Hammering Out Justice

What did people use to do when half of America didn't vote -- and too many of those folks were young voters?

Not very much. Sure, someone would pass out some recycling literature at a concert. There might be a lonely voter registration table or two. Or sometimes, there would be an impassioned plea from the stage -- but frankly, it was pretty hard to hear other than "<Insert Politician's Name> Sucks!" But not any more.

Now I am not here to tell you that a young generation of idealistic activists is rising up to lead America to the promised land. Not quite yet. But there are some folks who have had it with alienation and non-voting and aim to turn things around. They are not waiting for permission or for a rulebook with instructions from above. They are building their own infrastructure as they go,

These young people are motivated to hit the streets and hit the road...more like the barnraising style of Habitat for Humanity rather than the sitting back and waiting for the funding. Breaking ground requires no mission statement or long-term commitment -- people just work together on one project and see how they like it. If it works, they rinse and repeat. If it doesn't, they move on down the road. Fuzzy projects are frowned upon, practical efforts honored. Does this register a voter? Does it build my skills? Does it build real community? Otherwise, forget about it.

In a nutshell, call this approach "pick up a hammer" politics.

So where's the inspiration for this? It comes mainly from the perspiration and the shoulders you rub up against in the work. It comes from the understanding that political power comes from organizing and mobilizing, connecting face-to-face. It comes from honoring the foot soldiers, not the general. It's rooted in the Public Enemy/Chuck D classic: "Don't Believe the Hype."

Hip hop writer Jeff Chang wisely points out how today's generation needs to first be convinced that political action of any kind, especially voting, is even remotely important. Can you prove that anything can change according to the rules that exist? Can you get young people excited in a world where 4000 advertising images are pushed in their faces every day? Selling easy answers, which is what most politicians do, is a tough sell in this environment. And young people have highly evolved crap detectors.

Why should this generation give a hoot? Born in the Reagan era, bred under Bush and then undercoated on the final assembly line with a Clinton presidency stained by blue dresses and school uniforms -- no risk of hero worship in the average 18-25 year old, that's for sure. So ... don't believe the hype. Believe what you can see. Believe what you can do, with your friends.

A new book called How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office documents great stories of young people in action all over the country. The authors are out on the road in 90 cities making contact on the ground. The book was produced by the League of Independent Voters, a feisty, imaginative collection of sharp tongued, energetic organizers out to change the perception of young people as apathetic non-voters. Visit their online home and tie in to their training of youth organizers and voter registration efforts.

Another great book for the youth voting revolution is Storming the Polls: How to Vote Your Views and Change the Rules, produced by the online youth magazine Wiretap. (Wiretap is a sister project of AlterNet).

Thousands of young people are going to make the scene at the Hip Hop Voters Convention June 16-18 in Newark, New Jersey -- where some serious organizing is going down. To be a delegate, you need to have registered 50 voters before the event. So absolutely no posers are allowed -- ya gotta be real.

There's a lot for us all to learn here. These crews aren't spending any energy moaning about Kerry's shortfalls -- because they don't look to him for most of the answers. Sure, they mostly want Bush out of office, but they see this as the first step toward building a stronger base of young people to exercise political power no matter who is elected.

Young activists aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands. The artists and bands have had it too -- they are organizing themselves in ways never seen before. Before the election comes around there will be hundreds of music concerts across the land. So are you ready to rock? Check out Rock the Vote, PunkVoter, and Music for America to get a taste of what is in the works. An exciting new collaborative, called Air Traffic Control is spearheading new efforts to connect progressive grassroots organizing and music fans more effectively. So get ready for a hot summer of music and registration.

Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene, Ore., and Washington, D.C.


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