I named my son, who was born just days before the election, after Marcus Garvey, a West Indian revolutionary most celebrated for leading the “Back to Africa” movement in the 1920s. Garvey believed that by returning to the motherland, black people, who were oppressed in the United States, would have a greater chance at liberation.
I admire Garvey and understand that perspective, and I know that black people today face many similar injustices to the ones he was reacting to. But, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I don’t want or plan to go anywhere: I’ve decided to stay here and fight as a political organizer, the same way I have for the past several years.
In some ways, Trump’s election just gives me a different type of energy. I know it might be surprising to many that someone who is committed to social justice would see the silver lining in the election of a man who has spewed bigotry, promised discrimination, and chosen open supporters of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to work in key posts. I’m well aware that it’s counterintuitive that a person who organizes against the inhumane treatment of oppressed people would feel emboldened rather than merely defeated in a moment that, admittedly, is a step back.
But I am hopeful.
The past two years have been a whirlwind, during which I’ve dedicated much time and energy to organizing. Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, and left his body lying in the street for four hours only about a mile from where I lived, just a few weeks before I started law school in 2014. I remember being afraid of being tear-gassed when I was protesting in the streets because I did not know whether it would affect my breastmilk.
During class, I quickly learned that the courts are more concerned about efficiency than justice. I became disenchanted about the idea of seeking justice exclusively through the courtroom and I chose to protest, organize, and work as a legal observer. After building with comrades in the Netherlands and South Africa on protest strategies in their movements for decolonization and free education, I understood even better that resistance to state violence is a global freedom struggle.
When I returned to the states, the work continued. In the spring, I was part of a group of students and staff that led political education teach-ins on campus. During a summer break from school, I wrote and worked through Law4BlackLives to support organizing efforts in the Charlotte and Baton Rouge uprisings. In the weeks before the election, I was standing alongside my classmates to advocate for fair wages for Harvard’s dining hall workers, and helping to coordinate a week of educational programming focused on justice for black women.
After all this, did the election of a man who is against everything I’ve fought for devastate me? Not at all. In fact, it’s the opposite. Given my experience — including all the frustrations and all of the potential I’ve witnessed over the past few years — I believe there is an incredible organizing opportunity in this moment.
History reminds us that there will always be black resistance to populist bigotry
Donald Trump is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement against state violence and the peaceful direct actions that I’ve participated in. His commitment to resolving “inner-city” violence that “the African Americans” face with aggressive (not to mention, ineffective) law enforcement tactics is certainly misguided, but it’s not unfamiliar.
Richard Nixon was also a “law and order” president who promised an “end to the urban crisis,” and harnessed white anxiety about perceived black civil rights gains to win the White House. Nixon was responsible to the brutal, and often fatal suppression of black activism, most notably against the Black Panther Party and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the FBI’s COINTELPRO. As Cabinet seat selections begin, many justifiably wonder whether organizers can expect the same repression under President-elect Trump’s leadership.
But I believe black millennials have been unknowingly preparing for this very moment for years. In 2012, George Zimmerman’s deadly attack on 13-year-old Trayvon Martin and ultimate acquittal led to the birth of the Dream Defenders, a powerful organizing force with chapters throughout Florida. Black Youth Project 100, an activist member-based organization of black 18- to 35-year-olds, whose mission is “creating justice and freedom for all Black people,” also formed in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. BYP100 has since established chapters across the country that lead successful campaigns to further black liberation.
Black Lives Matter evolved from a hashtag to a member-based organization after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in August 2014. The movement that shares that name has mobilized an entire generation to call out against state violence. Organizations like Hands Up United inspired other organizers to launch Books and Breakfast programs that feed children while providing books and regular political education.
During a recent talk at the University of Chicago, scholar and activist Angela Davis explained that she and other organizers spent so much energy defending people’s right to engage in radical struggle against the state in the 1960s and ’70s that they did not have time to fully build offensive campaigns. People like me must learn from this lesson and organize in furtherance of the future we want to build, even while we respond to repression.
Many members of our movement have already been (unjustly) subjected to government surveillance, and we can learn from them and our elders about tactics to fight back. Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, BYP100, Dream Defenders, and others have history, political education, and time on their side when it comes to the work that will continue during Trump’s administration. They have a head start on building a strong membership base.
It’s important to remember that the focus of black liberation work transcends typical neoliberal policy proposals. So many groups in the movement for black lives will remain committed to the same agendas despite who occupies the White House.
Trump’s victory avoided potential progressive capture of the movement’s energy
If an entire movement dedicated to the matter of black lives erupted under the nation’s first elected black president, imagine the momentum in organizing against Donald Trump’s stated policy goals.
We don’t have to rely entirely on our imaginations — there’s already evidence of this energy. Protests have already begun. College students, clergy members, and community organizers are hosting post-election, “What now?” events. High school students have staged walkouts to express their opposition to hate, bigotry, and discrimination. Countless social media support pages now offer emotional support spaces and opportunities for people looking to connect offline for mobilization efforts. Over twenty-thousand people have RSVP’d for a “Million Women’s March on Washington” during Inauguration.
According to Time, the American Civil Liberties Union donations have increased by 7,000 percent since Trump’s election. There are calls to rebuild the labor party and increase the number of sanctuary cities to protect immigrants. All of these efforts have the potential to strengthen ongoing social justice base building — and this is just within two weeks.
Would the same have happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected? I don’t think so. Groups like Pantsuit Nation would have held celebratory parades. The powerful symbolism of electing a woman to the United States’ highest office would have chilled organizing efforts. From my perspective, her election would have been interpreted as a “win” in the name of progress, but one that left little energy to address the assaults on the rights of marginalized groups regularly experience domestically and abroad.
Attempts to recatalyze discussions on the future bombings of brown countries, the silence about indigenous resistance to corporate interests, and the number of black bodies that would continue to experience state violence would have been dismissed as distractions. A glass ceiling certainly would have shattered, but poor people, women of color especially, would have been left to sweep the shards.
Neither Trump’s nor Clinton’s campaigns offered more than a cursory glance to ongoing resistance movements in the months leading to the election — like the Standing Rock protesters who police officers brutally attacked in North Dakota. While Clinton used the “Mothers of the Movement” — women who’d lost sons to police violence — to campaign on her behalf, the very same types of actions they mourned continued. Police killed at least two black women, Michelle Shirley and Deborah Danner, while they were facing mental health breakdowns. Who marched for them while excitement was building over the potential first woman president? Who took time to say their names?
In contrast, the moment we’re in now, nearly weeks after Trump’s election, provides ample time and energy for political organizing. Communities must decide whether to push the Democratic party to build a better platform, and/or, muster enthusiasm and capital for another party. This is a time for neighborhoods to groom and run candidates who subscribe to black liberation.
Some techniques already exist. For example, in author Randall Robinson book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, he proposes the following political tool: Community members carry a card with 10 questions for candidates. Whichever candidate answers the most questions in the affirmative receive the community’s vote. The goal of this tactic is to reduce the influence of bought endorsements, politically educate and engage residents, and shift platforms into the hands of the people. Perhaps the movement for black lives’ policy platform can serve as the basis of a similar strategy. Hopefully organizations such as Black and Engaged will continue to create spaces that drive civic engagement and organizing. As Ella Baker famously said, “Give people light, and they will find the way.”
Simultaneously, Democrats must, and hopefully will, shift their analysis from the mere failings of Clinton’s presidential campaign to the major failings of their party. President Barack Obama’s troubling deportation actions have ripped families apart. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon refused to fund the state’s public defenders and opted against a special prosecutor appointment to review Darren Wilson’s culpability for the death of Michael Brown. Illinois State Attorney Anita Alvarez covered up the Chicago Police Department’s murder of Laquan McDonald for over a year. Organizers in Chicago have called out Mayor Rahm Emanuel for closing schools against the interests of the community. A leaked internal memo from the Democratic National Convention told its members not to offer support or provide “concrete positions” to Black Lives Matters organizers.
If these examples represent the lesser of two evil political parties, then I would submit that Democrats do not deserve black, brown, and working-class support. As an organizing strategy, we must learn to reject political evil, even when it appears good in comparison to an even worse alternative.
Finally, Donald Trump will fail most white people
In her book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Princeton African-American studies professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes the following: “White supremacy has historically existed to marginalize Black influence in social, political, and economic spheres while also obscuring major differences in experience in the social, political, and economic spheres of white people.” White supremacy won this election. Undoubtedly.
But white supremacy is unsustainable because all white lives do not matter. Meaning, despite the racial hierarchy in this country, some white people’s lives are devalued just like the lives of people of color. Economically speaking, all white lives cannot matter because capitalism does not permit it. Unfortunately, as my mother plainly puts it: “There are many of us who are so poor, we are invisible.” I believe the euphoria that some poor white Americans who voted for Trump feel as a result of his victory will fade when their conditions do not change. Manufacturing jobs will not return from overseas. They will continue to live in poverty.
With their votes, white evangelicals left poor people, immigrants, and other minorities behind. I am not convinced that they will automatically join a liberation movement. In fact, I believe that Trump might aim to advance just enough of them to display as tokens of progress. But in the liberation tradition, as Fannie Lou Hamer taught, “three people are better than no people.” With this in mind, I’m hopeful that some white Trump supporters may see the results of this election and be reoriented to commit to work for social, political, and economic justice for all people.
I am choosing to fight
Back to Marcus Garvey, my son’s revolutionary namesake. During the 1800s, members of the American Colonization Society promoted the idea that black independence and autonomy could not exist in America. Other members of the Society feared a slave rebellion with the rise of free blacks, and wanted to rid the country of people who would join potential uprisings. Despite their differences, white racists and abolitionists collectively organized to remove black people from the United States, and sent about 12,000 black people to Africa.
Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign, many people — either through humor, fear, or bigotry — revisited these fight or flight options. “Go back to Africa!” is a lazy, yet common demand that racists hurl at black people, and I heard it more during election season debates than ever before. Meanwhile, many people of color have publicly mused that they’d like to leave the country. Some posted pictures of their passports on social media; one man raised almost $2,000 in a “Back to Africa” GoFundMe campaign. There were even rumors of a South African billionaire willing to give Black families $1 million, a house, and a car to relocate. Probably not realistic, but for many, very tempting.
But I am choosing to stay and fight. Not just out of stubbornness or naiveté — exactly the opposite. It’s because of what my experience and my understanding of history tell me are the practical opportunities that exist in this unprecedented moment. It just might bring about all of the conditions that the movement I believe in needs.
I do not wish to romanticize the possibilities under President-elect Trump. In the short time since November 8, there’s already been evidence that bigots have been emboldened by his win to attack members of marginalized groups. Immigrant’s rights, reproductive justice, climate change, Supreme Court nominations, foreign relations, black survival, and much more are at stake.
Yet, these issues are not new. Those of us who have been fighting for justice for black people can grieve and protest, but we ought not be paralyzed by a spirit of fear due to struggle. “Freedom,” Angela Davis once proclaimed, “is a constant struggle.” Our commitment to liberation comes from a memory of resistance and transcends the results of any election — even one as consequential as this one. We have to remember that, and organize accordingly.
Derecka Purnell is an organizer, writer, and dancer from St. Louis. She is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.