Interview with Sarah Jaffe and highlights from her book, Necessary Trouble

Sarah Jaffe, a labor reporter who has spent the past several years following the diverse grass-roots movements that rose from the ashes of the 2008 recession, gives us one answer to this question in “Necessary Trouble.” Over 300 tightly written pages, Jaffe chronicles how newly energized people across the country and across the political spectrum have responded to the growing crisis in American democracy. Jaffe moves easily from movement to movement, describing the tea party  with the same fluency, sympathy and comprehension as Occupy Wall Street. Interviewing hundreds of participants involved in dozens of different campaigns and actions, Jaffe’s America is engaged, involved and acutely aware of the raw deal it has been handed.

The landscape Jaffe describes is not nearly as polarized as election-year news coverage might make it seem. Issues such as environmental degradation, wage theft and the foreclosure crisis cross lines of ideology, partisan affiliation, race and class. Jaffe highlights the aisle-bridging actions of many early tea party and foreclosure activists, gently reminding her readers that an electorate acrimoniously divided along party lines helps somebody, but rarely those most in need of it.

“It matters to get this story right,” Jaffe writes. “It matters because, as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant told me, if we continue to assume that change happens because benevolent leaders at the top hand it down, then we will continue to ask nicely, and to be disappointed, frustrated, and disempowered when asking nicely does not do the trick.”

The current crop of movements did not spring into being fully formed, and Jaffe provides ample historical context to help her readers understand how we got here from there. A core challenge to telling the stories of modern social movements is to make the entrenched, impersonal systems they fight against into visible, graspable opponents. Jaffe’s compelling prose rises to that challenge.

While the Internet has been a boon to activists, particularly those in countries where the rights of speech and assembly are severely curtailed, Jaffe does not let her stories get too preoccupied with the fast and shiny novelty of online organizing. The coming together of like-minded individuals into a demonstrable, physical presence remains central to effective political organizing. In many ways, overuse of the Internet can work against marshaling the power of the people, encouraging in-fighting, fractionalization, and the disintegration of movements into hashtags, thunder-claps and blue-check celebrity-talking heads.

Jaffe’s “Necessary Trouble” reminds us that even now the political stage is much wider and richer than pulling a lever every couple of years, choosing between candidates whose differences increasingly have more to do with labels than politics. We have more options than what’s on offer.  – Molly Sauter from McGill University, review in LA Times

Necessary Trouble: America’s New Radicals by Sarah Jaffe

Last annotated on November 10, 2016, bolded in Oct 2017

We are in a world that feels like it is powered by elites who pay little attention to the rest of us. So in movements that are responding to the failure of elite leadership, it makes sense that there is resistance to the idea of a “movement elite,” even as leaders emerge and fade. Horizontal structures also recognize that the power of these movements stem from their broad base; while the vast majority of Americans, of course, are not becoming activists, these movements rely on the power of many people to break through the walls that hold individuals back. When people talk to one another about their problems, and come to the realization that their struggles are not their fault, they become more likely to take action. People are drawn to movements that appear to already have support, in part because they are simply more visible, and in part because they feel like they can win. Solidarity—a value that, in recent decades, had fallen out of favor in the face of the glamour of the free market and the promise that, individually, we could all get rich—has come back in these movements, often in surprising ways.262

Today’s activists have discovered the power of making trouble, of causing disruption. Disrupting things, says longtime labor organizer Stephen Lerner, is the best way for regular people to exercise some power. It isn’t about winning everyone over to one’s side; it is, instead, about finding a way to disrupt the day-to-day existence of those who do have power, to make them feel the crisis that they have inflicted on millions of people. Disruption, whether it be blocking a street, going on strike, or occupying a space, is a way to ensure that the message—that something has got to give—gets across.283

Really changing a society where a small elite controls most of the power and resources will not be easy. There will be a lot of resistance, and tinkering at the surface is unlikely to last. It is that understanding that drives the people I spoke to for this book, and that gives me hope that they might have an effect.6291As historian Robin D. G. Kelley reminded me, “having numbers in the streets is not an automatic measure of success.” We have an image in our heads of what a movement looks like, and often nostalgia allows us to misunderstand both the past and the present. Getting people into the streets is simply a start; it matters what those people do once they are activated, how they manage to exert power—whether that is shutting down a shopping corridor on the busiest shopping day of the year, stopping the foreclosure on a home, or blockading a pipeline. It matters to get this story right. It matters because, as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant told me, if we continue to assume that change happens because benevolent leaders at the top hand it down, then we will continue to ask nicely, and to be disappointed, frustrated, and disempowered when asking nicely does not do the trick.314

A 2012 analysis actually quantified the value to the biggest banks on the assumption that taxpayers will foot the bill for their crises. The subsidy provided by that assumption is worth about $76 billion a year to the biggest banks—more than the federal government spends on education.14 The financial sector had grown exponentially in the decades leading up to the crisis—to the point where it accounted for about 40 percent of all corporate profits in the early 2000s, and rebounded from the crash to around 30 percent. And yet it was not very good at doing what it was supposed to do, which is to direct capital toward the best possible investments. Stock trading had little to do with raising money to keep businesses flowing, and more to do with fattening the pockets of the already-wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Keeping the stock price of a company high was more important to the people who ran it than keeping its factories producing or its workforce paid. A J. P. Morgan executive admitted in a 2011 letter to clients that “reductions in wages and benefits explain[ed] the majority” of the increase in profits.15 What Wall Street was very good at was concentrating wealth .474

As the rich got richer, they needed outlets for their investments; as the members of the working class got poorer, they needed money, which they got not in increasing wages for their increasing productivity, but in loans. Growing inequality wasn’t a side effect—it was the main effect.16 488

The public’s involvement with Wall Street, while it did grow, has always been overstated: stock ownership is concentrated at the top, with 81 percent of stocks owned by the top 10 percent, and 38 percent of stocks owned by the top 1 percent. Half of all households own no stock whatsoever. Mostly, their entanglement with finance is through debt.18 499

UPDATE: Economist Ed Wolff, who has been compiling such data over many years, in Washington Post, May 2017, by Jared Bernstein

First, there’s a bit of a myth that through indirect holdings, like holdings of stock in a pension fund, the stock market has become democratized, and everyone’s all in. Not so. Wolff’s data shows that while stock ownership has increased over the past few decades, in 2013 (his most recent data point), less than half — 46 percent — of households owned stocks, either directly or through their holdings in some sort of fund (e.g., a retirement account). Contrast that with the 94 percent ownership rate of the top 1 percent.

But even that 46 percent ownership rate gets misunderstood, because it doesn’t differentiate how much stock is owned by different income classes. Less than a third of all households hold at least $10,000 in stocks, compared to 93 percent of those households in the top 1 percent.

The figures below show that, since the late 1980s, about 80 percent of the value of the market has been held by the top 10 percent. Within that top 10 percent, the share of stock wealth held by the top 1 percent is about equal to the share held by the 90-99th percentiles; both groups’ shares are twice as large as the share that the entire bottom 90 percent holds.

The deeper problem here is the fact that wealth concentration is even more skewed toward the rich than income concentration. The median net worth (income + assets including homeownership – debt) of white households was about $117,000 in 2013. For African American households, the comparable figure is just under $2,000. In other words, black net worth is less than 2 percent that of white net worth. 

— Jared Bernstein, Washington Post, May 2017,


Dooley became the chairperson of the Atlanta Tea Party and joined the board of directors of Tea Party Patriots, a coordinating organization for the local Tea Party groups that quickly began to dot the country. A fast talker with a thick Georgia accent, she relished the idea of holding disruptive protests and challenging the political elites, expressing pride in the number of times she and the Atlanta group were able to pull together broad coalitions for political battles. She was a firm advocate for shaking up the people who had held power for too long, saying, “I firmly believe that the ruling elite in both the Democrat and Republican Party want to keep us separate. They don’t want the grassroots to work together and discover that We the People have the real power and not these elected officials.”546

Dooley called it “crony capitalism” and argued against the government “picking winners and losers.” Populist anger aimed at elites had once been a tool of the left, but in the post-crash moment it was conservatives who provided a space for that anger to be heard and validated566

A growing sense that the government no longer served everyday people was crystallized by the financial crisis and the bailouts that followed, the impunity granted to those who had caused the economy to crash. Dooley said, “I think that there are some CEOs and presidents of these banks and large corporations, financial institutions, that should be sitting in a jail cell now. I believe if we did the same thing, the average person, we would be in jail.” 574

The middle-class Tea Partiers were responding to a particular set of fears. The middle class is characterized more and more by what writer Barbara Ehrenreich called the “fear of falling,” the awareness that there is a class below, into which it is possible to slip, as well as a class above, where the real power is concentrated. In the post–World War II era, the booming economy, labor protections, and housing subsidies helped many more people climb into the middle class, but in recent years, many have slipped back out of it. The financial crisis made what had been a hazy awareness into a sharp realization. The rules of the game had changed, and hard work did not necessarily pay off.27 From that feeling emerged the most common refrain of the Tea Party faithful: “We need to take our country back,” back to a time when things were better.615

If—as we have been told by a thousand pious politicians and newspaper columnists intent on finding a “social psychology” behind the era’s rampant foreclosures, low wages, and unemployment, which in some neighborhoods exceeds 50 percent—it is the fault of those foreclosed upon, jobless, or struggling, then it cannot happen to us. Victim-blaming, like conspiracy theories, is an attempt to understand the world, to find an explanation for why bad things happen694

But to really prevent those things from happening, to really end poverty and ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, we have to accept the unpleasant fact that, indeed, these are things that could happen to all of us, and often do happen to people who have worked hard and were hit by an unexpected crisis that derailed them financially—like the 2008 downturn. The Tea Party’s response was to double down on producerism, to argue that the problems would be solved by a purer form of capitalism. But for many others, the financial crisis and the resulting precipitous drop in living standards for so many people taught a different lesson: that if the actions of people far away from us can wipe out 40 percent of our wealth in such a brief period of time, perhaps we have more in common with the people we thought were below us than we had previously imagined.36 698

In 2007 and 2008, the Obama campaign had galvanized a generation of young people to get involved in electoral politics. The campaign gave them unprecedented access to new digital tools as well as training in organizing from career troublemakers such as civil rights and United Farm Workers veteran Marshall Ganz. But after the election, Ganz wrote, Obama refused to use his movement; many fell into disillusionment as the administration repeatedly told them not to act, not to challenge Democrats who wavered on policy goals. “He ignored the leverage that a radical flank robustly pursuing its goals could give a reform president—as organized labor empowered FDR’s New Deal or the civil rights movement empowered LBJ’s Voting Rights Act,” Ganz wrote in 2010. “Threatened with losing access, and confusing access with power, the coalitions for the most part went along.”37 Some organizations kept pushing, though. National People’s Action organized a successful action at the American Bankers Association convention in Chicago in October 2009. “A thousand or so folks came the first night from all across the country,” George Goehl of NPA remembered. “It was like a counter-convention.” 714

Unlike “the other,” the phrase “We are the 99 percent” gave people a positive identity, a big inclusive group to be in. It both echoed and fundamentally shifted classic populist rhetoric. “We are the 99 percent” was a clear evocation of the power of the people, an anti-elite rallying cry of action. Significantly, it included everyone—not just the “middle class” or the workers, but the unemployed and the homeless and the poor as well781

It was a radical step. It caused people to identify downward, with the poorest people. It cut out the possibility of turning producers against “moochers,” those who needed unemployment assistance or food stamps or public housing. There was one enemy, and it was the people who had caused the economy to crash. Which side, the slogan asked, did you want to be on? 786

To Mary Clinton, a key piece of Occupy’s early success was that it was new, and it was not called by an established community group or labor union or organization. You didn’t have to be a member of something; as Occupy organizer Nelini Stamp pointed out, all you had to agree to was that the banks had too much power789

Penny Lewis and Stephanie Luce at the City University of New York, also noted the importance of painting a clear target directly on the villains of Wall Street. And yet prior actions targeting bankers, from the Working Families Party’s bus tour to the Showdown in America, had not spread across the country. 792

Milkman, Lewis, and Luce tracked the rise in mentions of “income inequality” in the media at the time of Occupy, watching it spike from just over 1,000 mentions in August 2011 to nearly 4,000 in October, during Occupy’s peak. In a Pew Institute survey taken in December 2011, 61 percent of respondents said they thought the country’s economic system “unfairly favors the wealthy,” and 77 percent (and 53 percent of Republicans) agreed that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations.” Another survey found a 19 percentage point increase in people who thought there were “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and poor. “It’s a cliché to say it, but it totally changed how you could talk about things,” Lerner said. “It would be fun to think about all the money that’s been spent and all the things labor and progressives have tried that didn’t equal anything and then look at the money and the time and energy and compare it to Occupy.”41795

The expression of solidarity that “We are the 99 percent” offered, that we were all in this together, allowed people to move beyond the easy politics of moral superiority or purity. One did not have to be the perfect victim in order to be part of the 99 percent any more than one had to be a producer. With one slogan, it appeared that Occupy had both pointed the finger squarely at the rich and gathered the other classes together in opposition. It was the audacity of Occupy that seemed to work, a slogan and a strategy that seemed, finally, expansive enough to tackle the crisis803

After waiting for something to happen for years, people had finally managed to make it happen.828

Nelini Stamp thought it was going to be just another protest—at the time, she was an organizer with the Working Families Party, and she had been to plenty of marches. “But I saw something that was different,” she said. “I saw dedicated people who had been so disenfranchised their entire lives, finally feeling like they had a voice.” She wound up sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the park the first night, and staying. Alexis Goldstein had quit her Wall Street job in 2010, disgusted by the financial crisis but unsure what she would do next. 829

The next day, she held a teach-in on the finance industry. The movement went viral, spreading across the country in weeks. According to one count, from the original occupation in New York, Occupy quickly mushroomed to over six hundred encampments around the country, with at least one in every state. Mary Clinton was excited when she found out that people in her home state of North Dakota had begun planning their occupation—the last state to start a camp. The smallest town to have one may have been Mosier, Oregon, population 430.42 The desire to occupy public space, to camp out and create what political analyst and writer Matt Stoller called a “church of dissent,” was common to post–financial crisis protests the world over. It was a response to the privatization of public space and services of the past few decades as well as a way to get beyond the deeply isolating way that the crisis seemed to operate; as politicians brayed that all was well, it was easy to feel as though you were a unique failure. The decline of social institutions, from labor unions to political and ethnic clubs, had left people longing for connection once again. “It was kind of a shot in the arm,” Alexis Goldstein said. “Our system isn’t working. People are frustrated. There is corruption that we don’t know how to vote out of office, because it is everywhere. We want to put a flag in the ground and stake our own new society temporarily for a very small geographic space.”43 838

You didn’t have to wait for permission to declare yourself part of Occupy. You simply did it. As Mary Clinton said, you could be part of it just by thinking it, by submitting your story to one of the blogs that turned up, like the “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page. Perhaps the most compelling part of the movement, and the one that most confused outside observers, was the commitment to “horizontalism,” often misdefined as leaderlessness or structurelessness. Horizontalism at its base was a declaration that no one in the movement was more important than anyone else; its appeal seemed to answer some deep need in people who had been burned time after time by political and economic elites or by bosses who denigrated and fired them. It was fueled by the same kind of skepticism of elites that had driven the Tea Party’s structure, but heightened by ideals. 864

The movement had come together in response to three years of failure by elected officials to deal with the Great Recession and an increased sense that the government had responded to and bailed out the rich but left everyone else to figure out their own solutions as best they could. Doing things for yourself—not waiting for permission, as Clinton said—was key. For the young occupiers, especially, Ruth Milkman noted, it was almost completely anathema to talk about electoral politics as making any significant change. “There’s almost no circumstance under which they can imagine taking that seriously, which is not true for the older people who see the limitation of it and also see the uses of it,” Milkman said. The Tea Party, in contrast, made up mostly of older people, had consciously worked to influence elections.871

Goldstein agreed. “At first I was like, ‘Why don’t they X, Y, Z?’” she said. “Then I just became involved and started doing what matched my particular skillset.” That included getting “Occupy the SEC” started, and cowriting a comment letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission that helped shape financial regulation. Writ large, that was how the movement spread, as people who wanted to see an occupation in their hometown simply made it happen. Social media served the movement well when it came to getting around the mainstream media: when at first the movement was ignored, and then misrepresented by reporters who didn’t understand that there was no leader to contact, occupiers simply told their own stories. The prevalence of smartphones and new, easy live-streaming technology allowed protesters to capture actions as they were happening and share them in real time on Twitter. One study captured Occupy-related Tweets beginning October 12, 2011, and observed some 120,000 Occupy-related Tweets on a typical day that November; it found a peak of over 500,000 when the police raided Zuccotti Park on November 15.45 Many protest campaigns in recent years have revolved around personal storytelling, and like those campaigns, Occupy did broadcast personal tales of woe, particularly on the “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page. But there was also something new in the way Occupy communicated itself to the world. It was less about the personal stories and more about writing the history of the movement as it was happening. The media was just another failed institution to the occupiers, who operated on the maxim of former punk singer Jello Biafra: “Don’t hate the media; become the media.” Occupy was shaped by what British journalist Paul Mason noted were “the very values of free-market capitalism—individualism, choice, respect for human rights, the network, the flattened hierarchy.” In other words, it was shaped in some ways by the very thing against which it protested.46 And yet for many within the movement, it was not about reforming or tinkering with capitalism: they wanted something else, something better. To Mary Clinton, talking about capitalism was like finally addressing the elephant in the room. It made it possible to discuss inequality and power, and it didn’t seem to scare people off as they had been warned it might889

Decisions were made by consensus rather than by majority rule—everyone had to agree, or at least decide not to disagree publicly, for an action to be taken. Hand signals were used at the general assemblies where those decisions were made; people “twinkled” their fingers in the air pointing upward if they agreed or voted yes, pointed down for no, or pointed straight out in front if they were iffy on the subject. They crossed their arms on their chests for a “block”—something beyond a no vote, designed to halt debate. An early innovation, created when amplified sound was banned in Zuccotti Park, became one of the movement’s most memorable practices—the “people’s mic,” where listeners would repeat back a speaker’s words, sentence by sentence, to ensure everyone could hear. The people’s mic cut down on speechifying; it functioned itself as a sort of consensus process, bringing people together in what they had to say. Manissa McCleave Maharawal wrote of the experience, “There is something intense about speaking in front of hundreds of people, but . . . it is even more intense when that crowd is repeating everything you say. . . . Hearing yourself in an echo chamber means that you make sure your words mean something because they are being said back to you as you say them.”47 The people’s mic also turned into a tactic for disruption when protesters began to use it to shut down events taking place in other venues. An Occupy offshoot that worked on education issues used it to great effect early on, particularly in December 2011 at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in New York. Occupiers called out “Mic check!” and then rose, person after person, to speak their minds about the mayor’s education policy. One protester is easy to remove; many of them, each repeating the other, is much harder.910

The park occupation was evicted after three weeks, which Bashiri thought was a good thing—“It had started to become about holding the space, and not really about what had led us to be there in the first place.” She remembered sending out a Tweet that told people facing foreclosure to call her number. “That was on a Monday and I got a call that Thursday, from a cop. This was ironic because we had just dealt with being evicted by SWAT teams,” she said. The police officer lived in DeKalb County and was facing a final eviction hearing the next morning; Bashiri and several other occupiers piled into a car to attend. Watching the judge sign the eviction order, she said, made the mortgage crisis real for her. Without much further planning, they decided to occupy his house and attempt to prevent the foreclosure—and at first, they managed to stave off eviction and drew support from the neighbors. “It’s a good cause,” one of the neighbors said. “If we don’t take a stand, who will?” Eventually, the family relented under threat of arrest, though they expressed no regrets about working with Occupy. Even though they hadn’t succeeded, Bashiri thought they were on to something.1 They weren’t the only ones. In Minnesota, Occupy had also turned to foreclosures. Cat Salonek, from the beginning, had been unsure of the value of holding onto an occupied space in a park—particularly with a Minnesota winter fast approaching. When homeowner Monique White came to the plaza and told her story to the general assembly, Salonek said, it was easy to get consensus to support her. Like the Atlanta occupiers, they moved into White’s home without much of a plan, learning about the foreclosure process on the fly. “Occupy Homes formed out of a few different needs locally,” Salonek said. “One was for there to be really tangible wins, [and] what’s more tangible than a whole house? Two, we needed some clear direction at Wall Street, the horrible things they had done to collapse our economy, so we were able to use this narrative that could be as reformist or as radical as it needed to be for the context.” In Minneapolis, unlike Atlanta, there were existing community groups and unions that had done some work around the foreclosure issue. But what was key in both locations was that a core group of organizers made Occupy Homes their job, living on whatever money could be raised and committing to spend all their time working on home defenses. They built a model for the fight that included petitioning, public protests at the banks, and letter-writing and phone-call campaigns as well as physical home blockades—a model that allowed different people different levels of engagement, from signing a petition in support of the effort to going to jail in defense of a home. In Atlanta, Bashiri and four others moved into a house that functioned as both home and headquarters for their organization. “We met every morning at 9 a.m. for a year,” she laughed. “We basically worked all the time and there was really intense accountability, a level of accountability that I don’t know that I’d ever want to replicate, but you couldn’t get away with not doing your work because somebody would just come in your room and say, ‘You’re supposed to be doing this thing!’” Along with the core group, both groups worked to bring homeowners in and to organize the neighborhoods behind homeowners facing foreclosure. Salonek noted that while protesting banks galvanized the anger people had, working to save a home galvanized their compassion. “It was this really powerful community,” she said. “I remember hotdishes getting passed up through windows by the Lutheran moms who didn’t want to go in the house and risk arrest but they’d make a casserole,” she laughed. “Doing a barbecue and a potluck is just so Minnesotan.”992

It was more than symbolic that Occupy Atlanta’s first home battle was for a police officer. People who dismissed the park occupations as silly whining from kids felt differently when those activists were willing to risk arrest to help them save the home they’d worked hard to buy, and they began to understand whose side the occupiers were on. Even so, it was hard for homeowners to shake the feeling of shame that they couldn’t pay their debt. Nick Espinosa was one of the core group of organizers at Occupy Homes Minnesota and had already fought a few foreclosures when he found out that his mother, Colleen McKee Espinosa, a nurse, was facing foreclosure herself.1032

Obi moved back into her house with a group of occupiers, changed the locks, and resumed negotiating with Bank of America. At first, she said, they threatened to evict her again, then they offered to give her cash for her keys, and then finally they gave her the house back free and clear. “It’s been tough, exacerbated my symptoms both physically and mentally, but without the help of Occupy, I don’t think I would’ve had a victory,” she said. “Public outcry was important; the resistance, the persistence was very important. We had people willing to risk arrest for me. I’ll never forget that—that is close to my heart, a beautiful thing.” As the Occupy Homes groups grew and racked up successes, they also began to coordinate on national political campaigns, joining community groups and labor unions to press for a new director to the Federal Housing Finance Agency and to push for a new law allowing homeowners to buy back their homes after foreclosure. They drew on the drama of their battles to highlight those demands. Occupy Homes also worked on a Homeowner Bill of Rights, bringing homeowners to the Minnesota State Capitol to testify and using direct action to create pressure for the bill’s passage.I think there’s a misconception that poor people or people of color don’t have time for politics or don’t care about politics,” Nick Espinosa said. “The reality is that people are really hungry for that. Their lives are political.”1052

One estimate found that in 2012, years after the crisis was supposedly over, Americans lost $192.6 billion in wealth as a result of foreclosures—an average of $1,700 per family, although of course the crisis was not spread evenly, and some lost everything. Indeed, communities of color took the hardest hit. Though the foreclosure crisis has fallen out of the headlines, the stories of people like Nancy Daniel should remind us that its ramifications will be felt for generations: wealth that had been accumulated and handed down over decades was wiped out in a few months.3 It was nearly impossible to understand the size of the crisis, the sheer number of people pushed out of their homes, in part because there are simply no official statistics. “It’s a total failure of public policy that government statistics are so terrible around foreclosures that we have to rely on private analysts, usually affiliated with organizations that want to soft-pedal the numbers,” explained David Dayen, journalist and the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. Tracking only evictions or “completed foreclosures” results in an undercount because it leaves out people who were forced to short-sell their homes as well as the hundreds of thousands of “zombie foreclosures,” which have the same effect on the family as a completed foreclosure. The most reliable number, Dayen said, is a count of 5.6 million between September 2008 and February 2015, according to private property data firm CoreLogic.1093

When the subprime mortgages began to fail, the whole bubble burst—economist Dean Baker estimated the loss could be equal to about $110,000 per homeowner.1126

In 2012, the five biggest banks agreed to a $26 billion settlement with the federal government over major foreclosure fraud; the money was supposed to go to help homeowners stay in their homes, but fewer than 85,000 people actually got mortgage modifications. It was as if, Goldstein said, the regulators said, “We have gotten halfway through this. We are just going to give up. We are just going to pick an arbitrary amount of money to give everyone. Sorry. You won’t get your house back. You will just get three hundred bucks on thirty thousand.”10 Modifying mortgages to keep people living at home and paying something would have made much more economic sense, even for the banks, and yet it didn’t happen. The federal government, which one would assume, having bailed out the banks, had some leverage to make them do so, dropped the ball. Instead, it allowed banks to count actions they’d already taken toward the total amount of aid they promised to give, or to count mortgage modifications that actually increased a borrower’s monthly payment as a modification nevertheless. That the best regulators could do was offer paltry settlements, for which the banks could actually take a tax write-off, is evidence of a massive failure by the US government to help its people1155

The individualized solutions pushed on homeowners were not remotely up to the job of fixing the housing market; they only reinforced the idea that the crisis was due to the mistakes of individual homeowners. As Goldstein noted, there seemed to be a fear that one undeserving homeowner would get relief, that some deadbeat would get a deal, and rather than have one person get away with something, “we are just going to screw over all homeowners.”11 Meanwhile, the banks are ramping up again. In cities like Atlanta, Wall Street investors have bought up homes in chunks—private equity firm Blackstone Group bought 1,400 Atlanta houses in just one day in 2013—to sell financial products made from the rent payments it would collect on the homes. Most of the homes they acquired were foreclosures, most of them in the cities and neighborhoods that had been hit the hardest by the foreclosure crisis, 1166

Tenant organizing and rent strikes have been a way for people to express some power over their living situation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that modern homeownership in the United States was shaped by the desire of those in power to quell unrest.14 It might have been the rise of the automobile that finally convinced financial institutions to lend to non-rich people, but it was homeownership that really kicked off the spread of credit. Homeownership was promoted by the government as a hedge against the spread of socialism, a goal made more explicit after the beginning of the Great Depression, when the National Housing Act of 1934, and then the creation of the Federal National Mortgage Association (now known as Fannie Mae), helped incentivize lending to working-class homebuyers by providing government backing for private loans. The method assuaged bankers’ fears of socialism because the lending remained in their hands.15 After World War II, the booming economy and GI Bill benefits for returning servicemen helped fuel the suburbanization of America1183

Developer William Levitt created the Levittown planned communities, which were built in an assembly-line style borrowed from the factories, where workers were enjoying higher wages than in the past and regular eight-hour workdays. And along with those wages and union contracts, the ongoing promotion of homeownership served to keep workers happy and content. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,” Levitt famously said. “He has too much to do.” The July 3, 1950, cover of Time featured Levitt and declared, “For sale: a new way of life.”16 That new way of life was what we began to call “middle class.” While it was never a lifestyle as widely available as myth would have it—redlining of neighborhoods where black people lived ensured that they were ineligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and couldn’t make use of the GI Bill’s housing provisions, legally enforceable racial covenants kept black buyers out of white neighborhoods, and even unmarried white women had trouble accessing credit—it was, for a period of time, widespread. Union representation was at its apex, peaking in the mid-1950s at 35 percent and helping to drive wages up even in nonunion workplaces, and profits continued to rise and prosperity spread. For a brief few decades, many families were able to subsist on one income. The GI Bill provided college funding for more than 8 million veterans of World War II—up until then, the number of eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds attending college had always been under 10 percent, but the GI Bill started the upward trend, which reached an all-time high of 39.6 percent in 2008. People began to shake off the old “working-class” identifier; we were all middle class now.17 The student loan, separate from the GI Bill’s grants, was born in 1958 from Cold War policy. In response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, the United States created the National Defense Education Act, pouring federal dollars into research universities and making low-interest loans to students who wanted to go into scientific or technological research. These first loans, as sociologist Andrew Ross wrote, “were explicitly aimed at creating a technically skilled workforce as an arm of the warfare, not the welfare, state.”18 Federal student loans for everyone else came along in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act, which at first was aimed at low-income students to supplement grants and scholarships, and then expanded to everyone. Those loans, too, were issued by private banks but backed up by the federal government. With the spread of higher education, the promise of upward mobility, for a brief period, seemed assured. The middle class seemed to have become so broad that it was, in fact, the only class, though the name still provided producerist reassurances to people that they deserved all they had.19 Having the trappings of a middle-class life became the ultimate goal for so many people, but once there, Americans were continually anxious about falling out1191

Anat Shenker-Osorio. “So you’re ‘in the middle class,’ you fall out of it, you climb into it.” Once you’re in that container, you have particular expectations for what you should be able to do: survive on one income, go on vacation, own a home, or send your kids to college. Over time, the middle-class identity became more and more closely associated with what could be bought than with stability. Symbols of class identity like televisions and then cellphones became cheaper—“1216

The middle class, by several measures, has shrunk. Different studies using different methodologies estimated the shrinkage between 1980 and the mid-to late 2000s as between 6 and 14 percent. The US median household income was $4,500 less in 2013 than it had been in 2007, and was in fact less, in real dollars, than it was in 1989. Median household wealth, perhaps an even better indicator of one’s class position, was 36 percent lower in 2013 than in 2003, and was down some 20 percent from 1984, meaning that not all of the drop could be attributed solely to the housing bubble popping.21 Even the middle class’s image of itself is changing. Between 2000 and 2008, Gallup polls found that, on average, over 60 percent of Americans identified themselves as middle class; since 2012, closer to 50 percent identify that way, and 48 percent now identify as working or lower class. The US General Social Survey (GSS), meanwhile, found that the number identifying as middle class was closer to 44 percent; “working class” got a roughly equal response, even though the term “working class,” with its tang of radicalism, was much less popular with politicians.1241

The middle has hollowed out, manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, and companies are better and more systematic about union-busting in the jobs that remain. As middle-income jobs for people without college degrees declined, the bachelor’s degree became more necessary, a sort of middle-class boundary, even as college tuition grew more expensive, saddling students with yet more debt. In the years leading up to 2008, Americans were spending nearly one in every seven dollars of after-tax income on debt service. And all that debt served to discourage people from the risks of protest, the added weight of payment to make every month a damper on any trouble you might wish to make.23 “Debt has been the primary way that the system has extracted wealth from regular people. And it’s not just that people have debt—the debt-driven system is how the rich have gotten richer. The level of debt is so great that wage increases won’t make up for how much people owe,” said organizer Stephen Lerner. But, he noted, debt can also be a place where those regular people have power. The old cliché, now being repeated by debt organizers, goes, “If you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank $1 million (or $1 trillion, in the case of outstanding student debt), you own the bank.” Since the debt so broadly distributed throughout the population is being lent by an ever-shrinking and consolidating group of financial institutions, there is the growing possibility of debtors using their collective leverage to make some demands.24 1252

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated this particular kind of underemployment, where recent grads worked jobs that didn’t require their degrees, at 44 percent in 2012. Wages had fallen nearly 8 percent for college grads since 2000, and they were less likely to have employer-provided health insurance or a pension. There’s little evidence, in other words, that if more young people went to college, they would be able to access better jobs.27 Ultimately, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out, part of the reason for the massive student debt bubble is that policymakers are prescribing education as a solution for what is fundamentally a labor-market problem. Rather than being considered a social good that people undertake to become better informed, more engaged members of society, an education is increasingly perceived as a commodity, something that you purchase to increase your value to an employer. Yet when the fastest-growing jobs out there are low-wage retail, food service, and home care jobs, what does it matter how many years of school you attend? The cost of a college degree has increased over 3,000 percent since 1972, at the same time as there has been a massive increase in college attendance, notably from middle-income families. At least part of the price hike was due to state disinvestment from public universities, which shifted costs onto the backs of individual students, a trend that began before the Great Recession but intensified after it. The “corporatization” of universities—public and private—led to increased tuition, flashy new buildings, and inflated administrative salaries, on one hand; on the other, professors faced cuts and schools increasingly employed adjunct professors who worked part-time and were paid by the class rather than with a reliable salary.28 1280

Between 1999 and 2011, during the same period that the country was dealing with the massive housing bubble, total student debt grew by something like 511 percent, twice as fast as housing debt did.29 1296

Instead of foreclosure, collectors chasing education borrowers have a set of tools unequaled for any other type of debt. They can garnish Social Security payments. Borrowers cannot discharge their student loans—even private ones—through bankruptcy. There is no statute of limitations for student loan collection, and the fees only go up if you default. Essentially, rather than taking your home, student lenders can foreclose on your future. These policies have been so effective that the recovery rate on defaulted student loans is actually more than 100 percent. And debt collectors, many of them owned by the same lenders, like Navient and J. P. Morgan, have about a 30 percent profit margin—a better return on investment than when simply servicing the loan normally.35 All of this has contributed to the feeling that college is no longer the surefire ticket to a middle-class life that it used to be. In a 2015 survey, only half of the college graduates questioned strongly thought college was worth the price; perhaps not surprisingly, considering the economic problems graduates have faced in recent years, an even smaller portion of those who graduated between 2006 and 2015 thought that college had been worth the cost.36 1325

Strike Debt had been founded by Occupy activists looking for ways to intervene in the debt crisis; they’d tried the Rolling Jubilee, a campaign that raised funds to buy debt on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar and then abolish it. Strike Debt had managed to make its first student debt buy, purchasing and forgiving $3.8 million in debt from 2,700 Everest College students, in the fall of 2014, and it was hoping to organize a type of action that would allow the debtors to get personally involved. The Rolling Jubilee, Larson said, “was a neat hack of the debt system, good for educating the public about how the secondary debt market worked and doing a really great thing for the few lucky people who got their debt canceled.” But it was still a gift from above, a kind of charity, rather than a way to build power for and with debtors themselves. That’s how they came up with the idea of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, where people who owed the same creditor could find each other and take collective action1403

Legally, student loans can be discharged if an institution closes, but the DOE was encouraging students to transfer elsewhere and continue—even if, like Bowers, they had used up all their federal student loans on credits that often wouldn’t transfer. And students were expected to continue under the new owners after their campus was sold—even if, according to the CFPB, their program of study was no longer on offer. The debt strikers filed legal “defense-to-repayment” challenges, but, as had been true of the foreclosure crisis, it was impossible to solve such a massive problem one debtor at a time. In February 2015, the Horneses, Ann Bowers, and twelve other students went on debt strike and began a full-court press campaign, calling for all Corinthian student debt to be discharged. Their slogan was, “Can’t pay, won’t pay.” Their numbers quickly swelled to over two hundred strikers, and the Education Department granted them a meeting. In June 2015, the DOE announced debt relief for Corinthian students, but still in an individualized manner—students were required to apply individually for loan forgiveness. The department appointed a “special master” to review their claims, but months in, only a tiny fraction of the loans had been canceled. Students continued to be harassed by debt collectors. 1417

The Debt Collective responded by creating an online “Defense to Repayment” tool to make it easier for students to file their individual claims. The Collective also continued to pressure the DOE to do better. “It has been interesting to learn that there are all of these places in the Department of Ed’s authority to cancel debt,” Goldstein said. “There are a bunch of different ways they can do it. It reminds me so much of the problems we have with financial reform. It is all about will, regulatory will.1431

privatization to bankruptcy law changes, and noted, “Everything that for-profits say they’re doing are all things being proposed for the rest of higher ed. No faculty governance, high enrollment, centralized curriculum, diminished [study of the] humanities for applied, job-oriented credentials. It’s only our hubris that says that’s not us.” The Debt Collective didn’t plan to stop with the for-profits, either, 1439

The students who chose to attend the for-profit schools, McMillan Cottom pointed out, were often very aware of how bad the labor market was, and how little remained of the social safety net. That was why they had gone into debt to get an education in the first place. Education, too, failed them, even though they had tried to do everything they could to live up to society’s expectations1446

People are getting rich off of schools like Everest that are predatory, preying off people who want a better life for their family.” On a more personal note, she said, “You’re told you should go that way your whole life; you go and you end up in worse shape than you were in to begin with. It makes it hard to trust anyone. They destroyed our trust, they destroyed our faith in education. What do we have? Nothing but debt.” 1454

She found out quickly why Walmart employees were afraid to organize. “When the company ended up finding out about the organization, that I was organizing the store, they started recording me—who I talked to, how long I took my lunches—every little move I made, Walmart was on top of me,” she said. She was written up twice for minor infractions, but when they tried to give her a “third strike,” she had had enough. “I said, ‘I’m not going to sign the paper, you just messed with the wrong person.’” OUR Walmart helped her file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Regardless of whether workers are officially union members, organizing to improve the workplace is protected activity under federal labor law—but before this, Luna and many of her coworkers didn’t know the law. Now, she did. And right after she filed the complaint, she said, human resources at Walmart wanted to talk to her, and made her write-ups go away. People at the store still called her “the union girl,” but after her coworkers saw what happened to her, she was able to get more of them to join OUR Walmart and to join that first strike.1473

The occupations projected to add the most jobs between 2012 and 2022 are retail sales, personal care and home health care, nursing, and food service workers, including fast food. Except for nursing, those fields have a median annual income of around $20,000. That’s less than half, adjusted for inflation, of the family-sustaining wage paid to unionized factory workers in their heyday.2 1567

Ruetschlin found that a wage floor of $25,000 a year for a full-time worker in retail would affect more than 5 million retail workers and their families. More than 95 percent of those workers were over twenty, not teenagers, and more than half of them were responsible for providing at least half the family income. Such a raise would actually grow the economy and create new jobs, not kill them, as is commonly claimed. Low-paid workers spend nearly everything they make; if they had more money to spend, they would be much more likely to spend it than their bosses, who make far more than they can spend at any time.8 Scheduling, too, became a central issue in retail and food service work1610

Computerized scheduling systems prioritize workers who have unlimited availability, but that makes it hard for workers to get a second job. And if you have children to care for, forget it. Many of the women who populate these industries struggle to find child-care options that are flexible and affordable; one low-wage field feeds another as more workers, mostly women, do the child care, often for less than minimum wage. “Just-in-time” scheduling means workers’ needs come last, their hours sliced and diced as hours and minutes are shaved off of shifts. The money adds up.10 1629

Retail workers made up 18 percent of those who were involuntarily working part-time jobs. Fifty-eight percent of those making up the involuntary part-time retail workforce in 2015 were women. That means there are a whole lot of adults who would like to have a full-time, steady job with a schedule they can rely on and a paycheck that can feed their families, but who instead are making do on eight or nine dollars an hour, twenty hours a week1635

A 2015 story revealed that Walmart had hired Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, to monitor activists, and coordinated with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Such surveillance helped the company keep abreast of any worker organizing in its stores and maintain its unblemished union-free record.20 Walmart’s much-vaunted stock option program, too, served a purpose. It created the illusion that low-wage associates had as much riding on the continued success of the company as did the surviving Waltons, who own about half the existing Walmart stock. (They also control more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of the US population does.) But the high turnover rate for associates guarantees that most of them are unable to build up much equity, and low wages mean that even the company’s matching policy—15 percent of the first $1,800 of stock purchased—doesn’t get them much. Some of them even find themselves selling stock back to cover the gaps in their household budget.21 1692

When consumerism is what we have in common, the workers disappear from the picture entirely, a worthy sacrifice to the greater good.25 1728

The final key to OUR Walmart’s success where previous efforts had failed was its online organizing. Jamie Way, an organizer with the campaign, told me frankly, “We’re never going to match them in terms of resources, we’re never going to have an organizer or a community supporter on the ground in every one of their [more than] 4,000 Walmarts.” What they did instead was build a network online that connected organizers with Walmart workers, using Facebook to find new workers through targeted advertising and worker-led groups. An example was the LGBT worker group moderated by OUR Walmart member Lucas Handy, who had been motivated to join the organization because of a manager’s homophobic slurs.35 Colby Harris, who spent a lot of time doing online work, said the Internet allowed fearful associates to get comfortable sharing their problems and move toward taking action in their stores. “It has really allowed us an opportunity to make sure that we’re not missing out on anybody,” he said. “Because everybody’s on social media, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter . . . something.” Schlademan agreed that social media is critical. He acknowledged that there is still plenty of skepticism from people who think online work is merely “clicktivism,” just signing an online petition that disappears into the ether. But OUR Walmart considered it “online-to-offline” work: that is, they were using social media to distribute tools to workers and supporters to help them hold their own actions in their own towns. It allowed OUR Walmart to punch far above its weight class in terms of both paid staffers and actual worker members who were willing to strike, enabled it to learn from workers who might not yet be willing to risk their jobs, and educated people who saw Walmart as the epitome of a flawed system about how to step up and support the people most affected by the company, rather than protesting in ways that harmed the workers. Campaigns like OUR Walmart and the Fight for $15 relied on unions’ willingness to spend their money on workers who were not and might not ever become dues-paying members; the $5 monthly that OUR Walmart members paid in was not enough to sustain an organizing campaign, so outside funding was needed. In 2015, change came to OUR Walmart when the new leadership at UFCW cut the budget for the Walmart campaign by more than 50 percent. Dan Schlademan and cofounder Andrea Dehlendorf were let go from the union’s staff. The UFCW shifted toward an advertising-heavy strategy, rolling out big targeted ads just before Thanksgiving.36 OUR Walmart regrouped, reached out to funders and to the network of labor and community groups with which it had allied in the past, and relaunched in the fall of 2015, determined to continue organizing Walmart workers. Groups like National People’s Action and New York Communities for Change, think tank Demos, and online organizations Color of Change and CREDO, Jobs With Justice, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance joined the partnership. “OUR Walmart has always been focused on the workers, and giving us a voice, so it’s always been independent and worker-led, but we did always have a large support of funding from UFCW,” Tyfani Faulkner, a Sacramento, California, OUR Walmart member, told me. “They decided that they were going to change the direction, and so this caused the workers to be more on the front lines and be more in control of our own organization. We’re all stepping up and taking on the responsibility to make that happen.” OUR Walmart counted victories not in union contracts, or even in raw membership numbers, but in its ability to get a reaction from Walmart. The announcement from Walmart in April 2015 that it would raise its wage floor to $9 an hour that year and $10 an hour in 2016 was the biggest win for the campaign, but there were others—a change in the company’s policy for pregnant workers, and some concessions on scheduling, for example—that came about through the work of a relatively small group of…1847

‘All the faith that I have lost in the government I have found in the people.’” For her, that was the story of the protest2060

Cutting taxes for the rich while cutting rights for workers seemed, to the protesters, to be an obvious example of what the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) would later call “being broke on purpose”—eliminating a source of revenue in order to justify cuts that those in power already wanted to make.1 2065

But most of the unions that were facing the loss of their rights were made up of care workers: these majority-woman workplaces would take the brunt of the cuts. While Clark assumed at the time that Walker had carved out the male-dominated unions because he would come for them later (an assumption proved correct in subsequent years), she felt that there was an element of scapegoating women in Act 10’s measures. The public sector was also a field with a higher-than-average proportion of workers of color, many of whom had sought those public jobs because they had stronger protections against discrimination. It was at the intersection of race, gender, and class that the bill did its worst damage. The Wisconsin uprising was the first major US protest to be covered and spread primarily by social media, and it changed the way people around the country followed the actions of movements. Although local and independent media (including my employer at the time, Laura Flanders) did arrive to cover the actions, following Twitter hashtags like #wiunion and #notmyWI remained the best way to see what was happening. Things changed rapidly, and Twitter coverage had an immediacy that traditional media could not match. Dye used Twitter from work to research and share information. When fourteen Democratic state senators left the state to prevent a vote on Act 10, she found out via Twitter and dug into the law to see which rule it was that allowed them to hold up a vote by denying a quorum. “I didn’t want to wait for the media story to come out the next day, and so we were in real time scouring laws and talking about them on Twitter to figure it out,” she said. From work, she could help determine where people could drop off water or deliver food—like the pizzas, famously ordered through Ian’s Pizza from as far away as Egypt. Before the protests, her Twitter account had been private; afterward, she not only opened it up but vowed to respond to everyone who Tweeted 2075

Social media, Dye said, allowed complete strangers to feel a real connection, to understand what solidarity felt like. Despite the protests, which at their peak drew 80,000 protesters to the Capitol, Walker and the state legislature remained intent on passing the collective bargaining restrictions. Security in the Capitol began to increase, and one night after a big sit-in, the building was locked down with a small group of protesters still inside. Dye arrived the next morning for a quick check-in before heading to work and found the door locked. She and a few other people stood there, checking Twitter to see what had happened, and she Tweeted, half joking, that they should stay outside until they were allowed in. She had to leave for work, but that evening, people showed up. “So many people felt the same way that I did. This was our building. We deserved entry and we weren’t going away,” she said. “We slept outside. It was 13 degrees overnight. One of the nights that we were out there it was so windy that the blankets kept blowing off of us. It was three in the morning and I just gave up and started laughing because there was nothing we could do. We were stuck outside this building and the blankets wouldn’t even stay on us but nobody was giving up.” On March 10, the collective bargaining portion of Act 10 was stripped out of the budget bill and pushed forward on its own. This didn’t require the fourteen state senators, who were still camped out in Illinois, to be there for a vote. Hanna was on the university campus when she heard the news and sprinted for the Capitol, ducking into cafes with a megaphone and shouting “They’re passing the bill!” “At that point it seemed a little more militant,” she said. “We went to the vestibule in front of the assembly chambers and were going to sit in front of the seat of power here and not allow this to happen.” The police, who had been relatively restrained through much of the occupation, carted out protesters, and the bill was passed in the middle of the night. Walker signed it in a private session.2101

Many activists on the ground called for it, and while the general strike did not officially happen, reporter and Wisconsinite John Nichols argued that the mass protests came close, and that an actual general strike would have been possible.15 And in Chicago, where the teachers went on strike in 2012 and challenged the austerity budget and the conditions in public schools, the union made issues of the common good part of its bargaining process, bringing its particular leverage to bear on an institution on which the whole city relied.2348

Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). At first, Shibata said, they aimed simply to push the existing CTU leadership to step up and challenge the rhetoric coming from the authorities who were blaming the teachers for the crumbling, underfunded schools. They began to organize their coworkers and to listen to their complaints, and they made connections between everyday problems—like a lack of paper or air conditioning—to the austerity budgets that were being passed. The financial crisis, Shibata said, had become an excuse for the “reformers,” allowing them to speed up a process that had been underway for a while. Taking a page from Klein, in outreach to union members CORE argued that the crisis was being used “not just to bust our union but to defund our schools and essentially sabotage the system.” The existing union leadership, however, which had been in power for nearly forty years almost without interruption, seemed more interested in consolidating its own power than in mobilizing its members; according to Shibata, it became apparent that making real change within the union would require taking it over. In 2008, as it organized with parents and community activists around the next round of planned school closures, CORE ran a warm-up campaign, nominating two of its members as pension trustees. Early on, Shibata used social media as an organizing tool, mobilizing members to post messages about CORE on Facebook. CORE used the race to educate members about the importance of the teachers’ pension, since teachers in Illinois are not covered by Social Security. Their candidates both won, and CORE moved into the union leadership election with confidence.19 CORE member Karen Lewis was chosen to run for union president. Charismatic, funny, and fierce, Lewis had been the only black woman in her Dartmouth class, and thereafter she had spent twenty-two years as a high school chemistry teacher. She was backed up by Jesse Sharkey, another early CORE member. Though the papers would focus heavily in the coming years on Lewis as a personality, it was the ground organizing that CORE had built up that led to its win in the spring of 2010, and it was a tradition the members kept up as they took over running the union. “To shift unions from the service model to an organizing model takes not just a few people that want to do it; it takes the will of rank-and-file members to become empowered in their schools and in their union,” Lewis said. CORE staff cut their own salaries in order to create an organizing department; Shibata took a position in communications and began holding social media training sessions for members. He taught them how to get the message out about their own schools and struggles and helped them feel more involved in their union.2392

appointed school board persisted in the policy. “Public pressure only works if you have leaders who are accountable to the public,” Shibata said2467

Shibata had realized back before the strike that something needed to change in the balance of power in Chicago. But it took the school closings to show, as the CORE members had earlier realized about their union, that maybe the only solution to their problems was to take power themselves. “I hate politics, actually,” Lewis said in 2013. “For a long time I’ve felt we live in a one-party system. We just have two branches of it. The key is to use the political system to hold our elected officials accountable through mass movements.” But even that, Lewis noted, was an uphill battle. In 2010, after cuts to their pensions, the teachers’ unions in Illinois withheld donations to Democrats—and got Senate Bill 7. They shut down the city with a strike, and got school closures. They built power, and got only retaliation. “When you’re playing on somebody else’s turf, you don’t have control,” Lewis said. “So the key is to change the rules of the game.” Emanuel was up for reelection in 2015, and Lewis began to seriously consider running. Other candidates who might have been able to challenge the incumbent were stepping back, unwilling to go up against the well-funded mayor and his Wall Street connections. Shibata was going to organizing meetings in local churches to collect petition signatures to put Lewis on the ballot, and other organizations and unions were showing interest in a challenge. The schools weren’t the only issue—there had been organizing around low wages, as Chicago had been the second city to join the Fight for $15 and had a particularly militant group of workers at its core, and long-standing fights against police brutality and prisons. But in October, the news broke that Lewis had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, which would prevent her from running. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, stepped forward and won endorsement from the CTU, and the coalition that had begun to form around Lewis shifted to support him. To Shibata, Garcia might not have been a dream candidate, but he was a local official with deep community ties in his neighborhood, the opposite of Emanuel, someone who would be accountable to the people and not to big donors. “The big gift of Karen even thinking about running was that it changed so much of what was considered possible in many of our minds,” said Amisha Patel, director of the Grassroots Collaborative and a key part of that coalition. Garcia had not been central to a popular struggle the way Lewis had, but he was able to benefit from the momentum that Lewis had kicked off. SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana joined the coalition, as did the Transit Workers Union and Workers United. Community groups, too, jumped in, and together they built a new political organization, United Working Families. But other unions, including other SEIU locals, backed Emanuel. For many people, Patel said, the Garcia campaign was their “Obama moment,” because they were throwing themselves into electoral work for the first time. But the core of the coalition remained the same people who had been challenging the mayor for years.2472

multimillionaire Bruce Rauner. Rauner had ties to Emanuel and planned to bust public-sector unions. Austerity, after all, was a bipartisan game, as was market-based education reform. In the face of austerity, Patel said, it is important to put forward a positive alternative vision, to offer suggestions for where the money can be found, and to talk about what the schools should look like. In the fall of 2015, a group of parents, teachers, and advocates went on a hunger strike to reopen one shuttered school, Dyett High School; they offered a plan to create a green-technology-focused, open-enrollment school in partnership with the CTU and the Chicago Botanic Garden. They succeeded in winning a promise to reopen the school, but their own plan was rejected. They called off the strike after thirty-four days upon the realization, as strike leader Jitu Brown put it, “that they will let us die.”25 2520

The people who had been hit hardest by the financial crisis were black and Latino, and that far from getting a handout from the new black president, black people had seen nearly half their wealth wiped out, compared to just under 30 percent for US families overall. Tensions had been heightened during a polarizing election, and the crash piled on yet more pressure, inspiring some people to point fingers and others to offer solidarity.5 By seeming contrast with the Tea Party, other activists taking to the streets after the financial crisis and the election made fighting racism part of their strategy. When Occupy Wall Street erupted in New York City in 2011, for example, among the signs that dotted the park were proclamations that “I Am Troy Davis.” Davis was executed in September 2011 for a crime he maintained he did not commit; an international movement sprang up around his case, but it was not enough to save him. “Race is everything in this case,” Representative Lewis had said in 2008, noting that Davis, a black man, had been convicted of killing a white police officer. After Davis’s execution, one occupier bore a sign that read, “Troy Davis would still be alive if he had been rich and white.” Across the country, when Occupy Oakland took over Frank Ogawa Plaza outside of Oakland’s city hall, the occupiers renamed it “Oscar Grant Plaza.” Grant, another young black man, was prostrate on the ground when he was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in 2009.6 Among the young protesters, the term “intersectionality,” coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, was often used to describe the way people face multiple axes of oppression at once—2579

There were valid criticisms of the way the slogan “We are the 99 percent” could elide real differences.2596

Ciara Taylor was a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee when she heard about Martin’s death. His story was a turning point for her because it put the lie to pretty fables about respectability and upward mobility. “Trayvon still had two very loving parents who would nurture him, he lived in a suburban community, and he was killed in his neighborhood by this guy who calls himself a neighborhood watchman,” she said. “In this country they tell you if you work hard you can live in these communities that are supposed to be safe and everyone is equal and free.” Like Martin, Taylor had grown up black in the suburbs, and she’d believed that story; although she had still experienced some level of racism, she had mostly bought into the myth of progress. That belief was now shattered, the possibility of individually escaping the tendrils of racism exposed as false. Taylor had participated in some activism in high school—she protested the controversial presidential election in Florida in 2000, when the US Supreme Court had stepped in to resolve disputes over the vote count and put George W. Bush into the White House. Taylor remembered “thinking how much it sucks I’m basically yelling at my neighbors,” while decisions were being made behind closed doors that neither side could influence. In college, she organized in favor of a living wage for campus workers and in opposition to the budget cuts that discontinued her major the year before she was due to graduate. She didn’t remember how she found herself on that particular phone call to organize a response to Martin’s shooting, only that she was skeptical that anything would bring justice. Organizers Gabriel Pendas, Ahmad Abuznaid, and Phillip Agnew (who has since changed his name to umi selah) knew each other from college activism around the death of yet another young black man, Martin Lee Anderson, in 2006. Pendas had just returned from an event celebrating the anniversary of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and suggested a march from Daytona to Sanford. Taylor remained skeptical, but she was angry enough to try anything. They scheduled the march for April 6. Nelini Stamp got a call from a friend who worked with the progressive “netroots” organization MoveOn; the friend was looking for someone with experience in direct action to help the march organizers plan the event. Stamp accepted the offer of a plane ticket and flew down to join the march, even though she had only the barest connection to the Florida group. Martin’s death, she said, made her wonder about the value of the economic justice organizing she had been doing. “What’s it worth, if we can still be killed because we’re walking around who we are?” she asked. When she arrived, she saw that the group was smaller than the organizers had expected, with just forty people. Nevertheless, they set out.2643

“We went to the doors, knelt and just sort of prayed,” Taylor said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.” Instead of getting arrested, the group was asked to come in to meet with local elected officials and police. State attorney Angela Corey, who had been appointed as special prosecutor in the case in March, was on the phone. And after an hour or so, Taylor said, they were told Zimmerman would be arrested. There would be an investigation into the Stand Your Ground law. The direct action, coupled with the intensifying national protest and 2 million petition signatures, had finally brought the local officials around. It felt like a tremendous victory to them. But to some members of the Sanford community, it wasn’t so simple. Many felt disempowered by an outside group coming in to take action. The group that would become the Dream Defenders realized, Taylor said, that in the future they wanted to help give people the skills they would need to fight their own battles. Zimmerman was arrested on April 11 and charged with second-degree murder. Nelini Stamp went back to New York to pack her bags. “I’m moving to Florida for a while,” she told me at the time. “I think what’s happening there could be the new SNCC.”2684

As Ciara Taylor said, the protests were for everyone—they were for thousands of lost futures as much as they were for Trayvon’s. The networks were in place that allowed these protests to take off: the infrastructure of the Internet, which allowed more people than ever to plan and communicate with one another quickly, and the networks of trust formed through earlier protests, which then brought in new people and their own social networks.2696

Border militias expanded, fueled by fear and anger at immigrants from Latin America, who were perceived as taking American jobs. In May 2009, white supremacists Shawna Forde, Jason Eugene Bush, and Albert Gaxiola killed nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in a robbery that Forde had planned; she intended to use the stolen money to fund her Minutemen American Defense group. Brisenia’s mother was shot during the raid and heard her daughter plead for her life; the invaders had pretended to be law enforcement when they knocked on the door.12 It’s impossible to trace specific acts of violence to any particular inflamed rhetoric, but there is no doubt that heated debate after 2008 had violent undertones. On March 23, 2010, Sarah Palin Tweeted “Don’t retreat, instead—RELOAD!” with a map of “targeted” election districts in the crosshairs of a gun.2703

When liberal organizations and pundits acquiesce to the idea of a “color-blind” nation and time, they allow everyone to act as if racism is a thing of the past, to pretend that the structures of slavery and Jim Crow have left no marks on our current economy, and to detach phrases like “states’ rights” from their deep connection to secession and George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, keeping black students out of the University of Alabama.16 We forget the violence that was used to maintain structures of racism, that race as we now understand it was created by violent acts. Most people, if prodded, will mouth the truism that “race is a social construction,” often in service of the idea that race is over if we want it to be, that anyone who brings up the persistence of racism is in fact the one perpetuating it. If American society is unequal, we want to believe it is because some people simply aren’t working hard enough. Never mind the ferocious irony contained in believing that the descendants of people brought here as slaves to labor for decades under the constant bite of the lash have not worked enough. We did not see the violence that created and maintained slavery, and color-blind ideology allows us to pretend not to see the violence that continues to maintain inequality.2739

Barbara Fields and Karen Fields wrote, our idea of race…was created in order to build the structures that produced wealth for those settlers, the wealth that has been handed down through generations in this country.17 Racism—and racist violence—maintains race even today. W. E. B. Du Bois concluded in 1923 that what made a person black was that he “must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” The boundaries might be more porous today; we cannot say in the same way that a black person is one who is pushed into a subprime loan when she qualifies for a prime one, or that a black person is one who can be killed by police with impunity, though both of those things are much more likely to happen to black people than they are to white people. But Du Bois’s description reminds us of the force required. It would have been impossible for Trayvon Martin to argue with George Zimmerman that he did not identify as black, that he was post-racial, when the gun was aimed at his head. There might have been no law that prevented Martin and his father from living in a mostly white suburb, but that didn’t stop Zimmerman from feeling justified in using force to try to eject him from it.18 “Everyone has skin color, but not everyone’s skin color counts as race, let alone as evidence of criminal conduct,” the Fieldses wrote. “The missing step between someone’s physical appearance and an invidious outcome is the practice of a double standard: in a word, racism.” The belief in “race” as a fixed category disappears this racism, leaving even the most well-meaning people writing sentences such as “her real crime was to be black” when discussing the pointless arrest of a young woman. Blackness is not a crime, and we know that, but somehow to write “the real problem was that the police officer was steeped in the beliefs of American racism” is too much.192753

VIOLENCE WAS EMBEDDED IN THE UNITED STATES’ POLITICAL AND economic systems from the very beginning. It took violence to take the land, violence to move African people here and hold them as slaves, and violence to make them work and to force them to innovate, and get more productive each year. That violence is embedded in the Constitution if you know where to look for it: in the language counting slaves as three-fifths of a person, for example, and in the amendment linking imprisonment to slavery at the moment of its abolition (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted . . . ”). The way we talk about the effects of racism today can make it seem as though it is a hate that simply happened rather than an ideology developed to justify keeping millions of people (around 20 percent of the population in 1800) in forced labor.2796

Slavery created massive wealth for many people—not just the direct enslavers of other people, but factory and mill owners, retail salespeople, speculators, and perhaps most importantly, financiers. And when it ended, though the slaves were free, the rest of that wealth was not distributed back to the people who had created it. The legacy of inequality remains.23 2804

It was in the interests of the wealthiest planters to encourage as many white people as possible to own slaves; it ensured that even if they had little else, they had the feeling of belonging to the white upper class2807

Companies like Lehman Brothers, which collapsed in 2008 and kick-started that crisis, got their start providing capital to slaveholders. Slavery was not a system outside of modern capitalism; it helped to build it.24 It took violence to end slavery, too, the massive bloodshed of the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 people died. It took federal troops stationed across the South after the war’s end to allow black people some semblance of actual freedom. 2811

There was a brief attempt at fixing this problem in the late 1970s, as Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Congressman Augustus Hawkins (D-CA) pushed forward a bill that would, in its original incarnation, have created an extensive apparatus for ensuring full employment. The bill was to provide the universal right to a job, and to do so it would have required the US government to do something like economic planning, an idea that turned out to be a bridge too far for members of Congress steeped in anticommunism. The bill was mostly defanged, and the version that was passed in 1978 had little effect.32 And so scarcity continued to inflame racist feelings as the economy began to take the shape with which we are now familiar. Incomes for those at the top continued to grow, and everyone else was forced to make do with less2872

The lowest that the black-white wealth gap ever got was in 1995, when the ratio between the median white and black households in terms of wealth was seven to one. Then the 2008 financial crisis wiped out about half of black wealth.34 Most of that wealth was in homes. For decades, policies and predatory sellers combined to ensure that when black families did manage to buy homes, they still wound up with less equity, less appreciation, and less of a financial safety net stored away in those homes. The Federal Housing Administration was created by the same New Deal administration that left black farmworkers and domestic workers out of labor protections, and like the labor laws, it wrote black people out of the gains that families would make from its backing of private mortgages2890

By 2005, the median black household had a net worth of $12,124; for white families it was $134,992. Home equity was the lion’s share of that wealth, some 59 percent for black families. The disparity in homeownership between black and white families was 25 percent in 2007. And then the housing bubble burst, exposing what journalist Kai Wright called “the myth of the black middle class.” People who had just begun to have the trappings of a middle-class living, who had bought a home, were making payments, and had a decent job, but nothing put away in case of emergency, were wiped out when the layoffs began. When their home values plunged, what little they had was gone, and if their jobs disappeared, they had no way to keep making payments.37 The social safety net that many people might have relied on in rough times had been gutted; “welfare reform” (what President Bill Clinton glowingly called “end[ing] welfare as we know it”) had arrived, following a campaign loaded with racist stereotypes, alongside the deregulation of the financial industry that allowed for the growth of the speculative bubble, which was inflated by financial products made out of mortgages. People of color, regardless of income, were steered into subprime loans, often in the same neighborhoods that had been previously redlined. Wells Fargo paid out more than $175 million to settle allegations that it had pushed black and Latino borrowers into subprime mortgages when white people with similar credit and incomes were given normal “prime” loans.38 Perhaps the worst part of the subprime scam was that large numbers of those loans were refinances of existing mortgages, and many of those probably unnecessary. “A lot of our older African-Americans were house rich but cash poor. So lenders came up with these scams to siphon the wealth away,” Center for Responsible Lending researcher Nikitra Bailey told Kai Wright. Around the country, 57.5 percent of refinance loans to low-income African Americans were subprime, as were 54.3 percent to moderate-income black borrowers. These predatory loans stripped what wealth existed in these communities, so recently hard-won, and put it back into the pockets of wealthy lenders. By 2009, the median black family had just $5,677 in wealth; the white median was still over $100,000. Black homeownership was down to 44 percent.39 This raiding of black wealth would have been bad enough without a crash, if homeowners were simply paying too much interest, struggling to keep up with variable-rate mortgages. But when the crisis hit, black unemployment went through the roof—and at the best of times, it has always been higher than the rate for white workers. Back in 2007, when the unemployment rate for white workers was 3.9 percent, it was 8.2 percent for black people. By 2009, black unemployment was near 15 percent; in the spring of 2011, two years into the supposed recovery, it was still higher, over 16 percent. Even black workers with college degrees were twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers with college degrees. Wages, too, were already lower for black workers. By 2015, the actual number of black children in poverty, 4.2 million, was higher than the number of white children in poverty, 4.1 million, despite the fact that there are more than three times as many white children in the United States.40 The history of redlining and white flight from the cities turned neighborhoods into disaster zones, and those neighborhoods were where the double whammy of job loss and foreclosure hit the hardest. In Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods, the unemployment rate in 2011 was one in five, almost twice that of the whole city, and about a third of the residents lived below the poverty line. Almost a quarter of the neighborhood’s buildings were vacant, and the ones that were occupied were health hazards—the neighborhood had three times more lead paint violations than the rest of Baltimore. 2908

What those arguments really meant was that the people who finally got mortgages after the government stepped in had been unworthy of that effort, that in fact they had deserved all along to be shut out of the process, that racism had had nothing to do with it. Such an argument not only washed clean the hands of banks like Wells Fargo but absolved all of the architects of redlining as well as the lenders who managed to profit from it.43 Shifting the blame served to make those who escaped relatively unscathed from the recession feel better about their good choices, and to feel less inclined to share what they had to make the victims of the crisis whole. And since the implicit message behind so much of the victim-blaming was that trying to help black people only made things worse for everyone, it was okay to simply write them off instead.44 In this context, with what little wealth black communities had been able to amass crumbling away, and demagogues blaming them for their own suffering, the death of Trayvon Martin took on a meaning that was larger than life. It spurred people around the country into action. And in the context of protests around the country against inequality, activists began to connect the violence they faced with the economic crisis that had been ongoing, even permanent, among black people.2952

From its beginnings as an online platform, Alicia Garza said, Black Lives Matter became an organizing network of local chapters—there were twenty-six of them as of 2015—“with a really radical analysis and a commitment to praxis in a way that I feel like I haven’t seen in a really long time. Every single one of those chapters is moving a campaign on the ground that has clear demands and a clear target, analysis of how to build power.” The Dream Defenders, too, reorganized/ 3107

It comes down, Romano said, to a question of, “Who really counts in North Carolina? They use the issues of voting rights and keeping you economically insecure and controlling reproductive rights as a way of making sure that you are never going to be one of those people that counts.” While many of the Moral Monday arrestees did community service to fulfill their sentences, often with organizations that had been part of the Moral Monday coalition to begin with (Gonzalez laughed that the state legislature, in its rush to crack down on the protesters, wound up strengthening its own opposition), Rev. Barber and other leaders within the Moral Movement took their movement on the road, “going after the consciousness of the state.” In particular, Rev. Barber wanted to challenge the “southern strategy” of dividing white from black people around economic issues. The movement picked a few local struggles to join, in particular the battle over the closure of the Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven. Rev. Barber was also invited to Mitchell County, a nearly entirely white county, mostly Republican, and known, he said, for being home to some paramilitary groups. At first, he wanted to refuse, but he eventually went and spoke to two hundred people, laying out his moral argument for health care and education. “Now we have seven branches of the NAACP in Western North Carolina that are all led by primarily white people, like it was in the early days of the NAACP,” Rev. Barber said. “The liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican, is too puny for where we are right now.”53 266

Public-sector workers in North Carolina still lacked the right to collective bargaining. By 2013, the employment rate had begun to creep upward from its crisis level, but recovery was still far too slow and for too few people. And then the new legislature came into office. Despite poverty rates of nearly 30 percent in parts of the state, and over 40 percent of black children living in poverty, the new legislature rolled back the Earned Income Tax Credit for 900,000 people, refused federal money to expand Medicaid, cut off unemployment benefits for 165,000 people, cut funding for prekindergarten, gave the wealthy a tax cut, and shifted nearly $1 billion from public schools to voucher programs to send students to private school. The outrageousness of the cuts spurred many people of faith who took the demands to care for the poor in their religions seriously to consider their moral obligations to act.7 The legislature topped all of that off with House Bill 589, which Rev. Barber called “the worst voter suppression bill we have seen since the days of Jim Crow.”3302

The push for anti-gay, antiabortion bills in the wake of a devastating financial crisis, with unemployment in many places in double digits, felt more like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine in action, a way to pass restrictive bills that would hit already marginalized people while they were still reeling from the collapse of the economy. These bills, as Tara Romano argued, were a way of perpetuating inequalities, of defining who would and would not “count.” The “culture war” was not just a wedge. It was a way of securing economic and political power.10 The push for abortion restrictions and opposition to gay rights was particularly notable because the biggest conservative movement at the time, the Tea Party, was ambivalent about such issues. While many Christian conservatives did become Tea Party activists, there were also plenty of what Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson deemed “secular minded libertarians, who stress individual choice on cultural matters and want the Tea Party as a whole to give absolute priority to fiscal issues.” There was often tension between Christian Tea Partiers and other Tea Party members around the government’s role on so-called moral standards—one Tea Party leader even split her group into two, one Christian and one secular. In a national poll in 2012, only 14 percent of Tea Party supporters had said that “social issues” were more important than economic ones.11 3340

Two thousand scriptures in the New Testament, the Old Testament, have to do with how you treat the poor, how you treat the stranger, how you treat women, how you treat children,” he said. “Now, at best, there may be five or ten scriptures in the whole text that deal with homosexuality. None that deal with abortion. And the ones that deal with homosexuality do not negate that the ultimate call of scripture is to love your neighbor.” Yet politicians and the media alike only call people of faith to talk about issues of sexuality; they assume that those are the “moral” values. The Moral Movement was designed to challenge that ideology head-on. For Barbara Smalley-McMahan, it was time to remind people that “Jesus was about standing up, being radical, about empowering the people that were marginalized and taken advantage of by the Roman government. Exploited.” The perpetuating of hierarchies of power, the construction of certain people and certain groups as “less than,” she said, “needs to be dismantled.” 3368

John Brown, the white abolitionist who was hanged for his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start a slave revolt, was driven by his faith, as was Nat Turner, a popular religious leader among his fellow slaves who in 1831 felt that God had called him to rebel and lead them to freedom. William Jennings Bryan, the early twentieth-century orator nominated for president by Democrats and Populists, used Christian imagery to deride what he saw as an obsession with profits over people: “Man, the handiwork of God, comes first; money, the handiwork of man, is of inferior importance.” 3380

“People trust him and are inspired by him and there’s a power to having that trusted person,” Jacob Lerner said, noting that the almost reverent style of Moral Mondays in a way felt like going to church. The media, too, has an easier time covering a movement with a clear leader to interview; having an obvious person to call contributed to the large amount of mostly positive coverage that the Moral Movement received. There was less of a need to rely on social media storytelling when the movement was more legible to the media. And yet there is power in allowing more people to step up and take leadership roles or to act independently. People tend to stay involved with a movement, Lerner said, when they feel crucial to its success rather than just like one more person showing up. Although some people felt incredibly energized by Moral Mondays, others, like Angel Chandler, did not see themselves in it. Long-term, a movement’s ability to survive relies on many people stepping forward, and those people need to feel that they have space to speak and are empowered to act. Moral Mondays remained strong and powerful for the first summer, and continued to hold events that drew large crowds, but as with any disruptive action, what at first is a shock to the status quo becomes normalized, and those in power adjust to it. There is a constant need for new tactics to keep a movement growing, and the more people feel that the movement belongs to them, the more they will believe that they can try something new3530

As Bethany Moreton and Pamela Voeckel have argued, movements themselves are a form of reproductive labor.32 By including from the start issues of reproductive justice, sexuality, and gender identity alongside the more traditionally male issues of political rights and the workplace, Moral Mondays were able to bring in many women and queer and transgender people, who in turn did the important work of organizing, door-knocking, running meetings, and providing support for arrestees. Their work shaped the movement. As Wooten Gough noted, intersectional organizing requires more than just bringing in different people in a sort of laundry list of struggles; it means putting people who face multiple attacks at once front and center. These issues, as much as any others, shape what class means in America today. Today our values have been shaped by the workplace and the world around us just as much as the values of the people living in the New Deal era were shaped by the world in which they were living at that time. And they are very different worlds. Our twenty-first-century world has been shaped by birth control and access to abortion; the service economy and the notorious “two-income trap,” in which two working adults became necessary to maintain the living standards that used to require just one; the Internet and social media; and the mainstreaming of queer and transgender people. Even Rev. Barber, who at first glance could appear to be an old-fashioned leader, spoke the language of intersectionality and argued for the need for distributed movements across the country. “Helicopter leadership doesn’t work in this environment and it never really has,” he said. 3547

At her sentencing, Barbara Smalley-McMahan announced that she would be doing her community service with Democracy North Carolina to register voters and get out the vote. She organized a group of twenty-one people who would meet at PieBird, a restaurant in her Raleigh neighborhood, for breakfast, and then go out to register voters. She wound down her counseling practice, devoting herself instead to the voting work, to putting together workshops that would help educate people around systemic racism, to making public change. 3564

the other part of the story was that many people, inspired by social movements and direct action, were less thrilled when they were told to go vote. The NAACP does not endorse candidates, and while a few Moral Monday arrestees went on to run for local office, the nonpartisan movement’s momentum was hard to translate into the very partisan field of electoral politics. Angel Chandler echoed a sentiment I heard around the country—that electoral politics is the problem, not the solution. “It’s the two-party system, that is where we get screwed every single day,” she said. “Even if one side, you feel, doesn’t do as much harm, if you’re just buying into that system, to me that’s the biggest part of the problem.” Rev. Barber, too, though he continued to fight for voting rights, saw the role of the movement as less about elections than about shifting consciousness. “You have to change the context in which elected people operate. That is what makes them do something,” he said. “We don’t just decide what we are going to do based on one election. We are long-term in our focus. Persistent in our actions. Consistent in our principles.” Democracy was about more than just voting. 3584

Perhaps the biggest success that Moral Mondays can claim is that it has been replicated—not just in southern states like Georgia and South Carolina, but also in northern states usually considered much more liberal. In the spring of 2015, I joined protesters in the “War Room” of New York’s Capitol in Albany. Beneath paintings of muscular colonists battling Native Americans, a circle of protesters held signs proclaiming, “Faith Stands Up to Pharaoh” and “Black Lives Matter.” They were black and white, young and old, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists. Like Moral Mondays in North Carolina, their events had a theme; this one was “The New Jim Crow Has Got to Go.” Activists read letters from prisoners detailing the conditions in solitary confinement, quoted the Bible, and handed around a list of demands, ranging from “freedom from mass incarceration,” to “full employment and living wages for all,” to “the right for all people to self-identify and express their gender with freedom from violence, poverty and discrimination.” There were also specific policy asks and bill names. 3616

“The ethic that guides the movement is that part of what your obligation is as a person who is fighting against prisons is to also be concerned about the material conditions of people who are in prison now,” said Angelica Clarke, executive director of the Albany Social Justice Center and an organizer of the day’s action. And then, too, she noted, is “that bigger-picture value demand of a world beyond prison, a world that sees justice not as punishment but as a rehabilitative opportunity or as restoration.” Emily McNeill of the Labor Religion Coalition of New York State had found the moral-values framework compelling as a person of faith. But, as she explained, whether they were religious or not, people were “hungry for a way to express something deeper than just, this is a good policy or this is a bad policy.” In New York, with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, McNeill said, the moral language was powerful because both Democrats and Republicans were serving the interests of the wealthy. It also helped different groups who often didn’t see their interests as overlapping to come to understand their struggles as connected: that ending prisons would require living-wage jobs, that prisons were built in counties that had lost their manufacturing or agricultural bases as an alternative to real economic development, that prisons contributed to inequality, and, as Clarke noted, that New York was the most unequal state in the country. Civil disobedience was not yet central to Moral Mondays in New York, but in Illinois, said Toby Chow, chair of the People’s Lobby and a Lutheran pastor-in-training, civil disobedience was essential to feeling as though Moral Mondays Illinois was making an impact. Their first action that involved arrests was outside of the Chicago Board of Trade, where Rick Santelli made his famous rant. They brought a big puppet of Governor Bruce Rauner with hellfire surrounding him and, inspired by the Bible story of Jesus turning the moneychangers out of the Temple, also set up a table with riches on it and flipped it over. From there, a group of protesters blocked the street in front of the Board of Trade, bearing signs reading “Rauner Repent,” and “What Would Jesus Cut?”3627

“I think there’s a few aspects to civil disobedience,” Chow said. “One is if you’re willing to risk an arrest, you’re going to be able to more effectively shut something down. That’s crucial, because part of what we want to do by staging these direct actions is to generalize the crisis. The politicians and these rich people who are funding them, they’re imposing this crisis on a vast majority of people, but as far as they’re concerned there is no crisis, it’s not part of their life.” Chow continued, “It’s a form of self-assertion that really transforms the people who go through with it. Once you cross that line and say no, I’m not going to leave when the police tell me to leave, and if they have to carry me away then they’re going to carry me away, it expands your sense of freedom about what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of doing. It has a really liberating effect on people.” Barbara Smalley-McMahan 3644

She began to consider how what she learned in Ferguson could be applied at home. Rev. Barber called it all the birthing stages of a third Reconstruction, a transformative moment when all the strands of different movements began to reconnect into a fusion movement, from the Fight for $15 to Black Lives Matter to the new environmental justice movement to Occupy. “I think that we, all of these movements, are social defibrillators,” he said. “Our job is to shock this nation’s heart again.”3662

KSHAMA SAWANT TOOK THE MICROPHONE AT HER VICTORY party on November 17, 2013, and called one of the Seattle region’s biggest employers an economic terrorist. “If Boeing executives insist on relocating the factories out of Washington,” she told a cheering crowd at the headquarters of Service Employees International Union Local 775, “the only response we can have to reject this blackmail is to tell the CEOs if you want to go, you can go. The machines are here, the workers are here, let us take this entire productive activity into democratic public ownership and retool the machines to produce mass transit.”1 Yes, Kshama Sawant is that kind of socialist. And her speech, just after her election to the Seattle City Council, got a standing ovation. Local 775 had endorsed her opponent, incumbent Richard Conlin, but by the time the final vote count showed Sawant had won, the union was lending her its hall. She paused, grinning, to let her supporters clap. “We need to fight on behalf of the Boeing workers, we need to fight on behalf of Metro workers, we need to fight for $15 an hour, but that is not going to be enough,” she said. “We are fighting against the system of capitalism itself, and look how spectacularly it has failed in meeting even the most basic needs of human survival.”3677

Sawant, is of Indian descent, but there the similarities most definitely end. 3692

Sawant, by contrast, argued that both Republicans and Democrats had abandoned working people. And Sawant’s election to the City Council seemed to be evidence that Americans, increasingly, were ready for answers outside of the previously accepted political consensus.3 Sawant came to socialism in 2009, after hearing a member of the group Socialist Alternative speak at a postelection event. “When he spoke it was everything that I was thinking about; it was an analysis of why we need to fight against capitalism and why we need an organization like Socialist Alternative, and for me it was like boom, it makes sense,” she said. Growing up in India, she had been “obsessed” with the problems of poverty and hunger. “It got more and more obvious as I got older that this was something systemic—it was not inevitable—meaning you could change the system and have a different kind of outcome.” Until she encountered Socialist Alternative, she hadn’t found a political organization that made sense to her. Single-issue campaigns or nonprofits held little appeal. She moved to the United States at age twenty-two and worked as a computer programmer, but her questions about poverty and inequality led her back to school, where she earned a PhD in economics. She moved to Seattle and began teaching at Seattle Central Community College. That’s where she was when the Occupy movement broke out in Seattle in the fall of 2011. “I can hardly remember a day that I didn’t go—I would finish teaching my classes and then walk downtown to the occupation,” she said. When the city government wanted the encampment moved out of the public park it had taken over, Sawant helped negotiate space for the occupiers on the campus of Seattle Central. When Occupy faded, Socialist Alternative began to consider new ways to get involved in politics. The 2012 election was looming, and the pressure was on for movement activists to get in line behind the Democratic Party. But what if they could demonstrate a different kind of political campaign, one that took issues seriously but was uncompromising about its anticapitalist politics and deliberately outside of the two major parties? 3693

David Goldstein was a writer for the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger when Sawant ran her first campaign, which was for the state legislature. “We’re used to having what we call ‘clown socialists’ come in,” he told me, “who are there just to be angry and dour-faced and spout a little Marxist rhetoric about how corrupt the whole system is, and then that’s all they do—they don’t really run races.” But Sawant, seeking The Stranger’s endorsement in her race against state representative Jamie Pedersen, seemed different. She had specific plans and could discuss the ins and outs of the budget. The Stranger staff felt that they had to endorse Pedersen, who had been a champion of the marriage equality measure on the ballot that year. But Goldstein suggested endorsing Sawant in another race, against the Speaker of the House, Frank Chopp, as a write-in candidate. They did, and she made it through the first round of both primaries. For the November election, Sawant chose the race against Chopp and went to court to make sure the ballot identified her as coming from Socialist Alternative. She lost the election to Chopp, but she still managed to win 29 percent of the vote with “Socialist” next to her name3714

Halfway across the country in Minneapolis, another Socialist Alternative member with ties to Occupy, Ty Moore from Occupy Homes Minnesota, was running his own City Council race. “Ty at that moment, ironically, was our winnable campaign,” Sawant recalled. “This campaign was a long shot because this was a citywide campaign; that was a ward-based campaign and we were such underdogs at that time.” “Running a viable campaign as a socialist isn’t just a matter of audacity, clever tactics, and the right program (though those are all crucial),” Moore said. “You need to have built up some kind of base in advance.” He won endorsement from SEIU’s Minnesota state council, immigrants groups, and worker centers, and ultimately lost by just 229 votes.4 Another campaign was heating up 3725

But in 2013, members of Socialist Alternative thought it was their key to mainstream success. “We felt that the $15 demand was really going to fix itself on the consciousness of a large base of the working class nationally, not just in Seattle,” Sawant said. Heather Weiner, a longtime labor movement strategist, was working on the SeaTac campaign at the time, and remembered the first time Sawant and Socialist Alternative arrived at a hearing on the $15 an hour measure. The SeaTac City Council had the option to adopt the measure rather than sending it to the ballot, and airport workers and local residents were lined up to speak. “Kshama and her crew showed up in their red shirts from Seattle and start giving socialist rhetoric,” Weiner said. “I remember I thought, ‘What are you doing?’ But the crowd loved her, and I thought, ‘All right, I don’t need to control this, I just need to sit back and relax and watch what happens here.’” The socialists, she said, were making her campaign look like the moderates in the room. Back in Seattle, few people thought Sawant had a chance. Despite her vocal support for $15 an hour, most of organized labor endorsed the incumbent, Conlin. Some, though, recognized that there was an opening for someone who was prepared to challenge what Robert Cruickshank, a former aide to Mayor Mike McGinn, called the “very comfortable liberalism in Seattle.” Cruickshank explained, “Voters in Seattle were ready for political change in City Hall, and I think Kshama captured that in the right way. They wanted something more progressive.” The Fight for $15 campaign in Seattle timed its fast-food strikes and actions to line up with key points in the mayoral race in order to put pressure on the candidates. Early on, Sawant was the only one who supported it. Mike O’Brien, at the time one of the most progressive members of the City Council, shrugged off $15 an hour as a fringe demand at first. The speed with which opinions changed on the issue, he said, was incredible. “It was just a matter of months before I said, of course I’ll support this, and then it was a few more months when I said, there’s no way this doesn’t pass.”

The growing movement for $15 tapped into something that was out there, he said. “Successful movements don’t go tell people what they need, they tell them what they already know.” The country in general, and Seattle in particular, were ripe for this message. The financial crisis, Cruickshank said, had made people start to think about capitalism, creating a newly fertile ground for big ideas and washing away the remnants of the red-baiting that had so defined debate for so long. In Seattle, where tech money from companies like Amazon was flowing and rents spiking, the city was perhaps even more primed for Sawant and for $15. David Rolf, executive director of SEIU Local 775, which backed Working Washington, the group organizing fast-food workers in the area, thought that people had been ready for a left-populist economic message for decades. “It’s just that, until very recently, there has been a silent agreement between the two major political parties and their consultants and handlers and pollsters that that’s not something they’re willing to offer.” It didn’t hurt that Socialist Alternative ran what turned out to be a very effective grassroots campaign. “We had about four hundred volunteers toward the end of the campaign,” Sawant said. “As many of the people we ran into told us, they couldn’t walk a few blocks without seeing one of us. It was incredible.” They held a “hundred-rallies” campaign in the last few days counting down to the election, studying a map of the city to decide which street corners to hit at what times. But most people in the city’s political class assumed the City Council races were all safe. “Had anybody polled that race in late September, early October, and the Establishment realized she was in striking distance,” David Goldstein said, “they would’ve put an extra $150,000 into that race and…3742

A spring 2009 poll found that 20 percent of Americans of all ages thought socialism would be preferable to capitalism, and 33 percent of people under age thirty thought so. Just 37 percent of people under age thirty stuck it out for capitalism, with the rest undecided. Maybe, contra Palin, it was time for some new ideas.6 3797

Cold War–era propaganda and everything. But the recession and the collapse of the American dream among young people, who are going to have worse-off standards of living than their parents for the first time in American history, for them it’s not so much about the S word. It’s the C word. Capitalism is the dirty word.”3840

Who benefited from the Red Scare? Then as now, it has been big money—finance and major corporations trying to banish any vestige of demands for a more equal share from their workers. Red-baiting was a tactic in the war on workers, and it had a lot of success. Taft-Hartley kicked off a purge within the labor movement of the radicals who were the main proponents both of militant, democratic unionism and of organizing for racial and gender equality. The National Labor Relations Board would turn over the names of anyone insufficiently vehement in their denial of communism to the Justice Department to be investigated for perjury; their tax returns were scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service, and if they were born outside the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service looked for ways to deport them.13 The Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled eleven communist-aligned unions representing around 1 million workers. “Red Harry” Bridges, of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), condemned the purge of the biggest communist-led union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, saying, “I don’t find a single charge that says that the UE has not done a good job for its members. Not a single economic charge is leveled. So now we have reached the point where a trade union is expelled because it disagrees with the CIO on political matters.”14 Bridges, who was born in Australia, successfully avoided deportation in part because no one could ever find proof, despite years of surveillance, that he’d actually been a member of the Communist Party. His West Coast longshore workers’ union remained in the CIO, while the UE survived, much diminished, on the outside, long enough to help the Republic Windows and Doors workers take over their factory in 2008, and to support striking warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, in 2012. The influence of Bridges and the ILWU continues to be felt in Washington State—Robert Cruickshank suggested that the survival of the ILWU’s radicalism “helped preserve that left-wing political activism through the 50s and into the 60s” in Seattle. The foreign communist threat of the Soviet Union and the internal threat of leftist unions, David Rolf of SEIU noted, made the owners of businesses more likely to figure out who to bargain with and how to construct deals that left the free-market system intact. So while the Chamber of Commerce was publishing anticommunist materials and implying that the New Deal was a Red plot in 1946, General Motors negotiated the famed “Treaty of Detroit” with the United Auto Workers. UAW head Walter Reuther had earlier denounced the anticommunist witch hunts, but by 1952 he was assisting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate remaining leftists within UAW’s massive Local 600. He wasn’t the only labor leader to do so. HUAC would often schedule hearings on a union to coincide with an NLRB election, particularly if the election was to choose between a communist-affiliated union and a noncommunist one.15 Red-baiting and race-baiting often went hand in hand. Eugene3872

The Red Scare was about narrowing the scope of what was politically acceptable, and it did its job admirably. Although the most famous Red-hunters might have been Republicans, Democrats, including Hubert Humphrey, joined in the fun. Liberals fought bitterly over whether the best thing to do was to support the Red Scare’s targets, and open themselves up to accusations of being part of the “Un-American” conspiracy, or to attempt to clear themselves—to present their clean hands to the country and free their preferred political programs of any socialist taint.3917

The FBI infiltrated and harassed a number of civil rights and “New Left” groups, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Black Panthers to Students for a Democratic Society, through COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program), which began as a red-hunting program. In the final years of the Cold War, under Ronald Reagan, there was an attempt to ramp the red-baiting back up, with the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism attacking organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild and the investigative magazine Mother Jones. As journalist JoAnn Wypijewski remembered, liberals once again joined in the posturing. It was still a fight, she wrote, “to preserve space for the insurrectionary thought.”19 The legacy of the purges left us with the myth of classless America, a distrustful place where everyone was out for herself, where solidarity had been largely forgotten, and where big, radical ideas were suspect. Talk of inequality, of any deep-rooted problems within the US economy, was simply taboo. We cannot understand why it took so long to notice the inequality that was creeping up on us without understanding the intense campaign, enveloping both the public and private sectors, that was undertaken to beat the idea out of us.

BY 2012, IN THE WAKE OF WISCONSIN AND OCCUPY, SPACE HAD ONCE again been carved out to talk about inequality without the fears that had hovered around such talk throughout the Cold War and post–Cold War years.3926

New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the group that arose from the ashes of ACORN in New York, had been organizing workers at local grocery stores and car washes across the city. These workers, mostly immigrants, were often the victims of wage theft, and labored under the fear of deportation, yet they had been able to win several victories and even a few union contracts through a partnership with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the community organization Make the Road New York. Rather than going store by store, the campaigns attacked the business model of the whole sector head-on, noting that the problems were often endemic to an entire industry. If one car wash raised its prices to raise wages, that might just run it out of business and destroy any gains made for its employees. The energy of Occupy had added vigor to these and other labor campaigns in the city; Occupy’s labor working group had created a collective called 99 Pickets, which would turn out to support workers both on picket lines and through direct action across the city. Once again, there was a vision of a labor movement that could make big demands. In this environment, the partnership between NYCC and SEIU was born that would result in the Fight for $15.3939

On November 29, 2012. The day before the strike, I spoke to Jesska Harris and Saavedra Jantuah, who both made less than $8 per hour. “The managers are telling us that we don’t have power. In reality we do have power; they’re trying to suppress our power,” Jantuah told me. “They want to keep us down so they can be up and I think that’s not fair.” Like the car wash and grocery store campaigns, what was then called Fast Food Forward targeted an entire sector: workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s Pizza, and Taco Bell joined in. Like the Walmart strikes earlier that fall, the first actions taken by the new campaign were one-day strikes, supported by raucous rallies with community members, clergy, and elected officials. Dancing on Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall outside of Burger King, fuchsia-haired Pamela Flood told a crowd that she wanted to make enough money to take her two sons on vacation, like her bosses did. From the beginning, the movement called for $15 an hour and a union. At first, it seemed like an impossible demand, even in expensive New York City. But it was a big enough demand to be exciting, to make workers like Flood think about what they could do if they were paid a living wage. It was enough of a demand to dream about. The next city to go on strike was Chicago, where community group Action Now also partnered with SEIU and took workers out on a one-day strike in April 2013. The movement there built on momentum from the 2012 teachers’ strike and embraced that city’s radical history, traveling to Forest Home Cemetery to visit the memorial to the men who had been executed for the Haymarket bombing, and learning about the Latina background of Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the widow of Albert Parsons and a lifelong radical organizer.

Striker Trish Kahle wrote of her decision to organize when her college degree didn’t get her a “good” job and her Whole Foods job didn’t pay the bills. “In my store, when I faced disciplinary action for violating the attendance policy we had been organizing against, I demanded union representation in my disciplinary meeting and my co-workers prepared to take action if they decided to try and fire me. Management backed off. The disciplinary meeting never even took place.”20 In Missouri, the third state to go out, the campaign named itself Show Me $15, taken from the state’s nickname, the Show Me State. There, leaders like Rasheen Aldridge would hone skills that would be deployed a year later in the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police. In different cities, SEIU partnered with different organizations, but the pattern remained: organizing fast-food workers across the sector, and bringing them out on a single strike day that culminated in a massive rally that drew support from the community, from existing labor organizations, and from sympathetic elected officials. The movement seemed as much about changing politics, the minimum-wage law in particular, as it was about organizing workplace by workplace. Since most fast-food chains operate on a franchise model, the immediate boss in most workplaces is operating on a thin profit margin, kicking back a required payment to the corporation at the top, and wringing profits out of the workers by keeping them at minimum wage or just above. By targeting the sector, and particularly the biggest names in it (McDonald’s, Burger King), the campaign was saying that the extremely profitable brand-name corporations and their exceedingly wealthy executives were in fact responsible for the conditions in their franchises. The National Labor Relations Board backed that claim up, ruling that the fast-food giants could indeed be considered “joint employers” of the workers making burgers and fries on the front lines.21 One hot week in the middle of the grueling summer of 2013, the air conditioning at two fast-food restaurants in Chicago and New York went down. Workers at those stores walked off the job and refused to return until the air was fixed. Regardless of whether the NLRB recognized…3950

The first strikes in Seattle were dramatic, and they drew more workers in. “My directive was to create chaos,” said Sejal Parikh, director of Working Washington, the organization that backed the Seattle Fight for $15. Workers struck, shut down their stores, and demanded the city’s attention. What was at that point a national campaign still differed greatly from city to city, and in the Seattle area, where the effort to gain a $15 wage was already in motion, the city fizzed with energy. There was national momentum around $15, a number that was high but not so high that it seemed impossible, and the fact that Sawant was bringing it to the campaign trail helped make it the center of debate. In turn, because of the strikers’ demands, Seattleites began to see Sawant not as the bogeyman of Glenn Beck’s fears, but as a candidate who might have something to offer. “The fact of a well-resourced, very media-intense campaign happening within our media market at the SeaTac airport, at the same time that we had the launch of the fast-food fight for $15 in Seattle, at the same time that we had the municipal elections, created a compression zone around $15 and around wages and work and inequality,” said David Rolf. 3985

Support higher minimum wages,” said Sejal Parikh, “and this was done not through traditional knocking on doors or phone-banking; this was done through workers rising up and gaining the attention of people in their communities.” The workers’ pressure eventually brought around the mayoral candidates, too, beginning with the eventual winner, Ed Murray, who used the issue to differentiate himself from the incumbent. After the campaign, Phelps, Thompson, and Cooper-Suggs made trips to City Hall to meet with council members and share their stories; they also kept up the strikes and actions, enough to convince business owners to come to the table and hammer out a compromise bill that would gradually get to $15 over seven years. Through the process, Sawant and Socialist Alternative continued to threaten to take $15 to the ballot in Seattle if the City Council didn’t act. On the day of the final vote, Sawant offered amendments that would speed up the process of getting to $15, which were rejected by the other council members. The audience jeered and booed each rejection, and many assumed Sawant would vote against the bill. But the final vote was 9–0 in favor of $15. “It was an incredible victory,” David Goldstein said. “It was also important that it was passed by ordinance. Because it showed that this wasn’t some fringe thing that a bunch of angry voters did. 9–0. This is a mainstream idea. You can get to $15.” Sawant stressed that the narrative should not be that the political establishment—“a few people at the top”—sat down and worked out the details. “If this fairy tale is what people are fed then two things happen. One, it eliminates the reality under capitalism, which is that there is a fundamental conflict between the interests of big business and the interests of the working class. The other part is, it’s such a disempowering message. So you have to wait for some mythical do-gooder at the top who’s going to do something for you?” The message, instead, that she wants to stress is that this was an “organized collective struggle” by people who may all disagree on politics, but who agree that income inequality as it exists “is absolutely unacceptable.” When you talk to the workers who made the $15 wage a reality in Seattle, you can hear the power that they feel. Being part of the campaign changed Crystal Thompson’s life. She didn’t vote before she got involved in the Fight for $15; now she can rattle off policy priorities like a seasoned wonk, from mental-health services to the exact number of homeless sleeping on Seattle’s streets. “Now I’m actually a part of something bigger—it’s pretty empowering,” she said. “To have my kid watch me and say, ‘My mom helped do this,’ he’s proud of me. It’s pretty cool.”4007

In Seattle, a socialist candidate taking up the demand helped move it to reality; in New York, the circling corruption investigations of major politicians in the legislature helped to bring Cuomo to the table. Looking for friends, the unpopular governor took up the demand of the still-growing movement, which had added child care, home care, and other low-wage workers to its ranks, and bragged about New York’s “leadership”—though San Francisco had already followed Seattle to $15 through a ballot initiative by the time Cuomo changed his mind, and Los Angeles became the largest city to vote for $15 an hour in July 20154041

In the aftermath of the win in Seattle, Working Washington spun off into an independent organization and began to consider what a workers’ organization for the twenty-first-century workplace might look like. The questions they were dealing with, Parikh said, were how to be findable by workers, to those who use social media comfortably as well as those who don’t have Internet access; how to help workers develop their demands and connect to one another; and how to be flexible enough to adapt and to be able to create new strategies as quickly as their well-funded opponents could. “We need to be quick and nimble and experimental and militant because those are the things that work,” she said. Relying on elected officials for victory, even friendly ones, only goes so far, and particularly for the labor movement, playing an inside game has been a strategy that has gotten it burned many times before. Without some actual power in the shop and in the street, campaign trail promises can often fizzle into nothing. But the combination of disruptive movements and political candidates willing to stake out a seemingly radical position has often been how change is made. The anger that I heard over and over while reporting this book—directed at both political parties—would seem to provide an opening for more outsider candidates to ride movement energy into office. The Working Families Party, for years mostly dependent on “fusion” voting laws in states like New York that allow multiple parties to endorse the same candidate, elected its first state legislators as Working Families Party–only candidates in 2015. The first WFP-only elected official, Letitia James, became a member of the New York City Council in 2003, and in 2014 she became public advocate, the city’s second-highest elected office. The Working Families Party came close to sending a challenger, Zephyr Teachout, against Andrew Cuomo in the New York governor’s race in 2014; the party’s decision to endorse Cuomo earned it a good bit of criticism. Teachout challenged Cuomo in the Democratic primary, and in the general election, longtime socialist activist and teacher Brian Jones joined perennial Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins’s campaign and drew a record number of votes. “Promoting a genuine independent third party may have the paradoxical effect of getting more out of the major parties and genuinely shifting the debate,” Jones said. “The bottom line is that it’s becoming clearer to people that it’s getting hard to imagine a way that capitalism can actually solve our problems.” It was the year after that challenge that Cuomo decided to take executive action on the $15 wage. To Cruickshank, Sawant was a “canary in the coal mine” for something new, a different kind of political party or coalition outside the mainstream and defiantly disconnected from the patronage of the billionaires who pump so much cash into the electoral 4057

That it took a socialist to be the first to make it a campaign platform was a sign of how far away from workers’ demands the political debate in the United States had moved. But it became the central demand in a time of renewed protest and attention to income inequality. Different politicians have been able to have more or less success with a worker-focused agenda, but, as David Rolf noted, “what unites them is the fact that it was in an atmosphere of real, legitimate anger about the looting of our country and leaders actually being willing to talk about it.” How much the debate had changed—and how much fear there still was that it was possible to be too radical—was visible in the 2016 presidential race, when longtime independent Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a proud democratic socialist, entered the Democratic primary calling for a “political revolution.”4081

Sanders was especially popular with young voters; by mid-March 2016, more voters under the age of thirty had chosen Sanders than both Clinton and Republican front-runner Donald Trump combined.23 When Brett Banditelli helped kick off People for Bernie, he said, “We wanted to inspire people not to support Bernie Sanders, but to use his platform as a way to support themselves. It had less to do with electoral politics and more to do with community organizing.” The effort kicked off months before the official Sanders campaign launch, building grassroots groups around the country that would last beyond a Sanders campaign. “Would winning an election be nice? Sure. But what’s more important is winning our issues and creating a new world from the bottom up,” said Banditelli, who had been involved in the Wisconsin protests and Occupy. “There’s a real sense of it being about us. That’s the most beautiful thing. The movement can run without me. The movement can run without you. But the movement can’t run without us.” Especially exciting, he noted, was the involvement of very young people—in some cases, too young even to vote in the 2016 election. There was so much talk about so-called millennials, he noted, but the actual change might come about because of the generation coming after them. “They can’t remember the financial crisis, but they can see the effects. They realize capitalism has failed and see socialism as the answer. That’s going to be the long-term lasting effects,” he said. Sanders’ declaration that he would run in the Democratic primary had disappointed some who had wanted a truly outsider campaign from the well-known, well-liked senator.

Kshama Sawant was one of those. “We have to think about any of these campaigns not as an end in itself but what it could do to serve to show the way forward,” she said. “Victory in 2016 would be for somebody of the stature, name recognition and the confidence that people have in Sanders, somebody on those credentials running an absolutely bold independent working-class challenge to the big business candidates, and serving as an electrifying pole of attraction to especially the young people on the left, and using that campaign as a launch pad for building a party for the working class.” Still, Sawant saw the value in Sanders’s campaign even as a candidate within the Democratic Party, and she appreciated the issues that he brought into the race. He spoke of breaking up the Wall Street banks, universal health care under the banner “Medicare for all,” worker cooperatives, and a $15 minimum wage in a campaign season otherwise dominated by corporate-friendly candidates. But many major labor unions, despite Sanders’s position on the $15 wage, continued to endorse Hillary Clinton—even SEIU, which had spent so much time, energy, and money to make $15 the center of the debate, went with the candidate who insisted that $12 an hour was a reasonable wage. For much of labor, perhaps, the ghost of the Red Scare was still too close, and it was too hard to believe that a self-proclaimed socialist could win.24 In the first Democratic debate, Sanders was asked if he was a capitalist. “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little? By which Wall Street greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t,” he said, to resounding cheers. Clinton jumped in with a defense of capitalism: “I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself.” Even in defense of the system, it seemed, one had to admit that capitalism unchecked would self-destruct.25 From New Hampshire to Washington, as 4091

Denechia Powell, a former organizer with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta who moved to Seattle after Sawant’s election and worked with the Tenants Union of Washington State, said that having Sawant in power opened up more political possibilities; it was a reversal of the Red Scare’s ability to limit political possibilities for so many years. “For so long it was like capitalism is the way, it is the light, the only way of living, and so seeing that someone in a city like Seattle can win as a socialist is big,” said Powell. “I remember being in Atlanta following her campaign and just being like ‘YES!’ It changes narratives. It allows us to imagine more, imagine a world that is actually just and equitable and with a solidarity economy.” Sawant credited Occupy with kicking off the change that Fight for $15 consolidated and that people like her have been able to ride to electoral success. “Anytime you look at historical periods in the past, you cannot see the value of movements by looking at them in an isolated fashion,” she said. “They’re a continuum.” Sanders supporters, too, pointed to the wave of movements behind them, crediting them with propelling the unlikely candidate to victory in state after state. At the time this book went to press, Sanders had won 22 states, representing a total of nearly 12 million voters, and had raised $230 million.26 4136

That now ideas are moving from the left, from workers’ movements and Occupy protesters, into the public sphere, becoming policy in major cities and propelling an insurgent presidential campaign, is a sign of a shift, a sign that all of the years of the Red Scare couldn’t, in fact, completely kill the radical idea that a fair distribution of wealth is possible. Seattle’s organized business lobby, Goldstein noted, didn’t even fund a ballot initiative opposing the $15 an hour wage in Seattle. “They would’ve lost.”4148

We’re seeing continued training in scenarios that paint the public as an enemy,” Olsen said.4206

“The people who are supposed to be a part of this ‘protect and serve’ system have their faces covered. Why do you need concealment?” he asked. “The 1033 program,” he said, referring to the US government’s program to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, “. . . training isn’t required for the stuff that they give them. Police officers think that they are military in an occupied country. Because people who’ve proven irresponsibility without the use of weapons, it’s probably a good idea to give them weapons, right?” Afghanistan veteran Paul Szoldra wrote of the scene: “In Afghanistan, we patrolled in big, armored trucks. We wore uniforms that conveyed the message, ‘We are a military force, and we are in control right now.’ Many Afghans saw us as occupiers. And now we see some of our police officers in this same way. . . . If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”19 The message being sent to protesters in Ferguson was that they were the enemy, that they were not people worthy of the protection the police were supposed to provide. The protesters saw the divide between themselves and the people who were considered worthy, and they faced down a fully armed military force in order to challenge it.4303

Under J. Edgar Hoover, FBI surveillance of suspected communists evolved into COINTELPRO actively infiltrating and undermining the efforts of civil rights and New Left groups. Hoover had a special hatred for the Black Panthers, a group he called “the greatest single threat to the internal security of the country.” Notably, it was not their guns, but the Panthers’ free breakfast program that Hoover considered the greatest threat. An FBI informant supplied the map used by the Chicago police in the raid that killed twenty-one-year-old Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party. More than eighty shots were fired, all but one from the police. Hampton’s pregnant fiancée reported hearing two bullets pumped into his head at point-blank range, and the police saying, “He’s good and dead now.”404473

Nothing has shaped modern American policing more, though, than the War on Drugs. That war was first launched in the 1950s to combat “Red” as well as black threats. Richard Nixon inflated it, bringing together all the fears of the 1960s and 1970s into one big policy package designed to appease the “Silent Majority”: the drug war targeted hippies and radicals alongside black people and sold it all as a crackdown on violent crime. The drug war turned the right to security from violence into an excuse to pump money into federal law enforcement and saw both major political parties decide that fighting nonviolent drug users with weaponry and harsh prison sentences was the way to go.43 In New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who, theoretically, was a liberal Republican, proposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, sending people to prison for fifteen years for possession of more than an ounce of marijuana. Mandatory minimums quickly spread, and most of the people who went to jail were black or Latino. Under Ronald Reagan, with drugs designated as a national security threat, the military and local police were pairing up more and more often, using military spy planes to search for marijuana crops, and sharing in the spoils through new asset forfeiture policies—local cops would get a cut of whatever was confiscated from crime suspects. The drug war could pay for itself—meaning new toys for new SWAT teams to use in going after more drug users. And liberals like Joe Biden drafted bills that made most of these powers possible.44 While hyper-militarized policing provided dramatic visuals, the criminal justice theories of the time also gave us a much less spectacular policy that ruined the lives of countless individuals, forcing mostly black and Latino low-income people into daily conflicts with the police. This philosophy was “broken windows,” or so-called quality-of-life policing. Broken windows made its debut in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1982, in which criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson theorized that cracking down on petty crimes and small disturbances in predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods would prevent larger crimes. Despite no proof that this strategy worked, it remains popular to this day, defended even by officials who claim to be police reformers.4489

An ACLU study found that between 2002 and 2011, close to 90 percent of the people stopped in New York were black or Latino, and about 88 percent of the time, the person stopped had done nothing illegal. In total, that was more than 3.8 million stops of people who didn’t even have a joint in their pocket. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, vowed to end stop and frisk when he took office in 2014, but over his first seven months in office, the police made more misdemeanor arrests than they had the previous year. The disparity remained stark: 86 percent of those arrests were of people of color.45 Those misdemeanor arrests can often escalate. Some 55,000 arrests were made over the past decade in New York for which the top charge was resisting arrest, meaning that the original “crime” was a low-level offense. Shortly before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, was stopped by a police officer, ostensibly for selling loose cigarettes. Garner refused to submit, complaining of constant harassment. “It ends today!” he said. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, placed Garner in a chokehold. The disturbing video captured by a bystander features Garner repeatedly wheezing, “I can’t breathe.” They were his last words.46 This kind of policing divides society into the protected and those whom they need protection from—into those who are policed and those who are not. Those effects snowball. As Rakia noted, “The person selling items on the street without a permit may not be able to get traditional employment because they have a record—and is the same person targeted by police in the name of ‘maintaining order.’”47 When New Yorkers protested after the4511

But it took a lot of work to make those protests possible. Since the beginning of the protests, Kennard Williams had gone through legal observer training, street medic training, and nonviolent civil disobedience training. Those skills allowed him to play many different roles at different actions, from being prepared when the chemical weapons came out to keeping track of people who got snatched up to organizing actions like the one at City Hall. The Ferguson protesters eventually won a court order preventing police from using tear gas without making a declaration of an illegal assembly and giving the protesters enough time to disperse—this came after the night when it was announced that Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, would not be indicted for the killing4655

Yotam Marom had been considering how to move forward after Occupy Wall Street when Sandy hit and wiped out his own New Jersey apartment. When he was able to leave, he began to do political trainings to help volunteers understand the communities they would be walking into and to give the people in the hardest-hit communities some answers for why the system was failing them. Occupy Wall Street had been in the center of the richest part of New York City, but Sandy brought the organizers to the communities that had already experienced the worst of capitalism’s crises—unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, incarceration, and untreated illness. Political organizing in that space took on a different tenor. “An organized community is a resilient community,” Andy Smith said. “An organized community responds to disasters of all types. Organizing is where folks in the community learn how to take actionable steps against climate change, which is an incredibly complex undertaking.”4924

There was always an undercurrent of recognition that we could not buy our way out of climate change—that no amount of gas-company-sponsored Earth Days or energy-efficient lightbulbs or hybrid cars could make up for the damage done on an industrial level. But for many activists, it was the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, and its failure to produce anything close to meaningful change, where they realized, as Naomi Klein wrote, “that no one was coming to save us.” The elites, both the elected officials and the supposed movement leaders, had failed, and something new was needed.20 It wasn’t just that the leaders we had counted on to solve the problem, to sit down around a table like adults and make a deal, had decided to fiddle while the world burned. No, the big energy companies, along with some of the biggest consumers of all that coal, oil, and gas, had put a lot of money—something on the order of $900 million a year, according to one study—into ensuring that no real dent would be made in their profits. When you consider that the value of the fossil-fuel reserves not yet extracted could be as high as $20 trillion, the spending begins to make sense. Debbie Dooley, president of the Green Tea Coalition of Tea Party activists for renewable energy, pointed out that wealthy Tea Party backers like the Koch brothers have fortunes largely drawn from fossil fuels, and they’ve poured money into fighting solar—particularly, she said, in so-called “red” states. Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute, among other groups associated with the Tea Party, she said, “are looking out for the financial interest of their donors.”21 5097

The way to fight these inevitable divisions is twofold. First, it is important for activists to maintain that larger vision of a better world, one that is worth fighting for. Second, it is important to continue to point the finger at those who are responsible—the titans of finance and oil, and the budget-slashing politicians from both parties. Movements need not, as Stephen Lerner notes, worry about making themselves universally beloved—asking nicely is not the way to bring about change. There will inevitably be disagreements over tactics, but they should not be confused with disputes over goals. The diversity of what Yotam Marom and others simply call “the movement” is its strength. Its horizontal structures allow many people to be moving at once, in different directions—but all of their targets wind up being the same political and economic system that has disempowered them all for so long. There will be, inevitably, compromises, but they should be compromises that advance the movement rather than disband it. Perfection is not possible, although disingenuous critics will always demand it, but a clear vision is essential.

Horizontalism is itself a response to inequality: from Occupy’s “leaderlessness” to what Alicia Garza calls the “leader-full” style of Black Lives Matter, the refusal to have a “movement elite” is a response to the deep desire for real democracy that so many Americans feel has been denied them. But those horizontal structures can mask power differentials and allow individuals to speak for a movement to which they are not accountable. The challenge for the troublemakers, as they create new institutions, will be to make sure they find ways to be accountable to one another, while preserving the flexibility and openness that have made their movement so big and so strong5447

To Nick Espinosa, it is not a choice. “For people like me, people who are directly impacted by this financial crisis, whose families are one check away from foreclosure, maybe one check away from homelessness, there’s a sense of urgency that hasn’t gone away,” he says. “And so to me the future of the hopes that were thrust onto our shoulders, whether or not we wanted them, is in those communities fighting for their basic human needs and being politicized around those needs. We can’t afford to be cynical.” It has become a cliché to cite Frederick Douglass’s famed speech—“Power concedes nothing without a demand”—but it remains true all the same. I have focused on the historical context for today’s movements in this book in part to remind us that things were not always this way, and in part to provide a better understanding of just what today’s movements are up against. From the early enslavers to the perpetrators of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, there has been an incredible amount of power expended in order to consolidate power in a few hands. There is no “golden age” for us to return to, no period of American history to which a few tweaks and regulations will restore us. The wealthy never accepted the New Deal, but started moving to dismantle it nearly as soon as it passed. They have employed a broad range of strategies, from redlining to systematic union-busting to outsourcing to outright violence, to break any collective power that the majority of Americans ever possessed. To challenge them will take a broad range of tactics, which in turn will have to be adjusted and scrapped and revised as they are countered by those in power.7 All of this will have to happen in a changing world, where not only the energy sector, responding to climate change, is shifting, but the nature of work itself. The so-called “sharing economy,” which has offloaded the costs of doing business onto the drivers of Uber cars, the owners of AirBNB homes, and the TaskRabbits who compile a living gig by gig, piece by piece, is one vision for the future. Another is a future where more of even those jobs are done by robots. As Peter Frase argues, the future of technology is not inevitable, but is itself a political question: what our future looks like depends on who has power in the present.5461

future of work, and considered solutions ranging from worker cooperatives to shorter working hours to a universal basic income. The financial crisis moment may have passed, but changing technology affords new opportunities to put forth big ideas5480

Instead of waiting for the world to change or being caught and shocked when it does, the troublemakers are hoping to shape that change. They are working not just to raise a minimum wage here, get a better contract there, and ban fracking somewhere else, but working to get at the root of the structures of our society5482

That revolution has been taking place—and will continue to take place, if it is to succeed—outside of a presidential election or any other election. It will take place in the streets and in homes and, yes, even on the Internet, where people are busy trying to figure out what a society that cares about people looks like. We have a world now that is structured around inequality—all different kinds of inequality—and changing it will require that we see each other differently. The best parts of today’s movements, like the best parts of yesterday’s, historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes, “find ways to love each other differently so that we eventually can transform the state into a structure that’s in service of the people.”

What, ask the new radicals, would that look like? If they get their way, there will be more public schools and universities, health care for all and infrastructure designed to withstand climate change, and jobs that pay a real living wage and that allow time off to spend with family and friends, or just relaxing. There will be housing that is accessible and affordable, and no one will lose their home for debts. Financiers, retail titans, and oil barons will no longer dictate policy. There will be no need for police. It is toward that end that today’s troublemakers are building and organizing. Sometimes they are doing so in front of the cameras—making headlines, shaping the conversation—and other times they are quieter, back in their tide pools, building something stronger, and waiting for the next wave. Over and over, as I interviewed people for this book, they told me, “We can’t go back.” Something had fundamentally changed for them, and it had made it impossible for them to imagine simply returning to their previous lives. And so they continue to build, and prepare, and expand. Movements do not build in a straight line, climbing inevitably toward success. There are bursts of activity, and there are mistakes and moments when all seems quiet. Sitting in her office in Seattle’s gleaming, modern City Hall last spring, Kshama Sawant told me, with a knowing smile, “If we miss the potential of a moment because we are not consciously recognizing it and building on it, there will be other moments, there’s no question. But why lose the moment that’s in front of us?” It is up to those of us who have not yet taken action to decide if we want a more equal, a more just country. If we do, we may just have to make some trouble to bring it about5485

  1. Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012), 2–12; Matt O’Brien, “Economists Have Discovered How Bad the Economy Really Is,” Washington Post, April 21, 2015,; Matthew Yglesias, “American Democracy Is Doomed,” Vox, October 8, 2015,; Tom Jensen, “Americans Like Witches, the IRS, and Even Hemorrhoids Better Than Congress,” Public Policy Polling, October 8, 2013, 2. John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 8; Amie Parnes and Kevin Cirilli, “The $5 Billion Presidential Campaign?” The Hill, January 21, 2015,; Helaine Olen, “Politics: You Lose, You Snooze,” The Baffler, April 27, 2015, 3. Sarah Jaffe, “$230,000 for a Guard Dog: Why the Wealthy Are Afraid of Violence from Below,” AlterNet, July 29, 2011,$230,000_for_a_guard_dog%3A_why_the_wealthy_are_afraid_of_violence_from_below; Lynn Parramore, “The Man Who Builds Luxury Bomb Shelters for Paranoid One Percenters,” Vice, October 11, 2015, 4. Josh Sanburn, “The Witness: One Year After Filming Eric Garner’s Fatal Confrontation with Police, Ramsey Orta’s Life Has Been Upended,” Time, July 2015,; Ian Murphy, “I Punk’d Scott Walker,” Politico, November 18, 2013,; Valerie Strauss, “Yes, Scott Walker Really Did Link Terrorists with Protesting Teachers and Other Unionists,” Washington Post, February 27, 2015, 5. Paul Mason, “Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere,” BBC News, February 5, 2011, 6. Quoted in Charles E. Cobb Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (New York: Basic Books, 2014), Kindle edition, loc. 4565. CHAPTER 1: BANKS GOT BAILED OUT, WE GOT SOLD OUT 1. Andrew Friend, “Workers’ Republic,” Vimeo, 2009, 2. Jerry Mead-Lucero, “Chicago Sitdown Strike Produces Win for Workers, Not Banks,” Labor Notes, December 22, 2008, 3. Monica Davey, “In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide,” New York Times, December 7, 2008, 4. James Wilkowski is a bishop of the Evangelical Catholic Church, which is not part of the Roman Catholic Church. It traces its heritage to splits in the church that date back to the 1720s. See Patrick Butler, “Roamin’ Catholics,” Chicago Reader, May 28, 1998,; Davey, “In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide.” 5. Manny Fernandez, “For A.I.G. Executives, Here Comes the Tour Bus,” New York Times, March 21, 2009, 6. Chris Isidore, “Bailout Plan Rejected—Supporters Scramble,” CNN Money, September 29, 2008,; Matt Taibbi, “Secrets and Lies of the Bailout,” Rolling Stone, January 4, 2013, 7. Fernandez, “For A.I.G. Executives”; Edmund L. Andrew and Peter Baker, “A.I.G. Planning Huge Bonuses After $170 Billion Bailout,” New York Times, March 14, 2009,…5571