The most pressing question since November 8, 2016 (federal election day in the United States). Ever since, I’ve been studying my rights as a US citizen, and donating to various progressive organizations, but still had no idea how to become a part of something larger than myself and my mouse click.
So, on January 20, 2017 (presidential inauguration day), I went to Town Hall Seattle for a gathering called We Defy: Voices and Stories from Our Progressive Community. It featured different organizations representing minorities’ rights, reproductive rights, immigration and environmental causes.
Yes, I listened to moving, honest talk by people who care about progressive values—but. It reminded me of the stark comparison between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party that Nick Licata drew in his book Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, and Advice for Changing Our World.
On the Occupy Wall Street movement, in Nick Licata’s words (emphasis mine):
The activists clearly did not succeed, in part, I believe, because they could not articulate a few simple executable objectives that could be carried out through the existing democratic political system.
Licata, Nick. Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, and Advice for Changing Our World (p. 154). Sasquatch Books. Kindle Edition.
The Occupy movement instead pursued a multitude of issues, and as time went by the remaining core of those occupying encampments leaned more toward overthrowing capitalism than reforming the current political system. (p. 155)
On the Tea Party:
It is obvious that corporate money made the Tea Party’s political success possible. But there was another factor in play as well. They focused on gaining political power and not on organizing in the streets. Instead of expending energy on sustaining tent encampments and fighting the authorities from shutting them down, they aimed to gain control of Congress. The Occupy movement did not systematically try to influence the Democratic Party from within. The Tea Party, on the other hand, challenged incumbent Republicans for seats in Congress. And then they worked to turn out the vote. In other words, they converted their protest from being symbolic and generalized to being practical and specific. (p. 160)
Important advice for activists:
The lesson for all activists is that you need to have a dual-prong approach to changing the political landscape: being in the streets protesting arouses the public, but afterward quiet organized efforts are needed to get your supporters elected to office so that they can actually change the laws. (p. 162)
Approach #1: Marching
On January 21, 2017, millions of people around the world took to the streets in support of progressive causes. The Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches may have been the largest demonstration in the history of the United States. In Seattle, a crowd expected to be around 30,000 people grew to 175,000.
Despite reasonable debates about the usefulness of marching, for me, it felt good to see that so many other people share my dreams. It also marked my city as a place where progressive values have a home. And I hope it emboldened my three Members of Congress (see Indivisible, the Guide) to fight for their constituents.
What next then?
Approach #2: Organizing
Now we must begin the hard work of changing our world. We must pay attention to what our Members of Congress do and say, show up at their town hall meetings, call their office, get involved in local politics, volunteer and donate to organizations that promote our values, but still follow one overarching goal. Or else we’ll end up like Occupy Wall Street.
But can we unite our myriad progressive causes with one single battle cry?
Yes, we can.
If the battle cry tells a story.
We must do better than always listing our many causes and organizations as our progressive calling card.
People Listen to Stories
“Make America Great Again” beat “Stronger Together” in the end. Why?
“Stronger Together” tells no story, there is no danger and no urgency to it. “Make America Great Again” tells lots of stories, of better times, of a threatened way of life, of present danger and urgency. It’s vague enough that it allows people to fill in with their own nostalgia. Most commentators think that #MAGA appeals to white middle-class men who dream of an America of the 1950s, when women and minorities knew their place, and pollution was our right.
But do they realize, for instance, that #MAGA also appeals to immigrants who think that only they deserve citizenship? They, who filed all the paperwork, and waited for years to be processed, and passed the interviews, and are now convinced (by “alternative facts“) that their own compatriots, or the Syrian refugees have it too easy coming to America today—and that’s not fair. For those immigrants, America was probably great circa 1990s. #MAGA speaks to many people, in many ways.
Can we come up with a message that speaks across tribal lines, emphasizing the danger and the urgency? A message with a story?
Remember Chinatown, Robert Towne’s screenplay made into a movie in 1974, featuring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson? A complicated story of murder, corruption, incest—insane human drama. Underneath it all, one simple cause: water. Taken from the farmers of the Owens Valley of Eastern California, and diverted into Los Angeles through an aqueduct. What sounds like a boring resource allocation problem turns into: “She’s my sister and my daughter.”
Complicated dramas can have straightforward, basic causes.
Our Focal Point: Climate Security
What is the one cause of struggle in all the stories ever told around the world?
The fight for resources, be they land, water, or the heart of a loved one.
The resources needed for humans and other species to survive on this planet are limited. The human race has not been a good caretaker, with its rulers grabbing power for themselves, and plundering the Earth since the beginning of time. And now, the imbalance between people and resources has been augmented by the destruction of the habitat.
The year 2016 was the hottest on record. Lives are being destroyed right now by extreme weather, sea level rise, drought, displacement, and more. The war in Syria is fueled by climate change, and the war in Syria is destabilizing Europe.
Bringing about climate security for all nations on Earth is a bigger problem than any of us, any one group of people can solve. It’s a common threat to land and life across the planet, and it should bring all our tribes together.
Because, if we don’t have a habitable planet, we don’t have a garden to call home, but a wasteland. And when we’re hurting, we don’t have tolerance for other people’s needs, especially people who don’t belong to our tribe. We’ll fight among ourselves for the little that is left, without much thought about the future, focused on surviving in the present.
There will be no understanding for a woman’s need to control her body—her body can return to being chattel, as it was for most of human history. There will be no understanding for minority rights—minorities can return to being slaves and scapegoats. There will be no understanding for other species alive on this planet—other species can return to being food and raw material. There will be no understanding for common sense gun use—guns can return to being the advantage in war. There will be no understanding for education needs—education can return to the powerful, while children of the powerless can go back to work and war. There will be no understanding among nations for human suffering caused by climate change—nations can return to being empires and colonies.
There will be winners and losers for a while, then only losers.
Because our habitat will continue to deteriorate. US military leaders recently urged the new President to see climate change as a security threat:
The briefing book argues that climate change presents a significant and direct risk to U.S. military readiness, operations and strategy, and military leaders say it should transcend politics. It goes beyond protecting military bases from sea-level rise, the military advisers say. They urge Trump to order the Pentagon to game out catastrophic climate scenarios, track trends in climate impacts and collaborate with civilian communities. Stresses from climate change can increase the likelihood of international or civil conflict, state failure, mass migration and instability in strategically significant areas around the world, the defense experts argue.
Military Leaders Urge Trump to See Climate as a Security Threat, by Erika Bolstad, ClimateWire on November 15, 2016
Danger. Urgency. A story that transcends identity politics. This could be our message: demanding climate security for the entire human race, and for all the other species—and demanding it now. This message unites us all. Take any cause you believe in, and see how it will be served by climate security.
But demanding climate security sounds too academic and doesn’t tell a story.
#ALFAEarth: A Livable Future for All
Drought, tornado, wild fire, flood, poverty, disease, famine, war—they tell heartbreaking stories of tragedy and resilience. A homeless person needs a livable future. So does a student crushed by debt. Or a child in Flint, Michigan. A family of Syrian refugees, an indigenous tribe in the Amazonas, or a Ukrainian young woman in Crimea. And how about giraffes and polar bears? Should they be allowed to live too?
Demanding a livable future for us all—in these plain words—should speak to everyone, from men to women and in between, from immigrants to natives, from urban to rural citizens, from scientists to artists, from environmentalists to farmers, from the 99% to the 1%, from continent to continent, all creeds and no creed—because we all need a livable future, with peace, and clean air and water, and freedom to be what we and our children choose to be.
A Livable Future for All!
A Livable Future for All!
Can this be the battle cry for you?