Alarmed by President Trump’s Agenda—and by a Lack of Response From Representatives—Knoxvillians Get Organized

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She calls herself an accidental activist.

Perplexed and alarmed by the election of President Donald Trump, Sarah Herron, a Maryville mother of two, did what any red-blooded American does these days: She started a Facebook page to voice her dissent.

“I was honestly just frustrated by calling my representatives, and not feeling like I was being heard, just blown off,” she says by telephone last week. “I’ve never been involved in politics before. But the election of Donald Trump is very frightening to me.”

So she started a public Facebook page called Indivisible East Tennessee based on an existing platform for activism she heard about on the Rachel Maddow Show. Within a few days, 150 people had liked the page, which early this week had 1,800 likes and followers.

The site, which Herron bills as nonpartisan and has received support from both sides of the aisle, features various “calls to action” providing phone numbers, contacts, and talking points for issues ranging from the immigration restrictions proposed by Trump to the controversial nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. The latter issue prompted a virtual multi-pronged digital assault on U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. His testy statement of support for DeVos generated more than 7,000 comments on his Facebook page.

Herron also sends out a weekly newsletter aggregating activist information and political news throughout the 2nd Congressional District.

“I think I’m a community organizer now, accidentally,” she says with a chuckle.

She is not alone on the digital activism front: Hannah Houser started “Love Trumps Hate Knoxville” soon after Trump’s election. That Facebook page now has more than 11,000 followers, and, like Indivisible East Tennessee, serves as a clearinghouse for local calls to action. There is an organic overlap with other activist sites and organizers, but its clarion calls helped bring some 300 people downtown to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office Jan. 30 for an anti-DeVos protest. Two days later, about 1,000 people rallied on Market Square in support of immigrants. Those numbers pale compared to a local march that coincided with the Jan. 23 Women’s March on Washington: An estimated 4,000 people flooded downtown in solidarity with the national march.

That’s likely the largest activist political rally in Knoxville since the Vietnam War, and indicates the depths of concern in some circles about the Trump agenda.

“We started as a way to connect marginalized communities together,” Houser says in the midst of chanting and a sea of signs Feb. 1. The march in protest of Trump’s proposed ban on travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Islamic nations was organized and sponsored by Bridge Refugee Services and Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors—within four days—but was publicized and promoted on local activist social media sites such as Love Trumps Hate and Indivisible East Tennessee.

“The focus has been on changes we can make locally,” Houser says. “I think we’ve set a good example of inclusion and connectivity, as well.”

The grassroots dissent provides an opportunity on the political front, but the challenge will be coordinating disparate groups and sustaining momentum.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Gloria Johnson, a Democrat and former member of the Tennessee Legislature who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican Eddie Smith for his 13th District state House seat in November.

Her social-activist focus is now on preservation of the Affordable Care Act targeted by the Trump administration and many Congressional and Senate Republicans.

“It’s great from my perspective because so many people want to get involved,” Johnson says, but urged others “to make sure we are being effective in coordinating and not step on each other’s toes.”

Johnson and Herron—both of whom say concerns about the Trump agenda cross party lines—say their efforts have largely been a one-way street. Johnson describes her efforts to recruit U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Maryville Republican, to a local town hall meeting during the February recess as “frustrating.” She says he declined a constituent meeting.

Alexander seemed to soften his tone as DeVos neared her successful confirmation on Tuesday—she needed a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence after some GOP defections led to a 50-50 tie in the Senate. A social media post this week from his Senate office showed video of Alexander answering the telephone in his office; multiple calls to his Washington office were still met with busy signals.

“Tennesseans with whom I have talked feel passionately for and against Betsy DeVos, and I have welcomed their comments. I am voting for her because she will implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind the way Congress wrote it: to reverse the trend toward a national school board and restore local control of public schools,” he said in an e-mailed comment relayed by spokesperson Ashton Davies.

Opponents of DeVos and other nominees—namely Scott Pruitt to head the EPA—have kept phones and nerves jangling in Washington. Most say their interactions with Senate staffers have been cordial, but U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Republican in office since 1988, minced no words in declining to take part in a town hall meeting as requested by hundreds of East Tennesseans in his district via emails and letters, saying such an event might open him up to opposing opinions from “extremists, kooks and radicals.” He also said some of those opposed to the agenda of President Donald Trump are “sore losers.”

“Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them,” he wrote. Duncan spoke to and had a question-and-answer session with the Knoxville Tea Party in June 2010 in Fountain City Park.

Duncan spokesperson Don Walker didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional comment or examples of specific “hateful, very angry emails” referenced by Duncan.

“I don’t know who those people are,” Herron says, again noting her desire to keep her activism nonpartisan. They are certainly not members of the Bible study groups she has met with, she says.

Johnson says such an attitude is a disservice to his district, and, speaking of both Duncan and Alexander: “You don’t represent your base, you represent everyone in your district.”

In response to Duncan’s refusal to meet with community groups in a town hall meeting, Indivisible East Tennessee announced on Facebook the “Kookfest Call to Action” for this Friday at Duncan’s office in downtown Knoxville where attendees will set personal appointments to meet with their representative.

Knox County-based journalist Thomas Fraser is a native of Charleston, S.C. who grew up in Oak Ridge and Knoxville. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and has worked as an editor and reporter for daily newspapers and websites in Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia.

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