Article in the German newspaper „nd“

„Lancaster Stands Up“ rebels against the right-wing in Pennsylvania

Lancaster bears the beautiful motto, „Red Rose City.“ It refers not to the symbol of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but to the coat of arms of the Duke of Lancaster in England. In general, the street names, with all their Princes, Dukes and Queens, recall the old mother country from which the settlers broke away in the American Revolution. 

The Pennsylvania city prides itself on having been the capital for one day during that period in the 18th century, but „there were a lot of them,“ a longtime resident of the city said with a laugh. „Even George Washington is said to have slept here,“ added her husband, but the general had to go somewhere during the Continental Congress‘ flight from Philadelphia to escape the British king’s army. But I’m actually not here for history lessons, but for the struggles of the present.

There is a remarkable movement here that stands up to a conservative mainstream in Pennsylvania. The organization Lancaster Stands Up emerged after Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory to show that there are people who disagree with his agenda. Eliza Booth and Suzy Wurtz are involved with the organization. I met them for lunch at „Ironhill,“ a typical casual eatery, over Coke and French Fries.

Eliza Booth told me how she was desperate after the election of Donald Trump and sought support from like-minded people. Only in Lancaster, home to about 70,000 people, did Democrats win the most votes, while Republicans dominated the county of the same name.

„I just needed a place to let my feelings out, and I heard about this meeting. Because I felt hopeless and alone and even wanted to move out of this country,” she said. Booth, who is Black, has lived in the city for 22 years. The election was a low point for her. She hoped maybe 20, 30 people would come to the first Lancaster Stands Up meeting two weeks after the election. But there were 300. „A lot of people were relieved that they weren’t alone. But there were also some who cried because they couldn’t believe our country elected this man,” she said. “But hope prevailed. The people who organized the meeting said, ‚If we come together, we can do something to protect our neighborhoods, our children, our community.'“

Suzy Wurtz doesn’t live in the city of Lancaster, but in Ephrata, a small town in the northern part of the county, and drove a half-hour to our appointment. Northern End is the name of the area, and it is firmly in Republican hands. Wurz said that she, too, comes from a conservative Christian family and had been registered with the Republicans herself. Registering as a Democrat, Republican or Independent has a different meaning than party memberships in Germany. Nearly every U.S. citizen states that. „When the 2016 election approached, I switched parties because I didn’t want to vote for Trump,“ she said. „I knew Hillary Clinton didn’t represent me or people like me, but I was done with Republicans. So I voted for Hillary.“

At the time, she was living in a homeless shelter with her children and working around the clock to get back on her feet financially. Like Booth, she felt isolated. „I thought I was the only person in this neighborhood who believed in equality and social justice. But Lancaster Stands Up came to us,“ she said. The organization invited people to an event in Ephrata, she went and became a member. „I didn’t have much time to organize at first, because I had to work,“ she explained. But Wurz wanted to support what Lancaster Stands Up was doing in her area. „We started a local group Northern End Stands Up. I actually work for them professionally now, even though that wasn’t my plan at all.“

„We wanted you because you’re from Ephrata,“ Booth explained. „You didn’t want someone from the city to come to you.“ She talks about their first activities, „We were looking first at police accountability. Then people lost their jobs because of Covid and couldn’t pay their bills. Our local government cut off their electricity. So we organized to keep the electricity going. Now we’re working to resist the far-right takeover of our school boards.“

Lancaster Stands Up funds itself and its three employees primarily through regular contributions from its now 450 members, as well as donations. But contributions are the key. Too often, organizations are founded and quickly disappear because they depend on one-time donations. Lancaster Stands Up, on the other hand, aims to work for the long term.

I read an account in a local newspaper of a conversation with Booth that felt like an interrogation. I asked her about it. „Yes, that’s what it was like,“ she replied. „They asked me, ‚Are you socialists?‘ I just said, ‚Calm down.‘ That’s me personally, but I have to think carefully about what I tell people.“ I’m surprised by the answer. After all, there were the Bernie Sanders campaigns and a DSA membership boom. But Wurtz says, „This isn’t New York City. Where I come from, people get scared when someone says they’re a Democrat, and they don’t want to speak to him.“

„There are many here for whom only one issue matters: that’s abortion,“ adaddedds Booth. „And if the candidate isn’t Pro Life, they don’t care about anything else.“ Pro Life is the name given here to those who deny women’s right to self-determination over their bodies. „They want a $15 minimum wage, are for better health care, and then ask, ‚Where do you stand on abortion?‘ Of course, we don’t lie, we say we’re for a woman’s right to decide that for herself. Then the response is, ‚Oh you know, we don’t want to kill babies.‘ It’s really sad,“ said Eliza. „Christian nationalism has completely taken over rural America in the last two decades,“ Wurtz pointed out. „Positions that don’t fit in there, they think are evil.“

For Wurtz, committing to Lancaster Stands Up was a profound change in her life. Nearly all of her friends have renounced her. „If you become a Democrat, you renounce God, they think. One friendship from that time still endures. They supported Trump and some started believing these really crazy conspiracy theories. I actually strongly believe in giving people a second chance,” she said. “But when someone says things like ‚Democrats eat babies,‘ I don’t know what to do with that anymore.“

This insanity that Wurtz addressed has become widespread in the United States. She was referring to a conspiracy narrative by the far-right QAnon group that says an influential global Satanic elite kidnaps, tortures and murders children to extract a rejuvenation serum from their blood. Only Donald Trump would fight these people. With Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, there are now even Republican members of Congress who hold such views. Dozens more are running in the November elections.

When government infrastructure such as education and health care no longer function, the two women observed, when there are no longer adequate mental health care options, religion becomes increasingly important to people. They pinpoint the blossoming of a right-wing media landscape as another reason for Trump’s mainstream. „We used to have Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, which was bad enough,“ Wurtz said. „But now you have One America News, Newsmax, Alex Jones and all that kind of stuff. It’s a regular industry that has brainwashed people I grew up with.“

That’s what Lancester Stands Up is fighting against. Even if that’s difficult for a young movement during the pandemic. Booth said the organization didn’t know how to respond to the restrictions at first. They closed their office in the city and stopped organizing events. Instead, they started doing direct neighborhood outreach a while back. „We just called all our members to hear how they were doing,” she explained. “We held virtual game nights to combat loneliness, organized transportation for those in need, because public transportation is almost non-existent. Only now are we slowly starting to meet in person again.”

The two women are not well disposed toward the Democratic Party. They haven’t forgotten how unfairly the Party treated Bernie Sanders. Booth even changed her registration to „independent“ out of anger at the time, but later returned because the electoral system in Pennsylvania would otherwise have barred her from participating in the Democratic primary. And influence on the party that dominated city politics was something she still wanted to have.

In the 2018 U.S. Congressional elections, they ran left-leaning Democrat Jess King against incumbent Trump supporter Lloyd Smucker. King won a respectable race. With 41 percent to 59 percent of the vote, Democrats came closer than Republicans have in a long time. „Because she ran on her ideals,“ said Booth. King, a member of Lancaster Stands Up, was already there at the first meeting. „Even though we lost, we drew strength from that remarkable outcome. Oh my gosh, we got so many new volunteers and enthusiastic people, we were able to build on that.“

Still, she puts hope in those who are unhappy. „A lot of them first say, ‚We don’t want anything to do with politics anymore, both parties are equally bad.‘ But they are reachable! After all, we’ve managed to increase voter turnout.“ When I had already turned off the recorder, Wurtz said another remarkable thing: „Some who voted for Trump in 2016 are with us today, helping us with phone calls to continue to build support for Lancaster Stands Up.“

After dinner, the two women drove me to their downtown office to take pictures. When I look at the pictures on the train back to New York the next day and see all their optimism, I realize: their fight is far from over.

The former Member of the Bundestag for DIE LINKE (The Left) Stefan Liebich is a fellow of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in New York City.

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