I’m doing a bit of catching up this morning, enjoying the different rhythm of Spring Break, and one of the items in my reading pile is a Guardian long-read by Rebecca Solnit: Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option, from 13 March.
The beginning of the piece is a primer for those new to the ideas of social and political protest, but she foreshadows her destination when she remembers recent history and writes:
An old woman said at the outset of Occupy Wall Street “we’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important”, the most beautifully concise summary of what a compassionately radical, deeply democratic movement might aim to do.
I agree. Occupy was to millennials, perhaps, what the anti-war movement was to me and my fellow boomers. In many ways we lost our way in the ’70s and ’80s, but even then protest, the desire to fight for that society in which everyone counts, smoldered and even, at times flared, as Solnit describes.
We work towards that perfect society by studying the past; by building on the strategies and organizing principles of others. Solnit asks:
But what were the strategies and organizing 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 dissidents 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 lawyer’s sense of possibility and power was expanded immediately afterward when he traveled to London to pursue his cause. Three days after he arrived, British women battling for the right to vote occupied the British parliament, and 11 were arrested, refused to pay their fines, 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 said, “I shall never obey any law 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, India’s bonds will snap of themselves.” Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious. When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.
She opens the third act of her piece with the line that grabbed me:
There are terrible stories 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 term, collateral damage, 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 it’s a three-way vote—out in the cold. Consensus leaves no one out. After Clamshell, it jumped into radical politics and reshaped them, making them more generously inclusive and egalitarian. And it’s been honed and refined and used by nearly every movement I’ve been a part of or witnessed, from the anti-nuclear actions at the Nevada test site in the 1980s and 1990s to the organization of the shutdown 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.
We don’t protest in a vacuum. Our revolutions always build on the revolutions of the past and like those who forget History in general, we ignore lessons learned at our peril. The latest permutation on the theme came with the decision of an independent, socialist senator from the tiny state of Vermont to stand up and tell a few people that there was a better way. Bernie lost, but in losing he birthed the rise of other organizations like the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, Our Revolution, Indivisible and many, many others, all with the intent to deflate the orange gasbag. Solnit writes:
The only power adequate to stop the Trump administration is civil society, which is the great majority of us when we remember our power and come together. And even if we remember, even if we exert all the pressure we’re capable of, even if the administration collapses immediately, or the president resigns or is impeached or melts into a puddle of corruption, our work will only have begun.
That job begins with opposing the Trump administration but will not end until we have made deep systemic changes and recommitted ourselves, not just as a revolution, because revolutions don’t last, but as a civil society with values of equality, 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 cash, but partly from the willingness to do the slow, plodding, patient work of building and maintaining 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 compelling. This work is always, first and last, storytelling work, or what some of my friends call “the battle of the story”. Building, remembering, retelling, celebrating our own stories is part of our work.
To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future. We have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles and resources, and stories of heroism, brilliance, persistence, and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in our pockets, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities.
We can choose the path of collateral damage by doing nothing or, we can risk and maybe, just maybe succeed for a time and create that collateral benefit that will carry the fight for that society where everyone is important.