‘All We’ve Got Are Protests and People Power’

‘All We’ve Got Are Protests and People Power’

‘All We’ve Got Are Protests and People Power’

Meet the progressive strike force that saved the ACA—and almost brought down Brett Kavanaugh.


In September 23, Laura O’Grady, a disabled engineer, flew from Boston to Washington, DC, where she’d hastily rented a basement apartment near Howard University. For weeks, O’Grady had followed the news about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she feared would strip reproductive rights from women and fail to check the autocratic tendencies of President Trump. But when she learned that Christine Blasey Ford had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the need to do something became urgent.

If you had asked O’Grady what she planned to do, well, she didn’t exactly know. The 56-year-old had been sexually assaulted as a young girl, faced frequent sexual harassment as a female engineer in the 1980s, and was once fired by a male boss because she’d had a baby. With the news about Kavanaugh, O’Grady reached a breaking point. She landed in DC several hours before she could check into her apartment and spent the time wandering Capitol Hill in the rain, looking without success for a protest to join.

Before leaving Boston, O’Grady had completed a form on an activist website to report that she was headed to DC. After she’d settled into her apartment, someone from the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy organization, called to invite her to a meeting that evening at a local church. There were perhaps 200 people in attendance; many had journeyed from far-flung states: Colorado, Maine, Arizona, even Alaska. Some were veterans of the successful fight the previous summer to protect the Affordable Care Act. “A lot of them seemed to know each other, and I’m very introverted most of the time,” recalled O’Grady, whom I first met in the atrium of the Hart Senate Building, a space that served as a gathering point for anti-Kavanaugh activists. “It’s hard for me to go into a situation when I don’t know anybody.” But she found the people at the church—
almost all of them women—welcoming and funny, and it didn’t take long for her anxiety to fade.

At the front of the sanctuary, one of the group’s leaders, Jennifer Flynn Walker, provided a preview of the following day and offered advice to those who planned to get arrested. O’Grady had no intention of going that far: Although she’d joined the Women’s March in Boston, she didn’t really consider herself an activist, at least not that kind of activist—the kind who camped out in churches and had trouble remembering how many times they’d been arrested. Some people spoke of “bird-dogging,” which involves approaching a politician and telling them a personal story, followed by a pointed question. For O’Grady, going to the meeting had been challenge enough; approaching a senator was out of the question.

She was wrong, it turned out. Over the ensuing weeks, as waves of women descended on Washington, O’Grady’s fear receded and her anger crystallized. She was arrested once, then twice. She chanted, marched, and disobeyed the orders of police. In the office of Senator Susan Collins, she shared her story of being sexually assaulted—the first time she’d spoken of the incident. With a friend she’d recently met, she attempted to question Senator Orrin Hatch, and when he waved dismissively and instructed the two women to “grow up,” she shouted back with a rage she almost didn’t recognize.

Many of the women protesting alongside O’Grady were part of an informal network of activists who had come together in the wake of Trump’s election under the name Birddog Nation. In the fraught period since then, they had shown up, thousands strong, to protect the Affordable Care Act, to stop the Republican tax cuts, and now to halt Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They sang protest songs, spoke to the media, and darted around Capitol Hill, determined to speak to their political representatives.

It didn’t take long for these women to be labeled, in the words of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a “mob”—a charge that Trump promptly amplified into an “angry left-wing mob.” The president also accused some of them of being paid professionals, hired by the right’s favorite bogeyman, George Soros. But the notion that Soros, the Democrats, or any other hidden force was orchestrating these protests was as laughable as it was offensive. Women like O’Grady were done taking orders from anyone. And while many intended to help get out the vote in the upcoming midterm elections, if the last two years had convinced them of anything, it was that engaging in traditional politics was no longer enough.

“There’s a constant interaction between protest politics and electoral politics,” says Frances Fox Piven, who has dedicated much of her career to studying disruptive social movements. “Protests can create an audience, and they can move people.” Day after day, she explains, women across the country saw other women rise up to call out sexual harassment and assault, only to be chastised by white men whose views appeared to have scarcely evolved since the 1950s. The effect, Piven believes, will be galvanizing for the Democrats: “Chuck Schumer is not going to raise the issues in a way that is going to reach very many people—he just won’t do it. The rising of women is significant.”

Several days after Blasey Ford went public with her charges against Kavanaugh, I traveled on Amtrak from New York to Washington, DC, with Jennifer Flynn Walker, the speaker from the church. While Birddog Nation is fluid by design—more affinity group than traditional organization, and with no official leaders or spokespeople—Flynn Walker comes about as close as any single person can to embodying its spirit. On the train, she attempted to recall her schedule during the past month, but given the chaotic swirl that had characterized the protests, it wasn’t easy: “Last week, we did 42 actions,” she said. Despite this grueling schedule, she was upbeat and somehow managed to appear well rested.

Flynn Walker is 46, with fierce blue eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and a freckled face. She was dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the Center for Popular Democracy, where she is the director of mobilization and advocacy. Her primary assignment is to fight back against Trump and bring along as many people as she can. She spends much of her time crisscrossing the country to train new activists in union halls, diners, and churches. She’s been doing this sort of work for decades, mostly in New York City, where she organized alongside homeless people living with HIV/AIDS, and where civil disobedience—disruptions of fund-raisers, blocking City Hall, shutting down bridges—has played a key role in forcing authorities to address a crisis. Before the 2016 election, Flynn Walker had been thinking of retiring from organizing—“I felt like I had contributed what I had to contribute,” she said—but Trump’s victory forced her to reconsider.

“There’s no inside game with Trump,” she said, no potential allies within his administration. “I like to believe that there’s a smarter person, some genius just waiting to disclose the plans to make things right,” she added. But in the absence of such a savior, “all we’ve got are protests and people power.”

In the case of the Kavanaugh protests, this meant a broad coalition effort spearheaded by organizations like the Women’s March, Housing Works, Ultraviolet, and Flynn Walker’s own group, the Center for Popular Democracy. Part of her role was to spread the philosophy and tactics of Birddog Nation—direct, in-your-face protest and civil disobedience—throughout the coalition.

This work began in earnest on August 1—well before the rest of the nation was paying attention—when 600 people came to Capitol Hill and disrupted meetings between the Supreme Court nominee and various senators. The event resulted in 74 arrests, but the energy on the ground didn’t appear to be matched by that of the Democrats. Several days later, a USA Today op-ed argued that Kavanaugh’s confirmation was “nearly inevitable” and that the campaign against him was a “losing cause.”

That the campaign to block Kavanaugh was seen as a long shot by political observers didn’t particularly bother Flynn Walker. “I have this idea that you win when you decide you’re going to win,” she said. So she and the rest of Birddog Nation spent the last weeks of summer sleeping on church floors, occupying senators’ offices, and camping out overnight so they could secure spots at the Kavanaugh hearing and then disrupt the proceedings.

Now, as we rode the train, it was clear that the landscape was shifting. With the news of Blasey Ford’s allegations, the rest of the country finally seemed to have caught up with the protesters—and they, in turn, were scrambling to transform what was supposed to have been a last-ditch round of civil disobedience into a sustained campaign. Their first plan of action: to hold what Flynn Walker called “‘people’s lobby’ visits,” in which individuals occupy Senate offices and “loudly tell their stories.”

The first “people’s lobby” visit began the following morning, as dozens gathered inside the atrium of the Hart Senate Building, with Capitol police monitoring the situation from four floors up. The crowd began to chant—“We believe Anita Hill! We believe Christine Ford!”—but before the police could descend, the group went silent and began to march, fists in the air, toward the office of Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Once inside, Flynn Walker introduced the group to Grassley’s staff—the senator himself wasn’t in—and announced matter-of-factly that they would be using this opportunity to share their stories about why they believed Grassley ought to oppose Kavanaugh. The three staffers quickly retreated to a back office, while the group spread out on couches and chairs, took some of Grassley’s visitor forms, and began to write. Eventually, a middle-aged administrator returned and sat down at the reception desk, where she took notes on her computer that she promised to give to the senator. One by one, women approached the desk to speak, sharing stories—often for the first time—about having survived sexual violence. They spoke of being afraid to report the assault, of not being believed, of the long struggle to heal. A few yelled in anger. Others’ voices were shaky, and several people broke down midsentence. The effect was haunting and overwhelming.

That morning was a preview of the two weeks to come, when dozens—perhaps hundreds—of women would share their stories of sexual assault with senators and their staff. It was a reckoning with the epidemic of sexual violence that the #MeToo movement helped to expose, and though the courage in sharing such stories was inspiring, it was also excruciating. O’Grady told me that she hadn’t expected to share her own story in the office of Senator Collins. As television cameras rolled, she spoke aloud the secret she had kept for so long: When she was a young girl, she’d been molested by a relative over a period of three years. “It all spilled out, spurred on by the feeling of humiliation,” O’Grady recalled. But the experience didn’t offer her a sense of closure or comfort, or any of the other words that people sometimes use; she walked out of the building, sat down on a curb, and cried for half an hour.

Not long after, I found Flynn Walker seated on a marble bench in the Hart atrium, in what was a rare quiet moment. For the first time since I had arrived, she looked tired. “Everyone has a story,” she said. “We’ve exposed a deep evil here.”

Flynn Walker got her start in organizing in the mid-1990s, after finishing college and moving to New York City. At the time, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s budget cuts had slashed important social-welfare programs and threatened the city’s entire Division of AIDS Services. One day, a woman that Flynn Walker had a crush on invited her to a meeting of young activists, which led to more meetings and eventually to her involvement with the AIDS activist group ACT UP. As a queer person, Flynn Walker had found Catholic schools and college suffocating. ACT UP was liberating and even fun.

Her first act of civil disobedience occurred in 1995, a year into the Giuliani administration, when hundreds of people—AIDS activists, students, people with disabilities, families of victims of police brutality—stopped traffic during rush hour by blocking bridges and tunnels to protest city- and statewide budget cuts. The city was caught off guard, and nearly 200 people were arrested, including Flynn Walker, who was with a group that shut down the Midtown Tunnel. She spent 36 hours in custody, but the action unaccountably left her feeling free.

She learned how to bird-dog as a member of ACT UP in 1999, when she began trailing Al Gore and George W. Bush during their presidential campaigns to demand that they pledge more help to combat the AIDS epidemic. At Gore’s events, she and others questioned him about his role in blocking, at the behest of the US pharmaceutical industry, an initiative by the South African government to provide low-cost, lifesaving drug treatments to AIDS patients in the country. (The industry, which also challenged the initiative in South Africa’s courts, was a major contributor to Gore’s campaign.) At one stop in New Hampshire, four members of the group—which included Flynn Walker and a young Rachel Maddow—finagled spots near Gore and then, as the cameras clicked, unfurled a banner that read Gore Kills. Gore characterized the action as “an inappropriate way” to make a point, but three months later, as he was still dogged by protesters, the drug companies dropped their lawsuit.

Also standing beside Gore in that photo was Paul Davis, a longtime colleague of Flynn Walker’s who was often at her side during the Kavanaugh fight. After Trump’s victory, Housing Works—an AIDS advocacy and service organization that grew out of ACT UP—opened an office in DC and hired Davis to prepare for the coming assault on the Affordable Care Act. “It took two weeks on the Hill to see that there was literally no one home on the Republican side, no reasonable people who would try to compromise,” Davis, who sports a gray beard and ponytail, told me. “They were entirely checked out, in the thrall of Donald Trump. We were not going to be able to turn them on the inside; we had to turn them where they lived.”

In January 2017, Davis and a co-worker, Jaron Benjamin, sent an e-mail on an activist listserv offering to train people in bird-dogging. Within three days, people from 45 cities had requested the training. Davis reached out to Flynn Walker, and the trio set off on a national tour. “We told them that if they could get 15 people in a room, we’d come out to do a training,” Flynn Walker said. To date, they’ve trained 6,000 people in 125 cities across 40 states.

At its core, bird-dogging is the simple act of asking a direct question of a candidate or representative. But with political handlers running interference and highly managed “public” events designed to weed out the voices of dissent, this act isn’t really so simple. In the trainings, people are taught how to track down politicians, share their personal stories, and firmly insist that their questions be answered. At town halls, they spread out in teams and raise their hands “first, fast, and high.” They practice their questions beforehand and have someone record the interaction. After the event, if there’s a handshake session, they rush to the line together and ask more questions.

“Bird-dogging is one of my favorite tools, because it’s one of the few where you get to talk directly to the person who makes the decision,” Flynn Walker told me. She believes in the power of a constituent making eye contact with a politician and sharing a genuine story, and the possibility that these unmediated interactions can lead to “breakthrough moments.” She points to what happened when Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila (who is the co–executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy) confronted Senator Jeff Flake inside an elevator during the Kavanaugh fight, an interaction that was broadcast live on CNN and immediately went viral.

Still, even if they don’t achieve a breakthrough moment, Flynn Walker believes that bird-doggers can force an opening by showing up again and again. As Davis told a reporter last year, “No one ever says ‘uncle’ over the Internet. You have to go to where they are and twist their arms in person.”

Birddog Nation first began twisting arms in the spring of 2017, during the fight to defend the Affordable Care Act. With the help of 10 organizing fellows, and in conjunction with the Town Hall Project, the group researched public events held by representatives and alerted people when one was occurring in their area. During Congress’s spring recess, thousands of people crowded into town halls across the country—or simply showed up at their representatives’ offices—to demand that they protect the ACA. But despite this flurry of activity, the House of Representatives passed a replacement bill, the American Health Care Act. And so the action shifted to the Senate—and to Washington, DC.

The bird-doggers’ tactics shifted, too. Militant civil disobedience had been central to the victories won by groups like ACT UP. Those fights were led by people with HIV or AIDS, whose voices had been ignored in the back-and-forth of traditional politics. In the health-care fight, Davis and Flynn Walker expected that the people willing to risk arrest would be those with the most to lose if the Affordable Care Act was gutted: low-income people living with HIV or AIDS, people with disabilities or chronic health conditions. But at some point, a suggestion was floated: Why not invite the members of Birddog Nation? They tended to be white, middle-class, and new to civil disobedience, but when it came to protecting the ACA, activists needed as much help as they could get.

Davis and Flynn Walker sent out the call over their growing listserv, and folks turned out en masse. Over three days in July, more than 300 people were arrested; on a single day, activists occupied 45 Senate offices. The around-the-clock protests may well have moved three wavering Republicans—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and the late John McCain—to vote down the bill.

It was an exhausting effort, but there was little time to rest, because the Republicans soon began pushing sweeping tax cuts. In December, the activists returned to DC to oppose the corporate giveaway. Among those arrested this time was Ady Barkan, a colleague of Flynn Walker’s at the Center for Popular Democracy, who had been diagnosed a year earlier with ALS. Taking a page from the Birddog Nation playbook, Barkan confronted Jeff Flake when the two found themselves on the same airplane—a confrontation that was recorded by a friend and quickly went viral. Barkan implored the senator to “be an American hero” and vote against the bill, and while Flake ultimately voted for the tax cuts, that phrase—be a hero—became the name of Barkan’s new organization.

Despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Barkan has spent the last year traveling around the country to inspire people to get involved in politics. Among his stops: Washington, DC, to protest Kavanaugh alongside Birddog Nation.

The fight to defend the Affordable Care Act was successful; the fight against Trump’s tax cuts was not. But both helped to transform the members of Birddog Nation. “Many of them started out as fairly privileged liberals who were outraged by Donald Trump,” Davis said. “And then they’re getting arrested with people who will die if we don’t win. That changed everything. They became an army of people who really love getting together and coming to DC to fight.”

Davis told me that they’ve purposely kept Birddog Nation “unbranded”—meaning that it is not associated with any particular organization. “Movements are dangerous and powerful, whereas individual organizations can be bought off,” he says. “We prefer to come to you like the ocean.” It feels, he added, like an “early ACT UP.”

Others felt it, too. One October morning, as I walked with a group of protesters to Flake’s office, I found myself next to Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, who has made a career out of confronting politicians. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Benjamin said. “It gives me a lot of hope. We’ve been doing this at Code Pink for years, but we were alone in the wilderness. I hear people chanting, ‘This is what democracy looks like,’ but I think they should be chanting, ‘This is what history looks like.’”

Republicans, however, did not appreciate the visitors, and it didn’t take long for some of them to characterize the women as bullies trying to “intimidate” GOP senators. On Fox News, former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani described the bird-dogging effort as part of “an extremist alt-left insurgency in America that is trying to topple this government with any means necessary.”

But to anyone who trailed the bird-doggers for several days, it was clear that critics like Nomani had little idea what they were talking about. Some participants were comfortable confronting politicians and spoke in confident and angry voices; others were shy and struggled to overcome their fear of addressing a senator surrounded by a phalanx of armed police. These citizen/politician interactions could be tense and uncomfortable, but they didn’t look like an attempt to topple the government by any means necessary. They looked like exercises in democracy.

It wasn’t easy keeping up with Flynn Walker. On October 5, the day that Susan Collins stated she would announce her vote on Kavanaugh, Flynn Walker had been up early with two dozen others for a protest at the Capitol Hill home of Mitch McConnell. They arrived with cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and red Solo cups, chanting, in a satirical echo of Kavanaugh’s congressional testimony, “I like beer!” Flynn Walker, dressed in a white dress shirt and black slacks, shouted out: “Georgetown Prep! Woo-hoo! Beach week!” The past couple of weeks had been heavy, and it felt good to finally have a bit of fun.

For the next six hours, Flynn Walker appeared to be everywhere: strategizing with a group of Unitarian seminary students preparing to visit Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse; cheering on protesters as they were loaded into a police van; and, finally, watching on a television set in a Capitol-building waiting area as Collins began her speech.

“Jesus,” she whispered, as it quickly became clear that Collins was going to vote for Kavanaugh. Flynn Walker put her head down for a few minutes in silence. Several friends came over. One told her that she had done everything she could do; another advised her to go home and finally get some sleep. (Flynn Walker has a wife and two kids whom she hadn’t seen much in the past few months.)

She walked back to the Hart Senate Building, stunned. Inside, the crowd was subdued, still trying to absorb the news. Flynn Walker called people into a circle. “There’s still some time, and miracles have happened,” she said. “We were in this spot when the Affordable Care Act was about to be repealed. We didn’t think that we had the votes. And then, at the last minute, one of the senators found their soul and voted to save the lives of millions of Americans.” She then introduced Ana Maria Archila, whom she called the “greatest bird-dogger ever.”

“We did something that seemed impossible, which was to make this a real fight,” Archila said. “We seized the moment and made it a fight about our lives. We told our stories and our vision for this country.” Through their efforts, she continued, they had forced the country to take a clear look at the problem of sexual violence and to listen—finally—to the stories of survivors. She ended with the chant that has become the unofficial mantra of Birddog Nation: “I believe that we will win!”

From the Hart building, the crowd marched to the Supreme Court, where leaders of the Women’s March, the Center for Popular Democracy, Housing Works, and many other groups had gathered for a press conference. The speakers were outraged, but they also pointed to November, promising to take their anger and their energy back home and add it to what they hoped was the coming blue wave.

During a break between speakers, I looked for Flynn Walker. She wasn’t with the group behind the microphones, and I didn’t see her in the audience. I finally found her sitting alone on the far side of the Supreme Court steps. She had her laptop open and was writing a message to Birddog Nation, providing details for the next day’s protest.

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