“Well done, team.” That message was posted by the Wisconsin-based “Cheesehead Indivisible” group on their Facebook page shortly after the news broke that Trump had fled the White House. While Trump’s sudden departure was a bombshell for many, those who were active in opposing his agenda and his presence in office reacted with a distinctly unsurprised tone.
“Cause and effect,” said Angela Binai, an organizer with the Cheesehead group, when reached for comment. “We were very strategic in what we did, who we targeted, and how we escalated, especially after January.” That message was echoed by representatives of more than a dozen other “resistance” and protest groups, both independent and Indivisible-affiliated, in places as disparate as Corvallis, Montana; Stockton, California; Denton, Texas; and Durham, North Carolina.
New York City organizer Felicia Wood remembers one specific action as a turning point: “You could feel the shift in energy the first time really massive numbers of us marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to protest outside Chuck Schumer’s apartment,” she said, referring to the Senate Minority Leader. Wood was part of an action on February 14 in which 15,000 people crowded the streets of the residential neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. “Instead of going to Times Square or Trump Tower,” said Wood, “we took it home. Schumer and other Democratic leaders had sometimes talked a good line, but they didn’t start doing anything to counter Trump until they became the target of highly focused popular pressure.”
Muntaha Arain, the author and historian of American political movements, noted that this change-up in strategy occurred nationwide. “There was no one straw that broke the camel’s back,” Arain said. “But this was about changing targets and tactics.” That evolution in grassroots strategy in the months leading up to May 1 increased the overall sense of the president’s isolation, even as Trump’s mounting legal troubles and impeachment proceedings in the House upped the pressure on the White House.
“Protesters really focused their pressure on the people and institutions that were normalizing Trump, either by actively propping up his administration or failing to take bold stands to oppose him,” Arain said. “Demonstrators also proved increasingly willing to engage in nonviolent direct action, which contributed to creating a sense of crisis around Trump’s presidency.”
That was evident in the surge of smaller protests that occurred across the country. Groups of one to four dozen people — primarily women — regularly marched to Congress members’ local offices to demand support for the ongoing impeachment proceedings and noncooperation with the Trump administration. Senator Schumer was the first target. On March 1, coordinated groups of women marched to all nine of his offices, in Washington D.C. and throughout New York state, carrying signs that read “Give a F*ck, Chuck!”
Over the next several weeks, as calls for “the Bundle” gathered support across the political spectrum, the marches evolved into occupations, mostly targeting Democrats. The women who had coordinated regular protests at Schumer’s offices again led the way. On March 8, International Women’s Day, the women — many accompanied by their infants and toddlers — marched to Schumer’s offices and staged occupations that came to be known as the “Sippy Cup Sit-ins.” They refused to leave until Schumer signed a pledge to “support the will of the majority of Americans and rally Democrats to support an ambitious progressive vision, as well as block any legislation or presidential appointment that might limit the rights and resources afforded to marginalized Americans.” The pledge, circulated online and later adopted by countless groups across the country, asked elected officials to commit to using tactics such as denying quorum, withholding consent, and filibustering to “throw sand in the gears of this rogue administration” and “stand up for the policies Americans really want.”
Schumer initially ignored the protesters, likely not wanting to be seen arresting women with small children. But pressure mounted as each of the nine offices became sticky zones of chaos, making it impossible for Schumer — or his staffers — to get work done. “There were people dropping by around the clock with tamales, lasagnas, and juice boxes for the protesters,” said one staffer. “Babies kept drooling on our keyboards and there were half-chewed Cheerios and dirty diapers everywhere.” After 10 days of occupation, Schumer became the first lawmaker to sign the pledge, though sit-ins resumed periodically throughout the spring when protesters felt he wasn’t following through.
The protests spread virally, with different groups taking the lead in different communities, much like the first wave of Women’s Marches that took place in more than 650 communities in the day after Trump’s 2017 inauguration. No single organization spearheaded these nationwide protests, but by April 1, every major progressive network and group had thrown their weight behind the Sippy Cup actions, mobilizing their members either to join the sit-ins or to support them with supplies and picket lines outside.
By mid-April, nearly half of the nation’s Congressional district offices, including most Democrats’ offices, had been directly disrupted by protests at least once. In Texas and Arizona, groups of young women blockaded the entrances to several Congressional district offices by standing side-by-side in colorful quinceañera dresses, creating a veritable wall of floof that couldn’t be breached without arresting the demonstrators.
No member of Congress would go on the record to say they had been swayed by these protests, but when one elected official was asked to comment on whether the protests had influenced her decision first to support the Bundle and then to participate in the filibusters that paralyzed Senate proceedings during much of April, she replied, on condition of anonymity, “Duh.”
Organizers said they took inspiration from two action guides published after the midterm elections. “Indivisible on Offense,” released on November 18, 2018 by the nationwide network that played a key role in spurring grassroots Congressional advocacy during Trump’s time in office, provided strategies for pressuring members of Congress to impede Trump’s agenda and rally around progressive legislation. The guide framed demands for ambitious goals like Medicare for All — or, for that matter, Trump’s impeachment — as agenda-setting rather than quixotic or unrealistic, emboldening the grassroots resistance. “It expanded our sense of what was possible,” Binai, the Wisconsin activist, said
Organizers also cited a guerrilla action guide that was slipped into The Washington Post the week before the 2019 Women’s Marches. The guide drew on writings and strategies from past nonviolent resistance movements, encouraging organizers around the country to focus on Trump’s active and tacit supporters rather than Trump himself. Other sections encouraged people who had already marched and rallied to consider using tactics like sit-ins and blockades to escalate pressure.
Some of the highest-profile disruptions were creative spin-offs of the approaches recommended in the two playbooks. For instance, photos from all 17 Trump-owned golf courses — including those in Ireland, Dubai, and Scotland — went viral on March 18; the word “RESIGN” had been etched into their golf greens. The culprits, who were never identified, posted an anonymous communiqué explaining that they had used white vinegar, a natural and fast-acting grass killer.
Two days later, a group of over 450 teenagers affiliated with the Parkland, Florida #NeverAgain movement encircled the White House and locked themselves to each other and to the fence using chains, PVC pipe, and other hardware, calling for Trump’s resignation. Dismantling the blockade took almost a full day, which was covered breathlessly across cable news. Aerial and on-the-ground footage of the ensuing arrests and aggressive treatment of some of the teens led Trump’s approval rating to drop to an unprecedented low.
The momentum kept building. Nationwide protests broke out April 15, which was both Tax Day and a day that the global Extinction Rebellion movement had already named as the beginning of a #RebellionWeek of climate-crisis actions. The “You’re Fired!” protests drew huge turnouts from the wide array of movements that had been mobilizing against Trump for two years and from many who hadn’t yet marched — including a number of fed-up former Trump voters. Some 3 million protesters mobilized in over 400 cities and towns across the country, typically gathering in a central square or plaza and then marching to the offices of their elected representatives. Chants included, “You fire him, or we’ll fire you.”
Alarmed by the protests, Trump took to Twitter on April 17 with a message to his remaining supporters: “We only have 88 hours. Defend our country from mob rule.” The use of “88” was widely understood to be a reference to the neo-Nazi shorthand for “Heil Hitler.” Twitter users called on Twitter to take down the president’s account, but the company remained silent on the matter.
In response, demonstrations broke out outside Twitter’s 11 U.S. offices, with several evolving into nonviolent blockades. Protesters responded to Trump’s “88” message with signs that read “86 45.” On April 22, Trump posted the fateful Tweets calling for his “big beautiful base” to “vote with your trigger finger.”
Resistance groups including Indivisible and the Women’s March had already planned April 27-28 as a weekend of citizen lobbying for the Bundle and for Trump’s impeachment. After the tweets, MoveOn activated its Crisis Response Network, calling for “all hands on deck” for the weekend protests. Many Americans who had, up until this point, sat on the sidelines turned out for what appears to be the largest weekend of protest ever in American history. Estimates suggest that as many as 11 million Americans participated in the demonstrations, which took place in more than 800 towns and cities. Many localities were effectively shut down by the huge peaceful protests.
The next day, on April 29, an outraged Twitter employee, who still has not been identified, deactivated both the @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS accounts. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey initially released a statement that the company would reinstate the accounts, but a crowd estimated at 5,000 barricaded the entrances to the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Police refused to arrest the demonstrators, and after 24 hours, Dorsey tweeted that the president’s account was shut down until further notice for violating the site’s terms of service.
@realDonaldTrump went silent and, soon after, so did the real Donald Trump.