On November 9th, millions of Americans woke up to a nightmare: The election of a hyper-right-wing, single-party government led by people whose values they didn’t share, and who didn’t reflect the cultural, racial and gender diversity of their hometowns and neighborhoods.
It’s a nightmare that a lot of red-staters have been calling “reality” for a long time.
Candice Russell was watching election-night coverage with friends in her hometown of Seattle when the returns came in.
“They were so afraid,” Russell, who’s now a reproductive justice advocate in Texas, recalls. And yet, a voice in the back of her head didn’t feel particularly charitable toward her company: You’re safe! You’re fine! You’re the last people he’s going to come for!
Russell’s mind turned to the state she now calls home, the place she thought she might leave for good after last summer’s Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law: “What would my life look like back home if I chose to go back [to Texas] as a Jewish, queer Latina who talks about abortion on TV?” she wondered. “What happens to me in a Trump administration?”
She decided to find out. Russell cut short a planned two-month West Coast vacation, packed up her dog, and drove halfway across the country to resume the work that has changed and challenged her – and even caused her to lose a job after an employer saw Russell tell her abortion story on CNN.
“If I’m going to be afraid, I’m going to be afraid for a reason,” she says. “And I’m going to be in a place where I can make a difference.”
While much of America comes to grips with the revelation of single-party rule by bigots, another swath of the country is shaking its head in recognition: The red-state progressives battling local and state government officials, law enforcement entities and courts who, through voter suppression, gerrymandering and an incredible fundraising capacity, have subverted the will of the people for years, and sometimes decades. Attacks on trans Americans’ right to use public facilities? North Carolina fought back first. Appallingly restrictive anti-abortion laws? Struck down thanks to the persistence of Texas abortion providers. “Papers please”-style deportation forces? Brought Arizona activists to the forefront.
Some of these movements have names – Moral Mondays in North Carolina, or the “Unruly Mob” that stood behind Wendy Davis, or the #NoDAPL collective. There are the OKC Artists for Justice, who made rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw a household name; the people of Ferguson, Missouri, who took to the streets to demand justice for Michael Brown and black men like him; the Texas Christians who’ve given sanctuary to immigrants despite threats and harsh rhetoric from state leaders.
If the United States is to survive the Trump administration, we must look to the center – the geographic center, and the South – for leadership in the resistance. That is where we will find many of our most resilient political activists and organizers.
To that end, Rolling Stone asked a half-dozen red-state organizers on what works when governments stop working for the people, and start working against them.
Stay mad and lose big
“The national left, if there is one, has spent the last decade having an incredible tolerance for the agony and the neglect that many red states have faced,” says Missourian Pamela Merritt, co-founder of the reproductive justice group Reproaction. “They’re going to get a dose of what that feels like in their own blue heaven.”
Now is the time to channel that newfound anger, Merritt says, and not to focus on caution and compromise. Senate Democrats voting for Trump nominees? Unacceptable. Bernie Sanders willing to work with Trump? Nope. She uses what she calls the “soda pop” metaphor to get her point across, urging organizers, activists and folks on the ground not to settle for Sierra Mist when what they want is a Sprite – even if they know they won’t get either.
“There’s a certain point where you are negotiating where you become Sierra Mist,” she says. “As you lean into that negotiation and that appeasement, then you start to just become really bad, flat Sierra Mist, and at some point you’re just water in a can, dressed up, but it’s not a soda at all.”
Clear messaging and confident demands that don’t compromise values builds solidarity – and shows allies, especially friendly elected officials, that you’re serious about creating change.
“If we take that path of caution, I think we lose a tremendous opportunity,” says Merritt. “I’m saying this after some great reflection. I think the fate of the republic is at hand right now.”
Turn to each other, for each other
When government becomes unpetitionable, and losses are assured, the South knows how to create alternative, extra-institutional support systems, says Mary Hooks, co-director of the 25-year-old Southerners on New Ground, which she half-jokingly refers to as “a membership-based organization of dangerous homosexuals, fighting for the liberation of all people across race, class, gender, sexuality.”
“One of the gifts, frankly, of organizing in the South and more hostile places, is relationship-based organizing,” says SONG co-director Paulina Helm-Hernandez. “It isn’t a secret here, who’s hostile and who’s not.”
SONG has the power of what the organization calls its “kinship network,” a mutual agreement of support and solidarity that has folks taking in undocumented relatives when they’re in danger of deportation, sharing recipes for natural medicines and historic food traditions, and, more broadly, Helm-Hernadez says, “fortifying ourselves to do what is necessary and not allow this moment of fear to turn us against each other.”
Anti-immigrant lawmakers try to divide communities of color between those who have documentation and those who don’t; others prey on homophobia and transphobia in culturally conservative areas, pitting labor activists against their LGBTQ neighbors. But for SONG, everyone’s freedom is tied up in everyone else’s, leaving no room for what Helm-Hernandez calls the “transactional cynicism” of traditional politics. It’s about freedom, not favors.
“Our lives are connected and so are systems of oppression,” says Hooks. “The way we organize must be a reflection of that. We don’t believe we should be organizing in silos.”
Train for the marathon, not the sprint.
If you know the name Daniel Holtzclaw, it’s likely thanks to the nonprofit OKC Artists for Justice. Holtzclaw attacked women, some of them sex workers, who’d already had interactions with law enforcement – women who, in the eyes of a public steeped in rape culture, didn’t fit the bill for sympathetic survivors. OKC Artists for Justice centered those women in their advocacy efforts around the Holtzclaw case anyway.
Executive Director Grace Franklin says her group “focused on sexual assault, [saying,] ‘That is wrong in all ways and all contexts and all scenarios; you cannot justify it.'”
That required hard conversations about the community’s beliefs about sex, race and gender – conversations Franklin knew she wouldn’t just need to have once or twice. Preparing for that kind of long-term investment in cultural and political change is essential, she says, to sustainable movement-building.
“It’s an exciting time for activism, for really engaging,” says Franklin, “and hopefully people will not do it as a sprint.” Trump may be the nemesis of the moment, but, she says, “it’s not just dealing with him. It’s dealing with Congress, what’s happening locally, in your states and your cities.”
That requires a multi-faceted approach to resistance, she says, that has to be “ready for some losses.”
“You’re gonna lose a few things, but don’t let that deter you,” she says. “There’s gonna be cuts to arts programs, reducing federal funding for programs that protect women and children. Maybe you don’t come out and protest. Maybe what you do is give money.”
Confront and call in when the left considers some of its own expendable, or their rights negotiable.
An essential component of running this marathon, according to all of the organizers interviewed, is for the left to reckon within itself and confront tough realities about race relations within the movement. It’s not enough for white folks who didn’t vote for Trump to rest on that knowledge when the vast majority of people who look like them sent him to the White House.
“The system of white supremacy cares about no one but itself and is going to do everything it can do … to protect itself,” says Monica Simpson, executive director of the Atlanta-based, women-of-color-led collective Sister Song. Trump’s election, she says, is “a wake-up call for those well-meaning white people. Are they willing to make the change or not?”
In short, this isn’t a moment to spend reassuring the “good guys” – the good white women, the good Christians – that they’re not like their conservative counterparts. Rather, it’s a moment for the most marginalized in the movement to set the terms of unity.
“Every single battle is a battle to hold the front,” says Reproaction’s Merritt. “You don’t want to take steps back” by sacrificing people and principles.
Candice Russell, the Texas abortion activist who works with the group We Testify, says that often means turning over leadership to people who don’t fit into neat narratives of how an advocate should look and be. Russell says that after she testified during the reproductive rights protest in Austin in 2013, she struggled to find a place within organizations that didn’t seem to want her. She’d showed up to the capitol in her work clothes, fresh from bartending at a “faux Irish Hooters.”
“All I wanted to do was meet people and get involved, and because I didn’t fit into what a repro rights activist looked like – I’m not white, I don’t have a secondary education, I literally came [to the capitol] in bar shorts – I didn’t fit the aesthetic and I didn’t know the language,” she says.
“People like me fall through the cracks,” says Russell. “All we have is this fire that says we want to [lead], and what I ran into was a bunch of white women with educations telling me that that wasn’t good enough.”
And so the resistance, if it is to sustain itself, has to learn from red-state success stories and their moments of failure.
“We have all these people who are on fire, all these women who went to this march for the first time, wore the pussy hat, who never felt politicized in their lives before,” says Russell. “I think we have a second coming of that awesome opportunity.”