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A guided tour of American radicalism

Review of "Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt" by Sarah Jaffe

Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters embrace in Dallas last month, days after a gunman killed five police officers. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

NECESSARY TROUBLE: Americans in Revolt

By Sarah Jaffe. Nation Books. 338 pp. $26.99.

“Necessary Trouble” is a travelogue of protest and radicalism in 21st-century America, the kind of guidebook you use if you want to catch all the sights but don’t expect to stay too long at any one in particular. Journalist Sarah Jaffe takes us from the tea party movement to Black Lives Matter, from the Wisconsin state capitol to Occupy Wall Street, from Our Walmart to Fight for $15, interviewing activists and reliving outrage along the way. All these efforts are linked, however tenuously, Jaffe argues, because all injustice is linked, and all causes converge. If the term “intersectionality” makes you nod sagely, this book is for you.

Jaffe begins with the financial crisis of 2008 and the opposing reactions it spawned. The tea party, at least in some variants, pushed for a purer version of capitalism, doubling down on “producerism” — the notion that only those who create wealth and jobs deserve to be heard. “Populist anger aimed at elites had once been a tool of the left,” Jaffe writes, “but in the post-crash moment it was conservatives who provided a space for that anger to be heard and validated.”

As conservative anger at bailouts and mortgage holders transcended the trading-floor rants of CNBC’s Rick Santelli and moved to anti-Obamacare rallies, town hall protests and local organizing, it also offered lessons and energy for the left. The 2011 protests in Wisconsin against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to end collective bargaining by public-employee unions — followed by a failed effort to recall Walker — showed the power of centering protest in a historically or politically significant place. “Like the occupation of Tahrir Square, the Wisconsin occupation, and later Occupy, held a space that was politically significant — the Capitol Building, the ‘people’s house,’ a symbol of Wisconsin’s famously open and transparent governance,” Jaffe writes.

The beginnings of Occupy Wall Street later that year — with its simple “we are the 99 percent” battle cry — may have been directed at U.S. financial elites, but it freed Americans to debate inequality in ways that soon moved beyond wealth and income. “In this view, inequality — not simple concern about poverty, or unemployment, but the sense that a small group of ultra-rich were consolidating even more wealth and political power in their hands — was the problem,” Jaffe writes. “Occupy gave us the language for it.”

So, if you’ve conscientiously read your Piketty (or like to talk as if you have), you’re seeing only a fraction of the inequality story. Jaffe talks to protesters and activists of all ages and backgrounds and movements, and echoes their call for a more expansive view. “It’s 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,” she writes. “It’s about power, it’s about inclusion, it’s about access, and it’s about who counts as a person.” In this view, the protests against discriminatory treatment by police, for instance, are very much an anti-inequality movement, Jaffe explains. “The history of policing in the United States is a history of inequality; certain groups, defined by race, ethnicity, or political views, must be controlled, while others quite literally get away with murder.”

Jaffe and her interview subjects return frequently to “intersectionality,” the notion that  multiple forms of discrimination and privilege — based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation and other factors — overlap and interact, becoming inseparable from one another. The Rev. William J. Barber II, an NAACP leader in North Carolina, calls for different movements to “understand the intersectionality of all of our issues and make sure that we developed a way of working together that put antiracism, antipoverty and pro-labor at the center of our work.” Jenni Dye, who began her political activism in the Wisconsin protests, tells Jaffe that “all of us, the Black Lives Matter movement, the labor movement, reproductive health, are part of this Venn diagram that has so much more overlap than we acknowledge.” And Ivanna Gonzalez, whose first foray into labor activism began as she was graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, put it in personal terms:

“I am here as a student to stand by the liberal arts education that made me who I am today,” she declared at a 2013 protest. “As a woman, I am here to declare that this body is mine. As an immigrant, I am here to remind everybody that at some point our families were from somewhere else. And as a human being, I am here because I know that the attacks on my gay friends, on the people that I love in immigrant detention centers, on the housekeepers on UNC’s campus are all interconnected.”

One of the challenges of intersectional theory is that it risks becoming potentially paralyzing in practice — creating a world in which you can’t address one thing without considering every other thing — and even sympathetic assessments of Occupy and Black Lives Matter have pointed to the absence of unifying leaders as a hindrance. Jaffe, who comes to identify closely with her subjects, counters with praise for the “horizontalism” of these movements. The very lack of charismatic leaders is a strength that allows activism to spread and encourages individuals to take action, she argues, citing Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza’s belief that the movement’s flatness renders it “leaderfull,” not leaderless. “Horizontalism itself is a response to inequality,” Jaffe writes. “The refusal to have a ‘movement elite’ is a response to the deep desire for real democracy that so many Americans feel has been denied them.”

With her broader vision of inequality in mind, Jaffe skillfully debunks the “false dichotomy” between social issues and economic ones, so typical in our political debates. The so-called culture wars are not a mere wedge issue but a way of securing economic and political power, she argues. “ ‘Social’ issues serve to create and perpetuate inequality, erecting barriers to full participation in society for certain groups. They shape our idea of who is a full citizen, and they also shape the very real material conditions of people’s lives.” Climate change, she writes, is “the ultimate intersectional issue, the one that makes us really consider what and who we value.”

The author is less compelling when identifying the ultimate objectives of the various movements, whether individually or collectively. She writes of the need for “transformative demands,” which first “attend to a specific crisis but then are ratcheted up to question the logic of the system itself.” But the demands she foresees range from vague to predictable. “The next challenge for the movements will be creating organizations that last,” she writes, “that suit the needs of twenty-first-century troublemakers, that can be flexible and still enduring, that can overlap and connect up with one another and create more long-term plans for the future they want to see.” What is that future? Jaffe imagines more public education, universal health care, a living wage and affordable housing — not exactly revolutionary demands among liberal thinkers and activists today.

I admire Jaffe’s effort to humanize the movements she covers, to capture in one volume the contrasts and universality of the impulses behind them. “For a nation committed to its revolutionary beginnings, the United States has had a deeply fraught relationship with its radicals,” Jaffe writes in a particularly memorable passage. “It has arrested them, deported them, hounded them out of jobs, and hanged them.”

In this book, Jaffe seeks to repair that relationship. There will be more deeply reported works on the individual movements we are witnessing today, I suspect, but Jaffe’s effort to put radicalism at the center, not the fringes, of American democracy renders “Necessary Trouble” a necessary read.

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