What Trump protesters can learn from the civil rights movement

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington.

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington.

My recent challenging of the strategic effectiveness of protesting Trump events — if the goal is actually to undermine Trump — has brought a storm upon my head. It has also stimulated discussion by many and led me to a greater appreciation of the courage and initiative taken by the protesters.

At the same time, I think we can do better, and welcome the demands I’ve received to suggest alternatives. One of my favorites is to figure out what my opponent wants me to do, and then refuse to do it. A little-known but dramatic example of this tactic comes from Alabama in 1955, where white supremacy was virtually unchallenged until Montgomery black people launched a bus boycott.

The Ku Klux Klan decided to ride through the African American community to scare people into getting back on the buses. The Klan’s threats by mail and phone had been increasing: to burn down 50 homes in a single night, and to hang Martin Luther King Jr. from a tree. The King family house had already been bombed; fortunately no one was hurt.

“Ordinarily,” as King recalled later, “threats of Klan action were a signal to the Negroes to go into their houses, close the doors, pull the shades, or turn off the lights. Fearing death, they played dead. But this time they had prepared a surprise. When the Klan arrived – according to the newspapers ‘about 40 carloads of robed and hooded members’ – porch lights were on and doors open. As the Klan drove by, the Negroes behaved as though they were watching a circus parade. Concealing the effort it cost them, any walked about as usual; some simply watched from their steps; a few waved at the passing cars. After a few blocks, the Klan, nonplused, turned off into a sidestreet and disappeared into the night.”

This is called noncooperation, which some believe is the heart of nonviolent power. It’s consistent with Kate Aronoff’s recent call for us to get creative and put on as good a show as entertainer Trump can produce.

The Klan wanted African Americans to show how scared they were by violent white supremacy, so Montgomery blacks turned the Klan’s threat into a picnic.

In New Zealand a racist right-wing group has been holding an annual march for many years, with a counter-demonstration by the left gaining traction each year. The event is covered by the media. Last year the leftist activists went on strike and refused to show up to do their protest thing. The march turned into a non-event and the media didn’t bother to cover it.

The bottom line is: Find out what the opponent wants you to do and refuse to do it. If your opponent wants you to come to work, strike. If the banker wants to do business quietly and efficiently, fill the bank lobby with Quakers praying and singing. If the homophobes count on LGBTQ people to stay in the closet, come out. If middle-class professionals want you to stay in your working-class closet — a pressure I experienced in an Ivy League grad school — come out as working class. The power is in the noncooperation.

Noncooperation tactics are only powerful when you know what your opponent wants or needs from you. That’s when your refusal to cooperate pressures them to change. As far as we know historically, the working class has used this strategy the most, through boycotts and strikes. In fact, the earliest known nonviolent campaign in history was Egyptian workers refusing to continue to build the Pharoah’s tomb until they got a living wage.

In the Trump campaign, who is our opponent?

I was moved by the Waging Nonviolence interview with Ben Laughlin, a working-class white organizer who was protesting Trump’s event in Arizona. Laughlin’s father, like my brother, finds in Trump a rebel voice for his own anger against the major parties’ participation in the running down of his country and people like him. I believe that millions of Trump supporters are like them and are willing to tolerate Trump’s offenses against their personal standards because he voices their central concern so emphatically. Are Trump’s supporters the opponent of the protesters? I hope not, since I agree that they deserve a voice (I value democracy), and I agree with much of their grievance.

Perhaps, then, opponents are the ambition of Trump himself. He has different interests from most of his supporters. He also has an agenda that gives our protests a prominent place. He wants drama, which is enhanced by our protests and his threats. He also wants to appear to be defending himself against forces that want to throttle his voice, because that defense rallies his supporters all the more. Kate Aronoff cited a Monmouth University poll of Florida Republicans that found only 11 percent were less likely to back Trump after hearing about what happened in Chicago, and double that number were more likely to support him.

Trump’s third goal is to brand us as the enemy in the eyes of his supporters. He’s looking ahead. If he’s elected, he’ll make deals with the 1 percent and his party chiefs in order to govern, no problem. He’ll want to use us as scapegoats along with others he’s named. It’s useful if his supporters believe that elite leftists are entranced by political correctness and eager to look down on ordinary people, his base. That’s why he accused Sanders of fomenting the Chicago rally’s cancellation. That’s why he wants us to protest.

Arizona trans organizer Laughlin wants to reach out to his people — white working-class people — who support Trump. For him, protesting Trump events has that meaning. He also says it’s a chance to “take a stand against racism.” Significantly, when interviewer Caitlin Breedlove asks him about the impact of the protests, he says “boldness” matters, and adds that “It’s on us to put the time and energy into engaging white working-class folks in all sorts of ways and really getting to the heart of what’s drawing them to Trump.”

The good news is that there is a far more effective way to be bold, and it’s a method that invites us to put in the time and energy to relate to working-class people: Organize nonviolent direct campaigns for racial and economic justice.

Beyond rhetoric and reactivity

Montgomery’s black community knew when it was smart not to cooperate with the KKK game plan. They also wanted much more than to reduce the polluted atmosphere of racist rhetoric and threat. They wanted racial justice, a different matter. They made an analysis of who could yield to their pro-active demand, and found a strategy for sustaining the pressure to win.

In short, they waged a campaign with a clear, achievable goal for institutional change. Many campaigns followed, and spurred a broader movement that went well beyond who can occupy which seats in buses and lunch counters. The movement raised fundamental questions about U.S. society, while fighting to make a difference for people’s life chances. The historic 1963 March on Washington, which included a remarkable number of white working-class people, was for “jobs and freedom.” As long as that basic strategy held, the country changed despite the increased level of Ku Klux Klan and state terrorist activity.

The freedom movement’s targeted campaigns scared the 1 percent who saw that campaigns do raise more radical questions than their specific goals. That worry among our rulers was confirmed in the 1970s when the victorious campaign-based movement against nuclear power awakened questions about basic capitalist assumptions. The frightened 1 percent then launched the Reagan Revolution, and the progressives (except for the LGBT movement) mistakenly went on the defensive.

Our U.S. historic experience, in short, is that the most effective way to fight white supremacy (which of course is intertwined with capitalism and imperialism) is to ground the struggle in concrete, nonviolent direct action campaigns. If Southern black people had focused their attention on the ugly bigotry they heard every day, they would still be riding the back of the bus. Real justice was more important to most of them than an atmosphere superficially cleansed of racist rhetoric. It still is.

The strategic means for undermining Trump is to erode his base by creating campaigns that fight for the positives that most of his base wants and deserves: a just society for all.

Campaigning in a more hopeful context

Most nonviolent direct action campaigns start locally and extend as participants grow in skills and courage and others see successes. Going national is sometimes smart, and in the case of Bernie Sanders — with his own white working-class supporters and the use of the word “revolution” — contributes to accelerating change.

As students learned in the movements for South African divestment and boycotting sweatshop-made clothes, and the Dreamers and the Coalition for the Immokalee Workers demonstrate, campaigns ground participants, help them become practical and learn to strategize.

Our campaigns will face opposition and sometimes that will come with violent threat. That’s a good time to study the civil rights movement, which faced something far worse than we’re likely to: the most deeply-rooted and widespread terrorist organization in U.S. history. I realize that white people can be resistant to learning from black experience, but in this case the stakes are very high. We whites need to do whatever it takes to get humble and learn from what worked for the nonviolent freedom movement.

Faced with a foe far worse than Donald Trump, civil rights workers in the Deep South “kept their eye on the prize” — making concrete gains for justice. They did not spend their time protesting the Klan’s Grand Wizard. They pro-actively built power behind their own demands, and fought nonviolently for their own goals. As long as they continued that path, they forced large shifts, although King’s leading strategist Bayard Rustin kept warning: If you don’t tackle the economy head-on, we’ll still have terrible racism in 50 years. (Obviously, he was right.)

Insofar as we learn from their example we will find, as the anti-nukers of the 1970s discovered, that fundamental questions about the construction of our society do emerge in a compelling and grounded way. Our advantage is that their work and that of successor movements enable us to start from a higher place. We can take into account the successes and mistakes of our comrades, and this time move the struggle much farther.

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