WASHINGTON — After a series of massive demonstrations that seem to have toppled an American president, delirious Democrats have been stumped on how to describe what happened. “Too many heroes to name,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared. Oregon Governor Kate Brown tweeted, “Americans did this with sheer numbers — if you were in the streets, you helped make this moment.”
Even Carl Bernstein admitted that Trump’s durability made Watergate look like an open-and-shut case. “Bob Woodward and I, we got lucky, taking on an easier presidency,” he said. “It took 11 million people in the streets to quiet Trump. That’s a lot of people who deserve credit.”
Among the millions who pushed the president to leave office in last weekend’s dramatic protests, many had been steadily working for change in lower-profile ways ever since Trump took office. Here are three of the demonstrators who helped propel this historic uprising, and the many voices and forces that made it happen.
THE LAW STUDENT WHO MADE INFORMATION FREE, FOR YOUR SANITY
Imani Stewart was a law student at Case Western Reserve when Donald Trump was inaugurated. Now a first-year labor lawyer at a firm in Columbus, Ohio, the 27-year-old remembers thinking that such an impulsive chief executive was sure to generate one wild paper trail. She resolved to file at least one Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request a week, peppering different departments with queries as she watched Trump appoint officials to oversee the very industries that had already made them wealthy.
“Documentation seemed to be the only way to penetrate the force field that hypnotized his supporters in 2016,” Stewart says. “You could point to a spreadsheet and say, ‘Why is it that six of Trump’s top appointees were also huge donors, who gave $12 million to his campaign?’ The MAGA diehards didn’t want to admit the pay-for-play could be so naked. But that’s the power of showing the receipts.”
When her federal requests stalled, Stewart aimed requests at Ohio state government, where she could see quicker traction. She posted new findings to Document Cloud and shared them with the media. Her hour-long webinar on how to FOIA documents in Ohio has garnered more than 50,000 views on YouTube since it was posted in February, and inspired at least two dozen imitators to create similar guides for other states.
“I did it for my own peace of mind,” Stewart says. “We started using the hashtag #FOIAsanity as an in-joke, but as this network grew, it really swelled. When the news is terrible, there’s nothing like getting an envelope of fresh photocopies in the mail.”
THE HISTORY TEACHER WHO PUSHED BACK FOR DISABLED RIGHTS
For the past seven years, Collette Means has endured painful neuropathy in her legs, leading the longtime kindergarten teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to switch to teaching AP U.S. History. “The older kids, I can still handle from a wheelchair,” she says. “The little ones, you’ve got to be on your toes.”
Her new students also helped Means, 52, connect to a fundraising community ahead of the 2017 Women’s March and its accompanying online Disability March. A midyear unit on Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal and the power of labor strikes dovetailed with the idea that showing up online and backing protesters was a form of participatory democracy.
Means’ incisive posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram became underground hits for connecting the social movements of the past to the fight to protect Medicaid, which pays for more than half of Americans’ long-term in-home medical services. Means connected with ADAPT, a grassroots group that for the past 40 years has lobbied government and corporations to expand rights and access for people with disabilities. In March, from her school’s media lab, she launched a lo-fi podcast about the expansion of civil rights for disabled Americans that was covered by NPR and soon became one of the top-20 downloaded podcasts in the country.
“People with disabilities saw the irony with Trump the candidate,” Means says. “A man who’d missed military service on the thinnest of medical justifications, who never had to worry about paying for care, mocked a disabled reporter and promised to dismantle our health insurance. That turned out to be just about the only campaign promise he kept.
“But it’s a long fight. Like I tell my kids, this will be their fight one day, too, if they’re lucky enough to reach old age.”
As 75,000 Iowans filled the streets of Des Moines last weekend to call for the president’s ouster, Means “marched” from home, posting real-time updates on social media that helped direct the crowds and help marchers locate restrooms, parking, and a lost kid.
THE ANTI-NUKE ACTIVIST WHO SHOWED PEOPLE HOW TO BE HEARD
In Lafayette Square each day this spring, at exactly two minutes before noon, Judy Whitworth held what she likes to call a seminar on saving the world. The spindly 68-year-old, a retired master electrician from Atlanta, speaks with a sonorous alto honed over years of making herself heard at job sites. When addressing the groups who come to the park for her training sessions on nonviolent political action, she makes a point of smiling when she talks, so you can hear the cheer in her voice.
This is deliberate, of course, and a sly bit of counterprogramming. The timing of her open-air classes — free to attend, routinely live-tweeted by enterprising students — is set to match the Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which counts the number of minutes to midnight as a symbolic measure of how close we are to the apocalypse.
“We’re at 11:58,” she began her class with a small crowd on a Friday in March. “You probably feel like I dragged you here early. But I assure you, you’re not a minute too soon.”
Whitworth was a high school senior in the Navy town of Point Loma, California, when the anti-nuclear testing movement caught her attention. She hitchhiked to the 1970 Amchitka concert in Canada that raised money for a protest vessel named Greenpeace to sail the following year in an (unsuccessful) effort to thwart a nuclear test on an Alaskan island. “My friends thought our trip to Vancouver was to see Joni Mitchell and James Taylor,” she says. “Instead, they got to hear me carry on about the Nixon administration.”
She moved east for college and for work. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident revived her interest in protests and led her to make connections between nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and U.S. foreign policy. In the summer of 1982, at the million-person anti-nuclear demonstration in Central Park, she made friends with whom she went on to organize two of the more brazen direct actions of the decade: the 1983 Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment, a months-long protest by thousands of women at an upstate New York weapons depot; and a 1987 blockade of CIA headquarters, where some 560 people were arrested as they peacefully disrupted the agency’s business in a demonstration against U.S. policies in Central America and Africa.
On January 20, the second anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, Whitworth visited Lafayette Square hoping only to meet other protest-minded folks. She started telling war stories, and people started asking about tactics, strategy, and organizing. The next day she was hauling in action guides from her days in the anti-nuclear movement and sharing nuts-and-bolts lessons on sit-ins, body blockades, and other direct action techniques. Rain or shine, she became a fixture in the park all spring.
Whitworth draws the same lesson from the effort to dislodge Trump that she did from her anti-nuclear organizing: “You must fight audacity with audacity. The Trump cabal was so brazen, it called for a brazen response.”