While reading an article in the Guardian entitled “Protest and Persist: Why Giving up Hope is Not an Option,” by Rebecca Solnit, my thoughts drifted back to a recent meeting of Indivisible East Bay that I attended on March 12. We met in a Berkeley Sports Basement community room bulging with folding chairs. It was a new member gathering, and the room was so packed that by the time the meeting started, it was standing room only. I was hopeful and excited to see so many people poised for resistance. The faces around me looked energized, nervous and ready for action. It was exhilarating to be a part of this massive group of would-be-activists, all here because they care and want to see progressive change.
About 5 minutes into the meeting, one of the organizers asked us an unexpected question, “How many people feel like we can make a difference?” A little more than half of the hands in the room shot up. He continued, “and how many people feel hopeless?” The rest of us raised our hands tentatively. I looked up at my own hand as if it had betrayed me. I felt ashamed that part of me had given up so easily. Two months earlier, at the Women’s March, I was alive with a spark of righteous anger. Those who marched with me were similarly engaged and passionate. And we knew that we could win, must win, against the threat of Donald Trump and all that he represents. But since then, that drive to combat Trump has begun to wane into despair. New activists are slumping against the daily onslaught of bigoted and dangerous policies. And we are losing the one thing that has elevated the spirit of so many people in the past and has empowered them to resist: hope.
We need to have something to cling to in the midst of such turmoil and political tyranny.
Hope is that light in the darkness. Solnit gives us these poignant thoughts on the concept of hope, stating that it divorces us from the “false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both.” With the future as an unknown, we are no longer mired in the dread of doomsday certainty. We free ourselves to act, because “the future is unpredictable, but we may be able to write it ourselves.” We must be free to act, and we must act, now.
In this political climate, the future feels unknown, and even terrifying. Solnit gives us a way of looking at the past which energizes the future. We may not win each and every battle. Solnit writes about previous political struggles, both the successes and failures. She cites LA Kauffman’s Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, about the Clamshell Alliance of 1976, which failed to stop a nuclear power plant from being built in New Hampshire. While this specific attempt failed to achieve its intended goal, the Clamshell Alliance eventually “inspired people around the country to organize their own nuclear groups.” These groups led to the “cancellation of more than 100 planned nuclear projects…and changed public opinion about nuclear power.” Further, according to Kauffman, this “failure” became the “dominant model for large-scale direct-action organizing for the next 40 years.” The activists involved in the Clamshell Alliance likely felt overwhelmed and defeated, but their endeavors created a lasting legacy of change.
Solnit states that “newcomers often think that results are either immediate, or they’re non-existent. That if you don’t succeed right away, you failed.” By looking to history, we can see that some of the greatest changes happen gradually, over time.
Further, change is a catalyst that has an endless ability to inspire and duplicate itself. Gandhi wrote that, “Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious.” Solnit reminds us that Gandhi was originally inspired by British Suffragettes in 1906, who fought for the right to vote. Gandhi’s political organizing inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, in the American south. Dr. King in turn influenced John Lewis, who is fighting the Trump regime today. This path of resistance by these famous men and women led us to today. Regardless of the individual outcomes of each political struggle, the seeds of change are sown. Their courage and perseverance are in our DNA. We have inherited the rich history of peaceful protest, and we must transmit these actions into the future, for all of the activists yet to come.
Standing in the community room of the Sports Basement, I was filled with hope again. New members and organizers alike shared ideas and strategies. We planned, with our diverse ideas coming together. And I could see that spark, that deep yearning for change, in each and every person there. Looking around the room, I knew that this same thing was happening all over the country. People are gathering. They are gathering in our community, across the state, and around the country. We are gathering in the streets with the ghosts of Gandhi, MLK, and the suffragettes all by our sides. Their resistance gave birth to demands for social justice, and eventually, to change. So we have every reason to hope. We are the next generation of activists and political resistors, and our story doesn’t end here.