There is an untold story of what happens away from the streets, the rallies, the skillshares, and the gatherings. When our attempt to hold onto the connection has failed, and dirty dishes become as destructive to movements as state co-optation. The wave of insurrectionary hope has reached a lull, and another world no longer feels possible.
That social fallout, which nobody warns you about, shows us that the revolution is about tearing down not just the hierarchical systems that control us but those within ourselves. When people caught up in a movement are unable to do that collectively, or when we have trouble being our best selves, the communities we attempt to build devolve into something else. Bonds are broken, and there’s a new layer of trauma you must deal with.
The way that we have internalized systems of hierarchy means that we hurt each other in familiar ways even when we claim to strive for the same political goals. We are hurt people, and in this world where we are born and taught violence, it is important to remember that no matter how much you try to deconstruct, the ways we have absorbed power dynamics mean that we do and will continue to cause others harm.
This is not an excuse for people to treat each other in fucked up ways, it just seems to be what happens. We throw political labels loosely; at this point, what do “radical” or “revolutionary” even mean? I regret ever allowing myself to be labeled these things. It’s almost like a self-sabotage, a level or an idea that one can never truly live up to. There’s a lot of back-patting when people christen themselves radicals or revolutionaries, and too little self-reflection.
Everyone comes into the movement with all of their previous baggage, feeling isolated and abandoned by this world, and is happy to meet people that make them feel like they are no longer alone in recognizing the madness. Like a church that has helped you find sobriety, you baptize yourself in radical thought, letting go of old sinful habits as well as the unenlightened. This is your new life, this is your new self.
There’s an inner change that happens the more you begin to deconstruct the assumptions embedded within our social arrangement. You begin to look differently at the people in your life and the things that once brought you joy. You lose yourself in a hypercritical takedown of the world, but you tell yourself it’s okay, because you’ve found people who are also growing and changing and deconstructing. The attraction of movements is like the pull of the moon, a strength that cannot be seen except by the end results of its magnetism. It draws in, creating waves that are filled with sand, shells, and various other life-forms. For a moment we are one, a part of something bigger than ourselves. Then the inevitable crash happens, and like currents we are pulled apart. Some return to the shore; some get dragged into the next wave; some drown.
Mass street movements like those that have gathered in the past decade have followed this pattern, all eventually collapsing under their volume. We are not all one, nor do we share the same struggle; “we” does not exist. Instead, resistance is a layered network of struggles, and we coexist within those layers. Just because a bunch of people can shut down a freeway together doesn’t mean our goals are the same, even if some of our identities overlap.
At the present, it is hard to imagine that my desire for liberation and autonomy will amount to more than just a collection of moments, instead of my full existence. This is why despair is so heavy. Participating in so many waves only to see regression has left me feeling washed up. There’s an idea that those who have reached despair have given up, and perhaps that is true to an extent. Being in resistance culture has changed and scarred me. It is not only the police who have left me with trauma, but relationships and experiences with others who were also participating in these various spaces. So much of resistance culture and rhetoric is about sacrifice and martyrdom. “Organize!” they shout. “We must sacrifice ourselves for a better future, and if you’re not organizing towards that, then what are you really doing?” This guilt-tripping reveals a weak analysis for how we value each other’s labors, and also shows how capitalism, ableism, and other systems of oppression still conceive what we consider to be activism™. It encourages burnout and rewards overextension while belittling anything less as a failure to do “real work.”
Once burnout within movements sets in and repression comes down like a mallet, the depression and alienation you felt before you believed in a new world return like a bill collector you thought you had dodged. You are met with the reality that the movement, like other systems in this world, has failed you, and you have failed it. The pursuit of this world, this “better tomorrow” we thought we could create, left us more broken than before. Was it better to have tried?
The magnetism that pulls us into a wave of resistance is intoxicating. The hope you feel when you first come into a movement is what threatens the state and authoritarian power. This is why that connection, that feeling of solidarity, must be crushed and destroyed. This is why power must repress our movements, and this is also why those who have participated in the tumult of recent years must talk about more than just better times. We must talk about the pain, the hurt, the betrayal, the loss, the sadness, the loneliness, the isolation, the depression, the suppression, the suicidal feelings, the fears, and the despair.
Looking back, I can feel the lost optimism. There was a moment when I believed that this was it, that the time had finally come, and that we were part of a global movement to challenge and dismantle these violent structures. There were intense and active rebellions across the world. And although we were not all on the same wave, we were inspired by each other and that made us a danger. We were unaware that we had been set up like a row of dominoes, falling one by one after another. Because as we taught each other how to resist, the states we were fighting also learned from each other and coordinated our repression.
Despair seems like an expected result after experiencing and witnessing repression. It’s a part of the cycle that insurrectionary social movements seem to follow: An uprising happens, inspiring the spread of unrest; then there is the cooptation of energy by liberal political parties and nonprofit organizations; then there’s a crackdown by the state, including severe prosecution and imprisonment; then a lull, where it still feels possible that things could reignite. When they don’t, you reach the final stage of the cycle: Despair.
I often wonder how some who have been entrenched in movement politics stay optimistic. How have they not felt destroyed by the repeated violence that occurs on every level and layer of involvement? Is their optimism even real? Or is it another mask that we must wear? The one to hide from the other surveillance state, of our peers lurking and watching as we emotionally unravel for everybody to witness on social media.
There needs to be more reflection on waves as they are happening. Less focus on what dead white men would do and more examination of how interpersonal conflict contributes to the failure of movements. The inability to address unchecked hierarchy in real time has led to the demise of many attempted collectives and organizations. It’s not surprising that resistance spaces and movements tend to be so toxic and abusive. Our whole society is. But in these hyperaware spaces we’re able to see it more, and call it out more quickly; at least that’s the hope… The truth is that even though we may try to build intentional spaces to relate to each other in more horizontal ways, we still continue to produce the same abusive dynamics that exist everywhere else.
My hopes for a world where autonomous communities exist and thrive are quickly dampened by the reality that antiblackness and white supremacy will always persist regardless of a group’s stated political philosophy. That gender violence will continue, and authoritarian figures and ideologies will rush in to fill power vacuums. So, whether I live under a state power or in an autonomous community, it seems that I will be forced to defend myself against someone who feels entitled to power over me.
In the end I have myself, and even that’s not that reliable. Maybe the more you learn to love yourself, and protect yourself, the more you can learn to love solitude.