Celebrating a Year of Grassroots Alexandria: Why Grassroots Activism Matters More Than Ever

by Kate Watters

Last week I attended an international conference for civil society organizations from countries that are members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I was there representing my organization, Crude Accountability, which protects environmental and human rights in communities impacted by oil and gas development. Drawing in part on my experience in Grassroots Alexandria, I described the decaying human rights situation in the US, a description that stunned my colleagues from the other OSCE countries. But there is a silver lining. We in the US are witnessing the last gasp, a painfully prolonged gasp, of the old white patriarchy. By stepping up for equality, justice, and representation for all, we are expanding and strengthening the beautiful patchwork quilt that is our population and our future.

The conference was attended by representatives of some 80 organizations from Russia, to Central Asia, to western and eastern Europe and the United States. Civil society representatives met to talk about how to preserve human rights in an increasingly “securitized” world, discussing the critical issue of how to maintain respect for human rights in an environment in which security concerns bring governments together faster than most other issues. Many countries, including our own, are experiencing a severe backlash against civil society. Given the current state of affairs, it is worth reminding ourselves why we are active in Grassroots Alexandria, and how important our work to protect democracy and human rights is, particularly when we look at the following information.

As we have experienced in our own community, over the course of the past year, civil society in the US has been under threat as growing limitations by government on the state and national levels threaten civil liberties throughout the country. Attacks on protections that have historically been enshrined in law and protected by the government—often following hard-won battles by civil rights groups– have thrown civil society into a tailspin, requiring that citizen groups fight daily to protect rights previously guaranteed and protected by law. Although plagued with a history of institutionalized racism, a failure to grant women the right to vote until 1920, and discrimination against minorities, including those targeted for their sexual orientation, the arc of tolerance in the United States has been generally broadening for the past fifty years. Not since the 1950s and McCarthyism, has the American public at large been under such widespread attack by its own government as it is now. This includes attacks on environmental protection; LGBTQ rights; voting rights; minority rights; immigrants; religious minorities, including Muslims; and women’s rights. Widespread efforts by the political right to repeal legislation enacted to protect citizens has created an environment in which we must call our representatives to account loudly, vociferously, and repeatedly, or risk the rollback of laws that protect the most vulnerable. Simultaneously, a rise in hate speech and violence has made demonstrating risky, and in some cases, life threatening. In the last quarter of 2016, the number of reported hate crimes rose by 25.9 percent over the number in the last quarter of 2015, from 1388 to 1747. Citizens exercising their legal right to challenge dangerous projects or discriminatory or violent practices, are increasingly labeled as terrorists. Two examples of this are the water protectors at Standing Rock and the Black Lives Matter movement, both of which directly challenged the government and/or its proxies.

At Standing Rock, the protesters who blocked construction of the DAPL pipeline were labeled “jihadists” by TigerSwan, the private contracting company hired by the pipeline company to “police” them. According to TigerSwan, this label warranted taking additional precautions against the water protectors, which resulted in violence and hundreds of arrests.[i] In the case of Black Lives Matter, a movement created to protect Black Americans from police violence,  the FBI issued a report in October of this year labeling them “black identity extremists,” and thus also deserving of extraordinary surveillance.

Hate crimes in the US have increased since Donald Trump was elected president and membership in hate groups has also increased. The number of hate groups has grown by 17 percent since 2014, to 917 groups. White nationalists, led by the Alt Right, held a rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, which followed a white nationalist march the evening before, in which participants carried torches and chanted anti-Semitic and racist chants as they walked across the campus of the University of Virginia. Ostensibly meeting to express their opposition to the removal of a Confederate statue, the white supremacists were armed with torches, semi-automatic rifles, and other weapons. Three people were killed and dozens were injured as white supremacists attacked peaceful counter-protesters. The police, who had, in the words of Governor McAuliffe, “planned for a long time for today’s incidents,” stood by, failing to intervene.

Police violence against citizens also continues to be a serious problem. To date in 2017, police have killed 1079 people in the United States and of those, 26 percent were African Americans, although they make up 13 percent of the population.

The number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled in the last year. Among hate crimes targeting religion, Muslims were the majority target. President Trump’s travel ban against Muslims continues to give a green light to discrimination against Muslims in the US, which is at an all-time high.

In the first six months of 2017, 100 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation were proposed in 29 states. In August, President Trump banned transgender service in the military, threatening to roll back existing legislation guaranteeing transgender people the right to serve. Nonprofit legal groups GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) and National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) filed a lawsuit challenging the directive, and two federal judges have since ruled it unconstitutional.  But, 2016 was the most violent year on record for LGBTQ people, and the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a stark example.

Similarly, by April 2017, over one thousand new pieces of legislation targeting women’s reproductive health services had been proposed in state legislatures. Over 400 of those would restrict women’s access to abortion services. While some measures were intended to expand access to birth control, 28 states have introduced 88 measures that would ban abortion or prohibit it in specific circumstances. Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s top reproductive healthcare providers for women—and a non-profit organization—is at risk of losing federal funding because of the abortion services it provides, even though federal tax dollars are not used for that purpose.

With regard to immigrants, the Trump administration’s rollback of protections for “dreamers”—children who immigrated to the US as children but who are undocumented—threatens hundreds of thousands of young people with deportation.  In addition, the administration has called for eliminating eligibility to receive federal grants to sanctuary cities—municipalities that provide protection to dreamers and undocumented immigrants. Nonprofit organizations in cities and towns around the country—including those who work with children in public schools—are providing services, information, and training to vulnerable families in an effort to ensure they know their rights when police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents come for them.

This trend of anti-democratic, discriminatory, and ultimately, violent, behavior by the current administration, sadly, is not abating. Environmental protections are being destroyed, tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of healthcare for our most vulnerable—children and the elderly—are being voted into law by the US Congress, and restrictive immigration legislation is making yet another round across the President’s desk. Now, more than ever, civil society has become the watchdog of the government, striving to protect civil liberties and basic human rights and prevent the rollback of hard-won victories by those activists who came before us, fighting for equal rights for women, people of color, immigrants, and LBGTQ people.

To be effective watchdogs, we need socially and racially diverse representation in government and in all institutions of power. This is our strength, and it crosses the very borders that are used to divide us. Working across these borders will create a more peaceful, just and secure world for all of us.

As we in Grassroots Alexandria celebrate our first birthday, let’s celebrate each other and the patchwork quilt that is our membership. Let’s keep fighting the good fight. Our community and our country deserve no less.


[i] For more information, see “Dangerous Work: Increasing Pressure on Environmental NGOs and Activists in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union and the U.S.” Crude Accountability and EcoForum of NGOs Kazakhstan, September 2017, pp. 57-60. www.crudeaccountability.org

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