[Opinion] Are We at the Start of a New Protest Movement?

Friday, Apr 17, 2020

The coronavirus catastrophe shows that we need political protests more than ever. Tens of millions of citizens sit at home awaiting meager checks that may reach them by August. Countless people endure the bewilderment of navigating call centers that often fail to connect them to unemployment benefits. Donations to food banks have fallen while need rises. The inept federal response slows the arrival of aid, forcing people to defy the “social distancing” necessary to keep the virus at bay.

Under normal circumstances, such wanton disregard from the government might prompt protests. But these are far from normal circumstances. Instead, public demonstrations are almost impossible.

So what can we do when it seems that there is nothing we can do?

Ordinary people have already responded in important ways. The most immediate responses are by those who have continued to work because their jobs, despite low pay, are now considered essential or because they have no choice. These protests have been grounded in efforts to secure equipment or change work routines to provide some measure of protection.

“Gig economy” workers, including ride-share drivers and grocery shoppers, have taken some of these labor actions. Workers for Instacart, the grocery delivery service, went on strike to demandthe company provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Such gig workers often lack basic protections because they are considered contract workers, not employees, a classification with potentially deadly consequences; these workers need sick days and paid time off to ensure not only their own health but also that of the public.

It’s not only the most marginalized workers whose basic well-being is being neglected, but people across all workplaces. Grocery store workers have had to demand protection and hazard pay, while some autoworkers in Michigan walked off the job because there was no hot water to wash their hands. Amazon warehouse workers have complained that management has not taken the proper steps to disinfect the facilities after some workers have tested positive for the virus. Bus drivers in Birmingham, Ala., walked out in protest of conditions they felt made them more vulnerable to the virus.

These cases show that even amid an unprecedented lockdown, ordinary workers still have extraordinary leverage when their labor is so crucial to maintaining basic functions in our society. This is always true, but it is more apparent today. And this leverage is even more significant when workers use it for the greater social good.

That happened when unionized workers at General Electric organized a protest last month to demand that instead of laying them off, the company repurpose their workplace to produce the ventilators desperately needed around the country. The protest was at G.E. headquarters, where the workers stood and then marched in silence, six feet apart.

Union members this month continued their protest to demand General Electric accelerate its crisis response by manufacturing ventilators at its plants, such as this one in Lynn, Massachusetts, and test employees’ temperatures at the plants.

Union members this month continued their protest to demand General Electric accelerate its crisis response by manufacturing ventilators at its plants, such as this one in Lynn, Massachusetts, and test employees’ temperatures at the plants. Photo by Cj Gunther/EPA, via Shutterstock

Even for workers protesting their own workplace conditions, there’s a greater social purpose. This is particularly true of nurses and doctors who, at their own professional risk, have used social media and other means to show the appalling lack of ventilators and personal protective equipment. Dr. Ming Lin, an emergency room physician working in a hospital near Seattle, was fired after he spoke out about the lack of protective equipment there. In the context of the highly contagious coronavirus, it is a public service when workers publicize the questionable hygienic practices at their workplaces.

Embedded in these kinds of actions is the spirit of solidarity that is needed for any meaningful social movement to emerge. When solidarity involves making sacrifices to improve the situation of others or taking up another person’s struggle even when it does not directly or immediately affect you, that contributes to the potential for social transformation.

We can find another example of this kind of organizing in the proliferation of mutual aid efforts across the country, where people mobilize the resources needed for one another’s survival, like grocery deliveries, meal preparation and mask-making. (This is unlike charities where money and goods are donated on behalf of other people.) In New Hampshire, one initiative even provides Narcan to those struggling with heroin addiction. In New York, mutual aid organizers have been raising money to send soap to incarcerated people, who are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because of cramped conditions.

Perhaps the most famous example of mutual aid comes from the Black Panther Party, which provided free breakfast and free health care clinics in the late 1960s and ’70s for black working-class communities. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many dispersed organizers from Occupy Wall Street coordinated hundreds of volunteers and created “distribution centers” to deliver all manner of supplies to those trapped. This also happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

These initiatives are not meant to take the place of government assistance. Instead, when the lag of government efforts can have deadly consequences, mutual aid efforts serve an immediate need for historically underserved populations. These important gestures of solidarity have the potential to build relationships and coordination among different groups of people that may be instrumental in later organizing efforts. As the mutual aid organizer Mariame Kaba has argued, this work “provides a foundation for future political action.”

Of course, we still need coordinated organizing. Federal efforts continue to prioritize the recovery of the corporate sector over the welfare of the general public; the threat of poverty and starvation will not, on its own, compel Congress to produce a stimulus that prioritizes social welfare. Perhaps only intense public pressure can.

Creative approaches to generating the political pressure necessary to shift the priorities of the public and private sectors are much needed. This, in and of itself, is not unique. Various movements in the United States and beyond have been forced to overcome any number of constraints, from fear to the law itself, in order to advance.

Autoworkers in Flint, Mich., who tried to compel General Motors to recognize their union in 1936, occupied the factory with sit-down strikes. In retaliation, the company turned off the building’s heat in the dead of winter, but the workers opened the windows, threatening to expose the plant’s equipment to the cold. Eventually, General Motors relented and agreed to recognize their union, which is now the United Auto Workers.

In 1960, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. congratulated black college students who had initiated a new way to protest racial segregation: lunch counter sit-ins. Dr. King described the sit-in as a “dynamic idea” and “creative protest” that was “destined to be one of the glowing epics of our time.” Faced with the intransigence of the law across the South, black activists were forced to find a way of effectively engaging in protest. And they succeeded.

There are countless other examples, but the point is that new situations create new obstacles that have to be overcome. Social distancing is one of them. Yet, there is a bigger challenge: the internal barriers to organizing a movement. After all, many of the issues we face — poverty, inaccessible health care, housing and inequality — are not new. But even as these conditions have been getting worse, there has been little concerted effort to collectively move against them. There are also the differences of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality that can threaten to unravel the unity necessary for knitting together a broad social movement.

 Today, we cannot gather to express our collective strength and experience the commonality of our endeavor. Instead, the rapid collapse of the economy and the immediate immiseration of millions of people highlight our mutual bond. This doesn’t mean that this crisis is experienced in the same way across lines of race or class. But even as African-Americans and undocumented immigrants prepare to experience the worst of this crisis, social distance may illustrate a new social connection.

Because of the dithering response of the federal government, the suffering will be exponential for millions of working-class people, some of whom haven’t experienced the systematic discrimination and victimization faced by oppressed populations. As Congress bails out some of the wealthiest businesses while doling out checks that cannot even cover a month’s expenses, the potential for solidarity lies in this common experience.

At the same time, however, there is a suffocating fear that must be overcome. The fear of falling even further behind disciplines people to expect little and prepare for even less. This mind-set was so evident in the disconnect between people’s professed support for Bernie Sanders’s proposals in polls and their decision not to vote for him in the primaries.

Instead, Democratic voters fell back on the predictability of a conventional politician like Joe Biden, whose ideas are as familiar as they are ineffective. When tried-and-true elected officials still insist that universal health care is an impossibility, even as millions upon millions of workers lose their health coverage as a pandemic climaxes, a cynical pragmatism stands between the status quo and substantive change.

We can overcome fear with imagination and hope. Hope, not as a wish for things to be different, but a deep desire for change rooted in the belief of human potential, solidarity and mutual generosity. The cynicism of the status quo is not new. It was the belief that American slavery couldn’t be ended. It was the scoffing at the hope that Jim Crow would fall. It was the sneer at the idea of women’s suffrage. It is the same chortle we hear today.

No social movement begins with the question of what is possible; it is typically fueled by imagining what could be. This will be the challenge of the new movement that emerges to challenge the vast inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.

[Originally published on April 13, 2020 via The New York Times]

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