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Looking back: New Year, New Me, New US

Ivonne Wallace Fuentes - 07/20/2017

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Editor’s note: Today, on the six month anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as president, one of the first local Indivisible group leaders takes a look back on her experience in political activism.

Last November, something happened to me.  

I’m a historian of Latin America. I had spent the summer and fall finishing a book on Magda Portal, the only female leader in a twentieth century Peruvian revolutionary movement.  It was surreal documenting how, more than seventy years ago and in another country, opponents attacked Portal with the same gendered tactics that Hillary Clinton’s opponents lobbed at her. I was certain that this story would be different; I was following the polls and the analysis, and I knew Hillary Clinton would be our first female President.

But that Tuesday night, I realized instead, our next President would be a nativist, who had called me and other Latin Americans rapists and drug dealers; a sexual harasser who denigrated his opponent for being a woman. I was shocked and traumatized that first week.  I burst into tears at the SNL cold open of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

That first Sunday after Election Day, at the first political meeting I had ever attended in Roanoke, VA, I organized a group to protect our local communities, those who would be most targeted if the Trump administration made good on its campaign promises. We collected a couple dozen emails. Many of us felt isolated, and uncertain of what we could do to resist. Many of us were also navigating fraught waters in our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Roanoke is not a blue (or red) bubble. It’s a mid-sized city in Southwest Virginia, the most conservative part of our swing state; everyone loved, worked with, or knew Trump supporters.

When the Indivisible Guide came my way, I read it with growing excitement. This was exactly what we hoped to do here in Roanoke! It was a recipe, a map laying out a step-by-step action plan that was local, defensive, and concrete. Nothing in it seemed too complicated or controversial. It taught us how to use our constituent power by focusing our limited resources on the pressure points in our political system with the most incentive to listen to us — the politicians who we voted into office, and who we could also vote out.

Could it actually work? I was feeling particularly impotent; on the very first day of the new Congress, Bob Goodlatte, my Representative, the person who wielded power in my name in Washington DC., had just proposed an amendment gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics. How was this fulfilling the promise of making government more transparent, more responsive, less corrupt? I registered Roanoke Indivisible with Indivisible’s new directory that very night and resolved to call Goodlatte’s office the next day.

I called. So many people were calling it was impossible to get through. Twelve of us decided to visit Goodlatte’s downtown Roanoke office. Facing overwhelming public outrage, a “blizzard” of calls to Congress, Goodlatte and his Republican colleagues tabled the ethics amendment. We visited Goodlatte’s office anyway, to deliver New Year’s cards and let him know we were here, watching, organizing, voting. We were completely surprised when we were refused entry into his district office and left to meet with his staff in an open lobby.

Heading out, three of us remembered another cardinal Indivisible rule: pics or it didn’t happen. We shot a video selfie and sent it to the Indivisible Guide team. Indivisible Guide volunteers had told us cable news might be interested in our video, but it wasn’t until my social media feeds began blowing up that I learned that our video was part of the lead story that night on The Rachel Maddow Show. I have since learned that many people found that video heartening and inspiring. The original Facebook video has been viewed and shared thousands of times, and a viewer sent me a pussy hat which I was proud to wear to the Women’s March on Washington.

But I am guided most by my mother’s reaction. She happened to tune into The Rachel Maddow Show that night and was completely surprised to see my face. My mother was reared in Guatemala, during a civil conflict which would ultimately claim a hundred thousand lives while creating one of the most repressive political climates in the world. Her first reaction, she told me later, was deep dread. Seeing a loved one on television for political activity was terrifying, first and only a cause to fear for their safety. But her second reaction was relief — “in this country,” she told me, “we can do this.”

Watching that video now, I see three somewhat giddy women, so happy that we had done something as simple as visiting our elected representative. But we did much more than deliver a card: we stood together, and we made our presence known. At that moment I realized that not only can I do this in this country, I should do it, I must do it if I believe our republic is at risk. We are so proud here in Roanoke that our video helped more people find, read, and use the Indivisible Guide.

Today, our group is over a thousand strong. We continue calling our Members of Congress and visiting Goodlatte’s office. His staff continues to deny us entry. We have organized civic events for the Roanoke community, including “Ask Me Anything” information sessions on the U.S. Constitution and on immigration. When Rep. Goodlatte’s office refused to schedule an open constituent forum, we organized two town halls for him. Hundreds gathered to speak to Mr. Goodlatte, though he has still refused to attend. He personally lobbied a city council member to keep the Staunton City Council from inviting him to attend a town hall.

Mr. Goodlatte has claimed we are too “emotional.” He’s right about that; we are driven by the most noble of emotions. Love of our Republic and democratic norms. Solidarity with our fellow constituents and citizens, who Stand Indivisible to defend our democracy when partisan politicians, in their will to power, step aside and watch the damage done to our norms and institutions.

Six months ago I was despondent, bewildered, and deeply fearful. Today, we are nourished by the community roots we have planted in building our local Resistance. Even in our “blended” neighborhoods and workplaces, we have found each other. Building Roanoke Indivisible has transformed our anxiety and fear into action and power. We have an action plan for the next hundred days, and the hundred after that; and while clear-eyed about the damage being done around us, we know we can—and will—fight back. Something happened to me—to us all— six months ago, but I know now that we also happened to them, to this Administration and its Congressional enablers. And there are more of us, United, Indivisible. And we will win.