Reviewed: Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, by Sarah Jaffe, Nation Book, 2016.
The resistance is everywhere. It’s in the streets and at the airports. It’s in public office and on Twitter. It’s with the Nazi-punchers and the general strikers. Resistance to Trump is everywhere, and it’s growing.
Much of the current organizing against Trump and Trumpism is building off of the last decade of social movement activity in America. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the US has given rise to countless activist movements and initiatives that provide useful strategies and political visions for the resistance today.
Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by journalist Sarah Jaffe covers the exciting people’s movements that have risen up since the 2008 economic crisis in America. It provides a history and overview of Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 uprising in Wisconsin, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for Fifteen, and dozens of other groups and movements. In this book, Jaffe crisscrosses the country to provide a vivid account of American radicalism in the 21st century. Necessary Trouble offers many inspiring stories for activists in the Trump era.
“We needed something beyond the ballot box, but in 2008 and 2009, it wasn’t clear what that something would be,” Jaffe writes. “By the time Black Lives Matter seized the stage, it became clear that something was fundamentally changing. Americans, in short, were getting radical.”
How and why did these movements emerge? What drove activists to work for radical change? Jaffe answers these questions with rich, detailed writing, and extensive interviews. With reporting from the streets, the people’s assemblies, and picket lines, Jaffe’s artful narrative puts the people directly involved in the struggle at center stage. Activists’ own voices and stories are at the heart of this people’s history of collective resistance. The book, Jaffe writes, “is about the way people discover their power together.”
She traveled all over the US to gather the material for the book. “I attended a people’s assembly in a church gymnasium in Ferguson, Missouri; walked a picket line at an Atlanta Burger King at 6 a.m.; rode a bus from New York to Ohio with student organizers; and sat with airport and homecare workers in Seattle as they told stories about their jobs. I danced at a fundraiser for Occupy Homes Minnesota, and I went door to door in Far Rockaway, Queens, days after Hurricane Sandy. I met people who were struggling but were finding ways to make change.”
A key spark that ignited many of these movements was the 2008 economic crisis and Washington’s bailout of Wall Street. That year, Jaffe writes, showed that capitalism’s promise of equality and democracy was a myth. “The question now was what would happen next.”
One short answer to that question is Occupy Wall Street. “We are the 99 percent” was both a chant and a political vision. What Occupy did with such a phrase, Jaffe writes, was show that “inequality – not simple concern about poverty, or unemployment, but the sense that a small group of ultra-rich were consolidating even more wealth and political power in their hands – was the problem.” The concept of building a coalition of angry dissidents that were part of the 99 percent helped to bring people together. Jaffe explains, “Occupy had both pointed the finger squarely at the rich and gathered the other classes together in opposition.”
Occupy’s self-managed occupation of Zuccoti Park in New York City is well known: the communally-organized kitchen, the people’s library, medical station, the horizontal assemblies, and the people’s mics. “In holding the space,” Jaffe writes, “the occupiers gave outrage a location.” The movement spread quickly across the country, with other Occupies rising up. One of the helpful elements that spurred this wide participation, explains Jaffe, was that “you didn’t have to wait for permission to declare yourself part of Occupy. You simply did it.”
Necessary Trouble continues with the uprising in Wisconsin – months before Occupy – against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s February, 2011 austerity bill. The bill sought to balance the budget by cutting public workers’ salaries and funding to schools, and slashing crucial public services. In many ways, activists’ tactics in Madison pre-figured the style of Occupy: the Capitol building was occupied by people protesting Scott and was organized in horizontal ways.
Activists were becoming radicalized in the movement itself. Jenni Dye, activist and the daughter of a Wisconsin teacher, recalls one protester who “had this big bushy Wisconsin beard and a winter hat on and his jacket was green and his sign said, ‘All the faith that I have lost in the government I have found in the people.’”
In the spite of the setbacks for Wisconsin’s anti-austerity movement since 2011, Dye, who now works for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, believes the Wisconsin uprising demonstrated the importance of seeing the connections between movements – a lesson which resonates with today’s resistance against Trump. “All of us, Black Lives Matter movement, the labor movement, reproductive health, are part of this Ven diagram that has so much more overlap than we acknowledge when we’re working in our silos,” she tells Jaffe. “We have to work together.”
Another thread weaving through Jaffe’s stories is the emergence and efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. Jaffe describes how the outrage and solidarity in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 contributed to the rise of a new civil rights struggle in America.
Ciara Taylor, a Florida A&M University student at the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder, told Jaffe that Martin’s story exposed the lie of the American dream. “Trayvon still had two very loving parents who would nurture him, he lived in a suburban community, and he was killed in this neighborhood by this guy who calls himself a neighborhood watchman,” Taylor said. “In this country they tell you if you work hard you can live in these communities that are supposed to be safe and everyone is equal and free.”
Though Martin’s death moved people to take action, Taylor told Jaffe, the protests were about all of the lives of black men and women taken by police, security officials, and vigilantes. What would become the contemporary Black Lives Matter Movement was taking shape. Taylor continued her organizing work in the years to come, efforts that focused in part on tearing down the barriers that prevented people from working against injustice in the first place. As Taylor said, “you can’t fight for justice and freedom and liberation if you don’t believe you deserve it in the first place.”
A lot of the movements examined here built power outside of electoral politics. But Jaffe also takes a look at the notable example of Seattle’s socialist city councilor, Kshama Sawant, elected in 2013. After Sawant participated in Occupy Seattle, she began mulling a race for city council as way to change things from inside the system. She ran a well-organized and broad-based campaign with hundreds of volunteers, and won with 93,000 votes.
“People don’t need some kind of detailed graduate-level economics lesson,” Sawant, who has a PhD in economics, told Jaffe of her victory. “[T]hey understand that the market is not working for them. The market is making them homeless. The market is making them cityless. And they’re fed up, and they’re angry.”
This is a theme running through many of the stories in Necessary Trouble: people find the cracks in a system that was promised to save them, uncover the lies in the American dream, and then take that disillusionment and rage and fight back with alternatives.
A closing story in the book is on Occupy’s response to Hurricane Sandy, when Occupy activists joined community efforts to help out neighborhoods in New York that were hit by the storm. From the Seattle city council to grassroots responses to Hurricane Sandy, Occupy was on the move.
Indeed, the ripple effect of Occupy and other movements covered here have spread across the country. “Bernie Sanders’s very viability as a presidential candidate is largely due to successive movements making his issues mainstream and making ‘socialism’ a less scary word,” Jaffe writes of the 2016 presidential election.
As the resistance to Trump takes shape, the lessons and examples from the previous decade of movement organizing are vital. Necessary Trouble provides a crucial field guide for the resistance, offering inspiring stories, strategies, and political vision for changing America from the bottom-up.
“Thinking about movement as a tidal wave, and we’re the tidal pool, we hold that water,” Cat Salonek, an organizer with Occupy Homes Minnesota, tells Jaffe. “After Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, that tidal wave washes the nation and then goes back out and we try to contain as much of that as we can. We train and we develop, and when the next wave comes, we’re that much bigger and that much stronger, and we can push it so much further and capture more as it washes back out.”
Toward Freedom editor Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia and Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America. He is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at McGill University. Twitter: @bendangl