Sometimes a Little Trouble is Necessary


Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffee is a highly inspiring book, but getting to that hopeful state requires that we tour through several low points in our recent history. Recalling the subprime mortgage crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police would be sad even if those problems were all solved; the fact that they continue to grow new heads and resurface in unexpected places (or expected ones; Louisiana is once again underwater as I write, and the police shootings have not abated) make it easy to feel hopeless. That’s why the reporting in this book is so crucial. Author Sarah Jaffe doesn’t simply chronicle the movements that arose in response to each crisis; she shows how they’ve worked together and evolved in tandem to keep pace with the opposition, whether it’s coming from Walmart or Mother Nature herself.

The story begins with the Tea Party and Occupy movements, both of which arose in response to government bailouts of banks and businesses that left laid-off workers and the newly foreclosed-upon high and dry. The Tea Partiers tricornes were gradually wrapped in hard-right tinfoil, but the movement’s founders were focused on justice for all. Jaffe describes one member who tried in vain to bring people of color into an open carry demonstration; he ultimately left the group when their resistance to diverse membership proved too much to bear. Occupy Wall Street and its offshoot Occupy movements were something very new when they happened; clearly a transformative experience for those who were there, the news coverage made a hash of it for those of us watching at home, singling out the throwaway tents and the call-and-repeat human microphone as novelties while losing sight of why people chose to build a city in Zuccotti Park. When it ended on TV it appeared to be over, but the movement was actually just warming up, helping people literally occupy their own foreclosed homes and in some cases winning them the opportunity to get out from “underwater.”

Being underwater on a mortgage is bad; when Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, the water was literal, and it was Occupy veterans who coordinated and distributed much of the first on-the-ground medical care and supplies to those in need. At one point the hashtag #WeGotThis began circulating on Twitter, but organizers were left wondering at what point the government, or the Red Cross, or Superman might also start pitching in; further assistance was frustratingly long in coming.

Jaffe finds cases of seemingly unusual alliances that actually make perfect sense on examination. Protesters in the “Fight for $15” who were advocating for a livable minimum wage forged ties with the Black Lives Matter movement; if poverty leads to crime, it also feeds the perception that black men are criminals. Being allowed to merely survive an encounter with police does not a good life make; living also requires the ability to work and earn enough to live on. Fight for $15-ers structured many of their actions so that people who were afraid of being fired had ways to participate that carried less risk but still increased their numbers. That layered approach allowed people to grow into activism in stages, and many developed into leaders as a result.

Walmart’s historic opposition to a unified workforce, going so far as to close stores on the verge of unionizing, long prevented workers from speaking out about their poor wages and working conditions. The tactics of Occupy helped inform the creation of OUR Walmart, an organization that spread among employees at any store that cared to join, did not require a majority for action, and did not pit employees against customers (through walk-outs or the sense that taking action would lead to higher prices). Instead of alienating customers, it helped them to see that they and the workers are on the same side, and both being shafted no matter how many “Rollback” signs there might be on display.

That “minority unionism” approach, and Occupy’s leaning away from a focus on personal narrative and more toward telling the story of the movement as it unfolds, have changed the ways activism can work. Social media is integral to the process. Twitter has been vital for connecting people on the front lines in street protests, allowing for “live-Tweeting” that can eclipse broadcast news in terms of speed and accuracy, and linking people and resources during natural and man made disasters.

The fine examination of these movements, including interviews with many organizers and participants whose work has gone largely unreported, makes for gripping reading. And it does point toward hope: the groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders was part of this same patchwork, and their momentum didn’t stop at the DNC. The corporate hydra is going to keep regenerating Roundup-resistant heads in new places, and they won’t just fall off and politely decompose. Necessary Trouble heralds the people working to take it down and shares their methods; read it and join the fray.

[Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, by Sarah Jaffee, Nation Books.]

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer based in Ukiah, Calif. She is currently looking for a day job while working at her dream job. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2016

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