As a union organizer in the 90s, I had low expectations for how the Internet could be used in grassroots organizing. I knew that e-mail had been used in some unionization drives, but I assumed it was just a tool that allowed organizers to do old tasks in new ways. Now I know better: Last month, almost by accident, I set in motion an organizing drive that mobilized thousands of people across the country, using the Net.
One month before the election, on a lark, I spent about an hour putting up a Web site proposing nationwide protests if Al Gore were to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. Countercoup.org listed my suggested protest locations in a few big cities for the Saturday following the election and asked people to nominate spots for their own cities. E-mailing everyone in my address book drew a few hundred visits to the site and a handful of e-mails essentially saying, "Why are you wasting your time?"
The day after the election, I watched the news all morning. My fears, it seemed, had come true. I finally checked my e-mail around noon. To my astonishment, hundreds of messages had come in that morning suggesting more protest locations. People who had seen the site a month ago were now forwarding it to friends. I began adding the new locations to the Web page. By the time I was done another two dozen e-mails had already landed in my mailbox. Like a chain reaction, word of the "nationwide pro-democracy protests" was spreading across the Internet.
Everyone wanted to know who was planning the protest in their city. I e-mailed them all back saying, "These are spontaneous protests, no one is organizing them -- just show up! People will be there!" I tried to make a list of people willing to be local contacts, but it turned out to be too much to coordinate. By Thursday morning I had received more than a thousand e-mails and the Web site had received almost 100,000 visitors.
It was natural for people to be angry and want to protest after the election, but without the Internet there would have been no way for a single person to propose a day of protests, and for word of it to spread to so many people. The Internet allowed me to post the proposal where tens of millions of others could see it. E-mail allowed people who were angry to spread the word very quickly. Before the Internet, this would have required an organization (like the Democratic party) with a huge list of potentially interested people and a phone-banking effort involving acres of rented telemarketing space, thousands of volunteers and countless phone lines.
And this was just the beginning.
To get out from under the avalanche of e-mail, I used a free, Web-based service to create an Internet group to allow people to connect with each other directly. I linked the Web site to the group and sent an e-mail out telling everyone who was already involved to join. Within an hour, there were more than a hundred messages posted to the message board.
Here's a typical exchange: A woman named Julie wrote asking, "Is the DC protest definitely happening? I live in Chapel Hill ... before I drive five hours I want to know this is real." Someone responded immediately saying: "We definitely need more info regarding DC. I live here, and have heard next to nothing." At first I thought exchanges like that would bring an abrupt end to this mini-movement, which had been based on a bluff. But plenty of determined optimists posted replies which saved the day: "WE'RE COMING! And I don't care if my husband and I are the only ones on the Capitol steps!" wrote one.
By midday Friday a thousand people had subscribed to the group, and ABC News, Slate, the Boston Globe, NPR, and a Belgian radio station all wanted to know who was in charge. I encouraged the local protest organizers to talk to the press, generating coverage in several major outlets.
Practical organizing activity on the message board reached a fever pitch on the eve of our protests. Graphic designers stayed late at their jobs making fliers, which people downloaded and used to make signs. In kitchens across the country people made signs and banners using slogans that others had posted to the message board. Employees at PR firms faxed out press releases which local activists had written and posted to the group. Using the Internet, hundreds of local organizers, who didn't even know each other, were coordinating their activities and lending each other support.
The protests were set for 1 p.m., local times. My friend Michael, who had been bringing me take-out for the two days that I was pinned to my computer, came with me to the Boston rally at the Statehouse.
"How many people do you think will show?" I asked.
"Maybe 50," he said.
"Fifty? Not a chance!" I responded. An iron law of organizing is that most of the people who say they're coming never do. Only a handful of people from each city had said they were coming; everyone else had only asked if the protests were really happening. I predicted a turnout of 10.
But when we got to the Statehouse at 1 p.m., there were already hundreds of people there. People were holding blown up versions of the signs the graphic designers had made, and homemade signs with the slogans that I had posted. I asked someone how they had heard about the protest.
"I got an e-mail ... Somebody named Countercoup."
"Ah ..." I said, and crept out the back of the crowd.
By the time I got home, reports had already come in from the other protests sites. New York: 500; Philadelphia: 200; DC: 300. Two friends in Los Angeles called in to say there were a couple of thousand people out at their site.
Before the demonstrations had even ended, people were uploading photos from their digital cameras and making up web pages of their own. A volunteer compiled it all onto a new page for the Countercoup site: accounts of protests in 42 cities, including places like Fayetteville, Arkansas and Asheville, North Carolina.
I created new news groups for each city and state where organizing had taken place and asked people to continue organizing for November 18. Organizers used the messages boards to divide tasks among themselves, and to schedule planning meetings, where people who had been talking via e-mail met for the first time. After the second round of protests, a few of us formed a steering committee, to which I turned over the national mailing list and the Web site. A national organization, with chapters in dozens of cities, was born.
The protests had little impact on the political scene, but for many of us involved, the experience demonstrated that a fundamental change is taking place in our national political life. It's not the Internet per se, but the emerging potential for any individual to communicate -- for free and anonymously -- with any other individual.
Whether one is organizing a union, a revolution, or a company softball league, there's always a Catch-22 involved: People are leery of acting before a consensus has been reached to act, but forming that consensus requires action, like going to a meeting. In the case of our protests, the Internet allowed thousands of grassroots leaders to reach a consensus to act. Thousands of people talked via e-mail during their coffee breaks at work, or their time between classes. They were not sacrificing hours in planning meetings, they never had to risk going to a meeting where they might be the only ones, or where they'd find that those organizing the meeting were crazy or incompetent. This represents a radical breakthrough for grassroots organizing .
As a union organizer, I dealt with the Catch-22 of organizing like this: My colleagues and I would visit all the natural leaders in a workplace at their homes individually, asking each one: "If most of the natural leaders in your workplace were pro-union and agreed to come to a meeting to consider organizing, would you come?" Most said yes, because our question was conditional on everyone else coming. After having that conversation and getting the 'yes' from everyone, we'd then go back and report to each one individually that everyone else had also said yes, give them the date for the meeting, and they'd all show. But that process took months, even just for a small facility.
The Internet takes the place of that organizer driving from house to house and having all those individual conversations, by allowing the natural leaders to communicate with each other all at once and anonymously. Online, in those days after the election, I watched the same process I used to organize unions take place -- but without an organizer. Using the Internet, people were able to drive the process themselves -- and to do it at warp speed.