For Activists, Now is the Time

by Randy Shaw on January 31, 2013

Young activists often look back longingly on the 1960’s civil rights marches or anti- Vietnam War protests and feel they missed a chance to make history. Some got this sense of historic purpose during Obama’s 2008 campaign, but nothing emerged during his first term to rival those earlier movements. But times have changed. Three growing campaigns now afford activists historic opportunities to get engaged and make a difference. First, organizing is already underway for comprehensive immigration reform, which could enhance the United States more than any legislation in decades. Second, massive protests are set for February 17 against the Keystone XL Pipeline, whose defeat would send the strongest message ever that the United States is serious about climate change. Third, pressure grows daily for passing legislation to rein in America’s gun culture, and grassroots activism to fend off the NRA is the key to victory. For activists wanting to make history, now is the time.

The current historic moment offers enormous opportunities for activists seeking greater social and economic justice in the United States. With three critical campaigns in key stages, nobody who cares about the nation’s future should stay on the sidelines.

Immigration Reform

When President Obama promoted a path to citizenship in Colorado on January 29, optimism was sky high. But immigrant rights movement leaders know this struggle remains precisely that—a struggle— and requires an all hands on deck approach to prevail.

Organizing for local mobilizing events is beginning, which means there is plenty to for everyone interested in joining this growing movement. Do not let the media convince you that legislation can pass via some “backroom deal; as DREAM ACTivists have shown, victories for immigrant rights only come from grassroots pressure that remains unrelenting until the end.

Keystone Protest

Last year, 15,000 people surrounded the White House in what proved a successful effort to get President Obama to delay the Keystone Pipeline. But after that event, and all of the talk about climate change in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a similar turnout for the February 17 protest will be defined as a failure.

All the facts you need about the DC event are here. Local events can be found through 350.0rg or the Sierra Club. The Club has accurately described the February 17 event as “history’s largest climate rally.”

Gun Control Legislation

Gun control efforts have failed not because of NRA campaign contributions, but rather because advocates have been out-organized at the grassroots level. A huge number of groups have emerged since Sandy Hook to change this dynamic, but strong gun control legislation remains an uphill fight.

The campaigns to pass immigration reform and defeat the Keystone Pipeline do not face powerful, mobilized national grassroots opposition. Opponents of assault weapon restrictions and other meaningful gun reforms do face such opposition, which can only be overcome by a mobilized “silent majority.”

This means that those upset by the Sandy Hook killings—particularly those living in Republican Congressional districts— need to transform their anger into action. Otherwise, Sandy Hook will bring universal background checks but not meaningful restrictions on assault weapons.

Activists Must Take Ownership

Progressives know that grassroots activism is essential to winning change, yet too often wait for politicians to act. That’s not the approach civil rights activists used, and it’s the wrong approach today.

President Obama is committed to real immigration reform. But it is up to activists to mobilize sufficient support in Republican House districts to win passage.

Obama has the power to stop Keystone, but cannot do so politically unless grassroots pressure forces his hand.

The President has also made it clear that he wants stronger gun controls. But his influence will mean little if anti-regulation activists win the battles on the ground.

Activists have an historic opportunity to reshape the nation’s future. And now is the time to get involved.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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