Friday night was an interesting exercise in what my old political science professors would call “interest articulation.” That’s fancy academic talk for how those in a society tell their leaders what they want to see happen.
Ever since the nationwide Women’s Marches drew impressive numbers to protest the policies of the incoming Trump administration, including thousands of marchers right here in Anchorage, it has been clear the left is stirring. That stir was also evident two Sundays ago, when a few hundred rabid lefties gathered in front of the Federal Building in Anchorage to protest and then march around downtown to voice opposition to a travel ban issued via executive order by President Donald Trump.
Most notable to me was how the crowd reacted to Mayor Berkowitz’s arrival. The progressive Mayor of Anchorage showed up, marched, and spoke about how troubled he is by Trump’s ban. Those in the crowd, however, didn’t react to his words with raucous enthusiasm, as I’ve seen happen many times when a politician throws rhetorical red meat to an assembled mob.
Sure, Berkowitz did get some cheers for what he was saying, but the larger response was a collective murmur, as though the group was asking “Ya? And?”
This is how Alaska Dispatch News reported the exchange:
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz stepped into the middle of the crowd with a megaphone.
“Anchorage is the most diverse city in the country,” he said. “And like many of you here, I am the son and grandson of immigrants and refugees.”
“What are you gonna do about it?” yelled someone in the crowd.
“This city is going to make sure that every person here, regardless of how you arrived or when you arrived is afforded the protections of the law and the protections of law enforcement,” Berkowitz said.
What the group was asking for was a clear and passionate rebuke of the President and his policies. What they got was a vague, politically measured parsing of words intended more to avoid anything that could be used against the Mayor by conservatives down the road than to inspire progressive activism now.
The Mayor’s words did little to either satisfy the protesters.
The stir continued.
On Facebook an event popped up titled “Planning Meeting to Pressure Assembly” and the description read:
“Please join us to discuss practical steps to pressure the Anchorage Assembly to officially condemn Trump’s executive order banning Muslims and building the wall. The next assembly meeting is February 14.”
Rumors had been swirling in the days following the Federal Building protest that there had been tense discussions between elected Democrats and protest organizers over how far the politicians were willing to go with their anti-travel ban rhetoric.
The description of the Facebook group seemed to echo those rumors.
They want to “pressure” the Assembly to take an official anti-Trump stand? The Anchorage Assembly is led by a majority of progressives, chaired by one of the most progressive Assembly people in modern memory, and serves alongside perhaps the most progressive mayoral administration in the Muni’s history. Yet the Assembly, not Alaska’s Governor, or legislature, or congressional delegation, is the target of this group’s “pressure”?
I admit I was intrigued. Ok, I’ll go further and admit that while I told myself it was my inner political scientist that wanted to go and see how this group was forming, what was driving these activists’ visceral passion against Pres. Trump, and how they planned to turn that passion into policy outcomes, in reality, the baser elements of my character just enjoy watching an all-American political shit-show.
The meeting was to take place at the Alaska Center, formerly The Alaska Center for the Environment.
As I walked to the door I was immediately greeted with a sign that tickled those baser instincts of mine:
The medium-sized conference room was overflowing with mostly young, almost exclusively white faces. There were no press, no politicians, and maybe 2-3 representatives from groups involved in this fight, like the ACLU. It was almost exclusively activists. There were probably 50-70 of them there in all.
In fairness to those who attended, I won’t mention any names, but there were a few in the room I recognized from campaigns of years past. Not many, but a few.
I went in, sat down, and immediately heard the guy running the meeting talk about how he isn’t running the meeting, and doesn’t want to run the meeting. He went on to run the meeting for the next two hours. I’m maybe more amused by that than I should be.
The group split into subgroups to talk about what issues folks thought the group should work on and what might be the best way to go about that. Suggestions were made to target the Mayor’s office, the Assembly, and the Alaska Attorney General in order to get them to commit to noncompliance with the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
What really came across, however, wasn’t the talk of policy or action, it was the visceral rejection many in the room had to any talk of the practicalities of politics.
One segment of the room wanted to pressure the Mayor and Anchorage Assembly to openly and aggressively declare Anchorage a “Sanctuary City,” and dare Trump to cut off federal funding to the city — a notion Mayor Berkowitz bristled at on The Midnight Sun The Podcast.
One woman from the Mayor’s office stood up and talked about how the Mayor wasn’t willing to go that far, but she had known him and his wife for 20 years and could assure everyone in the room he will stand up for the rights of all immigrants. A young man sitting nearby followed up, saying people who have known politicians for 20 years are the problem. His comment drew a round of snapping from the room (that’s how cool-kid progressives register their approval).
Others in the room who had spent a minute or two working in politics explained that such a move is highly risky. It could elicit major blowback from the right and threaten the safety of recent immigrants and Muslims, they said.
That was really, really not what many in the room wanted to hear. Speaker after speaker made it clear any sort of political calculation aimed at protecting anyone at election time was the kind of insider politics they were tired of.
This group, at least a large portion of it, wants to fight for a cause and win an argument, not campaign and govern. These activists see anyone offering a more moderated or politically viable position as the problem. That includes elected Democrats. Especially elected Democrats.
That vibe, born of multiple rounds of progressive uprisings, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, is clearly more electric since progressives have watched Tea Party movement politics take power, making policy positions like repealing Obamacare, national right-to-work, and eliminating the Department of Education genuine possibilities.
After listening to this group for a few hours I didn’t quite know what to make of their energy. I needed some time to reflect.
Is the hardheadedness of youth and inexperience destined to bog this movement down in its own hubris, the way each of those other progressive movements had?
Or is it the beginning of a new normal in progressive politics — a hunger for a progressive Donald Trump, someone who will speak plainly, seem uncalculating and act unashamed in taking unpopular policy positions from the fringes of mainstream politics? The anti-Berkowitz, perhaps?
I would love to trash this group and its progressively pompous attitude as so outside the mainstream and so delusional in thinking it can get anywhere by making targets of its ideological allies that they can’t be relevant, but we’ve all seen that precise strategy work for the Tea Party and Donald Trump.
Maybe right now what wins in American politics is the power and credibility of conviction. If that’s the case, maybe this small group of outside-the-mainstream, rhetorically-militant progressives can win even in red state Alaska.
If this group represents a building wave among progressives and not just the whims of the few who made it on a cold Friday night, Democrats would be wise to take note. When the Tea Party rose, it wasn’t President Obama or the Democratic Party, but mainstream Republican officeholders who first felt their wrath, even ones behind enemy lines in deep-blue states.
The group has now taken to calling itself the Anchorage General Assembly (Sadly, “Anchorage Assembly” was already taken) and are planning more meetings and activities. You can check them out on their Facebook page.