A new film and books about organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin bring attention to the crucial, hidden tradition of practical radicalism.
A discussion on the creative resistance of John Sellers, co-founder of Other 98%.
You have probably seen the work of the Other 98%, but you may not have known who was behind it. Flash mobs at the Target store, guerilla projections at Koch brothers meetings, marching against the Tea Party. Their social media posts and info-graphics, video animations and creative direct actions abound our internet feeds.
One of the sparks behind this movement is veteran organizer John Sellers. Sellers got his start working with Greenpeace, climbing buildings, hanging banners, and sailing the high seas. Later he co-founded the Ruckus Society, teaching creative direct action skills to campaigners from around the world. Lately, he’s been organizing the “Kayaktivist” protests in the Pacific Northwest against Shell Oil’s arctic drilling. He is co-founder of the Other 98%, a social media and creative action powerhouse with the goal of “Kicking Greedy Corporate Asses for the Harder Working Classes.”
Other98’s Facebook page has over 2.4 million “likes” and levels of engagement that rival Fox News’s social media stats. Other98’s platform reaches 4-8 million people a day, sometimes surging to 10-15 million. Not connected? Check them out at www.Other98.com and on Facebook.
How would you describe the Other98?
Sellers: We aim to put the class back into class warfare. We are pushing back, recognizing we have been in a class war for decades and are getting our asses kicked. We deploy creativity and humor to fight back –in ways that are fun and make people laugh.
What are we up against?
Sellers: A combination of hyper-capitalism, white supremacy, and environmental degradation that globally we call climate change and locally we call gentrification.
What fires you up?
Sellers: We need to change the fact that corporations can cross borders, Pepsi can cross borders, internet porn can cross borders – but flesh and blood people are arrested, deported, incarcerated, and sometimes killed for trying to find a safe home for themselves and their families.
What is your role in the movement to reverse inequality?
Our role at Other98 is to animate, educate and mobilize sustained outrage around corporate power, economic injustice, and climate change. There are three corporate sectors that Other98 targets to create fundamental change –the Big Banks, Big Oil, and Big Pharma. Each of those sectors has created a breed of pathological super-corporations incapable of doing anything good.
How did Other98 start?
We were a push back response to the Tea Party. In April 2010, the Tea Party was having their first big rally on the Washington Mall on Tax Day. They were protesting the Obama tax plan, but their pro-rich and pro-corporate colors were showing. So we showed up as “the Other 95%” to point out the fact that Obama’s program reduced taxes for 95 percent of the population and only raised taxes on the richest 5 percent. Later we changed our name to the Other 98 percent.
So you preceded the “99 to 1” Occupy movement?
Yes, by more than a year and a half. When Occupy started, we asked our members if they wanted to change our name to the “Other 99%.” They were split so we didn’t change.
What is the most fun and effective thing you’ve ever done?
When I worked for Greenpeace in 1992, I scaled the Sears Tower in Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago. We hung a banner that said “End the 50 Year Nuclear Nightmare.” The entire nuclear industry was in Chicago for a celebration. Our protest rippled through the world, with coverage in Japan and China. It was an “aha” moment for me, the power of creative direct action, of audacious political jiu-jitsu to steal the show and create a teachable moment. These actions are what communications theorist Marshall McLuhan called “mind bombs.”
What about creative actions with Other 98?
Right after the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, Target was one of the first corporations to dump unregulated money into the Minnesota governor’s race. We did a flash mob in a Target Department store to embarrass them and promote a boycott of Target. Our musical dance video went viral, with over 4 million views and we were the lead story on Yahoo for days. It was like filming “Glee” in a department store with one take. We won: Target backed down, contributing money to the other side and rethinking their political giving. See the video.
We’ve done a bunch of major demonstrations against the Koch Brothers with thousands of people. We blew the cover at one of their secret meetings in Palm Springs, California. And when David Koch was being honored at the Lincoln Center, we did a “Guerilla Drive-In” using a powerful projector to project our own creative anti-Koch video on the side of the David Koch Theater. Over a thousand people came to the viewing and we provided the popcorn and entertainment. See the video.
What’s your favorite way to procrastinate?
Go out and do some gardening. Pull weeds and mulch those garden beds.
If you could do anything, what would it be?
Travel full-time with my family. My twins are 11 and they are “unschoolers.” They were born the day George W. Bush was elected to his second term, so we’ve been very busy.
What do you wish people knew about Other 98%?
That we were around before the “99 percent.” That we have a scrappy team and do amazing things with little resources. That we act from a strategic theory of change in our campaigns to fix the world. We have seen zeitgeist moments when social media can move the needle and win stuff. Look at Bernie Sanders and the power of social media. Showing up and yelling on the internet can be effective. And it can also inspire people to deeper and sustained action — to turn off their computers and storm a bank lobby or paddle their kayak out in front of a giant oil tanker.
What’s your message to our broader movements?
We need a culture shift to break up the banks, save the climate, reduce inequality. It’s not going to come through traditional policy advocacy. The wealthy and powerful corporations that run our economy want you to think economics is complicated. But it’s not that complicated to see the injustice around us. Our job is to change hearts and minds about the reality of the economic system we are living in. We use the power of advertising and creative communications to make these issues sticky and sexy and fun to take part in.