On Staying To Fight

This was originally written in 2018, and has aged somewhat. But still seems valid, and hence I’m publishing it.

Trans people have been whispering to each other for a while now that it’s time to go.

Many of us have been quietly getting affairs in order to go. Me among them. [note: that was 2018. I left late that year. TransEmigrate, Trans Rescue’s prior incarnation, was founded May 2020].

I’ve had a number of disturbing conversations during this with, usually, young trans people who seem to have far less social capital than I have.

They’re saying “I won’t leave, I’ll stay and fight”, “My conscience won’t let me leave”, etc.

This is addressed to those of you who feel this way. I’d like to say first, I admire your courage. I don’t want to dismiss your level of commitment.

But I’d like to suggest that the first step in staying is, paradoxically, to go.

To talk about the future of the US over the next few years, I need to make a side trip to establish some model of resistance.

Resistance comes in graded levels. It’s actually the great genius of democracy, realizing that by accommodating less violent forms of protest, violent revolt becomes less likely.

Suppose a group finds a condition in their society intolerable. Here’s a graded series of steps they can take:

They can approach their representatives. Sometimes all it takes is to get those in power to understand what’s wrong in order to get it fixed.

But their representatives may choose to ignore their pleas. Then they can apply various sorts of political pressure – donating to opponents, peaceful protest.

If this still results in no relief, if, for example, they’re a small minority deeply hated by a majority, or political power is undemocratically skewed, this turns into more vigorous protest. And it’s here that the authorities typically start retaliating, and also where we start thinking about the safety of those involved in resistance. And people were killed during the BLM protests and during the Viet Nam war protests.

One form more vigorous protest can take beyond the ‘vigorous protest’ of the 60s anti-war protest sort is rioting. Rioting is effective in that it usually is undertaken by an impoverished underclass, and directly transfers wealth into their hands, but it’s sometimes counterproductive in that its strong conflation with simple criminal greed means it also turns the majority against the resister.

Another form is satyagraha – nonviolent resistance. While effective at turning the majority against the tyrant, it’s very difficult to organize without at least a somewhat liberal government in place. Nonviolent resistance is a centralized tactic that depends on the resisters being what Gandhi called “well disciplined cadres”. This rather military term is not coincidence. It’s very, very difficult to get a group of people to agree to walk up to a line of police and be clubbed, arrested, and, in the case of trans women, probably sexually abused and then killed in custody. It’s an entirely different sort of action than, say, antifa, which belongs more to ‘vigorous protest’.

Organizing satyagraha requires a willingness to be organized I just don’t see likely in American society’s left today. Frankly, this is a good thing – the right has demonstrated that they are willing to be so organized (think Charleston, the white polo uniforms, the ranks of men, the tiki torches).

[This was written prior to Portland. It is perhaps a demonstration of it’s truth that the Portland street fighting became a fine example of anarchists being ‘well disciplined cadres’ – blak blok, consensus based tactics, people taking on specialist roles like street medic].

More importantly, it’s a more effective technique against an opponent who is pretending to be  moral. People who tear children away from parents and traumatize them are not pretending to be moral, and are being cheered on by those who want them to be immoral. Reading a bit of anti-trans rhetoric on twitter rapidly convinces me that these are not people who will be swayed by a valiant stand.

Further, it’s become the default. And is often effectively used as a cudgel by oppressive forces, who, themselves violent, are happy to claim the oppressed have lost the moral high ground by taking the final resort of violence.

If you are a firefighter and flee the burning building you’re a coward.  If you’re a homeowner and your house is burning, flee. Grab your loved ones, get out, and only then start thinking about putting the fire out. “Put your own oxygen mask on first”.

Yet another form is bloody revolution.

Against a well organized government like the US government, that’s going to look like one of two things.

It might look like millions of people swarming to Washington DC, a protest that just keeps growing, a la South Korea, until the fences around the White House cave in, the crowd rushes in, and some secret service agent has the common sense not to start firing. The original March on Washington was predicated on this sort of display. It’s a classic satyagraha move – demonstrate to the government that the movement leaders, and not the government, control the country.

I’d remind you that a fair fraction of the US still supports Trump. So I don’t know if this mode can happen.  I’d be delighted to be wrong.

[This was written prior to the Jan 6 coup attempt. A good lesson that the other side has all these options as well! And when written, I envisaged a 10,000 person protest of the Nixon white house variety, not a few hundred people and a bungled or politically compromised police response. ]

The remaining mode is revolution. Small bands of young people moving along back woods trails. Underground cells in cities blowing up TV stations.

This mode eventually becomes guerrilla warfare.

Now, to have successful guerrilla warfare, one needs three things.

First, one needs support from outside the zone of conflict. War is expensive, money is needed. Small arms are, “we’re the ones with the guns” idiots notwithstanding, usually not a big problem for guerillas, but even guerillas need heavy weapons (the Mujahedin in Afghanistan only started winning against the Russians when supplied with US Stinger missiles).

Second, one needs the support of the general populous, or at least an identifiable subset of them. We have that.

Third, and this is crucial, one needs a rear area. Either an unpopulated, difficult to search area (mountains, jungle), or a border with a friendly, or at least tolerant area.

New fighters enter the rear area, usually having escaped the zone of conflict. They are recruited, turned around, armed, organized, and sent back in as fighting units.

There’s no ‘rear’ as in a conventional army, but there still has to be this strategic rear. For the Viet Cong it was North Viet Nam and Cambodia. For the French resistance, it was the French Alps. For the Russian partisans, it was the forests. For us, it’s Canada.

So, if you decide to stay and fight, your first stop is Canada, oddly.

This isn’t a position I’m committed to as some great principle. It’s just my observation, based on a fair amount of direct action work.

I’m an engineer by trade. We engineers have a saying, “If it’s stupid, but it works, it’s not stupid”.  So I think about what will work.

And I just don’t think ‘stay and fight’ is going to work.

I’ll close with a quote from the movie Patton.  “No one ever won a war by dying for his country. You win wars by making the other poor, dumb, bastard die for his country.”