WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Tuesday, organizers and activists with the People’s Action coalition took to the White House and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, to protest proposed budget cuts they say will have a devastating impact on the environment, the poor, and communities of color.
An energetic crowd of around 1,000 people gathered between LaFayette Park and the White House on a gray, drizzly morning in the District to chant, drum, and listen to speeches from people on the front lines of budget cuts.
“The wall, the cuts to education, the cuts to housing — we’re protesting against it. Trump has to do better,” Lydia Rodriguez, 51, told ThinkProgress.
Rodriguez, co-chair of the Alliance for Quality Education in Rochester, New York, said schools in her community already lack funding they need for basics like books and language classes. But with a granddaughter in elementary school and son in high school, she worries what Trump’s budget cuts will mean for Rochester schools.
“They’re trying to cut school lunches. School lunches and school breakfasts are the only meals a lot of kids in the hood get,” she explained. “Without the food they need, how are they going to learn?”
Volunteer marshals in bright orange vests ringed the crowd as the Secret Service and Park Police directed protesters off the sidewalk in front of the White House.
As the speeches died down, the crowd’s energy ramped up with chants of “sí, se puede!” Twelve protesters, all wearing light-blue shirts emblazoned with the words “Rise Up,” took their places shoulder-to-shoulder and hand-in-hand in front of the White House to risk arrest.
Soon, Park Police had pushed the crowd back into Lafayette Park. As officers led the twelve protesters to a waiting transport van one-by-one, the sounds of drums, raucous chants, protest songs, and Native prayers mixed together from across Pennsylvania Avenue.
After the arrests, protesters piled into yellow school buses on the back side of the park for a second, secret action. As they took off and people passed a hat to tip the drivers, organizers announced their target: the Heritage Foundation — the source, they said, of the Trump budget.
The buses parked a few blocks from Heritage’s Capitol Hill offices, and protesters formed a fast, silent march to the conservative think tank. Once the towering concrete-and-glass office building was in site, two organizers held the doors as protesters flooded into the lobby and began chanting.
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Organizers asked for an in-person or phone meeting with Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, they said, but were told he was unavailable. They held the space for nearly half an hour—chanting, drumming, and making speeches—before flooding back out of the building to chants of “We’ll be back!”
Outside, the drizzle was growing heavier as LaShaya Darisaw addressed the excited crowd. Darisaw, the Flint organizing director for Michigan United, said she met President Donald Trump when he visited the city last year.
Despite Trump’s promises then to fix Flint’s problems, Darisaw said, the city is still without clean water. Now, she says his proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency will make the problem worse.
“He continues to be a face for big corporations. He continues to be a face for big business. And he continues to be a puppet of the Heritage Foundation,” Darisaw told the crowd. “But it’s not all bad. There’s something we can do about it. We can hold his puppet masters accountable for what they are doing.”
The goal, according to organizers, was to push back against the Trump administration’s “America First” budget proposal and the Heritage Foundation’s “Blueprint for Balance”—both of which call for cuts to environmental, health, education, and welfare programs.
Instead, the coalition threw its weight behind an alternative budget proposal from the Congressional Black Caucus that targets the deficit by addressing tax loopholes, according to the caucus, rather than cutting domestic spending.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow for domestic policy studies at Heritage, disputed protesters’s claims that the Trump and Heritage budget proposals will hurt poor Americans.
“The Trump cuts [to welfare programs] are about 1 percent of spending on a growing spending fund,” he told ThinkProgress. “The idea that you can’t find 1 percent of waste and inefficiency in $1.1 trillion of spending is just silly.”
In a statement, the Heritage Foundation criticized what it called “staged protesters backed by progressive special interest groups connected to George Soros.”
“Heritage will not back down,” the statement read. “We will keep fighting for a responsible budget, a pro-growth tax system, a repeal of Obamacare, and a stronger national defense — only then will we have opportunity for all and favoritism to none.”