Activist Who Trolled Trump and Pissed off the Secret Service Is Undeterred
How this prominent Philly organizer has been on President Trump’s case, got the attention of federal law enforcement, and continues to advocate for what she believes in.
Photo via Flickr user WeAreUltraViolet.
Melissa Byrne is an activist's activist. The opposite of an insider political consultant, this Philly-based political organizer and strategist has been on the political frontlines for years, overseeing direct actions, electoral campaigns and protests. She is a familiar face in progressive political circles, and according to her recently published Op-Ed in the Washington Post is apparently becoming known amongst the United States Secret Service.
During the GOP Obamacare repeal effort earlier this year, Byrne organized peaceful sit-ins in front of congressional offices, rallies on Capitol Hill, and ensured protesters had food and water. Most recently she has been an active and visible opponent of the Trump administration. In July 2017, as part of her work with the women's advocacy group UltraViolet, she joined about a dozen people to protest President Trump at his Bedminster, NJ golf course, calling on the president to finally release his tax returns. She led protesters who wore t-shirts that said: Dump Sexist Trump.
Earlier this month, as part of her work with UltraViolet and the Working Families Party, and just hours before President Trump's notorious press conference about the "Unite the Right" events in Charlottesville, Byrne executed the unfurling of a giant banner that read "Women Resist White Supremacy" inside Trump Tower. It was shortly after this action that Byrne was put in handcuffs by the NYPD, and interrogated by the Secret Service. A few days later, she got word that her neighbors were being canvassed by law enforcement and being approached online for information about her.
Her recent run-ins with law-enforcement are a concerning sign of an administration that appears uncomfortable with criticism and keen to clamp down on civic dissent. This is particularly relevant when considering the ongoing effort of the Justice Department to obtain information from the protest website DisruptJ20.org.
VICE Impact caught up with Byrne by phone as she was waiting in an airport, returning from yet another peaceful UltraViolet direct action in Kentucky targeting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to "call on President Trump to impeach, resign or be censured."
VICE Impact: Your op-ed is making the rounds. What do you think led to the Secret Service's interest in you?
Melissa Byrne: We knew we had to be very secretive about planning the banner drop. We didn't do a press release and we didn't tell any reporters what was going on. No tweets, no Facebook -- super low profile. They were more insulted that we were able to pull it off and be able to do a protest inside a secure area. Trump Tower is this weird space that is both a presidential site and a public space, so it's not like walking into the White House. It's like walking into a Starbucks.
You've had a busy few months whether it's health care sit-ins or protesting the president at his golf club. What actions have you been most proud of?
Stopping the ACA repeal was great. Granted, it's going to be back on the chopping block, so it's like Groundhog Day. It keeps coming back again like some zombie bill.
But the main thing is really being able to pull off actions to really show that Trump isn't on a pedestal, that he's still accountable to us, and that our First Amendment is strong even though there are people in the government who don't want to enforce it.
Lately you've been leading protests and direct actions focused on the president. What has stood out for you in terms of what's been most effective?
When security is breached -- even in a protest in a public space, but one that also happens to be his home so to speak -- the president has to be informed. We did this leading up to his now-famous presser of his take-three of a Charlottesville response.
We really think that he was so off-kilter and unhinged because he was told that we were able to do this protest inside his home about how people are there resisting white supremacy. But we were basically resisting him because he's the face of white supremacy right now in our country.
Do you think the Secret Service was trying to intimidate you? Has the country taken a turn that you haven't seen before when it comes to dealing with protesters, dissent?
It was definitely meant to intimidate. I wasn't read my rights. They made it very clear they saw me as a visible threat. I'm committed to nonviolence, so being put through that kind of interrogation and being threatened with a felony is not how people should be treated.
In the Obama years, when people who took action inside protest perimeters for issues like immigration, health care, the environment, and what not, they weren't subject to this kind of treatment. I was almost over it, but when I got the message about the secret service doing home visits to my neighbors I knew then I needed to be completely public about this.
Is it going to dissuade you from protesting in the future?
No. I'm going to keep planning to see what I can do next.
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Since Charlottesville, you've been vocal online about criticizing some of the tactics of the so called "antifa." In light of what happened in Charlottesville and Boston and from an organizer's perspective, how have you reacted to the news?
I really believe in a strict adherence to nonviolence. That's how you win. A lot of time groups within the antifa can sometimes unintentionally escalate things. You also get a lot of people who will insert themselves into a bloc, and they're really just there to cause mayhem and problems. Charlottesville was a mess because a lot of regular progressives stayed home, and so you didn't have the 40,000 people in the street to be a wall to shut down the bad shit. Ideally we'd do enough organizing and mobilization that we don't need antifa.
People think the days of knocking on doors are over or that it's all about digital organizing and social media. Is in-person action still important?
All of our work is a tapestry. You can never do only one thing. One thing doesn't win campaigns. You have to have all parts doing what they do. To do an offline action you have to do online recruitment and online amplification afterwards. We win when we do all the parts planned out perfectly.
What do you say to a young person who is unsure or disheartened about the world right now?
Organize. Get out in the field. Do the work.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.