A few weeks ago, I launched the Activism 101 Podcast to chronicle boots on the ground local grassroots activism in real time.
How often have you seen something going on in your community and thought, “Somebody needs to do something?” Maybe you even thought, “I should do something.” But then it hits you. “I have no idea what to do.” So, you go on with life and the problem never gets addressed.
I was recently confronted with an issue in my own neighborhood, and I went through that exact thought process. But I realized I couldn’t stop at, “I have no idea what to do.” So, I decided was just going to have to figure it out.
This podcast will tell the story -the ups and the downs – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The fun part is I have no idea how the story will end. I’m recording the episodes as I go. Hopefully, when all is said and done, we will have developed a solid blueprint highlighting practical steps you can take to do activism in your own community. And since this is an as-you-go process, you’ll get to learn from my mistakes, as well as my successes.
I am addressing a specific political issue in a specific place. But my goal with the podcast is to explain our strategy in a way that can be generalized it to other issues in other localities.
I live within walking distance of a city park. The main attraction is a skateboard area with ramps and bowls, but the park also features a basketball court, a playground and a walking path. My wife and I walk through there several times a week. About two months ago, a utility pole appeared. We figured the city planned to install lights so the kids could skateboard at night. As it turns out, the city perched an array of four surveillance cameras on top of that pole.
Needless to say, I was not pleased to see a spy pole erected in my neighborhood. But it did make me realize something: I had no idea what kind of surveillance programs my local police department ran. And as I thought about it, it hit me that the problem may prove far bigger than four cameras in one park.
I’m kind of ashamed to admit I hadn’t really thought about government spying in my hometown. I spend a great deal of time working on surveillance issues for the TAC – stingrays, automatic license plate readers, drones, warrentless data collection and the like. I know that without oversight, government spying can turn into an Orwellian nightmare. Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, law enforcement agencies across the country can often obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. I write about this on a weekly basis, yet I hadn’t really stopped to consider the surveillance in my own back yard.
The skateboard park spy pole was a wakeup call.
So, our main goal is to see Lexington join the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative. Last fall, local government officials in multiple cities announced plans to launch legislative efforts to pass ordinances that will take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state.
Following are the episodes of the Activism 101 Podcast I’ve recorded so far.
#1 What Do I Do?
Have you ever witnessed some type of egregious government action right in your own community and wondered, “What do I do about it?”
I had this very experience when government surveillance cameras suddenly showed up at a park in my neighborhood. I was angry. I know I couldn’t just sit back and let the surveillance state take root in my own backyard. But despite my work with the TAC, I have no real experience in boot-on-the-ground community activism. Still, I knew I needed to do something.
So I did.
I also realized a lot of people end up paralyzed by the same question – I want to do something – but what?
As I write this, I’m still not completely sure what to do. But I’m going to figure it out. And I’m going to let you join me along the way through this podcast. Hopefully, at the end of the journey we’ll have a good step-by-step template for community action on just about any issue that anybody can follow!
#2 See Something Say Something
You’ve probably heard the Department of Homeland Security slogan “If you see something, say something.” Well, the same principle applies to local activism.
First you have to identify the problem – see something.
Next you have to let people know the problem exists so you have some allies in your efforts – say something.
In this installment of the Activist 101 Podcast, I explain exactly what I saw, and the first steps I took to get the word out.
#3 The Facts and Just the Facts
Once you’ve identified an issue and you’ve decided you want to fight, it’s imperative that you have every bit of information you can get your hands on. You need the facts – not just assumptions. As they say – know your enemy. Not only that, you can easily make a fool out of yourself if you start activism and don’t know what your talking about.
Fortunately, government agencies make a great deal of information available online, or with a simple email or phone call.
In this installment of the Activism 101 Podcast, I talk about my initial information-gathering efforts after I discovered surveillance cameras in my neighborhood, and what they yielded.
#4 Give Me Those Documents!
You can gather a great deal of information about government agencies and and their operations by simply making inquiries, and from publicly accessible websites. But a lot of information is not readily accessible by the public. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it.
Virtually every state allows individuals to obtain documents and other information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Once you make a request, in most cases, public agencies must – by law – provide you with the documents and information.
In this installment of the Activism 101 podcast, I explain FOIA requests I made to learn more about surveillance in my community and what I got for my efforts.
#5 Reading Between the Lines of a FOIA Response
Once you get information from a public records request, you have to figure out what it means. Sometimes, you will actually learn more from what a government agency doesn’t tell you than from what it does.
In this installment of the Activism 101 podcast, I talk about interpreting information gleaned from freedom of information act requests, and how you can read between the lines and learn more than they intended to tell you.
#6 You Gotta Have a Plan
The key to successful activism is putting together a solid plan.
Up to this point, we have primarily been on a fact-finding mission. We’ve identified a problem that needs to be addressed. We gathered as much information as we can get through publicly available sources and open records requests. We have a solid understanding of the issue at hand. Now it’s time to formulate a plan of attack.
In this episode of the Activism 101 podcast, I talk about one of biggest keys to success: developing a specific, actionable, achievable plan.
#7 Don’t Try to Go It Alone
Activism is a team sport.
One way to ensure your activism efforts will fail is to try to go it alone. You need to build a strong coalition.
In this episode of the Activism 101 podcast, I talk about my early efforts to build both a network of individuals who will share the workload and a coalition of organizations that will join the fight. I also offer some advice about working with groups that may not completely share your ideological outlook.