Note: This article is derived from a speech, “The Next Four Years: Building Our Movements in Dangerous Times,” given by the author at a conference in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 3, 2016. It has been lightly edited.
We woke to a different country on November 9, 2016, one to be ruled by a racist, dishonest, autocratic, militarist, plutocratic, neo-fascist administration. Our responsibility now is to defend our rights, human lives here and abroad, our Constitution and the democratic republic. Nothing less.
Let me begin by celebrating the people across the country who didn’t roll over and play dead when Donald Trump said he wanted to deport up to 3 million undocumented “criminal immigrants” who he imagines are among us. We weren’t silent when his advisor urged the creation of a Muslim registry, or in the face of the reckless rhetoric of tearing up the Iran nuclear deal.
Didn’t we take hope when people spontaneously came out into the streets? Raise your hand if you took hope from the Hamilton cast pressing Vice-President-elect Mike Pence to defend our diversity and rights. And weren’t we encouraged when mayors and governors pledged to enforce our sanctuary cities and states?
Friends, what we do in the coming weeks will be important — continuing to set down moral markers, illuminating the threats to our nation and rallying for what could be the most important struggle for the soul and identity of this nation since the Civil War. What we do in this period can strengthen the backbones of our congressional and state legislative representatives, opinion-makers and people at the grassroots to defend our Constitution, our rights and to oppose Trumpian militarism. What we do now prepares the ground for what will be a longer-term struggle. With increased voter suppression, we’re likely to see more Republicans in the Senate after the 2018 elections. And we’ll have the “dead hand” of his Supreme Court at the throat of the nation for years to come.
But in this dark time, we’ll enjoy the pleasure of honoring and asserting truth, defending human rights and human lives, and doing all that we can to preserve the climate for this and future generations.
Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about and lived resistance in dark times. Most critically, they taught us to join together tightly and collaborate within a comradery not demanded of us in more normal times. Some of us experienced this in the civil rights movement, during the Vietnam War, in the joyous and powerful affinity groups that opposed Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars and in other movements. With support from friends, family and comrades, we can create affinity groups in our religious congregations, unions, schools and local communities to share our thoughts and questions, to provide mutual support, to plan and move out of our comfort zones to take action.
Our responsibility is to resist, resist and transform. As we have already seen, our increasingly unified movement will act across a broad spectrum of issues and approaches: Opposing confirmation of Trump’s most egregious cabinet appointments, and pressing Senators to filibuster oppressive laws. Change will take place in one-on-one conversations with relatives, neighbors and fellow students. It will involve mass marches like the Million Women’s March on Inauguration Day and the People’s Climate March on April 29. There will be election campaigning, vigils, letters to the editors, civil disobedience, work in classrooms and the arts and much more.
Our traditional peace movement remains important to all of our struggles. If the man who can be baited with a tweet leads us into still greater wars, with people rallying round the flag, there will be little political space to fight cuts in health and welfare spending, or the coming orgy of fossil fuel production. It will be more difficult to protect our Muslim, immigrant and LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And if Trump and the Heritage Foundation have their way in increasing military spending, what will be left for public schools, public hospitals, or to defend our coastal cities against the rising tides of climate change?
Allow me a moment of wonkiness to point to some of the peace work we’re going to have to do, even if it’s too early to set priorities:
Defending the nuclear deal with Iran and preventing nuclear war;
Opposing wars for empire, from the Middle East and Africa (where AFRICOM is at war on a daily basis), to Latin America and the Asia-Pacific;
Addressing the root causes that give rise to ISIS (also known as Daesh), Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other non-state terrorists;
Preventing increases in military spending, and moving the money from the military-industrial complex and imperial war preparations to funding life-affirming human needs, which will also spur job creation (US military spending is three times greater than China’s and eight times Russia’s);
Acting in solidarity with Okinawans, Koreans, Europeans and others to win the withdrawal our roughly1,000 foreign military bases and installations.
And despite Trump’s admiration of Tsar Putin, don’t expect that the Pentagon, NATO and the Kremlin will be singing Kumbaya any time soon.
We’re going to need to be prepared when North Korea, with its incipient nuclear arsenal, tests Trump. The obvious way forward would be to finally end the Korean War, by negotiating a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Yes, North Korea is repressive, but so, too, are Saudi Arabia, Israel and Hungary’s neo-fascist government.
And with the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s provocative phone conversation with Taiwan’s president and the economic threats against China that could spark a trade war, expect increases in US Asia-Pacific militarization.
Friends, just as we face dangerous times within our nation, we face an international situation that has parallels to the years leading to the First World War. We have the tensions between rising and declining powers. The major military powers are ruled by autocrats. There are arms races with new technologies — think cyberwarfare and potentially nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles. Alliance structures are increasingly complex. There is intensified nationalism, economic interdependence and competition, and wildcard actors from Trump and Putin to ISIS and Shinzo Abe.
There are, of course, alternatives to the costly pursuit of global military hegemony. We can move back from the brink with foreign and military policies based on common or shared security, the paradigm that served to end the Cold War.
But our most immediate responsibility is to act in defense of those here who are most immediately threatened: Immigrants facing deportations and family division; Muslims facing daily abuse and attacks; people of color confronted by newly empowered police and voter suppression, regardless of whether Sen. Jeff Sessions is confirmed as attorney general; our LGBTQ brothers and sisters; millions whose health care and human services are threatened; and those who will be immediately and most impacted by climate change.
It’s not a matter of making artificial movement alliances. The issues we address are inter-related. Who suffers from military spending? In addition to those at the receiving ends of our bullets and bombs and people here deprived of essential social services, democracy and our Constitution are also assaulted. Years ago, not long after being released from a Pinochet jail in Chile, Rev. Ulysses Torres was asked when you know if you have a military government. His answer: “Look at your national budget.” The military consumes half of the government’s discretionary spending, while health and human services get just 6 percent.
But Trump will be taking our militarized government to new levels with increased military spending, and by stocking his administration with an unprecedented number of generals. The “hotheaded” Gen. Michael Flynn is to serve as Trump’s national security adviser. “Warrior Monk” and “Mad Dog” James Mattis, who says it’s fun to kill people and who was fired by Obama for being “too hawkish on Iran” will likely be confirmed as our next secretary of war. Gen. John Kelly, who affirms the Guantánamo “lifestyle” will have enormous power as the director of Homeland Security. And there is still the possibility that scandal plagued David Petraeus will be our secretary of state. It looks like we’re the citizens who will have to control the Pentagon.
And, as we’re reminded by Edward Snowden and the militarization of our police, what happens outside the national fortress walls returns to attack those within.
Here are some other examples of the intersection of our issues: Warplanes are major sources of climate change gasses, and military operations poison our seas and land as well. Take a look at the cancer cluster around the old army reserve base on Cape Cod. The military competition for the Arctic Sea teaches us that climate change can spark or fuel wars.
This talk probably hasn’t brought smiles to your faces. But our first responsibility is to speak truth to power and to be clear about what we’re up against so that we can strategize accordingly.
But it’s also true that we have more power than we know, and we should never underestimate the power of the law of unintended consequences. Thirty years ago, a small band of Boston activists defeated the campaign by President Reagan, Senator Kennedy and local business interests to transform Boston Harbor into an extremely dangerous nuclear weapons base. Before that, a speech by 25-year-old Randy Kehler, who faced five years in prison for draft resistance, inspired Daniel Ellsberg to make public the Pentagon’s secret history of Vietnam War decision-making, an act that posed a fundamental challenge to Richard Nixon’s war.
In 1979, young MIT scholars came up with the idea of the nuclear weapons freeze. That same Randy Kehler and my colleague David McCauley took the freeze concept to town meetings, launching the mass movement of the early 1980s that forced Reagan to begin the negotiations that ended the Cold War.
It was the courageous African-American women, men and children backed by their allies whose wisdom and courage ended US legal racial apartheid. Bold women set patriarchy back on its heels. And it was our mass movements — the second superpower — that contributed to ending the Vietnam War and built the political force that brought 180,000 US troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
What’s next? It’s too early to be definitive, but here are some thoughts: Listen to as many of today’s speakers as you can, and find ways that you can act in solidarity with immigrants, Muslims and people of color. It’s time to be marching in the streets, vigiling on town commons and talking with family, friends and neighbors. We need to use this period of intense mobilization as a foundation for longer term organizing, including creating affinity groups that can take independent actions and collaborate with others.
Make those phone calls to oppose the Orwellian Anti-Semitism Awareness Act that could criminalize Jews like me who criticize Israel’s oppressive policies.
“Move the money” campaigning provides a vehicle to more powerfully integrate our movements. One important vehicle is the Congressional People’s Budget that would fund essential human needs and decrease military spending. Cole Harrison and Paul Shannon are leading this campaign here in Massachusetts. We have a local Peace Action campaign led by Professor Jonathan King that makes the links between what we need for housing and mass transit here in the Boston area with the imperative of ending what is now the Trump campaign’s commitment to spend roughly $1 trillion for a new generation of omnicidal nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And on tax day, across the country and internationally, we’ll have the community-based Global Days of Action against military spending.
On the nuclear front, we must defend the Iran nuclear deal. There will be demonstrations at the UN this spring in support of the demands by the vast majority of the world’s nations to finally eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals. Let me circulate this petition, initiated by Japanese A-bomb survivors who hope to reinforce disarmament negotiations by gaining hundreds of millions of signatures worldwide. And, as the Cambridge City Council did last spring, we can organize in our towns, universities, religious congregations and unions to divest from financial institutions invested the manufacture nuclear weapons.
We’re going to have to oppose escalation of Middle East wars, recognition of Jerusalem — including occupied East Jerusalem — as Israel’s capital, and support BDS campaigning.
And we’ll be looking for you in the streets, and at the meeting our conference organizers have called for on January 23 to build the integrated and strategic movement we need to defend our lives, our rights and our constitutional republic. Let’s step up. Resist. And the way will open to our resistance, as it has in the past.
Joseph Gerson is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s peace and economic justice program and co-convener of Peace and Planet.