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Old-School Organizing in the Heartland

A conversation with Jesse Myerson

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe with Jesse Myerson:

Jesse Myerson: My name is Jesse Alexander Myerson. I am speaking in Bloomington, Indiana where I am an organizer with Hoosier Action and where I host a podcast called From the Heartland about other people who are also organizing in the interior of the country and the places where leftists aren’t normally thought of as being.

Sarah Jaffe: Indiana has been at the center of a lot of things over the last year. You are in formerly Mike Pence country. You are not that far from where the Carrier plant and the Rexnord plant and all of the things that Trump paid attention to for a minute were. Give people the lay of the land of what is going on in Indiana, specifically.

JM: Indiana is thought of differently from the other states in this area, Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, because it is almost never included when people talk about swing states on the list of swing states. It is often thought that it is just too far gone and too reactionary here. But it wasn’t very long ago, it was in 2008 that Barack Obama won the state. Of the nine people that we sent to the U.S. House, five of them were Democrats. We have one Democratic Senator and one Republican Senator. One of the state legislators was Democrat and the other was Republican. It was very much a swing state at that point.

In the interim, because of the Tea Party insurgency in 2010 and the super-ruthless gerrymandering that that subjected the state to, things have changed really dramatically in the last ten years, largely because of Governor Pence and also his predecessor, Mitch Daniels. For instance, right-to-work has come into the state. As I said, the gerrymandering is really terrible. The voter ID law. Of course, this is a state that is still reeling from NAFTA twenty years ago. A lot of terrible poverty that began then. Those jobs are gone and people who used to have good union jobs working in manufacturing are greeting 30 hours a week at Walmart and that has been so for twenty years.

The state of democratic people’s power in Indiana is really, really weakened by all of these reforms. You have electoral maps that where places in 2008 were blue are now salmon and places that were salmon are now red and places that were red are scarlet. Donald Trump won it. Now both state legislature houses are super-majority Republicans. The governor is a Republican. Seven out of the nine members of the Congressional delegation are Republicans. We still have a split between the Senators, Democrat and Republican, but the Democrat Joe Donnelly is up for a very, very tough re-election next year. The Koch brothers are already running ads up against him. He is definitely the most vulnerable Democrat coming up. And he voted for Gorsuch and has not done very much to endear himself to the Democratic votership.

SJ: And endorsing anti-abortion bills when he was in the House.

JM: If only there was some better person who would replace him, but as far as it looks, the person likeliest to replace him is a far right-winger named Luke Messer who will probably run against him in 2018. The state of politics here is very difficult, but I think that underneath a lot of these things, the state is still very much a swing state the way that it was in 2008 and that with some diligent organizing of the working class, that can be reflected much more in the coming two cycles of elections and perhaps pull out of super-majority in time to get a much more fair, at least bipartisan agreement around redistricting next time and then open up possibilities for more a more dramatic transformation in future years.

SJ: Organizing that working class around working class interests was the reason that you moved to Indiana. Tell us about Hoosier Action.

JM: Hoosier Action was founded by a remarkable woman named Kate Hess Pace who is from Bloomington, Indiana. Her family stretches back five generations in New Albany, Indiana which is a small town just across the Ohio River from Louisville, in the same congressional district. She, for the last seven or eight years, has been up in Minneapolis-St. Paul doing faith-based organizing with a group called Isaiah, which is part of the PICO Network, organizing congregations around economic justice issues and was instrumental in some really big campaigns including winning the toughest foreclosure protections, predatory lending issues.

After the cataclysm of the 2016 elections, she felt very strongly the urge to come home and start something here in southern Indiana, because the state of organizing in Indiana has been greatly debased, but probably nowhere more than southern Indiana where there was never particularly high union density in the first place.

She is a visionary organizer and is excellent at relating to people and moving them on a path toward greater leadership for themselves. She knew that there was a niche for that in this area and she decided to come back and start it. I, also moved by the cataclysmic election results, felt very strongly that my efforts would be more efficiently deployed in the middle of the country, in places where there wasn’t as significant a progressive infrastructure as there is in my hometown of New York City. I was connected with Kate by a mutual friend, Jeff Ordower, who was for a long time a community organizer in St. Louis, Missouri with MORE. We have very, very close political analyses and analyses of what needs to happen to win power for working people in this area.

We have been building this thing now for three months. We have got a small but growing base of dues-paying members. We have teams around operations and administration and around fundraising and around politics. We have been running a test canvas program to gear up for our first big canvas, which we will start on July 8th and go for three weeks. We did a day-long boot camp training for organizers in Indiana. People from all over the southern half of the state came. We did one action on Donnelly’s office around Medicaid cuts and infrastructure. We have been collecting Medicaid stories, getting videos of them, first person accounts that people, mostly mothers in the region, have written and trying to get them placed in national press outlets.

As Kate says, “Power is organized people plus organized money.” So, that is what we are trying to do: collect a lot of people and a lot of money. It is the only way we are going to make an impact in Indiana or nationally.

SJ: You got one of those stories in the Washington Post, right?

JM: Yes, from a woman named Audi McCullough. I went to a die-in protest at Bloomington Town Hall that was sponsored by a bunch of groups, including the Monroe County chapter of National Organization for Women. Audi is a member of that. It is a fledgling organization as well, it started after the Women’s March. There were a couple people who spoke who were experts. It is a college town, so there is a bunch of expertise here and their expertise, the way that they expressed it in the press conference, was in statistics and things and I couldn’t pay attention or remember any of them.

But then, Audi got up with her child, Kaden, and told her story of his extremely complex medical needs and the health scares that they had both faced and the absolute necessity of Medicaid in their lives as a basic pillar for either of them to be able to live free and dignified lives. I was like, “You are a natural leader.” She wrote up her story and we got it placed in the Washington Post, thanks to Liz Bruenig.

SJ: Telling these stories is an important part of this kind of organizing, but you can also end up with people thinking that just telling a sad story is going to be enough to move their Senator and then wondering why that doesn’t work. I would love you to talk a little bit more about the way this storytelling does and doesn’t fit into your organizing strategy.

JM: It is definitely integral. As you imply, it is not sufficient unto itself, but basically, the essence of the organizing we are doing is relational. The idea is that any organizing that takes place absent the building and deepening of relationships between people is going to be basically facile. It is one thing if you can get twelve people in a room to talk to us and it is another thing if you get four hundred and that four hundred really only comes when people have deepened their relationships with one another.

I am talking about the south, Appalachia, the rust belt, the Midwest and the plains states.

A lot of this organizing is based on having long one-on-one discussions with people, what their lives are like, what they are interested in, what they are concerned about, what they are afraid of, what they are angry about, what they are hopeful for and growing relationships that way. That is both on the doors and ideally in follow-ups after people get knocked or called. Those stories are important in the actual day-to-day organizing, talking to people and letting them know who you are and finding out who they are. As a kind of public expression, really what we hope to do is to mobilize people with that, but that ultimately that mobilization should turn into becoming a dues-paying member, coming to monthly member meetings, joining a team and taking on work. That can be going and knocking on doors, it can be doing data entry, it can be helping to promote issues or taking on a shift at the farmers market or at a county fair, flyering or taking petitions, but ideally it is not a high temperature sort of organizing such as you and I saw at Occupy Wall Street where it is lots of marches, lots of heat, lots of intensity.

Really, that emotional heat is being channelled into really well-functioning systems that people can take on discrete amounts of work that make sense with their working lives and their family lives, but that they can see serving to proliferate the organization.

SJ: A lot of people will say, “Is this movement dead?” or “Is this movement gone?” and actually, a lot of important work is the work you can’t see.

JM: Absolutely, building up infrastructure, managing our database. We sort of think of Hoosier Action as a vessel or a basket that we are all collectively weaving so that it can be strong and hold all of the people and money that we are trying to bring together to create power. Weaving that basket or making that vessel water-tight, that requires all sorts of maintaining spreadsheets and sending follow-up emails and doing lots and lots of behind the scenes work that doesn’t seem glamorous and may not look like it is actually waging class struggle in the way that we want to imagine it cinematically unfolding, but that is actually vital for building the kind of power that we need. If it were a weak basket or a vessel with some holes in it, the power that we would be able to accumulate would be greatly diminished.

SJ: We talked a little bit about Joe Donnelly. Tell us about your other Senator and where the pressure points have been in Indiana around this national healthcare fight.

JM: It is very difficult to figure out how we can affect Todd Young. For one thing, he was just elected last year, he has got plenty of time before he is up for re-election, so he is not vulnerable in that way. Second of all, if I were a senator looking to figure out my re-election chances and I were looking at the electoral map of this state from 2016, I would definitely get the signal that the right-wing political forces in this state were much stronger than the left-wing ones. I think Young feels quite buttressed at the moment. Though he hasn’t been as vocal in support of the AHCA as other people, and perhaps that comes from the inordinate percentage of people in the state who are on Medicaid, including 40 percent of the kids, but we don’t think that he will stand with Hoosiers. We think that he will stand with insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and billionaires.

Donnelly has all of those incentives reversed, where he is facing a really tough re-election battle next year. He needs the support of people going out and knocking on doors and stuff, because he is just not going to raise the same amount of money as his opponent will through the Koch brothers and everything else. So he has got to rely on a strong ground game and lots of students knocking on doors and things like that. He has far from got that, because as we talked about earlier, he hasn’t really endeared himself to the more progressive forces in the state. And he is one of the Senators, along with Senator Manchin from West Virginia and Senator Heitkamp from North Dakota that has consistently met with Republicans behind closed doors to try and hammer out bipartisan solutions, including around this healthcare reform bill, before all of the procedural chicanery, which I think kind of shook them off from that.

I think Democrats are holding a firmer line, because these kind of procedural norms have been so wantonly discarded by the Republicans. I think that has actually played to our advantage in this case. We don’t think he is going to vote for the thing, but it is possible. In any case, he needs to know that it is the stronger move for his re-election campaign that be not support the thing. It is important to keep up pressure on him and just continue to do actions at him and continually push him to take more and more leadership opposing this bill.

SJ: There have been very particular public health issues that are worth bringing up, because they are issues that are prominent around the country, perhaps especially in places like Indiana that have been hit really hard by the decline of manufacturing. I am talking about, of course, the HIV outbreak that Mike Pence is basically responsible for and the opioid crisis.

JM: These two are linked. There is actually a third one which I would cite, which is water contamination. All three of those crises were really, really deepened by the Pence approach to public health, which is basically to decimate it. In Scott County, which is in this part of the state, there is a very high poverty rate and there is a lot of opioid usage. Pence, being the radical ultra-right-wing Christian fundamentalist theocrat that he is, waged war on Planned Parenthood during his tenure as governor and shut down the Planned Parenthood in Scott County, which did not offer abortion services, but was the only facility in the county that delivered HIV testing. So, with that gone, this HIV outbreak occurred, which is the biggest in the state’s history and the first in the United States that we know to be associated with sharing needles from injecting prescription painkillers.

Pence was extremely resistant to the idea of allowing needle exchanges. Eventually, he relented—he didn’t make them legal statewide, but he did start a program whereby counties could appeal to him for a waiver against the prohibition. Eventually, that got a little better. Then, the new governor who is less of an ideologue, but still a Republican operative, Eric Holcomb, he has been more lenient on that still.

The other one being the water contamination crisis in East Chicago due to—as always—industrial byproducts and Pence wouldn’t call a state of emergency, which would free up some funds to help relocate people who couldn’t live there without getting poisoned. The new governor has relented on that and called the state of emergency.

I should not, lest anyone get too rosy a picture of the new governor, that he has proposed a new modification to the Medicaid program here. It is called HIP 2.0: the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 which Mike Pence reluctantly expanded under the ACA. Holcomb is hoping to add a new provision that adds a work requirement so that either you have to be working or you have to be actively searching for work if you are able-bodied under this new plan. That necessitates a big bureaucracy to determine who is able-bodied, who isn’t, whether they are sufficiently looking for work, and all these sorts of things that wind up meaning that the program will cost more and cover fewer people. So it is not as though his public health record is shaping up to be any better than his predecessor’s.

SJ: And that is if Medicaid doesn’t get decimated by federal government.

JM: Right. They are talking about cutting the thing in half in a decade. Like I said, 40 percent of kids here, not to mention disabled people and older people who are on both Medicare and Medicaid. There is significant poverty in this region and people really rely on it as a basic pillar of their lives. If they cut it and people get kicked off it, they are just going to be underwater. There are a lot of people who just cannot work. If they cut Medicaid and these people get kicked off, then they are going to die. It is just going to be death and bankruptcy all across the state.

SJ: If we see anything from Mike Pence’s example it is that they will regret it when it is too late. The Carrier plant stunt that Trump pulled very much is taken as his concern with the “white working class.” You and I know what the reality of the workers at the Carrier plant looks like, which is that it is not all white and is not all male and now, indeed, the incoming president of that union is a person of color. When you thought about moving some place to do organizing work and this obsession with the white working class was in the air, what were you thinking in terms of who and where and why and how you wanted to be organizing?

JM: I think that what is necessary is an interracial working class movement that links up the urban working class and poor, who tend to be Black and Latin@, and the rural small town working class and poor, who tend to be white, but also increasingly are Latin@ and Black, frankly, and many other demographic groups besides. But, just as far as predominance goes, the district I am in is over 95 percent white. I see, and have been a part of as an employee of various labor unions in New York, really diligent organization of working class people in New York City, mainly people of color. There is infrastructure around that.

What I didn’t see very much of and which I think is increasing now and which I am trying to emphasize by connecting these various projects through the podcast that I host, is more attention being paid to the kind of small-town and rural areas of the country. Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and Bernie Sanders’ campaign to an extent, but sort of predicated on this urban/rural linkage of people who have really similar concerns: Medicaid and food stamps and housing affordability and water contamination, or as in New York, air pollution. Who should make natural allies, but who because basically the Democratic Party has spent the last forty years becoming a party of bourgeois suburbanites hasn’t shown any interest in fostering through its official channels.

Basically, I wanted to go to a place that had voted for Obama and then voted for Sanders in the primary and then went to Trump in the general. And there were plenty of places like that. That was the sort of cross-section of people who, in having voted for Obama showed that the vitriolic racist organized white supremacist faction wasn’t so powerful there that it was dictating the course of the state, that had this sort of anti-establishment bent that led the Democrats of the state to prefer Senator Sanders and then, ultimately the state going to Trump, and thus, needing considerable organizing out of that situation.

Indiana is definitely one of those places and we are organizing working class people across race together in the state. I think that is the best hope we have at a realignment of the political forces in the state. I think partly for the reasons that I identified earlier about why the state is a little different from the rest of the Midwest, if we can unlock that here, then we have unlocked the rest of the Midwest, as well.

SJ: I did want to ask you about your podcast. What have you learned through doing that, so far?

JM: Part of the impetus for the podcast was that I didn’t want to burden Hoosier Action with its nascent budget. I wanted to be able to be a full-time volunteer. So I am financing my life through this podcast and putting it on Patreon. Another motivation was to link up these various projects that are going on in what I am calling the heartland, which is actually a massive swath of the United States. I am talking about the south, Appalachia, the rust belt, the Midwest and the plains states. I have had people as far apart from one another as a Teamster in Georgia and the chair of the Democratic Party in Nebraska, thousands of miles apart.

Basically, I wanted to let coastal listeners and listeners in big metropolises know what sorts of things are going on in the interior of the country, what sorts of projects that they should be supporting from their remote locations, and hopefully, to cobble together some kind of shared vision and shared understanding of what organizing looks like in these places, the better to help one another’s strategize about how we are building power in our own specific locations and circumstances.

SJ: How can people subscribe to your podcast, support your work, and support and—if they are in Indiana—join Hoosier Action?

JM: is the website. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter, Hoosier Action, both cases. You can become a dues paying member from abroad. If you are in Indiana, we will be trying to schedule meetings with you, but if you are not, you can still give us money every month. It is just as good no matter where it originated. That can happen at the website. As far as the podcast goes, You can listen to it there for free or if you become a patron even at a dollar a month, you can get on the super swanky newsletter. I am taking a Twitter hiatus right now, but normally I am @JAMyerson on Twitter and you can follow me there.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.