Three months into the new age, three months under Trumpism. In my communities, I’ve watched the effect on peoples’ bodies. Felt it in my own. In February, I had anxiety of a degree I hadn’t experienced since I was 20 and coping with flashbacks from assault. I have some practice in handling stress and nervousness, as I fairly frequently push myself to do things that are outside my comfort zone when it comes to organizing and political work. I’d felt pretty strong through the transition into this administration, probably due to the honor of spending inauguration in DC supporting the It Takes Roots delegation. During the Women’s March, Catalyst helped coordinate security for the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and I got to experience that massive march alongside those fierce and committed leaders. I think that buffered for me in some ways the horror of transitioning into the formal admission of Trump and his cabal into government. But it’s really hit, and I know how overwhelmed many of us are feeling. At the same time that seeing how politicizing and mobilizing Trumpism has already been on hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, a lot of us are really struggling to hold it together.
Among the people I work with, many of whom are directly targeted by the policies and values being advanced by Trumpism, I see the strain. Most of us are functioning in some sort of survival mode. In whatever ways our bodies learned to take care of ourselves at younger points in life, the survival strategies that got us through to today have kicked in hard with this experience of collective threat. Some of us are a bit frozen, others in perpetual hypervigilance ready to fight or flee, some of us shaping ourselves to appease.
At the same time, this situation isn’t new. For so many people, being directly and overtly attacked by the state/by the right wing/by their neighbors has been the experience through generations. I remember stories passed to me second hand after the great flooding of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. When the water drained, the city reappeared from below as a post-apocalyptic landscape. And Black and indigenous residents reminded those of us who like myself had been raised to expect our own survival: for them, for generations, they’ve known that they were never supposed to survive. That the apocalypse was not new, the fight for survival was not new.
What is War?
Part of the fear of this moment is this question “When is Trump going to get us into a new war?” But we’re already in them.
I don’t mean solely Iraq, although we just rounded the corner of the 14th year of that war in almost total silence. I don’t mean only Afghanistan either, the “good war” of my generation. I don’t even mean just the Korean peninsula, where our military occupation has provoked decades of resistance from Koreans.
The lines have long been blurred on what constitutes a war.
U.S.-led forces are now regularly bombing schools and hospitals in Syria. We do not seem to understand that in this country. We do not take any accountability for the hundreds of migrants who disappered in the Mediterranean yesterday fleeing the warzones we created, empty dinghies found of a type which is always packed with 100-200 people.
What is a “war on Islam” other than a propaganda campaign inciting violence at home and bombing campaigns abroad? Another organizing strategy based in racism used to advance some peoples’ agenda of domination? Why aren’t Christian Zionists being called out, who will expose the Christian right wing for its role in global misery and its aspirations of dominion?
What constitutes a war versus a concerted and politically motivated attack on a particular population? When Black people in the U.S. Speak of a war on Black people, what would it take to believe them? What’s an alternative vision of this country in which Black communities are not relegated, as a surplus labor force who no longer creates profit for CEOs from their labor in shuttered factories and automated fields, to the social control structures of mass incarceration and mass voter disenfranchisement?
What constitutes a war on poor people?
On people with disabilities?
On gender variant and trans people?
Does it have to be waged by the state? Overt or covert?
If the vote this afternoon repeals the ACA, and 24 million people lose healthcare in order to increase profits for a small handful of other people, how is that not warfare? War meaning politics done by other means. How much will we let them get away with because we’re invested in politness, civility, “doing things the right way and lawful way,” or because we can’t bring ourselves to look this hideous situation in the face. That this actually is structural violence. That people will actually die because of this. Some of them might be my family, might be my sister who is currently in cancer remission but reliant on county services in an area where she can’t afford housing but can’t afford to move away from their healthcare. Some will be people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who already know that they’re considered disposable because capitalism defines your value based on your relation to money-making activities. Cutting maternal and newborn care? Sure, fellas, that’s definitely how to make a country great.
I mean, sure, the ACA is flawed and we actually need something significantly better. But the people trying to replace it with the World’s Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017 (actual name of an earlier version) don’t want something better. More and more I think we need to name what they are doing as war.
I’m scared of what’s ahead. I looked at the photo of the so-called “Freedom Caucus,” the re-named Tea Party, of 25 white male lawmakers in a room scheming about how to dismantle healthcare, and cried from fear and anger. Something about that image drove it home. I called Congresspeople today through the automatic phone connect that SEIU set up for people to enter their zip code and be connected to representatives. The Congressional reps it connected me to were all planning to vote no already, and were all women. Women who support/are voting for repeal are a whole different topic, let alone the Tomi Lahrens and Kellyanne Conways of the world. White women’s history of aligning with slaveowners, both figuratively and literally, is its own subject and a repeated cause of much opportunity turned to tragedy. May this moment bring us finally towards something different, as the lines are being laid so starkly about whose agenda turns towards life and whose turns towards violence.
I’m scared of the backlash misogyny taking hold. I don’t think I’ve felt so deeply before the level of actual hatred, not just disdain, that they have. I mean people who were assigned male at birth and socialized as boys into men, cultivating and weaponizing this level of hatred and brutality against people assigned female at birth and/or living as women, girls, gender variant, trans or queer. It’s chilling me in a way I am not used to. I’ve lived my life so cushioned from violence by my race and class privilege, even as a queer and gender variant person, even as someone raised female and marked by harassments, bullying, and assaults as well as the daily soul-wearing grind of casual misogyny and every time my worth is undermined because of my gender. But this is different.
I’m scared of the backlash white supremacy that is metastizing under Trump’s care, with white supremacists including Sessions and Bannon implanted into seats of power. The backlash to the ground gained by the Movement for Black Lives’ successes over the past three years in finally beginning to shift some cultural values in this country to put back on the table the demand that Black lives do indeed matter, including Black trans lives, Black immigrant lives, Black disabled lives, Black women and girls, Black elders, Black incarcerated people, in fact all Black lives. Anti-Black racism is so foundational to this country’s DNA, and to how capitalism has evolved here, that of course this powerful challenge to the dominant logic of the US has provoked a regressive and vicious response.
I’m scared that the right wing is intentionally moving us towards something in effect like a civil war, although they’ll brand it to suit their purposes. Their whole shtick is built on divide-and-rule schemes. Their interests are protected by turning us against each other. Those of us who have so much more in common with each other, and who are providing much of the foundation of their empire-building.
And they’ve enlisted so many people in their project. Not just in supporting the global wing of the project, justifying and executing wars of conquest and profit on the other side of the world, but enlisting the ground troops here.
My organization Catalyst Project works with white people to build up anti-racist practice in majority white organizations, faith communities, groups, networks, communities. Since before 9/11, we’ve been talking to white people around the country about the smoke-and-mirrors approach that keeps white supremacist power structures intact. One key myth about US racism is that “the racists” are those white power fringe characters like the KKK. Or that racism is embodied in and exemplified by poor white Southerners. It’s been a highly successful device to keep eyes off people in power enacting policies which differentially target people of color, and to keep us focused on racially biased interactions with someone on the street instead of the structures that maintain white supremacy. So we pushed hard on politically active white people to go beyond focusing on the Klan.
Over the last couple years, we’ve gotten more and more requests for support from people organizing to protect themselves and their communities from white supremacist vigilantes and militias. As the Tea Party rooted itself in the body politic of the US, and particularly as Trump’s campaign dropped the bar to floor level for permitting atrocious behavior, the resurgence of a whole wide ecosystem of “white nationalism” is creating increased danger.
Catalyst is often asked to provide safety teams for events, marches, rallies, direct actions, conferences. Usually these events are part of work against militarism, police violence, war, and white supremacy. In 16 years of providing security in many different contexts, the most aggressive and violent people I’ve had to deal with have been Zionists who on many occasions have physically attacked people, hitting, choking, slamming heads to the pavement. It’s been very rare that we’ve dealt with people who are armed with more than a pole. This is changing. The danger level is rising as reactionary white nationalists/supremacists feel increasingly emboldened. Much ink was spilled lamenting the fires set at UC Berkeley last month to refuse a platform to Breitbart troll Milo Yiannopoulis, but very little discussion of the Milo supporter who shot in the stomach a Milo protestors who was de-escalating a confrontation outside the Seattle tour event. I saw almost a dozen people stabbed in their torsos last summer when we gathered to deny a platform at our state capitol to an assortment of white supremacists convened by Matthew Heimbach and his Traditionalist Workers Party. Those wounds were intended to kill, and they targeted people of color.
I grew up a punk in the midAtlantic in the 90s, which means I’ve dealt with racist skinheads my whole life. There were ebbs and flows in their public activities, but they’ve always been a factor in my world. I spent several years back and forth to Germany in the early 2000s, learning about their migrant justice and antifascist work to cull lessons for the work I was doing in California trying to build white support for migrant and refugee leadership. My approach to transformative change is grounded in traditions of revolutionary nonviolence. Yet spending time with my German peers, who had grown up with and sometimes inside antifa traditions, moved me to a deeper understanding and respect for the role of physically preventing neo-Nazis from taking public space. Now is the time for those lines to become common sense. No, of course you can’t go around whipping up hatred to get into office/make money/feel temporarily better about yourself. No, it’s not acceptable to organize towards an ethnosupremacist nation-state/eugenic elimination of people with disabilities/country without abortion access/mandate electric shock torture for transgender people/”war of civilizations” against all Arabs and Muslims. We need a new hegemony (common sense). It’s going to take some pushing and discomfort and peoples’ willingness to grow, be curious, question their assumptions.
I work at a ranch. Many people there I quite like and get along with just fine, although we may not share politics. I heard more concern from several of them about the Milo melee in Berkeley than I heard about the dozen people in Sacramento who were almost killed by white supremacists, let alone than I hear about the constant murders of Black trans women. It’s not popular in the populace to put your body between neo-Nazis and a microphone, even if they’re trying to recruit people to their vision of a white ethno-state. We continue glorify World War II as the good war, where our boys fought the Nazis. But just as we shut down the stories of veterans coming home, in order to keep them from tainting our national storytelling (as we have done to the veterans of every war since), we are strangely unwilling now to support the idea that our task is to firmly cast out organized white supremacy. Uproot it from our neighborhoods, our unions, our VFW halls, our churches, and certainly our government.
When a Florida finance director court employee can say about the state’s first Black state attorney that she should be tarred and feathered and hung from a tree, in the state with the highest rate of lynchings in the era before mass incarceration, that’s a gauge. Yes, I’m scared of civil war. I’m scared of how willing people are to do violence to each other. And I try to remind myself of exactly that history in which Florida holds some awful distinctions. This has happened before and people have resisted, strategized, loved each other, fought back, won gains.
This time period feels like something new and terrifying to me. That fear knocks me off center at least once a day. I cast my thoughts to the future and wonder if it’s a terrible mistake to think about having a child. I’m deeply grateful that over this past decade my mentors, coaches and peers have helped me learn good tools for re-centering on what I care about, what impacts I am trying to have and what values I want to organize myself around. Reorienting around what’s important to me, sometimes many times each day, keeps me grounded even when I am not feeling very hopeful.
While it’s true that there are unique and specific factors about the moment we are in, and some massive historical responsibilities meaning that if we fail in our task it will be pretty irredeemable– including the window that is closing in which we must deal with climate change—- it’s also important for people like me, who are newer to the fear of annihilation, to put this in context. To look to communities that have experience and practice in dealing with hopelessness, with how it feels to have the people in power hate you and wish you dead. I look at the Freedom Caucus and it’s hard for me to understand how they can hate us so much, like they must to be moving forward their legislation. But many people in the country have that capacity that I am trying to build. The capacity to understand, name and face the reality we’re up against, the people moving an agenda that considers us disposable at best and sees many of us as threats to their continued accumulation of wealth and power. I am looking particularly to Black histories and leaders like Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching leadership to fortify my soul and learn better strategies. To indigenous peoples’ steadfastness in the face of attempted genocide, from Standing Rock to Palestine.
Franz Fanon said “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
Our generation’s mission has been thrown into sharp relief. For that I am grateful. And as the lines in the sand become more clear, possibilites increase for broader alliances. We need to place a new set of values at the center and ask ourselves what becomes possible if we organize our society around life-giving activities and life-supporting priorities? And then, together, work to build that. We’re doing it. We’re making the road as we go down it. It’s a scary road right now but there are many ancestors at our backs, and generations ahead calling for us to fulfill our task. With so much at stake, we need to get less civil and more civic.