Etymologically speaking, the word “inaugurate” means “to consecrate by augury”—to look for signs indicating what is to come at the opening of a new era. Since 1937, the presidential inauguration has taken place on January 20—and for the past half century, this has also become a day of resistance, as ordinary people refuse to trust the future to the rituals of politicians. Today, as we enter the Biden era, we look back on the road that took us through the Trump years to get our bearings for the way ahead.
On the morning of January 20, 2017, I stood at intersection of 12th Street and L Street in downtown Washington, DC. Before me, a double line of riot police separated me from the people surrounded in the kettle targeting participants in the massive black bloc march that had just torn through the city opposing the inauguration of Donald Trump.
The narrow strip of no man’s land that separated us from the front line of armored mercenaries was strewn with abandoned black apparel—sweatshirts, windbreakers, masks, gloves, scarves, bags. Not knowing what was in store for the arrestees—as it turned out, practically all of them were charged with eight or more felonies apiece, though none of those charges ultimately stuck—I figured it might be better if the street were not littered with things that might be misconstrued as evidence. I began to gather up the debris.
Plucking these items from right in front of the line of officers was a risky proposition. What if the police grabbed me and pulled me into the kettle, too? Trying to look nonchalant, I managed to snatch up a scarf, then a pair of sunglasses. One of the bigger items appeared to be a full backpack. It was lying right at the foot of a glowering cop. Someone braver than me darted forward and seized it, swinging it up and withdrawing swiftly into the crowd on our side of the police line. I could see by the way the pack swung that it was heavy.
I ended up with that backpack along with an armload of black clothing. There was something in the pack, that was for sure. Something heavy and solid.
The crowd along the police line was outnumbered; the best I could do for my comrades was to get that stuff out of there. I stepped back from the standoff and made my way south along 12th street. I passed the mouth of an alley, also strewn with clothing.
The straps of the backpack were cutting into my shoulders. I needed to go somewhere private so I could open it up and take a look. It wouldn’t do to open it in the middle of a crowded street in full view of police officers and National Guardsmen without any idea what might be inside. I walked down to Franklin Square and found a coffee shop that was open. A dozen fresh-faced college protesters were waiting in line for the bathroom. I waited for fifteen minutes, but the line hardly moved.
Eventually, I gave up and started looking for another establishment. Most of the other places were closed; some of them had lost their windows to the hammers of the black bloc. The streets in this part of DC had been desolate earlier in the day, but now they were filling up with protesters, journalists, curious locals, the occasional Trump supporter.
I walked a block west to McPherson Square. There was some protest infrastructure there, including a tent and Food Not Bombs preparing to serve a meal, but no privacy I could take advantage of to inspect my cargo.
The longer I carried the backpack, the heavier it got, and the more ominous its weight became. What was inside it? What if I was walking around Washington, DC with a bomb on my back? I was starting to fear that I was a character in a story by William S. Burroughs.
Looking back on that scene from the vantage point of 2021, four years later, it seems like a heavy-handed allegory. The backpack was Pandora’s box, containing all the trials and tribulations of the dawning Trump era. Its weight signified all the unthinkable things that would soon become normalized—travel bans on entire countries, fascists shooting people at demonstrations. It held the grief of all the children lost inside the detention system, separated from their parents by Border Patrol. It held the corpses of the 400,000 people who died of COVID-19 during Trump’s administration.
And it held the weight of our responsibility—of our capacity to respond to these tragedies. It wasn’t until I got home that night after a full day of further adventures and narrow escapes that I was finally able to set the backpack down and look inside it. I pulled the zipper open, revealing a red metal canister—a fire extinguisher. The serial numbers had been scraped off the labels so that it, too, might participate in the anonymous collective force of the black bloc. At the bottom of Pandora’s box, hope—in the form of the actions that we can take and the courage necessary to rise to the occasion.
To whoever chose to arrive thus equipped at the departure point for the J20 black bloc—thank you. Your secret is safe with me.
At the time, the events of January 20, 2017 were dramatic. They helped set the stage for the next four years, demonstrating that we would not let Trump implement his agenda without resistance, legitimizing the kind of confrontational tactics we needed to face his supporters and the institutions of state violence, and galvanizing people into action around the country. But by the standards of 2021, what happened in Washington, DC that day was small potatoes. This past year, people have confronted police, National Guardsmen, and fascists on a similar scale repeatedly, sometimes nightly, in cities across the country. If they had not, Trump might still hold power, election or no.
This is why we believe it is important to remember the flashpoints of Trump era. The following is only an incomplete step towards a full accounting of the struggles and achievements of the past four years.
“Trump has made it very clear that if he could have seized power by brute force, he would have done so—and the rebels who made parts of many cities around the country ungovernable in May and June were among the chief factors discouraging a massive part of the capitalist class from supporting him in this endeavor. Without our grassroots resistance, his scheme could have succeeded.”
Joe Biden didn’t beat Trump. It was grassroots resistance from anti-fascists, anarchists, abolitionists, and—above all—courageous members of targeted communities that limited what Trump and his supporters were able to do during his presidency.
January 20, 2017: Washington, DC
Besides the iconic image of the burning limousine, the most famous footage from the day was surely the punching of fascist Richard Spencer, who had come to Washington, DC to participate in the “Deploraball” gala event the preceding night.
January 20, 2017: Seattle, Washington
At the same time, on the other side of the country, during protests against an appearance of noted misogynist, Islamophobe, and racist troll Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of Washington, two Trump supporters premeditated and executed the shooting of an anarchist protester. The police did not even try to arrest the shooter. This set an ominous precedent for the Trump years.
January 25, 2017: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
On January 25, the most powerful Republicans, business elites, and alt-right white supremacists gathered in the luxury tower of one of Philadelphia’s most expensive hotels for the GOP Summit. A thousand queer protesters gathered, chanting “Any time, any place, punch a Nazi in the face!” and “Black lives matter!”
January 28-29, 2017: The Airport Blockades
All around the United States, protesters shut down airports in protest of Trump’s ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States. 30,000 people marched through marched through downtown Manhattan, effectively shutting down a large section of the financial district.
The judges’ rulings blocking Trump’s policy only came after these protests—and Trump eventually got around them because people stopped taking to the streets, counting on the courts to fix things.
February 1, 2017: Shutting Milo down in Berkeley
On Wednesday, February 1, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California at Berkeley, hoping to continue his efforts to teach young reactionaries to doxx trans and undocumented students. Fierce protests forced the university to cancel the event, prompting liberal handwringing about free speech and drawing far-right attention to Berkeley.
After these first two intense weeks, the pace of resistance slowed as frontline participants sought to catch their breath and liberals began to draw people out of the streets and into fruitlessly legalistic waiting games.
“It is essential to organize in a way that distinguishes us from all state actors and leaves no space for the state to regain legitimacy; anti-fascism must mean opposition to the state itself, lest we topple Trump only to pave the way for an equally authoritarian regime. The sooner a crisis comes, the better, before Trump, the Deep State, and the Democratic opposition have the chance to get their feet under them; at the same time, we have considerable work to do making our proposals comprehensible to the general public. Last but not least, if regime change takes place, the momentum must come from the streets, not from within the halls of power.”
“Take the Offensive: Moving from Protest to Resistance“—an analysis from mid-February 2017 that seems prescient in the wake of the events of January 6, 2021 and the shift of power into the hands of emboldened centrists.
February 22-23: The Eviction of Standing Rock
Police evicted the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. The Obama administration had handed the Standing Rock protesters a victory against the Dakota Access pipeline that the Trump administration immediately reversed, showing the hazards of trusting concessions from the state.
March 4, 2017: The “March for Trump”
Trump supporters sought to strike back against this groundswell of resistance with their own demonstrations around the country. This represented a step in the development of the ground troops that eventually stormed the Capitol on Trump’s behalf on January 6, 2021.
April 15: Fascists Rampage through Berkeley
Supporters of Donald Trump invaded Berkeley, physically attacking people in the name of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and nationalism while the police looked on—successfully obtaining the footage they had been seeking with which to make recruiting videos for fascism. After this day, anti-fascists in the Bay Area were compelled to re-strategize, shifting from an approach based in small circles seeking physical confrontation to an approach that involved mass outreach to form a broader alliance against the fascists.
April 27: The J20 Case Gets Serious
The prosecution in the mass arrest case from the J20 black bloc march filed a superseding indictment adding several more felony charges to each of these defendants, so that each of two hundred defendants faced eight or more felony charges. This was unprecedented; it marked a dramatic escalation in the repression of protest.
May Day 2017
May Day 2017 saw lively demonstrations all around the United States. In the Northwest, Seattle witnessed a successful block party at the site of a juvenile corrections center, while in Olympia anarchists barricaded train tracks to oppose fracking and clashed with police. In Portland, demonstrators defended themselves from police who declared their march a “riot” and introduced a new kind of parade floats.
June 4, 2017: Fascists Rally in Portland, Oregon
In May, Jeremy Christian, who had attended fascist rallies in Portland, murdered two people on a commuter train in Portland. In response, far-right organizers doubled down, promoting a rally that took place in downtown Portland on June 4 with the protection of the police. Anti-fascists responded, taking on both fascists and police.
June 2017: The Emergence of the J20 Legal Strategy
In late June 2017, there were four large defendant assemblies in DC after several days during which many defendants were arraigned and had their trial dates set. This was where the legal strategy was developed that eventually resulted in virtually all of the defendants going free.
July 26, 2017: Trump Bans Trans People from the Military
Imitating the successes of his colleagues Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in consolidating power under homophobic military regimes, Trump banned trans people from the military, rolling back progress towards LBGTQ+ inclusion in society and casting the narrowing options of trans and queer people in stark relief.
August 11-12: “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia
When footage circulated of hundreds of white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville circulated on the evening of August 11, many people reacted with shock and dismay. Anarchists, anti-fascists, and a few faith-based demonstrators had been among the only people to mobilize to Charlottesville; the next day, despite being outnumbered in a series of violent clashes, they forced the police to shut down the rally. Afterwards, one young fascist participant drove his car into an anti-fascist march, grievously injuring many people and killing Heather Heyer.
This was a wakeup call for people around the United States regarding the seriousness of the problem with white nationalism that Trump was connected to; it brought Trump’s approval rating to its lowest point in the first years of his presidency, precipitating the firing of Steve Bannon, his white nationalist advisor.
In response, people organized solidarity demonstrations all around the United States and the world. It’s important to emphasize that while Joe Biden used the footage from Charlottesville in the first announcement of his 2020 campaign, he was nowhere to be seen in Charlottesville or in the immediate response to the Unite the Right rally.
The following Monday, on August 14, demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina pulled down a Confederate monument, helping to initiate the subsequent wave of statue topplings. A subsequent fascist rally in Boston was also suppressed by massive numbers of counter-demonstrators.
August 27, 2017: Fascists Shut Down in the Bay Area
Two weeks after the “Unite the Right” rally, the same fascists who had rampaged through Berkeley on April 15 attempted to hold another rally there. This time thousands of demonstrators mobilized, preventing the police from escorting them to the rally site—a major victory against the movement that had murdered Heather Heyer.
Dismayed at the failure of the police to secure a space for Nazis to recruit for fascism, the ostensibly centrist mayor of Berkeley called for “antifa” to be designated as a gang. Nonetheless, this was an important step in limiting the ability of the far right to build a street movement capable of preventing people from engaging in grassroots organizing against Trump’s agenda or the ordinary violence of the police.
Fascist street organizing did not really recover from these blows until summer 2020. This effectively concluded the first intense round of conflicts in the Trump era, with costly victories for anarchists and anti-fascists but a long and uncertain road yet ahead.
December 21, 2017: The Conclusion of the First J20 Trial
After nearly a year of suspense, the first six J20 defendants to go to trial were declared innocent of all charges. The following month, the prosecutors dropped the charges against 129 more defendants.
March 2018: The March for Our Lives
Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 and ahead of the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC people all around the United States were talking about gun violence. A new mass movement emerged for gun control. Notably, this was the first major protest movement of the Trump era demanding more government control rather than less. As such, it was a step towards the pacification of movements and the suppression of the social ferment that had achieved such important victories in 2017.
April 21, 2018: National Socialist Movement Rally in Newnan, Georgia
Anti-fascists mobilized against a Nazi rally in a small Southern town, only to meet a massive police response involving seven hundred officers from fully 42 city, state, and federal jurisdictions employing checkpoints, helicopters, tanks, and guns to control protesters. The first wave of fascist organizing had failed, but the armed forces of the state were stepping up to try to do what the fascists had not been able to.
June 2018: The ICE Blockades
The Trump administration had once again called on US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to ramp up deportations around the country. In response to this and the news that federal officials were separating children from their parents, anarchists and other protesters occupied ICE facilities around the country, acting immediately rather than waiting for the courts or legislation.
June 30, 2018: Another Clash in Portland
On June 30, on a day of nationwide demonstrations against the brutality of ICE and borders in general, fascists mobilized to march through downtown Portland protected by a massive phalanx of riot police. The ensuing clashes were reminiscent of the fascist mobilizations of 2017. Portland police opened their lines to let the fascists charge demonstrators, then attacked those the fascists had just attacked. Afterwards, we commented,
“From now on, every movement that attempts to come to grips with the violence of the state—such as the recent wave of protests against ICE—will likely have to deal with the violence of grassroots fascists protected by police as well.”
July 2018: Total Victory for the J20 Defendants
In the beginning of July, the US Attorney’s office conceded total defeat after a year and half of persecuting the J20 defendants, dropping the remaining charges against the last 39 of them. All the others had been declared innocent or seen their charges dropped already. Against all odds, the defendants had won, blocking a legal precedent that could have made the mass movements of 2020 impossible.
August 2018: All Out August
In anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally and in response to fascists attacking the Occupy ICE Encampment in San Antonio on July 28, anarchists made a call for a convergence of struggles against fascist organizing, the prison-industrial complex, and the violence of the border for the month of August. This month of action included anti-fascist mobilizations in Portland, Charlottesville, and Washington, DC and concluded with the toppling of another Confederate statue in North Carolina.
Anarchists spent the fall occupied with disaster relief and struggling to support migrants in the face of Trump’s efforts to militarize the border, while Democrats focused on the elections and toothless fetishization of “the rule of law.” The October 27, 2018 shooting that a Trump supporter carried out at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania underscored that the threat from violent fascists had not diminished at all.
The opening of 2019 found all the contenders stymied. Trump was threatening to declare a state of emergency to fund his call for a border wall in the face of another potential government shutdown. Anarchists tried to mobilize around this, but in the end, Trump’s threats came to nothing, and along with them whatever momentum anarchists might have created. Democrats had invested themselves deeply in a cult around special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This gave them an alibi not to join efforts to block the Trump agenda through direct action, instead seeking to present themselves as the legitimate, legalistic faction of the state—a tremendous risk, considering that Trump was slowly, steadily replacing the judiciary with judges loyal to the Republican Party.
April 12, 2019: Atlanta, Georgia
In response to a viral video prisoners released detailing moldy conditions inside of the Dekalb County Jail, fifty people flooded the jail, clashing with correctional officers and setting off smoke bombs inside the jail and fireworks outside it. This was part of a series of struggles against jails, prisons, and detention centers that had intensified in the movement against ICE.
July 13, 2019: Willem Van Spronsen Attacks a Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington
On July 13, Willem Van Spronsen was killed by police while attempting to disable the fleet of buses that serve the Northwest Detention Center, a private immigration detainment facility in Tacoma. His final statement conveyed that he was responding to the continuous raids and deportations carried out by ICE. Donald Trump had just announced that ICE was about to carry out a new round of massive raids; afterwards, asked why the raids were not happening, an ICE official expressed that they were concerned for the safety of their officers.
July 2019: Uprising in Puerto Rico
While things in the United States were comparatively quiet, a revolt in Puerto Rico put the governor to flight, creating a nearby reference point for the kind of movements that were already making waves in Honduras, Haiti, Sudan, and Hong Kong.
September 20-27, 2019: The Climate Strike
The fact that the environmental movement of September 2019 was largely aimed at persuading a disinterested government to enact reforms indicates the ground that militant and autonomous movements had lost since 2017, or at least had failed to gain in ecological movements. Like the “March for Our Lives,” the climate strike posed the question of what to do about climate change in such a way that only a different government policy could provide a solution. This provided a basis for Democratic Party campaigning, but not for the kind of direct action that would be necessary to pressure state and corporate interests to cease to engage in the kinds of activity that are rapidly worsening the climate crisis.
October 6, 2019: Protests against the Invasion of Rojava
On October 6, the Trump administration announced it was pulling US troops out of northern Syria, essentially giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to invade Rojava, carry out ethnic cleansing, and forcibly resettle the area. Anarchists called for solidarity actions, racking up a long list of endorsements but achieving little effective mobilization outside the Bay Area and a couple other hotspots.
Meanwhile, elsewhere around the world, uprisings in Ecuador, Chile, Catalunya, Iraq, and Lebanon offered models for ungovernable social movements. These stood in stark contrast to the malaise of much left and liberal organizing in the US at the end of 2019. As we wrote in our year in review,
“The Democratic Party has intentionally introduced a series of spectacles aimed at centralizing itself in the popular imagination as the chief representative of anti-Trump sentiment and the only hope for social change. Foremost of these spectacles are the Mueller investigation, the recent impeachment proceedings, and the ongoing Democratic primaries. Neither the Mueller investigation nor the impeachment have threatened Trump’s power—and the 2020 election may not, either. But all three of them serve to focus attention on institutional processes and invest legitimacy in existing authority figures—including career politicians, judges, and the FBI.”
Looking back on that period from today’s vantage point, especially in view of the Democratic establishment’s determination not to permit Bernie Sanders to obtain the nomination, it is by no means certain that the Democrats would have been able to galvanize enough turnout to unseat Trump had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic and, above all, the George Floyd uprising. Centrist pundits charged—without evidence—that the uprising in the US was scaring the electorate into supporting Trump, but it is just as possible that the pandemic and the uprising drove people to the polls who might otherwise not have bothered. All summer, Biden supporters alleged that confrontational protests would bring Trump back into power, but the fact is that Trump’s popularity plunged after the George Floyd rebellion began and only began to recover when it died down.
It would require a chronology several times the length of this one to capture all the ways that people organized through direct action to survive and respond to the catastrophes of 2020. The year saw more action than the preceding three years combined. While the struggles of 2017-2019 seem a lifetime ago, the events of 2020 should still be fresh in our memories. We should take care to fix them there, lest Democrats’ efforts to change the subject to electoral politics cause us to forget the most consequential aspects of the times we have just lived through.
To be succinct, we can begin by emphasizing the importance of the mutual aid networks that sprang up all around the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.
We can also note grassroots efforts to fight evictions and establish housing security in the midst of the crisis. In just one of countless examples, over the summer, unruly demonstrators smashed the windows of the courthouse in Richmond, Virginia, delaying eviction proceedings.
When police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, bold young people regularly targeted by the same state violence brought this tragedy to everyone’s attention by chasing away the police and burning down the police precinct. If not for the courage of those who accomplished these things, we might never have learned George Floyd’s name.
This uprising spread around the United States, becoming the fiercest revolt in contemporary US history and forcing a reckoning with racism and police violence. Liberals who attempted to portray confrontational participants as “outside agitators” were trying to co-opt a movement that had been necessarily confrontational from the very beginning. Subsequent efforts to establish autonomous zones and tear down statues representing the legacy of white supremacy underscored the extent to which this movement was based in direct action from the beginning to the end.
When Trump sent federal forces to Portland in a test run to see if the Department of Homeland Security officers who were loyal to him could provide sufficient force to back him in seizing power, the ones who initially mobilized to defend Portland knew the value of direct action from years of struggle, and the people who joined them swiftly learned from and expanded on those experiences.
Throughout all this, liberal centrists tried to discredit direct action, as they always do, employing a range of different narratives to discourage people from acting for themselves. But passivity will not keep us safe. Liberals urged people to stay home on January 6, 2021, as well—but if Trump had succeeded in getting more elements of the government on board with his plan to seize power, staying home would have been even more dangerous than attempting to confront his supporters the way anti-fascists did in Charlottesville and Berkeley. If grassroots fascists with guns are dangerous, state violence is ten thousand times more dangerous, the more so as it becomes more and more authoritarian. In the long term, nothing is more dangerous than relying on the security apparatus of the state to protect us from the authoritarian elements within it, since the two are almost identical.
Many understood the election as a referendum on what kind of government we want—fascist or democratic—but it also functioned to divert people from the question that the uprising had originally posed: whether we want to have any kind of government at all. Remember, according to a Newsweek poll published over the summer, 54% believed that the burning of the Minneapolis Police Precinct was justified after George Floyd’s killing. At the time, Biden was polling around 46% and Trump at 38%. It took the threat of a continued Trump government to cow people into focusing on the election rather than on extending and deepening the revolt.
In the end, the election removed Trump from power, but it preserved all the institutions through which he and his cronies inflicted violence against people. We will have to start all over again to explain to the more comfortable elements of the population why we still oppose family separations, deportations, jails, prisons, evictions, and police now that their preferred representatives hold the reins.
In the final, dramatic scene of an election that stretched out over more than two agonizing months, Trump’s supporters attempted to defy the same state security apparatus that they ordinarily champion to keep their preferred ruler in power. It is one of the ironies of our age that historians may remember them as the insurrectionists, rather than the millions who repeatedly made parts of the United States ungovernable in 2020, and that this may make revolt seem foreign to those who stand to gain the most from it. When you look into the abyss, cautions Nietzsche, the abyss looks back into you—years of obsessing about a cartoon caricature of “antifa” led Trump’s most hardcore supporters to act out precisely the fantasy they were most afraid of others enacting. We should take care not to trade places with them, becoming, in turn, the duped defenders of the status quo under Biden.
On the eve of January 20, 2021—this day of apparent transition and real continuity—rebels asserted the continuity of their own struggles by attacking a police station in Vacaville and an ICE office in San Francisco.
Not everyone is ready to go back to business as usual.