It’s the morning of Feb 3, 2017. I’m at my desk at home, in Brooklyn, sunlight creeping through the blinds on the window to my left. I’m hovering between work emails and Facebook, following the rabbit hole of the Bodega Strike, in which thousands of bodega owners and workers from across New York City — most of them Yemeni and Muslim — have gone on strike and gathered at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest President Trump’s Muslim ban. The images show a sea of brown people waving American flags. I watch the videos, and the deafening chants of “USA! USA!” vibrate through my speakers.
The flags blind me, transport me back to 2004, when I was a senior in high school. The United States had recently paid for a coup to overthrow a democratically elected government in Haiti. Before that, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and extraordinary rendition. And the flags. I remember the flags, laying claim to every crack and crevice of public life — hanging from cranes, billowing from lampposts, draped over doorways, flashing across my television screen. I decided then, in the face of all those flags and the immense loss of life they seemed to accompany, that I didn’t want to be a part of this thing they called America. If America was genocide and slavery and empire, then it was never ours to begin with.
I stopped paying attention to electoral politics, stopped thinking of the state as an avenue for change. I stopped thinking about scale as a factor in political organizing, stopped talking politics with people who aren’t in the movement, stopped reading the news. I joined a left that every day drifted further and further away from building political power, from attempting to win over the public, from working-class people, and deeper into a bubble of its own. Instead, we built our own organizations, our own publications, our own spaces.
We had big dreams but those dreams remained our little secret, tucked safely out of sight from the rest of the world. The rest of the world was out of our sights too.
Now, as I scroll through the images at Borough Hall, I wonder how these people, of all people, can find ownership, belonging and even love in a place like this. Perhaps this is what they think they have to do survive. Or maybe they really do love this place, despite the contempt its leaders have shown them. Or perhaps they want to love it, and their flag-waving is not a celebration of the vision of the founding fathers but a calling into existence of a dream not yet born. Maybe it is just better here than the place they left behind.
Maybe they can see that this country is up for grabs.
The system is unstable and that instability will likely increase.
For Trump, a deepening crisis is an opportunity to barrel forward as planned; after all, crisis has always been part of his narrative. He will blame it on his political enemies and communities already under attack and use it to expand his agenda. The rest of the Republican Party, the defense industry and much of the business class will likely go along, until they think the ship is actually sinking. White nationalists and other far-right wingers will use it as an opportunity to keep pulling the whole political map in their direction; they now have Bannon in the White House to help them do it. For establishment Democrats — as well as the Republicans who defect — the crisis will provide the opportunity to name Trump as the problem, while preserving business as usual.
But this crisis is an opportunity for the left too. It’s an opportunity to grow, become popular, build visionary organizations and multi-issue movements that go on the offensive. It is an opportunity to take the streets, and to take over real levers of power. It is our chance to reject both Trump’s white economic nationalism and the corporate Democrats’ multicultural neoliberalism, to bring to life a new kind of politic that combines racial, gender and economic justice to unite the majority of the population against the elites. It is an opportunity to finally translate our proven ability to shift the national discourse into real power.
This crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to lead. The big question is whether we will be willing to do so.
All of these possibilities fly through my mind as I think about the bodega strikers. I take a deep breath, open my laptop again and stare my ambivalence straight in the face.
In order to do what this moment calls on us to do, we will have to identify with this place and its mythology. We have to say that this place belongs to us instead of them.
But everything I know here stands on land stolen from people who were murdered for its theft, was built with labor extracted from people brought there in chains, was taken from around the world at gunpoint. It is a huge risk to be popular, to enter into struggle over the whole of this country, knowing that so many populist movements before ours ended up watering down their politics to accommodate the ruling class, selling out their grand visions of tomorrow for partial gains of the day or abandoning those most oppressed at the finish line. It feels dangerous to grow — to welcome into our movements the many people who are becoming politicized in these times — knowing that the greater pains and burdens of entering into the delicate and never-ending experiment of solidarity will fall on those already most impacted by the system. It’s frightening to have the kind of hope a struggle like this demands. Where there is hope, there is often heartbreak.
But we can embrace the malleability of America and contest our enemy’s hegemony over the story of this place while telling the truth about its brutal history and present. We can care about this country and this land and its peoples, while honoring those who lived here before us. We can see nationhood not as a barrier to internationalism, but a stepping-stone towards it. We can join with the growing majority of people standing in opposition to Trump. We can do it while still going on the offensive against all of his enablers — the Republican Party he represents, the huge corporate interests he has installed in government and the Democratic Party establishment whose marriage to Wall Street helped create the conditions for this in the first place.
We can be popular and speak in a language that the public understands, while bringing a critique of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy into the mainstream, while holding up a vision for the world we can have if we fight for it, while saying words like single-payer health care and universal basic income, even reparations and socialism. We can grow our movements dramatically, invest deeply in the transformation of the millions of people looking for a political home in this moment, and build deeply across race, class, gender and sexuality, while still demanding more from each other — while practicing solidarity and accountability with the wisdom to know that we will fail and try again and fail better if we keep trying. We can enter powerfully into electoral politics, build grassroots political power, take over every potential vehicle for change available to us, while still insisting that movements are what really drive social change, that nothing can replace the hard organizing it takes to bring people together to liberate themselves, that meaningful change demands powerful and uncompromising civil disobedience that removes our consent from the institutions that cause harm. We can have hope, while still leaving room for the inevitable heartbreaks we will experience on the way.
Arundhati Roy writes: “To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination.”
In 2004, when this country suffocated us with its flags, they called us anti-American. In our defiance, we agreed. They can have their fucking America, we told ourselves. As I think back now on my past retreat from this country and its dreams, I know that it was built, in part, on righteous anger, principled rejection and a grounded read of history. But I know, too, that beneath those things was also a secret helplessness, an arrogance covering up shame, an unwillingness to step outside the comfort of my leftist bubble, a paralyzing fear of my smallness in the shadow of a towering enemy. Now, years later, I know to call this tendency the politics of powerlessness, and it suddenly hits me that, so often, instead of fighting over this place and its future, we let our enemy have it.
In the end, only a genuinely liberatory popular movement can defeat Trump and the right-wing populist tidal wave he rode in on. Only a truly left populist movement can ensure that this regime not only falls, but also takes the entire Republican Party and the establishment Democrats along with it, while opening up space for the world we all deserve. In order for the left to provide the leadership that is required, we will have to learn to say this country’s name out loud. We will have to open ourselves up to the vast potential stored in this place and its people, to take responsibility for it. Ultimately, we will have to do a better job imagining, and tell a story about America that gives meaning and a sense of belonging to the millions of people who are ready to fight for the bigger, better, bolder dreams that are at the tips of our fingers. We will have to say this place belongs to us as much as anyone else.
America — both its past and its future — is a story that can be written a thousand different ways, and our opponents know this. That is why fascists and would-be dictators, wealthy oligarchs and Wall Street politicians alike, always claim to speak for the whole — for that great, big America. They wrap themselves in the flag, project a vision for the future of this entire country and call up people’s greatest fears and deepest dreams. The country they describe is not for most of us. But they say they will make it great, great again, and that promise floats up into the air and captures imaginations, encapsulates real pain and longing, speaks into existence that grand possibility for which people are willing to do the most beautiful and heinous things.
To cede the simple truth of this nation’s possibility to our enemy is a massive shirking of responsibility. It relegates us to the margins of political life, which, in turn, dooms the people we love, the planet we live on and the values we cherish. Just because we fail to show up to the battlefield that doesn’t mean the war is not going to take place, only that we’ve surrendered before it has even begun.
America is the Trail of Tears and chattel slavery, the Ludlow Massacre and Jim Crow, Hiroshima and bloody interventions around the world. But it is also slave rebellions and the women’s suffrage movement, the Flint sit-down strike and the occupation at Wounded Knee, the Stonewall Riot and the uprising at Attica. It is Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant justice movement and the uprising at Standing Rock, the Bernie wave and the climate movement. America is working-class, indigenous, Muslim and queer. It is undocumented, Black, Sikh and trans. It is the 99 percent, women and immigrants. It is all of us.
Perhaps we are not the America they planned for, but we are, as much as anything else, the America that could be.
A longer version of this article originally appeared at medium.com.
Photo: Members of New York’s Yemeni community rally outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall on Feb. 2 to protest the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. Credit: Scott Lynch.