The new activists
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, grassroots protest is thriving in central Illinois
“I think all the activism you see now in the progressive movement is a direct result of the fallout of the Nov. 8 election,” said Jennifer Camille Lee, of Rochester, who helps lead grassroots group Action Illinois. “There is a lot of optimism about what collective action can do.”
Action Illinois is one of several organizations to have been formed – or given renewed focus – by the unexpected election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency in 2016. After the election, it was feared among liberals – and even some old-school conservatives – that the newly minted billionaire president’s brash campaign rhetoric would translate into legislative threats to progressive causes and even some longstanding constitutional protections, not counting the Second Amendment. These new groups and their leaders – many of whom are new to the public eye – have utilized social media and smartphone technology to bring concerned citizens together for numerous public gatherings in the first several months of the Trump presidency, starting with a “unity rally” on the State Capitol steps on the Saturday following the inauguration. That event drew more than 1,000 attendees. Recently a vigil for victims of violence in Charlottesville last month brought together more than 300 participants with less than 24 hours notice.
One way these often disparate groups keep themselves organized is through Springfield Call 2 Action, which holds frequent face-to-face meetings in addition to their online forums. The group is described on its Facebook page as “a coalition of local groups that share a commitment to justice, including racial, religious, social, gender, environmental, sexual orientation and economic.” According to Erik Hostetter, who helps administer Springfield Call 2 Action, “one thing about having a large and active coalition is that we don’t agree on every issue all the time – that’s to be expected and that’s great. On issues where we can come together, we do.”
Hostetter, who works for AFSCME Council 31 and has two children currently attending local public schools, said that several groups had agreed that it was important to hold a unity rally quickly after the inauguration, “to bring various voices together and to let it be known that the themes and ideas and vitriol coming from the elected president is not who we are in Springfield. There is a lot of sadness and anger and outrage and deep concern about what’s happening.” These feelings came to the fore once again during the Charlottesville vigil, which took place outside Springfield City Hall on Aug. 13, the day after the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “The whole point of the vigil was to try and make sense of the tragedy and try to offer a notion of healing and moving forward. It came together because people wanted to reach out and be with their neighbors,” said Hostetter.
Hostetter, 42, believes that violence as seen in Charlottesville is likely to happen again. “These threats and dangers and attacks will keep coming but it’s heartening to see how the area community has responded. In fact, all of our partner groups have seen huge surges in interest, support and volunteers. I have seen a real desire to stand against this hate and viciousness. We know we have a long four years in front of us.”
Debbie Bandy, who helps run Action Illinois along with Jennifer Camille Lee, says that the mission of her group, which currently has 2,799 Facebook members, is “to preserve and protect our democracy, today and tomorrow.” Events they have organized include rallies for International Women’s Day, for Planned Parenthood and in support of the Affordable Care Act, as well as a protest of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s visit to Springfield in February. “Jen and I have done enough of these rallies now that while we might not have it down pat, we know what we need to do.” Bandy, 55, who lives in Springfield and works as director of health care policy and advocacy for Johnson and Johnson, has noticed some “protest fatigue” setting in over the months since the election. “There is so much to protest against that people have gotten tired. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, what now?’ I do think the events at Charlottesville woke people up again. I honestly believe our democracy is in peril right now and it makes me scared and sad.”
In addition to Action Illinois, Lee also works with Women Rising Illinois, a group which recruits progressive women to run for office in Sangamon County. She says she is a strong believer in collective action. “We’ve had some victories and there’s a lot of forward momentum looking ahead to 2018. The feeling is that our shared values are not being reflected in our leadership at the national level and that is something we can help change.” Lee, who lives in Rochester and works as an outreach coordinator in the labor education program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says that having more women running for office is important. “I was at a town hall in Collinsville and even though we have some wonderful male progressive candidates, there were no people of color running and only one woman.”
Sunshine Clemons of Black Lives Matter Springfield says that her group is not currently an official chapter of the national Black Lives Matter organization. “They still have a freeze on allowing new chapters in – we’ve been told to just keep operating as we’ve been doing but we are not considered official.” The local group, which is a member of the Springfield Call 2 Action coalition, held a rally at the Capitol last summer and recently held a back-to-school drive, collecting school supplies for needy children. Clemons originally felt compelled to form the group after the back-to-back 2016 murders of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and put together a rally at the state Capitol in July of last year. “We see these kinds of killings regularly but that time, with them being so close together, it was almost like we didn’t have time to catch our breath. I felt overwhelmed and wasn’t really sure where to place that anger and frustration so we decided to do a rally.”
Clemons, a single mother who holds down multiple jobs in Springfield, including one at a video poker parlor, had not initially intended to start a BLM chapter here but the passionate response to that initial rally in July of 2016 took her by surprise. “I mentioned that if people want a chapter of BLM we could look into that and the crowd was very excited by the idea. I didn’t expect that. I was very shocked. All I really want is to make the world better for my daughter.”
“I honestly believe our democracy is in peril right now and it makes me scared and sad.”
A Black Lives Matter fall festival fundraiser, featuring food and family-friendly activities such as arts and crafts, games and face painting, will be held at the Boys and Girls Club of Central Illinois in Springfield Oct. 21.
Scott Cross helped found Indivisible Illinois, the regional chapter of the national organization Indivisible, and works closely as a volunteer with the more locally focused Indivisible Springfield as well as Organizing for Action Springfield. He describes Indivisible as a loose, nonpartisan group of concerned citizens. “I’ve never in my life seen such passion,” said Cross. “At last count there was something like 5,500 chapters across the nation. We are calling people to join us in the streets and stand up for equality, clean drinking water, clean air and fighting voter suppression. If you are upset about the tragic events and things that are happening in this country, take action, don’t be silent, don’t sit at home.”
One of the primary beliefs of Indivisible on a nationwide level is that elected officials need to be more transparent and more accessible to their constituents. To that end, the Illinois chapter recently completed a statewide project where billboards were unveiled in Belleville, Bloomington, Chicago and the Rockford area to let people in those communities know which of their representatives have voted to take away their health care.
Cross – who grew up in Illinois but first became involved in activism while living in California, during the anti-Proposition 8 protests of 2008 – says he has been profoundly moved by what he has seen while working with Indivisible, which has no central headquarters and began as an online movement in December of 2016 with the posting of a handbook on Google Docs entitled “Indivisible: a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda.” The handbook was written by former congressional staffers and Indivisible became a 501(c) organization this past February. “They are taking on local, national and state issues and there is nothing greater than getting community members involved in the political process,” said Cross. “We want people to take their vote seriously. The more people do that, the stronger we are.” Indivisible Illinois’ next meeting will be at 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at Lincoln Library’s Carnegie Room.
Sue Saltmarsh runs the nationally focused Demand Universal Healthcare (DUH) organization from Springfield, where she has resided for only three years, after 40 spent in Chicago. For the last 20 years there, she worked in the HIV and AIDS community through TPAN (Test Positive Aware Network) as a writer and copy editor of their national magazine, Positively Aware. “I have a lot of friends and clients who were HIV-positive, dealing with the ups and downs of the health care system, and so I started investigating it for their sake.”
After being downsized out of her job at TPAN, Saltmarsh, now 61, ended up on Medicaid, eventually moving to Springfield to be near family. “One of the things I learned working at TPAN was that the stigma attached to Medicaid is almost as bad as that attached to HIV,” she said. “At that point, Health Alliance was still involved in Illinois’ Medicaid and it was great, I didn’t have to worry about copays or deductibles or premiums or anything and I got the care I needed. And then they pulled out. Since then, it’s been a constant struggle.”
Saltmarsh took up the fight for universal health care because, she says, she doesn’t want anyone – especially those living with chronic conditions – to have to deal with difficult symptoms and side effects on a daily basis only to then be forced to fight with a Medicaid office or an insurance company just to receive adequate care.
After finding the existing universal health care advocacy organizations too passive for her tastes, the fiery Saltmarsh decided to start her own action-oriented group. “I love anagrams, and I was sitting in my living room one day and came up with: does America need a new health care system? DUH! What can ‘DUH’ stand for? ‘Demand Universal Health Care’!” Soon after, Saltmarsh was approached via email by filmmakers Laurie Simons and Terry Sterrenberg, a married couple who had made a documentary called The Health Care Movie which debunks widely held myths about the Canadian health care system. Over the course of three years, the three of them traveled together to 14 states and 33 cities to screen the film and hold panel discussions afterwards. “Boy did we meet a lot of wonderful activists and folks who were just curious. Out of all those events,” she said. “We only had one person -- in Fox Island, Washington -- who was deadly opposed to single payer, but we all had nice answers for him.”
Saltmarsh credits DUH deputy director Donna Ellington, for taking the groups from 364 Facebook followers to over 73,000. “We have the biggest social media presence of any single-issue activism organization in the United States,” she said. DUH will be hosting an event Oct. 4 from 5:30 until 8 p.m. called “Health Care and Your Bottom Line,” wherein members of the Springfield area business community will be invited to a screening of the short documentary Fix It: Health care at the Tipping Point, followed by a panel discussion featuring Saltmarsh, congressional candidate (and E.R. doctor) David Gill, along with local businesspeople. The event will be held at Lincoln Library’s Carnegie Room. Space is limited to 100, with tickets available at www.eventbrite.com/e/healthcare-your-bottom-line-tickets-37214174598.
While the current mood in the country is often seen as divisive, Debbie Bandy sees reason for optimism, if only anecdotally. “I had gotten to the [Charlottesville vigil] early and a gentleman came walking up and asked if this was where the protest would be. I told him it’s a peaceful vigil but yes, he was in the right place. He walked back to his car and a woman got out. She came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before but I just had to be here. My husband supports Trump but he drove me here and is going to wait for me in the car while it’s going on.’ It was so nice to see how respectful this couple was of each other, in spite of their differences. Gave me a little hope for all of us.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at email@example.com.