In democracies, the mob — call it a crowd if you prefer — is both permission and threat. And like a blunderbuss, it doesn’t always hit what it initially aims at.
Before we take measure of the tens of thousands of women (and men) who took to the streets of Atlanta last week to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, it’s worth considering their predecessors.
In the spring of 2009, thousands of tea partyers gathered around the state Capitol as, in city after city, others did the same. Their outrage was originally aimed at the federal bailout of institutions considered too big to fail in the Great Recession.
Nonetheless, the bailouts passed Congress.
Eventually, tea party attention shifted to the Affordable Care Act. More rallies, and those volatile town hall meetings, gave Republicans in Congress permission to oppose President Barack Obama every step of the way. It still passed.
But here’s where permission became a threat: In June 2011, Obamacare was on the books and the implementation process had begun. Newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal had cast one of his last votes in Congress against Obamacare, but he attempted to make his peace with it.
Deal set up an ad hoc committee to figure out how to set up a state-run exchange, through which uninsured Georgians could obtain health care coverage.
“Georgians don’t want more federal ‘solutions,’ and the best way to fight back right now is to manufacture a Georgia solution,” the governor said.
But Deal had miscalculated. Even two years later, the fervor of the tea partyers was still too potent to risk thwarting, and the effort was abandoned. This was the moment when “not with a 10-foot pole” became official Georgia policy toward Obamacare.
Fast-forward to those 24 hours after Trump’s inauguration. There’s no doubt that the women’s march through Atlanta was larger than the first tea party effort of ’09. But there’s also much that we don’t know.
We don’t know whether the intensity that protesters brought to the asphalt will linger and show up in primary and general elections, in town hall meetings, and day-to-day contact with elected officials.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, one of the leaders of the march, said she was heartened by the fact that she’d never heard of the organizers before. New faces, especially young ones, can be evidence of new energy. Maybe.
“If you care about an issue, you have to organize. You have to register to vote. You have to be engaged, and you have to be consistent and not give up,” Franklin said a few days later.
We also don’t know the ultimate objective of the protesters — and they may not, either. Not yet. We can easily call the marchers anti-Trump. The gender-specific nature of the marches portends an emphasis on issues such as abortion, Planned Parenthood and health care that offers access to birth control — not to mention presidents who engage in “locker room” talk that condones sexual assault.
But that could change, too.
If you cast aside the pink hats and focus on where the marches occurred across the country, what you might have is the beginning of an urban rebellion against a federal government that is now firmly in the hands of a president who won his job, like many other Republicans, by appealing to rural and small-town Americans.
We’ve already seen it in President Trump’s tweeted threat to “send in the Feds” if Chicago doesn’t get a handle on its murder rate. But you see the coming confrontation more strongly in Trump’s executive order, signed Wednesday, to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with U.S. authorities in the identification and detention of immigrants who lack legal status to live in the U.S. (The description of immigrants who would be targeted was also broadened.)
The mayors of Boston, Los Angeles and New York have refused to bend on the “sanctuary city” issue. But in Florida, the mayor of Miami/Dade County ordered city workers to coordinate more closely with federal authorities on immigration matters, reversing a policy set in 2013.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez wanted to make sure he didn’t lose the $355 million in federal funding that has been earmarked for his region in the current budget.
In Atlanta, a group of activists gathered across from the state Capitol on Thursday, the day after Trump signed his executive order on sanctuary cities. It was a melting pot of a press conference with Muslims, Latinos — with and without legal status — Asians, LGBT representatives and others.
Many mentioned the Saturday post-inaugural march in Atlanta. Most also pointed to the dangers of being splintered by the specific targets of new Trump policies.
“If someone tells you that you are going to be on the menu for dinner, you don’t sit around all day, waiting for the cook to get the recipe right and season you and turn the oven on. You speak up as loudly as you can,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he was convinced that Trump’s attack on “sanctuary cities” was a first step to a much larger dragnet. “They’re looking at tearing apart families here in our state,” he said.
The event was only a block from City Hall, and a statement from Mayor Kasim Reed arrived even as the press conference was underway. Reed condemned Trump’s orders on immigration as violations of constitutional principles that would undermine public safety.
But the mayor avoided the word “sanctuary.”
“Atlanta is proud to be a welcoming city,” Reed said. “I pledge that Atlanta city government will stand firm in its commitment to inclusivity and diversity, and will remain open and welcoming to all.”
The word choice was no accident.
MARTA could build that new rail line out to Emory University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with just the half-penny tax that voters approved in November. But it would be nice to have some federal help — and that is now wholly under Republican control.
Moreover, the state Legislature is in session. And it’s dangerous to be a raised nail in a Capitol full of hammers.
In fact, Kasim Reed in 2017 reminds one very much of Nathan Deal in 2009 — someone trying to navigate the narrow waters that rush between an angry crowd and a shifting federal government.
Like Deal before him, Reed doesn’t know where last weekend’s parade is ultimately headed. And neither do we.
On the other hand, the race to replace the term-limited mayor of Atlanta is already underway. It could be the first opportunity the Saturday marchers will have to demonstrate whether they represent a new dynamic in Georgia politics — or were just out for a walk.