Talking to Local Restore the Fourth Organizers: Tips from Austin and Bellingham

Restore the Fourth Austin protesting on July 4th

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

Bellingham, Washington

“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!”

Austin, Texas

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.

In August, Our Fight Against Unconstitutional Surveillance Follows Congress Home

Last Wednesday, the House voted on an amendment proposed by Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, that would have effectively ended the warrantless collection of phone metadata the NSA claims is allowed under the PATRIOT Act. The amendment lost by a narrow 12 vote margin, 205-217, and blurred party lines. This may seem like a defeat, but 205 is a much larger number than anyone was expecting. 134 Republicans voted ‘no’ and 94 voted ‘yes’. The Democrats had a slightly stronger showing, with only 83 voting ‘no’ and 111 voting yes. This is in sharp contrast to past votes relating to unconstitutional surveillance, like the 2011 vote to extend the PATRIOT Act, which passed 250-153 and which only 31 Republicans voted against.

We got there thanks to all of you, who volunteered your time to clog your Representatives’ phone lines just before the vote and went online to make sure others did as well. Because of our work, restoring the Fourth Amendment is at the forefront of the national conversation. With a new poll showing that 56 percent of Americans think the government has overstepped its bounds in collecting personal data, and intense pressure on Washington from citizens of all political persuasions to rein in its surveillance programs, it may only be a matter of time until Congress successfully votes to put a halt on the NSA’s surveillance activities.

Now what can we do? We can keep up the pressure on the government. We can make sure this issue doesn’t fall out of the public view. Many movements succeed in bringing a lot of attention to their cause, but only those that maintain it are ultimately successful. If your representative voted for the Amash Amendment, call and give them your thanks. If not, call to say you took note of their decision to vote in favor of unconstitutional surveillance, and hope they won’t make the same mistake next time – if they’re still in office to make it. Keep spreading the word about unconstitutional surveillance and those voting for it on Facebook, Twitter, and reddit.

But while calls and social media activism help, they fall far short of meeting with your Congressman face-to-face. Starting on August 5th, our representatives will return to their home districts for a full month. This is our chance to lobby them directly. They spend all year listening to corporate lobbyists and intelligence heads; now, they get to hear from us. This August, we take the fight to their doorsteps. 217 representatives are now on record as being just fine with unconstitutional surveillance. We’ll tell them why that’s just wrong.

Organizing a meeting is simple. If you’re as bold as Restore the Fourth New York, you can just walk in and demand one. But formally organizing one is easy too: all you really need is a phone, a computer, and a bit of persistence. Attending a meeting is even easier. We only need to convince seven reps to tip the scale and consider it a victory, but if we convince many more, we can consider it a resounding success. Free Press has put together a tool that simplifies the process of organizing and recruiting for meetings. Join a meeting near you or schedule your own. Either way, take advantage of this rare slice of time to meet with your elected representatives and explain why this issue matters.

Just as face-to-face meetings with representatives are more effective than letters and phone calls, on-the-ground promotion is the most effective way to get more people to join, and media outlets to follow the issue. And that’s what we need to do on 1984 Day on August 4th. When we protest unconstitutional surveillance, we must make sure the citizens that hear us also take advantage of this opportunity. Congress’ summer recess starts the day after, and we must use 1984 Day to make sure all defenders of the Fourth Amendment know and take advantage of it.