Philadelphia — It's not clear why the Republican Congressional delegation — which met Thursday at the Loews Hotel to discuss dismantling the Affordable Care Act, among other priorities — chose Philadelphia as the location for its post-inauguration retreat.
Admittedly, President Donald Trump won the state of Pennsylvania, but Philadelphia voted 82% for Hillary Clinton, and is a reliably blue city with an independent streak and a personality that sometimes belies its nickname as the "city of brotherly love." As a sign on a street vendor's cart during the Republicans' visit put it, "Yo Trump, fuck you, from the city of brotherly love."
In that spirit, several thousand demonstrators packed Thomas Paine Plaza in the shadow of City Hall. They streamed in, bearing printed signs proclaiming "Don't Repeal the ACA" along with hand-written signs aplenty. Sponsoring community and labor organizations included the Center for Popular Democracy, Put People First! and ONE Pennsylvania. Members of those organizations addressed the crowd through a microphone and led chants.
“In this resistance we need to have joy!” proclaimed one speaker to raucous applause. “We need to have our culture, we need to celebrate our fightback, they want us quiet! They want us hidden, they want us to be sad, but we are not sad!”
Health care was the theme of the day, but weighing heavily on the crowd were the executive orders Trump signed Wednesday cracking down on immigrants, particularly from majority-Muslim countries, and sanctuary cities — including Philadelphia, whose mayor defiantly declared that it would remain a sanctuary despite the threat of cuts in federal funding. And health care, it turns out, is a lens through which many issues, from clean water (the crowd was dotted with references to the Dakota Access Pipeline) to the economy can be read.
For Kialenah Stewart, a petite woman in hijab bearing a "Stop Profiling Muslims" sign, both the threatened repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the threats to immigrants are personal. She is a home health care worker and an organizer with the low-wage workers’ campaign Fight for $15. The repeal of the ACA would threaten not only her own health insurance, but her job.
"I have a fibroid problem,” Stewart explained. “The ACA allowed me to get surgery."
Not only would it be harder for her to care for patients if her own health was threatened, but Medicaid, also in the sights of the Congressional Republicans for cuts, is the program that pays for home health aides for the elderly and people with disabilities.
As for Trump's comments about Islam, she smiles. "My faith is stronger than Donald Trump."
Tyheera Sanders, also a home health care worker and, like Stewart, a member of Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA, has been taking care of her family since she was a teenager. At the age of 17, Sanders’ mother had a breakdown. To avoid losing her six brothers and sisters, she took over custody of the family. Her paid work caring for her 85-year-old grandfather and her paraplegic cousin allows her to be the breadwinner for her family, but she also a blood clotting disorder and cardiomyopathy. When she was first diagnosed, she had no health insurance to pay for the prescriptions she needed. "They gave me a $1300 prescription," she said. The ACA keeps her alive.
"I take three injections a day and two heart pills twice a day," she said. "Right now we want Congress to show us the replacement plan.”
Other attendees had some ideas about what that replacement plan could be. Sam Chemsak brandished a homemade sign that read "Socialize my health care and privatize my privates." For her, too, the fear of losing health care is personal — she's still on her parents' insurance, and fears that expansion that allowed children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 will be repealed. She also wonders what will happen to mental health coverage.
"We need to keep talking about mental health care," she noted. "We need to end the stigma around mental health issues."
Chemsak is looking for a new job, but health care concerns limit her options. "I believe in small businesses; I'd love to own one myself," she said, but feels like she can't do that because she needs health insurance.
She isn't the only person who feels like access to health insurance is key to being able to be an entrepreneur. Jerome Montes of the Main Street Alliance, which represents small businesses, believes that 4 million small businesses around the country will be affected if the ACA is repealed.
"That will mean a lot less money for business expenses," he said, "And most importantly, less money for payroll."
Repealing the ACA and cracking down on immigrants, he notes, would be "a body blow to our economy just as we're getting out of the economic crisis." Just in New Jersey, he estimates that complete ACA repeal — including rollback of the Medicaid expansion — would cost some 86,000 jobs.
"Trump is a businessman, he should understand what an important contribution immigrants make to our economy," he added.
As the crowd streamed out of Thomas Paine Plaza into the streets around City Hall, Josephine Fantasia Perez chanted "Black lives matter! Trans lives matter!" Perez, a member of the Audre Lorde Project and Stop and Surrender, was concerned about the effects of health care repeal on substance abuse and HIV clinics and housing. She also wanted the GOP politicians — along with many of the protesters — to focus on health care for transgender people, as well as housing and freedom from police harassment.
The police presence at the march was light as the protesters took over four lanes of traffic around city hall, their chants echoing off the hotels and office buildings. "We are the popular vote!" they proclaimed, pausing for a "die-in" by the Ritz-Carlton before setting off down John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where a small group of members of New York Communities for Change and Make the Road invaded the lobby of the BNY Mellon building, where Goldman Sachs has an office. Donning swamp creature masks, they challenged the investment bank's connections to the Trump administration.
Over the GOP's three days in Philadelphia, activists and community groups had planned multiple actions aside from the big march and rally. Wednesday night saw what is fast becoming a staple of the resistance to Trump and his notoriously anti-LGBT Vice President, Mike Pence: the queer dance party in the streets. As the afternoon wore on, the march dispersed, but protesters had plans to converge later in the day on the Loews Hotel for one last reminder to Trump and the GOP. "We'll be back!"