coronavirus

Liberal groups attempt to rally supporters — from an appropriate social distance

The left is trying to play by health officials' rules during the coronavirus outbreak, creating new challenges for organizers.

Shannon Watts

Hundreds of gun-control advocates got together Thursday to celebrate “gun-sense” candidates. They didn’t wear masks or gloves or stay in their vehicles to maintain proper social distancing.

But that’s because they never left home.

Unlike conservative protesters — who have stormed state capitols in recent days to urge governors to reopen their states, risking the spread of coronavirus — left-leaning groups are putting safety first.

Colorado Senate candidate John Hickenlooper and Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia and Sharice Davids of Kansas headlined the pro-gun restriction virtual rally Thursday afternoon, joining more than 500 volunteers from Moms Demand Action for Guns Sense in America on Zoom to herald the organization's first wave of candidate endorsements in the 2020 election cycle.

“I definitely don’t think we’re going back. These technologies will be with us into perpetuity,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which is part of Everytown for Gun Safety. “These are incredibly effective ways to be activists when we have to pivot to doing this work all online.”

Left-leaning groups are relying on a combination of creativity and technology to keep their supporters engaged in the coronavirus era — without putting their members or volunteers in harm’s way. That stands in contrast to in-person protests conservatives are staging against local lockdowns at statehouses across the country, which in many cases violate social distancing guidelines. Those protests, have, however, drawn national headlines.

“Social distancing saves lives,” said David Sievers, MoveOn’s campaign director. “The right-wing communications machine has suggested that this is about opening up the economy versus not, and tyranny, a violation of individual rights against liberty and jobs and whatnot, and that’s just not the case."

"I’m just hoping that we don’t see an uptick in hospitalizations in a week after these protests,” Sievers added.

More than 50,000 people have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the United States, and 26 million Americans have filed unemployment claims over the past five weeks. The virus has forced organizations to cancel revenue-generating annual events or shift them to virtual settings, and their grassroots fundraising could take a hit as families are impacted by coronavirus-related health care costs, layoffs and furloughs.

It's all happening at the same time that elected officials are making weighty policy decisions. Like their conservative counterparts, liberal activists are eager to play a role in shaping the debate over the coronavirus response and recovery.

Progressive groups, health care organizations and unions tested out one form of socially distant protest last week, planting 1,000 pop-up signs on the lawn at the U.S. Capitol that displayed the faces of frontline health care workers to advocate for adequate personal protective equipment.

“Hopefully it was a symbolic visual that could tell the story without us needing to put people out there,” said Sievers of MoveOn, one of the groups that organized the installation. “We were really happy that we were able to carry these voices in some way without having to get together.”

Other groups are looking for ways to replace planned in-person events and organizing efforts. Jewish Voice for Peace canceled its rabbi lobby day on Capitol Hill this spring, but is thinking about how to adapt it without losing its impact. JVP and its political and advocacy arm, JVP Action, have held several events online in recent weeks, including a seder with Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

A virtual rally the group held last week calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Rikers Island drew hundreds of participants in a Zoom room, while thousands more watched on Facebook. Stefanie Fox, JVP’s executive director, said the rally was structured so that movement leaders could speak, while giving participants breaks to tweet, record videos, and text and call their representatives and senators.

Moms Demand Action also had to cancel its annual advocacy day at statehouses across the country, Watts said. But the virtual event in Sacramento last month garnered even higher turnout than the 800 or so people who had RSVP’d for the physical event. The impact of the coronavirus, however, has only grown since, as the virus has become ubiquitous around the world and cast aside other issues.

With social interactions likely to be limited for the foreseeable future, the Progressive Turnout Project is reassessing its plan to ramp up face-to-face campaigning next month.

Alex Morgan, the group’s executive director, told POLITICO it will be difficult to replace in-person interactions, given how effective that kind of contact is in generating turnout. “People don’t remember what comes through their mailbox,” Morgan said. “They don’t remember the annoying phone call that they got. They scroll past digital ads. So those tactics, while very scalable, only have a couple percentage points effect in terms of increasing voter turnout in an election.”

Morgan is hopeful his employees and volunteers can get out in the field sometime this summer, but he has no idea when it’ll be safe to return to the office or what, exactly, a post-coronavirus field operation will look like.

He said he’s thinking about what guidance to give on engaging with voters in the aftermath of the virus, such as asking canvassers to step back after knocking on doors, and whether pens should be a giveaway item. But in the meantime, his organization is prioritizing educating voters on mail ballots.

“What we can do is we can call unlikely voters right now and talk with them about the options that they have and remind them that signing up to vote by mail right now in their state is an option,” Morgan said. “Our staffs are being trained this coming week on how to walk folks through that process.”

Liberal and progressive activists are optimistic that technology will allow them to continue organizing amid the pandemic. Moms Demand Action volunteers, for example, have access to applications like Slack, Hustle, HubDialer and Icebreaker. But challenges remain.

“I get asked a lot by volunteers: ‘Should we be talking about gun violence? Is that appropriate?’” Watts recalled. “And I always say: ‘If we don’t, who will? Because the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating our gun violence crisis.’”

Calls have spiked to domestic violence hotlines, women are isolated at home with their abusers, children who are now learning from home may have access to guns in the house, a March spike in gun sales may result in gun owners who lack proper training, including on gun storage, and the combination of isolation, anxiety and depression could lead to suicidal ideation, Watts noted.

JVP leaders have also taken steps to offer community resources for members. “A few of our chapters are using specific buddy systems where they check in on one another, making sure folks have what they need, in terms of companionship, care, food and health check-ins,” Fox said.

Activism is not only a marathon but also a relay race, Watts said. “So you have to be willing to hand the baton over to someone else when you need to take an hour, a day, a week, a month and prioritize your well-being,” she said. “The reality is the work will be here when you get back.”

This story has been updated to correct the latest number of U.S. deaths from coronavirus.

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