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Protests, Politics & Power

Dear All,

The president lives “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul,” George Conway reminded us in in his op-ed lambasting Mr. Trump’s inability to comfort a nation convulsed in crisis.

We could all reel off countless examples of Mr. Trump’s craven sociopathy. But, the unlawful clearing of Lafayette Park to stage last Monday’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church set off a backlash that, in retrospect, may be seen as a tipping point in the Trump presidency. 

As he held a bible aloft like a prized Trump steak, the leader of the free world aped the stony glare of his most admired strongman Benito Mussolini. Just moments before, Mr. Trump and his cabal of misfit minions had cut a swath through the fog of tear gas fumes that dispersed a crowd of peaceful protestors, depriving them of their First Amendment rights. 

Still, in a week where we witnessed the most widespread civil unrest since the 1968 violence and upheaval that tore America apart, there was a surfeit of positive signs that bode well for the possibility of real reform.

The groundswell of protests over the barbaric murder of George Floyd that proliferated both at home and abroad was a buoying testament to what some civil rights leaders herald as an inflection point in the quest for equality. Undeterred by the threat of a deadly virus, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets day after day to stand for justice and purge the original sin of racism. When Mr. Trump vowed to deploy U.S. troops to crack down on the country’s urban “battle zones,” the protestors defiantly turned out in greater numbers.

Arguably, their voices were heard. Minnesota officials on Wednesday charged three more former police officers in the death of George Floyd and added an upgraded second-degree murder charge against the former officer who pressed his knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. As the New York Times reported, from coast to coast, protesters had a consistent reaction to the announcement: It’s great news, they said — and it’s not nearly enough. There need to be convictions. There needs to be systemic change.

Meanwhile, an energized electorate teed up systemic change in last Tuesday’s multi-state primary election. The biggest loser was Representative Steve King of Iowa, the nine-term Republican white supremacist who lost his bid for renomination. On the flip side, thanks to voters who smashed turnout records in eight states and the District of Columbia, women made historic gains. In a reprise of the 2018 mid terms that propelled a record number of women to elective office, African-American, Hispanic, Navajo and even Republican women triumphed in multiple states.

Among them, Mayor-elect Ella Jones will become the first African-American and the first woman to lead the city of Ferguson, MO, where the police killing of Michael Brown six years ago catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement onto the national stage. Ms. Brown said she received hundreds of congratulatory messages from people who wrote that her election had given them hope. Her favorite, though, was a tweet from President Obama, who called her victory “a reminder of the difference politics and voting can make in changing who has the power to make real change.”

Which brings me to the crux of today’s post: how we can channel the momentum of protest and the fervent desire for change into a new reality. If you don’t think that one person can make a difference, President Obama says you’re wrong. The key, as he detailed in his recent crash course to shake up the system “How to Make This Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,” is targeting the balance of power where it matters most. And, contrary to where many of us invest our time (and money,) that isn’t Amy McGrath’s campaign to Ditch Mitch. Nor is it fixating on shoring up our majority in the U.S. House or even in defeating the most dangerous existential threat of our time, Donald Trump. 

Of course, all of those efforts are crucial. But, as Obama cautions, if you’re only focusing on the presidency and congressional races, you’re missing the chance to make real change. That’s because the elected officials who most impact our daily lives work at the state and local levels. State legislatures may not be where the glamour is, but they're definitely where the power is. 

That’s why Republicans, hard wired with a primordial instinct for power, set about commandeering state houses starting 40 years ago. Often, without any Democratic opposition, they ran the table and scooped up authority to pass laws on healthcare access, voting rights, redistricting, gun control, education funding, climate policy, women’s reproductive rights and more. As a result, some of our ugliest, most regressive policies -- including mass incarceration, runaway corporate influence and unsafe drinking water -- started at the state level. The new Republican majorities also gerrymandered Congressional districts after the 2010 census and stripped millions of people (especially people of color and young people) from the rolls. Today there are 29 Republican-controlled legislatures while just 19 are controlled by Democrats (and 2 are split.) 

But finally Democrats have gotten smart about how to break the GOP stranglehold at the state level. Organizations like Future Now, with its call to action  — “It starts in the states,” -- are working to build new Democratic majorities — and, they’re succeeding. Using a data driven approach, Future Now last year helped orchestrate a stunning triumph in Virginia. Eleven of their endorsees won their seats, and three were challengers who flipped seats that translated into a Democratic majority, making Virginia a Democratic trifecta state. Once Future Now identifies the most flippable state chambers, “Giving Circle” groups — comprised of people who want to make a difference —  adopt a state and pool their contributions to fund the takeover. 

So what does it cost to flip a state legislature? Often less than what it takes to run four 30-second political ads in primetime on a Los Angeles television station. The Future Now folks say if a group can raise $100,000, it can potentially flip a state chamber. That’s a fraction of what a congressional campaign costs. In a Senate bid it would be considered rounding-up change. So, if you’re looking for the most bang for your political buck, joining or forming a Giving Circle is your best bet.

Thanks to my involvement with a dynamic New York-based group of political activists, I’ve become a Giving Circle fan. After due diligence, our Giving Circle voted to adopt Iowa, an agricultural state that has suffered significantly because of Trump’s trade wars and immigration restrictions. To give you an idea of how little it takes to swing a state house, in 2018 just 300 more votes across four seats would have broken the Republican majority. Come November, we only need three seats to shift the balance of power and flip the Iowa state house. Our goal to do that is $100,000 — and, so far over $71,000 has been raised.

“If you want to fix the country,” as Future Now says, “start in the states.” You can do that in three ways:

Join our Iowa Giving Circle where every dollar matters. To make a contribution in any amount online, click on this link. If you want to send a check, click here. When you donate, you become part of a virtual community of folks focused on state elections, and you can join meetings to learn about endorsed candidates, electoral spending plans, and more. (Or, not.)

Spread the word about why giving circles are an effective way to course correct our country in crisis. If you want to learn more, this New Yorker podcast, ”What Can Progressive Voters Do to Fix Our Broken System?" is a great place to start. 

Start your own giving circle. Read FAQ at futurenow.org/giving-circles or email circles@futurenow.org for a private consultation. If you’re on the fence, watch this video featuring Melissa Walker, Director of Giving Circles for Future Now, who makes a compelling case for why you should.

Finally, a D.C. street musician named Kenny Sway captured the humanity and the spirit of the fight for racial justice last Wednesday. As reported in the WaPo, Sway asked a docile crowd which had gathered outside the White House to sit cross-legged, raise their cellphones and turn on the flashlights. Then, with the sun setting over his right shoulder, Sway took a deep breath and issued a hopeful plea; “Please,” he said to the thousands, “sing this song with me.” 

As the familiar strains of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” began to fill the air, they did. As you can see here, the result was nothing short of magical.

Onward,

Jane

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