Shocked by Donald Trump’s surprise victory and the wave of white supremacism he left in his wake, many Americans have taken to the streets to protest. But if progressives really want to fight back against Trumpism, they need to build a mass national movement, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. Put another way, they need a Tea Party of the left.
Fortunately, progressives won’t have to start from scratch. A justice coalition that includes existing advocacy groups could be built up quickly, as proven by Forward Together; for the past four years, this movement has served as a model for how progressives can unite to combat retrograde and sometimes hateful policies by state and federal governments.
Forward Together began in North Carolina three years ago in response to a wave of regressive actions by a state legislature controlled by Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. Over several months, the legislature rejected Medicaid expansion, cut unemployment benefits, raised taxes on the poor, and enacted a draconian voter ID law. Progressives opposed these bills, but couldn’t block them in the state house—so they started a mass movement instead.
Like many protest movements, Forward Together started small. On April 29, 2013, a group of protestors led by Rev. William Barber II, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) North Carolina Chapter, blocked the doors to the North Carolina Senate chambers while singing “We Shall Overcome.” Barber and 16 others were arrested and removed from the capitol building in handcuffs, but returned the next week with more than 100 people.
And they kept coming back. Every Monday—the day the state legislature was in session—Barber and his fellow demonstrators would protest. Within a few weeks, thousands were showing up to what was later dubbed “Moral Mondays.” Nearly 200 progressive organizations representing labor and worker rights, health care, economic justice, environmental justice, education justice, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, immigrant rights, faith groups, and more joined the protests.
The movement only grew from there. In February 2014, more than 80,000 people marched on North Carolina’s capitol building. Then, in July 2014, Barber discussed Forward Together on Real Time With Bill Maher, bringing it to an even wider audience. Not limited to North Carolina, the movement now has a presence all over America. Most recently, Barber gained national attention when he spoke at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia:
Since its founding, Forward Together has had a genuine impact on North Carolina's politics, contributing to the likely defeat of incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory. In a year when Republicans across America got a boost by riding Trump’s electoral coattails, McCrory appears to have lost his re-election to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper (though the race is so close it may be bound for a recount). Should McCrory ultimately lose re-election, Forward Together will deserve much of the credit.
The movement has succeeded where others have failed largely because of the diversity of its coalition: These include not only traditional civil-rights groups like the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, but also labor groups like the AFL-CIO, environmental groups like Greenpeace, and churches.
While there are challenges in scaling up a movement like Forward Together—affiliates in some other states have struggled without a central figure like Barber to hold them together—it provides a model for how a nationwide coalition could be built quickly by bringing together existing advocacy groups focused on social justice issues.
And it’s already starting. Organizers are planning a Women’s March on Washington one day after Trump’s inauguration. But to be truly effective, the progressive opposition to Trump can’t only happen on Inauguration Day. Like Forward Together and the Tea Party, a new protest movement will need to be constant and ongoing, in every city and town across America. It’s easy to get people to show up for one rally, but genuine change will need years of dedicated and coördinated work.
Trump’s victory may finally be the push progressives need to build a true national justice coalition along the lines of Forward Together. If successful, it could be the liberal answer to the Tea Party, but built on the ideals of social and economic justice. Progressives don’t need to reinvent the wheel—they just need to work together.
Charles Paul Hoffman writes about comics, pop culture, and the law. He enjoys talking about Michel Foucault and how culture constructs societal norms.