From March To Movement
The Women’s March (or should I say Marches) were among the most inspiring events of my lifetime. As a middle aged man who has been marching for social and economic justice since I was very young, I was proud to follow the leadership of strong women expressing not only their determination to protect, defend and advance the rights of women, but the rights of people of all races, religions, classes and sexual orientation.
The March sent a message to the nation, the world, to Congress, and most important, timid Democrats who might be tempted to acquiesce to Trumpublicans in the name of fake bipartisanship, that there are millions of diverse women and men throughout America and the world who are ready, willing, and able to stand up to the Trumpublican assault on decency, democratic values, and the social and economic well-being of the majority of Americans.
I was particularly struck by the number of women (and men) in their teens, twenties, and thirties, many of whom were marching for the first time, who will be the leaders of emerging progressive movements.
But now comes the hard part—transforming the extraordinary energy of the Women’s March into an organized movement that can show up not just on one day, but day after day, and achieve real political power.
I have no doubt that a large proportion of the women and men who attended the March have the energy and enthusiasm to do more. The question is, are there, organizational forms to express and channel that energy and, if not, can they be created quickly? Will the Women’s March be like Occupy Wall Street, which, after focusing public debate on economic inequality, quickly dissipated (in part by design of its organizers). Or will it, like the civil rights and anti-war movements on the left, and the Tea Party on the right, create permanent organizational forms that can challenge oligarchy and achieve real political power?
Soon after the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs And Freedom, Bayard Rustin, the black, gay, democratic socialist who was, effectively, the chief behind-the-scenes organizer of the March wrote a much discussed article entitled “From Protest To Politics”. Here are a few vital quotes:
[I]n the few years that have passed since the first flush of sit-ins…no longer were Negroes satisfied with integrating lunch counters. They now sought advances in employment, housing, school integration, police protection, and so forth…At the same time, the interrelationship of these apparently distinct areas became increasingly evident. What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them? The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations…And what also became clear is that all these interrelated problems, by their very nature, are not soluble by private, voluntary efforts but require government action—or politics…
A conscious bid for political power is being made, and in the course of that effort a tactical shift is being effected: direct action techniques are being subordinated to a strategy calling for the building of community institutions or power bases…What began as a protest movement is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement.
I would posit that, following the shock of Trump’s election and the elation of the Women’s March, we face a similar challenge today: transforming a protest movement into a political movement.
Almost every day, I receive a dozen or so emails from progressive organizations who have done, and are doing, important work, usually asking me to donate money, sign a petition, or call my Congressperson. I’ve made modest donations to many of them, signed lots of petitions, and made lots of calls.
Among these dedicated groups are People’s Action, MoveOn, Our Revolution, Working Families Party, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of American, Brand New Congress, and Indivisible; as well as organizations focused on specific issues or the rights of particular groups including feminist organizations like NOW and Emily’s List; civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter, Color of Change and the NAACP; immigrant rights organizations like the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and United We Dream; LGBT rights groups like The Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD; and environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. (Apologies if I’ve left out some important groups—There are too many progressive organizations doing heroic work to list all of them here.)
The question is whether any of these organizations can scale up and unite progressives; or whether a new mass progressive organization needs to be created, either from the ground up, or by combining several pre-existing groups.
Several organizations have tried to step into the breach following Trump’s election. A new group initiated by former Congressional staffers, Indivisible, has initiated a strategy of confronting members of Congress, much like the early Tea Party, and has put together an impressive guide to tactics. Indivisible united with MoveOn and the Working Families Party to hold a conference call of 25,000 people to organize actions at Congressional offices this week and in the future. MoveOn has also put out a video summarizing its action plans. (Click here to view it.)
These are all good first steps and a place that many of the people who attended the Women’s March can immediately put their energies.
But I have a dream of something bigger and bolder—a mass, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, national progressive membership organization with chapters in neighborhoods, town, cities, states, workplaces, and campuses around the country.
Such an organization would have a dual inside/outside strategy, engaging in both electoral activities and mass protest politics. It would run people for office at every level from dog catcher, to city council, to state legislatures to Congress — mainly in the Democratic Party except where electoral law makes 3rd party campaigns practical. It would both endorse sympathetic candidates as well as run its own. It would also work to transform the Democratic Party from cautious centrism catering too often to the donor class, to a progressive populist Party.
At the same time, it would organize direct action on the ground for women’s rights, civil rights, immigrant rights, labor rights, environmental causes, and against militarism and needless military action, sometimes even engaging in non-violent civil disobedience.
I don’t underestimate the difficulty in forming such an organization. Progressive organizations have often had difficulty finding the right balance of leadership between whites and minorities, between women and men, between educated professionals and working class people. Things often break down in sectarian debates over relatively secondary matters of ideological doctrine. And existing organizations often defend their turf, paid staff, mailing lists, and donors from those whom they think are encroaching.
So it may be that the best way to form such an organization is by combining several existing organizations, rather than starting from the ground up. Alternatively, it may emerge from new spontaneous action, as the Women’s March did.
Or my dream for such an organization may be just that—a dream—and it’s turns out to just be too hard a lift.
In any event, the energy from the Women’s March must be transformed into a permanent movement with lasting organizational form. As Bayard Rustin wrote in the ‘60s, we must move from protest to politics. I hope hundreds of thousands of the women and men who attended the Women’s March return to their communities and find or create a group to continue expressing their activism.
Trumpism is a dire threat to our country and our planet and we can’t afford to just go back to our private lives. There’s too much work to do. The whole world is watching.