Skip to content

Battles We Have Fought Before

A conversation with Michael Kink

We are pleased to share a new, syndicated series of interviews by Sarah Jaffe. INTERVIEWS FOR RESISTANCE will introduce you to some of the key figures in the growing movement(s) against our reactionary new federal government. We hope you will find comfort in knowing the crucial work of fighting back has already begun in many (sometimes unexpected) places, and find tools in these conversations for your own part in the struggle.

Sarah Jaffe with Michael Kink:


Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the U.S. have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and what has changed, and what is still the same.

Michael Kink: My name is Michael Kink. I am the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a labor community coalition based in New York working on economic justice, income inequality, and racial justice issues. I have been a Legal Aid lawyer. I worked for AIDS activists and LGBT civil rights groups. I worked in government for a little while. I have through my whole career worked on law, policy, direct action, civil disobedience, communications.

Sarah Jaffe: What was your reaction to the election?

MK: The day after the election I, like many people, wrote [to] a couple of dozen groups and individuals that I would want to see connected. By that afternoon, I was on a 168-person email chain that included a lot of my friends and colleagues from back in the AIDS activism, healthcare activism, gay rights days. There was an instantaneous mobilization. I was scheduled to give a talk in the city that night and got off a train and walked into thousands of people flooding the streets against Trump. There are new people, young people, veterans, activists, folks that have fought for the last several decades, fought against Bill Clinton doing bad stuff and Reagan and George W. Bush and his dad doing bad stuff.

There are some skills that are left over that are totally relevant now. The more recent movements—Occupy, Black Lives Matter—have given people an opportunity to work those muscles and carry out those fights, but during the AIDS movement it was millions of people, life and death decisions. We need to do things at that scale and bigger in order to meet the moment that we have right now.

SJ: Many things were already, but the life and death decision part feels a lot more real now.

MK: It is more widespread. That is the wisdom of people of color saying to white folks, “Hey, we saw this coming. It has been life and death for us for a long time.” If you are talking about having your life threatened by the police, that is an everyday thing.

The HIV epidemic, when you had millions of people, gay people, drug users, people of color, sex partners of anybody under the sun, kids who were getting transfusions for blood disease. It was an incredible intersectional movement of people that often were at odds with one another. We worked in the south with gay men who had never been to a black church and black women that had never been to a gay bar, but they found common cause and they stood on the line together. When we fought for healthcare for people with disabilities in Albany, we had people with AIDS chained to people in wheelchairs, chained to people with psychiatric disabilities.

There are new people, young people, veterans, activists, folks that have fought for the last several decades, fought against Bill Clinton doing bad stuff and Reagan doing bad stuff.

There are folks that know how to carry out mass civil disobedience. There are folks that know how to mobilize quickly. I saw someone send an email to one of these lists saying, “We need to do bird-dogging on the Affordable Care Act.” In two days there were seventy-three bird-dogging actions with people bottom-lining every single one of them and talking points all across the country. Things happen very quickly with the connection of digital media and email.

There are a lot of resources for resistance. There are folks who have fought these battles, black and brown and Latino and Asian people, Native people together over time. I do think the AIDS movement is particularly important in that, at least in my experience of it, it was cross-cultural, cross-racial, there was a lot of fightback around white privilege and people working out how to work together effectively. It was about places where there were progressives and liberals and folks who are on our side and also in places where people hated gay people or drug users or people of color. People in power were trying to kill those folks and they found resources to fight back. Folks mobilized public opinions. Folks worked with faith leaders. Folks worked with cultural leaders, musicians, movie stars. There were things that we did to turn the culture that came because populations under the gun mobilized and walked together and found a way.

SJ: There is a whole lot that is going to be up for grabs in the Trump era, but the two things that have that similar life-and-death valence are on the one hand healthcare, the potential repealing of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and Medicare, which now looks less likely than it did just a month ago, but still is certainly on the table. On the other hand, deportations—the fact that Obama already deported over three million people and Trump wants to make that look like nothing.

MK: The issue of deportations is powerful and clearly it is an existential threat if you are a kid that is facing a parent being taken from them, if you are a parent that is facing a kid being taken care of without them, if you are in a community that values every single member and folks are hiding and under the gun.

If you go back throughout American history, to the extent that you view the United States of America as a governmental entity—aside from the wars with the indigenous peoples—you take the settler-colonials that were fighting the British colonials with a massive disobedience of government gumming up the works of government, standing in the way of government, slowing down government, not cooperating with government, withdrawing consent from government, ungovernable. There are volumes of methods, things that you can do to build power against the government that is tyrannical or abusing its authority or otherwise screwing with regular people that live in society it purports to govern.

I have German and Italian illegal immigrant forebears that were demonized during their time for being anarchists or being bomb throwers, being all the things that folks call Muslims and Latinos now. The prospects for alliances between folks that respect and want to work with and protect immigrant communities, and immigrant communities themselves, are really powerful. That is a place to show courage. During the Civil Rights era you had Freedom Riders, you had white folks coming from the north to stand with black folks in the south to demonstrate common courage, to eat with each other, to worship with each other, to dance and have fun with each other and then to fight for one another is a tremendous opportunity and it is exactly what is needed now.

Michael Kink speaking at the "Greed" rally outside Martin Shkreli's offices NYC Sept 2015 with ACT-UP & VOCAL-NY. / Erik McGregor
Michael Kink speaking at the ACT-UP and VOCAL-NY “Greed” rally outside Martin Shkreli’s New York offices in September 2015. / Erik McGregor

I don’t think that Trump and ICE will be able to deport tens of millions of Americans without a fight. The kinds of mass trainings in civil disobedience and direct action we saw during the Civil Rights era, during the Anti-Vietnam War era, we are going to see again. It is already happening. When they try to really carry it out, cable TV news viewers are going to see hundreds or thousands of grandmas and high school kids and church ladies and church men standing together on a block with immigrant families, with Star Wars Stormtroopers coming to snatch screaming kids from their parents. I don’t think America wants to look like that. We need to have the courage to show what it really is.

It will teach people that aren’t victimized by “broken windows” policing what the consequences of “broken windows” policing are—the death penalty for a broken taillight if you came here from Guatemala. They are trying send you to a society that you came fleeing for your life from.

The AIDS movement was multi-disciplinary. I was a lawyer in the AIDS movement that filed lawsuits and got injunctions against Giuliani while the next day we were flooding the streets and protesting. You have to do every angle. I think the immigrant activism will be similar. You are going to see efforts in the courts to stop things that are clearly unconstitutional. You are going to see grassroots organizing of people to stand together and understand their rights and to build rights for those that have no rights through political action. We are going to need civil disobedience. We are going to need the Gandhian satyagraha where we express love and care for one another through standing with one another and stopping abuse from happening to people we care about. There were people that did that for my great-aunt who came over here in an iron ore freighter from Germany when she was fourteen, the way kids sneak up from Guatemala. That kind of thing has happened throughout American history and folks have fought for immigrants and that is going to happen now.

I do think the AIDS movement is particularly important in that it was cross-cultural, cross-racial, and there was a lot of fightback around white privilege and people working out how to work together effectively.

On healthcare, there are a couple of different angles. One, even folks that hated Obamacare because of racist anger at the president are beginning to understand the value and the benefits that the Affordable Care Act provided to them and their families. Like during the AIDS movement, there are recovering opioid addicts in Indiana that are in the same positions as people that are living outside of nursing homes with independent living plans in Kentucky and coal miners in West Virginia that get their black lung covered on the Affordable Care Act along with all of the working millennial folks on the coasts. You have got a lot of people that are unified by self-interest that you need healthcare to survive in society.

I do think [Republicans] have the political power to get rid of it if they want to, but they are beginning to understand the political consequences of trashing the system. I thought at the beginning that they were going to go for a Shock Doctrine vibe: blow it all up, repeal it, create chaos and then rebuild something that shoves a lot of money at insurance companies in the wreckage. That is still a very real possibility. I think the Trump budget will probably include Medicaid block grants. That is what Kellyanne Conway told the American public a few weeks ago. Medicaid block grants means, at least in prior legislation, cuts of 20-25 percent to Medicaid funding, elimination of the legal right to care.

Right now, if you have HIV in a state that has Medicaid, you are entitled to antiretroviral drugs to keep you alive. If you don’t have an entitlement, the state is allowed to say, “Well, we can only afford to give fifty people in this county HIV drugs this month. You are the fifty-first, so you are not going to get them. We can only afford twenty-five grandmas in nursing homes this month and your grandma is the twenty-sixth. So, figure out what you are going to do with her.” For a state like New York, getting rid of the Affordable Care Act would lose us $5 billion. Getting rid of the Medicaid entitlement and the current federal matching rate and slashing cuts could easily cut another $8-10 billion out of healthcare. Then it is up to someone like Governor Andrew Cuomo, or whoever succeeds him, to recreate a decent healthcare system for people in their state.

People with AIDS, people with disabilities, healthcare activists want to work like crazy all over the country to slow or stop the efforts to get rid of the federal healthcare system. But, I do think that if the Republicans use the power they have to do what they say they are going to do, then we are going to be back to fights at state capitols to recreate a decent healthcare system state by state and it will be up to states like New York, California, Minnesota, Washington, places that have Democratic majorities to actually show the rest of the country what it looks like. One way to do it when you are losing a lot of money is to tax rich people and get some more money in the system. Another way to do is to cut the HMOs and the insurance companies out of the equation. I assume you are going to have to do both. Single-payer healthcare is something that becomes more of a possibility to everyday elected officials if all of a sudden you have to do more with less and you can’t give the insurance companies the 15-20 percent cut that they normally take in order to make massive profits for their shareholders and pay their CEOs’ salaries.

Michael Kink at the New York State Capitol in Albany, speaking at a March 2014 action on public school funding. / David Intrator
Michael Kink at the New York State Capitol in Albany, speaking at a March 2014 action on public school funding. / David Intrator

SJ: So, New York—to stay on this track—there has been a single-payer bill introduced every year since 1992. But of course, we have our little problem in the state senate, the IDC. That is also getting more attention in the post-Trump era.

MK: I think it is a moment when people are demanding strong concrete real things from anyone who purports to be a representative. That includes the grassroots that are protesting Schumer, folks in Jackson Heights that are protesting Peralta. Even Trump voters said it is time for government to start sticking up for me and I want some stuff. It is also this anti-fascist moment like the 1930s in America or in Germany where even bad politicians will do important good things every once in a while.

The IDC has allowed Republicans to maintain control of the state senate by aligning with them. Mainline Democrats have failed to provide new candidates with strong compelling messages and win enough elections to be clearly in charge. Republicans have used dog whistle racism on Long Island and across upstate to maintain power, to gerrymander their way into their all-white Republican conference that drains political power away from communities of color. The IDC has a big foot in that game.

At the same time, the IDC has some smart politicians that are actually putting out strong proposals. The IDC came out with “Here is what we need to protect collective bargaining rights in New York and have labor unions.” Jeff Klein sponsored a carried interest bill that I am working on to tax hedge fund billionaires.

I think any community that is mobilizing to hold their politicians’ feet to the fire should be doing more of it and is on exactly the right track. I don’t think you can expect folks that are doing some bad things to do all bad things. Governor Cuomo is a very problematic figure in New York policies. He often compromises, he often runs this Clintonian triangulation game. At the same time, if we create a political environment where there is clear, strong public support for the issues that we are fighting for; he, like any other politician, is going to scurry over in that direction and try to get in front of the parade to lead it. He spoke up very clearly about reproductive rights and the need to codify Roe vs. Wade. Now, his deals with the Republicans make it impossible to codify Roe vs. Wade, which is exactly what we are talking about here.

These are battles that we fought and won before.

There are certainly ways in which Cuomo’s education policies are close to Betsy DeVos’s policies, but his education policies have also changed over time because folks have been hammering him. If any politician of any stripe is not providing our community what we need, we are going to go protest and take them down. Go back to the AIDS movement, a lot of times when we were trying to save things we had, we needed those Republicans to stand up and do things. We needed smart staffers who worked for Lamar Alexander or George Pataki or Joe Bruno to understand what it meant to their communities. That if you do HIV prevention and provide HIV drugs and get people’s viral load down, you are not going to have [people dying].

These were literally battles that we fought before—I wrote a Medicaid block grants op-ed in forty-five minutes, because I wrote ten Medicaid block grants op-eds back in the 1990s. The muscle memory came back. We have the internet now, so I could find some relevant statistics. These are battles that we fought and won before.

SJ: You were talking about Trump voters that also expect him to actually do things. We are at an interesting moment where people not trusting the government means that even some people who voted for Donald Trump don’t entirely trust him.

MK: The Momentive strikers, right? We have, as Hedge Clippers, worked with the Momentive strikers here in Upstate New York. We did a paper on how the hedge fund billionaire Leon Black, the private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman bought the company, screwed the workers, got his family rich in the process.

SJ: And now Schwarzman is on Trump’s economic team.

MK: Schwarzman is Trump’s guy! So, the Trump voters are like, “Wait a minute, Trump put this guy in charge of the economy?”

I do think that there were explicit promises that Trump made that Trump voters believed. He was going to drain the swamp. He has filled the swamp. The swamp is full of swamp monsters: Goldman Sachs, all these hedge fund guys. Trump said he was going to bring back millions of industrial working jobs to Middle America, but it was his billionaire buddies, it was Carl Icahn and Steven Schwarzman that looted those companies, outsourced those jobs, drove down those wages.

We have reconfigured Hedge Clippers for the Trump era to be whistleblowers for working people, to keep an eye on the Trump billionaire class, the kleptocracy, to expose the swamp, and to say to those people that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump or those people that were for Bernie in the primary and Trump in the general, “Here is how he is screwing you guys. Here is how his trade deals are going to work out.” I really don’t think you are going to be able to sprinkle a little racism and international violence and war across it and pull the wool over people’s eyes. I think in two years, for the midterms, when Republicans have been collaborating with a kleptocratic clown administration, they are going to get thrown out of office and in four years, the Democrats will have no choice, based on the way people will demand candidates and vote their own interests, but to put up a candidate that will actually find a way to deliver on these fake promises that Trump is not going to deliver on and will actually bring some of the political revolution forward into the country. There is no other way for the Democrats as a party.

I see someone like Elizabeth Warren, I see someone like Zephyr Teachout, I see someone like Kshama Sawant, I see candidates that can speak out forcefully and directly and link economic interests and racial interests and class interests and get people to stand together. There are people that are going to be able to do this effectively and the moment is ripe for them. I hope that we have hundreds and hundreds of people like Zephyr or Bernie or Elizabeth Warren at the local level that will say, “I am just going to go do this” because it is clearer than ever that conventional politics have failed, that the systems of money and politics are all linked in Wall Street banks and insurance companies and special interests looking out for themselves instead of regular people. Reality has a way of getting in touch with you if you are not in touch with it.

There are some basic things people need and if the government isn’t delivering, people will say it is time for a change. Our job is to make sure that we can make that change as effective and help as many people as possible.

SJ: People are planning protests around Tax Day, and one of the things other than general strikes that is floating around in the air is the idea of tax resistance.

MK: I think this year for Tax Day, it is like, “Donald Trump, release your taxes and don’t give huge tax cuts to your billionaire buddies.” If we are going to have marches in cities and towns and counties all over America and folks are going to strike out at Trump, it is crazy that he hasn’t released his taxes. We can’t see where he gets his money and whether he pays any taxes. If he has any money. All this kind of stuff should be public. The plan for massive tax cuts for billionaires who already have so much money that they are hurting our economy by not letting the rest of us have any of it, that is crazy.

I see candidates that can speak out forcefully and directly and link economic interests and racial interests and class interests and get people to stand together.

If Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon and Trump continue to run the country and we have international wars and we have a government that won’t comply with court orders, we are going to need tax resistance. Tax resistance is the kind of thing, like general strikes, that people toss around really easily and say, “We should just not pay our taxes,” but, again, I think this moment is pretty unique in American history. Tax resistance has been a part of the history of the United States of America since the beginning. The Tea Party, massive non-cooperation with the colonial English government, in the abolitionist movement against slavery, in the suffrage movement for women’s votes, in every anti-war movement that we have had throughout our history, and during the Civil Rights movement non-cooperation with government and non-cooperation with taxation has been an American tradition.

Like a general strike, it needs to happen if everybody is going to do it. People that need to get together and create a means by which folks can actually feel comfortable not paying their taxes, putting it into a separate account and getting receipts for it and all doing it together as a collective political statement. It doesn’t mean you go spend your tax money on a fancy dinner or for tuition for your kid at a community college. But if with smart people in the financial service industry and technology are able to give people some reliable way to put their money somewhere else—Amalgamated in the cities. North Dakota, you can charter a state bank. Any state could create a state law that allows itself to charter a government bank. Jerry Brown could do it in California, Andrew Cuomo could do it in New York.

Again, the history of America, for better or worse, is [that] things that people thought were illegal or transgressive or somehow disruptive become recognized as patriotic after the fact. I think we are at a moment where the Trump administration will be seen as a dark, dark time during our nation’s history. It will be seen as a tremendous mistake by voters like the Momentive strikers. Trump has the lowest public opinion rating of any president at this point in American history. Tax resistance is something where we can break their backs and when and if it is time, we should do it together. It will be something that even your conservative Republican uncle in the suburbs somewhere will say, “I can’t take this.”

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.