Melina Brown

Turning Their Backs on Bush

It's not your traditional protest. But if things go as planned on inauguration day, an estimated 10,000-30,000 people will line the streets of Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. without pins, buttons or signs. Their voices will not rise in unison and there will not be a bullhorn among them. But there will be protest. As President Bush's motorcade appears the crowd will send a message with one simple gesture – they will turn their backs.

In their decision to avoid obvious protest paraphernalia, the group, taking part in an organized effort called Turn Your Back On Bush (TYBOB). hopes to gain closer access to the main event than most protest groups will be allowed. Will it work? Well, the group's challenge seems to be about informing people – the right people – while staying under the radar.

If this effort does send an effective message, it will be because it is a concept born out of both frustration and foresight. Just weeks before the 2004 presidential elections, when most protest groups were wrapping up their efforts and packing to go home, TYBOB was just beginning to see its inception.

"I was doing all that I could to remove George Bush from office through the election," says Jet Heiko, the Philadelphia community organizer and co-founder of Turn Your Back On Bush. "And I began to realize that very few resources were going to planning Bush winning outright."

With this realization in hand, Heiko and his partners worked furiously to reallocate resources. Hence Turn Your Back On Bush was born. And in the months since, it has effectively channeled the energy of many Bush critics looking for a way to stay engaged. In just three short months, the small grassroots group has grown to include over 24 organizers in 24 different states. Students from an estimated 40 different colleges and universities – the largest groups coming from such big name schools as the University of Michigan, Ursinus College and Bard College – are also planning to attend.

"College students are definitely playing a big role in TYBOB," says Emilie Karrick, the media coordinator for the group, "But it's really becoming a broad-based effort with people coming from all walks of life."

As is often the case, however, young participants are often leading the way. "It was clear to me that it just wasn't enough to take my beliefs into the ballot box." Says Sarah Kauffman, a 21-year-old Ursinus College student and the TYBOB field director/outreach organizer for the greater Pennsylvania State area. "I had to do more with it than just vote."

Kauffman says it was TYBOB's dedication to action that caught her attention. "We are gathering not necessarily to chant and not necessarily to all yell together," she adds, "but we are actually gathering to act together. To do something together. That is really powerful to me."

But it doesn't stop there. Kauffman says she had other, more personal reasons to participate.

"I have a couple of friends that are in the military," she says, "and their tours of duty have been extended, their pay has been cut, they don't think they are getting sufficient amounts of protections as far as equipment goes, and its disconcerting to me that they are doing this service for our country, yet it doesn't seem that the proper respect is being given to them by our government." Not everyone involved in TYBOB is against the war, she points out, but for her, it was "a really big issue."

Alex Obriecht, a bicycle shop owner and the media consultant for the Baltimore, Md. area, lists more domestic reasons for his involvement. "Economically we were moving into positive territory with reducing the national debt, and now we have reversed and have historically high levels of debt. That has pushed us into an economic dead end," laments Obriecht. "I have three children, all young adults, and it worries me to no end that their burden of this debt will be there for their lifetime."

Whatever the reason that drew the TYBOB volunteers, they are united in one common goal. "We are not planning on getting George Bush to change his strategy," says Heiko. "We are hoping this will help people to get connected."

Obriecht agrees that a response from President Bush is highly unlikely, but also unnecessary. "The outcome that I expect is more and more of an awakening. There are millions of people in America who are no longer standing on the sidelines of politics. Turn Your Back On Bush is [one more] step in that direction."

Even with a clear goal, the TYBOB organizers know that it is not an easy road ahead. There will be much opposition and many who disagree with the message they are sending. But that's entirely the point. Democracy is about fostering a place for people to disagree and express their dissent. And, as Heiko points out, "Democracy isn't just about election[s]." It is about "the day-to-day efforts to make sure people are included in our system and the decision-making that [continue] long after the elections."


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