‘This is a very new world’: Activists forced to adapt as coronavirus brings an end to protests

The past decade of American politics had seen a vast new wave of protests, mass organising and direct action. Then came Covid-19

David Weigel
Monday 06 April 2020 19:26 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Nobody knew it at the time, but 3 March, Super Tuesday, would be the last election night when candidates could encourage their supporters to come to rallies.

For Joe Biden, that meant a rally in Los Angeles. He had hardly begun to speak when two women rushed the stage, one after the other, screaming, “Let dairy die!” before being dragged away.

The protest was a coup for Direct Action Everywhere, a group of animal rights activists who had been interrupting candidates since before the Iowa caucuses. One month later, every element of it – the crowd larger than 10 people, the protesters pushing through it, the staffers grabbing them – would become impossible. No rallies, no disruption, no instant media attention.

“The Biden action blew away our wildest dreams in terms of media coverage,” said Matt Johnson, a spokesman for Direct Action Everywhere.

“A few days later, I was talking to people in Cleveland, where the next big Biden and Sanders events were going to be held. And then, one by one, every event started getting cancelled. So, it’s been an adjustment.”

The past decade of American politics had seen a vast new wave of protests, mass organising and direct action, from Occupy Wall Street to the Women’s March, protests of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, most of it on the left. The election of Donald Trump gave conservatives fewer reasons to protest while turning suburban moderates into Democratic activists. And from its inception, the Bernie Sanders campaign worked to stitch together dozens of grassroots movements into an electoral force.

Then came the novel coronavirus. Traditional protests are now violations of stay-home orders. Politicians are quarantined. Legislative chambers are empty. That has sent organisers searching for new tactics and temporarily has deprived activists of their most powerful, visible tools – right when state and federal governments are moving billions of dollars around.

“This is a very new world for a lot of frontline organisers, especially for people like myself, who would never think twice about putting our whole bodies on the line for a cause,” said Winnie Wong, an Occupy organiser who went on to found the grass-roots group People for Bernie and who now works for the Sanders campaign. “That’s changed because we are faced with a whole new set of rules.”

Ms Wong, who was arrested during the Kavanaugh protests, had spent years working on inventive ways to organise as many people as possible. After the 2016 election, organisers had more bodies than they sometimes knew what to do with. The 2017 Women’s March, for example, was hardly a march at all – the largest crowd ever gathered in Washington was too big to move through the streets, so marchers stood in place, inches apart.

Animal activists stormed Joe Biden’s stage on Super Tuesday
Animal activists stormed Joe Biden’s stage on Super Tuesday (EPA)

That world has vanished, at least for now. Congressional town halls, which activists on the right and left used to pressure legislators, have been cancelled and occasionally replaced with phone-in events. Canvassing and voter registration drives, which both major political parties had invested in, were impossible. Conservative groups and Republican campaigns that had mobilised against Democrats hit the pause button, and so did the “resistance,” the catchall term for activists who organised against the Trump presidency.

“So much of the pushback against the Trump administration was about showing up,” said Tim Hogan, who helped promote Trump-era protests such as the Tax March and efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act before signing up with Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota’s presidential campaign. “Massive crowds, or even decent-sized crowds, draw attention and create pressure. The question now is how you keep the pressure on without that.”

Mr Hogan pointed to the scandal surrounding senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican for Georgia, who dumped stock shortly after a confidential briefing on the coronavirus, as an example of what has been lost. The story had been covered, but activists had no opportunity to pressure Ms Loeffler publicly.

“The fact that you can’t confront these people in the halls of Congress or in their states means there’s no coverage of this back home,” he said, “and the pandemic is drowning out coverage of everything else, anyway. It’s a double whammy.”

The new world is grimmer for working-class activists and the people trying to mobilise the very poor. Last year, organiser Cea Weaver helped bring 2,000 New York City renters to Albany to “shut down the Capitol,” as she put it, and win rent control from the new Democratic legislature. Since the start of March, housing advocates have taken their work online and were preparing for the end of the crisis, when they could again gather for protest.

“It’s unacceptable to just throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, you know, we can’t protest in person,’” Weaver said. “Things can’t just go back to business as usual, and mass mobilisations of people on the streets is [going] to be a really critical tactic.”

In some ways, the demobilisation has hurt conservatives, with protesters at abortion clinics being cited for violating the new restrictions on public gatherings. It has probably hurt Democrats even more. Wisconsin activists who once packed the Capitol, for example, are unable to protest Republicans as they refuse to allow universal mail voting for the 7 April primary.

But the crisis also has short-circuited protests of the Democratic Party itself. Laurie Cestnick, who helped bring thousands of Sanders supporters from New England to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, had planned another round of protests for this year’s event in Milwaukee. Last week, the party moved back the date that protesters were planning around; on Sunday, former vice-president Biden told ABC’s This Week that the entire convention might become “virtual,” with no in-person interactions.

“We were organising a protest, and that is over for now,” Cestnick said. “People had booked places to stay, they’d arranged shared rides. We even started to book campsites, like we did last time. And clearly, we have no idea what’s going to happen now. People are even more heartbroken than last time.”

Organisers with more long-term goals, such as the housing advocates, are more optimistic about riding out the crisis. Jennifer Epps-Addison, the president of the Centre for Popular Democracy Action, said ruefully that her group’s network of organisers had hoped to knock on at least seven million doors before the election and spend the summer registering voters at large events. But community organisers had been drawing attention to problems in the middle of the crisis, she pointed out, such as Amazon workers threatening a strike.

“They’re called ‘essential’ now, but just a few weeks ago, they were ‘low-skilled workers,’" Ms Epps-Addison said. “Our people are the ones who keep this economy going. The way we execute our task is necessarily going to look different, but the goal is the same: transforming our country so that we have a real social safety net and aren’t just putting up scaffolding during a crisis.”

Other activists were in for a bigger struggle. Direct Action Everywhere had gotten plenty of attention after disrupting Biden and Sanders events and had plenty to say about the coronavirus itself.

“It happens to be the case that the pandemic itself is centred on the actual issue we’re talking about,” Johnson said. “These are zoonotic diseases.”

But so long as the pandemic continued, activists could not crash events to raise awareness, and most of the public’s attention was consumed by the pandemic. This month’s Animal Liberation Conference had already been transformed into the Animal Liberation Online Assembly.

Mr Biden was not expected to attend.

The Washington Post

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