In Hibbing, they are retirees who call and write their elected officials arguing to save the Affordable Care Act. In Winona, it’s bartenders and manufacturing workers who organize meetings and plot responses to President Donald Trump’s moves on immigration. In Northfield, professors and nurses and farmers save the local congressman’s number in their phones for frequent calls on climate change and gay rights.
And in Blaine, on a Sunday afternoon in early March, they were a small group gathered at an ice-arena restaurant, wearing name tags and making small talk when a man tentatively poked his head in.
“Is this the resistance?” he asked.
Fueled by dissatisfaction, anger and fear over the new presidential administration, thousands of Minnesotans have spent the past few months seeking out like-minded neighbors and figuring out how to push back. Some are pouring time and money into long-running progressive organizations. Others are striking out on their own, attending public meetings and contacting congressional representatives for the first time. But many are signing up with one of more than 70 Minnesota groups following the steps of “Indivisible,” an activist guidebook written by former congressional staffers that bills itself as “a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda.”
Borrowing from grass-roots tactics of the insurgent Tea Party as it worked to flip congressional seats and move American politics to the right, those who proudly now call themselves “the resistance” are aiming to stop the policies of the Trump White House and GOP-led Congress and lay the groundwork for political victories in the 2018 and 2020 elections — one e-mail, phone call or town hall meeting at a time.
Today, the Tea Party’s force is mostly a memory. The crucial question shadowing the Indivisible movement and its allies is whether its forming fervor is sustainable, and if it can be parlayed into lasting political changes. For now, those embracing it across Minnesota are happy to start small.
“Activism has this connotation of people rioting in the streets,” said Louis Epstein, a 33-year-old music professor who helps organize the Cannon Valley Indivisible group in Northfield, his first foray into politics. “But many people don’t see it that way.”
Resistance road map
The Indivisible guide appeared online about five weeks after Trump’s election. It lays out a specific plan for people frustrated with the election results: organize a group, research your members of Congress, and then tell them, repeatedly, about your concerns. Each step comes with specific tips, from the best way to get an official’s attention (focus on one issue, avoid sit-ins at their office) to how to get called on at a town-hall meeting (arrive early, spread your group out across the room).
Minnesotans and others around the country read the guide and went to Facebook to find local groups or create their own. Many joined tens of thousands who descended on the Capitol in St. Paul for the Women’s March in January — or bused to Washington for the national march. Myriad issues motivated them: fear that Trump’s campaign-trail comments about immigrants, women and minorities would translate into harmful policies; worries that a new president who questioned climate change would dismantle environmental regulations; and opposition to GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The election left Sharon Kepler stunned. But the 75-year-old retired nurse from Hibbing figured a march wouldn’t be effective in her small Iron Range city, a longtime DFL bulwark that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton. A friend of her daughter urged Kepler to check out Indivisible online. Soon she started “Range Voices,” which within a few weeks drew about 15 people to meetings, mostly fellow retirees.
The group spends most of its time calling elected officials. Kepler, who always voted for Democrats but never before got politically involved, first found it terrifying. She stammered through her first calls, feeling she might throw up.
“I never thought I would be spending my senior years in a resistance group, fighting for my country,” Kepler said. “It’s exhausting.”
But she was happy to find polite congressional staff members when she called to talk about health care. Now she’s moved on to state representatives, calling with thoughts on farming bills at the Legislature.
Trump’s inaugural address jolted Jamie Sanders out of complacency. The 40-year-old therapist from Winona is a political independent, and had never gone beyond voting and an occasional letter. After the speech, she was hunting online for ways to respond.
“I got the feeling that he wasn’t going to represent what I wanted to see happen in politics,” she said.
Sanders launched Indivisible Winona, which now has more than 170 online followers, including about 30 who regularly attend meetings. The group formed issue-specific subcommittees on the environment and health care. Members attended a town hall hosted by Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, and hope to hold community training sessions on contacting elected officials.
“I would say most of our members have found the same thing I have, which is how important it is to be heard, how easy it is and that we can do it,” Sanders said.
The Indivisible movement picked up traction in February as members of Congress on recess held town hall meetings. Angry constituents poured into meetings around the country, determined to share their anger at Trump, his Cabinet picks and executive orders on immigration with Republican lawmakers.
In Sartell, a town hall hosted by Rep. Tom Emmer drew 1,000 people. Members of local Indivisible groups were among the first in line, hours before it started. When Minnesota’s two other Republicans in Congress, Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, did not hold public meetings, local Indivisible members called and marched outside their offices, and held public meetings in their absence.
Lewis and Paulsen noted they’d held recent “telephone town halls” and met privately with constituents. Both suggested some turning out for town halls were part of a larger, organized effort by progressives to disrupt and derail the meetings. Lewis suggested that some organizers were DFL activists.
“It’s not fair to the people that want honest dialogue to allow a meeting to get disrupted that way,” said Lewis, a first-term congressman who represents southeastern Twin Cities suburbs. “Let’s wait until we have something more substantive to talk about, when cooler heads prevail.”
Other Trump supporters have gone further with allegations that demonstrators are paid. Said Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer: “There is a bit of professional protester manufactured base in there.”
Established progressive coalitions in Minnesota have joined at times with Indivisible in organizing efforts. At Emmer’s town hall, activists with activist group TakeAction Minnesota donned neon vests and served as crowd-control marshals. Labor union members manned a table stocked with peanut butter sandwiches and fruit snacks. Indivisible organizers encourage members to attend events organized by like-minded groups.
But Indivisible members across the state strongly object to suggestions they are compensated for their activism.
“Based on my experience, not a single person in our group is paid,” said Janelle Wolf, a 51-year-old lawyer-turned-online craft entrepreneur who helped start Indivisible Bemidji. “I’m certainly not paid. I did put out a little Tupperware container to try to offset the $100 room rental rate for our meeting.”
Sustaining a movement
Two months into the Trump administration, it’s not yet clear how Indivisible and like-minded movements will affect the new president’s agenda, Republican initiatives in Congress — or future elections.
Jeff Blodgett, a longtime DFL activist who worked for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, said he thinks the new movement can make a mark in 2018 if newly engaged activists, existing groups and like-minded candidates listen to each other and work together.
“If all of those things happen, I can see this movement sustaining itself through at least the next election, and potentially beyond,” Blodgett said.
In Bemidji, three Indivisible members were elected to leadership positions with the county’s DFL unit. Wolf, elected chairwoman, said her Indivisible work helped prompt her bid. Nationally, Indivisible is in the process of forming as a nonprofit, which could lay the groundwork to raise money for political advocacy.
Local organizers say they’ve been pleasantly surprised as meetings increase in size by the week. The first meeting of Northfield’s Cannon Valley Indivisible group, in February, attracted about 60 people. The next one drew 100.
“To me, that’s a sign that people are not being heard,” said Epstein, the group’s organizer.
About 80 people sat in church pews for a meeting one night in mid-March, trading stories about why they got involved. In one corner, a psychology professor, a stay-at-home mother and a food-shelf worker worried over the GOP bid to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and about threats to LGBT rights.
The Facebook page of the Indivisible North Metro group grew from a few dozen to more than 160 members in a few weeks. At the group’s meeting in Blaine, about 20 people swapped ideas for two hours — how to track legislative bills, how to talk to elected officials. Then they filled out postcards to send to their representatives.
At the end of the session, Brian Mann, a 58-year-old semiretired engineer from Oak Grove, said he’d just done something remarkable: attended his first-ever political gathering. He’d watched the election play out from the sidelines, assuming things would shake out in a way that made sense to him.
They didn’t. It brought on a personal epiphany: Democracy, Mann said, is about participating, and too many like him “haven’t done a damn thing.”
“I thought it was enough just to vote,” he said, “and that’s not true.”