The coronavirus pandemic is more than a public health crisis: for the left in the United States, it is an organizing crisis. While the left has been responding to the immediate, emerging needs of the community — focusing on efforts such as on mutual aid and hazard pay — corporations, special interests and conservative decision-makers have used this moment to push through their far-reaching legislative agendas. In March, for example, while climate-minded protesters were law-abidingly staying at home, advocates of the Keystone XL pipeline secured the necessary permits and funding to push construction forward. At the same time, several states made it a felony to exercise first amendment rights to protest against this “critical infrastructure.”
With the pandemic and its economic fallout, alongside widespread protest calling for an end to rampant police brutality, we are clearly in a time of national crisis. But the left needs to understand this time as one of historic opportunity, too.
Paul Engler has called the coronavirus a “historic trigger event,” a moment of great social upheaval that alters politics, economics and prevailing public opinion in a way that makes previously unachievable reforms possible. If the left is to effectively catalyze this moment as a trigger event, it needs to strategize more adeptly and move more aggressively to accomplish its long-term goals. As Mark and Paul Engler, authors of “This is an Uprising,” affirm: “Civil resistance works when groups are willing to seize an opportunity and escalate.” The right has seized the opportunity the current circumstance presents; the left needs to do so, too.
With this in mind, I offer four strategic counsels for how the left can gain greater ground and victory in its continuing battle for the public good.
1. Move beyond reactive responses. This is an opportunity to advance large scale reform.
The Keystone XL pipeline is by no means the only example of the right taking advantage of the moment: the Trump administration is working to overhaul key elements of the National Environmental Policy Act and companies are coming out strongly against unionization efforts. Meanwhile, as Mongabay reports, corporations from a range of industries are successfully “garner[ing] subsidies, loosen[ing] restrictions, and [walking] back commitments to climate-related targets amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
In short, the right has successfully advanced its goals for fossil fuel development, regulatory rollbacks, and corporate welfare while public attention has been focused elsewhere, making big strides in their goals that push back and undermine years of organizing success on the left.
To combat these advances on the right, the left needs to use the current crisis as an opportunity to organize for our “big asks.”
The pandemic and the resulting socioeconomic repercussions are making starkly clear that larger scale reforms — universal healthcare, expanded affordable housing and livable wages — are badly needed. Rather than working reactively, addressing immediate issues emerging from the public health crisis (the need for hazard pay and sufficient PPE for essential workers, and so forth), the left needs to capitalize on growing public frustration to advance reforms that address the underlying and endemic problems of systemic inequality and dysfunction.
At the same time, instead of calling only for justice in the moment, the left needs also to use this moment to double down on calls for more permanent social change. It’s a difference, for example, between voicing only a particular call for frontline workers to be compensated an extra $2 per hour as “hazard pay” and demanding universal health care, paid sick leave and $15 an hour minimum wage. Hazard pay can be revoked after the pandemic passes; a new standard for minimum wage would be much harder to undo. As more workers than we’ve seen in recent history, for example, are being called to strike and organize, now is the perfect opportunity to incorporate the demand for large-scale change into those collective bargaining asks.
To use this moment to build support for the “big asks” not only advances our goals, but makes it harder for the right to advance theirs. Pausing the fight on the “big asks” while we refocus our attention and resources on emerging problems creates an opportunity for the opposition to take advantage of our absence. We must not let that happen.
2. Grow the movement by building community support into ongoing advocacy efforts.
Because collective action is critical to advancing systemic change, we on the left are going to need to add to our ranks if we wish to succeed in our long-term goals.
According to author Francis Fox Piven, profound social dislocation allows people to realize not only that the current system is unjust, but that it is changeable.
The impact of the pandemic is making the absence of things like universal healthcare and a livable minimum wage felt more critically by more people than ever before. This makes now an excellent time to recruit and mobilize all the newly radicalized members of the public to fight for long-term change.
In non-crisis times, we build our numbers by following established best practices: distributing the organizing workload, holding meetings when members old and new can most easily attend and removing the barriers to entry (such as by providing childcare at actions and meetings). In the present crisis we need an extra measure of organizing effort to help meet the needs of our communities. There’s no limit to what such community support efforts could look like today: holding a protest that also serves as a food drive; providing assistance in securing relief services at political education events; delivering food to neighbors as part of a voter registration drive, among many other possibilities.
Such coordinated efforts have been successfully implemented before. During the Great Depression, members of socialist and communist parties created Unemployed Councils in cities across the country. These councils served a dual purpose: They both helped community members meet their immediate needs — helped clients apply for government aid, stopped evictions, and ended gas and electricity shutoffs — and also mobilized those same community members in local and national protests. The organized protest that emerged from these groups not only shifted public opinion about government assistance, but were instrumental in bringing about New Deal reforms that benefited the poor and the elderly.
The Black Panthers’ “Serve the People” programs, which included efforts to provide free breakfasts to Black students, legal aid education, and medical services, served a similar role. According to The Philadelphia Partisan, “the Panthers conceived of their ‘Serve the People’ programs as a key component in support of a strategy for expanding and cohering the party…[for] garnering political support, and finding meaningful activity for its members to engage in.”
Expanding advocacy efforts to support and uplift communities also means expending time and resources to show up for other community efforts. Mutual aid is a great way to support members in the community, but it doesn’t solve the systemic problems that make mutual aid necessary in the first place. We’re now seeing organizations and social movements across the country step up as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement to help address those systemic problems, which, in turn, helps to build a stronger movement overall.
By providing community support in its various forms for these crisis-related problems, we can draw more people into the movement. Going forward, we must make it an integral part of our strategy to marry advocacy efforts with community aid if we wish to grow our numbers for the fights that address systemic change.
3. We must frame our narrative strategically.
To optimally mobilize people who are currently energized by the government’s poor response to the pandemic, we need to bring them into a bigger fight about the necessity for making systemic changes now to prevent future crises. How we frame this fight matters.
According to Srdja Popovic, a leader in the Serbia’s Otpor! movement, “Activists who can identify some everyday thing that speaks to as many people as possible will always have an advantage.” Gandhi, for example, helped bring about Indian independence by organizing a march around one of the most basic of human staples: salt.
Like salt, the pandemic is universal; it affects the lives of everyone in very concrete ways. The left must leverage that universality in its narratives for change: We must couch the fight to solve the pandemic within the fight for larger reforms.
If, for example, we frame the current crisis under the banner of “the government is handling the pandemic poorly,” then the momentum for rallying the public ceases either when the pandemic ends or when government measures adequately improve the situation. If, however, the fight were framed more along the lines of, “existing government policies were/are insufficient to protect us from a crisis,” then COVID-19 becomes a compelling example of this broader and more far-reaching claim. Such a narrative is equally true for the pandemic as it is for the climate crisis, access to affordable health care, and racial injustice, and therefore allows for a more seamless pivot from mobilizing around COVID-19-related responses to longer-term fights.
Equally important is finding a simple slogan to serve as the rallying cry. Just as the call to #DefundThePolice is a broader call to reinvest in communities, the left needs to find a similarly memorable slogan to amplify the idea that the pandemic response is yet one more example of the government’s maladroit approach to crisis preparedness and that we need action now that both prevents the next crisis and that puts people before corporations. At different points, calls for a people’s alignment, a Second Bill of Rights, or a Green New Deal have tried to fill that need, though none has yet caught on at a scale that has made the change inevitable. Perhaps now is the time that they will.
Finding the right balance for this narrative is challenging. As we work to seize this moment as a recruitment opportunity, we must keep in mind that how we frame the fight against the current crisis is critical to our ability to keep people energized for the longer battles ahead.
4. Demand that solutions to the immediate crisis be ones that stave off the next.
The economic reverberations of the current pandemic have already caused a recession, and could lead to an even more severe economic downturn. As we navigate the repercussions of the current crisis, we must remember that long-standing crises of climate change and systemic inequality also threaten catastrophic consequences if they continue to be ignored.
To address both the imminent economic problems and, for example, the continuing climate crisis, more attention needs to be given to shaping the terms of stimulus packages coming out of Congress. For better or worse, we live in a society where money talks, and coming to terms with this fact means we can use the movement of government funds as an opportunity to advance longer-term change.
As it stands, the right quickly seized on the opportunity of the prior stimulus packages to further their special interests and to provide federal bailouts to corporations without any strings attached — and the left got very little, if anything, for the public most in need of help. Elizabeth Warren was on the right path when she proposed eight conditions that corporations must meet in order to receive a government bailout, including that companies raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour. Canada pushed it a step further: Any company applying for support from the Canadian government would effectively be required to set and report against greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
The scale of the ongoing health crisis makes it increasingly likely that we’ll see further bailouts and, perhaps, even New-Deal-style efforts to stimulate economic recovery. Now more than ever is the time to call for an end to bailouts to the fossil fuel industry, to require companies that receive bailouts to adopt carbon neutrality goals and pay living wages, and to provide economic aid to sectors promoting “green” jobs.
Changing the conditional terms for receiving economic support is an opportunity to help create a new economy that is both sustainable and more equitable. As the left strategizes for the long game, mobilizing popular support around such legislative changes needs to be a priority going forward.
The Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks offer a shining example of how to transform the energy sparked by a reaction to a particular event into cohesive, organizing actions that can transform our future. Protests that started in response to the murder of George Floyd have consolidated into a set of clearly-articulated demands for systemic reform: abolishing and defunding police departments and reinvesting that money into communities and community services that have been ignored and underfunded. The protests have not only recaptured and refocused public attention on the Black Lives Matter movement itself, but have activated a large, new group of people in the fight for broad-scale racial justice.
And the effort is working: The continued protests are bringing to the forefront legislation that has long been on the backburner and are bringing to pass ideas that seemed impossible just a few months ago. Los Angeles is divesting $150 million from its police department to invest in minority communities; a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council has pledged to dismantle the police department; Congress has introduced legislation aimed at making it easier to prosecute police misconduct; a group of bipartisan lawmakers as pushing legislation to end police access to military gear. The list goes on, and we’re only a few weeks into the protests.
The left must follow the example of Black Lives Matter by seizing the opportunity afforded by crisis to advance its broad-based goals. Inspired, but not limited by, our current moment, we must keep pressing on our long-term concerns — on climate change, on racial justice, on labor rights, on universal health care. If we learn to effectively escalate our efforts in a time of crisis, optimizing our strategy, our numbers, and our resources, we can strengthen our movement and bring about real systemic change.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.
Terrific article. Thank you!