FEATURE: Moments vs. Movements

By on January 31, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WY – At the time, Erica MacDonald didn’t know what she was a part of. Shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of strangers, she stood at a Washington D.C. street corner for hours on January 21, squinting blocks away at the speakers on stage five. A little enclave formed around her. They talked about why they’d come to the Women’s March on Washington, organized to protest the agenda of President Trump. They participated in chants like, “Black lives matter,” “Trans lives matter,” and “No more hate, no more fear, immigrants are welcome here.”

It wasn’t until days later when she saw an aerial photo that MacDonald realized she’d been one of almost 500,000 people. The photo shows marchers congesting every corner for miles. A more expansive photo would have captured millions of demonstrators across the country, including Jackson Hole, where more than 1,000 people marched the same day.

Marchers across the country joined for many reasons. One middle-aged woman near MacDonald said political protest was new to her. The only thing she could  articulate was that since the election, something “just didn’t feel right.”

MacDonald, 30, who lived in Jackson for four years and is now a graduate student studying political science at University of Connecticut, relates to that feeling. After the election, she was shocked and scared: “I felt a shift and a reorienting of my goals and priorities.” She began to think about how to resist the normalization of Trump’s rhetoric, which she calls misogynistic, racist, and transphobic. She arrived the day of the inauguration to a city that felt “militarized with … miles and miles of barricades.” Locals told her they’d never seen an inauguration so secured. The march the next day, however, had an entirely different feeling, MacDonald said. She was bolstered by the positivity, solidarity, and the conversations about everything from transphobia to critical race theory that arose on the packed streets.

The months since the election have served as an introduction to political activism for many. In Jackson, some feel a new urgency to take advantage of the march’s momentum and organize in opposition to regressive state and national legislation. As local, statewide, and national groups consider how to move forward, some are looking to those whose lives and work have been informed by resisting injustice. PJH sat down with folks who offer different wisdom on this, from a civil resistance expert to a Wyomingite who has championed progressive values for decades, and an activist who helps women of color resist injustice. These people demonstrate what resistance looks like on every level, from the nation and the state to the body.

Sustaining momentum

Like MacDonald, Jackson residents Heidi Bellardo, Julia Jackson, and sisters Christie and Katherine Koriakin didn’t realize exactly what they were a part of when they publically launched the group JH ACTivate one day after the women’s march in Jackson.

JH ACTivate, now with more than 200 members, is an online space using a Facebook group as its platform, to inform and empower people on political action in response to regressive policies, Christie explained. Their hope is to make information about local, state, and national policy accessible, and to provide concrete ways to engage with the issues. The national activist group Indivisible guides the group with lists of action items and suggestions for events. On Monday the group held its first event, where people made postcards to send lawmakers outlining the issues and legislation that matter to them.

Since the presidential election, the women have been meeting in private to discuss their fears. “I felt so out of control,” Jackson said.

Katherine agreed. As a woman, she said all the fundamental rights and progress she took for granted suddenly appeared fragile.

Immediately after the group went public, 25 people joined. Now, one look at the page signals overwhelming participation. Each day members post dozens of action-oriented messages, urging others to call representatives, sign petitions, or read articles about proposed legislation, political happenings, etc.

For the average person, it can be daunting to engage with political issues on any level. This is a struggle Christie can relate to. She had never called a representative before this election. Already, she has followed the instruction of posts on the page, become informed about several important statewide issues, and made calls to lawmakers. “Everyday people who don’t have time to devote their whole lives or careers to politics … need to know who to call and what to say,” she said.

Building on the momentum of the Women’s March will mean making it easy for people to engage. Elisa Stephens, one of the organizers of Jackson’s march, believes it will be critical “to figure out how to be most effective in the least amount of time.

“We need to give people the tools and confidence to make the change they want … how can we give people the ability to use five minutes powerfully?”

Local march organizers have already begun participating in nationwide conference calls with other organizers to discuss exactly that question.

Stephens says tapping into people’s passion right now will be critical in the engagement process, too. “It’s so personal now, and we’re all uncomfortable … there is a threat to minorities, women, and the environment.” A psychiatric nurse and new mom, Stephens says she’s never felt so fearful about the future of people’s most fundamental rights.

Injustice and fear

Keenan Montgomery is no stranger to fear management. As a descendant of slaves, he says surviving injustice has always “been a part of my life, my parents’ lives, my grandparents’ lives … it’s woven so deeply in the fabric of the nation that it was part of my life before I was even born.” Now, however, “Trump’s reign has the potential to affect the happiness of liberal white people as well … and it has come as a shock to those who haven’t always been subject to that feeling,” he said.

(Photo by Yair Sakols)

Montgomery, a 24-year-old graduate of University of Wyoming, is a musician in LA and assistant director of Afros and Ass Whoopins, a musical comedy about the relationship between African Americans and the police. To him, the presidential election represents another affront to the humanity and rights of his community. “As we all should know by now, the United States was not built with the intention of benefiting people of color … these problems have had an enormous impact over the course of multiple generations.”

In The Black West, a documentary about the experiences of African American students at University of Wyoming, Montgomery describes some of the racism he endured while in the state. Once, while crossing a Laramie street with a friend, a group of white men stopped their truck in the middle of the road and threw a rope tied like a noose out the window calling, “here n*ggy n*ggy n*ggy” as they laughed. People’s reactions to Montgomery ranged from violent to ignorant—one fellow student, herself mixed race, admitted to him that when she first met him, her reaction was fear.

To be African American in his grandparents’ time was to be victim to the codification of racism in the form of Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation, and discriminatory housing, lending, and voting laws. Today, to be African American is to be under threat from an unequal criminal justice system. The NAACP reports that black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and often receive much longer sentences. Black prisoners serve almost as much time for drug offenses as white prisoners for violent ones. People of color are also disproportionately victim to extrajudicial force. Mapping Police Violence reports that in 2015 unarmed black people were killed by police at five times the rate of unarmed white people.

Disproportionate impacts on non-white people both here and abroad are likely to continue under Trump’s administration. As reported by The New York Times, Trump has already made decisions that will most harm people of color, including an executive order to halt federal funding to cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. Trump has called for the immediate construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico, and has signed an executive order to ban all refugees and people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Syria from entering the country for 90 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely. His order also affected green card holders, who are permanent lawful residents. The ban specifically targets Muslim people.

In the wake of his decision, more than 100 travelers were detained at major airports across the country. After quick action from ACLU lawyers, several federal judges granted temporary stays for people with visas, ruling part of the ban unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, in response to Trump’s ban, protests erupted at airports and in cities across the country this weekend, from Portland and Los Angeles to Denver, Salt Lake City, Austin, Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City. A crowd at JFK airport swelled from less than 50 people in the afternoon to thousands of protesters by the evening.

How to move forward

It was many committed organizers and activists who brought an end to Jim Crow, and who can serve as examples to those today struggling against the threats posed by Trump’s administration.

Erica Chenoweth is a professor and associate dean for research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. (She also happens to be performing a global head count on the women’s marches along with two colleagues.) As an expert on civil resistance and nonviolent action, her research demonstrates the efficacy of civil disobedience, and points to the importance of this moment in which so many are eager to engage. Participation, Chenoweth says, is key to the success of nonviolent movements, and part of what makes the women’s marches so historic. “The capacity for mass mobilization has been expressed … the marches send a clear message that many do not have faith that their government will represent them,” Chenoweth told PJH.

In a 2013 Ted talk in Boulder, Colorado, Chenoweth summarized what she learned from gathering research on all major nonviolent and violent overthrows of governments since 1900. Her data demonstrated nonviolent movements were more than twice as likely to succeed than violent ones. Democratic institutions were also more likely to be sustained, and countries were less likely to fall back into civil war after power shifts.

Even more striking is that her research showed no campaign failed when it garnered committed participation from 3.5 percent of the population. In the United States, that would mean 11 million people, about 3.5 times more than the amount that participated in the post-inauguration marches. Chenoweth found that movements that relied on nonviolent tactics garnered four times the amount of participation. They were also more likely to include participants of different ages, races, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities. The power of mass protest, Chenoweth explained, is in its visibility; it can draw in the risk averse.

Civil resistance, or disobedience, refers to actions, from sit-ins to boycotts to protests, whose methods are not violent or do not threaten violence. Still, when activists make demands that are contentious or controversial, they often face violence. Continued resistance against the new administration may begin to pose higher risks, Chenoweth said. “All movements eventually have to look at and manage the threat of violence in reaction … but there have been many successful movements even in the face of brutal opposition.”

Activists for the Civil Rights Movement faced intense violence, for example. Protesters today demanding a lift on Trump’s immigration ban recalls a time that traveling safely and freely within the country was dependent on skin color. In the early 1960s, groups of black and white activists rode interstate buses into the South to normalize the integration of transportation vehicles and facilities after the Supreme Court illegalized desegregation. They were often arrested, attacked, or abandoned in the middle of nowhere.

In one memorable event, a group of the Freedom Riders faced brutal retaliation for their nonviolent actions in Anniston, Alabama, when a mob of Ku Klux Klan members surrounded their bus holding chains, whips, and clubs. According to an NPR piece remembering the event, the mob beat the Freedom Riders, requiring some be hospitalized. Eventually, a rioter threw burning rags onto the bus, setting it alight. Klan members screamed to let the passengers burn to death. Every Freedom Rider survived, but barely. They fled the smoke-choked bus to be surrounded by the mob as well as a crowd of white onlookers. Local police refused to help. One 12-year-old girl came to their aid, giving them water as they recovered from the flames. Because of her actions, she and her family were ostracized and run out of town.

Chenoweth’s research found that in order to be successful, a movement will eventually have to include those from the oppressor class, a goal that seems virtually impossible when considering the extreme opposition to groups like the Freedom Riders. As Chenoweth explains, nonviolent movements seek to expand the level of participation to the extent that those on the oppressor side recognize themselves in the activists, and begin to question their own allegiances. The importance of this was demonstrated in the successful 2000 revolts in Serbia, which peacefully overthrew former Serbian President Slobodan Miloševiæ, after censorship and human rights violations. Hundreds of thousands arrived from all over the country, including rural areas, to voice dissent. As protesters marched in Belgrade, some of the security forces, many of whom were from rural regions, recognized friends and family members in the crowds. They refused orders to shoot; they didn’t want to harm their own.

In Wyoming, a deeply conservative and unpopulated state built on long-lasting interpersonal relationships, anti-Trump and pro-Trump constituents interact every day. The key to inciting change in places like the “Equality State,” Chenoweth says, is incredibly high participation: “The fewer the people, the more people have to show up.”

Are you tough or soft?

Showing up is something Jane Ifland, 67, has done for decades. As a resident of Natrona County, where 70 percent of the vote went to Trump, she’s worked with organizations like the Casper NAACP, Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters. Most recently, she organized Casper’s women’s march, which was attended by about 750 people. Throughout the day, she heard many participants say, “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” She hopes large, public actions will continue and lead to what she calls the normalization of progressive thought within the state. “We suffer from there being one party whose influence is so great,” she said.

More diversity represented within the state and the electorate would benefit everybody. “Balance works better,” she emphasized.

When Ifland moved to Wyoming in 1980, she intuitively felt some of what Chenoweth’s research points to: “I saw the small numbers, and I felt that it was quite possible that a genuine revolution for justice could come out of Wyoming, and I still do.”

Fighting for justice is something that has been an important part of Ifland’s identity since she was a young girl. She attended her first protest at 12 years old, alongside her mother, who was an active member of a group that combated redlining, a discriminatory practice in which landlords and homeowners would not rent or sell property to people of color.

Ifland now works against injustice in many forms, but she also knows its sting personally as someone who lived through a time when she was barely accepted in her workplace, and couldn’t get a credit card as a single woman.

In 1976, when she was in her mid-20s, Ifland got her first professional job selling radio advertising in Milwaukee for a large media company. As far as she knows, she was the first woman to have that job, and the first to be promoted from it to a higher position. In a virtually all male field, Ifland remembers that, “people didn’t know what to do with me, and I didn’t know what to do with me.”

Every day at lunch, Ifland faced an internal battle—should she eat with the traffic department, all of whom were women? Would doing so be putting herself in a secretarial role? Instead, after weeks of eating alone, she invited herself out to lunch with colleagues, all of whom were men, some of whom were less than welcoming. The first time she took a client out to lunch, he chose a place where a lingerie show happened during the meal. “His very clear purpose was to humiliate me,” Ifland said.

That was not the only moment of humiliation Ifland recalled. Once, the general manager of a TV Station reached out and stroked Ifland’s cheek, and said with surprise, “Oh, it’s soft!”

It was a sad moment, Ifland said. Because she was successful, he assumed she was hard, cold. “Women had to choose between being tough or soft.”

By the time Ifland left her job five years later, some of the sexism she experienced already seemed from another era: of the six people on her sales team, which had once been entirely male, five were women. So much progress has been made in Ifland’s life, and it gives her hope that change can be sustained even in trying times: “It’s easy to get trapped in what is going on now, but it was a lot worse back then.”

Today, she now finds herself again warning against complacency. “I think we presumed the rights we enjoy were fixed and didn’t need to be fought for. Now, it is abundantly clear that there will be many fights ahead, from racial justice to reproductive liberty,” she said. “These struggles have already begun, and they will not cease.

“It heartens me to watch the resistance coalesce,” she said.

Beyond harm

People who’ve been part of resistance movements have always had to find a sense of self-worth and community in unsanctioned ways, outside of what is accepted and defined by oppressive forces. “America isn’t going to love me … so, I need to find and rebuild intimacy and trust on the interpersonal level,” Dalychia Saah said.

Saah, 25, is the daughter of Liberian immigrants. She was raised in Houston, Texas, and now lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up a black woman in America was a lesson in not feeling enough—white enough, thin enough, pretty enough. “Society didn’t reflect me … so I tried to be white on some level. I thought I could achieve some level of whiteness if I lost weight, if I changed somehow. What you learn is there’s nothing you can do to be white, so you find affirmation in other places, fight those voices that say you’re not worth it.”

Now, as an Afro-sexologist, Saah devotes her time to helping others, particularly women of color, find affirmation and liberation in a culture that continues to invalidate, dismiss, and threaten non-white people. To be black is often to fear for oneself and community at all times. Like Montgomery, Saah has never felt free from the threat of violence: “Growing up black in America, you don’t even know how your body is taking everything on, all the racism and violence … you feel it all the time; you’re tense, paranoid, depressed.” After a lifetime of internalizing fear, Saah calls it a radical act to love oneself, to affirm that “you are deserving of love and pleasure and success,” she said. “Black bodies have been used and exploited, and reclaiming the body is an act of resistance.”

This need for reclamation became abundantly clear to Saah after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Demonstrations flared after a police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, and again when a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. In response to protests, police implemented curfews and deployed riot squads. Brown’s death, and the police’s reaction to protesters, became emblematic of the relationship between African American civilians and the police. Before and after Brown’s death, there were many cases across the country of unarmed black men and women subjected to extrajudicial force by police.

For Saah, being in Ferguson took a toll. In those moments of grief and imminent danger, everything felt like an attack. “It was a warlike environment, I became very defensive, very hardened … it was hard to know who was the enemy,” she said. “You end up defending yourself against everything, even your lover, your community.”

It was unclear, she says, where the war began and ended, where safety could be found.

In the wake of Ferguson, Saah began to think about what it would mean to engage in “resistance through black joy,” to heal and find safety through relationships, connection, and intimacy.

Saah speaks to the need for people who are facing danger and oppression, who’ve lived “with tense shoulders and a stiff body forever … to release through the body, put your body at ease, to affirm your need for love and comfort.”

In the groups she’s led, Saah has found that many people of color can identify what they don’t want—police violence, sexual violence—but that it is harder to imagine what they do want. Her work moves people from just “picturing life without harm” to considering what liberation looks and feels like based on pleasure, not fear.

Black people in America, Saah said, “exist on a line between life and death.” In that space of constant fear, many are “pushed to existential crisis, toward the true meaning of life … we’ve been forced to figure out who we are, to create and recreate ourselves … it’s not something I would trade. Until you truly have heartbreak you can’t truly experience joy.”

Resistance, Saah says, happens within individuals, relationships, and communities.

This ethic that can be expanded to movements for social change, said  Rosemary Lytle, the president of the Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming NAACP State Conference. She has organized as a journalist and a community leader for more than 20 years, and always felt that power resides with those who aren’t given formal authority. This is particularly evident now when many cannot identify with the person in the highest office in the land.

Those who feel disenfranchised are seeking guidance in new places, and will experience a kind of reorienting of power, she said. “We’ll find it where we always should have found it … with indigenous people, with activists who have led nourishing movements for generations, we’ll find it with elders.”

This moment might be one of recreating and redefining meaning, a constant process that can be both painful and exciting.

As Saah noted, “Breaking down outside systems means breaking down systems within self …  to believe that we can rebuild with trust and love.”

More than a moment in time

All of these activists agree that moving forward is going to require reckoning and accountability. Chenoweth says some people in minorities communities are frustrated that white allies are just now showing up, after months and years of countless protests against issues predominantly affecting people of color, to police brutality to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Ifland also acknowledged that budding activists have to commit to fighting against all injustices, and supporting organizations that have been in the fight for a long time. Right now, she’s struggling to get people to commit to attending a NAACP banquet on February 11.

“It’s really important that we understand who are our allies are,” she said. “The most meaningful sign I saw at the march read, ‘We better be at the next Black Lives Matter march.’ It’s not enough to work for just your own justice.”

NAACP’s Lytle echoed Ifland. She says her motivation to keep fighting comes from knowing that ultimately, fates are connected. What does she want budding activists to know? That they are a part of something, even when they don’t quite know what it is yet. She pictures her town, region, nation, like a body: “We must respond to injustice, even in the places we don’t live, because at some point we are all going to be breathing the same molecules in the air. I have parts of me that are in Wyoming, and I should care about those cells.” PJH

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