On a dark and drizzly Tuesday afternoon in February, a group of 40-plus Portlanders huddled together in the Doubletree Hotel near Lloyd Center to strategize how to bring down the president of the United States. They had buttons and signs, hot coffee and pink hats.
Speaking in hushed and urgent tones, they passed around detailed fliers with the day’s agenda for their weekly meeting with staffers from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office. The fliers said: 1. Delay the Supreme Court hearings for Trump’s nominee, and 2. Support a bipartisan, transparent, public investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, which includes the disclosure of his tax returns. Once the program was settled and talking points were established, the group trekked the block over to Wyden’s office, where additional activists gathered under their multicolored umbrellas, awaiting the appearance of one of Wyden’s staffers or, better yet, the senator himself.
This is Indivisible Oregon, one of the thousands of groups of activists that have sprung up in recent months to resist the presidency and agenda of Donald Trump. The group has more than 6,000 Facebook followers, and those that materialize at the weekly meet-ups are predominantly women and retirees, likely reflecting the time of day (noon) of the meetings. In addition to Indivisible Oregon, there are 5,000 other verified Indivisible chapters across the country, at least two in every congressional district, including Alaska and Hawaii, all united around one document – the group’s own constitution, the Indivisible Guide.
At 26 easy-to-read pages, the guide has been downloaded more than a million times since it was uploaded as a Google document in mid-December. Its popularity boils down to one easy message: Just say no to Trump and his agenda, no matter what.
If that sounds oddly familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time that strategy has been deployed. The guide was written by former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and, though in disagreement with their opinions, came to admire the smart strategies employed by the anti-Obama activists. The Indivisible Guide is the gathering place of these lessons and tactics, condensed down to help citizens understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their members of Congress.
“The policy is so easy: Resist everything,” said Andrea Platt, a founding member of Indivisible Oregon who lives in Portland. “Progressives can unite. We can agree to stop Trump. People don’t realize the power they have as citizens. This guide helps us realize it.”
And Wyden staffer Grace Stratton, who came out to address the crowd on Tuesday, March 7, said it’s working. “We love Indivisible. It’s nice that they always come with a clear and united message. The senator responds to that.”
After the meeting, Stratton followed up with Oregon Indivisible with an emailed document (which was also issued as a press release) regarding Wyden’s urging Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to use his authority to allow members of the committee to privately review the president’s tax returns. She also shared two memos on the Affordable Care Act and Rep. Ryan Zinke’s confirmation as secretary of the interior. A statement on Indivisible from Wyden’s press secretary, Hank Stern, compliments the activists: “It’s clear from Indivisible members’ enthusiastic turnout for Senator Wyden’s town halls this year throughout our state – and from their ongoing conversations with his field staff – that these Oregonians are smart and effective advocates for participatory democracy. Their impact is strongly felt from the power of their voices and their determination to speak out and push back against the regular outrages emanating from Trump’s White House.”
“The Trump agenda does not depend on Trump. It depends on every individual member of Congress signing off. Constituents are reminding their members that they work for the people,” said Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, a human rights advocate and contributor to the original Indivisible Guide. The guide was written between Thanksgiving and Christmas – before Trump had been sworn in – by a group of a dozen or so individuals who spent the days and weeks after the election commiserating in bars and friends’ living rooms, trying to figure out the next step.
“We kind of looked around and realized that we had a good number of folks who were former congressional staffers, which gave us unique experience,” Martinez de Vedia said. So they got to work on a tool that they knew would give people the information to influence their members of Congress. It was rough going at first.
“We learned Google docs has a limit to the people who can view it at one time,” Martinez de Vedia said with a laugh. “And the first draft had a lot of typos.”
When the number of people clicking to view the document crashed the servers the night it went live, the group fixed the typos, converted it to a PDF, and threw together a website, indivisibleguide.com. The website functions as the hub for every Indivisible group in the United States, with an interactive map where it’s easy to find your nearest group or to create one of your own. Currently, 96 groups are registered within 20 miles of Portland, from the Mississippi-Williams group to the Multnomah Village People (MVP), and all the way out to Our Indivisible Revolution in Sherwood.
The guide’s thesis statement is focused on citizens acting locally in order to create resistance: to make calls, show up at town halls, and demand answers (in oftentimes creative ways) from their members of Congress. When the Tea Party enacted this strategy in 2009, it led to devastating losses to Democrats and the stable establishment of the hard right Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Martinez de Vedia said, “We’re ready to say that the Indivisible movement has gone way beyond what the Tea Party could have dreamed of, just by way of numbers alone. We have a vocal majority, using the same Tea Party tactics to get results.”
And the results are, seemingly, in. With the massive defeat of Trump’s health care bill, the American Health Care Act, on March 24, the resistance can claim its first decisive victory. Due to immense pressure from citizens across the country, Republicans in the House came up short on their seven-year promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Upon hearing the news of the AHCA being pulled from the floor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) Tweeted out to his followers:
We did it! Resistance works, derailing the destruction of the ACA, at least for now. Keep it up!— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) March 24, 2017
“And we’re just getting started,” said Platt, of Oregon Indivisible. “The takedown of Trumpcare validates the power of the people.”
Should I bring a sign?
According to the Indivisible Guide, the answer depends on your member of Congress, referred to as an MoC in the document: “If you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you the chance to get the mic or ask a question.” But “if you have enough people to both ask questions and hold signs, go for it!”
All of these instructions are geared to help constituents to get a better idea of how their representatives think: “Reelection, reelection, reelection,” the guide states. “MoCs are enormously sensitive to their image in the district or state, and they will work very hard to avoid signs of public dissent or disapproval.”
The guide walks constituents through numerous best practice approaches to dealing with their MoCs; especially effective local strategies include attending town halls, other local public events (“cutting ribbons and kissing babies back home”), district office visits, and coordinated calls. Congressional staffers who answer the phones keep tally sheets so they can report back to their bosses with respect to issues and where constituents stand. From March 22 to 24, the days the health care bill was being deliberated in Congress, representatives took to Twitter to express their call tallies:
Phones won't stop ringing with constituents asking us for one thing: to stop this horrible bill. #TrumpCare— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) March 24, 2017
275 oppose vs 4 support #ObamaCareLite. Phone calls to my office from constituents over last two weeks. Why are we voting on this?— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) March 21, 2017
NW Oregonians overwhelmingly want me to oppose #Trumpcare— Suzanne Bonamici (@RepBonamici) March 23, 2017
Calls/emails since January:
Support : 51
Oppose #ACARepeal: 3,859
Progressives know they won’t be able to set the agenda for at least the next few years, according to the guide, which is why the strategy is purely defensive. While the phone calls coming in to Congress are substantial, perhaps the most press-worthy resistance interactions are taking place at town hall meetings. Oregon Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley have progressive reputations and have convened numerous town halls all over Oregon, where they are met with mostly approval but also strong pushes to veer even further left.
FURTHER READING: With superstar-like status status, Wyden packs town halls
Other MoCs have not gotten off so easily, with Republicans such as Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) facing down raucous crowds that demanded accountability on things such as health care, Russian political inteference, and Trump’s taxes. These town halls have some MoCs seemingly running scared.
“Some groups struggle with MoCs who won’t show up,” Martinez de Vedia said. “It’s here that we see tremendous creativity – they’ve booked gyms and auditoriums and put a cardboard cutout of their MoC up at a podium to ask questions and get on the news. One group got a chicken, and they were talking to it, and the joke was that the chicken had more courage than their congressman,” Rep. Dave Trott, (R-Mich).
FURTHER READING: Congressman Schrader: 'Fear is palpable' at huge town halls
The most recent Indivisible meetup, on March 22, had once of its largest crowds to date, at 70 people, with a focus on health care. Together, group members shared their painful stories with Wyden staffer Ree Armitage, who was so moved by their accounts that he asked for more. Now that the battle for health care seems to have subsided, Andrea Platt expects the enthusiasm to keep growing.
“Even though we’re all exhausted after 61 days, it’s a marathon, not a sprint," she said. "Involvement will ebb and flow, but we see our role as making sure that we’re arming people with information to fight the Trump agenda.”
The Women’s March that took place on Jan. 21 brought out more than 4 million people to more than 900 events on seven continents – numbers the Tea Party never even came close to.
FURTHER READING: Why they marched
By several barometers, the resistance to Trump, Indivisible, has had more early energy and success than the protests to Obama in 2009. Platt and others that Street Roots spoke to resisted comparisons to the Tea Party.
“We’re so much different because we are more diverse. Our people span a broader spectrum who show up and are engaged and informed, not hostile. We want an honest dialogue,” Platt said.
One more difference: Tea Party town halls didn’t start gaining steam until around August 2009; anti-Trump town halls began before he was even inaugurated and have continued to gain steam throughout the country.
In the short time that Indivisible Oregon has banded together, volunteers put together more than 50 daily posts with actionable information, organized more than 10 meet-ups, and lent support to help teams prepare for meetings with their MoCs. The group is also in constant contact with other Indivisible groups from each of Oregon’s five congressional districts.
“We’re trying diligently to make sure we share information, and learn from each other,” Platt said.
“We’re in uncharted waters here,” Martinez de Vedia said. “Fortunately we’ve put out a blueprint that specifically addresses this environment and shows how civically engaged people are becoming. We are pulling the emergency brakes on Trump’s agenda.”