say he was a reactionary, not a progressive.
For great movies about revolutions, forget “V for Vendetta” and check out “Battle of Algiers” “Reds” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” “The East” “Four Days in September” “Selma,” “Milk” or “Under Fire.” They remind us that people have died for every freedom we are once again going to have to defend.
6. Practice movement law
What we choose to do on the streets needs to be defensible in front of a jury of our peers. Often juries will consider a “defense of necessity” argument for acts of political resistance, despite judges giving them legal instruction not to. This is called jury nullification and judges and prosecutors hate it. Years ago the government brought a conspiracy case against eight Vietnam Vets Against the War using surveillance tapes and informants’ testimony. Still, I knew no jury would convict them when we entered the courthouse. Three of the vets set off the metal detectors due to the shrapnel they carried in their bodies from having served their country. The jury acquitted them in less than four hours. While we may not all have that kind of dramatic courtroom moment we can all speak to our fellow Americans— on juries and elsewhere—about why we choose to fight to defend our common values.
The large turnout of volunteer lawyers at airports across America to represent travelers when the Trump order to detain citizens from seven Muslim nations is a great and hopeful sign. Expect progressive and civil liberties lawyers from the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild and elsewhere to be ready to do double duty, suing the government to defend our rights and our planet and defending the growing number of people who will be accused of crimes against the state, hauled in front of grand juries or falsely imprisoned for their political beliefs and actions.
7. Promote alliances and united fronts
We have to rebuild the social fabric of solidarity, empathy and altruism that makes us care about each other and act in concert to protect our rights and values as a people.
In the 1970s keystone legislation like the Clean Air Act was passed only after the steelworkers union, public health groups such as the American Lung Association and environmentalists found the common cause they needed to overcome polluting industries that claimed cleaner air would cost jobs.
We're always being challenged to find ways to build the largest alliances possible. In South Africa Nelson Mandela, even when he was involved in armed resistance to Apartheid, or spending decades behind bars, never failed to reach out to all his fellow citizens, regardless of race or gender, even talking to his white jailers, in order to build the largest possible constituency for equal voting rights for all. In places as diverse as the Philippines and Nicaragua armed revolutionary movements only became successful popular uprisings after members of the elite opposition were gunned down by the government. The middle class, the working class, peasants and dissident elements of the elite formed common fronts for democracy. That democratic spirit also breeds surprising moments of empathy. I was doing a radio interview with an English-speaking refugee during the Nicaraguan revolution. Amidst the sound of tank fire and shouting from those fleeing all around us he went on a diatribe about how U.S. Imperialism was destroying his nation when he suddenly stopped and reached out to take hold of my shoulder, “You’re not taking this personally, are you?” he asked.
United fronts are also how American progressives have historically defeated right-wing demagogues like the Nazi sympathizers of the America First movement in the 1930s, Joe McCarthy and his aide and future Trump mentor Roy Cohn in the 1950s, and the race haters and homophobes George Wallace in the 1960s and Donald Trump and Mike Pence today.
8. Rebuild the unions
While Trump gained some votes from union households by trash talking global trade deals, the decline of trade unions had significantly more to do with his victory. From Ronald Reagan breaking the Air Traffic Controllers strike to the Koch Brothers and Governor Scott Walker breaking the collective bargaining power of public employees, Republicans and reactionaries have always sought to destroy the labor movement. They correctly see unions as a force that has redistributed corporate wealth to the working class. As recently as the 2008 election non-union white men voted overwhelmingly for John McCain while unionized white men voted for Barack Obama.
In 1969 when a picket line from the United Electrical workers union showed up on my campus to express solidarity with those of us who’d been busted, maced and beaten protesting General Electric recruiters one out of three workers were in a union. Today only about one out of ten working Americans is unionized. It’s no wonder almost all the economic gains since the 2007 recession have gone to the top one percent.
At the same time new union organizers among fast-food employees, warehouse, hotel, office and production line workers - such as the undocumented Mexican women I met sorting eggs (and secretly unionizing) at a factory farm in Maine - face huge challenges. Today’s new generation of union recruiters may need to double as community organizers, minimum wage lobbyists, even immigration referral providers as worker exploitation in the 21st century begins to look more like something from the 19th. Not since the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tried to create “one big union” at the start of the twentieth century has the hope and need for a revolutionary union movement been greater.
9. Reclaim your community
They say all politics is local. I live in Richmond, California, a San Francisco East Bay city of 110,000 that’s home to one of Chevron’s oldest and largest oil refineries but also a model of bottom-up people power going back over a decade. Richmond is 70 percent Latino and African-American, and mostly low income and we have community-based policing and a force that reflects our population.
With new jobs in solar and clean energy and expanded youth services and training, crime is the lowest it’s been in decades while the political engagement and civic pride of its citizens is at an all time high. This is the result of that inside-outside game—of protest groups and community service organizations mobilizing voters during elections. Local activists led by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) helped elect a Green Party Mayor, Gail McLaughlin, in 2006, defeat a casino plan that threatened parkland in 2010 and defeat a city council slate massively funded by Chevron in 2014. In 2016 two RPA candidates, both recent Bernie Sanders campaigners were our top vote getters giving progressives five out of the seven city council seats. Voters also passed a rent control initiative. Richmond has also raised taxes on Chevron, provided city IDs to undocumented workers, created new greenways and focused on many other ways we can improve people’s daily lives by reclaiming our government from the bottom up.
10. Reclaim our flag and country
The 2016 election was subverted by, among other forces, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Vladimir Putin’s Russia that hacked the election to favor Trump. Funny thing is, when I was a young protestor I never believed the Cold War propaganda that the Russians were trying to take over our country. Live and learn.
The signs of a reactionary power grab have long been in plain site. I was disgusted at the beginning of the Obama presidency by the emergence of the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party, that appropriated the tri-corner hats, Gadsden ‘Don’t tread on me’ flags and other symbols of the American Revolution to oppose expanded health care benefits and, quite frankly, a Black President.
During our nation’s Bicentennial Jeremy Rifkin and other friends organized the Peoples Bicentennial Commission to reclaim the promise of the American Revolution away from its 1970s commercial logo branders and paid corporate sponsors. Among our actions we led 20,000 mostly young people through the snow to Boston Harbor on the 200th anniversary of the actual Tea Party and tossed empty oil barrels into the harbor as a protest against the power of big oil. At the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington we mobilized over 50,000 people on the Patriot side of the Concord River, “where once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.” Above a stage where Holly Near, Phil Ochs, The Persuasions and Arlo Guthrie sang and led us in a spirited rendition of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is your Land,” hung a banner reading “Send a Message to Wall Street!”
The history of post-colonial America is one of never ending conflict between the forces of what Jefferson called “the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations,” including slave traders, strike-breakers and Wall Street mortgage lenders and “we the people,” who today more than ever need to believe in the Reverend Martin Luther King’s proclamation that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Or as Mother Jones put it in more strategic terms, “I live in the United States but I do not know exactly where. My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.”
So now it’s young people’s opportunity to become the next best generation to build the resistance needed to reclaim our nation’s promise. Millions of my old friends and I will be there to march and organize with our new sisters and brothers and maybe even suggest that this is not the worst it can get. It’s going to get a lot worse under Trump. Still I have a long-tested faith that this, what Bernie calls, “Our Revolution” will not be defeated. A people united can never be.