Progressive Movement Building in Trump’s America

By Frank Kearl 

In the wake of President Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March sounded the beginning of a new progressive awakening with echoes of past political uprisings. American cities have always been central venues in fights for social justice. From the Boston Tea Party through the women’s suffrage movement, from the Birmingham Bus Boycott to Occupy Wall Street, people in urban centers have historically shaped the narrative around progressive movements and have helped catalyze change. Cities have begun to strike back against the anti-democratic efforts of their state courts and legislatures. By studying the organizational structures of prior social justice movements, today’s activists can build the foundation for a new era of radical social change.

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan via Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Ted Eytan via Creative Commons

Already, cities are beginning to experiment with new ways to protect their residents and resources from Republican efforts to deregulate extractive industries and criminalize immigration. In the city of Lafayette, Colorado, after the Boulder District Court tossed out the city’s anti-fracking charter claiming it was preempted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Act, the people passed a new city ordinance to fight back against the oil and gas industry.  The Climate Bill of Rights and Protections, which officially recognizes the right to a healthy climate and sanctions civil disobedience and non-violent protests to protect that right, affirmatively enables civil disobedience and resistance.

Other cities throughout the country are exploring ways to become “sanctuary cities” in defiance of the recent spate of anti-immigrant executive orders and an increased mobilization of ICE forces rounding up individuals for removal. In Austin, Texas, the recently elected Sheriff Sally Hernandez ran on a campaign promise to end her office’s voluntary cooperation with ICE and the Priority Enforcement Program.

At the same time, Republicans in power at the federal and state levels have begun to try to pass new laws to stifle the mass mobilizations of citizens. Already Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado, North Dakota, Washington, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina have proposed laws that would increase the penalties for protesting, criminalize actions traditionally protected under the first amendment, and in the radical case of North Dakota, allow motorists to kill protesters blocking roadways without legal consequence.

Other states seek to levy new criminal charges against demonstrators or heighten the penalties for existing offenses. In Indiana, a bill has been proposed in the Senate that would require a city experiencing a protest to “dispatch all available law enforcement officers to the mass traffic obstruction with directions to use any means necessary to clear the roads of the persons unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.” In Colorado, state lawmakers plan to increase the severity of charges and penalties for protesting against oil and gas companies, shifting certain offenses from misdemeanors to class 6 felonies punishable by 18 months in jail and fines of up to $100,000.  A similar proposal in Virginia would increase the classification of unlawful assembly from a class 3 misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500, to a class 1 misdemeanor, carrying up to one year of jail time and a maximum fine of $2,500. Arizona has developed a new plan to seize the assets of individuals participating in protests that turn violent, expanding existing racketeering laws to equate protest organizers with members of organized crime syndicates.

In response to Austin’s plan to become a sanctuary city, Governor Greg Abbott has pushed for new legislation that would cut funding for law enforcement agencies not complying with ICE detainer requests. The proposed legislation would also allow individuals refusing to work with ICE to be charged with a misdemeanors and would levy penalties of $25,000 for willful non-compliance by a department or agency. Additionally, if a department or agency releases the subject of an immigration detainer request from custody, and that person commits a felony within 10 years, the county or municipality will be held liable for damages.

These draconian scare tactics are also being pursued at the national level, as evidenced by the “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” Executive Order that claims the efforts to create sanctuary jurisdictions have “caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” The Executive Order calls for the Secretary of Homeland Security to withhold Federal funding to non-compliant jurisdictions to try to force them to rescind their sanctuary policies, testing the coercive limits of the Tenth Amendment’s Spending Clause.

Urban areas have responded to, and withstood, attacks of this kind in the past, and have still catapulted progressive ideals into the mainstream. Indeed, cities in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to generate innovations, expand communication mechanisms, and provide ready access to scientific and technological knowledge, allowing the demands of social change to spread throughout the rest of the country.

But lost in our historical understanding of social justice movements is their complex, heterogeneous reality.  The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, for example, was actually made up of “dozens of local movements with their own organizations, activists, interorganizational relationships, boundaries, and funding bases.”[1]  The emphasis on famous individuals, organizations, and concepts, as well as a focus on major courtroom victories instead of the long-term organizing process, has provided an impossible and inaccurate model on which some of today’s Americans project modern social justice movements.

Sociologist Aldon Morris posits the idea of local movement centers to explain the “diverse dynamics and confrontations of the civil rights movement.”[2]  These centers existed within cities and communities and served as the catalyst for collective action and inspiration for local movement centers that sprung up throughout the civil rights movement.  In particular he identifies the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Birmingham’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) as examples of communities organizing against state-sanctioned oppression.  In June of 1956, the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP, which resulted in plummeting membership and derailed the years of painstaking efforts that had gone into building a strong, centralized coalition of black organizations. In response, the MIA and ACMHR were created to “cope with crises, direct mass insurgency, and unify the entire community” at a local level.[3]

Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott is another example of localized activism leading towards concrete shifts in local governance today.  Taking a page from the Montgomery Bus Boycott’s demands for local change through squeezing a city’s bottom line, King’s social media-coordinated effort is the next step in the evolution of urban activism. He plans to hold progressive leadership accountable in New York City and San Francisco and combat the Dakota Access Pipeline with coordinated divestment from banks that are funding the project.

The strength of this model is in its ability to be transferred to other burgeoning local movement centers.  King combines the digital coordination strategies of groups like MoveOn and, which have so far failed to realize dramatic social change, with the highly visible insurgency strategies like Occupy Wall Street, Indivisible, and even the Tea Party.  This is what the future of urban activism looks like: leaders can get tens of thousands of people to turn out at our major airport within hours, coordinate synchronous global protests of millions, and even bring the largest power brokers in the world to heel.

As emerging local movement centers face novel challenges from local police and governments, new strategies of resistance are being developed and spread to other local movement centers for further refinement.  In the past, this transmission meant that forces in opposition to the local movement centers were not able to stymie collective progress using the old tactics they had previously wielded. A victory in one city became contagious, giving inspiration and motivation to other cities’ leaders.  Local political leaders are once again standing up to injustice and are learning from each other’s victories

[1] See Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change at 40 (1984).

[2] See id.

[3] See id at 43.