Getting Smart about ALEC: Standing on the Side of Love in Arizona Demonstrates, Learns, and Gets Ready for Future Advocacy
Post by Tom Marcinko and the Standing on the Side of Love at Vally UU Congregation in Chandler, AZ Team
Photos courtesy of Suzi Spangenberg
A low-profile but influential national right-wing group found itself in the public spotlight this week, thanks in part to yellow-shirted Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) volunteers from Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Phoenix area.
The organization was the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that encourages state legislators to pass divisive bills like SB1070 and invites large corporate interests to influence legislative efforts. ALEC, whose behind-closed doors meetings also encourage state legislators to suppress voter turnout, discriminate against the LGBT community, boost the private-prison industry, and repeal the Fourteenth Amendment, expected its Nov. 30-Dec. 2 meeting at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale to be low-key.
Instead, they were greeted the morning of Nov. 30 by several hundred protesters from diverse groups, including Occupy Phoenix, Occupy Tucson, Seeds of Peace, MoveOn.org, Phoenix Urban Health Collective, and UUs Standing on the Side of Love.
For SSL, protesting the ALEC meeting also presented an opportunity to take a firm stand for social justice, in accordance with Unitarian Universalism’s long tradition advocacy and activism, and to organize and give consideration to the strategies, logistics, and tactics necessary in direct actions considerably less benign than the Phoenix Pride Parade. At the Westin, dozens of protesters were pepper-sprayed by a strong, riot-geared police presence and seven were arrested. None of the SSL demonstrators were involved in these incidents, largely because they held more of a support role.
In addition, a rally at the Arizona State Capitol Building took place around 11 a.m. the same day. UU Congregation of Phoenix minister, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray was among the speakers who addressed the crowd, including members from at least five media organizations. It had been a tough decision for Rev. Susan whether to stay in Scottsdale with members of her congregation or go to the Capitol; wafts of tear-gas still hung in the air. But in light of the goal of raising public awareness about ALEC, she opted to speak at the event along with representatives from Common Cause, MoveOn.org and other organizations. Several local UUs, dressed in familiar yellow SSL shirts, also chose to join her at the Capitol in support, and to give the public a distinct sense that “SSL is everywhere.”
SSL@Valley UU Congregation in Chander offered real-time feed of the event, with photos on their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/SSL.at.VUU. The posts, made by multiple support “com relays”, gave a good idea of how tense the situation got at the Westin, and also how most of the demonstrators kept their cool, their hope, and their sense of humor:
• “SSL folks on the livefeed below now! Looking good and sensible in hats and yellow. With lots of water!”
• “SSL protestors are staying at the south gate (to support the medics from PUHC, who had been treating several injured). Most of the other protestors are moving to the east gate again to keep pressure on ALEC attendees and the police onsite.”
• “SSL has assisted a man exhausted and dehydrated by his activities by pulling him to safety. Otherwise all the intense activity has moved to the other gate. For now.”
The gathering fell short of a “shutdown” of the conference, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s keynote address to ALEC was covered by the media. Most of ALEC’s meeting, however, took place hidden from public view. The idea that the media should be allowed to cover all the ALEC sessions our elected representatives attended seemed to be a new idea to some of the reporters who interviewed protesters.
After Nov. 30, the media continued to cover ALEC. At least a dozen protesters were arrested Dec. 2 at the offices of the Salt River Project (SRP)—a public utility and one of the many businesses that fund ALEC. Others include Koch Industries, BP, ExxonMobil, AT&T, United Healthcare, Walmart, Freeport-McMoran, Amazon.com, FedEx, Pfizer, Cox Communications.
Without the protests, it’s doubtful ALEC and its would-be sub-rosa activities would have gotten the media attention they did. And in covering the story, the media had to explain what ALEC is and what the protesters were objecting to. For the most part, local media covered the protests accurately and fairly (an incomplete list is at the bottom of this post).
Phoenix area SSLers are now engaged in debriefing and follow-up, assessing what worked well and how public advocacy can be improved, and providing chaplain support & outreach to all participants. Follow-up, what they’ve learned, is one of the most essential components of social justice work. Not only does it provide the opportunity to learn lessons about planning, organization, and communication, but it helps build relationships among team members and allied groups that are essential for effective social justice activism.
Before the ALEC summit, SSL activists had held two training sessions in Nonviolent Direct Action, which stressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach with a UU twist. “Cool heads, warm hearts”… “Above all, be kind”. All who planned to attend the ALEC protest had the opportunity to share experiences, learn useful de-escalation techniques, role-play possible adversarial scenarios, and were encouraged to prepare themselves well for a potentially chaotic environment.
Because the safety and well-being of demonstrators is vital, procedures for checking in and out with on or off-site support were established for both the Scottsdale and Capitol sites. Despite a few glitches, the check-in/out system greatly helped overall organization and added peace of mind for many. Additional organizational efforts ensured that sufficient support roles were in place to accommodate questions, promotions, and emergencies, and provided a way for members whose comfort level didn’t include crowds, noise, or the possibility of teargas or pepper spray to be engaged.
According to preliminary debrief information: overall execution went well, but future efforts would benefit from better internal communication. SSLers speaking to media outlets stayed solidly on message when interviewed, and more focus should be devoted to social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, increasing the use of those channels to broaden public outreach. SSL continues to have good relations with local law enforcement, but this should not be considered a guarantee of safety or protection at any event.
Once all the follow-up calls are made and the debrief information is complete, the lessons learned will be put to good use to improve infrastructure and procedures for the next direct action. When will that be?
“Likely the next time we enter the public arena to call attention to inequity, or counter identity-based discrimination within our communities,” says Rob Smith, chair of the SSL@VUU Team in Chandler, AZ. http://www.vuu.org/ssl
“This public advocacy is a big part of living our Unitarian Universalist principles and Standing on the Side of Love, so doing it effectively is essential to our team’s core mission.”
… in other words… not very long at all…
from “on the ground” in Arizona,
Tom Marcinko and the SSL@VUU Team
- For more information on ALEC:
Center for Media and Democracy: http://alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed
Think Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/08/05/288823/alec-exposed-corporations-funding/
Daily Kos: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/12/01/1041629/-ALEC-Occupy-Scottsdale-Just-ONE-Version
Official ALEC website: http://www.alec.org/
Some YouTube videos of the protest:
Impartial list of media:
- The Arizona Republic published at least three stories, including:
Phoenix Channel 12: http://www.azcentral.com/video/1303102979001
NPR station KJZZ-FM
In addition, the international TV/radio/podcast news program, Democracy Now! also mentioned the protest: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/12/1/headlines#12
The UU Examiner posted this story, along with a photo slideshow:
And UU World covered the protest as well: