You probably have seen viral videos of the disruption of town halls held by Congressman Tom Reed.

The media narrative is that there was an organic, grassroots uprising by concerned citizens.

Don’t believe it. As detailed below, there was a well-organized national and local campaign to get activists to Reed’s town halls for the specific purpose of creating a protest environment. Instructions how to protest and what questions to ask were circulated. Though the town halls were in the western part of the district, liberal groups in Ithaca and Tompkins county organized protests and got their members there. Other liberal groups like Planned Parenthood also got their people out.

The issue is not, as some have portrayed it, whether people were paid to protest. While most of the people at the town halls may have been there without prodding, it is clear that liberal activists groups made sure there were enough protesters, who had been schooled in tactics, in the crowds to create the viral video they hoped for.

This was astroturf. The deliberate, well-planned creation of the appearance of grassroots opposition.

Tom Reed

Tom Reed is the Republican congressman from NY-23, which includes the “Southern Tier” of upstate NY.

The district stretches from far south-western New York State near Jamestown and Lake Erie, along the areas just north of the Pennsylvania border, on to Corning. It is a mostly conservative, rural district, with an R+3 majority. Since post-2010 redistricting, uber-liberal Ithaca (where I live and work) and Tompkins County are in NY-23.

Reed was first elected in the predecessor NY-29 district in 2010. In the redistricted NY-23, Reed won election in 2012 in a close race by just 4 points, but romped to huge victories in 2014 (23 points) and 2016 (15 points).

The 2014 contest was particularly notable because national Democrats went all in supporting challenger Martha Robertson, but her campaign cratered over her support for single-payer healthcare and a number of scandals, including a fundraising claim that GOP operatives hacked her website and her “fat-shaming” of Reed. (Using images of Reed before his gastric bypass surgery.)

Reed Town Halls Targeted In 2013

Reed is a very skilled politician who has held over a hundred town halls in recent years, including one I attended in Ithaca in 2013. That town hall was targeted by Democratic activists as part of a national campaign to put Republican members of Congress on the defensive over immigration, Townhall Tactic 2013: Why do you want to deport my daddy?:

There also was a tracker from the New York State Democratic Party filming the whole thing. I approached her after the session to ask whether she would be sharing the video with the campaign of Reed’s Emily’s List-backed opponent, Martha Robertson, but she declined to answer other than to insist that she was there on behalf of the NYS Democratic Party.

Reed handled the pre-planned questions very well, and engaged with the crowd rather than running and hiding.

So Reed is no stranger to Democratic operatives using his town halls to try to create viral video moments as part of a national strategy.

Reed 2017 Town Halls Targeted by “Indivisible” and Other Activists

Reed had a similar experience recently when he held four town halls in the district.

As part of a national campaign to create the appearance of a “liberal Tea Party” movement, Democratic operatives using the name “Indivisible” combined with traditional Democratic interest groups, decided to target Republican politicians on recess.

Most Republicans, seeing that tactic, decided not to hold town halls. But not Reed, he pushed forward, and because of that was swarmed with media, including the NY Times, live broadcasting his town halls to capture video of disruptions.

Proof of Planned Protests

There is no question that these disruptions were manufactured and planned out well in advance.

My first clue to this was when I saw an article in The Cornell Sun student newspaper about Cornell students traveling to Reed’s town halls, even though the town halls were hours away (it’s a geographically huge district), Cornell Students Travel Across State to Protest Reed at Town Hall Meetings:

A group of Ithaca residents and Cornell students attended Rep. Tom Reed’s (R-N.Y.) town hall meetings Saturday Feb. 21 to voice concerns about poor constituent representation, among other political issues.

Reed represents the 23rd District, which includes the western end of southern New York, borders Pennsylvania and predominantly-liberal Ithaca. While the majority of his district consists of Trump-supporting working-class Americans, the town hall meetings were packed with frustrated protesters who disagree with Reed’s views on health care, immigration reform and finance reform.

“There is a growing frustration with Rep. Reed’s seeming avoidance of Tompkins County,” said Nicholas Aflitto grad. “So concerned constituents are taking their questions to him, even though these meetings are two plus hours away.”

The meetings, held in Allen Town, Humphrey, Cherry Creek, and North Harmony, also garnered national coverage from media sources like The New York Times and NPR, which noted the tension between the representative and his constituents. Students like Hayden Waller grad went for the purpose of expressing their frustrations.

I then began to investigate what was online about the planning of these protests.

WSKG News in Syracuse reported on February 14, 2017, about the national targeting of Republican congressmen, including in upstate NY, Progressive Activists Call For Town Hall Meetings In Upstate New York (emphasis added):

A nationwide protest movement applying pressure on lawmakers to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda has reached central and northern New York. The coordinated campaigns are starting to target local members of congress by pressuring them to hold town hall meetings….

Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) sounded frustrated when answering questions about repeated calls for him to host a town hall meeting for his constituents. He says those requests are largely coming from CNY Solidarity Coalition, an anti-Trump organization that recently protested in front of Katko’s office over his refusal to hold an in-person town hall.

“This is a movement nationwide where the whole design is to get you in front of a camera with several hundred angry people and not let you talk,” Katko said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to continue to talk to my constituents.”

To avoid the so-called political theatrics, Katko and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) are sticking to telephone town halls. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford) has no scheduled in-person town halls. Conversely, Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning), who is a Trump supporter, has several town halls scheduled. He says he welcomes any protesters.

Nationwide, the Republican lawmakers who are hosting these meetings are being grilled by their constituents. It’s part of the Indivisible movement, an online guide helping activists model their protests after the success of the Tea Party movement that started in 2009.

Buffalo News reported on February 16, 2017, about the specific targeting of Reed, Progressives plan resistance at Tom Reed’s town halls (emphasis added):

Rep. Tom Reed can expect to face some strong resistance at his four town hall meetings in the Southern Tier this weekend.

But it sure won’t be spontaneous.

In fact, a group called “Indivisible of New York’s 23rd District” – which is connected to a national movement organized by former Democratic congressional aides – has published a two-page “plan of action” for progressives who will be attending Reed’s meetings.

The guide calls for people to ask Reed tough questions aimed at making the Republican congressman from Corning look bad.

“We want to trap Reed in appearing as if he doesn’t care about his constituents,” the memo said.

And that’s not all. The memo calls for progressives attending Reed’s event to avoid looking too vehement or too progressive, in hopes of appealing to more conservative members of the audience in Reed’s right-leaning Southern Tier district.

Part of the tactic, the Buffalo News reported, was for the protesters to hide who they were so as not to scare off conservative constituents. Also, much of the protest push was coming from far away Tompkins County (Ithaca):

Making references to “the morality of Christianity” in questions could help progressives at the meeting, as could dressing decently, the memo said.

“No progressive political messages on clothing, no Cornell swag,” it added.

It’s possible that some of the progressives at the town hall meetings will have Cornell University, in the liberal bastion of Tompkins County, in their hearts and minds.

The website for Indivisible of New York’s 23rd District – Reed’s district – shows that four of the six members of the group’s organizing team are from Tompkins County, where Cornell is located. The others are from Seneca County and Tioga County, which are nowhere near Reed’s Saturday town halls.

Activists from Tompkins County are most likely to show up at Reed’s town hall in Fillmore, in Allegany County, because it’s closer to Ithaca than Reed’s earlier town halls in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, said Reanna Lavine, a member of Indivisible of New York’s 23rd District organizing team.

They also devised a strategy to make it appear that they were more numerous than they were, by not sitting in a group and spreading out among the crowd, the Buffalo times reported:

Southern Tier Action Together, an Allegany County group, offered advice to those attending on its Facebook page.

“Don’t sit with members of your group during the town hall! Spread out so that you appear larger than you are,” the group recommended.

Further investigation showed that the Buffalo News report on preplanning of the protests was on target.

Ithaca-based and Other Liberal Activists Organize

On social media there was a concerted effort to get people to the town halls, and to instruct them how to create viral media.

http://video.foxnews.com/v/5323966190001/?#sp=show-clips

Reed was aware of the activist planning, as WRFALP reported, Reed Anticipates Large Turnout, ‘Organized Protests’ During Upcoming Town Halls:

On Wednesday morning the Corning Republican also appeared on the nationally televised “Fox and Friends” morning show on the Fox News Network to discuss the upcoming town hall meetings. During that interview, he said a lot of people who are concerned with policy he supports want to see a 180 turn, and said that a recent effort to do political activist training is a higher level of “organized protest” and an attempt to “disrupt and disengage the process,” although he added he hopes that won’t be the case with the upcoming Town Halls.

“There’s always been an organized protest at times and I think this is just a higher level of that organization,” he told the program’s host.

Reed remained undeterred:

https://www.facebook.com/VoteTomReed/posts/10154909250130505

On social media, the planning for the protests unfolded.

In addition to the national Indivisible website which has a Guide to protesting, the website of Indivisible NY23 was one of the central planning mechanisms. There local group are organized through the national group:

http://indivisibleny23.com/

It included a calendar highlighting Reed’s town halls.

http://indivisibleny23.com/calendar/

The website made the Indivisible Sample Questions and Tactics instruction available.

Another Indivisible group, Indivisible Southern Tier, was organizing:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1WQFZ1soMZZ3akizLdurECjWfFkkoSolYdwZUnqfc13k/viewform?edit_requested=true

As was another group, Tompkins County Resistance:

https://www.facebook.com/TCResistance/posts/1221819567873540

https://www.facebook.com/TCResistance/posts/1221816494540514

Tompkins Resistance used one of the fat-shaming images of Reed previously used by Martha Robertson:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1856622307947379/?active_tab=discussion

For her part, Robertson tried to get people to turn out:

https://www.facebook.com/MarthaforNY/posts/926856484116736

Tompkins County Resistance shared a link to the local Planned Parenthood organizing effort:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1856622307947379/permalink/1857970831145860/?ref=1&action_history=null

Planned Parenthood went all in to get people to the town halls:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeKydiiFNZOUeIHKwb_Lv_bG94dR-P8BlEK1vQkEjnhvFHwHg/viewform

Planned Parenthood later bragged that many of its supporters attended the town halls.

https://www.facebook.com/PPSFLAction/posts/1076543122474604

A group of Ithaca residents upset that Reed didn’t come to Ithaca for a town hall also organized:

https://www.facebook.com/events/762262983938825/

They even set up rideshares, which made sense since the town halls were so far from Ithaca:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSedtTSlk7mbv6282IRNIBCaojScznKY5Fpc4_5lmhblw2EoPQ/viewform

As the town halls unfolded, the mayhem created a perception problem, to an organizer posted instructions of how to act to create better optics.

https://www.facebook.com/events/762262983938825/permalink/771081246390332/?ref=1&action_history=null

Result: Mass Media Coverage Of Grassroots Opposition

The end result was mass media coverage of the disruptions at Reed’s events.

Including in the NY Times, which had videographers on scene:

Which fed into a national media narrative of an organic uprising:

Reed, for his part, received accolades of a sort for standing his ground.

Organized, Not Organic

The issue is not, as some have portrayed it, whether people were paid to protest. While most of the people at the town halls may have been there without prodding, it is clear that liberal activists groups made sure there were enough protesters, who had been schooled in tactics, in the crowds to create the viral video they hoped for.

This was astroturf. The deliberate, well-planned creation of the appearance of grassroots opposition.