Billy Fleming is the Research Coordinator of the Ian McHarg Center in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, where he’s completing a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning (2017). He is a co-author of the Indivisible Guide and co-founder of Data Refuge–an international consortium of scientists, librarians, and programmers working to backup sensitive environmental data during the Trump administration. Originally from Arkansas, Billy worked in the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Barack Obama’s first term.
The Politic: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with Indivisible, maybe you could just talk a little bit about what it is, what it does, and how it started.
Billy Fleming: I think that, like millions of other Americans, those of us who started this thing spent the days and weeks after the election in November and December commiserating in bars and in friend’s living rooms and trying to figure out what, if anything, we could do towards what we knew was going to be a really dangerous and reckless administration. At some point during those conversations we all sort of turned toward each other and realized that between us we had tons of time working as staffers on the Hill for Congress, we had tons of time working in the executive branch for President Obama, and that there was a really important service we could provide that no other progressive organization was providing, and that was just to demystify the way that Congress works. Unless you’ve spent significant periods of your life trying to push legislation through Congress there’s no reason to understand all the different arcane procedures and other things that go on in either chamber.
So we started writing this document, first as a Google Doc, that became the Indivisible Guide. We thought maybe 100 people might read it, including our parents, and that if we posted it to Facebook our moms would like it and that would be kind of the end of the story. The night that it went live, it was riddled with spelling errors and all kinds of other things that were kind of embarrassing, but we watched kind of in awe as on Twitter it got recirculated and retweeted by people like George Takei and Robert Reich and Jon Favreau and all these other people. Then the Google Doc itself became so crowded that it crashed the first night it went live. We had to sort of begin building a ship for this thing as we were in it because none of us ever expected to get to this point.
What we did in that initial document, the Indivisible Guide, and what we’re doing with all of the other things we provide now, is give the tools that are needed to the communities that want to resist the Trump agenda. We find ways in the guide to demystify the way that Congress works so that the actions people take in their community can be the most effective. We’ve been in touch with a lot of those groups to figure out what other resources they need, so we wrote an update to our guide called Tips for a Successful Town Hall when we had the recess period a couple weeks ago in February. We had lots of groups that came to us and said not only can we not get a town hall with our member, we can’t even get them to acknowledge that we exist, so we created what we call a Missing Members Toolkit, a way for people in communities or districts where their members of congress are ignoring them to try to essentially guilt them into doing the right thing and listening to and meeting with and having a conversation with the people they represent. So that’s kind of a long story about how we got started and a short story on all the things we’re doing.
TP: Could you talk a bit about these local chapters? Like you were saying, there’s a ton of them and they exist in most communities–even in red states. Are these folks that were coming to you, or did you start approaching folks–how did that component begin?
BF: Because none of us ever expected this to turn into anything real, let alone the massive organization that it’s becoming, we’re purely reactive. We don’t go out and solicit people to try to register with us. If you go to our website there’s a tab on the homepage called Take Action Locally and it’ll direct you to a map of the country that’ll show all the different chapters on it. You type in your ZIP code and it’ll show you all the chapters and all the meetings that our groups are having within that little radius around you.
We have now essentially 7000 verified chapters across the country, at least two in every single congressional district, including Alaska and Hawaii, and we haven’t pushed anyone to register. These are all people who are choosing to do it of their own volition, and our job at this point is to just get them as many tools–and by tools I mean resources for how to best engage with their members of Congress–to ensure that their efforts are as successful as they can be.
TP: A lot of the town halls, like the one in Arkansas with Tom Cotton, have gotten media attention for being full of thousands of people who are dissatisfied with their senator in a red state. It seems like there’s a lot of liberal and left-wing activists who have been coming out of the woodwork in areas that have been thought of in the popular media imagination as very conservative, red areas. What do you think changed? How can activist organizations start to capitalize on this interest in political engagement in the long term?
BF: I would push back on the idea that it’s all liberal or left-wing activists. I think especially in places like Arkansas, a lot of these people voted for Tom Cotton, and they’re extraordinarily disappointed in the way they’ve chosen to govern, they’re extraordinarily disappointed in how closely they’ve tied themselves to a megalomaniac president, and they’re coming out of the woodwork because members of Congress are doing a terrible job standing up to a terrible president. One of the things that’s often cast upon these people that are showing up and taking time out of their days and time away from their jobs as nurses and teachers and parents is that they’re somehow being paid to be there. For us, I wish there was money to go around to pay somebody to do something, but we don’t even have many staff, we’re an all-volunteer organization. Ezra [Levin] is our only official staff member, and even he hasn’t been paid to do anything yet. People are showing up and coming out of the woodwork in the way that they are because their members of Congress have been doing such a bad job that they’re all willing to do this for free.
We’re active partners with groups like MoveOn and the Working Families Party and lots of other groups that are in the progressive organizing world, including the Women’s March. We all have complementary skill sets. Those groups are really good about pursuing the longer-term legislative agenda and the fundraising side of progressive organizing, and we’re really good at demystifying Congress in a way that can be used by all of their different members to take the most effective action possible. So as long as we keep organizing together in the way that we are, I think the opportunities for us to work together on this stuff are unlimited.
TP: To switch gears a little bit, I was interested in how you guys borrow pretty explicitly from Tea Party activism, from the late 2000s. I’m wondering first of all, why is that your model? What good things do you see in that model and are there any criticism that Dems leveled at the Tea Party at that time that you worry could be leveled against you guys now?
BF: Most of us lived through the Tea Party revolution. We were either Congressional staffers or staffers in the Obama administration in ’09-’10 when they were coming to power, and we all saw firsthand how effective what they did was. And they just played defense. The core strategy of the Tea Party was just to say no to everything. When you just boil the Tea Party down to that really basic idea, that’s what we’re thinking about and that’s what we’re borrowing from them–the idea that you play strategic defense on as many things as possible.
What we don’t want to do, what we would never do, and what we’re very explicit in the guide about our groups not being allowed to do, is replicating their violent, vitriolic, and at times reprehensible behavior. If you go back and watch the Tea Party town halls of 2009 when the ACA was first being debated, Tea Party members at town halls were spitting on members of Congress, they were physically assaulting people–staff members and regular citizens–at those meetings, and they were screaming in the faces of elderly women and children. We’re explicit in all of our materials and in all our public and social media language that we’re a nonviolent organization. For all of the defensive wisdom that the Tea Party imparted upon us and that we’re happy to steal, we don’t want anything to do with that side of their movement and people who engage in that kind of behavior just aren’t welcome.
TP: One last question: I’m interested in the localized component of the Indivisible model, and how focused it is on local grassroots activism. Why do you think that’s important?
BF: We can look to the things Donald Trump says and Mitch McConnell says, and the things that their Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate say. Every single day one of them is going on TV or speaking to a reporter and saying that what we’re doing is working. If you go back and watch Donald Trump’s meeting with healthcare executives, he says that the resistance–and that includes our local chapters–are stalling his cabinet appointments and keeping him from doing all the other things he wants to do. And he goes on Twitter a couple times a week and says something to that effect, that the protest and the meetings with members of Congress are working, and they’re keeping him from doing all of the terrible things he wants to do to this country. So we can tell people that it’s working, but they can also just listen to the president because he’s telling them that it’s working.
TP: Any last things you would like to say?
BF: A couple things I would add. One is that I think we’ve been blown away at the energy and support we’ve seen through the work we’re doing. I want to emphasize that we’re all very flattered and humbled by the amount of support and the amount of energy we’ve seen out there, but that’s a testament to the folks doing the hard work of organizing in their local communities. That has a lot less to do with us than it does with them, especially in places like Arkansas which are deep red and where the prospects for translating that into electoral wins are there but they’re much slimmer than in a place like New York or Pennsylvania.
The other thing I would say is that the Koch brothers are also terrified of all the work that we’re doing. They’ve said as much publicly and they’ve also announced publicly that they’re going to invest millions of dollars in trying to drum up their own version of this again like they did in 2009, to try to counteract all of the good work our local groups are doing. Again I think people can ask us how effective this is, but you can look at what the other side is doing, and they are legitimately terrified of the response we’re seeing in all of our local chapters.
We got into this kind of building the ship as we’re in it, because none of us ever expected this to happen, but we’ll get to a point sometime this year or next where we’ve stopped essentially all the Trump agenda that he’s willing to keep pushing. It’ll be time for us to turn to other things, ideas of our own or candidates of our own. We’re now looking towards the Georgia 6th special election as a kind of pilot for what we’re able to do on the electoral side. We’re going to see what we feel comfortable doing there and what works there, and see how that might scale out to another side of this in the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.