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Oppositional Politics is not enough: Imagining Another World is Possible in Grand Rapids

September 1, 2020

Four years ago lots of people couldn’t have imagined that Donald Trump was just a few months away from being elected President of the United States.

Within days of the elections, people all across the country took to the streets to protest the election of Trump and to signal the need for a resistance movement that would have the capacity and vision to respond to what was to come.

In Grand Rapids, we wrote about how the Democratic Party was scrambling to respond to the fact that they had lost power. An event was organized in Grand Rapids entitled, Surviving the Trump Apocalypse, an event was focused exclusively how an electoral strategy. At the time, March of 2017, we wrote

The opposition to the new president is refreshing in some ways, but this is a pattern amongst liberal and progressive circles. Liberals and progressives tend to get activated when their party is not in power.

We are seeing this same dynamic in West Michigan with lots of marches and increased attendance at public meetings held by local members of Congress. Again, seeing people become more engaged is refreshing, but to what end? What does all this activism mean and what will it do to dismantled systems of power?

Now, don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense for people to vote Trump out of office in November. However, this kind of action is not really what makes up a resistance movement. Resistance movements do oppose systems of power and oppression, but they do more than oppose something. Resistance movements are not just oppositional, they are deeply committed to direct action and doing the work to practice new forms of collective liberation.

Unlike the electoral strategy that was being developed in early 2017 in Grand Rapids, a whole different set of strategies were being organized, strategies that were built upon previous resistance movements, and strategies that were not content to just getting back to a pre-Trump period. These strategies recognized that no matter which party holds electoral power, systemic oppression was still the norm. These strategies and movements also were rooted in the radical notion that another world is possible.

In early 2017, we saw the beginnings of organized efforts to respond to the Trump administration’s call for building a wall along the US/Mexican border, an increase in funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and a plan to target the 11 million undocumented people living in the US. An immigrant-led movement, Movimiento Cosecha, had been organizing for several years in the US, but in 2017, the movement came to Grand Rapids.

Around the same time that Movimiento Cosecha was organizing in Grand Rapids, another effort was being formed, called GR Rapid Response to ICE. Both of these efforts came to define the kinds of organizing that were being developed in Grand Rapids, organizing that was based on direct action, political autonomy and Mutual Aid – meaning, everything we need is already in our community.

These two groups would end up working together on a regular basis, but new work was being imagined as well. We saw indigenous-led efforts to shut down Line 5 in Michigan, more radical Climate Justice movements, ongoing organizing around reproductive rights in Grand Rapids, a push to reclaim some of the radical roots of the LGBTQ movement – primarily led by queer organizers, loosely affiliated efforts to fight gentrification and people responding to the push to infiltrate public education known as Grand Rapids for Education Justice.

Then the pandemic hit. What was instructive about many of the groups working on collective liberation is that they continued to respond to the COVID 19 crisis is a similar way to how they were responding to the Capitalist class’s push to privatize everything. The Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network was created to provide direct relief to families who were struggling to survive during the early months of the pandemic. In addition, the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union was created and began working with other communities in Michigan to address the housing crisis and to push back against the possibility of evictions.

Then George Floyd was lynched by a cop in Minneapolis. This murder of another Black person not only revived Black Lives Matter work across the country, it led to a much deeper push to challenge White Supremacy in all its manifestations. In Grand Rapids, the May 30th uprising was a wake up call for lots of people. It was a wake up call for many because it said that movements were tired of making nice and tired of the same old promises of reform from systems of power. One substantial effort that came out of the May 30th uprising was the call to Defund the GRPD.

All of these organizing efforts that have developed in Grand Rapids since the beginning of the Trump administration – Movimiento Cosecha GR, GR Rapid Response to ICE, opposition to Line 5, the Sunrise Movement, anti-gentrification efforts, Grand Rapids for Education Justice, queer organizing, the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network, the Grand Rapids Area tenant Union and Defund the GRPD – all share some common elements. These organizing efforts and movements believe in:

Direct Actiontaking collective action to change our circumstances, without handing our power to a middle person – elected officials, NGOs or political parties.

Horizontal organizing – organizing that is not hierarchical, that tries to build capacity for new “leadership” and believes that all roles in organizing should be shared.

Practices prefigurative politics – which means you want to practice the kinds of equity and relational organizing that doesn’t perpetuate racism, homophobia, ablism, plus it means you want to practice what you preach. If you are organizing against homelessness, you need to practice radical hospitality and offer safe places for people to stay.

Mutual Aid – providing material, financial or emotional support to people who have a need, without perpetuating White Saviorism, policing of people or any other patronizing ways that non-profits often practice.

Abolitionist vision – to get to the root cause of systemic problems and abolish systems of power and oppression, as opposed to trying to “reform” them.

Radical Imagination – imagining that another world is possible, that we don’t have to settle for what systems of power and oppression give us.

All of these common aspects of organizing also DO NOT put their hopes in representative democracy, in the idea that someone else represents us. One of the reasons why those of us who are part of these insurgent, autonomous movements are often turned off by electoral politics is because of what overarching narratives that comes with electoral politics, such as:

  • Stop organizing in order to get the right people elected.
  • We’ll worry about those issues after the election.
  • If you get our people elected, then we can work together to push them to adopt your agenda.
  • This is the most important election of our lifetime.
  • If you don’t vote for our person, then you are just as bad as those who voted for Trump, Reagan, Bush, etc.

What is interesting about all of this is that many of those who are involved in doing the on the ground organizing and direct action, often do participate in elections. However, many of the same people who would like to vote shame us, rarely are in the streets, participating in direct action or doing the behind the scenes organizing work that is so vital to our future. I have lived long enough to see that political parties are ultimately interested in one thing, being in power. If they aren’t in power, then they are spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to get back in positions of power and if they are already in power, they want to maintain that power at all costs.

This is not the kind of work or struggle that I want to be part of. I do not simply want to get rid of Trump, especially since the world was pretty shitty before Trump. I don;t want to just be part of oppositional politics, I want to aspire to imagining another world, and then doing the necessary work to be part of the creation of such a world. Another World IS Possible!

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