Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mary Leigh Watters Blek for a scholarly anthology on women and activism. That name may not be familiar to many people, but the woman who partnered with her to give birth to an event that would be known as the Million Mom March – Donna Dees Thomases – is known to millions for her work in the entertainment world and her gun control advocacy efforts.
Blek, after losing her son to gun violence in 1994, became the driving force behind the Bell Foundation. This effort, along the lines of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, organized women in chapters across the country using the internet and conference calls, to be gun control advocates in their home communities. The Bell Foundation later became part of the Brady Campaign.
In 2000, Dees Thomases and Blek would combine forces to bring the Million Mom March to life. Like Saturday’s March For Our Lives event, the model was to have a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. with smaller simultaneous events happening across the country. Today, Blek and Dees Thomases are still chipping away at national policy – working to make the nation safer from poorly made weapons and lax purchase policies.
What did that march eighteen years ago accomplish? Some political pundits may say the event accomplished the opposite of what it set out to do, serving as the precursor to almost two decades of NRA electoral and policy dominance. The year 2000 was not only the year of the Million Mom March but also the same year as a pivotal presidential election in a nation that would then be shaken to its core by the events of 9/11 during President Bush’s first term.
Given the long view of historical perspective, what should today’s organizers think about their own chances of bringing about major policy reforms? Hundreds of events scheduled for March 24th across the nation are an impressive effort and could be a powerful display of public sentiment. However, observers and participants looking to better understand how demonstrations translate into real cultural and political change should look to organizational efforts after the streets are empty.
The real power in organizing rests in maintaining momentum that drives people to the polls to vote for change. This type of electoral movement can be compared to capturing lightning in a bottle. However, while it may seem like some sort of political witchcraft needs to be brewed by a savvy strategist or three dozen, the real magic that is possible involves a blend of focused field work, robust fundraising, and consistent messaging. In short, bringing about real change boils down to old-fashioned retail politics – albeit in the modern fashion that worked so well in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.
Politics in 2018 blends old-fashioned door knocking and dialing for dollars with text messaging and live videos streamed across multiple web channels. The former Florida Congressman David Jolly said it most succinctly in the wake of the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, stating that if people wanted to see change in America, it was time to “flip Congress.”
Mobilizing thousands of people across American on a Saturday in March looks amazing on television and Twitter, but real change will not happen unless those same thousands and many more show up at the polls in November ready to vote for the change they want to see.
Dr Rachel Pienta is an elected Wakulla Soil and Water Supervisor and is the former Wakulla County Democratic Party Chair and State Committeewoman