Socialists In Coal Country Meet Up To Organize Against Trump

Membership of the Kentucky Workers League has doubled since Donald Trump was elected

Steve Pavey / Hope in Focus
Feb 02, 2017 at 3:14 PM ET

On Tuesday evening, about two dozen young socialists sat in a hodgepodge of rented armchairs in a small office tucked behind an Arby’s in a Lexington, Kentucky strip mall. The yellow walls were sparsely decorated with handmade signs like “Justicia para trabajadores” (“Justice for Workers”) and “May Day is Worker’s Day!” A box of Pabst Blue Ribbon sat on top of a bookshelf.

The assembled are members of the Kentucky Workers League. “We love freedom and justice,” its website reads, and “think those things are incompatible with capitalism, and… want workers to take over the world.” The group is three-years old, but membership has doubled in recent months thanks to the election of Donald Trump.

This week, they’re hosting a multi-day activism camp led by cofounder Greg Capillo, hoping to capitalize on a surge of interest among young, educated, and socially conscious Kentuckians in Lexington and Louisville, the state’s two largest cities and only liberal bastions among an overwhelming conservative populace.

The series of evening meetings aims to educate attendees on socialist politics and how to engage in nonviolent direct action. Tuesday’s meeting was specifically on “Organizing 101: The Art of the One-on-One.” Capillo lectured briefly on the power of active listening, a communication exercise intended to built rapport and trust among two people. He also discussed how addressing people individually is the most effective way to spread a message. The attendees then spent the majority of the meeting paired off in conversations about their passions, background, and interest in the League.

Other sessions in the Camp Cadre series include events like “Fight the Power, Serve the People” and “Managing Conflicts, Managing Ourselves.”

The affable tone of the meeting was set by Capillo’s wide smile and booming laugh.

“Folks in Kentucky are looking at the disaster that is the Kentucky Democratic Party and folks realize that it’s not a dumpster fire that is going to put itself out anytime soon,” Capillo said in an interview before the start of the meeting. “Folks want be involved in a politic that is transformative, liberatory and that respects women and repressed peoples.”

The dumpster fire Capillo specifically referenced was the victory Kentucky Republicans celebrated on Nov. 8 when they seized control of the state House for the first time since 1921. Before last year’s election, Kentucky had the only Democratically controlled law-making chamber left in the South. This historic win bolstered the Republicans’ existing control of the state Senate and governor’s office. The enormity of the moment wasn’t lost on Kentucky Republicans who’ve taken quick advantage of the political trifecta.

Kentucky made national news in early January when its State house quickly passed two controversial abortion laws. The first requires medical professionals to describe the images of pre-abortion ultrasounds to the patient and the other bans abortions after the 20th week of a pregnancy.

These particular moves against women’s rights, as well as Trump’s lewd comments from 2005 about women that surfaced during the lead-up to the 2016 election, inspired Mikie Cameron to join the League in early January.

Cameron, a discovery educator at the Lexington non-profit Living Arts & Science Center, was motivated by the variety of projects the League has spearheaded. These projects include a monthly radio show “Power to the People” with Lexington Community Radio and the Lexington Tenants Organizing Project which focuses on the rising rents and gentrification of Lexington’s historically black neighborhoods. The League also participated in Lexington’s Women’s March on Jan. 21 which attracted an estimated 5,000 people.

“I’m really glad I found this place because there are a lot of people who are upset and outraged and it’s important to channel that in a positive way,” Cameron said. “Positive, non violent, direct action that actually tries to make some changes.”

The League also offers a tutoring and mentoring program in collaboration with the Lexington Public Library. One person hoping to get involved in this ongoing project was John Winstead, who joined the League six months ago.

Winstead has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Western Kentucky University. He’s currently working in food service to survive but is putting his heart into the League. This newfound level of excitement is both inspiring and challenging from a direct action perspective, Capillo said. The challenge stems from an inconstant federal government that seems to rattle liberal nerves every passing week — the latest being its temporary ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Overarching plans for the League are hazy though Capillo knows the League’s tenant program will formally resume once spring arrives.

“It’s a real struggle to maintain our identity and strategy and wanting to look toward the future while being with people who want to move right now,” Capillo said. “At some point, folks are going to burn out and get tired and we’re still going to be doing what we’re doing. Until then, we’re going to make it up as we go along.”