In Memphis, the Kill the Bill protest against the Graham-Cassidy bill took place downtown on a quiet, sunny Monday afternoon on September 25, 2017, in between city hall and the federal building. This action was part of an on-going national movement against the federal bill and others like it. Indivisible Memphis, a grassroots organization aimed to resist the efforts of President Trump and his administration, organized the event whose attendees were around sixty to seventy mostly white, over the age of thirty, crowd. Groups represented included Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, Memphis Center for Independent Living, Mid-South ADAPT, OurRevolution901, Shelby County Young Democrats, Germantown Democratic Club, Coalition of Concerned Citizens, and Mid-South Reproductive Rights Coalition to name a few.
The Graham-Cassidy bill which was the latest attempt to repeal Obamacare is defeated for now, but have peoples’ protests indeed been meaningful under Trump’s backsliding democracy? An upsurge of editorial and academic analysis supposedly detected that the US is in a state of backsliding or democratic erosion which is part of a global trend of populism taking hold of Western Democracies. While there might not be democratic erosion in the form of outright authoritarian reversion defined as a drastic shift away from democracy as through military coup d’etats or invocation of emergency powers, there are signs of incremental deterioration of freedom of speech and association rights (Huq and Ginsburg, 2017). Jeff Colgan’s piece “Six Months of Trump: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” identifies the signs of democratic erosion such as the deterioration of freedom of speech and association rights which are evident in the Trump administration. Even so, after attending the Kill the Bill protest I realized that there was another element eroding the quality of democracy and it might not be entirely the fault of our President-elect or current administration.
While I was not completely surprised or devastated by the lack of racial representation at this event, I did find it significant and meaningful. According to this one study, the majority of African Americans at all income levels support the Affordable Care Act (ACA) while whites of all income levels were equally split in their support. If this is the case, then why were African Americans not represented when they make up 63% of the total population of Memphis? One way to interpret this is that organizers and activists must do what they can to engage other communities; doing anything less is counterproductive and erodes the quality of democracy especially when equal representation is one of the primary characteristics.
Graham-Cassidy and the Relentless R’s
Defeated by 51 votes, the Graham-Cassidy bill would have cut federal funding to states by $215 billion from 2020 to 2026, taken away health care for an estimated 32 million Americans, removed federal protections for pre-existing conditions, and defunded Planned Parenthood among other things. Despite its defeat, the Trump administrations most likely will utilize other strategies to repeal Obamacare soon. Opponents of Obamacare claim that the current state of national health care hurts small businesses and is at risk of crumbling. The proposition of the Graham-Cassidy bill would resolve this by allowing state officials flexibility to determine the appropriate health care policies for its citizens thus making them more accountable at the ballot box, but also cut down federal spending substantially.
While this could be true, evident is the underlying fact that policies that stabilize the national economy and budget are the primary focus of the Republican Party. Adversaries of Graham-Cassidy argue that the stratifications would punish people with pre-existing conditions, poor, elderly, and women. According to one op-ed, the conditions of the bill would “result in a zero-sum game, with lower premiums for some and higher for others… constituencies could find themselves facing off against each other: old vs. young, sick vs. healthy, expectant mothers vs. those with addictions…” Some people would win, but many people would lose.
How does this pertain to the Memphis protest and the lack of representation? Situating the issue in regards to race and class, one must look at the household income distribution of Memphis by race. As stated before, African Americans make up 63%, as whites make up 27.4% of the total population of Memphis. Considering this information with the fact that African Americans make up 75% of households that make less than $15k, allows us to understand the magnitude of the under-representation at the protest.
Representation and Democratic Backsliding
Feeling underwhelmed by the lack of inclusivity and diversity at the Kill the Bill protest, there is still something substantial to be said. My first thoughts arriving at the event were that there were a lot of older white people and the handful of people of color were organizers and speakers (also friends of mine) who attended almost every social justice event in Memphis. The last time I went to an event with a white majority was back in January for the Women’s March, where my minority friends decided to boycott it because they felt that the organizers side-stepped their grassroots organizations and causes. I’d contemplated boycotting it too, but it would have been a missed opportunity to bring awareness to the oppression of my people (Palestinians) by a Western-backed regime (Israel).
The lack of diversity might not have been the fault of anyone’s, especially in light that other local events might have taken away from this particular action or that this was a new organization hosting it. Although as an organizer, I do believe it is essential to reach out to different communities effectively. Memphis has a profound grassroots civil rights legacy and framework which is becoming increasingly more interconnected and intersectional. This network has also become more readily accessible through social media outlets and organizational websites. Utilizing these tools, instead of organizing over them are vital for a functioning representational democracy.
Relating this protest with prior actions against efforts to remove ACA and other Trump-backed bills draws a different picture one which feeds into a larger narrative unfolding in the US in regards to democratic backsliding and representation. The Memphis Center for Independent Living staged a sit-in this past July in Senator Lamar Alexander’s office against efforts to repeal Obamacare. In the small office sat fifteen of us, mostly people of color, some differently abled, some elderly, and some white, demanding a scheduled meeting with Senator Alexander. Now more than ever a range of different groups are consolidating efforts to protest the current administration including Muslims, Arabs, LGBTQ, Latinx, immigrants, African-American, women, differently abled, and now average older white Americans. In some shape or form, Trump’s statements and policies had now struck what seemed like every demographic group. These are the outcomes of Trump’s administration and democratic backsliding, which is meaningful taken as a whole. It is only a matter of how efficiently we use these tools to better represent, promote, and protect everyone’s interested, especially those who are underserved.