A discussion between New York writers-at-large Rembert Browne and Rebecca Traister about the how and the why of political protest.
Rebecca Traister: What sort of optimal oppositional role can we imagine Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama playing in the next several years? Part of what both are being punished for is having been a symbolic figure.
Rembert Browne: I want to walk into somebody’s field office and see Obama working a phone. It would be amazing if 2017 gave us in some capacity the Obamas and the Clintons as activists. It would flip what I think a lot of people have wanted to come from the political system, which is activists slowly making their way into politics.
RT: One of the things that’s bugged me the most over the past few weeks is this whole “Michelle for president” thing. Michelle Obama does not want to be in politics. What if we thought of the people — whether it’s Barack, Michelle, or Hillary — actually working outside the system that constrained them?
RB: But that doesn’t just mean like, “Okay, I have a foundation.”
RT: Right, no more foundations.
RB: I am done with foundations.
RT: Well, that’s not true, I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know. [Whispers] What is a foundation?
RB: I have no idea. But if you just look at Hillary, Bill, Michelle, Barack — these are four people who still have massive influence in four very different ways. If they used some Voltron, if they came together and scattered and did four very different things that weren’t …
RT: You’re really counting Bill? Please don’t. Can we just have a three-person Voltron?
RB: Okay, Bill’s on the email. He gets an agenda blast. “This is what we talked about at the meeting, Bill.” Bill lives near the Voltron.
RT: One of the things that’s been very depressing to me since the election is it’s clear that the White House and the Clinton campaign both feel that the thing to do right now is to be respectful and move on. Which is of course at odds with what so many of the people who are so horrified and scared and angry right now want to do. What if Donald Trump had been the one who lost the popular vote while she won the election?
RB: When they go low, you go high … Just once, just go so low and then be like, “My bad.”
RT: It’s hard to imagine any immediate action that’s gonna actually bridge the chasm of understanding and respect between the people we’ve just — at least by this last election’s standards — judged to be in very different worlds in the United States and who want very different futures for the United States, right? Even culture, whether it’s fucking Hamilton …
RB: I also only call it “fucking Hamilton” at this point.
RT: I say “fucking Hamilton” only because it’s become this flash point for what kind of American you are. This fight is so multi-tentacled. State, local, federal governments. Voting rights. I mean, if Jeff Sessions becomes attorney general, you’re replacing two black attorneys general with basically an old-style segregationist. He is going to have the police killing cases that have been opened by Loretta Lynch. Everybody’s so upset, but we don’t actually have a lot of practice with protest in this country.
RB: We need McKinsey to come in.
RT: Like protest consultants? [Laughs.]
RB: There’s good and bad in not having any real nonelected leadership in this country, you know. We’re past the age of preachers who would come lead.
RT: And now we understand that they’re so incomplete as leaders. That’s one of the problems with Obama and Clinton, even in political leadership, is that these singular leaders do not represent the perspectives of the vast numbers of people who they would aim to lead. I’ve been thinking a lot about the women’s march scheduled for Inauguration weekend. I actually do think it can be psychologically helpful, seeing that mass of people who are also angry. The bad part is when people think, Oh, I went to that march, I’m done.
RB: “It’s on my résumé.”
RT: We’ve been in this decade of massive transition about who can have what kinds of power in this country, and we haven’t identified it as a period of massive transition. It’s one of the reasons that this election came as such a shock — it hasn’t looked like earlier eras, in which there were marches. Some of it has been invisible, or it’s been on social media. Having the march makes it clearer — both to those who participate in that protest and to those who oppose it. But it’s unfortunate that the original organizers, who were white women, co-opted the name from the Million Man March, and in fact a Million Woman March that already happened, both led by African-Americans. It’s especially problematic given that this was in the fallout from an election in which 53 percent of white women voters picked Trump. And that it also was planned for a weekend that is structurally prohibitive and exclusive, because hotels in Washington, D.C., are like $1,200 a night, in a city that will be filled with Trump supporters who we now know with some assuredness have some anger toward women. They’re creating a dangerous situation. That said, there are a lot of people coming. There’s no undoing the march.
RB: Some of the stuff I’ve seen about that march is like, “Oh, we’re not gonna be protesting Trump. It’s a march about unity.” How do you express your resistance to the power structure that’s just been voted into power? Do you express it through anger or through putting forth a more positive vision? This is obviously one of the things that plagued the Clinton campaign. She chose criticism of Trump. But I’d say probably 2 percent of chants that I hear at protests are like “Believe in the future,” “Things will be better.” The protest energy is inherently frustrated. I do think that it is possible to have a unified front while not having one message. These are not normal times, you know?
RT: This Clinton campaign was the closest we’ve ever seen to an intersectional political campaign in which there was not a Sister Souljah moment. Where nobody’s particular cause was directly sold out by the candidate or the platform. In fact, the white working class did view it as an intersectional campaign and was incredibly threatened by it. Now we need to make it clear that there are divergent reasons to be fearful, and to protest. That all kinds of people are scheduled to suffer — but understand that deportations are very closely tied to criminal-justice reform, which is very closely tied to minimum-wage hikes, etc.
RB: They’re not siloed.
RT: At the same time that we need to have people moving into electoral politics, because there’s this feeling right now — and I’ve heard it from people who have just come out of this electoral cycle — of “Forget it, this failed.”
RB: A very normal thing of the past is you had your job and you have your activist job. Like my grandfather, you know, worked at the post office and also worked with the NAACP.
RT: My grandmother worked for Social Services and was in the Communist Party. But also, some of the work is getting people to remember that electoral politics does not just exist every four years on a presidential level. It’s not just even in 2018; it’s 2017, in local elections.
RB: So people need to march in D.C. — but also move out of D.C. and New York to the Midwest.
*This article appears in the November 28, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.