The first time I saw the Klan, I was ten years old. My brother and one of my sisters were in the car, and my dad was driving. We were stopped at a light and maybe five Klan members in full regalia were offering leaflets to white drivers. My father, a white man, rolled up the window, locked the doors, and grabbed the steering wheel in a death grip.
When the light turned green, we drove away.
“Those people carry guns,” he told us.
He was excusing himself for not getting out of the car and physically confronting five large men, an action which could easily have put him in the hospital or worse. He probably did the right thing. He had three children in the car. There were five of those guys. The cost/benefit analysis of starting a fight was all wrong. But the Klan, wherever it shows its hideous face, should be confronted. Should be fought, through whatever means.
Sometimes we have to fight.
Which brings us to the concentration camps in America.
* * *
My entire adult life, I’ve been politically active. I’ve gone to countless demonstrations. I’ve been in jail in two countries for fighting against things I consider deplorable. These past couple of years, I’ve been more of a cheerleader for antifascism than a street warrior, to be sure, but when Nazis come to my small town I’m out there with everyone else ready to tell them that it’s a shame their lungs are functioning.
Yet this morning here I am, at home, just trying to live my life. I’m going to play a show later tonight, and I have to practice my harp.
I have a lot of experience trying to just live my life while horrible shit is happening. Maybe you do too. Maybe you’re trying to drag yourself out of poverty while millions of people are in prison. Maybe you’re raising your kids while carbon pumps into the air and the US refuses to consider any agreement to limit the effects of climate change. Maybe you’re used to this.
Every day, we make cost/benefit analyses and most of us decide not to do anything that would get us thrown in prison or gunned down by the armed forces of the state. We sit and think about that poem; you know the poem. “First they came for the communists and I didn’t say anything because I was not a communist…”
That poem is derived from the post-war confessions of a pastor, Martin Niemöller. A conservative, he initially supported Hitler’s rise to power; he only decided to oppose the dictator when Hitler insisted the state was more important than religion. By the time Hitler came for him, of course, there was no one left to speak out.
So what the fuck is wrong with our cost/benefit analyses? There are concentration camps on the border. By and large, they aren’t holding American citizens. So in the short term, it’s safer to do nothing. Maybe complain on Twitter. Maybe write articles like this. In the long term, though?
When is it time to act?
It’s easy to feel like I have my hands full dealing with the local Nazi problem where I live. The paramilitaries that are crashing pride parades with guns and burning down community centers and doxxing antifascists eat up a lot of my brain space.
It’s also easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems confronting us. The war on people with wombs. The war on trans people. The war on people of color. Climate catastrophe. The United States has always been a Bad Thing, from when slaving colonialists founded it all those years ago to when it became the police force of the world a hundred years back to when it declared a “war” on drugs to when the prison system—and its literal, legal slavery—became a for-profit industry. It’s always been a Bad Thing and we’re kind of numb to that. We suffer from a kind of disaster fatigue. Our ability to be outraged has already been heavily taxed, and sometimes climate change and concentration camps are simply Too Much Problem for us to wrap our heads around.
Problems have this way of terrifying us into inaction, into numbness. Collectively, right now, we’re a deer in the headlights.
I, we, need to work our way through that. Fast. Now.
They’re not coming for me today. I’m a trans woman, so yeah the right wing is working its base into a fervor blaming me for all our social ills and to be certain I’ve gotten a lot worse attention from strangers since Trump came into office. But no one is trying to put me in a camp. I could keep my head down. A short term cost/benefit analysis says that I should.
When mass action is called for at these camps, consider going. If you can’t go, support the actions. Support the people who take action who aren’t taking the kind of action you might take personally. Support pacifists who lock themselves to the gates of these places. Support rioters who break glass, cut fences, or physically fight the forces who are locking up children. Support the activists who target every aspect of this murderous machine. Support them all vocally and support them all financially. Do not let them play us off each other. Do not let them divide us.
Any study of successful social movements in history is a study of how peaceful strategies and militant strategies, which seem opposed both tactically and ethically, complement each other very well. We need people who resist peacefully. We need people who resist less peacefully. And most importantly, we need to not get caught up fighting one another instead of our enemies.
We need to take action. To be clear, voting is not action. Voting, very specifically, is a way of asking someone else to act for you. Engage in electoral politics however you would like. But never let the state strip you of your agency. You’re a human. You’re a person. You have the capacity to take action, to effect change. You have the capacity to work with others to do… well, pretty much anything.
It is completely possible for tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, to surround these camps and force them to release the detainees. It could work with fewer people than that, too, though I have a feeling there’s an awful lot of anger, an awful lot of power, waiting to be unleashed against the machinery of oppression right now.
Mass action is risky. It’s messy. It’s terrifying. It’s also the right thing to do, and it’s perhaps only way out of this mess.
There are a million problems, but this is one of them. And to change everything, you pick one problem and start there.