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The New Normal of U.S. Politics

Why the voting booth matters less than the streets.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For the millions of Americans who’ve spent this week watching horrific footage from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last Saturday, and listening to heated debates over President Trump’s atrocious response, it’s all too easy to assume that the weekend was little more than an outpouring of rage from (to coin a phrase) “both sides.” Yet the counter-demonstrators, including the murdered Heather Heyer, were far more than a street-fighting unit ready to battle the haters wherever they go. They belong to a large and growing movement that outnumbers the far right and aims for something more than merely countering it. These new leftists are stepping in to build the world they—and most grassroots liberals—want to see. And that includes another thing you haven’t been seeing on CNN: taking risks to keep one another safe.

The counter-protest in Charlottesville wasn’t a one-time show of force against the neo-Nazis who came from across the country to “Unite the Right.” The coalition of mostly local liberals, leftists, and anti-fascists that joined Heyer in the streets didn’t come together to fight the “alt-right.” As organizer Laura Goldblatt, a student at the University of Virginia, recently told me, the battles over Confederate monuments are being used to “catalyze communities” like Charlottesville, bringing disparate parts of the broader left together as never before. The movement has gathered strength all year, responding to repeated protests (large and small) by white nationalists and neo-Confederates. But the energy in Charlottesville, like so much of the organizing on the left in recent years, is also being focused on moving the local and national conversation on policy—unjust policing, health-care reform, voting rights, and even better foster care.

Though their actions are mostly covered—when they are at all—as “spontaneous” uprisings born of anger, the people putting their bodies on the line across America have a strategy for driving politics to the left in ways that liberal politicians still do not. The long-accepted consensus that politics is something that happens in the voting booth every two or four years is coming to an end. In its place, we find a growing awareness that politics is something that happens wherever people come together—with no official permission required, and often in contrast with the desires of officials who strive, above all, to maintain order.

The cry of left movement after left movement in recent years, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, is ultimately the same: “The current order is killing us.” In the wake of Charlottesville, that life-and-death reality has been brought home to people around the country. Thousands gathered this week in big cities and small towns, in rapid-response vigils and marches, not only to mourn Heyer and stand with her community, but to decry what happened to others like Deandre Harris, who was pummeled nearly to death by a group of white supremacists while police stood silently by. “The beating happened right beside the police department, and no police were there to help me at all,” Harris said afterward, and the video footage left no doubt he was telling the truth. The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who was part of a line of clergy facing down the fascists, spoke for many when he testified, “Antifa saved my life.”

The power of these protests would never have been possible without months and years of effective organizing. In Charlottesville and elsewhere, Democratic activist groups like Indivisible, which rose up out of the shock of Trump’s election, turned out alongside members of Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, and the Worker’s World Party. Liberals who began to find their voices in the protests against “repeal and replace” earlier this year have banded together—sometimes uneasily—with leftists who’ve been taking politics to the streets for years. They massed in big numbers this week, and in some places did more than disrupt traffic—in Durham, North Carolina, for instance, protesters pulled down a state of a Confederate soldier, defying a 2015 state law that bans the removal of such monuments.

The response from politicians has ranged from the unsurprisingly lackluster—denunciations of Nazis, mostly, which is hardly a show of political courage—to the carceral: In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed adding “inciting to riot” and “rioting” to New York’s hate crimes statute. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe drew heavy criticism for defending the police’s inaction in the face of the violence the nationalists brought with them, bragging that there had been “zero property damage” in Charlottesville. Once again, it seemed that those who were supposed to be in charge valued unbroken windows more than lives.

It was left for the people of Charlottesville to take care of each other—people like elder-care worker Corey Long, featured in an instantly iconic photo standing between an elderly man and an armed man brandishing a Confederate flag as a weapon. “The cops were protecting the Nazis, instead of the people who live in the city,” Long told reporters afterward. He and his friends had gone out to peacefully counter-protest—until, he said, “someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground.” Long had picked up a can of spray paint that another white supremacist had hurled, and he stepped between the elderly man and the flag-bearing nationalists, held up a lighter, and created a makeshift flamethrower. Long’s actions exemplified the importance of “community defense,” which, far from being unbridled machismo, is also care work. After an alt-right protester slammed his car into counter-demonstrators, street medics were the ones, as International Socialist Organization member and former Fight for $15 worker Trish Kahle pointed out, whose shaking hands treated wounds before any official response arrived.

The counter-protesters in Charlottesville, like the people of so many recent movements, had to do what the state did not—keep themselves safe, protect one another, and fend off attack. In the wake of their actions, GoFundMe accounts for the injured spread rapidly across social media. Rather than distracting from the important national debate over our dysfunctional health care system, this shone another light on its importance. As Charlottesville organizer Laura Goldblatt told me earlier this summer, “These monuments are symbols of white supremacy in Charlottesville and it is not enough to call for their removal. We have to push for material demands.”

Those “material demands” predate Trump’s election. While Heather Heyer’s support for Bernie Sanders has caused too many to read the Charlottesville events through the lens of the 2016 presidential campaign, the people on the ground in Charlottesville know better. They can trace the genesis of what happened in their city down through centuries of American white supremacy to the feet of Thomas Jefferson—as the torch-bearing nationalists chanting “white lives matter” did last Friday night. This history is much older than Trump’s administration, and its solutions will require much more than another election.

Among the Charlottesville crowd were Black Lives Matter activists and clergy members who had been in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown. Out of those initial protests grew two important new platforms for change far more radical than anything on offer from Democratic politicians—BLM’s Vision for Black Lives and the Agenda to Build Black Futures. Their demands have spread—at their convention this summer, the fast-growing Democratic Socialists of America voted to endorse the Agenda, adding to its prior endorsement of the Vision platform.

The white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville understand their role in bringing Trump to the fore. They have been congratulating themselves for it since November, in gatherings that have been covered to the point of ridiculousness by a credulous press.

On the other side, under the mainstream radar, the counter-protesters have built a national coalition that will be all the stronger for the testing it faced last Saturday. And they know that it will be tested again—not just when the white supremacists come back to town (or head to others, as they’re planning), but when the Republicans try again this fall to dismantle Medicaid, when Trump winks and nods at police brutality, when voting rights are attacked. These coalitions are not waiting for politicians to improve upon their lackluster or outright backward responses to Saturday’s violence. They are building, and pushing, and growing. Democratic politicians will either get on board, or they will continue to lose elections.

Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, embodied that spirit in the poignant and pointed words she spoke at Wednesday’s memorial service when she called on the mourners to take up her daughter’s struggle for justice. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her,” Bro said. “I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I’ve got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”