Former showrunner Beau Willimon talks about his plans to create an "action group network" in response to the election.
Photo by Jesse Grant / Stringer
One of the first ways President-Elect Donald Trump screwed me is with all the post-election email chains. Over the past two weeks, friends have reached out with calls to organize, get active, grieve together, please bring cheese. Those of us who weren't already making the world a better place (I write about pop culture, for God's sake) know that it's time to act. But what's much less clear is how to take impactful steps against the orange demagogue who's about to become America's commander in chief. So when Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards offered to "facilitate a Culture of Action," it's no surprise he got an overwhelming response. If we have a reality star for a president, we might as well have a showrunner helping lead the opposition.
On November 9, just after Election Day, Willimon threw his hat into the ring by tweeting, "The new movement starts today. Alert your networks. I'll have more info soon about short/long term action items and organizing. #BandTogether." In a world where Lena Dunham is leaving voicemails for Paul Ryan on Instagram and Mark Ruffalo offers up a nude scene in exchange for Hillary votes, it's not rare to see one of our "intellectual" celebs get political. But Willimon's call to action came equipped with places, time, and an apparent desire to follow through. His Action Group Network—which is what he's calling his loose organization—will hold public meetings in nine US cities over the next month.
More than 400 of those concerned citizens showed up at New York's introductory meeting this Saturday. Two dozen volunteers were on hand to wrangle the assembled lawyers, playwrights, parents and children, the director of the left-wing Working Families Party, and at least one House of Cards actor, into a warehouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Everyone I met was a friend of a friend of Willimon's. One volunteer met him through a friend's Tinder date two years ago and had stayed in touch. Another simply worked at the event space, and when she met Willimon, decided to stay and help set up. It's a testament not just to the hatred Trump inspires, but Willimon's people skills—one 22-year old volunteer called him "empathetic and compassionate"—that an entire South Brooklyn industrial space was filled so quickly.
Willimon has a longer history in politics than most celebrity activists. Before spending all that time with George Clooney to write Ides of March, he did legwork for the Senate campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer and presidential campaigns for Howard Dean and Bill Bradley.
Willimon told me that the goal is to form groups of ten to 50 people who are passionate about the same issue. The network will be "decentralized," although as of now Willimon himself is footing the bill for a staff. He envisions "friends, family, colleagues, working together on the concrete issues that matter to you. That could be electing someone to the school board, linking up with a larger organization like the ACLU, fundraising for something local or national, you name it." At the New York event, speakers' suggestions for "concrete actions" ranged from sending money to underserved abortion clinics to signing the Change.org petition to put Clinton in the Oval Office—Electoral College be damned—to protesting at Steve Bannon's next speaking engagement to tutoring local high school students. Many called attention to hate crimes (and anti-hate crime vigils) local to Brooklyn.
An easy criticism to make of all this is that there are many people fighting these battles already, without the Culture of Action. "If you have a cause that you're interested in, it's best to see what work is already being done in that space, try to get involved, and expand what operations are already happening," New York-based immigration attorney Lauren DeBellis, who also attended the action group meetup, told me. "A lot of groups have already been working on these issues, but now there is an abundance of people who want to get engaged. It's important to remember that a lot of this work is already in place, and there are resources that you can tap into."
Activism, as Willimon is quick to point out, is a habit like any other. A linked network means when the untenable policies start to roll in, people who are already used to spending three hours per week fundraising can switch over to making phone calls or protest signs. "We're creating people that have peer accountability to each other and a shared sense of responsibility," he said. "That overall culture of action will move the needle in a more progressive direction."
Over the course of the three-hour meeting in Brooklyn, Willimon called on individuals as they voiced concerns over the laundry list of issues that the president-elect has promised to trample on: immigration policy, access to abortion, freedom of the press, Medicare, gun control, and LGBTQ rights. Ten issue-focused groups came out of New York's event. OK, not bad for 180 minutes, but now what?
"I hope there's follow-through beyond email," said Fordham professor Eric Anthamatten, who volunteered to head a committee on prison reform. "It's great to see moving out of the hashtag activism, though you look around the room and there's only two or three persons of color here. This is grassroots, but it's already in another tier."
A focus on diversity is something that these action groups might learn from established organizations. Nicolás Ruiz, business agent for the Hotel Trades Council, a hotel worker's union, told me that "black women are the fastest growing group of union members. I hope that concerns post-election will bridge this supposed disconnect among the working class, and between the working class and the rest of the progressive movement."
Renata Pumarol is the communications director for the progressive New York Communities for Change. When I spoke to her about Willimon's efforts, she emphasized the importance of structure when starting an advocacy effort. "People that form groups organically, especially to do unpaid work, also have jobs and families," she said. "It can be hard to keep groups moving without structure, finances, and motivation."
The rush to join Action Group Network—41 cities in 30 states so far—speaks to new communities feeling the motivation that can come from feeling like their rights are under attack.
"There is something refreshing and important about thinking outside of the box, and I do think that new ideas from all different backgrounds can reinvigorate the discussion and techniques we use to approach all these major issues," said Lauren DeBellis. "But from the top down, it must be imparted to everyone who is interested in organizing right now that this is a marathon, not a sprint."
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