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This past Sunday, the final day of the first congressional district work period of the year, a group of fired-up activists held a mock town hall with a cardboard cutout of their U.S. senator after being unable to secure the in-person forum they wanted.
The twist: That senator was a Democrat, and the mock town hall took place in one of the most liberal precincts of California.
Republican members of Congress from coast to coast have faced off with angry constituents at rambunctious town hall forums since President Trump took office, leading many of them to scale back their availability to members of the public. But the fired-up progressive base behind much of that activism is not restricting its activities to the Republican side of the aisle. In a world where the new president has the lowest level of support from members of the opposing party in Gallup polling history, and in which Democrats’ unfavorable views of Trump are of blindingly hot intensity, Democratic politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are on the receiving end of one message over and over: Resist. Resist everything.
“Sen. Feinstein has been California’s senator for many, many, many years — for 24 years — and she is one of our more moderate members of Congress. And … while her moderate positions may have worked well in the past while we had a fairly normal sort of state of politics, things are not normal now,” said Claudine Co of Indivisible SF, the San Francisco outpost of the progressive group formed after the election to, in her words, “convince our members of Congress to oppose the Trump administration and its policies as much as we can.”
“We want her to try to just oppose everything about the Trump administration,” said Co, who objected to Feinstein’s votes in favor of selected Trump Cabinet secretaries. “We want her to say no. We want her to be as obstructionist as possible.”
The effort to bring Feinstein’s votes in line with resistance values began as soon as Trump took office, and has involved Indivisible groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland, as well as MoveOn.org and less formally organized groups of activists operating under the banner of the People’s Town Hall Project. Urging Feinstein to oppose and vote against the nomination of her Senate colleague Jeff Sessions to be attorney general — which she ultimately did — became a huge activist push during the week before the vote, after she had first voted yes on five of Trump’s nominees. On Jan. 30, two hundred people protested outside Feinstein’s San Francisco mansion, carrying signs like “Obstruct or go home” and “Less yes, more no, otherwise you gotta go.”
“If you don’t know what people want, you haven’t been watching the news; you haven’t been to the airport; you haven’t been to the Women’s March. You are ignoring everyone that is trying to talk to you,” one woman said in an address to Feinstein, who did not appear to be home, during what turned into a sort of citizens’ town hall, San Francisco Magazine reported.
So many activists called Feinstein’s office and sent letters about Trump’s nominees that at the end of February she sent a letter to the California Indivisible chapters thanking them for reaching out to her and noting that more than 112,000 constituents had called or emailed about Sessions and another 95,000 had reached out to urge her to oppose Betsy DeVos for education secretary. “Your engagement and grit inspire me to work even harder to protect the democratic values, principles, and communities that have always made our country great,” she wrote. But she declined, again, to hold a town hall meeting with the activists.
The next day, they confronted her at a San Francisco policy forum, inside and outside.
— Indivisible SF (@IndivisibleSF) February 25, 2017
The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Feinstein pressed to resist Trump.”
— Indivisible SF (@IndivisibleSF) February 26, 2017
Whether the self-styled resistance of the Trump era is like the tea party movement is a subject of debate within it. Members of the resistance point to Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote win as evidence that they represent the majority in America and not an angry minority. “The current resistance isn’t reacting to its lost status as the majority in American politics, as the Tea Party was,” former Clinton deputy national press secretary Jesse Ferguson argued in a recent Time magazine editorial. “It is speaking out for the majority of Americans who feel inadequately represented in Washington. This resistance is giving political voice to those the political system has deprived of a voice. They are speaking for the silenced majority.”
“I am so sick of the attempts to somehow make folks fighting against 45 [Trump] the same as the Tea Party back in 09. The s*** ain’t comparable,” tweeted writer and TWIB Nation CEO Elon James, agreeing with him.
And yet the groups that make up the resistance frequently and explicitly point to the tea party as a model. “We modeled #indivisible strategy on the Tea Party, but @JesseFFerguson piece rings true. Resistance is the majority,” wrote Indivisible co-founder and executive organizer Ezra Levin in reply.
“We didn’t agree with a lot of [the tea party’s] tactics that were sometimes overly aggressive — sometimes even violent — but we thought they were smart on overall strategy,” Levin told Yahoo News. “That strategy was a local, defensive, congressional advocacy strategy implemented by constituents.”
And as with the tea party, that strategy often involves targeting members of your own party as well as the opposition. Though it has gotten less attention than the confrontations with Republicans, Democrats have been seeing huge crowds at their town hall meetings when they hold them. From the moment Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., started his 2017 town hall schedule the day before the new president was inaugurated, his constituents have been imploring him to resist the Trump agenda and defend the Affordable Care Act — and his town halls since then have been packed.
“Interest is obviously off the charts,” Wyden told the Portland Tribune in January after a meeting that drew 200. By the end of February, his town halls were drawing crowds as large as 800.
“At the end of the day, elected officials understand they have to be accountable to the real faces they represent, or those people are going to get somebody else,” Wyden, who has served in the Senate for 20 years and is among its most liberal members, said. “It’s not rocket science.”
On the other side of the country, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., drew a crowd in mid-February that urged a “resist Trump” message. More than 800 people showed up for the first meeting of the year with Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, the Providence Journal reported. They held signs reading “Persist!” and chanted “Just say no!” in reference to approving Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
In fact, the more liberal a member’s district, the more likely he or she is to be confronted by resistance activists, who are organizing at an astonishing scale. Indivisible now has at least two groups in every congressional district in the country, its leaders report — a grand total of 5,664 verified groups. Resistance movement leaders boasted on a multi-organization weekly organizing call that draws upwards of 30,000 listeners about efforts targeting Whitehouse and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey. In Brooklyn, protesters marched on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Park Slope apartment at the end of January. “Chuck’s a chicken,” they chanted: “Filibuster everything!” “He has to champion the resistance or he has to get out of the way!” 39-year-old Hae-Lin Choi, a protest organizer, told NBC New York.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi held a community health care forum in mid-February that drew people with her local group, Indivisible San Francisco. “We’d love to have a photo op with you after, and we are backing you up 100 percent as long as you are resisting Trump’s agenda,” a member of the group told her in a video posted online.
“There is nothing they have put forth that anybody could cooperate with,” Pelosi told the activists.
— Indivisible SF (@IndivisibleSF) February 21, 2017
And they’re not just showing up to meetings or making calls. Indivisible SF has been holding weekly meetings with new Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. They have been meeting with Feinstein’s staff every week or week and a half. Members of Indivisible LA are also meeting with her staff.
— Indivisible LA (@indivisible_la) February 25, 2017
These meetings are still not enough, the activists say. They want a proper town hall with Feinstein. Not having gotten what they want, on Sunday, Indivisible East Bay held an “Empty Chair” town hall in Oakland, asking questions to a cardboard cutout of the senator, and placing her face on milk cartons. The event drew about 550 people.
— Indivisible SF (@IndivisibleSF) February 26, 2017
“Despite requests from a coalition of community groups comprised of 15,000 Californians to talk with their Senator face-to-face, Feinstein has declined to attend the event in Oakland, California, letting down her constituents,” Indivisible East Bay complained on its website. Indivisible SF signed on to support the effort — as did more than 50 other local groups — explaining on Twitter: “We are big fans of @SenFeinstein! We ALSO think she needs hear what matters to her constituents!”
And now, with Feinstein back in Washington, activists are turning their attention to her staff back home. This coming Sunday, the activists who once swarmed around her home are planning a protest outside the home of her California state director.