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In the days following the election of Donald Trump, Natacia Knapper, like many District residents, was feeling helpless and overwhelmed. In this city of about 680,000—where approximately 96 percent voted against Trump—it’s particularly easy to feel helpless against the agenda of Congress and the White House.
D.C. is simultaneously the most and least powerful city in the country; it’s home to the the U.S. government, and yet its residents don’t have any voting representation in Congress. So Knapper, 34, did what many young Washingtonians did after the election: She went to an organizing meeting.
“I was really looking for ways to be a bit more involved in community organizing or volunteering, beyond just attending the occasional rallies, going to my councilmember’s community meetings, voting, all that stuff I was already doing,” she recalls.
In the past year, Knapper channeled those feelings of helplessness into direct action—mostly on the local level. She started attending Black Lives Matter DC open house meetings and the DC Movement for Black Lives Steering Committee general assemblies. Through those meetings, she linked up with the Stop Police Terror Project DC—a community organization that works to combat systemic racism and militarization within regional police forces—and quickly found herself working most weekends with the grassroots organization.
“The inequalities we see in black communities, and the violence and corruption, is something that I’m very interested in as a concept. And how it can be implemented,” she says. “So the Stop Police Terror Project, just on a base level, really appealed to me.”
D.C. has a rich history of local organizing, but in the past year the level of activism has been stronger. Since the Women’s March on January 21, 2017—estimated to have been the largest single political demonstration in D.C. since the Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and early ’70s— there have been at least 321 marches, rallies, protests, demonstrations, and actions in the District, per the DC Action Calendar, a shared public calendar that a group of local activists started. Most of the actions were organized in direct response to the Trump administration’s policy agenda.
Nearly a year has gone by since the Women’s March, and while protests and demonstrations aren’t as frequent as they were last winter and spring, the momentum has not dissipated. It’s evolved beyond $30 t-shirts emblazoned with Mitch McConnell’s now famous description of Elizabeth Warren: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
As the Trump resistance movement turns a year old, the energy for activism is as strong as it’s ever been, trickling down into grassroots movements within different corners of D.C.’s robust activist communities and inspiring new ways for people to get involved.
The resistance hasn’t died, it’s hunkering down for the long haul.
Like Knapper, 28-year-old Elyssa Feder found herself dazed and dismayed after the election and wanted to get involved in activism of some kind. She went to an organizing meeting a couple of days after the election and found that it wasn’t what she was hoping for.
“It was just disorganized,” she recalls. “It was a large group of really well-intentioned people who were also in a state of panic and wanted to do something good in the world. And there was just something missing.”
Rather than go along with the disorganization, Feder took it upon herself to create the kind of meeting she’d been hoping for. She founded Rising Organizers at the end of November 2016—originally calling it Good Guys DC—as way to help people in the District use their energy toward activism in an effective way. Rising Organizers is essentially a mentorship and skills training program for new and beginning organizers. Feder, who is a lobbyist for a nonprofit that works in international conflict resolution, had plenty of prior organizing experience and quickly recruited three others—Kalyani Grad-Kaimal, Rachel George, and Josh Boxerman—to join Rising Organizers and form its leadership team. “We knew that we had this set of skills to help people in this particular moment,” Feder says.
In the early days of 2017, Rising Organizers hosted free trainings on an “emergency basis,” Feder says, in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The first few trainings each attracted about 150 to 200 people interested in learning how to get involved in organizing, including how to plan or prepare for a protest, march, or rally.
But once it became clear to Feder and her co-directors that people had an enduring interest in their methods, they retooled their approach and decided to focus their efforts on training for existing organizations.
In these trainings, Feder says, her team helps resistance organizations figure out how to turn the anti-Trump energy people had post-election into long-term organizing. “It’s really about trying to create a stable place for people to be held accountable for the work that they want to do,” she says, “and giving the skills that they need to actually make that work successful.”
Thus far, Feder estimates Rising Organizers has trained more than 1,000 new activists and hosted about 20 events throughout the D.C. area.
The work of Rising Organizers isn’t unlike that of DC Local Ambassadors, another volunteer organization that formed in the wake of the 2016 election to help different groups organize marches and protests.
DC Local Ambassadors came into existence in the aftermath of the Women’s March, says co-founder Laura Sanders. She volunteered to help organize the march, along with thousands of other women in D.C. The process, she says, was nothing short of overwhelming.
“As we were working, there were a couple points where we sort of looked around and were like ‘Wait, why isn’t anyone doing this?’” says Sanders, 39. “Given the extraordinary history of activism in D.C. … there were certain pieces of the process that we thought would be easier than they were. Or that we thought at least there would be resources.”
Sanders spent hours in the weeks leading up to the Women’s March trying to find information about permitting processes and the proper number of Porta Potties for thousands of people. “Really sort of mathematical stuff,” she says.
After the Women’s March was over, Sanders says that she and some other volunteers were at a happy hour, decompressing from all the work they did in helping to organize the march. She recalls someone saying: “Well, now that we know how to do it, why don’t we just keep doing it? Now that we’ve learned this … certainly there are other people who want this expertise.”
At first, their idea was to create an online resource for people organizing marches, but Sanders says she soon realized “what was needed was the manpower to just do it.” She subsequently co-founded DC Local Ambassadors with Liz Ogorek, Megan Mamula, and Leah Crenson.
In 2017, DC Local Ambassadors accrued more than 1,300 volunteers (at least 100 of them core volunteers that Sanders sees on a regular basis) and had a hand in organizing at least 35 events, including the March for Truth that took place in June and the March For Racial Justice in September. Most of their volunteers, Sanders notes, are either new or returning activists: high schoolers, college students, and recent grads “who are sort of becoming woke for the first time,” and a lot of recently retired people who have had experience in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations “and now their kids have left, they have a little more time, and they’re upset and want to get re-involved,” she says.
Sanders says that the role DC Local Ambassadors plays in organizing is to offer a one-stop logistics shop. “We know who you should go to to rent your stage. We know who to call at Capitol Police. We know which routes through the city tend to create bottlenecks.”
Unlike Feder and Sanders, though, most of the work Knapper and the Stop Police Terror Project DC did in the past year was local, and had nothing to do with the Trump Administration.
Elsewhere in the District, new and young activists have turned their attention to issues in their community, energized by the national resistance against the Trump administration. In June, hundreds of people participated in No Justice, No Pride, a day of action protesting Capital Pride’s partnerships with corporations with a history of oppressing and marginalizing queer and trans individuals. As a response to Trump’s crackdown on ICE raids, houses of worship across the DMV joined forces to re-establish a decades-old support system for the area’s immigrant community.
In March 2016, the D.C. Council unanimously passed a bill—the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act—that advocates say could significantly decrease violent crime in the District through a community-based public health approach to violence prevention and intervention that would see the formation of two new government offices: the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity. But the bill didn’t get funding in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal year 2017 budget, thus leaving it in a kind of legislative purgatory.
That’s where the Stop Police Terror Project DC stepped in. Co-founded by local activist and former Council candidate Eugene Puryear in 2014, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Stop Police Terror Project DC is a grassroots volunteer organization that works to oppose police brutality and injustices in the District, while building peacekeeping efforts to empower oppressed communities.
Puryear, Knapper, and the rest of Stop Police Terror Project DC’s volunteers have spent the past year pouring all of their energy and resources into advocacy to help get the NEAR Act fully funded in the fiscal year 2018 budget. Knapper didn’t have much knowledge of the NEAR Act before she got involved with the Stop Police Terror Project DC, she says, but once she read about it, she realized how important it could be for the city. “I … didn’t even realize how close we were to having a set of programs that, I think, would really solve a lot of the huge violence issues we have in this city.
“What spoke to me about the NEAR Act is [that] it really is a law that is geared toward empowering communities more in dealing with both violence interruption and violence prevention,” Knapper says. “A lot of what goes into making up the NEAR Act were concepts that I kind of had broadly thought about before.”
Knapper spent the months of February and March of last year canvassing for the NEAR Act around different parts of D.C. “pretty much every weekend,” mostly in Wards 4, 8, and 1, where she lives. “It was a really eye-opening experience because of the fact that I was able to have legitimate conversations with people … about the epidemic of violence in our community,” she says.
In June, their efforts paid off. The council voted to pass the fiscal year 2018 budget, which includes more than $2 million to fund the act and pay for the creation of the ONSE and OVPHE.
For Puryear, who has been a notable figure in local activism for more than a decade, his organization’s successful effort to get the NEAR Act funded is a prime example of how this past year has been a watershed moment for local and national activism.
“D.C., I think in the past, let’s say 10 years, has had a pretty active protest culture, but I think what we saw in 2017 was the emergence of more of a movement culture,” he says. “It was a sign, I think, in 2017, that this sort of surge of people … who are, like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s get involved.’ Rather than just be participants, people are looking for ways they can more meaningfully contribute. That, to me, is what kind of marks 2017 in a lot of ways.”
After the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, what followed for residents of the District were nearly three straight months in which rarely a day went by without a protest, march, or rally—usually in direct response to Trump.
Major media outlets were there to cover the big events, like the days in late February when thousands of people gathered outside the White House in frigid temperatures to protest Trump’s travel ban. But smaller events filled in between the larger ones. About a hundred people rallied to prevent war with North Korea on Wednesday, April 26. On Saturday, July 22, several hundred individuals held the Education March to protest the proposed education policy changes from Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Each week, it seemed, a new threat from Trump was grave enough to inspire a demonstration. And people showed up.
For Medea Benjamin, a longtime political activist and co-founder of the grassroots anti-war movement Code Pink, the past year has been bittersweet. She is 65 and co-founded Code Pink in 2002 to oppose the war in Iraq. Since then she has become one of the leading figures in the anti-war and peace movement. She and her colleagues crashed events at the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. More recently, she interrupted former President Barack Obama’s speech on the War on Terror at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013.
“It seems like the movement since Trump came [to office] is large in terms of numbers, but they’re more trying to hold on than to have major shifts forward,” she says. “That’s why this whole idea of resistance has been to hold on to some of the crappy things that we already have that we’ve been trying to get better.”
Benjamin cites policies like the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act as ones that the anti-Trump movement has been tirelessly fighting back against, but are are still problematic in their original form to a lot of activists.
“Holding onto Obamacare when you ask probably any of the people in the movement and what they really want is Medicare for all,” she cites as one example. “You ask people around the recent large demonstrations around DACA, they’re just trying to hold on to the bone that Obama gave. That is not what people wanted in terms of real immigration reform.”
Still, Benjamin doesn’t deny that these existing policies are worth fighting for. Though Code Pink focuses on protesting the U.S.’s ongoing involvement in wars in the Middle East, they’ve enthusiastically participated in all of the major protests this year.
“I think we’ve felt with so many domestic issues under threat, that’s where the bulk of the progressive energy is focusing, and that we have to be supportive of those efforts.”
Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—and the author of both Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital and Rumor, Repression and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post–Civil Rights America—has spent a lot of time in the past year thinking about the long-term impact of the events of the 2017.
“The first question I always have about activism in D.C. is how much of it is national and how much of it is local. And how much of the two overlap,” he says. “I think it’s safe to say that in the last year we’ve had a pretty pronounced bit of national protest in D.C.”
Musgrove looks back to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the local impact it had on D.C.’s civil rights movement. Only 10 percent of the march’s participants were locally based, he says, but that amounted to 25,000 people. He looks to the case of civil rights activist and former delegate Walter Fauntroy as an example of how such a large national protest in D.C. led to the rise of his career, which got both local and national attention.
“That launches a career that becomes a defining career for the city,” Musgrove says. “Walter Fauntroy, had he been able to elect Sterling Tucker in 1978, would have been, hands down, the dominant figure in D.C. politics for a solid, you know, 20 years.”
It’s too soon to tell what kind of long-term effects the 2017 protest movement will have in D.C., Musgrove thinks. But even though mainly national domestic issues have drawn people to the streets under the Trump administration, both Benjamin and Puryear agree that the spike in activism has dispersed to their causes.
Knapper says that when she was first introduced to the Stop Police Terror Project DC, “it seemed to just be” Puryear. “There would be a couple of other people I would kind of get introduced to that had done work with Stop Police Terror Project DC, but he really was the only constant that I was seeing.”
Since then, Knapper says that the Stop Police Terror Project DC has grown to have dozens of core volunteers and organizers—enough volunteers that they’ve had to put together a four-person executive committee “to kind of button things up a little bit and make sure there’s a bit more structure.”
Puryear doesn’t think that this rise in local activism is unique to D.C. “My read of the country is that it’s similar in a lot of places, that people are really looking to get involved more locally in the wake of it,” he says. “I can say with absolute certainty that one of the results of the Women’s March—and I noticed this canvassing for the NEAR Act—is that people had been inspired to get involved locally.”
Meanwhile Code Pink, Benjamin says, has similarly seen its fair share of new activists join their cause in the past year. “We’ve gotten a lot of new people—particularly young people—that have never been involved before who met us at the Women’s March or the Science March, or one of these other marches,” she says. “A lot of people have found us through these other ways and learned more about our issues and gotten more deeply involved with us.”
Going in to 2018, Sanders says that DC Local Ambassadors is taking some time to make an appropriate work plan for the coming year.
“2017 was the year of marches,” she says, “but it’s a challenge to figure out what 2018 is going to be the year of. Should we still be organizing marches? Have marches sort of served their function and we ought to be organizing something else? And it’s a really interesting conversation that we’re part of, but it’s a big challenge.”
Keeping people engaged in certain causes—and effectively training them so they don’t get burnt out organizing for them—is a big part of what Rising Organizers teaches in their trainings. Feder says that’s one of the most important lessons for any grassroots organization to learn—but also one of the hardest.
For Musgrove, another big struggle for activists, he thinks, is a lack of appropriate infrastructure for the protest movement to evolve, especially in the post-Obama era. “The unions are smaller. The NAACP is weaker in many states,” he says. “All these institutions that used to be able to channel all this type of anger really don’t exist in the way that they used to, if they exist at all. And I think that that’s sort of the struggle for many activists going forward.”
For the new generation of organizers, Musgrove sees a trend of building new infrastructures to address the systemic evolution of organizing that Sanders and her DC Local Ambassadors are grappling with.
“Millennials, I think, are sort of cutting a new path for themselves,” he says. “One, because they can’t necessarily cut through some of the people who have their hands on the leadership of some of the older organizations. And two, because they think the older organizations are a little too reformist. And then three, because they’d prefer to make something from the ground up, particularly concerned that these older places aren’t necessarily worth the fight of taking them over. And I think that that’s going to be the really interesting question when it comes to looking forward.”
For as successful as the Women’s March was—and for as much energy and inspiration it gave activists both old and new—the fact remains that it can’t be replicated. And yet, its implications are still unfolding. It’s not hard to draw a line from the Women’s March, with its pro-feminist and anti-patriarchal themes, to the #MeToo movement.
“And that, I think, is the biggest question: How is it that you take the energy that comes from something public that is so powerful for people and turn the work that you’re doing into a consistent, accountable home for people who share a care for the issues that they’re working on?” Feder wonders. “And how do you turn that into real political capacity and real effective activism?”
Benjamin has spent her entire career as a political activist trying to answer that question. She hopes that the new generation of young activists that emerged this year will understand that their fight doesn’t end with a changing of the guard.
“Activism should be a part of a lifetime commitment to making our society a better one,” she says. “And not to think that just getting Donald Trump out of the White House is going to be an answer for a lot of the problems that are plaguing our society.”