It’s a fine spring Sunday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and most people in this decidedly pious city in the heart of Amish country are at home or at church celebrating the Sabbath. Even the famous Central Market—with its traditionally dressed vendors, its German delicacies, its Muenster cheeses and cured meats —is closed.
When you’re trying to create a populist political movement from scratch, however, you don’t get a lot of down time. And so Michelle Hines and her partner, Daniel Levin, are out knocking on doors and telling their neighbors about the new grassroots group in town.
Hines, a young white woman who works a day job at a local laboratory, ascends the stoop of a gray stone row house and a middle-aged lady in a dressing gown and slippers answers the door.
Hines introduces herself and then asks the crucial question: “What do you think of the political establishment?”
“It sucks!” says the woman at the door, who gives her name as Judy and describes herself as a Republican who didn’t vote in the last election. “It ain’t good, I’ll put it that way.” The woman is open and garrulous, and Hines invites her to the next monthly meeting of the group she represents. It’s called Lancaster Stands Up.
The organization, Hines explains, is a way for people who are sick of the status quo “to come together, to get plugged in.” It’s a polite and strategic description, but there’s plenty more to say.
Founded in the wake of Trump’s victory and led by a 12-person leadership committee, Lancaster Stands Up aims to upend politics-as-usual in this central Pennsylvania city. It wants nothing less than to break the stranglehold of both the Democratic and Republican establishments here and replace them with a progressive multi-racial political force beholden to the people alone. And it is using the tools of long-haul grassroots activism—canvassing, vetting candidates, bird-dogging political foes, forming unlikely alliances, training leaders, convening meetings—to build its constituency.
A crew of young lifelong Lancastrians, some of whom have been organizing together since high school, launched the group on their own, independent of any national organization, last November. Through huge rallies and intimate conversations and more, they are reminding neighbors like Judy that democracy is a practice that must be pursued constantly and in community. There are no off days. There are no off years. When civil society is at stake, it’s campaign time all the time.
After describing her concerns about gentrification and the cost of a movie ticket, after lamenting the fact that “the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer,” Judy, standing on her stoop under the springtime sun, shares her contact information and tells Hines that she’ll try to make the next meeting. She promises to tell her politically active daughter about Lancaster Stands Up, too.
“Nobody cares about anything but themselves anymore,” Judy says, as Hines and Levin prepare to leave. “I am glad you are doing this.”
Judy’s sentiments about the contemporary political climate make sense. Lancaster, after all, is the sort of place that the national Democratic Party has largely surrendered to right-wing control. It is a middle- and working-class city of roughly 60,000, and it is diverse—more than 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, and roughly 16 percent of its residents are black, according to the 2010 census. The city, meanwhile, is situated squarely in an agrarian “red” county, where residents are almost entirely white and where there are tens of thousands more registered Republicans than Democrats. GOP politicians represent the area in the House of Representatives and make up most of its state legislative delegation, too.
Lancaster Stands Up, for its part, is unfazed by such facts. Indeed its members see small cities like Lancaster—situated at the nexus of urban and rural life—as crucial to revitalizing social-democratic values in the American heartland.
“After Trump’s election, I knew I had to do something,” says Eliza Booth, a 39-year-old black woman, lifelong Lancaster resident, and member of the group’s leadership committee. “I needed to get involved and plug in instead of staying at home and being depressed.”
A passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, Booth worked on his campaign during the Democratic primary and says she still believes he would have beat Trump in the general election. But Sanders didn’t make it that far and Trump, whom she describes as “a monster,” made it all the way to the White House. Like so many others, the outcome shocked and dismayed her.
A few days after the election, though, Booth saw a flyer announcing an emergency mass meeting in town. She decided to attend and found a huge turnout. At least 250 people were there. They had come to vent their anger and share their anxieties, to talk to their neighbors and plot a progressive comeback. It was the debut of Lancaster Stands Up, and Booth was smitten. Since then, she has spent 10, sometimes 20 hours a week volunteering for the group on top of her full-time job.
“It makes me feel so inspired every day,” she says. “It makes me feel less alone in the fight.”
Indeed, Lancaster Stands Up is proving that progressive values are alive and vibrant in Booth’s community. Since its first emergency meeting, when outrage motivated people to come together and commiserate, it has seen both rapid growth and significant victories.
In late January, for instance, the group’s immigration committee partnered with church and immigrant-rights organizations in the city to hold a rally against the Trump administration’s first attempted Muslim ban. At least 2,000 people showed up for what organizers describe as the largest local protest in at least half a century. Lancaster Stands Up is now recruiting people for a rapid-response team to document and protest Immigration and Custom Enforcement raids in town.
The group is laboring in the electoral arena too. Its political committee, lovingly dubbed “Hold Them Accountable,” has been particularly adept at hounding recently elected Republican Congressman Lloyd Smucker, who has quickly proved himself a line-toeing party loyalist.
Organizers have staged two raucous rallies outside of his district office, where hundreds gathered to demand that he stand up to Trump. They have denounced his policies on social media and penned op-eds calling on him to hold an in-person town-hall meeting for his constituents (which he has so far failed to do). They have flooded his office with thousands of postcards and phone calls.
Their most aggressive action, though, took place in early March when three Lancaster Stands Up leaders and another supporter paid to attend a Lancaster Chamber of Commerce forum, which featured a question-and-answer session with Representative Smucker. As Smucker prepared to take questions from the crowd, the four infiltrators stood up one by one and interrupted the event.
Becca Rast was one of them. In front of a roomful of Republicans, she denounced Smucker’s support for Trump’s “racist immigration and economic policies.” Michelle Hines stood up immediately afterward—to shouts of “shut up” from old men in the crowd—and told Smucker that she had never seen her neighbors “so fearful for their lives and their families lives since you voted to repeal the ACA.”
“Our representatives have not ever been pressured in the way they are being now,” says Rast, a group founder who grew up in town. “Congressman Smucker was just so freaked out by it. He didn’t know how to respond.”
And while Lancaster Stands Up has mostly been playing defense, its leaders aim for something more.
“I feel like everything we have done up until this point is reactive,” says Nick Martin, the 28-year-old former regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign here. Together with Rast and a few other friends outraged by last year’s election, he called the first meeting of Lancaster Stands Up. “Now we are actually going on the offensive and building political power.”
I catch up with Martin—who, like Rast, I first met in 2010 when we were involved in a campaign against mountaintop-removal mining in West Virginia—during the organization’s April mass meeting. Wearing a camouflage cap and work boots, he is greeting people, a mostly older white set, as they file into a local bar in downtown Lancaster.
“Our goal,” he explains, “is to use visionary politics to build a long-term mass-scale organization.”
“We also want to scare the shit out of establishment politicians,” adds Rafael Díaz, another member of the leadership team who, alongside Martin, is welcoming the roughly 200 people that have arrived for the meeting. “We want to show them we are not just going to hold signs in the town square. We are going to be a threat when they run for office.”
Lancaster Stands Up hopes, someday soon, to endorse populist politicians in Democratic primaries and eventually run candidates of its own. On April 7, in an initial foray, the group co-hosted a forum in downtown Lancaster during which its leaders questioned five mayoral candidates in front of a crowd of around 200 people. It has yet to make any endorsements for the upcoming municipal election.
With 18 months to prepare, the group also wants to run Congressman Smucker out of office in 2018.
First, though, it must develop more leaders and recruit more supporters. And so, using voter data that Martin learned to analyze during the Sanders campaign, using scripts that the team developed over beers on a recent Friday evening, the group has decided to start sending canvassers out in both the city and the surrounding county to register voters and to tell people about the movement.
With this plan in mind, Lancaster Stands Up has decided to use part of its April mass meeting as a training camp of sorts. As the meeting enters its second hour, 60 or so people still sit in tight rows in the back of the bar. The coffee is flowing freely. A few people are holding beers. It’s a beautiful spring day and the sun is flooding through large glass windows along the wall, but these eager new activists have elected to stay indoors a little longer to learn the art of canvassing.
Going door-to-door is one of “the skills of democracy that have atrophied over the last 40 years,” says Jonathan Smucker, another Lancaster Stands Up founder and a veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Tall and thin and white with salt-and-pepper hair, he paces the room and asks the audience to name the social movements that have used canvassing as a key organizing tool. The civil-rights movement, says one person. The labor movement, chimes in another. The suffragists, says still another.
“We think Trump was able to win because Democrats haven’t fought visibly for working people,” he tells the crowd. “We need a party that knows it has a grassroots force at its back so it doesn’t cower to big money anymore.” Creating that force will require rehabilitating atrophied civic muscles and that, at its core, is what Lancaster Stands Up is all about.
Smucker instructs the meeting attendees to get up from their seats and form two rows facing each other. One row will play the role of progressive canvassers, the other row will pretend to be apathetic though somewhat sympathetic voters. The clamor of voices reverberates through the room as the trainees talk among themselves, as they learn how to approach strangers and pull them into the political process, as they take part in a small simple practice that could go an awful long way toward rebuilding our democracy.
“Cut!” says Smucker, who, as it happens, is the second-cousin-once-removed of the congressman his group hopes to depose. “Cut! Cut! Cut!”
After a quick debrief, the dress rehearsal is over and the attendees are dismissed. With their new skills, with their willingness to experiment and listen and learn, with their populist anti-establishment platform, the Lancaster Stands Up crew is ready to hit the streets and persuade people to take part in a new kind of politics.