Stammtisch Dec. 7—Strategies for Resistance and Change

Our Stammtisch on December 7 at 8:00 pm will be, as usual, at Cafe Daddy, Kolonnenstrasse 50. We will continue our discussion, moderated by Carolyn Prescott, of Strategies for Resistance and Change in the Trump Era. The following is a summary by Adam Wilkins of our November Stammtisch discussion:

Strategies of Resistance in the Trump Era  Summary and Reflections on the Stammtisch Discussion on 2 Nov 2017 by Adam Wilkins

A perennial question for left-of-center, progressive political groups has been how best to protest injustices and destructive governmental positions and policies. Which avenues of protest are the most appropriate and most effective to counter them? The factors that govern such decisions about the form and content of protest include: the nature of the action/policy being protested (some requiring stronger action than others), the numbers of people who might participate in the protest, the matter of geography (where the protesters are in relation to the matter being protested), and, not least, the range of options that might be available and their relative probable efficacies. Since time and resources are invariably limiting to some extent, the choice of protest mode, time, and place should always be given consideration. With the advent of the Trump presidency and its far-reaching destructive positions and policies, such questions have never been more urgent, as the number of fronts on which counteraction is necessary has greatly expanded. Indeed, because of the scale of the problem, it is legitimate to speak of the range and seriousness of required responses as constituting “the resistance” to Trumpery and not merely as a set of one-off protests.

On November 2nd, American Voices Abroad Berlin held its monthly Stammtisch, at Café Daddy’s (Kolonnenstr. 50) to discuss these matters. To start off discussion, Carolyn Prescott, a member of AVA, made a summary presentation of seven articles and two books pertaining to strategies for resistance. (Links to the articles and to reviews of each book were sent out to AVA members beforehand. Two articles were added to our list by other members.)

The summary extracted three main topics from the articles presented:

1) Effectiveness: What kind of protests bring about change?

2) Free speech and violence: Is there a point at which speech becomes too dangerous to permit? Is violence ever justified?

3) The nature of our discourse: what is the appropriate language for resistance and is there a danger of simply mirroring the political right in our responses?

Effectiveness: what kind of protests bring about change?  

A recent article by Karen Schulz in The New Yorker examined the specific issue of whether contacting members of Congress is effective in getting Congressional action and, if so, what are the best ways to do this. Schulz’s article, based on social science research and journalistic interviews, argued that individual letters sent through the post are probably still the most effective way to do this, rather than emails, and that letters from constituents (rather than from people outside the Congressperson’s district) are particularly likely to get attention and a response. Scripted ‘phone calls are probably not very effective – the staffers receiving these calls recognize their scripted nature. What does influence Congress particularly, according to Schulz, is a huge quantity of unique calls in which individuals express a strong countervailing vision.

Other issues raised by several articles related to what kinds of public protests and demonstrations are the most effective. Although there has been something of a vogue in recent years for nonhierarchical protests in which there is no strong leadership or dictated strategy and protestors are fairly free to devise their own tactics, e.g. the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, the historical record suggests that structured, well-led protests tend to get a better hearing and produce more definitive results. The highly organized civil rights protests of the early to mid-1960s remain a classic example of effective protest. Another lesson from the civil rights movement was that on-going dialog with the people in power, as the protests themselves unfolded, were a crucial element in their success. Overriding one’s distaste for dealing with members of the “establishment” during and after protests may thus be helpful in obtaining one’s objectives. Evidence also suggests that although technology may be a helpful organizing tool, use of social media cannot replace a sustained protest movement involving actual people on the ground.

Another issue is whether protest is desirable and indeed necessary when there is little likelihood that it will achieve its ostensible goal. This raises the issue of the purely moral dimension of protest and when it is important to say “No!” even if the protest is unlikely to change matters. An excellent discussion of such situations, and the moral imperative to speak out against injustice, is to be found in a piece by Chris Hedges, “The Price of Resistance,” in Common Dreams.

Free speech and violence

In general, it has been thought that the most effective protests in democratic societies are non-violent ones, in which the protestors take the “moral high ground”.  Again, the civil rights movement provided a model example of this. It is important to remember, however, that Dr Martin Luther King argued for non-violence not only in religious and pacifist terms but primarily with respect to its effectiveness as a political strategy, by morally wrong-footing the opposition. It was also helpful that other players were taking a different line, making the King-led protests seem the far more reasonable option to members of the Establishment. Sometimes, however, extraordinary times seem to require extraordinary responses and it has been argued that the Trump era, with the rise of white nationalists and the violence that they often bring to political action, is indeed such a time and that violence against such people is justified. The anti-fascist or “antifa” groups that have recently surfaced embrace such a view. This proposition, both its justifications and its difficulties and necessary qualifications, have been examined in a recent article by Nathan Robinson. A particularly difficult issue is whether defense of others, which can involve physical force, as occurred in the recent Charlottesville protests, is deemed “violence” or rather, considered a legitimate defense against violence. Deciding this issue is thus as much a matter of perception, and how the media describes a particular action of this sort, as it is of a priori reasoning.

 The nature of our “discourse”

In a sense, matters of “discourse” may seem considerably more abstract than the matters of action, e.g. protest marches and demonstrations and, therefore, possibly less important. That judgment, however, would be a mistake. Any and all “resistance” to Trumpian policies and positions involves language, explanation, and persuasion, as much as any non-verbal actions, such as marching. Furthermore, the question of what our “discourse” should be is intimately related to the “discourse” of the other side, namely, broadly speaking, right-wing populists. That consideration, in turn, is connected to the question of whether “their” discourse should have limits imposed on it and, if so, how and by whom.

A critical, related question is whether those who oppose right-wing populist movements should engage with people on the other side and, if so, how to do it. Two recent books deal with this question:  What is Populism? by Jan Werner Müller and No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics by Naomi Klein. Mueller argues that progressives must try to engage with the other side, not simply dismiss them but also not talk like them.  Klein argues in a similar vein, stressing further the need for a more positive vision of what progressives stand for in a way that will not alienate Trump voters and their counterparts in other countries. The implications are that it will be important to reject the “zero sum” thinking that animates Trump himself and his followers on so many issues and to show how a broader social vision, as embraced by progressives, need not exclude any groups but, on the contrary, benefit all.

Following the presentation, there was a lively discussion dealing with many of the highlighted issues.. A particularly lively part of the conversation dealt with the matters of “free speech” raised in connection with the question of whether hate speech deserves 1st amendment protection in the US. Part of the discussion dealt with what constitutes hate speech – is all speech offensive to one or more groups in that category or does one need a more stringent criterion? –  and a second part concerned how any restrictions that were imposed could be fought if they were then applied by members of the radical right to the views of those urging a “progressive” vision. In effect, once the principle of restriction of speech is accepted, who decides what is legitimate and what is not? In addition, the vexed question of how free speech protections should be viewed when organizations other than the government, for example, universities, try to prevent the expression of certain views, was discussed. Attention was also focused on the reporting by the mainstream media and how distortions in that reporting can be dealt with. Needless to say, no definitive answers were reached for any of these questions but the discussion was deemed to be a useful one, in the airing of all the difficulties and dilemmas that these issues pose.

The members present decided to continue the open discussion of strategies for resistance at the next AVA meeting in December and welcome others to join us.


Kathryn Schulz, “What Calling Congress Achieves,” The New Yorker, March 6, 2017

Chris Hedges, “The Price of Resistance,” Common Dreams, April 18, 2017

Nathan Robinson, “Thinking Strategically about Free Speech and Violence,” Current Affairs, August 20, 2017 [Comments and objections to this article can also be found on the Current Affairs website.]

Nathan Heller, “Is there any point to protest?” The New Yorker, August 21, 2017

Michael McBride, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid, Barbara Williams Skinner, “Waiting for the Perfect Protest?” New York Times, Sept. 1, 2017

Jan-Werner Müller, What is populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016 (Link to a review on the Pennsylvania Press website)

Naomi Klein, no is not enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, Penguin Random House UK, 2017 (Link to a review of a book in the Guardian)


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