While Washington, D.C., slept, the streets of San Juan were erupting in joy.
It was just a few minutes before midnight when embattled Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló finally released the rumored video that he will indeed be resigning in a matter of days, the victim of rampant corruption that was punctuated by the release of his ugly, misogynist online chats. But in the narrow streets surrounding the governor’s mansion of the U.S. territory, the dead of night suddenly burned bright like high noon.
Thousands of protesters waved Puerto Rican flags illuminated by the flashes of their smartphones, with whoops that were worthy of Super Bowl victory. Fireworks exploded in the night sky. Horns honked across the city. Most demonstrators chanted — but a few wept, and why not? For one glorious night, in an increasingly authoritarian world where everyday folks struggle to be heard, the people had won.
“This is historic. Absolutely historic,” 28-year-old Aixa González told the New York Times. “I have never seen anything like this and I can’t even put it into words. This is what he gets, this is justice.” Andrea Fanduiz, 25, a pharmacy technician, said to the newspaper. "We just changed history in Puerto Rico,” adding — after a crude insult of Rosselló — that "whoever comes next had better listen to the streets.”
Back on the U.S. mainland, the streets were quiet. The corrupt misogynist who’s been president of the United States for the last 915 nights slept soundly in his White House bedroom, resting up his Twitter thumbs for the next episode of Fox & Friends. But the majority of Americans who strongly oppose Donald Trump’s presidency were tossing and turning, after a long day spent not in the streets but on their couches, praying in vain for a spark from a halting ex-special counsel Robert Mueller to somehow light a fire under a moribund Beltway establishment.
In these 50 states, justice would have to wait for another day.
The events of the last few days have shown — at least for the tens of millions desperate for an end to America’s 45th presidency — that actual highway gridlock trumps the kind of political gridlock we’ve come to take for granted on Pennsylvania Avenue. On Monday, a stunning crowd that numbered in the hundreds of thousands — on an island with just 3 million people — shut down the American Expressway, the main thoroughfare cutting through San Juan, and marched on the governor’s mansion. That protest — and a general strike that paralyzed much of the island — was clearly a tipping point. Puerto Rico’s lawmakers made it clear that Rosselló faced speedy impeachment if he didn’t step down.
The sight of overflowing streets in San Juan was not completely unfamiliar to their fellow Americans on the mainland. Some recalled the first Women’s March on January 21, 2017, which produced a similar-sized throng in the nation’s capital and a couple million more in cities from coast-to-coast. But that protest drew from a mainland population that is more than 100 times that of Puerto Rico, and also there’s been a gradual shift since the early days of Trump’s presidency away from protest and toward both a reckless, blind faith in the Mueller probe and in electing Democrats who swore on a stack of Bibles that they would hold the White House accountable. After yesterday, Mueller’s clipped performance — echoing the pulled punches of his investigation — and the Democrats’ plodding, overmatched response to White House stonewalling and spin has left millions of Americans feeling gaslit all over again.
Think about it. Rosselló — who had been leader of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party — said horrible things on the Telegram massaging app chats that were leaked earlier this month, making anti-LGBTQ and anti-women comments with his top aides and calling one female political foe “a whore” and joking about killing another, the mayor of San Juan. It’s disgusting, but is it worse than a president captured bragging about sexual assault on tape, credibly accused of sexual misconduct including straight-up rape by as many as two dozen women? Puerto Rico’s corruption — including the indictment of education secretary Julia Keleher, a Delaware County native — is bad, but so is the Trump administration swamp.
So why this tale of two cities, San Juan and Washington?
Hours before Rosselló’s dramatic resignation, I spoke with University of Maryland sociology professor Dana R. Fisher, who’s devoted her recent work to studying political protest in the Trump era and will soon publish a book on the topic called American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave. Fisher and her researchers have tracked protest obsessively since January 20, 2017, and she tends to see the glass as half-full. She noted the large turnouts not just for the first Women’s March but the second one a year later, the March for Our Lives in the wake of the Parkland shootings, and the airport protests against Trump’s travel ban. She said the digital revolution has changed the nature of activism — faster and much more spontaneous, with participants less likely to belong to an organization.
But Fisher, who tracked the evolution from street protest into electoral politics in the fall of 2018, admitted “we have not yet seen a critical mass” of protesters who feel a need to shut down business as usual with an event as dramatic as a general strike. Some of that may be because of the dominance within the early Trump resistance of white women in the age-30-and-above bracket, and a style of protest that is not physically disruptive and thus not seen as threatening by the status quo. That dynamic could change, Fisher noted, with the rapid rise of youth climate protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion which have been planning a strike and related actions after school resumes in September.
But for a growing number of progressive activists watching in dismay as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democrats slow-walk impeachment to death and as a president’s neo-fascism takes deeper root, this September — let alone Nov. 3, 2020 — seems light years away.
The world has been having another one of its periodic protest waves in 2019 — not just in Puerto Rico but on the streets of Hong Kong as well as far-flung places from Moscow to the Sudan. In a time when governments are becoming more authoritarian and less responsive to everyday citizens, and when economic inequality is crushing the global middle class, the biggest question is, what took so long? That is perhaps quadrupally true for Puerto Rico, still colonized in the 21st Century, barred from voting on the president who botched their hurricane recovery while thousands of people needlessly died, and under the thumb of an un-elected control board that values Wall Street over their streets.
But many of the elements that ignited in San Juan are in the oxygen here. What’s preventing lift-off? Some of it is a matter of logistics. The mainland U.S. is the polar opposite of small, densely populated places like Puerto Rico or Hong Kong — spread out in a way that defies mass protest. The trend by groups like the Women’s March of hundreds of simultaneous protests — as opposed to one central march on Washington or New York —has boosted overall participation but arguably diluted impact.
Modern American life — in which most people have no savings accounts and many need a job to keep health insurance — means few would risk a general strike. What’s more, the internet may have made it too easy for people to tweet instead of march. The speed of the web also has helped Americans forget that our most successful protests like the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom required many months of planning.
All of that is on top of the growing disillusionment and malaise at the uniquely American fortress that Trump has constructed — a moat of quasi-state media that is Fox News and talk radio, a rabid base that draws oxygen from a president’s racism and xenophobia, and a flawed political system that gives a conservative minority control of the Senate and the Electoral College.
Despite all of that, experts like Fisher believe protest can make a difference in America. On what just happened in Puerto Rico, she said that “if we could have that percentage of people in the streets in response to anything, we’d see policy change and we’d see people stepping down.” I think she’s right. The biggest reason it hasn’t happened in America is because we haven’t really tried...yet. But that conversation is heating up in the places where they happen in 2019 — on social media and among a resilient network of resisters. Join us. And stay tuned.