A few months ago, I joined a bunch of friends to blockade the road leading to the hotel where the California GOP convention took place. We forced Donald Trump to jump the fence next to the highway and hike through the weeds to make his speech. As we sat there hour after hour in the hot sun, our arms chained together, with people occasionally coming by to feed us sips of water and snacks, I saw a lot of often very well-dressed people with Hillary Clinton campaign signs walking to the rally like it was a picnic.
I heard from these people, more than once, about how unseemly they felt the blockade was. How such an unruly approach made us “no better than them“. I listened to them chiding the Latino teenagers throwing eggs at the convention attendants and flipping off the cops, making hoary common-wisdom kinds of observations like “well gee, look, there’s just so much hate on both sides! That’s the problem right there!”
Now that Clinton is the nominee, I have a bad feeling I’m going to hear a lot more of this kind of thing. I’m going to hear about how Clinton’s long march through the institutions, her calculated positions on controversial issues that “evolve” just when it’s most politically convenient, and her backwards approach to negotiating, where you admit defeat and concede everything before you even get to the table, is the “right” way to do politics.
I heard that kind of sentiment on NPR last night, when a reporter characterized Sanders’ appeal to young people as a “74-year-old man saying ‘I understand your anger! I’ve always felt the way I felt at 21!'”, implying that Sanders’ supporters (or even Sanders himself) is simply just immature, instead of having any legitimate ideas.
The idea that political institutions and the democratic process are the thing that creates change is profoundly ahistorical. The democratic process is frequently a roadblock to collective liberation. Abolition, women’s suffrage, the end of legal segregation, and legal gay marriage were all accomplished in spite of democracy. To this day, if some of these things went to a vote, we would end up less free.
So this is partly an admission that Bernie Sanders would not have been able to do most of the things he said he was going to do, and that change was never going to come through the ballot box. But what has been a defining aspect of his career, what I felt was the point of his candidacy, and why I supported it, was that he understood that political will is created by making a clear demand, and being totally unreasonable until the people in power catch up.
We’re going to hear a lot about how Clinton’s proposals are more “realistic” because they’re achievable within the boundaries of our political system. But none of them are going to be enacted. If she becomes president, we are, at best, going to get the worst pieces of them in exchange for something else that is not worth the cost.
For this reason, for the last eight years, I have been solidly on the side of the unreasonable, against ignorant people who insist that Obama is “not that bad” or “better than a Republican would have been” or whatever. Obama, the guy who’s deported more immigrants, arrested more whistleblowers, ordered more assassinations, and expanded the surveillance state more than any President in our history.
I supported him for the same reason people now support Hillary Clinton, because I thought being conciliatory and trying to find common ground was a possibility in politics.
It’s not. You stake out a pole, far from the center, and you do your best to become a force of attraction so strong that you bend the stream of history in your direction.
I’m going to be in the streets for at least the next 4 years, and probably the rest of my life, in the face of people like those sneering Clinton supporters who think “protests don’t work” or “that’s not how change happens” or who think the way you get “them” on “our side” is being reasonable.
It would be incredibly ignorant of me to create a clean dividing line here. I know there are plenty of people who support Clinton who have also been in the streets reliably when it counts. I know there are plenty of people who voted for Sanders, or for the Green Party, or for whatever wacky, quixotic weirdo any of the minor left parties put up for President this year, who also think the only way to achieve change is through electing the right politicians.
It doesn’t matter who I ultimately vote for for President, because I live in the most liberal part of the most liberal state in the United States which, against all good sense, has solidly chosen Clinton for President every time we’ve had the chance. But there are a lot of people who live in the few places that really matter who are not inclined to vote at all, and if they are, will not be inclined to vote for Clinton, and who are going to be told to “be reasonable”, to “grow up” and realize the threat posed to Our Country by Donald Trump.
Some of those people are going to be the kind of people who’ve put their bodies on the line to stop immigration raids initiated by a Democratic president, or who put their bodies on the line to prevent more fossil fuels from being dug up or burned based on leases granted by a Democratic president, or put their bodies on the line for eviction defense during the housing crisis in the face of a Democratic president who refused to prosecute the bankers.
A lot of my friends have done a lot more of this work than I have, and are a lot braver than me in that regard. And every single one of them has reminded me at some point during this election season that the struggle is lifelong and continues no matter who is President.
What I see in my immediate future is a constant, pervasive version of people gingerly walking past the ongoing marathon struggle for social justice and calling the people engaged in it “unreasonable”, or worse. I see a dense thicket of think pieces about how selfish or privileged people who don’t feel any particular urgency about voting for Hillary Clinton must be. I see a lot more unfounded criticism of the entirely justified outpourings of rage we’ve seen against Trump and his supporters. And it all just makes me tired.
And even in writing this, I can imagine a few people, older than me, people who’ve been arrested a few times for fighting for what they believe in, thinking all those things and worse about me.
And I can already hear the plaintive cries of “yes, but we have to do both!”
Even if that’s true, voting is easy. Continuing to show up day after day, year after year, even when the arc of justice is being particularly stiff, is much harder.