There is a scene in the 1954 movie Salt of the Earth that we should all remember in these days of despair. In the scene, the miners have been striking for months, surviving first on strike funds from their union, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and later from the dollars sent from union members across the United States. After struggling for months to maintain the strike, the men receive a Taft-Hartley injunction from the company meaning that continuing the strike will be illegal. They are in despair. There seems no way to continue their fight for equal wages.
At a union meeting to discuss the injunction, a timid Esperanza, at the urging of her friends, suggests that the wives take over the strike. After a heated community discussion, a vote is taken and the women agree to carry on the picket line. The mood at the end of the scene is somber, silent.
In the days that follow, as the women take over the picket line, they sing "We shall not be moved,' and they laugh and dance. They confront the taunts of the sheriff's deputies. They stand defiantly in front of a car trying to drive through the picket line. They turn gender expectations on their head. In the words of Saul Alinsky, they "go outside the experience of the enemy." They cause "confusion, fear, and retreat." (Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.) The strike succeeds.
These are times of despair. I see my friends and colleagues drained from worry of what will come next, what long-fought-for right will be destroyed by the stroke of a pen. In the community in which I organize, I see the stress and fear on the faces of the most vulnerable-- the elders, the immigrants, and the poor-- a fear of what local government will do to appease the city's elite and what Trump will do in his war against immigrants and the beautiful ideals of this nation. It is easy to become overwhelmed and depressed. It is easy to become paralyzed.
In my times of despair, I think about the scene in the movie and the ways the women went outside the experience of the enemy with strength,determination, laughter, and strategy.
I know enemy is a strong term. It sounds harsh to the ear but in these times of despair, what other word is more fitting?
en·e·my (noun): “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something”
We have to think of who the enemy is: Elites who manipulate politicians in order to increase their wealth and prestige; Institutions who help maintain the power status quo; A system that makes inequality and injustice seem inevitable. Anything and anyone that works to make us believe that injustice is inevitable.
This week in my hometown’s City Council meeting, the president of the Greater Chamber of Commerce told the city representatives (with the residents of a barrio under attack who were sitting in the audience listening) that “gentrification is inevitable” whether their neighborhood is demolished or not. Inevitable. There is no hope for justice.
Injustice is not inevitable. Like the women in Salt of the Earth, let’s think outside the box, move in the places outside the experience of the system that works to keep us in despair. Let’s sing “We shall not be moved” and dance and laugh and have meetings that last long into the evening. Let's listen to the elders and the youth so that we can combine experience with new ideas.
No matter how long it takes, justice is worth fighting for.