- I came to a personal realization shortly after the 2016 election and started exploring ways to get involved. This story is from one of my earliest adventures in February 2017.
I have followed politics for a very long time. I am deeply interested in the political process, in how the system works and how it can be made to work for the greater good. However, in the last few years there have been many occasions when I have felt that the very concept of democracy is under attack and may not survive the many body-blows it keeps receiving. It has been a long tradition among professionals in this country to politely “stay in their lane.” Scientists are expected to do only science, athletes are expected to only play sports, doctors are expected to be only concerned with treating people’s ailments; and they obliged by not speaking their mind about the way the country is run.
Donald Trump’s presidency has shown that Democracy is not a spectator sport and everyone has to play an active role for it to survive. In this age of extreme polarization and rampant misinformation that spreads through social media, it is our duty to be active in protecting Democracy. And being active is a lot more than writing smart or caustic posts on social media. If Democracy does not survive and remain healthy, nothing else will. More importantly, it is up to us, the ordinary citizens to make sure that the system works for the greater good. I came to a personal realization shortly after the 2016 election and started exploring ways to get involved. This story is from one of my earliest adventures. In the last few years, I have been very active in grassroots-organizing and am a founder-member of SAMOSA, a group that is working to get the South Asian population to have a stronger voice in the U.S. political process. During my journey I learned a lot from many fine people who are engaged in the hard work of grassroots-organizing.
When it All Began
“Inkilab Zindabad,” I mumble under my breath as I pull into the parking lot of the large shopping plaza at the intersection of Big Beaver and Rochester in Troy, Michigan. I spot the familiar faces of Stephanie, Larry, Abby, and Amber parking, ready for action. Once we pull out our hats (hand-woven pink pussy hats have become the symbol of the resistance) and pull out our signs, we are ready to roll. This time I have a guest for my “off-campus work” — Debbie, the financial officer of our college, and a political ally. She confided in me that she has held on to her job past retirement age for a steady paycheck and health care. Social security is “all I have Dr. Das, and I am afraid these jokers will take that away after they destroy health care.”
We are here for direct action — to visit the office of Dave Trott, our Republican Congressman from Michigan’s 11th district and to make some noise, cause some discomfort, ask difficult questions, and exercise the first amendment. I spot Merilyn and Zorbey in the crowd. Merilyn, a petite young woman is the leader of this group. She’s a community organizer and an astute, well-trained rabble rouser. She had described to us her experiences working with migrant workers in Kalamazoo before she moved to Detroit. Now she leads us into action. Our jobs are well defined: chant leaders, media liaison, law-enforcement liaison, designated speakers, and leaders who will talk to the staff of the congressman’s office. The rest of us are crowd support. As we join our respective units, a burly-looking guy drives by in a Lincoln Continental, sees us and our signs, and makes obscene gestures, shouting “God Bless Donald Trump; Thank you Donald Trump.”
As we prepare to walk to the congressman’s office, one of the organizers pulls out a chicken suit and asks for a volunteer to wear it. This is a new addition — a plan to mock our congressman for being a chicken and ignoring numerous requests from his constituents. Debbie, despite being a first timer, volunteers to wear the suit. She puts on the chicken suit and we get into our formation. I look at some of the familiar faces. Amber is here with her baby in a stroller. Amber’s son is diabetic and will lose his insurance if coverage for pre-existing conditions is taken away. Stephanie is here; her house had caught fire and she had to jump from the second story window to save herself. The fall caused permanent damage to her spine and she is severely impaired, or in other words, is considered to have a pre-existing condition.
Zorbey is one of the chant leaders today. The first time we met, he introduced himself as an undocumented person who was brought to the U.S. as an infant by his parents from Romania. “I am covered by DACA for now, but I know government forces can come for me any day; I had to choose between hiding in fear and laying low or helping create an army of resistors so that they can stand up and protect me in my bad times, I chose the latter,” he had said with a lot of pride and confidence.
Congressman Trott’s district office is in a nondescript two-story building with a brown facade. In front of the building, a group is on the edge of the sidewalk with their signs held high for passing cars. Congress is in serious discussion about repealing Obamacare, ripping away healthcare options from many who recently were finally able to get decent coverage. As cars slow down and people wave and honk in support, we feel energized. The chant leader has a bull horn and starts with “Show me what democracy looks like..” and we chime in “This is what democracy looks like…” Debbie in her chicken-suit is the center of attention.
A local TV channel has shown up and the cameraman follows the group that will go upstairs to try to enter the congressman’s office. Constituents have been calling his office, showing up at his door requesting appointments, but he is nowhere to be found. On Twitter, people have started posting pictures of random places in the district with the comment “Trott is not here.” A picture from the airport, one from a grocery store, someone’s backyard, under a cushion, the joke is catching on. Trott’s district is a sprawling landmass stretching from Canton and Plymouth in the west, arcing through Novi and Livonia while bypassing Farmington Hills to include Troy. It’s a sickle-shaped, barely connected landmass, gerrymandered to give Republicans the edge. We are after Trott to let him know that we oppose the repeal of Obamacare. He has been chickening out, forgetting his constituents, and we are here to make his life uncomfortable.
Lesson from Birmingham
There is a clear method to our madness here, we are part of an organized effort across the country to get in the face of Congress and inflict misery. Groups such as ours have been showing up in their congressperson’s offices and demanding to meet them and demanding that healthcare not be taken away. During one of the introductory training sessions, Zorbey gave a unique example from the civil rights era. The civil rights era leaders used groups of black school children in peaceful marches to ratchet up pressure on the administration. The Birmingham, Alabama police first pounded them with water from high pressure hoses, but the children remained unfazed and came back with renewed vigor the following day. The police brought nasty, barking, police dogs to scare the kids. The kids seemed unfazed again; and newspapers kept covering these stories in graphic details. Bad press got the attention of the entire country; children, even black children, being treated this way did not go over well across the U.S. While quoting Gandhi and MLK to highlight the effectiveness of well-planned, well-organized, nonviolent, direct action Zorbey pointed out the purpose of that march was to get attention from an audience that was not local, but the much larger national population.
While one group created noise and chanted on the sidewalk, our group went up the stairs to the congressman’s office. His staff realized what was going on and had locked the door from inside. Through a small opening, they tried to turn us away saying we did not have an appointment and they did not have space for so many people. The entire hallway was filled now. Our chant leader shouted, “show me what democracy looks like,” and we yelled at the top of our voice, “this is what democracy looks like….” After a few rounds of chants, the leader lifted her fisted hand in the air and immediately we stopped yelling, and a whole lot of fists went up. That was the signal for us to stop, everyone knew it and followed directions. The chant changed to, “their wealth, our health,” and we were back at it again.
In ten minutes, a number of police cars showed up in front of the building. The law-enforcement liaisons struck up a conversation with the cops. We are exercising our first amendment rights, seeking an appointment to see the congressman. The cops are familiar with this and two police officers come up to the door of the office and ask to be let in. By now, folks with personal healthcare stories are talking on live camera for the TV crew. The rest of the large group continues with their task of chanting and demanding a meeting with Trott. The police officers come out and ask for a representative of the crowd; Merilyn goes in with the cops.
We are quiet now — a good time to talk to our fellow agitators. Abby is standing right next to me. She is a freelance writer. Her in-laws are Trump supporters; she is a Jewish lady originally from New York, a feisty feminist and mother of two, and is very committed to ensure healthcare remains available for her family. A savvy user of social media, she has started a twitter account that constantly mocks David Trott and repeatedly tweets snide remarks about the congressman. They are funny; as supporters of the party that has no power now, these little things give us immense pleasure. Her mockery gets retweeted a lot and chips away at Trott’s patience.
Larry is the video recorder of this group. He is a graduate student in political science who has put his education on temporary hold and spends his time recording the resistance movement. We exchange pleasantries, he will be leaving soon for another resistance event in the afternoon. Linda and Sara are together as usual; two amazing ladies who have been protesting the Iraq war every weekend at the corner of Woodward and 9 Mile at Royal Oak for the last 15 years. I marvel at these people, ordinary people who are committed to make change, be the resistance, to stand up, speak up and be the voice of the voiceless.
Merilyn comes out of the meeting, smiling. She has secured an appointment for a small group to meet with the congressman’s staff at a later date. It has been almost two hours since we gathered there, and the police politely request us to leave. With a moral victory, we slowly amble out, a smiling lot, a powerless, hapless group of ordinary citizens who have figured how to get attention and exercise our constitutional rights. Heather, an African American organizer from the city has come too. Her braided hair and bright eyes are hard to miss. We have a good laugh and she mentions again that I am the only Indian she has come across at these resistance events.
What Am I Fighting For?
Once, she told me that blacks have fought for rights all their life, it is in their blood and genes, they have done it for generations. It makes sense for someone like her to show up but why was I there? My cushy job, my comfy house in the suburbs, my high-quality schools, my healthcare, my tax cuts, my security, what am I fighting for? I shared my recollection from the morning after the 2016 election. My math class at 9 am was a distraught bunch. No one was able to talk Calculus, so they shared their feelings. Elation or dejection, the only ones who shared their feelings were the white students. The blacks, the Hispanics, the Asians, the hijab-clad Muslim girl, and the DACA students were all too stunned to speak. The vacant looks from all the minorities were hauntingly painful. It is that image, that sight, that drives me to the streets with this ragtag band.
As we left the scene, someone in the group informed that Haley Stevens*, a former aide in Obama’s administration, just announced that she will challenge Trott in the mid-term election. We are at the parking lot again. The Trump supporter in the Lincoln is back. It seemed he never left, was probably lurking around nearby, waiting for us to return. He drives by shouting profanities. The cops smile, we smirk and trot along to our cars. He is only one, and we are so many. We don’t need to shout back; he is clearly running away. Inkilab Zindabad it is!
*Haley Stevens went on to win that congressional seat in 2018 and was re-elected to congress in 2020.
Shuvra Das is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He has lived in the greater Detroit area for over two and a half decades. He is interested in reading, writing, photography, travel, theater, and politics. He is a founder-member of SAMOSA (South Asians of Michigan Organizing for Serious Action), a grassroots organization in Michigan that works on making South Asians a stronger presence in the American political process.