Why Indivisible Pittsburgh Needs to Disband

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Feb 23, 2017 · 12 min read

The latest version of this article is now on the Huffington Post.

Attendees of the Indivisible Pittsburgh Kick Off meeting, holding signs with messages that include “I’m here because decisions are made by those who show up.”

On February 22, 2017, the Pittsburgh chapter of Indivisible held their kick off event at the Union Project in East Liberty. At that meeting, I witnessed them effectively exclude the voices of people of color, immigrants, queer, Muslims, and poor from their event. Indivisible Pittsburgh also excluded the input of community organizers who have been working in Pittsburgh for years prior to the current presidential administration. After the event, one of the Indivisible Pittsburgh event leaders, a middle aged white man named Andy Norman, verbally abused and harassed multiple women of color attending the event. This is an account of that event and the circumstances surrounding it.

Indivisible, for those who are not familiar, is a nationwide movement that is formed by congressional staffers who created “a step-by-step guide for individuals, groups, and organizations looking to replicate the Tea Party’s success.” The Tea Party, by the way, is a white supremacist movement that also excluded the concerns of Black, brown, immigrant, queer, trans, and disabled individuals from their politics. Just because the Tea Party was effective does not mean that it ought to be a model for change.

To that end, when members of Congress wrote the Indivisible handbook that accompanies the formation of local chapters, they clearly stated the necessity of centering those who are most threatened by the current administration in every stage of forming the group:

“Trump’s agenda explicitly targets immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, the poor and working class, and women. It is critical that our resistance reflect and center the voices of those who are most directly threatened by the Trump agenda. If you are forming a group, we urge you to make a conscious effort to pursue diversity and solidarity at every stage in the process. Being inclusive and diverse might include recruiting members who can bridge language gaps, and finding ways to accommodate participation when people can’t attend due to work schedules, health issues, or childcare needs.”

“Every stage in the process” does not mean “at the kickoff meeting” or “after you have met,” as Indivisible Pittsburgh seemed to hope would happen with its first event. It means that this should happen when people first come to the table.

There is no lack of women of color, queer people, disability advocates, and immigrants rights advocates who are organizing in Pittsburgh. Many of these organizations are not being approached by new groups that are springing up in the wake of the presidential election — or if they are approached, it is as an afterthought. To quote local intersectional feminist leader Daeja Baker:

“If they know any people of color they should have invited them directly. It is clear that either the group doesn’t really, as a collective, value the work of people of color in the community enough to invite people or that possibly that don’t know many or any people of color and they didn’t try connecting with individuals in a meaningful way.”

Baker said that Indivisible Pittsburgh never asked the organizers voicing their concerns a simple question: Do you know of any grassroots organizations where we should direct people? Do you know of any grassroots organizations that we should contact?

Not doing so violated the parameters set out in Indivisible’s very own guide, which specifies the necessity of seeking out activist groups or networks to see whether they are already doing congressional work. In not contacting these organizations, they missed a wonderful opportunity to engage, educate, and galvanize many to broaden their understanding of different, complicated advocacy movements in Pittsburgh.

Prior to the event, questions were asked of the organizers on the Facebook event page in order to determine whether Indivisible Pittsburgh was meeting the national chapter’s guidelines and centering the voices of those most vulnerable to the new administration’s policies. The reasons for this also extended beyond the guide itself.

After experiencing with the abusive and racist behavior of the Women’s March on Pittsburgh, the intrinsic dangers of showing up to an event primarily led by inexperienced organizers became apparent. The organizers of the Women’s March on Pittsburgh have no idea what a “safe” space looked like for vulnerable and persecuted individuals, and are not equipped to set those parameters. If something happened within this space that was “unsafe,” they would also be unequipped to recognize or adequately address it. Without knowing their names upfront and in writing, it was also evident that if something unsafe did happen at the meeting, it would be harder to get in contact with them and ensure that it would be adequately addressed. Another is that if a leader happened to enact aggression against the Black, brown, queer, immigrant, trans/nonbinary folks for whom they claimed to be fighting — aggressions which, if it needs to be said, Democrats are not exempt from making — it would be more difficult to hold them accountable and ensure that they do not have access to organizations working with those vulnerable populations in the future. And still another (my primary reason for wanting to know their names) was to ensure that the event was not being hosted by a particular individual who organized the damaging and harmful Sisters March on Pittsburgh and has since continued to harass Black femme organizers and disrupt political actions in Pittsburgh, both online and in person.

Much like what occurred with the Sister’s March on Pittsburgh, comments by local Black femme organizer Celeste Scott asking about diverse leadership for Indivisible Pittsburgh went unanswered by the administrators of the event. Women and men responded to her comments with tone policing and accused her of being a bully or a troll. Administrators were alerted to these accusations and did not intervene.

In a post I made requesting the organizers state their names and identities, I shared my own identity to advocate for transparency, which I will repeat here: I am a white, cis, queer neuro-atypical femme who uses she/her pronouns. I expressed that it was important for me to know the organizer’s identities in order to determine whether this was leadership I could get behind. I expressed that I do not want to be led by white cishet individuals anymore.

Of course, identity is not enough, and I realize now that what I was asking veered close to tokenism. Intersectional leadership is not and should not be a checklist for diversity, and fulfilling a certain number of criteria of differences is not enough to make an intersectional movement. However, in this city, which is one of the most segregated cities in the North, the sentiment behind my expression was very real and true. As a white femme, I’ve realized that I am not somebody who can effectively be an intersectional leader, after attempting (and failing) to do so in a meeting held post-election. From that lesson, I have learned that I want to follow leaders who are representative of women and femmes who are Black, brown, immigrant, trans, physically disabled, and low income so that the full range of issues impacting women and femmes are addressed and accessibility is guaranteed. Additionally, as a queer neuro-atypical femme, it is also important that I see leadership in organizations that are representing me.

Additional questions about the accessibility of the event went unanswered. A few people asked questions about the availability of childcare that were unanswered. A friend asked whether she could bring a three-year-old child; this was unanswered until I asked on her behalf, in a separate comment thread. Another woman asked what roles had been assigned and which ones were still open, as Indivisible Pittsburgh had professed their interest in getting leaders from different organizations involved. This question also went unanswered. We were also told repeatedly in various contexts to “show up to the meeting and find out!” which is, frankly, wrong. Vulnerable individuals do not need to “show up to a space” and “find out” whether it is safe for them, particularly not under this current government. Meanwhile, women involved in the event page accused those of us who were expressing our concerns of “trolling” and infighting. The administrators were alerted of these comments and did not intervene.

This is not what ensuring a safe space for vulnerable populations looks like.

I showed up to the meeting along with members of my intersectional group for women and femmes, which formed out of Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally on January 21, 2017 in East Liberty. My motivation in attending the Indivisible Pittsburgh meeting was to support Felicity Williams, one of the group’s members, at her request. Felicity wanted to hold the leadership accountable in their promise to be intersectional and connect with existing organizations. When Felicity stated her intention to attend the Indivisible Pittsburgh meeting, speak out, and represent the issues that concerned her, she was met by white women saying that they were “scared” by a Black woman’s presence. Black femme activists Celeste Scott and Sueño Del Mar, two of the organizers of the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally and founders of Black Femme Excellence Co., also attended the Indivisible Pittsburgh event, as well as other queer and non-binary folks who were concerned about lack of intersectional representation.

The meeting began with the leaders of Indivisible Pittsburgh acknowledging the online comments posted by Celeste, Felicity, and others as expressing valid concerns that they intended to address. Then they took turns speaking about the presidential administration. Andy Norman spoke the longest. One of the questions he posed to the crowd was asking them, “Who is ready to stand up for ‘minorities?’” The overwhelmingly white audience rose to their feet.

We were directed to do three actions, which included taking pictures of ourselves filling out placards stating why we were in the room. These images, posted on Instagram with #IndivisiblePittsburgh, scrolled across the screen at the front of the room behind the speakers. As the speakers went on and on about the Trump agenda and the importance of calling members of Congress, it became increasingly apparent that filling out these placards was the only way that we might have a chance to bring visibility to the concerns we had been articulating online — concerns we had been repeatedly encouraged to bring to the meeting when we attended. So, we went back to posting online:

Black Femme Excellence Co. co-founder and intersectional feminist leader Sueño Del Mar holds a sign that says “I’m here because I don’t hear enough white voices.” Sueño was approached after the meeting by white Indivisible Pittsburgh leaders who asked her whether she wanted to be involved, not because of her organizing experience, but because of her skin color and the sign she was holding which said “Intersectionality.”
Intersectional femme artist and activist Mario Josephine holds a sign that reads “I’m here because #WhiteErasure.”
Queer artist Anna Nelson holds a sign that reads “I’m here because I want diverse representation, I want queer, black, brown, poor, immigrant, and people with disabilities in power.”

Our #IndivisiblePittsburgh Instagram photos scrolled on the screen behind the speakers without acknowledgement. The leaders did not pass the mic or give the opportunity for others to speak, did not pull out any call for leadership that I heard, and did not articulate what roles in their organization were even available. Instead, we were asked to fill out more postcards to send to Republican Senator Pat Toomey.

The event ended at 7:50 so that 70 minutes could be spent on clean up. Chairs began to be folded as people left. Felicity, along with others, went to the front of the room to speak with two of the co-founders, including Andy Norman. They did not address her concerns other than saying that they were “trying their best” to be better. One of the co-founders, a white woman, said that Indivisible Pittsburgh should exist because the guidebook “told them we needed new organizations,” which is inaccurate.

Felicity then asked a simple question: “There are already organizations doing this work with experienced and diverse leaders. What do you all add?”

Andy Norman told Felicity that her attitude and “people like her” were the problem with the progressive movement for their “divisiveness.” He also told her — despite Indivisible Pittsburgh’s claims that they had not been organizers for very long — that he had been an activist for “longer than she had been alive.”

Sueño interrupted Andy Norman to tell him that his words were ridiculous. That is when he became verbally abusive. He became threatening to Felicity and Sueño, pointing his finger in Felicity’s face, spit flying out of his mouth as he yelled, “We invited you and you and you here tonight, and you all come and harangue us?!”

When Felicity and Sueño tried to speak, he demanded that they let him finish talking, but then silenced and dismissed them when they tried to speak, and turned his back on them to walk away with an attitude of arrogance, dismissal, and superiority.

A staff member from the Union Project — which had been identified as a “safe space” to hold the meeting — approached Felicity and reprimanded her for her very justified behavior. The staff member said that the Union Project was a “safe space” and that Felicity was “making people uncomfortable.” Felicity expressed her own discomfort and the fact that the Union Project was not a safe space for her. She asked the Union Project staff member why she was talking to her, and not the white man who had verbally assaulted her. The Union Project staff member said that Felicity and those of us gathered alongside and behind her needed to calm down. A friend of Felicity’s, a Black woman, asked if she could speak and “be the voice of reason.” The Union Project staff member turned to her and said, “No.” The staff member said she would go and talk to Andy Norman, but we did not see this happen.

By the time the meeting was over, we still did not know Andy Norman’s full name. Felicity and other members of our intersectional feminist group got in touch with El Horton and Emily Brown, two of the white woman organizers behind Indivisible Pittsburgh. They told Felicity, Sueño, Celeste, and me that they agreed that the actions of Andy Norman “were inappropriate and that he should not be in a place of leadership in the group.” In response, I asked for his last name to ensure that I could notify other organizations where he may try to become involved. This request was also repeatedly articulated by Felicity, Sueño, and Celeste.

El Horton said this in response to our request: “We honestly know very little about him as a person. He was convincing that he had a lot of experience speaking to crowds and had a lot to offer as a teacher, but we in retrospect should have thought more about giving him the mic. He will be banished from leadership, you have my word.”

El Horton later responded to repeated requests for Andy Norman’s full name from the women he verbally abused with this: “Is anyone here going to doxx him, or otherwise interfere with his personal life? I don’t want to protect him; I want to hold him accountable for his actions.”

El Horton’s question demonstrated the fact that Indivisible Pittsburgh is more concerned about what might happen to a white male abuser when he is confronted by Black women than what he could potentially do to them if he chose to enter their spaces. In this way, Indivisible Pittsburgh aligns perfectly with the presidential administration it claims to oppose.

El Horton went on to say that she believed that people “have a right to their privacy” before finally acquiescing and providing us with his full name.

If somebody chooses to lead a public meeting on behalf of an organization, as Andy Norman chose to do when he led the Indivisible Pittsburgh kick off meeting, then they are leaving the private sphere. It is necessary to know their last name. He knows ours — we had to sign in on clipboards.

At this time, Indivisible Pittsburgh still has not made a statement of accountability despite the specific request of the women who were harmed by the organization’s negligence.

In this city, in the wake of this election, Indivisible Pittsburgh is just one of a number of groups who are popping up, claiming to be grassroots without actually being connected to the grassroots organizations that have been working here for a long time. Indivisible does not stand for inclusiveness — instead, it stands for liberalism, which has long excluded the voices of intersectionality from its politics. It is no coincidence that, even under the Obama administration, Democrats only had one Black senator in their ranks. And as for the members of congress, only one — a Republican — had a Black Chief of Staff. Liberalism and the Democratic party are in no way exempt from the white supremacy now so often being associated with the Republican-controlled government.

It is very real that with our current presidential administration, Congress, and potentially our Supreme Court, social services and protections as well as civil rights are being stripped away. Resistance is necessary. For those seeking to oppose the administration in a meaningful way, please leave the unnecessary, white supremacist-led Indivisible Pittsburgh and bring your energy and contributions to one of these organizations instead.

Please contribute to compensate Felicity Williams and the members of Black Femme Excellence Co. for their intellectual and emotional labor. All donations to Black Femme Excellence Co. will be used to organize intersectional events.

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