by Dorit Avganim
Staring down the gauntlet of the next few years under Trump, I’ve been reflecting on the last time I felt this out of place in my own country. On 9/11, I was 21, Bush was in power, and the country was setting itself up for the long war in Iraq. In response, I’d take to the streets regularly to protest — exercising my rights as a citizen of a democracy.
But my ability to engage in our democratic system was contingent on my privilege as a student. Though working multiple jobs to pay my bills, my relatively flexible schedule and low-overhead lifestyle assured I could get in the streets and be counted. When I graduated in 2005, things may have been a bit quieter politically but not improved. But I, had stopped taking to the streets. Now, as I consider how to keep my political momentum going following the Women’s March on Washington, amid questions circulating about the viability of our democracy, I reflect here a bit on lessons learned.
Driving to work on a Monday morning in May 2005, the Monday after my graduation from CalArts, my phone was blowing up. My student loans which had all been initiated with a single company had been sold off piecemeal, and multiple creditors were calling to collect. At a time when my rent was $575, my monthly payments for my undergraduate education in the arts totaled more than $1,200 per month — payments beginning immediately, with no deferment options, and no payment plans. Any dreams I’d had of working in education or as an artist were dashed, as well as any concept I had of being politically active. Debt was the new organizing principle of my life.
How did I survive the Bush years? In his first four years (before my education debts), I did so by protesting, attending rallies, and activating myself as a citizen of democracy. His second term? I did so by ignoring politics and working 18 hour days to survive my debt.
Today, one+ week into the Trump regime, we see campaign promises folks hoped would be suggestions quickly becoming regulatory actions already taking effect. Millions took to the world’s streets following the inauguration — I, my mother-in-law, husband, and a gaggle of friends were among those counted in Washington, D.C. It took months of planning, a day of missed work for all of us, and gas money and airfares for us to convene that Saturday — financial costs and opportunity costs associated with democratic participation that are not tax deductible. We spent the day marveling at the multi-generational, multi-issue-focused crowds. We left the march feeling charged up, and a little lost — perhaps because after hours of walking and chanting we were told the event had technically been cancelled without our being aware. Watching the news that afternoon and evening, we felt disgusted and dejected. Though we were there in person to witness the assembled masses on the National Mall, the government largely denied our presence, and used the day’s action as fodder for a war between government and the press many believe will be an ongoing theme of this administration.
This past weekend thousands were out protesting again, spontaneously crowding airports to stand with immigrants and fight for the openness and inclusion fundamental to what most people think of as America. But today is Monday, and while some folks remain physically present in the fight, others (like myself) have to go to work. We are so beholden to the system through our debts and low-paying jobs that the best most of us can muster is a handful of hours protesting on the weekend. In New York City, there’s a definite energy of frustration in the air. Listen in to people speaking on train platforms and sidewalks and you’ll hear the murmur of the disempowered as they make their way to their cubicles and service jobs to make that money.
What value is there in our democratic citizenship if we cannot participate in government without fear of endangering our livelihoods?
Is democratic participation a luxury? If so, what is our democracy, really? Are we willing to exchange the comforts (income and benefits) that come from conforming to the system for a political voice and the promise of change? For whom is that exchange/sacrifice possible, and how might service and community groups prepare to support people as they make protesting and political action a bigger part of their lives over the coming years? How can progressive workplaces support their staff to ensure continued high numbers of protesters in the streets? How can we overcome the fear and shame associated with our debts, and income-insecurity to feel empowered enough to be persistent in our political activation? If we are doomed to be political weekend-warriors, how can we best direct our actions? And what should routines of self-care consist of to ensure we have the tenacity to be consistent in these actions for the long haul?
My debt is mostly under control these days, and in the last five years I’ve segued away from the arts into social justice work. As a graduate student in Public and Urban Policy at The New School, I hope that I’ve dedicated my life to the most effective ‘fight’, and that my time is mostly well spent. This morning a friend texted me saying “Oh Dorit, what’s this country coming too? I think I need to quit my job and become a resistance fighter.” To which I replied “We must endure. We must help others be heard by amplifying our voices in their names. We must also TAKE CARE of ourselves, our bodies and minds — this is a marathon, not a sprint. The next chunk of our lifetimes will be spent fighting. If we think of about things honestly, I think we’ll all see that we’ve been fighting a long time already.” And the fight doesn’t end here, the continuous protests happening across the country show us that it is only just beginning. If we as citizens want to be more than endebted consumers, we must find ways to sustain our political involvement, and create space for democratic participation – in vote, protest, or other political action – as the right it is, not the luxury it has become.