07/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Oil-Free President Network Politics, Street Corner St Louis

I've been to many demonstrations over the years, as a reporter and as a marcher/demonstrator. The gathering of folks on the sidewalks by a gas station in St. Louis Wednesday was different, mainly in the way we were called to action -- by a broadcast email.

About 40 people answered Adam Shriver's invitation to participate in the St. Louis version of MoveOn's "National Day of Action for an Oil-Free President" demonstration at a Shell station at Skinker and Delmar boulevards. We joined thousands of MoveOn members who took to the sidewalks in more than 200 cities Wednesday to call attention to the differences in the proposed energy policies of the presidential candidates, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama.

We held signs, passed out fliers and attracted several honking supporters at the busy intersection at the eastern end of the St. Louis/University City Loop. It was a varied group gathered at rush hour -- teachers on summer break, college and grad students, retired folks, and those with flexible working hours or nearby jobs.

Donna Beard faced the street and raised her sign: "Exxon McCain: Big Oil Buys Another President."

"I haven't held up a sign since the 1960s," Beard said. Back then, she was boycotting Woolworths in Chicago for its lunch-counter segregation in the South. After so many years, Beard was moved to pick up a sign in peaceful demonstration because "there's gotta be a change" -- in gas prices, in energy policy and in the leadership of the country. Like the other MoveOn demonstrators, Beard supports Obama.

"This is the best turnout yet," Robert Recht told Shriver. Recht, who identified himself as "the oldest member of MoveOn St. Louis," said he had been to about ten MoveOn demonstrations.

This was Nick Apperson's first demonstration. Apperson, 24, said he voted in the 2004 presidential election "against W" rather than for John Kerry, the Democratic candidate.

"This time is different," he said. "This time I'm definitely for Obama. Of course, he won't solve all our problems. Change takes more than one person."

And that was one reason Apperson was moved to pick up a sign and hand out fliers. "This is just the beginning," he said.

No traditional news media appeared to record the event in St. Louis. A student journalist for Vox Magazine at the University of Missouri-Columbia journalism school and a few bloggers were the only reporters at the local demonstration.

The events in at least a few locations elsewhere did attract mainstream news, although the list was apparently quite short. In a congratulatory email to participants on Thursday, MoveOn spokesman Noah T. Winer mentioned only accounts on a radio station in Duluth and a newspaper in Orange County, Calif.

Winer declared the nationwide demonstration a success: "Together, we accomplished our primary goal: now more people will think 'Big Oil' when they hear 'John McCain.' That is exactly what we wanted -- for people and the press to start realizing McCain would be another president who is so closely tied to the oil industry we can't count on him to lower gas prices or support alternative energy solutions."

The St. Louis gathering is perhaps an example of the way political campaigning is changing, as supporters both use and bypass mainstream media and traditional political groups, and mix online networking with older-style street demonstrations. Shriver's email invitation said the demonstration was sparked by TV ads by the McCain campaign trying to blame Obama for high gasoline prices.

Broadcast email reactions to TV ads and newscasts have become a standard campaign tactic of MoveOn, the Obama organization and other political and activist groups that have my email address. (Republicans may do this, too, but I am not on any of their lists.) Most of the time, these mass emails contain a link to the offending video and usually urge the recipients to sign a petition deploring the action or statement. This time, we were urged to show up in person.

The fliers we handed out compared Obama's and McCain's voting records and policy statements on energy, including their ranking by the League of Conservation Voters in its 2007 legislative scorecard (Obama: 67 percent in 2007, 86 percent "lifetime"; McCain: 0 percent in 2007 because he missed every vote, 24 percent "lifetime"). We gave these fliers to people in cars leaving the gas station or stopped at the intersection, as well as to pedestrians and bicyclists. A lot of drivers gave us thumbs up or honked their horns. A few declined the fliers or gave us a thumbs down.

Michael Sandler, 22, who works for the Obama campaign, stopped by to register new voters and sign up campaign volunteers. The MoveOn volunteers were already registered, but Sandler found a ready audience for his pitch that they get more involved in joining the Obama organization. Linda Fried, who had been canvassing in my neighborhood a few days before for a candidate in the August primary election for state offices, signed up as an Obama volunteer.

In an odd juxtaposition of new-style/old-style campaigning, Sandler was quite open with folks he was recruiting, clipboard and pen at the ready to take their names and contact information; but he was adamant that he couldn't talk to news media, including this blogger, because all statements to the press must go through the Obama organization. I guess it's one thing to accept the endorsement of an independent group like MoveOn and quite another to have to worry about how any and every worker in one's own organization might be quoted in the media.

The Internet has widened the reach of "word of mouth," but traditional means of political persuasion still work. Two parents brought their children to the demonstration.

Angela Miller went to demonstrations against the Vietnam War with her father, Dwight Miller, a Stanford professor.

"We were chased down by mounted police in San Francisco," she recalls.

On Wednesday, Miller brought her son, Jonas Stockie, 12, to his first demonstration. He hoisted a sign and waved to an acquaintance in a passing car. Miller's daughter, Marisa Miller, 16, said she had been to many demonstrations in the past few years: for living wages for Washington University maintenance staff, against confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, for example.

AnaClaire Bryant, 8, made her own pro-Obama poster. Her father, Sean Bryant, is a student at St. Louis University Law School. He encouraged AnaClaire to participate in the demonstration "so she can learn that she can speak her voice and people will hear it."

He glanced fondly at his daughter standing in the hot sun. "If you believe in something, you've got to say what you believe. Right, Goofball?"

AnaClaire nodded, smiling.