As my daughter surveyed the sea of hand-knitted pink caps at the Women’s March in Cleveland, she stopped to ask, “What’s with the hats?”
I took a breath. My 10-year-old knew President Donald Trump had disparaged women, but I’d hoped to hold off on the specifics. Now she was asking directly. “They’re called pussy hats,” I began. “And pussy doesn’t always mean kitty cat.”
That was news to her. But she could see why the behavior Trump boasted about constitutes sexual assault. And it was easier than I expected to explain the protestors’ strategy of transforming pejorative speech through creative acts of self-definition.
“It’s like my sign,” she said, raising it so I could see clearly: “March, Vote, Live #Likeagirl.” “You know when people say you run like a girl, like it’s a bad thing? When really, that’s ridiculous.”
This girl runs cross-country. She knows the muscle and heart of the girls on her team.
I’d nearly missed connections she’d drawn between sexism, the Women’s March and the voting rights her great-grandmothers had won for her nearly a century before. It was invigorating to march not only with other Clevelanders, but women across history and the world. It was predicted that more than 1,000 people would show up downtown that day. But around 15,000 turned out to march peacefully and gather on Public Square, according to Cleveland police.
I’d always thought of myself as politically active. We had toted our kids to the occasional protest when they were small. But it was entirely different to see them take in the sea of protest signs on their own terms: “Our Rights Aren’t Up for Grabs and Neither Are We,” “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance” and “I Cannot Believe We Still Have to Protest This Shit.”
In February, the City Club packed Gordon Square’s Happy Dog for a panel discussion on “We the People: The Rising Tide of Global Populism.” In a place where the proletarian menu consists of heaping hot dogs, tater tots and beer, it seemed fitting.
So did the message, as panelist Richard Perloff, professor of communications at Cleveland State University, argued that while the Trump administration represents a change of course, the ultimate direction of this populist moment is far from clear.
“Populism does speak to the people on some levels,” he noted. “The problem is: Who are the people?”
We have an opportunity to shape that conversation by showing up on Public Square, at the state legislature, at city or county council, or at a neighborhood meeting.
So, in an effort to step up my own political consciousness and join my youngest daughter, I set myself toward what seemed an unambitious political goal: See my representatives in person during the February congressional recess.
I saw Sen. Sherrod Brown first, at an immigration event, and noted the date for Rep. Marcia Fudge’s public town hall meeting. But on Sen. Rob Portman’s website I noticed no public events among the roundtables with business leaders and town halls with corporate employees.
Then I learned about the Portman Town Hall organized by citizen group Indivisible CLE, which invited the senator to speak with constituents. Intrigued, I decided to attend.
Portman did not. But that didn’t prevent organizers from propping his cardboard cutout before an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 400 at St. James A.M.E. Church, where they recorded talks by community activists and questions to forward to the absent legislator.
“You cannot be passive in democracy anymore,” community activist Sunny Matthews declared. “America can’t afford it.”
Rian Brown and Kareem Nafi, Black Lives Matter activists, connected the dots between childhood lead exposure, cognitive issues that decrease high school graduation rates and increased crime. Addressing crime requires getting to root causes, Nafi argued, not just more police on the street.
Like the march, this event drew a group of Clevelanders who weren’t politically active before. Nurse anesthetist Fran Zahniser, who emigrated from Italy as a child, was spurred to action by Trump.
“My mother tells me the control of information, the cronyism, this is how it began under [Benito] Mussolini,” she told me. “It’s very scary — these are the tenets of fascism. And nobody’s been able to stop him.”
At the Fudge event, I was struck by the contrast with recent footage that shows Republicans such as Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz facing angry crowds at recent town halls.
But the differences at Fudge’s event weren’t just a matter of partisan politics.
Fudge did not stand alone. Staff took notes on constituent concerns as she responded to each question, deferring at times to her panel of experts. The choreography made it clear that she views her district as a plurality, or — to borrow from civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw — an “intersectional space.”
When a young Iranian man made it to the microphone to share how his girlfriend was verbally assaulted after the election, Fudge apologized for what happened and invoked the abiding power of the Constitution.
“Sometimes they tell me to go back to my country too,” Fudge said. “Though we are a very divided nation today, I do still believe in the promise of this country. People of goodwill cannot be silent.”
“I stand with you,” said an older black man who was up next at the microphone, putting his arm around the Iranian’s shoulders. “Solidarity is key.”
The crowd rose to its feet, and the applause lasted several minutes.
It matters that we talk, listen and stand up for each other. Citizen voices are making a difference.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich acknowledged as much when he said he doesn’t “understand everything that’s going on with these town halls,” but he does think it’s “having an impact from the standpoint of, Hey, the people are watching.”
Ohioans who show up to be heard and seen are having a direct impact. For instance, Portman joined three other Republican senators to object to the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, which doesn’t preserve the Medicaid expansion that covers many Ohioans.
As I set out to see my representatives, I found a groundswell of diverse Clevelanders searching for ways to hold elected officials accountable not just to their bases, but to the real issues of social and economic justice that divide the city, county and nation.
We, the people, must not abdicate our political responsibility to either complacency or despair. What’s the alternative?
The populist anger that swept Trump into office was a call to new action. I am finding enormous hope in meeting and marching with similarly civic-minded Clevelanders, getting to know my representatives and making my voice heard.
Our children are listening too.
Hearing about the one sentence-long bill to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency, my 14-year-old, who loves Lake Erie, asked, “Can I call my representatives now? Because I’ll be eligible to vote in 2020.”