Opinion: Fight Back!

Protest against the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960's. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Now Is Not The Time For Despair And Hopelessness But For Fervent Militant Resistance.

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, you can’t take part. And you’ve got to put your body upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.  – Mario Savio

Art Keene

When We Fight Back We Often Win
The Montgomery Bus Boycott – In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery Alabama for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white man.  At the time, African Americans were required by law to sit in the back half of the bus and to yield their seats to white people if the “white section of the bus” was full. Following her arrest, local Black organizers called for a boycott of the bus system. The next day, approximately 40,000 Black bus riders, the majority of the bus riders in Montgomery, boycotted the system with rather modest demands for civil treatment, seating on a first come first served basis, and the hiring of black bus drivers. Ultimately, the strikers brought suit to strike down busing segregation laws. On June 5, 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld the lower court’s decision on December 20, 1956. Montgomery’s buses were integrated on December 21, 1956, and the boycott ended. It lasted 381 days. 

The Vietnam War – The US participation in the war in Vietnam (1955-1975) sparked a mass antiwar movement employing the civil disobedience tactics and grassroots mobilizations developed during the contemporaneous civil rights struggles. The early movement was also spurred by networks of student protest already formed during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 and the founding of Students for a Democratic Society in 1960.  As the protests against the war became widespread, notable figures from the worlds of politics, literature, and entertainment became prominent in the movement. 

The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was a massive demonstration and teach-in involving millions across the United States, against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It took place on October 15, 1969, followed a month later, on November 15, 1969, by a large Moratorium March in Washington, D.C.  On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that American troops had entered Cambodia in what had been a “secret war”.  Although Nixon claimed the action would be limited, it struck many Americans as a widening of the war, and it sparked a new round of protests on college campuses. Days of unrest at Kent State University in Ohio culminated in Ohio National Guardsmen firing on student protesters, killing four young people. The Kent State killings brought tensions in a divided America to a new level. Students at campuses across the nation went on strike in solidarity with the dead of Kent State.

America’s combat role in Vietnam came to an official end with the peace agreement signed in early 1973. Historian  Howard Zinn states in his book A People’s History of the United States that, “in the course of the war, there developed in the United States the greatest anti war movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical role in bringing the war to an end.”  Conservatives continue to dispute Zinn’s contention that protests helped  end the war.  In the aftermath of the war, the US abolished the draft and lowered the voting age to 18.

The Icelandic  Women’s Strike of 1975 . On October 24,  1975, Icelandic women went on strike for the day to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and to “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices”.  Participants, led by women’s organizations, did not go to their paid jobs and did not do any housework or child-rearing for the whole day. Ninety percent of Iceland’s female population participated in the strike.  The “Day Off” had a lasting impact and became known colloquially as “the long Friday”. Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal pay the following year. The strike also paved the way for the election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first democratically elected female president in the world five years later in 1980. The national “Day Off” is celebrated annually in Iceland and the Icelandic actions influenced national women’s strikes in Ireland and Poland and a global women’s strike that has come to encompass sixty nations.

The Martin Luther King Holiday In Arizona: Congress enacted legislation in 1983 providing for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., marking the first time a federal holiday was established to commemorate the life of an African American. The holiday was first observed in 1986. In Arizona, Governor Evan Mecham, repealed the holiday in 1987.  A national boycott of the state was called shortly thereafter. The National Football league stripped the Phoenix area of its right to host the 1993 Super Bowl, and gave the hosting rights to Los Angeles, and the NBA threatened to cancel the planned NBA all star game in Phoenix and not return until the state honored the holiday.  The boycott was estimated to have cost the state more than $140 million before voters agreed in 1993 (following two prior failed ballot initiatives) to honor the federal holiday.  They were the last state to do so. 

The North Carolina Bathroom Bill Boycott: In March, 2016, The North Carolina legislature passed  SB2, a bill effectively banning legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and requiring North Carolinians to use in public places, the bathroom assigned by their birth certificate. A year later, SB2 was repealed in the face of a growing boycott that was expected to cost the state over $3.87 billion over the next dozen years.  And that figure does not include the costs of a threatened NCAA ban that would have prevented schools in the state from hosting any NCAA tournaments or championships while the bill was in place.

What Can We Do With These Stories?
The history books are filled with stories of successful, popular uprisings defeating unjust political conditions (e.g., look here or here to start), so don’t let anyone tell you that boycotts or protests and active resistance don’t work. 

The recent repeal of Roe v. Wade marks the first time in US history that an established constitutional right has been revoked. And not only that, but as a result of this Supreme Court action, exercising that long-held right, or assisting someone else in doing so, has become, at the time of this writing, a felony in 19 states, with restrictive laws pending in three more and with a plan for a total nation-wide ban in the offing.  Abortion remains legal, for the moment in 28 states and the District of Columbia (see also here). The Roe decision is a harbinger of sweeping planned rollbacks of an array of civil rights. The radical Right has been gleeful in announcing their planned assault on civil rights and equal protection under the law that will impact every American who is not white and male and Christian.  And Thursday’s (6/30) SCOTUS decision diminishing the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory powers suggests bad times for the planet as well, under this new regime.

While many of us expected there to be a national outpouring of rage and resistance following the anticipated repeal of Roe, the response instead has been muted.  This does not mean that some folks have not been organizing (see below), but the response to those who would diminish us needs to be more expansive, more substantial, and more militant if we hope to restore rights lost and protect the rights that we still have.  The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that have been expressed by many are understandable, given the dramatic changes to the law enacted and threatened.  As the film The Janes (HBO documentary on illegal abortion networks in Chicago in the 60’s) reminds us, there is always something to be done. So let’s consider what can be done.  I can imagine three broad categories of resistance.

Of course there is no panacea for oppression and no universal formula for resistance.  So all of what follows presumes that resistance should go hand in hand with an analysis of power – determining the structures and institutions that support non-democratic practice, and figuring out where these are most vulnerable and the best ways to mobilize popular power to good effect under specific conditions. 

Three Categories Of Resistance To The Repeal Of Reproductive Rights

  1. Elect Democrats
    The Democratic party has been a weak and unreliable ally to progressive causes for many years whereas the GOP has proven to be a ruthless adversary.  Clearly, handing the House and Senate back to the GOP in November will only accelerate our decline into authoritarian, one party rule.  Democrats must continue to hold both houses of Congress.  Elections have consequences and the consequences of electing Republicans are grave.  Do you want to know how you help to elect pro-choice, pro-democracy Democrats?  You can start here, or here.
  2. Mutual AidSupporting Women Who Seek Reproductive Health Care And Those Who Provide It
    There are several networks and coalitions in place with long histories in women’s reproductive rights and care that are working to ensure that women who live in states where that care has been banned or restricted will still be able to receive that care.  This includes providing access to abortion medication through the mail, facilitating travel to states where abortion is legal, combatting disinformation about reproductive health that Is proliferating on the internet, supporting health clinics in states where abortion is legal, working to strengthen women’s health protections in “safe”: states,  passing legislation in “safe states” prohibiting collaboration with law enforcement from “unsafe states”, and protecting, by statute, abortion providers, counselors and patients.

    Fifty corporations have pledged to pay for travel of their employees to states where they can get health care that they need and that will be banned at home because of new laws. 
  3. Subvert Illegitimate Laws
    Underlying the successful cases of resistance and uprising offered above are efforts to make ungovernable, the nation, the state, or the municipality that is enacting and enforcing laws that assault human rights and human dignity. There are myriad, time-tested ways of doing this.  For example: 

Obstruct Authoritarian Minority Rule – In his book, Twenty Lessons on Fighting Tyrrany in the Twentieth Century, Yale historian Tim Snyder’s lesson number one is Do Not Obey In Advance. He says, “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”  

Some Attorneys General and some DA’s in anti-abortion states have pledged to not enforce the law – to not indict or prosecute as the law requires. And those giving and receiving mutual aid described in section 2 are defying the law, forcing those wishing to restrict rights to adopt more draconian measures (like banning interstate travel) which in turn produces more resistance, leading to ungovernability.  Governance requires a certain degree of buy-in or obedience from the governed.  So don’t obey.

Disrupt Business as Usual – This can be as simple as challenging the dominant script as Beto O’Rourke did in Texas the day after the Uvalde massacre. Democratic gubernatorial candidate O’Rourke interrupted Governor Gregg Abott’s scripted press conference designed to praise the Uvalde police force that had failed so miserably in its non-intervention in the Uvalde school massacre.  In subsequent days, parents and their allies disrupted other public meetings and began holding their own public events, dismantling the official narratives that the cops were heroes and that only more guns in schools could prevent such tragedies. Disruption as civil disobedience (knowingly breaking the law) can take many forms. Sitting in at the AG’s office, disrupting the legislature, blocking traffic, camping out at the homes of judges and legislators responsible of the assault on our rights  – all small acts that would seem to have minimal impact, taken collectively, send a message that the public denies the legitimacy of the current regime and will not accept it.

Boycotts, when they produce economic pain, can undermine the prevailing order and lead to the repeal of harmful policies as we saw in the examples above. I can imagine a multitude of targets for a campaign to restore reproductive rights, two of the most promising being corporations that have supported fascist elected officials or those who have opposed reproductive rights with substantial infusions of cash and states that have repealed rights once enjoyed by all. Those who organize boycotts always face the charge that boycotts are blunt instruments that hurt innocent people. Consider the harm reduction of restoring rights to millions women who just lost access to abortion, to the men and women in those states who may soon be denied access to birth control, and to the approximately 550,000 married, same-sex couples who face the threat of dissolution of their marriages along with the loss of equal protection under the law – and the instrument looks far less blunt.

General Strike – opponents of the idea of widespread work stoppages to disrupt the economy argue that US organized labor is too weak and underdeveloped to pull this off. OK, maybe we can’t shut down the whole country on a dime like France, but during the George Floyd protests, 29 West Coast ports were shut down for a few days and in the aftermath of the repeal of Roe, organizers in LA discovered that they could pretty much shut down the city by blocking just eight key intersections . So there’s a lot that can be done by gumming up the works locally and again, history shows all kinds of clever ways that this can be done. And I think it would be interesting to see what a national women’s strike might look like here in the USA.

Marches and Rallies – I’ve heard people lament that protests no longer have an impact on people in power.  Perhaps this is true to the extent that they do not produce the same kind of leverage that results from the economic pain of a well organized boycott.  But the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era scared the crap out of Nixon and his FBI director and the more contemporary George Floyd protests appear to have scared the crap out of white supremacists.  Marches and rallies are another way of broadcasting that a lot of people are angry and there will be no respite, no business as usual, until the prevailing order changes. So don’t give up on this traditional method of resistance.

There Is Always Something To Be Done
As we have arrived at this moment where powerful people are acting to install minority rule and to limit access to a full range of human and civil rights to a small privileged group, there are folks who will scold us for what they see as over-reacting.  We have been scolded before for attempting to warn about the climate emergency while the world burns, or for warning about the pandemic – even after 1 million Americans died, we were chastised – or for warning that the Right intended to repeal Roe and that more assaults on civil rights are coming.  “Don’t over-react,” they tell us. “Let’s wait and see what happens.” And to those folks I say – nope – no more gaslighting for me. No more sitting by as our nation and democracy circle the drain. The forces of autocracy and theocracy have made their intentions clear.  They have enumerated the rights they intend to repeal as they push us with ever increasing speed toward authoritarian minority rule. If we value our rights we’re going to have to fight for them.

The civil rights educator Myles Horton was known to say that “hopelessness is grist for the fascist mill.  It’s impossible to organize people who are without hope.”  Of course the avalanche of really bad news that we have endured lately can feed that sense – that we are hopeless and helpless. So let’s not be.  When we fight back, we often win and indeed the small set of examples that I have offered remind us of Frederick Douglass’ assertion that “power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.”  We have much that we are likely to lose if we do not fight. So let us not be timid.  It is time to organize and mobilize.  Let’s be annoying and disruptive and persistent and creative and loud. Let us look out for each other. Let’s remember to value the rights that we still have, and use them wisely and actively and when we win back those that we have lost, let’s work together to protect them. 

Art Keene missed much of his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, protesting Nixon’s secret war in Laos and Cambodia. He has believed his entire adult life that the ”war at home” ended the tragic war in Vietnam. His big takeaway from freshman year is that we all have agency, and when we use it, we make a difference. He is managing editor of The Amherst Indy.

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