A lot of the people working the hardest in Arkansas against the aims of Donald Trump and the Republican Party he leads won’t even say his name. Instead, they refer to him simply as “45,” a reference, of course, to his place at the end of a chain of men stretching link by link from George Washington through Jefferson and Lincoln and FDR and JFK, before coming to rest, improbably, on a portly former game show host with the shellacked, urine-hued hair of an aging televangelist; a man who once appeared on WWE wrasslin’.
Though 45 and the pundits who seek to delegitimize the grassroots resistance that has sprung up since Election Day would likely call protesters haters, it’s not hate that they have for him, exactly. Hate is an emotion that requires an investment of the heart, and if they’re not willing to call him by name, they’re damn sure not going to give him that. For most of them, what they seem to have for Trump is a profound sense of dismay. Mention Trump’s name and you don’t get hate. Instead, you get much the same look a long-suffering teacher might give little Johnny Spitball in the back row, the boy too dumb or too lacking in home training to understand that using a stick to hoist little girls’ skirts on the playground to get a peek at their underpants isn’t the path to their hearts.
Since the election of Donald Trump, a homegrown resistance has materialized throughout the state and across the nation, hell-bent on working against a regime intent on rolling back the odometer on the social, environmental and financial reforms of the past half-century. On Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration, an estimated 7,000 Arkansans marched on the state Capitol in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, an event that drew nearly a million people to D.C. and millions more at sister marches around the nation and world. On Feb. 22, over 2,000 people showed up to roar their disapproval at Sen. Tom Cotton in Springdale, an event that wound up making international news and included Cotton tap-dancing around a question posed by a 7-year-old boy, who asked the senator to spend less on Trump’s wall and more on PBS Kids.
It’s all thanks to a volunteer resistance, including almost a dozen groups in the state working off the principles outlined in the “Indivisible Guide,” a handbook for the burgeoning resistance written by former congressional and White House staffers. But in a state as red as Arkansas, where Cotton was elected with over 60 percent of the vote, is the burgeoning rebellion all sound and fury, signifying nothing? The question is yet to be answered, but in considering it, one should recall that there was a time, not much more than a decade ago, when this state was blue as could be. Both the weather and politics can change quickly here.
The striking thing about the resistance groups in Arkansas and nationwide is how female they are. Of the half-dozen organizations we talked to for this story, all are either wholly led by women or have an overwhelmingly female leadership. It’s a striking break from most past mass movements in this country, and probably has a lot to do with the bruising campaign against Hillary Clinton and the sometime vulgar man who now sits in the Oval Office.
A lot of the current momentum in Arkansas grew from the state’s Women’s March held Jan. 21. The state march, which drew thousands of purple-clad protestors to the lawn of the state Capitol, was the brainchild of Gwendolynn Combs, who founded the Little Rock-based Be the Change Alliance to help organize the march.
A Gifted and Talented teacher in the Little Rock School District, Combs had been only lightly political before the election, the totality of her previous protest experience involving attending a rally when the state Board of Education took over the district. In what has become a familiar story in resistance groups, however, Combs was galvanized by the surprise election of Donald Trump. She stayed up until the early morning hours watching the returns come in on election night, then had to go face a classroom full of children she calls “my kids” next morning. These days, she’s one of those who refers to Trump only as “45.”
“I have 53 kids,” she said. “Fifty of them are black, two are Hispanic and one is white. … Teachers are silenced in a lot of ways. We’re supposed to make sure we don’t impact the political beliefs of our students. But at this point, I feel like if I’m not vocal about some things, I’m doing my students an injustice. Silence is just as bad as doing bad things. So I’ve kind of jumped out of that unspoken, ‘teachers stay silent’ mentality. That’s been hard to do.”
Combs wanted to go to the Women’s March in D.C., but knew that financially and from a time standpoint a trip wasn’t in the cards. So she started planning the sister march in Little Rock, creating a Facebook group and choosing the name Be the Change Alliance, taken from the Gandhi quote about being the change one wants to see in the world. Combs said she wanted a group that was accepting of all people. If you’re in opposition to the Trump regime, you are welcome.
“When we picked the official color of the [Arkansas] Women’s March, we chose purple, because we wanted to avoid going blue and turning off those people who might have voted red in the past,” she said. “I am a very new blue voter. I used to vote Republican. We’ve had some conversations about how to talk across the aisle, how to be friendly, how to not shut people down. I think it’s hard because people are defensive. They don’t want to feel like they’re attacked. It really has to start with listening.”
Since the march, the group has continued to grow. Combs said there are nine people in the planning group and over 3,400 on their mailing list. They’re in close contact with other grassroots progressive organizations around the state, and have helped secure meetings and town halls with congressional representatives. Combs said the group and the overall resistance movement are giving a voice to progressives throughout state.
“One of the things we’ve heard repeatedly as we’ve tried to mobilize the people who participated in the Women’s March is, ‘I’m all alone. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel connected,’ ” she said. “That has been the real benefit of bringing up these Indivisible groups. It’s given people a community when they felt like they were in isolation. … I can’t imagine being in Yellville or something like that and having liberal progressive beliefs.”
Be the Change is in the process of making the pivot from outrage to action, helping steer participants toward established progressive organizations like the Sierra Club, Audubon, the Hunger Relief Alliance, the Arkansas Education Association and the network of Indivisible groups. On the team messaging service Slack, Be the Change has established seven working groups, including voter rights, human rights, economic issues, education, increasing the number of women in politics and the environment. Combs said the groups would allow volunteers to do deep, crowdsourced policy research in those areas and start thinking about ways to act locally. Combs said the ultimate goal is to eventually use the tactics of the Indivisible movement to shape the conversation in Arkansas, from city boards to the state legislature.
“We want to knock down Jason Rapert, and all the others who are out there — the little mini-Donald Trumps. That’s where we’re a bit different,” she said.
Pat Rogers-Ward, one of the co-founders of the Progressive Arkansas Women PAC — a year-old group working to increase the number of women in elected office in Arkansas — says the large number of women leading the groups resisting Donald Trump is a reaction to his disrespect for women.
“We know that we cannot be silent with someone in leadership like that,” Rogers-Ward said. “We’ve spent enough time in the back room. We’ve spent enough time stuffing envelopes and doing things behind the scenes with no recognition. We don’t need to be recognized by someone else. We can recognize ourselves and build ourselves up. Women are the organizers behind what has happened for years. We are the foundation behind all that. We want to be up front.”
Another co-founder, lawyer Bettina Brownstein, said there has been a surge in interest in the Progressive Arkansas Women PAC since the election of Trump. Their goals, however, are long term.
“We’re thinking 10 years,” she said. “It’s a long, hard slog to change the composition of the Arkansas Legislature, city boards and councils and quorum courts. We’re in it for the long haul, starting with the grassroots, getting women to be more involved in politics more, to run for office.”
Brownstein said the number of women approaching the group for advice on how to run for something has seen an uptick. To that end, the group is planning a series of training events to recruit female candidates, the first of which will be a “Ready to Run” seminar on April 1 at Hendrix College in Conway. The PAC’s goal, Brownstein said, is to recruit women, let them know what it’s going to be like to run for elected office, then — once they become candidates — give them “the maximum amount of money we can under the laws of the state.”
Women, said group member Katherine West, have leapt to the vanguard against Trump because his election proves they have a lot to lose.
“Nobody is going to help us but ourselves,” West said. “We’ve kind of had this perception that if we were nice and good and we worked hard, that we would be protected, that we would get along, that we would advance. With the Trump election, we know that is not true. We’ve had to step way back, and at this point we’re unwilling to do that. Some people are calling this another wave of feminism. Maybe that’s what we need.”
Kimberly Benyr, one of the co-founders of the group Ozark Indivisible, is another who said she wasn’t political at all before the election of Trump. Like many, her frustration led her to activism. “I was pretty much in shock and depressed after the election,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to do and how to channel my angst about this. I found the “Indivisible Guide” by watching ‘The Rachel Maddow Show [on MSNBC].'” Benyr started a private Facebook group called NWA Indivisible around the first week of January. Through word-of-mouth and friends adding friends, the group membership exploded from dozens to hundreds.
“I live in Benton County, which is very conservative,” Benyr said. “I thought I was one of only half a dozen people who would be interested in a group like this. It seemed like people were coming out of hiding almost, when I’d hear from people. I don’t really know how people found out about it. I certainly wasn’t advertising. Once they would find one person who was interested, they’d add their friends.” After discovering another group called Fayetteville Indivisible, Benyr reached out to founder Caitlynn Moses and they soon joined forces, renaming their combined group Ozark Indivisible. The group now has over 3,000 members on Facebook. As it is with many groups in the movement, the leadership of Ozark Indivisible is all women. Benyr said about two-thirds of their membership is female.
Since its founding, Ozark Indivisible has been heavily involved in the effort to push Sen. Cotton to meet with representatives about their concerns or to hold a town hall meeting, including showing up at his Northwest Arkansas office in early February to protest what they saw as a “closed door policy” toward constituents. At Cotton’s town hall in Springdale — the venue was changed three times to accommodate a crowd that eventually numbered over 2,200 — Cotton brought Moses onstage and offered her an apology for her unsuccessful attempts to reach him. Though other public events Cotton has since held in Heber Springs and Jonesboro have featured much friendlier crowds, Benyr said the anger on display in Springdale is a reflection of the mood of the country and the energy on the left. She said other representatives of the state are running scared, seeking refuge in small gatherings and conference calls rather than facing their constituents.
“I think they’re aware that a lot of their constituency is not happy with what’s going on in Washington, and they’re aware that we’re not wanting them to rubber-stamp Trump’s agenda,” she said. “They believe we’re the minority, that we’re not the ones that voted to put them in office, so they don’t show up. I guess they don’t think it’s important to govern for all of us. Just the ones who voted for them.”
Benyr, who works part time and has two children, said that she has seen the effects of Trump’s election on her kids, especially her middle-school-age daughter, and that’s part of what spurred her to action. Contrary to the Republican talking point about “paid protestors,” Benyr said she and others in the group are sacrificing time and money to stay in the fight.
“We’re a Facebook group. There’s definitely no money behind this. We just utilize a free guide that’s online. It’s people finding us online, and we organize almost entirely online. People are self-motivated. They asked what they could do to participate and help, and they just showed up in force.”
Because of that spontaneous energy, Benyr says, she believes it isn’t a given that Trump will win the state in 2020. “I really don’t know that people will vote for Trump in Arkansas in four years,” she said. “I don’t think Trump is conservative. I think he’s an anomaly. So I’m not resigned to the fact that he will be re-elected, even in this state. I think that as more comes to light and more things happen that people didn’t realize could happen, minds will be changed.”
Terrie Root, one of the four founders of Indivisible Central Arkansas, can tell you off the top of her head how many days are left until Election Day 2020 (the day of our interview, it was 1,342). She said her sense of mourning and fear after the election was so deep that she skipped celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“He scares the hell out of us,” she said. “He wants to take us back to what we’ve fought our whole lives, in my opinion. He wants to erase all the progress we’ve made, all the gains we’ve made, all the protections we now have in the court system.”
Root and co-founders Deana Jennings and Jan Baker became involved after their book group studied the “Indivisible Guide” in the weeks after the election. They later met fourth founder Jason Bailey. Though the group started small, they’ve grown exponentially in recent months. Their “missing persons” town hall Feb. 26, meant to draw media attention to the refusal of Arkansas’s all-Republican congressional delegation to hold public town halls in Central Arkansas, drew over 400 people only nine days after it was announced.
“We’re offering assistance and opening the door to everybody who has a concern about 45 and his agenda and the way our members of Congress have turned against the people who sent them to Congress, so everybody can find a place in what we’re doing.” Root said, “Maybe their particular interest is immigration. We have a place for immigration, we have a place for education, we have a place for veterans. It’s a broad base.”
Bailey, who has made it a habit to call the office of each Arkansas congressman every day since Jan. 21, says that as a gay man, he feels particularly threatened by Trump and his policies.
“When marriage equality was established, I had the ability to dream that I could get married,” he said. “Now that has the potential of not being something I can do. It’s very disheartening and soul-crushing to grow up as a gay man in deep southern Arkansas, have something that you’ve fought for in the shadows because you can’t be out, fight for it even more, get it, just to have it snatched out of your hands.”
Indivisible Central Arkansas is planning to spin off neighborhood groups so people can work on issues that they are passionate about and affect local change rather than just waiting for events so they can protest. Bailey said that’s important to keep the base motivated and energized for the long fight ahead. “We have recognized that continuing to motivate people will take a lot of work,” she said. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’re constantly re-evaluating how we can motivate people who come to the town halls, people who come to our meetings, how we can keep them motivated to continue the process. It is a long process, and people can get burned out quickly.” Baker said the group will eventually move in the direction of helping register and educate voters, and help progressive candidates run and get elected to public office.
“We’re going to talk about how we can work with the other Indivisible groups in the state for a common goal, which is looking toward the 2018 election,” she said. “All our members of Congress in the four districts will be up for re-election. We’re not just meeting to empower. We’re meeting to empower with a purpose.”
Jason Bailey agreed. “Working with the Indivisible group and seeing what’s happening with President Trump has shown me: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like,” he said. “We are resisting. We are the group that did not vote for that man. And he is starting to see what it looks like.”
State Rep. Greg Leding (R-Fayetteville) is one of those who hopes the energy directed at Trump may soon turn to more local matters. In his fourth term in the legislature, Leding says there’s a troubling degree of anonymity to being a state legislator, which he believes denotes a lack of public engagement. “I can still walk through my district and most folks just have no clue who I am,” he said. “Personally that can be a good thing, because I can go to the store without being hounded. But I think it would be a great thing and democracy would be better served if people were paying attention.”
Since the election, Leding has made several Facebook posts highlighting huge turnout at capitols in other states to resist bills that are seen as harmful to social progress, labor movements or the LGBT community. In January, he distributed a “Determined Constituent’s Guide to the Arkansas State Capitol,” a pamphlet featuring phone numbers, communication tips, committee room assignments and other information useful to a citizen who wants to make his or her voice heard by state legislators. Leding said Arkansans focused on resisting and protesting Trump are doing good work but ignore local issues at their peril.
“I think it’s perfectly fine to be calling your legislators in D.C., and you should be,” he said. “But the people here in Arkansas are going to be making decisions on a daily basis that will, in a lot of cases, more immediately and more directly affect your everyday life. Not just in the legislature. Your quorum courts, your city councils. So I would tell people to become familiar with whom your local elected officials are, learn what’s going on in the state Capitol and your city hall. Make sure you’re holding local officials accountable, too.” Leding said many state legislators would likely be swayed by what he called “appropriate public input.”
“I always tell people when you’re contacting a lawmaker: Be brief, be polite and be to the point, because they can be busy,” Leding said. “If you just show up screaming at them, they’re never going to listen. But if they engage, that gives them the opportunity to have a longer conversation. But you’re not going to get anywhere calling names.”
Leding said he has seen increased public participation this session, including a large turnout for committee hearings on the so-called “campus carry” bill that would allow concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Leding said that bill is very likely to pass in some form in the Republican-dominated legislature, constituents shouldn’t be swayed from showing up and having their voices heard. “Even if the bill is guaranteed to pass, the people passing it need to hear from the opposition,” Leding said. “They need to know that they are acting against the overwhelming wishes of most people. If you didn’t show up, this thing could pass, and then the people who support it can say, ‘Well, we didn’t hear from anybody who opposed it.” It’s about establishing a public record and letting the lawmakers know they do face opposition.”
Leding said House Bill 1578 by Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), the latest in a series of anti-protest bills across the country, which would change the legal definition of “riot” to include “causing public alarm” and impeding traffic, allowing civil lawsuits against those who offend, is a sign that people need to “stay out there marching.”
“To chip away at our freedom to gather in protest is just absolutely ridiculous,” Leding said. “I think it’s also a little bit cowardly. The people who helped shape the framework for this country a couple centuries ago felt that it was so important that it’s right there in the First Amendment, so I completely oppose any effort to curtail our rights.”
If it ever comes time to fight Hammer’s effort in court, ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar will likely be there. Sklar said over a thousand people have joined the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU since the election, part of a push that included over $23 million in donations to the national ACLU in the single weekend when confusion reigned over Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Though Sklar said she doesn’t anticipate seeing much of those donations to assist in efforts in Arkansas, the group continues to push back in the state.
“Soon after the election, bullying broke out like a bad rash all over the country,” she said. “People thought it was open season on blacks, Hispanics and Muslims. So there’s definitely been an uptick on those kinds of problems. And the legislature, certainly, has decided it’s open season on everybody not them. So we’re busy for sure.”
Like Leding, Sklar said she’s focused on local issues, and wishes more Arkansans who have joined the resistance against Trump would be as well. “Who is president is extremely important for a lot of reasons, but what they’re doing at the legislature affects us in so many different ways,” she said. “I wish people would pay more attention to that.”
Nationally, the ACLU has launched a new effort at the website peoplepower.org to help resistors channel their energy and frustration into action. On Saturday, March 11, Sklar said, the ACLU will host streaming training events supported by national ACLU staff and hosted at private homes. (Vino’s, at Seventh and Chester streets, will host one of the streaming trainings, starting at 3:30 p.m. Others can be found at peoplepower.org.)
“The idea is really just to take all these people who continue to meet and march, saying, ‘We want to do something!’ and say, ‘This is what you can do.’ We hope it’s the beginning of a movement that keeps going. When you feel like you’re on the winning side, you forget that you need to keep in touch with politics, you need to keep up with your representatives. That’s a problem we see locally. People think that because abortion is legal, they don’t really have to pay too much attention to what goes on. But they’ve been chipping away at it for decades.”
Sklar said that the resistance against Trump among progressives and women especially is rooted in “his utter disregard for women.” Trump’s election, she said, was a shock to the system that offends moral decency, and women across the country have risen to the challenge, as has the ACLU.
“I’m very gratified that when people think the Constitution is threatened, generally in many different ways, that they know that we’re the ones you can turn to across the board on so many issues,” she said. “The Constitution is in danger? Call the ACLU. That is very heartening. I know it feels corny, but that’s the way I feel. It’s wonderful that people feel that way, even if they didn’t know it until the crisis came and hit them in the face.”