Checking in with Pittsburgh’s resistance 8 months after Donald Trump was elected

One organizer said there’s a “constant attack on our civil liberties that is keeping people very engaged. We’re going to be out there.”

Demonstrators gather outside of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's office in March

Demonstrators gather outside of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's office in March

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

They all have stories about the days after the 2016 election. The shock they felt. The gnawing feeling of wanting to do something.

For many upset by the election of Donald Trump, the re-election of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey and others, it’s a feeling that hasn’t gone away. Since November, countless grassroots and political groups have emerged to be a part of the resistance and to advocate for new ways of doing things.

Saturday marks eight months since the November election, so The Incline caught up with organizers from three of those groups to learn about where they stand and what’s next.

‘Just keep going’

The morning after the 2016 election, Jill Helbling opened the Pantsuit Nation Facebook page. One thing led to another and soon she was one of the creators of Fierce Pittsburgh and Southwest Pennsylvania — which would eventually bring Tuesdays with Toomey to Pittsburgh.

The lunchtime rally at Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s office started in Philly. When Helbling heard about it, she knew she wanted to bring it to Pittsburgh. So she talked with the organizers on the other side of the state and the weekly protests at Toomey’s Pittsburgh office started in late January.

At first, there were 25 people, then 40, and pretty soon it was 100 or 200, she said. When Toomey’s office moved in March from Station Square to Downtown, the logistics and parking were more difficult, but people still came. Last week, she said 100 people came for a rally against the health care bill he helped write to replace the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s an issue that’s going to affect just about everyone,” Helbling, of Franklin Park, said. “People are really worried for themselves and for other people.”

The group took the Fourth of July off, but plans to be back the next week, likely rallying again about health care. Even without a response from Toomey, Helbling said the rallies are successful for the awareness they’ve raised. People here, across the state and nationally are learning more about him, his voting record and his lack of in-person town halls, she said.

“The recent election left some across the state concerned about the direction of the country,” Steve Kelly, Toomey’s press secretary said in an email to The Incline.

In an effort to reach out to these people and hear their concerns and priorities” Toomey has met protesters, as well as had phone, TV and social media town halls “where constituents are able to ask him questions directly,” Kelly wrote, adding that the senator “has always been willing to meet with any constituent, lawmaker, or advocacy group that is hoping to make constructive progress on an issue, whether he agrees with their position or not.”

Fierce remains largely an online community focused on shaping policy, calls to action, paying attention to elections and encouraging people to run. The group hosted a candidate forum during the May primary, and Helbling plans are for more election-focused work.

As for Tuesdays with Toomey, it’s about keeping it up.

“I’d like to see him actually listen,” she said, adding that if Toomey did change his vote based on the feedback at rallies or have an in-person town hall, it would be an energizing success. But even if that happens, she said the plan is to keep at it. No matter what, the rallies are a chance for constituents to speak their minds.

There’s a “constant attack on our civil liberties that is keeping people very engaged,” Helbling said. “We’re going to be out there.”

How to get involved

Follow Fierce on Facebook for updates on Tuesdays with Toomey and additional calls to action. You can also check out the Tuesdays with Toomey website.

Power of the pen

The Order of the Phoenix is the name of a group of rebels in the Harry Potter books.

But it’s also the name of a more than 7,500 strong Facebook group focused on letter writing and calling lawmakers that started in Squirrel Hill.

Members are from all over, but many are from Pennsylvania and the western part of the state, said Marie Norman who created the page with her husband Matt Weiss the day after the 2016 election.

Anyone can write letters and make calls, Norman said, adding that it’s another option to marching. Writing allows a person to collect their thoughts, too, she said. The Facebook group acts as a resource for talking points and contact information. Norman said she knew it was needed when the group “went from zero to about 3,000” members very quickly. Since then, there has been steady accumulation, depending on when people are fired up, she said.

“I think there has been some worry lately that it dipped,” but Norman said she can see the activity pick up especially due to the health care bill and the acquittal of the officer who killed Philando Castile.

“I’m surprised how long the energy and the motivation has lasted,” she admitted and added that because of grassroots efforts like the Order of the Phoenix, “Trump’s agenda has not moved as fast as expected.”

Early on, members of the Order of the Phoenix also met up in-person for potlucks and letter writing. It can be difficult sometimes to write at social gatherings, Norman said. But it’s important for people to get together in person, too, she added, and said her goal is to find better ways to connect with other groups doing similar things and offer strength in numbers for letter-writing campaigns.

How to get involved

Ask to join the Order of the Phoenix Facebook page.

Taking the reins

Roughly 100 people attended the first meeting of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in November, said the organization’s co-chair Adam Shuck.

People were shocked to see Trump elected and that Democrats were unable to successfully challenge the GOP, he said. “It’s really up to the left to take the reins.”

Some Pittsburgh DSA members were due-paying members of the national DSA before the 2016 election, but the local chapter earned the status of organizing committee in December and officially became a chapter in April, Shuck said. There are now about 300 members. That makes the chapter one of the largest in the county, and the group want to keep growing, co-chair Arielle Cohen said.

Among the group’s early successes were participation in the International Women’s Day strike in March, including closing businesses, workshops and more. The chapter was also in the People’s Pride march (an alternative to the EQT-sponsored Equality March) in June.

For a lot of people, fear is a motivator and that can build strength, Cohen said. “DSA is a great place for those who see corporations” where they don’t want them.

The chapter endorsed two candidates in May: Anita Prizio for Allegheny County Council and Mikhail Pappas for magisterial district judge in the 31st District. (Prizio was unopposed in the May Democratic primary, and Pappas plans to run as an independent in November.) The DSA plans to endorse other candidates in future elections.

“We view electoral politics as essential,” Cohen said, adding that the candidates endorsed by the DSA must be accountable to the organization and have a progressive agenda.

And as the chapter works to get committees off the ground, Shuck said one advantage is the chapter has autonomy and can focus on local efforts. The chapter is working on a campaign for universal health care, something Shuck said “impacts everyone” and “is a human right.”

The chapter is also forming socialist feminist and socialist queer working groups.

Having concrete work to do has helped people get through the shock of the election, Shuck said.

“I think a lot of Americans have stressful and busy lives so politics becomes elect someone and they’ll do the work,” he said, adding that DSA is about staying involved and shaping politics.

“Ultimately, our goal is to build a better society,” Cohen said.

How to get involved

Learn more about the Pittsburgh DSA on their websiteFacebook and Twitter. The chapter also has meetings that are open to the public.