Let’s Talk: Activism vs. Engagement
An experienced Mexican-American community organizer from San Jose once explained to me that the role of activism, particularly white progressive activism, was to “put the clutch in,” so coalitions acting in their own self-interest could “shift the gears.” I’ve turned the lesson over in my mind for 15 years and always come away with a more complicated understanding of the metaphor.
In the City of Charlottesville, activists have put the clutch in, maybe even yanked up the hand brake. For some, it feels like we have skidded into a ditch. Nearly every day, someone engages me in a conversation and expresses what a mess our city’s government has become. Meanwhile, just down the road at the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, it’s basically business as usual, even after protests at recent School Board meetings. Why can’t the City be like the County, people ask me?
Around the country, activists are putting the clutch in, and people who aren’t activists, whether in government or business, are frozen. In Charlottesville, the political extremism and violence last summer has made it impossible to avoid the call for a higher justice exercised by government, but there’s no clear platform to adopt, no obvious set of policies to back, no one pointing out a clear path forward. What are we supposed to do if we aren’t activists but we want progress?
I believe that for us to move forward in meaningful ways, we have to see protest and policy in complementary terms, and the metaphor of the clutch is useful. The engine of our capitalist economy creates a powerful momentum, an inertia, that can feel irresistible. Activists, whether consciously or not, are trying to stop it, because they believe we are headed in the wrong direction and have been for a long time. The courage and will required to put the clutch in is monumental, and requires an intensity of effort that is normally unsustainable for regular citizens. It requires the energy associated with a higher calling.
The purposes and aims of activism are better expressed through song, chant, and sermon than through policy. Activism is deeply personal, even spiritual, and its aim is justice, which is a quasi-religious ideal. As a result, activists tend to engage government by personalizing and spiritualizing conversations about issues. You are racist. You are on the wrong side of history. You are an idiot. They often fail to acknowledge that the people on the other side of the dais share the same basic aim of justice or to recognize that, in this country, it has always been difficult to legislate fairness. Instead, they search for someone, anyone, who can embody the purity of their ideals.
Elected officials and government employees tend to respond to activism professionally and legally. Their world is organized by a complicated web of laws, codes, and policies. They see activism as a gross oversimplification and its personal and ideological rhetoric as dangerous. The response? You are out of order. You’re not offering solutions. You don’t understand the law. They very often fail to acknowledge the basic motivations of the activists, which is social change by any means necessary.
Changing American government requires, or has historically required, an attention to the 3 C’s: constituents, coalitions, and compromises. In order to make change, you organize larger and larger bodies of people who agree on a shared platform of policies that are enforceable; then you apply pressure through direct action, electoral competition, and political advocacy. That’s how the gears shift. But what happens when people lose faith that that kind of process can stay true to its ideals and create social change?
My opinion, as someone who has been both protester and protested, is that the incredible estrangement most of us feel in our lives has compromised our local political identities to the point that the only people who have them are activists and elected officials. If you’re confused about where you fit in, join the club.
At Charlottesville Tomorrow, we recognize that the dynamics impacting government right now also apply to the media. People don’t trust us as the true representation of their voices any more than they have faith in government as their arbiters of justice.
For me, the faith worth having is that our political system is, by definition, ours; we can shift the gears. To that end, we want to listen to you, our readers and subscribers, in an attempt to understand what you want to see, from your government and from your hyperlocal journalism nonprofit.
Please take 2-3 minutes to respond to our brief survey. It will help us serve you better as constituents. If you have more time and energy, write down what you want to see from City and County government. That will help us too, and it will likely help you get clear about how you want to engage.