Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead

In the Trump era, many see activism as more vital than ever. But what happens when it takes a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health?

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Dec 7 2018, 4:49pm

Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Burnout and Escapism Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

Six. That’s the number of consecutive Mondays Mohammad Khan estimates he spent glued to his laptop, anxiously awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court on the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Since the Supreme Court doesn’t announce when rulings will come, Khan and his colleagues at Mpower Change, a countrywide Muslim-led social justice organization co-founded by Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, watched each livestream with trepidation. They were waiting to hear if the nation’s highest court would uphold the president’s ban prohibiting anyone from seven countries, five of them majority-Muslim, from entering the United States.

In the meantime, they were furiously organizing: As the group’s campaign director, Khan spent every day in “hyperdrive,” pushing out messaging on social media and coordinating with other activist groups and nonprofits in anticipation of the decision. But it felt like his efforts had amounted to nothing when, on June 26, the Supreme Court’s ruling finally arrived: In a 5–4 vote, the majority of justices agreed that implementing the travel ban was well within the scope of Trump’s presidential authority.

The decision was devastating to Khan, the final and decisive blow in a long struggle to strike down the administration’s most overt anti-Muslim policy. But he couldn’t dwell on it for long—he and his colleagues set to work that very day, helping to organize a rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square that drew some 5,000 protesters. “We didn’t have any time to process our feelings really, because the decision came down and then we immediately had to execute a plan,” Khan told me. “It probably wasn’t until 11 PM that night when I had a moment to myself. At that point, I just passed out.”

The life of an activist can be a wearing one, perhaps even more so in the Trump era, when, as Khan put it, social justice advocates feel like they’re fighting “attacks on every front.” When President Trump took office, mainstream news outlets toyed with the idea that the demonstrations that immediately followed might become regular fixtures in American life. After the Women’s March, a New York Times writer probed whether married fathers could adapt to a new reality that involved their wives’ activist awakenings; a few weeks later, The Week ran a story headlined “Is Protesting the New Brunch?”

In practice, weekly protests turned out to be much more difficult to sustain than Sunday brunches for some, because though it has its joys, organizing can be a thankless slog best suited to those with strong stomachs for disappointment. Popular narratives surrounding Trump-era activism paper over these unsavory realities, placing enormous stock in political protest—think of the pre-midterms emphasis on “women’s rage” to drive voter turnout—without examining the effects on the people who do it.

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