“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
In early spring of 2010, the prospects of the U.S. Congress passing comprehensive health care reform were looking bleak. The Democrats had caved on the public option, the Blue Dogs were turning red, and Democratic leaders weren’t sure if they had the votes to pass anything.
Most of the mainstream players in the health care reform movement were busy on Capitol Hill “making sausage” while the reform bill grew weaker and less popular by the day. An edgier wing of health care reformers, however, were looking to expand the theater of conflict à la Donald Rumsfeld. We had to remind people why reform was needed and we knew that if we could expose the criminal behavior of Big Insurance, they would be convicted in the court of pubic opinion.
Luckily, a perfect target presented itself. AHIP, the top health insurance lobbying group, decided to bring their chief executives and lobbyists together at a fancy hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., for a summit. They sensed they were close to total victory. They needed to plot out their final moves, smoke their final cigars and cut their final backroom deals.
Health Care for America Now (HCAN) — an alliance of labor unions, the progressive netroots, and a host of community-based organizations — hired Agit-Pop to help them go big, creative, and militant. Our job was to stage a major street action that would finally tell the story right: Americans want affordable universal health care; insurance companies don’t because they’re profiting from a broken system.
We decided to cast the CEOs as organized crime bosses who bribed politicians, denied health care to the critically ill, and ran real Death Panels for profit. We cast participants in the planned rally as a “People’s Posse” which would be composed of ordinary people called upon to bring these corporate criminals to justice.
Union leaders were skeptical about whether their folks would take to the “posse” frame. But on action day, when their members saw the “CEO Wanted” posters, Citizens’ Posse badges and crime scene tape, they quickly wanted in. Our action had two marches of 1,500 people each converge on the D.C. Ritz Carlton. At that point, we surrounded the building, declared it a crime scene, and posted wanted posters of the CEOs. We had a rally with rousing speeches about corporate criminals, which culminated with William McNary deputizing the crowd by administering the Citizens’ Posse Oath of Office. Then several union presidents and a VIP posse attempted to enter the hotel and make citizens’ arrests. Ten VIP deputies were eventually taken into custody by D.C.’s finest.
As a result, the reform movement got a much-needed shot in the arm, and we owned the media cycle for a critical day or two in the homestretch to the vote. The bill (however flawed) eventually passed.
The action used a clear and powerful frame (corporate criminals brought to justice by the people) that not only made it clear who the good and bad guys were, but told a story for the media. It also gave the 3,000 angry liberals who showed up a powerful role to play and an animated narrative arc that kept them in motion. Finally, it allowed layers of creative elaboration (badges, wanted posters, oath of office, giant crime tape, etc.).
Too often street actions are like dances that everyone already knows the steps to: (A) march, followed by rally, with people speechifying from the stage, or (B) set-piece acts of civil disobedience with everyone singing Kumbaya until they’re arrested (or worse, ignored). The posse achieved a greater degree of militancy and dynamism by putting “We the People” in a heroic role that called for action throughout the action.
The “posse” framework set up clear good and bad guys and put a whole universe of iconography and story elements at our disposal. All the rally speakers hammered on the “criminal” behavior of the insurance companies and their conspiracy with crooked politicians. By deputizing the crowd, we pulled them into the story and the action in a heroic role that demanded justice and respect.
The most powerful moment of the whole action was when the entire 3,000-strong crowd, in call-and-response style, ritually took the Citizen’s Posse oath:
I solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. […] In the tradition of citizen posses throughout American history who in times of need have been called to service to bring criminals — corporate or otherwise — to justice, I swear to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me Jefferson.
The “citizens’ posse” concept provided an organic way for individuals to participate that helped the 3,000-strong mass in the streets operate as a cohesive whole. The rules were simple — take this oath, put on this badge, try to bring the corporate criminals to justice — yet the overall frame it set up for the crowd (and the media covering it) was grand and powerful.