Cutting through the noise

Activist groups planned unique strategies in order to be heard at Republican debate

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Matt Cortina

The number of protesters planning to show up to CNBC’s GOP presidential debate at the University of Colorado Boulder on Wednesday, Oct. 28 meant that activist groups had to find a way to stand out from the crowd to get their messages heard. One way to do that is with spooky giant papier-mâché puppets of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

The puppets were symbolic of the relationship between the Koch brothers and the Republican Party, says Amy Runyon-Harms, executive director of ProgressNow, the advocacy group that made the puppets.

“It’s a message about [the Koch brothers] to the masses. We want people to understand who is calling the shots,” said Runyon-Harms. “It’s a fun way to get the message across, and it’s educational as well.”

On Tuesday, ProgressNow members unloaded the giant dolls from a U-haul truck in the parking lot outside the University Memorial Center on the CU campus. The puppets were hooked onto the shoulders of two volunteers, and the group then began a daylong walk around campus and downtown Boulder. They stopped to take photos with curious passers-by, who looked generally amused by the display. The process was repeated on Wednesday.

Overhead on both days, there was a banner flying from a prop plane that highlighted the Republican Party’s “Koch problem.”

“We really wanted to highlight how out of touch Republicans are with mainstream Coloradans on almost every issue,” Runyon-Harms says.

The two displays represent a more light-hearted approach to the protestations at the Republican debate. And to be sure, a lot of groups had to formulate unique approaches. As of press time, several student groups, a coalition of people against gun violence, some members of Black Lives Matter, a cadre of Latino cultural leaders, Fossil Free CU and more had all gone through the process of figuring out the best way to spread their messages.

Federico Peña, the former mayor of Denver and U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Energy, said on Tuesday that he hoped to see several thousand people from all walks of life show up to Farrand Field at CU for a rally against the anti-immigrant rhetoric heard from some Republican candidates and to launch a voter registration campaign called “My Country, My Vote,” a play on the debate’s name, “Your Money, Your Vote.” Peña says the rally would “stand alone” against the backdrop of all the other protesters.

“We’re going to have a stage, and we’ve taken care of all the logistical necessities. It’s going to be professionally held. We have a list of extraordinary guests,” Peña says. “Hopefully we’ll get the right kind of attention. We’ve already received one call from a Japanese TV station.”

The list of speakers who were booked for the rally represents the variety of cultures, professions and ages that care about Latino and immigrant rights. Those speakers included Katherine Archuleta, the 2012 political director for Obama for America; Marco Dorado, a DREAMer and graduate of CU; Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union; and actor Esai Morales, among others.

Peña says they chose the Republican debate to launch their voter registration program, which intends to register as many as 50,000 documented Latino and immigrant voters in Colorado in the next 12 months, because it’s a huge platform and because GOP rhetoric specifically calls out the Latino community.

“I was disappointed that there has not been a large public pushback anywhere in the country against this rhetoric we have been hearing for several months now,” says Peña. “I’ve been thinking we in Colorado are much better than this. We should lead.

“Anybody running for office will know you cannot be elected if you offend the Hispanic community.”

Peña says it was important to plan a professional, orchestrated rally in order to provide a credible foundation from which to spread their message. That approach differs from groups like Black Lives Matter, whose assertive protests have drawn national attention. The group decided not to have a formal presence at the debate, but did send members to protest.

“With all eyes on tonight’s debate and the protests surrounding it, we hope the candidates present will hear the masses and go beyond the predictable rhetoric,” the Denver chapter of the group said in a statement to Boulder Weekly.

A group of survivors of the recent attacks at an Aurora movie theater and at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut also protested the debate. They are members of the Everytown Survivor Network, and together with the Colorado chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, they rallied in support of stricter gun laws to combat the 88 deaths from gun violence that happen in the U.S. every day.

The student group Fossil Free CU marched from downtown Boulder, where they started the day with legal and protest training alongside music and festivities. The march route was planned to bring them to the campus to join others protesting on subjects such as climate change, healthcare, immigration, minority rights and more in the GOP debate.

Morgan Shimabuku, core team member of Fossil Free CU, told BW on Tuesday their protest would be effective because of the dozen or so groups from the campus and around the state with whom they collaborated to plan the rally.

“I think that our strength is going to be one in numbers,” Shimabuku says. “We’re expecting upwards of 1,000 for our group, because we are focusing on such a wide range of topics. We have a very large stake in the future of our country.

“Our focus on this message is to really bring the topic to the national scene, not so much the Republican Party,” she says. “We are using the Party’s event to bring these issues up.”

Students — some with Fossil Free CU but also other groups — also protested their inability to enter the debate. Only 150 tickets were made available to students, faculty and university board members (only 100 went to students.) The well-documented controversy around this issue is that the debate, which was held in the 11,000-seat Coors Event Center, did not attempt accommodate the Boulder and CU community, allowing only 1,000 people into the event, mostly Republicans. In response, The gro up Student Voices Count planned to hold a live broadcast and discussion during the debate outside the University Club at CU.

If there’s one thing we might be able to learn in the wake of the GOP debate at CU, it’s likely not anything that was said by a Republican onstage, but what was said outside and around Boulder, and who said it best.