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‘September Days’: Inside the movement to bring Hong Kong-style protests to America | Will Bunch

A small but growing network of activists want to bring Hong Kong-style sustained protest to America. We ready?

Protesters gather at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. Thousands of people streamed into a park in central Hong Kong on Sunday for what organizers hope will be a peaceful demonstration for democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Protesters gather at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. Thousands of people streamed into a park in central Hong Kong on Sunday for what organizers hope will be a peaceful demonstration for democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.Read moreKin Cheung / AP

The chances are really, really good that you’ve never heard of Joshua Potash, a 26-year-old New York City college English instructor who quit his more time-consuming job at a Bronx charter school last spring to focus on his current obsession: Massive street protests aimed at forcing President Trump from office. Nor is it likely that you’ve heard of the small — but rapidly growing — protest group he belongs to called SOS America 2019.

Potash and his allies hope that second part will change very soon — maybe by the end of this month.

Let’s give this start-up a catchy name like “The September Days” (in honor of France’s 1789 “October Days,” the marches largely led by women (!) that ended monarchical tyranny). That’s because Potash, SOS America 2019, and a band of sister groups with names like Rise and Resist or By The People are probably going to need better branding and a little push before they can reach their ambitious goal: bringing daily, Hong Kong-style protests against Trump to the streets of America.

Potash and his fellow activists believe that saving American democracy from the slow advance of Trump-flavored autocracy can’t wait 14 months for the next election — that a push for the president’s impeachment or resignation needs to start now. “I’ve always been interested in getting him out,” Potash said Tuesday by phone, “and thinking that he (Trump) is not an ordinary politician, and so ordinary tactics and strategies won’t work.”

Potash and a small band of about a dozen SOS America 2019 organizers who stretch from coast-to-coast brood about these tactics all hours of the night in chat rooms on Twitter or the popular app Telegram (also used by Hong Kong protesters). And they clearly are not alone.

If you have progressive or liberal friends and spent even a few minutes on social media this summer, you’ve seen the chatter. Everyday people confronted by a global wave of rising authoritarianism are taking to the streets, often in the face of brutal police repression. To force a corrupt governor in Puerto Rico to resign. Against rigged municipal elections in Moscow. Against the virtual suspension of Britain’s Parliament in London. And to defend human rights in Hong Kong against the advance of Chinese totalitarianism.

Why, literally thousands of tweets and Facebook posts have asked, can’t it happen here?

This month, it just might. Arguably, there are more protests — against the corruption and moral rot of Trump’s presidency as well as the lack of urgent action on the climate crisis (a cause that both includes and transcends the president) — are on the calendar for September 2019 than any time since the rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some small actions are already taking place, including a “welcome back” for on-the-impeachment-fence Congress members at D.C.-area airports by the Center for Popular Democracy. But the program is slated to really ratchet up in about 10 days.

On September 20, a call for a global climate strike — led by 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, who’s in America to address the United Nations after crossing the Atlantic on a non-polluting sailboat — is gaining traction among students and teachers, many of whom plan to rally that day in the nation’s capital. On the next day — September 21, a Saturday — comes the We The People March, organized by some well-known Trump-"resistance" activists such as Amy Siskind and Dr. Karen McRae, that hopes to turn out a crowd to protest the president.

The target of these protests is not so much the immovable Trump administration or its Republican allies on Capital Hill as it is turning public opinion, and the moderate Democrats whose minds can actually be changed, toward the Green New Deal on climate, the impeachment of Trump, and action to protect voting rights and and end immigrant-detention abuses.

On September 23 — a Monday— the group By The People (not to be confused with the We The People March...yes, there’s a bit of a Monty Python “People’s Front of Judea” thing going on) is planning a large D.C. rally to call for impeachment. Groups like SOS America 2019 are hoping that this confluence of events, and the renewed interest in public non-violent protests, will trigger the kind of sustained, almost-every-day protests that have occurred in Hong Kong and San Juan.

Why now? After all, Trump’s been in office, committing seeming high crimes and misdemeanors on a weekly if not daily basis, for 32 months. And his presidency literally kicked off — on Day 2 — with the largest nationwide protest in American history, the first Women’s March that drew at least 3 million people. But after Year One, Trump resisters turned their efforts, quite successfully, to the 2018 midterms and then hoped that a Democrat-led House and special counsel Robert Mueller would do their magic. Well...

“So many of us worked for two years ahead of midterms, to take a majority and put a check in place and finally have accountability," Siskind said in a post announcing the We The People March. "That hasn’t happened. So many Americans are concerned with losing our democracy and values. We are marching to be seen and heard, to and remind our elected officials that they work for us!”

“People feel their voices are not being heard,” Minh Ngo, a 43-year-old lawyer-turned-community-activist from California’s Silicon Valley, also one of the organizers of SOS America 2019, told me. She said there’s been “disillusionment” at the reluctance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats to move on Trump impeachment. “People want to take things in their own hands.”

Ngo, who is of Vietnamese descent and has relatives in Hong Kong, said she’s too familiar with how authoritarian regimes can take root if everyday people don’t fight back. Yet she, Potash, and their cohorts are also well aware of the obstacles they face turning the roughly 57-60 percent who disapprove of Trump into a broad, risk-taking mass movement. Convincing those disapprovers that POTUS 45 isn’t just a historically bad president but a real and imminent threat to the American Experiment is only part of their problem.

Another is basic geography. Hong Kong and Puerto Rico are smallish and densely populated islands where it’s feasible to get much of the population to turn out in a day’s notice. It would take someone on the West Coast — where Trump is highly unpopular — four days to reach a mass protest in Washington. Then there’s the question of coordination — or the lack of it. The take-it-to-the-streets groups are small and just beginning to forge connections, while the larger progressive groups and labor unions with their vast crowd-raising potential have mostly sat on the sidelines.

Despite the huge obstacles, Potash said he watched (and eventually joined) the block-the-streets and civil disobedience efforts of Jews Against ICE, the group who’s applied a “Never again!” mantra to U.S. immigrant camps at the southern border, and has been inspired to think a broader movement is possible. “We’re trying to get people working together, in kind of a preparation for when ‘A Moment’ does come,” he told me. “Fascism is an...illness that gets worse over time.”

Ngo, Potash, Siskind, McRae, and all the others are right. It’s time — past time, really. That’s because everyday people seem to understand the fierce urgency of now in a way that the elites — who’ve been trusted for way too long — clearly don’t, as they shuttle between cable-TV green rooms in their chauffeured rides. If you’re afraid that U.S. democracy won’t survive Trump, get off the sofa, get outside, and make the “September Days” a reality. In numbers, there is strength.