The New Faces of Activism

Are first-time activists making a difference in Rhode Island?
resistance protest
Illustration by Daniel Fishel.

A day in the life of the resistance starts with a rally at Rhode Island College to save the Affordable Care Act. Mid-morning saw 575 people gathered on an unseasonably warm Saturday to advocate for the seven-year-old law, which has made health care accessible to more than twenty million Americans. The crowd is bearing “Single Payer” signs and the pink-tip eared knitted hats that symbolized January’s massive Women’s March. Standing ovations punctuate applause and cheers, thundering like post-Nor’easter high surf, to United States Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Jim Langevin’s vows to preserve the health care law and push for universal coverage.

Brown University political science professor Sharon Krause joins the throng “to support the congressional delegation and resist the dismantling of the ACA by Republicans. Since our new president, I’ve been to many of these events,” she says.

Future historians may prosecute President Donald J. Trump’s campaign promise to make America great again. In the present, his election has certainly made citizen engagement in democracy great again. Voters are showing up in extraordinary numbers to congressional town hall meetings, flooding phone and fax lines with their opposition to cabinet picks like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and their support of Obamacare. Senator Whitehouse’s office fielded 2,150 calls, letters and faxes in January 2016; he received 14,779 this January.

“It’s very inspiring and enlivening to know that Rhode Island is so engaged,” says Whitehouse. “We received more than 4,500 letters on the confirmation of Secretary DeVos. I’m not sure 4,500 Rhode Islanders knew who the Secretary of Education was ten years ago. The level of attention is not just strong, it goes deep.”

Established organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood are setting records for donations and volunteers. New groups, like Indivisible, the Women’s March and Resist Hate RI have vigorously sprung into existence overnight.

“In thirty years of studying movements, I have never seen anything like this,” says T.V. Reed, a Washington State University American Studies professor emeritus and author of The Art of Protest, in an email exchange.

The protests of the 1960s were primarily youth-led and took years to coalesce into a broad social movement. The Tea Party largely rose on the corporate backing of libertarian industrialists Charles and David Koch and never captured more than 10 percent of the population. This is different, Reed says.

“The resistance has grown faster than any movement and with a broader basis than any I have seen before. Trump [and chief strategist Steve] Bannon have done something no other force could have done. They have united progressives, liberals, moderates and many conservatives into a single, massive opposition. Millions of people who were never politically active before are challenging a regime that they believe has no respect for American values or democracy itself.”

Laura Kelly, a fifty-three-year-old Navy contractor, is one of them. Heartsick at Trump’s victory, she was intrigued by a notice announcing the formation of the state chapter of the Women’s March. Kelly saw it as a chance to “turn all the negative energy into something positive.” She was blown away by the volume of likeminded Rhode Islanders. The state sent 3,000 people to the Washington, D.C., march. The sister event on the State House lawn attracted 7,000. The chapter continues to meet every week, building a statewide network for further actions focused on promoting women’s and human rights.

“This was the first time I helped organize a march. I didn’t know what I could accomplish, but now I have this tribe of unbelievingly caring women. I go every Sunday and there’s always new faces,” she says. “It’s exhausting, but it’s exciting. And the energy is growing.”

Planned Parenthood of Southern New England saw a 250 percent spike in the amount of donations in the period between the election in early November and the January inauguration. The number of new donors shot up from fifty-six during this same period last year to 400. President and CEO Judy Tabar called the torrent “unprecedented.”
“We have held more than a dozen events since the elections and connected with over 2,000 Rhode Islanders,” she says. “Of those, 500 have signed up to help with local advocacy work like calling legislators. This is a time to speak up, because it really makes a difference.”

The ACLU of Rhode Island has seen a similar burst of “explosive” interest, says executive director Steven Brown, with the number of new members shooting up from ten a month to 200 in December.

“It’s encouraging to see the outpouring of support for the ACLU,” Brown says. “We’re trying to figure out how to mobilize this energy and anger and desire to help.”
By 2 p.m. that Saturday, the resistance is clustered in Hope High School’s cafeteria.

“Say it!” commands Working Families Party organizer Laufton Ascencao. “I have power and I can make a difference!”

More than 800 members of Resist Hate RI oblige with full-throat. Beyond showing up for marches and rallies lies the grinding work of empowering people to make political change. Resist Hate came together immediately after the election as a coalition of activists, some from established organizations such as the Sierra Club, to initiate a conversation on how to oppose the Trump agenda. Nearly 1,000 people showed up. This day’s meeting features a variety of workshops on how to use your civic power to run for office or fight for environmental causes or understand your voting rights, among others.

“Part of resistance is going on the offense,” says organizer State Representative Aaron Regunberg of Providence. “A democracy can only work when you have active, engaged citizens. We should be thinking about pushing toward our own positive vision of a state with more justice and equality.”

The Rhode Island State Council of Churches is shepherding the eagerness of its flock of more than 300 congregations into a discussion about establishing sanctuary congregations to protect undocumented immigrants from the president’s sweeping executive orders. The Council’s Executive Minister Rev. Dr. Donald Anderson expected twenty people to attend the first meeting; 200 came.

“On a Monday night!” he says. “I hear this over and over again. People who have never been involved say they have to do something.”

So far, the movement in Rhode Island is largely white and has not fully meshed with longstanding advocacy groups for people of color. Step Up — a group consisting of the Providence Student Youth Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Olneyville Neighborhood Association — has fielded inquiries from new activists interested in helping the passage of the Providence Community Safety Act. The comprehensive ordinance would ban racial profiling and increase accountability in police interactions with minority communities.

“We’ve known it doesn’t matter who the president is,” says Step Up’s Vanessa Flores-Maldonado. “The system still isn’t designed for us. Now we have all these people from the outside who’ve decided to help. We are glad to have them, but sometimes it’s exhausting to deal with people who have a lot of energy and resources, but no direction.”
One Saturday in the life of the resistance ends with Andrea Peitsch wilting over her cash register.

“It’s the craziest my store has ever been. I’ve never seen it this busy — even before Christmas,” she says.

Three weeks earlier, the proprietor of South County Art Supply had rallied her Facebook friends to donate books for a sale to benefit Planned Parenthood. They brought thousands of paperback mysteries and hardcover cook and cocktail table books to her Wakefield store. They just as generously bought them. Peitsch had long wanted to reconcile her desire to be an activist with her schedule as a small retail business owner and a mom.

“I figured out that anything I would do would have to be in my store,” she says.

Amid the extra racks and piles of books tucked into every corner, she mentally tallied the results: By the sale’s end, she raised $2,860.

Resistance is not futile.

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