Organizing right now is difficult. Over the past decade, we witnessed an explosion of social movements—from Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives to the Sunrise Movement and March for Our Lives. These movements unveiled the deepest systemic issues plaguing our nation. However, the fervor of these “Movement Times” has given way to exhaustion, cynicism, and disillusionment within organizing circles and the broader public. This fatigue is understandable; we’ve endured a global pandemic, the largest-ever US uprising, multiple election cycles, and the resurgence of naked white supremacist authoritarianism. Despite our tireless efforts, our fundamental rights, freedoms, and existence are more imperiled than ever.
How we interpret this moment will shape our response. It’s easy to feel defeated, to limit the scope of the change we seek, and consider redirecting our efforts to personal or local mattersa tempting path for sure. However, it’s a path the entire movement cannot afford to take, for two crucial reasons:
1) The white supremacist anti-democratic effort that is surging against us is not new: its origins stretch back to before the founding of our country, and its threat must be taken seriously.
2) The cynicism and despair we feel as a movement is a key indicator that we are on the very precipice of victory.
Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan, published in 1987, offers insights for assessing our movement’s state. His eight-stage plan, based on analysis of the 1960s and ‘70s social movements, outlines the journey from normal times to ripening conditions to, finally, institutionalization. After the first few stages of tilling the field and proving institutional failure, most movements experience a “take-off” moment at stage four of Moyer’s cycle. This phase is marked by enormous movement energy, massive decentralized protests and a sudden influx of activists nationwide.
Indisputably our last decade has been filled with these take-off moments: Occupy Wall Street, The Ferguson Uprising, Women’s March, Enough! Student Walkouts. Taken together, all of these moments wove a narrative about racial capitalism, exploitation, and the stakes of democratic failure, and brought it into the mainstream. Then in 2020 COVID’s death toll drew the map of the pervasive legacy of racial capitalism for all to see. The execution of George Floyd brought it into urgent focus, leading to the take-off event of all take-off events: the 2020 Uprisings.
This moment—led by multi-racial youth calling for racial and historical reckoning—transcended borders and was the biggest protest movement in US history. Suddenly serious discussions on white supremacy and racial capitalism’s roots and how to rid it from the foundation were happening everywhere..
Bills for Reparations and Truth and Racial Healing were introduced at all levels of government, and even Sesame Street held a town hall on racism. For a fleeting moment, the nation seemed awake to white supremacy’s grip. The Trump administration positioned itself against this awakening, spurring countless Black, brown, and young people seeking transformational change to register to vote, ultimately tipping the scales for Joe Biden.
So why haven’t we made meaningful advances toward creating the abolition democracy, a democracy stripped of white supremacy, that the young leaders of 2020 were advancing?
One might assume that, following stage four, movements’ goals would be solidified in policy. Yet, in Moyer’s framework, following Takeoff is stage five: the Identity Crisis of Powerlessness. To quote Moyer,
After a year or two, the high hopes of movement take-off inevitably to turn into despair. Most activists lose their faith that success is just around the corner and come to believe that it is never going to happen. Paradoxically, this stage coincides with the movement’s issues gaining mainstream appeal. However, because the movement no longer resembles its takeoff stage, organizers feel burnt out and ineffective. Additionally, loose organizational structures supporting the takeoff stage falter without direction or strategy. Organizers are unable to switch from protesting in a moment of crisis to waging a long-term struggle to achieve positive changes, many cycle out of the movement. In this malaise, anti-leadership sentiment grows.. Compounding all of this media outlets pen premature post-mortems about “the movement that could have been.“
And then the backlash
It’s critical to understand this: successful movements organize their backlash. Therefore In the wake of movement advancements, oppositional voices grow louder, not quieter, and in stage five the backlash is mobilized.
In the wake of 2020, the opposition mobilized quickly. In response to the youth-led movement for reckoning, white supremacist revanchists mobilized across sectors. To counter our calls for reckoning, they launched a campaign to rewrite history, spread propaganda, and incite violence to maintain their grip on power.
They whitewashed history in order to revive Jim Crow policies against women, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community and demonize the teaching of the true history that explains our modern-day inequality. They’ve riled up their base to charge the Capitol so they could hold on to power and provoked the stochastic white supremacist violence we’ve seen from Buffalo to Jacksonville. They leveraged Supreme Court Justices to strip rights, banned policies to create equality efforts, and seeded narratives to attempt to naturalize their supremacy.
They are acting urgently, nakedly, and desperately because they are terrified of our generation’s power and agenda.
Because they see the writing on the wall. Millennials and Gen Z, the most diverse, progressive generations in US history, will constitute a plurality of the electorate by 2028. Assuming our democracy endures, our values and beliefs will be at the center of American politics. Consequently, our values will shape American politics and they know the challenge our movement poses to their white supremacist ideologies and policies they rely on to profit. This is why they’re rushing to fortify hierarchies, undermine democracy, and protect their power.
This brings us back to the crucial point: we must not disengage because this faction is desperate and resolute.
This faction isn’t merely a reaction to a moment of reckoning; This is a new expression of a movement that has existed in this country since before its founding. From colonizers to Confederates, from post-Reconstruction “Redeemers” to integration resistors, this supremacist faction has consistently wielded law and violence to manufacture white supremacist ideologies and policies. Their goal? Denying citizenship, power, and humanity to anyone not a wealthy white man.
Whenever freedom fighters in our history, often through struggles for Black liberation, expanded freedom and equality, this supremacist faction sprang into action, eager to restore the dominance of the wealthy, white few. They’ve influenced our government to manufacture systems and ideologies that rob us of freedoms, economic, social, and political. They’ve propagated “states’ rights” narratives to undermine federal equality initiatives. They’ve stoked moral panics to justify their power seizure. Now, they’re employing their tried and true playbook to curtail our freedoms.
And when we cede power to them, the damage they do is extreme. When the American Anti-Slavery Society, the organization most clearly shepherding the grassroots base of the Abolition Movement, stopped organizing for federal influence and formally dissolved in the aftermath of the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, this faction quickly filled the void. They promoted violence and stood up false narratives that justified the system of disenfranchisement, dehumanization, and unapologetic wealthy white rule we know as Jim Crow— the same system of dehumanization and subjugation that went on to inspire the Nazi Regime in Germany. We must not make that mistake again.
In 2025, should this faction regain the presidency through the Republican Party, they’ll whitewash history nationally, dismantle the federal government’s capacity to address pressing issues, from systemic racism to climate change, and perpetuate supremacy.
To be clear: the threat here is not a return to the neoliberal Benneton equality and “girl power” of the ‘90s: The aim is to socially return to a time over 100 years ago before racial or gender equality were the status quo and where rigid hierarchies of race, gender, and class unapologetically ordered society.
This is a full-court press by a faction that sees our power and feels it has nothing left to lose. But the threat is real because we’re on the brink of victory.
Here’s what we need to do to win
We must remember the public is still with us. Despite right-wing propaganda, most Americans believe systemic racism exists and is responsible for current inequality. Book bans and anti-abortion laws are deeply unpopular across party lines. The millions activated in 2020 remain. We have the numbers—they just need to be organized.
Returning to Moyer’s framework, Stage Six—Majority Public Support—demands an organized, strategic, power-building infrastructure. We must transition from spontaneous protest in crisis to a long-term struggle for positive social change.
This transformation will not happen by chance; it requires intention and clarity. Creating a mass-based movement organization capable of capturing grassroots energy and transforming it into political power is vital. Alignment on a grand strategy connecting grassroots activities to a larger plan is essential. Our movement must decide to vie for control and influence of dominant institutions like the government.
But too often in movement spaces rightful suspicion of political institutions forestalls serious conversations about what it would take to win over these institutions that write the rules for our society. In our current moment, the movement is undecided if or how to do this.
Exciting and movement-aligned candidates have made us forget momentarily that the true foundation of transformational change in this country’s history is not made by silver-bullet candidates but by mass-based movement organizations wielding a major party.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a Bernie Sanders; he was a Joe Biden. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were Bidens too. That is to say, these historical “great men” who shepherded through the most transformative redefining legislation in our country’s history all did so reluctantly and were pushed by mass-based movements. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation under pressure from the American Anti-Slavery Society that was organizing hundreds of thousands of people to make the end of slavery a priority. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee created the urgency to push LBJ to sign the Civil Rights Act. This model, a mass movement wielding power over a major party, is the historically grounded way to achieve transformative change in America.
President Biden has already acquiesced to movement pressure. Prodded by the broad climate movement—and the young people mobilized by the Sunrise Movement in particular—he moved from offering a milquetoast climate proposal on the campaign trail to championing and passing the biggest climate legislation in history and creating the American Climate Corps. He can be organized. As we head toward 2024, we must be grounded in the organizable terrain of the Biden Administration and the opportunity we have in organizing the power of our generation to bring about transformational change to upend white supremacy.
To fight back in our current moment we need a flurry of experimentation by organizations looking to absorb and develop the wave of youth activists from 2020, and engage them with a coherent and integrated strategy aimed at defeating white supremacy and leveraging power over the Democratic Party.
For my part, I spearheaded bringing together a team of young movement veterans to plan, build, and launch Get Free, a youth-led movement to strike at white supremacy at its foundation by reckoning with and repairing past harms, ending ongoing barriers to equality, and creating a future where freedom and equality are real for all, to be a part of this mass-based infrastructure.
We’ve built a five-year, four-phase strategy based on the mass mobilization and political strategy of the Abolition Movement—which, through the First Reconstruction, transformed what Freedom meant in the United States—to help bring about the Third Reconstruction, and excavate white supremacy from this country’s foundation. We plan to:
- Use this backlash moment to reignite a base of multi-racial, majority BIPOC Gen Zers and Millennials to harness the power this white supremacist movement is so afraid of;
- Mobilize our leaders to take action to popularize the crossroads we are in as a country and wield our influence to shape the stakes of the 2024 elections, making them a choice between supremacy through whitewashing or freedom through reckoning and repair;
- Use the impending 250th anniversary of the country to further the conversation about equality in America, making reckoning and repair commonsense;
- And finally, leverage this new commonsense through building grassroots electoral infrastructure to bring movement power to bear on the Democratic Party in 2026 and 2028 and secure a governing majority with repair as its priority.
We aim to not just meet the threat of our current moment, but, by making reckoning with our past and repairing the damage done by white supremacist patriarchal lies and laws a public and political priority, advance a future where racial, gender, and economic equality are realized.
It is the work of this time to invigorate our generation, the most diverse in US history, to harness our power, step into the shoes of our ancestors who won the freedom and power, we enjoy today, and use this generationally canonical moment to finish the work they started towards creating real racial, economic, and gender justice for all,
This isn’t a moment for cynicism; it’s a moment to finish the job.
Our political terrain was cultivated by youth-led movements over the past 12 years, and it was tilled by ancestors fighting for freedom for over four centuries. The next ten years will determine whether we move forward or regress. If we step out of the fight now, we risk losing a century. If we organize, we can win real freedom and equality for all and shape the future we’ve been fighting for, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The next chapter is unwritten. What happens is up to us.
Featured image courtesy of Get Free.