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Anti-Trump protesters aren't trying to change anyone's mind. Here's their strategy.

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On March 23, a few hundred activists dialed into a conference call dubbed "White Rage and the State of Our Movements."

They didn't have to say the words "Donald Trump" in their call to action. Participants knew what sort of "white rage" they meant.

The call was organized by a set of distant, if not exactly unusual, allies: the Black Lives Matter organization, the anti-deportation campaign that's operated under the hashtag #Not1More, and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (which works on global issues including climate change). They promoted the call with a hashtag first popularized by the white-ally network Standing Up for Racial Justice: #Time2Escalate.

Over the past few weeks, anti-Trump protests had gone from one-off interruptions at rallies to a constant and increasingly assertive presence at Trump events. A few days before the call, protesters had taken credit for shutting down a Donald Trump rally in Chicago. (The candidate abruptly canceled his appearance citing unfounded "safety concerns.")

Some of these protests are still spontaneous: the product of "people who don't like what's happening," in the words of organizer Marisa Franco of Puente Arizona, who's helped coordinate the #Not1More campaign. But others are, if not centrally coordinated, increasingly linked: Several of the people who'd been involved in "support" for the Fayetteville, North Carolina, protest on March 8, for example, played the same roles for the St. Louis protests on March 11.

But Trumpism, as the activists Vox spoke to see it, is bigger than Trump — it encompasses everything from racial hate crimes to state immigration laws in Arizona to North Carolina's "bathroom law." And while the activists behind the "White Rage" call and the #Time2Escalate hashtag are disrupting Trump rallies as an intrinsic "moral imperative," they also see anti-Trump protests as a way to harness some of the progressive energy that's risen against Trump and turn it to the bigger fight against Trumpism in its less theatrical forms.

Protesters are at Trump rallies because that's where the cameras are

The most straightforward answer to why protesters are disrupting Trump rallies — sometimes at great personal risk to themselves — is that's where the cameras are.

Trump "has received an extraordinary amount of coverage by the media," Franco says. "So far he's just been able to roll out and say what he pleases, and people who like it go to his rallies and everyone else is just kind of watching. And we felt that it was important to put out a different message: that there was opposition to his rhetoric and his platform."

To Franco, the protests are a way of "dramatizing" the opposition to Trump in a venue where it will be seen.

To the protesters' critics, that "dramatization" is a dangerous provocation — because it invites backlash, often violent, from Trump supporters. But in the eyes of activists (particularly nonwhite activists), what happens to protesters at Trump rallies is just an extension of what they feel is an unsafe world every day.

A fight between supporters and protesters at Donald Trump's cancelled rally in Chicago.
A fight between supporters and protesters at Donald Trump's aborted rally in Chicago.
Jabin Botsford/Getty

"People are seeing their safety is already at risk from what Trump is awakening," Franco says. If the result of their protests is to make other (white) people see the sort of vulnerability they feel when the cameras aren't rolling, she implies, that's a job well done.

These activists believe they're facing an existential threat. In a March 14 email sent to affiliates of the grassroots strategy group PowerLabs, organizer Joseph Phelan laid out the stakes:

Trump and Trumpism is an emboldened and public new Fascism — and if not a coherent ideology, it is mobilizing economically disenfranchised whites and consolidating organized hate groups using racist, xenophobic and misogynistic language and promises.

Where there is a rising fascism there is a moral imperative to oppose and stop it.

Phelan's email to the PowerLabs list urged activists to think big on "strategies and tactics."

"Some are short term, some are medium term, some are long term, some on the ground, some in the air, some with unlikely allies. All should be happening," he wrote.

To be sure, protest is not the only tool these activists use. "It's important that [protests] not be the only tactic," says Franco. "It's one of many different tactics that folks who are opposed to Trump have to take on."

They're not trying to persuade people. They're forcing them to choose.

Protest is certainly the most visible tactic, though. It's also the most provocative — arguably to the point of being counterproductive.

Americans tend to believe that the violence at Trump's rallies is the protesters' fault. And some activists, including the Quaker environmental activist George Lakey, have raised concerns that protesters aren't thinking this through: "Protest is a tactic; this is a time for strategy," Lakey wrote at the website Waging Nonviolence.

Sometimes protesters slip into treating protest as something that's intrinsically good, regardless of its strategic effects — a "moral imperative." And for many of the anti-Trump protesters, especially the ones not affiliated with activist organizations, that's probably true.

But the people who are actively working to knit together anti-Trump actions around the country are doing it because they see direct action as a particular part of their broader strategy to mobilize against Trump: a tactic that forces people to confront what's happening.

"The disruptions polarize it in a way," says Franco. "People have to make a choice of where they stand." And if some of them make the "wrong" choice, "that's the gamble we have to take."

"In this moment, we cannot win over Trump supporters," Phelan wrote in his PowerLabs email. "Nor can we necessarily win over fence sitters."

The point is to galvanize people who are supportive but would otherwise be silent.

That's the argument immigrant activist Andrew Willis Garcés made in a reply to Lakey: "However imperfect our protests have been ... they are offering an alternative to the story of white silence, and are galvanizing many to act."

It's about "Trumpism," not Trump

"The reason we think it's important to push back on Donald Trump," Franco says, "is because we're seeing how it's influencing state and local policies. There are people who, as he gains momentum, want to jump on that momentum and use it to advance their extremist policies."

In Arizona, where Franco lives, those "extremist policies" are a group of anti-immigration bills in the Arizona legislature — including a bill that would require unauthorized immigrants to spend longer times in Arizona prison before being turned over to federal immigration agents. When she and other Arizona activists briefly shut down traffic before a Trump rally in Phoenix in March, the intent was to call attention not only to Trump but to the Arizona bills as well.

Anti-Trump rally in Phoenix.
Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, side by side.
Ralph Freso/Getty

But "Trumpism" isn't limited to the issues of Donald Trump's actual campaign. It stands in for plenty of other policies that activists feel further marginalize people who aren't white, straight, male, or rich.

When the African-American feminist group Assata's Daughters, in Chicago, blocked traffic outside Trump's aborted rally there, they were drawing a connection between Trump and then-Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.

"We see a direct link between Trump's overtly racist white nationalist campaign and Anita Alvarez's record of filling jails and prisons with black bodies using dogwhistle tough-on-crime rhetoric," the press advisory from the group read.

But just as often, the arrow goes the other way — connecting local activity back to Trump.

"The rollback of the non-discrimination in [North Carolina]," says Wisconsin organizer Z! Haukeness of Standing Up for Racial Justice, is a reminder that "white people are targets of Trump hate also. Working-class white people and poor white people are also targets of Trump's hatred. As much of the activity on the #Time2Escalate hashtag since the March call has been about North Carolina as it has been about Trump."

Haukeness continues: "As a trans person, it's important to know that his hatred is targeted toward me also. My life is also further at risk — but a lower risk, as a white person."

But the concept of "Trumpism" isn't philosophically airtight. Trumpism is the things Trump endorses — but activists also see it as the things he doesn't talk about (he has said nothing about "bathroom bills" like North Carolina's on the trail).

The rise of Trump is a uniquely terrifying moment for America, a "new fascism" — but Trumpism also encompasses things the Republican Party was doing long before Trump arrived; Franco says that Trump's anti-Mexican rhetoric was immediately "familiar" to Arizona Latinos because they'd heard plenty of it under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Gov. Jan Brewer.

For the protesters, it's a great organizing tactic — connecting a presidential race that many (especially white) progressives care about to other issues they may not feel motivated by on their own.

Haukeness says, "We've been getting people's information for next steps and how people can stay engaged, and it's the easiest canvassing I've ever done."

The real target: white progressive allies

George Lakey's critique of Trump protesters urged them to use "empathy, not protest"; Garcés, in his reply, suggested they needed both.

"We absolutely need more approaches to demonstrating opposition to Trump that speak to working-class white people, and don’t play to his strengths," Garcés wrote. But "it is totally within our capability to put in motion a confrontational approach to shutting down Trump and an outreach strategy that centers deep listening across class."

That is to say, there is a target to the rally protests: galvanizing white progressive allies.

When Phelan wrote to PowerLabs affiliates that this wasn't the moment to win over fence sitters, he emphasized that it was the moment to "consolidate our base and encourage actions, in particular by white people who want to be in solidarity."

In his Waging Nonviolence post, Garces explained how protests were a uniquely effective way to get white allies involved. "For some of our members, these actions were their first experiences openly confronting racism, or the first actions in which they put themselves physically at risk," he wrote.

An anti-Trump protester in Chicago. Jonathan Gibby/Getty

Activists at color, meanwhile, say they are protesting because they feel "physically at risk" often. Consistently, when I asked whether safety was a concern among protesters, the answer organizers gave was some variation on: only for the white protesters.

Like much of the strategy behind escalation, it's not always entirely clear whether "white people putting themselves in danger too" is supposed to accomplish change on its own. In his Waging Nonviolence post, Garcés praised "white people experimenting with higher-risk action as we defend our mutual self-interest in showing up for the movement for black lives," but no one thus far has made the case that interracial direct action will be able to do something other direct action won't.

For the organizers' strategy, though, it doesn't necessarily have to. Simply kindling that "mutual self-interest" is enough.

Seeing, Z! Haukeness says, "that people have a strong conviction and are willing to take that risk, to go through that whole process, to risk arrest — speaks to people's desires inside themselves to do the same thing, to show up, to take bigger risks." And if those people are inspired enough to sign up to fight against anti-LGBT bills, or other cases of local Trumpism, that's a strategic victory.

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