Greensboro needs solidarity against the right

May 25, 2017

Robert Wilson responds to criticism of a recent May Day protest in North Carolina and argues for building broad movements to help the left find a new audience.

THE REPUBLICAN supermajority in the North Carolina state house continues to threaten residents across our state. The past year has seen attempts to add right-to-work provisions to the state constitution; a supposed "repeal" of the viciously anti-trans HB2, often called the "bathroom bill, that in fact extended some of the worst aspect of the original law; and tightening collaboration between state and federal immigration authorities.

In the face of these unceasing attacks on the most vulnerable North Carolinians, it's urgent that we build a broad-based movement both locally in our cities and across the state to stand up and fight back.

For activists in Greensboro and the North Carolina Triad region that includes Winston-Salem and High Point as well, organizing a May 1 demonstration on International Worker's Day represented a valuable opportunity to kick-start a sustainable coalition for a collective response to regressive policies.

The area has seen a considerable uptick in activity. There was a large demonstration immediately following Trump's election, thousands of people pouring into the streets for the historic Women's March and hundreds turning out for an emergency rally following Trump's first attempt at the Muslim ban.

Protesters rally against Trump and the far right in Greensboro, North Carolina
Protesters rally against Trump and the far right in Greensboro, North Carolina (Greensboro Socialists | Facebook)

Most recently, hundreds of people took part in the successful campaign to demand justice for Jose Charles, a 16-year-old attacked by the police last year.

Each of these actions, however, has led to significant criticisms from some on the left in Greensboro about how they were organized.

Before any action is taken, they argue, organizers and participants need to recognize and confront their privilege, and follow a group of leaders through a prescribed anti-racist program that uplifts and centers the most marginalized and oppressed. Protests and other events that don't follow this model are dismissed as organized by white people, and even denounced as harmful to oppressed communities.

On these grounds, some leftists referred to the city's Women's March as merely a show, largely abstained from the emergency rally against the Muslim ban and refused to aid in organizing for the International Women's Strike.

In fact, many of the organizers of these actions were people of color and LGBTQ folks. One of the ironies of these leftists' critique is that instead of centering people who suffer from racial and gendered oppression, it marginalizes them if they don't agree with the approved model of organizing.

This debate manifested itself most recently at the May Day Rally in Greensboro, where a few activists critiqued the event's organizers--who included public school teachers, refugee resettlement activists, immigrant rights activists, union members and queer people of color--for being "whitewashed" and transphobic, and showing "faux solidarity."

Despite these critiques being demonstrably untrue, they delegitimized the hard work of organizers from a broad group of organizations working to improve the lives of the most vulnerable through collective action and took much of the steam out of a nascent coalition.

WE NEED a different approach to ensure that we build a movement that's as broad and large as possible, and that integrates people who are newly radicalized by the election of Trump into a fight against the larger system that he represents.

The various anti-Trump protests over the past six months have shown that there is tremendous energy in Greensboro to resist and a new layer of people coming into the streets for the first time. At each action we have seen new faces--with an uneven level of political awareness, but underlying this is a desire to fight back.

Our perspective is that this is a positive thing, because we believe that when people move into struggle, when they find themselves alongside people different from themselves, listening to speakers echoing their same worries and participating in chants conveying a radical message, they can begin to change and grow.

With each new action we've helped organize, we've come into contact with people brand new to activism, but with wide open minds and a will to fight. Rather than expect them to be fully realized politically from the get go, we make it our task to foster democratic organizing spaces where people have the opportunity to hear each other out and be exposed to different ideas--all while working towards a common goal.

This of course takes time and patience, but we think it's necessary in order to build the broad-based movement necessary to combat injustices in our city and across the state. Ideas change in struggle, not as a precondition for joining the fight.

At a time when we need a large new layer of activists to combat the attacks coming from the right and the far right, the worst thing we can do is to discourage action.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in response to criticism of the Women's Marches:

Were liberals on the march? Yes! And thank God. The movement to resist Trump will have to be a mass movement, and mass movements aren't homogeneous – they are, pretty much by definition, politically heterogeneous. And there is not a single radical or revolutionary on Earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas.

PEOPLE ARE radicalizing quickly, as we saw over the course of organizing for action around May Day in Greensboro. New activists applauded a left-wing points-of-unity statement and dove headfirst into organizing for their first political action.

This is the exact enthusiasm that is needed, and it is the role of organizers to teach new activists the skills they need to be effective, and develop and clarify their politics to challenge the backwards ideas relentlessly pushed in our society.

By necessity, this involves sometimes arguing with people whose radical ideas are still developing, but we want to do so in a way that encourages them to keep fighting and learning, rather than shaming them for still having things to learn.

We expect the debate within the Greensboro activist community to continue over how to organize most effectively in the current political climate. Different approaches don't need to be mutually exclusive--we need as many people coming into the movement as possible, all the while ensuring that we're pushing forward politics that are anti-racist, anti-transphobic and truly transformative.

However, when an organizing strategy sacrifices building a large enough movement to effect real change in favor of ideological purity, we all lose. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza put it succinctly after the Women's March: "If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical."

At a time when some communities are being particularly targeted, but all working people are facing the consequences of an increasingly authoritarian regime, we must take confidence in the fact that we have a mutual enemy against whom we all need to fight.

Over the course of this fight, as we have already seen in Greensboro, people's ideas will change, their skills will improve and their politics will deepen as they recognize just how far reaching the attacks on all of us are.

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