By Sarah Myers
Ambassador Samantha Power visited Stanford this week to speak about “resistance in darkness” and “diplomacy after darkness.” She was invited by the Ethics in Society Program in partnership with the Tanner Lectures on human values. I attended the first lecture on activism during dark times.
The takeaway from Power’s lecture was that America has made terrible mistakes before and recovered from them, and activism can be effective even in those times. Ambassador Power used examples from American history – Japanese internment camps, the House Un-American Activities Committee, inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic – to explore how individuals can influence policy outside of elections.
More than 120,000 Japanese-Americans, including Stanford students and professors, were imprisoned during WWII. They were forced to move to makeshift camps, often losing their homes and property to looting and vandalism, despite a complete lack of evidence that any Japanese-Americans had engaged in treasonous activities.
A small nonprofit organization called the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council worked to identify Japanese-American college students or high school graduates planning to attend college, convince colleges outside the West Coast to accept them and then convince the government to allow them to leave the camps in order to continue their education. The Council didn’t end internment but that wasn’t their goal. Instead, they made it possible for more than 4,000 Japanese-American students to continue their education.
There are similar stories of small but effective activism during the Red Scare and AIDS epidemic. University of Chicago Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins refused to be cowed into submission by Illinois’ mini-House Un-American Activities Committee and protected UChicago students and faculty from a witch hunt. Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) worked to pressure the federal government to move more AIDS-related drugs through the FDA’s approval process and allocate more funding to AIDS-related programs.
These examples are good reminders that the United States has made grave errors before. But they are reminders that American activists have been able to mitigate those errors, removing some students from internment camps, protecting some students and professors from being fired or jailed, and forcing the US government to devote more resources and manpower to fighting AIDS.
However, the activism Power described is markedly different from the activism we’ve seen since Trump was elected. The most obvious example of this would be the Women’s March. The march was actually several marches, taking places in multiple cities around the world and including a total of roughly 2.5 million people worldwide. It was an astounding demonstration of how unpopular Trump and the misogynist, racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic positions he represents truly are. The march didn’t have concrete goals. It did not identify specific areas for change. There was little to no defined leadership. The march was an amazingly large but at times self-contradictory movement.
In those respects, the march was very similar to other movements in recent years. Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street both eschewed traditional structures and paradigms for activism. They held demonstrations, but they did not create centralized organizations, nor did they offer painstakingly specific demands and goals. National Japanese American Student Relocation Council had a small, organized group of people who constantly wrote to people around the country to ask for specific favors – asking university officials to accept specific students, asking government officials to allow those students to leave the camps and so on.
In contrast, students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) have intentionally and publicly organized themselves. Following an attack by a fellow student in which 17 people were killed, a group of students formed a campaign to promote gun control. They have returned to the tradition of announcing and continually reiterating goals – their key term is common sense gun control – selecting representatives to engage with the media and generate publicity and organizing large-scale demonstrations. They are targeting specific politicians and doing their best to keep media attention focused on debating gun control.
The question is: Which type of activism works? Or, more accurately, how can you determine which type of activism is better suited to a given issue?
On some level, it is understandable that the first Women’s March did not have a clear platform — Trump had not actually taken office yet, so most of what the marchers were protesting was the nebulous but nonetheless enormously harmful set of -isms and -phobias he represents. The second Women’s March was slightly more goal-oriented and focused on encouraging women to run for public office and vote. That makes a lot of sense; trying to mitigate the power inequality between men and women in politics by organizing behind women politicians and their campaigns is an effective form of activism for this specific situation.
The MSD students are in a different situation. Like the Student Relocation Council, they can identify specific laws and people who are responsible for the problem they’re working to fix. They can target those specific policies and individuals, so a more traditional approach seems logical.
Ambassador Power’s lecture was inspiring and exceedingly well done. However, I would like to offer a small addition: There is room for hope not only because America has lost its way before or because activism has worked before, but because activism is evolving. We have more options for taking action and more history to learn from. Let’s use them.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu