2020 is almost upon us, and with it, the 59th presidential election in U.S. history. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been bombarded with emails, ads, posters and news stories about the election, the different candidates in the Democratic primary, who to vote for and why. Above all, there is an urgency that we must vote, that this election will be one of the most important in our lives, that if we fail to win this election, our chance for progressive change – Medicare for All, stopping climate change, ending economic inequality — will be irretrievably lost.
Beneath this din about the power of elections lies an illusion covering an important truth. It is easy to think that elections can bring massive change in the lives of working and oppressed people, but the truth is it never has. Our strength doesn’t lie in our ability to elect one of two candidates to political office, it lies in the mass movements in the streets and workplaces that can shake the status quo and bring it to its knees.
History highlights how community power can enact national change. The 1930s, the depths of the Great Depression, resulted in some of the largest and most militant strike waves that the United States has ever seen. According to Sharon Smith, a writer at the Socialist Worker, in 1934 alone, there were four general strikes across the nation — in Toledo, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, San Francisco and a general strike of textile workers in the northeast and southern states. During 1934, nearly a million and a half workers went on strike. Similarly, in 1933, 1.1 million workers went on strike, according to a 1937 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Labor. It was in this context of social disruption and labor agitation that the New Deal was passed — not in the elections of 1932, 1934 or 1936. The New Deal was born from the mass direct action of workers.
The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s likewise didn’t rely on electoral politics. Instead, to end segregation, and to actually win the right to vote at all, Black people engaged in massive civil disobedience across the South. Sit-ins, demonstrations, protests were all disruptions to everyday life. The Civil Rights Movement was designed to disrupt everyday life and to stop society from functioning normally, which is a notion often overlooked in retellings.
In fact, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements’ shifts toward electoral politics are the points at which these movements started to lose their power. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes this process in her book “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.” She notes that among much of the Civil Rights establishments and corporate-sponsored foundations, there was a sharp push toward electoral politics in order to quell and divert the increasing militancy in the streets. This shift led to the election of Black mayors across the country. But once in power, what did these mayors actually do?
In Cleveland, Ohio in 1968, Carl Stokes was elected as the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city. He proceeded to appoint a 43-year veteran of the Cleveland police department as chief of police, from a department with a history of police brutality against Black people. In fact, in her book, Taylor showcases how this department had sparked riots just a couple of years before and spent thousands of dollars upgrading the weaponry of the Cleveland police department. The story is similar in other cities with Black mayors but no Black movement. In Camden, New Jersey, Mayor Randy Primas fought against community opposition to place a trash incinerator in the town, while in Washington D.C., Mayor Sharon Pratt tried to deploy National Guardsmen to occupy poor Black neighborhoods to “fight crime” — something certain to result in brutality against Black people.
Neither the labor nor Civil Rights movements needed elections to exercise their power. They both won a wide range of demands, including increased wages, union recognition, Social Security, desegregation in the South and voting rights through strikes, militant direct action and protests. And when some leaders and organizations of the Civil Rights movement turned away from these tactics toward winning elections, they quickly lost their power and proposed policies that would harm communities of color.
Some political figures, such as Bernie Sanders, have argued that we can use elections to build movements. But this perspective is suspect. Getting people to vote for a candidate such as Sanders is a superficial interaction — it’s no guarantee that those same people will be able to organize themselves for the disruptive action needed to pass the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, or even that those people will be mobilized for future action. There are also plenty of risks to attaching our organizing efforts to the hip of an election campaign. If Sanders were to lose the primary or general election, how many of his voters in his movement would become demoralized and drop out? And if he were to win, how many supporters would drop out because of a lack of organization or movement beyond voting for Sanders? Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York’s 14th district, in her endorsement of Sanders, didn’t urge people to take any more action than “mobilize at the ballot box.”
The 2020 elections are not our last, best hope for changing the world. They’re not a hope at all. Across the world, people are realizing this and rising in the streets — in Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria and dozens of other places. It’s our turn to learn that our power lies in the streets — in strikes, protests and militant direct action that can disrupt society, make it stop running and make it run for us.
Aidan Byrne-Sarno is a freshman and a member of the Speak Out Now club at UC Berkeley.