What began as a protest organized by a few activist groups following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. John Faso transformed into a recruiting ground for newly minted activists, a must-do campaign stop for Democratic politicians and a visible symbol of the wave of progressive discontent that would sweep Faso out of office two years later.
Now with Faso on the way out, the activists behind “Faso Fridays” are trying to figure out how to keep the momentum going.
“That was probably the ultimate activism,” said Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale of the impact of the weekly protests outside Faso’s offices at 721 Broadway on last week’s elections. “It went from the beginning of [Faso’s] term to the end and it really did play a role.”
The first Faso Friday took place on Feb. 3, 2017 — less than a month after Trump’s inauguration. The protests were organized by the grass roots social and economic justice group Citizen Action New York and other activist groups. Citizen Action field organizer Callie Jayne, who would go on to found Rise Up Kingston, was one of the original organizers of the protest, along with attorney Emilio Gironda and Lynn Lamoree. What began as a single protest in front of Faso’s offices soon grew into a weekly event that drew activists from around the region.
For many attendees like Kevin Freeman, who would go on to become Faso Friday’s lead organizer, the weekly protests were their entry point into activism and a way to channel their outrage over Trump’s election. Freeman said that the protests offered an easy way for people to get involved in what was soon dubbed “The Resistance.”
“Faso Fridays was in some ways my gateway drug into activism,” said Freeman, an IT professional from Saugerties who now works as an organizer for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “It was a low-cost way of expressing my displeasure with our representative in Congress and the administration.”
The core of the group was about 20 people, mostly senior citizens, who would gather on the sidewalk outside of the 721 Media Center each Friday from noon to 1 p.m. But their numbers would swell with a rotating cast of activists and interest groups in response to newsworthy events during Trump’s contentious first two years in office. When federal funding for Planned Parenthood was threatened as part of Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, the reproductive rights group dispatched a contingent of pink-clad activists to the demonstration. In August 2017, after a white nationalist drove a car into a crowd of anti-fascist protestors during an day of street violence in Charlottesville, Va., more than a hundred people turned out for a memorial for Heather Heyer, who was killed in the attack. Immigration rights groups and their supporters turned out in force during this year’s family separation crisis at the southern border.
“In this administration it seems like there’s kind of a fresh outrage every week,” said Freeman. “So it was easy to tap into that.”
For Faso, the weekly demonstrations became an irritant that placed him on the defensive and provided fodder for political opponents who accused him of ducking his constituents. Initially, protestors would send delegations into the media center to hand-deliver petitions or seek face-to-face meetings with Faso. After building management complained about the disruption, Faso’s staff set up a window inside the building’s lobby where they could drop off their complaints. Faso never addressed the protestors directly; his lack of engagement would become a key theme in the campaign to unseat him.
“He didn’t help himself by not confronting them and not giving them an opportunity to explain their concerns to his face,” said Cardinale.
Freeman said the protests avoided one common problem of progressive activism — splintering over divisive issues or positions — by adopting a “big tent” approach. Campaign signs for specific candidates were banned at the events. Speaking slots were made available on issues ranging from animal rights to the alleged dangers of 5G wireless technology.
“It wasn’t like anybody was dictating what issues you could address,” said Freeman. “We really wanted it to be more of a community event, a public square.”
On Nov. 6, Antonio Delgado won election in a contest that was decided in large part by an overwhelming turnout of Ulster County Democrats. Now, Freeman and other veterans of the drawn out campaign to unseat him are trying to figure out what to do in a post-Faso world. The first Friday after the election, Freeman said, the group gathered for a kind of farewell after failing to reach a consensus on whether to continue the protests during Faso’s lame duck period. But, he said, the group would leave behind a legacy, not to mention social media lists and a core of dedicated activists that he believes will help keep momentum going heading into 2020’s presidential election.
“People have developed a lot of muscles, done a lot of marching, made a lot of signs,” said Freeman. “They are ready to make their voices heard.”