Seven Days

#Resist: How Trump's Election Has Ignited Vermont Activists

Ken Picard Feb 22, 2017 10:00 AM
Luke Eastman

A YouTube video currently making the rounds on social media is titled, "What It's Felt Like Since the Election." In it, a man wakes up in the morning, checks the news on his smartphone and immediately begins howling in terror. His sustained howl lasts throughout the day as he encounters others — at a coffee shop, the supermarket, yoga class, the dog park — who are all yelling, too.

If the first weeks of President Donald Trump's administration have left people feeling like they're in the Edvard Munch painting "The Scream," they're not alone. That sentiment is rampant across left-leaning Vermont. An unprecedented uptick in political activism since the inauguration began at the January 21 Women's March on Montpelier, which drew an estimated crowd of 20,000.

And then came the deluge of constituent emails, letters and phone calls flooding Vermont's congressional delegation. Since the January 20 inauguration, Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) office reports that he's received 50,127 calls, emails and letters on issues ranging from Trump's cabinet picks to his Supreme Court nominee to his business conflicts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) office reports an 897 percent increase in call volume from 2016 to 2017 so far, and a 1,808 percent increase in phone calls since 2015.

"To offer some perspective on the January 2017 data, we had 1.5 calls every minute for eight consecutive hours for every day we were open," writes Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders' deputy communications director, in a recent email. "There was not one minute when the phones were silent for the entire month of January."

Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) says that his constituent contacts have jumped at least sevenfold since last year. As he puts it, "People are active, they're engaged and they're really, really freaked out by all the stuff that's going on down here."

But many Vermonters outraged by Trump also recognize that inundating Vermont's congressional offices is preaching to the choir and can even be counterproductive. Ditto calling or writing Vermont's new Republican governor, Phil Scott, and Democratic attorney general, T.J. Donovan, both of whom have voiced opposition to Trump's immigration-related executive orders.

In short, widespread local resistance to Trump is heartening to Vermont lefties, but it leaves many to wonder, "OK, what more can I do?"

A lot, evidently. Since the election, scores of new groups have sprouted statewide, while seasoned activists say they've seen a surge in new interest and enthusiasm for their causes. Much of that civic engagement is coming from Vermonters who've never been politically active before.

Those newcomers include Jennifer Michelle, a 49-year-old marketing professional from Fairfax. She recently launched the Fairfax chapter of Indivisible, a nationwide resistance movement created by former Democratic congressional staffers shortly after the election.

The group's playbook is called "Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda." This crowdsourced how-to manual took a page from the conservative Tea Party movement to educate new liberal activists about the most effective means for making their voices heard in Congress. Since it was posted online in December, the Indivisible guide has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

Fairfax VT Indivisible, which is using Front Porch Forum, Facebook and Twitter to recruit members, held its first meeting on a chilly Saturday morning recently, drawing more than a dozen attendees. The group, which is now coordinating with nascent chapters in Hinesburg, Middlebury, Montpelier, Middlesex and the Northeast Kingdom, has enlisted hundreds of members statewide, as well as expat Vermonters from as far away as New Zealand.

"In Fairfax, we want to be part of this movement to resist Trump's agenda," Michelle explains. "It's very clear that we want to maintain our ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal protection under the law for everybody — pretty basic and pretty American."

Michelle says she likes that Indivisible makes her feel empowered while living in a solidly blue state. The guide offers simple, practical tips for taking small but meaningful steps locally, such as contacting Republican lawmakers who've taken principled stands against Trump. Michelle recently spoke with state Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), who cosponsored S.79. That bill would protect Vermonters from the compulsory collection of personally identifiable information such as their race, religion, sexuality or country of origin, and it would prohibit local and county officials from striking agreements with the Trump administration to serve as deputized immigration enforcement agents.

"A month ago, I would have been asleep by this point in the conversation," Michelle says. "Now I have our senators' offices on speed dial. It's ridiculous!"

In fact, she and other Vermont Indivisible members spoke to Welch via conference call last Friday to discuss their concerns.

Welch says he was thrilled to hear these activists' newfound level of engagement. He recommended that if Vermonters want to be even more effective, they should reach out to friends and family members in Republican districts and urge them to meet with their own representatives to voice their concerns about, say, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, or the Trump team's Russia connections.

Another grassroots campaign that's taken off recently is called Our First 100 Days. Immediately after the election, a group of coworkers at Tetra Tech, a Burlington-based international development firm, met outside of work to support each other in what Amy Kirk of Colchester calls "our collective grieving."

The group decided that, as the media began focusing attention on Trump's first 100 days in office, starting on Inauguration Day they would each commit to taking one action per day for 100 days.

The group created a Facebook page, on which members post five daily suggestions for political actions to take, such as calling a specific member of Congress, donating time or money to a nonprofit group, or collecting goods for local relief agencies. Since its inception, Our First 100 Days has enlisted more than 7,200 members nationwide.

Kirk, 33, and coworker Kate Simone, 46, describe their previous political involvement as "pretty minimal" — mostly just voting and following the news. Simone says she never even put a political sign in her yard.

However, after Trump issued his travel ban for those from Muslim-majority countries, she hung a sign in the window of her Winooski home that reads, "We stand with refugees." Simone also attended the Women's March in Washington, D.C., and for weeks afterward displayed her protest sign in her car window.

"I always felt that, living in Vermont, we were pretty insulated, and our representatives always had our backs," she says. "But now we've got to keep pushing them, because things are so not normal."

For Kirk, the Women's March in Montpelier was her first political rally. It won't be her last.

"On a personal level, I feel like I've beefed up my activism muscle," she says. "Our core values are being challenged, and what's been fought for for so long is now at risk."

Longtime Vermont activists see the emergent outrage and energy as the silver lining behind Trump's extremist agenda.

"As someone who's been organizing for the better part of two decades, there's never been anything like this. It feels like a whole different world," says James Haslam, executive director of Rights & Democracy. His Vermont and New Hampshire social justice organization was instrumental in organizing the Montpelier women's march. "People want to do something like I've never seen before," he adds.

There's never been anything like this. It feels like a whole different world. James Haslam tweet this

RAD, which previously focused on statewide efforts such as workers' rights, the livable wage campaign, and family and medical leave, has since shifted its emphasis to more national issues. For Haslam, that means making Vermont a model for the rest of the nation while also recruiting and training the next generation of progressive activists and leaders. As he puts it, "We love Bernie Sanders, but we need a hundred more Bernie Sanders."

Longtime environmental activist James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, says that Trump's extremism has enabled him to forge new relationships with individuals and groups that weren't previously allies. As LCI's members span the political spectrum, he's in a unique position to alter perceptions and change the minds of more conservative Vermonters.

And liberals' minds, as well. Several weeks ago, Ehlers spoke at a rally in Burlington's City Hall Park in support of refugees. He's a veteran who served in the Navy in the 1990s and deployed to Panama. Ehlers told the crowd, "An America that discriminates is not the America that we veterans were willing to die for." He says the comment was met with enthusiasm.

"I got a ton of positive feedback from people I wouldn't have considered friends. I don't know why," Ehlers recalls. "Maybe it was because it was crashing their stereotypes that if you're a veteran, you must be a law-and-order authoritarian. But I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the president."Others who've been involved in politics and political activism for decades, including former governor Madeleine Kunin and Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington), have formed a new group called March Forward. Sullivan, who served in the legislature throughout the 1990s and returned in 2014, says she had to do something more.

"I allowed myself a day or two after the election to just wallow in my misery," Sullivan recalls. "And then I thought, Enough of that. That's not going to get us anywhere."

One of the group's goals, she says, is to keep alive the spirit of the Women's March on Washington (and worldwide) and bring the experience and expertise of older activists to the younger generation. As Sullivan puts it, "If our only victory doesn't happen until 2018, then that will still be extremely worthwhile."

When it comes to political activism, few Vermonters have been at it as long as Sister Pat McKittrick. She's a nurse who works in community health improvement at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

McKittrick is also a nun who's spent more than five decades fighting for social justice issues from a Catholic perspective. She says that all the disparate efforts around the state have one thing in common: They're about forging new relationships and building community.

"In Winooski, one of the ways we realized that people connect is through stories," McKittrick says. To that end, she's now working with Winooski photographer Dan Higgins to create photos that tell the stories of 25 people who reflect the Onion City's diversity. The yearlong project will include student-made digital recordings of people's stories and events that bring together different groups who wouldn't otherwise mix.

"The good thing that has come out of all this is that people are saying, 'We need to do something,' rather than just being apathetic and giving up," McKittrick says. "People are saying, 'We have a voice, and we can do something. Now, let's get started!'"

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