In late September, I joined seven other Lancaster Stands Up members who wanted to get a piece of the 2020 action by taking a road trip to Des Moines, Iowa to attend the People’s Presidential Forum. The five hour event had over 2,500 attendees from around the country, and had four candidates – Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg – answer questions from everyday working people for about 45 minutes each. Iowa CCI (Citizens for Community Improvement) put on an event unlike any other I have seen during a primary. Instead of stump speeches and cheap talking points you’d see at debates we saw citizens tell deeply personal stories with concrete demands and hard hitting questions. This not only forced the candidates to go in depth on their policy, it also reinforced that there are human beings at the end of every policy decision that is made in Washington.
We were all moved by the courage of people from across the country to tell their truths to the nominees. We heard from people who had been evicted and forced into homelessness for reasons that they had no control over; we heard from asylum seekers whose families have been torn apart due to our racist immigration policies; we heard from people fighting for a $15 dollar minimum wage; we heard from people whose family farms were at risk due to Big Agriculture; we heard from people who need Medicare for All to survive; we heard from people who were worried for their immigrant parents who had found a home in the US for decades but suddenly faced the reality that some in their community don’t want them here; we heard from so many more people with many more stories from different walks of life, but there were two things that were common amongst them all: what we have right now isn’t working for all of us, and that they weren’t going to wait for someone else to step up and build the future they need.
As I drew inspiration from all this it dawned on me: why are four candidates here listening to all of this? I remember in 2016 climate change was a topic worth only one question in the debates, no one was talking about the horrors at the border that have been happening for decades, I certainly don’t remember renters rights ever coming up in even an article in 2016. No one who asked questions came from a special interest group, there were no corporate sponsors, and no organization represented had an official connection to the Democratic Party. As I searched for answers, I found myself thinking back to three years ago when Lancaster Stands Up was formed.
Three years ago in the wake of the 2016 election, before an event like the People’s Presidential Forum was possible, a few hundred Lancastrians gathered to take back our democracy. Most of us had no idea how to do this, but we knew something needed to happen. The message that came from the people who organized this first meeting was a message of power; we all had been alienated and abandoned by the political class who had done more for the 1% than the 99% for the past few decades. The only thing that could counteract this is if everyday working people like us had the courage to build a grassroots force to revitalize our democracy. Honestly, as someone in the crowd who had never done anything like this before, I was suspicious if this would work. We may have the people, but they have the money and the power – how could we ever have a seat at the table in the mayor’s office, Harrisburg, not to mention Washington D.C. How could a few hundred people in Lancaster make any meaningful difference both locally and nationally? Instead of letting our worries cause us to stand still we moved ahead, because if wasn’t us to build the future we wanted then who was going to do it?
This moment wasn’t unique to Lancaster – hundreds of other communities across the country were having the same emergency meetings and decided they couldn’t wait for anyone else to step up and demand the future we need. These communities ran elections for the first time, supporting candidates who may have not been lifelong politicians but shared their values and vision like we did with Jess King. They stood up to private prisons and immigration detention centers like we did with Geo Corp. They stood with their immigrant and Muslim neighbors when our president wouldn’t, just like we did. They had women’s marches just like we did. They no longer stood in silence when police brutality affected their community just like we did. They Marched for their Lives just like we did. They marched for climate justice just like we did. We may have not coordinated with all of these communities across the country but we all experienced the same issues and stood up for the first time to the injustices around us.
So what was the result of all this? Before this past weekend, I honestly wasn’t sure how to measure how we’ve grown since 2016. I knew we’ve changed our local communities for the better, but did any of our local focus mean anything on a national level? I got my answer sitting in a crowd of 2,500 people in Des Moines Iowa. This event was reflective of the power we have gained in only three years. If we weren’t brave enough to tell our stories in our communities, run for office, and not compromise on the demands for our future we need to survive, then we would not have built the collective momentum where presidential candidates would come to our events to listen to what we think.
We still don’t have the future we need, and this fight will not end with the 2020 election, these issues are much deeper than something that can be solved by one election. Winning is not inevitable – both 2020 and beyond – but I find myself with more hope than ever. I am realizing more than ever, that a win against Geo Corp wasn’t just a win for Lancaster – it was a win for our entire movement. I realize that despite Jess King losing, we helped changed the narrative not just in Lancaster, but in the United States. In only three years, we have gained so much both in Lancaster and communities across the country, and I am excited to see us continue to take back our democracy.
Otis Ubriaco is a member of Lancaster Stands Up.