19 Feb

On Trump, Merkley gets out front

Last weekend, as neither unusual Democratic unity in the Senate nor vast numbers of protesters in the streets were stopping Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Jeff Merkley declared firmly that all the sound and fury really did signify something.

“We’re having a huge impact on what’s going on,” insisted the Oregon senator, “the grass roots making their voice heard in combination with what’s going on inside.”

To Merkley, emerging as one of the most aggressive Democratic voices of opposition to Trump, the Senate opposition feeds off – and feeds – the rumbling resistance across the country. “Senators are getting a huge amount of mail and phone calls,” he points out. “Some Republican senators are taking their phones off the hook.”

Facing bulging numbers of protesters, congressmen have been cancelling town halls, or sneaking out of them early. Last Tuesday, 50 demonstrators showed up in Merkley’s Portland office urging him to be their valentine and stand firm. A jaw-dropping 3,500 showed up for a Merkley town hall in East Portland, a turnout less typical of a congressional town hall than a boat show with an open bar.

“We have been shocked by the nominees to the Cabinet,” Merkley said, sounding still shocked. “The president campaigned on taking on Wall Street, draining the swamp and fighting for workers. Everything he’s done has betrayed those three promises.” Noting the quick confirmation of James Mattis as secretary of defense, Merkley mused, “When the sanest one of the nominees is nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ you have something strange going on.”

And some nominees were even worse than others.

“Andrew Puzner, the choice for labor secretary, ran an operation full of labor violations,” Merkley pointed out. To meet goals in Puzder’s fast-food companies, “Managers had to bring workers in to work off the clock, which is illegal.”

And last Wednesday, Puzner withdrew his name, after several Republican senators jumped off the ship. Puzner’s labor problems may not have been the deal-breaker for the Republicans, but the labor issues drove the Democratic solidarity that made his confirmation impossible.

That wasn’t even the worst news of the week for Trump. That came the day before, when national security advisor Michael Flynn either jumped or was pushed out of his job after revelations of what he told the Russian ambassador, followed by The New York Times’ reporting of extensive communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Merkley immediately joined 10 other Democratic senators in calling for an independent prosecutor investigation, declaring, “Michael Flynn’s efforts to undermine U.S. sanctions against Russian election hacking were totally wrong and probably illegal… Now we need a robust, independent investigation into the full extent of the communications between the President and his advisors and Russia. What did they know, and what did they do?”

In fact, argues Merkley, the loud level of opposition on and off Capitol Hill is forcing hesitation among some Republicans on their highest-profile platform plans: Repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting all funding to Planned Parenthood.

Taking a point position in the Senate resistance, Merkley has spoken to an empty chamber at five in the morning in opposition to a Cabinet nominee, stood on the Senate floor for two hours in the middle of the night to keep a debate going and – in the biggest of all appointment battles — insisted that the only Supreme Court nominee the Senate should consider is Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s snubbed selection.

Doing that, insists Merkley, would “restore the integrity of the process.”

After all, he argues, if the Senate can freeze a Supreme Court seat empty for a year – as it did by refusing to consider Garland – why couldn’t the Senate keep the spot empty for two, three or four years.

“The seat was stolen,” Merkley declared in Portland last weekend, looking even more drained by the Trump era than the typical Portland voter. “I consider (Trump pick Neil Gorsuch) an illegitimate nominee.”

Even the most determined Democratic resistance to Gorsuch, including a filibuster to keep the Senate from voting, is expected to be ultimately doomed; if Republicans can’t break the filibuster, they can change the rules, allowing a Supreme Court justice to be confirmed with just a simple 51-vote majority.
“I don’t accept the premise,” said Merkley firmly, “He should have to get 60 votes.”

Republicans, he insists, will be cautious about changing the 60-vote requirement, because it’s intended to keep high court nominees in the political mainstream – a standard, Merkley says, that disqualifies Gorsuch.

So he considers Gorsuch out of the mainstream?

“Yes. Absolutely,” Merkley judges. Gorsuch, he says, opposes class-action lawsuits, a major tool for holding companies accountable, and has a negative record on gay rights.

“I don’t see anything in his opinions that’s pro-rights,” the senator concludes. “He’s pro-profits.

In a presidency marked by outpourings of opposition, marathon sessions on the Senate floor and throngs in the streets, Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court is likely to be the biggest battle yet, with Merkley an outspoken presence. For confirmation, Gorsuch would need either eight Senate Democrats or a change in the Senate rules.

And Merkley – and other congressmen – will likely need a lot more space at town halls.

NOTE: This column appeared in The SundAY Oregonian, 2/19/17.

06 Feb

Protesters must find ways to focus all that anti-Trump energy

Portland International Airport can be crowded on a weekend.

But not like it was last weekend.

Downtown Portland can be crowded on an afternoon.

But for day after day in the past two weeks, led by a women’s march that brought at least 70,000 people and almost as many signs to Waterfront Park, downtown has been surging with thousands of vibrantly vocal demonstrators, determined to defend what Oregon considers human rights. It turns out that a particular set of beliefs – not free-range organic chicken with hand-grown arugula – is at the core of Portlandia.

Not, of course, that we were alone. All across the country – from half a million people in Washington, D.C., to several dozen frigid but firm figures in Fairbanks, Alaska – crowds showed up in outsized clusters in support of the America that existed on January 19.

The vast gatherings raised an urgent, inescapable question:
Now what?

“Just because you’ve succeeded in bringing a large number of people together doesn’t mean you can bring about some lasting change,” said Ronnie Herndon after the first mass demonstrations last month. “The last thing people need, when you organize to change the status quo, is failure.”

For more than 20 years, Herndon was co-chair of the Black United Front in Portland, launching enough marches, demonstrations and boycotts to write an epic saga in picket signs. Over that time, those efforts changed the school district’s racial policies, including driving the creation of a middle school in Portland’s African American neighborhood; forced the closing of Portland’s South African consulate; and produced several job opportunity spaces in the neighborhood, including a Nike outlet store. The experience distilled some principles for the current outburst of shoe-leather dissent.

“If the object was to show that thousands of people disagree with the policy, that was done,” Herndon says about recent demonstrations. “If (the organizers) are smart enough to do what they did, they’re smart enough to take the next step.”
Actually, as Herndon sees it, effective protesting involves several next steps.

First, do your research and plan and organize very carefully. “It’s not enough just to be outraged. Study what came before you, what was successful and what wasn’t,” says Herndon. “I don’t see people spending enough time doing the research on what has been successful.”

That starts with controlling your actions

“I really don’t understand this idea of destroying public property. You lose the public,” he points out. “The message is vandalism, not change.”

That was never, Herndon notes, the strategy of the civil rights movement.

Another observer, Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” tweeted last week, “Protest prioritizes emotion over effectiveness unless *highly* disciplined and targeted. Otherwise, it can play into opponent narrative.”

And without discipline, some activities can look less like protest than like individual entertainment.

That means not picking fights. “We were in contact with law enforcement before, during and after our demonstrations, even when we were demonstrating in front of precincts against police abuses.”

Then you need actual goals that could measure success, to keep your momentum going, especially if you’re looking at a long-term effort – say, to pick a term at random, four years. “How are you going to sustain it? If you’re not careful, you’ll wear people out,” Herndon warns. “What does victory look like?”

Because it’s probably not going to look like Donald Trump suddenly realizing the error of his ways.

And especially if you’re organizing for the long haul, you need to find allies and build coalitions.

“You’re not going to want to coalesce with everybody. There should be some common agreement,” says Herndon. But if a group doesn’t agree, “There may be an issue in the future where they can be with you.

“Don’t disparage other organizations. You want to keep at a minimum the people who oppose you.”\

Maintaining communications can have other benefits. Years after Herndon led demonstrations against Nike, the company is the largest private supporter of the group he directed, the National Head Start Association.

Without planning and direction, even the largest protests can wilt without impact. Herndon still remembers the Million Man March, which in 1995 brought at least half a million African American men to Washington – a significant percentage, he notes, of the available black adult males in the country. But with a mixed message from a variety of speakers and sponsors, and with no follow-up plans, the massive turnout turned into a media blip.

A massive amount of energy has been generated in opposition to Donald Trump, and it looks like he can be relied upon to generate more on a regular basis.

Based on Herndon’s experience, using that energy is a matter of building coalitions – of the women’s rights folks linking with the immigrant rights folks, of the people marching through the streets supporting the lawyers marching into court, of the people writing signs also writing to public officials. There are immediate, achievable goals to set, and being careful to create no more opponents than you already have.

And there is time to figure out how to focus that energy effectively.

At least four years.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Or3gonian, 2/5/17.