‘Democracy is a struggle that never ends’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to US activist and CIVICUS board member Jesse Chen of Powerline about the growing popularity of citizen activism in the United States. Since the start of 2017, an unprecedented one in five US citizens have marched in the streets. But, Jesse points out, the growing number of people’s movements hasn’t come from nowhere: they are part of a longer trajectory that has seen political activism rising on both the left and right in the United States for at least a decade.

1. Given the unprecedented numbers of US citizens taking to the streets, including in the 2018 March for Our Lives movement, do you think that there is a new moment in political activism in the United States?

When Trump won in November 2016 and took office in January 2017, we witnessed an entire movement and energy on the left, but also on the right. People have been marching in the streets from the resistance and women’s marches over the first weekends of the Trump presidency to the science marches that came shortly after. On the right, the energy has been rising as well, not only with Donald Trump beating 16 other candidates for the Republican nomination, but also, for example, his rallies as well as the Charlottesville marches, a display last August of white nationalism and threatened white patriarchy.

The students participating in the March for Our Lives had plenty of recent context, fresh in their minds, that they could look to and say, “We’ve seen people marching very recently. Agree or disagree, it’s irrelevant. Being an activist is normal, socially-acceptable behaviour. I’m going to do this, too.” That said, I think it’s unwise to draw conclusions from a snapshot in time. To me, this moment that we are in right now, with students forming mass protests for gun reform, is naturally aligned with a trend line that can be traced back over the last 10 years at least.

In my view, this trend started in the early years of the Obama administration when many on the left realised that Barack Obama was not as far to the left as they had hoped. I believe this realisation partly led to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. As much as the left liked Obama, he was far more centrist and establishment than they had hoped. When financial reform and healthcare reform opportunities came and went, the left realised that Barack Obama wasn’t nearly as progressive as he had looked at the time compared to Democratic establishment forerunner and primary candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Fast-forward a few years and we saw the Dreamers, we saw Black Lives Matter and, of course, we saw Bernie Sanders, among others on the left. A clear thread of anti-establishment energy can be seen across each of these movements. Similarly, at the same time, on the right the conservative Tea Party movement was forming with rallies and marches across the country in response to the loss of the 2008 election. The Tea Party would go on to win several seats in Congress in 2010, leading not only to control of Congress and a number of government shutdowns, but also, indisputably, to the remarkable rise of Donald Trump a few years later.

Throughout this same period, we have gone through several mass shootings. Of those, we had the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, 14 years after Columbine. Six-year-olds, children no higher than your thighs, were gunned down in an elementary school, and this country’s government and its people did nothing. That was a moment of collective failure for this country where people suddenly realised that, if we can’t act on something so tragic as that, then maybe there actually is no way to act feasibly on guns. So, I definitely think that there was a feeling of hopelessness after the years of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the failure of our government to do something meaningful about it. That hopelessness seems to have given way, at least partially, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Also, now that we have the Trump administration, all issues are back on the table, both open and closed.

2. What do you think that the March for our Lives Movement has learned from these other movements that have emerged over the past 10 years, including Black Lives Matter?

One important thing that Black Lives Matter shows is that translocal movements work. The notion of centralised control under a civil society organisation’s campaign or under some iconic leader is one of the reasons, in my view, why progressive movements aren’t as successful on the whole as a lot of conservative movements. Conservatives know that you don’t need to march on Washington to affect change - you can march in your own town, in your own city, in your own neighbourhood. Comparatively speaking, liberals over-extend and over-invest their trust in government as the solution and fail to get involved at the personal and local level. This is something that Black Lives Matter really helped bring out of the shadows and into the mainstream for those on the left. I think Black Lives Matters’ leadership really deserves credit for positively disrupting progressive activism in the United States in that way because that hyperlocal, translocal model can be extremely effective, especially for systemic change.

The cofounders of March for Our Lives from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become iconic, but the movement also includes people here at Public School 123 in Brooklyn or Hoboken High School in New Jersey. The leaders in those translocal spaces are leaders, too - and they are not being ‘controlled’ by a central leadership just like how the Black Lives Matter activists are not being ‘controlled’ by the leadership at the Black Lives Matter network or at any of the other facilitating networks. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to think about this too - movements are too centralised in CSO offices in too many parts of traditional civil society.

Of course, the elephant in the room for the difference between Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives is that the students are a diverse group of citizens. So to many bystanders, there appears less of a direct challenge to the existing power structure and the white patriarchy with the March for Our Lives Movement versus the Black Lives Matter movement. I look at Black Lives Matter and I see a story of fundamental oppression that has literally been both part of the DNA of this country and the driver of an enormous movement. It tells me a number of things, but number one is that democracy is a struggle that never ends. That struggle includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the 1984 Democratic primary and the election of Obama as President in 2008. But we don’t win democracy with new laws, with elections, or even with revolutions. Democracy is something that you need to keep on fighting for. I think what Black Lives Matter teaches us is that, in general, this fight is a fight that never ends. I hope our educators within school spaces are walking the student activists through this process because, as those students have undoubtedly already learned in the last months, it’s not enough for people to feel sorry for you over a tragedy in order to get people to change what is a remarkably ingrained injustice in our system.

3. Movements like March for Our Lives both rise and fall on social media. Does this make it difficult for them to be sustained?

Social media networks were never designed for democracy. There is no question that social media and the major social networks have had a democratising effect, but we’re being pushed against our limits in terms of what current social media can and cannot do for society. That’s because current social networks were never intentionally designed for the needs and nuances of democracy. The design of the platforms has led to echo chambers and ideological bubbles. They’ve led to the sort of trolling problems that we see, the sorts of privacy problems that we see, the fake news, and many more problems. The situation is currently evolving as we work through the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, so it is against that context that I make the claim that we are between states on this as people awake to this flawed system. Of course, we can’t deny the role that Twitter is playing in helping these March for Our Lives activists organise and activate. The problem is that eventually there becomes a sustained engagement problem because, at their cores, these platforms were not designed to support real mass engagement over time. The students have had the benefit of physical co-location in their schools to anchor their local organising even as they use Twitter to connect translocally, and this has been helpful for sustaining for the last few months. Personal hopes aside, it remains to be seen how much the students stay active, energised and focused as the school year ends and summer break begins.

4. Are you hopeful about the trajectory of activism in the United States? Do these student activists show that it is ‘cool’ to be an activist now?

Activism is less nerdy than it used to be. The popular response in the past used to be ‘I’m not into politics.’ But try ‘not being into politics’ in Donald Trump’s America, and you’re seen as both uninformed and uncool. We’re seeing a ton more engagement in civic space, and this is one of the best non-partisan things Trump has done for the United States given its years-long declining citizen participation. Now, people are talking civics again, and they’re even talking politics in sports arenas. This is fundamental for a democracy. We can’t just keep going along on autopilot, holding an election every four years and expecting our leaders to do the right things for us. We must learn to organise, channel and sustain pressure between elections translocally and at scale on the government we do have, not the one we wish we had. These students are showing us ways in which that can be done, and I can’t be the only one that thinks that’s pretty cool.

From the student perspective, it gives us great hope that these kids will not have to wait until they’ve gone through a couple of years of college and ‘come out of their shell’ for a fraction of them to become activists as young adults. You have kids that were marching in the streets of their own towns, in some cases much to the chagrin of their own school administrations and city councils, and they were out there standing up for themselves. Good for them. Youth are the future in human form. They deserve to have their voices heard just like the rest of our citizens.

With activism being popular in high school now, we’ve got more people joining the ranks of active citizenship and, hopefully, they’re not going to wait five years until they are in college to get involved. If we look at the larger trend line, this gives all of us an opportunity to reconnect with the grassroots and to reconnect on issues that even some of us, despite best intentions, may have given up on in the past. So yes, I am hopeful at where this larger trend will eventually lead.

Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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See also our interview with Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch from March for Our Lives.