August 29th, 2016
In summer 2011, I went to the launch of “Rebuild the Dream“—a campaign by MoveOn.org that was supposed to serve as the progressive answer to the Tea Party. The event was hosted by the activist and Democratic strategist Van Jones. His pitch was to get Americans fired up about all the good things government does, to counter the Tea Party’s anti-government austerity message. Jones was charismatic and the sentiment laudable. A strong public sector regulates private industry and keeps up roads and bridges.
But man, I thought, good luck selling that message: Who’s going to get excited about government? To most people, “government” means long lines at the DMV, at best—the Iraq War, Guantanamo, the War on Drugs at worst. Anyway, The Roots played. The mostly older, lefty audience awkwardly swayed to the music. Government fever did not sweep the nation.
That September, I checked out Occupy Wall Street, expecting to be similarly underwhelmed by the protest’s mass appeal (I’d heard there were drum circles).
But it was electrifying. Communal, energetic and intense. For the next several months, Occupy would spread all over the country. It seemed to resonate with many different groups. One night there was a march in Washington Square Park, and the guys who sit and hustle chess there began chanting, “We are the 99 percent!” alongside the protestors.
Sarah Jaffe’s new book, “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt,” captures why the movements that have reshaped American life in the past few years exploded outside of and against established institutions. The journalist and Nation Institute fellow shows how after the financial crisis—and wars, mass incarceration, student debt, erosions of middle-class life—Americans resented elected officials and their tight relationship with the private sector and the predatory, reckless finance industry. “Congress regularly polled below cockroaches, witches and Nickelback,” Jaffe jokes in her introduction.
Her sweeping work documents the evolution of grassroots movements from the Tea Party to the fight for the $15 minimum wage to groups battling climate change to Black Lives Matter. Necessary Trouble, said the New York Times review, “shines in its assessment of why those fault lines exist.” Jaffe (disclosure: she and I once worked together at AlterNet) visited The Influence‘s offices to tell us more.
Tana Ganeva: You really go deep into some of the main drivers of grassroots movements—like foreclosures and student debt, how Walmart is even worse than people might think. What are some things you found that don’t get adequate media coverage?
Sarah Jaffe: It’s been fascinating this election cycle to watch reporters act like, “Why are people mad? I don’t understand! Why would people be voting for Bernie Sanders? Why would people be voting for Donald Trump?”
Because all this stuff has been reported but it’s kind of been dropped off the radar. The foreclosure crisis is not over: It’s not at its peak any more, but it’s still well above what is considered a normal amount. And the totally illegal things that the banks were doing in order to make those foreclosures go have not really been punished.
And this whole other crisis is going on in cities that are gentrifying like crazy. The rents are skyrocketing and all this new construction is going up everywhere. And this is around the country—I was just in Seattle and there’s massive yellow cranes everywhere.
If you live in a city that’s gentrifying you out, you literally are looking at the people that are coming in and buying up your neighborhood. It’s the class war in your face, you can’t really avoid it. I’m consistently shocked that everyone’s says, “Why are people mad?”
The fact that there’s organizing going on around this stuff—the same groups that have been organizing around wages, or organizing around housing, or organizing around student debt—is not surprising because all these things are connected.
You cover a lot of movements that are less well-known than Occupy and Black Lives Matter, but still have a powerful impact. Which group or campaign do you wish more people knew about?
At the end of my climate change chapter, I go through a bunch of different things, like smaller climate justice campaigns. And a lot of these are people were working on something else and then became a climate justice campaign. Like … Push Buffalo in Buffalo, New York were mostly a housing justice community organization. And they started realizing that all of their members were paying these astronomical gas and electric bills in the winter, because keeping your house heated is really hard in Buffalo.
It turns out that once you start to look into these energy companies, they’re actually taking money … there’s money earmarked in your energy bill for conservation and it was just sort of disappearing. So they started organizing around, asking “Where is this money going, and how can we actually get some of this money to create green sustainable energy in our city that’ll lower our electric bills?”
Now they have this thing called Push Green that is actually funded by some of this money that they organized around and demanded. And they’re really thinking about themselves as climate justice organizers, too.
Thinking about working-class people in a place like Buffalo as climate justice organizers [means the movement is not] just like … white people who like polar bears. And polar bears are great! [But] it’s hard to get people who are struggling to care about polar bears when their life is a daily struggle. But once you start to understand how the daily struggle you have is linked to this system that is destroying the planet, it’s easier to conceptualize all those things as connected.
To return to Black Lives Matter and Occupy: This is a generalization, since Occupy was very diverse, but a lot of the people that were involved were relatively privileged and were just sort of discovering how badly they could get screwed. Whereas with Black Lives Matter, there’s no lack of pre-existing awareness….
And the fight for 15 is that way too. You don’t need to tell people who are working in fast food restaurants about their class position; they understand it very well.
I think it’s really interesting to think about, when you’re constantly being stepped on, what actually gets you to go over the edge?
In Ferguson, there was so much anger at the fact that they not only killed Michael Brown, but that they left his body in the street for four hours. It was almost like they planted a flag and were just like, “ha ha.” But it rallied the community. People were getting angrier and angrier, standing there going, “When are you going to move him?” There was so much anger, so much hurt about that. It was like, “You don’t have enough respect for this teenager that you just killed to move his body out of the street.”
And I always think about Trayvon Martin and how that particular incident became such a significant incident for all these groups that have all been around now for two or three years.
The organizations [include] Black Lives Matter and the Dream Defenders that are now sort of already the experienced folks on the block. So when Ferguson takes off, when Baton Rouge takes off, you’ve got people who’ve been thinking about this and doing this for a few years already. It’s fascinating to discover what makes things take off. It’s like knowing what makes something go viral on the internet.
There are ways you can help spread something. And you see there’s been a lot of criticisms that there just haven’t been the same kind of nationwide protests when black women are killed by police or killed in police custody, or black transgendered women are killed by the police or in police custody. There’s still these questions about who is the right kind of victim to kick off a national protest that organizers are really trying to challenge.
Do you think “All Lives Matter” will ever go away?
One of my favorite things in the book is this group that I went to in St. Louis. It was middle-aged and older people who were church congregations who were there to talk about this stuff.
They were mostly white; not entirely. Mostly Christian, although there were Jewish congregations involved. Watching those people sit down and talk and really try to understand what white privilege is and means, what their role is in a white supremacist system, was really fascinating, because some of these people were people that would have said “All lives matter.” But this thing happened in their community and they were really struggling to understand it.
There were still people who had “I am Darren Wilson armbands” and that kind of stuff. But, I watched people who were not Millennials, who were not themselves affected by these things, really find themselves changed anyway. And so that gives me a lot of hope.
The way Black Lives Matter has really dragged the criminal justice system into the spotlight is kind of unprecedented. What kind of real change do you see happening?
The thing that’s fascinating is that it’s so clear, whenever there’s a small adjustment, the movement is just like, “This is not enough.” You know, Obama technically cuts down on the things that’re given out in the 1033 program [a federal program that gives military equipment to police] and the movement says, “That’s not enough.”
You’re seeing people really talking about abolishing prisons, abolishing police. So we’re watching the specific problems with the criminal justice system being addressed. Like there’s movements against cash bail now. You’ve got the the DOJ saying they’re going to end using private prisons.
But at the same time, things are so bad in the criminal justice system that it’s so important the movement keeps saying, “That’s not enough.” Private prisons are not the problem; prisons are the problem.
One of the most interesting things about your book is how you covered conservative movements. You talk about the Tea Party in such a nuanced way; instead of deriding them as just racists, you tried to understand how they understood themselves. What drove the people who were genuinely inspired by that movement?
In general it’s really hard to organize people and change their minds if you talk to people like they’re just puppets of rich people, or that they’re just 100 percent racist evil people. Or you talk to them like they’re not smart enough to know what their opinions should be. You can’t talk to somebody that way.
My parents are conservatives and so … I think it’s so important … People that’re going to vote for Donald Trump don’t want the same solutions I want. But in many cases, the things we’re mad about are the same. And that’s so interesting—that we all come to such different conclusions even though we’re all mad that the government bailed out the banks and left homeowners to twist in the wind.
So why do people reach such strikingly different conclusions?
You know, part of it is just who you’re hearing from. At the beginning of this book I start out with J.D. Meadows, who’s this guy who joined the Tea Party and also the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is a white supremacist organization. And it’s trying to make itself seem like it isn’t a white supremacist organization, but its roots are in white supremacy.
And the organizer of that group is very clear … you get them in with talk about the banks and the bail-outs and then you start telling them that it’s really the immigrants from Mexico. That it’s really the fault of the Jews or something. If only there had been organizers there who had a different analysis, would they have different conclusions?
When I talked to a man from the Oathkeepers [a group of former military and police who claim to defy orders they think conflict with Constitution], he was very, very upset by the idea that the black people he was talking to in the streets of Ferguson were saying, “If I carried a gun openly the way you do, I would have been shot already.” This really bothered him. It really bothered him that the police shot Tamir Rice in like two seconds. And he gave me a detailed breakdown, as somebody who does weapons training and has a military background, of what [the cops] did wrong. What they should have done versus what their training apparently was (or they had no training at all) that led to them shooting this child.
I was looking at a poll about anger in America. And the top three things that were making people angry broken up by party… two of them were the same in each party. One of the two that was the same was police shooting unarmed black men. There was certainly more on the Democrats’ side, but I was very surprised that it was on the Republican side as well.
I think there are some people who are technically against something like police violence, but when it happens, they tend to victim-blame. It’s like when women are sexually assaulted, you get blamed because if you can blame the victim you don’t have to admit it can happen to you. It’s a form of rationalization.
This guy who’d been in the Oathkeepers left the group because he thought it was racist. He’d wanted to have an open-carry march with black people in Ferguson. And the organization, he says, was not feeling it. So he left.
I wanted to talk about the Deaton-Case study that found lower-middle-class and poor white people are basically dying from alcohol, drugs and suicide. Earlier you mentioned that the media is shocked that people are still angry. And it seems like there are parallels. When this study came out, it seemed like everyone was shocked that people are basically killing themselves, slowly or literally. It seems like the same factors that drive some people to organize movements drive others to despair.
It’s absolutely true. When you’re struggling, you have a couple of options. For example, I talked to mostly older women near retirement age facing foreclosure. They talked very movingly to me about the shame that they felt, and about the despair and the fear and how hard it was for them to ask for help.
But these are the people who did ask for help. They really got motivated and took action and they were lucky enough to find somebody that was doing this work in their neighborhood in Atlanta. But if you live in Ripley, Mississippi and you’re facing foreclosure, and there is no Occupy Our Homes to come help you, can you feel like you’re not alone with your problems? Can you feel like your problems aren’t personal failings?
Our culture tells us that we are individually responsible. If we can’t succeed, it’s because we’re “bad.” So you have to get over that and find someone to blame; you have to have somebody to make demands of. And, the question of whether someone joins the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is basically a question of, “Who do you blame?”
But if you just turn inwards, if you just blame yourself? If you think, you’re a bad person if you can’t pay your mortgage, or if you lost your job, or now you’re addicted to painkillers—if all you hear and all you think is that you’re a bad person?
This is kind of a thing. Despair or action?