The stakes of this election.


Dear friends,

Last night after the primary results of Super Tuesday came in, I could feel myself trying to numb the fear I’ve been feeling for months–the fear that has been creeping into my dreams and flashing before me since Ferguson’s response to Mike Brown’s murder by police sparked the ready tinder of Black love and rebellion across the country.

I fear the backlash that is already here, and the backlash that is yet to come. In my nightmares, this backlash is acutely violent: Black leaders snatched in the night, beaten by police or vigilantes, locked up for decades. And it’s already happening: the killing of Sandra Bland in a jail cell,the arrest of Kevin Moore who filmed Freddie Gray’s death, the shooting of 5 activists at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, three anti-racist protestors stabbed at a Klan rally this weekend in California, and the repression of protests against racist police violence across the country remind us how many Black Panthers and other Black, Puerto Rican, Indigenous, and Xican@ revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s were harassed, killed by cops and locked up for decades. Many remain in prison over 40 years later. Clearly, organizers are not the only targets of this racist backlash. Ongoing Black church and mosque burnings, and the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina a year ago and three Sudanese-American Boys in Indiana last week are only the most visible aspects of increased terror that Black, migrant and/or Muslim people in the U.S. are facing.

We at Catalyst Project are grappling with the intensifying relationship between this state and vigilante violence and the election. Never in my lifetime has a presidential candidate called so directly for such sweeping racist action against Muslims, Latin@s, migrants and Black people. When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump responded “We have to give strength and power back to the police.”

This backlash has responded to the growing power of the movement for Black lives, the powerful migrant justice movement and other anti-racist movements that threaten the status quo of white supremacy in this country. It has also fed off decades of economic austerity policies which have unraveled the american dream–even for the white people it was supposed to serve–and created fertile ground for the Right to capitalize on fear and desperation.

The forces of naked racism and xenophobia are on the rise both in the U.S. and internationally, and Donald Trump is but a spokesperson. He is building on decades of racist right wing policy that employed dog-whistle racism. But his words and his popular candidacy also legitimize and embolden a right-wing white supremacist agenda that has been gaining steam since the 2008 economic downturn. In just the past few weeks we have talked to Braden Program alumni and other comrades in several places in the country where the growing boldness of neo-Nazi and Klan-like formations is a terrifyingly real threat.

While the explicit violence and threat of violence are core issues, so are the policies that will inevitably follow if Trump’s politics continue to get more popular. In Catalyst’s work with grassroots organizations, we frequently use an exercise that helps people understand how racism is used as a divide-and-conquer strategy to advance ruling class interests. The Republican “Southern Strategy” (to win Southern white voters to a Republican agenda by instilling and capitalizing on racist fear of Black people) and the rise of “Law and Order” politics (which associated Blackness and Black social movement with crime and called for more policing and imprisonment) following the rise of the Civil Rights movement is an important and timely example of this. Indeed, last time state, vigilante and political backlash against Black-led
social movements occurred in mass, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it helped cause a national political shift from a civil rights and economic justice agenda into the policies of racist criminalization that grew the police and prison state and dismantled the social safety net.

Catalyst Project believes we are at this type of historical juncture again. There’s plenty of evidence that, no matter who ends up winning the Republican nomination, this election is and will be a referendum on racism.

Many people choose to sit on the sidelines when it comes to electoral politics because of the contradictions involved. We believe lasting change happens through grassroots organizing not ballot boxes; no matter who gets elected they are the sitting commander of a war machine that imperils the rest of the world; a lot of the most marginalized people in the U.S. have no right to vote; voting always means choosing the lesser of two evils. Yet, for anti-racists, this is no time to let the contradictions immobilize us. We can’t sit this one out and hope for the best.

For many millions of people around the country, their only active political engagement this year will be as voters in this election. And this election provides an opportunity to unite large numbers of people against a racist agenda by engaging them at a grassroots level. Whether or not Trump wins the general election, anything other than a crushing defeat for him will further legitimize the white supremacist politics he stands for, and pave the way for similar agendas to win even more ground at local and state levels across the country. And no matter who is on democratic ticket, only bold, consistent and growing grassroots pressure will create room for an agenda that actually creates progress toward racial justice and demilitarization.

Over the past months, courageous activists and organizations have given us examples of tactics that can highlight the naked racism and backlash of this election, and place anti-racist, Left demands on the public stage. There are many ways to engage in this election. Be creative about what feels right to you– you can push your comfort zone and still find something that works!

Here are some ideas:
* Write letters to the editor of your local paper or call in to your local talk shows and name the racism you’re seeing in the election and in the news coverage itself. Post on social media doing the same.

* Help register marginalized people to vote

* Support local campaigns for voters’ rights, from preventing or striking down Voter ID laws to working for the right of people in prison or on parole to vote 

* Volunteer for or donate to campaigns for candidates or on city, county or state propositions. In one example of the importance of local elections, a powerful grassroots coalition just stopped a new jail from being built in San Francisco and their victory was aided by the voting in of a single new progressive candidate who was receptive to their pressure. Had his seat gone to a moderate, the jail plan may still be on track.

* Work with an organization or a group of friends to “Bird-dog” local or national candidates on issues of racism like Black Lives Matter activists or Iraq Veterans Against the War’s #VetsVsHate campaign against Trump

* Shut down Republican media and fundraising events with clear anti-racist messaging

* Intervene or lift up messages pushing Clinton and other Democratic candidates towards racial justice and away from military interventions and wars

* Vote

However you engage, see how you can get other people to engage with you. One of the great opportunities of electoral organizing is that it’s where a lot of people get involved in organizing for the first time. I started this post talking about fear, and there is much to be afraid of. But we must keep in mind that white fear and the guns and policies that back it are what we are up against, and hope is a vital tool for overcoming it. There is tremendous opportunity in this moment, where white people are not just being galvanized by racist politicians, but also by the beautiful and ascendant social movements led by people of color. It’s time for us to go boldly toward what we believe is necessary and possible. And to take as many people with us as we can.


Isaac Lev Szmonko

on behalf of Catalyst Project