How to Resist: An Unhelpful Guide

Some days ago, a good friend suggested I write a ‘how to resist’ article to complement the “super-vague or just wrong” articles he had seen circulating in the wake of the recent presidential election.

I’d put off doing so, because I was wholly uncertain of what to say. How to resist? If there was an easy answer to this question there would be no further need of social movement research, there would be no future debate about what types of action are appropriate and effective. If we knew how to resist, there would only be one question left:

When should we resist?

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good question.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles recently talking about how we must act to save the Republic or warning why we should be concerned about an impending constitutional crisis. I’ve been reminded more times than I can count how good people stood by while fascism rose in pre-war Germany.  The end, it seems, is neigh.

And it’s not that things don’t look and feel dire, but in an era where President Bush lead us into pre-emptive war and initiated a Muslim registry, where President Obama increased deportations and the use of drone strikes – it feels hard to tell what is divergently bad.

It feels, instead, like this is the new normal – or perhaps the old normal that our collective memory is too young to remember. One side wins and the other side loses its mind. Then we repeat this process every four to eight years. Each time it gets a little worse.

So, perhaps there is nothing to resist at all. Perhaps we’re just caught in a particularly brutal ebb of our side’s power and there’s nothing to do but ride it out as best we can. As a Trump supporter once told me: it is their turn.

But, of course, there are no turns, not really. Otherwise Jeb Bush would have been on the ballot and Bernie Sanders would be long forgotten. There are no turns.

More importantly, accepting such comfortable discomfort reminds me of the powerful words Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Calls not to resist, assurances the President-elect is just one more in a serious of imperfect leaders are surely the calls of the white moderate. And this call makes sense: even a legitimate challenge to the election results threatens to wound our democracy. Secretary Clinton conceded for the election for the good of our democracy; because the peaceful – if distasteful – transfer of power is essential.

But such calls also turn a blind eye to the many people who will suffer under a Trump presidency – who have already suffered under the vile hatred President-elect Trump’s rhetoric has unleashed.

Not everyone has the luxury of waiting for a more convenient season.

Earlier I asked, when should we resist? The answer that comes to me, fueled, perhaps by my upbringing in Oakland, CA, is: always.

Václav Havel argued that politics “cannot be enshrined in or guaranteed by any law, decree, or declaration. It cannot be hoped that any single, specific political act might bring it about and achieve it. Only the aim of an ideology can be achieved. The aim of this kind of politics, as I understand it, is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness.”

When John Dewey writes of democracy as a way a living, this is what I imagine: the constant battle to build the Good Society, the permanent challenge to work in solidarity for a more just and equitable tomorrow. This is the work of citizenship – the work of all who live in a place and consider themselves part of that place. To issue a permanent challenge to ourselves, our neighbors, and, of course, even our government.

Perhaps this is why I find the question of how to resist hard to answer. Resistance isn’t a postcard campaign or a call to an office. It isn’t showing up at a rally or donating to an important cause. All of those things are good, they each, in their own way have the capacity to fuel your energy play a part in making change.

But if you really want to know how to resist, the answer is more complicated than that. Resistance is a way of life, it’s a form a citizenship. It’s a commitment to speaking out and, importantly, creating space for others to speak out. It’s a bold declaration that all people are created equal and its an unequivocal call that we will not, cannot, rest until that equality is manifest is our society. Resistance comes in every word you say, every action you take.

Resistance means that this moment matters, that every moment matters. And with that commitment to noble action and equitable interaction, with that permanent challenge to fight for the Good, we’re collectively left with just one more question:

What should we do?

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