This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
Jaffe speaks with organizer Jesse Alexander Myers, a former Occupy leader who recently moved from New York City to Bloomington, Indiana, to work for Hoosier Action, a new community organization focusing on economic-justice, formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Back in 2008 Barack Obama narrowly won Indiana, the state that gave us Mike Pence. But in 2016, the state continued its shift to the right, with 57 percent voting for Trump.
Myers talks about how political gerrymandering impacted Indiana’s election results, the legacy of Pence’s actions as governor and how his organization hopes to bring about change. Myers hosts From The Heartland, a podcast about organizing for social and economic transformation in the Rust Belt, the Great Plains and the South. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sarah Jaffe: Indiana has been at the center of a lot of things over the last year. You are in (what was formerly) Mike Pence country. You are not that far from where the Carrier plant and the Rexnord plant and all of the things that Trump paid attention to for a minute were. Give people the lay of the land of what is going on in Indiana specifically.
Jesse Myerson: Indiana is thought of differently from the other states in this area, like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, because it is almost never included when people talk about swing states. It is often thought that it is just too far gone and too reactionary here. But it wasn’t very long ago, in 2008, that Barack Obama won the state. Of the nine people that we sent to the US House back then, five of them were Democrats. We have one Democratic senator and one Republican senator. It was very much a swing state at that point.
— Jesse Myers
In the interim, because of the tea party insurgency in 2010 and the super-ruthless gerrymandering that that subjected the state to, things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years — also because of Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Mitch Daniels. For instance, Indiana is now a right-to-work state. As I said, the gerrymandering is really terrible and then there’s the voter-ID law. Of course, this is a state that is still reeling from NAFTA and a lot of terrible poverty that began [after it was implemented.] People who used to have good union jobs in manufacturing are now working 30 hours a week at Walmart.
The state of Democratic people’s power in Indiana is really, really weakened by all of these reforms. If you look at electoral maps, you have places in 2008 that were blue are now salmon and places that were salmon are now red and places that were red are scarlet. Donald Trump won the state, the governor is Republican and both state legislature houses are supermajority Republicans.
Seven out of the nine members of the congressional delegation are Republicans. We still have a split between the senators — Democrat and Republican — but the Democrat, Joe Donnelly, is up for a very, very tough re-election next year. The Koch brothers are already running ads against him. He is definitely the most vulnerable Democrat coming up. He voted for Gorsuch and has not done very much to endear himself to Democratic voters.
SJ: And Donnelly endorsed anti-abortion bills when he was in the House.
JM: If only there was some better person who would replace him, but as far as it looks, the person likeliest to replace him is a far right-winger named Luke Messer, who will probably run against him in 2018. The state of politics here is very difficult, but I think that underneath, the state is still very much a swing state the way that it was in 2008. With some diligent organizing of the working class, that can be reflected much more in the coming two election cycles. Perhaps we can pull out of supermajority in time to get a much more fair — at least bipartisan — agreement around redistricting next time, and then open up possibilities for a more dramatic transformation in future years.
SJ: Organizing that working class around working-class interests was the reason that you moved to Indiana. Tell us about Hoosier Action.
JM: Hoosier Action was founded by a remarkable woman named Kate Hess Pace, who is from Bloomington, Indiana. Her family stretches back five generations in New Albany, Indiana, which is a small town just across the Ohio River from Louisville, in the same congressional district. For the last seven or eight years, SHE has been up in Minneapolis-St. Paul doing faith-based organizing with a group called Isaiah, which is part of the PICO Network, organizing congregations around economic justice issues. She was instrumental in some really big campaigns including winning the toughest foreclosure protections.
After the cataclysm of the 2016 elections, she felt very strongly the urge to come home and start something here in southern Indiana, because the state of organizing in Indiana has been greatly debased. This is especially true in southern Indiana, where there was never particularly high union density… I was also moved by the cataclysmic election results and felt very strongly that my efforts would be more efficiently deployed in the middle of the country, in places where there wasn’t as significant a progressive infrastructure as there is in my hometown of New York City…
Basically, I wanted to go to a place that had voted for Obama and then voted for Sanders in the primary and then went to Trump in the general. And there were plenty of places like that. That was the sort of cross-section of people who, in having voted for Obama, showed that the vitriolic racist organized white supremacist faction wasn’t so powerful there that it was dictating the course of the state that had this sort of anti-establishment bent that led the Democrats of the state to prefer Sen. Sanders. And then, ultimately the state went to Trump, and thus, needs considerable organizing out of that situation.
A mutual friend connected me to Kate. We have been building this thing now for three months. We have a small but growing base of dues-paying members. We have teams around operations, administration and fundraising. We have been running a test canvass program to gear up for our first big canvass, which we start on July 8. We did a day-long boot camp training for organizers in Indiana. People from all over the southern half of the state came. We did one action at Donnelly’s office around Medicaid cuts and infrastructure. We have been collecting Medicaid stories, first-person accounts that people, mostly mothers in the region, have written, and are trying to get them placed in national press outlets. As Kate says, “Power is organized people plus organized money.” So, that is what we are trying to do: collect a lot of people and a lot of money. It is the only way we are going to make an impact in Indiana or nationally.
— Jesse Myers
SJ: You got one of those stories in The Washington Post, right?
JM: Yes, from a woman named Audi McCullough. I went to a die-in protest at Bloomington Town Hall that was sponsored by a bunch of groups, including the Monroe County chapter of the National Organization for Women. Audi is a member of that. It is a fledgling organization as well, it started after the Women’s March.
At the protest, Audi got up with her child, Kaden, and told her story of his extremely complex medical needs [Kaden has a congenital heart condition as well as a bleeding disorder] and the health scares that they had both faced. She talked about the absolute necessity of Medicaid as a basic pillar for them to live free and dignified lives. I said to her, “You are a natural leader.” She wrote up her story and we got it placed in The Washington Post.
SJ: Telling these stories is an important part of this kind of organizing, but you can also end up with people thinking that just telling a sad story is going to be enough to move their senator and then wondering why that doesn’t work. I would love you to talk a little bit more about the way this storytelling does and doesn’t fit into your organizing strategy.
JM: It is definitely integral. As you imply, it is not sufficient unto itself, but basically, the essence of the organizing we are doing is relational. Organizing that takes place absent the building and deepening of relationships between people is going to be basically facile. It is one thing if you can get 12 people in a room to talk to us and it is another thing if you get 400 people and 400 really only comes when people have deepened their relationships with one another.
A lot of this organizing is based on having long one-on-one discussions with people: what their lives are like, what they are interested in, what they are concerned about, what they are afraid of, what they are angry about, what they are hopeful for and growing relationships that way. Those stories are important in the actual day-to-day organizing, talking to people and letting them know who you are and finding out who they are. As a kind of public expression, what we hope to do is to mobilize people with that, but ultimately that mobilization should turn into a person becoming a dues-paying member, coming to monthly member meetings, joining a team and taking on work. That can be knocking on doors, doing data entry, helping to promote issues or taking on a shift at the farmer’s market or at a county fair. Ideally it is not a high-temperature sort of organizing like what we saw at Occupy Wall Street where it is lots of marches, lots of heat and lots of intensity.
Really, that emotional heat is being channelled into really well-functioning systems that allow people to take on discrete amounts of work that makes sense for them in terms of their working and personal lives.
SJ: A lot of people will say, “Is this movement dead?” or “Is this movement gone?” — and actually, a lot of important work is the work you can’t see.
JM: We think of Hoosier Action as a vessel or a basket that we are all collectively weaving so that it can be strong and hold all of the people and money that we are trying to bring together to create power. Weaving that basket or making that vessel water-tight — that requires all sorts of maintaining spreadsheets and sending follow-up emails and doing lots and lots of unglamorous behind-the-scenes work. It may not look like it is actually waging class struggle in the way that we want to imagine it cinematically unfolding, but that is actually vital for building the kind of power that we need. If it were a weak basket or a vessel with some holes in it, the power that we would be able to accumulate would be greatly diminished.
SJ: There have been very particular public health issues that are worth bringing up, because they are issues that are prominent around the country, perhaps especially in places like Indiana that have been hit really hard by the decline of manufacturing. I am talking about, of course, the HIV outbreak that Mike Pence is basically responsible for and the opioid crisis.
— Jesse Myers
JM: These two are linked. There is actually a third one which I would cite, which is water contamination. All three of those crises were really, really deepened by the Pence approach to public health, which is basically to decimate it. In Scott County, which is in this part of the state, there is a very high poverty rate and there is a lot of opioid usage. Pence, being the radical ultra-right-wing Christian fundamentalist theocrat that he is, waged war on Planned Parenthood during his tenure as governor and shut down the Planned Parenthood in Scott County, which did not offer abortion services but was the only facility in the county that delivered HIV testing. So, with that gone, this HIV outbreak occurred, which is the biggest in the state’s history and the first in the United States that we know to be associated with sharing needles from injecting prescription painkillers.
Pence was extremely resistant to the idea of allowing needle exchanges. Eventually, he relented — he didn’t make them legal statewide, but he did start a program whereby counties could appeal to him for a waiver against the prohibition. Eventually, that got a little better. Then the new governor, who is less of an ideologue but still a Republican operative, Eric Holcomb — he has been more lenient on that still.
The other one being the water contamination crisis in East Chicago, Indiana due to industrial byproducts. Pence wouldn’t call a state of emergency, which would have freed up some funds to help relocate people who couldn’t live there without getting poisoned. Gov. Holcomb has relented on that and called the state of emergency.
Holcomb has proposed a new modification to the Medicaid program here. It is called HIP 2.0: the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, which Mike Pence reluctantly expanded under the Affordable CARE ACT. Holcomb is hoping to add a new provision that adds a work requirement so that either you have to be working or you have to be actively searching for work if you are able-bodied under this new plan. That necessitates a big bureaucracy to determine who is able-bodied, who isn’t, whether they are sufficiently looking for work, and all these sorts of things that wind up meaning that the program will cost more and cover fewer people. So it is not as though his public health record is shaping up to be any better than his predecessor’s.
SJ: And that is if Medicaid doesn’t get decimated by federal government.
JM: Right. They are talking about cutting the thing in half in a decade. There is significant poverty in this region and people really rely on it as a basic pillar of their lives. If they cut it and people get kicked off it, they are just going to be underwater. There are a lot of people who just cannot work. If they cut Medicaid and these people get kicked off, then they are going to die.
SJ: How can people subscribe to your podcast, support your work, and, if they are in Indiana, join Hoosier Action?
JM: Hoosieraction.org is the website, and you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter — Hoosier Action, both cases. I am taking a Twitter hiatus right now, but normally I am @JAMyerson on Twitter and you can follow me there.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.