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I hear people all the time saying things like, “We demand Trump release his tax returns,” “We demand Mitch McConnell put the bill to a vote,” “We demand Pence reject the endorsement of that homophobic organization.” Activists urge that we demand Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan and Tom Cotton right whatever wrong needs to be addressed. We should protest Betsy De Vos, they say, and tell her our demands. But my question every time I hear these calls to action is, “Just HOW is your demand actually a demand?” It’s really nothing more than a complaint. Demanding something requires adherence, and complaining doesn’t get that result.

Demand Justice

Trump doesn’t care that progressives don’t like him. Neither does De Vos or Cruz or McConnell or any of the other people legislating oppression. If anything, our unhappiness is a bonus for them.

Trump doesn’t care that progressives don’t like him. Neither does De Vos or Cruz or McConnell or any of the other people legislating oppression. If anything, our unhappiness is a bonus for them. Hell, half the time even Democratic politicians don’t care what progressives “demand.”

The problem is enforceability. I worked for a time at a public garden that showcased lots of fragile vegetation. A list of rules was posted on our website, in the courtyard outside of our entrance, and at the ticket window. But every single day, people broke the rules. Most of them adjusted their behavior readily enough after we corrected them verbally. But not all did.

One day, I charged admission to a group of four young women. After I handed them their receipt, they moved on into the garden while I waited on the next visitor. But I had a window beside my station and saw that one of the women who’d just entered the garden had left the path to sit on a large stone while one of her friends aimed a camera at her.

I jumped up and stuck my head out the door, saying, as pleasantly as I could, “Hey, guys, we’d appreciate it if you would stay on the path. We have lots of delicate mosses and other fragile plants that can be damaged easily.”

“Oh, we’re just going to take one picture.” The woman smiled back at the camera.

I sharpened my tone a bit. “You need to get back on the path now.”

The woman did so, and I returned to my booth to wait on the next visitor. But when I glanced out my window again seconds later, I was shocked to see that the woman had immediately repositioned herself on the rock.

I jumped up again and this time said as sternly as I could, “Get off the rock and stay on the path. And don’t get off the path again.” I paused and then repeated my demand. “Don’t do it.”

The woman leaped back onto the path, everyone in the group giggled, and they started walking deeper into the garden.

I knew the problem wasn’t solved, so when there was a break at the window a few minutes later, I left the ticket booth and walked down the path to check on the group. Sure enough, they’d gotten off the path at another point to take more pictures.

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“Okay, guys, this isn’t working. You need to leave the garden. Right now. Let’s go.”

But they ignored me and kept taking pictures. At that moment, I understood why “demanding” that Trump or McConnell or any of the other politicians who abuse their power stop doing so doesn’t work: there’s no way to enforce our demand.

What was I going to do about that group of young women? Call 9-1-1? “Send a S.W.A.T. team immediately! Someone keeps stepping on my moss!” I knew perfectly well I couldn’t make that call, and the young women knew it just as surely as I did.
Trump knows it, too. As does McConnell. And De Vos, and Cruz, and Rubio, and Graham.

So what do we do?

Holding up a clever sign at a protest may make Rick Scott laugh, but it isn’t going to force him to change his position. Voting is modestly successful in some of these cases, but with widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression and election interference, we can’t rely on that alone. We need something stronger. And an angry email isn’t going to do the trick.

I’ve watched CNN reports about hundreds of thousands of people protesting Trump, millions worldwide. I keep hearing people say things like, “Now Trump will get the message.” The problem isn’t that Trump and other oppressive politicians don’t get the message. The problem is they don’t care, and we haven’t found a way to make them care. I remember Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, the telephone operator on “Laugh-In”: We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.

Civil disobedience is more than going to a rally, staging a protest, or signing an online petition. It’s the breaking of an unjust law en masse. Sitting at lunch counters. Sitting in the front of the bus. Burning a draft card. One or two or twelve people engaging in civil disobedience won’t help us achieve our goals. We need hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands. Strikes face the same problem, only efficient if they shut down an entire business or industry or even the entire country, for long enough to be more than a minor irritation. The same is true of boycotts. That said, we do need to use these and every other method of influence we can.

Unfortunately, influencing isn’t the same as demanding. If what we do is not enforceable, it’s powerless.

Civil disobedience and strikes and boycotts aren’t our only options, of course, but almost any way to make our demands more enforceable come with even stronger legal, financial, and social drawbacks.

I honestly don’t know what kinds of actions we need to take, and apparently no other progressives do, either, since I don’t see many significant demands being met. Yes, we’ve flipped a few seats, but those seats can be lost again just as easily. And even winning those seats doesn’t guarantee the new elected leaders will vote the right way on important issues, or that necessary change will result even from a correct vote, if the gerrymandering, etc, prevent us from putting enough progressives in office to swing any of those votes.

I’m sure of one thing, though. ANYTHING powerful enough to force our demands will be far too dangerous for elected officials to accept without real force coming back at us.

Johnny Townsend

What we need to decide is if we are content with complaining, or if we really want—no, demand—change.

Johnny Townsend