Political activism isn’t a very sexy topic. The crowds of demonstrators, the clashes with police, the long and slow struggle with marginal gains: these lack the heroic glory of the battlefield. With failure to effect change happening as often as success (if not more), one may be tempted to say that activism is ineffective. But I had a paradigm shift about this issue earlier this year when I watched a TYT interview with Van Jones.
In this video, Van Jones talks about why progressives failed to push their agenda forward after Obama was elected. His claim was that social change only comes in America when grassroots political movements pressure the president and Congress to act on a certain issue. This has been borne out in history with such movements as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the struggles for civil rights. The grassroots groups, says Van Jones, relaxed their efforts after Obama was elected, and so failed to provide the necessary push to effect social change.
This argument made me realize the foundational importance of political activism for progressive social change: electing a president or a congressperson is not enough. Another person who keenly feels this idea is Bernie Sanders. Since the beginning of his meteoric rise in popularity during the previous election season, he had argued that he sought to build a movement rather than just run a campaign. It could only take a social movement, he would say, to effect real change in the United States. Sanders has recently come out with a new book about this struggle, titled Our Revolution.
The necessity for social action was confirmed to me by the recent successes of the water protectors at Standing Rock. At first, I must admit, I ignored this news story when the protest was in its infancy. But it kept gaining momentum, and now even thousands of veterans have gone to Standing Rock to join the water protectors, led by one of the contributors to TYT, Wes Clark Jr. Independent media such as TYT covered the protest when mainstream media was not interested in doing so, capturing critical footage that showed the police were misinformed or lying about protesters starting fires and being violent. As drone footage showed, it was the police who were hurting protesters with high-pressure water hoses and starting fires by shooting tear gas canisters at the water protectors.
So independent media and political activists created something out of nothing at Standing Rock and effected change that protected Native American rights and the environment. It’s an important lesson, I think, for the Trump era. Change can come through political activism; if not through that, then how else when one is not in power?