The Surprising Power of Grassroots Activism

by on March 9, 2017

A SF Bay Resistance training on schools

Strong Progressive Mix of Local, National Activism

The big March 7 election wins in Los Angeles for homeless services (Yes on H) and affordable housing (No on S) further confirms: since Donald Trump’s election both local and national progressive activism have skyrocketed.

This is not as obvious as you may think. Newly elected Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush enacted destructive tax cuts without anywhere near the grassroots opposition we are seeing today. The Democratic base was so dispirited after the 2000 stolen election that it took the 2003 Iraq invasion to get many activists back on the streets. This downcast scenario could have been repeated after Trump’s questionable win yet activists remained fired up and ready to go.

Why the difference between 2001 and 2017?  First, activists did not foresee Bush doing the destructive actions that Trump has already initiated. Second, the threatened deportation of millions of immigrants means that millions more know someone at risk from Trump. Third, millions are either personally impacted by the threatened loss of health care or know someone who is.

But this heightened activism involves more than Trump. The Sanders and Clinton campaigns both energized the progressive base. I think activists would have been just as fired up and excited to get positive laws passed had Clinton won the White House, though clearly there would not be the fear that Trump has so maliciously spread across America.

It is a tragedy that Obama could have harnessed his 2008 volunteer base behind his policies from the time he took office in 2009, but failed to do so. (See my story, “After the Victory: Engaging Obama Volunteers”) He instead backed a scaled-down Organizing for America organization that became Organizing for Action in 2013. Both had successes, but came nowhere near replicating the mass participation of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

When we see the massive attendance at the Women’s Marches or the 1500 people turn out on a Saturday at Mission High in San Francisco for a SF Bay Resistance training, one can only imagine how Obama could have mobilized the grassroots behind his policies. For all of his strengths as President, Obama never matched his rhetoric about the importance of grassroots organizing with the funding and support necessary for sustaining this critical requirement for winning progressive change.

The people were ready to rumble after 2008. Obama did not give them the outlet. That mistake must not be repeated after the next Democrat becomes President.

Local v. National Activism

Many assumed that activism around local issues would diminish as attention shifted to Trump. But this has not much happened. National politics have engaged a lot of young people who were not much involved in local politics in the first place.

Trump’s danger to millions makes some local issues appear trivial when that otherwise might not have been the case.  This helps explain why the normally media savvy Aaron Peskin miscalculated the response to his effort to un-charter the United (formerly RFK) Democratic Club. When the President of the United States is threatening mass deportations and the elimination of health care, the public thinks politicians should stay focused on what’s really important.

As noted above, it is a myth that activists turn their attention nationally when a Republican becomes President. I learned this the hard way. I published a book with University of California Press in 1999 titled, Reclaiming America: Nike, Clean Air, and the New National Activism.  Sales were great until Bush took office. Then they suddenly stopped. I had written a book urging activists to focus more on national issues but after Bush took office activists were even more inclined to work at the local or state level; they understandably felt working through Congress was not the best use of time.

Today’s activists are focusing nationally against Trump without sacrificing local issues, which the Los Angeles victories clearly show. For all of the dangers coming from Washington DC, this strong progressive mix of local and national activism is working.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He analyzes the diverse aspects of activism in “The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.”

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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