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The Difference Between Protest And Resistance

Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

The Democratic leadership of this country is urging the public to vote. They throw their weight behind candidates who don’t deserve it. They tell us to donate to the DNC. They tell us that we must work for change, as long as we do so politely, and with their approval, and maintain the utmost respect for private property. They tell us to trust that our representatives have only our best interests at heart. They tell us that if we only wait a little longer, a few more years perhaps, we can have the personal and political rights that should be inherent. They promise that by voting them into office, things will get better and instead most things have gotten worse. 

The overturning of the right to choose, solidified by the court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973, took one step closer to becoming a reality. On Monday night, Politico published a draft of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The drafted opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, outlines the court’s plan to rule on the legality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. Unless there are significant changes to the court’s opinion between now and whenever they release the ruling, abortion will become illegal in many states, some of which have already passed legislation in anticipation of this decision that will ban abortions.

This is the expected end of a decades-long struggle. Anti-abortion activists have been passing laws to restrict people’s rights to abortion in earnest for the past few decades. State Senator Wendy Davis’s 13-hour filibuster of an omnibus abortion bill in the Texas Capitol was nine years ago. When the special session ended, there was a roar in the rotunda. The overwhelming feeling was that a battle had been won. It hadn’t. The day after Davis walked off the floor, then-Governor Rick Perry called a second special session. He eventually signed a bill with the same requirements; it threatened 37 of the 42 abortion clinics that Texas had in 2013. Even though the Supreme Court would strike down the bill in 2016, it was too late. Almost all of the clinics stayed closed. The protest, the filibuster, the screams, the testimonies, and the effort did not stop the result.

People are furious right now. They have been furious before. They will be furious again. The direction they are given for that fury is sometimes useful. Donating to abortion funds that will help people get the care they need is a productive way to channel that rage. But more often, the people elected to protect our rights see our rage as an obstacle, something to be blunted and pacified. They tell us to vote, to donate to campaigns, to mostly wait. They tell us to be strategic, not cathartic.

What happens when the strategy fails? What is the reason exactly to have waited this long? What happens when we are faced with a complete erosion of our right to be whole in the eyes of the law, and the same politicians who have failed us again and again ask for our votes? When do we stop begging the people in power to listen to us, and force them to? 

Resistance as a term has been rebranded as something more marketable than it should be. “Since Trump’s ascension 'The Resistance' has become a brand name, a content category, a group identity for the older suburban liberals who have boosted MSNBC to record audience numbers," Malcolm Harris wrote for Mother Jones in 2019, about the lack of resistance to America’s immigration concentration camps. “Together The Resistance pores over every detail of the president’s internal affairs investigation, waiting for the day the cops finally throw the cuffs on Trump and his whole wicked cabal.” 

The resistance we are talking about is not wearing a knitted cap with cat ears, or tweeting at the president. Resistance is political action that isn't contingent on the support of party leaders or the Constitution. Resistance cares about justice, about liberty, about the rights of people right now and in the future.

In his story for Mother Jones, Harris paraphrased a speech by Dale A. Smith, a delegate for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, at a 1968 Berlin conference about Vietnam: 

Protest is when you say you don’t like something, he said. Resistance is making sure no one likes it. Protest is when you say, I will not tolerate what they do. Resistance is preventing them from doing it. Protest means to detest the inhumanity of others. Resistance means to suppress their inhumanity to let humanity triumph.

Kellie Carter Jackson, author of Force and Freedom, told Chapter 16 that black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement “believed in what I call ‘protective violence’ – not merely self-defense, but the collective defense of their communities. By their logic, slavery was created in violence. Slavery was sustained through violence. It seemed logical that slavery might be overthrown only through violence.” The violence Carter Jackson speaks of was against property, institutions, and windows. To be absolutely clear, this is not to say that the only way to effect change is to physically hurt other people. That is not true. What has been proven true, throughout history, is that asking politely for what you want does not work. To fight for equity and liberty and personal agency, there is always a risk. It is not as comfortable to resist as it is to tweet, but it does work. 

In September 2020, women in Mexico took to the streets to demand the legalization of abortion. They charged police lines, threw Molotov cocktails, and used hammers to bash windows and doors on their march route. According to the Associated Press, some women threw flares and bottles of gasoline at police; others wrested riot shields from officers and formed a phalanx to try and advance. In the fall of 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that penalizing abortions was unconstitutional. This ruling did not mean abortion was legalized or even necessarily decriminalized, but it was progress.

Meanwhile, the United States is regressing: 50 years of settled law is poised to be overturned by a fundamentally undemocratic panel of musty political operatives. This tentative decision would not even be in accordance with what the majority of Americans say they believe. According to a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted last week, 54 percent of Americans think Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Only 28 percent think it should be overturned. That a deeply unpopular policy is about to be imposed on the citizens of this country in such sweeping and flagrant fashion is not just evidence of the moral rot of the Republican party and the spinelessness of their Democrat counterparts, but also a signal that the slow drip of progress is not reliable.  Resistance, regardless of what everyone in power will say in the next few weeks, is not a fringe position. In the face of undemocratic rule, it is the only viable option. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a joint statement on Tuesday that blamed the Republican Party and specifically former President Donald Trump. They provided no guidance for how they intend to fight back. They showed very little interest at all in reassuring the American public that they, the leaders of the Senate and the House, were going to do something about this. Instead, the tone of their statement seemed stunned. There is no acknowledgement that they are two of the most powerful people in the country, that they could act. In the present, we have a Democratic president. We have a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, and they do not seem to have a plan despite the fact that this train has been barreling toward us for the past 30 years. 

Joe Biden’s plea to vote is particularly pathetic. Democrats could’ve codified the right to an abortion at multiple points in recent decades. Both Obama and Biden, and many other Democratic politicians, campaigned on doing just this. They chose not to because holding abortion rights hostage over voters was and still is strategically advantageous to them. They use it to fundraise and get people to the polls. They’re doing it right now. Just vote for us one more time, they plead, and we can really do something. If Biden wanted, he could call for the end of the filibuster and Congress could ensure the right to abortion in federal law. He could call for the reconfiguration of the Supreme Court. He could actually say the word “abortion,” instead of dancing around it as if uttering the word would taint him. Instead, he’s asking his fellow Americans to line up for another helping of shit: “If the Court does overturn Roe,” he said in a statement, “it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.”

In his book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, Andreas Malm wrote:

Social democracy works on the assumption that time is on our side. There must be plenty of it. Then one can move slowly towards the good society, step after incremental step, without having to clash head-on with the class enemy and break up its power; it will rather leak away in drips. But if catastrophe strikes, and if it is the status quo that produces it, then the reformist calendar is shredded. Social democracy can now do one of two things. It can continue to flow with the time, deeper into catastrophe - the choice from August 1914 - or it can become something else, another taxon of socialism, one that recognises that time is up and another decade or even year of this status quo is intolerable.

Taken together, the last three years have shown us that elected Democratic officials are happy to move slowly in order to preserve their remaining political capital while people’s rights disappear. In 2020 there were massive nationwide protests in the streets of this country against police brutality and racism. These protests succeeded in bringing the idea of structural racism and police brutality to mainstream white consciousness. Structurally, not much changed. Bold policy proposals like disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department fizzled and died; police forces still have obscene budgets, and many of them have increased; people are still getting killed in the street by police. Democrats who vowed to “do something” ended up sitting on their hands. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in her New Yorker piece that evaluated the effects of the protests that swept the country in 2020, “Democrats on the federal and local levels have mastered the language of racial contrition, lamenting the conditions that nourish inequality, while doing the bare minimum to change them.”

Whether or not the draft of Alito’s leaked opinion—which also questions the right to privacy status that could allow the court to overturn decisions that have legalized gay relationships and allowed people to buy birth control—ends up as the court’s final ruling does not change the direness of the situation in this country. There is no more time to wait and hope that Democratic leadership will wield the power to protect citizen’s rights to the basic healthcare that is abortion. Their offer right now is that if Americans wait until November and vote in the midterms and elect a few more senators, maybe they can do something next year. January is very far away. If you got pregnant today, your child would be due by the time any law was passed. 

Resistance contains the response to the elected official’s eternal question of “What happens if we don’t?” Resistance has an "or" attached to it. Either the police stop killing black people in the street, or we burn down a precinct. Either you give workers rights, or we stop working. Either you make the right to privacy and bodily autonomy the law of the land, or we escalate until you do.

Patience and voting is one option. We can choose the “or.”

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