Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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Lessons From the Last Fight

By Sarah Schulman

I was twenty-two when Ronald Reagan was elected. “Gay cancer” was recognized seven months later. For the first half of his presidency, Reagan never said the word “AIDS,” in accordance with his administration’s dehumanization of queer people, poor people, and people of color. Over eight years of governmental indifference and neglect, years marked also by the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, the crisis escalated. Today, there are nearly 37 million infected people on the planet. In the United States, 75,000 people have died. I am still here, but many of my friends are not. The mass death of the young forever transformed my generation. I know all too well that what lies ahead for us, under a Trump regime, is more suffering.

Yet I am strangely calm. I was trained in the political movements ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the Lesbian Avengers, organizations that taught me that the key to maintaining one’s sanity is action. The strategies of ACT UP, one of the most successful social movements in recent American history, are especially helpful to examine as we prepare for what may come. Against all odds, a despised population, abandoned by their families and government and facing a terminal disease for which there was no treatment, joined together and forced this country to change against its will. Activists won laws against discrimination, instigated policy changes that increased social services, and influenced research for treatments. Their efforts drastically changed the lives of people who have H.I.V.

One of ACT UP’s most important principles was simultaneity of action. ACT UP never worked by consensus, never demanded the full agreement of all its members for any individual action to go forward. If you wanted to get arrested doing needle exchange as a way of bringing attention to the necessity of clean-needle programs, you could do that. If someone else wanted to interrupt mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to protest the Catholic Church’s campaign to keep condoms out of public schools, she could do that. As long as the gestures were concrete, members didn’t try to stop one another from addressing the crisis however they felt was right.

The Lesbian Avengers were equally focused on doing. The group aimed to empower a constituency who had spent their lives being grossly disrespected by and excluded from social institutions — often including their own families. We needed guidelines that would help people emerge from a position in which the only power they had was the power to refuse and into a position of vision and agency. For example, one rule was “If you have an idea, you have to carry it out.” No one could passively sit back and say, “Someone should . . . ” Second was the principle “If you disagree with something, propose a better solution.” We understood that criticism alone was unhelpful. These organizational frameworks supported us in taking responsibility for ourselves and solving problems. Nothing increases panic in the middle of an emergency like theoretical discussion without application — it is both paralyzing and polarizing. When you act directly, the Avengers liked to say, the theory emerges.

The stakes were high for both ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers; we badly needed change, and we needed it fast. So we operated with the understanding that if a tactic had not worked in the past, we shouldn’t try it again. This precept may sound logical, but it is difficult to obey; there is a tendency to gravitate toward the known even when its problems are apparent.

Our creative approaches acted as correctives to more common but less effective strategies. Passive demonstrations, for instance — in which people stand out in the cold listening to speakers, say — are rarely very powerful. Far more potent are pointedly symbolic actions, organized and performed by people trained in nonviolent civil disobedience and accompanied for safety by legal observers and trained marshals. Consider the genius and bravery of the black students who took seats at segregated lunch counters. In breaking the color bar, they created — for a moment — an image of the world they wanted to live in.

Despite this country’s endless celebration of the heroic individual, progressive change happens almost exclusively as a result of coalition. These alliances depend on the flexibility of their members, a shared commitment to concrete action, and an ethic of mutual recognition. Our desperation for a solution mustn’t delude us into thinking any single strategy is appropriate for every circumstance. It’s in listening to others that we will find out what works.

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