Immediately after the election of Donald Trump, a broad-based, inclusive and organized resistance movement began to develop in Monterey County. Efforts were made to bring together the various constituencies and organizations that make up the local progressive activist movement. For a few months, these efforts showed great promise.
By the spring of 2017, however, these efforts had been completely derailed. The local progressive activist movement is more disorganized, divided and ineffective than it was before Trump’s election.
The first large local protest against the Trump agenda was the Nov. 20 March for Peace and Equality, which drew several hundred people who marched from Window on the Bay Park to Colton Hall. The young woman who initiated the march had never before attended a demonstration.
Over the next few months, there was a series of rallies and marches in our community, the largest of which was the Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Several thousand people attended. The principal organizer also was a woman with no previous organizing experience.
On the day before the Women’s March, about 300 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church for the People’s Rally for Unity and Equality. It was endorsed by over 30 local organizations, many of which had never collaborated before. The roster of speakers included students, elected officials, civil rights and reproductive rights activists, and activists from organized labor and the African-American, Native American, Mexican American and gay and lesbian communities. The steering committee, the list of endorsers and the panel of speakers were more inclusive and representative of the diversity of this community than any activist event I have attended in Monterey County.
I will not list all the rallies and marches that took place in the first few months after Trump’s election. Two memorable ones were the Dec. 6 vigil for sanctuary at Salinas City Hall and the Feb. 4 Rally Against Hate, protesting Trump’s Islamophobic travel ban. One local activist described the Rally Against Hate as “probably the most inclusive, congenial, best-received and enjoyable demonstration” she’d ever attended on the Peninsula.
Most of the local protests were organized by people with little or no previous organizing experience, not by the established and recognized progressive organizations. They also brought out large and diverse crowds, not the usual 30 or 40 white, English-speaking retirees I’d seen over and over at demonstrations during the Obama years. I had tremendous hope that the various groups and constituencies that made up the local progressive activist community were coming together to form an informal working coalition that might eventually coalesce into an organized, unified and effective movement.
I organized a series of well-attended meetings at which I attempted to facilitate greater coordination, cooperation, collaboration and communication between the progressive groups.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that most of the leadership of the various groups had little or no interest in this endeavor. While some paid lip service to the idea of coalition building, most of these (mostly self-appointed) leaders were more interested in promoting their own agendas and protecting their own turf and status as big fish in small ponds. One of the local progressive leaders went so far as to tell a group of about 200 activists that it wasn’t important for different groups to try to work together.
By the spring of 2017, the growing but still informal coalition collapsed. The implosion of this budding movement didn’t just “happen” like an apple falling from a tree. It was the result of the actions of a relatively small number of leading activists, and the passivity of the rest of the activist community.
These leading activists represent two factions: (1) an ossified Old Guard that orbits around the Monterey Peace and Justice Center (MPJC) and includes members of MPJC, the “Peace Coalition,” Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Veterans for Peace; and (2) activists from the Democratic Party, the “Progressive” Democrats, and the various local Indivisible groups.
These two factions have two things in common: (1) they have demonstrated a near total inability to address even minor internal conflicts in a responsible and constructive manner; and (2) they have demonstrated a near total inability to expand their base of support beyond a very narrow demographic of predominantly English-speaking and relatively affluent white people whose median age is well past that of the local population.
Whatever their intentions, the actions of these leading activists have a negative effect on local organizing. Rather than contributing to the development of an effective and organized local movement for human rights, social justice and peace, these activists and the organizations they represent have effectively blocked the development of such a movement.
As a former board president of the Monterey Peace and Justice Center (MPJC), I can state that MPJC and other organizations affiliated with MPJC are profoundly dysfunctional. The local peace movement centered around MPJC is controlled by a tight knit cabal of activists, many of whom have known each other for decades, who use gossip and character assassination to maintain their control. In addition, some activists associated with MPJC, the Peace Coalition of Monterey County and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have helped promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. A broader circle of activists who are connected in some way to MPJC either actively collude to hide the dysfunctional behavior or are complicit by their silence.
But it was the local activists affiliated with the Democratic Party who had the most destructive impact on local organizing efforts, through the faux grassroots movement Indivisible. Within two weeks of Trump’s inauguration, there were at least a dozen Indivisible chapters in this Congressional district alone. In Monterey County, hundreds of new activists were channeled away from existing coalition building efforts into the strategic dead end of Indivisible.
Indivisible’s promoters claimed it was a non-partisan, grassroots movement intended to hold elected officials to a progressive agenda. This claim was a fiction. This “non-partisan, grassroots” movement was heavily promoted by Rachel Maddow, who is paid $5 million a year to parrot Democratic National Committee talking points, all of which are then repeated almost verbatim by Indivisible activists.
I was initially skeptical of Indivisible. But, in the interest of unity, I helped promote it. I naively thought Indivisible could be a mechanism for bringing more people into a broad, organized and effective progressive movement. However, Indivisible’s leaders were more interested in using the progressive movement to build the Democratic Party and they had the backing of Robert Reich and MSNBC to do it. When I did ask a few questions about strategy and tactics, I was verbally bludgeoned into submission.
I quickly learned that, among local Democratic Party/Indivisible activists, dissent was not tolerated. Anyone who was not willing to take political direction from Rachel Maddow and the “MSDNC” was quickly attacked as a Trump supporter or a Putin lover. Vociferous criticism of Trump and the Republicans was encouraged, but woe to anyone who mentioned inconvenient facts about Democrats. The facts that Obama presided over the bombing of more countries than any president since World War II, the death by drone of American citizens, the deportation of record numbers of immigrants, the greatest increase in economic inequality in U.S. history, and the creation of the worst refugee crisis in over six decades are never to be mentioned.
Since Trump’s election, local Democratic Party/Indivisible activists accused me of being “hostile,” “insulting,” “holier-than-thou,” a “narcissist” and of having “no brain, no heart and no balls.” The most bizarre charge was that I was being “divisive.” This is an odd accusation to make against someone who, arguably, has been more successful than any other local activist in bringing together diverse groups of people.
Aside from the reprehensible means by which these activists deal with differences of opinion, the organizing strategy is profoundly misguided if the intent is to produce meaningful social change.
We now have empirical evidence from decades of history from this country and beyond informing us about what it takes to bring significant change. It takes the sustained mobilization of massive numbers of people. Serious activism in Monterey County would involve mobilizing 10,000 to 15,000 people on a regular and sustained basis. This cannot be achieved unless activists are able to work with people who don’t think like or look like them. “No activist organization in this community should be taken seriously if it can’t mobilize large numbers of people who aren’t white, English-speaking, relatively affluent retirees.”
Another lesson from American history is that effective movements for social change must operate independently of the two major parties. Any movement that aligns itself with the Democratic Party is destined to fail. Activists who attempt to use the Democratic Party as vehicle for meaningful social change are ignoring history.
When I discussed this piece with the Partisan’s Royal Calkins, he asked that I include constructive suggestions on how people can re-engage. In all honesty, I can’t do that. I am unaware of any organization in this community that is engaged in the type of activism that is needed.
The last large demonstration in this community was the April 22 March for Science, which brought out about 1,000 people. After the violence in Charlottesville, there were several local demonstrations against fascism and in solidarity with the victims of the violence. It appeared to me that these demonstrations were organized spontaneously by highly motivated individuals and not by established organizations. I’m unaware of any organized effort to harness the energy from these protests and channel it into a sustained movement.
At one time, the largest local Indivisible group claimed to have 1,000 members. It appears that most of the dozen or so Indivisible groups that sprang up almost a year ago are defunct. The few that remain don’t seem to be able to mobilize more than a couple of dozen people.
On a personal level, I threw in the towel in early summer. The emotional toll of attempting to persuade my “colleagues” to collaborate and cooperate in an atmosphere of mutual respect while being subjected to insults and malicious gossip was more than I was willing to bear.
Collectively, we have ceded leadership of the progressive activist community to people who are not up to the task. Those who are most capable of providing effective leadership are unwilling to step up to the plate or simply don’t have the time because of commitments to their jobs and families. Or perhaps they are too smart to subject themselves to the abuse they would likely experience.
I believe there are people in this community who are capable of providing effective leadership for social change. If you are willing to take this on, I will certainly do whatever I can to support you even though I’m sure nothing I’ve written here encourages you step forward. Still, let me say this. We need you.
Phillip Crawford is an attorney and former president of the Monterey Peace and Justice Center.