The resistance to Trump is blossoming – and building a movement to last | LA Kauffman
An astounding number of new grassroots resistance groups, at least six times the number the Tea Party could boast at its height, have emerged. Thats incredible
There’s a shiny bright spot on the dismal American political landscape: one year after the 2016 election, it’s now abundantly clear that this extraordinarily toxic and menacing presidency has sparked a truly unprecedented grassroots response, different in both scale and character from anything we’ve seen before.
The activist resistance to Trump played a vital role in the impressive wave of progressive electoral victories this week, after having already succeeded in stalling or derailing key parts of Trump’s agenda, most dramatically the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Galvanized by huge protests at the beginning of the new presidency, the ground-level opposition to this presidency has evolved into a sprawling and decentralized movement of many movements, using many different tactics to pursue its aims.
While established progressive organizations have seen important upswings in membership and provided important guidance and resources, the most striking and novel aspect of the resistance has been the creation of an astounding number of new grassroots groups, at least six times the number the Tea Party could boast at its height. Locally focused, self-organized, and overwhelmingly led by women, these groups show every sign of digging in for the long haul.
The resistance had a dramatic kick-off with the massive Women’s Marches that took place in more than 650 towns and cities around the United States on the day after the inauguration, drawing an estimated 4 million participants. Together, these demonstrations added up to what is almost certainly the largest single day of protest in US history, breaking attendance records in many communities.
But it wasn’t simply their size that made these marches distinctive. For all the crucial work that dedicated organizers and pre-existing groups around the country did to shape and support the protests, the marches, set in motion by a couple of Facebook posts, had a self-mobilized quality that set them apart from any prior big demonstrations in American history.
“It was very much like a spontaneous groundswell that started the night of November 8,” recalls Mrinalini Chakraborty, the head of field operations for the marches. “It almost felt like a nation had awoken.”
This sense of upsurge carried over to the powerful airport protests that greeted the first version of the Muslim ban, a week after the new president took office.
As Murad Awawdeh, vice-president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition and a key organizer of the initial protest at JFK airport, remembered: “Folks really were activated, in a way that I’ve never seen before, to actually show up. It wasn’t people who have always gone to protests or people who always believed in a fair immigration policy or practice. It was people who just felt like what was happening was wrong, and they couldn’t just stand by and let it happen.”
Since then, people have continued to show up to protests in significant numbers – a research team led by civil-resistance scholar Erica Chenoweth and political scientist Jeremy Pressman has tallied hundreds of demonstrations around the country each month since January.
But the more dramatic development has been a quieter one: all around the country, people have channeled the restless, do-it-yourself political energy that fueled the Women’s Marches and the airport protests into the formation of locally grounded, multi-issue resistance groups.
Nobody has an exact count of how many of these new groups exist, but more than 6,000 have registered with Indivisible, the organization that grew out of the now-famous post-election guide to congressional advocacy written by a group of progressive former congressional staffers.
This is an absolutely staggering number. By way of comparison, the Tea Party – whose strategy formed the model for the Indivisible Guide – had somewhere between 800 and 1,000 groups at its height, or about 15% of the number of functioning resistance groups.
Plug a few zip codes around the country into Indivisible’s directory and you can see how truly widespread the local organizing is. There are groups in every single congressional district, in both red states and blue states; in cities, in suburbs, in rural parts of the country. Look more closely at individual groups and you can begin to get a sense of just how varied they are; calling them “Indivisible groups” doesn’t quite capture their range.
Some indeed identify most strongly with Indivisible; others grew out of local “huddles” spurred by the Women’s March; others have an independent identity. While all have drawn on Indivisible’s action guides and worked to pressure their members of Congress on issues like healthcare and immigration, that’s just part of the picture.
Most are doing other kinds of organizing as well – in many cases, quite a lot of it, from direct support for undocumented members of their communities to anti-racism education to supporting candidates for local offices and much more.
They’ve mobilized in response to action alerts from national groups like MoveOn and the ACLU, and they were very active in canvassing and other get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia and elsewhere around the country where Democrats claimed victories this week.
As Leah Greenberg, the co-executive director of Indivisible, notes: “One of the things that’s really striking is just the sheer range of different kinds of work that [the local groups are] doing and different approaches they’ve taken.” Rather than trying to steer the groups into adopting a similar focus or strategy, Indivisible has viewed their variety and autonomy as strengths.
“We really embrace that,” Greenberg continues. “We think of it as a matrixed approach to activism, where groups are determining what’s the agenda of activism that makes the most sense for them based on where they are, what their community looks like, and what their political situation looks like.” The tagline on the Indivisible website succinctly captures this view: “We’re not the leaders of this movement: you are.”
There isn’t hard data on the demographic composition of these local resistance groups, but by all accounts, they are mostly composed of women. Men have been showing up for big mobilizations – though researchers have found that women predominated at the major anti-Trump marches in Washington last spring, they were fairly narrow majorities. But in the day-to-day work at the grassroots, women seem to be outnumbering men by a factor of two-to-one or more.
The new resistance groups seem to skew whiter than the population at large, though this too is an impressionistic sense rather than the result of solid data. The fact that so many white women have joined in sustained progressive organizing right now is in many ways a powerful political opportunity.
After all, they’re well-positioned to “come get their cousins”, as the popular social media exhortation puts it: to try to reach white people who have supported the current president and his agenda, and especially to focus on the 53% of white women who voted for him.
But many ostensibly progressive past movements consisting mostly of white women have, to put it mildly, had a poor track record on racial justice. One of the biggest questions about the grassroots resistance to Trump is whether it can develop a genuinely intersectional approach to its work.
Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, a professional historian who founded Indivisible Roanoke, one of the country’s first Indivisible groups, notes: “Charlottesville really brought home the terrifying reality of white supremacy and the role that any resistance group will have to play in dismantling that if we want to achieve any of our other progressive goals.”
The white women who have become active in resistance groups may have good intentions on that score, but that doesn’t mean genuinely anti-racist work will come easily. “Just as it is at the national level,” Wallace Fuentes observes, “it’s fraught at the state and the local level, because these are difficult truths that people are being asked to recognize about themselves and their families.”
The recent Women’s Convention organized by the national team behind the Women’s Marches was a conscious and deliberate effort to lift up the political analysis and organizing wisdom of women of color and provide intersectional feminist leadership to the resistance at large.
It’s far too soon to say how the thousands of new local groups will navigate between leading from the grassroots and taking guidance and political direction from the people and communities most directly affected by Trump’s agenda, most of which were organizing long before the November 2016 election.
As Murad Awadeh of the New York Immigration Coalition puts it: “There’s a lot of folks who want to show up, and we just have to be clear about what allyship looks like. Allyship means showing up and doing what needs to get done, and if you’re not impacted, maybe taking the lead from someone who is impacted.”
Some groups are clearly taking the challenge seriously. For instance, Indivisible Yolo, a group in northern California, reported on the Indivisible blog earlier this fall, “We follow what other, established groups that are led by people of color are doing locally and try to promote and attend their events. For those of us newer to activism, this has been a great learning experience.”
For all the ways the upsurge of community-level activism played into this week’s progressive electoral wins, there are big unanswered questions about how the Democratic party will relate to the grassroots resistance, and vice versa.
Some local resistance groups are quite close to their local Democratic party committees; others are resolutely non-partisan and seek to involve disaffected Republicans; still others are well to the left of both political parties.
The mainstream Democratic party, meanwhile, clearly welcomes the energy of these local groups but shows little sign of understanding or respecting their autonomy, no doubt because it embodies a de facto challenge to the national party’s corporate- and data-driven character.
Late last summer, women who have been active in one local resistance group in an upstate New York swing district were taken aback when a paid party consultant showed up at their weekly protest to request their membership list and ask them to volunteer to build the Democrats’ voter-engagement database.
That kind of predatory approach is bound to backfire; but it remains very unclear whether, on the other hand, the grassroots resistance can successfully revitalize the Democratic party from the bottom up, which the party so desperately needs.
For now, the thousands of groups show no signs of tapering off their level of activism. They’re busy doing important but unglamorous movement-building work, mobilizing for important calls to action, looking ahead to the 2018 elections, and staying on alert to respond to whatever new crises or attacks might arise under this dangerous regime. It’s a very solid start.
- LA Kauffman is a longtime grassroots organizer and movement historian and author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism