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Six Months in the “Resistance”

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People participating in a "die in" holding up signs

I have now spent 6 months on the ground in Ohio supporting local ‘Resistance’ groups, and I’ve helped a team of volunteer leaders build OPAL (Ohio Progressive Action Leaders), a statewide planning and coordinating body at the center of the ‘Resistance’ network in the state. Who are the “Resistance”? Why are they joining? What are their politics? And how do we invite them to join with progressives, and communities of color to build a left-led political majority in America?

Getting my feet wet

I had never been to Ashtabula county before. Pretty much all I knew about Ashtabula is that the OSU football coach Urban Meyer grew up there, so I arrived with a level of gratitude appropriate for any diehard Buckeye fan. My political research informed me that Ashtabula County was one of the infamous ‘flip counties’ that swung the 2016 Presidential election. It flipped 31 points from Obama +12 in 2008 to Trump +19 in 2016, so I also arrived with a deep sense of curiosity. It was early May, and the drive on 90-E from Cleveland was gorgeous. Rolling hills, lots of trees, and without air conditioning in my Pontiac Vibe, I was definitely rolling with the windows down. I pulled up to the Jefferson 1st Congregational United Church of Christ, and parked in the lot it shared with the local supermarket called the Golden Dawn. I noticed it was both a grocery and a gun store, and I thought that was pretty damn awesome. I was in Jefferson to attend a town hall at the church that had been planned by several Ohio Congressional District 14 ‘Resistance’ groups. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I walked into the church, met the organizers of the event, Jess, Jennifer and Angie, and tried to make myself useful. It was the first political event any of them had ever planned.

The main topics of the town hall were the heroin crisis, healthcare and immigration. One of the panelists was a college freshman who had started a 5k race to raise money for heroin addiction treatment when she was in high school. She talked about the moment when she first had the idea: “I was in my English class one day, and I found myself not paying attention to the teacher. Instead, I was looking at all of my classmates and thinking about how many would be dead from heroin before we reached 25. I thought, well why should I sit around and just accept that, I should do something about this. I went and talked to my pastor about my idea for a 5k fundraiser, and he encouraged me to do it.”

Her story broke my heart, and it reminded me of friends in Columbus who have buried countless loved ones before 25. Young people shouldn’t have to know death like this. The energy of the town hall was painful and powerful. Once the panel finished, the question and answer session turned into a community story-share. A nurse practitioner from a local health clinic stood up and shared her patient’s struggles with the for-profit healthcare system. “We have to decide in this country — is healthcare a right, or is it only something you get if you can afford it?” she said.

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The church was packed with over 100 people, and folks were hesitant to leave. You could feel the organizing potential in the room. People were ready to move! I thanked the organizers for their work organizing such a powerful event, and set a time to follow-up. As I drove back to Columbus, my heart was heavy, and my head was swimming with thoughts and questions about how we respond to the pain that so many people are living through. Across race, class, age and geography, so many Americans are in pain. How do we face this suffering and heal and transform our communities? And how do we take collective suffering as a starting point, and build a political majority to lead Ohio? I didn’t come up with many immediate answers, but one thing was for sure — “The Resistance” had a role to play.

What is the ‘Resistance’?

The ‘Resistance’ in Ohio is made up of hundreds of grassroots groups that emerged after Trump was elected. The launch of the Indivisible Guide, which led to the formation of 7000+ groups spanning every single congressional district in America, and the Women’s March in January can be seen as the starting point. There are nationally-based groups, such as Indivisible and Women’s March, state-based groups like Action Together Ohio, and also independent local groups. I would estimate that there are still upwards of 100 active grassroots groups, and thousands of activists across the state that are part of the ‘Resistance’.

I was first awed by the scale of the ‘Resistance’ at a Indivisible District 12 subgroup leaders meeting in March. There were about 35 people at the meeting, each of whom led a ‘subgroup’ within the district. In March, Indivisible D12 had 40+ subgroups, 500 people who had attended a meeting, had already hosted multiple events with 200+ participants, and had more than 3000 people as members in its FB group. Sitting in that meeting was my ‘holy shit’ moment. I was sitting there thinking to myself — “Holy shit, D12 has hundreds of people in their base, and there are 15 other districts in Ohio. And Indivisible isn’t even the only ‘Resistance’ group. This thing is fucking massive!”

Although it turns out that District 12 is in fact one of the stronger groups in the state — Rep. Pat Tiberi recently resigned, partially because of the endless headaches they were causing him — I realized in that meeting that I was only scratching the surface of the “Resistance”. In terms of capacity, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Ohio ‘Resistance’ network has, by far, the widest base of any left-of center group in the state. There are important questions about ideology, program, demographics, and the depth and durability of these organizations, but they are truly a grassroots force to be reckoned with. The defeat of Trumpcare alone is an astonishing achievement. For me, being a part of the ‘Resistance’ network in Ohio has been humbling, because of how massive their base is, and how its sheer size dwarfs much of the organizing work I’ve been involved with in Ohio.     

Who are in these groups?

The primary age group in the Ohio ‘Resistance’ network is 45-59, but there are a significant number of 30-somethings and retirees as well. The groups are predominantly women and overwhelmingly white. In terms of occupation, there are many women in the ‘caring’ professions (teachers, nurses, social workers), as well as some professionals (lawyers, professors). There are some key leaders who do freelance or contract work and have highly flexible schedules, and there are many retirees. The largest cities generally have the largest groups, and there is a strong concentration in urban/suburban areas. However, in many small towns/small cities, ‘Resistance’ groups have become a unifying vehicle for progressive activists. Groups have emerged in places like Canton, Ashtabula, Springfield and Lancaster, which are places that have been abandoned by progressives and the Democratic party.

Why are they joining?

For many liberals, progressives, moderates, and white Americans in general, Trump’s election was a sort of “Mirror Moment” when they could no longer lie to themselves about America. Many felt compelled to act, because everything they thought they knew about this country was no longer true. Many are gaining a sense of purpose, belonging and community, and meeting new friends through their activism. While some ‘resistance’ leaders are stalwart Democratic Party activists, most have never had this level of political engagement before. I think it’s crucially important to understand the ‘resistance’ as the emergence of new active political forces rather than a recycling of Democratic Party activists that will be inevitably absorbing into the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.

How are they Organizing and Mobilizing?

Let’s just say I’ve spent more time on Facebook Messenger in the last 6 months than the rest of my life combined.

Local Groups: Most of these groups started online from a FB page or FB group. They grew quickly and translated their online energy into action. Now, many of them meet regularly. Generally, their group structures are very similar to other mobilizing groups. There is a small core of 2-5 leaders who develop most of the strategy, tactics and plans, put in significantly more time than other members, and mobilize the rest of the group into action.

Statewide Network: In Ohio, there is a statewide FB group of local group leaders called OPAL that serves as the primary space for planning and coordination for statewide actions and events. I have channeled most of my organizing through OPAL, working with a statewide core team to plan multiple distributed days of action, a statewide leadership training, and a larger statewide group leaders bootcamp. Although OPAL began as a FB group, it is evolving into a statewide community of practice for local ‘Resistance’ group leaders.

Organizing Culture: The statewide network responds to urgency. This is a network that is designed for, and very effective at rapid-response. However, long-term campaign planning is very challenging. Every time we’ve attempted local or statewide campaigns with a timeline of more than a few weeks, something more urgent has come up. The time horizon for the work people are doing is very short. There is a very strong spirit of collaboration and cooperation within the network. It is astonishing how some groups have worked together and divided up roles and responsibilities, especially within large cities. There is not a strong relational culture in the network. Everything moves so fast, and often, people are communicating online until they come together for actions. Burnout is a strong threat for many activists.

What are their Politics?

I think the three most important lessons for me are:

1) Ideology and political identity within these groups are flexible

2) Both ideology and political identity shift through relationship, and active engagement in justice work

3) The left should be engaged in an active effort to win parts of the ‘Resistance’ over to our organizations and program. Instead, we are conceding it to the Democratic Party Establishment.

Bernie v. Hillary is a useful place to start. While there are some Bernie supporters, (and a much higher percentage among young people and small town/small city people) a majority of group members were Hillary supporters. Many supported Hillary because of her role as a symbol of empowerment for white middle-class American women, rather than because they are aligned with her tax policy, her family’s legacy of criminalizing and caging black folks, or her hunger for imperialist war. Even though many of these activists vote for corporate Democrats, they are more progressive than the people they vote for. Their vision is limited by the complete lack of vision of the Democratic Party.

I decided to try my best to expand our vision in mid-October, when the OPAL coordinating team hosted a statewide resistance leadership bootcamp. We had a session titled: “Resistance, Revelation, Revolution”, where my co-trainer Marcia Dinkins and I shared stories of our ‘personal revelations’ and ‘political revolutions’ through which we were ‘radicalized’. I shared a story of my personal motivations, and how Barack Obama drew me into politics as a 17 year-old because to me, he represented the new America waiting to be born. I talked about struggling with the contradictions of a nation founded on slavery, genocide and land theft, but born of founders who also believed that revolutions may need to happen every 30 years. We reframed the political conversation, asserting that we were not ‘the movement’ but one part of a larger movement responsible for building a new majority, and bringing about the next American revolution. Borrowing from Michelle Alexander, we said that Trump, not us, was the ‘resistance’.

I basically refused to prep for this session, mostly because I was anxious about how the leaders in the room would respond, and I didn’t want it to feel too calculated on my end. I consider myself a radical, and I believe that we need to get ‘to the root’ of the social problems in our society. I find my own beliefs most reflected in the theory and practice of people like Grace Lee Boggs, Ella Baker and Myles Horton, who all shared a radical critique of American Empire, but who saw the romance of rebellion as insufficient, and committed themselves to the ‘Long Haul’ of organizing everyday people toward collective transformation until the day they died. My fear was that maybe the people in this room weren’t committed to the long haul, and maybe they weren’t committed to collective transformation. Marcia and I just agreed to and try to open our hearts and see if it landed.

Crazy enough, it totally resonated with the room! Ron, a former pastor, and the founder of Union County Resistance, a group from the small town of Marysville, OH, shared his story of being “Revolutionized” through the civil rights movement, and carrying that spirit through his whole life. Charles, an activist from Columbus shared his revelation of asking what it will really take for us to be ‘indivisible’, to heal the wounds of our society, and to refuse to be further divided by those in power. In just a 20 minute conversation I witnessed the massive potential for a dramatic shift in the political identity of people in the room. As these folks continue taking responsibility for shaping the political and social future of Ohio, and get into deeper relationship with folks with more ‘radical’ politics, who knows how their own politics could shift?

Race, the elephant in the room

Race has always been the central ‘divide and conquer’ tool of America’s rulers. Whites choosing racial privilege over solidarity has led to the downfall of every progressive surge in American history. As we might guess, race is also a crucial question for ‘Resistance’ groups. With the exception of Women’s March, whose diverse leadership has centered intersectional politics, the majority of resistance organizations have not centered race, and there is tension and conflict around internal “inclusion and diversity”, and how these groups relate to people of color-led issues and organizations. I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite any interventions, these groups will generally stay white, older, female, middle class, and mostly pursue a ‘rule-following’ style of political engagement. Rather than primarily focusing efforts on “diversifying” the resistance groups, I’m directing my efforts towards urging them to deepen relationships and take leadership from people of color-led organizations, while also attempting to make their organizations more inclusive.

I’ve seen some promising growth through relationship and collaboration at the local level. For example, in May there was a statewide, black-led “March for Racial Justice” to the governor’s mansion, in Bexley, a wealthy Columbus suburb. A local Indivisible leader who attended lived only a few blocks away, and was not only excited that hundreds of black folks were ‘waking her neighbors up to injustice’ but was also furious when she saw firsthand how police treat black crowds very differently than Indivisible protesters. Now, she and other local Indivisible leaders are ready to follow the lead of black organizers leading the fight for police reform in Columbus by speaking at city council, and turning out their members to events. For me, this was yet another reminder that transformation is possible through relationship and solidarity.

How should we relate to the ‘Resistance’?

I believe that the political moment we’re in calls us to focus on three related questions:

  • What is our story and vision for America?
  • How do we build and align a political majority with left leadership at the state and national level?
  • How do we build and align a new generation of social institutions at the state and national level to give everyday people power, and provide the foundation for a political majority?

Combining the 3 questions, we eventually ask: What social groups can we align behind our vision for America, and what organizations need to be brought into coalition for this to manifest politically? Right now, the only powerful group left-of-center that thinks seriously about building a political majority is the Democratic Party establishment —- and they are failing miserably. We are in the midst of a rare period of political realignment where everyone and their mother wants to see the people triumph against the establishment. If we don’t lead now, we will wait decades for another opportunity like this one. As we consider our state and national strategy for building a left-led political majority, we should view the groups that make up the ‘Resistance’ as a crucial part of that coalition. They are not all just a bunch of middle-class liberals who will pack up and go home if Hillary wins a rematch in 2020. There is tremendous potential to bring them into a left-led political majority, but if we don’t lead, the Democratic Party establishment will integrate them into its coalition.

So how do we do it? I think there are two ways of engaging with the ‘Resistance’. Helping them say “No”, or Inviting them into “Yes.”

Helping with “No”

The ‘Resistance’ is a “No” movement. They emerged to stop Trump’s agenda, and they excel at creatively responding to the news cycle. They are volunteer leaders that are eager to learn as much as possible so they can resist more effectively. Helping with “No” is what I’ve been doing for the last 6 months, and I’ve been welcomed with open arms. After traveling around the state doing a listening tour with group leaders, I helped to build a statewide coordinating team to plan statewide action to stop Trumpcare. Together, our team collected nearly a thousand personal healthcare stories, supported a constituent bus trip to DC and sit-in in Portman’s office that received national press. Then, we successfully coordinated statewide die-ins at all 4 of Sen. Portman’s offices, and candlelit ‘vigils for the vulnerable’ at 5 Children’s Hospitals in Ohio. Most recently we hosted a daylong, statewide bootcamp with 40+ local group leaders, and are working to transform OPAL, which started as a FB group into a ‘Resistance’ leaders community of practice. Meeting these groups where they’re at, and providing them with training, support, and resources will be met with gratitude, and it is a great way to build some initial relationships, and provide alternative political framing. Here are a few ideas:

  • Statewide Resistance Bootcamp: Provide organizing training for ‘Resistance’ leaders and learn about how they’re organized, and the challenges they are facing.
  • Statewide Messaging Summit: Provide a workshop on public narrative that teaches ‘Resistance’ leaders how to frame their story for the public.
  • Webinars, Toolkits, etc: Create webinars and toolkits on organizing skills to support ‘Resistance’ groups.

No matter what, the place to start building relationships and learning ‘who’s who’ in the network will be whichever platform they use to coordinate statewide.

Inviting them into yes

Since the DNA of the ‘Resistance’ is a “No” movement, I don’t believe it can become a “Yes” movement. I doubt it will be possible to change the culture from rapid response to long-term campaigns at a large scale. Burnout is already taking its toll on ‘Resistance’ leaders, and it will be challenging to sustain the intensity and pace of their mobilizing. I don’t know if ‘Indivisible in its current form will even be around in 2 years. Instead of trying to change the ‘Resistance’ from the inside, we should be considering how to invite them into a “Yes” movement from the outside. For example, in Ohio, Indivisible activists across the state collected tens of thousands of petition signatures for a redistricting ballot initiative. Many of these group leaders are eagerly looking for meaningful campaigns that are proactive, long-term and can be used to engage their membership. I just don’t think those campaigns are going to come from inside the ‘Resistance’. Here are a few ideas:

  • Candidate Campaigns: Progressive candidates for the House and Senate could build big volunteer GOTV programs inviting ‘Resistance’ groups to play a big role in their campaign.
  • Statewide Ballot Initiatives: Big, progressive, statewide ballot initiatives could be a home for ‘Resistance’ groups.
  • Redistricting Campaigns: Campaigns around redistricting reform and other structural Democracy reforms could be a way to bring in ‘Resistance’ groups en masse.
  • Long-term Regional/Constituency Organizing: There are opportunities to build new long-term organizing projects, especially with groups in small towns/small cities, who have naturally gravitated toward community organizing around local issues.

Whether you are a part of a statewide power organization, a social movement organization, a left-organization, a labor union, or a progressive candidate campaign, I think our energy is best spent on inviting ‘Resistance’ groups into “Yes”. If we don’t actively invite them into our coalition, the Democratic establishment will. It already is.

I’d like to conclude by asking folks to share reflections on their own practice, and any positive examples of inviting ‘Resistance’ groups into “Yes”. I wrote this piece with the intention of sparking dialogue and debate, so please engage!



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