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 July 6, 2017

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.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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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