There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together. Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy. The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.
The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times. Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever. In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.
Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s. The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era. In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.
I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian. I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times. We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country. From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.
At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system. Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color. A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the world. We can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up. Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before. Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system. They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.
A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs. After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics. They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing. Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil. New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class. This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions. And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.
In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality. I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening. The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce. Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”. The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century. For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people. Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”. Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books. This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers. What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers? All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics: What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation. Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave. And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota. Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.
Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals. After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement. But two things happened. When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies. And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement. Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants. While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible: First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens. Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities. Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities. With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.
But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right. But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved. Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty. But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.
After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape. But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement. A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support. And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape. Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan. And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s. This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations. But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,
long the most powerful force on the left. A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now. Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach. Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining. Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states. The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances. It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers. The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors. It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.
These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era. Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism. Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change. And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.
But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too. That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas. That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything. That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs. That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them. That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity. It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now. We have no choice but to stand by our values. Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time. Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now. We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.
We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned. We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King. But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.
The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling. We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history. But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”