Writers in Trump’s America: Creatives mobilize to protect First Amendment rights

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

Complete silence engulfs the back room of a West Loop bookstore as the crowd listens with rapt attention to T Clutch Fleischmann read “House With Door,” a monologue about an encounter with a little boy on the street. The boy finds a commonality between the two after questioning the writer’s gender identity, by shouting: “Hey! I live in a house with a door!” 

“Hey, me too!” Fleischmann replied. 

“And we both laughed and then it was over, I was down the block,” read Fleischmann, whose writing focuses on transgender issues. 

The words roll over the audience in swift, rhythmic waves that capture the room’s energy. 

Fleischmann is one of more than 75 authors who participated in the local chapter of the worldwide Writers Resist movement’s Jan. 15 “re-inauguration” of compassion, equality, free speech and fundamental democratic ideals in the wake of a Donald Trump presidency and a new political era. 

The Writers Resist movement— which started in New York City after the election and spread to 50 cities around the globe in just three months—highlights the fears and disbelief of writers, journalists, nonprofit organizations and activists since Trump’s election in November. The movement is attempting to take hopelessness and anger and transform them into a call to action against the threats Trump represents to freedom of speech, the First Amendment and human rights of marginalized groups, leaders say. 

Trump publicly harassed a disabled New York Times reporter during his campaign, seen in video footage and subsequently reported by multiple news organizations such as the Washington Post; however, in a Nov. 26 Post article, Trump said he did not intend to mock the reporter but rather the reporter’s confusion. This sort of routine denial from Trump has been described as “gaslighting,” from the 1944 movie about a man who tried to drive his wife crazy by denying the obvious and creating his own reality. 

Trump has been outspoken about his contempt for the press, refusing to call on CNN reporter Jim Acosta during his first official press conference Jan. 11 and denouncing the news organization as “fake news.” 

Later, Trump’s spokesperson Sean Spicer threatened to have the reporter ejected from the conference if he tried to ask more questions, according to a CNN story from the same day. 

Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, also suggested changes to daily press briefings that would alter the traditional relationship between the press and The White House, according to his Dec. 14 interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. 

In a country that historically values and supports free speech, many writers and artists are defending democracy through marches and protests, public artwork and writing events. Some believe a call to action is needed—action that has a lasting impact on the Trump presidency, according to Brian Kornell, one of the organizers of Chicago’s Writers Resist. 

Kornell remembers how tough it was to get through Nov. 9, the day after the election. Like many around the country and the world, Kornell said he felt downtrodden and hopeless, but seeing protesters out on the streets of Chicago reminded him that he was not alone, and using artistic expression to resist the new president was crucial. 

“Historically, writers have been the ones to reflect what is happening in society,” Kornell said. “The bigotry that feels like is taking hold or has given a place to exist [forced me] to speak up as a writer, as a citizen. [Writers Resist] is the way for me to feel like I am taking some action to help.” 

Kornell, who writes nonfiction and is assistant editor of online literary publication The Rumpus, said the movement is not necessarily meant to focus on Trump and his disrespectful rhetoric but to empower creatives to band together and remain positive in unpredictable times. 

Writers Resist Chicago has managed to do exactly that, bringing together successful writers with diverse backgrounds and experiences into a unified voice for freedom of the pen. Writers Resist, which held seven events across Chicago Jan. 15 with a central reading event at West Loop’s Open Books, 651 W. Lake St., had support from Planned Parenthood of Illinois, Center on Halsted and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. 

Rachel Murphy, an organizer for the ACLU of Illinois, said the nonprofit has 30,000 members statewide. Of those, one third have joined since the election, which is indicative of the fear Trump has aroused, Murphy noted. 

Murphy said the ACLU is concerned about government encroachment in five areas: women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, policing, national security and surveillance, and immigration and refugees. The ACLU plans to work locally and make sure marginalized communities, which she said are under attack from Trump, have their voices heard. 

Women’s reproductive rights and abortion might face the greatest threat after years of battles in court and the legislature, Murphy added. 

“In the last five years, we have seen an onslaught of anti-access in legislation in an attempt to undermine the fundamental right to choose, established in Roe v. Wade,” Murphy said. 

Organizations around the country are joining in, such as PEN America, which unites writers and defends their self-expression. Dubbed the flagship sponsor of the Writers Resist movement, PEN is an outspoken proponent of First Amendment freedoms. Even inadvertent violations, unlike the deliberate ones of the Trump administration, sound alarms for writers and artists, said Sarah Edkins, deputy director for Communications at PEN America in New York. PEN America is part of the PEN Charter, which spans more than 100 countries worldwide. 

“When we see those early warning signs of infringement on the First Amendment, that really gives writers pause and makes them feel a great deal of concern,” Edkins said. “As more and more rights are potentially taken away and infringed upon—as they are more at risk and surveilled—oftentimes that can stifle [creativity].” 

Some also see this as a fertile time for creative voices and the generation of “big and crazy ideas” that result in some of the best literature and art, Edkins said. This also applies to journalists, whom Trump has demonized and has ominously opined about the possible expansion of libel laws, she added. 

Edkins said the most basic and important action is to speak up about these concerns and not lose hope. 

“Keep this constant dialogue, constant pressure, constant reminder of how important these rights are within our community, but also expand that conversation to happen within a larger community,” she said. 

Throughout her career, journalist and writer Michele Weldon has used her work to start discussions about controversial topics within the world’s largest community: the internet. An outspoken feminist who frequently writes about the media’s portrayal of gender and women and has written five nonfiction books, Weldon said her feminist commentaries have attracted threats of violence and rape. But that will not silence her, especially when the incoming president has shown a “fundamental disrespect toward women,” she said. 

Weldon may have even predicted Trump’s ascendancy in her work. In her 2008 book, “Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page,” she discusses the dangers of unvetted sources and citizen journalism as the 21st century witnesses a changing media landscape. In her chapter “Chicken Little Journalism,” which she read from on Jan. 15 at a Chicago Writers Resist event in Evanston, Illinois, Weldon analyzed the effect that reality TV, such as Trump’s “The Apprentice,” has had on the cultural appetite and how it contributed to confusing opinion with fact. Nine years later, Trump became the next president, confirming that her worries were founded, Weldon said. 

“Audiences do not understand the difference between an investigative reporter’s text based on data and interviews and hard evidence versus a tweet that just says something is true backed up by nothing,” she told The Chronicle. “It is easy to just type. We are confusing typing with reporting.” 

Weldon, who has more than 38 years of journalism experience and was a professor at her alma mater—Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism—until 2013, said journalists need to stand their ground in this era of political uncertainty and maintain high standards for publishing fact-checked material. Weldon said journalists need to vigorously refute unverified claims by the administration and is committed to the fight, and other writers and citizens should be as well, she said. 

“I am ensuring myself up for a deeper and more fierce onslaught of hate [and] preparing to safeguard myself because I plan on being outspoken and backing everything up with evidence,” Weldon said. 

From the perspective of someone not born in this country, New Zealand native and writer Toni Nealie said the political issues in the U.S. are unlike anything she has experienced. 

“People on all sides on the political spectrum are horrified,” she said of the view of America’s politics from her homeland. “This is not a right-wing-left-wing [issue]. Anyone who believes in democracy, even in limited and sometimes shedding democracy, [is] alarmed in what they see.” 

Nealie—a prolific writer in Chicago’s literary scene and editor for Newcity and The Rumpus—teaches in the Television Department at Columbia. She also published a collection of personal essays called “The Miles Between Me” in May 2016 that each explore her cultural heritage, family and dispersal. 

Fleischmann, who is also a visiting professor in Columbia’s Creative Writing Department, pointed out that challenges did not just start happening but occurred during Obama’s administration as well, such as the former president’s deportation record—higher than any other president in history. 

Fleischmann said looking at how artistic expression is affected from both sides of the political landscape will spark effective resistance and show a myriad of ways art can shift ideals. 

“Ideally and hopefully, writers and artists are always paying some attention to the way our work is resonating in the world,” Fleischmann said. “Hopefully, thinking it communicates for a world that is more free or more liberated or more equitable.”

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