On the way to work Friday I saw a group of protesters gathered at the bottom of the Capitol Street exit and stopped to take some pictures. I love that we have freedom of speech and the right to assemble in this country, and I thought it was cool that ordinary citizens were taking to the streets with signs, forming a crowd, and getting their message out to the morning commuters at a high-traffic location.
The encounter became interesting as the protesters noticed me taking pictures, though, and they started looking at each other, looking back at me, and talking among themselves a bit. After a bit of this one of them came over to speak to me. She asked me why I was taking pictures, and I told her I was a local blogger and was very likely to make their efforts into an entry. She seemed a bit confused and nervous about this, and seemed to want to ask what the address was but was unsure how to do so. I helped her out by volunteering the address. I eased her concerns a bit by addressing some of the protest's talking points, and after she became convinced I was on their side — or at the very least, meant no harm — she quickly made her way back to the crowd.
Given this odd behavior — after all, I would think a group of citizens trying to get a message out would be happy for the publicity — I decided to do some research.
The protest was about the apparent neverending health care reform issue, and the group behind it was Health Care For America Now as shown on one of their professionally-made signs. From their website:
Health Care for America Now (HCAN) is a national grassroots campaign of more than 1,000 organizations in 46 states representing 30 million people dedicated to winning quality, affordable health care we all can count on in 2009.
Among those 1000 organizations are quite a few unions and the AFL-CIO. The protest took place just down the street from the West Virginia AFL-CIO building downtown. Aha. No offense, but do you think you guys could have made it any more obvious?
In the interest of fairness, if you think the recent tea party protests were a true grassroots effort, think again. They, too, had financial backing by a large political action group — and in fact, some sources indicate these protesters were actually given tips on how to make the ruckus appear spontaneous.
I've been to a few political rallies and have participated in some protests in my time. Of these, I can say only one was what I'd call a true grassroots effort — the School Walkout of 1989. All the rest were organized or coordinated by a larger group, and most of these had an air of artificiality to them. At the 2004 John Kerry rally in Wheeling, Kerry's campaigners distributed approved "homemade" signs among the crowd and forbade any others from being displayed. This is apparently a fairly common phenomenon. It's common enough to have its own name — astroturfing. I can't imagine a more apt name to describe it... an artificial grassroots effort, one which is plastic and synthetic.
The health care issue is definitely a sensitive one, and making the right decisions on it will require some clarity. Having big money driving the game on both sides introduces unneeded cloudiness. I thought I voted for change, but unfortunately, it looks like politics as usual.