We had no clue how big of a deal the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville would be until the night before. As two friends and I drove down from Philadelphia on that mid-August weekend, we realized that Twitter was blowing up with information about a pre-march “torch rally” organized by dozens of neo-Nazi and “alt-right” groups on the University of Virginia campus. We pulled into our hotel a few minutes outside of the city to see that nearly every car in the parking lot was a police cruiser called from all over Virginia to protect the event. We settled in and had some drinks, and I realized many participating in the rally — cops, Nazis, us — were in the same hotel: if I knocked on a wall on one side of our room I’d likely wake a cop, and if I knocked on the other I’d likely wake a Nazi.
The next day was fun until it wasn’t. The Neo-Nazis had taken over a small park in the center of the city and kept lighting off smoke bombs and throwing bottles into the air. In front of them was a line of right-wing militia types holding semi-automatic weapons, in front of them a singing and praying group of peaceful religious protesters led by Cornel West, and then there were the throngs of counter-protesters. It felt dangerous, but contained. It was exciting.
I was there to report, but the neo-Nazis were so despicable, so ugly, so vile, that it was hard not to cheer for the counter-protesters as they came in waves, holding their various banners — Industrial Workers of the World, Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter — sometimes announcing themselves with drums as they marched toward central area where the Nazis had gathered. Between the drums and the smoke bombs and the tear gas, it felt like we were playing war, and the hundreds of semi-automatic weapons held by the far-right made it clear real violence could occur at any time.
Charlottesville felt like the start of something big: so many different factions of the right and left were there, they were all deadly serious about their activism, and they were ready to fight. In the early morning hours, the cops did nothing to prevent white supremacists from beating up counter-protesters, but at noon, when the rally was scheduled to actually start, the police announced they were shutting it down. The counter-protesters had done their jobs: they’d disrupted the Nazi rally enough to get it declared an illegal assembly. It was a magical moment, kind of: we took over the streets of Charlottesville to kick the Nazis out of town.
Charlottesville felt like the start of something big.
That was what made the car driven by James Alex Fields so terrifying. It came at a highpoint, when people were uniting, smiling, dancing, celebrating. That’s the point at which Fields rammed his Dodge into the crowd, killing a protester named Heather Heyer. I saw bodies flying. I saw bones popping out of bodies. I dropped my phone and ran, and when I later recovered it it was cracked and smeared with blood. I sat on a curb smoking a cigarette with my friend as we watched paramedics lift Heyer into an ambulance.
I was temporarily buoyed by the violence and the excitement that day. I felt amped. I vowed to recommit myself to activism. When thousands surrounded a small group of alt-right demonstrators in Boston a week later, I thought everyone else might have felt the same — that we were not going to let Charlottesville terrify us into silence. If anything, we were going to use it as fuel.
A month later, on a plane to San Francisco, I had a panic attack. I thought it was a one-time thing — I’ve had them before — but the next day I woke up in the midst of another attack, unable to breathe. I began to have them daily. Seeing any news about Charlottesville would make me dissociate. Writing about politics, my job, seemed impossible. I could hardly make a piece of toast without shaking.
Going to another protest was out of the question, which turned out to be fine, because there haven’t been many since Charlottesville. It seemed like it wasn’t only me — the entire country was worn out by activism.
I’ve been able to recover thanks to therapy, yoga, and time off from work, privileges many activists cannot afford. That’s all the more reason to question our current protest strategy: being traumatized by activism means those who can afford to recover will be over-represented in activist spaces.
Protesting has a cost, and too often those on its front lines are left behind, left to stew in their trauma alone, essentially discarded as soon as they’re no longer able to put their bodies on the front lines. Subjecting ourselves to this kind of pain is not only immoral, it’s highly ineffective. It’s become clear that there’s little point in expending massive amounts of energy on these large demonstrations, risking trauma, accomplishing little and then doing the same thing all over again the next week.
It’s become clear that there’s little point in expending massive amounts of energy on large demonstrations.
Many activists feel similarly. Netta Elzie, one of the leaders of the protests in Ferguson in 2014, had to leave St. Louis completely to deal with her trauma. The last straw was when F.B.I. agents showed up at her grandma’s house seeking information about her organizing Ferguson protests. She feared for her family’s safety, and she felt reminded of the state violence she experienced everywhere she went.
“Like ‘Oh this is where they tear gassed me, oh this is the gas station where so-and-so was killed by police, this is where everyone was arrested,’” she said. “It was becoming suffocating.”
Elzie said she started to feel dehumanized and exhausted. “The toll is sometimes just really overwhelming,” she said. “I can’t focus on it too long, or I’ll get stuck being extremely depressed and hopeless. I’m surprised more of us aren’t in rehab, in treatment, in mental hospitals.”
“People are in despair,” Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a member of the Missouri state senate who was active in the Ferguson protests, told me. “The media is gone. No one is paying attention. And we still have institutional racism. We still have inequalities.”
Candice Nicole, a psychologist and professor at the University of Kentucky who focuses on race-related trauma, said that the toll of fighting on the front lines for racial justice can cause symptoms very similar to PTSD.
“Many activists are working and choosing to act despite continuing to feel fear and face threats,” she said. “That doesn’t allow for a release of that fear… Without outlets to do that, people can start to feel anxious, feel hyper vigilant at all times, have a hard time concentrating, and have other symptoms that come with higher cortisol levels.”
Many activists are changing how they approach activism completely, making sure to focus it more on their mental health than on big, flashy gestures.
Dom Chatterjee, a 30-year-old activist, got the idea to start Rest for Resistance, a website and Facebook community for trans and queer people of color, when they realized that they couldn’t engage with most forms of protest due to their anxiety issues.
“Public protests are not sustainable as an ongoing culture,” they said. “The front lines of activism, both online and in person, are full of people of color fighting for our pain to be recognized. And since we're already in a position where our pain is being disregarded and support is being denied to us, it's that much easier to develop PTSD or other trauma.”
The idea that activists need to be cared for to sustain themselves is not new: bell hooks and Audre Lorde, among many others, have been arguing that self-care is a necessary political act for decades. But the kind of integral, holistic movement Lorde and hooks argued for still doesn’t exist: activist communities tend to leave everyone on their own when it comes to figure out how to take care of themselves.
Protests could be more effective and less traumatizing if there were networks to assist people afterwards, and more ways for people of all abilities to get involved (Chatterjee pointed to a pamphlet called “26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets” as a good place to start). Until that happens, activists are doomed to keep burning themselves out.
A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting in a church basement in Philadelphia run by the Philly Tenants Union, a group that organizes around housing rights and anti-gentrification work. I hadn’t been to one of their meetings in a year, and the crowd, which was diverse in race, age and gender, was three times bigger this time around, about 100 people had shown up.
They were there to share stories about eviction and gentrification, and about the push for a Just Cause law, which would force landlords to register any evictions with the city and give a reason for evicting tenants. Awards were handed out to a few long-time members for being with the organization for so long. There was cheering and crying. It felt hopeful. It felt restorative. It felt sustainable, like it signaled a possible new direction for activism: people organizing quietly, without much media attention, getting to know their neighbors, and building power over years.
David Thompson, the chair of the Philly Socialists, agrees that this kind of low and slow activism is the way forward. Philly Socialists has doubled its membership in the last year (it still only has few hundred paying members, but many more attend its meetings). They’ve launched community gardening campaigns, socialist student groups at Philadelphia's main universities (the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and Temple), and they’ve begun offering ESL classes for immigrants. And most impressively, they’ve helped train groups in about a dozen other cities to do similar work, with the hopes of building a national movement.
What we need is people organizing quietly, without much media attention, getting to know their neighbors, and building power over years.
The main problem, according to Thompson, is a historical amnesia: We remember the big protests and we forget all the groundwork it took to get there. That groundwork is equally if not more important for change.
“We get told this really strange story about how change has occurred historically,” Thompson said. “Like in Vietnam, or the Civil Rights Movement, these bad things happened, and gradually more and more people woke up to this because of these heroic people in the streets, and eventually these protests scared people into change. We don’t get the story of the institution-building. We don’t get told about the communists in the 1920s and 30s building the base of the Civil Rights movement. We don’t get told about all the institution and community building and leadership development that happened before the cultural ripples that we hear so much about like the protest songs, the hippies, the famous speeches.”
“Protest is a tactic, not a strategy. It’s not a plan for how to actually change things,” he said.
The alternative is less dramatic, and less immediately gratifying than protest, but also much more sustainable: it involves building a base, connecting people to each other, and developing them into leaders regardless of who is president. In short, it requires everyday work, not sporadic bursts of energy.
“We’re built for the low ebb,” Thompson said. “We’re built to keep active after protests die down, and after Trump is president. And we’re not looking to change things in weeks or months. Our current timeline to build our movement is 40 years.”
That’s the kind of work I’ve tried to focus on since Charlottesville: things that feel sustainable not only for the movement, but for myself. I’m currently helping start a book club within Philly Socialists. That work gives me a lot less adrenaline, it doesn’t make as good Tweets and Instagram posts as large protests do., It’s not going to make the news, but it feels good, and I know I can keep doing it.