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From Protests to Political Power

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Thousands of people stood in Times Square protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman. They were matched by protesters in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and, of course, in little Sanford, FL, ground zero for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Sadly, none of these protests matter to the most powerful people in the Zimmerman/Martin saga: the 74 state representatives and 26 state senators representing the Republican Party in Tallahassee.

That the Martin/Zimmerman affair came to light at all is a testament to his parents' determination and the power of social media to cast light into dark corners of society. They used Change.org to petition Florida prosecutors to take up the cause of the killing of their son. Bloggers, tweeters and pundits brought some momentum to the story and people went into the streets to protest a great injustice. And they did move the system enough to have Zimmerman tried for second-degree murder. But they couldn't move it enough to match the power held by Republicans inside the political system.

We progressives have a bad habit of assuming that large numbers of people supporting our positions is the same as gaining political power. When we lose statehouses in places like Florida and Texas, the key levers of political power like the ability to gerrymander districts into Rorschach tests of political affiliation, are lost with it, often times for a generation.

Thomas Edsall does a masterful job here of describing what happens to the power of minority voters (even when in places like Texas they now make up the majority of the population.) Edsall writes, "The loss of these committee positions has meant the loss of the power to set agendas, push legislation to the floor, and call hearings."

For too long, we have been assuming that social media and demographic shifts alone will be enough to turn minority/majority places like Texas blue. We need a new approach to political change that goes beyond the episodic razzle-dazzle of voter targeting and turnout through big data of presidential elections.

True political power at a state level will come from integrating passionate outpourings of support with ongoing grassroots organizing. Not just voter registration nearer to elections, and not just outrage on blogs, but continuously educating voters on their civic rights and how they're being systematically reduced under Republican rule, registering new voters, training progressive candidates at the local level to build a leadership pipeline. Coordinating local organizing efforts with online activists will make protests like the Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas the rule not the exception.

Howard Dean had a Fifty State Strategy when he chaired the DNC, which was very successful in turning some Red states, like Montana, blue. Momentarily. But we need more continuous training and education on the ground. The next iteration of that idea is an integrated online/on land strategy of organizing, training, educating, mobilizing active citizens to change the political context within which all citizens are treated justly.