Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sustaining Grassroots Activism Against the Trump Presidency

(You can also read the article here.)

We were about a hundred Americans on a rainy winter morning – teachers, engineers, lawyers, accountants, secretaries, entrepreneurs, lifelong activists, many retired, some not – who had gathered in the community room of a public library in East San Jose to “Do Something to Push Back at Trump’s Agenda.”

Rebecca, one of the organizers of the ‘SJ Indivisible Huddle,’ identified a website at the outset called ‘Indivisible Guide that contained practical steps we could take to change the status quo.

Breaking up into groups of about ten each, we focused on what we could do to defeat Trump’s un-American policies on immigration, media, environment, women’s rights, and more. The emphasis was on taking action based on sound ideas.

“This can’t go on,” declared Bracy, a retired teacher. “No one could imagine things would go this bad this quickly.” “Agree,” said Stella, “but we have to get rid of our fear if we are to make any progress. Too many Americans are unable to act because they are fearful.”

Maria, a Latina, observed that it was easy to say we should not be afraid but the reality was crueler. “I have friends and relatives who are afraid of being deported. They are afraid to attend meetings like this because they don’t know what will happen.” When told that there are websites that offer tips and hotlines one can access to get help against activities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, Maria replied that such options were not available to those most threatened by ICE. “These immigrants don’t have computers. Most can’t talk in English. They don’t know how to access the Internet. They are just afraid.”

Gustavo signed up to do something about it, starting with a vigorous voter registration and ‘Get to Know Your Rights’ drive in neglected zip codes. He encouraged us to tweet Trump as response to his vindictive tweets, sign petitions on the White House website and raise funds to support candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections who reject Trump’s fear-mongering and destructive agenda. Patrick and Barbara took responsibility for focusing on mid-term elections.

However, Maria’s concerns made it clear that a chasm exists between theory and practice, marginalized or ignored by our society.

When an activist reflected on how lucky we were to be living in a progressive, liberal state like California, another activist reminded the audience that in places like Modesto, Merced and other Central Valley cities, democratic candidates in the last election lost to Republican candidates. “It’s not as rosy as it sounds,” she said. “A recent report had statistics on how hate groups has increased with Trump’s win. Guess which state has the highest number of hate groups in the U.S now? California, with 79!” Tanya and Steve offered to investigate why hate groups were increasing and what we could do about it.

Nella, another retired teacher, emphasized the importance of contacting our representatives. “We should not just criticize. If a congressman, a senator or a council member does something we approve of, we should call to thank them.” It was also necessary to engage in a civil discussion with Trump voters, she said. “Maybe those sitting on the fence – not the die-hard supporters - will be persuaded to change if we present the facts clearly. Not fake news but facts that cannot be disputed.” Rachel, Dave and Kathy took responsibility for contacting moderate representatives and Trump supporters to at least get a dialogue going.

I spoke about the ban on Muslim immigration. “I am a Muslim. Our Islamic Center is just down the road. Statistics show that most Americans who hold negative views about Muslims have never met a Muslim. I invite you to our Center to hold one of these events so you will get to know us and we can work with you on issues that affect us all.” The invitation was immediately accepted by all, to the immense gratification of about a dozen Muslims present.

Allen, a beekeeper, asked us to look around the room and identify the one glaring problem that plague our well-meaning activism. “Most of us are like me, white. Where are people of other skin colors? Where’s the diversity that’s supposed to make San Jose such a special place? Unless we reach out to people who don’t look like me and most of you, our effort to bring about change will probably fail.”

Sharon, founder of a non-profit called ‘Second Chance’ that offers services to at-risk youth, and one of only two women of color in the event, spoke with bracing, almost uncomfortable, honesty. “I don’t fear this administration because I have lived it. I have known what white supremacist ideology can do to us. We have fought many unknown battles that you can never even imagine. But I will say this about Trump: He has brought us together who would otherwise not be together. And with white Americans in the forefront of this movement, the chance of success is much higher than if it were driven by people of color only.” Susan, dean at a local college, had a huddle with Sharon and vowed to make the group more representative and inclusive.

This was one of thousand similar events taking place around America, organized by ordinary Americans with existential concerns about the country and determined to stop the erosion of our values and institutions before it was too late. We have much to learn that we can only learn along the way. Just as there were only a few people of color in the event, there were also only a few millennials. The young are supposed to lead us in the fight for justice but in reality it seems that the momentum so far against Trump is being maintained by the middle-aged and the elderly, a significant number of whom are not well-off and deeply worried about the future of healthcare in America.

What did I take away from the event as we prepare for the next?

That the road ahead is tricky and treacherous. That we have to summon the stamina to sustain a long-term movement, to accept the fact that we have to sacrifice much before seeing the changes we seek. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” said Martin Luther King. We - and that means Americans across all age-groups, colors, faiths and professions – have to band together to fight the good fight by refusing to remain silent about things that matter.


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