Here’s one way to look at the events of the past week: It didn’t matter that dozens of women told the world that they had been drugged and raped by a sitcom star. It didn’t matter that we believed them and other women like them. It didn’t matter that there was video footage of a nonviolent man being filled with bullets by a police officer at a routine traffic stop. It didn’t matter that there were protests filling the streets and the internet on behalf of him and way too many others like him. It didn’t matter that lots of suburban white ladies decided they were fresh out of fucks and started knocking on doors and raising money for a long-shot candidate. It didn’t matter that we flooded our senators with calls and postcards begging them to defend Obamacare, because some of them were still pushing for repeal and didn’t even have the decency to tell us what they wanted to replace it with.
There has been enormous public outcry over systemic injustices like rape and police brutality but, it seems, little to show for it. A few scattered reforms and a couple of legal wins, sure, but nothing that resembles justice yet. Sexism and racism are part of the fabric of America; they aren’t easily excised and discarded. Electoral politics is a different challenge, but one that is also difficult and expensive. We’re starting to make the transition from the panicked early days of the Trump administration to the long haul of pushing back against the GOP agenda. We knew change would be slow.
Yet it’s still so much slower than we’d hoped. For those of us who care about social justice and are working on politics to advance it, we understand that, desperate as we are for change, it will take time. But it’s one thing to know that change is going to take a while, and it’s another to live in that while. Especially for people who are waking up to injustice for the first time and experiencing their first disappointments and defeats. We are reminded, almost daily, that the forces we’re working against are deeply entrenched. It’s easy to only see the defeats.
Part of the problem is that the victories — and yes, there have been many minor victories — aren’t as headline-grabbing as the losses. (The Small Victories weekly newsletter is full of them.) They are also more difficult to measure. We’re working to change both the culture and the policies it creates, which means that sometimes the win is merely helping the world recognize an injustice for what it is, even if we haven’t figured out how to remedy it yet. The conversation around the Cosby case has surely helped some survivors recognize their experiences as assault, not merely a “bad night” or a mistake on their own part. That is not a measurable victory, but it’s a step.
When it comes to electoral politics, you often need losses before you can build momentum and win. EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock says she advises women to run for office “early and often” because they will lose their first race, and probably their second and third as well. The important thing is to keep running. And to realize that even losses lay groundwork. In the wake of Democrat Jon Ossoff’s special-election defeat in Georgia this week, the Sister District Project, which encourages people to get involved in races far from where they live in order to swing Congress, assured its supporters that the level of interest in this hard-to-win seat bodes well for the midterms: “If Democrats spent $23 million in Virginia for the 2017 House of Delegates elections, we would win handily.” They went on to explain the domino effect that this could have: Democrats could take control of a Virginia chamber, start working to redo unfair district lines drawn by Republicans in the state, and eventually win additional seats in Congress. Now that is a long game.
Conservatives did this unsexy electoral work for decades. Decades. They excel at all things unsexy, actually, and they’re reaping the benefits of their national support networks and gerrymandered districts (cross your fingers for the Supreme Court ruling on that one) in state legislatures and in Congress. It works.
What’s heartening is that I see this long-haul attitude all around me — especially since the election. I see people showing up to immigration removal hearings, even when there’s not a big planned protest. I see people providing child care so that others can attend police-commission meetings. I see people driving women on the hours-long trip to an abortion provider. I see people offering their legal services and hosting candidate fundraisers. These things are all victories. Action over inertia is a victory.
When I lived in D.C. years ago, I got into a discussion about affirmative-action policies with a libertarian at a bar. (No, this is unfortunately not the set-up for a nerdy joke.) He asked me, “Where does it end? How do you know when things are equal enough that such policies are unnecessary?” The fact that he thought we were close enough to equality that I could begin to see its contours yet was laughable to me. “All I know,” I told him, “is that we aren’t there yet.”
But I also know that we can’t get there by sitting back and doing nothing. If you don’t like the status quo, the only thing to do is anything. Anything at all that does not confirm or support it. Recognizing just how long the game is makes it easier to wake up day after day and keep at it. Everything’s not riding on a few juries or a single special election. This is so much bigger.
This was a week when we didn’t get the convictions we wanted from juries. But there’s another definition of “conviction” that applies outside the courtroom. It means a strong belief and the courage to stick to it. These are the convictions we do have: That black Americans deserve to be safe from violence. That women’s bodies are theirs alone. That political representation is worth fighting for. That the system must be changed from within and pushed from without. That all of this matters.