Photo: Gabriel Lodge
On the evening of Feb. 22 Springdale High School’s auditorium was a home for rage-filled Arkansans looking for answers. Inside of the building were few crimson red Republicans, a ton of navy blue Democrats and a rambunctious mob mentality. It was the venue for Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s town hall meeting.
At 4:40 p.m. thousands of people were outside waiting to enter the building. Five minutes later the doors opened and by 5:10 p.m. the place was filled with over 2,000 constituents, with hundreds unable to enter. However, if it weren’t for the local political activist group Ozark Indivisible the meeting would not have occurred. Without Ozark Indivisible, none of the major news organizations like CNN, Politico, BBC, and the Washington Post would have stories about angry Arkansans asking Cotton questions.
“We didn’t know it was going to be that crowded,” said Shannon Simons, 45, one of Ozark Indivisible’s four founders. “1,400 people said they would come to the event on Facebook, but we didn’t know for sure.”
Ozark Indivisible is a political organization that was created in response to the President Trump’s administration. The group’s hope is to foster Arkansans’ political awareness and provide calls to action that keep the legislative and executive branches of the federal government accountable. Simons, of Rogers, said she knew Trump would lead as promised which is why the group is necessary.
“I think the saying is, ‘When someone tells you who they are, listen’ which made me pay attention,” Simons said. “Once he was inaugurated I think it just snowballed and everyone was trying to figure out ‘What do we do now?’ and that’s why the Indivisible Guide was so perfect for that moment.”
Though Ozark Indivisible has recently focused on organizing town hall meetings with Arkansas’ members of the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Cotton, Rep. Steve Womack and Sen. John Boozman, they hope to be known for more than these type of events.
“One of the things we’ve thought about is that we don’t want to be known only for protesting and things like that. We want to get out there and do good stuff in our community,” Simons said. “We want to let people see that we have more in common than not.”
Photo: Gabriel Lodge
Ozark Indivisible, a merger of the groups Indivisible Fayetteville and NWA Indivisibles, was founded on the Indivisible Guide. A major piece of that guide is using members of Congress’ desire for reelection to make them respond the public’s demands, according the the Indivisible Guide website.
Ozark Indivisible wants to serve as a voice for Arkansans who are progressive liberals or moderate Republicans that are dissatisfied with Trump or their members of Congress, Simons said. However, groups like Ozark Indivisible are affecting the political landscape for Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas in different ways.
The Democratic Party has to align and support any group that is willing to organize and work against the Trump administration, said Tyler B. Clark, The Washington County Democratic chair. Clark sees the momentum created by these town hall meetings as an opportunity for Arkansas Democrats to develop and prepare for public office.
“Ozark Indivisible is focusing on federal level candidates and our efforts are on candidate support and volunteers at the state level,” Clark said. “Republicans have increased their numbers on school boards, city councils, quorum courts, and local level politics that prepare them for higher level public office. Democrats have failed in that area and we don’t plan to continue to that.”
“I’m excited that more people are engaged now,” Clark said. “We have to move forward. Two months from now, six months from now. We have to find a way to keep people engaged until elections in 2018.”
Republican Sen. John Boozman said he appreciates the interest and activism created by town hall style meetings but doesn’t see them as effective arenas for dialogue.
“Talking and meeting with constituents has always been and remains an important priority to me,” Boozman said in an email. “(Large town halls) do not result in productive dialogue… Hearing the personal stories, experiences and insightful ideas from Arkansans via one-on-one meetings, phone calls and constituent correspondence has proven the most effective way for me to discern how to best serve the Natural State.”
On Feb. 27, Sen. Boozman hosted a telephone town hall meeting which he views as a better avenue for productive conversation because of its one-on-one nature. The meeting was available to constituents who signed up and provided their phone numbers on Boozman’s website. Constituents were called on the numbers they provided to hear the meeting and could ask questions by pressing the number ‘1’ to get in line, according to 40/29 News. Boozman’s next telephone town hall is scheduled for March 20.
By using this format Boozman is able to speak with his constituents individually in a stable environment, but Ozark Indivisible still thinks that an in-person town hall meeting better serves the people.
“We understand that the Cotton town hall was loud and boisterous, but that’s because he was side stepping questions,” Simons said. “If he had answered people’s questions people may have still booed, but I don’t think as many people would have been yelling things like ‘Answer the question!’”
Moving forward Ozark Indivisible is looking to engage in more community events where they educate the public on a variety of things including voter registration, general governmental processes, and basic activism techniques, Simons said.
“We are trying to send a message to our neighbors,” Simons said. “We want Cotton, Boozman and Womack to be able to stop whenever there is a bill coming up. We want them to ask ‘What is Ozark Indivisible going to do?’ or ‘What are my constituents going to say when I go home if I vote yes for this?’”