Visiting the sessions at the liberal activists’ RootsCamp

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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The great thing about the liberal activists’ “unconference,” this past weekend was that anyone and everyone who had an idea for a workshop was invited to slap the theme on a piece of paper, tack it to a giant board and create the RootsCamp agenda in real-time.

There were just two problems: anyone and everyone.

Like many liberal accomplishments, diversity was key. The number of workshops (they called them sessions, as in “therapy”) was staggering, with about 90 different sessions spanning two days. The sessions covered everything from tech issues to on-the-ground advocacy advice. There was even an “Anger Management” session and RootsCampers were welcome to add more. The exact number of sessions was what scientists call “a shit tone.”

The giant board noting at what times and where each 45min talk was to be held was so full of diversity it’s likely to have a solo line or two on “We Are the World 100 for Canada.”

Here are some of the various sessions RootsCamp offered, in very abbreviate form:

DirectAction&OnlineOrganizing(CaseStudies,Brainstorm,Fun)#DataCollaborationInProgressiveTechUsing LinkedInToIncreaseYourPersonalNetworkOptimization:AYear(+)InPageTestingUnemployed&Allies:Let’s GetLoudFacebook,Twitter…TheyAllHateOccupation.TheIsraeliPalestinianConflictOnlineOrganizingThrough EffectiveStorytellingStateRootsCamps:WhatDidWeLearn?HowDoWeMoveForward?WhyI’mADemocrat.org: CommunicatingDemMessageOnAnEmotionalLevel

Yeah, it hurt just looking at the board, too, and that was just Sunday’s 11am slot.

Out of sympathy for those who didn’t want to lead or were sufficiently trapped by the 1,000-plus crowd to get out of the way, the event’s unorganizers prearranged the first round of sessions for people to follow. Still, that left RootsCampers with over 10 options.

At first, the “Where the Fuck is the Youth Vote” session seemed like a good choice. But since a girl outside with a two-pack-a-day voice had said “I’m not as hungover as I thought I would be. It probably means I’m still drunk,” it was pretty clear where the youth vote was. Sleeping.

“Debriefing with 2010 New Media Directors,” sounded a bit too promiscuous.

So the choices were down to: “#Data: The Power of Games!” and one other. After chatting up a cute RootsCamper who seemed interested, The Daily Caller had hoped the story might become a participatory piece and skipped down to the RootsCamp’s “venting session.”

Session 1 – “Why Democrats Suck”

The venting session, “Why Democrats suck,” kinda sucked. And it had seemed so promising, as George Washington University sucked for not having enough chairs in the room. The RootsCampers said naughty words like “suck” and “crap” and “Citizens United.” There was even a guy who works with exiting Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson. How can this not be fun?

“It’s 11:15,” said the moderator. “We’ll vent four three more minutes and then offer solutions.”

Just nineteen minutes to gripe? Solutions? That sucks.

The self-described “progressives” in the session had a lot of reasons for why the Democrats suck, but one of the chief reasons was that Democrats — like the most of the GOP but unlike Ariz. Gov. Jane Brewer — lacked balls.

“You could have some balls but people aren’t doing that,” said one RootsCamper, whose statement sounded like years of bottled-up frustration spraying out of a Diet Coke can.

The rhetoric had been rising since someone had said “some people are just terrified of taking a standing on anything,” with another later adding that the “whole Democratic machine seems risk-averse.”

Then, just before the short “solutions” section, things took an ugly turn. The RootsCampers became visibly excited when some one brought up the idea of “taking hostages,” and “developing a list of demands.” In the end, “taking hostages” actually received the biggest applause when the group clap-voted on the best possible solutions.

On the bright side, “Vote With Your Clicks,” was also a well-received solution. At least it was positive, even if it … sounded as if it’d be more appropriate in a “Feminist Hackers for Democracy” session.

Session 2 – “Jon Stewart DOESN’T Knock on Doors’ & ‘WKWDYWCHDWGT”

As the session ended, TheDC told the funny “Vote With Your Clicks” joke to the cute girl who kinda smiled (barely), which made it less funny. A dash of  humor seemed crucial after that faux pas, so it was off to the “Jon Stewart DOESN’T Knock on Doors” session.

Stepping in late — an ongoing issue — the first words TheDC heard went along the lines of “It’s not like racism, ageism or sexism …”

Having already suffered from seat-ism during the opening remarks when it was standing-room only, and the embarrassment of Luddite-ism because everyone else was getting event updates on their fancy iPhone or Blackberry, it was not the time to hear about more persecution. That’s why, after a minute, it was necessary to leave and join the “What Kind of World Do You Want to Create and How Do We Get There?” session. Getting there was easy; it was one floor up. Hopefully, they were creating a world without “isms.”

At the “WKWDYWCHDWGT” session, 11 people huddled quietly around a long stretch of tables. It had to be one of the smaller groups, yet they spoke quietly and calmly. Apparently, this was going to be a world run by a library committee. The group was whispers-deep into a discussion about developing a “people-centric society,” which is probably different than a “monkey-centric society.” That would be “Planet of the Apes.”

They earnestly cared about the issue at hand though, trying to suss out how individuals could be inspired to help others when the natural incentive for most is selfish survival.

Then along came “Brutus.”

“You want a people-centric society?” asked Brutus. “You need union rules.”

Brutus stabbed at the air with his massive index finger when making his point or agreeing with someone else’s. Brutus looked like he’d spent a few years working on the docks. Brutus had a thick, tough voice and a blockhead that was contemplating a high-and-tight. Brutus didn’t seem like the approachable type, which is why his name tag was impossible to read from so far away. Brutus frightened TheDC and we kept our distance.

Before the fear could set in, though, the session was over. It was a common theme — time-constraints, not the fear. It seemed RootsCampers were never quite finished talking. It’s hard to blame them. Locating the sessions, actually getting to them and figuring out where to go next was a logistical nightmare for the ill-prepared. As soon as each session began, it finished. The progressives didn’t seem to have enough time to make any substantial progress.

“We just started really talking and then it was time to leave,” said one RootsCamper after leaving WKWDYWCHDWGT. “I felt like we just started talking with each other instead of at each other, but then it broke up.”

Still, the sweet, older woman was positive. “Maybe we can do another session.” That was the epilogue for many a session — “Let’s have another 45-minute session.”

SESSION 3 – “Humor Sells: Using Comedy to Get Your Message Out & Reach A New Audience’ & ‘How To Make .Gov .Awesome”

When in doubt, humor’s the safe bet, which is why the “Humor Sells” session seemed like a good idea. At the time.

TheDC failed to notice that it would be run by the women from Emily’s List. The pro-choice PAC is ruthlessly dedicated to pushing Democratic female candidates. More importantly, they’re not funny. Perhaps it’s their bitterness toward Republican chicks getting so much attention lately. It probably has nothing to do with any latent spinster attributes. Either way, the unfunny Lister Sisters were showing their unfunny “Sarah Palin Doesn’t Speak For Me” video that featured bears in women’s costumes.

The “humor” session was not only not funny because Emily’s List is not funny. The humor was also not funny because the Lister Sisters stopped the 86-second video midway through, at which point one of them began to explain how funny the next unfunny joke was going to be. More unfunny than that, she explained the unfunny joke to the audience. The un-funniest part of this entire “unconference” was when another Lister Sister said to the audience, “It was funny, right?”

TheDC wasn’t sold.

What was actually funny was both the title and conversation of “How To Make .Gov .Awesome.” There were RootsCampers in there are saying stuff like “one of the things that’s interesting about working in the government …” and ” Openness is what we’re dedicated to,” and “I think the Open Government Initiative is remarkable.” It was hilarious.

All the young, hip, government employees were genuinely exciting to watch. They were ambitious, they cussed, they sounded like they were trying to get things done. It was like hackers hanging out at the bar after spending all day showing grandpa how to plug in the Internet (“No Pop-Pop, you can’t break it”).

They were enjoying themselves and cracking computer jokes TheDC didn’t get. They said they were “breaking down barriers” and it was easy to believe them. Maybe it’s not Republicans, Democrats, or Progressives that suck. Maybe it’s just old people.

Session 4 – “Koch Brothers: Funding the Tea Party and Stealing our Democracy. How we fight back”

There is one group that really did suck at the RootsCamp: Tea Partiers. This session was the only one TheDC showed up for early and jockeyed for a front-row seat. The session’s leaders spent a better part of 3 minutes laying out The Koch Brothers’ entire evil plan, noting that “they’ve given $250 million … that we know of.”

The Koch Brothers, it’s been well-documented, have their hands in numerous cookie jars. (Full disclosure: At least four Daily Caller staffers once worked at Koch-funded organizations. Four that we know of.)

Then things at the Koch session got weird. The Tea Party et al, it seems, is very good at making “shiny objects” for which they attract undue media attention. This media attention only fuels the group, giving them even more attention and allows them to drown out sensible people — the “other 98 percent.

It’s a sensible argument from sensible people, who seemed to spend the next part of the session asking, “How the hell can we replicate that?” Or more specifically, “[create] content that’s sharable. Controversial is more or less how you claim the space of the shiny object that the Tea Party has effectively occupied.”

Apparently, after the ‘Why Democrats Suck’ session, everyone decided to have another. The discussion at the Koch session quickly became, “Why Do We Suck More Than the Tea Party?”

“What the Tea Party’s good at is mobilizing,” said one RootsCamper. “They’re very good at being ridiculous and still getting their message through,” said another.

The answer was clear: Liberals have to be the “shinier object.”

For one RootsCamper, that meant becoming a shiny object … of death.

“We should be willing to engage them in the same tactics,” said someone to TheDC’s right who punched the air with his finger. “And I mean the same tactics!”

Brutus was back! He was almost snarling. And he was advocating … dressing up like colonials?

TheDC barely remembers what happened next because TheDC fainted a little. But if memory serves, immediately after his threatening remark, Brutus got a phone call. He answered it, not intimidated by the polite session leader who, at that moment, was addressing both Brutus and his question. (By the way, Brutus is a loud talker and if it matters, he promised to “Give it to Rob!”)

The most interesting moment came when a women in the audience said, “I think the Tea Party is effective because they have these long-term goals. … I can’t get my head around what our goal is when it comes to the Tea Party.” The woman noted that just painting the Tea Party as nuts, might not be the best, long-term solution.

You won’t hear those comments from any liberals, though. She told the session’s camera, the one pointing straight at her, that her statements were “off the record.”

Session 5 – “Going home”

RootsCamp has a strange policy about things being on or off the record. First, all RootsCampers were instructed to say, at the beginning of sessions, whether the talks would be on or off the record. Since TheDC arrived late for most sessions, this wasn’t an issue.

There was also a note in the RootsCamp program that said, “priority #1 is an environment that fosters open and candid discussions. That said … Remember the first rule of RootsCamp is that you DO talk about RootsCamp.” And talk they did. The #Roots10 hashtag on Twitter took a beating over the weekend. It was all very confusing stuff.

According to the schedule available online, there may or may not have been a session about Andrew Breitbart on Sunday. One of the two session leaders, who was not Matt Locksin of the for-profit, non-partisan Credo, made it perfectly clear that everything was off the record. Another nameless leader who was not Dani McClain from the NAACP-esque Color of Change did a lot of talking. Except for someone tweeting about TheDC’s “awkward” presence — during the session! — this was a safe zone. So TheDC now knows how “they” got Andrew Breitbart, but we can’t tell anyone. Moving On.

Sunday, in general, was a disappointment. The energy was gone and so were plenty of the participants. It was probably for the best. There were simply too many sessions for a single person to cover. TheDC admits to picking the ones that sounded the juiciest because day-long sessions of any kind, be it therapy or sex, are a horrible idea.

By all Twitter accounts, RootsCamp was a rousing success and it certainly seems liberal advocates came away with a lot of fresh ideas.

Those who replied to TheDC’s Twitter requests ranged from the tech-savvy to those fighting immigration or gay-rights. Those who spoke to TheDC at the event said making connections was one of the best and most important aspects of the entire event. TheDC even met a new friend at RootsCamp without even knowing it.

“You said it was standing room only,” said TheDC’s new Twitter friend, hours after camp ended. “Considering you were standing by people SITTING in chairs, you willfully lied.” TheDC won’t print this person’s handle and will deny any nice statements we previously made about the RootsCampers. That’s all off the record.

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Read Part 1 of the RootsCamp adventure here