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Mainstreaming Resistance

Many in the US are emerging from their initial shock at the outcome of the presidential election to confront its likely impacts: a legitimation of right-wing identity politics, worsening climate change and militarism, assaults on women’s rights and LGBT rights, and the gutting of basic public services.

A litany like this can feel overwhelming, but none of these threats are actually new. Just ask the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, or women in the 89%of US counties without an abortion provider, or people of color targeted by racist law enforcement policies

What is new is the painful dislocation felt by those in the US who had always believed that—however imperfectly—their government represented them. For many, that belief ended on November 9, a loss being “mourned” in the numerous post-election catalogues of the “stages of grief.” The analogy is an ominous one: the last stage of grief is acceptance. 

But what’s needed now is the opposite of acceptance. Fortunately, many in the US recognize that this moment calls on them to act in new ways and are grappling, some for the first time, with what resistance might look like. Americans will need to reclaim and invent their own modes of resistance, and for inspiration and role models, they can turn to women’s rights activists worldwide, especially women who know all too well what it means to have a government that actively targets their rights and communities.

In Nicaragua, villages in the 1980s were under siege from Contra militias sponsored by the Reagan Administration, and armed fighters targeted women with rape as a weapon of war. Women organized in committees to bring urgent humanitarian aid to their communities and to denounce that violence before the whole world. 

These women shepherded their communities back to peace, and they changed international law to recognize the violations they faced.

In Liberia, peace talks to end the civil war in the 1990s were going nowhere. Women who had survived the worst of the violence decided they’d had enough. They organized peaceful protests, stood up to warlords and powerful politicians, and forced action to negotiate peace.

Today, Leymah Gbowee, one of the activists who led that movement, is a Nobel Peace Laureate, the civil war is over, and Liberia has its first woman president.

War gripped Colombia for decades, forcing millions of women and families to flee their homes and sowing divisions that seemed insurmountable. Through all this, women activists mobilized  community peace enclaves, where arms were not allowed and where violence could not trespass. 

When peace talks finally began, these women demanded a seat at the table. Now, they’re determined to enact the best of Colombia’s newly renegotiated accord.

In each of these cases, and in countless others, women saw the threats arrayed against them and took action together. In doing so, they became the curators of a global library of activist strategies. 

Here are some borrowings from that library for those seeking to resist the destruction that the next US President promises to unleash.  

Like the Women in Black or the women of Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo, who made it a routine to take to the streets when their government shut out their voices, we must be relentless in our protests. And like the grandmothers of Standing Rock who block with their bodies the advance of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we must pair protest with grassroots organizing in order to change policies and public opinion.  

Like women in Haiti and Kenya, or in US cities like Detroit or Flint, Michigan, who have provided clean water to their communities when their government couldn’t or wouldn’t, we must take stock of peoples’ basic needs, like for water, housing and healthy food, and be ready to meet them ourselves.

Like women of color in the US – who have long mobilized to defend their communities against state violence and mass incarceration, against the denial of civil rights, and against systematic economic marginalization – we must act from an understanding of the ways that sexism, racism and other oppressions combine to impact people’s lives.

Like women in Iraq, who rejected both US-led occupation and the religious fundamentalists who posed as its alternative, we must forge a third way between neoliberalism and nationalism and fight for a feminist, anti-racist politics that prioritizes human rights for all.  

Like women in Nicaragua, who threw parties even as the Contra war raged, we have to know how to embrace the best in our lives when facing the worst. Like women in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, we have to know when a joyous song is an antidote to despair.

Borrowing from this library of strategies, we can defend against the creeping normalization of authoritarianism. The shock-and-awe tactics of the US President-elect are intended, first, to exhaust his own population into submission. Acceptance becomes a siren-song after weeks of frayed nerves and sleepless nights.

In our global activist library, we learn that our choice does not have to be between cowed acceptance and protracted despair. We learn that the energy we need to resist is a renewable resource. 

We produce this energy when we insist on treating each other with respect and kindness, even if those qualities are not forthcoming from our government. We produce this energy when we care for ourselves and others, creating connection and community in the process. We produce this energy when, recognizing that the threats we face are not all the same and that some people are in more danger than others, we stretch ourselves to extend a blanket of protection to those most at risk, wherever they are in the world. We produce this energy when we have the courage to act, especially when it’s uncomfortable or scary or seems impossible. Resistance is sustainable if we create the conditions for it in our lives. And doing that will be its own reward.

We turn to our activist library for words like those of writer and organizer Grace Paley: “the only recognizable feature of hope is action.” We live in keeping with the world we want to build, until eventually, we realize that the last stage of grief is not acceptance. It’s transformation.


December 2, 2016  / Building a Just Peace