Tom Hayden's Inspiration In A Time Of Despair

Reeling. Scared. Angry. Exhausted. This is how I have felt since November 8th. I, and so many others walked around for days like zombies, not eating, sleep deprived, hoping we were going to wake from a bad dream. For the first time in my life, I did not have words of encouragement for my students. I could not reassure my family things would be okay. As an activist, I doubted my own abilities. I feared for many, the worst was about to happen. But as I began to feel that this feeling of hopelessness might never leave, as cliché as it sounds, in death I found life.

Three days after the election, Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant and hub for progressive activism in Washington, D.C. held a commemoration for Tom Hayden. Through his writing, mentorship, and friendship, Tom taught me how to be an activist. We talked regularly and I had been having a hard time prior to the election coming to terms with his passing. When I stepped on stage to speak, I started to reflect on what Tom meant to me, and indeed the country. I began to tear up because I realized at that moment that I actually felt safer when Tom was in the world. Tom was the one who I turned to in times like these and asked, "What do we do next?" I was scared of the future and needed reassurance from my friend who was now gone.

Following the event, Bernadine Dohrn consoled me as we reminisced about Tom's life. We had never met, but I could not help but notice that she had the same look of determination to change the world that I often saw in Tom. I looked around the room at other 60s radicals who had sacrificed so much to improve the lives of others. I felt some of my despair begin to lift. I thought to myself, "Even in death, Tom found a way to inspire me."

Thinking about that night and everything that has happened, I began searching for ways on how to move forward. I found my answer in a similar place. I reread Tom Hayden's "Letter to the New (Young) Left," written in 1961. Back then, activists felt they were living through the worst of times and Tom was echoing many of the same sentiments we are feeling today. So using many of Tom's own words, which I will put in quotes, this is my response to all those students, friends, faculty, and activists who have asked me the question: "What now?"

"The problems are immense and we are faced with the question, 'What can we do now?' Many of us have only one answer, 'Get ready to die.' But it is not enough for us to dismiss the world." People are already dying from poison in their drinking water to police brutality to bombs raining down on them on a daily basis. I have been told repeatedly that protesting will not change anything. But "we now have access to more knowledge, more potential, actual, and varied power than ever before." Today, we have more ability to connect with one another. How then shall we respond? My answer is with a unified and radical movement for the world we envision.

Too often "we have confused the target with the goal." The target is resisting the Trump regime in every way, including the possible use of internment camps, mass deportations, ending healthcare for millions, and destroying our planet. But what is the goal? We know what we oppose: racism, sexism, militarization, nuclear weapons, xenophobia, homophobia, and more. However, opposing something is not enough. For too long we have focused on short-term targets without pushing for the vision we have for this country, and the world. This fight and our radicalism must go beyond any one administration. If we are successful and have a new president in four or eight years, poverty, nuclear weapons, racism, and sexism will still exist. So while we are in for the fight of our lives against Trump, we must also think beyond him. Our movement must start with stopping the rise of a Trump dictatorship, but must not end there. "It will be complex, lasting for our lifetimes. For many of us, it will not and cannot be a fling, a painless tugging at our liberal sentimentality. It will be longer and come at a great cost."

Envisioning a different world is not naïve and does not mean that we "banish doubt." It does not mean we ignore our fears or the reality of what is actually happening, but "it is possible and necessary to begin to think and act--provisionally yet strongly--in the midst of our doubts and fears. We must see our fears not as a reason for inaction," and this begins by resisting Trump.

If we are to succeed, then we must stop talking about coalitions and actually build them. It means progressive organizations must admit once and for all that racism and patriarchy exists within our organizations and need to be destroyed immediately. It means acknowledging that climate change, nuclear disarmament, Black Lives Matter, the fight for water and citizenship are all connected. We must show up for one another, listen and support one another, fight side-by-side with one another to stop Trump and for the world we envision. It means admitting that signing a petition, wearing a safety pin, or writing a think piece is not enough. It means replicating the real work that is already being done in many communities by nameless, faceless activists.

I do not claim to have all the answers and I too, need to look at what I can do better. I admit that I am still scared, still angry. But now, when despair begins to creep back in, I am reminded of Hemingway's words that Tom deemed his greatest responsibility: "to last" and "get my work done." Resist!