How to Organize an Effective March

The Fourth festivities have left me thinking of protest. And this leads me to think of last week’s Keep Families Together march—and this, dearies, leaves me thinking of things we activists have started to do well. I don’t know about you, but in my (admittedly narrow) neck of the woods, our protest marches started off a bit… limpy. We had tons of folks for the Women’s March and the Science March; critical mass was never a problem. But the programs themselves were somewhat lacking. I think this was because, in part, if we had a sound system at all, it functioned about as well as the Barbie karaoke machine that someone could fish from their tweenage daughter’s closet. Beyond that, the speakers themselves—while erudite—didn’t always know how to fire up a crowd, in terms of either immediate call and response or post-march action. Don’t get me wrong; I thank the activists who have gone out of their way to stage a march. You’ll notice that I’m not up there with the Barbie Bullhorn. But I’m especially grateful for the people who led last week’s march, because honestly, they organized a great one. Here’s how:

1. THEY DIRECTED THE CROWD. We started at Iowa City’s Old Capital building, and we walked about half a mile, through the downtown, to College Green Park, where we gathered for a rally. As we assembled for the march, one of the organizers told us where we would go. Then, as we walked, we met organizers who had posted themselves at specific corners to feed us chants that we could holler until we got to the next waypoint. Our queue of demonstrators was almost as long as the route itself; there was no way that we could hear ourselves well enough to maintain a homogenous chorus. The waypoints kept us shouting, while also plugging what we would chant into a kind of iMarch playlist.

2. THEY SET UP CROSSING GUARDS. It surprised me to see one of our pre-eminent computer scientists wearing an orange vest, while he commanded us to stop at a streetlight. I thought a march was supposed to disrupt traffic. But this arrangement was actually a shrewd move. First of all, we marched through a town that was friendly to our cause. We had nothing to gain by keeping like-minded folks from, say, their dentist appointments. Secondly, while we stopped, passing cars honked their support. I don’t know if they’d have done such a thing if we’d gotten in their way. But I do know that by letting them pass, more of them got to see us than if we’d just cut off the head of the line. Now I do believe that some causes—and some locations—require marchers to disrupt traffic, say, outside the ICE building’s parking lot. But let’s be discerning here. Choose the tactic that fits the audience.

3. THEY PREPARED THE POST-MARCH, DEMONSTRATION VENUE. God love them, the organizers chose a park with a gazebo. Better yet, they chose a park with lots of trees. Both features granted the courtesy of shade. Better yet, they positioned us next to a playground, so that the children had something to do. Better still, they chose a park with an electrical service that supported a concert-grade sound system. While we leaned against the oak trees, we could hear the rally’s every word.

4. THEY FOUND GOOD SPEAKERS. Not only could we hear the speakers, but we wanted to listen. This wasn’t open-mic day. This demonstration featured a program lineup that consisted of: preachers who could use rhythm and litany to engage the crowd; experts who could use statistics and other details to inform the crowd; and volunteer coordinators who could present engagement opportunities to direct the crowd. The gazebo posted a community-action sign-up sheet. It also had a table that accepted financial donations. In short, the demonstration generated energy and then released it toward the good. The march, that is, became a dynamo.

5. THEY GAVE US POPSICLES. I know I sound as if I’m just a little too happy to be unfettered from my diet—but really. Have you endured a midwestern summer? The heat index was over a hundred. The shade helped, but after a walk in that kind of heat, we also needed hydration. Churches (I think) brought the popsicles. And they set out pallets of water. And this not only made us very well disposed toward the organizations that set up the march, but it also allowed us to stay at the demonstration. If people get too hot (or too cold) they’ll go home. Regardless of what kind of weather you’ve got, it might be worth the few hundred bucks to give refreshment to a few hundred folks.

These are my observations, at any rate. Feel free to add what you’ve gathered yourself. One thing that heartens me is that, in his own horrible way, Trump is teaching us how to become better activists. I watch the news, and I can despair over how his agenda is making progress. But when I consider our work—our education, our efforts, and our expertise—I think we’re evolving too.

Power

I’ve been hesitant to post this, not because of my opinion (As if!) but because I’m not sure it’s pertinent to a wider audience. Then I started to think that a whole mess of us are trying to figure out how to be effective activists, and that maybe any information in one direction or another would be helpful. 

On Saturday, I attended a community-action meeting that was both interesting in how it attracted a diversity of races and laudable in how it sought to strengthen a sense of community among the races. It was somewhat hampered by a presenter who didn’t listen to the conversation among the races, and where this caused the most problem was in relation to the concept of power. The presenter—who was Latino—thought that do-gooder people don’t like power. They don’t mention it, he said, in their churches. This is when some of the African Americans asserted that in their church, they talk a lot about power—the power of God, say, and God’s ability to empower. The presenter blew past that. And he insisted that we don’t like power, because we’re afraid of failure. He also said that the vast majority of us aren’t powerful at all. He then went on to his next bullet point—and I, for one, stopped taking notes. 

At this point, I could hare off on a tangent about bad teaching—but I won’t. (I won’t, I won’t.) Instead, I’d like to return to the conversation the presenter squelched. I can’t speak for other races—and I won’t attempt to. But I would like to suggest that the reason white people like me hesitate to talk about power, is because we have so much of it. This man said that I, as an individual, am not powerful. And he’s right. As a squatty fortysomething from a small city, I’ve got nothing. I spoke my outrage to the governor last month. She lied to my face, and walked away. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. As a white, straight, affluent Protestant I have all the power in the country. Maybe all the power in the world. I am female. So I guess this ties one limb behind my back. But if I may speak for the whiteys who seek to be good citizens, I’ll say that the reason we don’t talk about power in our churches is because we know we use our power to oppress. We do it without trying. Saturday’s meeting took place in an African-American church. All the white people sat in the front, and all the black people sat in the back. All the white people, who wanted to combat racism, sat in the front of a church where they were the guests. We didn’t even think about it.

I suggest that maybe we should. And I mean that we should think in two different directions. The first is the way about which we’re self-conscious—the fact, for example, that we felt empowered to take the prime seating in a neighbor’s house. This is the kind of privilege that embarrasses us—and rightfully so. The other way we should think about power is to recognize that just because we do bad things with power doesn’t mean that power is bad in itself. Our privilege is unfair. We have come to our position by standing on the deaths of millions. But privilege also has vantage. It has resources. It has immunities. Privilege allowed me to walk up to the governor. Privilege lets me go to the front lines of a protest, and not worry so much that I’ll get put in a chokehold (or worse). In Iowa, my race enjoys an incarceration rate that 1/11 of what my black neighbors endure. It’s wrong to ignore that. And it might be doubly wrong if we don’t use that privilege to benefit our neighbors.

My suggestion is that although we should never act as if we deserve our power, we should pick it up. We should present it to our neighbors, in the way of trying (but not ever succeeding) to return something we took from them. And then we should leave it at the cause’s best disposal.

(Originally posted May 12, 2018)

We Have to Get Better

Gov. Kim Reynolds is a short person. In fact, she’s nearly as short as I am. And I can tell you this, because I just got in her face. I did. I found her at the Coralville Hyvee, talking in the dining room, to a standing-room only group of folks about how Iowa is Number One. I belonged to a group of activists who squeezed in to challenge her about the Sanctuary bill, which KCRG reported as her saying she’d sign. Reynolds left little room for questions*—so after her spiel, a local Muslim started to ask Reynolds about the sanctuary measure. Reynolds said she’d look into the bill. I stepped in front of Reynolds, and asked how she could reconcile the Constitutionality of the bill—and she repeated that she’d look into it. The first woman stalked away. Some other people took her place. They started talking too. I said to Reynolds, “Last night, the news reported how you said you would sign the bill.” And then Reynolds got a look of disgust, turned her back on all of us, and walked away. 

Some other poobah with salt and pepper hair was telling the Muslim woman that she was blowing things out of proportion. The Muslim woman said that she’s a person too. The poobah said he didn’t dispute that. The Muslim woman, losing composure, strode off. And the poobah called after her about what a great activist *she’d* turn out to be. Nice. So I said to him that the Sanctuary bill violated Fourth Amendment Rights. He said that Reynolds would not sign the bill. I said that she indicated to our local news that she would. He said that today she promised to look into it. I said that maybe politicians say different things in different venues. He said Iowa City would not see sanctuary interference. I said I hope he was right. And he *patted me on the hand.*

P-I-S-S-A-N-T.

James took me out of the store, and brought me to a bar. And I couldn’t order anything, because my stomach was upset. I’m sitting on our couch now, Facebooking my fingers off.

Now for some qualifications and a puzzlement:

Q1. I was not as eloquent as I’d liked to have been. My voice shook. And in this post, I admit I’m assembling my dialogue with an editor’s eye. Q2. I don’t know what other people were doing around me, so my focus on myself is more on account of the fog of war than any sort of ballad of Meggie Disgusts the Governor. 

But now for the puzzlement: I’m not sure we activists handled this moment all that well. For one thing, the event was designed to keep us from handling it well. We didn’t have time to ask our questions. We certainly didn’t have time to press our questions. The people who answered our questions were able to resort to dismissive sidesteppery. This enraged us, and that caused us to lose at least part of our composure, and this allowed people like Poobah Pissant to pretend he was taking the mature stance by staying calm. This pattern allows our opponents to further control the conversation, by using this event as an example of how Iowa City is full of hysterical liberals. We have the moral advantage. Oh, we do. But at the moment, they have the rhetorical high ground.

The question is how the heck to handle this. The fact is that we average resistors aren’t a group of politicians who make a career out of appearing rational, even while saying the most hair-raising things. More to the point, we have way more skin in the game than they do. For instance: I’m betting that Muslim woman lost her composure, because she (or someone she knows) could probably lose her family to deportation. I lost part of my composure, because I wanted to defend something, but didn’t know how. This brings me to the next point. We activists need to decide what our role is when we engage with somebody like the governor. Are we there to protest, or enter a dialogue? Each of these calls for some very different tactics. A protest doesn’t require you truly to engage the other side. You can chant, and proclaim, and disrupt if need be. It’s all pretty one-sided. But a dialogue requires that you listen. It requires that you depart from your speaking points, and actually adapt to what the other side is telling you. Reynolds gave me a BS answer. But I was expecting her to. And what I should have said was, “You’re looking into it? Tell me how you’re looking into it.” Instead I insinuated she was lying.

She probably was. I quoted the news. And she may have turned away because I called her on it. But at that moment, I was so angry that I didn’t let myself choose whether to protest or converse. Protest was all I had. 

And this brings me to the major point that I’m going to make in this whole, rambly post. As activists, we have to work to stay calm. We have to. And let me tell you, it is so hard to do that. It is hard not to yell when you’re getting BS answers. It is hard not to accuse, when the Muslim next to you has begun to cry. But when we get angry, we don’t listen—which means we don’t argue well—which means we leave our opponents rolling their eyes. God forbid we get angry enough to throw a punch. To control our side of the engagement—and our choice about that engagement—we have to control ourselves. And although I’m focused mostly on the dialogue kind of encounter that I saw today, this goes doubly for the protest stance. When people spit on you, you have to stay calm. When cameras are rolling, your whole cause can depend on how well you hold your temper.

I request that we activists find someone who can teach us how to keep our composure. I don’t know who that is. Albus Dumbledore and Ben Kenobi are dead (and, uh, not real). But we have to find someone—an old Freedom Rider, a hostage negotiator, a suicide hotliner–someone. The difference between a mob and an army is discipline. And we need that discipline. We need Obama’s discipline. Otherwise, we might run the governor out of town, sure. We might even cheer a little when we see her flee. But this just leaves her all the more willing to say that no reason, no compassion, and no truly effective resistance, can come from Iowa City.

*That said, my hat is way off to the teenager who managed to ask what Reynolds would do to keep kids from getting shot. Reynolds gave the line about “walking up and not out.” Some gun nuts started hollering at the kid. The kid persisted, and then Reynolds called off the Q&A.

(Originally posted April 5, 2018)

PRIVATE Signs Protect Immigrants

Dearies: Do you know that ICE can’t enter a residence without a judge’s warrant? Do you know that workplaces can extend a modicum of that protection by putting a Private/Staff Only sign on a door to, say, a back room? The National Immigration Law Center says, that “to show that some areas are private, mark them with a ‘Private’ sign, keep the doors closed or locked, and have a policy that visitors and the public cannot enter those areas without permission.” I’ve heard other lawyer folks say that this measure isn’t ironclad, as the need for a signed warrant pertains only to an area that provides an “expectation of privacy.” But it can help. And, you know, PRIVATE signs are cheap.

(Originally posted March 20, 2016)

New Year’s Eve, 2017

This year, I lost my grandfather. I reckoned with the possibility that my thousand-page novel is a failure that could push me toward surrendering my vocation for a more useful line of work. And in Trump, I have watched the equivalent of a maniac locking himself in my centuries-old family home, and using my great-great-grandmother’s cello to smash everything in the house. I have never felt so ineffective in my life.

If you’re like me, you’re tired. Even just perceived ineffectiveness is exhausting. And honestly, I don’t even know if I’ll stay awake until midnight. But I also know that those who oppose us—both personally and politically—want us to be tired. They want us to perceive our ineffectiveness. And as far as Trump is concerned, I deeply believe he breaks some things in that house, just because it harms us to do so.

So, in pondering all this, I’ve begun to treat it as a kind of depression. People call depression the noonday demon, and I suppose this is because depression can possess. Or at the very least, it can dispossess us of our best sense of self. And in this case, I think our best sense resides in our identity as Americans. That is, we are people who live in a functional democracy where the will of the majority matters. We are educated folk who live in a reality where facts matter. We build our entire justice system on the basis of reason and proof. But suddenly we are at the hands of a government who has abandoned those things, and we’re left wondering where the justice will come from now. We have a president and a Congress who, say in passing a wildly unpopular tax law, have asserted time and again that the majority doesn’t matter. More than that, the facts don’t matter. And all that seems to matter is strength and deceit. 

But I’m here to tell you that this is the lie. Despite what they tell us, we are effective. We have sustained an investigation that may well lead to impeachment. We have stopped a bigoted sexual criminal from holding power in Alabama. We continue to punch holes through Trump’s travel ban. We have built no wall. We have seen our states implement laws that address climate change, even when Trump will not. We’ve seen our cities designate themselves as immigration sanctuaries. We’ve seen businesses—from Cards Against Humanity to 84 Lumber—plant their flag against xenophobia. We’ve donated more to the ACLU than ever before. On television, we devote hours and hours to truth telling. We publish whole magazines that criticize Trump—and I’m talking about TIME, sure, but also Business Insider and the Economist. By our talking, by our writing, and by our comedy, we provoke Trump to lie—which is to say we provoke him to squirm—and that means, dearies, that we are effective. Don’t listen to those who tell you otherwise. That’s how they take hold.

Keep writing; you never know who’s reading. I say this both to you and to myself. Once, a little Russian bot showed up one of my posts. Another time, a Trumpite threatened me physical harm. Both times, I whooped with vindication. If nothing else—if nothing else ever—someone acknowledged the fact of my own resistance. Keep reading; the bad news pelts us to the point where it’s easy to turtle up, but the truth is in the details—which means that justice is in the details—and anyway, our opponents eschew details in favor of the propagandist’s slogan, and we cannot let them control the conversation. Keep reading scripture. Please. It doesn’t matter if you believe it– because our opponents do. It matters to them more than fact. Their interpretation of it is more self-serving than it is comprehensive—and this means that if you argue it with any ability at all, you can maybe change minds. Keep marching. There’s an impeachment demonstration on Jan. 20. Keep active. One of the advantages of our facing such widespread threats, is that we don’t have to look hard to find ways to be of use. Work in a soup kitchen, or a phone bank, or a legal aid group. Speak up at work. Write—again, write. Especially if you live in a conservative area, write letters to the editor. Use what you’re good at. Grab something and pull. You’ll keep from feeling ineffective this way. You’ll warm yourself with your own light. And that means you won’t get as tired while you fight.

The grandfather I lost: He was an American history teacher. He was, among other things, a corpsman on a medical ship during WWII. When he wrote his master’s thesis, he was such an advocate for African American rights that his readers thought he was black himself. One of the last things he gave me was a check—of $100—to “go help the Indians” at Standing Rock. The man fought for his country. And I believe that to honor him—and those millions like him—we have to fight too, in 2017 and 2018, and probably right on up until our grandkids remember what we did. They will remember what we did. So keep doing.

I admit that despite all this, there’s a part of me that would risk basic human ingratitude to say, “Begone, 2017, and take your stink with you.” And maybe, for reasons both shared and personal, you’d say the same. We’d probably also agree that a new month of a new year won’t so much change anything. Broken things won’t reassemble—and Trump won’t turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, no matter how much we hope. But I like the idea of renewal just the same: Something that rolls over in the night—something as smooth and cool and whole as the moon. Tonight, for as late as I stay up, I’ll remember you, my friends. I’ll give you the kiss of hope and peace. You and I are still here. And those of us who aren’t still urge us—now more than ever—to carry the fight.

(Originally posted December 31, 2017)

March

What good is a march? Critics will say it’s just a ritual that a century of activism has taught authorities to control. The state looks tolerant—even open minded—when it provides space for a march. And in the meantime the government—especially this government—goes about its business.

But there is, in fact, nothing empty about a ritual. Ritual brings unification. It points to a shared history. It symbolizes a dense and thoughtful conviction. It allows for physical affection, even if that comes only from the press of the crowd. It lets the ministers take their stoles for a walk. It lets people declare, in public, their love for both home and neighbor. “I love Cedar Rapids!” said a Congolese immigrant at yesterday’s march. “And I’m running for mayor!” Marches are congregations. And at this time in our lives, they show there are more of us then there are of them. They show this so handily, in fact, that our opponents like to lie about them.

(Originally posted August 14, 2017)

The Problem isn’t with Hilton

Well. I’ve just had a time with the Hilton Hotels management. Monday night, we stayed at a Hampton Inn & Suites in Westlake, Ohio. Tuesday morning, in the breakfast nook, the television showed Fox News. “Next up,” said the anchor, “we’ll discuss sanctuary cities and how they lure illegals to their deaths.” This put me off my bagel. I asked the desk manager to change the channel, and without a blink, he said he couldn’t. He could not. It is a corporate rule that all Hilton hotels and subsidiaries must show Fox news in the breakfast nook. James and I both heard this. We stared at him. He puffed a smile.

Hilton Hotels has approximately 5000 locations worldwide. Their subsidiaries include such giants as Hampton Inn & Suites, Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites, and Doubletree. According to their website, they served 140 million customers in 2015. Also according to their website, they have a Global Headquarters phone number. This morning, I called it. 

Actually, first I called the Hilton in Des Moines. I asked if they could confirm the Fox policy, and they said they knew nothing about it. They suggested I phone the global headquarters—and when I did that, the global receptionist passed me up to the head of guest services. I asked again for the Fox policy confirmation, and she said she had no idea what I was talking about. She’d always assumed television choice was up to the individual hotel. She asked who had given me this information; I gave her my source. She put me on hold. And when somebody next tended to me, it was the desk manager in Westlake, Ohio.

So I said, “Oh yes! Remember me? I asked you to change the channel in the breakfast nook.”

The manager said, “Sure!”

I said, “You told me you couldn’t change the channel because of corporate policy. Do you remember?”

He said, “Oh. No, that actually wasn’t me. That was Dustin. My name is Steven.” (Steven had an unusually high voice—just like Dustin.) I said that was fine, and that I’d like him to talk to me about corporate policy. And he said, “Well, I think there’s been some miscommunication about that. Because we do have standards about showing news, but it doesn’t have to be Fox news.”

So I said, “If I asked you to change the channel in the breakfast nook, you would?”

He said, “Of course!”

I said, “And if I told my friends they could ask you to change the channel, you’d do that too?”

He said, “Of course! We serve our customers!” I thanked him for his assistance, and I hung up.

So. I don’t know what all is going on here. But my best guess is that Hilton does not have a Fox-only policy, and that Steven/Dustin of Westlake, Ohio, does. (Or did—depending on the potency of my cross voice.) What I can take from this experience is as follows: 1. When taking action regarding a corporation, always practice due diligence. Before I called global headquarters, I had an entirely different post that was set to call for a boycott of all Hilton hotels. 2. Let the corporation know you are practicing due diligence. If they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they’ll appreciate the check. And if someone in the corporation is doing something else, the corporation might stop them for you. I actually believe the management in Westlake will think twice before lying again about Fox. 3. Challenge hotel proprietors about the news they show. In 2016, an estimated 48 million Americans took a road trip during last year’s Thanksgiving weekend alone. Day trippers notwithstanding, that’s a lot of people bellied up to the waffle station, in front of what could potentially be Fox News. You have the right to ask hotels to change the channel—and if they refuse, they may well be violating national policy (or at least the spirit of their training).

During your request, you must keep things respectful. That’s basic human decency. It also helps your attempt to get something from the management. In fact, if you can, compliment the service before you make your complaint. But then be prepared to meet any refusal with both a promise not to re-patronize the establishment and an assurance that you will urge the same from your friends. By that I mean especially your social media friends. Businesses both love and fear us.

And speaking of that: I just found a 2015 TripAdvisor review of a S.C. Hilton that defaulted all of its room televisions to Fox News. There it was, whenever a customer turned on the tube. “What happened,” said the review, “to the old default Weather Channel?” I’ll tell you what’s happened. We’re at a point, dearies, when people will give us a make-believe storm before they show us a real one. And it’s increasingly become our job to hoist our travel-brollies, wade our way through it, and say, “Hey. That isn’t rain. It’s bullshit.”

(Originally posted July 26, 2017)