News & Issues April 2017
In blue Berkshires, election spurs new activism
Groups rally, petition, and look beyond state line
By JOHN TOWNES
Almost from the moment Donald Trump upended the predictions of pollsters and pundits by winning the November election, progressive activists in the Berkshires have been organizing to counter the new president’s agenda.
In the past few months, a series of new citizens groups have sprung up around the Berkshires to protest, petition, raise funds and work the phones to oppose Trump’s initiatives – and to build support for alternatives.
And with virtually all elected officials in western Massachusetts already reliably blue, some local activists are vowing to take their campaign across the border to New York – by working to defeat freshman U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, in 2018.
Although the results of November’s election have galvanized Democratic-leaning activists around the nation, the effect seems particularly strong in Berkshire County, where Trump garnered barely 26 percent of the vote.
“People have been coming out of the woodwork to get involved,” said William Wise, the chairman of the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee, which held an organizing meeting last month that attracted representatives of more than a dozen other groups.
“Usually when we have a meeting, we get a handful of people attending,” Wise said. “This time about 85 people showed up.”
Local activists say they fear the election results will serve to worsen the nation’s problems with racism, immigration, women’s rights, economic inequality and environmental degradation.
Not all of the new activism has been explicitly partisan. Perhaps the most visible sign of local concern about the new president’s agenda came on a cold, dreary Saturday in early January, when nearly 2,000 people braved the elements to march the length of North Street in downtown Pittsfield. The marchers then jammed a rally at the First Congregational Church on Park Square.
The Jan. 7 march was organized by an ad-hoc group called the Four Freedoms Coalition. The group is officially nonpartisan and represents an alliance of dozens of local organizations, institutions and citizens in the Berkshires.
“Following the election, many people felt that they had to do something to stand up for the basic values they believed were being threatened,” said Megan Whilden, one of the organizers of the march.
The Four Freedoms Coalition takes its name from the 1941 State of the Union speech, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the core universal principles of democracy as freedom of expression and religion -- and freedom from want and fear.
The artist Norman Rockwell, who lived in Stockbridge in his latter years, subsequently created iconic illustrations of the Four Freedoms, which were published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.
Whilden said Roosevelt’s speech summarizes the values the coalition is based on.
“Our goal is to protect and defend those freedoms by standing up and speaking out,” she said.
The group’s Web site (4freedomscoalition.org) describes it as “a nonpartisan, diverse coalition of over 150 community groups, nonprofit organizations, businesses and elected officials working together to unite the community and reaffirm our true American values.”
Its mission statement is to support activities that “work towards inclusiveness, connectedness, justice and the protection of human rights for all people,” and to actively oppose bigotry and prejudice from any source.
The coalition initially was organized by the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, the Berkshire Central Labor Council and the Berkshire Democratic Brigade.
Despite the participation of the Berkshire Democratic Brigade, which is affiliated with the Democratic Party, the coalition’s Web site also emphasizes that it is open to everyone who supports its broad goals, whatever their political philosophy and party affiliation. The coalition says it does not endorse candidates or engage in other partisan activity.
Whilden said the initial members of the coalition set out to involve a much wider array of organizations.
“It had to be broadly based, and we reached out to the entire community, through social media and other networking,” she said.
The coalition’s supporting partners now include the city of Pittsfield, most of the region’s elected officials, Berkshire Community College, and a wide range of other institutions and groups.
Apart from the January march, the coalition has sponsored or co-sponsored several activities, including a pro-immigration rally in Park Square. A daylong public program called “Act Now! Civic Participation Workshops for Everyone” was scheduled for April 1.
Indivisible: Grassroots partisanship
The national Democratic Party has struggled with its message and identity after losing the presidency and failing to gain majorities in Congress last year.
But many Democrats at the local level say they are seeing a wave of new interest in the nuts and bolts of political organizing -- from running phone banks to carrying petitions, running for office or lobbying elected officials about specific issues.
Last year’s presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders revealed differences within the Democratic Party as an institution -- and between moderates and progressives. But many local activists say shared opposition to President Trump is his party’s policies have given the Democratic factions a common focus.
Nationally, this has spurred the work of new and existing coalitions including Act Blue, Swing Left, and Our Revolution.
One national group that has lately gained prominence is Indivisible. The organization was started by former congressional staffers who published a free online guidebook on how Democrats and progressives can effectively engage in government and politics. Modeled on the strategies of the Tea Party movement that fueled the Republican electoral waves of 2010 and 2014, the online guide has been widely circulated and downloaded.
Several new groups in Berkshire County have aligned themselves with Indivisible. They include Indivisible Pittsfield; Greylock Together, which operates in the northern Berkshires; and the Green Tea Party in southern Berkshire County. Each Indivisible group is autonomous, and the groups chart their own specific political agendas.
Indivisible Pittsfield has an active core of about 40 members who meet regularly in the Berkshire Athenaeum, and smaller subgroups focus on specific issues.
Organizer Susan Lyman said she had not previously been a political activist, but the election results prompted her to get more involved.
“I was so outraged that I decided it was time to get off the sofa and do something about it,” she said. “I started by organizing buses to the Women’s March in Washington. That was a great experience, but I also realized that it is important to do more than attend demonstrations. Then I learned about Indivisible and decided to start a group here.”
She sent messages through social media to all of her acquaintances, and it attracted others through word of mouth. A group began meeting regularly and set up a Facebook page.
Among other activities, the group organized a local petition to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., urging an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the role of foreign powers in the 2016 election.
“The ability to connect different local groups is one of the beauties of being part of the national Indivisible network,” Lyman said. “I received an e-mail from someone in an Indivisible group in Maryland suggesting we petition Senator Markey because he is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
From local to national
Another local group affiliated with Indivisible, the Green Tea Party in Great Barrington, already existed before the election but was focused more on local issues.
Co-organizer Bobby Houston explained that the Green Tea Party grew out of local opposition to the handling of a state reconstruction project along Route 7 through downtown Great Barrington. The group’s members felt the project harmed the character of downtown.
“Seeing what can happen when we don’t pay attention ignited the energy and determination of people not to let such things happen in the future,” Houston said.
The group also focused on challenging a developer’s plan to tear down the historic Searles Middle School and replace it with a modern hotel. Faced with strong public opposition, the developer changed plans and agreed to preserve and redevelop the old school as a hotel.
“We found that people can make waves and make a difference -- if they show up and stand up,” Houston said. “Then, after the election, we decided to channel that same impulse to national issues, and we joined Indivisible.”
Although Berkshire County is one of the bluest counties in one of the nation’s most Democratic states, Houston and others emphasized that there is also much to do locally.
“There are plenty of Trump voters in the Berkshires, and part of our job is to talk to all our friends and neighbors and engage in constructive dialog,” he said.
Houston said groups like Indivisible and Swing Left are opening up the political process and reinvigorating progressive politics.
“The grass roots is on fire right now,” Houston said. “While the national Democratic Party has been thinking about what to do, the people have been taking action, and it’s working. The bottom line is that Trump and his party control government at the moment. We can’t write policy or make changes overnight. But we can oppose destructive policies, and it’s succeeding.”
The Green Tea Party is among the groups from the Berkshires that have taken aim at Faso, the freshman Republican congressman from neighboring New York. Faso’s district extends from Rensselaer and Columbia counties southwest to the Pennsylvania border – and nearly to Binghamton.
Houston expressed confidence that the grassroots activism will have a larger impact over time.
“I believe there will be a wave election in 2018, and Democrats will take back the House,” he said. “Also, the next generation is going to come along quickly, and we’ll see new leaders emerge who will make the real difference.”
Wise, the Great Barrington Democratic chairman, said last year’s campaign revealed a a need for reform within the party.
“Nationally, the Democratic Party lost touch with its roots and became too fixated on the technocratic approach of campaign professionals,” he said. “The national party should have picked up on the Trump phenomenon during the campaign. But they didn’t, and Trump won over too many people who should have voted Democratic. Politicians and party officials need to be talking to people and listening, instead of spending so much time looking at charts and analyzing data points.”
As more people get involved, the party will be revitalized, he added.
“It’s not doom and gloom,” Wise said. “I think all of this self-organizing is great. People are getting involved. And in the process of organizing, they’re discovering their talents and realizing what people can do when they participate in the process. My own hope that the Democratic Party will re-establish our roots, and develop a deeper bench on the local level throughout the country.”
One concern, though, is whether the current level of engagement can be sustained and yield results over time.
“That will depend on individuals, as well as how things are organized,” Lyman said. “Personally, I’m committed to this for the long haul, but people have to do whatever works for them. Right now, a priority is to help Democrats reclaim Congress in 2018. That is a clear goal to focus on now.”
And Whilden said that regardless of party, people need to stay involved and take a long-term view of the issues they care about.
“I’m basically an incrementalist,” Whilden said. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, but is an incremental process. This is not a sprint but a relay. We all have to find ways to pace ourselves, and stay in it for the long run.”