Will the Women’s March matter?

Event DetailsIncreasingly, the women’s march looks to sound the trumpet for a new surge in oppositional politics during the Trump era–however long it lasts.

Counter-inaugural protests are nothing new, but this effort is getting more and better attention than any others in memory. More than that, the prime target, Trump, is coming into office with a slighter reservoir of support than any president in at least a century.

Is the march going to change anything?

Not by itself, but as part of a much bigger process of organizing and staking out positions……..maybe.

Organizing the march started with a couple of stray social media posts on election night calling for an anti-Trump demonstration (See Julia Felsenthal’s Vogue article on the development). The organizers worked hard to avoid restating a familiar, but limited, white middle-class feminist take, bringing diverse organizers and organizations into the fold in early stages of planning. Early reports emphasized diversity and inclusion, but avoided a clear set of demands or issues. The familiar risk here was to use the extraordinarily diverse opposition Trump has provoked to put together a broad coalition that offered little more than general distaste.

There’s a trade-off between the breadth of an event coalition and its clarity and vigor. The foggier the issues, the more people and groups who might turn up….once. Tighter and clearer politics make for better sustained engagement, but expanding is tougher.  Organizers for any cause have to negotiate a tricky balance, walking a tightrope over the perils of vacuousness on one side and marginalization on the other.

But a platform appeared a few days ago, and although it’s extensive, it’s certainly not a tepid reach toward a mushy consensus. The guiding vision, that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are central, emphasizes not just equal opportunities, but protections of reproductive rights, sexual minorities, civil rights, labor, and the environment.  The list of participating organizations is very long, anchored by Planned Parenthood and the Natural Resources Defense Council, but it’s not unlimited. The spat about deleting New Wave Feminists, self-described as “badass prolife feminists.” demonstrated a willingness to take tough stances and risk enemies that is essential for building an effective campaign.

Although the first reports on Saturday are sure to focus on the size and tenor of the event (how many people? how disruptive?), more important are the organizatpussyhatprojectcover.jpgions and commitments that come out of it.

Evaluations of an event like this virtually always overemphasize the event itself, and look for instant responses that are rarely in evidence. A president Trump is unlikely to change his policies or tone in response, and elected officials who already support him are unlikely to defect dramatically.

But a successful campaign works over time. The women’s march will effect influence if:

Activists, analysts, reporters, and politicians feel compelled to pay attention to the issues the demonstrators raise;

people who attend get a sense of political possibilities and their own potential power;

activists return to their communities, sporting tee shirts and pussyhats, proudly claim their participation and work to find ways to continue their efforts at home;

protesters connect with people and issues they didn’t previously know, and forge new alliances;

organizations build contact lists and active memberships–as well as alliances;

allies in government are encouraged to take a tougher opposition line;

opponents in government find excuses to distance themselves from the new administration and its policies–and political advantage in doing so;

supportive spectators get a sense that they’re not alone.

If the women’s march makes for a spectacular display without follow-up or ongoing engagement, it won’t count for much. But if it’s the effective call to action that organizers envision, all kinds of things become possible.

It’s not the moment, but the momentum that matters.


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Tangling with an icon: John Lewis and Donald Trump

At first glance, it seemed that Donald Trump had been foolish in going after Representative John Lewis, an authentic American hero. Through intense commitment, moral clarity, and physical courage, young John Lewis earned a place in American history long before he ran for Congress. By the time he’d turned 25, Lewis had scratched out what he surely knows is the first paragraph in his eventual obituary: beaten while praying on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Since then, John Lewis has continued to work for his vision of a just society, and over time has tried to transport his iconic status in the civil rights movement to other issues, including economic justice, opposition to war, protecting the environment, gun control, and standing up for gay rights. It’s a liberal Democratic agenda, promoted with speeches on the floor of Congress–and elsewhere, legislative efforts, and sometimes civil disobedience. Lewis has even published a graphic novel trilogy, offering his experience as inspiration for civic engagement to young people. He IS a comic book hero!

Lewis announced that he would be skipping Donald Trump’s inauguration because he didn’t consider the president-elect to be legitimate. Reflexively, Trump tweeted back with venom. It’s a familiar pattern, just like questioning the heroism displayed by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. The easier move, obviously, is to acknowledge heroism, sincerity, and commitment–and then discuss substantive political differences…politely. Republican members of the Senate Judiciary committee did exactly that when Representative Lewis testified against the confirmation of Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions (R- Alabama).

Trump’s Twitter attacks on Rep. Lewis immediately occasioned outrage, and the Internet filled with rather obvious comparisons of the two men’s historic political commitments. While Lewis was being beaten in Selma, Trump was cloistered in an expensive private military school. You can pick any year since then and find similarly stark differences in life choices: both Trump and Lewis have been consistent in living their values.

President-elect Trump’s attacks on an American hero didn’t tarnish Lewis’s reputation in the slightest. In Georgia’s 5th district, which Trump accused Lewis of neglecting for the past thirty years, residents were quick to announce their support. Note: Lewis was reelected with 84.6 percent of the vote in 2016

Democrats in Congress rallied to announce their friendship and support; a few agreed to skip the inauguration. And even Republicans who criticized his stance on the inaugural mostly began by announcing their respect for his record. Trump’s tweets didn’t undermine Lewis’s support with anyone who already supported John Lewis.

But it’s not clear that many of Trump’s supporters will desert him for criticizing a liberal Black congressman. They’ve had to grow accustomed to Trump’s hyperbolic invective (recall, Meryl Streep is overrated….). This won’t be the last straw for those who found a way to stick with Trump through so much already; they’ve learned to swallow and forgive.

As to John Lewis? The fact that he’s continued his efforts, maintaining his commitments over fifty years since Selma, makes him a difficult hero for many Americans. While opponents of liberal social and economic policies can speculate on what Martin Luther King might have said in this different time, John Lewis in Congress offers them no such latitude. Those who claim they would have supported the civil rights movement in 1965–most Americans didn’t–might clutch for a moment when they realize they have the opportunity to do so today.




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Martin Luther King Day, 2017

(This is a repost of the MLKing Day holiday note.)

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day.  In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry.  In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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The protest(s) sessions and what comes next

Unlike most of his would-be Cabinet mates, Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions has filed his ethics and financial disclosure forms. When Senate committee hearings began this morning, his opponents were ready.

Lisa Desjardins, from PBS Newshour, posted the welcome Senator Sessions received from the gallery.

You’ll note that the faux Klansman was removed pretty quickly, but the maroon Statue of Liberty, surely no fan of the senator, was allowed to stay–at least for a while. Sessions’s opponents–and there are plenty of them–waited until the hearing resumed, then popped up, one or two at a time, to lodge their charges from the gallery until they were removed. This “popcorn” protest can go on for a long time, interrupted, delaying, and inflecting the hearings.

Senator Sessions was pressed by both the protesters and tough questions from Democrats on the committee, who had themselves been pressured by email and calls from activists demanding a strong stance against the appointment.  Sessions felt compelled to announce his support for civil rights, voting rights, Supreme Court precedent, and the rule of law generally. He certainly knew this was coming, and prepared for it. Indeed, the NAACP staged a sit-in at one of his home offices a week ago (below).

Congressional hearings, confirmation hearings in particular, present a relatively compact stage for activists to advance their claims. The presence of opponents, elected officials, and media–against the backdrop of the Capitol, make for good drama and viral video.

The turbulence probably won’t stop Senator Sessions’s confirmation as Attorney General. Republicans enjoy a majority in the Senate, and he is apparently well-liked by his colleagues. There are no public reports of personal corruption or impropriety–charges of racism set aside. But the potential impact of a protest like this one–and there are likely to be many like this confronting most, if not all, of Trump’s appointees–plays out over a much longer time than the drama of a hearing, or even the days-long deliberations in the larger Senate.

Taunts and tough questions elicit qualifiers and assurances that might actually affect the way Attorney General General Sessions does his job; more likely, they’ll provide a recent and accessible record of almost promises that opponents can haul out when the Justice Department does anything like what the protesters fear. Most likely, they’ll elicit clear statements about the nominee’s views on immigration, reproductive rights, and access to voting that organizers can use to mobilize more opposition.

The point: although it’s easy and natural to focus on the drama of the moment, demonstrations like this only really matter in the context of much longer and varied campaigns; but, they really can matter.

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Twitter’s stormtroopers

It took me a long time to understand why Donald Trump’s nasty tweets about people he didn’t like mattered at all. Protecting free speech means that people, including candidates for office, are allowed to say stupid hateful things. I didn’t realize that Trump’s persistent Cover artthreats to unleash his “beautiful” Twitter account was something that could be feared.

But, it doesn’t take many of Trump’s millions of Twitter followers to unleash a hell on the momentary targets of his wrath. Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, now reports that her questions about Trump’s attitudes and conduct toward women won her a series of juvenile insults from the bloated bully. But it wasn’t just name-calling: Trump supporters alerted to their candidate’s irritation with her joined in to torment the television personality. Some of the harassment involved nastier comments and threats of violence on Twitter, but it didn’t end there.  Kelly says that she was stalked, and strange men occasionally turned up at her home; her children were terrified. In a recent interview promoting her book, she says:

It was my year of guards and guns — you know, thanks to Trump. I was under security threat for most of the nine months he was really coming after me. I had strange people showing up at my house. I had strange people casing my house. I had my children looking out the windows afraid. … Every time he would come after me, he would release — as I describe in the book — a torrent of nastiness in my life, and I had to sort of just be steady at the helm, because I was going to cover this race come hell or high water.

Kelly says that colleagues at Fox News tried to intervene with Trump, but the mogul demanded an apology from her. Although Kelly adamantly denies apologizing, she explains that she trekked to Trump Tower to discuss the issue; satisfied by this act of contrition, Trump stopped tweeting about her–for now.

Of course, this is awful, but we might think that people working in the public eye, like journalists, union leaders, or candidates for office, knowingly take on some risk.

That should not be the case for citizens who engage in political campaigns. In October 2015, when only the extraordinarily prescient or gullible thought Trump might be elected president, Lauren Batchelder, then an 18 year-old college student, asked him tough questions about women at a campaign event in New Hampshire. After the event, Trump tweeted an attack, and his followers quickly posted her name and address. For the past year, Batchelder’s social media accounts filled not only with criticism, but with explicit threats of violence. Again, it doesn’t take many crazy people to make someone’s life awful, and maybe to warn others off asking hard questions, or even going public in opposition.

Trump’s threats to unleash Twitter on his enemies suggest that he has some idea of what a sociopathic sliver of his followers are willing to do–and that he’s ready to intimidate would-be critics.

The violence, real and threatened, is an important dimension of fascist movements. I’d thought that the comparisons between the Trump campaign and noted fascists of the past, especially Hitler, were overblown and alarmist. I still do—but:

In the earliest days of the Nazi Party in the early 1920s, brown-shirted storm-troopers (SA) guarded party rallies–and violently disrupted the public meetings of rival parties, and fought in the streets with political opponents. Recruiting unemployed men, often veterans of World War I, the Party maintained control over its paramilitary forces, dispensing military titles and establishing a disciplined hierarchy. The SA gave frustrated and hungry young men discipline, a sense of belonging, and something to do that helped the Nazi Party. After coming to power, however, Hitler sought to consolidate the control of street violence within the state, obviate populist demands for somewhat socialist policies, and gain the support of the army and industrialists. In 1934, on the Night of the Long Knives, he had the leadership of the SA, including long time allies, arrested and executed.

The thugs motivated by hostile tweets differ from the SA in so many obvious ways: organization, coordination, and size (at its height, the SA numbered more than 3 million men) just to start, but the threat of violence can intimidate opposition and still political debate. This can’t be acceptable.

To date, there’s no hint that Trump, now elected president, has any intention of tempering his twitter threats, nor even picking his targets more selectively. But it’s hardly crazy to worry that a wayward tweet might lead to a violent outcome. Knowing the risks means taking responsibility.

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Rosa Parks resistance, anniversary.

Today’s entry reposts on the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus.


Fifty-seven (now, 61) years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  When local activists learned about her arrest, they organized a city-wide boycott and filed a lawsuit, kicking an emerging civil rights movement into a higher gear.

Mrs. Parks’s non-cooperation was courageous, but it wasn’t an isolated act.  She had been an activist for most of her life, and was chapter secretary of the local NAACP.  She had taken a summer course at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience, the Constitution, and the Brown versus Board of Education decision.

She also wasn’t the first person to defy segregation laws on the city buses; earlier that year, Claudette Colvin (at right), then fifteen, was arrested for the same offense, but local activists were reluctant to organize around her.  She was young, less experienced, pregnant, and not married.  Image matters.

The Montgomery bus boycott spurred similar efforts around the United States and brought global attention to the civil rights movement.  It also introduced Martin Luther King, then a young minister, to national visibility.

Mrs. Parks herself became an icon of the movement–and indeed, in American history.  When I ask my students to list heroes of the American civil rights movement, she is second only to Martin Luther King in mentions.  Often, students know no other names from the movement.

Twenty-five years after her arrest, Mrs. Parks’s celebrity brought her an appearance on a game show, To Tell the Truth.  In the video below, you can watch celebrities question her–and two impostors–about the bus boycott.  It’s bizarre and compelling.  The last questioner is comedian Nipsey Russell, who uses his brief turn to shout out to other important, courageous, and now lesser-known heroes of the movement.

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Flag battles at Hampshire College: the politics of diversion

Do you want to talk about the American flag? Hampshire College, in Western Massachusetts has (temporarily) removed the flag from its central flagpole to foster a dialogue about symbols. Upset about Donald Trump’s election, the next day students lowered the flag to half-mast, intended to be a peaceful protest about “the toxic tone of the monthslong election.”

This didn’t calm everyone–or maybe anyone; the following night, a group of students took down the American flag  and burned it. Hampshire replaced the flag for Veterans Day few nights later.

Students protested, explaining that they saw the flag as a symbol of inequality. In response to, uh, heated discussions, President Jonathan Lash ordered that, for a while, no flags would be flown from the main flagpole at the center of campus. In an email, he explained, “This decision to temporarily not fly the flag was intended to provide space to continue the campus-wide dialogue. The flag had become a heated symbol that was making conversations on campus this month impossible.”

As a sometimes proud alumnus of Hampshire College, I received his e-missive. I am most certainly not proud that President Lash thought the presence of an American flag in the driveway made honest and rational conversation impossible.

On Sunday, November 27, a group of veterans and their families brought their own flags to Hampshire College to protest in support of the flag. The New York Times cited protest organizers’ estimate of the crowd at about 400–as did local media; Fox News estimated about 1,000 veterans visiting campus. (I wasn’t there.)

Donald Trump saw the Fox report, and responded via Twitter that flag burning shouldn’t be permitted, and should certainly be punished, perhaps by jail or loss of citizenship. Trump’s tweet created a predictable round of responses, including discussions of Constitutional law, and another round of flag-burning outside Trump International Hotel by a fringe left group.

We can expect another round of outrage and reaction about the flag, the Constitution, symbols, patriotism, privilege, and Trump. None of it is likely to lead to anything resembling either civil or productive politics.

I’d like to unpack at least some of the massive amount of idiocy that we witness unfurling from a flagpole in Western Massachusetts–in the absence of a flag.

The flag burning at Hampshire was certainly legal, Constitutionally-protected, silly, and stupid.

First, some easy stuff: Burning an American flag doesn’t violate the laws of Massachusetts or the United States, and is a Constitutionally protected expression of free speech. I know this from a 1989 Supreme Court Decision, Texas v. Johnson, which found that Gregory Johnson’s burning of an American flag in a protest outside the 1984 Republican National Convention was “expressive conduct” protected by the First Amendment. The late Justice Antonin Scalia joined the majority decision, later explaining that the plain language of the Constitution was clear. President-elect Trump has previously cited Justice Scalia as a model for his own appointments to the Court.

As Justice Scalia would surely agree, many activities that the Constitution protects are unpleasant and unwise.

Second, it’s not surprising that students at Hampshire, like so many other students across the United States, were upset and disappointed by Trump’s victory in the electoral college. Most voters really did oppose him, and his campaign offered much to terrify supporters of, for example, immigrants, ethnic minorities, reproductive rights, public education, and the Constitution. (Obviously, this list could be so much longer.)

But Donald Trump doesn’t own the burned flag in South Amherst, nor the symbol for the entire United States. Hillary Clinton would have been inaugurated in front of the same flag; for that matter, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or Evan McMullin would have waved the stars and stripes as well. Trump’s victory hardly reflects well on the country, but the flag stands for a big diverse community filled with conflict and contradictions. It’s foolish to let it become a symbol for Donald Trump. There’s no reason for activists on the left to cede the symbol to their political opponents (see Abbie Hoffman, at right). Civil rights activists, for example, refused to allow the Ku Klux Klan to claim a monopoly on the flag.

As a political tactic, the battle over the flag is completely counterproductive to the interests of those who started it. Protest is most effective when it promotes discussion and activism on the issues animating it. A tactic that overshadows the cause becomes a burden for activists and a bludgeon for their opponents. Protest polarizes, and savvy activists try to gain political advantage by picking issues, tactics, and rhetoric that draws larger numbers to their side.

And large numbers, certainly majorities, would join students opposing, for example, privatizing Medicare, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, promoting racism, restricting access to abortion, or student debt–again, just a few examples.

But the story from the Pioneer Valley is all about the flag, privileged students, and angry veterans. At best, this is a distraction from real politics; at worst, it offers as substitute a new conflict on which many Americans are more likely to agree with Trump than the Supreme Court–much less the students.


By the way:

Fights about the flag are hardly new or unusual, and have appeared in Politics Outdoors. For example:

A few students at the University of California, Irvine, pushed a resolution to ban all flags from a specific lobby, provoking a visit by a small group of flag-loving Orange County residents.


San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick worked to direct national attention to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle,police violence by kneeling during the national anthem before games.




Following activist Bree Newsome’s lead, South Carolina Governor (future ambassador to the UN?) Nikki Haley worked to remove the Confederate Battle flag from the state capitol.

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