“I believe we are in a new time in history and something radical is coming,” Sarah Jaffe writes in her book, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.
“[T]oday’s activists have discovered the power of making trouble, of causing disruption. It is not due to tactics, though, that I refer to today’s troublemakers as ‘radicals.’ I use the word here to mean those who seek to understand and change problems at their root.”
A labor journalist and fellow at the Nation Institute, Jaffe has traveled around the country reporting from picket lines, marches, occupations, demonstrations, and meetings with those who have decided during the past decade that oppressive systems must be challenged. Their motivations and backgrounds are varied—from the grassroots Tea Party members railing against the oligarchy and the Wisconsin Uprising participants demanding labor rights to North Carolina’s Moral Mondays coalition reclaiming a government for the people, Occupy Wall Street’s anger at inequity, and Black Lives Matter’s urgent insistence that violent, racist policing must end.
The common thread, however, is that each movement’s energy and efforts have built on other movements happening just before or simultaneously. It isn’t simply anger that unites these groups: They are demanding both short- and long-term changes to create a better world.
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“The seeds have been planted by a thousand outrages, and that they would sprout has always been a question of when, not if,” Jaffe writes. “It is not just inequality in income or wealth that is setting off protests in the streets, either; it’s the whole set of other inequalities that come alongside them …. As South Bronx activist Mychal Johnson told me, it’s the air we breathe: it’s about power, it’s about inclusion, it’s about access, and it’s about who counts as a person.”
With tools not available to previous generations of activists and organizers—the internet and cheaper travel chief among them—movements are more able to connect their struggles and goals while sharing resources. And more people than ever can watch uprisings as they happen and grow.
As someone who got involved, in part, because I could see that I wasn’t the only who was frustrated and wanted better, Jaffe’s thesis that this is a “new time” resonates with me.
If she’s right—and I think that she is—we’re at a precipice, which the outcome of next week’s election will only amplify.
“Anger continues to simmer just under the surface, and occasionally, when enough people are angry enough to overcome their reasons for holding back, it explodes,” writes Jaffe.
She interviewed Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in the summer of 2013 as the Dream Defenders were occupying Florida’s Capitol building. The civil rights icon and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader was watching the young people demand not only justice for Trayvon Martin’s family, but for all who cannot live free lives under white supremacy.
“This is the way another generation did it, and you too can follow that path, studying the way of peace, love and nonviolence, and finding a way to get in the way. Finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis told her. His words became the title of the book.
In her chapter on Occupy and the Tea Party titled “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out,” Jaffe describes the seeds of the unrest fueled by a new ability for people to connect beyond those in their immediate vicinity. Social media created a new space not just for organizing, but for millions of people to connect what was happening to them to a larger system or culture.
“The ability to be heard is deeply important to many people today,” she writes. “When people talk to one another about their problems and come to the realization that their struggles are not their fault, they become more likely to take action.”
And those who take action may come from different sides of the political aisle. Jaffe draws a connection between Occupy and the Tea Party where most have only seen contrast. “Many of the movements discussed in this book come from what would have been considered the political left—but for the people taking part in them, it is not a question of left or right, but of the powerless against the powerful.”
The early Tea Party members saw themselves as powerless, skeptical of the elites (however each individual defined “elite”). While they were not, as Jaffe writes, “the most likely to have been hurt by the recession … they were certainly psychologically affected by the crash.” She used writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling concept to explain what was fueling these typically white, middle-class Tea Partiers. Being wedged in the middle, they were aware “that there is a class below, into which it is possible to slip, as well as a class above, where the real power is concentrated.”
Jaffe incorporates an intersectional lens that reflects today’s cross-movement organizing, which was helped along in some spaces by police surveillance and militarization.
“For white protesters [with Occupy], being surveilled by police was a new experience,” Jaffe writes, noting that at times experienced organizers were able to “deploy the white activists” who could “make audacious demands, using their privilege as a shield.”
The perfect storm was created by the ever-present undercurrent of racism that surfaced with the election of a Black president and rising economic inequality. By the time Trayvon Martin was murdered, the table had been set for a reckoning of sorts. People were no longer questioning one aspect of the system—in this case, the racist “stand your ground” laws that created a loophole for Martin’s killer to go free—they were questioning the entire system.
“Martin’s death, [organizer and activist Nelini Stamp] said, made her wonder about the value of the economic justice organizing she had been doing [with MoveOn],” Jaffe writes. “‘What’s it worth, if we can still be killed because we’re walking around [because of] who we are?’”
Nowhere were these connections made more clearly than in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, led by the dynamic Rev. William J. Barber II. He’d organized a group to challenge a state government that had passed laws restricting access to abortion care, the ballot box, and unemployment insurance. The legislative strategy of doing everything at once “shock doctrine”-style got people’s attention in a way that incrementalism could not have.
“It was not about Democrat or Republican. It was about our deepest moral, our deepest constitutional values,” Barber told Jaffe. In 2006, the year after becoming president of the North Carolina NAACP, he saw a need for a collaboration that lead to annual “People’s Assemblies”—the precursor to the group that would lead the Moral Monday protests.
Jaffe writes: “To him, the advocacy groups in the state fighting for labor rights, for LGBT rights, for public schools, and for environmental and racial justice seemed disjointed. ‘We didn’t need a new organization, but we needed to understand the intersectionality of all of our issues and make sure that we developed a way of working together that put antiracism, anti-poverty and pro-labor at the center of our work,’ he said.”
More and more, the working groups and new organizations that would spring up over the next two years—in Ferguson after Mike Brown’s murder, in Seattle to support a socialist city council candidate, in New York to fight fracking, and in cities all over to Fight for $15—would echo Barber’s words. In her powerful narrative style (proof that she spends time in the spaces she is writing about), Jaffe describes a March 14, 2015, assembly organized by the Organization for Black Struggle:
[T]he large group made a list of topics that would be discussed in order to create action plans. It was yet another step in taking the movement from simply protesting and clashing with police to building the structures that would allow for the kinds of major changes the people in that room wanted to see.
The topics written on the sheets of paper on the wall in front of us ranged from ending the drug war to raising wages, from fighting restrictions on the right to vote to creating alternatives to the police. Abortion access was raised as an issue, as was access to healthy food. The group divided the issues into several overarching topics, and participants broke out into several different rooms to come up with plans.
This scene would play out innumerable times. Direct action as a response to injustice would lead to collaboration and then real discussion of what change should look like in both the short and long term. Those who formed Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), Ferguson Action, and others understood the history of our systems—including those within much celebrated social justice movements.
“[Alicia] Garza, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, also longtime organizers, wanted to create something that would look different from the activism of generations past, where black organizing was often led by charismatic men of the church,” writes Jaffe. Garza would describe the structure of Black Lives Matter as “leader full,” rather than the dismissive “leaderless” label media gave to the network of chapters that sprung up quickly in 2015.
BYP 100 National Director Charlene Carruthers described for Jaffe a similar desire to build on, yet break from the past.
“Out of that moment of collective trauma [as Zimmerman was declared not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin], activists formed the BYP 100. Carruthers began devoting herself full-time to building an organization that would create a new vision of justice, one that didn’t depend on the courts, and that would bring a black feminist and queer lens to its work for racial and economic justice.”
It makes sense, then, for those fighting white supremacy—and other injustices propped up and enhanced by capitalism—to challenge the very nature of how our culture does business. People were questioning the future of work itself. As our populace has increasingly lost faith in the billionaire-subsidized “democracy” playing out in dramatic fashion this election season, they have looked to each other and begun en masse to see democracy as a grassroots effort of the citizenry.
“Austeritarianism contributes to the lack of faith in electoral politics, the feeling that politicians are answering to someone other than the voters who elect them,” she writes. “And so Americans have turned to protests, to occupations and dramatic direct actions, in hopes of making change that way. ‘People are really taking to the streets instead of just going to the ballot box, and when they’re talking about the ballot box they want better choices,’ [Madison, Wisconsin, lawyer turned activist] Jenni Dye said. ‘Democracy is more than a full-time job.’”
People like Dye are questioning the half-truths they’ve been fed about the American Dream and the egalitarianism of the free market. Many Americans no longer believe that our problems are too big to challenge or change on a fundamental level. Jaffe quotes Ferguson organizer Kennard Williams: “I think that’s one of the greatest lies that people in power have been able to pull off,” he said, “fooling people that they legitimately cannot change things.”
Jaffe contends long-term goals that could take decades or more are achievable as long as activists “maintain that larger vision of a better world, one that is worth fighting for” and “continue to point the finger at those who are responsive—the titans of finance and oil, and budget-slashing politicians from both parties.” She does not call on activists to play nice; quite the opposite, in fact.
“Movements need not, as Stephen Lerner notes, worry about making themselves universally beloved—asking nicely is not the way to bring about change,” she writes. “The challenge for the troublemakers, as they create new institutions, will be to make sure they find ways to be accountable to one another, while preserving the flexibility and openness that have made their movement so big and so strong …. Instead of waiting for the world to change or being caught and shocked when it does, the troublemakers are hoping to shape that change.”
Rev. Barber agrees. He told Jaffe, “I think that we, all of these movements, are social defibrillators. Our job is to shock this nation’s heart again.”
With the nation’s heart restarted, Jaffe lists what is possible when—in the words of historian Robin D. G. Kelley—today’s movements “find ways to love each other differently, so that we can eventually transform the state into a structure that’s in service of the people.” This new world—should these activists and advocates get their way—would include free public schools and universities; health care for all; infrastructure to withstand climate change; jobs that pay a living wage and that allow time off to spend with family and friends, or just relaxing; and housing that is accessible and affordable. No one will lose their home for debts. Financiers, retail titans, and oil barons will no longer dictate policy. And there will be no need for police.
Jaffe follows up this movement to-do list by ending Necessary Trouble with a call to action: “It is up to those of us who have not yet taken action to decide if we want a more equal, a more just country. If we do, we may just have to make some trouble to bring it about.”