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Progressives Are Adapting to the Activist Surge

“Think about how to make democracy as accessible as possible,” he said. “If you show up at your city council meeting and bring ten people, you'll see instant gratification.”

“Think about how to make democracy as accessible as possible,” he said. “If you show up at your city council meeting and bring ten people, you'll see instant gratification.” (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

When activist newcomers helping plan the New York Tax March—which took place April 15 this year to pressure Donald Trump to release his tax returns—suggested including a giant inflatable chicken in the likeness of the President, veteran organizers were a tad skeptical. What does a chicken have to do with taxes and transparency?

But they ran with it, trotting out the mascot at a press conference and on their 45,000-person march through Manhattan, golden mullet gleaming. It got the idea across, with headline-grabbing success, that Trump was too chicken to release his returns.

“It was a hit!” said Amanda Johnson, national digital director for the Working Families Party, one of the groups that organized the march, at the Netroots Nation activist conference held in Atlanta over the weekend. “As a seasoned organizer, you’re working with people who are new to this, trying to teach and guide, but it was a humbling moment. We’re learning from them too.”

Progressive movement leaders described this period following Trump’s election as an “extreme mobilization” and a moment when “civil disobedience went mainstream.” Donations and memberships surged among left organizations, which are now grappling with ways to “meet people where they’re at,” in words that echoed throughout the conference. In many cases, this has meant abandoning old tactics, finding new language, and staying receptive to out-of-the-box ideas.

“We’re in a situation where we’re building the plane as we fly it,” said Heather Holdridge, director of digital strategy at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, speaking at a panel titled, “Holy Sh*t: Where Did All These People Come From?” After 46,000 supporters made unsolicited donations in anti-choice Vice President Mike Pence’s name, she said, “People really wanted to keep going. So it was really incumbent on us to find ways to deepen their interest.”

So the organization moved up the launch of Planned Parenthood Defenders, a program that alerts supporters at critical moments to help make calls to Congress or attend rallies and emergency meetings.

After the American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million donations in the wake of Donald Trump's “travel ban,” the organization hired Melanie Garunay as digital organizing director.

“Our new members really wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with us in these fights,” said Garunay, a veteran of the Obama Administration's digital strategy team. “But we really didn't have an answer to this question that many of them had, which was: ‘What can we do beyond donating?’”

Garunay launched the “People Power” project, which she describes as the ACLU’s first-ever effort to harness a grassroots movement. Supporters could sign up to find out about “resistance actions” or create their own. It was rolled out along with nationwide community “watch parties” of a livestreamed “Resistance Training,” which asked those watching to set up meetings with their local law enforcement officials.

Garunay’s team had hoped for fifty watch parties, but ended up with 2,200. The effort has pulled in 200,000 mostly brand-new activists into the ACLU fold, she said.

In harnessing such momentum at a local level, Ian Bridgeforth, founder and executive director of Georgia Shift, which works to politically empower young people in the state, says groups should find ways new activists can see the results of their efforts pay off in real time.

“Think about how to make democracy as accessible as possible,” he said. “If you show up at your city council meeting and bring ten people, you'll see instant gratification.”

Adrian Reyna, director of membership and tech strategies of the immigrant youth advocacy group United We Dream, said the organization had to “throw out the playbook.” They stopped giving excited newcomers—eager to jump right in—the standard slow, multi-step orientation.

"We had to rethink our tactics. People are at a different place, people are agitated," Reyna said. “People are not here for a petition. This is not like the Obama years. Calling the secretary of DHS? Really? What is he going to do?”

This is not like the Obama years. Calling the secretary of DHS? Really? What is he going to do?

Instead, over the last Congressional recess, Reyna said his organization drove more than 1,000 visits to individual lawmakers’ offices.

“Your supporters [should feel] like you are giving them something that is valuable and not just something to do that benefits you,” said Holdridge of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Many groups that have materialized around the Trump resistance, like the Northern California-based Indivisible Women, were established in rural communities and traditionally Republican districts with members who were unfamiliar with certain activist lingo.

So the group began using words like “diver,” “swimmer,” and “toe-dipper” to help them talk about their experience level with various issues without misunderstanding or fear of judgment.

“When people have deep knowledge or expertise and they’re talking to people that are new, there’s a lot of static in the way we hear each other,” said Sheila Cameron, a member of Indivisible Women and organizer of the Sacramento Women’s March. “We need to be working within the community to build language. We can say, ‘Listen I’m just a toe-dipper on this, I don’t really understand it.’”

Despite a few growing pains, the new grassroots wave is already injecting the movement with much-needed creativity. Johnson of Working Families Party said she learned as much from the Trump chicken—which last week made another viral appearance near the White House.

“Sometimes as organizers, there’s a little bit of a bubble,” Johnson told The Progressive. “It’s realizing and relearning that there are some folks that are a lot more in touch with what’s going to be compelling than you are.”

Alexandra Tempus

Alexandra Tempus is an independent journalist and was a lead researcher on This Changes Everything. She is also a researcher at Rolling Stone and has written on climate and politics for VICE News, Mic, the Associated Press and The Nation.

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