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How 1 angry Philly nanny started a statewide protest movement

It started with a polite meeting, on a Tuesday afternoon, in the Philadelphia office of Sen. Pat Toomey.

It escalated to protests: first a few dozen women, then hundreds of frustrated citizens outside his office every Tuesday at 12:20 p.m., filling the sidewalk, spilling into two lanes of traffic on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, garnering national media attention, jamming his phone lines with concerned callers, and spawning a statewide movement with sister protests in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and other cities.

And yesterday, Tuesdays with Toomey crossed over into civil disobedience: A number of the protesters held a sit-in in the lobby at 8 Penn Center to demand a meeting with the senator -- and 11 got handcuffed and led out of the building instead.

The senator -- who has not agreed to meet with the group, and who  has not held a town hall in Philadelphia since taking office in 2011 -- has at various points suggested his opposition is powered by professional organizers and out-of-state agitators.

But a search for the professional organizer who dreamed up Tuesdays with Toomey leads, it turns out, to one angry nanny.

"I inadvertently started Tuesdays with Toomey," confirmed Alexandra Gunnison, 29, of West Philadelphia. "Toomey had said, 'I won't be a rubber stamp for Trump.' Trump had just brought in [Stephen] Bannon as a strategist, and I was very concerned about that and about the number of hate crimes that were happening. I wanted to go down and voice my concern and my outrage."

So, during the week after the election, she posted to a Facebook group now called Philadelphia United for Progress, inviting others to join her at Toomey's office at 12:20 p.m. on a Tuesday, a time that fit between her three  nannying jobs and her social work studies.

That first Tuesday, seven women showed up, talked their way in, and got a sit-down with a staffer, recalled Sarah Roberts, 31, of West Philadelphia. They felt like they had been heard. "But then Sen. Toomey stayed quiet. It was like nothing had gotten through. So we came back the next week."

But by the fourth week, they were not admitted to the office, and dialogue turned to protest. Their demands boiled down to one: a town-hall meeting with Toomey in Philadelphia.

Now, any given Tuesday brings hundreds of demonstrators to Philadelphia, and hundreds more to Toomey's offices around the state -- retirees, students, union members, and office workers on their lunch breaks.

As a result, Toomey has held tele-town halls, and last week he met with organizers in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh -- but not in Philadelphia. In a statement, he described the conversations as "civil" and "constructive." A spokesman said "he is looking forward to additional meetings of this nature across Pennsylvania soon."

Organizers say they're committed for the duration of Toomey's six-year term. (As though to prove it, a number of them have gotten tattoos bearing the same phrase, "Nevertheless she persisted," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's instantly viral reprimand of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.)

By now, they have it down to a routine. For instance, last Tuesday morning, Gunnison and others wearing Tuesday with Toomey buttons met at the Corner Bakery, TWT's unofficial headquarters. They discussed the agenda with the day's speakers, who included Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, and former longtime State Rep. Babette Josephs.

At a table nearby, Mimi Salazar, 42, a Fishtown resident, was trying on a papier-mache helmet delicately sculpted and painted to resemble Toomey, but with 150 percent more forehead. Kayte Terry, 40, an artist from South Philadelphia, said friends made it as their contribution to the cause. She's trying to bring more street theater to these rallies. One of her recent projects, a "Have you seen me" flier featuring Toomey's face, went viral and spawned imitators around the country.

Salazar said she protests on a half-hour lunch break, and planned to get her "Nevertheless she persisted" tattoo on her next payday.

Her hope is that if enough regular people like her get together, they can form a critical mass.

"We put a primer together. We just want people to do the same wherever they are," she said. "We figured [Toomey's] got to be in one of his offices, so we should recruit people in every city where he has an office. We have so many questions. We just want him to hear us. He is our employee, after all."

Down the block, a crowd was forming outside Toomey's office. In lieu of uniforms, organizers strapped on purple duct tape armbands.

Angela Crane, 55, a yoga teacher from Southwest Center City, was schmoozing with a police officer on a bike. "When will civil affairs be here?" she asked.

Then, a plainclothes civil affairs officer arrived, and she greeted him like an old friend. Another organizer, Jo Johnson, 54, of Old City, pressed a gift into his hand: a knit cap in Tuesdays-with-Toomey purple. For when he was off duty, of course.

"I'm a reluctant activist," Crane said. "I woke up the day after the election and it was very clear that there were people who were going to be significantly hurt by Donald Trump's politics, and I wasn't going to stand by while that happened." Then she disappeared into the crowd to gather letters to the senator. Later, she'd deliver the stack of missives to a Toomey staffer, with a police escort into and out of the building.

Then, it was 12:20 p.m. -- the official protest start time ever since that first week.

As the speakers took turns at the microphone, demonstrators cheered. Many wore name tags filled out with their Pennsylvania zip codes, and held signs like "Unpaid, disorganized protester," and "Senator Toomey: I'm not paid to be here, but you are!"

Ina Shea (Springfield, 19064), a 58-year-old retired teacher in a pink "pussy" hat, asked a reporter: "Have you found anyone who is a paid protester? Or from out of state?"

Rachel Hoppins of West Mount Airy, held a sign reading: "Real Philly voter against cowardly senators." The 25-year-old said that, unlike many at the protest, she leans Republican and had even voted for Toomey. But, she said, "The fact that Toomey doesn't pay attention to Philadelphia is just reprehensible."

Hoppins had been to the protest four or five times, Shea at least 10. But others were just joining up.

Annis Miles, 70, of Logan, was a newcomer who said she could no longer stand by.

"I grew up when there was overt racism. I never really paid it any attention. One time I went to a store and ordered two hamburgers and a soda. And she said, 'I don't serve n -.' I said, 'That's good, because I don't eat them! All I want is two hamburgers and a soda,' " Miles said.

Now, though, Miles is angry. "I hope I get to ask Toomey my question: How dare you put us in a position where tens of thousands of people will die due to lack of health care?"

The rally ended, as it does every week, with a chant of "See you next Tuesday."

Roberts and others worry about how that will work, though, given that Toomey's Philadelphia office will open on the 200 block of Chestnut Street, starting today (when protesters will be welcoming Toomey with a "housewarming party"). They're concerned about whether they'll be permitted to hold the same kind of large protests there.

But, as the sit-in Tuesday indicated, they're not backing down.

"We're figuring it out as we go," she said. "Since all of this, all of these people, it still hasn't been enough, we need to figure out what to do next."