Reader CK writes in with some thoughts on MoveOn and organizing:
I just read your article about MoveOn, and remembered that I’d removed myself from their mailing list, as I have from so many, because I was fed up with so-called “online activism”. I’d begun to think of it as civic engagement on the cheap – a way to quiet the voices of the better angels in our heads without ever actually engaging. That said, I have very strong memories of MoveOn’s GOTV effort in 2004, for which I was a precinct captain here in Philly. Right after Kerry lost, I decided to write down some of the things I didn’t want to forget amidst the tremendously painful disappointment. Here’s a chunk of it:
On October 24th, I was walking door-to-door in the part of my neighborhood that’s suffered more than the rest – lots of boarded up houses, extra locks on the doors, the kind of place where, out of fear, people oftentimes won’t open the door to an unfamiliar face. But it was a beautiful day, and just about everybody who was home was opening their doors to me. There was one woman I’ll never forget. When I asked her if she was planning to vote, she assured me that she’d be there bright and early. I asked her what issue was most important to her in making her decision about who to vote for in the presidential race. What she said knocked the wind out of me entirely. She told me that her nephew was in Iraq, and that most of her son’s friends were there too. Her niece, she said, was just about to be deployed as well, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she said, “We were relieved at first, because it meant she didn’t have to go. Now, though, we’re just praying for her to get well.” I told her that both her nephew and her niece would be in my prayers (I hadn’t prayed for seven years, since I lost my faith, but these days I’ve decided not to allow my doubt to deny those suffering in this world whatever comfort they might find in my prayers). As I walked away, the tears started streaming down my face. Did I really live in a world where being diagnosed with leukemia might save your life?
On November 1st, we were on the streets one last time, looking to reach any of our neighbors we’d failed to speak with before. Around 4:30 that afternoon, Mrs. Massucci finally answered her door. When we asked her for whom she was planning to vote, she answered, “I probably won’t vote. I’m an old lady, and I haven’t voted for a lot of years.” We asked her if she thought President Bush had done a good job, and suddenly the floodgates opened. This little old lady was mad. We encouraged her to vote the next day, and told her how important it was for her to make her voice heard. She looked thoughtful, but didn’t commit. We left her doorstop and made a note: “MAKE SURE TO COME TO MRS. MASSUCCI’S DOOR. BRING THE CAR.” Never mind that Mrs. Massucci lives only a block and a half from the polls. We were ready to carry her if need be. But here’s the great part of the story. We had a list of all the people from the neighborhood, and my roommate was checking them off at the polls once they’d voted. When I checked in with her at 9:15 am, to see who we didn’t need to worry about for the rest of the day, Mrs. Massucci was one of the people who had already voted. She didn’t need our car, or our strong arms to grip onto for the 1.5 block walk. All she needed was for someone to remind her that her voice counted.
On the evening of November 1st, our committeeperson knocked on our door to ask for our help with one particular voter. Since I was in charge of the canvassing team, my two roommates took the job. An elderly woman, legally blind and wheelchair-bound, hadn’t received her absentee ballot. She lives on the third floor of a building that isn’t accessible. She also happens to weigh 200 pounds. On Tuesday, my roommates headed out, and a couple of hours later, when my canvassers and I were back at the house to update our lists and get ready for the next round, my roommate told me how it had gone. Not only was this voter blind and unable to walk; she hadn’t been out of her house for years. She was terrified to go out, since she couldn’t see and couldn’t get around on her own. But this year, nothing could keep her from the polls. She conquered her fears of the world outside her home. She faced the indignity of having three people she didn’t know and couldn’t see carry her down the stairs of her own home. If that isn’t heroic, I don’t know what is.
That GOTV campaign was, in my opinion, MoveOn at its best. And I see from your article that they have tried to maintain ground presence throughout the country. But as you point out, any group that communicates almost entirely vertically, without the trickier, messier, horizontal element, isn’t going to be effective, no matter how technologically savvy it may be. There is no, and never will be any, end-run around face-to-face organizing, as difficult, frustrating, emotionally demanding, and likely to fail as it is. (For me, this is one of many places where Beckett’s sense of humor resounds…) There is no work harder, and no work more important to a vibrant democracy, or, for that matter, a vibrant community or movement of any kind. Of course, there is infinite work to be done in support of, in service of, and to better inform organizing. But for me, the organizer is the hero, full stop.