One Year On, Reflecting and Refining Tactics to Take Our Country Back

A year ago, on January 20, president Trump took office. The whiplash of right-wing assaults is sobering, but it can’t be demobilizing. Now is an opportune time to reflect on our tactics.

Last week Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and every single country in Africa a “shithole,” digging his heels in against extending Temporary Protected Status.

Trump’s comments reflect an ascendant white supremacy that Trump condoned, in August 12 in Charlottesville, placing blame on “both sides.” White supremacists again mobilized in another Southern college town, Gainesville, in October.

After many missteps, Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban” was finally blessed by the Supreme Court during the first week of December, on the heels of the Senate’s razor-thin passage of his tax reform, the greatest upward redistribution of wealth in the history of the country.

Trump pardoned unapologetic racist, former Sherriff Joe Arpaio, running for U.S. Senate following the retirement of Jeff Flake, who voted yes for Trump’s tax bill in exchange for negotiating for the rights of millions of undocumented individuals, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republican intransigence on this issue led to a government shutdown, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Trump’s single-minded refusal to acknowledge the role of climate change was undeterred by last year’s hurricane season, with three category-four-or-higher storms. In Puerto Rico, rather than provide aid, he threw paper towels at a crowd while starting a Twitter war with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, keeping shipping routes closed to benefit his wealthy friends. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump reversed Obama’s policy on Cuba, escalating a war of words.

Other wars are escalating, and as a species we are facing nuclear annihilation, with Trump bragging that his “nuclear button” is bigger than North Korea’s.

Progressive forces hope that 2018 will be the year that things will change. A record number of Republican lawmakers are retiring, following a string of victories for Democrats in 2017, including a razor-thin margin of victory against Roy Moore facing multiple charges of sexual misconduct. Moore was even banned from a local mall because of his stalking of teenage girls.

One ray of hope in 2017 was the wave of standing up to endemic sexual harassment, shorthanded as #MeToo. What began as a courageous series of acts against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has become a movement, bringing down individuals in entertainment, and even Minnesota Senator Al Franken. Some have called this a new “wave” of feminism, unfinished business from candidate Trump’s bragging that he grabbed women by their genitalia. Angry, in what was described as the biggest demonstration in U.S. history, 2.6 million women and men marched on January 21, the day after the inauguration.

Will things actually change in 2018?

What would it take?

The relative success of #MeToo given the torrent of right-wing policies invites progressives to examine our tactics. Is electoral politics, supporting the Democrats in our two-party system, enough? Is public protest, particularly in Washington?

Elizabeth Currans, Associate Professor Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Michigan University, addresses many of these questions in her recently-published book, Marching Dykes, Liberated Sluts, and Concerned Mothers: Women Transforming Public Space. Currans recommends that people think about their goals. “Taking a controversial stand can draw attention to issues and people who are often neglected. However, sometimes coming together in large numbers despite differences may be more important either to demonstrate numbers or to help participants feel support from large numbers of similarly-minded people. Different tactics are also better suited to different goals.”

Demonstrating in the streets can exclude the most marginalized people. Currans continues, “Police brutality disproportionately targeting people of color means that some people of color are not going to attend protests no matter how inclusive an event’s platform and how effectively organizers have done outreach. Non-citizens, documented and undocumented, often find protests too risky.”

This question about who is excluded from protests, and the impacts on local communities, was discussed by a panel organized by author and professor Bianca Williams bringing together DC organizers, Black Lives Matter DMV April Goggans and Erika Totten, director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute Elle Hearns, and NY organizer with Black Alliance for Just Immigration Nisrin Abdelrahman, also a PhD candidate at Stanford, in a panel, “Until We Are All Free: Black Feminist Leadership in the Movement for Black Lives” at the American Anthropological Association meeting, also in Washington.

Williams explained her reasons for organizing the panel: “Since the election of the current president, the violence and threats against the organizers in this movement has intensified. I wanted to highlight the effective strategies and resulting victories Black people—particularly women and LGTBQ+–have generated even in the face of extreme hate. Many times, in media and academic conferences, we don’t get to hear from the organizers themselves. Their die-ins, disruptions, and organizing campaigns have shifted national discussions on race, gender, and police violence; galvanized people around local initiatives for restorative and transformative justice, and prison abolition; and increased attention to the structural inequities that impact Black people’s health and wellness.”

The discussion covered a range of topics, including power, self-care, what Goggins called “internalized capitalism, measuring your self-worth by what you produce for others,” centering Black feminist leadership, and necessary mechanisms for self-critique and accountability.

The DC activists implored guests to think about the impacts of our actions in the nation’s capital. Totten emphatically called upon us to stop trying to colonize DC activists with our issues. Marching on the Capitol means little to DC residents since they don’t have representation. She called this approach “Columbusing,” noting that “we are fighting to be citizens.”

One particular lightning rod was the Women’s March, which took away resources from local organizing. One example was all the port-o-potties in a 75-mile radius. Goggans pointed out that “80% of city workers are Black in this city. Who do you think was picking up trash, and cleaning up the s*** after you all leave?” Worse, Hearns continued, “Let’s look at the police that the Women’s March brought in and welcomed. Who will that impact when you all leave? On us.”

Acknowledging the multiple, differential layers of privilege and power, local organizations have drafted DC Community Organizing Principles and ask us outsiders to respect them.

This decolonizing work begins with each of us. First, we all have to work on ourselves, “to own our own s***.”

And frankly, just to do the work.

In “Speaking Justice to Power,” organized by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology at Busboys and Poets, where more people had to be turned away than can be seated, American University anthropologist Orisanmi Burton recommended that we engage movements as participants, not as anthropologists [or other scholars]: to build trust by doing the regular work as people first.

2018 will only be a pivotal year if we are prepared to do the work.

Mark Schuller wrote or co-edited seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti and Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Schuller also has three dozen scholarly articles or chapters on NGOs, globalization, disasters, and gender in Haiti. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller is active in social justice and solidarity efforts.


Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.