Trump Protests Could Be the Start of a New Civil Rights Era

Social change begins in the streets with citizen activism, but it’s important to realize this chapter of history is unlike any that has come before.
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Demonstrators protest the election of Donald Trump in Oakland, California. Photo by Emily Harger.

Pranav Jandhyala had never marched in a protest before. But just days after the votes were tallied, the political-science freshman joined a group of about 100 people in the streets of Oakland, California, to oppose the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

A Trump presidency poses unprecedented uncertainties to social justice movements.

Cities across the country were alive in protest within hours of Sec. Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, and marches continued throughout the week. Like so many others confronted by an unexpected reality, Jandhyala said the moment got him thinking about what his next steps would be.

A Trump presidency poses unprecedented uncertainties to social justice movements. At the very least, rather than the sometimes-cooperative Democratic president they were expecting, progressives are now preparing for a decline in social services and a barrier toward their goals in the federal government.

There is no way of knowing whether Trump’s campaign promises—including mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, a ban on all Muslims from entering the country, and a rollback on the Obama administration’s environmental gains—and his derision of people of color, women, and those with disabilities will follow him into term. But organizers are preparing for the worst, with active protest as a powerful tool for prompting change and maintaining victories hard fought under President Obama.

“We have power, and we can provide a model for other cities,” Yvette Felarca, an organizer for the mostly student-led social rights activism group By Any Means Necessary, told the crowd at a Berkeley, California, protest Wednesday night. “This has to be a wakeup call for a lot of us that we need to build a movement.”

Simply put, activists will need to act quickly if they’re going to channel this energy into what could be the start of a new era’s civil rights movement.

“What Trump offers is an opportunity,” said Cat Brooks of Black Lives Matter of the San Francisco Bay area, “because his vitriol cuts across many areas … you have many areas of society ready to fight.”

“This has to be a wakeup call for a lot of us that we need to build a movement.”

For Brooks, unity is the first step toward action, and she’s working to galvanize activists while the post-election momentum is still rolling. Groups like the Movement for Black Lives and Occupy had long been trying to organize pro-social justice Americans into a national movement, she said, but Trump’s election may have been the pivotal moment to get those on the fence to take action in some way. Already, progressive organizations including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have seen a surge in donations and support.

Brooks has been working to unite protesters from Standing Rock and those against racial-focused policing methods alongside Muslim organizations, LGBTQ, and women’s rights groups.

“Our struggle is shared in the same way that our liberation is shared,” she said. “[Protesting] is a tool to funnel people’s energy and anger into action.” Already, she is helping to schedule town hall events in Oakland to get the ball rolling on campaigns within a new, greater movement.

It’s true that social change begins in the streets with citizen activism, said Washington University sociology professor Adia Harvey Wingfield, but it’s important to realize this chapter of history is unlike any that has come before.

“This is a somewhat unique and unprecedented example given the new president-elect’s lack of public service experience and promotion of policies that are unequivocally unconstitutional,” she said.

For the closest example of what could come, organizers’ expectations and reactions now harken back to the 1950s and 1960s, a time when massive change was enacted despite federal opposition.

“Crying isn’t the answer. Action is the answer.”

“History is a guide that lets us know that this would not be the first time Americans have had to protest under an administration that was unsympathetic to their goals,” Wingfield said. “If we look back to the civil rights movement, for instance, those active in the movement were able to construct a protest that capitalized on emergent forms of media, the U.S.’s international reputation, and economic interests to deliver a very effective form of protest that changed the social and economic structure of the Jim Crow South.”

The protests in Oakland were mostly a rallying tool, Brooks said. The real work comes next in the form of organized campaigns, the specific topics of which are still being decided.

If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, if funding for reproductive services is eliminated, or if resources to help resettle immigrants or to educate their children are revoked, local social justice organizations will look to find ways to meet those needs—or stop any efforts to remove those services in the first place.

Each protest has its own specific and sometimes nuanced goals. In Berkeley, some protesters wanted to send a message that they didn’t approve of Trump’s misogynistic and racist remarks. Others wanted to make clear that they’d push the Electoral College to choose Clinton as the next president.

But these rallies also had the specific goal of collecting names and getting a feeling for the issues of greatest concern. That information will be used later to organize supporters into local campaigns that fight for specific measures.

Brooks speculated some of the campaigns could be extensions of the issues the Movement for Black Lives has already worked, such as pushing for a mobile medical clinic in Oakland and a rebudgeting of the Oakland Police Department’s finances.

“The next steps are really working with Middle America, rather than working against them.”

It’s not clear if some protesters’ goals, such as blocking Trump’s inauguration, are realistic. It’s certainly unlikely, recent political analysis has suggested, but this has also proven to be a year where anything can happen.

As for changing hearts and minds to get social justice-minded people into the streets and advocating for social change, only time will tell whether the push for a nationwide civil rights era-scale movement can succeed.

But for many of those in Berkeley just days after the election, having a medium to peacefully shout their frustrations and fears was cathartic and liberating.

Emma Auer, a history junior at University of California, Berkeley, marched in a protest Wednesday night near her college campus and said she nearly cried when she found out Trump was going to be the next president.

“But then I realized crying isn’t the answer. Action is the answer,” she said as she marched around college dorms and toward a city civic center. “Unity across movements is the answer.”

On the heels of his first political march, Jandhyala plans to create a bipartisan political group at Berkeley where students can discuss national policy to come up with common ground and mutual goals.

“The next steps are really working with Middle America, rather than working against them,” he said.

For one bystander, the Berkeley protest was an unexpected lift for her spirit.

The mother of two was having dinner downtown when she heard the chants: “Donald Trump, go away. Racist, sexist, anti-gay.” She told her husband to hold their infant, and she carried their 3-year-old daughter to watch as the group demonstrated outside the Civic Center.

“I cried all day yesterday,” she said, referring to the day after the election. “It felt good [to be here] actually.”

As they watched the protesters, her toddler asked why the people were shouting. She told her daughter it was because a mean, racist man was elected.

“Mommy, what’s racist?” she asked. And then, while looking at her multiracial daughter, she realized she had never explained the concept. She didn’t expect to have that conversation so soon.

“That was the first time,” she said, bouncing her daughter on her hip.

 

Updated 2/7/2017: The name of a source has been removed, at their request, to protect their identity.