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Organizing in the Mueller Moment

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People outside at a protest

A lot of organizers have taken to a self-defeating posture to the rise of fascism: “I told you so.” They told us so as Trump crushed his opposition. They told us so when Trump won. Last week, they told us so when the Mueller Report was submitted. Organizing tests us. As we put our heart and soul into confronting and dismantling systemic oppression, it is understandable that organizers sometimes become jaded, cynical or even bitter in a world that overflows with suffering. But a bitter organizer has already lost. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we find ways to build on-ramps for all communities, rather than condescending to signal our own personal righteousness.

Organizers around the country recognize that Donald Trump is a symptom, not the disease. For those of us rooted in poor and working-class communities, the election of Donald Trump was a terrifying, but in some ways unsurprising, development of existing trends. In Trump, we have a singular persona that embodies the racism, misogyny, and sheer brutality of a capitalist oligarchy that has been consolidating power for decades.

But for some liberals and progressives, particularly those for whom the existing system has been working well, Trump has represented a radical break from the past. The opportunity for organizers is to parlay the widespread and deeply felt revulsion to Trump as a vile individual into a deeper structural analysis by building on-ramps to a movement to destroy the structures and systems behind him. Often, though, organizers and organizations have rejected this strategy wholesale, opting instead to see some members of the self-designated “Resistance” to Trump as an obstacle, rather than an opportunity.


Building the base

Over the last several years, I’ve worked to build on-ramps for the communities I work with in Pennsylvania. In early 2016, I was 11 months into organizing at Keystone Progress and we had organized a nascent group of poor and working-class people in Erie, Pennsylvania. We were largely focusing on the problems that were deeply held and widely felt in our circles. People were struggling to find jobs, had no transportation, could not afford child care, and were getting locked up for small amounts of cannabis. We began plotting escalating campaigns to make concrete changes with the power we had built. And we found victories along the way for expanded public transportation, decriminalization of amounts of cannabis for personal use, and other tangible improvements in people’s lives.

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As the 2016 presidential campaign moved into summer, and the nominees became clear, many members of the group were disillusioned. One member put it this way: “He’s talking about kicking my neighbor out of the country, and she’s just talking about how bad he is.” As we went about our work, it all felt so small compared to the hateful rhetoric and racism emanating from Trump and finding its way into our own community. We could see his xenophobic message taking hold and knew that many in our town were susceptible. At a public beach along the shore of Lake Erie, somebody had dug a swastika into the sand. This had to be stopped.

We set about discussing how to engage with the presidential campaign: a Clinton presidency was likely to be a continuation of the status quo, but a Trump presidency would mean untold pain and regression. And even if Trump was defeated, he had stirred the coals of hate in our community. So, it was less about how to sway votes one way or the other for the election, and more about how to use this moment to build our organization and move people to our analysis.

We spoke of all manner of structural oppression embodied and flowing through the Trump campaign. His campaign was built on fears that many could relate to in our community. Erie has experienced generational economic decline due to automation, outsourcing both overseas and to states without union protections, and in the case of Hammermill paper, decimation by vulture capitalists. But Erie is also a top destination for refugees. In 2016-17, Erie became home to more Syrian refugees than New York and Los Angeles combined. Trump captured this anxiety, but of course his solution was faulty and racist: laying the blame on immigrants and workers around the world who are exploited by the very same system.

Creating on-ramps for growth

Our core members, a group of 9 people, began knocking on doors and what they heard was discouraging. People had lost hope in the American Dream, they did not see their life improve at all after 8 years of hope and change and they were concerned that it was immigrants who were responsible.

We landed on one piece that felt particularly poignant. Trump was ostensibly a billionaire, and our group lived and worked in the poorest zip code in America, Erie’s 16501. We noted that many people were concerned about Trump’s tax returns, but as another member put it “What’s a tax return going to say? He’s a rich guy? We need people to know that he’s getting rich off of us and people like us! While none of our members thought Trump’s tax-return would be a “smoking gun” or cared about “presidential custom,” they did care a lot about income inequality and building our chapter. This enabled us to use the concern around Trump’s tax returns as an opening for further conversation. The key was acknowledging and building empathy around economic despair. The tax returns gave us a direct line to say that it is because of people like Trump that things are this way.

In August, Trump announced he would be making a stop in Erie and we saw an opportunity for direct action. We set out to disrupt this event to draw attention to his lack of transparency, but also with the intention of gaining new members and educating them on the extractive economy. As Trump began speaking, 5 Keystone Progress Erie members interrupted with chants and signs as the cameras panned to our disruption. We were able to translate that initial media coverage into local media interviews for our members. Our next mass meeting was the largest we had ever held.

Navigating the challenges  

Now, there were tensions. Some newcomers were only concerned with mobilizing for Clinton. Others could not see past Trump as the singular problem to a deeper political analysis. But, our local organization doubled in size in the coming months because we embraced the revulsion to Trump as an opportunity to bring in new members and to educate them on income inequality, white-supremacy, and gender justice.

Since Trump has taken office, we have continued to engage on many issues that had media and mainstream momentum. For instance, our organization has participated in the ‘Tax March’ protests demanding that Trump release his tax returns. We have also participated in rapid response actions around the Muslim-ban and family-separation at the border.

Our aim has not been to further the dominant narratives about these things, but to utilize the momentum of these narratives to move people into action. Strategically, if somebody is already moving in our direction, we can either organize them around our analysis or they will be left to the fickle winds of a media that cares more about profiting from outrage than stopping President Trump, let alone making radical change. When the Muslim-ban went into effect, we put out a call to action to meet at Dobbins Landing, in the middle of a snow storm. In a city of 100,000, over 700 people crammed the narrow dock, and we collected names and contact info from all of them. Along that shore, people heard directly from Muslims impacted by Trump’s policy, and crucially, we followed up with each and every one of them for one to one meetings, many across lines of race and faith. Many of those people did not become active beyond occasional actions, but dozens of people came into deep public relationship with our core group and were instrumental to our efforts in the weeks and months to come.

The Mueller pening

Mueller’s investigation provides yet another organizing moment. There are many, many people out there who have been encouraged by the media to believe that Mueller was the ghost in the machine and that an independent judiciary would bring about an end to the Trump Regime. At the core of this story is a belief that “the system works.”

To be clear, this narrative has been terrible for organizing and organizers. Instead of portraying people as political agents, capable of creating the world they want, it turns them into political consumers, who passively but regularly tune into cable news for the latest updates and commentary between advertisements. As the Independent Counsel carried out his work over 18 months, many organizers began to hold a grudge, understandably frustrated that so much energy and coverage has gone toward an investigation that in many ways reinforces the notion that our government happens to the people and squashes the notion that it can be of and by the people.

At the same time, the number of people who followed the nightly Mueller reports are relatively small. Many people, particularly people we need to win, are too busy trying to survive in an extractive economy to follow this stuff closely. Both groups of people get that Trump is a bad guy and do hope he gets some kind of justice, but most people do not share a radical political analysis.

Treating either of these groups with condescension is counter-productive. Nothing is gained, no relationships are built. For both, the lesson is the same: the flaws in our system are deeper than Trump: the flaw is the system itself. A deep, public relationship is a radical action through which an organizer moves a person to think and act on systems and structures well-beyond Trump. Most people have not even been presented with, let alone moved on, analysis of structural oppression by race, class and gender. Truly, there are few things less strategic than hoarding opportunities to act and grow for those deemed “worthy.” People are deliberately bombarded with dominant narratives, whether Trumps or Clintons, Fox or MSNBC, and no organizer is born without their own personal struggle navigating a landscape built to prevent liberation. Employing their faculties of empathy and humility, and with a vision for healing, the organizer should work to move every person they can. If the organizer is intent on building the largest possible “we” to have the most possible power to win deep and meaningful change, then it is imperative to see the opportunities to engage both with those who are deeply invested in things like the Mueller investigation and those who are not.

In the coming days and weeks there will be massive rallies for public release of Mueller’s report. There are likely to be more actions around “revelations” therein and we can expect Donald Trump to do truly egregious harm to real people. None of this would happen in the world as it should be, but this is the world as it is. The organizer can find opportunity in these crises, both manufactured and legitimate, to reach new people who have done a challenging thing: taken the first step.

Organizers can recruit people in spaces held by others, create new spaces to distill a better analysis, and center people on the front-lines of structural harm. We must take every opportunity to connect to human beings and provide a conduit for their genuine empowerment.In that way, Trump is not just a symptom, he is a symbol. If people are triggered by his singular misogyny and racism, they may be moved to act against structural gender and racial oppression. If people are revolted by his terrible excess and abuse of workers, many can be moved to act against the oppression inherent in capitalism. If we fail to draw those connections, the narrative of Trump as some terrible anomaly will proliferate and the politics the preceded him will be further cemented.

If there is one lesson I have learned from over a decade in organizing, it is that our movement is not in a position to dispense with anybody who can be moved. For us to win the revolutionary changes that are necessary for all of us, it will take each and every one of us.

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