report from Washington, D.C., on an unprecedented outpouring of defiance in the streets as Trump and Co. are installed in power.
THEY CAME to Washington, D.C., by the hundreds and thousands, packing trains, buses, vans and cars. They washed over streets and through parks as a torrent of humanity flooded into the National Mall to express their rage and sadness at the new presidency of Donald Trump–but also their joy at finding one another.
Similar scenes were repeated in cities and towns across the U.S., making January 21, 2017, the largest day of protest in American history–over 3.3 million people and counting,according to an Internet attempt to gather information on all of the protests.
And there were hundreds of thousands more marching around the globe, all seven continents, even Antarctica–from Berlin to Buenos Aires to Bangkok, from London to Lisbon, and from Rome to Rabat.
After a presidential campaign that put the question of sexual assault front and center, one that most people figured would end with the inauguration of the first woman president, it was President Donald Trump who took the oath of office on January 20, to the dread and revulsion of many millions of people.
So it was only appropriate that millions upon millions of people raised their voices in a collective cry of outrage at the inauguration of a brutish, boastful sexual predator as commander in chief.
The sea of handmade signs expressed the point in countless clever and cutting ways: “Girls just want to have fun-damental human rights”; “You can’t comb over misogyny”; and simply “This is not normal.”
But it didn’t stop there. Women and men alike mobilized to stand for women’s rights, but they raised many other issues–climate change, racism and police brutality, free speech and freedom of the press, immigrant rights.
In their size and sweep, the most fitting comparison for this global outpouring of resistance would be to the mass protests on February 15, 2003, weeks before the administration of George W. Bush launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Socialist Worker‘s headline was “The whole world is marching.”
This time, it was the sense that Donald Trump had declared war on all of us–the undocumented, the environment, women and girls, Arabs and Muslims and all people of color, the LGBT community–that left people saying they felt they had no choice but to march.
Isaura Amezcua, a student at Georgetown University who grew up in the Los Angeles area, carried a sign reading, “Respeta mi existencia o espera resistencia.” (“Respect my existence, or expect my resistance”) As she said in an interview:
We are here to march for women’s equality. We are here to support a worldwide movement to bring women together. A lot of immigrants are domestic workers, and they don’t have a voice–they don’t have a union or the ability to join this march. So I’m here to be in solidarity with them. In my community, there is fear, but this march shows that we’re stronger together, and that if we organize together, there is potential to grow and take this country to a better place.
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THE HISTORIC size of the protests should serve as an important boost for everyone horrified by the incoming Trump administration.
For two months, the world watched as the president-elect who claimed to stand for ordinary people assembled a new administration made up of reactionaries and establishment figures committed to an agenda of tax cuts for the rich, increased military spending, and attacks on health care and other social services–policies that serve the interests of the super-rich at the expense of the rest of us.
The day after his inauguration, though, it was the basic decency of ordinary people all across the U.S. that was on display. One group of six men and women in their 50s and 60s, for example, drove 18 hours from southern Louisiana after one of the group said she couldn’t stand the idea of not doing something to register her abhorrence of President Trump.
The man who reluctantly agreed to be the group’s spokesperson told us:
I was sitting in front of the TV, and I saw that idiot come on, and I got to speaking in tongues. And my wife said, “We need to do something about this.” So I said, “Okay, let’s go.” This was on Monday before the inauguration. We got on the phone, and we had a bunch of people ready to go in a heartbeat. We started driving on Wednesday. We just wanted to throw a rock at that guy–metaphorically speaking, of course.
A woman from the group piped up: “We’re against everything Trump stands for: women’s rights, abortion, his Supreme Court nominees, environment, climate change, health care, everything.” Another said; “When my 10-year-old woke up the day after the election and heard Trump won, he cried. I cried, too.”
Stories of this sort explain why Trump enters the White House with the lowest approval rating–around 37 percent–of any president in modern history.
It also explains why Trump’s spokesperson Sean Spicer lashed out at the news media for acknowledging the plain fact that something like 15 times more people demonstrated against Trump that came out to support him over Inauguration Weekend.
In a bizarre press conference in which the press wasn’t permitted to ask any questions, Spicer called the widely circulated photos showing the paltry crowd at Trump’s inauguration compared to the massive throng at Obama’s 2009 inauguration “shameful and wrong.”
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IN CONTRAST to the false unity of nationalism presented by Trump during his speech, the National Mall literally and symbolically pressed together an incredible diversity of people into a single, jubilant crowd brought together in a display of solidarity for the ages: women and men, people of all races and colors and ethnic groups and religious affiliations, LGBT people, disability rights activists, antiwar military veterans, and on and on.
Especially noticeable were the varied ages and fashions, reflecting the many times and places people have radicalized during the last four decades–anti-Vietnam War marchers, veterans of the women’s movement of the 1970s, anti-nuke activists from the 1980s, global justice activists, and the recent generation radicalized by immigrant rights struggle, the Occupy Wall Street movement and, of course, Black Lives Matter.
Scattered through the crowd were some formal contingents and more informal groupings of people who came to the march together.
Several labor unions, including the New York State Nurses Association, AFSCME District Council 37, United Federation of Teachers, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, United Auto Workers District 9A, Communications Workers of America and SEIU1199, organized buses and contingents. Then there were clusters of student groups, climate justice activists and other left-wing organizations, such as the Democratic Socialists of America.
The International Socialist Organization contingent swelled to hundreds of people, attracting large crowds with energetic and left-wing chants. Favorites included “Black, Latino, Arab, Asian and white! Unite, unite, unite to fight the right!” “Trump, escucha, estámos en la lucha” (“Hey Trump, we will fight you!”) “We do not consent, Trump is not our president!” “Trump says build a wall, we say amnesty for all!” and “We don’t really want your borders, taco trucks on every corner!”
Also popular was a call-and-response chant in which women began, “My body, my rights!” and men answered, “Their bodies, their choice!”
Saturday’s protest wasn’t like some previous demonstrations in which the crowd was dominated by contingents mobilized by one or another organization on the basis of a commitment to a particular issue or ideological orientation. The vast majority of the crowd in D.C. came with friends or family, bearing handmade signs variously expressing hope, snark, anger and dark humor.
It was still possible to identify different political currents flowing through the crowd. There were those still lamenting Clinton’s defeat. One handmade sign, for example, proclaimed, “Her Revolution Continues,” with the letters HRC highlighted.
There were also many supporters of Bernie Sanders, still disturbed by the Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks to torpedo Sanders’ campaign and shaking their heads at Clinton’s failure to offer anything positive to working-class voters.
Louis Koutras, a resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, was one of more than 5,000 people who participated in the permitted Disrupt J20 march on Inauguration Day itself. The Disrupt march took place along a route running parallel to Trump’s inaugural parade.
Koutras placed the blame for the election result on the bankruptcy of the Democrats’ strategy, and particularly the neglect of the party’s working-class base:
Trump at least directly addressed that constituency, saying you don’t have jobs, and you have bad health care. He’s right–they don’t have jobs or good health care, and it’s because of people like Trump! But he was able to harness that, while all the Democrats offered was, “We’re not Trump.” The Democrats used to be the party of the common person and of labor, but they have abandoned their base.
Later that night, a capacity crowd filled the Lincoln Theatre for “The Anti-Inauguration,” a forum co-sponsored by Jacobin magazine, Haymarket Books and Verso Books that featured independent journalists and activists who addressed many of these same themes.
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EVEN THE most brilliant master of propaganda–which Sean Spicer certainly is not–would have a hard time denying what this weekend’s protests have made obvious: that millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are determined to stand up against the grave danger represented by Trump’s power grab.
The day after the giant antiwar protests on February 15, 2003, New York Times reporter Patrick E. Tyler famously wrote that the demonstrations were a reminder that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
But those demonstrations, as big as they were, didn’t stop the Iraq War from taking place. The fact that the horrific results of the war vindicated all the warnings made by protesters doesn’t change that. We have to understand why the antiwar movement of 2003 wasn’t strong enough to achieve its goal.
The Bush regime was committed to pursuing its agenda of global domination–even in the face of widespread opposition–and so it was willing to endure a significant degree of public wrath.
Likewise, the cabal around Trump, the most unpopular president to be elected in memory, is obviously comfortable with being disliked–even if Trump himself gets testy about it–so long as they can achieve their smash-and-grab agenda of looting public coffers, driving down wages and reversing the gains of African Americans, women and LGBT people won through decades of struggle.
It has become commonly accepted on the left that protests don’t give our side the necessary power to achieve our goals.
But what type of power do we need? The default assumption is based on the way we’re taught that power works in a democracy: by working in official politics to get the right people elected.
But that plan has failed far more spectacularly than taking to the streets. Going back to the antiwar movement of the Bush years, after the early years of protest, most of the movement prioritized winning back Congress and the White House for the Democratic Party, which they achieved in 2008.
Yet the wars continued under Barack Obama, including a surge into Afghanistan, the dramatic escalation of drone strikes, and stepped-up use of U.S. Special Forces around the world.
Obama also oversaw a dramatic increase in economic inequality, mass deportations and police violence, disillusioning many supporters and giving Republicans like Trump the opening to pose as anti-establishment populists.
Our problem is that the U.S. is not a real democracy, but, as a recent study by two professors concluded, an oligarchy in which “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Only in a pseudo-democracy–where elites pull the strings and millions of ordinary people’s votes are discounted by the Electoral College, not counted outright by broken voting machines, and suppressed by racist election officials–could a despised creep like Trump win the presidency.
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NOW THAT Trump is in office, it’s true that protests alone–even enormous ones like the Women’s March on Washington and its sister demonstrations–won’t be enough to stop him. But they are a vital part of building effective organizations of resistance rooted in the strength of our numbers and our social power as workers, students and community members.
The great left-wing author and art critic John Berger made this crucial point in a 1968 article called “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations”:
Theoretically demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling: theoretically they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State. But this presupposes a conscience which is very unlikely to exist.
If the State authority is open to democratic influence, the demonstration will hardly be necessary; if it is not, it is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat…
The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality–the intensity of rehearsed awareness–may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.
A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities…
Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realize them have been created. Demonstrations predict the realization of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realization, but they cannot themselves achieve them.
It’s the role of the socialist movement to advance the idea that we can’t fight Trump’s right-wing agenda while we’re tied to the Democratic Party. Rather, it’s crucial to advance an unapologetically left-wing agenda that millions of people actually support.
Mass protests are one part of a larger process of political radicalization that is driven by economic and political events, some of which we may be able to influence, but many of which are outside of our control. The main task facing our side today is to build a larger and more influential political foundation so we have the best leverage in the face of the Trump administration’s assaults.