Thoughts After our Brush with Dictatorship

A party in San Francisco’s Castro District after the announced win of President-elect Joseph R. Biden. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Watching the spontaneous celebrations that had poured into the streets after the Biden/ Harris victory was declared, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said, “This is how people behave when dictatorships fall”. Robinson should know. He covered Pinochet’s dictatorial reign in Chile, which Trump’s was increasingly reminding him of.

Queen Miranda strikes a pose at a party in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to celebrate President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Americans had descended on their main streets and gathering places–bearing champagne, beer, signs, kids, music, balloons. The joy was infectious even through the TV screen. Diversity was in evidence. Young people, who have been given every reason in their short lives to be cynical, were ecstatic, crying, when interviewed wearing their “Vote” Covid masks. There was none of the menacing anger we were used to seeing at “MAGA” rallies. In my own small town, people gathered in the town square. Babies and dogs played. We spontaneously sang Imagine in a circle.

People celebrate the Biden/ Harris victory in downtown Mill Valley. Photo: Suz Lipman

I want you to remember this joy. I want you to remember the chilling tinge in Eugene Robinson’s words. When Obama won, we poured into the streets, too. Barriers had been broken and we were rightly excited to have a humane, forward-thinking leader after the horrible Bush years (which themselves have been sugar-coated by time and the exceedingly lowered bar that was Trump).

I want you to remember these things every time you are asked to extend olive branches of understanding to those who voted for four more years of cruelty and chaos. I want you to remember these things when you are asked to empathize with those people, calm your celebration, and otherwise mute your thoughts and behaviors. Unless you’re a politician, and those are your constituents, it’s not your job to extend olive branches.

Many of us spent a lot of time trying to understand the people who, in 2016, felt so disenfranchised by government that they threw, what Michael Moore termed, a last-ditch “Molotov cocktail” at the system. Those people still exist, but they are a small, vocal group in the mix. Many young people I know feel very removed from Washington and the people in government, which they had perceived (until Trump), as having little bearing on their everyday lives.

The government is not off the hook. I have been angry at government ineffectiveness and cronyism for decades, conditions that got so toxic (thanks in large part to the obstructionism of those led by Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell) that it led to the leadership vacuum into which a Trump could occur. We need profound change to overturn the current system and create a government that truly works for the people, instead of for the wealthy elite. We need to reform the practices of special-interest lobbies, campaign finance and advertising, and impose electoral integrity. The Center for American Progress offers 10 ways to reform congressional ethics and restore Democracy. I retain faith that our government can work for the common good.

Georg, Shaunte and their son Sebastian join hundreds of supporters of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the streets of the Castro in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2020, to celebrate their victory. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

See more of the best 2020 election celebration photos from around the U.S.

Scroll down for the story of the Mill Valley Community Action Network

The “poor Trump voter” is a myth. I have sympathy for the truly disenfranchised, the abject poor, and the left behind, but not for those who went along with the heinousness because they perceived that it would net them a little money in stocks or tax benefits (another system that’s due for an overhaul). Nor do I have sympathy for the religious right, who conveniently aligned with Trump to enhance their aim of trampling on people’s civil and human rights, in the name of their God, even though America was founded on, among other things, separation of church and state. And what to make of recent exiles from Venezuela who confuse our services with the socialism of their home countries? I can’t pretend to know their lived experience, and yet I feel their fears were misguided and misplaced, to the degree that they didn’t connect Trump himself with the very authoritarianism they fled.

As for the economy, that factors into voting for Trump when people vote based on their perceived and, especially, their future economic and cultural anxiety. In 2020, Trump overwhelmingly lost support of low-income and white voters. He gained support with those making more than $100,000 a year. (There is still a rural/ urban divide among voters and an educational divide. Might there be hope for bridging this divide when K-12 education improves in a White House that has an educator First Lady?)

If you wish to understand someone else, I suggest you start with a person of color. Ask them when in their lives they felt discriminated or disenfranchised by social, cultural or justice institutions. Start with a young person who grew up shadowed by gun violence and school shootings, and the epidemics of opioids and suicide, declining economic prospects and crippling student debt.

Here’s what else I want you to remember: All the people who rose and fought. Consistently, for four years. Democracy is fragile and worth sustaining with our efforts.

Our time is best spent helping people organize and educate in their own communities to bring more people into the process, to help our government work to address the issues that matter to them. Our time is better spent reforming the inequities that result in disenfranchisement and true economic hardship than it is trying to assuage the last Angry Trump Voter.

Since the election of Trump, we responded thusly:

We organized. Within days of the 2016 election, when many were still understandably in shock and mourning, a few of us in my small town connected with one another and booked a community center meeting room to plan next steps. A few dozen people came to the first meeting, which was organized using principles shared by the Working Families Party. A week later, another meeting was held, and 60 people came. Working groups were formed so people could concentrate on the areas of most concern to them, such as legally removing Trump from office and electing better leaders, promoting racial and economic justice, improving our environment and education, and protecting health care and women’s rights. By late November, Bernard Catalinotto, June Cooperman, Eileen Fisher, Danny Altman and I had formed the Mill Valley Community Action Network, named for our town of 20,000. We amassed a mailing list in the hundreds, some of whom had never before been politically active, and wanted, now, to do something.

Indivisible, created by former congressional staffers, published an action guide to help people organize and take specific actions, particularly in regard to wielding influence over our elected representatives. More resources poured forth, with tips for making advocacy phone calls and using social media. MVCAN leaders met with our U.S. Representative, Jared Huffman, and he ended up not only being a listening ear, but a frequent speaker at monthly meetings and phone banks. We met regularly with representatives from Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office. We even meet with Representative Eric Swalwell, who represents a different district, as well as others in our state government. In early December, I started a web site, Enter the Stream, to help synthesize some of the available information about advocacy, action, and even background about elections and autocrats and social movements, in an attempt to make sense of and share what had happened and how to respond.

MVCAN attracted more and more people. A small group started meeting weekly around a kitchen table to plan an organizational structure, actions, communications and physical meetings. Subcommittees met in homes and in a local market. In early January, 2017, during a driving rainstorm that knocked out electricity, 140 people met in our community center, gathering by flashlight in rooms and hallways, to plan next steps. We were joined by powerful people from around our county, people with distinct expertise in political work and especially the person-to-person work of calling, texting and meeting with voters to let them know about candidates and turn out the vote. People who were fresh off the stinging defeat of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, like long-time volunteer organizer Susan Bolle, who had led the Clinton campaign in Marin. Many of those people kept up the calling and texting and teaching others to call and text, weekends, and sometimes weeknights, and sometimes daily, for four years!

MVCAN members led and joined marches in the streets for women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, for science and the environment, for Trump to release his taxes. MVCAN supported local communities, particularly on issues of immigration, racism and social justice. Meeting attendance kept growing, and the group moved to a small theaters and bigger community rooms. Meetings were planned and organized and featured national speakers and specific actions. Members became engaged in California state politics and with other local grassroots groups, attending and helping plan larger conferences and supporting a progressive candidate for the Chair of the California Democratic Party, Kimberly Ellis, who almost won. The mailing list went over 1,000.

Meanwhile, MVCAN was operating like a start-up business. I took on an administrative role–producing org. charts, a mailing list, a web site and, with others, a weekly newsletter. Something (my history degree? my DNA?) had told me on the eve of the Trump election that Fascism was here. I joined people across cultures and epochs to run into the burning building and, in my case, set up a database.

Countless others continued–again, without let-up– to do far more than me. They were the visionaries; the community organizers; the networkers, researchers, teachers and cheerleaders. They booked rooms and brought food and made signs and created PowerPoint slide shows, and did all the tasks, large and small, that fuel a community action group.

Danny Altman started the Airlift Fund, an offshoot of MVCAN, to help fund grassroots groups working year-round in battleground states, in their own communities. Airlift was an early supporter of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project and LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright’s Black Voters Matter, and multiple other groups across the upper Midwest, Sunbelt and South that work to empower students, people of color and others, to increase voter turnout and engagement.  These were the very groups that made the difference in the 2018 midterms and then the 2020 general election. This is still an area in which conventional Democratic fundraising and activity lags behind. The Democratic party is concentrated on election cycles and the people at the top of the ticket. By contrast, the grassroots nurtures ongoing relationships to enhance participation in government from the ground up (often working at the state and local level), as well as year-round, even as specific elections and candidates come and go. A map of Airlift Fund groups shows them to be in every crucial battleground of the 2020 election. The grassroots is credited with organizing Latinx voters in key districts in a way the Biden campaign appears to have fallen short. By the end of this election cycle, Airlift had raised $1,800,000– enough to fund 90,000 hours of organizer time.

Grassroots organizing played a key role in the 2018 midterm election, in which Democrats flipped 43 seats to take back control of the House of Representatives and won important statehouse races, as well as victories for women, diversity, voting rights and social justice. Most importantly, people voted in record midterm numbers– especially young people, who appeared to have remained engaged in the process. In 2018, MVCAN members cranked up the phoning and texting teams and traveled to other districts and even states to register and engage voters, sometimes door-to-door–weekend after weekend, day after day. This group helped win all seven of the “ flippable” California congressional seats, as well as hotly contested Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada. Often it was the same people who did the calling, texting, organizing, canvassing. Quite often, the calling team was largely comprised of women.

Throughout, a team of MVCAN members dubbed the Eco-Warriors continued their passionate engagement in climate action, producing their own events, advocacy and newsletters. Then, in 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement intersected with our small town, precisely because our mayor claimed in a meeting that it did not. MVCAN members immediately got involved, listening at local rallies, marching with others, and presenting a letter to the City Council listing seven demands in areas such as affordable housing, police reform and others that improve human and civil rights and social and racial justice. The letter called for the formation of a task force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which was created and on which MVCAN members serve.

I personally cycled out of doing the heavy lifting after the 2018 midterms, and I am the only one of the original MVCAN leaders to do so. Along with the stalwarts who have kept the organization going, many others, like MVCAN Leadership Team member Rebecca Brackman, have brought their own energy and expertise to the issues of our time and will continue to do so. They are the people, as are their counterparts in movements around the globe, who see challenges and ask, “How can I help?” They are the ones running into the burning buildings and saving the world.

Thank those who did the work.

MVCAN monthly meeting. April, 2017. Photo: Elliot Karlan
MVCAN at the Women’s March in San Francisco. January, 2017.

Vow to use social media discerningly. Social media can be a great source of information, even organizing, less so of discourse. The medium and tenor don’t favor long-running, nuanced, academic  discussions the way it did when I first encountered it in the early 90s. It’s too big, too sprawling, too random, too fast. I would like to think more before sharing, using, posting. I hope we’ll take a collective pause to absorb and reflect and pursue original thoughts, to adhere to fewer canned phrases and ideas, as easy as the shorthand is: “echo chamber”, “bubble”, “fake news” fly around so easily that they become meaningless. I want to hear your own thoughts. Twitter, which can be a great organizing and democratizing tool, has largely devolved into a “zinger” machine. There’s a place for comedy and deadline journalism, and nothing like social media for sharing momentous events (like this election) in real time. But we all don’t have to be on, in the digital collective, all the time.

It will take a while to get used to this feeling of psychic, as well as physical, exhalation, this unclenching of shoulders, stomach and jaws. This return to relative normalcy, to a president who admits things might seem a little quiet while he is working. News of the world was horrible enough without the daily barrage of chaos, unrest and cruelty–sewn by our own supposed leader. And those were just the things we knew about. There is certainly much to be uncovered about the most corrupt and criminal American administration in history.

My next suggestion is to revel in this feeling, while staying alert. Go on the walks, write the poems. Look forward, with me, to a renaissance of art and beauty, not out of resistance, but for its own sake. Look forward to all the things you’ll be able to do in the time you’ll get back, time  during which you won’t have to think about your authoritarian government and how to help those it hurts most.

We still have work to do, in Georgia, and as passionate citizens in a democracy. I hope you’ll pledge, with me, to continue to stay engaged, to fight for the things that matter to you, to help teach those younger, to realize and share the wisdom that your government is elected to represent you, to work for you. To do that, we need to stay informed and hold our representatives accountable. Those of us with the stomach to do so might talk to those with opposing views, the ones who are not lost causes due to fundamentalist zealotry.

Keep dancing, keep working, keep moving ahead.

Contribute to Airlift to Georgia to help the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter and two other key groups organize for the two January 5 Georgia Senate races that will decide the balance of power in the Senate.

Contribute to Fair Fight’s Georgia Senate Fund to support election integrity and the two Georgia Senate candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Volunteer with Democracy Action Marin to call and text voters in the Georgia runoff election and be part of the next blue wave.

Sign up for the MVCAN newsletter for action updates.

Climate March - Freedom Singers - SF City Hall - Sep. 8 2018 - Large Photo 2
MVCAN members at the Climate March in San Francisco. Sept., 2018. Photo: Marin Freedom Singers

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