1/17/2017 by Zaitouna Kusto
UPDATE: [The location of the protest has since been changed to Navy Memorial at 8th and Pennsylvania]
Even though less than a quarter of the country voted for him, this Friday, January 20th, marks the official beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. With such low amount of actual support, it is not surprising there is mounting opposition to the upcoming Trump agenda. Several key Democratic Party leaders have already capitulated to Trump and are working to find common ground, leaving many people on the left rightfully frustrated. As a a result, there are a whole host of actions occurring on and around the inauguration in DC and other major cities. The main media focus has been on the Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the 21st, which is the day after Trump will be sworn in. However, on January 20th, the ANSWER Coalition, in conjunction with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and several other leftist organizations, will be holding an anti-Trump protest right on the inauguration route.
Ben Becker, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, is one of the key organizers for the ANSWER Coalition protest. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the protest over the December holidays.
Zaytun Kusto: So, tell me, Ben, what exactly is the plan for January 20th?
Ben Becker: Well, the plan for January 20th is to have a mass mobilization of people reflecting diverse communities, the many communities especially that Donald Trump is promising to wage a form of war on—immigrants, muslims, labor unions, those who rely on social services, women, the LGBTQ community—to have a very loud, visible public rejection of the Trump program, starting on day one of his presidency. And we’re going to be as close to the inaugural route as possible, we want to be right in front of the white house. We don’t want to be anywhere where they can avoid us and say we weren't there. We think it’s very important we be right at the site of power and right at the site of the inauguration with that message.
ZK: You are a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, but this is predominantly organized by the ANSWER Coalition. What is the ANSWER Coalition, for those who might not be familiar?
BB: The ANSWER coalition was formed in September 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, as a coalition of people who wanted to oppose the coming war in Afghanistan. Form there it emerged as a central organizer of the mass protests in the lead-up to, and during, the Iraq war, as well as the international questions which we believe are essential for all activists and progressive people to stand up to in the United States. We've also taken on a range of domestic political struggles, including immigrant rights, police brutality, the struggle to defend workers’ rights, women’s rights—so it’s really an origination that focuses on a spectrum of social justice issues. The PSL is a part of the ANSWER coalition, an anchoring organization, so there are socialists who are playing a big role, but of course, there are non-socialists who want to struggle and fight back against Trump, so we want unity.
ZK: On that note, are you coordinating with any other groups that are expected to be there on January 20th? I know there have been talks about some other marches, like the Women’s March and things like that. Is there any coordination with them or is this sort of ANSWER going in on its own?
BB: We’re not going in on our own, there are dozens of groups that are endorsing—we will put up a full list of endorsers soon—but there are dozens of groups that are organizing protests that weekend. We want a very broad united front against Trump and we certainly would like to work with all of those standing up to fight back, completely rejecting and refusing to cooperate with the Trump administration, preparing the working class and oppressed communities to resist. So we hope the Inauguration Day protests will be a starting point for that sort of movement. It’s already bringing together different types of groups. In terms of the Women’s March, I’ll just say, the basic message of the march, that it’s affirming the dignity of women and other oppressed groups is extremely important and one of course that we agree with. The Women’s March has taken a permit to assemble kinda far away from the White House and its march will not be going to the White House—so we do believe it’s important to be at the White House, to be against Trump. Specifically, the Women’s March said that it’s not anti-Trump explicitly, which is not our political stance.
ZK: What do you hope, and expect, the turnout to be?
BB: Well, I would expect tens of thousands, to be honest. I mean, it has the feel of a mass protest thats going to come together. It’s going to be extremely cold and the logistics—well, it has been extremely cold, I’m not a weather forecaster, but we know its likely to be cold—they’re not giving us a permit, which is making it harder for us to tell people that this is a safe activity you can come to and express yourself. We believe we’re facing some unconstitutional headwinds, where they're trying to make the protest smaller, so we have to fight through that. We think there will be tens of thousands of people, despite those sort of attempts to limit or endanger the free speech expression of the people. But he has outraged so many millions of people, and we know that the first days after the election the protests were big, spontaneous—there were people who've never protested before. We expect that January 20th will be a continuation of those, but in a way that is also a rallying point, because it will allow the people who've been protesting trump in their local cities, their local towns, to have a common target, a common location.
ZK: Obviously this is going to be a peaceful protest, but how do you expect your people to conduct themselves, and how do you put that into practice? What do you expect the reaction of the police to be? How do you want the protesters to behave in response to that?
BB: I can only speak to our intentions, I cant speak to what the police will do. The police in DC have had times where they were extremely—where they were blocking and obstructing protests, where they were arresting protestors, where they were coming in riot gear—that is defiantly part of DC protest history. However, ANSWER Coalition had litigation that was successful in changing the way DC police, and also the U.S. park police, how they have to handle protests. That litigation has made it much easier to protest in Washington DC. You no longer need a march permit, you can use sound more freely, you can take the streets more freely. All these things are possible. However, we don’t know how the police will be, how they will conduct themselves with the Tump administration, and of course, even the federal government right now under the Obama administration has given what you could call “first right”—first use to all the free speech assembly areas, to Trump’s private inauguration committee, which has raised 50 million dollars so far from banks and corporations. So they wanna keep a very sanitized inaugural route, sanitized of free speech, where it’s only Trump supporters. Even though he only had 25% of the population of eligible voters vote for him—
ZK: A little less than 25% percent.
BB: Yeah, a little less than 25%. Less than Clinton. He doesn't have, by any means, a popular mandate. But that’s the image they want to project—that the country’s behind him. So, all I mean is that the conduct of the police can also be subject to the political considerations of their leaders. But for out part, we are gonna project discipline and unity—of course with a diverse range of messages, because we want people to bring their own signs, we want people to say what they need to say.
ZK: It’s a coalition.
BB: Right, it’s a coalition. And its also a site for the peoples’ assembly. We don’t have control over every single person. From our experience there have been clashes at protests almost always precipitated by police action, so that’s something of course we want to secure ourselves from.
ZK: You mentioned that there has been a bit of a legal struggle in terms of permits and where you're going to be able to protest. What happens if you are not able to get to Pennsylvania Avenue?
BB: Well, we intend to get to Pennsylvania Avenue. We've worked with the Metropolitan Police Department now, which is different than the Park’s Department, and we've informed them of our intention to mobilize at 14th street and Pennsylvania Avenue, which is right adjacent to Freedom Plaza—the site where we had the right to assemble in 2009, and we've been trying to get the right to assemble again, but they've been denying us. We believe we are gonna be at the inaugural route one way or another—the question is, are they gonna allow us? If we have the plaza, we can really spread out and show ourselves to be there. Or are we gonna be forced to sort of be on one little street?
ZK: If that’s the case, if that does happen, do you believe its still worth the material resources to send people down there?
BB: Oh, definitely. 14th and Pennsylvania is right on the inauguration route, it’s between Trump’s new hotel and the White House. It’s a few blocks from the White House, right towards that part of inauguration. It will be very visible, very public. The media will be there, alternative media will be there—and it will be a signal. A signal to trump that, A) he doesn't have the popular mandate that he likes to pretend, B) it will be a signal to the Democratic party, that the people are choosing mass mobilization, not to follow Democratic party leaders as somehow leaders of the movement against Trump—that’s not the case. And it’s also gonna be signal to oppressed communities around the country, workers around the country—that they don’t have to be afraid of Trump. Of course, there is reason to be afraid, but they can also fight. You can still fight, you can still mobilize. And lastly, it will be a signal to the people of the world that Donald Trump is not—that he does not represent the people of the United States. And I think that all of those messages are extremely important to send from day one.
ZK: How are you sending people down there? I know the plan is to essentially bus people? Is it mostly going to be people coming from New York, or are there going to be people coming from elsewhere?
BB: Right now, we have busses from Boston, New York, Newhaven, Philly, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. And there will likely be other bus locations soon. And we of course think it’s good for people to come together, to leave together—taking a bus is a good political experience. We are gonna have a chance to dialogue a lot. But we also expect that probably the majority of people are gonna come on their own by other busses, or trains, or driving, or what have you.
ZK: Where is the funding coming for the busses that you're sending down there?
BB: The busses are 100% funded by people, by grassroots fundraising—
ZK: No George Soros? [laugh]
BB: [laugh] No George Soros! George Soros is not involved in even the slightest respect. In fact-
ZK: It would be nice to be paid protestors!
BB: Well, actually, the ANSWER Coalition opposes George Soros. I mean, George Soros, the role that he’s played in particular, in sort of managing these pro-imperialist movements and funding them around the globe, we have nothing to do with that. In fact, we oppose those color revolutions and we are not backed by any billionaire. This is the people giving a portion of their paycheck, a portion of their hard earned money-
ZK: A personal sacrifice.
BB: Their personal sacrifice. That’s how were getting to DC, that’s how were printing materials, that’s how were getting on the busses. It’s completely grassroots, completely disconnected from these, like, conspiracy theories.
ZK: Clearly, Trump’s not going anywhere. And I don’t believe that you think the protest is going to somehow make him not become president—that’s not the goal. But what do you hope to accomplish? I know that ANSWER and the PSL are not in favor of overturning the election or anything like that. But aside from sending a message, I guess I’m trying to ask—what’s step two? How do you capitalize on the message that’s sent? Is it to build more awareness? Gain more membership? Get more people involved in grassroots movements? Or what?
BB: No one organization is going to build the movement that we need. It’s going to require a lot of organizations and a lot of people joining organizations that are not already a part of. People are going to form their own groups on their campuses, in their unions, in their communities—to really be a mass front of rejection, to really stand up to the Trump agenda. That’s the most important thing. It’s not really about Trump, the individual. It’s not about the legitimacy of the election. It’s about what Trump intends to do. And what he intends to do, we've identified 5 key points: 1) is to launch a war on workers rights and smash unions. 2) to lift environmental regulations and taxes on the ultra rich. 3) to accelerate the destruction of public education nationwide. 4) to carry out mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and create a registry of Muslims in the country. And 5) to unleash a massive attack on women’s rights. These policies are extremely right wing, extremely dangerous. It’s going to require mass movement, mass organization, self defense in communities that are under attack—a whole spectrum of tactics. This counter-inaugural protest is a way to try to unleash some of that, to catalyst it, to give people inspiration and confidence, that they don't have to just be demoralized, or afraid, or pessimistic. Because otherwise, you are going to become pessimistic when you see Donald Trump come in that limousine and walk in the White House and think, “this is it.” But if that’s the attitude we take, of passivity, Donald Trump is gonna steamroll over the people under attack. And it’s not just him, it’s a whole spectrum of militarist and corporate executives that he has now empowered. So it’s really the time to get organized. It might sound cliche, but it’s really the only answer.
ZK: Do you think you'd be out here protesting against Hillary Clinton if she’d won? Or maybe a different Republican candidate?
BB: Yes. That’s a good question and an important one. We actually declared our intent to protest before the election and we filed for a permit before. So you don’t have to take my word for it, you can see it on Facebook, you can see it on the website—this was already happening. Of course, the messaging was going to be different. But from our perspective, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—or if someone else had won the republican primary—they each represent different, slightly different, or sometimes even significantly different, programs of the ruling class in this country. You know, Bernie Sanders called it the top tenth of the 1%, you can also call it the banks and the corporate owners. They each use different political candidates to carry out their program, their vision. And that’s an imperialist vision, that’s one that attacks workers, attacks immigrants, attacks the black community. So depending on who was elected, the focus of the protest may have been different. But either way we were gonna have to be there, because we knew that it was gonna be a future of struggle, no matter who got elected. It’s not like there would be no struggle if Hillary Clinton had had been elected. In fact, we would have very important struggles, especially against war and militarism.
ZK: Aside from protests, do you intend to use any other, maybe political avenues to oppose Trump? For example, maybe running candidates in local elections? I know Gloria La Riva won over 60,000 votes in California alone, you could say she would have a pretty legitimate shot at running for mayor of San Francisco, for example. I don’t know if thats worth the material resources or not—
BB: I think you have to take it case by case about what’s the best thing to do. This moment, electoral tactics should not be emphasized. Because the elections are a long way away, first of all—
ZK: Well, mayoral elections are coming up in a year.
BB: Yeah, but even so, it’s not that—ANSWER doesn't run it’s own candidates, the PSL does. But there are lot’s of progressive candidacies that could be supported. But the important thing here is, I think, we are in a place where you win a local progressive race, or at the state level, or even a congressional level, what were facing right now is a real onslaught from the most right wing section of the ruling class, which is now building support even among other sections of the ruling class. The people who opposed Trump and backed Clinton are now finding how can they make their accommodations with him, so that he can also carry out their program with him. So in other words, it’s an urgent moment and if we were to emphasize electoral tactics right now I think that that would be giving people an illusion that if they elect some different people that’s gonna resist the Trump agenda. It’s too comprehensive, too aggressive, to take that kind of position. What we need is absolute refusal, rejection—we need to shut the streets down, general strikes, we need immigrant workers to stand up, we need community self defense in immigrant communities, we need to really grow the sanctuary movement. So all these tactics are priorities.
ZK: But the sanctuary movement itself is a thing on a local level, where maybe not necessarily a mayor, but city council person, for example, could actually have material effects on maintaining sanctuary city status.
BB: Right, so and I think we would support—
ZK: Candidates who are running anyway?
BB: I mean, I don’t know if we would like, you know, endorse. But certainly we’d support that tendency and who's going towards it. But the question is often, is that real? I think with the sanctuary movement, is it real? Like, is there some sort of pro-forma declaration about the separation of local police and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), or is there actually the infrastructure being built for the people to keep others from being deported, and is the city actually putting up resistance to it? Or is it just sort of saying, like, well when someone gets arrested—you know, the devil’s in the details with a lot of the sanctuary stuff, and so obviously the important thing before we even get to that stage is to have such a mass mobilization to make it unthinkable to carry out mass deportations. Because there have been times when the US government intends to carry out very bad policies against immigrant community, such as 2006, but the mass mass mobilization made them think twice. And so that’s the important thing, that if we had a mass mobilization, and continuous mass mobilization, rather than just wait to see if Trump is gonna do this or that, we can make such a crisis. Some people have been saying to be “ungovernable.”
ZK: To make enough civil disobedience.
BB: Right, you create such a crisis that the government itself will pull back from its wish list if it believes it will destabilize its entire ability to govern.
ZK: My final question sort of goes on this line of thought. What do you say to those, because obviously there are people who have these sort of views, who say protests don’t really accomplish anything, that they don’t really create any material change? I mean, I can site dozens of examples where protests have accomplished things, but as someone who’s speaking for ANSWER, what do you say to those people who think this is a waste of time or waste of resources?
BB: Yeah, I mean there are obviously so many historical examples from the Civil Rights Movement, to labor, to women’s rights, to LGBTQ rights, Standing Rock—Occupy Wall Street created a whole narrative around inequality, everyone saw the impact of how Black Lives Matter made people talk about police brutality, even if it remains a lingering epidemic. So obviously protests can make a big big difference in changing the way people view the world. It is true, of course, that protests do not always lead to victory. They don’t always lead to the concessions that you want. Like during the Iraq War, we had mass mobilizations. Now, did it stop the Iraq War? No. But I think it definitely helped galvanize a movement of people who understand, who have manifest opposition to US wars. I believe that was reflected in the 2013 Syria crisis—the Obama administration had said plainly, the people of the US will not tolerate a ground invasion of Syria. Now, that’s because they understand that type of political sentiment has not gone away. The threat of mass mobilization can tie the hands of the government from doing some of their worst policies. So, I think protests can defiantly make a difference. But it is important—I would say some of the people who are demoralized about it, I would be sympathetic to because they've seen, even with all the protests, living standards continue to plummet, the killings of civilians by police continue, the deportations of immigrants continue. That’s why we have to also go beyond protests, we have to have a different social system. I think our goal is not to forever be protesting against the unjust government and unjust system—we have to create a new system. Which requires the revolutionary transformation of society. So, in that sense, protests have to be part of that process. And also that’s why how you protest does matter. If you protest in a way that’s not politicizing people, not deepening their understanding of system—if you're protesting in a way that makes the government out to be a potential ally, rather than the enemy of progress, you can have protests that don't lead to the type of movement that can bring revolutionary transformation. So, for us, the protest at the inauguration would be meaningless if it were a one day action. But if it’s going to catalyze a movement for revolutionary change, which is our intention, then it will be completely worthwhile, and a historic moment in the United States.
Since I interviewed Ben in December, the legal struggle over the protest permit came to a close with a victory for ANSWER. They now have a secure protest space directly on the inauguration route, making the logistics of their action much easier. If all goes according to plan, they will be have an opportunity to gain support for their cause and work towards building a radical movement against the rising tide of reactionary right-wing politics in this country.
For more information about the ANSWER Coalition, the protest, and how you can get involved, feel free to check out their website:
Zaitouna Kusto is a writer, activist and Political Blogger for CSuiteMusic currently living Brooklyn, NY.