Portland joined several cities across the nation last week for a series of rallies under the name, “The People’s Defense.” Protests were centered around the slogan: We Object. Pro-democracy and civil rights advocates objected to a number of issues — Trump’s travel ban, spikes in hate crimes, health care reform, budget cuts to the EPA, Internet privacy — but most were focused on what they considered the most pressing and important: the nomination of Trump’s pick for Supreme Court Judge, Neil Gorsuch.
About 150 voters gathered on Sunday at Portland’s City Hall to object to Gorsuch, a candidate who’s both praised and criticized for his conservative views and strict constitutionalist perspective. One can see the ideological divide over Gorsuch locally in recent stories from the Portland Press Herald which report that a group of 98 Maine lawyers wrote and signed a letter in opposition to Gorsuch to Maine’s Senators, while a separate group of 49 signed one in support.
I went to last Sunday’s “People’s Filibuster” to take the temperature on the Trump resistance, and learn why local progressives are so opposed to Gorsuch.
The speakers at the rally included former State Rep. and Bernie voter Diane Russell; Mike Sylvester, a State Rep. for District 39, and founding member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America; Glen Brand, the chapter director at the Maine Sierra Club; Barney McCleland from the AFL-CIO; Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesney; and Michael Langenmayr, a steering committee member of the advocacy group Progressive Portland.
“We’re standing up to the idea that this man who has a terrible history and a terrible ruling record could automatically get a seat on the Supreme Court,” said Diane Russell to a cheering crowd. “We’re calling on both Senator Susan Collins and Angus King to ensure that should Gorsuch be confirmed that it is by 60 votes.”
Russell was referring to a Democratic filibuster. After the rally, it was reported that Senate Democrats did secure the 41 votes needed to filibuster Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Republicans vowed to get Gorsuch appointed by Friday, and are planning on invoking the “nuclear option,” which calls for a simple majority vote to rewrite the rules of the Senate — effectively forcing Gorsuch’s way into highest judicial seat in the country. (Presidential nominees typically need 50 votes in the Senate to pass, but now Gorsuch needs 60 to break the filibuster unless Republicans go nuclear and eliminate the threshold.)
“If Gorsuch can’t earn 60 votes on his own accord, Republicans should change the nominee, not the Senate system,” said Russell at the rally.
Renee Cote, a legal copy editor from Auburn, was among the protesters at City Hall. She said that it was unfair that Gorsuch was even considered in the first place, citing that Barack Obama had the constitutional right to nominate his own Supreme Court Justice, Merrick Garland, after Antonin Scalia's sudden death last winter, but was met with Republican obstructionism. Because of this, Gorsuch should be expected to garner at least 60 votes.
“It seems to me that someone whose character would let them step into a seat like that should be required to get at least 60 votes,” said Cote. “I’ve read a lot of Gorsuch’s cases, and frankly, they’re depressing.”
After Republicans stalled progress for 11 months last year in the Senate, effectively forestalling Merrick Garland Supreme Court appointment, Democrats were not happy. Should Gorsuch win the nomination, many like Cote, will consider the seat stolen. (Mitch McConnell admitted to the press last week that blocking the vote of Garland to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was an election last year was just a matter of principle, not real rules.)
On Sunday, Portland protesters shared other concerns about Gorsuch, pointing to a track record that they perceive as anti-women’s rights, anti-working class, and too conservative and invested in dark money groups for their political tastes. They also believe that Gorsuch holds a troubling pro-corporate bias, something that rank-and-file citizens on both the right and the left typically oppose. (93 percent of American voters believe that politics today “empower wealthy special interests over everyday Americans.”)
When Mike Sylvester addressed the crowd during the second speech of the rally, he touched on this disconnect between politicians and the working class.
A socialist perspective was offered by Mike Sylvester, (pictured above) the Maine State Rep for District 39.
“As a socialist and a union organizer, I’ve been working with low-income folks for 20 years, the people that aren’t supposed to matter,” said Sylvester sardonically. “It gives me a particular point of view when I hear the word pro-corporation, what that means to me, is that the top .1 percent owns 22 percent of all our resources. To them, none of us matter. We’re the unseen, the unheard and the unwashed. They don’t care about our unmet needs.”
According to Sylvester, America needs a shift in culture and attitudes about labor, and that “the smallest business in America is the individual worker, selling their labor to highest bidder.” He urged the others in the crowd to call Senator Angus King and demand that he reject Gorsuch’s appointment, reminding the crowd that a Supreme Court appointment is a lifetime position (at 49 years of age, Gorsuch would be the youngest Supreme Court appointment since 43-year-old Clarence Thomas in 1991).
“Let’s not fool ourselves, there have been many pro-corporate people put into positions of government for the past 30 years,” said Sylvester. “But today we are looking at the last line of defense. It’s the vote between what justice means and what is illegal.”
Others at the protest voiced concerns about Gorsuch’s conservative values (saying they were even more on the right then the last Justice Antonin Scalia) and his relationship with the Federalist Society, an organization that advocates for a strict adherence to the constitution, states' rights, and judges that interpret the laws instead of make them.
“In 21 out of 23 cases, Gorsuch would side with the employer over the employee, the haves over the have nots,” said Jeremy Mele, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. “I personally feel that what we need on the Supreme Court is people that understand the plight of the working class.”
Mele, Cote, and others at the “People’s Filibuster” rally didn’t display confidence that Senator King would vote the way they wanted, but all of them expressed the importance of voicing their dissent anyway.
The People’s Defense was the name of the string of protests that took place last Sunday that called for, among other things, the rejection of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination.
For activists like Mele and Harlan Baker, the local organizer of the “Say No To Racism” rallies on First Fridays in Portland, protests are an integral part of democracy, and help with both big picture planning and day-to-day struggles.
“You’ve got to make sure the movement shows up at the polls,” said Baker. “We have to organize inside the Democrat party and find the new blood and the new ideas and push them to the surface.”
“I’m hoping that resistance keeps going until 2018, so we can put more more Democrats, people like Sanders and Warren, back in office,” said Mele. “But for the day to day stuff, what’s really important is that it shows the people who might not be feeling welcome, that there are people that care about them. People in the LGBTQ community, people of color, they see these top politicians demonizing them and they really need to know that that’s not how the majority of Americans feel.”
For them, the resistance isn’t fading away anytime soon.
“The resistance will sustain itself by the interpersonal contacts that are made here all the time,” said Cote. “It’s going to keep us from getting tired, losing faith, and dropping out, I don’t see that happening.”