In its crusade to end police brutality, the October 22nd Coalition is ignoring the traditional model for disseminating a message.and it’s working.
When Iris Baez told me about the night the police killed her son, I understood how she could hold a room spellbound. Close to midnight on December 22, 1994, Anthony Baez and his three brothers were tossing around a football in the street outside his family’s home in the Bronx. The ball accidentally bounced off a parked police car, and that’s when the trouble began. Officer Francis Livoti, who already had 14 official complaints filed against him, stormed out of the car and promptly put Anthony in a chokehold. Baez’s brothers and father warned Livoti that Anthony suffered from asthma, but the enraged cop continued to hold Anthony until he passed out. Lying face down on the pavement with police kneeling on his back, Anthony was put in handcuffs, but he wouldn’t remember any of this because he never regained consciousness. He was 29.
Three years after this tragic incident, Physicians for Social Responsibility invited Iris to speak at a meeting the group was hosting in New York City. After Iris talked about her son’s murder, the invited guests – about twenty doctors and other concerned community members – viewed several public service announcements produced by the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation. One of the PSAs memorialized Anthony’s story, and the guests decided to “adopt” this spot. Money was collected specifically to purchase airtime on Black Entertainment Television (as opposed to simply submitting the PSA and hoping BET would choose to show it). This paid broadcast ensured that Anthony Baez’s story and the broader issue of police brutality would be brought to 250,000 households across America.
For the October 22nd Coalition, this was the birth of “Adopt-a-Spot,” an unconventional strategy for raising money and awareness. David Lindblom, the New York-based filmmaker who supervised production of the Baez PSA, told me that the approach was born of necessity. “There are two responses to police brutality,” Lindblom said. “One is from people who say, ‘Look: this is what I’m talking about. This happens to people like me all the time.’ And the other is from people who say, ‘I heard this happens but I don’t know the extent of it. I’ve never really talked to someone who’s been through it.’ We wanted to put these two groups together in the same room.” Letting these people meet would begin a public education process at a grassroots level, but the October 22nd Coalition also wanted to educate on a national scale – and that required money it didn’t have.
What the Coalition did have, however, was Lindblom and other talented artists who would donate their time. Operating on a shoestring budget, Lindblom and his colleagues produced over twenty PSAs featuring parents of the victims of police brutality, leaders of the African American and Hispanic community, and news clips catching police in horrific acts. The emotionally potent thirty-second spots asked viewers to send in stories about police brutality and to wear black on October 22nd, a national day of protest. Traditionally, public interest groups set their media budgets first and then produce their PSAs, but the Iris Baez meeting proved that the rules could be broken. Lindblom’s spots were a powerful draw – strong enough to attract the money needed to finance their broadcast.
Since that first meeting, the Coalition has launched similar Adopt-a-Spot campaigns in North Carolina, Chicago, and New York. According to managing director Katharine Lee, the meetings remain small (about 15 to 20 people), and the funds raised are similarly modest, but since the Coalition has negotiated extremely friendly rates with outlets such as BET, the PSAs are getting air time. The campaign has also attracted celebrity participation: Wyclef Jean (a Fugee at the time of his appearance) stars in a spot that has aired on MTV over 60 times. It is still difficult to quantify the impact these PSAs are having on public opinion, but their effect on the parents of the victims is unmistakable. Nicholas Heyward appeared in one spot to describe how his 13-year old son, Nicholas, Jr., was killed by a police officer while playing cops and robbers with his friends. After seeing the PSA for the first time, Heyward said, “I felt that I was helping not only my son, but a large variety of children and families who need to recognize this was an epidemic around the country.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that supporters of the October 22nd Coalition would turn the communications model upside-down. They have seen law-enforcers become law-breakers and have watched heart-breaking, unforgettable stories pass into history unnoticed. Their world is already upside-down. But I hope you won’t automatically conclude that their innovative Adopt-a-Spot strategy is suited to them alone. Donors like to know precisely what their dollars will do, and Adopt-a-Spot appeals to this desire. The grassroots meetings offer an opportunity to engage your supporters at one level while preparing for wider outreach at another. If you have finished PSAs (for TV or radio), print ads, or even direct mail pieces that could touch more people if only you had a few more dollars, perhaps it’s time to put some of them up for adoption.
At a loss for words? Make ’em up.
That’s what I did recently when I was searching for just the right word to describe someone who was neither technophile nor technophobe but saw both the positive and negative aspects to the ever-accelerating advance of science. After much consideration, I’ve settled on technostic, as in, “George believed genetic-engineering would solve all our problems, but Rebecca remained technostic.” Please feel free to use as needed.