Protestors in Miami, Florida. Photo credit: Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock.com.
In his call with governors on June 1, President Donald Trump said the current protests are “like a movement, and it’s a movement that if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse. This is like Occupy Wall Street.”
Astonishingly, like that broken clock that is correct twice a day, Trump was right. Movements grow if they aren’t repressed. But sometimes when they are repressed, they grow anyway, because activists reorganize to resist the repression, often taking what they know to other movements.
Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the street. Some of them are veteran organizers and activists who have not only been working on issues of police racism but also participated in Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, the struggle for immigrant rights, and other movements. They understand that for the current uprising to succeed, movements need to translate popular anger and frustration into real changes in both public attitudes and public policy. It is critical that less experienced activists also learn those lessons.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street changed the conversation about widening economic inequality; so did the 2017 Women’s March, which focused on women’s rights. The current wave of protest — which observers often refer to as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but is more properly part of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) — seeks to do the same for racial injustice and police abuse. It has already made progress not only in changing the conversion about “public safety” but getting elected officials to take action.
What do we mean when we say that grassroots activism is “successful”? It involves not only getting people into the streets but also changing public opinion, pushing elected officials to take bold action, and mobilizing people to vote — preferably for candidates who are allies.
Occupy Wall Street began in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan on September 17, 2011, and quickly spread to hundreds of cities in the United States and abroad. The protesters, mostly white and many precariously middle class, focused public attention on the increasing “financialization” of the economy — the outsized influence of banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms more concerned with short-term profits than long-term prosperity. OWS blamed bankers’ greed and the financial industry’s reckless lending practices for the 2008 implosion of the housing market and the near-collapse of the whole economy, including widespread layoffs and foreclosures. OWS adeptly used social media to spread the word, but it disavowed creating an organizational infrastructure or any accountable leadership system. Not surprisingly, within a few weeks police had pushed protesters out of local parks.
The movement disappeared but the idea — the one percent versus the 99 percent — redefined the decade and our politics. It put a target on the back of Wall Street, corporate America, and the super-rich. At kitchen tables, in coffee shops, and in offices and factories, Americans began talking about widening wealth and income inequality, corporate greed, and how America’s super-rich have damaged our economy and our democracy. The news media also began paying more attention to these issues.
According to a Pew survey conducted last year, 82 percent of Americans, including 91 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans, believe that “big corporations have too much power in our economy.” An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that big corporations and the super-rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
Since then, a growing number of politicians — almost all Democrats and even some Republicans — feel compelled to express concern about the nation’s widening wealth and income gap. Many even have bold ideas for addressing these issues.
Community organizing groups and unions took responsibility for translating OWS’s ideas into practical campaigns for living wages, workers’ rights, and more progressive taxes. Think tanks began investigating these powerful claims too. A Brookings Institution report released last November found that more than 53 million people, or 44 percent of all workers ages 18 to 64, earn low hourly wages. Many families need more than two jobs to make ends meet, including one-fifth of all schoolteachers. The new slogan for many unions is now “One job should be enough.”
The idea of a $15 minimum wage was a pipe dream in 2011 but now two-thirds of Americans embrace it. Because of Republican opposition, Congress hasn’t increased the federal minimum wage ($7.25) since 2009, so activists began pushing for increasing minimum wages at the local and state levels. The Fight for $15 burst forward, with wildcat strikes at fast-food and retail outlets morphing into successful legislative initiatives and ballot campaigns. According to the National Employment Law Project, 24 states and 48 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages sometime this year. In 32 of those jurisdictions, it will reach or surpass $15 per hour.
Activists also pressured McDonald’s, Walmart, Disney, Bank of America, and other large employers into raising their pay.
The fight for higher wages coincided with an upsurge of labor activism, including strikes by auto workers, teachers, truck drivers, hospital employees, meatpacking and poultry workers, and others in red and blue states. According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for unions has also reached a two-decade peak of 64 percent.
In this year’s presidential election, every major Democratic candidate pledged to support a federal $15 minimum wage (with an annual inflation adjustment) and the reform of federal labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize and harder for big corporations to violate workers’ rights without significant penalties.
The widening wealth divide OWS highlighted has gotten worse. A new study by the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in mid-March, American billionaires have become $565 billion richer. Their total wealth now stands at $3.5 trillion, an increase of 19 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — is worth $36.2 billion more than he was on March 18.
Every Democratic candidate this year also called for increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. The once-radical idea of a wealth tax has gained wide support since Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren proposed it. The majority of Americans — including 77 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans — approve of a two percent tax on households with a net worth over $50 million.
Similarly, the 2017 Women’s March, the largest protest in American history, re-energized a feminist movement, transcending women’s issues to embrace threats from the Trump administration to immigrants, workers, consumers, and the environment. According to sociologist Dana Fisher (in her book American Resistance), 58 percent of Women’s March participants subsequently contacted a public official and 40 percent reported attending a congressional town hall. It anchored a broad multi-issue anti-Trump “resistance” movement.
A third of the participants at the Women’s March had never participated in a protest before, and the mobilization of so many Americans had significant ripple effects. Soon after the march, many existing progressive organizations — like the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and MoveOn — saw an increase in donations, members, and involvement with the upcoming Congressional elections.
Across the country, new waves of volunteer groups emerged to translate their outrage into electoral work. A key document for these new activists was a 23-page handbook, Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, posted online and written by several former Congressional staffers. The document soon went viral. Within two months, more than 3,800 local Indivisible chapters had formed, mushrooming to more than 6,000 by the end of the year, in every congressional district in the county. Many new groups, like Swing Left and Sister District, also recruited activists, disproportionately female, into key battleground races for Congress and other offices, training and mobilizing many first-time staffers and organizers.
The result was a “blue wave” in 2018, with Democrats gaining 40 seats in the House. More than 116 million voters went to the polls — 49 percent of eligible voters — the highest turnout rate for a midterm election since 1914. This led to an upsurge of women, LGBT people, African Americans, and Latinos elected to office, including record numbers in Congress.
Another legacy of the Women’s March was a revival of grassroots activism focused on violence against women, following the exposure of sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. It spread virally to the streets, the courtroom, and the political world, forcing the firing or retirement of high-profile figures in politics, entertainment, universities, hospitals, and other fields. It then spread to the workplaces of ordinary women, challenging the predatory behavior of male supervisors and managers. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, more Americans not only understand what sexual harassment is but why it is a structural problem. According to a CBS News poll in December, 76 percent of Americans say sexual harassment and misconduct is a serious problem in society today.
Again, these issues are now front-and-center in current races for president, Congress, state legislatures, and District Attorneys.
So how should we hope, and expect, the uprising against anti-black racism to affect formal politics?
First, like these other movements, it has a history. The current wave of protest catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd has deep roots, going back to the battles to abolish slavery, end lynching, and secure voting rights — to name a few. Black Lives Matter emerged as a hashtag in 2013 but represented a connection between three black women activists in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. The subsequent deaths of other black men and women at the hands of police — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philandro Castile, Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and others — triggered well-planned street protests and developed BLM into a broader movement known now as M4BL.
These activists, some now working in formal politics themselves, pressured the 2016 presidential candidates to address structural racism and violence against communities of color. Voters have elected progressive district attorneys in several cities and counties — including Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County (which includes Boston), Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, Missouri — who pledged to take stronger action against police violence and other aspects of the criminal justice system, such as cash bail. Michael Bloomberg, who as New York City’s mayor adopted stop-and-frisk policing, was forced to apologize and renounce the policy once he decided to run for president.
The success of M4BL in changing the narrative about racism in America is perhaps best illustrated by the widespread anger and outrage at what appears to be the deliberate suffocation of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
The growing use of cell phones by bystanders during incidents of police abuse — as well as the increasing use of cameras on police cars and on officers’ bodies — has helped increase public awareness of widespread abuses by the police against African Americans.
M4BL has helped explain to white Americans that what they are seeing in those videos — which are repeatedly broadcast on television and social media — is not simply the actions of rogue or poorly-trained cops but structural racism. A majority of white Americans now believe that black Americans are not treated fairly by the police and the criminal justice system. This helps explain why there has been a sharp decline in belief in anti-black stereotypes among whites since 2014. A Monmouth University poll conducted on May 28 to June 1 found that 76 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of white people — called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States; that’s a 26-percentage point increase since 2015. A new Reuters poll found that a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters’ concerns about racist police abuse.
The protesters in the streets of hundreds of cities and towns across America are much more diverse than their Occupy Wall Street and Women’s March counterparts. This can be attributed no only to shifting public opinion about police abuses but also in response to Trump’s inflammatory racism, which has not only encouraged white supremacist hate groups to come out of the shadows but also emboldened white supremacist police.
But what comes next? The movement for racial justice could fizzle out unless the protest turns to politics and policy — or, as community organizer Ernesto Cortes explains, unless “hot anger” turns into “cold anger.”
The current uprising has already changed the narrative. Calls by some activists to “defund the police” and “abolish prisons” are really about rethinking what we mean by “public safety.”
Activists have insisted that bigger investments in health care, housing, mental health services, job training, and jobs can do more to address the root causes of crime than a larger and more militarized police force. They point out that programs to reduce poverty and improve social conditions have been slashed over the past few decades while spending on police has increased and now accounts for about one-third of municipal budgets. They not only want cities to change police practices but also to shift spending priorities.
And they have already achieved some successes. The Minneapolis City Council, for example, has agreed to dismantle the police department and replace it with a different approach. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed cutting $150 million from the LAPD’s $1.8 billion budget. Over 200 Democrats in Congress quickly co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds, establish a national database to track police misconduct, prohibit certain no-knock warrants, and make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal court.
That doesn’t mean that local officials in these and other cities intend to eliminate all uniformed police. Most Americans and politicians recognize that even if we had almost no poverty and much greater wealth and income equality, there will still be rapists, murderers, sex traffickers, domestic abusers, embezzlers, and corporate crooks who should be caught, investigated, tried, and imprisoned. Polls reveal that black, as well as white voters, want more police officers in high crime areas, but they object to policing that involves racial profiling and the use of excessive force. But many Americans could be persuaded to support bold reforms of our criminal justice system to reduce racist abuses and end mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.
Many groups have identified policy changes that, if implemented, would significantly reduce killings of unarmed people by local police. A number of cities recently announced that they are prohibiting police from using chokeholds and strangleholds. Activists also want local governments to require police officers to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers, and require comprehensive reporting each time an officer uses force or threatens to do so.
Few police officers who have killed unarmed black and brown residents have been fired, much less arrested, convicted, and sent to prison. Activists want local police chiefs to be held accountable for the misconduct of their officers. They hope that if police officers with long track records of abuses are fired, and those who kill or seriously injure unarmed people are arrested and imprisoned, it will reduce misconduct. Under pressure for activists, some cities are now considering creating civilian review commissions comprised of community residents to oversee police departments.
To reform the wider criminal justice system that often entraps people of color, activists have been pushing on numerous fronts: eliminating cash bail, enacting tough gun control laws to eliminate the sale of military-style assault weapons to civilians, increasing funding for public defenders so low-income Americans get adequate representation in court, changing sentencing policies so people convicted of minor non-violent offenses don’t go to jail, eliminating for-profit prisons, and ensuring that all prisoners get job training and educational opportunities.
There are growing campaigns to adopt “ban the box” policies that prohibit employers from asking potential employees and institutions of higher education if they have criminal records, which guarantees a high unemployment rate among former prisoners. In a growing number of states, activists have been organizing to restore voting rights for all former prisoners and overturn state laws that disenfranchise them, end the death penalty, and spend more resources on identifying, prosecuting, and convicting people engaged in crime in the suites (corporate crime) and fewer resources on crime in the streets.
Battles for economic fairness, gender equality, and racial justice always begin in the streets. But to achieve lasting success, they cannot overlook the voting booth and the legislature. The two groups who are most involved in the current wave of protest — young people and black people — typically have low levels of voter turnout. In some cities, activists brought voter registration forms to the protest. Hopefully, the uprising will increase voter turnout — not only among protesters but also among protest sympathizers — in the elections for president and Congress in November and for other positions — mayor, city council, District Attorney, state Attorney General — in the future.
In recent weeks, many foundations have issued statements against police abuses and in support of racial justice. It would help if these foundations invested more funding for racial justice community organizing and nonprofit groups engaged in voter registration and turnout.
Can a nonviolent protest movement help to defeat Trump in November? Yes and no. If it motivates more people to vote, yes. If it just provides opportunities to express anger and frustration, no. The drive to defeat Trump and elect a more liberal president and Congress should go hand-in-hand with the crusade to challenge racism, unchecked corporate power, outrageous wealth and income inequality, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, mass incarceration, and climate change.
Hopefully, future historians will look back at this moment and conclude that, as a nation, we turned the outpouring of protest into a focused movement for political empowerment and policy change.
Peter Dreier is Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012) and co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style (The New Press, 2020).