The first real conversation I had with Sarah Jaffe was on a school bus heading out for a series of direct actions — and a few brave arrests — in Washington, DC with 1,000 community leaders from National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It was one of our biggest events of the year and leaders had come on planes, trains, and (mostly) automobiles to be there. For Sarah Jaffe, it was just another day of doing what she does best.
Jaffe has spent years traversing the country, covering protest movements in the wake of the financial crisis. In her new book, Necessary Trouble, Jaffe distills what’s she’s learned, taking her readers on a tour of today’s most powerful social movements and introducing us to the people on the frontlines leading them. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking to understand contemporary social movements and their power to reshape American politics.
I caught up with Sarah Jaffe recently to talk about Necessary Trouble. Read our conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.
When many Americans think about politics, they think about elections, candidates, and elected officials. And when they think about political change, it’s often in terms of policies, ordinances, and laws. Necessary Trouble is about politics and political change in a much bigger sense. Why is that broader understanding of politics so important?
It’s hard to have this conversation right now, in the middle of a presidential election, in an open election year. I think we miss so much when we assume that politics are only what happen every four years. Politics is what happens in a million places around the country every single day. In the last several years, we’ve really seen this uptick in people who are finding other ways to take political action, largely because they feel the election process isn’t serving them at all.
So, when people shut down a highway in protest, that is doing politics. When people occupy a park, that is doing politics. When people blockade an oil tanker, that is a political action. It’s designed specifically to effect things that are happening in the world, faster than waiting for the next election and voting on it, because some of these problems really can’t wait.
Necessary Trouble combines the story of social movements following the 2008 financial crash with a history of American radicalism. What do you think differentiates today’s movements from the movements of the past? What can today’s troublemakers learn from their predecessors?
We can learn everything: what works, what doesn’t work, what might be adapted in a different way. The short answer for what’s different today is the internet. We have communications technology that allows movements in physical space to go viral. These things replicate around the country in very short amounts of time. We saw that with the Tea Party, with Occupy, with Black Lives Matter.
We saw these things replicating really quickly because people are talking to each other on the internet, not just in this country but around the world. You saw Palestinians tweeting tips on how to deal with tear gas to protesters in Ferguson. That’s the quick answer.
The broader answer is a lot of particular social conditions. I think the most important thing, particularly on the Left, is that these movements are coming back together. In the sixties, the New Left splintered off into a bunch of different directions and fizzled. Right now, all of these different movements about very different things are coming together.
When you look at a platform like the Movement for Black Lives Platform, there is a lot in there that is drawing from other movements. They’re calling for a moratorium on charter schools. They’re calling for an end to the privatization of natural resources. There are all of these demands that your average American doesn’t think of as part of a movement that’s about police brutality. But actually, it’s about much bigger things that just police brutality. It’s about what kind of a world do we want to live in and what does that world look like.
The theme of intersectionality runs throughout Necessary Trouble. What is intersectionality?
The word intersectionality come from Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is a black feminist law professor. She theorized it while thinking of a way to explain how black women, in particular, experience racism and sexism on the job. They don’t experience those things separately, they experience those things as intertwined. They intersect. So when you have black women facing sexual harassment, they’re often facing racist sexual harassment.
You write in the book that “Class is not simply one of a list of possible identity categories. It is a relation of power that is shaped in part by race; in part by gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity; and by immigration status, education and even region.” Can you say more about the importance of this intersectional understanding of class and why it’s important for social movements today?
One of the things that annoyed me this election season was this tendency to talk about economic issues as if they only affect white people. In fact, it’s quite often the opposite. White people are the ones who are the least affected by economic issues in this country. That doesn’t mean we're not. We’re quite screwed ourselves.
This sense that class is just like a box that you tick off really comes out around election season when Democrats are always trying to figure out how to get white working class voters, who are always pictured as men. The working class is mostly black and brown and it’s mostly women. It’s not actually a bunch of white dudes anymore.
These are the things that actually shape what your class position is in society. If you’re a woman, you make less money. We talk about women making 77 cents on dollar, but actually Latinas make 55 cents to every white man’s dollar and black women make 60 cents. These are in fact things that are shaped by your race and your gender.
We can’t talk about class as an identity that only white people have. There’s this weird perception that if you like NASCAR and wear a trucker hat, then that makes you working class. And if you are a mother of three who works cleaning hotel rooms every night and is trying to get your kids through school and feed them, that you’re not somehow working class.
These are the things that shape your class position, because class is not a baseball cap. It’s power.
While the protagonists in Necessary Trouble are often pushing for concrete, incremental change, they are also laying out what you call, following Robin D.G. Kelly, “transformational demands.” They are yearning for something bigger, something beyond the current capitalist system. What about this moment do you think has allowed people to think bigger about changes we need?
I’d go back to the financial crisis. It was so obvious to a lot of people that this was a systemic crisis. It was not a little recession, which can be hard enough for a lot of people to deal with. It was really like, what the hell just happened here? It’s easy to forget what that moment felt like, especially if your life has gone back to normal.
It’s really created space again for people to think, if capitalism can basically commit suicide, then what? What do we do? What’s our next step and how do we come up with something new? Watching people think through that is really fun for me. These are big scary questions, but it’s really exciting to be thinking about them.
Bill Moyers, in praising Necessary Trouble, writes “Sarah Jaffe marches into the class war, fighting the good fight with a pen as sharp as any sword.” How do you see your role as a writer and thinker in the very struggle that you’re writing about?
Largely, I think the idea that journalists can be objective is nonsense. Everybody has an opinion, everybody has an emotional reaction to the stories they're covering. We wouldn’t cover them if they didn’t effect us. Obviously, the things that I choose to cover, the fact that I chose to spend two years of my life writing this book and not a book about Donald Trump tells you a lot about who I am and what I believe.
I think a lot about what my responsibility is to the people I’m covering. How do I make sure that I’m not just putting my thoughts into their mouths? How am I actually making sure that I’m telling their story and not just following my preconceived notions? It’s not easy, but it’s the struggle that makes all journalism worth it.
We’re in the midst of a heated election cycle, and on November 9th, we’ll wake up with someone new in the White House. How do you think we’ll see social movements respond in the opening days of the new administration?
In 2008, there was the shock of the crisis that just happened. There wasn’t much of an organized Left. Now, we have these movements that are organized, that are in contact with each other, many of which didn’t pause in the slightest for the presidential primary, despite what the media would have us think. So, I don’t think there’s a grace period for Hillary Clinton and I certainly don’t think there’s a grace period if we end up with President Trump.