Wide Awake
New York magazine|October 26– November 08, 2020
Wide Awake
The past four years have seen the birth of a modern progressive movement so vast and energetic it just might be equal to the right-wing forces that threaten its extinction.
Rebecca Traister

JANUARY 21, 2017

THE WOMEN’S MARCH

Washington, D.C.

THE STORY of an awakening must begin with how many had been permitted to sleep in the first place.

I often think back to a Saturday Night Live episode from October 2016, which aired after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Lin-Manuel Miranda was the guest host, and in the cold open, he directed a line from his fanatically beloved musical Hamilton at a photo of Donald Trump, declaring with ferocity, “You’re never gonna be president now.”

You could feel viewers, Hamilton fans, Democrats, those who for whatever reasons could still afford to believe in norms or justice, laugh with the giddy conviction that a man who grabbed women against their will could never be president, perhaps forgetting that grabbing women against their will had been a habit of presidents all the way back to the characters depicted in … Hamilton. It would be less than four weeks before those who had felt the confidence that misogyny and racism were disqualifying in the United States had that layer of assurance stripped from them.

But even after the election, the fantasies of salvation and order persisted: Someone powerful—Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush (suddenly looking good by comparison, which should have been a big warning sign), Hamilton itself (remember when the theater audience booed Mike Pence?), Jill Stein (she took all the money, folks!), patriotic Republicans, the Senate, the military, capable advisers who would keep him in check—someone was going to fix this, right?

I was not someone who had believed Donald Trump was never gonna be president; I had spent a long time fearing his victory and the punitive force of the party he was leading to power. And yet, with shame, I vividly recall being assured, in those early months of 2017, by someone who claimed to know, that both Obamas were on it, that they were “talking to people” about what to do. Rationally, I understood it to be fanfiction— wasn’t the fantasy of Obama as savior part of how we got here?— yet the desire to believe that someone with institutional power and a moral compass and a brain was in a position to protect the nation was so strong that, against my will, something like relief briefly washed over me.

Part of that feeling came from an inglorious but sharp desire to abdicate responsibility, to not be alert and vigilant and scared, to retreat to some comforting state of confidence that, even in the face of a long history that suggested otherwise, the people would be ably stewarded through the worst of what might becoming. The desire to sleep is strong.

Four years later, any notion of salvation feels pulled from a fairy tale. The Obamas would not save anyone; Robert Mueller did not save anyone; Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis are dead, and when they were alive, they weren’t capable of saving anyone either. There were no noble Republicans and too few ferocious Democrats. The fantasy that there are bulwarks in place—individuals or institutions—has been correctly obliterated, leaving little barrier between America’s people and an awareness of their vulnerability to a plunderous ruling class.

This has been the terrible gift of these years. Trump himself is nowhere near the beginning nor the end of the horror, but his reign was a blaring alarm for millions; all the bright lights turned on, the covers ripped off. Those who had been privileged enough to snuggle warm and dumb beneath the blankets of an imagined postfeminist, post-civil-rights, post-Obergefell, post-Obama Camelot found themselves suddenly exposed: cold, shivering, and wide-eyed with fear and realization that the system they’d been taught responds to the will of the people was in fact designed to be able to suppress it.

For millions, the awakening was sudden, bracing, and extremely rude.

THROUGH ONE LENS, the shock of the past few years has been a right-wing getting ever less apologetic about its commitment to authoritarian, anti-democratic minority rule. Trump and his party have surely broken some long-standing American norms and institutions, let others corrode, and encouraged the ones that were left to function as they were built to: keeping power in the hands of the few.

But through another lens, what has actually undergone a startling change has been America’s people, their thinking about the Republic, and, in some cases, their places and responsibilities within it. Some significant portion of the population has been roused to protest—or at least awareness—at a scale that has been seen rarely in our past and that has historically had the power to bring social and political change so eruptive and transformative that those in power will do anything to quell it.

On the first full day of the Trump administration, the U.S. saw the largest one-day protest in its history. The Women’s March— with its pink hats and furiously clever signs and overwhelmingly white vibe and head-spinning roster of speakers, from Madonna to Angela Davis—drew more than 4 million into the streets in the U.S.; nearly 200 more demonstrations occurred across all seven continents.

It’s not that the event marked the revivification of American protest culture or progressive organizing: That story started long before Trump gave his chilling inaugural address to a sparse but newly empowered crowd of brutish acolytes. There had been the Seattle WTO protests in the late ’90s and antiwar demonstrations of the Bush administration. The birth of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement, the Fight for Fifteen, Standing Rock, the Climate March of 2014, SlutWalks, Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole to pull down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, and the Say Her Name campaign to acknowledge black female victims of police violence; Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of the national anthem in the same year that Bernie Sanders’s failed primary campaign against Hillary Clinton took on the dimensions of a left-wing social movement … all of that happened during the Obama administration.

But the spirit of unrest bloomed explosively in the Trump years, in regions and minds long arid of political—let alone progressive—engagement. And the strains of dissent wound round one another in intricate, uneasy ways. The white originators of the Women’s March itself had been pushed by a group of cochairs who came from other, more deeply rooted protest movements to go further with the event’s stated aims, to proclaim that a “women’s movement” must also by definition be a movement for Black and Indigenous and Palestinian lives, for climate action and in opposition to economic inequality.

And so when, about a week after that first big eruption, Trump issued a travel ban on visitors coming from predominantly Muslim countries, many people new to public displays of fury were quicker than they might otherwise have been to rush to the airports to raise their voices in protest, joining lawyers who had set up shop on the floor trying to help those detained.

JANUARY 29, 2017 THE MUSLIM BAN AIRPORT PROTEST

In those early months, there were so many protests every weekend, all over the place, for reasons that were ambient but loosely tied together. For a brief time, it was weirdly easy to discern how connected it all was: From a ten-day span in late January and early February 2017, my phone shows pictures of crowds in pussy hats shouting “Immigrants are welcome here” at an anti-ban protest in Washington Square Park, and again at Battery Park (“Muslim rights are human rights”) and at a Yemeni bodega strike in Brooklyn (“Fight ignorance, not immigrants”), and then at a protest winding its way through the streets of Philadelphia, with placards spelling black lives matter pasted in the windows of an office building in Center City and a man holding a sign that reads this jawn is your jawn, this jawn is my jawn.

Later that month, during the confirmation hearing of Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions to be Trump’s attorney general, Elizabeth Warren would attempt to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King objecting to Sessions’s 1986 nomination to the federal bench. She was stopped by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose reasoning would give form to an Etsy-ready battle cry: “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Then the protests got specific. In March, women dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel showed up at the Texas Senate building to protest a ban on second-term abortions (a measure that has since been defeated, though not because of the handmaids). And in Washington, D.C., as Congress considered overturning the Affordable Care Act, crowds clogged the halls of the Senate and flooded the phones, pressuring senators until the repeal measure failed and seeding in protesters the notion that action could produce real victories.

But in August 2017, white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us” at a Unite the Right rally, and anti-fascist protesters fought them in the streets. Twenty-year-old DeAndre Harris was beaten in a parking garage by members of the right-wing extremist group League of the South, and 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer was run over by a car and killed, and the starker risks of direct action were made horribly clear.

The capacious fury spread and took new and astonishing forms. In fall 2017, the Me Too movement surged in the wake of New York Times and New Yorker reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s serial predation, revelations that surely landed more powerfully given that an admitted groper was in the White House. Stories of sexual harassment and assault spilled out with tidal force, powerfully reshaping the dominant understanding of how the systems that cover for abuse create an unjust professional sphere. Some powerful people—mostly powerful men—lost jobs in Hollywood and the Senate and the media. The stories reverberated for restaurant and hotel employees and flight attendants and on the Ford factory floor; for months, each story seemed to make room for more stories, compelling more people to come forward.

Years of organizing, including by Fight for Fifteen, were behind the resurgence of the labor movement in some sectors, but Me Too helped fast-food workers, Chicago hotel housekeepers, and Silicon Valley employees draw attention to and amplify longtime complaints about ubiquitous harassment in their industries. In 2018, West Virginia teachers—some who cited either the Women’s March or the Sanders campaign as models for large public actions—kicked off a wave of teachers strikes that would roll, over more than a year, through Kansas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and California.

Youth activism had been electrified by Occupy and the Sanders campaign, and in March 2018, March for Our Lives, in response to a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, became the nation’s largest-ever protest against gun violence. That summer, as images of terrified toddlers separated from refugee parents at our southern border made their way to the public, protesters staged more direct actions—interrupting the dinners of administration officials. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters urged them on: “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” When nearly 600 protesters took over the Hart Senate Office Building atrium, chanting “Abolish ICE,” Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren joined them; Representative Pramila Jayapal was among the 575 arrested that day by Capitol Police.

According to the protest historian L.A. Kauffman, it was that month—June 2018—that the number of arrests for civil disobedience jumped from an average of 120 per month to more than a thousand. The fall would see hundreds more taken into custody as women (and some men) gathered to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative Federalist Society judge accused by Christine Blasey Ford of having assaulted her when they were teenagers. Protesters filled the halls of Congress and the steps of the Supreme Court, screaming so loudly during the confirmation vote that it had to be paused.

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October 26– November 08, 2020