Originally posted November 18, 2016
In November 2008 after California passed Proposition 8, the anti-LGBT ban on marriage rights for same sex couples, protests against the measure and its main backers, the Mormon Church, erupted around the state.
Too little, too late, many said. Where were the protests before the election when they could have influenced the vote? All the usual NGOs had actively discouraged pre-election protests against the Mormon Church, something they shared with Midwestern liberal organizations who frowned upon and opposed demonstrations against the then more-rabidly anti-LGBT Catholic hierarchy.
A true history of how equal marriage rights was won would show that those 2008 post-election protests against the Mormon Church were critical to putting the religious bigots on the defensive, thus paving the way for our eventual victory. We lost the 2008 vote, but won the war, because we didn’t take our defeat lying down.
2016 isn’t the first time that two widely loathed major presidential party candidates faced off against each other.
An even more apt analogy to this year’s election happened in 1968, right here in Chicago, just three blocks away from our demonstration that took over Lake Shore Drive the night after this year’s election. At least as viewed from the lens of politically engaged youth, the 1968 candidates were as fiercely hated.
That year in front of the Hilton Hotel, Chicago Police under the direction of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley consciously attacked and bloodied dozens of demonstrators protesting the United States’ wholesale slaughter in Southeast Asia. This attack at the service of the Democrats led to a sea-change of opinion among a layer of radicalizing youth, many of whom swore off allegiance to the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate.
In response to the wantonly illegal violence by the authorities (with no legal consequences for the police and generals – sound familiar?), young civilians and people in the armed forces stopped up their game, making the country ungovernable. Having lost faith in established institutions, including both political parties, youth ceased “playing by the rules,” and relied on their own efforts to make the change they desired.
This led to one of the greatest eras of rapid social progress for equal rights in our history. In concert with movements around the world, youth forced the newly-elected, aggressively racist, sexist, homophobic warmongering President Nixon to begin winding down their war on Southeast Asia, enacting affirmative action, food stamps, and clean air and clean water laws.
President Nixon, unlike President Trump, was a committed far-right ideologue, and yet he was forced to do all these things counter to his ideology, because a movement in the streets, combined with active resistance, forced him to.
The disaffection from both major parties by a sector of politically conscious white youth in 1968 was preceded more than a decade earlier by a similar revolution in opinion among black youth involved in the then-emerging Civil Rights Movement. Black elders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, were as firmly emeshed in the Republican Party then as today’s black elders are in the Democrats.
King, Jr. and many of his peers saw that the “Party of Lincoln” had done nothing for blacks for many, many decades. Combined with the Democrats’ role as the party of slavery and Dixiecrat segregation, they were alienated from both parties. Suspicious of both and subject to neither, they threatened both with what power they could muster.
The great 1963 March on Washington today is mainly remembered for its soaring rhetoric. Intentional historical amnesia leaves out that it was a march that the Kennedy White House worked assiduously to get cancelled (though they were successful in censoring John Lewis’s speech). Arguably it was this relative political independence, combined with the first great mass outpouring of blacks and allies in the nation’s capital, which led to the landmark mid-1960s civil rights legislation.
The great unknown is what, if any, organizational expression(s) the current widespread disgust with the two major parties will take, and if these organization(s) will be able to extend the current flurry of protests into a heighted and sustained wave of activism which has been a crucial ingredient to previous periods of accelerated social justice.
In Chicago at least, many Black Lives Matters activists have a healthy disgust for and independence from the Democrats (it helps having someone as thoroughly loathsome as Rahm for mayor). And many radical immigrant rights activists will not soon forget Obama’s mass deportations.
Many Bernie activists know the nomination was stolen from them, and will hopefully draw deeper, systemic conclusions about their standard-bearer’s quixotic campaign to take the party from the neo-liberals. And some will probably attempt a new electoral left formation, while others will attempt to ramp up the Green Party from its poor showing, at least in the presidential race.
At the very least, the large demonstrations combined with the widespread disgust with both parties presents a rare opportunity for people who believe in civil rights. Finally, for the first time in a generation, there is the possibility of building a sustained movement independent of both parties.
We need to take advantage of it.