Can Indiana Be the Stronghold of the Resistance? This Organizer Thinks So.

Jesse Myerson is one of many trying to build a new progressive base in the country’s heartland.

Sarah Jaffe

Hoosier Action meeting with Hodge Patel, Sen. Joe Donnelly's state director. (Hoosier Action)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same.

Basically, I wanted to go to a place that had voted for Obama and then voted for Sanders in the primary and then went to Trump in the general.

Jesse Myerson: My name is Jesse Alexander Myerson. I am speaking in Bloomington, Indiana where I am an organizer with Hoosier Action and where I host a podcast called From the Heartland” about other people who are also organizing in the interior of the country.

Sarah Jaffe: Indiana has been at the center of a lot of things over the last year. You are in formerly Mike Pence country. You are not that far from where the Carrier plant and all of the things that Trump paid attention to for a minute are. Give people the lay of the land of what is going on in Indiana.

Jesse: Indiana is thought of differently from the other states in this area because it is almost never included when people talk about swing states. It is often thought that it is just too far gone and too reactionary here. But, in 2008 Barack Obama won the state. Of the nine people that we sent to the U.S. House, five of them were Democrats. It was very much a swing state at that point.

In the interim, because of the Tea Party insurgency in 2010 and the super-ruthless gerrymandering, things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. You have electoral maps where places that were blue in 2008 are now salmon, and places that were salmon are now red, and places that were red are scarlet. Donald Trump won it, and now both state legislature houses are super-majority Republicans. The governor is a Republican. We still have a split between the Senators, but the Democrat Joe Donnelly is up for a very, very tough re-election next year. The Koch brothers are already running ads up against him. He is definitely the most vulnerable Democrat coming up. He voted for Gorsuch and has not done very much to endear himself to the Democratic votership.

Sarah: And [Donnelly] endorsed anti-abortion bills when he was in the House.

Jesse: The state of politics here is very difficult, but I think that underneath a lot of these things, the state is still very much a swing state the way that it was in 2008. With some diligent organizing of the working class, that can be reflected much more in the coming two cycles of elections.

Sarah: Organizing that working class around working-class interests was the reason that you moved to Indiana. Tell us about Hoosier Action.

Jesse: Hoosier Action was founded by a remarkable woman named Kate Hess Pace who is from Bloomington, Indiana. Her family stretches back five generations in New Albany, Indiana. After the cataclysm of the 2016 elections, she felt very strongly the urge to come home and start something here in southern Indiana. The state of organizing in Indiana has been greatly debased, but probably nowhere more than southern Indiana where there was never particularly high union density in the first place.

She is a visionary organizer and is excellent at relating to people and moving them on a path toward greater leadership for themselves. She knew that there was a niche for that in this area and she decided to come back and start it. I, also moved by the cataclysmic election results, felt very strongly that my efforts would be more efficiently deployed in the middle of the country, in places where there wasn’t as significant a progressive infrastructure as there is in my hometown of New York City.

We have been building this thing now for three months. We have got a small but growing base of dues-paying members. We have teams around operations and administration and around fundraising and around politics. We have been running a test canvas program to gear up for our first big canvas. We did a day-long boot camp training for organizers in Indiana and people from all over the southern half of the state came. We did one action on Donnelly’s office around Medicaid cuts and infrastructure. We have been collecting Medicaid stories, getting videos of them, the first person accounts that people, mostly mothers in the region, have written and trying to get them placed in national press outlets.

As Kate says, Power is organized people plus organized money.” That is what we are trying to do: collect a lot of people and a lot of money. It is the only way we are going to make an impact in Indiana or nationally.

Sarah: You got one of those stories in The Washington Post, right?

Jesse: Yes, from a woman named Audi McCullough. I went to a die-in protest at Bloomington Town Hall that was sponsored by a bunch of groups, including the Monroe County chapter of National Organization for Women. It is a college town, so there is a bunch of expertise. The way that they expressed it in the press conference was in statistics and things and I couldn’t pay attention to or remember.

But then, Audi got up with her child, Kaden, and told her story of his extremely complex medical needs and the health scares that they had both faced and the absolute necessity of Medicaid in their lives as a basic pillar for either of them to be able to live free and dignified lives. I was like, You are a natural leader.” She wrote up her story, and we got it placed in The Washington Post.

Sarah: Telling these stories is an important part of this kind of organizing, but you can also end up with people thinking that just telling a sad story is going to be enough to move their Senator and then wondering why that doesn’t work. I would love you to talk a little bit more about the way this storytelling does and doesn’t fit into your organizing strategy.

Jesse: It is definitely integral. It is not sufficient unto itself, but basically, the essence of the organizing we are doing is relational. The idea is that any organizing that takes place absent the building and deepening of relationships between people is going to be basically facile. It is one thing if you can get twelve people in a room to talk to us, and it is another thing if you get four hundred. That four hundred really only comes when people have deepened their relationships with one another.

A lot of this organizing is based on having long one-on-one discussions with people about what their lives are like, what they are interested in, what they are concerned about, what they are afraid of, what they are angry about, what they are hopeful for. Those stories are important in the actual day-to-day organizing. Really, what we hope to do is to mobilize people with that, but ultimately that mobilization should turn into becoming a dues-paying member, coming to monthly member meetings, joining a team and taking on work. That can be going and knocking on doors, it can be doing data entry, it can be helping to promote issues or taking on a shift at the farmer’s market or at a county fair, flyering or taking petitions. Ideally it is not a high-temperature sort of organizing, such as you and I saw at Occupy Wall Street where it is lots of marches, lots of heat, lots of intensity.

Sarah: A lot of people will say, Is this movement dead?” or Is this movement gone?” when, actually, a lot of important work is the work you can’t see.

Jesse: Absolutely. We sort of think of Hoosier Action as a vessel or a basket that we are all collectively weaving so that it can be strong and hold all of the people and money that we are trying to bring together to create power. Weaving that basket or making that vessel watertight, that requires doing lots and lots of behind the scenes work that doesn’t seem glamorous. It may not look like this is actually waging class struggle in the way that we want to imagine it cinematically unfolding, but it is vital for building the kind of power that we need. If it is a weak basket or a vessel with some holes in it, the power that we will be able to accumulate will be greatly diminished.

Sarah: We talked a little bit about Joe Donnelly. Tell us about your other Senator and where the pressure points have been in Indiana around this national healthcare fight.

Jesse: It is very difficult to figure out how we can affect Todd Young. For one thing, he was just elected last year, so he is not vulnerable in that way. Second of all, if I were a senator looking to figure out my re-election chances, I would definitely get the signal that the right-wing political forces in this state were much stronger than the left-wing ones. I think Young feels quite buttressed at the moment. Though he hasn’t been as vocal in support of the AHCA as other people, we don’t think that he will stand with Hoosiers. We think that he will stand with insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and billionaires.

Donnelly has all of those incentives reversed, where he is facing a really tough re-election battle next year. He needs the support of people going out and knocking on doors because he is just not going to raise the same amount of money as his opponent will through the Koch brothers and everything else. So he has got to rely on a strong ground game. He is far from that, because he hasn’t really endeared himself to the more progressive forces in the state. And he is one of the Senators who has consistently met with Republicans behind closed doors to try and hammer out bipartisan solutions, including around this healthcare reform bill.

We don’t think he is going to vote for the thing, but it is possible. It is important to keep up pressure on him and just continue to do actions at him and continually push him to take more and more leadership opposing this bill.

Sarah: There have been very particular public health issues that are worth bringing up, because they are issues that are prominent around the country, perhaps especially in places like Indiana that have been hit really hard by the decline of manufacturing. I am talking about, of course, the HIV outbreak that Mike Pence is basically responsible for, and the opioid crisis.

Jesse: These two are linked. There is actually a third one which I would cite, which is water contamination. All three of those crises were really deepened by the Pence approach to public health, which is basically to decimate it. In Scott County, which is in this part of the state, there is a very high poverty rate and there is a lot of opioid usage. Pence, being the radical ultra-right-wing Christian fundamentalist theocrat that he is, waged war on Planned Parenthood during his tenure as governor and shut down the Planned Parenthood in Scott County, which did not offer abortion services, but was the only facility in the county that delivered HIV testing. So, with that gone, this HIV outbreak occurred, which is the biggest in the state’s history and the first in the United States that we know to be associated with sharing needles from injecting prescription painkillers.

Pence was extremely resistant to the idea of allowing needle exchanges. Eventually, he relented. Then, the new governor who is less of an ideologue but still a Republican operative, has been more lenient on that still.

The other one being the water contamination crisis in East Chicago due, as always, to industrial byproducts. Pence wouldn’t call a state of emergency. The new governor has relented on that and called the state of emergency.

He has also proposed a new modification to the Medicaid program here. It is called the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0. Governor Eric Holcomb is hoping to add a new provision that adds a work requirement so that you have to be working or you have to be actively searching for work if you are able-bodied. That necessitates a big bureaucracy to determine who is able-bodied, who isn’t, whether they are sufficiently looking for work and all these sorts of things that wind up meaning that the program will cost more and cover fewer people. So it is not as though his public health record is shaping up to be any better than his predecessor’s.

Sarah: And that is if Medicaid doesn’t get decimated by the federal government.

Jesse: Right. They are talking about cutting the thing in half in a decade. There is significant poverty in this region, and people really rely on it as a basic pillar of their lives. If they cut Medicaid and these people get kicked off, then they are going to die. It is just going to be death and bankruptcy all across the state.

Sarah: The Carrier plant stunt that Trump pulled very much is taken as his concern with the white working class.” You and I know what the reality of the workers at the Carrier plant looks like, which is that it is not all white and is not all male. When you thought about moving some place to do organizing work and this obsession with the white working class was in the air, what were you thinking in terms of who and where and why and how you wanted to be organizing?

Jesse: I think that what is necessary is an interracial, working-class movement that links up the urban, working class and poor, who tend to be Black and Latin@, and the rural, small-town working class and poor, who tend to be white (but also increasingly are Latin@ and Black).

What I didn’t see very much of, which I think is increasing now and what I am trying to emphasize by connecting these various projects through the podcast that I host, is more attention being paid to the kind of small-town and rural areas of the country. Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign to an extent, were sort of predicated on this urban/​rural linkage of people who have really similar concerns: Medicaid, food stamps, housing affordability and water contamination.

Basically, I wanted to go to a place that had voted for Obama and then voted for Sanders in the primary and then went to Trump in the general. Indiana is definitely one of those places, and we are organizing working class people across race together in the state. I think that is the best hope we have at a realignment of the political forces in the state. I think, partly for the reasons that I identified earlier about why the state is a little different from the rest of the Midwest, if we can unlock that here, then we have unlocked the rest of the Midwest, as well.

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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