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Decisions

On January 9, 2017, the NY Times ran a vitally important piece, “Women’s March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogue About Race.” The piece begins with a telling incident:

“Many thousands of women are expected to converge on the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Jennifer Willis no longer plans to be one of them.

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised ‘white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. ‘I was born scared.’

Stung by the tone, Ms. Willis canceled her trip.”

What this lays bare are important decisions every branch of the progressive movement–local, national, in between–will have to make as they gear up for the Trump presidency.

One approach sees events such as this as a critical teaching moment, a way to raise consciousness in this country, in a grand and important way. In another exchange:

“‘This was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places,’ said Linda Sarsour, a Muslim who heads the Arab American Association of New York and is one of four co-chairwomen of the national march. ‘Sometimes you are going to upset people.’

The post that offended Ms. Willis was part of that effort. So was the quotation posted on the march’s Facebook page from Bell Hooks, the black feminist, about forging a stronger sisterhood by ‘confronting the ways women — through sex, class and race — dominated and exploited other women.’

In response, a New Jersey woman wrote: ‘I’m starting to feel not very welcome in this endeavor.'”

The other approach, therefore, is to stage events as coalition builders, as broad-based as possible. Here the goal is to assemble the widest group possible, to build the broadest alliance, to assemble a show of force. Anne Valk, author of “Radical Sisters,” put it very well: “If your short-term goal is to get as many people as possible at the march, maybe you don’t want to alienate people… But if your longer-term goal is to use the march as a catalyst for progressive social and political change, then that has to include thinking about race and class privilege.”

There is also one other approach. During the eighties a friend of mine was a member of ACT-UP, the activist organization forcing consciousness of the AIDS crisis. She participated in a sit-in at Grand Central Station that got a lot of publicity but also inconvenienced and alienated a lot of commuters. When I pointed that out to her, she replied that they knew of these consequences, but that it had been staged for the troops, as a bonding event.

There is no universal solution here. Different forms should be used at different times. But which ones, when? Critical decisions, of strategy and tactics, need to be made.

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