Protest movements surge ahead of Trump’s Inauguration

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moumita Ahmed packed her bags and moved from New York to Washington, D.C. to house hunt. The property she’s seeking will serve as a base for activists throughout Trump’s presidency, where organizers will meet, hold trainings, and possibly stay overnight while in town.

The Resistance House, as it will be called, is being established just as thousands of Americans are making their way into Washington—both to celebrate Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, and for many, to protest against him. This week’s demonstrations—centered around Saturday’s massive Women’s March on Washington—are expected to be historic in size, and are certainly significant in their timing. With more than 200,000 marchers expected, this could be the largest type of direct action this early on in a sitting president’s term. And as Trump enters office, organizers are hard at work ensuring protest movements don’t fizzle out after the weekend.

During the campaign cycle, Ahmed, 26, supported Bernie Sanders. A group of the Vermont senator’s die-hard volunteers has since created Millennials for Revolution to continue their support for his vision for America. The $40,000 the group has raised is being used to establish the Resistance House, which its organizers have taken to describing as District 13, a reference to The Hunger Games trilogy. In that franchise, District 13 helped other districts rise up and fight against tyranny.

“We want to be the resource. We are not actually going to be the resistance,” she explained. “We are going to help build the resistance.”

Moumita Ahmed holds a Fight for $15 sign.

Ahead of a presidential inauguration, the thousands of activists like Ahmed and those arriving over the week into Washington are to be expected—particularly following such a divisive and contested election. On January 20, 2001, the day that George W. Bush was sworn in, a reported 20,000 demonstrators came to demonstrate, waving signs reading “Hail to the Thief” and “Not My President,” while jeering and famously pelting his motorcade with tomatoes and eggs.

 And it’s not just the left: In September 2009, the biggest anti-Barack Obama demonstration took place on Washington’s National Mall. It’d been almost nine months since Obama had been sworn in when, according to the New York Times, tens of thousands—many of whom were part of the rising Tea Party movement—gathered to demonstrate against the president’s healthcare proposal, and what they described as big government.

The Tea Party movement “really helped in transforming the Republican party, partly by injecting a populist component that included more than social issues,” said David Meyer, author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America and professor of sociology at University of California, Irvine. “That movement was an important reason that Trump was able to capture the party.”

Those hoping to protest Trump’s presidency are also not starting from scratch. Various progressive social movements budded throughout Obama’s second term, from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to Fight for $15—all of which, according to Meyer, gave life to a number of organizations and trained many activists to be prepared to respond to the next perceived threat. Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, is expected to participate in a townhall meeting this weekend, while Occupy Wall Street and AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the US, are among the partner organization of the Women’s March.

A Coalescing of Movements

“This weather is going to kill me,” a man murmured under his breath. He was one of a few dozen gathered in front of Goldman Sachs’ New York headquarters on Tuesday. They brought sleeping bags to camp out in lower Manhattan outside the global finance behemoth’s high rise on the West Side Highway until Inauguration Day.

“The swamp is getting deeper, the swamp is Goldman Sachs!” they chanted, standing in front of a sign that read Government Sachs.

On Thursday, Trump’s pick for treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin—who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs—took the hot seat before Congress. Like many of Trump’s picks, Mnuchin’s inclusion seems to walk back the president-elect’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, demonstrators say. Trump’s administration, they feel, will now be in the pocket of big banks like Goldman Sachs, rather than looking out for working class Americans.

Demonstrators outside the Goldman Sachs building in lower Manhattan on January 17, 2017.

As the Goldman Sachs protest is winding down, other groups are expected to join Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein in Washington for two days of protests, dubbed Occupy Inauguration. According to that group, neither of the two major political parties represent the interest of the 99 percent. The organizations demands from the Trump administration include breaking up big banks like Goldman Sach, passing $15 an hour minimum wage, and jettisoning the hotly-contested Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement if it comes up for a vote.

The second day of Stein’s direct action also overlaps with the Women’s March, which some expect to be the largest single demonstration this early in a presidency.

Trump’s rhetoric towards and about women throughout his career and campaign—from insulting beauty queen Alicia Machado to the infamous leaked Access Hollywood recording in which he bragged about sexual assault—have galvanized thousands of women, some of whom have never been to a protest in their lives, to push back.

“This is why, I think now more than ever, you will see a surge of activism from people who you would not normally see activism from,” Ahmed said.

And there is already fresh fodder coming from the Trump camp. On Thursday it was reported that its budget proposal would eliminate Department of Justice funding for violence against women grant programs that fund organizations focused on ending sexual assault, domestic abuse, and dating violence.

Women’s March organizers are expecting as many as 200,000 protesters to attend on Saturday, while according to local officials interviewed by the Washington Post, by early January more than 1,200 buses had applied for parking permits on the day of the march. And those who could not make it to Washington are expected to march in 300 local protests across the U.S., while solidarity marches are planned in 30 countries.

With such massive numbers now, some experts say the pre-Trump administration surge in protests will quickly soon lose steam. According to Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, there tends to be a natural decay in such protest movements.

“People get tired, people have jobs—you get fatigued from protesting,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “Or maybe you just can’t afford to participate anymore.”

While this may be true, Meyer believes that direct action on issues such as reproductive rights and immigration reform are likely to continue, with the new administration likely “to present a stream of threats and provocation.”  

Activists, however, remain optimistic in their ability to keep the massive momentum going.

“People are ready to organize. What the Trump election has done is actually mobilize everyone and unite all Americans against this racist and fascist administration,” said Renata Pumarol with New York Communities for Change. She has been part of the Government Sachs protest. “This is the most unpopular president in history, and he stands to be the most protested and most challenged.”

Ahmed, who on Thursday was close to settling on a home for the Resistance House near the Capitol, also insists that protesters will soldier on through Trump’s presidency.

“That’s the whole point of our house, to help that level of resistance,” she said. “We are going to be fighting his cabinet picks tooth and nail. That’s why we are there…Our future is at stake.”