Thursday, April 23, 2009

View from the roots: Torture Test

This is in response to the insightful back-and-forth between the Strike and the Big Picture on the issue of torture. I can actually bring a certain perspective to the way that the American people are generally reacting to the releasing of the CIA torture memos. The grassroots outreach office that I am directing in Berkeley has been running an on the ground campaign for the ACLU for about 1-2 month now. Our function is to get out into the community every day with a certain message and topic as the primary discussion point, and then do membership and small donor fundraising to build long term political support.

Up until early this week, our primary message on behalf of the ACLU has been the work they are doing to overturn proposition 8 here in California. The ACLU launched the CA Supreme Court challenge to Prop 8 the day after it passed and has made the issue one of its primary campaigns, including a statewide field organizing campaign to prepare for a 2010 revote. This issue was resonated very deeply in the very progressive primary areas that my office contacts (Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond etc...), but also even in areas out East ay Area where the prop 8 vote was much more split (ex. Walnut Creek, Concord, Castro Valley). This campaign is specific to California, but also takes on a new heightened level of attention and relevancy with the recent ruling to allow marriage equality in Iowa.

With the release of the torture memos, myself and a few other leaders in my office began testing some messaging around the work the ACLU did over 5 hears to release these messages and how we must hold accountable those who are responsible. Our goal was to see if this was something that was resonating more soundly with people, to be able to determine whether or not we should shift all of our California offices onto this messaging.

My biggest comparative personal experiences were:
- a lower percentage of people were passionate about this issue than both prop 8 or the long term historical work of ACLU
- the people that were passionate about this issue were VERY PASSIONATE (leading to some very long and insightful conversations about this topic)
- the thing that had these people fired up was that Obama is not doing enough and prosecuting Cheney, Yoo and others, but also just as a microcosm for not holding the previous adminsration accountable for everything they did (one conversation actually included a large Jewish man saying we need another Nuremberg and equating Bush to Hitler)
- that passion came from a place of anger and backlash rather than the hope/change positive ideas Obama has thrown out so often
- a strikingly large number of generally progressive/liberal people (some of these areas voted as high as 80-90% in favor of Obama) do not see dwelling on torture and demanding accountability as the right court of action
- our overall membership numbers and fundraising totals were generally lower than the prop 8 messaging
- The biggest statistical drop was in terms of the percentage of people contributing and to a lesser extent in average contribution size (a couple really passionate people gave larger than normal contributions)

* I understand that the use of prop 8 adds in another variable into this "experiment" that does not apply nationally and may obscure the results, but I still thought the the dedicated readers of the Strike could benefit from the test data that I could provide.

My personal conclusion on this issue remain very complicated. I generally side with the Strike on the points raised in the discussion and I think that Obama has probably politically picked the correct place to put himself. While I absolutely think that heads should roll for Iraq and the constitutional abuses of the the previous administration, Obama delivering on the issues that truly impact people lives right now will be the issue that determines his success. I also see that the people (and the Strike's readers and writers have to be included) who are more passionate about prosecuting on torture are an extremely far-left section of the American political landscape. While we all should continue to drive the political perspective to the left, I do not know if this is the issue for Obama and other to do it around. Redefining the economic structure of a society and building a democratic coalition that can guide us through the coming decades and the great challenges they will entail (moving away from fossil fuels and curibing global warming, providing health care and education to our citizien, dealing with the rise of the China and India, repairing our foreign image) needs to be Obama's almost sole obsession.

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