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Camp Hope: How Not to Organize a Protest

Freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions did not deter the determined group of activists. However, the message may have been lost.

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Freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions did not deter a determined group of activists, who spent much of January in Drexel Square Park, mere blocks from Barack Obama’s south Chicago residence. The 19-day vigil, dubbed “Camp Hope” by organizers, was intended to remind Obama of promises made throughout the campaign and pressure him to meet specific goals held by the progressive groups which supported his presidential bid.

However, the message may have been a little lost over the course of the demonstration. It would have helped, perhaps, if Camp Hope had been promoting one specific message rather than eight divergent and often nebulous areas of concern. Some issues were simple enough: the demands for universal health care, an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, signing on to the Kyoto Protocol, eliminating nuclear weapons, and placing a 90-day moratorium on housing foreclosures. Other goals were more vague: immigration reform, more diplomatic relations with Pakistan, encouraging global nuclear disarmament and an end to the documented racial disparity in poverty and prison populations. However these demands weren’t connected to practical steps that might be taken to accomplish the goals.

Adding to the confusion were the number of groups involved. Various national and international organizations stood in 8-hour shifts, including Code Pink and Oxfam International, joined by a number of local groups such as Hyde Parkers for Peace and Justice and the North Suburban Peace Initiative. There appeared to be little communication between participating organizations, and no outreach to individuals unaffiliated with any particular group who might want to join the vigil. Turnout was small, and the demonstrations appeared disorganized and unwelcoming. Separate groups did not engage with one another and appeared mostly focused with their own pet causes and internal concerns.

In the month leading to Camp Hope, organizers attempted to spread the word via press releases, media appearances, and an internet presence touting a number of speakers and events, such as a kickoff party (which did not begin until long after the advertised time, forcing early arrivals to wait in freezing weather), screenings of the films “Dr. Strangelove” and “Taxi to the Darkside”, and forums on everything from economic justice to “The Myth of A Post-Racial America.” Despite these attempts to encourage participation, the Camp Hope website was not updated with current information after the first day or two of the vigil, and emails requesting information about the protest remained unanswered. Any engagement with the media seemed limited to promotion in the early days of January.

There also remains the question of why pro-Obama activists would protest their candidate before he had even taken office. Camp Hope has been careful to characterize itself as an encouraging “presence” in Obama’s neighborhood, but to uninformed onlookers the vigils and marches certainly may have looked negative. So far, there has been no response from the Obama administration; Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, one of the minds behind the event, told reporters, “we’re just about as close as you can get to his house right now. We’ve seen his motorcade go by, so he knows we’re here. He’s welcome to come down and talk to us.”

Though the dedication of those who braved the Chicago winter for 19 days in order to send a message to the new administration is certainly admirable, the lack of any sort of cohesive message or voice is not likely to sway the president one way or another.

2 Responses to Camp Hope: How Not to Organize a Protest

  1. subpixel says:

    Is this supposed to be a magazine article or a blog entry about media coverage of an event? It has a very negative slant, with no information from (or apparent contact with) any of the organisations involved and what their take on the protest was.

    If this article is based purely on (corporate) media reporting, it would be better to just link to those external reports. If these views are your own and from your own experience, express them as such, otherwise make your sources clear. Do not make yourself a zombie participant of the propaganda machine.

    I am also surprised that the address of the website referenced is not included in the article. That is the most basic and obvious information that almost any reader is going to want.

    Overall this article makes me seriously question the author’s motives.

  2. Julie Rodriguez says:

    Questioning the article is fine, I encourage critical thinking and skepticism, and I understand why you might come away with the impression that you have from reading this. So I want to make that clear up front before I respond. Also, I am not the one who posts the articles on the website, so I apologize that a link was not included to the event’s web site. However, I had linked to it previously on my blog ( and perhaps that’s why it was not included with this article.

    It’s not based on any corporate news reports, it’s based on my own experiences visiting Camp Hope and my own disappointment at how disorganized the whole event seemed to be. I have written articles before examining media coverage of events (in particular, the democratic primaries and gender-based attacks on Hillary Clinton) and if I were simply repeating other people’s words there would be attribution and analysis on my end. (As an aside, I have read no particularly negative corporate news reports about the event. Any which I have seen seemed to be fairly neutral — if you have read any negative characterizations of the event that I have missed, feel free the point them out.) I also attempted to get in touch with various organizers of the event in order to interview them on how they felt about the event, if they thought it had been effective, and to ask them to address some of the concerns I raise in this article. I waited several weeks before submitting this piece for publication without receiving an answer. I feel that was more than fair and I wish I had gotten responses that allowed for a more balanced picture — so, yes, it does not reflect any of the organizations involved and their side of the story, because they apparently did not feel the need to respond to my attempts to contact them for the article. (Which I believe was noted within the article.)

    I really was trying not to be overwhelmingly negative in my assessment of the event, however, I feel it is very important to be critical sometimes. I feel Camp Hope was well-intentioned, and I agree with all the causes that they were trying to promote. I do not, however, feel it was effective in its stated aims, and that is disappointing. I feel that if we as a progressive moment are to make any progress in actually achieving our desired policies, it is important to learn from our mistakes and find a more effective means of a) articulating our goals, b) getting people involved, and c) actually doing something substantive to influence those in power. Honestly, that is my only motivation here. I really am very supportive of the stated goals of Camp Hope, but I felt it was unwelcoming to those of us who merely live in Hyde Park but were not part of the organizations running it, that those heading the event were more concerned with initial publicity in the opening days than actually staging an effective protest, and apparently not terribly concerned with building bridges with the actual Hyde Park/Chicago community. And that’s unfortunate. I felt there was a great deal of potential here, but that very little came of it.

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