From my home in Washington DC, I've felt the excitement and energy of the activities around the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At times like these, it's hard not to be proud seeing the city preparing for hundreds of events and knowing that people from all over the country are coming to town to be a part of history. Even the 24-hour news cycle, playing the last paragraph of Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech on infinite repeat can't spoil the inspired words and unflagging spirit of this day. But in the age of social media, I have a serious question for those concerned with the actual mechanics of change -- would a young group of dissident activists organize a national march on Washington to pass congressional legislation today?
The Voting Rights Act was hanging on by a thread when Dr. King, John Lewis and others organized the now famous March on Washington. It is said that while this march was to promote wage increases and a strong jobs message, the AFL-CIO stayed away from endorsing the march as it was considered too much of an act of outsiders and might be risky to get behind.
Would a similar group of considered radical "outsiders" get their message heard today? Could young people fight back against Congress by organizing a national march on Washington in this same way? Would Dr. King get his goals out to key activists through a Lincoln Memorial Speech or would he speak direct to camera, and use YouTube and other methods of social media to push for specific legislative action? Would mainstream news even cover an event dominated by a roster of unknown speakers? Would America have even heard the now famous words "I Have a Dream" if only a few cable channels broadcasted it?
While the original March on Washington was awe-inspiring and a true spectacle that shocked the nation into action, organizers that try to use the same tactic in a different age will come up short for several reasons:
1. Today's DC is more focused on quick turnaround news stories rather than well-organized marches and well-crafted speeches.
2. Media is not willing to set up camp and devote airtime to a full day on the swampy National Mall to cover no-name speakers, however urgent the cause.
3. Large-scale marches are hardly the most cost effective way to engage members of Congress into action.
Organizing the same amount of people to take action locally for issues that impact key Congressional Districts is now more important than organizing a mass amount of people in DC that don't have the power to swing critical votes in key districts and may not even be covered by local media outlets.
The cultural leaders of today who are eager to bring change understand that organizing these national rallies can be an unproductive use of resources as well as waste of a lot of time and energy. The cost of paying for hundreds of Porta Potties on the National Mall, as well as tens of thousands of dollars for tour buses, quickly adds up for underfunded organizations. Not to mention, once the marchers get to Washington, they will need thousands of boxed lunches, etc. In other words, organizing an event to physically come to DC, when none of the targeted members of Congress you are protesting against are even here, is not as efficient or as effective as organizing congressional call-in days or local actions that will get more attention.
I remember organizing one of the largest anti-Iraq war rallies in DC in 2006 (Operation Ceasefire), and I learned how much energy is misguided in these national marches that will never compete or be remembered as well as the historic marches of the '60s. While our march on Washington was the first time major-label musicians, Hollywood actors and even an NBA basketball player stood with the usual suspects of anti-war activists and lefty zealots at an anti-Iraq war rally in Washington, it wasn't enough to garner significant national news. While we were able to get a few hundred thousand people to come to DC through building the coalition -- United For Peace and Justice, ANSWER, CodePink, as well as some labor unions and other more mainstream progressive groups -- the event was better advertised through the musicians' email lists, MySpace and even the alternative news-weeklies like the Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia City Papers. We even had better luck organizing with the local music promoters than the traditional baby-boomer ways of organizing with teams of activists distributing flyers up and down the East Coast. Sadly, I remember these older organizers being more concerned with who was going to hold the official march's banner, as they were used to this being the major camera shot, instead of worrying about calling press to actually show up and cover the event. I learned an important lesson at that march, having a few hundred thousand people at the event, spending thousands of dollars on staging and Porta Potties, and having Jessie Jackson speak is not enough news to excite national press let alone effectively reach the targeted congressional members that were still voting for the war.
I believe Dr. King and his organizers would agree that spending more time getting key locals that live in targeted swing-districts to engage, especially those with large social media presences, is a better use of today's time and money than arguing with the National Park Police about how many people attended the protest.
We have seen these new national-to-local tactics used effectively in recent days during the Trayvon Martin rallies. Al Sharpton's small but efficient National Action Network asked people to go to their local federal building on a specific day at a specific time and with a specific message: "peacefully ask for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Trayvon Martin case." This was cost-effective and resulted in thousands of nationally inspired activists to get this simple message out (via Twitter and Facebook) to find a federal office building and act locally! Over one hundred events were organized nationally in less than two days time. Of course some were better than others, but the message moved rapidly like wildfire over the Internet.
We have also seen this type of local organizing used with crisis management. During Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, we watched local TV news, sports organizations and other celebrities with large followings tweet out FEMA's up-to-the-minute Crisis Shelter look up system. Tens of thousands of people were able to easily tell friends to simply text SHELTER to 43362 to find their local emergency shelter. This was an easy system with a simple message that spread quickly through social media and allowed people to both push out a national message and find information locally.
I also believe Dr. King would have asked his famous celebrity friends to get more involved in the cause in different ways today. While Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary all played songs at the Lincoln Memorial, imagine if they could have done more to help pass legislation rather than simply play music for the people gathered at the event. Today's celebrities are constantly engaging their fans and asking them to take real action. Lady Gaga's Twitter army has called dozens of state houses to help pass legislation to put an end to discrimination of gays and lesbians. Pearl Jam has hosted events locally for U.S. Senator John Tester because their bassist, Jeff Ammet, grew up in Montana. Beyonce and dozens of other musicians recently posted NAACP's petition on their websites to ask their fans to push US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the Trayvon Martin case.
While celebrating this 50th anniversary of Dr. King's dream, I feel it is important to think about new ways of organizing and different ways to more effectively pass legislation. In the same spirit that John Lewis said, "We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient." I believe that young people organizing a massive movement will do so locally with a different feel and different leaders than a national March. They are no longer waiting for national leaders to give them permission to speak out. These organizers will use nationalized messaging combined with social media circles like never before in an effort to flood more and more town meetings, passing legislation and demanding their voices be heard in a way that I think, Dr. King would be proud of.