As protest spreads….renegotiating bad deals

I gave up on keeping on top of all the anti-Trump protests spreading across the United States, but the emerging resistance certainly isn’t giving up. People who marched in one of the women’s march or protested ant-Muslim travel restrictions at the airports–or just cheered those who did–have fanned out to carry on the political battle.

Some of it is focused on specific issues, like reproductive rights. Last weekend when anti-abortion activists staged protests at Planned Parenthood clinics, their opponents held larger rallies away from the clinics on behalf of the cause and the organization.

Abortion politics hasn’t really disappeared since Roe v. Wade, but the new wave of protests signals an uptick in public concern, which will only increase during hearings on the next appointment to the Supreme Court.  Candidate Trump promised to push to restrict abortion and stop funding Planned Parenthood. Anti-abortion activists will expect him to deliver on these promises, while reproductive rights activists will work hard to stop him. There’s absolutely no ready resolution in sight, and the protests and conflicts will continue even when there’s little national attention.

Image result for Dakota access pipeline protestTrump’s commitment to resurrecting the Dakota Access Pipeline invites the resumption of contention. The Standing Rock Sioux have environmental groups have both continued their opposition in the courts, and protests at the construction site will soon resume as well. Meanwhile, supporters across the nation who are not prepared to decamp to the Standing Rock reservation are looking for more proximate targets, organizing divestment campaigns, for example, from pipeline investors like Wells Fargo.

In an odd reprise of the Tea Party protests at Congressional town hall meetings in 2009, opponents of the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act have swarmed meetings organized by Roseville police escort Rep. Tom McClintock through an audience from the Tower Theatre in Roseville, California on Feb. 4.Republican legislators. They’re bringing questions about health care, mass deportations, and conflicts of interest; even more obviously, they’re bringing anger and vigorous political engagement. Across the country, activists are downloading the Indivisible Guide for coordinated resistance, engaging mainstream politics as well as protest.

Thus far, most Republican members of Congress have postponed their own town meetings, perhaps hoping that the anger will dissipate some time in the next two years. I’m not sure that’s a good bet.

Hillary Clinton carried 23 districts that elected Republicans to the House of Representatives, creating obvious electoral targets for the emerging resistance. In California’s 45th district, where I live, demonstrators have regularly turned out to protest  Republican Rep. Mimi Walters’s refusal to meet with them. I suspect there are similar campaigns across the country that are not generating national headlines.

And public school teachers, unable to prevent Senate confirmation of Betsy Protesters gather outside Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington to oppose a visit by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.DeVos as Secretary of Education, tried to keep her from physically entering their schools.

It’s all overwhelming and exhausting. The anti-Trump protesters don’t agree on everything, but share a contempt for the new president and a commitment to stop his administration from delivering on its agenda. Thus far, the administration’s simultaneously aggressive and sloppy approaches to politics and policy have fed the resistance.

Trump’s opponents face the challenge of finding ways to continue in the face of the policy defeats they’ll face in the short term. They must also forge connections among their issues to present a relatively unified political movement. The administration is trying to make policy gains on many fronts at once, defying the conventional wisdom for presidents to prioritize and focus. As a result, the opposition is also fighting on many fronts at the same time as well.

These diverse efforts can all make progress in the same way, increasing the costs and risks to Republican politicians for supporting Trump. Many already disagree with the administration on some issues: immigration, Russia, health care. They’ve made an explicit bargain to look the other way on differences in hopes of making inroads on issues they care about: cutting taxes or restricting access to abortion. The activists are working to make that bargain look like a very bad deal.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

David S. Meyer’s voice, just in case you’re interested

Although a massive demand for my voice online has not yet crossed my desk, here are links to two recent recorded conversations. I was fortunate to draw two very good interviewers, and the topics will be familiar.

From Top of Mind, with Julie Rose at BYU Radio, here’s “Lessons in Protest from Lunch Counters to Airports.”


FroOn The Mediam WNYC’s On the Media, here’s an interview with Bob Garfield, here’s “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Protest Edition,” distilled to 8 tips in the poster below.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More airport protest consequences; a dissent channel

The conditions that help protest movements grow also generate institutional efforts at Protesters jam the north security gate to San Francisco International Airport, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, condemning President Trump's executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)resistance. So, sorting out the impact of protest on policy is tough.

Scholars generally want to employ tight measures of protest movements (the number or size of demonstrations, the volume of publicity, for example), and measures of influence at least as rigorous, like measurable changes in policy or Congressional votes on a resolution. But something that matters might not be so obvious or easy to count, and influence may play out over a longer time frame than an activist or analyst hopes.

Really, I’ve gotten notes from former students who explain that they now see the importance of something we’d discussed in class a decade earlier. The recognition matters, but it won’t change any grades.

Here’s another example that makes the point:

Yesterday, in trying to puzzle out the consequences of the airport protests, I ran through reactions from government officers, elected officials, activists, and the media. I should have mentioned protest within the State Department.

Since 1971, the Department of State offers its officials the opportunity to express dissent without fear of reprisal:

a. It is Department of State policy that all U.S.  citizen employees, foreign and domestic, be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.

b. The State Department has a strong interest in facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues within the professional foreign affairs community, and a responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty.  The Dissent Channel was created to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.

 Over the past forty-plus years, foreign service officers have regularly responded critically to government policies, expressing their presumably well-informed opinions. Wikipedia reports that cables are typically signed by a few committed officials; sometimes, a controversial policy might generate a few dozen signatures.

Opposition to the travel ban was far more extensive: the dissent cable included about 1,000 signatures. (Here’s a draft of the cable unearthed by Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.) People who worked in diplomacy and foreign affairs saw the travel ban as unwise and unAmerican.

Rogin quotes the memo: “We are better than this ban. Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.”

It’s hard to believe that an official would change his or her mind on policy in response to protest, but it’s not difficult to imagine that protest in the streets might intensify the sense of urgency that officials feel. Surely, it’s tougher to be the third signature than the 300th, and each signature makes the next one a little easier to collect. The official considering support might see a distant cousin sporting a pussy hat in a Facebook photo, reminded of just how provocative the new policy is.

The unprecedented opposition to the policy within the State Department was yet another factor that activists, attorneys, and even judges might consider in plotting out their next actions.

Many things can matter.

Posted in academic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assessing the airport protests: a first cut at consequences

As of 3:15 Pacific Standard Time today, Trump’s travel ban remains on hold. A 9th circuit appellate panel unanimously agreed to let District court Judge James L. Robart’s temporary injunction on enforcement stand.

Of course, the appellate ruling is by no means the end of litigation or political conflict on this matter, but it’s a significant blow to the Trump administration.

Our question: did the airport protests that started ten days ago have anything to do with what’s happened since?

The influence of protest on policy remains the critical question for activists and scholars People opposed to President Donald Trumps executive order barring entry to the U.S. by Muslims from certain countries demonstrate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in Los Angeles. alike. People who braved poor mass transit connections to metropolitan airports, pushed their way through restless pussy-hatted crowds, considered airport foods, and dodged traffic, surely wondered whether it was all worth the effort. No politician will say that she did something she thought wrong in order to appease a protest movement, and protesters never get all they ask for anyway. So how do you know?

Honestly sorting out the connections between all the events since Americans first began reacting to an ill-considered and poorly implemented embargo on travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries helps us understand how protest might work. It also points to a few places where academics who try to make sense of influence may go astray.

Americans and other expatriates gather to protest PresidentTo start: the airport protests were really an extraordinary set of events. Although the crowds that turned out for Women’s Marches the previous weekend were impressive, they weren’t all that surprising. Since his election Trump continued to be provocative and unpopular. The large demonstration is a familiar way to protest, and organizers worked hard to get spread the word and rally their supporters.

The spontaneous protests at big city airports were something very different. With no advance warning, angry people started turning up, on behalf of people they didn’t know, but even more in support of a vision of America. They crowded and pushed for religious tolerance and ethnic pluralism, and very much against a president ready to feed an uglier side of America. When travelers occasionally cleared ill-defined new strictures and walked out, sometimes aided by court orders, the demonstrators cheered. Meanwhile, volunteer lawyers streamed along the corridors, offering to help.

Trump’s Executive Order provoked lots of other push back on its own, but it’s helpful to imagine what, if anything, might have been different without the public demonstrations.

As soon as the ban became public, civil liberties groups like the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) began filing suits in federal district courts.  These groups don’t depend directly on public opinion, and surely would have filed suit whether or not people were publicly protesting. At the same time, I’m confident that both groups enjoyed a wave of contributions for their efforts.

But the suit that led to the 9th circuit appeal was filed by Bob Ferguson, the Attorney General of Washington state.  Ferguson was just elected to a second term, and apparently has higher political aspirations. The public outcry against the Trump ban made it easier for him to take the bold step of filing suit without seeming to risk his political future. The demonstrators lined up Ferguson’s legal judgment with his political interests.

Meanwhile, Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates ordered the Department of Justice not to defend the travel ban; Trump fired her in short order. Apparently, after determining that the policy was neither “wise nor just,” Yates considered resigning. She chose to defy the president instead, perhaps encouraged by the protesters at the airport gates. Public opinion, narrowly, followed the protesters, turning against the ban and against Trump.

I don’t believe that Federal judges normally interpret the law in the light of public opinion or protests; I think they try to focus on the law and the Constitution. I do think, however, that their opinions get more extensive coverage and more public attention when people are protesting and rooting for particular outcomes. The Trump administration had to answer more questions about the policy publicly than they expected, questions they were clearly unprepared for.

What’s more, critical commentary about the ban, particularly from conservative sources, received more attention than it otherwise would have. (See Benjamin Wittes, “Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence.”) When John Yoo, who was critical in drafting the memos justifying torture for the Bush Administration, writes that the president has taken executive power too far, people take notice. The protests made it more likely that the New No Ban Protests at Pittsburgh International Airport People protest President Donald Trump's travel ban at the baggage claim area at Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon on Sunday.York Times would solicit such a piece. Many Republicans who wanted to work with Trump, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, found ways to distance themselves and criticize the ban. If the courts struck down the ban, McConnell was clear, Congress would not save it.

And the president’s extraordinarily thin skin allowed the protests to go even deeper. Trump could not help being trolled, responding by gratuitously attacking all his opponents, including federal judges, for their judgment and their motives. It’s hard to imagine his explanations did anything at all to build support for his policies.

Regardless of what happens next, the Trump administration has expended a great deal of political capital defending the policy, and the protests raised the costs. Even if the policy is ultimately upheld, the Trump administration will find it more difficult to take the next step, whatever that is, and to keep its supporters in line for the next controversy.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Quick responses in Romania don’t mean resolution

When Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu announced a new polA general view of the massive protest at Victory Square in Bucharest on Feb. 5, 2017.icy decriminalizing  slighter smaller-scale official corruption , Romanians took to the streets quickly and in very large numbers.  An estimated 600,000 people demonstrated across the country, with perhaps 250,00 in Bucharest.

Relatively quickly, after six nights of protest, the government withdrew the new policy. Romanian leaders did not feel comfortable ignoring the voices in the streets.

Remember, it’s not all that long ago, in 1989, when the Army deserted the government after days of fighting demonstrators in the streets. Protesters overthrew the government, captured President Nicolae Ceausescu, and summarily tried and executed him. Communist governments fell in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Bulgaria within a few months, but no transition was as violent and scary as the one in Romania. Surely, everyone in government making decisions is well aware of those events.

At this writing, the protesters continue; the current president, a critic of the current coalition government, has described this moment as a “full-fledged” political crisis.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy birthday, Rosa Parks (2017)

Happy birthday, Rosa Parks!  Born on February 4, 1913, Parks was not a tired old lady in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of the bus.  She was an experienced and committed activist, deeply tied into the activist networks that animated the civil rights movement.  She wasn’t the only one who took a risk to challenge segregation laws in the South, but that hardly makes her less heroic.

Activism in the civil rights movement was hardly a career move for Rosa Parks. She paid a serious price over many years for stepping outside of expected norms of behavior and into history. Her role in sparking the bus boycott brought her a bit of celebrity that made it hard to find work in Montgomery, and soon afterward, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she continued her activism.

Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon) extends the story of the civil rights icon, undermining the myth of spontaneity surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The popular version of the story recounts Mrs. Parks as a tired old lady who unexpectedly decided to resist a bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus.  Theoharis describes the deep roots of Mrs. Parks’s activism: she was raised by a grandfather who supported Marcus Garvey, married to a long time civil rights crusader, and had served for more than a decade in a leadership role in the local NAACP.  In the summer of 1955, she attended a workshop on civil rights at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.  She says that she had decided to resist any directions to the back of the bus long before the opportunity presented.

Many years later, on a television game show, for example, or–more significantly–when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, she could be described as an old lady.  But that was 1996–forty years after refusing to move to the back of the bus.

The popular story makes activism seem like something that comes suddenly, out of nowhere, and unpredictably.  The fuller tale, just like the one about the Greensboro sit-in, shows that it generally takes long and focused efforts to create those seemingly spontaneous moments.

And recognizing that Rosa Parks is only one of the best known of many many civil rights heroes suggests the possibility that each of us could also, one day, step into history.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lunch counter sit-ins anniversary

It’s the anniversary of the start of the sit-in campaign in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m always moved and encouraged by the audacity of those young men. 


There was once a store called Woolworths.  It sold dry goods, mostly cheap stuff, including paper and pencils.  Many Woolworths also housed a cheap restaurant where you could get coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich, also cheap.  Fifty-three years ago today, a
Woolworth sit-inWoolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, was the site of a new phase in the civil rights movement, the beginning of the sit-in campaign.

On Monday morning, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, wearing their best clothes, went shopping at the Woolworths, bought some school supplies, then sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee.  The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College,  knew the store wouldn’t serve food to black people, so they waited.  Woolworths shut the lunch counter down.

The next day, black and white students filled the lunch counter at Woolworths, and by the end of the week, every lunch counter in downtown Greensboro was filled with students protesting segregation–and organizing a boycott of the downtown businesses that practiced segregation.  Over the next weeks, sit-ins spread across the segregated South, led by student activists.

The four freshmen, no not the singing group, had all been active in the NAACP’s youth council, but none of them saw the large organization as a good foundation for a more activist and confrontational phase in the civil rights struggle. Pushed by the heroic Ella Baker, the NAACP launched an initiative to create a new student-based civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged dramatic education and direct action campaigns across the South for most of the rest of the decade.

Today is a great day to commemorate the sit-in movement, but anniversaries can be slippery.  When I tell the story to my classes, I usually start with the long Sunday night conversation when the brave young men talked themselves into action.  You could start the story much earlier, with the sit-ins organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized decades earlier, or with the sit-down strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World at the start of the 20th century, even before the founding of the NAACP.  You could also start the story with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks, or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.  The Greensboro students knew all those stories.

Anniversaries help us remember important events and twists in history, but they invariably simplify longer and more complicated stories.  The drama of the Greensboro sit-in makes for a good entry into thinking about the civil rights movement, and into thinking about how regular people sometimes make history.  The names of Baker, Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond are not particularly well-known today, not like those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis (who would lead SNCC), or Thurgood Marshall.  The names of the thousands of young people crusading against segregation with them are even lesser known.  But movements are only possible and potentially effective with people willing to take risks without counting on seeing their names in the history books.

Woolworth lunch counter


The lunch counter itself, or at least a portion of it, has been reassembled at the American Museum of National History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC.  There are only four seats on display.  When we think about the civil rights movement, however, we need to extend the counter a long way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment