Breaux Bridge City Hall. Friday, Feb. 24. An hour before U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy is scheduled to arrive for a 9:30 a.m. town hall meeting he tried to pack with supporters, members of Indivisible Acadiana are queued up outside, hoping to get a seat inside. Others stand nearby with handmade signs at the ready: “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands,” “Do Your Job or Lose Your Job,” “Healthcare Not Wealthcare,” “This is What Democracy Looks Like.”
This is what democracy looks like in the age of Donald J. Trump — a reverse Tea Party movement driven not by billionaires who in 2009 harnessed economic insecurity, racial animus and culture-war shell shock to stymie the agenda of former President Barack Obama, but galvanized instead by a sense that fundamental American institutions and 80 years of social progress are under attack. It’s a reaction not just to a wholly unprepared, megalomaniac obsessed with cable news and Twitter, but to the smart, capable ideologues in the ultra-conservative wing of the modern Republican Party who will happily and methodically dismantle America’s social safety net and environmental protections to please their billionaire benefactors. This is what Trump enables, and this is why Indivisible Acadiana, one of hundreds of grassroots progressive groups under the nationwide Indivisible umbrella that opened wide after Trump’s Nov. 8 victory, was born.
“Indivisible, to me personally, is a platform where I can be myself without any type of discrimination or hindrances,” says Indivisible Acadiana member Erica Banks, a recent transplant from Dallas. “It’s kind of like a safe place — likeminded individuals thinking about how we incorporate change, not on a level where it’s angry by any means. ... I don’t want to burn any buildings, I don’t want to catch anything on fire. But I do want to be heard, and I feel like this is the platform for that.”
The week leading up to Cassidy’s town hall was busy. On Monday, Indivisible members gathered at a public library to discuss their strategy: members inside asking pointed questions and outside protesting. On Tuesday, about 10 members gathered at the Midtown Lafayette home of Andrea Rubinstein to make the signs that would be waved that Friday in Breaux Bridge. On Wednesday and Thursday, more planning via social media.Members are united by a singular goal: forming a bulwark against Trump and the retrograde economic and social policies he engenders. Many no doubt look back at the presidency of George W. Bush, which gave us two still-going wars and the Great Recession, with a sick sense of nostalgia.
“I’m really not concerned about [Trump] — I’m concerned about the legislation,” says James Proctor, founder of the local Indivisible chapter. “I’m concerned about the idea implemented in action, that’s what I’m concerned about stopping. And I know there are Trump voters out there who are equally concerned as me about his involvement with Russia or his plans for the EPA or, what we haven’t seen yet, his plans for our economy, which is still in a very fragile state.”
A single dad and former journalist, Proctor marshaled Lafayette-area liberals into a smartly functioning group: division of labor, logistics, planning, communicating a unified, consistent message.
“My feeling has been, if you want to recruit you have to be effective,” he says. “Effective is the best way to recruit — it’s the only way to recruit.”
Yet Indivisible Acadiana, Proctor acknowledges, isn’t as diverse as the group would like to be. There are black members, Asian members, men and women, young and old, but it skews middle-aged white and female — a not surprising demographic considering Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, not to mention (but I will) his boasts about sexual assault, barging in on naked teen beauty queens and other past statements dripping with contempt for citizens with two X chromosomes.
“I think that in my case it was women’s reproductive rights, and of course I think we are joined by the collective idea that our current president has no place in the Oval Office,” says Margaret Oelkers West of Lafayette about what drove her to Indivisible Acadiana. “I think since we are the majority — the current president didn’t win by mandate, in fact it was just the opposite — and since we are the majority, I think it’s important that that stay front and center in everybody’s mind. There are 3 million extra of us who need to be heard.”
As the deep south bloomed red over the last two decades, liberals outside progressive bastions like New Orleans and Atlanta had become shrunken violets. There is a local group on Facebook you can find only if you’re a member or have been invited to become one — Acadiana Closet Progressives. Members commiserate liberally — literally and figuratively — within the safety of the group but keep their views publicly private: Many are business owners who fear a backlash if their customers or clients knew of their progressive views. It’s not a piddling concern: As America has become increasingly polarized by politics, business boycotts have become a thing. (I don’t patronize Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby and a few other retailers because of the political contributions and ideology of their owners; I don’t picket them or call them out on social media, but I don’t want my money furthering their causes either, so I simply stay away.)
Trump got 58 percent of the vote statewide in Louisiana, and it was lopsided in Lafayette Parish: 65 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 31 percent. It would be little surprise if liberals in Lafayette felt compelled to melt into the shadows. But Trump, the phenomenon, is altogether different.
“When the election happened, I knew, within a few days, that I was not going to be able to not do something,” says Jacqueline Phelps, an Indivisible Acadiana member who describes herself as “the intel person” for the chapter.
Go to Facebook and search “Indivisible” and you’ll find hundreds of groups across the country, in blue states where we expect them and red states, too. And that’s just on Facebook. IndivisibleGuide.com, a website that serves as a national umbrella and clearinghouse for the Indivisible movement across the country, says more than 4,500 groups have signed on to resist the Trump agenda. It is shaping into a movement built on diversity that will dwarf the almost universally white Tea Party.
Some, like Rubinstein, who hosted the sign-making gathering, had their political activism reanimated by the election of Trump.
“After some of the more recent events, I went to the first political thing I’ve ever done since the late ’60s — I went to the Women’s March,” she says. “After all this time of doing things online, voting and writing an occasional letter, I just decided that I didn’t want to sign stupid petitions anymore. I had heard about Indivisible somewhere, and I plugged into their website and said, ‘Oh my God, there’s actually one in Acadiana.’” In fact, there are chapters in Shreveport, Natchitoches, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. (New Orleans, natch, but Natchitoches?) Our local chapter, at this writing, has 510 members — attorneys, publicists, students, retirees, teachers, musicians, journalists, university professors, artists, small business owners, stay-athome moms, the unemployed and underemployed, a pastor. The majority are not politically active, interacting with the group only on social media platforms. But a common refrain among the active members is that Trump, in his bullish stampede through the china shop of American politics, has energized the left. And for progressives in red states, the movement has created a sense of community that is palpable.
“I think it’s accomplished one of the major things I was hoping to see, and that is that liberals, progressives like myself, have come out and discovered that there are a lot more of us around here than we thought, and we’ve decided to get organized; that’s one accomplishment I suppose we can thank Mr. Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric for,” notes Proctor.
Melanie Bonnet, another member, echoes Proctor’s sentiment: “At its essence I hope it brings more people into being more active in expressing what it is they need from the leaders they elect,” she says. “Couple that with just basically saying, ‘I’m here. You cannot forget that I am here. I’m not going anywhere. And when you say that you’re going to get rid of the things that are important to my community, important to my family, to people I care about, people I’m concerned about, I’m just going to let you know, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not by myself.”