Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape

 Photo by Nathanial St. Clair

Photo by Nathanial St. Clair

Donald Trump’s presidency is spawning innumerable movements, groups and individual engagements that are beginning to challenge not only the new administration, but established power throughout the country.  Two movement laid the groundwork for the initiatives that have taken place since Trump’s inauguration — Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

Occupy Wall Street exploded at New York’s Zuccotti Park in the financial district on September 17, 2011, may have been a brief historical action, forcefully suppressed by the NYPD — working closely with the FBI and DHS – on November 15th.  It focused national attention on the deepening inequality that is an endemic feature of globalizing capitalism.  It caught the imagination of radicals across the country that led to local Occupy initiatives in nearly 1,000 cities across the country and helped fuel the Arab Spring.  The issue of inequality drove the 2016 Sanders campaign, becoming today’s defining economic issue.

Black Lives Matter began in 2013 in protest to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the “stand your ground” killing of Trayvon Martin and other shootings of African-Americans by agents of state power, the local police.  It grew by exposing the structure of racism that is reflected in every aspect of American life; equally important, it’s a decentralized national organization, one without a hierarchical center.  These initiatives were organized from the base outward; there was little formal top-to-bottom structure, no party or “central committee” organizing these movements.

In the face of ever-more socially destructive actions taken by the Trump administration, Americans will continue to mobilize and protest.  Among a growing number of radicals there is sense that protest needs to shift to politics, especially local politics, where one calls home.  Efforts are being waged to build a new movement seeking to challenge existing power relations, but from the bottom up – as opposed from conventional, top-down politics.

More important, many within this movement see power, including as practiced by the Democrats, as a corrupting force.  Groups around the country are exploring new ways to undertake politics without surrendering the individual’s or group’s power to that of a corrupt system.  For many, the time is right to challenge the powers-that-be and power as wielded by representative politicians in contrast to people in their own communities.

Increasing popular resistance to the Trump presidency poses an historically challenging question – is America a “democratic” or a “republican” nation?  Should it continue to be governed as a political system adhering to a form of indirect, representative government, one that culminated in not simply Trump’s election, but an enfeebled Democratic Party?  Or can Americans reinvent democracy, one appropriate for the 21st century, and embrace direct, participatory government?   The experiences of three cities – Seattle (WA), Burlington (VT) and San Diego (CA) – are suggestive of the deeper political fermentation spreading throughout the country.  They may prefigure a profound challenge to established power relations and the remaking of U.S. politics.


Seattle is probably the U.S.’s most insurgent city.  Two radicals are on the City Council, Kshama Sawant (an avowed socialist) and Lorena González (an immigrant-rights attorney).  The mayor, Ed Murry, took up the fight against the Muslim ban, participating in the airport demos along with the governor, Jay Robert Inslee.  Washington state is the lead plaintiff in the ongoing legal battle to reverse the Muslim ban.  And in protest of the Army Corp’s actions permitting the further construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the city pulled its investment monies from Wells Fargo, one of the pipeline’s major backers.

Seattle’s current phase of political activism developed over nearly two decades of struggle.  The 1999 WTO protests — “Battle of Seattle” – split the more moderate protestors from those advocating to shut-it-down intervention.  Activism matured with the Occupy demonstration of 2011 at Westlake Park and City Hall.  This history culminated in the current anti-Trump actions, including the Women’s March that drew 50,000 protesters.

Local insurgency led to the elections of Sawant (2014) and González (2015), campaigns fueled by issues like gentrification and city’s rapid growth, with real-estate speculators forcing the displacement of old timers, artists and the poor.

This also helped in the formation of Neighborhood Action Coalition as well as groups working toward climate justice and other issues.

Burlington, VT, is the home city of Sen. Bernie Sanders and where he got his political start as mayor.  The current mayor, Miro Weinberger, is a liberal Democrat very much in the mold of New York’s Bill DeBlasio and other local officials around the country.  They are “progressive” about some social issues (e.g., identity politics), but “neo-liberal” when it comes to attracting big money for development efforts.

“During the presidential contest everything Sanders was saying about the problems in the county could have been said about the problems with the Weinberger administration,” insists Genese Grill, a local activist and academic running for a Burlington City-Council seat.  She adds, “even though a large majority of Vermonters were pro Bernie, Weinberger was pro-Hillary!”

The mayor backed a large-scale real-estate plan, the Burlington Town Center project, that will transform the city with taller downtown buildings, increased density and much higher rents.  It is designed as part of an effort to remake the city into a Silicon Valley of the Northeast, with high-tech hipsters replacing working-class and neighborhood artists.  The plan imposes significant rezoning changes, overturned community-based planning procedures and undercuts public housing.  To mute popular discontent, the mayor accepted the required 15 percent “affordable” housing, but failed to provide more public benefits like senior housing, gardens or public art.  As Grill points out, “What happened instead was we got the minimum ‘affordable’ percentage for a building of 65 feet, and nothing more for a 160+ building…”

The mayor’s policies fueled a grassroots campaign to block the development effort that, while ultimately not completely successful, has revitalized city politics, leading to a significant split within the broad “progressive” political formation that defines the city.  More telling, its led to a deepening disillusionment with both the Democrats and the Progressives, opening space for insurgency efforts.

Traditionally, the city has episodic politics battles.  More conventional Democrats, like the mayor, were challenge by insurgent Progressives, like Sanders; early on, Sanders was challenged by the more radical Greens.  Today’s Democrats and Progressives are being challenged by the more radical Neighborhood Power movement.  The Democrats and Progressives adhering to a familiar top-down party structure and favor “appropriate” development over environmental issues.  The Neighborhood Power movement, however, is less partisan, backs protecting the rights of the local residents and favors a more non-hierarchical structure, one promoting participatory democracy.

This radical insurgency is being expressed through a variety of initiatives.  One involves Grill’s campaign by for a City-Council seat currently held by a Progressive (and backed by the Democrats).   Another example is the Rights and Democracy (RAD), a statewide movement that seeks to push the Democrats to the left, but intentionally ignores local issues like the Burlington Town Center project.

In San Diego, there are many popular or progressive groups, but they are divided along more single-issue concerns like attacks on immigrants or the environment.  The current insurgency grows out of some members of the Democratic Autonomy Federation (DAF) — recently named the Collective Resistance San Diego – effort to pull together diverse local groups into a non-hierarchical council structure.  Many had participated in the Occupy San Diego movement and contributed to the large turnout for the recent Women’s March drew more than 40,000 people, “an unprecedented turnout” for San Diego.

Preston Chipps, a local health activist, believes that the growing number of people protesting Trump’s actions – like his Muslim ban and declared intent to kill Obamacare – are motivated by their deepening sense of loss of something meaningful to them.  “Trump is the greatest community organizer,” he chuckles.  Had Hillary Clinton won the election, he warns, “the left would be snoozing” as they did under Pres. Obama.

As Chipps points out, DAF/Collective Resistance is a grassroots organization “made by and for left-leaning people, people like you.”  It operates on consensus politics and draws together “all kinds of people,” including traditional leftists, Native people, gay and trans people, and immigrant rights activists.  He notes that the AARP’s local Community Action Team focusing on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, issues and livable communities plan is being recruiting.  The Livable Communities program is sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) of which AARP is the U.S. affiliate.

Local insurgency has not yet led to any significant political organizing.  In 2016, a Sander’s supporter, Joe Caballero, ran for the City Council and garnered 17 percent of the vote.  The need to nourish radical roots is driving individuals and groups to organize, communicate, collaborate and share resources.  Who know what will happen in 2018.


Trump’s election and the virtual collapse of the (Bill) Clinton-driven “New Democrats” provides the American left with an unprecedented opportunity to contest political power.  The Tea Party, a Koch-backed rightwing insurgency, captured the Republican Party in the wake of Obama’s 2008 electoral victory.  Race still matters in the Good-Old U-S-of-A.

It seems like it’s time for a replay, but from the left.  Nationwide insurgent protests are challenge not simply Trump’s policies (and his Congressional Republican handmaidens), but the compromised Democrats.  Mass mobilizations and innumerable local demonstrations are giving way to political organizing.

Developments taking shape in Seattle, Burlington and San Diego, among other cities, reveal a growing perception that popular mobilizations, however exciting and possibly effective in the short-term, need to sink roots with deeper long-term political consequences.  A growing sense is spreading that there’s a need to build something more substantive, something that will change the political process.

This push for political change is coming from different directions. The most dynamic is centered on fostering participatory democracy at the base, of reclaiming – in a 21st century sense – what democracy once meant.  In early American, democracy was restricted to the well-to-do and landed gentry – they had real power.  In the 21st century, democracy involves those deemed citizens as well as those non-citizens who pay taxes, raise their children as Americans and – most importantly – consider themselves Americans.  Democracy also meant decision-making.   and the power of recall since the time of the nation’s formation.

Participatory democracy is a spirit of empowerment that fueled early town councils, 19th-century utopian communities, anti-imperialists of the WW-I era, labor organizers during the Great Depression and political activists of 1960s.  It promotes the active role of ordinary citizens in decision making and governance within a broadly humanitarian value system.  For activists, like many Americans, it would be morally wrong for a whites-only community to bar people of color however “democratically” the decision was reached.

Many of those involved in promoting more democratic politics draw inspiration from some recent – and remarkable — communitarian efforts taking place around the world.

In May 2016, The Guardian ran an article entitled, “Is this the world’s most radical mayor?,” an in-depth profile of Ada Colau, the mayor Barcelona.  It reports, “she became a figurehead of the new leftwing politics sweeping Spain.” Long a political activist, she founded the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) in 2009 and gained national promise in 2013 calling the spokesman for Spanish Banking Association “a criminal” at a parliamentary hearing.

In 2015, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature piece by Wes Enzinnanov, “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard,” examining efforts by Kurdish rebels to create a revolutionary society in what the author calls, “a sliver of land in the far north of Syria: Rojava, or ‘land where the sun sets.’’’  These rebels are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), thus on the U.S. terrorist list; due to the exigencies of war, it appears that they are unofficially supported by the U.S./NATO-backed Syrian opposition.  The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is imprisoned in Egypt, but has embraced the radical utopian thinking of Murray Bookchin, the anarcho-communist and radical environmentalist.

In 1994, indigenous Mayan small farmers from Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, rebelled.  Victorious, they established an autonomous zone encompassing an estimated 120,000 to 300,000 people.  According to one source, “the Zapatistas have built their own schools, hospitals, health clinics, banks, community centers, and more.  They govern their own affairs with a direct democratic governance system, centered in each zone’s administrative center called a carcacol, meaning ‘snail.’”

Many radicals are drawing inspiration from still other sources.  One is the global “right to the city” movements spreading across the globe with people demanding their rights to a livable city mean more than the rights of property owners.  Another is known as the “Jackson Plan” that grew out the successful grass-roots campaign by Chokwe Lumumba, a human rights attorney and organizer.  It consisted of three key elements: (i) building people’s assemblies or what were based on “autonomous power outside of the realm of the state (i.e., the government) … with the express intent of building radical voting blocks and electing candidates”; (ii) building a network of progressive political candidates and (iii) building a strong local economy.

Trump’s presidency is a living horror show and his administration will inflict great harm on many, whether Muslims or Mexican immigrants, transsexual youth, mocking comics or critical reporters.  He will likely provoke a major foreign-policy crisis, perhaps involving a significant military commitment.  Most likely, the great tax and regulation rip-off now being enacted by the 1 percent-controlled U.S. Congress will precipitate a new version of the Great Recession, but much worse.  During the likely crisis, any of Trump’s cronies will get rich, but a vast number of ordinary Americans will suffer gravely, including many of his supporters.  Amidst the fermenting crisis, new forms of participatory democracy will likely emerge to provide the backbone for insurgent social struggle and a renewed sense of possibility in America.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.