Searching for signatures in the cold, stripping down and being written on outside the library, and marching around campus. These student groups won’t just sit around–they are taking action.
The coat-clad figures huddled near, though their mood was brighter than the steel gray sky. Each took a bundle of leaflets and trotted off in opposite directions. Early November meant the creeping cold arrived. Tonight it hovered just above freezing. But the group “Muncie for Bernie Sanders” endured the chill in the air for a chance to vote for their favorite presidential candidate.
The golden McDonald’s arch at the corner of East Charles and South Madison streets loomed merrily ahead. Michael Mahoney and Adam Stant, two of the group’s leaders, crossed from the brightly lit downtown blocks into relative darkness.
“This is just to get Bernie Sanders on the ballot to run against Hillary Clinton,” said Michael. “I always tell people ‘sign if you want more choices.’ That usually works.”
Nearby, Michael knocked on a door and waited. After speaking for a few minutes on the porch, he stepped inside for a while before returning.
“Did you get one?”
“Two. His wife signed as well.”
To appear on the ballot for the primary election, each candidate is required to get 500 valid signatures from each district in the state. The canvassers continued to another block, around the corner from Muncie Power Products. This time Adam had to do some talking. The porchlight spilled across the pillars and on to the street as he made his point. Finally, the woman took the clipboard and signed.
“What convinced her?”
“The Fight for Fifteen,” he said. “She asked ‘Why are you out here freezing? Where is Bernie Sanders?” Adam said the nature of that question tells him everything he needs to know about the state of politics in the 2016 race.
Detachment has arguably sank deep into American culture, but activists like those of “Muncie for Bernie Sanders” stand determined against it. The politically or socially involved face an uphill battle, even with the twenty-first century’s cheap and efficient organizing tools.
In 2008 and 2012, the United States saw voter turnouts of 58.23 and 54.87 percent respectively of the voting age population. On non-presidential years, state elections are even more abysmal. Indiana had 30 percent voter turnout in 2014, according to state sources.
Voter turnout for presidential elections peaked all the way back in 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel J. Tilden in the wake of America’s civil war. Few Americans likely have strong feelings about that race these days, but the controversial election drew 81.1 percent of the voting age population at the time.
Neither man got the majority in the electoral college and the voting stood contested in Oregon, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. So it fell to congress to decide. In what’s known as “The Bargain of 1877,” a 15-person electoral committee confirmed Hayes as president.
Tilden won the popular vote by roughly 250,000. But that isn’t what determines the office.
Hayes wasn’t the first or last president to win in such a way. In 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, a candidate won that most voters did not endorse.
Even if Americans seem disillusioned with the fruits of their ballot, organized action continues anyway. Across Muncie, various activist groups have mobilized. Using low overhead tools and tactics, they’re raising awareness, cultivating a base and engaging in action. Not all of it is strictly politics, however.
Near the steps of the David Owsley Museum of Art, a crowd gathered. After a couple of speakers and a poem read by Ethnic Theater Alliance officer Shay Stewart, Nathaniel Thomas took center stage. Standing tall with a voice that carried, he identified himself to Ball State University Police as the march’s leader and reminded those gathered to remain civil yet committed. Upon reaching the front of the column, he threw his head backward.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” he called out as they sprung to motion. The marchers repeated the shout. “It is our duty to win! We must love and support one another!”
“We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
The line of demonstrators peaked around the corner of the North Quadrangle Building and rounded on McGalliard Avenue. Echoing the sign in his hands, Nathaniel cried “Trans Lives Matter!”
After reaching Frog Baby, they stood for photos and spoke some more. Then marched back the way they came, continuing to chant all the way to the quad. There, Nathaniel and the other leaders encouraged everyone to post about #TransLivesMatter, and to share or retweet.
“I don’t want to see a dinner post tonight from any of you,” he said.
Organized by the ETA, the Trans Lives Matter march on September 17 was the first in a series of activism events staged by the group.
Volunteers assembled on the south side of Bracken library, blindfolded themselves and stripped naked. Only simple black undergarments and the cool autumn air separated them from pedestrians.
Other volunteers passed out pens and lists of adjectives, encouraging passersby to write on the participants’ bodies. Then the human canvases flipped their cards, revealing words they used to describe themselves.
Shay stood among those written on, identifying as a straight, white, female who was tough, an actor, and a virgin. “The day of [the demonstration] was the first day that I really started coming to terms with this very vulnerable thing we were doing.”
At the end of the event, “dancer,” “hippie,” “confident,” and “tough” covered her body, with “promiscuous” written across her back. “One person wrote ‘inspiration’ on my wrist which was not part of the prompt but was very kind. But mostly really nice, positive things.”
The Ethnic Theater Alliance organized “The Living Museum” from their meeting place tucked in the corner of the Arts and Communications Building. The task force plans events that weigh in on national dialogue and encourage personal participation. Originally intended to secure better representation within the theater department, Shay said, the group then trained its focus outward to the broader Ball State community.
“It’s safe to say that we can believe that their bubble has been popped, and they’re doing things with it and making moves,” Nathaniel said. “In October there’s a march every week at this point.”
University Police Department Chief James Duckham said police provided protection for three marches in the Fall 2015 semester, an uptick from one march each the previous two semesters. He also advised that students wishing to march should comply with the student code, identify their leaders to University Police and have their group’s advisor present at the event.
Appendix N of the Ball State University Student Code outlines the restrictions which regulate use of school property for expressive purposes. The Progressives Student Alliance ran into some of these rules when they tried to organize a spur of the moment march following the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
At the time, the Progressive Student Alliance was not an officially sanctioned student group. They were an unofficial club applying for official status. So they were not permitted to reserve public spaces for their own events. Realizing this, Jacob Cail, who started the group, said they contacted the Ball State University Democrats about locking down the reservation. But by that time, Jacob said it was too late.
PSA applied for official status at the beginning of the year but was rejected. Ball State responded that their main goal – campaigning for Sanders – did not make for a long-term club, as the primaries and election will be finished in a little over a year, Jacob said. So they reframed the group as promoting progressive politics in general, with a specific interest in Sanders’ election. After some tweaks, their constitution eventually passed and PSA became an official student organization.
On the other side of the aisle, Ball State’s College Republicans hold weekly or biweekly meetings where they most often host ranking Republicans as speakers. This allows their members to listen, ask questions and network with other active Republicans.
For instance, many state senators or representatives have other careers when not in session. This broadens the content of these speakers beyond just politics.
“They talk about how that relates to what they do regarding policy and their decisionmaking, how they interact with constituents,” said Josh Marsh, chairman for the College Republicans. “Some own insurance agencies, some own furniture stores, some own their own consulting businesses, so we hear from different points of view.”
The meetings of the College Republicans are closed to the press out of respect for these speakers, Josh said.
The College Republicans also are less interested in collaborating with other student organizations, preferring to leave activism to groups like the Young Republicans.
“I don’t think I would necessarily like a lot of clubs saying ‘Hey would you partner with us at this on the scramble light?'” Josh said, “Because we like to do our own thing and I think clubs like to do their own things. Everybody’s got their own exec boards so let them make decisions on their own thing.”
Aged 18 to 40, the Young Republicans are comprised of professionals who have more structured time than a college student might, according to Josh. They are more activist focused, with canvassing, phone calls and campaigning among their activities.
“We like to say that the College Republicans makes [someone] a Republican, the Young Republicans work them on the ground as Republicans, and then the Republican Party makes candidates or lifelong Republicans,” Josh said.
Even so, the College Republicans still work with other organizations to hold events. Members of the College Republicans, the University Democrats and the newly formed Liberty Coalition sat for a Q & A held by the Ball State NAACP on October 19. Attendees quizzed the panel on their group’s policy positions in addition to common structured questions.
Also, each year they partner with the University Democrats for a bi-partisan 9/11 memorial. The groups enjoy an agreeable relationship on campus and avoid picketing or obstructing each other’s events.
“We have a pretty mutual understanding,” Josh said. “We’re not going to convince them, they’re not going to convince us. Maybe we squabble over the few people in the middle but how it usually works out is if someone is slightly interested in Republican politics, they’re probably a Republican, or think they are.”
Their counterparts, the Ball State University Democrats are also an official student organization and affiliated with their national party. The latter means that as an organization, they cannot endorse any political candidate before the national party does. The College Republicans have similar rules. However, members can still personally support or endorse a candidate.
This is where groups like the Progressive Student Alliance come in. While committed to progressive politics, the PSA has no official connection the the Democratic Party. They are a free and independent entity that can pursue whichever course they choose.
So while members of the University Democrats could not organize their own march in support of a candidate, interested members may participate as individuals in an event organized by the Progressive Student Alliance. There are no rules against students joining both groups.
However, this doesn’t mean the University Democrats don’t help their party get elected. Members work with State and National entities for their party, according to President Joe Clabough. Through volunteering to campaign for local candidates, the group builds relationships with Democratic Party members.
“Every campaign is always looking for people to get involved,” Clabough said. “A lot of people are just gathering up signatures for John Gregg for Governor campaign free of charge. We just donate our time to make sure this guy gets on the ballot to go up against Mike Pence.”
While an overarching national structure certainly helps, these institutions can be created from the ground up. The morning of the first Democratic debate, Michael reflected on the progress they’d made since the group began.
Muncie For Bernie Sanders continued to collect verified signatures to get Bernie Sanders on the Ballot in Indiana. 500 is the requirement, but Michael said that 750 to 800 signatures is a better goal. That way, a couple hundred people could move from the district and the paperwork would remain valid. These efforts are ongoing, the group’s facebook page indicated.
Sanders is scheduled to hold his first official campaign stop in Indianapolis on January 19. The proper formation and organization of groups like Muncie For Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Student Alliance provide a foundation for the national campaign.
With teams of committed volunteers on the ground, the Bernie Sanders campaign would need only contact these cells to mobilize a coherent and committed workforce. If Sanders cinched the nomination, these structures could lend themselves to the Democratic Party to carry the cause to the general election.
But Michael remained cautious about the support Sanders may or may not receive from them. Despite his group’s decentralized, grass roots origins, their ideology and political views could conceivably run up against the party establishment.
“Honestly I’m a bit worried what they would do if he was the nominee,” Michael said. “History hasn’t necessarily been kind to candidates like that. Back in 1972 with George McGovern. Many Democrats, many members of the national party, were openly not supporting him.”
While Michael said he isn’t positive it will come to that, he imagines the national party will have a say in how Muncie for Bernie Sanders would continue from that point onwards.
The Center for Middletown Studies formed to further research Muncie. The hope was to extend Muncie’s lessons to other post-industrial cities, the center’s director James Connolly said. From his office on the second floor of Bracken Library, he explained that Ball State largely skipped the protesting glory days of the 1960s.
“Protests [were] going on in Kent State, University of California; Ball State was still having panty raids and frat stuff,” he said. “There was very little of the political activity you saw elsewhere happening here. So it seems it was a pretty conservative, traditional place.”
James warned against breaking away too much from existing institutions. Gaining a platform is useful for awareness-based causes like the Civil Rights Movement, he said. Most anybody who wasn’t a determined racist only needed see the treatment of black Americans to know it was wrong. But activists of the past levied their attention on mainstream institutions as well.
“I think sometimes there’s a risk that you disengage so much with the regular institutions of politics, elections, legislation and so forth, that you will become frustrated and alienated,” he said. “It’s kind of a vicious circle. You’ll say, ‘Well I protested and nothing happened so things must be really terrible so I’m going to withdraw more from these institutions.'”
Whether big institutions help or hinder, they won’t be going away anytime soon. But digital technology and traditional activism have opened new doors for regular folks to organize themselves and articulate their goals. The construction of grassroots institutions is easier than it’s ever been, and activists are staking out their autonomy through the Internet.
Even though results may vary, modern-day activists are making use of low to no cost communication tools and tactics to establish themselves. From there they meet in the flesh to form and execute plans. By collaborating with other groups, they can build their own networks or join existing structures as it benefits them.
Branching out and leveling up has its trade-offs. The whims of a shifting political landscape could propel a true believer to the stars as easily as crushing them.