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Resisting Trump In The Reddest Part Of New York City

Whither town halls?

People kept walking up to John Mazzella to ask why he was carrying a poster of rainbow-hued poultry. "I drew this," the Staten Island attorney explained, "because Donovan is being a chicken!" It was a Saturday morning, and Mazzella, along with about 100 other anti-Trump and pro-Obamacare residents of New York's 11th Congressional District — which covers all of Staten Island and part of south Brooklyn — was standing outside the office of Rep. Dan Donovan, a Republican. This was the second time that week that a bunch of Donovan's constituents had congregated outside his doorstep in Dyker Heights, offering to bring a town hall to him if he refused to hold one himself.

Only about 19 GOP legislators (out of 237) held town halls during last week's congressional recess, the rest perhaps having learned a J. Walter Weatherman-style lesson from the combative Tea Party town halls of 2009 — meetings that preceded monumental Democratic losses: "And that's why you avoid public forums where pissed-off citizens can say you're bad at your job." As a result, many organizers and angry constituents did the whole civic-engagement tasting menu — rallying, calling, postcard writing, or just holding their own town halls while their representatives complained that engaging with frustrated voters in a big room "diminishes democracy."

Donovan, who got his job in a special election in 2015 after his predecessor pleaded guilty to felony tax fraud and resigned, chose to offer a tele-town hall this month. He spoke to about 14,000 constituents who called, preventing any chance of Frank Capra-style performances caught on camera. His office cited the protesters at a Chamber of Commerce event in early February, who yelled, "You don't represent us, Dan Donovan," as a reason to avoid an in-person affair. Donovan has been meeting with many of the organizers of these rallies in small groups at his offices during the congressional recess. After the protests, Donovan told the Staten Island Advance that he wouldn't vote for a repeal bill unless it was attached to a replacement, and noted that he has co-sponsored legislation dealing with protecting coverage of pre-existing conditions and the right for children to stay on their parents' plans until age 26. He put out a statement after the first rally last Tuesday noting that “Every American has the right to express opinions — it's a healthy component of democracy."

The organizers planning these rallies, like the Tea Party types who came before them, aren't just interested in beckoning Donovan closer to their ideological bunker. Many of the people attending or becoming congressional pen pals are getting involved in politics for the first time; if activists can keep them interested through the next few election cycles, winning back some of the seats lost by Democrats during the Obama administration could be a very possible denouement. However, that goal could be slightly more difficult in the 11th, despite its proximity to nonstop protests in Manhattan. It might be New York, but Donovan won nearly 62 percent of the vote in his 2016 race. The borough has only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate three times since 1964 — with all three times coming since 1996. But the outnumbered resistance here isn't about to give up, and thinks if change can happen here, it might be able to happen anywhere. "They keep telling us that we're [the part of New York City] like middle America," says Bobby Digi, president of the Staten Island Democratic Association, "so what we do here will resonate nationally."

A number of new groups have formed in the district since the election, as if asexually reproduced from the embers of Trump-inspired despair, raising their hands to take part in this monumental task. There is Fight Back Bay Ridge, and an Indivisible group started by a local dad and his friends, as well as Staten Island 4 Change, Staten Island Women Who March, and Move Forward Staten Island. The district is still red enough, though, that many of the protesters at Donovan's office felt like they needed to prove their local bona fides by scribbling their ZIP code at the corner of their signs — 11214, 11209, 10301, 10314, 10304 — like it was a talisman that could protect them from skeptical opponents. Others took a more direct route: One sign simply read, "I am not a paid protester. I pay YOU."

Some of the most energized residents, though, are those who have been most targeted by Trump's rhetoric during his campaign and the beginning of his presidency. The area surrounding the Staten Island Ferry on the North Shore is the most diverse part of the island — which as a whole is 75 percent white — with many black and Hispanic residents. This neighborhood is the only one that voted for Hillary Clinton. When Donovan was district attorney, Eric Garner was killed here, and none of the officers responsible were indicted. Debi Rose, the neighborhood's city council member, became the first African-American elected official on Staten Island in 2009. On election night in 2008, a group of white people here decided to “go after black people," assuming they had voted for Barack Obama.

Favio Ramirez-Caminatti, executive director at El Centro del Inmigrante, an immigrant day-worker center on Staten Island, points out that there are more foreign-born residents on the island than there are residents who voted for Trump. Of course, the majority of these immigrants are white newcomers from Europe or Russia who moved east when the bridge to Brooklyn was completed in 1964, but the number of immigrants from elsewhere in the world is also increasing, slowly making the borough more diverse. Ramirez-Caminatti still hopes that these numbers mean his home borough won't support policies that ban people from coming to the U.S., or deport those who have lived here nearly their whole lives. He also knows that history has a way of repeating itself. "The problems that the Latino community is facing right now," he told MTV News, "are the same problems that the Italians had years ago. And the Irish had years ago. The same problems, but sometimes people forget about that." Many of the immigrants in the district are getting political for the first time ever. Josette Khayat was walking around the Saturday protest with a small sign that looked like a printed-out pop-up ad from the New York Times website reminding you that you've run out of free articles. "The truth," it noted, "is more important now than ever." She came to the U.S. in 1958 from Aleppo, Syria, thanks to an act of Congress, and has lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, ever since. Although she's voted in every election, off-year and presidential, since becoming a citizen, she's never been the type of person to rush to a rally. Now, however, she's willing to do anything. "This is a dangerous time," she said, adding that the president was "stupid in a very clever way."

Ramirez-Caminatti moderated an alternative health-care town hall in Staten Island sponsored by health-care unions and a mix of new anti-Trump groups on Thursday. The loudest cheers of the night came when a retired special-education teacher stood up and said, "Immigrants do make America great." Residents expressed their worries to an empty chair with a Rep. Dan Donovan placard on it about what would happen to the only two hospitals in the borough or to much-needed opioid addiction treatment if federal funding changed, and said that it was already getting harder to live on the North Shore thanks to the housing "renaissance" that threatened to kick out those who couldn't afford the changing times. "There's a Mason-Dixon Line in Staten Island," town hall attendee Patricia Willis told MTV News after the event, "and we only meet during basketball games." Emma Alabaster, who was at the town hall with Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, lives on a street where there is a Trump sign and also a Unitarian church with a Black Lives Matter sign. She was still shocked by the election results, because she still feels like she lives in enough of a "New York bubble." Willis wasn't surprised. She still thinks change is possible, though. "It's going to happen," she said, "because it's affecting white folks now. We've been yelling for a long time. It's not a choice for us. My parents, everybody fought to get us to this point. We're not about to stop now."

The pushback here is by no means universal. At one of the rallies, a woman opened the door of La Belle beauty salon next door to Donovan's office and began to shout, "Why don't you all go work instead?" Before she retreated back inside, mostly unheard over the din of chants, she added, "Go take gas, all of you." On Tuesday morning, Donna Murphy stood outside the beauty parlor watching the rally like it was a somewhat boring game of tennis. Her health-care workers union, 1199SEIU, had joined the protest, and she stopped by out of curiosity. She had a photo on her phone of a pro-raising the minimum wage Fight for 15 march she attended in November 2015. Murphy also voted for Trump.

Local progressive activists often mention the fact that the district has more registered Democrats than Republicans as a sign for optimism about their electoral chances, but Richard Flanagan, a political-science professor at the College of Staten Island, told MTV News that many of these voters are once-blue Reagan Democrats who have been voting conservative for decades and are unlikely to turn back. "The Democratic Party," he says, "has not done a great job of recruiting candidates and supporting candidates in this district. They're quick to write this district off."

While the town hall was happening on Staten Island, about 60 people were meeting in Bay Ridge to decide how to mobilize against another local official: state assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who is suing the city to stop it from getting rid of IDNYC records. Many undocumented immigrants have applied for these cards, and opponents of the case are worried how that information could be used against them.

Bay Ridge for Social Justice formed about two years ago in response to hate crimes in the neighborhood, which has the biggest Arab-American population in the city. It is also home to many of the city's police officers and firemen. There, September 11 lingers; many of the streets nearby have been renamed for first responders killed in the terrorist attack. "The Islamophobia is real," says Kayla Santosuosso, one of the organizers with Bay Ridge for Social Justice, "and it's confirmed by so many other people who live here. So you're at the front lines of this movement." Last December, a man in Bay Ridge threatened an off-duty Muslim cop, telling her to "go back to your country" while saying he'd cut her throat.

The group held its second March Against Hate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and its organizers are shocked by all the strangers now coming to meetings, as well as by all the other new organizations in the neighborhood. Santosuosso sees all the competition as an advantage, not a problem to be solved. "We're strategizing and trying not to duplicate efforts," she says. "If you guys are targeting Donovan, we can get Malliotakis and someone else can get state Senator Marty Golden." Last week, a 16-year-old showed up who wanted to start a committee to get more high-schoolers interested in racial justice. They're planning to go door-to-door in the neighborhood soon to do some deep canvassing, "so we're not just preaching to the choir," Santosuosso says.

But the big actions have yet to happen, and the rallies serve mostly as a reminder to the more liberal residents in the district that there are people out there who think like them, despite all the Trump signs that decorated the area last year — or a chance for the less politically inclined to let the rest of the world know that Trump has forced their hand. For now, the district is in stalemate, as Donovan has no desire to be yelled at in public, those who disagree with him need an echoing room filled with frustrated constituents to best make their point, and the nearest election is months away. As the fourth rally of the week was about to end last Saturday, an NYPD community affairs director was watching. "What do you think Donovan is doing right now?" he asked. "Probably at home eating a piece of pizza." He added that it would be nice if elected officials or activists could do something that made everyone happy. And what might that be? "If I knew that," he said, "I'd be in charge." And as the past couple years have made clear, that's not the most enviable place to be.