In the tenth grade, my teacher introduced me to the notion of what she called “good trouble”: political action that is disruptive, erratic, or even dangerous, but that fundamentally does “good” for society. When faced with an institution whose existence is predicated upon their continued subjugation, she explained, the subdued can break their chains only through direct action against both the institution that subdues them and its mechanisms. This kind of resistance has been a constant feature of human civilization. People die, cities rise and fall, revolutions happen, and wars are declared. But one thing rises above the temporality of history: good trouble.
Good trouble has recently been featured in the news. At Princeton in fall 2015, members of the Black Justice League (BJL) occupied President Eisgruber’s office, protested, and published open letters to Princeton and its community to call for the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School. Although the program’s name remains, the BJL’s scrutiny of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy continues to inspire discussions about race on and off campus.
On Capitol Hill last June, House Democrats decided to engage in some good trouble of their own when the Speaker pro tempore Dan Webster, acting under Speaker Paul Ryan, refused to give the House a vote on gun control legislation. The Democrats announced a sit-in on the House floor to challenge Ryan’s decision, literally sitting on the floor of the House. Around 60 Democratic Representatives gave speeches, impeded the House from reconvening, and demanded a vote on the legislation. Speaker Ryan asked CSPAN to stop broadcasting from the chamber, but Democratic Representatives responded by streaming the sit-in from their cellphones. News agencies covered the scene unfolding in the House using the resulting Facebook streams, which were shared thousands of times. Through this good trouble, Democratic Representatives successfully drew attention to the issue of gun control and Ryan’s tyranny as Speaker.
Most recently, good trouble played a vital role in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. In response to the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, people decided to march for, amongst other reasons, women’s rights and racial equality. As many as 500,000 people marched on the streets of D.C., while millions of others marched throughout the United States. It was the largest protest to ever take place in U.S. history, and it was paralleled by solidaristic women’s marches on every other continent, making the Women’s March one of the largest and widest reaching protests in human history.
All this good trouble isn’t exclusive to the 21st century. In 1838, though the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that the Cherokees formed a sovereign nation and had a claim to their homelands in the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains (Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.). President Jackson sent in the U.S. Army and forced them to march to Indian-Territory (Oklahoma). They fought, and even used legal action, and even though they were finally ruled an independent nation and not forced to move, President Jackson still forced them out. It was ultimately a failure. Thousands of Cherokees died, while Native Americans thereafter faced greater discrimination.
Before India’s independence, the British Empire had a monopoly on salt in the region, which they sold to natives at high prices. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked for two months to the Arabian Sea in protest of these prices. Once there, he picked up salt, directly violating British laws in India. His message was simple: Civil disobedience was needed on a massive scale. Millions of Indians began to resist and challenge Britain’s rule. Ultimately, Gandhi and his strategy of civil disobedience facilitated India’s achievement of independence.
In all these cases—and endless others throughout history—those who lacked a voice used good trouble to challenge their mistreatment. They demanded that those in power respect their rights, fomenting good trouble to fight oppression, raise awareness for their problems, and ultimately change the status quo. What’s so beautiful about this is that groups suffering different forms of injustice in different eras all share something in common: They used good trouble to induce change. In this way, there exists a kind of comradery and solidarity between all of those who have fought, are fighting, and will fight for change. Marx famously said that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle—but I would contest that the history of humankind, from the beginning until now and throughout all the future, is the history of good trouble.
Since institutions of power benefit from their own existence, only good trouble can force them to change. All revolutions and other kinds of historical change therefore emerge from good trouble, though those changes don’t necessarily emerge immediately. The Cherokees were unsuccessful in halting their removal from their homelands, but their good trouble emboldened a resistance to discrimination towards Native Americans, one which predated them but continues to this today. Similarly, Gandhi was thrown in jail, and thousands were arrested because of their civil disobedience, but India ultimately achieved its independence. More recently, Democratic Representatives achieved mass coverage of their sit-in and message about gun control on the House floor. Good trouble induces change, uniting those who have fought for change throughout history. Without it, the world would be stuck at the same status quo.
Now, more than ever, the time has come to embrace good trouble. President Trump and his administration do not have a mandate. He imposed a travel ban—one that was fortunately overruled—on six predominately Muslim countries. He wants to practically end the Environmental Protection Agency. He wants to build a wall that would not ensure border security, but rather would be a symbol of xenophobia and ignorance. The list of hateful and bigoted policies goes on and on.
People have already started to show good trouble in response to President Trump. From the Women’s March, to rogue Twitter accounts run by government workers, to protests on college campuses, good trouble is sweeping the nation. The resistance is growing, and it will continue to grow. Some argue that the protests against President Trump won’t work and the violence takes them beyond simple resistance, but all of history shows that this is the only way to induce change. Passively accepting his policies does nothing good, policies which are going to kill people. Syrians seeking a haven in the U.S. have been turned back to a war-riddled country. Hate crimes in the U.S. have spiked. We’re going down the wrong—and darkest—path possible.
Trump is now the President of the United States. This is no longer a game or a joke. It is now quite literally a question of rights or oppression, democracy or dictatorship, life or death. We need to resist. We need good trouble.