Anthony Kennedy’s retirement doesn’t change much of the Supreme Court’s actual decision calculus, considering that Kennedy voted with the conservative portion of the court in thirteen 5-4 decisions in this term alone. The panic people are feeling about Kennedy’s retirement is, I feel, the removal of a safety valve that liberals thought existed on the court. But when the “swing” justice hands down devastating rulings that erode protections for workers, women, and immigrants without blinking, I think it dispels the notion that he was in any way worried about power, oppression, or the authoritarianism that drips from every case this White House brings to the Supreme Court.
By saying that, I am not dismissing the real and legitimate fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, civil rights legislation will be gutted further, the ACA will be repealed entirely, and myriad other horrors to come. Barring some miracle, those things will now likely come to pass.
If you want to point fingers, don’t. Yes, people didn’t vote in 2016, and that delivered us into what’s happening now. Yes, people voted for Trump on a narrow set of issues that he cynically panders to at the expense of everyone else. Yes, we are living in a dangerous time that could have been, at least in some part, avoided. Dwelling on it doesn’t even the score, doesn’t make the point any clearer, doesn’t draw more people to the cause. Score-settling will ensure that infighting will sink the ship. If Republican evangelicals can embrace the moral cesspit that is the Trump administration to get their goals accomplished, the factions of the left can embrace each other and not cede the moral high ground in the process. And when people doubt the ability of the system to effect change, point to how much their lives have been changed by the long, dogged fight conservatives have been waging for decades and how now, under Trump, the dam has broken, and so much is changing so quickly.
But that is the conventional political angle: motivate people by articulating a clear and just vision, get them registered to vote, and then get them to the polls. That’s the politics people understand, even if their faith in that kind of politics wavers. There’s also legal protest (as long as it remains legal). Showing up to a march or donating to a political campaign are the easiest forms of political speech. It’s the least one can do. Voting, marching, and donating are the bare minimum of political engagement at this time.
What the Kennedy resignation is driving home for so many people is that the institutions that we thought would save us are slow to react to authoritarianism, and that a system founded on the ideal that no tyrant could ever come to power in the United States left itself wide open to exploitation.
The Supreme Court is not going to save us from the consequences of our decisions.
The easy forms of engagement – donating, voting (increasingly not very easy), and marching – are not getting the job done fast enough.
But we are not helpless. We are shunted aside by the systems around us, but we are not broken. We are strong, willing, and loving, and that above all else will get us through this time if we combine our strengths with action.
So the question — quite rightly, and urgently — becomes, “what’s next?”
Well, if the institutions fail you, then the answer is “form your own institutions.”
Do you think the Civil Rights Movement, with Dr. King and Malcolm X, with SNCC and the NAACP, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Cesar Chavez, among many others, had the resources we do? They had moral strength and they had community. They had each other. It took years of struggle to gain respect from outside. They had no representation. They had no governors fighting for them. If they could fight the battles they fought with little more than moral certainty, the clothes on their backs, and strategy in the face of literal armies waging injustice, we can follow their example and make the best of the plenty we have.
On a practical level, forming your own institutions means organizing, forming community-wide mutual aid societies, education initiatives, and being committed to a new social economy that enshrines democracy and the value of the individual against corporate power, authoritarianism, and injustice.
And if those words don’t mean anything to you, then you should feel hopeful: people have been working towards these goals for years, decades in some cases — and that means you have much to learn and do to become a meaningful part of the communities and movements around you that you did not know existed. Your energy will help make things happen. And if no one has begun organizing near you (look hard before you assume no – just because you don’t know of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist), there are ways to get started.
The Southern Movement Assembly, which organizes across the South, has a blueprint for community organization that prioritizes community safety, well-being, and action. Even if you do not live in the South, you can look through it and see the sophisticated utility of some of their ideas — ideas that would easily translate across regions and demographic areas.
There’s also the Jackson Plan. Whereas the SMA Blueprint is primarily focused on vulnerable areas in the South and helps illuminate a way for rural areas to become stronger and more enriched by support and community, the Jackson Plan illuminates a way for cities to remake themselves in a more just image that prioritizes safety and quality of life over profit motives that morally-bankrupt governments and exploit citizens as capital to be invested and wasted.
Another organization is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They are primarily a political organization, but they do good work for the communities that help keep people safe. If you have ever seen a sign for a brake-light clinic (where you can bring in your car with a busted taillight and get it replaced for free), that was probably a DSA event. Fixing brake-lights — such a simple thing — reduces traffic stops and reduces the number of encounters between the poor and the police. Many DSA chapters have built, or are in the process of building, mutual aid societies. Here’s an account of some work in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Contrary to what you might think, the DSA doesn’t use mutual aid to spread the good word of democratic socialism. They literally show up and do the work. They let the work speak for their ideals.
Search for your city or state, look up “mutual aid” and “community organizing,” see what work is being done. These movements, alternatives, and plans have existed, and just need energy to put them in motion, to work toward goals. Get educated. Get involved. Be a voice, be a listener, be a learner, but, most importantly, be a body that can be counted on to stand, to act, and to fight for human dignity.
Donating canned goods and school supplies helps alleviate immediate suffering in your community, but it exacerbates long term suffering by not addressing underlying causes and not building structures that prevent these inequalities in the first place. This is a war, not a battle, and we must all do more than triage. We must be strategic and treat acute needs while working to cure the sickness that runs underneath and throughout.
Showing up to a march or donating to a political campaign are the easiest forms of political speech. But more is required of you if anything is to be worth saving, salvaged, and rebuilt. If you’ve been avoiding getting in the trenches, reprioritize. If you are one of the millions who feel anxiety about people and involvement, ease yourself into it. Get educated, go to meetings, explore to see where you fit in.
When I talked about what building our own institutions looks like, I explained what that can mean on a practical level. But there is a spiritual level to building community, too. Capitalism has atomized us, flung us across the world from the people we love, made it harder to be in communities and made it easier to be alone and lonely. Building a community, joining a community, being an active member of a community, is restorative for your spirit. You will find a part of you filling up that you may not have even known was empty (but most likely, you know it even if you haven’t named it). It’s more than love, more than respect, more than dignity, more than moral community. It’s all of those things, knit together, into a strong thread. As communities turn into thread, and they begin to weave together, they form the shelter, the warmth, the support that we need to be full human beings. That is what is possible. We cannot discover the depth and breadth of our humanity without each other. We are living half-lives spun apart by gravity and despair.
But we don’t have to be.
Ultimately, it is up to us to stand with our brothers and sisters of color; to protect people with disabilities; to care for our sick neighbors; to shelter those struck vulnerable and poor; to protect our gay, lesbian, queer, and trans friends; to fight for and shield immigrants, both documented and undocumented; and to fight to make our neighborhoods and our cities more just and fair. If we come together, we can be the first line of defense and mitigate the worst aspects of the system for all of us. Our individual strengths are stronger when they are shared.
The institutions are failing us. They may be restored, but we cannot bet on it. We need to do the work now so that collapse does not smother the vulnerable and suffering and the vibrancy of our communities.
Find your voice. Find your feet. Find your strength. You’re needed.