One Pissed Off Voter
Like many during election season who live in safe states like New York, Gita Drury has focused on the swing states for the coming elections. In the past, her organization, the Active Element Foundation, raised money for grassroots youth groups nationwide to raise young voter participation. But because Active Element is a non-profit organization, the groups it works with are barred from anything that might smell of political advocacy. Wanting to get more directly involved, Gita took a leave from her job to work with Active Elements sister organization, The League of Pissed Off Voters. Because the League has a more politically flexible 501(c)4 tax status, it is allowed to do unlimited lobbying. It also has an affiliated PAC (Political Action Committee), which allows it to make endorsements and actually help elect candidates at all levels – local, state and federal.
The Leagues mission is to re-engage pissed off young people who are turned off by traditional, big-money electoral politics. Some of their recent projects include the book "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," the online network Indyvoter.org, and the Progressive Voter Guide Tool. They are allied with youth groups that are ferocious, engaged and outside the mainstream – they include the National Hip Hop Political Convention, PunkVoter, Next Wave of Women in Power, United Students Against Sweatshops and Voter Virgin.
With one month left to the elections, Gita and the rest of the League are in hyper-drive mode, criss-crossing the country and reaching out to young people who are "pissed off " at the political situation but not necessarily motivated to vote. In the midst of her busy schedule, she took a break to talk about the League's strategy, why voters are pissed off and why voter organizing is sometimes more effective than protest.
Gita, let's start with a conversation we had the night before the Republican National Convention (RNC). At that time, you said that the enormous energy being focused on protesting Bush's presence could distract from voter registration work. Expand on that theme a bit. Do you feel it distracts from the less sexy, but equally vital work of voter registration? When is protest relevant and when is it a distraction?
I dont like the whole "protesting versus voting" debate. Thats how we end up fighting amongst ourselves over tactics. What we really need is both! I actually think the RNC protests were really important and inspiring. They didnt end up taking that many material resources, mostly people power. However, my point was that this particular presidential election could easily be decided by a few thousand votes, in states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. I give the organizers a lot of credit for being politically smart by keeping everything non-violent and not playing into the hands of Karl Rove. I would like to see our community put just as much energy into beating the Republicans as protesting them. Its not enough to protest – we have to get them out of power.
IndyVoter targets youth and minority communities, as well as others. Do you feel black & Latino communities are totally ignored by Democrats because they presume they have their vote? Has the Kerry campaign been better on this, or about the same? I understand that there was some talk about some hip hop heads talking to the GOP after being ignored by the Dems. What's going on with race and the Dems?
Yeah, its a real problem. Democrats have been taking people of color, young people, queer people for granted and/or ignoring them.
But I think we are also sometimes naïve about the complex line the Democrats have to walk to get elected, given the realities of America. The Republican strategy to peel off the white working and middle class has been to portray the Democratic party as being controlled by special interests, i.e. African Americans, corrupt union bosses, "tree-huggers," "man-hating feminists," gays, etc. The Republicans have an incredible propaganda machine that plays on the racist fears of the white majority, particularly men, to get them to vote against their own class interests.
In 1988, the Republicans destroyed Michael Dukakis by portraying him as soft of crime. The centerpiece of this strategy was a black prisoner who had committed a crime while he was on furlough. This was the infamous Willie Horton ad that pulled the rug out from under Dukakis. So, in 1992 Clinton won by portraying himself as tough on crime and by intentionally distancing himself from Jesse Jackson and scapegoating Sister Souljah. And he won. Ever since, white Democrats feel like they have to distance themselves from minority communities in order to win at the national level, or in any majority white district in most places in the country.
So this is the reality that were dealing with. This is how the right wing has taken the South, using these racist tactics. Democrats are stuck between a rock and a hard place on race. Kerry could be better, but hes actually not as bad as hes portrayed. He has spoken out against the rise of the prison industrial complex.
Lets be clear: this isnt about us trusting Kerry or the Democratic party to save us or to be good on race, which I wont be holding my breath for. This is about us organizing in the long term for when people of color are the majority in this country.
If we do our job, politicians in all parties will have no choice but to take constituents of color seriously. Having said that, most white Democrats have a long way to go on race and if they dont get it, they are going to lose and keep losing because theyre undermining their own foundation.
Let's talk about IndyVoter's specific work. What have you guys been up to? What is the focus in these final weeks? What tactics worked? What needs improvement?
The League is actually a family of organizations the League of Young Voters Education Fund, the League of Independent Voters and League of Independent Voters PAC. Obviously, each arm has a distinct role in the overall strategy of the League.
League of Young Voters trains community based organizations in effective voter organizing, since grassroots groups are often new to electoral politics. We have an incredible training director, Adrienne Brown, who travels all over the country providing the tools and resources, and training other people, to effectively engage young people.
We just launched our friend-of-a-friend network on IndyVoter.org. Pissed off kids are getting on it by the thousands and creating their own local progressive voter guides and voter blocs. Its very cool! Everyone is going to be using it. The fact is, no one knows who the hell the candidates are besides the president and maybe a few others. We have more than 70 local League groups that are now making their own progressive voter guides – mostly in swing states. Then theyre going to turn out their social networks. Its amazing. Theres never been anything like it before.
You also co-founded an organization called "Making Money Make Change," (MMMC) an annual gathering for young people with wealth to learn about philanthropy. An interesting concept – did it work? Do wealthy people have social consciences? George Soros certainly seems to have one. Is he an anomaly or a pattern for the future?
It worked very well actually! Its been a successful conference – this month the 7th annual MMMC will take place in Connecticut, bringing together 75 young people ranging in age from 15 to 35. Yes, some wealthy people do have social consciences. I know when I was 22, I found the contradictions in my own life confusing at times. This network of people offered support and inspiration for much of the work Ive been involved with since the first MMMC in 1998.
George Soros is definitely not an anomaly, but rather part of a long tradition of people leveraging their resources toward social change. Of course, there is also a tradition of philanthropy that is about perpetuating the status quo and power structure – and that tradition has historically had a lot more zeros behind it. But there is a growing movement of young people who are nothing like the subjects of Jamie Johnsons film, "Born Rich." Unlike the people in that film, these people see the importance of a sustainable and just future and are willing to play an active role in changing things NOW!
One great example is Karen Pittelman. When Karen inherited money from her family, she started a foundation to fund grassroots women organizers, known as the Chahara Foundation. Karen opted not to serve on the board of Chahara as she believes all the decisions should be made by low-income organizers and women of color, the same demographics as the women receiving grants. Karen went on to work at Resource Generation, an organization solely created to support young progressive people with wealth – she has been an important leader in that community.
There are many other inspiring stories I could share, but one of the major issues that come up in this community is anonymity. Around half of the people who attend the conference are not "out" in the rest of their lives about their wealth.
What about Critical Resistance, another group you co-founded. Why does the prison industrial complex keep growing? What do we do about the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black men? What can we do about the nation's laws that prevent felons from voting?
It was an honor to be a part of the group in 1998 that pulled together the original conference. My role has been small since then due to my other commitments. I was just a young kid who had done an internship that brought me into womens prisons. I got really angry when I learned first-hand that most women are in prison for non-violent crimes and most of them have kids on the outside. The prison movement has ballooned astronomically – people should check out Criticalresistance.org and Righttovote.org to get more information about this.
The prison industrial complex continues to grow because of the fear epidemic that is rampant in this country that has been well coordinated with the privatization (and thus profit-making) of the incarceration of human beings. As I mentioned before, the Democratic party tried to present themselves as tough on crime which often meant going along with Republicans on things like mandatory minimum sentences and draconian drug laws. All of these things have an incredibly negative effect on young people of color, who are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by our justice system.
There are a lot of youth groups in your coalition that the "grown-up" political parties have no clue about. Hip hoppers, punks and voter virgins. What do they want? Are there common threads or major differences? The Village Voice did a series of articles on college loan debt. Is that the beginning of new issues for youth, just like Medicare is an issue for the grey vote?
First, I want to clarify thats its not exactly an official "coalition." Its more like a bunch of loose networks. Second, what we want is basic: affordable education, housing, rehabilitation, not building more prisons and bombs. We want a government that listens to us, not big oil companies. We want to be able to go to the doctor, and earn a living wage to support our families. We want to know that theres going to be Social Security for us when we get old. And that were not going to be in debt paying off tax cuts for the rich.
I saw an inspiring performance a few weeks back at the Apollo Theater by We Got Issues: Raising the Voice of a New Feminine Generation, a project of the Next Wave of Women & Power. This dynamic group of women artists and performers put out a national call for young women to send them rants, describing their relationship to voting. The goal was to have young womens voicesheard. The rants were then made into a performance piece, with Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda as executive producers. Projects like We Got Issues, PunkVoter, Voter Virgins, etc. are great examples of the innovation and creativity that the extreme nature of the current political climate has inadvertently fostered among young people.
Of course with youth groups, everything is on the Internet. So to learn more about these groups, check out these URLs: hihopconvention.org, votervirgin.com, punkvoter.org, musicforamerica.org, swingstatesummerbreak.org, and bikefordemocracy.org
What's your prognosis for America? How do we get out of where we are into a more just and equitable society? Is it just elections, or is there more to be done?
Prognosis? Thats a tough question
I believe Nov. 2 is the crucial watershed election.
Either we are going to go spiraling into a nosedive where radical right-wing fanatics control all branches of government with no effective opposition, or, in the best case scenario, were able to live to fight another day. Meaning, Kerry helps us get the termites out of the foundation of the house, and at least buys us time to take our movement to the next level.
Ultimately, in '06 and '08 and in the coming decades, as people of color become a majority and our movement grows stronger, we will be able to take our country back – school board by school board, state rep by state rep, precinct by precinct. Our goal is to build a coherent vision and strategy towards a future that is sustainable in its respect toward the all forms of life on the planet.