Beyond the 'American Summer': 8 steps to deliver on the American promise

Beyond the 'American Summer': 8 steps to deliver on the American promise
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Ten years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and triggered a revolution in Tunisia. That single act inspired the Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy protests and revolutions. Why did a 26-year-old burn himself alive? He had been stripped of his dignity. He sold unlicensed food on a street corner. A government agent slapped him, and the authorities took his cart and scales. Society left him no way – or reason –to live, but subsequently, his fellow citizens realized they shared his struggle, and they ended a dictator’s 23-year rule. 

Last summer, a similar realization took hold in the United States. A single act pushed many of us to examine how our society leaves behind huge numbers of Americans and how our systems strip them of their dignity, leading to inequality and injustice. But we didn’t need an Arab Spring to make change. The countries in the Arab Spring weren’t democracies. We are, however — a strong one. And we used the tools of our democracy to advocate for change in our system. We had what could be called an "American Summer." 

Unlike other revolutions, ours is ongoing and never-ending. It is intense and hard fought. It verges at times on widespread violence but ultimately chooses grassroots over boots on the ground. And the promise of America is that our revolutions are built-in and based on our laws and our customs.


That promise is why Presidents John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan held America up as a shining city on a hill. It is why President-elect BidenJoe BidenIRS to roll out payments for ,000 child tax credit in July Capitol Police told not to use most aggressive tactics in riot response, report finds Biden to accompany first lady to appointment for 'common medical procedure' MORE reminded us that “our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

After our American Summer, here are eight steps to keep that power alive:

Step 1. Pursue dignity. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has said, “What you should see when you see Black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, because they want to live. To breathe.” Abdul-Jabbar is talking about the same thing stolen from Bouazizi in Tunisia, the dignity every American needs and deserves.

Step 2. Be counted and vote. Some Democrats won. Some Republicans won. California voted for Biden yet shut down gig workers. Florida voted for Trump yet supported increasing the minimum wage to $15. No matter who or what you support, as Killer Mike said, you must make sure “people know who you are and where you are,” and then “exercise your political bully power.” Want criminal justice reform? State and local governments are the seats of power. Being counted and voting goes to all levels of government.

Step 3. Support and work with change organizations. As Obama has said, “[T]he choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both.” Being counted and voting is easy, and then it isn’t. The history of voter suppression is long, but organizations like Fair Fight are changing that. They need help. If you are looking for something to do, work with a voter registration group. And donate — to local organizations, to candidates and to political parties, if you can. When lots of people give even $10 or $20, it raises millions.


Step 4. Stay engaged. Even (maybe especially) in a non-election year, email, Tweet, call and write to every elected official at every level. As former first lady Michelle Obama said, democracy “does not work if you disengage from the process.” When politicians hear only the usual voices, they miss what you or I care about. Turn up your volume and say, “I am a registered voter in your district. What are you going to do?”

Step 5. Embarrass those who would deny your rights and your dignity. Protests should disrupt, discomfort and disobey, but civilly. You do no wrong, and you embarrass those who would sweep you away and attack you. That was the genius of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King, but it is hard, active work. To practice their level of devotion to truth and to love, to the point of loving their enemies, takes courage and discipline.

Step 6. Be disciplined in your every move. Study our system and how it works. Dr. King, Malcolm X and Gandhi were students. They all knew the law, the history and the hypocrisy against which they fought. They differed in approach, but they all drew power from knowledge. Their truths were more than slogans. Their actions were tactical and strategic. 

Step 7. Find and follow smart leaders. They should know what is needed and tell you how to help. Listen to and obey the people in charge. If leaders tell you to sit down there or march this way, then do that. But do not graffiti, break or burn. As President-elect Biden said, “There’s no place for violence, no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses.”

Step 8. Make the news about your good and peaceful work. Be nonviolent, and the truth about state violence is clear. In the words of Killer Mike, “It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.” So, distinguish your good work and disavow the violent acts of others.

Pursue dignity. Be counted and vote. Support and work with change organizations. Stay engaged. Embarrass the other side. Be disciplined. Find and follow smart leaders. Make nonstop news about your good and peaceful work. 

These tools allow us to continue to deliver on the American Promise, because when we yet again recognize a peaceful transition of power, we open the door to the future. We begin a new cycle of actions, debates and elections open to all Americans and show the world that the American way is a beacon, at work, tirelessly, day and night, forever. 

Deven R. Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics and associate director of machine learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @devendesai.