In last week’s Friendmendations, I talked about how much Nora Caplan-Bricker’s piece on “The Depression-Era Book That Wanted to Cancel the Rent” resonated with me. It’s about public housing advocate Catherine Bauer, whose 1934 book Modern Housing argued for making housing a public utility and basic right for Americans. Her book ended with the exhortation that change would come not from her writing, but by people taking up the cause as a movement. I’ve been especially pondering Caplan-Bricker’s analysis of why Bauer’s ideas didn’t take hold:
“Bauer hoped to tackle the housing crisis with a universalist policy that might have united the poor and the middle class in broad support of a new entitlement. Instead, the New Deal ushered in a two-tiered system that persists to this day: generous tax deductions for the most secure homeowners, and underfunded public housing for the least fortunate.
…It’s easy to abandon hope that we will ever accomplish what ‘Modern Housing’ prescribes, but the book prompts us to remember that history is never as predictable as it looks in hindsight. Bauer emphasizes that there was “no ‘inevitability’” preventing achievements like those of Europe: it took a political movement, including mass protests, to create social housing. Bauer’s defeat wasn’t preordained, either. Radford, finding evidence of excitement about modern housing among union members in the thirties, argues that Bauer simply didn’t have enough time to amass the necessary grassroots support.”
Which all begs the question: how exactly do you stir up grassroots support?
There’s an obvious example, of course, in the sustained Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. A few months in, dedicated protesters are still showing up, but I worry that the issue will start to fade from mainstream attention (or indeed, that it already has.)
On the one hand, conditions feel ripe for a revolution because society seems to be collapsing around us. Nearly half of the people in the country (47%) have experienced pandemic-related job losses and about 20% are collecting unemployment benefits. That group, of course, faces the uncertainty of whether the government will extend the additional $600/week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. Almost a third of the country (32%) missed their July housing payments.
And yet, I don’t see evidence that the average person wants to push for systemic change to address these problems. From what I can tell, most people just want the government to do more with the system we’ve got. The entire country isn’t calling for a complete overhaul of our healthcare or implementation of universal basic income, and they’re definitely not taking up Catherine Bauer’s call for socialized housing. I see these ideas online from the leftist organizers that I follow, but I don’t see them cracking the mainstream yet, even in this time of crisis and instability.
But a movement needs the support of a large group of people, not just the most dedicated. So I keep going back to that question: how do you stir up grassroots support?
My social circle, online and (when conditions allowed) in real life, is more radical than most. That’s probably because most of my friends are queer, in the arts, or both, so we’re used to struggling under capitalism and questioning the ways in which society could be more fair and kind. The systems that support the arts still need to undergo their own reckoning with racism, to be sure. But the community itself contains people who are more likely to speak out against injustice than most other professions.
So I reached out to a friend in a more conservative profession to discuss his relationship to Black Lives Matter as a way of understanding peripheral participation in a social movement. I’d seen him post and share a few tweets the first week of protests and knew that he supported the cause, but he was not posting information to all social media platforms every day like many of my friends were and I knew that he hadn’t attended any protests. I asked what actions he had taken, and he said that he had donated to a few places and was talking to his conservative family members to help them understand and support the movement. The current crisis has impacted his activism, as he said that he would have donated more if financially able and that he would have been more likely to attend a protest had there not been a pandemic to worry about (a very valid concern.) However, when asked, he said that he probably would have gone if a friend had specifically pressured him to protest and made a plan to go together. I asked if he’d made any calls or sent any emails to his representatives, but he pointed out that he lives in a very liberal district — AOC is his representative — and said that doing so didn’t feel like it would be impactful.
A more reserved person than my theatre hooligan friends, he said that he didn’t feel like protesting as a sustained action was a form of activism that he personally would like to participate in, though he fully supported and admired the protesters who do. However, he stipulated that he would be willing to do so in a bigger, more urgent crisis such as Trump’s refusal to transfer power after the election or an escalation of the secret police tactics seen in Portland. (This conversation took place last week, for context.) Speaking to the difference between an urgent protest in a crisis and the sustained protests of Black Lives Matter, he said, “It seems like BLM has made a lot of important gains and that the country is generally heading in that direction. Obviously kicking and screaming, and obviously it requires continued work from people.”
In contrast with the meaningless “conversations” that Alex V Green so effectively criticized in their piece for Jezebel, this kind of one-on-one discussion is illuminating and helpful. My friend asked questions about my stance on abolishing the police, and we realized that we were in favor of the same thing but using different words for it (he’s in favor of “defunding,” but we both agree that the system is corrupt, violent, and unfixable and needs to be replaced completely). Like my friend, I’m also explaining the movement to more conservative relatives and hoping to influence their opinions, and he and I both vote in every election and encourage others to do so. Social media isn’t real life (though it is our closest substitute, as real life is on hold for the moment), and this genuinely curious discussion felt more productive in many ways than sharing a post on Instagram about the cause.
I’ve talked a few times in this newsletter about Natalie Wynn, whose YouTube channel ContraPoints interrogates alt-right talking points, deconstructing them by actually analyzing and responding to them. I’m particularly impressed by her commitment to confronting those swayed by alt-right rhetoric and trying to change their minds instead of dismissing them outright. In an interview on the subject, Wynn explained, “It’s not just about calling someone out and using logic, because there are emotional and psychological reasons that people hold their political convictions. From a psychological standpoint, you have to empathetically enter a person’s world; not just why do they think what they think, but why do they feel what they feel? Repeat that back to them and you can really gain traction.”
It feels facile to say that the way to building a movement is to simply talk to other people more. And yet, I will admit that it’s easier for me to write something that feels important and self-righteous and post it online than have a difficult conversation with someone I care about whose feelings I don’t want to hurt. I see Black Lives Matter as a situation of absolute moral clarity: cops are abusing their power, all systems in place support them, and people are dying because of it. I disagree with my friend on the matter of its urgency for this reason — every day that police power remains unchecked, Black lives are in danger. But it was important to hear his perspective on its urgency, because it was so different than mine that it hadn’t occurred to me that someone would think that. I often write and post and speak as if everyone feels the same attachment to the cause that I do, and in doing so I’m talking past people instead of to them. For that reason, honest discussion feels very vital for everyone involved.
Not everyone wants to be protesting in the streets, and not everyone can. (It’s ableist to frame protest as the most important form of activism when many disabled people are excluded from participating, particularly during a pandemic that threatens the immunocompromised.) There are a lot of ways to support the cause, and all are necessary to make a movement. I’m reminded of one of founders of Fuel the People, an organization that brings food to protests. A lovely, kind-hearted woman who spoke at a march I attended, she said that she’d asked herself what she could do to help the cause because she didn’t feel comfortable protesting and had the idea to bring food to those who were. How can we reach people who support the cause in theory but not materially? And how do we get them to support causes they might not even know about?
Both my friend and I agreed on another point: that we were shamefully ignorant of the scope of police brutality until a few years ago. Seeing videos of police violence was emotionally powerful and necessary for us to understand. Similarly, following more Black and Brown people on social media helped us grasp the everyday terror of living in a country where any interaction with the police, down to a routine traffic stop, could be deadly. I’d certainly never heard of police abolition as a concept back then and would have been shocked by it, but the more I listen, the more I learn. And building a movement around an idea, be it justice reform or socialized housing, requires getting people to listen.
A lot more needs to be done than just talking and listening. But you can’t get people to help with the work until you take that first step, I think.
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