Protests: America's punch-drunk left pulls itself off the canvas, stirs to life

By The Canadian Press
January 22, 2017 - 2:15am

WASHINGTON — From the smoldering wreckage of electoral catastrophe, deep in the seat-swallowing sinkholes of state and federal defeat, America's progressives have suddenly spotted embers of a comeback.

Millions of them.

Jam-packed streets in multiple cities, where monster crowds marched for a hodge-podge of progressive causes, stirred to life visions of a counter-movement to rival the tea party phenomenon that produced a Donald Trump presidency.

The hundreds of thousands who clogged city blocks in downtown Washington, D.C., spanned multiple generations including one senior citizen pushing a wheelchair and holding a sign that said: "Not Usually A Protester But Geez...."

"I think there's a great sense of alarm — a great sense of urgency," explained another protester, Julie Greenberg, a rabbi who made the trip from Philadelphia.

"Many groups are meeting and asking the question, 'Well, what do we need to do now?'"

That's the basic question many wrestled with.

Greenberg has seen historic protests before. Saturday's wasn't even her biggest moment at Washington's National Mall. As a six-year-old girl, she was there to witness Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Nowadays she's working with a multifaith network called Power Interfaith on economic and racial-justice issues like public education, minimum wages, and scaling back mass-incarceration.

They've organized 100 days of action against a new Trump administration that's promising sharp changes in education, labour, climate-change and justice policies. As for health care, it's still unclear what the plan is.

The angry audiences at town halls demanding health-care answers from Republican lawmakers suggests the weekend women's march was no one-off fluke.

Greenberg's actions involve training organizers: "(We ask), 'Which five people are you going to call? Who needs childcare? Who needs a ride? Which five people are they going to call?' Really getting organized. And we're doing that with allies across issues." Her plan involves linking different groups, so people with disparate causes, can help each other across what she calls organizational silos.

One way to link everyone involves data.

Organizers of the march created a mobile-phone app with maps and event information. People who downloaded it were encouraged to link it to their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts after providing their email address.

One New York Times blogger reported that more than 50 groups associated with billionaire Democratic megadonor George Soros participated Saturday. Asra Nomani lamented that the event succumbed to Democratic identity politics, which resulted in the inclusion of conservative Muslim groups but not more feminist-friendly Muslims like herself: "As someone who voted for Trump, I don't feel welcome," she said.

Another data-gathering progressive group is SwingLeft.org.

It says 20,000 have signed up in recent days to help win seats in the House of Representatives in 2018. People plug in their zip code, and send contact information, with the goal of finding competitive campaigns to assist close to home.

That speaks to a key dilemma for protest movements: To channel energy into partisan politics, or not?

Some of the weekend participants blocked intersections and chanted Occupy-style slogans like, "Whose streets? Our streets," as city buses idled and car horns honked amid the infuriating traffic.

Others talked about focusing energy on that building in the distance, the one looming over the protest gathering spot — the U.S. Congress. Sandra Elgear spoke of the need to elect progressives at multiple levels of government, and to pressure lawmakers.

"Their phones are being jammed," she said, referring to campaigns to lobby lawmakers on issues like the repeal of Obamacare. 

"We have to go to local meetings."

The next overriding dilemma involves tactics: what policies to push, how ideologically radical to get, and how to speak to the other side.

Ample political-science research shows the parties increasingly hostile to each other; isolated by geography; their supporters growing more extreme — especially on the Republican side; and fewer venues to communicate with adversaries.

The culture clash was evident in Washington.

Red America came to celebrate Trump in a decidedly blue city, where 96 per cent voted against him — as several protest signs made sure to point out. There were bemused glances from the locals, and the occasional verbal joust, as red Trump ballcaps and camouflage coats suddenly appeared in town.

Trump supporters and some of their children responded by jeering the protesters.

Elgear noticed the unfolding of an increasingly rare phenomenon: the two Americas, in one place. She arrived on the train from her home in New York City with protesters in pink knit hats, as the self-described deplorables left town in their own hats, the red ones stitched with Trump's slogan.

"It's a different crowd," she said. "It was like a changing of the guard." She said people managed civil exchanges.

One Trump fan told his son, "Don't worry, they don't bite."

For her part, Elgear held a pink sign that said: "Poutine, Not Putin! Canada, Help Us!" The Ottawa-born, longtime New Yorker was one of many protesters casting a longing gaze at the politics of the northern neighbour.

She paused to consider a question about how her allies might try reaching other Americans like those she saw at the train station, speak to them, and win their votes in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

She conceded it's not easy. Americans live in different bubbles, she said, and hers is New York City.

"I sure don't have an answer," she said. 

"If you have an answer, I'd love to hear it."

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

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