Sarah Jaffe is a Nation Institute reporting fellow and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.
On July 20, as the media’s attention was focused on Cleveland and Sen. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Donald Trump, a group of organizers in Chicago marched to a vacant lot at the intersection of Homan Avenue and Fillmore Street. This lot, in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, 50 years ago the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Chicago Freedom Summer” campaign, is across the street from a building that has been infamously revealed as a police “black site” where thousands of prisoners were held incommunicado for interrogation.
The marchers, members of the Let Us Breathe collective and other groups including Black Lives Matter Chicago, built a camp in the space and have been there ever since. They built a kitchen, art and education stations, a library, and sleeping spaces, in sharp contrast to the Homan Square facility where people not convicted of crimes were kept unfree. They held the space, dubbed “Freedom Square,” as Trump accepted his party’s nomination, as the RNC drew to a close and the Democratic National Convention opened, as Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton and Clinton herself officially became the Democrats’ nominee for president.
The Sanders campaign is over. But the political revolution is not. After all, the political revolution that has been rippling across the country was never about the senator from Vermont. Sanders was simply observant enough to notice that there was one already happening. While Sanders was riding a wave of discontent with the existing state of U.S. politics, inequality and injustice to over 12 million votes, activists in the Movement for Black Lives, the Fight for $15, and other struggles against injustice, racism, and inequality continued their work of trying to change the country.
Most of the action has not been happening in electoral politics, so it has often flown under the radar, with too few reporters connecting the dots between the different surges of what representative and civil rights hero John Lewis calls “necessary trouble.” But in the streets and in homes, in state capitols and McDonald’s and Walmart stores around the country, Americans have rediscovered the value of direct action, of “finding a way to get in the way,” as Lewis says. While outside observers wonder where each protest movement comes from, the protesters themselves are connecting their struggles to one another, coming together to demand bigger, more structural changes than will be seen in a presidential election.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, when the inequality that had been growing steadily for decades spiked and became impossible to ignore, Americans have been angry. Angry as unemployment escalated, jobs disappeared and millions lost homes to foreclosure. Angry as police officers who shoot or choke a black person to death walk away with paid leave and the people who videotape the death are themselves sent to jail. Angry as the wealthy have bounced back better than ever, with politicians still catering to their whims, while ordinary people get crumbs. Angry enough not just to support insurgent presidential candidates, but also angry enough to get out in the streets, to occupy space, to insist that they be acknowledged.
We in the media have mostly told the story of Americans’ anger through the lens of Trump and Sanders’s campaigns, but in doing so we misunderstand the way change happens in this country, the way it is happening right now. These activists seek long-term radical changes — radical in the sense of “to get to the root of something,” because to make the kind of changes that these activists demand will require deep changes at the heart of political structures, while most elected officials seem content to tinker on the surface, disconnected from the pain most Americans are feeling.
The Vision for Black Lives policy document released this month is perhaps the best example of this: Despite the usual description of the movement as one focused on police, the more than 50 groups involved in writing the platform have laid out a comprehensive plan for justice that focuses on the specific harms done to black people but also includes demands ranging from universal health care to divestment from fossil fuels to federal and state jobs programs.
On August 1, a little less than two weeks after the founding of Freedom Square in Chicago, protesters took over City Hall Park in New York. Walking through the occupation, I saw familiar faces from Occupy Wall Street making sandwiches and new protesters chalking slogans on the sidewalk. Family members of those killed by the NYPD gave talks. Initiated by Millions March NYC, the occupation demanded the firing of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, the disavowal of “broken windows” policing, reparations for victims of police violence, and the defunding of the police and the reinvestment of the money in public services in communities of color.
The next day, Bratton announced his resignation. Apparently it had been planned, but the news conference at the same City Hall where the protesters had gathered was a site of jubilation. Yet the protesters didn’t go home. One woman held up a cardboard sign that featured check boxes next to the demands: “Fire Bratton” checked off, but “Reparations” and “Divest & Reinvest” still waiting.
The demands of these movements are big, and to see them occur would mean that a true political revolution has taken place. Until that time, they’re committed to making necessary trouble to bring them about.
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