Yesterday I joined about ten people, including a couple of children, at a Shell station on a busy street corner in Providence, RI, for a one-hour demonstration as part of MoveOn’s "Day of Action for an Oil-Free President." (A what? Is that a President who doesn’t ride in SUVs or airplanes? Or uses only fat-free balsamic vinaigrette? But I digress.) Seventeen had pre-registered, but half didn’t bother to show up -- not an auspicious start.
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Wickenden Street is an artsy thoroughfare on the edge of Brown University, full of antique stores, Thai and Indian restaurants, an art supply store, an upscale independent hardware store, and crowded bicycle racks in front of the Coffee Exchange. In other words, prime Obama country. The evening traffic crept along the elevated interstate in the background. One mother from North Kingstown (near URI), tending a well-behaved five-year-old, told me she and her partner gave up their car two years ago because they couldn’t afford to repair it, much less pay for gas. She’s worried about the announced cutbacks in bus service; the state doesn’t want to fund them, even as ridership is bulging.
A few people held small plain black-and-white signs saying "ExxonMcCain – Big Oil Buys Another President." I assume these were downloaded from MoveOn. No color, nothing eye-catching, nothing large enough to read from a moving car. Some passers-by seemed confused by the signs, unsure who or what the group was supporting or opposing. So people took markers to add some text, which then made the signs hard to read. Someone had brought a few MoveOn flyers with McCain and Obama’s positions on energy, to hand out to people filling up their cars. A scruffy-looking guy, half-hidden by the tree where he hoped to find shade, occasionally yelled "Go Obama!" at the passing cars. One demonstrator had brought his own signs criticizing Rhode Island’s two Congressmen (both Democrats, for shame) for co-sponsoring the House Resolution demanding a blockade against Iran. He was also collecting signatures on a petition to get Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney on the ballot. No one seemed to be in charge or enforcing message consistency. Was it pro-Obama, anti-McCain, issue advocacy, or just one of those all-purpose demonstrations?
One of the participants, a white middle-aged man, went on at length about his disappointment with Obama’s recent positions, especially on the FISA vote earlier that day. He said he’d voted for a guy who wasn’t going to play games, and instead, got just another politician. He said he’d still vote for Obama, but not with much enthusiasm or hope for anything really changing. An argument ensued over whether the Obama "flip-flop" or sell-out is real or just a media narrative assembled from Republican talking points. Regardless, it seems to have stuck for that voter, and done some real damage.
Overall, this didn’t seem a particularly effective way to get people’s attention or to point out the differences between the two candidates’ energy plans or McCain’s coziness with oil lobbyists. It got zilch news coverage; had anyone even bothered to do a press release?
Part of the appeal of Obama’s campaign so far has been its overall top-to-bottom competence. I wonder how helpful it is to slap together half-baked scruffy street-corner events. Has the MoveOn model of do-it-yourself events-in-a-kit perhaps Peter Principled out? Would it be better to spend our energy on events and visibility that comes from within the community, on issues of crucial importance locally, with a clear message? That’s a lot more work than just showing up based on an e-mail, but my guess is it would be worth a lot more.
Or if we just want to support Obama, it seems a lot more effective to just get a bunch of people to stand in high-traffic areas with a bunch of "Obama" and "Change" posters.