The right and some on the left have derided the large post-election protests against Trump’s election. What both sets of critiques share is a failure to listen to any of the protesters, except through the media filters that they in other circumstances frequently deride as inaccurate.
The right said, “You lost, stop whining, suck it up,” and in yet another Trumpian flight of fancy said that the demonstrators were paid to be there. Some older leftists mimicked this by wrongly assuming that the huge crowds of protesters were mainly disappointed Clinton supporters, and so stayed away.
To say that these fact-deprived observations from afar are incorrect is an understatement. At Chicago’s night after election protest, there was a sea of homemade signs in the 10,000-strong crowd, with nary a rightwards pointing “H” arrow or other symbol of affinity to Clinton.
At an impromptu speak out in the streets shortly before we took Lake Shore Drive, two 15-year-old girls said, with disgust in their voices, “This isn’t about Clinton!” They and other protesters spoke in raw emotion in anger against a country which had just put an overtly racist, misogynist, Klan-endorsed sociopath in the White House. As one sign put it, “The voices of our abusers are now the president.”
The protesters I met were worried about yet more mass deportations, more physical attacks on and discrimination against Muslims, Arabs, blacks, LGBTQs, and more attacks on the right of women to control their own bodies for abortion and against sexual assaults.
They held little, if any, affection for the Democratic Party and Clinton. Many introduced themselves as or held signs indicating they were undocumented youth. They knew of the 2 million+ deported by Obama because some of them personally knew the families broken up by same. They knew the litany of names of black victims of police violence under our Democratic Party mayor (even if they didn’t know he was a Hillary delegate).
The median age of the demonstration was probably early 20s, with probably 90% of the thousands under 25 years old. Precisely a key demographic that Clintonites lamented for months that they’d been unable to reach, despite baiting about “Bernie Bros,” guilt tripping about casting a “feminist” vote for Clinton despite misogynist Gulf State monarchies giving millions to her Foundation, etc.
To those who say, why didn’t they protest before the election? I can say that many thousands of youth, many of them too young to vote, did just that. In Chicago last March, many thousands, primarily youth of color, outnumbered Trump supporters at the University of Illinois Forum, effectively shutting down the Trump rally scheduled for there. Again, no Hillary signs in evidence, and yes, a number of Bernie signs, but the core and overwhelming majority of the protest were youth of color not connected to any campaign.
Seated in my Midwest perch back in November 2008, I initially made similar complaints about post-election protests versus the Mormon Church following the passage of California’s anti-LGBT Proposition 8. Too little, too late, I said. Where were the protests before the election when they could have influenced the vote? (In my defense, my bitterness was prompted by all the usual NGOs actively discouraging pre-election protests against the Mormon Church, something they shared with Midwestern liberal organizations who frowned upon and opposed demonstrations against the then more-rabidly anti-LGBT Catholic hierarchy.)
A true history of how equal marriage rights was won would show that those 2008 post-election protests against the Mormon Church were critical to putting the religious bigots on the defensive, thus paving the way for our eventual victory. We lost the vote, but won the war, because we didn’t take our defeat lying down.
2016 isn’t the first time that two widely loathed major presidential party candidates faced off against each other. An even more apt analogy to this year’s election was birthed right here in Chicago, just three blocks away from our demonstration that took over Lake Shore Drive last Wednesday night. At least as viewed from the lens of politically engaged youth, the 1968 candidates were as fiercely hated.
That year in front of the Hilton Hotel, Chicago Police under the direction of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley consciously attacked and bloodied dozens of demonstrators protesting the United States’ wholesale slaughter in Southeast Asia. This attack at the service of the Democrats led to a sea-change of opinion among a layer of radicalizing youth, many of whom swore off allegiance to the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate.
In response to the wantonly illegal violence by the authorities (with no legal consequences for the police and generals – sound familiar?), young civilians and people in the armed forces stopped up their game, making the country ungovernable. Having lost faith in established institutions, including both political parties, they relied on their own efforts to make change.
This led to one of the greatest eras of rapid social progress for equal rights in our history. In concert with movements around the world, youth forced the newly-elected, aggressively racist, sexist, homophobic warmongering President Nixon to begin winding down their war on Southeast Asia, enacting affirmative action, food stamps, and clean air and clean water laws.
Nixon, unlike Trump, was a far-right ideologue, and yet he was forced to do all these things counter to his ideology, because a movement in the streets, combined with active resistance, forced him to.
Perhaps the Most Important Antecedent
The disaffection from both major parties by a sector of politically conscious white youth in 1968 was preceded more than a decade earlier by black youth involved in the then-emerging Civil Rights Movement. Black elders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, were as firmly emmeshed in the Republican Party then as today’s black elders are in the Democrats.
King, Jr. and many of his peers saw that the “Party of Lincoln” had done nothing for blacks for many, many decades. Combined with the Democrats’ role as the party of slavery and Dixiecrat segregation, they were alienated from both parties. Suspicious of both and subject to neither, they threatened both with what power they could muster.
The great 1963 March on Washington today is mainly remembered for its soaring rhetoric. Intentional historical amnesia leaves out that it was a march that the Kennedy White House worked assiduously to get cancelled (though they were successful in censoring John Lewis’s speech). Arguably it was this relative political independence, combined with the first great mass outpouring of blacks and allies in the nation’s capital, which led to the landmark mid-1960s civil rights legislation.
The great unknown is what, if any, organizational expression(s) the current widespread disgust with the two major parties will take, and if these organization(s) will be able to extend the current flurry of protests into a heighted and sustained wave of activism which has been a crucial ingredient to previous periods of accelerated social justice.
In Chicago at least, many Black Lives Matters activists have a healthy disgust for and independence from the Democrats (it helps having someone as thoroughly loathsome as Rahm for mayor). And many radical immigrant rights activists will not soon forget Obama’s mass deportations.
Many Bernie activists know the nomination was stolen from them, and will hopefully draw deeper, systemic conclusions about their standard-bearer’s quixotic campaign to take the party from the neo-liberals. And some will probably attempt a new electoral left formation, while others will attempt to ramp up the Green Party from its poor showing, at least in the presidential race.
Few electoral activists of any stripe, though, I believe have learned the lessons about how to run a truly Eugene Debs-style campaign that doesn’t breed illusions in the system that they purport to overthrow.
At the very least, the large demonstrations combined with the widespread disgust with both parties presents I believe a rare opportunity for the left: Finally, for the first time in my adult lifetime, there is the possibility of building a sustained movement independent of both parties.
I hope we take advantage of it.