On April 15, thousands of protesters gathered around the country to call for President Trump to release his tax returns. Trump responded as he often does, by tweeting: “Someone Should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!” Breitbart News picked up on the tweet and ran a rambling article that linked to its extensive coverage of how George Soros is (allegedly) singlehandedly funding the organizations and staffers leading the anti-Trump movement. Breitbart similarly claimed that an entirely different set of protesters agitating at the University of California at Berkeley in February were paid about $50,000; that same month, the National Review Online claimed that Dakota Access Pipeline protesters had been paid unspecified amounts for their time and trouble.
On May 1 (“May Day”), when people take to the streets to protest for workers’ rights, we can expect corporate and anti-immigrant interests to try to discredit the protests by claiming that some of the protesters are being paid by labor unions. But don’t buy it. Although critics would have us believe that payment and principles are incompatible, they aren’t — and the belief that they are is toxic.
Little evidence exists to back the claim that significant numbers of protesters are paid, or, for that matter, that any significant number of workers seeking a union are “salts.” However, the allegations that even one participant is paid immediately calls into question the legitimacy of a cause. Behind these accusation is the idea that social movements should be entirely spontaneous, volunteer-driven, and untarnished by the exchange of money. Anything else would betray a lack of moral purity and reveal ulterior motives. And although successful protest movements rarely if ever succeed without an investment of resources, we create simplified mythologies that perpetuate these ideas of monetarily immaculate conception.
In reality, organizations often do sponsor or support rallies and send paid staff to help organize them, although unpaid protesters typically outnumber organizers. Nonetheless, history suggests that strong movements do well with both paid and unpaid agents agitating for change. Take, for instance, Rosa Parks. Often referred to as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white passenger after a long day of work. Parks, however, did not stumble upon her role in history simply because her feet were tired. By the time of her Dec. 1, 1955, arrest, Parks and her husband were seasoned activists with more than 20 years of experience in the civil rights movement, including Parks serving as secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP. Parks worked as a seamstress for local white liberal activists Clifford and Virginia Durr, who helped fund her trip and training at the famed Highlander Folk School, where she received training in tactics of resistance, just four months before her arrest.
Predictably, just like today, many tried to discredit the Montgomery Bus Boycott by arguing that Rosa Parks was no tired seamstress but actually a plant, working with the NAACP and the Communist Party. And yet, Parks’s story is still often cast as an apolitical and unpaid act of defiance, a myth that stubbornly persists in our popular imagination. But what if we thought of Parks as a “paid protester”? Would her protest be worth less?
What gives the accusation of paid protest force is the belief that compensation makes advocacy into a job and thus beliefs themselves become fungible. Under this theory, the same protester would just as soon hold a “pro-life” placard instead of a “pro-choice” one. In part this view stems from our understanding of work, where workers are increasingly expected not only to provide their physical labor but also their emotional labor. Whether it’s having to put on a show for the all-important five-star rating for Uber, or the highly monitored “state of enforced rapture” that Pret A Manger demands, workers are expected not only to do their jobs but to act a part, for the (often low) compensation they receive. Thus we have good reason to wonder if how people feel is just part of their job: Sometimes, it is.
But sometimes it isn’t. Political and grass-roots organizing and paid work are not inherently contradictory, as some would have us believe. One cannot only do deeply committed political work and be paid; it is often necessary for the long slog that campaigns require. Separating these ideas and acting as if one infects the other fundamentally prevents us from valuing the work of individuals who need wages but also have principles, something that could probably be said for most of us. Defending the idea of the paid protester — even if they don’t exist in any significant way — is important because the prejudices that lie behind the paid protester boogeyman keep us from valuing all forms of work, including the many forms in which principles and payment mix.
So the next time someone tries to discredit a movement by insinuating that some of the people on the ground are being compensated, ask the all-important question: So what?