” … highly readable guide to activist tactics and principles … “Neil Ungerleider, Fast Company Magazine
Two Republican Congressmen, Dick Armey from Texas and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, have come to Boston to promote their snake oil proposals for a flat tax and national sales tax, two initiatives that would dramatically shift the tax burden off the wealthy and onto low- and moderate-income working families.
They’ve set up a classic photo opportunity by inviting national TV and print media to the Boston Harbor Tea Party Ship Museum, where they plan to symbolically throw the entire IRS tax code into Boston Harbor. With the cameras rolling, they step up to the railing of the Tea Party boat, ready to heave forth an enormous trunk containing the tax code.
Suddenly, two protesters from United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based NGO working for greater economic equality, paddle into sight in a small dinghy. One of them is in a hard hat, the other clutching a plastic baby doll. They paddle the precarious “Working Family Life Raft” into position directly below where Armey and Tauzin are standing and plead, “Your flat tax will sink the working family!” and “You’ll drown us with your sales tax!” Other UFE protesters, who have snuck onto the Tea Party ship and are dressed in fancy suits and dresses, start egging on the Congressmen, chanting, “Sink ’em with the sales tax!” and “Drown ’em with the flat tax!”
Armey and Tauzin stand paralyzed on the boat. Their handlers go into a panic as UFE staff approach the media with press releases, explaining the symbolism of the protest and offering evidence of how both the flat tax and the national sales tax will sink working families.
Finally, not knowing what else to do, they throw the tax code trunk into the harbor, swamping the fragile life raft and plunging UFE Education Director Chris Hartman, UFE financial manager Kristin Barralli, and plastic baby doll Veronica into Boston Harbor.
Their media stunt hijacked out from under them, Representatives Tauzin and Armey retreat to their limousine, which is now surrounded by cheering members of the Rich People’s Liberation Front, a UFE theater group, holding signs reading, “We love you Armey and Tauzin!” “Tax cuts for us, not our maids,” “Free the Forbes 400,” and “Rich folks love the flat tax!”
Quickly, images of the upended Working Families Life Raft are broadcast around the planet through hourly runs on CNN and other networks. The Reuters International story is titled, “GOP Tax Photo Op Backfires.” The Associated Press reports, “Protesters Use Tax Day For Batting Practice.” Rush Limbaugh chortles that he was glad the UFE protesters got wet. UFE staff conduct live TV interviews and radio feeds all afternoon describing the protest and why the flat tax and sales tax will hurt working families. The next day, the Boston Globe and dozens of other daily papers run a three-photo sequence of the raft’s demise.
For UFE activists, it’s just another day fighting the power by combining education, humor, direct action, research, media savvy, and nautical skills.
“Pranks are symbolic warfare,” Abbie Hoffman once said, and this action is a perfect illustration of that maxim. The protesters understood the symbolism of the GOP event, and instead of disrupting or denouncing it, they participated in it. By accepting the original symbolism at face value, UFE was able to extend and reinterpret it. What was initially posed, however disingenuously, as an act of liberation from a despised tax code, was revealed as a dumping of society’s tax burden onto the shoulders of ordinary people.
The congressmen set up the event and sent out the press releases. It was their name recognition (and PR budget) that drew the media coverage. But the UFE stunt hijacked it out from under them. Two ordinary people (and a doll) getting capsized by a couple of congressmen is far more interesting than the hokey set-piece event the suits had planned. If the intervention hadn’t been so ballsy, dramatic, and entertaining, the media wouldn’t have followed UFE as they flipped the event away from GOP talking points.
Once the congressmen were caught by surprise, they had two choices: go ahead with their plan and drop the trunk of tea onto the life raft, or back down, sparing the ordinary folks down below the consequences of their selfish actions. Either way, they would lose: either they participated in demonstrating the damage their policies would cause, or they conceded the truth of that damage and were seen as rethinking their controversial stance.
The UFE activists sleuthed out the crucial details by calling up the congressmen’s office and pretending to be supporters planning to show up and cheer them on, and designed their action accordingly. UFE also scoped out the physical site beforehand, identifying a good hiding place for the raft.
The congressmen didn’t know tht the little raft was coming. They didn’t realize that the Rich People’s Liberation Front was in their midst until the trap had been sprung. Seizing the initiative allowed UFE to steal the show. The congressmen being caught by surprise itself became part of the media story.
UFE didn’t just pull off the prank and hope for the best from the media, they guided the media through every element of the story. The organization’s codirector (in a straight, nontheatrical role) worked the media both before and after the stunt. He handed out press releases and gave the cameramen a heads-up, suggesting they set a wide angle to capture the larger scene that was about to unfold. Afterwards, he was available on the spot (and the rest of the day by phone) for expert commentary addressing both the prank and the deeper issues to which it spoke.