Today we bring you a conversation with Liat Olenick, a public school teacher and co-president of Indivisible Nation BK, which is a Brooklyn-based activist group. Olenick discusses the group’s latest rally targeting Sen. Chuck Schumer and how Indivisible Nation BK plans to hold Democrats like Schumer accountable in the coming months.
Sarah Jaffe: We’re talking today because you had a rally last week targeting Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, right? Can you tell us how that came off?
Liat Olenick: We held a rally outside his Manhattan office, although we have held previous rallies … outside his house as well. The purpose of this rally was to push him to lead the Democratic Caucus and unite them in opposing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh [to the Supreme Court]. Because of the makeup of the Senate, the only way that we really have a chance at blocking this nomination is if Democrats are united, so his leadership is essential.
This is not the first time that you’ve protested Chuck Schumer, as you said. Talk about the importance of groups challenging Democratic leadership and demanding that they stand up to Trump.
Indivisible is all about holding your own elected officials accountable. As a Brooklyn group, we meet … literally in his backyard; we’re right near his house. We do have members from all over Brooklyn, but because we’re so close to him, we kind of feel a special responsibility to continue to hold him accountable and put pressure on him to be the leader that we need right now.
All elected officials are there for one reason: because they were elected by people going out and voting for them. When we signal to our representatives what we want them to do or that we are thankful for something or that we are disappointed in actions that they have taken, they pay attention because they want to, ultimately, get re-elected and stay in office. The whole Indivisible model is based on that. We — especially with Chuck Schumer — take that really seriously because we are in his backyard, and also because he is the most powerful Democrat in the country right now, and more than anybody else, we need really strong consistent clear leadership coming from him and his office.
Have you gotten any response from his office to these actions?
Yes, we talk to his staff pretty frequently. They know about the rally. We always invite them to come and talk to people when we do a rally like that, or a protest. They did not come down this time around. We did let them know about it in advance, and they certainly were aware that it is happening, and were in conversation with them about the Supreme Court nomination and all the other things that are going on.
You said they didn’t come down this time, but they have before?
Yes. We have held previous similar rallies, especially last summer with the [Affordable Care Act (ACA)] repeal fight. In those instances, the staff would often come down and talk to people, which was really appreciated. But they did not do that this time.
Aside from the ACA repeal, what are some of the other rallies that you have held? What were the targets and the demands?
In terms of Schumer, specifically, we have also organized a lot of actions around the DREAM Act. Last winter, we staged one protest in Grand Army Plaza, which is two blocks from his house, and then one directly outside his home about the DREAM Act because that is an area where we wanted to see stronger leadership, in terms of using his leverage to protect Dreamers, which is obviously still an issue.
Then, last summer, as I said, we had been fighting Trumpcare. We organized one or two rallies outside his office. Then, way back in January of 2017, there were some protests in Grand Army Plaza and near his house that were more focused on pushing him to oppose Trump’s cabinet appointments. We did not organize that, but we did participate. So, there has been kind of a similar local consistent push to urge him to be a stronger “No” in the Senate and to unite his caucus on some key issues.
Tell me about the makeup of the group. Who are the people? Are these longtime activists? Are these first-time activists getting involved because of Trump? Tell me how that came together and who the average person in the group is.
We got started in December of 2016. It was very much a response to the election. However, I would say there is a wide range of experiences in the group in terms of political activity and work. There are some people who have been engaged in some form of activism for years and years … and there are some people who … are new to taking political action in this way, and they are really just still learning the tools that are part of Indivisible and part of getting involved in elections. So, it is a range.
I think I am kind of a middle-ground example. I am a teacher, but I have been an education advocate for a long time, where I have been organizing and writing and protesting on issues related to education, but I was kind of siloed. Then, after the election, it was like, “No, I need to organize everything, I can’t just focus on this one issue,” and felt like I needed to learn and kind of spread out to things that were bigger.
Within the group, was anybody opposed to the idea of challenging Democrats, or do people really come together with this idea that … this is the appropriate thing to be doing right now?
I think within our group there is definitely — and within Indivisible groups across the city and the state — there is a fair degree of unity with regards to how we see Senator Schumer’s role in particular, and there is a widespread desire to see stronger leadership from him, not just specific to our group.
We don’t really see it as “challenging Democrats.” We see it as doing the basic democratic job of holding elected officials accountable no matter what party they are a part of. That is our role as active and informed constituents: to make sure that our elected officials are really representing us and our interests. That guides our work related to Senator Schumer, but also other elected officials that we interact with.
Going forward, the Supreme Court nomination is one fight, [and] we’re leading into midterm elections. What do you want to see from Senator Schumer and the Democratic leadership going forward?
Specifically, with regard to the Supreme Court, we want to see a united Democratic caucus. It is very simple and it is essential. We have seen that be effective last summer with the ACA repeal fight. The only reason we were able to stop the repeal of the ACA is because we had a united Democratic Caucus and it did not hurt Democrats in polling or in messaging or anything to take a strong stance on an issue that affected millions of people.
We see the same issue at stake with this — health care is at stake combined with so many other issues, including the possibility that our president could attempt to pardon himself. We just expect a clear firm line on the Supreme Court nomination where all Democrats are saying, “We are voting no.” Whatever their individual reasons are, that will vary depending on what state they are from, but we expect unity.
Then, going forward into the elections, we would really like to see him take a more active role in helping to craft Democratic priorities and messaging because he is not very visible in this. This is actually something that we have met with him in person about, where he put out this Better Deal platform, which has a lot of really good policies in it, but we are not seeing it promoted or shared with the public in a way that is effective.
That is part of why we had pushed for Senator Schumer to hold a town hall in New York City for over a year. He hasn’t held one in years … and we felt like this is what leadership is about and he needs to talk directly to constituents. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are holding nationally televised town halls where they are talking to millions of Americans. He is minority leader. He needs to put himself out there. There was a town hall scheduled for the first week in July, which we were very excited about, and it was cancelled at the last minute because of some travel issue.
So, in addition to uniting Democrats on a Supreme Court nomination, we really want to see him rise to that leadership and meet the leadership needs of the moment, reschedule his town hall … kind of an “all hands on deck” situation.
What were some of the policies in that that people in your group found inspiring?
There are definitely some really good things in the Better Deal. There is antitrust regulation, $15 livable minimum wage, protections for unions, for teachers…. Those are all compelling things. Lowering the cost of prescription drugs. There are great policies within it, but there is not an overarching message and it is not being shared with the public.
We want to see him out there talking about, “This is what I stand for, this is what it means to be a Democrat, and I am not afraid to answer your questions. I am not afraid to be held accountable by my constituents and these are the ways you can do your part to help whoever get elected in November.” We see other elected officials doing that across the country, where people are really stepping outside traditional ways of relating to constituents and “business as usual” to try to mobilize people and inspire them.
How can people keep up with you and with your group and what is going on?
They can definitely follow us on social media. On Twitter, we are @bkindivisible. Our website is www.IndivisibleNationBK.org. We have our Facebook, also. Everything is on the website. We are very active. We are doing things every day. We welcome everybody to get in touch in any way.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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.