This weekend in Chicago, protestors will descend on ALEC’s Summer Conference. ALEC has taken some serious hits over the last year, losing some of it’s biggest corporate members, but this has lead to it becoming even more scary, retaining some of the most problematic (tobacco companies, gun companies, energy companies). I want to take a minute to do two things: brag, which is something I rarely ever do, and tell the story of how we in Cincinnati organized for the first protests against ALEC and accidentally created something bigger than we ever expected. I hope this encourages those participating in the actions this weekend, and every action for that matter.
I remember when I first heard about ALEC. It was Mid-March, 2011. It was at a dance party in a house my friends were renting near UC’s Campus. My friend Aliya was spinning some vinyl and I was getting wasted and moving with my awkward Elaine-like dance moves. Another friend, Adam, who I met on a trip the previous summer to the Detroit US Social Forum, was there, clutching a beer and engaging Aliya on something that was clearly very serious. To me, anything Adam and Aliya, two of the most political people I know, were discussing was something I could be confident I wanted to hear about. I moved in closer and listened for a few minutes. I caught the occasional word in the dub step filled room. ALEC. Bill Cronin. John Kasich. Paul Weyrich. Scott Walker. Shannon Jones. SB5. Ok, I thought, this is something I want to be a part of.
Adam turned to me: “Are you in for April 29th?”
“Sure,” I replied, not quite sure what was happening on the 29th. I quickly went down the rabbit hole. The 29th was ALEC’s Spring task force meeting, where a modest sized group of legislators and lobbyists would meet to make plans for the year. They would highlight particular bills to push, particular corporate policies to enact into public life, and particular places to do those things.
Later that weekend, a meeting was called to begin planning for the protest. Aliya and I met for the day to get a head start. We reached out to every group we could think of, students, churches, unions, LGBT organizations, allies from the SB5 fight (which had reached its peak at that time) and even scoured the web for individuals who could teach us more about the shadowy group. We had a month before the protest, which is like seconds in the geo-political timescale. By the afternoon we had a plan of action, enumerating everything that needed to be done in the intervening weeks and headed up to a meeting we had organized at Baba Budans cafe, then the central political stomping grounds for young activists in the city.
About a dozen people met that first day. Students from UC involved in LGBT causes, immigrant activists, member of the ISO (of which I was not yet a member), Solidarity, DSA, anti-war activists, environmentalists, Palestinian rights activists and labor activists all met to figure out how to attack a group we had only heard of a few days before. Can I regress with a quick cliche: If you were to look in the dictionary for the definition of “coalition”, you would find a picture of us. We plunged all of our free time into organizing and borrowed a slogan from a writers on Daily Kos who we later became very close with: “See you in Cincinnati.”
The 29th was a calendar day.
I worked downtown at the time and floated in and out of the office all day. The morning began with teach-ins on various subjects: gentrification, racism, organizing tactics. Afterwards a tiny group marched down to fountain square. About 200 people had already gathered on the square and were beginning the protest. There were folks from Cincinnati, Lexington, Columbus, Chicago, Indianapolis. Detroit and a half dozen other cities and campuses there.
There was one counter protestor, a right-wing fitness fanatic who jumped rope constantly for roundly an hour (fact: that would mean he burnt about 1000 calories, wow!). He had signs too, but I have to admit, ours were a lot better. What a great metaphor though, the jump rope taking the shape of the bubble he obviously felt he lived in.
One member of ALEC came out to the protest and commented to a coalition member, “the level of idealism here is admirable.” Encouraging, but also scary. It was idealistic to want democracy? It was idealistic to want strong environmental protections? It was idealistic to want affordable public higher-education? It was idealistic to want protection for workers? For tobacco not to be marketed to minors? For education policy to be outside of corporate influence? For a just world?
A number of speakers, ranging from local activists, to experts on ALEC spoke to the crowd, before we began a march that encircled the block that the task force meeting was being held on. The horse cops were out, as usual, and attendees of ALEC’s conference came out to watch us.
I went back to work for a time to finish up for the day and then rejoined a group that was meeting at a community center across the street. Some guy, who I have determined to either be an FBI agent or a right winger, interviewed me and others–we never heard from him again.
I joined a few dozen of the protestors for a celebratory dinner at a diner 2 blocks south of work as the day wound to a close.
Then an emergency meeting was called.
There was a leak. An anonymous member of ALEC wanted to talk to us. They were upset with the organization and wanted out. They wanted to give us some information. One of our coalition members bought a burner phone and Aliya volunteered to be the contact.
We had treasure. A few days later, html documents of ALEC’s model legislation were given to us. Aliya wore the documents in a flash drive around her neck and she never took them off. We were thrilled and terrified. How would we disseminate the information? Would ALEC file charges against us? Would the whistle blower be caught?
After we did some initial analysis of what the model legislation talked about, identifying a few dozen bills that were passed with the language contained in the documents, we realized this was going to have to be much bigger than us.
We decided that had to make a whole new set of connections. It’s surprising how few journalists were willing to work with us. Many ignored us, others saw it as small potatoes. Even with the limited information we were willing to give, surely it sounded like one of the biggest stories of the year. Finally, The Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine bit.
2 years ago, in July 2011, the news finally came out. The nation ran several articles, and CMD launched AlecExposed.org. There have been multiple protests in the time since then, and I think what might indicate the effectiveness of our impromptu movement is the way ALEC has been at the center of discussion of how the state shouldn’t function, the name coming up in virtually every protest or movement I’ve been involved with, from Occupy to Justice for Trayvon, from housing justice work to immigration rights.
I don’t want to take credit for anything that I don’t deserve. This narrative might paint me as the hero, as first person narratives tend to do. I’m proud to have been a part of the group that sparked one of the most important campaigns of our time. And even though I won’t be in Chicago this weekend, I’m pleased that such a protests is happening. Shut it down!
Here’s a bunch of us in that original coalition, celebrating after the documents were finally leaked. I like to refer to this group as “The Dream Team.”