I Know Paid Protesters Are Real (Because I'm One Of Them)
"Paid protesters" are all over the news recently, from Donald Trump's accusation that all the people attending anti-Trump rallies are secretly funded by his enemies to the evidence that Trump himself hired actors to pretend to be his supporters. Or maybe you've heard Elon Musk accused a disgruntled employee of being a paid union shill? So, what? Is this merely an attempt to discredit the other party, or is it a real job? We talked to "Matt" about all of it (he started as an unpaid protester, graduated to "Paid Protester" at the 2011 Take Back the Capitol event, and worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union) and he explained how a career in activism really works ...
Paid Protesters Do Exist (And That's Not As Awful As It Seems)
A lot of people hold to the idea that grassroots activism has to be spontaneous. That thousands of people become so angry and so motivated by the same issue that they all simply happen to gather at the same place at the same time with thematically consistent signs to make their voice heard. But in reality, "spontaneous" protests are usually called riots. An actual protest needs organizers, and that's exactly what Matt became.
"Paid rioting" would have been more lucrative, but you take whatever job you can get.
His career started when a friend of his asked for a small favor, "Can you bring some food to our Occupy Wall Street Meeting?" Matt agreed and decided to hang out. While everyone was brainstorming protests, he had the bright idea to stage a "corporate wedding." Everyone loved it so much that they asked him to organize it. He did, and it flopped.
"We stood in the rain and pretended to marry a bunch of people in wedding attire with corporate logos. I don't think anyone even realized we were there."
"What, is this a porno? No? OK, never mind then."
Still, Matt was hooked. And three months later he had made some connections at a union that offered him $20 a day to participate at the Take Back the Capitol protest in DC. They knew he was dedicated and supported the cause, but since he lived in Boston, he couldn't afford to go 400 miles out of his way and not even have a place to stay (he ended up sleeping on a church floor and spending his $20 on food). A few months after that, Matt took a job organizing non-unionized workers into unions for the SEIU.
Turns out most of the biggest and most important protests in American history were subject to some behind-the-scenes handling. As we've covered before, Rosa Parks wasn't the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat to a white person -- 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the exact same thing nine months earlier, but the NAACP didn't think she was media friendly enough. Partly because "they didn't think teenagers would be reliable," so they asked Rosa Parks to do the same thing. Parks wasn't a paid protester, but someone on a salary decided she should be the face of the bus boycotts. And we're comfortable saying that the Civil Rights Movement ended up turning out OK.
"Whoa, whoa, the March on Washington was organized? Repeal that Civil Rights Act, stat."
Strategy is a big part of protesting, there are tons of articles about effective grassroots organizing, and all talk about the best ways to convince people to be a part of a movement. While energy and enthusiasm come first, it's a lot harder to turn it into lasting change. Occupy Wall Street was all outrage and no direction, and right now a lot of prominent leftist organizers are trying to figure out the best way to turn the huge turnout from the Women's Marches in January into something that truly affects policy.
Of course, there are real "paid protesters" (said with that hateful inflection). It's enthusiasm and faith that makes the difference between someone like Matt (who accepted the $20 stipend to make his activism possible) and the paid actors who attended Trump's campaign announcement as his supporters. We spoke to Angelo Carusone, the journalist who broke that story, and he said that his first big clue that the event was (at least partially) staged was that "nobody was posting any selfies." Turns out $50 (the rate those actors were supposed to have been paid) isn't enough to motivate someone to get on social media. Only narcissism and video games can do that.
There's a difference between "protestors with stipends" and "actors hired by casting agency."
The Best Activists Don't Have Time To Be Activists
Now, you might say, "But if they believed in the cause, they wouldn't need to be organized or paid at all. They'd be happy to make the sacrifice!" And it's true that the most passionate (and effective) protesters are the ones with the most on the line ... but they need someone to organize them.
"I'm a jackoff with a college degree," Matt said, "I've never had to change an adult diaper. But some of these folks I work with -- there was this one mother of five going through a divorce while providing childcare to several other people. She ended up having to provide more care for other disabled children than her own disabled children. And we had to ask her to work extra on top of that so that, maybe, she could eventually have it better."
They could have asked her for the used diapers, but it wasn't that kind of protest.
It's similar to the problem the NAACP ran into with the bus boycotts.
"I definitely ran into the 'Rosa Parks problem,' where the people with the most compelling stories are the least able to be the face of the movement because of how involved their work is. I wanted to bring that woman to talk to the governor and senators about her life and work. It would've been really effective for the cause because the story is so compelling. But she couldn't get the time off."
So the reason some protestors are annoying is because the non-annoying ones can't afford to be there.
Meanwhile, Matt has plenty of free time to go to rallies, get mad at Donald Trump for attacking food stamps, and get kicked out. It's true, Donald Trump even called him fat because of it. Real protesters have curves.
The very same problems that call for protests also make it super hard for those most affected to protest, since protesting requires the kind of energy and time that the downtrodden don't have. Hence, the protesting.
"I'd protest my food stamps cut, but I don't have the caloric energy."
"Slacktivism" Might Actually Make A Difference
A lot of pundits (including Cracked) have speculated that angry internet posts and online "slacktivism" are like a release valve for your self-righteous anger. People post that stuff instead of contributing to a cause. Matt has a different view:
"Social media websites tie your views to your identity, right? It also forces you to articulate your views. That's one step toward actualizing a nebulous sentiment. You might care about, say, old people, but you don't act on that every day. But then you see a promoted Tweet saying 'use this hashtag to support elder care,' and boom, that's something you actually do."
Like right now.
Matt is talking about the "Double Foot In The Door Technique," a psychological trick where you can convince someone to complete a big task by asking them to do a small task first. It's used by everyone from salespeople ("Let's just test drive the car, then you can decide if you want to commit to a 5-year loan so you can buy it. You will never be able to afford a burrito again.") to World of Warcraft ("Kill five boars! Good job! Now grind for a thousand hours so you can earn a magic sword. You will never go outside again.") You might notice that this is exactly how Matt got hooked in the first place. "Can you bring some food?" quickly became "Can you organize an entire protest, in the rain?"
"You basically climb a ladder of enthusiasm, moving slowly toward the top. The higher you get, the more energized you feel, and the more responsibilities you take on. They start off with tweets or Facebook likes that they then expand into more in-depth activist training camps or messaging seminars. Bernie Sanders had a slack channel for his more devoted supporters," Matt explained. "It's the same kind of incrementalist reward structure that MMOs use."
Nerd! We caught you being a nerd. Never mind that we made that same comparison. Nerd!
Anyway, back to the subject at hand (nerd), in the last year (before Trump was elected) college students were more politically engaged than they have been in 50 years. That was, in part, due to people from across the political spectrum being paid to tweet their views at certain times, and with certain hashtags. The Clinton campaign "signed up and trained an unknown number" of tweeters, while the Koch Brothers funded the "Grassroots Leadership Academy" for their own side. And nobody knows what to make of this, because as the Washington Post described it, "This isn't fakery, per se -- but it's also not 100 percent certified organic."
Once again we see that "organic" is kind of a bullshit label.
Memes Are A Powerful Political Weapon For Both Sides
How far have we fallen, that a significant force for political change is the fucking internet meme? Take Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash, for example -- a Facebook group dedicated to spreading goofy pictures of Sanders smoking weed or seducing us with his sexy dance moves. What a useless waste of time, right?
Yeah ... that's what the memes want you to think.
"People are really underestimating meme, but I think it's really the perfect way to present an idea," Matt explains. "It's like the platonic ideal of an editorial cartoon. The literal text, the literal message of the meme, is so completely divorced from reality that there's no way to counter it without just ruining the joke."
Compare that to cold, unsexy facts. While attempting to organize some healthcare workers in Vermont, Matt ran into a critic who thought, "If there was a union, he wouldn't be able to choose to pay more than a starvation wage. He basically misunderstood how collective bargaining works and thought any extra money that he gave his own employees would be shared with every worker in Vermont."
Matt was able to clearly explain that that's not how it works. The union would establish a baseline income, not a salary cap or a redistribution of wealth system. But if the guy had said "I drink your liberal tears!" and taken a long swig from the mug he bought off Twitter, Matt wouldn't have had a comeback, because that's just raging partisan nonsense.
Gibberish is invincible.
But while memes are bad at communicating ideas, they're pretty much the best at generating enthusiasm. They're funny, easily shareable, and they target the apathetic people who might otherwise not vote. A lazy 20-something who isn't following politics is definitely following his Facebook feed, and if the weird memes convince him that it might be funny or even ironic to vote for Bernie, then he might become another Bernie voter.
Matt isn't the first person to notice this. Palmer Luckey, the billionaire founder of Oculus, spent most of the last election secretly funding anti-Hillary memes that adhered to the same rules as BSDMS: Glib comments that were satisfying to conservatives, but nonsensical enough that liberals couldn't "debunk" them.
See, it's funny because ... uh, don't ask us exactly.
Like it or not, this is the future of politics. But hey, at least it's no dumber than that time John Adams' supporters tried to win an election by spreading a rumor that Thomas Jefferson was dead.
Nothing Is Spontaneous, It Just Seems That Way
"One of the ways the right fakes the appearance of grassroot support is to artificially inflate NYT best-sellers," Matt says. "I remember Sarah Palin was infamous for using campaign funds to buy books for her donors to get those numbers up."
Anyone working behind the scenes at a rally knows that, like a bass player, they're only doing their job if nobody notices that they're there. So anytime you can make your protest seem like nobody has organized it, the better. Which is something Matt has totally done.
"Before I worked for the union -- while I was still developing my organizing chops -- I tried to organize a joint Tea Party/Occupy rally over Obama's NDAA, because they both hated it equally. I thought it would be a novel event and attract a lot of attention, plus, the gimmick boosted turnout because neither group wanted to be the under-represented one -- a lot of progressives who weren't with Occupy showed up just because they hated the Tea Party. I was manipulating identity posturing."
We don't know which group had the coffin idea.
Incidentally, this is why Trump needed those paid protesters at his campaign announcement. He needed a lot of people there to make the event look huge. "He doesn't have a political base," Carusone insists. "And even if he did, it certainly wouldn't have been in Manhattan, or even New York City ."
Later on, it wasn't as necessary.
Or as affordable
"He never would have gotten his campaign off the ground," Matt says. "But I'm convinced that the rally in Worcester I went to, where Donald Trump called me fat, didn't have paid people. He didn't have to do that at that point. But when he was first finding his feet, yeah, for sure."
So yes, there is absolutely some money floating around activism, that's inevitable in a capitalist society. But in the end, the whole "paid protester" thing is far more complicated than either side wants to admit ... kinda like every other political issue, now that we think about it.
Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens. Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman. So simple, but so bad. Are there good translations of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien and Katie Willert of 'After Hours' on our next live podcast to find an answer as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
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