What History Can Teach #TheResistance About Kicking Trump’s Ass
Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy. Key relationships among policy, strategy and tactics are simple and can be expressed in simple terms. Often in practice, however, the noun and the adjective, ‘strategy/ and /strategic’, are purloined by the unscrupulous or misapplied by those who are careless or ignorant. Such sins, or errors can have dire consequences in practice for a realm of behavior that is, after all, about life and death, victory or defeat. — Carl von Clausewitz, Founding Father of Military Strategy
As a formerly homeless, currently at risk, pregnant mixed race bisexual mom from a collision of indigenous and immigrant families, there is no part of me that isn’t fighting for my life under the Trump administration.
As an activist that has fought in the field for decades, I hold a heavy heart that my work and the work of my colleagues, mentors and elders have not been able to hold back the tide of white nationalism that is forcing us underwater today. As a strategist with a Ph.D., I am concerned with how detached #TheResistance is from the histories and lessons of the leaders, organizers and participants that came before them. As a mother, I cannot sleep knowing what my children will have to face if we don’t stop Trump and the GOP.
This nation has been through the genocide of the indigenous, the enslavement of black America, the exploitations of Latinos and the poor, and the exclusion of non-Christians, people living with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community. Millions of lives and entire cultures have been lost in the battles waged against them by the white powers of hate and discrimination.
Lives are still being lost in the battles against brutality, poverty and inequality. And this number stands to increase exponentially as the Trump Administration progresses. As a community, #TheResistance doesn’t have time to ignore the lessons of the past. #TheResistance of today has a responsibility to learn from previous battles and to build upon the victories of the strategists and organizers that came before them.
One of the most important lessons resisters of the past have given us is the formula for effective assembly. Marches and protests today are but flickering holograms of the strategic assembly that came before it. It was as a young homeless street organizer that I first began to understand these differences.
Media-centered assembly, I learned, included holding signs in front of City Hall and hoping to get a segment in the local paper or a moment on the local news broadcast. It was chanting through the city in permitted areas with vague messaging and little effect, other than the short-lived afterglow of solidarity. Media-centered assembly was about saying you were fighting for people’s lives, when really ineffective strategies were just being publicized in order to increase organizational funding or individual serotonin levels.
Strategic assembly, on the other hand, included occupying vacant properties, not for Occupy style media attention, but so that homeless families and individuals could have safe shelter. It included giving out free food to people in the streets, even though it was illegal. It involved providing free legal services for those facing the consequences of the criminalization of poverty. It involved providing all of these without once feeling like we were doing enough. Direct action involved using strategic action to demonstrably stand in solidarity with other people, not to help ourselves.
It was as an MA and PhD student that I had the opportunity to research how direct action was used to successfully stop people and organizations in power from enforcing unjust policies across the globe. I also learned how the power of strategic assembly and direct action had been depoliticized in the media motivated approaches (as opposed to goal oriented approaches) of protest we see today.
I learned that Gandhi’s march to the Sea wouldn’t have worked if he told everyone not to touch the salt. Segregation would never have ended if protesters stood outside of the Woolworth’s, but never sat at a lunch counter. And buses would still be segregated if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus to a white man. And none of these direct actions would have succeeded without a connection to clear demands for policy changes at the highest levels of the nation.
Unfortunately, the organizers of today have forgotten or ignored these histories. They have opted for strategies to march without meaning, campaigns to call Congress that have proven to be ineffective and petitions that have not made a dent in the Trump Administration’s forward momentum.
Gandhi’s Salt March, for example, was not a march as they are defined today. It was not a legal, motivational or day long protest. It was a strategically mobilized mass civil disobedience. In 1930, India was still a colony of Great Britain. The British had taken control of trade in the nation and formed monopolies on a wide variety of goods, including salt. The people of India were not allowed to make or sell their own salt; by law, they were only able to buy it at unaffordable costs from the British.
In March of 1930, he began on a 24-day walk to the sea, gathering people to join him along the way. They purpose was to collectively disobey the British government by breaking the law and taking salt from the sea. This action led to the arrest of over 80,000 people of India. It also sparked the beginning of a movement that would free India from British rule.
During the Civil Rights Movement, direct action was also a goal of mass assembly. The Lunch counter sit ins, Birmingham, and the Freedom rides all combined mass assembly, civil disobedience and demands for the enforcement of federal rights. And they were successful.
For example, on February 1, 1960 four black students sat down at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were predictably denied service for not being white, but the men refused to give up their seats. The following day, more than 20 black students joined the direct action. The third day, more than 60 participated. And by the fourth day, over 300 people showed up at Woolworth’s to sit at their counter. The strategy spread to 55 cities in 13 states and Woolworth’s profits plummeted. It took 5 months, 3 weeks and 3 days of consistent nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to desegregate Woolworth’s lunch counters. But the activists had their demands met on July 25, 1960.
The marches of today dramatically misrepresent the successful protests of the Civil Rights Movement. The strategists and organizers of the Civil Rights Movement implemented strategies that lasted for days, weeks, months and years. They combined direct action, civil disobedience, and clear policy demands to ensure their success. Marches today are day long, strategically vague, civil obedient ploys for media attention that take momentum away from actual resistance.
This isn’t to say that the participants aren’t well intended. But is to say, these good intentions are being funneled into efforts that do not work. Repeatedly.
Fortunately, there have been strategic efforts that don’t rely on marches or calls to Congress. One of the strongest examples of strategic and direct resistance to Trump’s attack on the nation is the people’s response to his Muslim Ban.
Thousands of people across the country gathered to shut down airports and provide free legal services to those affected by the ban. Airports in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Virginia are just some of the locations that activists and lawyers flooded and, in many cases, shut down the airport’s functions. The federal legality of the Executive Order was called into question and Washington state took the Trump Administration to court.
The combination of direct action and enforcement of federal policy worked. And as a result, the Executive Order is no longer in effect.
The mass assembly organized against the Muslim Ban were not protests — they were direct actions. And they worked. Had strategists chosen to organize modern protests instead of direct actions, marchers would have taken to the streets to shed light on the issue and energize the base. They would have rejected shutting down airports in favor of marching in predesignated areas. They would not articulate the goal of enforcing federal rights and protections. They would have no lawyers to make those demands materialize. And it is very likely that had that strategy been chosen, the Muslim Ban would still be in effect.
Fortunately, mass assembly was chosen over motivational marching.
The Trump administration has promised to draft a new Muslim Ban for Donald Trump to sign. Should this occur, activists will once again have the choice of marches or strategic mass assembly. If participants are only concerned with momentum and media attention, they should choose the former. If they are looking to defend targeted communities, enforce federal rights in court, and stop the Trump Administration’s forward progress — they should choose strategic mass assembly.
We are only three weeks into the takeover and Trump has done irreparable damage to the nation. And the world. We don’t have time to reinvent the wheels of the past 40 years of reform that have taught us that marches don’t work. Our responsibility is to build on the knowledge of elders in the fields and the work of strategists before us.
Rather than directing the momentum of #TheResistance into strategies that defy history and don’t work, strategists and organizers need to make two very necessary adjustments to make sure that their efforts are successful. They are:
1. Center mass assembly around strategic and consistent direct action and civil disobedience — not media attention.
2. Clearly attach the assembly to a call of enforcement of a specific rights or a change in a specific policy.
With these adjustments, #TheResistance can revolutionize itself to meet these strategic demands in the context of our battle against Trump, his administration and his foot soldiers. With these adjustments, we can get out there and kick their asses.
Visit the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy to learn more.