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Direct Action Redux?

With Trump about to enter the White House, it is time for progressives to turn their attention away from the machinations of electoral politics and toward direct action.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpHillary ClintonOccupy Wall StreetProtests

Donald Trump will soon occupy the White House, while Republicans will hold majorities in both houses. Progressives, meanwhile, have lost handily and should be prepared for the worst, especially if Trump’s cabinet choices are any indication.

A man who projects bluster and speaks of “law and order,” while sounding so ostensibly fake on the rare occasions when he is forced to read a scripted speech calling for the country to unify feels illegitimate to many, so completely removed from their political aspirations. So, as a progressive who believes in using existing representative political institutions to achieve a more just society, I have been surprised to find myself suddenly doubting the plausibility of this strategy; our representative institutions have been looking, well, distinctly unrepresentative.

First off, we mustn’t forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by around 2.5 million. And if you look at Congress, the fact is that gerrymandering has dashed Democrats’ prospects. So there really is no use encouraging a young progressive Democrat to run for Congress in my district—it has been drawn in the self-interest of Republicans and will be locked up in this way for years to come. And in Senate races, Koch money has created an undoubtedly unbalanced playing field.

So, with all of this in mind, I was not surprised by the protests against Trump that have sprung up across numerous cities this past month, or by the call for a million woman march on D.C. in January. Nor am I surprised to hear the discussions taking place, especially among progressive faculty, about how to make sure my university remains a sanctuary for all as the nation is faced with talks of a Muslim registry. And, somehow, the protest against the pipeline in North Dakota—which began long before the election—seems more powerful now than ever. So maybe it’s time we turn away, ever so slightly, from the machinations of electoral politics and return to the once popular strategy of direct action.

My own formative teen years were in the 1980s, during the time of the punk-anarchist left. We were a small bunch, but we were united by our shared rejection of electoral politics and of traditional civil disobedience tactics (the classic example involving leaders sitting down with police before a protest and agreeing about how non-violent arrests were to be made). We wanted more creativity in our political activism. So we did “war chest tours” (protests against profiteering from the nuclear arms race) snaking through the streets of D.C. and performing “die-ins” at banks and nuclear arms manufacturers’ offices. We fed homeless people in Lafayette Park with the Community For Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), hoping to highlight the problem of poverty in the Reagan era. And we marched against the President’s interventionist policies in Central America. In other words, we hit the streets, seeking visibility in our opposition to White House policies.

You have, no doubt, been hearing a similar defiance in the voices of those marching against Trump—sometimes stemming from anger alone, but mostly from a refusal to accept the idea that the nation must come together, no matter the circumstances, in a false sense of unity. It should come as no surprise, then, that we are rethinking the role and importance of direct action these days; it might be the only course of action we have right now.

As I recall from my own activist past, such a strategy isn’t without problems; it runs the risk of becoming too embroiled in its own sense of futility and desperation. At its worst, it became about simply doing something rather than not doing anything at all. And too often it became solely therapeutic—those who participated worked through some psychological resolve while failing to pay attention to the real effectiveness of their actions. At other times, our activism only served to alienate the wrong people. When we performed war chest tours, for instance, we often confronted low-level employees of banks or arms manufacturing firms. However, we often wound up just aggravating them, while failing to actually convince anyone. We created more work for overworked janitors by throwing leaflets everywhere. What we never managed to do, though, was confront the CEOs or anyone with real power.

The inherent weaknesses of direct action also became apparent during Occupy Wall Street in the early 2010s (deeply influenced, I would say, by the punk-anarcho left of my generation). No doubt, Occupy pressed citizens to think more seriously about wealth inequality. But it never offered a solution to the problems it exposed. I remember asking my fellow activists, back in the 1980s: How’s our little war chest tour really going to combat the power of multinational corporations? What are we suggesting here? And it eventually dawned on me that anarchism just didn’t seem to provide any real answers to those questions. Transforming youthful frustration and angst into actual policy corrections is not always as easy as it seems.

Yet now, perhaps more than ever before in my lifetime, the time is ripe to make our voices clear when we say that consensus simply does not, and cannot, exist in Trump’s America. When Trump called for “unity” in his victory speech, few, if any, bought it. Not easily forgotten were months of one of the most incredibly divisive campaigns in recent memory (he even out-Nixoned Nixon). When Obama offered paltry rhetoric after the election about us all being on the “same team,” many of us, I presume, rolled our eyes. When the President-elect hired Steve Bannon as a chief advisor and handed the attorney general position over to Jeff Sessions, that certainly didn’t jibe with his new lilting language about togetherness. In fact the purpose of direct action—indeed, its very starting point—is expressing a lack of unity, suggesting that there’s opposition to what’s being hatched in the high chamber of Trump Towers.

At the same time, we need to begin a discussion about the limits and pitfalls of direct action, including looking at how, if done incorrectly, it can wind up alienating more people than it draws in. And about how it relies upon an incredible amount of energy and determination, something that can be in short supply. Most of all, direct action can never act as a substitute for actual representative political power. But, sometimes, like right now, it’s the only thing we’ve got.

Read more about Donald TrumpHillary ClintonOccupy Wall StreetProtests

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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