It’s clear who won the first Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday night: modern protest movements for racial, economic and climate justice. The demands and narratives emerging from Occupy Wall Street, the DREAMers, Fight for 15, the climate justice movement, Moral Mondays and Black Lives Matter received an audience of over 15 million people. Over the course of the past few years, these movements have changed the weather and forced conversations about the most pressing racial justice issues of our time onto the public and political agenda.
The lesson learned here? Disrupting business as usual works.
Undocumented youth have repeatedly disrupted both Democrats and Republicans and committed civil disobedience in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2008. After more than 8,000 people were arrested during the Occupy movement in 2011, the idea of The One Percent broke into the national consciousness, symbolizing the influence of Wall Street on our government and the continued growth of economic inequality. When an estimated 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City for higher wages and better working conditions in 2012, they sparked a movement that now includes retail, federal and home-care workers and makes a $15 minimum wage a political reality. Since a white self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, stalked and killed an unarmed black boy, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida in 2012, the Movement for Black Lives—including groups such as the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Dream Defenders, BYP100 and Black Lives Matter—have held thousands of protests, taking over highways, staging die-ins, interrupting presidential candidates, and confronting Confederate flag supporters. And this year, in Iowa and New Hampshire, climate justice activists protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline have stalked candidate Hillary Clinton.
So when Democratic presidential candidates can openly rail against Wall Street and deportations, talk about a sustainable future and a living wage, or say "Black Lives Matter," it isn’t because they had a change of heart. It’s because movements have primed the public to seek candidates who can adequately address the items on the public agenda. Our political culture so often makes us think that politicians hold all the power and everyone else is simply an observer. But recent social movements have shown that morning talk shows, the topics of presidential debates, and even policy platforms can be shaped by large-scale public participation in the face of billionaires attempting to buy an election. Having successfully influenced the conversation, these movements will now have to determine how to sustain public participation, make candidates take clear stances on their issues, and hold them accountable when elected.
Every four years, presidential elections engage millions of ordinary people in a public dialogue around the big ideas determining the future of our country. As the Republican primaries become increasingly defined by their ability to time travel ("Bring America Back!" and "Make America Great Again!") back to a country based in the rule of wealthy white straight men, social movements are forcing the American public–and particularly Democrats–to not just look left or right, but forward to the biggest challenges and opportunities facing our country today. A generation of young people–more brown, more black, more queer, more in debt–has been taking to the street to help move the rest of us forward because they have nothing to lose. Now is the time for bold vision, leadership, and action not just from candidates but from ourselves.
The stage is ours.
Waleed Shahid* is Philadelphia-based writer and the political director of Pennsylvania Working Families Party. He is a movement-building trainer with Momentum and tweets at @waleed2go.
*Waleed Shahid’s bio has been updated since publication.