We have been in Maine for just three days and we have done a different type of action each day. The plan has always been to do at least one action a day, plus social media, networking to local groups, and fundraising to make the whole project work. And after months of planning, it was very satisfying for this plan to actually be working.
After getting negative results on our covid tests, the starting Flip 2020 team moved from Vermont to Maine on Friday, Sept 18, 2020. We had found out about a Black Lives Matter march and rally in Ellsworth, which is a town of just 8,000 people. We did not expect much of a crowd in this small town in a state which is 95% white. We were wrong.
Over 100 people showed up to an action which was principally organized by two talented high school seniors. This spirited march and engaging rally shows that racial justice is not something to just talk about in Maine; people are taking it quite seriously, which is great news in our efforts to flip the Senate away from the Republicans.
The nature of the Flip 2020 project is that we are always looking for how we can add our content to events that other people have organized. In this case we simply asked the young organizers if Tew could speak to the crowd, to which they quickly agreed with the following results:
I had never seen Tew speak in public before, and I was nervous as he jumped up the small hill to address the almost all white crowd. Within seconds my emotions shifted. He was personable, he was raw and authentic, he talked briefly but forcefully about his experience being a black man in Donald Trump’s America. But he did not let the crowd down. He ended up beat about the hope that these types of actions gave him for really the first time in his life and called on the assembled group to realize that this was the very beginning of the tide turning in this troubled country.
After the action we went to dinner with the organizers. We learned that weekly rallies, (and starting this week marches), have been happening in this small town since the execution by police of George Floyd on Memorial Day. We heard stories of their harassment by pro-Trump hecklers and of their plans to do more, despite the opposition.
Saturday is the big Farmers Market day in Maine and on Sept 19 we worked tabling with the Lisa Savage campaign in Cumberland, Maine (in the Portland area). This was where we learned first hand about how friendly and reasonable Maine is. Typically, when you hang out in the parking lot of a farmers market doing political work you spend the day hearing different excuses as to why people can’t possibly talk with you. Cumberland was not this way at all. Generally, people were happy to take our small fliers.
A surprising number of people stopped and engaged with us, often for long conversations. We had several conversations in which we felt like we really landed and people said they were changing their voting strategy because of our conversation. Maine has a slightly complex, but extremely fair ranked-choice voting system, which is the subject of an upcoming blog post. In essence, ranked choice voting prevents the type of third party spoiler situation which so often plagues independent party runs for office.
We got to work with Kelly, who is the field director for the Savage campaign. If you are ever going to run for office, you need someone very much like Kelly. Campaigns have a tremendous number of moving parts, including a slew of hard-working volunteers with a wide variety of skills, preferences, and availability staff need to take into account. Kelly’s spreadsheets have spreadsheets and her upbeat personality and quick wit make her the perfect person to model how to approach people at a Farmers Market. Kelly plans to move to Washington after the November election and continue to work for Senator Savage.
On the way back from the Ellsworth rally on Friday we learned of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. It was a body blow to all of us in the car, who had just come off a very hopeful action. Everyone understood that the already high stakes of this election had just gone up again.
This informed our actions on Sunday morning. When our team met we discussed how we were going to show up at the vigil planned for downtown Portland that night. Facebook said 400 people had RSVPed to this event, which would make it one of the largest crowds we were likely to see in our time here.
But vigils are tricky in terms of doing political work. You need to be very careful to not run over the spirit of what is happening. You don’t want the event organizers or the participants feeling like you are disrespecting what they came there for. We went through lots of different ideas: should we create an event after the vigil, do a piece of street theater, order a bunch of pizzas and try to strike a conversation with participants as they left? In the end we decided all of this was too intrusive and went with a more subtle approach.
We would hand out a postcard, something commemorative of the great justice’s passing. We ultimately decided we would do an original piece of artwork depicting RBG on one side and a description of our group and Ranked Choice Voting on the other. We did not have that much time and we had a bunch of things to do, so we split up our task. Spencer would do the original artwork, I would write the text for the back of the postcard. Tew and Charles would scout the city of Portland, for where we could be in Monument Square to be effective but not intrusive. We needed a banner that we could use not just at this event but at others as well. Tew and Charles considered a dozen options before converging on the one we chose.
Cars went out, keyboards hummed and pens made quick work of what turned out to be a pretty impressive piece of original artwork, especially given that there was only 30 minutes to do it and basically no room for mistakes. The Staples staff was surprised when Charles took over their offices to complete our banner, but as is our way, we were gone before anyone kicked up a fuss.
We made it to the rally and read the mood of the crowd. Several speakers talked about how RBG would want us to follow her lead and fight tirelessly for democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism. We started offering folks the small postcards. Some people seemed bothered by anything being given out at a vigil, but because the artwork was respectful, compelling and timely, the vast majority of people we silently approached were happy to take this piece of memorabilia and Tew quipped we would be up on refrigerators throughout the Portland area. In 40 minutes over 300 postcards had moved to the hands of happy recipients, including all of the event’s speakers.
In the car home, we did our regular micro evaluation. What worked, what didn’t and what we would do differently next time. What worked was this group which barely knew each other, pulled together as a team, had folks with strengths doing what they were good at and we easily rejected dozens of bad ideas with no one’s ego being hurt for suggesting something we did not agree on. What did not work, was that my text on the back of the postcard was a bit long and thus the font to get it printed was smaller than we would have liked. What we would do differently next time would be to get to the event earlier and build more of a connection with the organizers.
But what was clear, was that after actions everyday for our first three days, we were on the start of what looked like a serious roll. Tonight we’re off to prepare for another BLM action in Bucksworth, another small settlement which is showing up in a big way for racial justice. If you are looking for a ray of hope in these troubled times, it might just be in these surprisingly active tiny towns in Maine.