This is the worst I remember feeling about the results of an election since the famous “Contract with America” moment in 1994. I feel like there are some potentially helpful parallels between that moment and this one, at least for me. And I’m recognizing, as I tell this story, that it’s grounded in my own relative privilege—mine and the people who are closest to me.
In 1994, I was working as the canvass director of a sizable door-knocking operation at California Peace Action. At that time, California was a pretty different place, at least politically, than it is now. Bill Clinton had won the 1992 presidential election in California, but the state was far from reliably blue, in both national and state elections. The Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who was a notorious enemy of people of color—Latino immigrants, in particular—was running for re-election, and Republicans were desperate to prove that the presidential win was a one-off.
There was a tremendous amount of white anxiety over the fact that California was in the process of becoming a majority-minority state, due to an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants. And that white anxiety was manipulated into a political backlash (or as Van Jones dubbed it more recently, a whitelash) that targeted immigrants, African Americans, and women over the course of a couple of political cycles.
In addition to the racial anxiety that was being felt by whites, there was a fair amount of economic anxiety being experienced by the public regardless of race—the country was coming off a recession—Bill Clinton’s informal campaign slogan had famously been “It’s the economy, stupid”—and Clinton had started closing down military bases and cutting defense industry contracts, as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. High-paying defense jobs were going away, and it wasn’t clear to many voters what was going to replace them.
California conservatives had put Prop. 187 on the ballot, to stoke the fear of immigrants, and drive up turnout among white working class voters who were experiencing economic turmoil. Prop. 187 essentially made it illegal to provide public services to undocumented immigrants—hospitals and schools, in particular, were supposed to not only turn people away, but report them to immigration authorities.
And it worked.
Governor Wilson got elected. Prop. 187 passed. A whole slew of conservative Republicans were elected to congress, and noted racist Dan Lungren was elected Attorney General.
The day after the election, most people who had been working on the election were in shell shock. I got a huge lift that day when a group of high school students (most of whom had been ineligible to vote in the election) walked out of school all over the Bay Area—including a group that came marching up Mission Blvd., right past my office. Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into limbo, not knowing if their children would be allowed in school, or if they would be denied needed medical care. We had to mourn and organize at the same time, just like now.
As I look at California today, it looks like one of the most hopeful spots in the electoral universe. It’s a reliably Democratic vote in presidential contests. Republicans didn’t have a chance in the most recent US Senate election.
So what lessons do I take away from the ’94 election that makes me feel at least a tiny bit hopeful now?
- Create organizations that were staffed and led by leaders of color, LGBT people, youth and women—or coalitions of those groups working together. One of the groups that I helped in a very small way to start, in the wake of Prop. 187, was Californians for Justice, and I’m proud to say they still exist and are still fighting for justice.
- Don’t deny that bad shit is happening to people & will happen to people, as a result of short-term electoral losses. Groups on the left that actively showed solidarity with immigrants succeeded in California, because solidarity always matters.
- SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Defend the vulnerable.
- Issue-based organizing is more effective than candidate-driven organizing, almost every single time. The way this often plays out in California is through organizing—both offensively and defensively—around ballot initiatives.
- Similarly, election-only tactics are not a strategy for winning. Direct action, legal challenges, individual legal defenses, and sometimes just feeding people or providing other basic human needs are all important, if we want to build a different world.
- Electoral politics doesn’t matter at all, unless it produces visible change. And that doesn’t just mean political change—it means representational change. Look at this photo of the current statewide office-holders in CA, and tell me again how we should keep running straight white cisgendered men as the most possible progressive champions.
- Deep organizing wins more than last-minute election-year canvassing. If you can’t be an organizer in a community that you don’t belong to for whatever reason, then don’t show up in that community in October of an even-numbered year and expect to move people. Center your work in the organizations that are doing that work all year round—help them raise money, teach them skills they don’t have, amplify their voices instead of your own.
- And finally, SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Everyone’s life is equal to yours.
We’re going to lose some things that really matter. We’re going to see people who we love get hurt by the policies of the new Administration. I don’t want to sugarcoat any of the pain that some people are going to feel over the next four years. But I do want to feel some hope myself, because I know that if we lose hope, we will lose the strength to keep going. And I’ve got to keep going.
I’m certainly not alone in this, but I was rocked by Prince’s passing last Thursday. I saw the TMZ tweet bubble up in my timeline and thought, “no, that can’t be right.” But it was. Ever since that tweet, I’ve been listening to his music non-stop, and watching the tributes to him by artists of all genres, ages, ethnicities and genders. Friday morning I had to get up early to catch a train, and reading news stories about the worldwide outpouring of emotion while I listened to every Prince song on my laptop made me cry on Amtrak.
I’ve spent the weekend trying to articulate what it was that made Prince so important to me, and I think what I’ve settled on is this: Prince was the first artist in my life who made it okay for girls not to be “nice.”
In the small town that I grew up in, being a “nice” girl was super-important. In the Catholic family that I grew up in, being a “nice” girl was the only acceptable option. Even my Jersey Boy hero Bruce Springsteen made it pretty clear back then that you could go ahead and have premarital sex if you wanted to—but that was only gonna end with an early marriage at the end of your dad’s shotgun, and a husband who worked in a factory while he dreamed about driving fast all night.
Not Prince, though.
Prince sang about loving women who were fucking people other than him, or who were fucking people in addition to him, or who had left him and were fucking someone else AND HE STILL LOVED THEM.
Prince made it okay for women to have sexual and romantic lives that were just as complicated as male heroes have always had. We didn’t have to be virgins to be loved. We could have multiple partners, and they would love us. We could have side jawns—hell, in “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” Prince sounded sorta like he was okay with being a side jawn!
It wasn’t just the lyrics though—it was the women he surrounded himself with, publicly. They were beautiful, and sexy, and sophisticated and complex, and he treated them with respect. They weren’t “nice girls,” in any definition of nice girls that I grew up with—and nobody wanted them to be, especially not Prince.
It made me think, “I don’t have to be a nice girl either. And people will still love me.” No wonder his band was called the Revolution. Helping to break down those stereotypes, and the associated walls inside the minds of girls and women everywhere was a truly revolutionary act.
In the wake of Prince’s death, the beginning of Auden’s poem “Funeral Bone” has been running through my head*.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
That’s not right, though. We can’t celebrate Prince by stopping clocks, and certainly not by silencing our pianos. We have to make a joyful noise, to say we’ll keep living till we’re done. And maybe we won’t be “nice,” but we will still be loved.
*I don’t know why Auden is my go-to poet for sadness, I just know that he is.
I’m having a kind of weird election year.
It’s been a long damn time since I didn’t have a job that revolved around electoral politics in even-numbered years. The last time that I worked for an organization that didn’t make endorsements was 2001. I’ve been doing election work, on and off, since 1992. Half of you reading this probably weren’t old enough to vote then. Hell, some of you may not even have been born yet.
It’s kind of nice, for the first time in over a decade, to just be able to talk about politics with my friends and family, and not to have ‘professional’ opinions about it. My kids are a little freaked out that I’m not doing more to get their favorite candidate for president elected–this is, after all, the first election year that either of them can remember that I don’t have an electoral job–but hey, they’re old enough to phone bank, even if they’re not old enough to vote yet.
It’s also nice to be able to express opinions that don’t match up with any organizational need to be able to make a deal, or count on a vote. It’s taken me a little while to figure out what I want to do with this newfound freedom, but it came to me, when I was looking at this list of candidates that had petitioned for the statewide ballot in PA.
On the Democratic side, there are two women, and nine men. And one person of color, who honestly, I had to google because I had never heard of him. I couldn’t get the Treasurer candidates in this screenshot, but they don’t help–on the Democratic side, it’s two more white guys.
So here goes:
white, straight, cisgendered men who consider yourselves allies in the movement–take a step back before running for office
No, I mean that. Sit down, and listen up. Oh, and get out your checkbooks while you’re at it.
Before I go any further, let’s just be clear–this post is not about the US presidential election, or the Democratic candidates therein. This is about the repetitive experience that I have had, over the past 25+ years of working in electoral politics and watching cycle after cycle happen where white men got into primaries involving candidates who didn’t look like them, because the straight white men were more “electable.” Because running as a woman, or a person of color, or a gay man inevitably means that you are operating in the world of “identity politics.”
It’s amazing to me that white men, who make up a minority of both humanity and the US electorate, get to describe other people as running on “identity issues.” Is being a white, straight, cisgendered man not an identity? Do the things that you think matter not matter to you simply because you are a white, straight man?
I understand–you’re different from all the other straight, white, cisgendered men who have ever run for office in the past. I love you, I really do. And I know you think you can help more by winning an election and becoming a legislator, or a city council person, or a dogcatcher (does any place actually have elected dogcatchers?), or a prothonotary, or a US Senator, or whatever.
But you know what will really help me? Having a legislature, or city council, or US Senate that looks more like the country of which it is allegedly representative.
That means more women have to win. And more African Americans have to win. And more Asians, and more Latinos, and more trans people, and more folks who are differently abled.
You know what helps them win? Not having to spend time convincing you that you shouldn’t run, and that they should, and instead spending time raising money & talking to voters.
It is not sexist to want a woman governor, if your state has never had one. Hell, it’s not sexist to want a woman governor if the ratio of past governors has been 40-1 in favor of men.
It’s not racist to want an African American state treasurer, if your state has never elected an African American to statewide office.
It’s not wrong to want to decide that you want to support a candidate who’s in a wheelchair, or one who is a lesbian, or one who is an immigrant.
And you might not always agree with those people, 100% of the time. Because they have viewpoints and life experiences that are different than yours.
We don’t agree with you all the time either, but we still vote for you.
Sometimes we vote for you because we think you’re the best candidate, sometimes because we don’t have other options. Sometimes we have to vote for you, because you’ve pushed the rest of us out of the race.
From now on, my standards for what makes a man progressive are changing. I’m going to think you’re a progressive when instead of standing up, to challenge a woman or a person of color, an LGBT candidate or someone who is disabled, you decide to take a seat. You decide to write them a check. You decide to mentor them, and help them find competent staff. You decide to volunteer for them, help get your organizations to endorse them, and throw your considerable networks behind them.
After all, if we’re going to be held to standards in order to consider ourselves progressives, that ought to include some standards in what white male progressives are doing to expand the electoral playing field for everyone who isn’t them.
Last night, as I was walking to the train from my office, as every other day, some random dudes hit on me.
“Hey pink, where ya going?” (I was wearing a pink dress.)
“You are so sexy, you know that?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
So basically, a day. (Except for the pink part, it’s not usually my color.)
I started to idly wonder about how many times a day guys on the street say things to me. Obviously, it depends on what I’m doing–a day that I spend mostly in the car, or alone in my own house is less likely to provoke unwanted attention than one where I’m walking around in a city. But making a conservative guess, I’m probably getting hit on every other day, walking down the street thinking about what to make for dinner that night, or composing email in my head, or just listening to music. Obviously, there are some days when it happens 10 times, and some days when it doesn’t happen at all–but it’s probably something like 175, 180 encounters per year.
This morning, I was scrolling tumblr, and I saw this post, and it reminded me that the very first time I was street harassed, I was 13 years old. It scared the shit out of me then–some guys yelling at me out of a car, when I was walking home from middle school.
And then I did the math.
I’m in my late 40s. And I’ve been getting street harassed since I was 13 years old. Leaving out the 2 years I was pregnant*, that adds up to over 30 years of random interactions with strangers. If it happens at least 180 times a year, that means I have probably been street harassed more than 5,000 times in my life.
Last year, I had a guy hit on me while I was taking out the office trash on Election Night. A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street blowing my nose (thanks, allergies!) when a guy decided he needed to talk to me. Is anything less sexy than watching someone take out the trash, or blow their nose?
I’ve been lucky, in my life, that 99% of the time this kind of stuff happens, it’s totally harmless. Mostly, I am not afraid when random people walk up to me and start talking. But the 1% of encounters that went weird? Make the other 99% feel like they COULD escalate into something else, even when the guy has no intention of doing anything aggressive.
I’m an average looking woman, not a supermodel. It’s not about how I look, or how I dress, or where I am. This is the average woman’s experience.
I feel bad, writing this, and thinking that younger women might read it and think, “oh shit, I thought I was going to grow out of having that happen to me.” It’s not. (Though check back in 30 years or so, maybe by my late 70s I’ll have stopped having it happen.)
And I don’t have some great policy solution (although if you feel like kicking down a few bucks to Hollaback, you should definitely do that). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t also link to this great post by my friend Chris Norris, on what his father taught him about street harassment (and what he decided to do about it).
I do want to encourage all the men out there to do the fucking math.
If I’ve been hit on 5,000 times in your life, and have yet to ever go home with a guy who tried to pick me up on the street–what makes you think that your line is going to be the one that finally breaks down my resistance? Sheesh. Give it up.
*Multiple commenters have pointed out that pregnancy is no protection from street harassment, and that is true. I did take those years out, because I think I experienced less harassment than in non-pregnant years–but there is definitely a very special kind of guy out there, who will hit on a pregnant woman on the street.