Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now into the second year of the Trump administration, and the last year has been filled with ups and downs, important victories, successful holding campaigns, and painful defeats. We’ve learned a lot, but there is always more to learn, more to be done. In this now-weekly series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.
Liat Olenick: Hi, my name is Liat Olenick, I’m a public-school teacher and also the co-president of Indivisible Nation BK, which is a Brooklyn-based activist group.
Sarah Jaffe: We’re talking today because you had a rally last week targeting Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, right? Can you tell us how that came off?
Liat: We held a rally outside his Manhattan office, and we have held previous rallies outside his house as well. The purpose of this rally was to push him to lead the Democratic caucus and unite them in opposing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Because of the makeup of the Senate, the only way that we really have a chance at blocking this nomination is if Democrats are united, so his leadership is essential.
Sarah: This is not the first time that you’ve protested Chuck Schumer, as you said. Talk about the importance of groups challenging Democratic leadership and demanding that they stand up to Trump.
Liat: Indivisible is all about holding your own elected officials accountable. As a Brooklyn group, we meet in Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Park Slope area. We’re literally in his backyard, right near his house. Because we’re so close to him, we kind of feel a special responsibility to continue to hold him accountable and put pressure on him to be the leader that we need right now.
All elected officials are there for one reason, because they were elected by people going out and voting for them. When we signal to our representatives what we want them to do, that we are thankful for something, or that we are disappointed in actions that they have taken, they pay attention. They ultimately want to get reelected and stay in office. The whole Indivisible model is based on that.
Sarah: Have you gotten any response from his office to these actions?
Liat: Yes, we talk to his staff pretty frequently. They know about the rally. We always invite them to come and talk to people when we do a rally like that or a protest. They did not come down this time around. We did let them know about it in advance, and they certainly were aware that it is happening. We were in conversation with them about the Supreme Court nomination and all the other things that are going on.
Sarah: You said they didn’t come down this time, but they have before?
Liat: Yes. We have held previous similar rallies, especially last summer with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal fight. In those instances, the staff would often come down and talk to people, which was really appreciated. But, they did not do that this time.
Sarah: Aside from the ACA repeal, what are some of the other rallies that you have held? What were the targets and the demands?
Liat: In terms of Schumer, specifically, we have also organized a lot of actions around the DREAM Act. Last winter we staged one protest in Grand Army Plaza, which is two blocks from his house. We staged one protest directly outside his home about the DREAM Act because that is an area where we wanted to see stronger leadership, in terms of using his leverage to protect Dreamers which is obviously still an issue.
Then, last summer, we were fighting Trumpcare. We organized one or two rallies outside his office. Then, way back in January of 2017, there were some protests in Grand Army Plaza and near his house that were more focused on pushing him to oppose Trump’s cabinet appointments. We did not organize that, but we did participate. So, there has been kind of a similar local consistent push to urge him to be a stronger “No” in the Senate and to unite his caucus on some key issues.
Sarah: Tell me about the makeup of the group. Who are the people? Are these longtime activists? Are these first-time activists getting involved because of Trump? Tell me how that came together and who the average person in the group is.
Liat: We got started in December of 2016. It was very much a response to the election. However, I would say there is a wide range of experiences in the group in terms of political activity and work. There are some people who have been engaged in some form of activism for years and years and years, and there are some people who are new to taking political action in this way.
I think I am kind of a middle-ground example. I am a teacher, but I have been an education advocate for a long time: I have been organizing and writing and protesting on issues related to education, but I was kind of siloed. Then, after the election, it was like, “No, I need to organize everything, I can’t just focus on this one issue.” I felt like I needed to learn and kind of spread out to things that were bigger.
Sarah: Within the group, was anybody opposed to the idea of challenging Democrats?
Liat: Within Indivisible groups across the city and the state, there is a fair degree of unity with regards to how we see Senator Schumer’s role in particular. And there is a widespread desire to see stronger leadership from him, not just specific to our group.
We don’t really see it as challenging Democrats. We see it as doing the basic democratic job of holding elected officials accountable no matter what party they are a part of. That is our role as active and informed constituents — to make sure that our elected officials are really representing us and our interests. That guides our work related to Senator Schumer, but also other elected officials that we interact with.
Sarah: Going forward, the Supreme Court nomination is one fight, and we’re leading into midterm elections. What do you want to see from Senator Schumer and the Democratic leadership going forward?
Liat: With regard to the Supreme Court, we want to see a united Democratic caucus. It is very simple, and it is essential. We have seen that be effective last summer with the ACA repeal fight. The only reason we were able to stop the repeal of the ACA is because we had a united Democratic caucus and it did not hurt Democrats in polling or messaging — or anything — to take a strong stance on an issue that affected millions of people.
We see the same issue at stake with this. Healthcare is at stake combined with so many other issues, including the possibility that our president could attempt to pardon himself. We just expect a clear, firm line on the Supreme Court nomination where all Democrats are saying, “We are voting no.” Whatever their individual reasons are, that will vary depending on what state they are from, but we expect unity.
Then, going forward into the elections, we would really like to see him take a more active role in helping to craft Democratic priorities and messaging, because he is not very visible in this. This is actually something that we have met with him in person about when he put out this Better Deal platform, which has a lot of really good policies in it. But we are not seeing it promoted or shared with the public in a way that is effective.
We had pushed for Senator Schumer to hold a town hall in New York City for over a year. He hasn’t held one in years and years and years, and we felt like this is what leadership is about and he needs to talk directly to constituents. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are holding nationally televised town halls where they are talking to millions of Americans. He is minority leader. He needs to put himself out there. There was a town hall scheduled for the first week in July which we were very excited about and it was cancelled at the last minute because of some travel issue.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is 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.