Brooklyn Progressive Movement Takes Aim at the Tea Party

At first blush, “Get Organized Brooklyn” sounds more like a wake up call than a rallying cry. Days after the election of the 45th President of the United States, New York City Council Member Brad Lander and Rabbi Rachel Timoner founded the resistance group that would grow to 5,000 by January. The name itself serves an injunction against the liberal coma of the last eight years and manages to square itself directly against Occupy Wall Street’s reputation for disorganization. Its closest counterpart, in fact, might be the Tea Party Movement, which brought conservatives together on the platform of cutting government spending and lowering taxes. But Get Organized Brooklyn has one main goal in mind: to resist the policies of Donald Trump.

The man makes a great villain, and, in a perverse sort of way, one could say that it’s the force of his personality that has pulled thousands of (mostly) white, middle-to-upper class Brooklyn “snowflakes” out of their citified slumber. Nearly 800 people attended the first Get Organized BK meeting in mid-November. The group has now nearly doubled in size, and though it meets as a larger network on a monthly basis at the Beth Elohim synagogue, much of the real work is done in smaller working groups that meet and interact at higher frequencies. Topics range from fighting Trump appointees to education, racial justice, and safety net advocacy. Trump may be the figurehead of the resistance, but the movement is not just organized around resisting him, but also the culture that created him.

Park Slope, the locus of the Get Organized Brooklyn movement, is one of the most coveted neighborhoods in the country. Known for its high property values and excellent public schools, it’s an enclave for well-heeled young families, many of whom are just making their first move out of the high rises of Manhattan. The Park Slope Food Coop has long been a center of political activism in the community–16,000 members work a minimum of 2 hours and 45 minutes and the Coop frequently initiates product boycotts to protest everything from Apartheid to Nestle’s support of infant formula over breast feeding. Many of its members have careers at city non-profits, in both education and in government. One could say that the neighborhood is primed to take the lead on a citywide progressive movement.

Anti-immigration ban rally, courtesy of the writer.

The base is a far cry from the from the last progressive movement to earn nationwide recognition. Beginning in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement converged in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street District and grew to an encampment of about 1600 people. Of those people, over half were under the age of 35 and 98 percent supported civil disobedience to achieve their aims.

According to Whitney Hu, the Director of Communications at Brad Lander’s office, the makeup of Get Organized BK is older and far more likely to use traditional means to influence policy, like calling government officials and showing up to peaceful rallies. Many of the lead organizers of Get Organized BK have backgrounds in community organizing or nonprofit work. Hu is quick to note, however, that the reputation of disorganization and poor leadership that Occupy Wall Street earned in the press was “heavily skewed, but still,” she laughed, “we do tend to think of ourselves as more aligned with the Tea Party in terms of organizing strategy.”

To join the group, members must sign a commitment form in which they pledge to “listen actively, share my voice respectfully, and support my neighbors in their actions.” While the group is anchored in face-to-face meetings, participation online is also integral to its overall function. Its Facebook group is almost 6,000 strong and gains new members every day. Finally, at the center of group policy is resistance to bigoted perspectives and regressive politics.

The monthly in-person meetings feed the need for connection that many progressives share in their desire to be a part of a larger movement, while the working groups’ habitualized involvement earns participants a sense of investment in the cause. Wary of wearying members, Get Organized BK leaders Lander and Timoner frequently remind the group that “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” Activities are organized with a four year timeline in mind and participants are encouraged to “stay aware and self care.”

The movement has also drawn strength by linking up with other groups, like Indivisible BK, and forming a coalition of people against the presidency. It’s made its presence known at rallies across the city like the protest against the travel ban at JFK, participation in the Women’s March, at numerous rallies for the preservation of the Affordable Care Act, and at The New York Times gatherings to support free press. In providing an overall structure and support system for many people to link up for a variety of causes, Get Organized BK has grown into a force to be reckoned with.

Similarly, the Tea Party movement is an interconnected affiliated organization sharing similar goals, with no central leadership. Much larger than Get Organized BK, it’s composed of mostly white adults over the age of 45–according to a survey by CBS News and The New York Times. Comprised of about 600 chapters across the nation, it’s estimated that 10-30 percent of Americans identify as part of the Tea Party movement. While the Tea Party has been associated with a number of conservative or populist agendas, its main focus is on bringing down taxes and simplifying the tax code.

Get Organized BK takes some inspiration from this approach in narrowing its focus to one person: Donald Trump. “Occupy Wall Street,” Hu says, “Suffered from the fact that it was against this huge system, capitalism, and that’s hard to define, hard to fight. It’s so ingrained in our society.”

But, like the Tea Party, the spotlight doesn’t solely land on one issue. Get Organized BK is careful to focus on the issues rather than the man as well as promote cross-pollination across different groups. Get Organized BK also takes inspiration from the Tea Party’s faith-based approach: At the heart of the movement’s success is a number of interfaith dinners that pull together members of different perspectives to practice conflict resolution and work together towards the common goal of resisting the toxic policies of the presidency.

JFK Protest, courtesy of the writer.

The question, however, remains: How can an urban blue state group hope to influence the people that elected this president to office? Get Organized BK has a few suggestions for progressives in the minority who want to make an impact on their local conservative communities. Hu contends that while many people feel that taking on the mantle of organizing can seem intimidating, it’s easier than one might expect.

“Right after the election,” she shared, “my friends and I decided to do a little postcard party at a bar. We thought we might get, at best, 50 people with our networks pooled. Over 400 turned out.”

In fact, scale has been a problem for the Get Organized BK movement. While Councilman Lander knew that seizing this moment in time was important, he and his staff couldn’t quite predict how vast the number of supporters would be. The scale has been handled by excellent member leaders who are willing to put a little effort into the movement. On Monday, the new Get Organized BK website will launch–built entirely by the Art as Activism working group within the movement. The group focuses on creating imagery for the movement, as well as discovering how the movement interacts with technology.

Ultimately, Get Organized BK is navigating new territory for progressives who have had it easy and for millennials who have never seen large scale political activism in their lifetimes. While incorporating people of many different faiths and embracing an intersectional perspective, it does face the challenge of being exactly the kind of group to which few Trump supporters can relate. New York City has already been tarred and feathered as a city of sin by the conservative movement. The question is, how can urban dwellers share their perspective with middle American groups that have a different perspective on what it means to be a citizen of the United States.