‘The end of protest is not the absence of protest.’ Photograph: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
The marches will remain ineffective as long as we aren’t capable of moving from the streets to governing locally and nationally
The astonishing triumph of Donald Trump can be traced to the bitter defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a pro-democracy movement that transcended left and right, sparking unrest in hundreds of cities and rural towns in 2011. Occupy’s consensus-based encampments demanded that President Obama get money out of politics. Instead, we got mercilessly smashed by his progressive administration. Now the dark irony of history is bashing back.
Trump – an uber-wealthy, partially self-financed candidate who promises to “drain the swamp” – was elected president just one week before the fifth anniversary of Mayor Bloomberg’s eviction of the Zuccotti Park encampment. President-elect Trump, a charismatic strongman with an autocratic temperament, is not what millions of Occupiers were dreaming of when we took to the streets against the monied corruption of our democracy.
Now, as the nation experiences a disturbing rise of hate crimes against the groups singled out by Trump during his campaign, protests descending into riots are rocking our cities. These visceral protests will undoubtedly continue into 2017. Celebrated progressive Kshama Sawant, a socialist councilwoman in Seattle, has already called on people to disrupt Trump’s inauguration in January.
At the same time, despite the excitement of seeing militants marching in the cities, leftist activist networks are buzzing with the painful realization that contemporary protest is broken. The dominant tactic of getting people into the streets, rallying behind a single demand and raising awareness about an injustice simply does not result in the desired social change.
Nominally democratic governments tolerate protest because elected representatives no longer feel compelled to heed protest. The end of protest is not the absence of protest. The end of protest is the proliferation of ineffective protests that are more like a ritualized performance of children than a mature, revolutionary challenge to the status quo.
Activists who rush into the streets tomorrow and repeat yesterday’s tired tactics will not bring an end to Trump nor will they transfer sovereign power to the people. There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world. Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option.
Protest can play an important role in winning elections or winning wars but protest alone is insufficient. Just think of the three years many activists spent on Black Lives Matter versus the 18 months it took Trump to sweep into power. It is magical thinking, and a dangerously misguided strategy, for activists to continue to act as if the masses in the streets can attain a sovereignty over their governments through a collective manifestation of the people’s general will. This may have been true in the past, but is not true today.
What is to be done now? American activists must move from detached indignation to revolutionary engagement. They must use the techniques that create social movements to dominate elections.
The path forward is revealed in the rallying cry of the people in the streets: “Not My President!” This protest slogan is eerily similar to the one used by Spain’s 15-M Movement of indignados who set up anti-establishment general assemblies in May of 2011 and chanted “No Nos Representan!” (“You Don’t Represent Us!”) during their election. Their assemblies inspired the birth of Occupy. But when the refusal of the indignados to participate in the election resulted in a shocking victory for Spain’s right wing, the movement’s activists and supporters quickly internalized an important lesson that Americans must now embrace.
Realizing that new forms of social protest are better equipped to win elections than disrupt elections, many of the indignados transformed themselves into Podemos, a hybrid movement-party that is now winning elections and taking power. A similar story can be told of the Pirate party in Iceland, or the 5 Star Movement in Italy or the pan-European Diem25. Focus on the form, not the content, of these hybrid movement-parties: their organizing style is the future of global protest.
Concretely speaking, activists must reorient all efforts around capturing sovereignty. That means looking for places where sovereignty is lightly held and rarely contested, like rural communities. Or targeting sovereign positions of power that are not typically seen as powerful, such as soil and water district boards or port commissions. Protests will remain ineffective as long as there is no movement-party capable of governing locally and nationally.
This is a struggle for sovereignty. The endgame is a populist movement-party that wins elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified agenda worldwide. The spark for this electoral movement is bound to emerge from an unexpected place.
It could start from a women-led backlash against the pack of patriarchsgoverning the globe: Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Xi in China and now Trump in America. Or maybe activists will start moving into neglected rural cities – low-population areas of America – and prepare to sweep city council elections. That is the strategy I’m pursuing in Nehalem, Oregon, where I recently ran for mayor. In any case, avoid falling for the exhausting delusion of endless urban protest or the nihilistic fantasy of winning an insurrectionary war.
The difficult path of merging innovative protest, social movements and electoral parties is the only viable way forward. And with only two years until the next election in America, there is no time to waste.