Who Let the Punks Out?
Left-leaning youth-based organizations like this one nationwide include Project Democracy (a youth-led project of the League of Conservation Voters), the South Asian American Voting Youth and a number of organizations chronicled in a new book by the League of Pissed Off Voters. The league (attached to the website Indyvoter.org), one of the first groups to try to establish a voting bloc specifically on the basis of being young and angry, writes about youth-driven electoral politics in its new book, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-politics, Un-boring Guide to Power. Don't be fooled by the hard-ass title: Many of the local campaigns and initiatives chronicled in the book are characterized by compromise and a willingness to accept incremental change. The introduction presents an argument for voting Democratic, even though "the Democrats are not our friends." And the stories in the book might be called heart-warming--not something you could bring to the mosh pit.
The Pissed Off Voters' solution to this dissonance is to propose their own DIY, punk-rock idea for the November election: local voter guides, printed up by web-connected swing-state league members on their own dime and xeroxed for coffee shop, nightclub, health center and street-corner distribution. Indyvoter also plans a website for young activists along the lines of Friendster (an interactive networking site that has brought in 1.5 million registered users, most of them young).
Armed with an understanding of their own communities, anti-Bush youth are in a unique position to do the kind of one-on-one persuading that is most effective in turning out the young vote. Just ask Malia Lazu, a charismatic 26-year-old member of the League of Pissed Off Voters and co-author of its debut book. Lazu describes herself as black Puerto Rican Italian--and, more to the point, she proclaims, "I'm the diva of democracy with my push-up bra and my fabulous boots!" Unwilling to champion most politicians, Lazu has mastered a free-style approach to personality politics in order to turn out voters. How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office records her success as a college student who founded and directed the voter-organizing project Boston Vote among traditionally nonvoting neighborhoods. The only one of twelve activist co-authors with any experience in electoral politics, Lazu created a voting model on a substantial foundation--building a coalition of community-based organizations, teaching voters where, how and why to vote--plus a whole lot of hip-hop style. Last year, the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts recognized her work in dramatically increasing turnout in Boston's communities of color. Now she's an organizer for the Cities for Peace program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and has worked with Harry Belafonte on voter organizing in impoverished neighborhoods in cities like Cincinnati.
With inspirational stories like Lazu's, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (the title prompted an angry letter from the publisher of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men) tries to chip away at another nonvoting culture: the protest crowd. Co-editors Adrienne Brown and William Wimsatt (who has something of a cult following from earlier books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons) hawked the book to its target audience as they marched through New York's antiwar protest this past March and gave away copies to people from swing states. By their account, they found more than 1,000 takers--some of them fans of Wimsatt's from his other books (in six weeks, roughly 2,500 copies of the book were sold through traditional distribution methods). For Wimsatt, and undoubtedly many of the kids who have shown up for antiwar, antitrade and anti-Patriot Act rallies in the past few years, voting never seemed particularly important. ("I don't vote," said one marcher named Dread, who nonetheless asked for a free copy. "I don't see a good reason.") Wimsatt has a history of grand gestures; he started a rich-kid philanthropic organization and wrote hip-hop books, including one that Tupac Shakur called "the best book I read in prison." Now, like other rebels who have examined their complicity in allowing George W. Bush to be elected in the first place, Wimsatt has had a change of heart about electoral politics. After Florida 2000, he became a believer. "We want you to call your friends in swing states!" he preached to the crowd.
As Lazu tells pissed-off nonvoters, "If you want to be an anarchist, that's fine, but then we'll all still be here. Could you just not be an anarchist on voting day?"
This is a message that Kerry can't deliver. Nonvoters are not a target of major campaigns, and anarchists, punks and hip-hop divas may be even further down the list of "good voters" than young people in general. As a presidential candidate whom many primary voters chose, after all, for his electability, Kerry won't be chasing down hot DJs for a "Drop Bush, Get Bombed" party (as one youth-led PAC in Philadelphia did) or sporting a "Vote, F*cker" T-shirt (Oregon Bus Project's answer to the Urban Outfitters shirt). The targeted efforts of the young and pissed-off may benefit Kerry, but their medium and message distinguish them from the work of his camp, and even from mainstream 527s. A very individualized approach makes them a new and unpredictable factor in the upcoming election. Will edgy slogans turn off as many people as they seduce? Or are they a necessary antidote to Kerry's stiff pronouncements? Will use of the Internet in coalition-building this year create no more than the illusion of youth-led resistance? Or will the chance for personal involvement mobilize a generation of independent voters? In short, will the f*ckers vote, and for whom? No polls have yet answered these questions.
Not everybody is convinced that an anti-Bush message is enough to draw in disaffected citizens. Marshall Ganz, an adviser to the Dean campaign and a Harvard lecturer in public policy, believes that without a strong leader like Dean, who drew young activists and organizers into his campaign, young voters will be more likely to drop out. "A constructive alternative is very important," says Ganz. "It's not enough to just get rid of Bush. To really tap into the potential there, people also have to think they have someone and something to vote for."