Two people. Two hours. One hundred people reached. That’s how Christy Johnson and the Birmingham chapter pulled off a Constitution Day event on September 17th.
“Constitution Day was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said Christy. “But it fell on a Tuesday, when we knew people would be at work.” So she and another volunteer set up shop during a long lunch hour at Linn Park, which sits between the Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse, picking a time when the park is packed with lawyers and jurors and other citizens on government business.
“Our goal was to get in front of a lot of people and make it matter to them personally,” she said. They spread out, individually approaching people in the park, taking time to explain to each person how his own individual cell phone is accessed by the federal government, how the government is tracking every number he calls.
Christy told us that many people were unaware of the NSA surveillance and shocked by the idea of the government spying on them. “Only one person said he was fine with the surveillance, if it meant the nation was safer,” she said.
They handed out flyers outlining the Fourth Amendment and NSA issues along with pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution and American flags, wishing everyone a Happy Constitution Day.
“We have made it a large part of our mission to be educational,” Christy said. “We feel like if we can raise awareness and educate people, then people will connect the dots for themselves.”
The Birmingham group did not seek any sort of permits for the gathering and did not have any problems. When approached by a policeman, he only said he was glad to see people concerned about NSA surveillance. “It’s cool to know that even people in law enforcement feel the government has overstepped its bounds,” Christy remarked.
The Birmingham chapter is working hard to keep the NSA surveillance issue in the forefront of citizens’ minds in every way, from non-binding resolutions, to “papering” events, to meeting with a Congressman.
The chapter’s next step is to meet with Birmingham’s city council members to ask for a non-binding resolution condemning the use of drones for domestic surveillance. “It’s only a message. It’s non-binding, but at least the message will be sent,” she said. Christy has hopes the resolution will happen, even though, ironically, Alabama state leaders are working to recruit drone manufacturers to operate in the state.
Chapter members met with Congressman Spencer Bachus, a Republican representative for parts of the Birmingham area, to express their concerns. They were surprised when Bachus enthusiastically agreed with Restore the 4th’s message. Bachus was the only Alabama representative to vote for the failed Amash amendment in July.
Just as in Austin, the Birmingham march on July 4 encompassed a cross-section of Alabama folks *Tea Partiers marching with Occupiers, 60-year-olds alongside teenagers. “What makes this successful is our focus on a singular issue,” Christy said. “I really believe that’s what makes this bulletproof. We won’t be divided and conquered.”
Alongside the flyers on Constitution Day, Christy taped up a copy of the feisty Alabama state motto: “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”
“If anybody is gonna roll over and take it, it better not be Alabama!” Christy vowed.
This is the first in a series of interviews with local organizers conducted by Teri Walley. To be featured in a future edition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When I heard the things that Edward Snowden revealed, it took what we’ve all suspected for years was going on in a quasi-conspiracy sort of way and made it fact,” said Odin Maxwell, an organizer in the small town of Bellingham, Washington. “The potential for abuse is massive.” Maxwell, a lawyer, decided to get involved.
For 1984 Day, he and a software programmer pulled together an encryption education program at a local market‒specifically, a presentation on the erosion of our Fourth Amendment rights and how to safeguard yourself against illegal government surveillance.
The Bellingham pair advertised through Reddit, Twitter, Craigslist, and the Bellingham Linux Users’ Group. Odin approached a regular peace protest group about attending and spreading the word of the program. They also sent emails to groups such as the local Libertarian and Green parties. Though only 13 people came to the first program, Odin is continuing his work. He’s planning another encryption education program for September 22 and increasing his advertising this time with printed posters and by approaching the local newspaper.
A second tack for Odin is to involve the Bellingham City Council. Odin plans to ask the city council to pass a nonbinding resolution against mass espionage. “The voice of a city may be louder than the individual citizen,” Odin said, “and if more and more cities pass these resolutions, the voices will echo even louder.”
A third tack has been the direct protest approach. Odin and two others waved protest banners along thehighway during rush hour. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to make an impact. Roughly 3,000 people saw our signs and gave a very positive response,” he said. Odin laughed, “and in an hour and a half, only one person gave us the finger!”
Like Odin, Samantha Mahool first became involved after hearing about NSA surveillance. “My initial Restore the 4th action was before Restore the 4th became a movement,” she said.
Through Reddit, she became involved in Austin’s successful July 4 rally, when about 300 people gathered at the Texas state capital, then marched through the streets of Austin, passing by both the federal courthouse and Austin City Hall. The rally brought in citizens of every political stripe from Tea Partiers to diehard liberals to at least one anarchist. “This is a civil rights issue, not a political issue,” Samantha said, “and therefore should be important to everyone.”
The key was in strong advertising. Press releases — sharpened by journalist friends — were sent to newspapers and radio and television stations, including the college outlets. Fliers were posted in coffee houses and bookstores. Bookstore owners were also given special handouts to place on checkout counters for customers to take, advertising the rally and educating them about the Fourth Amendment and surveillance.
Samantha also tracked down a list of active clubs for the University of Texas and St. Edwards University and their presidents and sent personal email invitations to each club, which brought in rallygoers.
The advertising worked well; the local NPR station posted photos on its website, and the rally was mentioned in the Austin Chronicle, a local alternative newspaper. “We stopped traffic, and tons of people were talking about it,” Samantha reported.
At the rally, the Austin chapter announced its next event: a crypto party set for two weeks later. Of the 67 attendees, half were “techies” and the other half were beginners, ready to learn to protect themselves.
“Our rule is always try to advertise the next event at the event you’re having right now,” Samantha said. “The people at the rally were already interested, so they are the very people most likely to be the ones to come to your next event.” The Austin chapter has two more events on tap already ‒ another encryption party on September 18 and attending the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply on September 19. The group plans to hand out buttons and pamphlets before and after the movie with the intention of spreading the word and getting more people involved.
Samantha feels that one key to keeping the movement alive in Austin is to have a consistent meeting time and place. “It seems to make it easier if people know that every Saturday, at the same time and same place, people are going to be there. And that consistency,” she said, “brings new people and more people all the time.”
Tips from Bellingham:
- It doesn’t take a lot of people to make a big impact. More than 3,000 people in rush hour traffic got the Restore the 4th message delivered by 3 people holding 2- by 4-foot banners.
- Approach your city council about passing a nonbinding resolution against mass espionage. The more city councils involved, the more weight for the average citizen.
- Odin organized an encryption information presentation at a local market, passing along tips on how citizens can protect themselves and reinforcing the message of Restore the 4th.
Tips from Austin:
- Have a regular time and place to meet. Consistency works.
- To advertise Austin’s July 4 rally, Samantha found lists of active clubs at the University of Texas
- and other nearby colleges and sent the club presidents personal email invitations.
- Always advertise the next event during the one going on right now. The people at the rally today are already involved, so they’re the people most likely to come to your encryption party in two weeks.
- Along with press releases, the Austin chapter sent ready-made scripts to the local radio stations to make it easier for announcers — and more likely the release would be used.
- Personal outreach is important. Organizers engaged bookstore owners in conversations about the movement when posting fliers and handouts. The owners themselves participated in the rally as much as the customers.