Carolyn Gibbs puts on the striped pants first, then the striped jacket. The hat is the finishing touch. That’s if it‘s Uncle Sam’s day. For the Statue of Liberty, it‘s a mint green dress, a halo of moss, and a political sign, usually, like the torch.
Before Donald Trump became president, Ms Gibbs, 59, rarely dressed for Halloween, but occasionally dressed for a costume party.
But for almost four years, she showed up at rallies in suburban Pittsburgh malls in elaborate costumes, ready to take on the role of a playful protester.
“I’m ready to make a fool of myself for democracy,” she often says.
Yet for all of her playfulness – and it is limitless – Ms. Gibbs is driven by a sense of anger and residual shock. How could so many of her neighbors in western Pennsylvania vote for a man she saw as a threat? She still finds herself stuck on the question.
“I had started to think that we included and served everyone in this country,” Ms. Gibbs said. “But that’s not true at all anymore.”
Over the past four years, Ms Gibbs and a half-dozen women (along with a man) have devoted countless hours to Progress PA, a political group they created to elect Democratic candidates in western Pennsylvania, part of the state that helped fuel Mr. Trump’s victory last time around. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is counting on voters like them – older suburban dwellers – to reclaim Pennsylvania, where polls show him leading the way. But their work is less about their enthusiasm for the former vice president and more about their distaste for the current occupant of the White House.
Before the Trump era, these women were hardly radical. Many voted for Republicans, including George W. Bush. They not only represent the kind of feminist activism that Mr. Trump’s victory sparked, but the particular anger of my Republican neighbors in the western suburbs of Pennsylvania, where dozens of similar groups have popped up. over the past four years.
“I had never had this kind of strong, unconditional desire to do something myself,” 60-year-old Stacey Vernallis said of her political life before 2016. “I was always ready to leave this job. to be the work of others and to simply be a voter and perhaps a donor. “
She described waking up the morning after the 2016 election with five different pits in her stomach. She imagined that her children were losing their health care and that her youngest stepson, adopted from Nepal, faced increased discrimination.
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She therefore planned to join the Women’s March in Washington, DC, the day before President Trump’s inauguration. The 2017 event drew around half a million people, making it the largest one-day event in U.S. history.
When Ms. Vernallis returned to Pittsburgh, she created her own political action committee, Progress PA.
“It was right: we have to do it. We need everyone we can, ”she said.
Soon, members of the group were protesting every week outside the office of Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican. They then knocked on thousands of doors to help get Conor Lamb elected to Congress in a year where Democrats like him have received record financial donations totaling over $ 1 billion.
“This is a huge change that is transforming politics very dramatically in state, in Congress and perhaps in a national election,” said Lara Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively on activism in the suburbs.
“In the wake of Trump’s victory, people tangentially involved woke up and said, ‘This is not the world I signed up for,’” she added. “People who have stepped forward are often older, stable and forget to take ‘no’ for an answer; they don’t even ask for permission.
Now, the Resistance, as groups like Progress PA are happily called, presents itself on its most direct and important chance to resist: voting Mr. Trump out of office and encouraging others to do the same.
It does this amid other significant stressors. Energy has been declining since 2017, and for a while it looked like it might go out completely due to the pandemic. Members of the group cared for college-aged children suddenly coming home, teenagers abandoned at school, and adult children worried about losing their jobs. A few cared for older relatives whom they feared visiting, fearing that they might be infected with the virus.
Who had time for voluntary political activism? But within weeks of the pandemic that turned life as they knew it, it became clear that activism was some kind of coping mechanism, hobby and luck to control it all in one group. .
“We have to fundamentally reinvent ourselves,” said Linda Bishop, who retired from the international bank and spent much of her life as a registered Republican, in a Zoom meeting this spring. “We are stuck here in our homes, we are older, we have to be careful. We’re not doing anything stupid.
Suddenly, Ms Bishop had gone from looking after her one-year-old grandson twice a week to only seeing him on FaceTime. It would be months before they kissed again.
Sadness mixed with rage permeated every Zoom session, which was peppered with personal frustrations with the strategy.
“If I can’t laugh, I’m just going to cry,” said Ms Gibbs, who has spent much of the past few months managing her mother’s medical care. Yet the virus prevented her from visiting her mother in the nursing facility, a situation she described as “overwhelming”, when she transferred her to the hospice in September. As Ms Gibbs drove to help her mother move, she left stones she painted with “Joe” at several rest areas along the freeway.
“I’m just pissed off, and if I don’t act I’ll be paralyzed,” she said.
Progress PA is now firmly behind Mr Biden, but during the Democratic primary members had different favorites – Ms Gibbs favored Senator Cory Booker, while Mary Anne Van Develde and Linda Bishop liked Senator Bernie Sanders. None really had Mr. Biden as their first pick, but they swore they would back whoever wins.
“There has never been a more important year for the nation,” said Ms Van Develde, 65, a former television news producer. “Whatever we do, it’s just take Trump out, bring Democrats in. If Biden is to be successful, he’ll need all the help he can get. “
Undoubtedly, the pandemic changed the group’s perception of what political activism looked like. Members were stranded in their homes, unable to do the same kind of street theater that had become central to their identity. They were determined not to be alone despite their physical isolation – meeting at least once a week on Zoom to divide tasks and exchange local political analyzes.
“I miss the times when we can do this together,” Bishop said at a meeting in June. “I’m going to need a little more talking time.”
When another member spoke of going to the supermarket, Ms Bishop admonished, “I think you go out too much for someone your age.
And each day has brought further aggravation for them with the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
The group’s political action committees raised nearly $ 110,000 for billboards across the region, ultimately placing them in 55 spots in 20 counties, so much so that they were told the ads would register five. million impressions per week.
But that still didn’t move their ideas from “the chalkboard to the sidewalk,” as they put it. By August, they had become sufficiently restless, and comfortable enough with physical distancing, to begin organizing protests outside post offices, with signs like “End the Nonsense” and “Trump Knew.” He lied. People have died. “
In the past, witty one-liners were a key part of the message, but few looked funny this summer.
“We’ve always aimed to take humor and push it as far as possible,” Ms. Van Develde said, acknowledging that this approach is made easier by being white women of a certain age. “We know where we can make a difference – we won’t be able to bring out the black vote in the city, but we can convince people like us, our neighbors, to see absolute absurdity right now.
In a recent cool fall on Friday night, the group gathered outside a post office tucked away in a mall just off the freeway, with about 20 other people – mostly women – who are came to support the cause. They planted Biden-Harris signs and some for local Democrats.
This time, they set up heading south, facing the cars driving towards Pittsburgh. They knew they would hear friendlier horns that way – in the weeks they moved to the other side, cars heading into the wealthy suburbs of North Hills were more likely to throw out comments and gestures from the crowd. hostile hand. Even still, that night, they saw quite a few middle fingers raised in their direction as the drivers passed them. A woman waved an American flag, saying she wanted to remind people that it isn’t just Republicans.
They were only there for an hour, but they would come back the week after, and the week after. The hope, they said, was to take a short break after polling day. But at the next meeting, when someone asked if they were planning to disband after the election, the reaction was unanimous: absolutely not.
“The job will not be done,” said Van Develde. “There is just no turning back.”
Kim Lyons contributed reporting from Pittsburgh.