Pat Costa had been a longtime registered Republican. He liked the philosophy of the “compassionate conservative,” one of the reasons he voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and campaigned for Republicans like former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and George Allen’s U.S. senatorial run, he said.
After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he felt dismayed and upset. A descendant of Sicilian immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1911, the former Republican said the president’s “demonization” of immigrants was “particularly offensive,” along with a demeaning attitude toward women.
“People can argue about policy differences, about whether or not the tax rate can be 30% or 20% for corporations; those are just policy disagreements, those are fine,” Costa said. “When you strike out what makes a person a person, that’s egregious.”
He recalled scrolling through Twitter at the end of 2016 and came across a tweet linking to a 23-page guidebook about grassroots resistance to a Trump-led government, a Google Doc drafted by former congressional staffers and modeled after the Tea Party, a fiscally conservative grassroots group that sought to push back on Obama-era legislation.
“I read this and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is basically a blueprint,’ ” Costa said, “to work with people in my own area to resist Donald Trump’s dumb agenda, and to promote the policies that I want our country to have.”
The web developer launched the chapter’s website and Facebook, started a newsletter and, within a week, had gained over 100 followers and subscribers, he said. “It blew up really quickly.”
The initial meeting drew around 70 people, Costa said.
“It was standing room only, honestly, for really about the first two meetings,” said Anne Zielinski, a Catonsville Indivisibles member.
The nonpartisan, anti-Trump movement has over 5,000 chapters nationwide, including 30 groups in Maryland, according to its website. The Catonsville chapter is one of three in Baltimore County alone, along with Indivisible North Baltimore County and Indivisible Towson.
People “looked at the Trump election and the … intensity of the Trump base and said, ‘We’re losing our country. We’ve got to do something,’ ” said Indivisibles member Mark Weaver.
During its first meeting, Zielinski said they discussed why they were there. One woman said she feared her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, would lose health care coverage should the Affordable Health Care Act be rolled back. A father worried for his son, who went to school in tears one morning afraid his friend would be deported.
‘Think globally, act locally’
Their local work began in 2017. Members, who do not pay dues, formed ad-hoc committees on topics like immigration reform, environmental policy and health care access.
As social unrest festered in pockets of the country and white supremacist groups became more demonstrative, they reacted locally, drawing dozens of community members and elected officials to organized anti-hate rallies, dubbed the “No Hate in 21228” campaign. Some were arrested on Capitol Hill during protests against a repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, and again while protesting the Trump administration’s travel ban, which sought to bar visitors from primarily Muslim nations.
They also began lobbying not only congressional representatives on sweeping national issues, like the White House’s proposed “conscience rule” that would allow health workers to refuse treatment to patients based on their religious beliefs or moral principles, but also Maryland lawmakers on bills like the Clean Energy Jobs Act and the Fight for $15, said Susan Radke, a lead organizer with the group.
Their largest rally saw around 150 demonstrators lining Frederick Road to call for Trump’s impeachment in December.
In Catonsville, they’ve sponsored a summer educational series on discrimination and white supremacy at their meeting space at a local church, and are supporting a Syrian refugee family that has resettled in Catonsville.
Local advocacy “has more of an impact,” said Gillian Spencer, an Indivisibles organizer. “I just feel like that way I can get in and talk to people."
The Indivisibles also have been vocal on a number of countywide legislative issues, including joining other progressive groups to push for passage of Baltimore County’s Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, Act. The group plans to advocate for a state bill that would implement that policy statewide in the 2020 legislative session.
Sheila Ruth, who joined the Indivisibles in 2017 and now awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s confirmation of her nomination as the delegate representing Legislative District 44B, said local activism began when Indivisibles members, along with other progressive groups, rallied against a proposed county bill that would have required the county jail in Towson to join a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement program, mandating correctional officers to screen inmates for immigration violations.
“All the Baltimore County groups, and I think Catonsville Indivisibles was one of the leaders as well as the Towson Indivisibles, really came together to fight that and successfully fought it,” Ruth said.
Ruth, who said she was motivated to seek political office, in part, after the 2016 election, said, “Before a few years ago, I could never have imagined myself running.”
With the Maryland legislature back in session, group members at their first meeting of 2020 passed around bills that top their legislative priorities, including lobbying for a plastic bag ban in retail stores; requiring correctional officers to give inmates voter registration forms upon release; and establishing a state-based health insurance subsidies program.
The group is also seeking a sponsor for a bill proposal that would require health care providers to disclose to patients if they will deny services based on conscience or religious beliefs, Radke said.
“There’s an old saying going back to when I was young,” Weaver said. “ ’Think globally, act locally.’ ”
‘People are burned out’
Despite the nearly 400 group members in their Facebook group, members say consistent participation in the group has waned since that first 2016 meeting. A dozen people attended the group’s first meeting of the year in January, but Radke says there may be about eight consistently active members.
“It’s never been as big as it was the first year,” Ruth said. “People are burned out. It’s hard to keep that kind of sustained level of activism going.”
Within the group’s membership, diversity, particularly in age, is “a long-term problem" not unique to the Catonsville chapter, Weaver said. “It’s something that a lot of different [political] groups have talked about.”
Radke said the group is considering hosting happy hour nights geared toward diversity to draw in those who live outside of Catonsville’s wealthier business corridor.
Older generations “are more politically engaged in general,” Weaver noted. “Young people have a different set of concerns; maybe we’re stodgy to them.”
“It’s the old people who have those memories” of loved ones dying in hard-fought wars “because they wanted our republic and democracy to live,” said Zielinski, 75.
Still, “even if it ended up with three of us, there’s going to be a spark,” she said. “If [the Senate acquits Trump] with no witnesses, people are gonna come back.”
Whether Trump is unseated in the 2020 election or his second term expires in 2024, the Indivisibles movement, eventually, will have to reckon with its future once its chief goal — to see Trump removed from office — is realized or becomes obsolete.
“I don’t think anyone has really given thought to what happens after November,” Ruth said.
Radke said the group would maintain its advocacy work. “The future of the group would continue to keep our legislators upholding the constitution, whether they’re Democrat or Republican,” she said.
There’s a reason the group begins every meeting by reciting the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, Zielinski said.
“ ’We the people.’ That’s it,” she said. “That’s why we do this.”