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Chattering Classes: Activism Is The Best Remedy To Authoritarianism

Options members protesting Providence police in the 1990s. Image from the Options archives.

For the Options Magazine Activism edition, former editor-in-chief Alex Morash penned a special Chattering Classes column sharing his thoughts on the importance of activism today.

Whether it is college campus crackdowns, failed coup attempts, police brutality against Black Lives Matter and pro-Palestine protesters, bans on Transgender health care, or using the National Guard to stop fare evasion on the New York City subway, the last four years have seen both parties increasingly embrace the tactics of authoritarian regimes. As both parties tell us we have no alternative this November, they remind us that elections are not everything – sometimes change can only happen on the streets.

In the lead-up to the overthrow of democracy in early 20th century Germany, the parliament was burned to the ground and far-right paramilitary groups committed violence without consequence. In 2017, police stood by as violent white supremacists staged an armed rally in Charlottesville, VA, and drove a car into counter-protesters, injuring roughly a dozen and killing another. On January 6, 2020, Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the United States Capitol. On August 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters. 

Trump is openly discussing pardoning January 6 insurrectionists if he takes back the White House. In 2021, a court absolved Rittenhouse of any crimes. On May 16, Texas Governor Greg Abbot pardoned Daniel Perry, another far-right extremist who killed a protester in Austin. At the same time the far right has embraced paramilitary violence, the Washington State Republican Party passed anti-democracy resolutions at their state convention. That isn’t hyperbole – one delegate who advocated to end the ability to vote for U.S. Senators stated “we do not want to be a democracy,” while one resolution that passed asked Republicans to stop using the word democracy altogether.

These authoritarian activities are not relegated to one party. Video footage of violent chaos unfolding on April 25 at a college campus as police trapped, attacked, and rounded up 118 peaceful antiwar protesters was not taken in a red state: the violent repression of peaceful protesters took place at Emerson College in Democratic Party-controlled Boston, Massachusetts. The violence was so intense one witness quoted by WGBH described the scene as “horrific.” 

Two days later, Boston police continued their roundups and arrested another 100 students at Northeastern University. Massachusetts’ Democratic Governor Maura Healey – an out Lesbian – came out in support of the police actions at both Emerson and Northeastern.

The Washington Post reported that in the final two weeks of April, over 2,000 people had been arrested at college antiwar protests. Rounding up college students by the hundreds is not an action one sees in a healthy democracy. In fact, the number of antiwar protestors arrested in the United States at the time of writing this column eerily mirrors that of Russia’s mass arrests of its citizens protesting the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

On April 30, police stood by for over 3 hours as a group of 100 masked men launched a paramilitary attack on a group of antiwar college protesters. One historian on early 20th-century Germany stated alarm over how the attack – both in how a militant group staged an attack on political opponents and in how the government refused to intervene – mirrored the rise of fascism nearly 90 years ago. The attack didn’t happen at a college campus in Texas or Florida, but at UCLA in deep blue Los Angeles, California. 

These incidents followed round-ups of college students in a third Democratic-controlled state, New York. In fact, New York City has been so violent in its mass arrests of antiwar student protesters that Natasha Lennard of The Intercept, who has covered protest arrests for 15 years, described the New York Police Department’s actions as “unhinged.” This all happened just one month after the state’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, deployed the National Guard to patrol New York City’s subway system.

Recent government actions have been so terrible that on May 1, a Jacobin Magazine report on the mass arrests used language press typically uses to describe crackdowns in dictatorships. In the article, reporter Branko Marcetic referred to New York City Mayor Eric Adams as “an authoritarian member of the ruling Biden government’s party.” President Joe Biden the next day released a statement where he claimed "we are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent," only to then lecture student protesters, imply that they are lawless, and urge the dissenters to quiet down. 

This holds serious implications for LGBTQ people. Far-right regimes, authoritarianism, banning dissent, police and military violence, fascism, and the end of basic rights would all destroy Queer and Trans communities. For those who need a more direct line to follow, remember that paramilitary attack on UCLA’s campus. The Guardian has reported that members of that same paramilitary group have a history of anti-LGBTQ activities. 

Right here in New England, a similar paramilitary group based in Massachusetts, the National Socialist Club (NSC-131) – a neo-Nazi organization – has launched multiple attacks in the Bay State and Rhode Island – often targeting LGBTQ people. This includes attacks on Red Ink Library and at Drag Queen Story hours. In fact, the attacks on Red Ink tend to include explicitly homophobic messages. 

Democrats would say this is proof we have only one choice: to vote for them. Yet, having only one option isn’t a choice at all – especially when that option is so quick to sic the police and military on its own citizens. As elected leaders from both parties in New England and across the country embrace crackdowns that mirror the behavior of repressive regimes, and paramilitary groups launch attacks while these leaders stand by, it is becoming clear that voting isn’t enough. Our elected officials need a lesson in democracy which can only be provided by activism.

One may notice that to get the slight changes in U.S. policy we have seen, antiwar protesters have forced the evacuation of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, shut down the California Democratic Party state convention, hounded politicians anywhere and everywhere, and brought disruption to dozens of cities and college campuses. One may also notice that such extreme tactics having such a minor effect are a glaring reminder of how undemocratic our nation has become. In fact, prior to these massive disruptive actions, political scientists had found no relation to public opinion and changes in public policy, finding instead that politicians in the U.S. only listen to the rich.

If elected officials have become so insulated to the public that they only move policy when it has the backing of big business or when activists take things to extremes, that isn’t democracy – it is chaos. 

Be it healthcare, LGBTQ rights, housing, education, worker rights, or any other issue focused on improving people’s lives, “voting harder” has not led to victories. Instead, we see that only massive public actions seem to slightly move our leaders. Looking at the behavior and policies of both parties, it seems clear our state, our region, and our nation have become more authoritarian and less democratic. Yes, voting is at best a minor act of progress. Yes, things look bleak for Queer and Trans people and anyone else who isn’t a billionaire. And yet yes, there is still hope.

There is so much hope for our future because people have put activism into action. Those antiwar protesters have been disrupting politics and civil society for months. They have been derided by politicians in both parties, college presidents, business leaders, and even some members of the press. Yet, just as ACT UP protesters in the 1980s forced necessary change in how the United States discussed HIV despite being routinely vilified and marginalized, these young people have withstood everything and have changed how our nation discusses Palestine. 

They show no sign of slowing down. There is so much hope too because it is unlikely this generation will stop at one issue as they enter the political arena. Today’s activism is likely to continue into LGBTQ rights, housing, health care, labor rights, and so much more. 

In our modern political reality, voting or reaching out to your elected officials won’t cut it. If one wants to stop authoritarianism, protect Queer and Trans peoples, or make any change in our society, we have to be activists too. It is now a constant struggle. One cannot make change politely. One must look at their goals, size up the weak points of those in power, and disrupt business as usual.


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