Protest and Survive!

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A Rise and Resist protest in New York City. (Donna Aceto)

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Let’s face it. We’re on a Covid-19 Republican death march heading into the rest of the summer and fall. We cannot wait for January 2021 to shift course. Our lives depend on disruption now. Indeed, our survival hinges on making it impossible for our leaders to ignore us: We have to shift the political

terrain ourselves. We have to be the earthquake. We simply cannot “live with” the virus—as the Trump administration suggests—nor simply accept the hundreds of thousands of cases coming over the next six months.

There are tactics like the ones we used years ago in ACT UP to fight HIV/AIDS—like swarming institutions from New York’s City Hall and the New York Stock Exchange to the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the offices of pharmaceutical executives. Or putting a giant condom on the late Senator Jesse Helms’s home in Virginia. However, these tactics were possible because there was a large group of people capable of pulling them off. They were also linked to a deep strategy about how to end the AIDS epidemic and a national and international mobilization against the disease, with ACT UP chapters all over the world.

But we don’t have to look back decades for inspiration. The Black Lives Matter protests, which have now become the largest movement in US history, with 15 million to 26 million people participating in demonstrations around the country, are pointing a way forward for all of us to survive both this pandemic and the epidemic of police violence in our communities. Nadine Bloch from Beautiful Trouble and Folabi Olagbaju from Greenpeace write in Waging Nonviolence that “the unfolding insurrection has been a master class in creative protest,” racking up reforms that just a few months ago would have seemed impossible and serving as a model for us all.

Bloch and Olagbaju point out that such massive demonstrations could happen only because “Black-led organizations and networks were already in place and ready to lead.” Movement building doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve got no choice and have to figure out a way to jump-start an uprising right now on Covid-19. Because as ACT UP cofounder Larry Kramer reminded us all those years ago about political inaction and apathy in the face of HIV/AIDS, “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!… Until we get our acts together, all of us,… we are as good as dead!”

With no time to lose, we need to find the organizations that are ready to lead, those that have the DNA of protest in their genes, those that aren’t afraid of making beautiful trouble and are doing so right now. They may be small groups like New York City’s Rise and Resist and the Center for Popular Democracy, which have already been organizing on health, or big ones like the unions representing teachers, nurses, and Stop & Shop workers, which have turned to direct action over the past few years. Meanwhile, some of the millions of dollars being spent on electoral politics between now and November needs to be channeled into an immediate, massive, sustained, and coordinated national emergency campaign of disruption targeting politicians who tell us to “live with” the virus and the corporations, media, and other institutions that prop them up. If activists are going to take risks in direct action and civil disobedience, they need the resources and support to take them safely—legally, physically, and epidemiologically. Each day that our politicians refuse to do what’s right on Covid-19 should be met with resistance, defiance, and creativity to keep them off-balance, on the defensive, and uncertain about what we’ll do next. Get your friends together. Find groups near you that are already organizing. Find out how to help. If nothing is happening locally, start planning and plotting on your own.

Civil resistance works. It just may be what saves us from this pandemic. So wear your masks, wash your hands, maintain social distance, and get ready to act up.

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