Since the election of President Donald Trump, we have witnessed a great shift in the way that the citizens of this nation respond to political disappointment. From the nationwide anti-Trump protests that sparked just one day after the election to the Women’s March on Washington that saw over 400,000 participants, Americans are exercising their First Amendment right to disagree loudly.
They protest not just to express frustration and outrage over a Trump presidency but to demonstrate deep concern over some of the president’s early policy actions.
Protests and marches have a long, storied history as part of political resistance in this country and have been an indispensable tool of activists for generations. History has shown us, however, that for the act of protesting to have impact that reaches far beyond the moment, the work must continue after everyone has left the streets. The energy used to mobilize people to rally must be matched by the energy used to galvanize people around specific legislative or policy outcomes.
There are two critical lessons to take away from the American Civil Rights Movement that this generation’s marchers must be mindful of in order to generate a truly resistant and transformative movement of their own.
First, there must be an endgame. During the African-American civil rights movements of decades past, marches, sit-ins and silent protests were planned to bring visibility to injustices with the hope of bringing about political change. Through the power of the First Amendment, activists were able to gather and facilitate a public disruption of business as usual. Protests and marches were connected to a desired change in policy.
As progressive leaders, we have two jobs: to educate people on the policies that impact their lives — the policies that make cities less affordable, that exacerbate homelessness, that keep wages down, that cut funding to lifesaving benefits — and to show others how we as citizens can come together to create real policy change. If we all go home and put our feet up after a march ends, power has not been disrupted, and the job has not been done. Today’s leaders must ensure that our marches have an endgame that is connected to and predicated on legislative change and a disruption of policy.
Second, engage deeper at the local level. Activism happens at local polling places and in community board meetings and in church lobbies like ours at First Corinthian Baptist Church, where we register voters and educate our congregants about the political landscape, their political power and how they can uplift people in their community. For these new movements to bear fruit, they must be shaped by sustained engagement in the political process at all levels.
We need only look at the recent City Council election here in Harlem to see the work still left to be done. Despite seemingly renewed energy around engaging in the political process, only about 11,000 voters – of more than 100,000 registered – cast their ballots for a crucial local seat. If we’re not getting people fired up to participate in hyper-local, citywide, and statewide elections, we will never build the new kind of political leadership we need – nor will we have the kinds of activists who can create real electoral change.
We must be prepared to include citizens at every level. Not only those who have taken to the streets but those who voted for President Trump and other local Republican politicians who will quickly become disenchanted with promises that will inevitably be broken. We must engage those who will lose their healthcare to a Republican repeal, those who have never voted or demonstrated at all but who will wake up soon in a country they no longer recognize.
If Americans only meaningfully engage in politics once every four years, it’s so much easier for them to be distracted by the political theater we’re currently falling prey to. While we’re up in arms over the latest gaffe or tweet, real and harmful policy decisions are being made — decisions that deserve our attention and resistance.
I know that we can win. But if we are going to sustain the various movements that are breaking out like wildfires all over the country, we must broaden our reach and be active beyond the marches. The work has not just begun – it began long ago. Let us learn from those who have come before us and help turn marches into change that will last.
Mike A. Walrond Jr. is the senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Keep up with him on Twitter @MikeWalrond.