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Making it Work in Wisconsin June 2, 2011

Posted by caradox in Progressive Politics.
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Yesterday I took a red pen to the Dancing protest at the Jefferson Memorial this past holiday weekend. It is just as important (actually more so) to speak of a great example of how to boldly, loudly, and effectively protest.

Political activism is marketing. I know, that makes you cringe. It wounds your rebel soul to hear. It’s too base, too commercial, too capitalist.

Get over it.

The world has a limited supply of resources, including attention to causes. If you have an issue important to you, you want as much public awareness and legitimacy as possible so that you get results from the work you put into it.

When Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, they were marketing. They were making their case for ratification of the Constitution and how a new federal government should be designed. They needed to reach an audience that would support ratification, and they had to knock down objections they were competing against in the marketplace. So they made their pitch, under the name “Publius”. Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, they all used the marketing channels of their day, letters to peers and supporters, signed and unsigned articles in the growing American press, and books to influence, inform, teach, and challenge.
Dr King was marketing too. Every word of the “I Have A Dream” speech was chosen carefully to evoke the right feelings, to resonate with varied American audiences. It was one of the most important sales pitches in American history. Buy this dream and take it home with you, you will find a greater value in it than the way we are living today. He chose his forum and used the media of his day masterfully. For that we can be grateful.

Political activism is marketing.

Right now, Wisconsin protests give us a fantastic model for handling a tough political battle. In the snow, day after day, they came out and rallied, looking just like the ordinary Americans they are. No matter how hard the right wing media machine tried to make them out to be union thugs or greedy overpaid teachers, to most people across the country, they looked just like us.
They chanted and sang. They held their signs. And, yes, they danced and danced and danced in that statehouse.

The effort, coordination, and communication it took, across multiple organizations was massive. It was also sustained over a long period of time and in the face of repeated counter events and tense legislative moments. I’m sure there were moments where things got hairy, and mistakes were made, but the overall positive public impression that came out of those weeks was no accident – it was the product of hard and effective work.

The moment I held my breath was the day of the planned Capital clearing. I watched as it streamed online (modern media!) knowing the whole story could go wrong in a handful of minutes. I was blown away by what I saw. The crowd inside the Capital was given detailed, clear, repeated instructions. Protesters were given a choice on whether to be arrested or not. Those who chose arrest were given a specific location to go and talked through how to go about being arrested. There was constant communication with police on who was where and how things would proceed. As I watched, my family coming in and out of the kitchen around me, I was pointing and hopping like a happy rabbit: “They are doing it the way we were taught!” “They know what to do!” “This could just work!”

Today, when you think of Wisconsin, who was the rock star in the statehouse rotunda that day? Can’t name them? Good. It wasn’t about one individual, it was – and stayed – a collective “people’s” view. Do you remember when the police got upset and wrangled with the protesters? No? Good. Because they were careful, on both sides, by the the quality of their behavior, to make make things go as smoothly as possible. So much so that when overblown and inaccurate reports of damage were publicized, it was “The Man” who backed up the protesters.

As of today, 6 Republican State Senators are now in line for recall votes. The bill was overturned for violation of process laws. The work goes on in Wisconsin. Rallies, events, organizing meetings are all still being held. The outcome is not certain and there may need to be more rallies. One thing is certain: Wisconsin protesters have fired up a conversation that has been successful enough that it keeps going, and they’ve done it without doing one ounce of harm to the ideals and goals of the movement they first learned from, and now lead. Their spirit and style are already being copied in other states. This is how new activists are born. They learn from our experience then take us to places we never thought of, using tools and messages that reflect to their gifts. Activism evolves. But the goal is always the same – to reach as many people we need to get the change we seek. Activists can’t just talk to themselves, they must reach a broad and diverse public that has a lot of other concerns on its mind.

There is no other way to end the inequality of gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans. No other way to get Climate Change back on the table for real solutions. No other way to get the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, and the dark relationship between America and torture buried forever.
Those are worth learning how to sell.

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