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If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. —Sun Tzu
The Trump administration is having a hard time governing by legislation. We can count the administration’s failures in Congress as cold comfort, but it is imperative to work harder to understand what is really happening on the political landscape. Executive orders, tweets, public speeches, briefs and memos are the signals of governance that point towards repressive state policy and brew social hostility on the ground. The Trump administration is governing by suggestion, and the impact is deadly.
Charlottesville is erupting and, similar to the social eruption in Ferguson three years ago, this is not a moment to call ourselves “protesters.” We are community members who are horrified and outraged at heightened, organized and violent white supremacy, whether it manifests as police murders or Nazi rallies.
This is also not a moment to claim the term “terrorism,” which was crafted by the U.S. state after September 11, 2001 to justify militarized cities at home and permanent war abroad. Social movement dissent is being criminalized in anti-protest bills proposed in more than 20 states, as politicians slander protest as “economic terrorism.” The reality is that the State has consistently failed to protect Black-led, indigenous-led and immigrant-led protests. Our communities require new narratives that reflect the terror we experience and envision new protections — rather than use the State’s terms to call more police and surveillance into our streets, homes and workplaces.
The current political climate is chaotic and confusing, and the sheer volume of information and attacks makes it difficult to absorb. We would be misguided to mistake all the noise as bluster. It signals a plan, and that plan does not operate by legislation alone. Signals and symbols are powerful mechanisms.
Governance by suggestion is an old Jim Crow tactic where violence and white supremacy are active social norms — not always supported by laws or courts. Politicians endorse racist violence, and institutional practices reflect that mandate, through state and local policies, police protocol and social hostility. From Reagan’s states’ rights speech in 1980 near the site where civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 to the emergence of racist Pepe le Frog and 4chan memes, signals dominate the cultural strategies of white supremacy today. We are witnessing the effects of suggestion in Charlottesville, Va. and other convergences of organized white supremacists and fascists, like the white supremacist rally in Pikeville, Ky. in April.
Trump’s speech to law enforcement agencies on Long Island on July 28 encouraged police to ignore procedures and “rough up” people who have been arrested. When police are brutalizing and killing Black people and people of color, a message from the commander-in-chief to increase state-sanctioned violence is chilling. Despite condemnations and assurances that he was kidding, the suggestion is clear. The Trump administration’s direct and indirect support of white supremacist organizations on the basis of anti-Black, racist ideology advances a perceived legitimacy of the groups present in Charlottesville.
What happened in Charlottesville was also a violent and profound expression of history, the result of a social, political and economic system founded in genocide of African and indigenous peoples. This country has never systematically faced or sought to repair the immense and ongoing harm produced by the transatlantic slave trade and the evolution of chattel slavery. This evil system of global trade and enslavement served as the foundation for our social, political and economic system that continues to rule today. We have a highly evolved and complex system of governance that is dedicated to and fueled by mass violence, and often that governance is expressed through a confluence of the state, private sector interests, and ground-level hostilities to control and contain.
Trump’s Poland speech, penned by Stephen Miller, painted a vision of a stark, Western civilization governed by “individual freedom,” a suggestion that indicates a new era of civil rights defined by individualized moral whims and positions rather than a shared social contract. The speech articulated that threats from “the South or the East” will be met with a “tough stance” and expensive weaponry. If we look closely at this era of suggestion, even within the Trump administration’s failed policies, we can see a roadmap toward the legal and political implementation of that vision: a surveillance state that violently polices and expels populations perceived as threats, dismantles existing democratic systems and undermines our collective economic self-determination. If we focus on each incident or attack, we will miss the sum of the whole.
Information is critical to better understand what is happening, but the trick is to keep our eyes on the big picture as well as tend to the immediate crises. As organizers, our responsibility is to anticipate how repressive forces are moving so that we can protect ourselves and successfully carve our own collective path forward for justice and freedom. With the realities of Charlottesville on our minds, let’s investigate the patterns of suggestion and impact over the last nine months.
Closing the borders to non-Western nations was tested immediately upon inauguration. Trump’s counter to the judicial block was to suggest the “unreviewability” of the president, a clear test to broaden executive powers and the ability to counter constitutional mandates. The ban also suggests and implies that Islam is a dangerous ideology, not a religion to be protected. The precedent sets up the potential legal frameworks to deny entry and expel Muslims or anyone else deemed a threat.
Regardless of official policies passed or concrete walls built, the effects of the anti-immigrant rhetoric have led to dramatic increases in ICE raids, deportations and detentions. The threat alone has decreased the numbers of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and many people living inside the United States are afraid to report sexual assault or drive to work. The notion of a merit-based or English-only immigration policy signals a new level of attack centering not on documentation or status, but on perceived value and assimilation.
The suggestion with Trump’s tweet about not allowing transgender people in the military, whether or not the Pentagon could even enforce such a thing, is that any type of person for any reason can be denied access to public space and services within U.S. borders, particularly employment, health care and education. Those of us dedicated to queer liberation challenge the imperialist and racist U.S. military — and must also recognize the implications of this position in a time of growing danger for all communities. As media reacted to the tweet, the Department of Justice issued a brief that excludes sexuality and gender identity from protections against employment discrimination. That the military requires nearly $700 billion in annual spending — the National Defense Authorization Act passed easily in the House on July 14 — but cannot afford healthcare for its employees suggests current priorities and future restrictions. In a moment when so-called “bathroom bills” are sweeping the South, the directive is to isolate trans people further and criminalize gender transgression.
The Trump budget, although unlikely to be passed by Congress, is a powerful guiding mandate for federal agencies, now almost fully drained of staff and stocked with operatives from finance and corporate wealth institutions. The budget calls for the elimination of 66 federal programs, and these agencies now have a powerful reference to provide credibility for massive cuts in essential services. Economic nationalism, as Stephen Bannon argues in American Prospect will be the administration’s strategy, and the budget is a signal towards that isolation and reduction in public infrastructure.
The American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) is proposing a repeal to the 17th amendment which would open the door for U.S. senators to be appointed by state legislators — not voters. Unlikely to happen any time soon, the proposal is connected to the growing momentum to call for a Convention of States, a much more possible feat given a decade of redistricting and gerrymandering. Roughly 27 states have passed ordinances to re-write the U.S. Constitution, and they only need 34.
These suggestions, and many others, are re-wiring a new framework for governance that undermines our rights, our access to public infrastructure, our ability to move freely, and our basic due process.
As we witness and experience the horror of people being run down in the streets or dropped from lifesaving healthcare, we ask ourselves, What do we need to understand about this moment and what do we do? Here are a few recommendations during this time of crisis:
Social movements are the vehicles to survive and build.
Social movements are the most effective vehicles to dismantle the systems implementing these violent suggestions and to build the infrastructure to take its place. Policy change is not a strong strategy when rules are being rewritten, and many of the suggestions are affecting our communities before laws are on the books. Social movements with base, force, trust, clear political vision and infrastructure are essential for authentic, long-lasting justice. Policy and legal battles are necessary for defense but stronger when aligned with a bottom-up movement. Now is the time to invest in institutions, community-controlled land, economic development projects, legal infrastructure and mutual aid centers that can provide education and sanctuary. We need to invite folks to work together to develop political programs that last beyond this crisis and include all of us.
We are in this together.
In the South, we cannot afford to demonize or over-generalize a “Trump base” that does not exist. Reactionary forces use grassroots tactics at times to raise money, pander or win an election, but we must be clear that these forces are being driven by elite moneyed U.S. power. The allusive electoral base of “Trump supporters” that represent some monolithic angry poor white man is part of a national myth about the South, rural people and poverty in the United States. The myth deepens divisions, and we must find ways to connect across fractures, not widen them. (More on the danger of this narrative in a powerful piece by Barbara Ellen Smith and Jamie Winders.) The rise of white supremacy in the 21st century as an anti-social movement is less about individual people who voted for Trump and more about the people with money and influence who are constructing this mobilization from the top down around hate-filled narratives and fear. Our imperative is to understand the bigger context in order to reject violent white supremacists and engage all folks who are disenfranchised, discouraged, and displaced.
Rejecting the false equivalency of the “both sides” argument.
The left-right and blue-red framework is not as useful as it was in the past. The language of “both sides” and protester/counter-protester legitimates blatant racist violence in Charlottesville and reveals the danger of not being clear about who we are and what we are doing. The binary is a classic tool of colonialism, and authoritarianism feeds on racial, gender and class dichotomies that erase our complex lives and limit our full autonomy. We can name the enemy without limiting our scope. Let us re-imagine our political language and practice to be more precise, inclusive, and visionary.
Distractions will waste time and yield nothing.
The Democratic Party’s obsession with the details of the Trump campaign’s obvious engagement with Russia is not a winning platform or a rallying call, only more distraction. The Republican Party’s fixation on the media is a dangerous threat to journalism, but also an easy tactic of misdirection. We need to pay attention to what is happening in the circus, but we have to be cautious. We cannot waste time re-building or reviving the Democratic Party. Our limited resources need to be more strategically utilized beyond reaction and response — and mustered toward building democratic self-governance.
Self-determination is leverage for resistance.
Governance is contested territory across the globe in this political moment. A major question facing our movements is how we govern ourselves and the distribution of resources, knowledge, and relationships. Government has blurred itself with private interests, fundamentalist ideologies and fascist organizations. Wins in the South include local city councils, school boards and municipalities holding ground, blocking ICE and resisting white supremacy. Frontline assemblies coordinated across regional spaces offer opportunities for communities to design and practice a “people’s democracy” — and build a new economy and communities that are truly protected and defended.
Suggestion is powerful and has real-life implications. Suggestion also implies a vulnerability that we can exploit. It is not direct, so our attempts to combat with moral or righteous directness will fail. But if we work hard to see and understand the suggestions, signals and signs of this moment, we can chart our own course forward, not only to respond to the crisis but to build a liberated future for all people.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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