To begin, an anecdote. This past summer, a pigeon walked through my open balcony door while my attention was elsewhere. I shooed it out, but when I turned around two more pigeons walked out of my bedroom. In the 20 years I’ve lived in my apartment, this had never happened to me, though my balcony door was often open. All I could imagine was that those poor birds had gotten as disoriented as the rest of us in these pandemic years when nothing feels faintly normal.
But what is normal, anyway? Decades filled with war, inequity, poverty, and injustice? Really? Is this what we want — a society clearly failing its people?
There are, of course, many groups working in wonderful ways to improve our lives, each of them a harbinger of what’s possible. These would certainly include Black Lives Matter, reproductive-rights organizations, and climate-change groups, as well as newly empowered union organizing, and that’s just to mention a few obvious examples.
But here’s the truly worrisome thing. These days such social-justice groups, inspirational as they may be, can barely be heard above the clamor of right-wing organizing and conspiratorial thinking, which seems to be gathering strength, leading toward an accretion of power across this land of ours. They’re doing so locally by getting onto school boards and city councils; by using social media to spread ever wilder racist, misogynist ideas; by encouraging racial hatred that results in nightmarish murders, most recently in Buffalo, New York, where a young white man slaughteredAfrican-Americans in a supermarket. And by doing all this and more, the right wing has grown into a set of movements that continue to flourish nationwide with far too little forceful opposition.
Right-wing politicians, extremist groups, and their social-media outlets are anything but new. For years, however, they lingered in the shadows. Donald Trump’s presidency gave them permission to emerge all too vocally and capture the fealty of so many Republican lawmakers and voters. The threats to legal abortion, voting rights, marriage equality, and education (via book banning and curriculum reshaping) are just a few obvious aspects of American life now being menaced by a set of authoritarian, nationalist, racist political movements that are unfolding daily. The question, of course, is: What should the rest of us do to counter all of this?
We live on an ever more climate-endangered planet and in a society threatened by growing amounts of disinformation, misinformation, and a tendency toward extreme individualism. Consider just the growing number of anti-vax, anti-masking Republicans who equate their choices with the personification of freedom, which is really a fear of loss of control — white control, rich control, male control.
Sadly enough, progressive ideas aren’t permeating our society anywhere near as quickly or defiantly as right-wing ones. In the increasingly dangerous world we inhabit, it’s not enough to fire up anger by sending people into the streets for a single day of protest, even to shout No!, Stop!, Not in our name! It’s a shame — since they should matter — but such flare-ups don’t engender real change. Only consistent, visible grassroots organizing, local and national, might lead to the kinds of change that could affect political consciousness and alter a country that may be going the way of Trump far too quickly.
History as Proof
It’s encouraging to look back and note that, throughout our history, grassroots movements have made a genuine difference. Those who worked at change, day in, day out, year in, year out often succeeded in their struggles. They won child-labor laws and social security, promoted women’s suffrage and civil rights, and remade American society in other equally important ways. Sustained grassroots organizing by laborers, miners, teachers, and so many others created national unions, some of which then fought successfully for legislation of all kinds, not to speak of the creation of the Department of Labor itself in 1913 to give that movement a “voice in the cabinet.” Through determined organizing, unionization reached a high point during the 1940s and 1950s.
Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, unions began losing members and clout, a defeat only compounded by their inability to stop a great migration of plants and factories overseas. That phenomenon would, of course, devastate large swaths of the country, especially the industrial Midwest. In its wake, it left blue-collar workers in economic despair and losing confidence in both unions and government. Over time, those feelings would only enhance a rightward political shift.
After so many years, however, a new uptick in unionization seems to be underway. The recent surprise vote in favor of unionizing an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, after two years of organizing efforts, offers a striking example of how a vigorous, progressive, and consistent grassroots movement can achieve change and spur yet more organizing by others.
But what is organizing anyway? Who can do it? How is it done?
Let me try to answer those questions in a personal way. In 1969, in the midst of this country’s war in Vietnam that swept so many of us into the streets, I became a member of a collective that organized an antiwar coffee shop. We opened it close to an Army base and many young soldiers came in. We offered them free coffee and cookies, music popular at the time, and of course ourselves to chat with every day of the week. We even left coins in a jar on the counter that could be used in a pay telephone booth to get in touch with family or friends.
I can remember talking with soldiers, many of them destined for Vietnam. We discussed the state of the country, class, race, and especially, of course, the ongoing war and what to do about it. We listened as well, learning much about those mostly working-class soldiers of all races and creeds: how they grew up, how they felt about basic training, and how they had learned what they knew. We, in turn, began to understand what influenced the thinking of those young men, many from rural areas of the country, including the role of disinformation in their political consciousness. That coffee-shop collective offered soldiers knowledge as power, knowledge to change consciousness.
While antiwar demonstrations spread in those years, often filling the streets, such coffee shops and other antiwar projects spread, too. And of course — though it took far too long and far too many of those young lives — that war did end and we played our small part in that, something I tried to capture in my new novel, Can You See the Wind?.
Movements Then and Now
That was, of course, so long ago, but in the world of today, perhaps such activities might still have a place. What if, for example, organizers were now to begin setting up social-justice cafes — storefronts offering free coffee, music, talk, and educational materials aimed at informing and affecting political consciousness in this ever more social-mediated moment? Such cafés, or whatever their twenty-first-century equivalents might be, would offer an up-close, face-to-face way of countering rightwing disinformation, conspiracy thinking, and propaganda.
Many social-justice groups now do aim to reach out and educate. There’s a problem, however. Their good work isn’t coalescing into the kind of massive effort that can influence deeply. Much of the protest work of this moment, of course, begins (and ends) online — sometimes followed by sporadic flare-ups of street protests, little of it as effective as it should be when it comes to influencing opinion. Though helpful in spreading the word, social-media platforms are inadequate substitutes for street-by-street, action-by-action grassroots work that anyone can join because it’s visible, out there, and noisy rather than one person alone at her computer.
From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, street mobilizations and public action were remarkably commonplace. Though initially such movements were anything but well covered by mainstream news outlets, a growing alternative media offered them much-needed attention. Soon enough, though, mainstream newspapers and the TV news had little choice but to report on what was so obviously happening in the streets. How could they not, since the insistent demands for social justice were so noisy, ongoing, and hard to miss — and, in the process, people’s opinions began to change.
During those years, the creative actions taken included civil rights bus boycotts, sit-ins of many kinds, and protest marches of all sorts. There were also public teach-ins, women’s consciousness-raising groups, and storefront child-care centers that allowed parents to attend protests and speak-ins in those pre-Roe v. Wade days to demand the right to abortion. Though that right, won then, is now threatened, there will no doubt be a sustained fight to maintain it. A law may be rescinded but it’s difficult to erase from consciousness something that so many women have benefited from.
The messages of such actions were hard to miss and did indeed change public consciousness, as in the case of the civil rights movement. They not only led to desperately needed voting-rights laws, but also inspired generations of young people to become involved in progressive movements.
Unfortunately, these days, those on social media and in the streets are all too often right-wing organizers doing all they can to eviscerate voting-rights laws, aided and abetted by Republican state legislatures and a Supreme Court essentially taken over by right-wingers.
Another example of a protest movement that worked thanks to an organized grassroots struggle is the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the start of that conflict, most Americans were either supportive of or indifferent to it. After the growth of a massive antiwar movement and waves of protest and education to end that nightmarish conflict, much of it taking place in the streets or on university campuses, public opinion did turn against the war and helped force its end.
A more recent example of progressive action would be Occupy Wall Street in 2011 — essentially a tent city set up in New York’s financial district. Though it didn’t bring concrete change to Wall Street, it did change consciousness in this country about the growing inequality between the rich 1% and the rest of us. Perhaps one day an Occupy successor will develop, a grassroots movement in support of taxing the wealthiest Americans to finance so much of what society still needs.
The Black Lives Matter movement is the most recent example of how a consistent mobilization, not just online but out in the streets of cities across the country, can increase awareness of society’s injustice. Through it, systemic racism was brought to the consciousness of Americans in a new way, even as this country was all too sadly being increasingly barraged from the right by white nationalism and the great replacement theory. Sadly, there can be no real social justice as long as the messages of white nationalists proliferate.
What Does Change Mean Now?
In some sense, change is invisible until it succeeds and one thing is guaranteed: it won’t succeed if we wait for it to happen from the top down. History proves that. Though it feels like a nearly impossible task to shake up a nation already thoroughly rattled by Donald Trump and his Republican followers, it can happen. After all, in the end, the real lawmakers are indeed the people.
No doubt the pandemic has created a kind of vacuum in which each of us has been forced to make decisions for her or himself: to take a train, or not; to eat in a restaurant, or not; to meet a friend, or not — decisions that need to be made again and again as the next Covid-19 variant or subvariant hits. No wonder sitting at a computer feels like the least endangering act around, the best way to communicate and relate right now.
We’re born without political consciousness. It’s learned, handed down, exchanged, and absorbed. Think of this essay then as my way of reassuring you that a sense of helplessness has been overcome before and can be again. Each generation learns anew how to cope and bring about change. But history does teach us that sustained grassroots movements have a special impact on political consciousness, even as they influence legislators to meet public demands if they wish to remain in office. In addition, the solidarity of many acting in unison offers a sense of strength and a path out of despair for those involved.
However perilous and unnerving these times may be, they belong to us to either live with or change.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.