Last year, a coalition of Latino/a groups successfully fought to remove anti-immigrant pundit Lou Dobbs from CNN. Political Research Associates Executive Director Tarso Luís Ramos spoke to Presente.org co-founder Roberto Lovato to find out how they did it.
Tarso Luís Ramos: Tell me about your organization, Presente.org.
Roberto Lovato: Presente.org, which I co-founded in May 2009, is the preeminent online Latino advocacy organization. It’s kind of like a MoveOn.org for Latinos: its goal is to build Latino power through online and offline organizing. Presente started in May 2009, with a campaign to persuade Governor Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania to take a stand against the verdict in the case of Luis Ramírez, an undocumented immigrant who was killed in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and whose assailants were acquitted by an all-white jury. We also ran a campaign to support the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court—we produced an “I Stand with Sotomayor” logo and poster that people could display at work or in their neighborhoods and post on their facebook pages—and a few additional, smaller campaigns, but really the one that put us on the map was the Basta Dobbs [“Enough with Dobbs”] campaign.
TLR: Of all the anti-immigrant individuals, organizations, and media pundits out there, why did you decide to target Lou Dobbs?
RL: Lou Dobbs probably had the broadest reach of any anti-immigrant pundit in the United States. Every day at 7:00 pm, prime time, on CNN, he would spout anti-immigrant sentiments and provide a platform for the most extreme elements, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform [FAIR] and the vigilante Minutemen organization, whose members were responsible for killing Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia during a home invasion in May 2009.
CNN has aspirations of being a serious news organization, and most people there really resented being affiliated with a network that was showcasing Lou Dobbs. We also had some internal intelligence from people at CNN telling us that the network was concerned about a drop in Dobbs’s ratings.
TLR: What was your personal interest in this?
RL: I’m a journalist, and I came out of retirement as an organizer to do this campaign. During the 1994 campaign against California’s anti-immigrant ballot initiative, Proposition 187, I was the head of the country’s largest immigrant-rights organization, in Los Angeles—the Central American Resource Center, CARECEN. So I know who’s who in the immigrant-rights movement. [Proposition 187 passed but was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court.]
I took on this campaign for a few reasons. First, I wanted to get Lou Dobbs out. Our campaign called him the most dangerous man for Latinos in the United States. He had a website, a radio show, columns, public appearances, books—a multimedia empire dedicated to the hatred of immigrants and Latinos. We had to do something, if only for our own self-respect.
Number two, it was important to show how to win. You don’t build movements without victories.
Number three, I wanted to complement the organizing that was being done online. If you’re only online, you’re bloodless. Organizing in many ways is about linking personal, cultural, and other narratives to the larger political narratives of our time. Stories are what move people. As a writer and organizer I’m ecstatic when I see two things that I love to do—strategy and storytelling—combined. I mean, they have always been combined—look at the Zapatistas—but I never saw it as clearly as I do now. The Basta Dobbs campaign was a great story—a community rising up to defend itself against a powerful media adversary. It’s the combination of online and on-the-ground organizing that will become the central mode of organizing in our time.
TLR: Any other reasons for targeting Dobbs and CNN?
RL: During the campaign, people would tell me, “Yo siento mucho ódio hacia Lou Dobbs” – “I feel a lot of hatred for Lou Dobbs.” But I would say, “We have to work not from a place of hatred but from a place where we love ourselves enough to say, ‘Stop! Ya basta! No more!’” It’s like that moment when a woman who’s being abused steps up and says, “I love myself enough to protect myself from abuse’”—and her life changes. Our campaign had everything to do with love.
TLR: Others also targeted Dobbs. How did Basta Dobbs relate to those campaigns?
RL: Sure, other groups had tried it, but they weren’t national, they weren’t online, and they didn’t really have a broad strategy. They threatened a boycott, but they never fulfilled that promise. If you make a threat and don’t back it up, you’re doing us all harm.
A couple of campaigns—one called Drop Dobbs and another called Enough is Enough, organized by Democracia USA—were launched at the same time as ours, and there was some level of coordination. But, we were the only one that focused on organizing the people most affected by Lou Dobbs: Spanish-speaking immigrants. If you don’t reach out to the people most affected, what kind of an impact can you have?
So, we stayed very focused. Our group’s confluence of strategy, skills, intelligence, passion, and disposition to fight not only contributed to the demise of Lou Dobbs but also defeated one of the most powerful media companies on earth. Because at the end of the day, our target was not Lou Dobbs; it was CNN. That was another big difference between Basta Dobbs and other campaigns.
TLR: What are the most dangerous lies Dobbs told about immigrants?
RL: Where do I start? Lou Dobbs explained all kinds of social problems by pointing at immigrants. He claimed that one of every three people in the U.S. prison system is an immigrant—a fabrication. On the Democracy Now! television and radio show, the host, Amy Goodman, confronted Dobbs with the fact that fewer than six percent of prisoners are immigrants, and even fewer are undocumented. [Dobbs responded that he “misspoke,” and that he was speaking only of federal prisons.] He’s said immigrants are responsible for a rise in leprosy in the United States. That’s something anybody with access to the Centers for Disease Control website could show is a total fabrication.
Anti-immigrant groups like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform [FAIR] have invested a lot of money to create a cultural meme that equates “immigrant” with “criminal,” a falsehood that Dobbs promoted. When he wasn’t doing it himself, he brought on groups such as FAIR or the Minutemen to lie for him. Actually, that may be his biggest and most dangerous lie: giving these groups a national media platform, as if they had some expertise, as if they were anything but the bearers of marginal, extremist, dangerous messages.
TLR: What was the Basta Dobbs campaign strategy?
RL: From the beginning we knew we were going to target CNN, and we actually opened up a front inside of CNN. We had the audacity, the ambition, and the ability to develop networks of journalists and other sources to gather information about CNN and Lou Dobbs’s position there. We got a lot of inteligencia popular, popular intelligence, from CNN employees.
The decision to let go of Dobbs was up to CNN President Jon Klein, so we knew he was the one we had to go after, more than we were going after Lou Dobbs. At one point during the campaign Klein told someone close to him—and to us—that he felt like he was being surveilled or that there was a leak of information. And he was right.
At the center of our strategy was online organizing and getting people to use their computers, cell phones, video, and social networks to become politically engaged. Something like ninety percent of the population has a cell phone. When everybody has a movie house, television set, computer, Internet, and a radio in their pocket—and that’s only going to grow—you have an opportunity to organize and tell stories like never before.
TLR: I’m recording this interview on my cell phone.
RL: Exactly—it’s a new era. But alongside of the online organizing, you still have to deal with people in the streets. Some people think, “Now that there is online organizing, we don’t need to do offline organizing”—a stupid and dangerous idea if ever there was one! We worked with groups that had a base offline to complement our work.
Another component of our campaign was public relations. I appeared on Spanish-language radio and television all over the United States. We live in a media age, and the private media is no less predisposed to censorship than a totalitarian state is. It is not going to put out your message for you, especially when you’re criticizing it.
I believe the media promotes violence against women and, in the case of Lou Dobbs, against entire communities. And one of the great pleasures of the campaign for me was being able to plant a little seed of disruption to the cultural system behind the violence.
TLR: How did you put your strategy into action?
RL: Initially, we planned to create a credible threat, in the form of 100,000 signatures on a petition, which would allow us to target advertisers—just as our sister-organization Color of Change did last year, when it successfully persuaded companies like Wal-Mart, CVS, and Best Buy to pull their ads from the Glenn Beck show. We had reached the magic number of 100,000 when Dobbs was ousted.
We knew, and CNN knows, that in the future, no media company will survive without capturing a segment of the 50 million-strong Latino market. So, a major tactic was to threaten the CNN brand. The network was previewing its Latino in America documentary, hosted by Soledad O’Brien, in cities around the country. We organized in the top 25 Latino cities in the United States, and everywhere the show went, we’d give it a “welcome.” CNN realized that it was going to be trashed on a regular basis—daily if possible. The network sent cameras to many of the cities where we mobilized, but the demonstrations never appeared on any CNN program. CNN people told me that the network was trying to figure out how massive and effective our movement was.
Organizing in the streets matters as much as ever. Your adversaries won’t tell you that they’re watching you, but they are. They care because their brand is being crushed with every step that you march.
We were also planning to hit CNN beyond U.S. borders. We were ready to launch Basta Dobbs en América Latina in ten Latin American countries on November 13th, but Dobbs was fired on the 12th. We had been in discussions with partners in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries. We’d also been in discussions with Latin American media outlets. They were hungry to go after CNN, because it’s the number-one network in Latin America—their primary competitor. So we would have received massive coverage in Latin America along with support on the ground in what would have become a hemispheric fight between U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans, on the one hand, and one of the most powerful media companies on the planet, on the other.
I really regret that we didn’t get to do that. Increasingly, our adversaries on any given issue are of a global nature—global corporations. Let’s not even mention BP! If you’re going to take on a global adversary it makes strategic sense to mount a global or at least a hemispheric campaign.
TLR: Was CNN aware of your plans?
RL: At the end it was. I don’t know if that was the deciding factor, and Basta Dobbs can’t take total credit. There were the other campaigns, the internal discontent at CNN, and Dobbs’s drop in ratings. But we knew that our pressure helped CNN President Jon Klein make the right decision.
TLR: What was the campaign’s relationship with its organizing partners and to what extent did Presente build its own base over the course of the campaign?
RL: Basta Dobbs was a unique coalition of immigrant-rights organizations from across the United States—the Florida Immigrant Coalition, the Dolores Street Mission, Derechos Humanos, Centro Presente, and others—and media justice groups like Magnet, New Mexico Media and Literacy Project, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. At the local level these groups provided spokespeople, ideas, access, and people power. Also, a bunch of bloggers were posting regularly about our issues and hitting their audiences.
We got support from Latino groups like the Willie Velasquez Institute, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Latino Policy Institute, and we got solidarity from non-Latino groups like AlterNet, Credo Mobile, MoveOn, Democrats.com, and Color of Change.
Also important were our friends in the media, especially inside CNN. Lou Dobbs made a lot of enemies.
TLR: Any particularly unusual partners in your coalition?
RL: We got a call from a mostly Latina troop of Girl Scouts who said they were ready to march from their home in southern Georgia to Atlanta, to take it to CNN. We were gearing up to do that when the campaign ended. Maybe that’s really what caused the demise of Lou Dobbs—the invincible force of the Girl Scouts!
TLR: What about the people who signed the Basta Dobbs petition—were they newly activated or had they been involved in other campaigns?
RL: I don’t have statistics, but I have an anecdotal sense about the tens of thousands of people who signed on via text messaging: the majority had probably never been organized before—on- or offline. They were working people, Spanish-speaking immigrants.
When I would appear on Spanish-language radio, we would run a public service announcement. All we had to do was let Lou Dobbs speak. That was the beauty of our campaign. We gave Lou Dobbs the platform to do what he does best: hate! Then I’d get on and say, “Okay, if you don’t like what he’s saying, and you want to do something about it, take out your telephone, text 30644 with the word “Basta,” and deliver a jab to the ribs of Lou Dobbs and CNN.” Each time, we would get between 500 and 1,000 people messaging. That gives you some sense of that disposition to fight, that spirit. You also saw it in people’s willingness to come out and march in 25 different cities.
TLR: Presente’s public service announcements implied that Lou Dobbs was morally responsible for anti-immigrant violence such as the Minuteman killings. How did CNN react to that?
RL: We attached CNN’s brand to the hateful speech of Lou Dobbs. We said that as long as CNN continued to employ someone who was telling dangerous lies, and promoting hate groups and ultimately violence against Latinos and immigrants, the red in the CNN logo would stand for blood, which was staining “the most trusted name in news.” We didn’t even have to make the case. Lou Dobbs made it himself. All we had to do was connect the dots. It was an easy campaign at that level: Lou Dobbs was the gift that kept on giving.
CNN’s own personnel were complaining, and their complaints were amplified by an external echo chamber. The combination of internal and external pressure made the life of Jon Klein impossible. Klein may never admit that Basta Dobbs had any part in his decision to get rid of Lou Dobbs, but he knows in his heart of hearts that we forced him to confront the issues of Dobbs’s hate speech and promotion of violence.
TLR: Dobbs is not the only high-profile media figure to contribute to a climate in which acts of violence against targeted communities become more probable. I’m mindful of Bill O’Reilly’s recurrent “Tiller the baby killer” refrain in the months preceding the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the country who provided late-term abortions. Still, as you point out, the situation with Dobbs at CNN was different from that of the anchors at Fox, because CNN was concerned about maintaining its image as a reputable news organization. So, are any of the lessons from your campaign applicable to other situations?
RL: The principles of organizing, of political warfare, apply in all situations. You have to align your resources, human and otherwise, with your ultimate objectives. You have to disarm your adversaries to the degree possible—or even better, to make them disarm themselves, from within. But the primary factor in war, politics, and love is spiritual. By spiritual, I mean the psychological, the emotional, the aspirational—the things that help us deal with fear. We need to stir peoples’ passions. Just look at the United States in Iraq and in Vietnam. Throughout history, even the most powerful militaries have been defeated by highly motivated forces.
The immigrant-rights movement should really think about that. Look at the condition of immigration policy right now, with Barack Obama and the Democrats becoming even more aggressive and right wing. Obama is militarizing the border; Homeland Security is targeting immigrants with increasing fervor and continued impunity—and yet Washington, D.C.-based immigration groups are still largely uncritical of Obama. Their decision to bring immigrant rights under the control of the Democratic Party has had a devastating effect on the morale of our communities, which have not been allowed to unleash the power we saw on May 1, 2006—the largest simultaneous marches in U.S. history! The groups in D.C. had pretty much nothing to do with those massive marches. Yet, in the media, the Washington groups are asked to speak for that insurgent energy—not because of any moral authority or supreme leadership ability, but because of their financial authority and media access.
The Washington groups promoting comprehensive immigration reform have spent tens of millions of dollars—perhaps hundreds of millions—yet they’ve failed to energize the movement in a way that could bring us victory. We can’t just blame the Republicans for obstructing legislation. There’s no excuse, and this is a mission-critical issue. We have to win. I’d like to see a change of heart. Recently, some of the D.C. leaders were arrested for civil disobedience. That’s a positive development.
A lot depends on foundations. I challenge them to evaluate the results of the tens of millions they’ve invested inside the Beltway. I challenge them to reconsider and start spending some of that money elsewhere. There’s a lot of talent, ability, and even political genius out there, and I encourage our friends in philanthropy to start distributing money to grassroots immigrant and media-justice groups.
TLR: Where did Presente get its funding for Basta Dobbs?
RL: When you build an online organization like MoveOn, with a massive list, you don’t have to depend on anybody except your members. That’s where Presente has to go. We receive funding from our members and private individuals; we’re just now starting to get a little foundation support.
TLR: How much did Basta Dobbs cost?
RL: I don’t know precisely, but I can tell you it didn’t cost a million. It didn’t cost half a million. It didn’t cost all that much for what we got. Small, tightly focused organizations with clear strategies often more efficiently deploy resources and are better investments than organizations with massive infrastructures, multiple issues, and rudderless direction.
TLR: Are grassroots campaigns like Basta Dobbs and comprehensive immigration reform complementary, or are they pulling the immigrant-rights movement in different strategic directions?
RL: The anti-Dobbs campaign provided a victory to a movement that, thanks to failed leadership, had been stuck in a profoundly defensive and dangerous position. Basta Dobbs created a channel for the expression of frustration, anger, and aspiration for a new direction. In so doing we delivered a devastating blow to the anti-immigrant organizations in this country—FAIR and the others—who in Lou Dobbs had had a daily platform for their hateful messages and their lies.
The beyond-the-Beltway groups in the network that Basta Dobbs mobilized are not necessarily part of the current comprehensive immigration-reform coalition. Reform is failing right now. If you read immigration-reform proposals you’ll find that out of 800 pages or so, fewer than 100 are about legalization; the other 700 are about prosecution, incarceration, deportation, border militarization, and so on. This is a bad bargain for immigrants.
TLR: Since Dobbs was dislodged from CNN, the situation for immigrants in this county has arguably worsened, with the passage of Arizona’s SB1070 being the clearest indicator. What’s next for Presente, and what lessons and resources from the Basta Dobbs campaign will it bring to the broader struggle?
RL: I don’t have all the answers to that. Right now Presente is supporting the Trail of Dreams. We’re providing media and strategy support to four undocumented students—Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, and Juan Rodriguez—who walked from Miami, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to educate people about the importance of passing the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who complete a college degree or two years of military service. In April, another group of six undocumented students began a second walk, from New York City.
All these students are heroic figures. The original Dream walkers met with President Obama on June 16 to demand that he issue an executive order stopping deportations of Dream Act-eligible students. Depending on his response, we’ll either celebrate another major victory for the immigrant rights movement, or we will have to push harder, this time not against Lou Dobbs but against the president of the United States, the commander in chief of the war on immigrants.
As the head of the government, Obama has the final authority over the activities of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He’s made no statement about the cold-blooded murder of fourteen-year-old Sergio Hernandez by a U.S. Border Patrol agent outside Ciudad Juarez on June 7th. He’s been silent about human-rights violations by ICE, the most militarized component of the federal government except for the Pentagon. When ICE terrorizes adults and children in its raids, it’s ultimately President Obama—not Arizona Governor Janice Brewer or Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who is responsible. Across the United States, the flood of trauma that is destroying the lives of immigrants is ultimately caused by President Obama. Presente is planning a campaign to educate the larger community about this, in conjunction with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
TLR: Are you working on SB1070, the Arizona law that encourages the racial profiling of Latinos as suspected criminals?
RL: SB1070 must be defeated at all costs. There are a lot of actors involved in fighting it. We thought we could make a contribution by doing what other communities have done around race issues in Arizona, which is to get a major sports event to pull out. [When Arizona rescinded Martin Luther King Day in 1991, the National Football League moved the 1993 Super Bowl site from Phoenix to Pasadena, California.] Presente has started a campaign to persuade Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to pull the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona. In one week we gathered 100,000 signatures, and about a million people have signed up on Facebook. There have been actions in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco. So far, Selig has simply pointed to the racial diversity of Major League Baseball as a reflection of his commitment to civil rights. Still, we’re confident that we’ll persuade him to do the right thing, just as we persuaded Jon Klein to do the right thing.