Selling Buttons Will Save the World

By Alan McConnell

[Editor’s note: Like anyone who runs a website or is involved in political activism, I am frequently sent idiosyncratic proposals to save the world with a new and different approach. Most of them, like this one, probably won’t quite do that. Most of them, like this one, have plenty of merit, however, as one approach among many. Feel free to send in your own. –DS]

Dear David,

Yesterday you asked that I send you E-mail with my thoughts on your and my activities. This is that E-mail. It has grown to exorbitant length. And I am afraid that it must be more than a little critical. I am sorry for this, for I realize that in our political views of the present scene, plus our hopes for the future, you and I probably don’t differ very much. I ask you to be aware of this as I discuss your tactics and contrast them with mine. I shall find plenty of fault with yours, and point out the failures as well as successes, of what I do.

I live in Silver Spring, an easy subway ride from the center of D.C. So it was probably easier for me to determine, over two years ago, that the idea of demonstrations/protests downtown was on its last legs. I remember this becoming very clear when a demonstration/march in the spring of 2006, to celebrate the start of a Lafayette Park Fast, by Cindy Sheehan and a bunch of worthy clerics, drew, not 20,000 people, not 2000 people, but 200 people. Cindy was then at the height of her fame, and the activity drew about 50 Freepers, kept separate from our 200 by the cops, who “chanted slogans”, as we often hear the MSM proclaim is the wont of protesters. As we 200 protesters walked down Connecticut Ave at the start of evening rush hour, it was clear that our activity enraged more people than it won over.

[I’ve seen ineffective and effective demonstrations for many years. A famous person announcing an event to their friends does not produce a demonstration, no matter how famous that person is. It takes money, staff, phonecalls, buses, and all kinds of resources. Whether it’s worth it or not is an additional question. But it does require that investment just to get off the ground. I thought the PowerShift protest at the Capitol Hill power plant earlier this year was effective in changing Congressional policy and generating attention to an issue. Amazingly, I think demonstrations can be useful AND SIMULTANEOUSLY believe other things can be useful too. For example, selling buttons can be useful, but if the demonstrations weren’t a useful place to sell buttons I wouldn’t see you doing so at all of them 🙂 –DS]

Now winning people over is the name of the game, no? Our activities should not be for our own self-purification — think the Women in Black activity — nor to shove a vertical middle finger into the Face of Society — think the kids of ANSWER — but to grow activities in the direction that you and I both aspire to. I think you know this.

I wonder if you also know: the chance of converting opponents to our way of thinking has a success rate of about 00005! Who ever converts anybody? Maybe you’ve changed some minds; I have maybe once or twice in my 75 years.

No, the idea must be: to rally those who are already with us to join us to speak out. I got involved in Impeachment stuff in late fall 2005 when I read a poll that 45% of Murricans wanted #43 impeached. So I, working with the Impeachment Meetups that I inherited, started asking the questions: a) is it true that people want #43 impeached; and b) how can we organize/rally/activate people to speak out.

WE TRIED DIFFERENT THINGS!! We recognized immediately that whatever we did had to bypass the MSM; you and I and everybody knows that they were and are hopeless. So we at first solicited money for checks to pay for putting ads into local papers. Lots of people took our fliers, promised “I’ll write a check when I get home!” . . . and of course we heard almost nothing.

So, in March 2006, we switched to buttons. Bingo! we could buy the buttons for thirty cents apiece and sell them for a dollar. Over the two years that I and three others did this, we raised $17,000.

[That’s terrific. I want to do nothing but applaud that. However, if every useful approach must somehow be in competition with every other one, I ought in all fairness to point out that I’ve raised a lot more than that in a week by phoning and Emailing allies and asking them to support a project. There is, however, absolutely no reason for that to be relevant. You raised $17,000 that nobody else raised and that nobody else would have raised. You did it in a way that could be imitated. That’s 100 percent terrific. There’s just no need for it to be construed as somehow a penetrating criticism of demonstrations or civil resistance or lobby meetings, or media production or media activism or book writing or Emailing or phoning or faxing or petitioning or street theater or law suits or anything else. Each of those approaches may be completely worthless, but that would have to be proven. Or the value they have could be increased if everyone dropped them and sold buttons, but that would have to be argued for. –DS]

For much too long we used our profits for ads in local papers. We finally, in the fall of 2006, switched to yard signs. I thought at first that we’d get bricks through our windows. I should have had more faith I myself managed to get 300 yard signs installed in Montgomery County; my pal Larry Bryant, in Alexandria, got 400 signs installed in Alexandria and Arlington. Two of us.

OK, enough of what we did, the handful of us doing this. I’ll mention our failures later, but I want to write about what you, and others, were doing. You, and others, were speaking out. I remember meeting you for the first time at a Busboys and Poet event you put on. There were perhaps 100 people there, all solidly for impeachment, and you had several speakers who pushed the need for impeachment. (I had asked you for five minutes to discuss how people could become active, but you turned me down.)

[I recall a number of events that fit this description, and recall you speaking at some of them, so I’m going to assume I had a good reason for turning you down — such as that we were out of time. More to the point, I rarely spoke at such events without giving people activities they could go and do. That they were not all “sell buttons” is unfortunate. But, then, buying and selling T-shirts was usually in there, and it seems possible that at least some of the people who would have been attracted to selling buttons also like T-shirts. Wearing a T-shirt also makes a message large enough to read, which — in the case of “Impeach Bush and Cheney” quickly leads to awareness that no bricks are going to fly through any windows. But I generally promoted IMPEACH buttons that people could get from the website of Progressive Democrats of America, which is a lot easier for me to do than hauling your buttons around the country in a box, and which also helps to build an organization that can do lots of other things some of us find worthwhile. –DS]

There was another event, a couple of years later, when Pete Perry, a D.C. peacenik, had a forum on impeachment. You and McGovern and Lindorff spoke, to about 70 people, explaining the desirability of impeachment. You, early in your talk, asked how many were in favor of impeachment. Everyone raised their hand. But you kept on with your prepared remarks for another half hour. (I had asked Pete to be allowed to talk about how to grow the impeachment movement — we were then well into our button selling and yard signs — but was turned down).

[I can’t speak for Pete, but — as you are probably aware — you are not the only one with a favorite technique who shows up at each such event and asks to push it. Perhaps Pete was giving somebody else a turn. Having heard your rap in such settings a number of times myself, I have to say I like the idea fine but can see why nobody approaches you to get involved after you speak. I understand that it’s hard not to come off as bitter and angry when you believe that you are very righteously bitter and angry. And I get that this can create a vicious cycle. But you have to present something like this as a fun and easy and friendly idea if people are going to join in. It’s also a type of idea that could be greatly advanced by a good website. Let me know if you want help with one for “Prosecute Bush” buttons. –DS]

So you have meetings, where you preach to the choir, and the choir consists of a smattering of people. I ask you to consider that our six/seven signs saying “I M P E A C H H I M”, on each side of Georgia Avenue in the mile between the Beltway and Wheaton, are seen by 1000 people PER HOUR. To say nothing of the yard signs we had then — on Franklin St and Schuyler Road and Randolph Road and Blair Road. You ask people in Montgomery County or Arlington whether they ever saw an “I M P E A C H H I M” sign, and about 30% would say, Sure. But see our failures, discussed below

[I’m hearby considering it. But please consider that a lot of people, including a guy who gave himself the name Freeway Blogger, did this on much greater scale, and created entertaining videos showing others how to do it, and that I posted this info and advice, helping to recruit teams of people to do it, who sent in photos of their work that I posted online. There is still a link to Freeway Blogging, as there has been for years, on the righthand side of AfterDowningStreet.org. And whenever I’ve spoken and given advice to people on what they can do, I’ve usually included Freeway Blogging. If you’ve raised this with me before and I’ve given it insufficient attention, that could have been because I was already promoting it and engaging in it, or it could have just been that you promoted it as a reason why I should shut up and stop speaking in support of impeachment. –DS]

Now I know you have a web site, which contains, I am sure, very good stuff. And for those who interested enough to search around for web materials on Impeachment, and now Peach Activism, I hope that Google puts afterdowningstreet.org at the top of the URLs that it returns. But neither afterdowningstreet, or OpEdNews, or Huffington post, or DailyKos, or MichaelMoore.com, or CommonDreams, or Talkingpointsmemo . . . etc, are ever going to be seen by the poor and hardworking people on Georgia Ave and Franklin Street, and let me not forget Fillmore Street and Glebe Road and others in Arlington, who were visited and consented to put up yard signs. Which signs are seen by thousands, daily; yard signs are 24/7.

I hope you are still reading, because it is now time to discuss our failures. Really it is _my_ failure. I wrote above about Impeachment. But in December, knowing that Obama talked about the Bad War, Iraq, vs the Good War, Afghanistan, I ordered 1000 buttons “No Afghan War”, which you may recall seeing me decorated with yesterday. In four months, I’ve sold 1200 buttons, the 1000 I ordered first plus 200 of a refill order, and gotten 120 yard signs implanted. And I have $250 in the bank account I keep for these activities.

“Sounds like success”, you may say. No, it’s failure. For despite my writing the above figures to ANSWER, and to VFP, and to CodePink,and to PDA, and to the miscellaneous Peach Action groups scattered around the area, no one has come forward to help I beg people to take three signs, one for themselves and two for neighbors, absolutely free of course, and I will deliver . . . no takers. I call that failure.

[As long as we’re exchanging unsolicited advice, here’s mine. Create or allow me to create with you a website from which people can buy the buttons. Create gimmicks to get people to report on their successes selling the buttons. Make the buttons striking and beautifully designed. Customize the buttons to include the names or web addresses of organizations. That’s the only way organizations will promote them — that and a share of the profits. It also helps to spread the word. When I wear an “ARREST BUSH AND CHENEY SHIRT” people ask me where to get one, and I point to the address at the bottom: afterdowningstreet.org. PDA has just produced some beautiful “Prosecute Torture” buttons and would be happy to sell you tons of them at a discount rate to go and sell. They’ll also be posting them for purchase in their online store. –DS]

This has been a long letter, and I conclude with the following:

1. Demos in D.C. don’t work. Even the several thousand health care people, overwhelmingly union people, who met a couple of blocks from Marshall Park yesterday, aren’t going to achieve much. They’ve all gone home now, the park has probably been cleaned of fliers, signs, and other rubbish, and if the MSM reported on the event it got by me.

[You’d need a much longer letter to prove that. Pointing out that there are still wars going on does not actually prove it. Nothing else has stopped those wars yet, either. But we have prevented a war on Iran thus far, and demos have been a large part of that.–DS]

2. Panels and forums, either in D.C., are pleasant. But what is the point? People everywhere know that #43 should be indicted, and that we should withdraw immediately from Iraq and Afghanistan. Why panels? what is there to discuss? Especially when these issues are already popular among the people at large.

[The audience for such events is mostly for the video online, and the feedback includes lots of changed minds. I’ll try to make people more aware of this fact.–DS]

3. Web sites are like mushrooms after rain. There are lots, and they are frequented overwhelmingly by the already persuaded. And there is no way for them to get _new_ people involved.

[That is as far off as it is baseless and clearly written by someone who has no idea what he is talking about. The reason we just came within 7 votes of stopping the war money was first and foremost publicly whipping members on websites. Selling buttons was not actually going to win that one for us. –DS]

4. Door to door could work, as it always has in the past. But activists aren’t willing to get out and meet their neighbors.

[Sometimes they are, and more is needed. –DS]

OK, that’s it. I could have said all this much quicker in person yesterday, but you were busy and distracted, I guess. But yesterday must have told you _something_, so I hope it left you in a mood to read long screeds

I wish you good sales of your book.

Best wishes,

Alan

[Best to you. –DS]

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