Politics as Unusual

How I learned to win from the League of Pissed-Off Voters

Magdalena Coronado explains her victories softly, while looking at the ground. Coronado is 14, from Espanola, a small town in New Mexico, and although she's only been doing electoral mobilization in her community for a year, she's registered more voters than many organizers three times her age. She was among several attendees at the League of Pissed-Off Voters' Ohio Smackdown 2004 convention who haven't let being too young to vote keep them out of the political process.

The majority of Smackdown's 300 ethnically diverse attendees were 24 or under. They're a hot demographic: the pursuit of young voters, particularly young voters of color, is the most popular sport in the hip-hop Hamptons. Whether registration without education will produce a long-term power shift remains to be seen, however, and the League's plans don't stop with November 2: "Our mission is to engage pissed off 17-35-year-olds in the democratic process to build a progressive governing majority in our lifetime," says its website, indyvoter.org.

Smackdown's celebrities were people like Coronado, like 30-year-old Chicago campaign manager Alejandra Ibañez, like Boston Vote founder and American Candidate finalist Malia Lazu, 26—who on July 17 broke her leg, went to the hospital for a cast, and came back an hour later to do her presentation sitting down, with no Vicodin.

The League of Pissed-Off Voters took over Ohio State University in Columbus from July 16 to 18. The league was founded in 2003 by a network of young organizers and artists including Billy Wimsatt, now 31, author of the cult hit Bomb the Suburbs. In the wake of the Gore-Bush debacle, Wimsatt decided that his lifelong disdain for electoral politics had to end. "One of my 'Aha!' moments was watching a youth-of-color-led group in Albuquerque, New Mexico win three city council races, get two of their own people on the school board, and accidentally swing their entire state to Gore," he says.

In 2002 he wrote exclamation point–laden e-mails to friends, which did not appeal to fuzzy feelings but to people's desire to win. One of them reached a Cincinnati teacher named Dani McClain. She was definitely a pissed-off voter. "So many unarmed black men have been killed by police here in the past five years," she says. "It's the same self-interested elite running city council." At Wimsatt's urging she held a politics-and-grits brunch with local activists to discuss whether voting matters. At similar brunches around the country, the overwhelming answer was yes. The League was born, and Wimsatt and co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown, 25, began working on How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, which contains 20 success stories from broke young activists who challenged the fat cats of their local political arenas and won. Ten thousand copies were distributed free in swing states, transforming grassroots activists who viewed electoral politics as polluted into believers.

I know this because I am among the converted. I've been politically active for 12 years—especially to support human rights in Colombia, where my family is from—without ever touching an electoral campaign. But after reading the book, I was invited to Smackdown to conduct trainings in media and coalition building. While there, I "caught the spirit," as Brown, now the program director of the league's training arm, would say, and got schooled by Coronado, Lazu, and others—like Shana Sassoon from New Orleans, who started doing electoral work last year and has already created her own endorsement slate; Jarvis Houston from D.C., who showed the chilling Unprecedented documentary, then taught a class in election protection to prevent another Florida; and Luis Reyes from New York, who has personally taken on the military recruiters in his neighborhood, Bushwick. Smackdown was structured so that all attendees were trained in eight core area like voter registration, voter education, and political targeting. I hustled between the trainings I led and the trainings I needed, and by the end had joined the New York chapter.

As Mattie Weiss of Minneapolis said during the convention's raucous conclusion, "These are people I share values with and I like. And they have a plan." Explains Brown, "The short-term strategy is the 90-day 'countdown to the election' plan, which can be applied to any issue or campaign." And though Smackdown flirted with the kind of p.c. dawdling the right ridicules and counts on, the job got done; 300 young people from around the country learned how to have an impact on their own worlds, from forcing liquor stores off the block to swinging a federal election. "Folks get cast as apathetic when they just don't know the process for getting power in this country," says Brown. "We are the demystification league." The job is winning, rather than losing with your pout and principles intact, and it doesn't stop when the ballots are counted. The model is not "Give a candidate the votes and once she wins never hear from her again." It's "Help her win, then start negotiating."

This looks good on paper, but Dani McClain is realistic about Cincinnati's limitations. "This is a community that is used to an incredible level of oppression," she says. "Everyday people don't feel like they can hold elected officials accountable." But her group is now 25 core members strong, and she's hopeful. "The status quo here is so fat and lazy because they've never been challenged in a meaningful way. They don't see us coming—or maybe now they do."

 
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