Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reflections On The Anti-Trump, No-Ban Rally In Portland Yesterday

I attended yesterday’s anti-Trump, no-ban rally in Portland with a strong local activist who is not part of our group. We both came away feeling energized by the rally and talking about what is needed here in Salem. This reflection on the rally reflects my thinking only.

With the airport protests, the street protests and the rallies going on we have options about how to plug in to the movement---a movement which is increasingly self-describing as a “resistance”---and it is good to be intentional about this. These events bring many people into the streets for the first time, and people new to politics and new to protests should be welcomed in, helped to feel safe and encouraged to keep coming back. The language of the left and protesting will not make immediate sense to people new to the movement. Soon enough they will take up complicated issues involving the Democrats or labor or strategy and tactics and political lines. Let’s make it easy for them.

The rally helped do this. First, there was the hand-holding and telling people next to us that they are loved during the rally. I’m not so warm and fuzzy but these simple actions did help build a feeling a solidarity. Many years ago in Baltimore we took this a step further with an exchange of contact info and a promise to call within 5 days. Whatever we do, human contact at the base matters. Second, the rally struck a good point between aggressive actions and the very-much-needed airport protests. We heard from workers, union representatives, Senator Merkley’s office, Jobs With Justice, community members, local politicians and LGBTQIA+ people, most of them women and people of color speaking from a militant place. Take the politicians out of the mix and it was still a pretty good rally, but my sense is that local liberal or progressive politicians are still important to the mix, and much more so than the folks who turn out for drama.

I was recently speaking with a local activist here in Salem who agreed with me that violence directed against property can have a cathartic effect, if only because it breaks down fear barriers and gets some people past sanctifying private property. And, realistically, violence is part of the mix sometimes whether we invite it or not: the Trump rally at the State Capitol in which scores of people marched into the Capitol fully armed and seeking a confrontation and the killing in the Quebec mosque bring violence to our doorstep and we would be foolish if we did not prepare for more. But at some point anarchists clocking reactionaries and bragging about it on Facebook and Twitter will have to recede and be replaced by a mass movement. No one gets a vanguard position because they clock fascists; that position is won and held by people who organize and build from the grassroots and create united fronts of struggle from below.

The speeches were almost all good. The day may be remembered for Tom Chamberlain’s unfortunate remarks. Chamberlain spoke as the head of the Oregon AFL-CIO and employed some rhetoric which first shocked and then angered the crowd, forcing him to stop speaking. Still, let’s remember the day as a day when the labor leader also sought to publicly make amends for his remarks and was welcomed back by the crowd after he did so. And let’s remember that the largely-white crowd had the presence of mind to both boo Chamberlain and applaud his apology and self-criticism. I have never heard a labor leader make a public self-criticism and I have been in crowds where white people did not protest racism.

Several competing lines are emerging in the movement. Among these are the line that holds to the Democrats, refusing to criticize or acknowledge the mistakes made during the election and over the past eight years; and there is the line that holds that opposition to Trump is not enough and seeks to blame the left, or sections of the left and liberals, for not mobilizing during the past eight years; there is a united-front line which holds that “big-tent” organizing and forms of coalition politics are needed; and there is a line which rejects alliances and coalition politics; and there is the anarchist line. These are broad descriptions, not meant to be inclusive or to go deeply into political differences. Still, what we saw yesterday was a rejection of the line which is alternately “ultraleft” and social-democratic and which was recently expressed by Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin magazine, when he wrote

But it’s key that even though the people in charge of the bourgeois state at any moment (then Obama, now Trump) are our main enemies, much of our political activity should be challenging (broadly conceived) the political center. By this, I don’t mean individual liberals, but the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party at every layer, and the caste leading liberal reform groups in this country.

Indeed, the parts of the movement which take this side are not there with the kind of working-class and community rallies we saw yesterday and they seem to have had limited juice at the airport actions. Granted that some politicians may mislead and create confusion at some points, others can and must be won over, disengagement and attacks on allies are destructive and some liberal reform groups are playing positive and necessary roles right now. We are all in a situation where in eleven days we are learning what it may have taken eleven months or four years to learn otherwise. And in a situation where Bannon moves up in a kind of coup and Yates gets fired, the maximum amount of engagement is needed. The rally marked a good point in engagement.

We can see from this rally and from others that a spirit has left a bottle: anti-Trump sentiment is mixing with pro-immigrant sentiment, anti-racist solidarity, demands for womens’ rights and for climate justice. We would not be at this point were it not for Black Lives Matter and the climate justice activists showing us the ways to unity and activism. Many people I talk to now just write “demonstration” on their calendars and turn out regardless of the issue, birthing solidarity. This happens less because of politicians and more because of leadership at the base. The rally reminded us that we need some kind of rapid response group here in Salem. Are there any takers? 


  1. Brother Chamberlain made a number of impassioned comments about "a blackness covering this land." But, as I said, he also made an unusually helpful public self-criticism which was well-received by the crowd. The day should be remembered as one of unity. In 40+ years of involvement in the labor movement I have only heard labor leaders do self-criticism a couple of times. The post-script here is that Tom Chamberlain has also called for taking on racism in the labor movement and in Oregon.