Just six years ago, intersectional protests still seemed like a novel idea to many. Seeing Occupy Wall Street 99% signs alongside those of the Immokalee Workers and the Teamsters for a labor protest made some activists complain a lack of focus and cohesion. The general consensus was often along these lines; you need to stand for one thing and anything that deviates from that is a distraction.
We've come a long way. As we've seen with the Women's March and March For Our Lives, our expectations for what's normal in calling out injustice and demanding change have shifted drastically. And they continue to evolve and improve. I wrote this reflection on May Day for the Guardian:
Someone asked me recently what was the best way to convince administrators to address racial inequities with systemic changes on her college campus. How can we convince the powers that be to change their ways? Embedded in that question was an abiding assumption that the people who already enjoy positional power must agree with an idea in order to implement it.
While many people running key institutions are doing their best to close racial, economic and gender gaps across the world, in my experience, there are many more whose chief concern is maintaining the status quo. If "convincing" such leaders to do the right thing only required presenting compelling evidence, then we could make all sorts of change simply by producing research reports and hosting conversations.
And that's why I love May Day. The protests tie us to a tradition of righteous collective action, and remind us that profound changes require actual fighting; that not everything can be achieved through consensus; and that the pathway to change is in building and channeling the power of the people who need the change. It's not about convincing the recalcitrant or the blind, nor about asking nicely. The project of progressive social change requires aggregating enough power to make a demand and have it stick.
The original May Day took place in the middle of a 50-year struggle to establish the eight-hour workday. The titans of industry resisted violently, not just because the new rule would cut into their profits, but also because it opened the door to regulation in general. Many of our current agenda items will require similar timelines because they will, in fact, reduce the money and power that elites have.
Today's elites aren't going to give up those assets any more easily than yesterday's. Racial, economic, and gender justice are all possible to achieve. An optimistic tone and solutions orientation take us a long way in recruiting allies. We can smile our way through the fights we pick, but pick them we must.