Dream Defenders: superheroes for racial justice

by Granate Sosnoff on 7th August, 2013


Written by Granate Sosnoff. Reposted from Oakland Local










There is something very impressive happening right now in Florida. A human rights organization of “Black and Brown youth confronting inequality and the criminalization of our generation with nonviolent direct action”… are doing that this minute, in Florida’s state Capitol, camping out on hard marble floors since the Trayvon Martin verdict.

This is day 22 of the Dream Defenders takeover of Florida’s Capitol, and each day they are there, the more authentic, far-reaching and motivating their actions become. They are also making progress and winning victories with their direct action. On August 2, after much pressure and constant presence at the Capitol, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford announced he will hold hearings on the state’s “stand your ground law” in the fall. Although short of what the Dream Defenders would like, which is a legislative hearing right now, Philip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders stated that “It’s a critical first step, we’ve been here three weeks. We know Democracy takes time. Progress takes time.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, this politically savvy, committed group has emerged. Youth of color are standing tall and sitting-in, reminiscent of the sixties and impressive as hell.

Their well-thought-out campaign is one that demands justice by peaceful direct action, guided by strategy and intelligence. The Florida group, with chapters throughout the state, has captured the attention of the media, support of the NAACP and ColorOfChange.org and hearts of civil rights stalwarts like Jessie Jackson and Harry Belafonte. Jackson spent one night with the Dream Defenders and Belafonte met with them and endorsed their efforts with his elegant words of praise including:

“If they reject you, then the world will pay attention to what’s happening to you, and it is possible that Florida could become ungovernable,” Belafonte said. “By ungovernable, I don’t mean violent. But it could mean tens of thousand of people will join you. That’s not good for tourism.”

While police issued alerts around potential riots and violence after the Zimmerman verdict, Dream Defenders organized the opposite and called for an audience with Governor Rick Scott and a special session to repeal Florida’s stand your ground law. They were given a meeting with Gov. Scott but instead of a congressional session, he offered a “day of prayer” to deal with racial profiling.

In response, Dream Defenders organized their own hearings and are coming up with their own drafts of legislation and strategies to combat racial profiling — while still sitting in at the Capitol. Since July 16th, these young people have stayed committed and determined — a counter on their website marks each second of their protest. They have been 150+ strong with a wide range of visitors including an original Black Panther, university professors, and support people of all colors bringing food and and other items daily.

The not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial is sparking a new phase of young, persistent and effective civil rights activism.

One can only hope that Dream Defenders spreads to California. We could use some superhero energy. Currently Florida is “ground zero” for Dream Defenders as they are organizing freedom rides across the country to address racial profiling, dismantle the “school to prison pipeline” for youth of color, and repeal other existing state stand your ground laws.

More info here: Dreamdefenders.org

Their petition here.

Oscar Grant, Zimmerman trial and BART strike connected

by Granate Sosnoff on 14th July, 2013



Online with Oakland Local, Friday July 12.

When three related stories regarding race, labor and BART occur, you need to pay attention, especially in Oakland.

As “Fruitvale Station” opens and retells the story of Oscar Grant’s murder, we also brace for juror deliberations in the Zimmerman trial. Oakland gets angry when the judicial system betrays young black men. A backdrop to these two stories is that BART is in the middle of strike negotiations and if nothing changes soon, Fruitvale station, and all other BART stations will be closing for a while.

The Zimmerman trial has already been disappointing particularly in how Trayvon Martin and his young friend have been denigrated in the media. What seemed like an open and shut case against George Zimmerman, a man who stalked and killed a young African American youth, is now seeming less so.

Those of us who lived in Oakland during the BART police shooting of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle are flashing back to a similar time and feeling of impending betrayal by the justice system and wondering if we will once again need to take to the streets to let the world know that a young black man’s life is worth as much as any other life.

Even if Zimmerman is found guilty, the murder still happened, in the name of security and safety, in a country filled with fear around race and thick with racism.

And as the Sundance award-winning movie “Fruitvale Station” opens, giving Oscar Grant back to Oakland for a moment and skillfully telling a one-day story till his tragic and preventable death, wounds will open up. This shameful, tragic BART incident, revisited in the shared-story format of film, will have an impact on many.

BART has apparently been very cooperative in the making of the film, even allowing movie posters at the Fruitvale Station. A BART liaison to filmmaker Ryan Coogler was quoted to say: “The film is really about humanizing Oscar Grant, and Ryan did a superb job.” (Thank you BART?)

In the real world of BART security we are being told that reforms at BART are underway. A few weeks prior to the film’s opening, in what might be viewed as a PR move, BART released that they’ve hired a retired police chief to review these new reforms.

The other BART story is about the strike (30-day stay ticking away…) and it seems that more than the coincidence of timing connects these.

The union has released a video stating that security and safety are of high priority for workers at BART but that management refuses to respond to that need.

Unfortunately, what “more security” usually means is historical racial profiling and the targeting of youth of color and in particular black men like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. The opportunity to make an important statement and connection seems lost on union organizers and begs the question of whether you can publicly make a request for added security without acknowledging the pain and public tragedy surrounding BART police.

It seems to me that this is the perfect intersection for union and worker concerns to build solidarity with social justice organizations. If you are going to make a demand for more security, in the same breath why not ask for public review of reforms and changes? What specifically is BART doing to prevent another tragedy like what happened to Oscar Grant?

BART workers are angry with management and have good cause I can imagine. They have a variety of demands but currently a focus on making visible the high pay of management and a need for more safety and security. They recently stated: “We will be prepared for the bloodiest, longest strike since the 1970′s.”

But will we, their natural allies, friends of labor, social justice workers and concerned community members be ready to stand in support of them?

The union is losing an important opportunity to link worker’s rights and social justice with this connection. In their primary (current) video they flash on a mural of Oscar Grant as if hoping the slight association and acknowledgment will say something. Similar to BART’s decision to cooperate fully with filmmaker Ryan Coogler and to allow “Fruitvale Station” posters in BART stations, it seems to lack authenticity and doesn’t say much of anything.

When the hometown hero’s a bad guy

by Granate Sosnoff on 17th April, 2013

We read about notorious incidents, not the least of which are recent cases involving the suicides of teenage girls from small towns who after being raped and shamed in social media, take their own lives.

We shake our heads at the inhumanity and awfulness of it all but also know that less broadcasted and personal hells are going on all the time.

I took a trip back to my hometown, a small city that still has an old-timely feel, but now also a few more malls, Pilates and micro-brews.

We met up with my sister’s friends including one who teaches math at our old high school. He told us about recently being granted the honor of introducing a local math and science teacher in a video project that played in the theatre.

It sounded like he gave a grand and appreciative speech for this teacher who played an important role in his life.

I remembered the teacher, not as a life-changer, but as someone who followed a friend’s progress in college, semi-stalked her via false impressions of scholastic interest and support and who later tried to convince/quasi-coerce her into having sex with him – much to her horror.

A gray area on the sexual abuse spectrum, for sure, but ON the spectrum I would say.

So in a held back tone fully expecting a “here she goes wrecking everything” stare I mentioned:

“You know that guy had a not-so-pretty flipside.”

A tense room change occurred. Two people responded with anxious defensiveness including a “we all have flaws” and some other similarly themed comment. I answered in my new calm way of arguing that I was well aware of being flawed myself but didn’t semi-stalk young people I knew in their teens.

One woman at the gathering spoke up and told the story of her friend who walked out of the theatre crying during the speech about this teacher. The woman was shaken and upset about the honoring of a man who had clearly done something “untoward” to her.

Even though there’s broader understanding that violence is often perpetrated by someone who knows their victim rather than a stranger, we are still caught in a mind loop of dismissing acquaintance-rape and abuse and amplifying stranger-rape.

Often it’s the case that many people know something is or has gone on when sexual abuse takes place. I don’t know if this math teacher was a rapist, I just know there was something very, very wrong with how he interacted with young women and girls.

So when I hear impassioned calls for ending “rape culture” I wonder at how we’ve all protected rather than spoken up or schooled someone when we had the chance – and hence participated in maintaining the status quo.

If this teacher was such a great guy deserved of accolades then why didn’t one of his fans let him know his “character flaw” (which many seemed to know about) could use some serious self-reflection and change.

Abusers are not usually one-dimensional creatures. Seemingly kind people do hideous things.

If we consider people part of our community – even in the broadest former-high-school teacher sense – then we have a role to play.

Too often we want to believe the best and do nothing, despite our hunches and intuition, until it’s too damn late.

Selling a better world

by Granate Sosnoff on 21st March, 2013


No – Official Trailer (HD) Christopher Reeve, Gael García Bernal – YouTube.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is your brain on drugs. Just say no. You’ve come a long way baby.

I have a love/hate relationship with slogans. Trapped behind a Volvo in Berkeley and faced with the bumper sticker “War is never the answer” my response is: what if the crossword is a three-letter word for extended battle?

In the right context, slogans and iconic imagery do some heavy lifting in getting messages across and motivating a crowd.

If you want to see that in action or if you have any interest in communications for advocacy, please go see “No,” the Oscar-nominated film about an ad man’s social marketing campaign that helped end Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile.

Brief history: Pinochet’s brutal 17-year regime started after a U.S. supported military coup that overthrew and caused the death of Salvador Allende, the first elected Marxist president in Latin America. Pinochet’s military dictatorship was notorious for torture, murder and corruption.

But “No” isn’t a continuation of “Missing,” it’s a story about an ad man with a leftist background who gets talked into producing a series of 15 minute segments for late night television to combat the government’s dominant messaging and control of the media.

It’s a one-time opportunity leading up to a yes/no referendum for Pinochet. And even though it’s widely held that the election will be rigged, bystanders from the West are watching, and there is hope for change.

Prior to engaging the ad exec, the allied social democrats and leftists produce a moving docudrama that shows the violence, repression, and suffering they believe will motivate the masses to come out and say “no.”

The ad exec pooh poohs the effort and states: “esto no vende.” That doesn’t sell.

Much to the chagrin of the stalwart leftists involved, he then produces a spot that at first looks a little cheesy (it is set in the 80s) – think Coke meets New Freedom mini-pads, with a catchy jingle.

The rest is storybook, movie history. The ad man takes the aspirational slogan-jingle “Chile, Happiness is Coming” to a battle cry level, infuses the creative with more meaningful content and inspires a majority to give showing up a chance and saying no a try.*

For people involved in advocacy communications it’s a potent reminder to keep asking: What will motivate your audience? What are you offering them?

After almost two decades of murder, disappearances and repression, an ad man in Chile played a pivotal role in changing history with a catchy jingle, rainbow logo, people on horseback and scenes of a bucolic picnic. That’s a powerful tale for progressives here.

The movie showed a winning strategy that combined both the ugly truths (images of loss and repression) within a frame of smart motivation (hope for a happy future) to get to a new dawn moment.


*No, it’s not exactly how it happened, but it’s one aspect of the winning campaign. Apparently the filmmaker got some flak (NY Times article). But it’s a good movie and the message is worth heeding.

An app to figure out which petitions are for you

by Granate Sosnoff on 18th March, 2013


Kinder eggs v tomato

I need a child genius to create an app to figure out which petitions have legs and which ones are just hurting my wrist.

Nearly every day there’s a gigantic new problem looming that requires my clicking and double-clicking and autofilling only to get to a place that asks for info I don’t want to give out and then (oh crap) I’ll decide NOT to sign the thing but then feel guilty so I do (and unsubscribe later).

Honestly, I’m happy about all the activism, but are these petitions moving a well thought-out agenda for change or just some tomatoes getting thrown? And in some cases maybe only a largish strawberry.

Even the White House is trying to streamline how they get petitioned and has set up their own petition site: We the People. It doesn’t seem to be catching on yet though.

One of the petitions, Lift Ban on Kinder Eggs a chocolate from Italy that has a small toy inside is this close to getting 800 signatures but far away from their 100,000 goal. More important sounding petitions like “End Corruption in Congress” seems like something we can all get behind, unless there’s a “Pro-corruption” angle I’ve missed.

P.S. YES – sign things! But your best nonprofits, activists, networks, etc. should have an accompanying campaign strategy backing it up.

You’re best off with a progressive petition site like SignOn.org which has activist roots as a spin-off from MoveOn. The campaign for mandatory labeling for GE foods is a good example of activism with a targeted campaign, growing popular support and multiple nonprofit partners working together.

The petition: “Tell the FDA we have a right to know what’s in our food.” Is authored by Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation” and co-producer of “Food, Inc.”) and the president of Stonyfield Yogurt, Gary Hirshberg.


Is feminism always going to feel like a white thing?

by Granate Sosnoff on 12th March, 2013

First of all: Action = Good. A drawback to social media is that it can seduce you into believing you’ve done something significant by using your powerful “like” or “share.” In addition to all our good work at the keyboard, we need to get out and participate at some point.

So… recently I volunteered for local efforts for the One Billion Rising V-Day protests/flashmob dance/events on the Communications Team and found myself reinvigorated with a shot of feminism that felt echo-y of the mid 80s.

The involvement also raised a few questions for me.

In addition to volunteering, my friend and I challenged ourselves to participate in a flashmob dance. We watched the youTube instructional video – predominantly African American young women from a Brooklyn school, choreographed by the prominent Debbie Allen, also African American. And we went to a rehearsal in Oakland where only a handful of people of color showed up. She’s Chicana, I’m mixed heritage Asian/Jewish, and there we were in Oakland, a tremendously racially diverse place surrounded by white people… weird and wrong.

I had two reactions, one was: this is awful, god what poor outreach, ugh, can we do this? And two: thank god for the goodness of good white people and their showing up … I know, weird too, but humor gets me through…

Because I had some insider knowledge, I know that people of color were involved but not in the majority for planning. I also know there wasn’t any money involved and many were working full-time jobs AND volunteering to get this thing off the ground.

Regardless, it was very retro in a bad way that a group of feminist events felt overly white. At the risk of sounding like a political Carrie Bradshaw: Is feminism always going to feel like a white thing?  Even when there are people of color involved?

Seems to me, it’s still the case that unless it is a people of color-defined organization, or maybe a youth group, activism around women’s issues (and other areas btw…) in America still has an 80s feel regarding race.

What was heartening was all the footage from around the world, New Delhi, City of Joy in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, all over Europe. Even seeing the celebrities come out and participate was a good thing. Because it’s a good idea – dancing and rising up all on one day to bring attention and a positive vibe to something so awful and in need of a world movement everyday… not THE solution, but part of all the work that needs to get done.

P.S. Not to be preachy, but action still does = good… back away from the keyboard, give your thumb a rest and try it (if you haven’t lately). Sometimes the action isn’t perfect, but if you’re not there you can’t engage to make it better.



Buying to make a difference

by Granate Sosnoff on 4th May, 2012

First of all, it is a great idea. And there are concrete examples of how corporate partnerships with products has raised a lot of money for organizations. But like many things that start out good, they reach a saturation point. I think we may be getting there, where marketing for a product, some kind of “proceeds for charity %” on the label, is more the focus than the actual dollars going to a good cause.

Kudos to Ben & Jerry’s who were early instigators of this, and it was always part of their business plan (1% for peace) as far as I can see. They stay current and hit well with “Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream” but also missed with “Taste the Lin-Sanity” with (choke) fortune cookie pieces and lychee (sorry Asian community).

Ben & Jerry’s does a lot of good through donations and their foundations. They are established players who give away ice cream a few times a year as well and served cones to early Occupiers in New York (back when everyone liked them). Their hearts and politics are in the right place.

But they are the exceptional ones. I can’t open the paper, go to the grocery store, or order online without being given the option to “buy for a good cause,” or “make a difference” la-tee-da look at me.

And though shopping is what Americans do best, have we really come to this? Where we won’t even do our “walk-a-thon” and raise funds – thus putting a dent in our own sedentary lives at the same time as raising money for a cause.

I’m pretty sure (Red) a product line to raise funds to eliminate AIDS raises a lot of money as well. But do we really want ending AIDS branded by a special Coke by (RED) or converse? And what does it say about ourselves when we buy, drink and wear this stuff? Are we doing something, do we understand anything?

I get it. When given the choice we might “buy to do good” and we all want to support what some are calling a “double” or even a “triple” bottom line:  where doing good for a cause or community AND the environment is considered AS (okay almost as) important as making money.

But when is it PR and when is it real?

And lastly I have to mention something along these same lines. I heard the head of GM (yes that GM – General Motors) on the radio (yes, NPR) say that they wanted to be “part of the solution” in regards to the very NPR-y subjects of global warming and fuel crises.

It was a bit weird. And sure, yeah, this of course needs to happen. Activists have implored from time immemorial that “if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” But it’s shocking to hear GM, the definition of corporate America, parrot it back.

So attention shoppers, be vigilant and smart. Don’t forget to “question authority” as well and ask if maybe corporations could just pay their own factory workers in China decently (Apple (Red) nano) or their farmworkers better (everyone) rather than give % somewhere in our name.

A Shout Out to Adbusters and the Occupy Movement

by Granate Sosnoff on 7th December, 2011

Just when you thought there was only single-issue protest left out there, the Occupy Wall Street 99% came on the scene to give us something real and compelling to respond to, talk about and support. Aside from some of the tactics and drum circles, this movement has been a breath of fresh air for many on the left and progressives. Thanks to the people out there we have a discourse that mentions “income disparity” in the daily paper. Ordinary and decent people who are angry at losing houses and jobs and need and want change are getting an audience. Fingers are getting pointed at the right institutions.

Kudos to Adbusters the Canadian magazine that launched this whole movement. An amazing thing to have a group like this that spoofs corporate advertising in a socially biting, lefty, sometimes ironic and usually intelligent way, be responsible for starting this surprising and important protest. Check them out at http://www.adbusters.org/

Anti-Rage Against the Machine

by Granate Sosnoff on 21st November, 2011

The spitting mad activist spokesperson is annoying. Really annoying.*

As a participant, I lived through 80s Feminism on a progressive campus, so I’ve been inoculated for way-empowered, and fuming mad, but I think the booster is no longer effective.

I find myself liking the calm, lying corporate PR guy on NPR as he spars with an activist organizational head because the ED of (blank) organization has this extreme anger he can barely contain.

I wish there was some kind of anti-rage pill that could be taken before these debates since I am sure the nonprofit ED is the actual kind, smart individual, just trapped in a crazy world where they/we have to keep on reframing the debate.

But, it’s gotta be done. A former boss used to say that “responsible extremism” is how we move the agenda. And certainly there’s a lot of righteous anger, but the smart person, who keeps their cool up against the enemy, is our favorite hero.

The best of them, like The ED of the Oakland Institute, Anuradha Mittal, has seen first-hand how ugly the world can get for people who are kept in the dark while corporations tinker with their futures. She’s working hard to give a voice to hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people who are being adversely impacted by corporate land grabs in Africa

And still keeps her cool.

(I am not talking about protestors, fyi, and the Occupy people in particular, I support them, I was spitting mad after seeing recent video…)

Social entrepreneurs haven’t solved everything yet.

by Granate Sosnoff on 7th November, 2011

We were very excited about it (ten+ years ago). Business smarts focused on the world’s problems like hunger and AIDs, I think Bill Gates said he would stop malaria and polio. The ebay guy, google, a bunch of others. And although I am all for this, I think that the focused attention of entrepreneurial thinking on the world’s problems didn’t do as much as they thought it would.

Turns out that deep-seated inequalities and historical roots of poverty and disease are hard to solve. Even with near-genius, out-of-the box thinkers. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against it. Just like I am okay with the sale of t-shirts to help a cause. And there’s nothing wrong with giving spare money to help someone with emergency food and some kind of item like a mosquito net. But it doesn’t fundamentally change conditions for anyone. And it doesn’t rattle any cages. In short, it’s safe help and sometimes that’s all you can do. But there’s a lot more to be done of course and not enough groups doing it.

People with the big money should at least fund it.

You can’t gloss over inequality and oppression that easy. Understanding the underlying issues apparently still has a value. Convincing policymakers and government to change course to uplift and support people like small farmers is hard work.

It takes more than a cape that says “winner” and a huge amount of money to get things done.

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