When working-class white people close the road to Trump

Ben Laughlin, an organizer with Puente Arizona, at the March 19 protest blocking the road to Trump's rally.

Ben Laughlin, an organizer with Puente Arizona, at the March 19 protest blocking the road to Trump’s rally. (WNV / Caitlin Breedlove)

When Republican frontrunner Donald Trump announced he would be holding a campaign rally with Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix earlier this month, a multi-racial set of locally-based faith, labor and pro-immigrant groups — supported by Mijente and Not1More — decided something needed to be done. So, on March 19, they organized a peaceful blockade of the two main highways leading to the park where Trump’s rally was to be held. On one highway — with many people headed to the rally — dozens of protesters (myself included) blocked several lanes of traffic. Three people were arrested after chaining themselves to cars. This was all part of an action we affectionately called “Closing the road to Trump.”

The civil disobedience took place in Fountain Hills, Arizona, an enclave of wealthy, white conservatives. As protesters — particularly a mix of working-class and poor people of color, LGBTQ people and people of faith — we were scared to take this action, but felt that nonviolent civil disobedience was needed to oppose Trump and inspire others to act.

Among the three arrestees was Ben Laughlin — a young working-class trans man. He lives in Phoenix, works at a local restaurant, and volunteers his time organizing with Puente Arizona. In a recent conversation with Ben about our experience protesting Trump, he discussed the need to recognize Trump as a symptom of much larger issues at play, the importance of white people taking responsibility and getting involved in the struggle, and the idea that none of this work can be done by any one group or leader.

Why did you think it was so important for you to confront Trump in this moment as a working-class white trans person?

I grew up in rural Iowa, and almost all of my family still lives there. In July, I had a conversation with my dad, asking him who he was leaning towards in the presidential campaign. I knew the answer before I even asked, but I wanted to hear why. “Trump,” he said. “Because I’m so sick of the status quo. He seems like he could actually get something done.” And I understood. I understood the frustration and anger that come from busting your ass everyday, and things still suck.

People in power in the United States have been scapegoating poor people and people of color from the moment Europeans set foot on this land. For me, it is really important that I am trying to meet my people where they’re at and have real conversations about that frustration and anger. We have to dig into the misplaced hate and misguided, destructive solutions Trump is putting forward together. Trump speaks in a way that resonates with us, but you can best believe that when push comes to shove he doesn’t care about white working-class people at all. I want to validate my family’s real anger, while also exposing the scapegoating, misplaced hate and fear mongering. If we recognize Trump as a symptom of much larger issues at play, then we have the opportunity to not only organize against him coming into presidential power, but to also organize towards the world we want. Nothing would make my heart happier than seeing working-class white people on the right side of history in this moment.

Many people say our blockade (and acts like it) just harden white working-class people behind Trump and feed into his power. Why do you disagree? What logic are you working from?

I think escalation like this can be really powerful for folks who are on the fence or just beginning to lean in. For me, it’s always powerful to see a person like me doing bold things; it always brings me a little deeper into the movement and expands what I think is possible, for myself and for the world. When I recognize some part of myself in someone else, I’m more likely to pay attention. If people read me or know me as a white working-class person, I think there’s an opportunity to push the conversation a little further, to dig in a little deeper.

It may be true to a certain degree of white working-class people who are already staunch Trump supporters. I think blockades and the like are just one necessary tactic of many. 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, what they think they are going to get from him, and what they aren’t getting now that they need.

What led to your decision to put yourself on the line in this action?

A lot of things led to that moment. We knew that we were putting ourselves into a dangerous and potentially violent situation. The reality was that angry white people were going be less likely to harm and harass white people locked down to cars than if brown people had been locked down. It was a situation and an opportunity where it made sense for white people to visibly and physically take a stand against racism and confront and refute the fear-mongering put forward by the right.

For me, it was also about my family, my home and the long history of white people choosing to align ourselves with whiteness to gain power. I wholeheartedly believe working-class and poor white people have a real stake in dismantling white supremacy and racial capitalism. The allure of aligning with whiteness is powerful; as working-class white people we need to expose this force for the deadly lie that it is and be organizing our people against it with everything we have.

White activists are often excellent at cutting each other down. When we need to be precise, we are instead exacting. When we need to be nuanced, we are instead the political purity police. How do you think we can do a better job building relationships between white people in the work for social change?

The white folks who brought me into the movement in a real way listened to me spout a whole lot of crap and pushed back sometimes gently, sometimes bluntly, but they always listened and never shamed. They validated my experiences as a working-class white person in a sea of upper-class people while teaching me about the Black Panther Party. They housed me when I didn’t have a house. They talked me through the terribly dark places that came with being trans and working class, and celebrated queerness with me when I thought it was a death sentence. I guess what I’m saying is I think we have to put time in with each other. It’s going to be slow. It’s got to be. It’s so urgent: People are dying unnecessarily every day, but in the resistance and fighting and dismantling, we are building new ways of caring for each other.

No one organization can do it all, or be the big tent. No one leader can do it. What do you find most challenging about the white-on-white progressive organizing happening now?

There are many shared experiences and privileges across whiteness, but when it comes to white-on-white organizing, we can’t just lump ourselves together solely by the bands of whiteness and expect it to hold.

Erasing class from the conversation is a grave mistake. When we limit our stake in this work to being just about “love and humanity” we are actually taking what makes our work live and breathe out of the picture. I think we have to dig deeper.

There are real things poor and working-class white people need. We can be brought together around that stuff. Our stake in this work looks different than that of middle- and upper-class white people. We need access to healthcare, safe and stable housing, work that isn’t destroying our bodies. Like here in Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department — one of the most murderous in the country — without a doubt disproportionately kills black and brown people. But just counting the number of folks killed, there are by far more poor white men, usually homeless and in a mental health crisis, murdered than anybody else.

I want us to be more honest about what it will take to really build with poor white people. Saying it is happening does not make it so. It will take time and energy. Upper- and middle-class white people sort of have a spiritual death grip on how this “white on white” organizing work is framed: They have so much invested, often, in being “good white people.” This is going to take more than that. White poor and working-class people have a much better sense about what can move “people like us” than white middle- and upper-class people do.

As someone whose family is white and now also middle class, I watch how “trying to help” often means trying to control people, agendas and things. We could do so much better if we had real genuine cross-class work. What are we forgetting in this moment that we need to remember?

We need to get real about the fact that we didn’t make this “movement of white people for anti-racism” happen. It was the organizing of Black Lives Matter, the #Not1More campaign and other critical work. We have an opportunity to build out this work, but it’s coming off the shoulders and backs of black and brown people. So our work is to flank, resource, and support that work’s leadership and develop white leftist organizers through doing so.

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