Hit the Ground Swinging

Voter organizing for a generation raised on hip-hop, Reaganomics and the Internet.

By Mattie Weiss Sep 21, 2004

Every step out of the New York subway is “bombed” with the name of a swing state. “Ohio…Wisconsin… Florida…” take you up into the sunshine. At the top, scrawled in graffiti script is the message: “Have you called your friends in these states?…Brooklyn can swing Florida.” Sweaty from dancing, newly-birthdayed 18-year-olds in Selma, Ala. register to vote and get hooked up with weekend political education classes at monthly “Superbirthday Tuesdays” parties. A 26-year-old waitress in New Orleans passes out 3,000 multicolored fliers in cafes and on street corners—a love letter to her city on one side, a progressive voter guide for the upcoming election on the back.

This is voter organizing for my generation—a generation raised on hip-hop, Reaganomics and the Internet. This is electoral politics by a generation that cut its organizing teeth on battles against local toxic plants, school privatization plans, sweatshops, the WTO, the School of the Americas, and ultra-punitive juvenile justice measures. Well aware that we have been—and will continue to be—sold out by both political parties, and with no love for John Kerry, we have nonetheless arrived at a reality politics approach that says that Bush, as our worst imperialist nightmare, must be ousted first and foremost.

Political analysts across the board insist that this election will be won on the ground, by whoever can turn out the “unlikely” voters. With the highest disapproval rating of the president and, simultaneously, the lowest voting averages, young people have the potential to swing this election. But only with serious, strategic and concerted efforts by us, for us. We are certainly not leaving this to the Democratic Party—whose African American turn-out strategy usually consists of late-in-the-game meetings with church leaders, and whose campus outreach efforts tend to be headed up by a few suit-wearing, resume-padding political science majors.

New to electoral politics, activists from the worlds of youth, student, community and labor organizing are feverishly learning the ins and outs of voter registration, districting, voter turnout and poll monitoring. They are redefining the entrenched, bureaucratic and boring electoral arena through arts, culture, creativity and grassroots organizing.

Among the better-known players in mobilizing young voters through arts and culture is the National Hip Hop Political Convention, Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit, Black Youth Vote, Punk Voter, Music for America, Head Count and The Next Wave of Women in Power, with their “We Got Issues” CD.

In addition to arts-based organizing efforts, transportation-themed projects abound. The Oregon Bus Project drives hundreds of volunteers to register voters in critical districts—throwing parties for them in the exhausted aftermath. Swing State Summer Break, run by an undergraduate and modeled after the Freedom Rides of the 1950s and 60s, is busing several hundred college students into on-the-ground campaigns in critical states. Smaller, more local groups of young people are taking voter registration cross-country, with bike trips from one coast to the other, canoe trips down the Mississippi, hip-hop artist-filled bus caravans and road trips to swing states.

While most of the electoral organizing efforts revolve around voter registration and turn-out, a number are also doing skills-based and issue-oriented political education, and working to build strategic long-term organizations and coalitions. One of the leaders in shaping and resourcing these efforts is the League of Pissed Off Voters/League of Independent Voters. With a multiracial steering committee and staff of some of the most well-connected young activists around the country—anarchists, party Democrats, black power radicals, Greens, professionals, punks, hip-hop heads, teachers and artists—the League of Pissed Off Voters is all about popularizing political engagement, developing local leadership, and bringing politics to the places young people already are: concerts, low-rider competitions, basketball games, beaches, brunches and street fairs.

Characterized by a high-energy, community-specific, and culture-based approach to politics, the League’s organizers hit the ground sprinting this spring, with a 90-city swing state book tour of How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (Soft Skull Press, eds. Wimsatt and Brown), a collection of 23 stories of young people winning and swinging elections using their social networks, hip hop culture, and a politics of inclusion and joy.The book profiles efforts like Oregon’s volunteer-crammed traveling voter registration bus, Boston’s bar-hopping voter organizers, and St Paul’s 2 a.m. post-nightclub voter registration at drive-thru restaurants.

Local chapters of the League are popping up wherever young people—including a significant number of young people of color, as well as high school students and non-citizen immigrant youth—are getting a hold of the book. In addition to voter registration, the more than 60 chapters nationwide are hosting blow-out book release parties, staffing local campaigns, creating on-line progressive voter guides and building voter blocks—groups of people that agree to vote a common slate the better to hold elected officials accountable.

Another one of the most visionary, strategic electoral projects being organized by young people–predominantly young people of color—is the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, held in Newark, New Jersey June 16-18, 2004. With over 30 local organizing committees across the country, the goal of the convention is to develop and popularize a political agenda for the hip-hop generation—both in terms of a broad vision and specific policy goals. The convention also aims to cultivate new leadership and develop the infrastructure to get hip-hop generation candidates elected to local, state and federal offices. The price to be a convention delegate: each individual is required to register 50 new voters and be actively involved in their city’s local organizing committee.

This is exhausting and difficult work. We are almost daily challenged by the mucky world of electoral politics—by coalition building with groups that have very little in common aside from their desire to oust Bush, by a marginal presence in many areas and negligible resources almost everywhere, by the overwhelming challenge of learning (in little less than a year) the terminology, players and processes of a power ring we never before fought in.

And we who make up this new influx of community organizers, students and young people into the electoral arena provide challenges to our recent allies. We are pushing traditional electoral organizers—whose anthem is action and whose goals are defined by numbers—to take on questions of process, democracy and identity. We are insisting that racial politics mean more than taken-for-granted voting blocks on district maps. We are resolute that even those among us who cannot vote—high school students, undocumented immigrants and, in many states, ex-felons—be meaningfully brought into the process. We are unequivocal that arts and culture be incorporated into organizing campaigns, and that terror and desperation not be the overriding message nor the motivation of our efforts. But for all the challenges we bring, we roll with an undercurrent of joy, celebration and funkiness that has gotten tired activists energized, bored folks hyped and pessimistic campaigners hopeful.

To get involved and for more information, check out these sites: