What’s Needed Right Now: Discipline and a Diversification of Tactics

By Eric K. Ward

“My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone.”

~ U.S. Rep. John Lewis, 2018

If lawsuits could bear inscriptions, the one Western States Center filed today against the federal government would be dedicated to Rep. John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Bahati Ansari. What the lives of these three fearless and accomplished civil rights leaders teach us is what the movement to oppose authoritarianism needs badly right now: discipline, and a diversification of tactics.

The street mobilizations that continue unabated — over 50 days and nights now — in Portland and other cities since the police murder of George Floyd are an important tactic. But we must not make the mistake of fetishizing street protests, regarding them as an end versus one means towards the larger goal of structural change.

My plea for discipline in this moment is particularly for white progressives and radicals. I can’t tell you how many Black folks reposted the New York Times opinion piece by Betsy Hodges, “As Mayor of Minneapolis, I Saw How White Liberals Block Change”. White allies, much as I love you, I have to say, you have a history that has marginalized folks of color.

White progressives, this is your time to get this right.

My plea for diversification of tactics is for the new leaders coming into their own just as we bid a wrenching farewell to so many of the 20th century movement giants on whose broad and battered shoulders we stand. Today we are at risk of a confirmation bias that enshrines the energy and immediacy of street mobilization as the only legitimate form of organizing.

As much as I revere the lessons embodied by civil rights heroes like Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian, I find pop culture references equally useful when it comes to spotlighting how change is made. There are few better scenes for this moment than the one in Game of Thrones when Cersei Lannister schools Littlefinger on the nature of power. He threatens her with exposure of an explosive secret: “Prominent families often forget a simple truth, I’ve found. Knowledge is power.” He thinks he has her under his thumb but without blinking an eye she gives the order to her guards: “Seize him! Cut his throat.” Before his life is taken, she spares him. She delivers the reminder that we, in this moment, cannot afford to forget: “Power is power.”

Power is power. The power to assert an authoritarian takeover of city policing. The power to ride roughshod over the constitutionally-protected rights of states and their municipalities and the citizens of the country you purport to protect. This is the illegitimate but very real power we are challenging in the lawsuit we have filed in partnership with the First Unitarian Church of Portland, an ACLU observer, and two state legislators. As we state in our legal demand for injunctive and declaratory relief, “Although the federal government is entitled to protect federal property and personnel, and thus enforce federal laws necessary to that end, defendants have far exceeded these constitutional limitations. Without first obtaining arrest warrants, they have undertaken to pluck Portlanders off the street, stuff them into vans, secrete them to unknown locations, and release them — merely for walking home or protesting peacefully.”

The leaders of the 20th century civil rights movement were not fueled by personal grievance. They were very clear about the nature of the power they were up against and how to build their own power to make change. Those leaders had a simple litmus test for the tools they chose. Was it moral or immoral? They used every moral tool in their tool box — on the streets, at the ballot box, in the courtroom, and via television to the heart of public opinion — to highlight the morality of their cause and the immorality of an unjust and inequitable power structure.

We have to remember that power resides not just in the streets where it’s all too easy for Trump to continue to push his narrative of “two sides”. Here’s where another pop culture allegory is helpful. In The Matrix Revolutions, the third in that storied sci-fi franchise, we learn that Neo and everyone else has been playing a role that the system itself has created. Folks think they’ve been rebelling, but rebellion is just another role. Rebellion allows folks to blow off steam without affecting the system itself. To be clear, rebellion doesn’t change systems. Governance does. What Neo has to do at the end is reject the false choice between individual freedom and collective responsibility and find new ways to change the rules of the game.

It’s time for us to pay more attention to the other tools in the tool box, to bring the same energy to democratic practice as we do to the streets. That means building our economic power, our cultural power, and especially our electoral power.

Trump has one thing on his mind: It’s an election year. That’s why he’s deploying federal forces to key urban centers. He’s desperate to hold onto the power of the presidency, a presidency devoted explicitly now not to upholding the Constitution, but to authoritarian control. He’s clear where his power lies. Are we?

As much as I am a proponent of mass-scale civil protest and nonviolent direct action — and understand more than most how it’s moved the needle of public opinion and laid the foundation for policy change — I look out there and see very little recognition of what animates the Trump administration’s every move: It’s an election year.

This moment — when unmarked Enterprise rental vans bearing unidentified federal officers are pulling peaceful protestors off the streets without regard for due process or any other constitutional protection — this is what takes us to Election Day. This is the moment where we have gone from an authoritarian-leaning administration to a fully authoritarian government. If you blink you might miss it.

There are multiple fights going on right now; all of them critical and intersecting with one another. Underlying them all are white supremacy and white nationalism. The complete disregard for constitutional rights by an above-the-law authoritarian regime shows exactly what is at stake.

Thinking if we just all stop and do any one thing — street protest, for example — that it will change everything, that’s the 30-minute sitcom version of history. The story of the great, still young American experiment called democracy won’t be wrapped up that neatly. The lives of John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Bahati Ansari, and so many others show us this is an epic, multi-generational drama. A long arc. Each actor sets the stage for the next.

Whether we are writing a new and invigorated chapter in American democracy or the obituary for a system of constitutional protections that’s disappeared into an unmarked van depends on how seriously we take ourselves, how disciplined we are, how diversified we become in our approaches to building power.

Alongside civil protest, let’s invest more seriously in the moral value of nonviolence, in fighting more passionately than the opposition for what the framers of the Constitution put in place, in democratic practice, in the right to vote that cost so many lives.

“It’s a very difficult time that we’re going through in America,” Rep. John Lewis said in 2018, watching rampant voter suppression undo much of his life’s work. “My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone.”

What we do in this moment calls for individual reflection and collective responsibility. The choices we make have a real impact on vulnerable communities and where this goes. Let’s act in ways that authoritarians don’t expect, that change the rules of the game.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Executive Director of Western States Center.