USA Politics

At marches, protesters confront burning question: What is the next step?

shifts in thought

Protesters say they were mobilized by Trump's election to 'do something.' But even as they march they wonder how best to use their own time and how such a broad movement can achieve real goals.

Protesters carrying signs march Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017 at Los Angeles International Airport for the fourth day of protests against President Trump's executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
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Caption

As he watched President Trump sign one executive order after another, Neal Gokli decided he no longer could do nothing.

On Monday, Mr. Gokli drove 50 miles from Upland, Calif., to Los Angeles International Airport to protest against barring refugees from seven Muslim majority countries temporarily from entering the United States.

Gokli stayed the night at LAX. Part of the reason was that his father was set to arrive from India on Tuesday, and Gokli wanted to be there to greet him. But also, “I was just feeling like I’m not doing anything,” he says amid the chants of demonstrators nearby. “Coming here at least has energized me and gotten me into motion.”

Yet Gokli wonders what his next move would be. He could call his representatives, he says, but he doesn’t know what to say. He’s unsure how much of a difference demonstrations could really make long-term.

“I hope they can keep going. Because this is really scary,” Gokli says. “But … does it help? I don’t know.”

As demonstrations against the Trump administration’s first actions continue to roil the country, some protesters have begun to express concerns about sustaining the movement’s momentum.

There are those like Gokli, who feel that protesting can only do so much and wonder how else they might participate. Others have reassessed their commitment to one issue or another, prioritizing those they value most. Still others have come to find their niche in the protest movement, using their skills to contribute what they can.

Behind each personal approach are broader questions about the nature of the resistance, what its proponents hope to achieve, and how they intend to accomplish their goals.

“It’s not just coming out and chanting,” says Jeremy White, creative director at California for Progress, a community group that was among the organizations who came to help at the LAX protests. “We have to build a network and organize. We have to get [protesters] to go vote for city council seats, get them to go vote in the midterms. Organize community gardens. All these things are important.”

“This is not just a political revolution,” Mr. White adds. “It's a social and consciousness revolution.”

Marching on

The women’s marches that followed Mr. Trump’s inauguration saw millions hit the streets across the US and around the world. The demonstrations – which had called attention to issues that affected not only women, but also ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups – had set a precedent for protesting, some observers say.

“It took years to build to the point where you had millions of people marching against the Vietnam War,” says Peter Kuznick, a professor of history at American University in Washington. “This has just erupted overnight, and taken place on such a broad front.”

Since then, a spirit of continuous resistance seems to have animated those who oppose the new administration. The protests at LAX took place in tandem with demonstrations at airports from Boise to Boston. And more are planned in the weeks to come: a march for immigrants, a march for science, a march to urge the president to release his tax returns.

That such an array of issues could mobilize such a range of people speaks to the movement’s power, Professor Kuznick says.

“What I see now is the potential to unite a vast movement across the board on all issues that are relevant to progressives and people who believe in American democracy,” he says.

Still, some say it’s not enough. Progressive activists need to develop enough of a leadership structure to ensure their demands are heard and acted upon, says Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White (no relation to Jeremy). Unless that happens, he says, marching is an exercise in futility – no matter how massive or well-meaning the crowd.

“When we do these kinds of protests, the story that we’re testing is that if we can get enough people out on the streets, then somehow our representatives will listen to us,” he says. Yet millions marched against the Iraq War in 2003 without changing a thing, he notes. The Occupy movement, despite mobilizing thousands and changing the rhetoric around the economy, fell far short of transforming the nation’s economics, he adds.

“It’s time to get past this naive idea that if we throw a temper tantrum in the streets people are going to listen. It’s not true,” says Mr. White, whose 2016 book, “The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution,” argues that American activism needs to evolve or risk lapsing into irrelevance. “I’m not saying don’t protest, but we need to protest differently.”

Still, the measure of a movement is more than its ability to shift policy, says Paul Lichterman, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, whose expertise includes politics and social movements.

Well-publicized mass demonstrations, he says, establish a historical landmark and add to a nation’s collective memory.

“That’s effective in a way that’s different from influencing policy,” he says. “It sets the ground for future generations – and even the same people in their own futures – that it’s possible to have a dissenting voice and to present alternatives. That’s part of creating and refreshing who we are as a nation.”

A sense of agency

For Americans across the country, developing a sense of personal agency has been crucial to managing the fractious politics of the moment. The protests have been a major part of that development, but as the days and weeks pass, groups and individuals have begun to consider other methods, as well.

Following the women’s marches, organizers started the “10 Actions for 100 Days” campaign to get protesters writing letters, making phone calls, and staying politically involved.

At LAX, people from all walks of life came to see how they could contribute to the cause. Outside Tom Bradley International Terminal, a growing crowd marched and chanted. Inside, a group of volunteer attorneys set up camp, providing legal counsel to people whose family members had been detained as a result of the travel ban. Those who couldn’t make it sent pizza, bottles of water, and other snacks for the protesters and volunteers.

Helen, a homemaker from Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, first arrived with her daughter on Sunday to join the protests. “When we got here we found out they really need translators, and they need attorneys,” says Helen, who asked that her last name not be used. She happened to be fluent in Farsi, and her daughter happened to be a lawyer.

They stayed and volunteered until 11 p.m. Sunday, and were back at the airport Tuesday. “After meeting with the families and seeing what they're going through, we wanted to be here and help some more,” Helen says.

Trying to capture the energy

Nasreen Ghazi, a Muslim American professor and family physician in East Windsor, N.J., has vowed to do one small thing every day that keeps her involved. This week, she signed up for the American Civil Liberties Union and sent a letter of support to her representative. She also made sure she knew where her two children’s birth certificates were – just in case.

“If you would’ve asked me last week, I would’ve been more frustrated and said, ‘I feel like I’m screaming into the wind,’ ” says Ms. Ghazi, who works at the University of Pennsylvania. “I can’t 100 percent say: ‘We’re doing amazing things.’ But we come together and we talk about the little gains. At least this way we are doing something.”

Nan Uhl participated in a local women’s march in Durango, Colo., the day after the inauguration. But as heartening as the experience was, she says, she was overwhelmed by the barrage of headlines, newsletters, and calls to action that followed.

Ms. Uhl – a retired ESL teacher and practicing Quaker – has since joined a small interfaith group that tackles immigration issues. The work is more in line with her beliefs and personality, she says.

“I want to feel helpful and empowered, but I realize my sphere of influence is pretty small,” she says. “I’d rather do research and work on issues with people and be in touch with representatives.”

A day after his vigil at LAX, Gokli, in a phone call, says he’s decided his immediate move will be to reach out to his Trump supporter neighbors, to “share some common humanity with them.” He talks about plans to develop training sessions on civil discourse, maybe even a website that invites people with different political beliefs to become pen pals. 

“I’m thinking about how to get messages out there that don’t make people feel attacked,” Gokli says.

“Everyone’s going to have their own place in the movement,” says White, the community organizer. “Right now what we’re trying to do is capture the energy that came out of [Trump] being elected and turn that into motion.”

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