Great Barrington — Berkshire County progressives continue to be energized and united in opposition to the agenda of President Donald Trump. But, as is the case with any movement for change, there needs to be better communication and coordination.
“There is an incredible amount of energy bubbling throughout the area,” said Frank Farkas, interim head of the Berkshire County Democratic Brigades. “But there is diffusion — so much overlap that I am fearful that we will be canceling each other out.”
“There was an absolute outpouring on initial enthusiasm,” added Michael Wise, who chairs the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee. “But this is a long-term undertaking.”
Wise called a DTC meeting on March 18 at the Berkshire South Community Center, partly in “an effort to get people talking and coordinating,” he said in an interview.
Wise has called for another DTC meeting on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, at 9:30 a.m. at the Claire Teague Senior Center. On the agenda is “coordination among local activist groups, the draft platform for the June state convention, and state and local legislative issues.”
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Competing with the DTC event this Saturday is the March For Science, which bills itself as a celebration of “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” The main march is in Washington, with 531 satellite marches in cities around the world, including Boston, Amherst, Pittsfield and Great Barrington, where interested people are invited to the River Walk March for Science at 11 a.m.
Earth Day, April 22, has always been a day to celebrate science and environmental responsibility. But this year it seems as if it has turned into a wider day of protest against the Trump administration.
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Motivated by a strong distaste for the Trump administration, progressives in Berkshire County and across the state and nation moved quickly after the November election to mobilize and form a resistance movement rooted in policy and protest.
There have been so many groups that the situation became a bit unwieldy but those associated with the movement and interviewed by The Edge agree that communication is improving and that duplication of efforts is becoming a thing of the past.
“There was some question as to whether one huge group would be better than a lot of little groups, but that’s open to debate,” said Ben Hillman, who chairs what he calls the “mighty and microscopic” Sheffield Democratic Town Committee.
“I think everyone is doing the best they can. We’re all volunteers, not professional political people. Nobody’s butting heads or stepping on toes … People are showing up who have never done anything political in their lives and it’s been amazing.”
Most of the groups have formed for different purposes, while others have a more general orientation and still others have redefined themselves. The Green Tea Party of Great Barrington, which was originally formed last year in response a development proposal to turn the historic Searles Middle School into a 90-room hotel, has essentially joined the cause of Swing Left, an online network that helps people find their closest “swing” district in Congress and connects them with volunteer opportunities to support progressive candidates in that district.
As a resistance movement, the Green Tea Party and many others have essentially had to look outward since there are very few Republicans in Berkshire County and in local government to go after.
Both Swing Left and the GTP have set their sights on Rep. John Faso in New York’s 19th congressional district, a Republican whose district borders Berkshire County. Swing Left has branded Faso as a rubber stamp for the Trump administration.
He is pro-life on abortion, has supported the defunding of Planned Parenthood, wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his law firm agreed to pay a $550,000 fine to the state for ethical violations.
Holly Morse of Swing Left and the GTP says the outpouring of energy, emotion and hard work has been gratifying, adding that, “It’s amazing how many people have woken up and taken to the streets.”
“All of these nascent groups are united against this one really bad person who was elected for really bad reasons,” Morse said. “We will get better at communicating with each other.”
Joyce Hackett of Lift Every Vote has been active in fighting against legislation in New Hampshire intended to tighten the state’s voter registration process by requiring that new voters support claims of New Hampshire residency with “a verifiable act or acts” confirming that they are not in the state temporarily.
“It’s aimed at weeding out students,” Morse said of New Hampshire Senate Bill 3. “It’s definitely a move to suppress the vote there.”
Morse and others who post on the Google group Southern Berkshire Action have been trying to get Congressman Richard Neal (D-Springfield) to come to the Berkshires to a town-hall-style meeting. But so far, Neal has been noncommittal.
Robin Zeamer and Lynne Posner started the Southern Berkshire Action group with an eye toward facilitating communication and coordination between the various groups. Anyone can ask to join the group by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“After 4 Freedoms and the Women’s March, we felt people needed to be able to connect with others, so we started something South County-centric,” Posner said. “We consider ourselves a giant bulletin board.”
“It’s wonderful to see all these groups coming together,” added Zeamer. “We are a resource for activism.”
Zeamer and Posner have very sound progressive bona fides. They met while participating in the Occupy Berkshires movement, which picketed in front of Great Barrington Town Hall in the last weeks of the summer of 2011 to protest social and economic inequality. They continued their friendship while working on the congressional campaign of Bill Shein, who challenged Neal unsuccessfully in a Democratic primary the following year.
Richard Squailia of West Stockbridge is a member of Our Revolution Massachusetts (ORMA), a coalititon of Democrats that includes many former supporters of the presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Squailia established the first ORMA chapter in Berkshire County and is actively recruiting more members.
“As a result of the last election, people are dealing with a broad spectrum of feelings and groups are forming with different affiliations and causes,” Squailia said. “People are feeling a sense of satisfaction in pursuing those separate causes.”
ORMA is a spin-off of groups that supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and it wants to support a new generation of progressive leaders. ORMA plans to make its presence felt at the state Democratic convention June 3 in Worcester, Squailia said.
“ORMA is clearly grassroots,” Squailia explained. “The Democratic Party has tended to be top-down. We’re also looking closely at state legislative races.”
Hillman said groups are also working to get the word out about legislation pending at the Statehouse that would ban the practice of so-called “gay conversion therapy,” and gathering support for the Safe Communities Act, pro-immigrant legislation awaiting action on Beacon Hill that would essentially codify many of the principles embodied in so-called “sanctuary city” proclamations such as those announced recently in Great Barrington, North Adams and Pittsfield.
Hillman, a filmmaker and author, is also considering a social media campaign on gay conversion therapy and is talking with Multicultural Bridge and its director, Gwendolyn Hampton Van Sant, on a documentary highlighting actual incidents involving law enforcement and immigrants in Berkshire County.
Outside the region, Swing Left has also been focusing on two special elections in the House of Representatives to fill vacant seats. Those races, one in Kansas and another in Georgia, were widely viewed as early referendums on the Trump agenda.
This week in Georgia’s 6th district, Democrat Jon Ossoff fell short of getting the majority required to avoid a run-off election. Ossoff will square off against Republican candidate Karen Handel, who received 19.8 percent, in a run-off in June. In the 4th district of Kansas, Republican Ron Estes beat back a strong challenge on April 11 from Democrat James Thompson by 7 points, in a district that backed Trump by 27 points only five months ago.
Hillman cautioned against complacency. Despite the relatively slim GOP victory in Kansas, Hillman said Trump might feel emboldened: “Based on what happened in Kansas, presumably some Trump supporters will feel they have been validated.”
Then there is matter of getting Neal to come to the Berkshires to meet with constituents. There has been much discussion of this in the South Berkshire Action Group. In an Edge interview concerning the Trump budget earlier this month, Neal said he did a town hall recently in Chicopee and was in Pittsfield in January. Asked if he would come to Berkshire County again soon to meet with voters, Neal replied, “We’d like to do that, if it could be arranged.”
In response to another Edge inquiry this week, Billy Tranghese, Neal’s chief of staff and press secretary said, “Congressman Neal has held numerous public forums in Berkshire County including the Act Now: Civic Participation Workshop on April 1st at Berkshire Community College and the 4 Freedoms March in Pittsfield in January. He also participated in two well attended and highly publicized town halls recently in Chicopee and Boston.
“Despite an active legislative session in Washington, the Congressman returns home to western Massachusetts every weekend where he keeps an active public schedule,” Tranghese continued. “He plans to hold additional events in the district to continue to hear the interests and concerns of his constituents.”
Some South County activists have been critical of Neal’s apparent reluctance to engage directly with voters on a regular basis. Others question his progressive bona fides.
Morse, for one, would have no part in it: “We need Neal doing the work he’s doing. It’s counterproductive for progressives to be attacking Democrats. It’s really not a good visual.”
Neal, the dean of the Bay State’s congressional delegation, is the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing committee of the House of Representatives, and so will wield considerable influence on budget and taxation issues as they relate to the Trump agenda.
Farkas of the Berkshire County Democratic Brigades says within the next month he wants to call a meeting of progressive activists in the central portion of Berkshire County — similar to what Wise has done in South County.
“It’s exciting,” Farkas said. “We see tremendous opportunity.”
“In general, no one can really predict right now where this is all headed, or if there’s going to be any cohesion,” Squailia added. “But these are the early days.”