Culture & Conversation Media

‘Winning Lies Not in a Single Victory,’ Writes Author of Buoyant New Book on Activism

Eleanor J. Bader

An inspiring—if perhaps overly optimistic—book, When We Fight We Win!: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, showcases six areas in which progressive shifts have already happened or are possible thanks to long-range activism and political vision.

On any given day, all it takes is a quick look at the headlines to see the sorry state of world politics: Hunger, poverty, war, environmental degradation, campus shootings and stabbings, child abuse and neglect, and police brutality are just some of the atrocities that make the future seem bleak, if not hopeless.

But not everyone is filled with despair.

For one, Schott Foundation for Public Education Board Co-Chair Greg Jobin-Leeds, himself a seasoned Cambridge, Massachusetts-based community organizer, sees numerous possibilities in today’s political morass. Indeed, his inspiring—if perhaps overly optimistic—new book, When We Fight We Win!: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, showcases six areas in which he believes progressive shifts have already happened or are possible thanks to long-range activism and political vision. These include campaigns for LGBTQ equality; efforts to preserve and defend public education; challenges to mass incarceration and prison privatization; immigrant rights; and the promotion of economic and environmental justice. Each section includes interviews and case studies, as well as illustrations by members of AgitArte, an activist art collective with chapters in Puerto Rico and Massachusetts, underscoring the role of visual culture in popularizing activism.

“I asked leaders of … thriving social movements, ‘What are the lessons you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to new activists?'” Jobin-Leeds writes in an introduction to the text. Eager to parse organizing strategies and better understand the incremental steps that lead to bigger, bolder victories, Jobin-Leeds interrogates what successful campaigners have done to increase the likelihood of victory, and questions how they remain upbeat despite working in a less-than-progressive political milieu. He was not looking for conformity, he writes: Instead, he was eager to capture a range of organizing experiences.

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In the book’s foreword, for example, Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines and president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, takes a measured approach when compared with Jobin-Leeds’ buoyant point of view. She notes the enormity of challenging the status quo, writing, “Whether or not we win will be based on many things other than our own strategy and strength. Even strong, huge movements sometimes fail.” She continues, “There is, however, no path to victory without trying.”

Tapping into the desire to push back rather than fold in the face of obstacles is at the heart of When We Fight We Win! and Jobin-Leeds spent years interviewing activists to try and determine why they feel compelled to do this work. He also wanted to better understand how movements can create real and enduring change; tease out strategies that are consistently successful; and find effective tools to deflect apathy. These in-depth interviews supplement Jobin-Leeds’ more general points and give a hands-on immediacy to the stories and research he presents.

His introduction sets the stage and posits the benefits gleaned from organizing:

When we fight—building an organization, joining a community of activists—we win not only communal victories but also our own personal transformation, enabling us to discover common root causes to problems that had seemed unconnected before. Understanding root causes can ally us with others—across issues, cultures, identities. This aggregates individual fights into broad movement struggles, and by working in solidarity together we can realize far-reaching, systemic change. Winning lies not in a single victory, but in many victories and the lifelong struggle to change injustice and create a future based on a bold, transformative vision.

This philosophy, of course, requires us to celebrate incremental wins, no matter how small. It also requires us to acknowledge the enormous rush that comes from disrupting business-as-usual and its powerful enforcers. After all, if fighting back is joyless, why do it?

Case in point: the movement for LGBTQ equality.

Jobin-Leeds reminds us that five decades ago, sodomy was a crime in every U.S. state and the idea of marriage equality was a pipe dream writ large. So what happened? In a word, he says, AIDS: an unanticipated health crisis and mass tragedy that gave the LGBTQ community new prominence in the public eye. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, tells Jobin-Leeds that when people started becoming ill, “There were a lot of men—including men in urban areas who had some level of class or race privilege—who were being denied access to their partners as they were dying in hospitals because they weren’t ‘family.’” Their stories of emotional trauma were heartbreaking and led, years later, to a demand that their relationships be recognized and validated.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, agrees with Carey, adding, “AIDS broke the silence about gay people’s lives and really prompted non-gay people to think about gay people in a different way. It prompted gay people to embrace this language of inclusion, most preeminently marriage. That, in turn, accelerated our inclusion in society and the change in attitudes.”

AIDS’ public accounting of love and loss presaged a dramatic shift in assumptions and ideas about what it meant to be queer. It also went hand-in-hand with thrillingly defiant public actions in streets, pharmaceutical company boardrooms, and government offices throughout the country.

Of course, homophobia has not been eradicated; nor has AIDS stigma. But as a result of ACT UP and other queer-led organizations, access to life-changing drugs increased. In addition, as family and friends pushed their way into hospital rooms, the broadening of the definition of “kin” took root: Jobin-Leeds and his activist contacts theorize that this is part of what eventually led to marriage equality. All of this is surely worth celebrating; at the same time, progressives understand that the right to wed is but one demand on a long roster of LGBTQ needs.

As Carey explains, “We can’t ask someone to be an undocumented immigrant one day, a lesbian the next, and a mom on the third day … Our vision is about … transforming society so that she can be all of those things every single day and that there would be a connectedness among social justice workers and among the organizations and agendas, if you will, to make her life whole.”

These linkages, Carey said, have led the Task Force to work on a range of issues, including criminal justice reform, liberalized immigration, public education, and economic justice—issues that, she says, the largely white male activists who founded the Task Force initially considered tangential to LGBTQ rights.

Still, both Carey and others stress that not every campaign will result in victory. Paulina Helm-Hernández of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) tells Jobin-Leeds about a 2012 campaign against a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina, a battle she says the activists anticipated losing. Nonetheless, SONG committed itself to reaching one million people to discuss “the future of our state, and about the divisive tactics of the Right, and about the reality of how integrated LGBT communities in North Carolina actually are to immigrant communities, to other communities of color—it really just became a huge opportunity for us, and I would say a success in terms of helping not just amplify the grassroots organizing that makes moments like that possible, but to say it does matter.” In essence, despite losing the war, they won what they hope will be lasting personal connections with local residents.

What’s more, Helm-Hernández emphasizes another secondary gain: When other folks saw that it was possible for individuals and organizations to stand up and speak out, it empowered them to do likewise.

Among today’s most motivated activists, Jobin-Leeds writes, are the DREAMers, young immigrant women and men whose efforts have led many people to think differently about immigration policy. Although Jobin-Leeds concedes that the United States has still not enacted meaningful reform, he reports that hundreds of immigrant youth have bravely declared themselves not only undocumented, but unafraid. They’ve told their stories, and those of their parents and grandparents, to audiences throughout the country—as well as before Congress—and their efforts have begun to pay off. The New York Times, for one, has stopped using the term “illegal” to describe undocumented people, and several states now allow undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates, a change that has allowed many to enroll in two- and four-year degree programs.

“DREAMers from across the country have profoundly changed the national discourse and influenced organizing tactics around immigration—catapulting an issue forward,” Jobin-Leeds reports. “Storytelling combined with direct action transforms people into activists.”

And although obtaining citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented U.S residents is proving difficult in today’s political climate, Jobin-Leeds writes that it remains a long-term goal.

Like the DREAMers, activists working on other issues also sometimes set their sights on local gains—targeting a recalcitrant landlord or a bank that is threatening foreclosure, for example—rather than attempting to change national policy, and Jobin-Leeds chronicles the successful efforts of the Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana to create eviction-free zones in low-income areas. Similarly, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United have driven companies like the Fireman Hospitality Group to settle claims for back wages and tips, and develop policies to curtail sexual harassment and discrimination. Equally significant, environmental groups such as 350.org have pushed colleges and philanthropies to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Drops in the bucket? Maybe. But as the organizers in When We Fight We Win! repeatedly remind readers, small changes often lead to bigger ones. Furthermore, organizing requires us to take a long view of history to forestall becoming demoralized. After all, given today’s Republican assault on reproductive justice; the overt expressions of racism and xenophobia by political office holders, presidential candidates, and everyday individuals; the non-stop push to privatize once-public services; and our seemingly endless involvement in numerous wars, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, angry, and powerless.

When We Fight We Win! admits this, albeit indirectly, and recognizes that there are no guaranteed victories. Nonetheless, the book enthusiastically celebrates activism as personally and politically invigorating. Indeed, when all is said and done, we have two choices: We can either accept the current state of affairs or try to foment change. If we opt for the latter, we may not win everything we dream of, but at least we’ll know we tried. Isn’t that better than languishing in grief and anger?

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.

Commentary Politics

Populism Doesn’t Always Mean Progressivism—This Election Is Making That Clear

Lisa Needham

Shaking up "the establishment" by focusing solely on economic issues is no guarantee that other progressive priorities will follow suit.

We’re in the middle of a wave of populist rhetoric from candidates and supporters on both sides of the aisle this election year. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders speak in classically populist terms, positioning themselves as an everyman who appeals to the masses.

Populism focuses only on its great enemy standing in the way of the average person and power; vanquishing that enemy, the thinking goes, solves everything. But a myopic focus is troublesome no matter which side of the political spectrum you are on. What does this mean for those of us that need a candidate who focuses on a wide variety of issues like reproductive health, racial equity, and LGBTQ rights? Populism does not necessarily equal progressivism—a point which seems obscured in the 2016 election landscape, particularly where Sanders supporters are concerned. And shaking up “the establishment” by focusing solely on economic issues is no guarantee that other progressive priorities will follow suit.

Modern scholastic discussions of populism typically say it requires four things: on one side, morally upright common people; on the other side, an elite enemy; a corrupt system; and a call for a cleansing battle. Populism has a simple and vigorous appeal: People that feel powerless or disconnected can band together and have a voice, potentially overcoming those whom they see as having unfairly and disproportionately accumulated power.

Sanders-style populists tend to concentrate on the super-rich as “elitists.” Sanders himself centers his speeches around this, asserting that he and his supporters will “not allow billionaires and their super PACs to destroy American democracy” and railing against “all of the new wealth and income generated in America … going to the top 1 percent.”

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Trump-style populists, by contrast, often focus on a cultural elite: the latte-drinking, Subaru-driving, gay-marriage-loving liberals too consumed with niceties like polite discourse. Trump rails against those elites when he decries “political correctness.” He doesn’t have time to worry about things like not disparaging women, because “this country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

At best, such an extreme right-wing populist worldview portrays reproductive health issues and bodily autonomy as superfluous. At worst, anti-choice conservatives see them as direct threats to their beliefs and something worth mobilizing over in violent ways. Their tactics, as Rewire covers often, are basically mob rule: Throwing bodies at a clinic to block access to a legal service is the quintessential example. They believe deeply (though wrongly) that were there to be a nationwide referendum on abortion, the majority would choose to outlaw it. Thus, they see those judges and legislators who see women as having constitutional rights as “resisting” this perceived majority view.

Trump has now decided to embrace this stance enthusiastically, hiring an anti-abortion warrior, John Mashburn, to appease and appeal to the anti-choice forces. And though he certainly has well-heeled backers, he also makes an effort to speak to working-class whites who feel any economic recovery of the last several years has passed them by. Those same working-class whites often feel like their economic opportunities and their social capital have been reduced by people of color and immigrants. Other people, the thinking goes, are getting what is rightfully “theirs.”

Trump speaks to all of this in the most craven but effective way. He’s rich and successful, which leaves him uniquely positioned, he explains, to fight the elite economic caste currently dominating politics. He is pugnacious about the judicial branch, and has made clear he’ll appoint judges to overturn social gains like marriage equality. Though his hiring of Mashburn may signal a more decisive anti-choice shift, when he speaks of reproductive health, he does so in a dismissive way: Planned Parenthood does great things, but, paradoxically, he’ll defund them. He’s claimed he will be the best candidate for women, though he won’t say how or why. In short, he’ll make things better economically, appoint judges that will get rid of things his supporters hate, and he’ll be great for women, trust him.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to the some of the same demographics that Trump does, with the same very simple message: Other people have taken what is rightfully yours. Other people have hoarded opportunities you should also have. If you elect me, I will give you what you deserve. As with Trump, he is sure he is the best candidate for women, he’ll make things better economically, and he will appoint judges that will get rid of things his supporters hate—in this case, Citizens United.

Sanders voters that are entirely driven by economic concerns are often flippant about women, with surrogates like Killer Mike declaring “a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.” To be fair, Sanders has always aligned himself with a variety of progressive causes, including reproductive health. However, that alignment is often passive or lacking in real strategy: Though he made recent statements about using the Department of Justice to roll back state-level abortion restrictions, such a promise is, in reality, likely impossible to uphold. (Governing by executive action is rarely as successful as presidents believe it might be.) He framed Planned Parenthood as “the establishment,” which is a stance shared by some reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates. Sanders has not, however, displayed any particular desire to align with organizations separate from Planned Parenthood. And this stance may speak to some of his followers’ existing notion that reproductive rights are either settled law or unimportant or both, especially when considered alongside what they see as the paramount issue at hand: economic equality.

Perhaps as a result, a narrative has emerged of those voters who intend to stick with the candidate who hammers on economic issues, regardless of party affiliation. Of course, this does not apply to all Sanders supporters, or even the majority of them. But over the past several months, we have seen a spate of declarations from Sanders enthusiasts explaining they will never vote for Hillary Clinton should she win the nomination. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in the New Republic in January, explained the potential Trump-Sanders crossover appeal, should Sanders not prevail in winning the nomination:

Both Sanders and Trump complain about American resources being squandered abroad, while many Americans do without at home. They mourn the outsourcing of jobs to workers overseas, and promise to return jobs to American shores.

In March, the Huffington Post ran a piece about people who have declared themselves “BernieorBust”; 50,000, it reported, have signed an online pledge to write in Sanders or a Green Party candidate—in short, anyone but Clinton. A McClatchy-Marist poll earlier this month found that one in four of the 1,000 Sanders backers it surveyed say they won’t vote for Clinton.

Finally, in the week Trump became the presumptive nominee and it became clear that the math will very likely not work for Sanders to win the nomination via pledged delegates, we saw the #HillaryDropOut hashtag arise. Even before that, Trump’s campaign manager had indicated Trump might pursue a strategy of trying to capture those Sanders supporters who feel they are disenfranchised by the current political system, of which they perceive Clinton is a part.

Clinton has her own failures as a progressive. She famously called Black people “superpredators” and supported a bill widely seen to have created a generation of mass incarceration. She championed welfare reform, which was deeply harmful, disproportionately so to Black and Latino families. These things cannot simply be overlooked. But, given Trump’s expressed policies, voting for him solely because he appeals to economic concerns would not address those issues either.

Will those voters that cross over to Trump or refuse to vote entirely be explicitly voting against abortion rights? No. Instead, they’ll be voting—either directly or indirectly—in favor of smashing the economic system, which is the root of all evil, hoping other rights stay intact or spring from economic betterment.

Populism focuses on a simple solution: a great clash of the common people versus the elites that heightens the contradictions, destroys a rotted, broken system, and allows the common people to emerge victorious with new opportunities available. Progressivism, by contrast, doesn’t rely upon one solution. A multi-faceted approach to our ills, one that recognizes that racial and class equity, bodily autonomy, and economic opportunity are all equally necessary parts of a solution, is a lot of work.

Believing that addressing a single issue, will solve everything is the key appeal—and hazard—of populism. Progressivism, on the other hand, requires us to realize there is no “one size fits all” solution, and that we must push politicians to address economic issues as part of a complex, larger set of priorities that include standing up for racial equity, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive justice. That, unfortunately, is always a tough sell, but it’s a critical one for those of us that give primacy to those issues too.