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Critique of Aug. 4 Nader rally in Portland, OR

by Jeremy David Stolen Thursday, Aug. 09, 2001 at 7:33 PM
fellowtraveler@riseup.net

Nader held a rally in Portland, OR, on Sat. Aug. 4. While superficially a success, it was seriously flawed in some serious ways. Nader plans to make a national tour now, and local Greens need to know what *really* happened in Portland so they can better make up their minds about their involvement.

I believe it is very important for those of us who are seeking positive change in the world to discuss our efforts as thoroughly and transparently as we can so we may best repeat our successes and avoid our failures. It is in that spirit that I share my thoughts here on the August 4 Ralph Nader rally at the Rose Garden. I was on the steering committee for this event, and was also lucky enough to spend some time on the road during the Nader campaign last fall, helping to set up some of the super rallies that took place then.

That over 7000 people attended the August 4 Ralph Nader rally at the Rose Garden is impressive. The 150 or so volunteers who dedicated so much of their time and energy to promoting and putting on the event should feel proud of their accomplishment. However, the event was marred by avoidable mistakes that are worth discussing. Let me stress that no volunteer should feel that her/his time or effort was wasted; any fault falls squarely on a very small number of individuals who placed themselves above the rank and file that made this event happen. The self-elevation of these individuals was not merely unpleasant but in fact disruptive and destructive, and offers by its example a methodology and set of motivations to be avoided within the activist community.

If there is any place where people should not have to suffer from degrading treatment, it is within progressive activism. Unfortunately many volunteers for the event did receive such abuse during the August 4 preparations from one of the aforementioned self-elevating individuals, who was sent here from D.C. These volunteers were patronized, ordered around, and generally treated insensitively, especially if they were women. It is true that this individual was receiving a lot of pressure "from above", but that is no excuse. He was informed of his ineffective tactics repeatedly and showed little significant improvement. That he was heralded on the front page of the Tribune and from the stage as the one solely responsible for the event's success will likely put off further his day of self-aware reckoning, unfortunately for him. To make matters worse, if this one-nighter at the Rose Garden turns into a tour, he will be the one "in charge" of it.

For five weeks before the August 4 event here, residents of Portland saw innumerable flyers and posters for the Rose Garden rally, and the photo selection -- Nader beaming with his arms held up -- was quite appropriate for pushing the star-studded event. The photo was taken in August 2000 in Seattle the day after Nader's sell-out night at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. According to some who are close to him, he was so thrilled because he had just appeared in front of such a large crowd. I will not begrudge Nader his pleasure at having filled an auditorium but I see in his beam, in his words and behavior since, and -- most significantly, in some of the people with whom he surrounds himself -- a spotlight-loving vanity that threatens his effectiveness as a well-known figure in the anti-corporate globalization movement.

Cults of personality are dangerous. We shouldn't look to D.C. or Hollywood or to rock stars for validation of our beliefs. If we are to have a legitimate "people's movement" (to use a favorite phrase of one of the rally organizers) we need to look to ourselves, our neighbors, and our brothers and sisters in struggle around the world. It is with millions of souls working for change in our daily lives -- not thousands of seats filled, hundreds of dollars fundraised, or a few famous people taking the stage -- that we will overcome the corporate colonialism of our age, if it is possible for us to do so at all. Stars cannot save us. Egotistical leadership can destroy us. If the Sixties taught us nothing else, it should be that an over-reliance on leadership and personality endangers a movement because it allows a dream to be taken out by one bullet. Infighting leaders jostling for the spotlight is also a dangerous and all-too-common tendency. To quote a Green Party organizer in Minnesota, who was explaining why she is an activist, and why she avoids the spotlight: "This isn't about fame or glory or ego -- it's about my f***ing grandchildren!"

And that's the heart of it, in my opinion: You can be an activist fighting for change, or an individual seeking personal glory, but you cannot be both. The first calling will always suffer from effort lost to the latter. Aspects of the August 4 rally proved this point.

One problem was the choice of venue. Almost no one thought we could actually sell 15,000 tickets at to the Rose Garden. This is not an election year, August is vacation month with no students around, and some of the people who attended last year's rally are mad at Nader now. Many of us pushed for a smaller and less-expensive venue such as the Convention Center, where we could more easily set-up teach-ins and workshops and thus concentrate on local organizing efforts with other groups. This advice was ignored, and the Rose Garden pushed on us in a dictatorial fashion. It is not clear if Nader himself was behind this decision, but it was presented that way by those who were communicating with him and passing the word down to us. In any case, the choice of venue seems to have been motivated less by a sincere desire to make positive change in the world than by a desire by certain people to bask in the hot glare of the stage lights and enjoy the flash of corporate press cameras. The resultant pressure on volunteers and organizers to sell tickets sell tickets sell tickets detracted from our ability to work at the grassroots level with other activists. Nonetheless, a successful Progressive Action Conference emerged in the afternoon before the rally which did involve many organizations and individuals from the vibrant community in these parts. The fight to secure this vital component was not pleasant, though.

August 4's rally was organized by many of the same people who helped put on the "super rallies" of last year's Nader campaign. Those rallies were instructive for many of those involved; they were effective in some ways in some cities, and ineffective or even destructive in other ways in other cities. In other words, lessons were learned. Unfortunately, some important lessons were ignored and not allowed to be applied, due to a top-down, authoritarian command structure, and the August 4 rally suffered because of it.

First, a little history on last year's super rallies: Portland's 10,579 sell-out in August was truly significant. Not since Henry Wallace's 1948 run as a progressive candidate had there been so many people paying to go see a politician speak. A month later, in Minneapolis, a little over 8000 people attended a Nader rally in the Target Center there. The rally left behind an energized volunteer base, and an office with phones. Nader ended up with 5.25% of the vote in that state, which gave the Greens "major party status" there. It is arguable that the boost given the campaign by the super rally helped put Nader over the 5% they needed to gain this status. A Chicago rally, with a comparable attendence a couple weeks later, also gave the campaign their a shot-in-the-arm, though a few hundred people left after Eddie Vedder's performance and before Nader's speech. We are also speaking of the city where one volunteer collected 12,000 signatures single-handedly to get Nader on the ballot; Chicago volunteers were among the hardest-working and most dedicated in the country, and didn't need a super rally to get them motivated. Still, it didn't seem to hurt them.

As election day drew nearer, though, the super rallies had a different effect. In the Bay Area and Los Angeles they were clearly a distraction from what were already well-organized campaigns, and sucked almost all the local volunteers into manic preparation and promotion. In those two cities, the super rallies might have actually decreased Nader's share of the vote, as canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts were set aside in the interest of filling halls. Filling halls was not even accomplished well, however. In the Bay Area, where 70,000 people are registered with the Green Party, only about 6000 people came to the Henry J. Kaiser Arena. Attendance at the Los Angeles rally barely kissed 3000, and with only three days remaining until the election at that point, the local campaign structure had little time to salvage their grassroots efforts.

The "Nader rocks the Rose Garden" posters and flyers for August 4's Portland rally were based on the design used to promote NYC's Madison Square Garden rally in October 2000, which was the only super rally besides Portland's that filled every seat. However, that event was of a different type than the other rallies; top-heavy with musical stars like Ani DiFranco and Ben Harper, it resembled an under-priced ( admission) rock show more than a political rally. Attendees at this rally have testified that many people there didn't listen to Nader's speech, and took that time to get refreshments or use the bathroom in between music. According to the campaign grapevine, the intense, one-week preparation for this event basically destroyed the local campaign structure, and left it largely ineffectual. This was done through the application of top-down managerial techniques by outsiders who descended on the city to put on the event. The Madison Square Garden rally, then, was not a model that smart organizers should want to repeat in any way, in either its format or its execution. Unfortunately, the August 4 rally here was an attempt to do just that by a small number of individuals. Fortunately, these people represented a minority. Unfortunately, they wielded the most influence due to their personal connections with Nader, and thus to the pursestrings for the event.

The biggest lesson learned from the super rallies was that big events do not in and of themselves create positive change. They excite attendees and can raise money and help train organizers, but do not appear to be significantly useful over the long-term unless there is follow-up. So, you fill an arena with 8000 people, get them all pumped up, and then what? The "action centers" at August 4's event attempted to address this concern. As originally envisioned, the action centers were meant to function as quick stopping-points where departing audience members could learn about current local campaigns and get equipped with a list of solid actions they could take, whether it was letter-writing, phone-banking, canvassing, going to a rally, or volunteering in any of a number of different ways. The action centers, then, were designed to give people something to do here and now. Many of us who had seen the shortcomings of the super rallies last year believed that these action centers were a great idea, and that they were our best shot at attempting to bring real action out of the energy that the rally would produce.

Unfortunately, there were two obstacles to the success of the action centers, and they both played out on August 4. The first was their timing. After a longish evening rally, who wants to stick around? The original plan as presented to Nader put his rally in the afternoon, with the action centers, workshops, and teach-ins afterwards. This might well have resulted in a lower turn-out, but would have made real, effective follow-up much easier. Secondly, the action centers needed to be properly called out in the Arena that night, and they were not. Despite specific coaching, Nader did not make clear to the 7000+ people there that the action centers existed and could be utilized at that very moment. A last minute attempt by one of the organizers to announce them from stage was valiant, but too late. Most people left the arena without knowing about the action center option that had been six weeks in the making, which involved representatives from a score of Oregonian activist organizations, and which had the potential to make hundreds of uninvolved people into more active citizens. An opportunity was lost, and much of the value of assembling so many people was piddled away. The fault here lies clearly with those who place themselves on top, and illustrates the danger of letting them place themselves there.

The local Green Party leaders and volunteers involved with the August 4 rally were some of the most dedicated, hardest working, smartest, well-organized, and all-around-best people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They took a bad situation -- a star-centered rally in a too-big of venue -- and made the best of it. They pushed hard for, and won, important concessions for local organizing. The Progressive Action Conference in the afternoon before the rally was indeed a great success. It involved dozens of progressive organizations -- some of whom had been angry at the Greens in the recent past due to misplaced resentments over the 2000 election -- and attracted hundreds of attendees. The workshops and teach-ins offered not just a wealth of information on a variety of important issues, but also solid ways to get involved here at the local level with trying to do something about them. This part of the day was the heart of the event from an organizing perspective, and will likely yield deeper and longer-lasting results than the rally that night. Had there not been such a focus on selling tickets to a too-big venue, perhaps the conference could have been even better.

The one thing that sticks with me most from my experience in the Nader campaign last fall, and with the organizing of the August 4 event, is that volunteers are the salt of the earth. Folks who offer their time and energy to a cause without monetary renumeration out of a desire to save the world (or at least one small part of it) are the most admirable people I have ever met. When a well-known Portland lawyer took to the stage on Saturday night and claimed that his son was responsible for filling the arena, he insulted every last one of these beautiful people. That Nader ran through a list celebrities but also neglected to mention the volunteers was also offensive. People who are this out of touch with reality should not be our leaders, and we should not stand for it when they take on that mantle.

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No egotists in a progressive movement, yeah! Watcher on the Rhine Thursday, Aug. 09, 2001 at 10:45 PM

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