Activist politics: Government from the bottom up

Since last November, I have been helping to draft and promote a piece of legislation called the Williamstown Immigrant Trust Act. If passed, this ordinance will have a few effects. Among other things, it will ensure that the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) will not participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law. It will strictly limit the circumstances under which the WPD may comply with federal “civil immigration detainers” – which authorize warrantless detention. And it will require the WPD to protect the due process rights of persons subject to federal immigration investigation. The Act will also prohibit the use of town resources to create a federal registry based upon arbitrary factors including race, religion and national origin.

It should not be controversial to reject warrantless detention, defend the legal rights of all people or abjure racial and religious profiling. In fact, many of these policies are already held by the WPD and other agencies of the Williamstown government. Nor should it be controversial to ask Washington – the richest government in the history of the world – to enforce its own broken immigration laws and not to force a tiny village to do so on its behalf.

But we are living in controversial times, and so this act is the product of months of consultation. It is indebted to organizations as diverse as the New York Attorney General’s office, the Latinx Caucus of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police and the Coalition for Immigrant Student Advancement here at the College. In May, if all goes well, the resulting draft will be passed into law at the 2017 Williamstown Town Meeting.

The process of consultation that produced this draft has been painfully educational for me. Too often, I have found intelligent people on the left draw a sharp line between politics and activism. “Politics is crooked!” cries the activist. “All politicians care about are votes and dollars.” And the politician replies: “Activists are naïve. They make a ruckus in the street, but without us, they’d never accomplish anything at all.”

But if the Immigrant Trust Act proves anything, it is that politics and activism are entirely compatible. The sanctuary campaign is a movement: it operates at the local level rather than in Washington, and it draws its strength from communities and from grassroots organizing. But that movement’s tools are both legal and political; it seeks to pass legislation governing the conduct of local governments. Its business is as much in the town hall as it is in the town square.

This is exactly how democracy is supposed to work. In a healthy republic, we are all activists. We educate ourselves. We organize. We insist that our government reflect our values and our concerns. In the absence of activism, apathy thrives, and apathy is fatal to a free society. So we show up to demand progress.

But in a healthy democracy, we are also all politicians. After all, we are our own government. The people themselves are sovereign. And so, we offer money as well as complaints. We campaign for candidates as well as issues. We don’t just protest: we vote. We show up to govern ourselves.

This means that activism and politics are two faces of a larger and more challenging activity: the practice of citizenship. Without activism, politics is meaningless power-mongering. Without politics, activism is meaningless virtue-mongering. But a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires both virtue and power of its citizens. When virtue and power go hand in hand, the world can change.

That change begins when we recognize that we, as citizens, are the bedrock of our own institutions. The Democratic Party is like every other political organization and every other activist group; it looks the way it does because of people like you and me, who attend local meetings and set their own agendas and fight for better laws and better policies – yes, even right here in Williamstown. We are the party, and the movement, and the soul of the nation. If you don’t like it, show up and change it.

So, the next time you feel tempted to despair of this republic, remember that democracy is government by the folks who care too much to give up. It is government by people with passion and grit. It is government by activists and by politicians. It is government by good citizens. And you can be one of them – if you decide to show up.

Benjamin Williams ’17.5 is a history major from Bloomington, Ind. He lives in Agard.

  • Augustine25

    Unfortunately, the cultural qualities which have made the U.S. so attractive to visitors and immigrants are rooted in the cultural inheritance of our white, European, Christian founders. It is an unfortunate truism that allowing people who lack this inheritance into our country illegally is not in the best interests of any of us.

    Personally, I think a 50 moratorium on immigration would do more for the health of Williamstown than opening it to the moral flaws of illegal immigration. I certainly hope the white working class in Williamstown finally wakes up and realizes that the Democrats, especially the Democrats at the college are not their friends.