The movement (and concert) against that damn awful free trade agreement comes to Boston
We don’t typically cover international politics at DigBoston. Frankly, we have visited cities in which the alternative publication deems itself credible enough on global issues to drop embarrassing perspective pieces based on little more than the writer’s semester abroad hanging out with other American students, and it just makes everyone look silly. With that said, these are interesting times we live in, and so we were compelled to shine much light on Rock Against the TPP, a national tour raising awareness about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The protest party rolls through Boston on October 7, and features acts including progressive rap stalwarts Foundation Movement, beloved Ethiopian pop outfit Debo Band, and Brooklyn-based indie musician Mirah.
But what is the TPP anyway? In short, it’s a so-called free trade deal that would further empower some of the planet’s most deplorable companies and industries—polluters, union breakers, you name it—to operate with even less regard for human and labor rights. As the deal has become a hot topic from campuses to the presidential debate stage, we figured that readers may want to know more. Fortunately, one of the key organizers behind Rock Against the TPP is Jamaica Plain-based musician and organizer Evan Greer, whose work as campaign director for the organization Fight For The Future helped bring the tour to life. We asked Greer about how this coalition of performers and activists is increasingly turning a nation against an obscure Beltway back room agreement.
DB: Is it fair to say that TPP has become a front-and-center issue from people talking about it and bringing it up over and over?
EG: Generally speaking, awareness-raising is sometimes given too much credit in social movements. Like that’s all we have to do—if we tell enough people about this bad thing, it will all just go away. And for the most part I think that’s usually not true. I think we need to have strategic action and to actually have a plan for how we’re going to leverage that awareness into action. With the TPP, on the other hand, I think the biggest problem facing those of us who are trying to stop this power grab is that not enough people know what it is because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the negotiation.
I can’t remember the last time that young people were talking about a trade deal.
For me, I was trying to figure out, What’s the way to reverse that? What’s the way to get lots and lots of people talking about this? I think we’ve been very successful with that, not just as a tour but as a movement, taking this from an issue that was only discussed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and some insider DC magazine to being something that’s now talked about all over TV and at the playground and at the park and in coffee shops and in Rolling Stone. That’s the type of shift that we needed to see on this, and the fact that that has happened, now we’re at a point where both major presidential candidates say that they’re against it, and it’s uncool to be in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at this time. To see that shift in a fairly short period of time has been inspiring for me as an organizer, to recognize the power that cultural influencers have over the narrative. Especially in this day and age of the internet, where we can have these events, and let’s say a thousand people come out, but then the video from the event can be seen by [hundreds of thousands] of people over the next matter of days. The impacts of these things are greater than they ever were before. It’s not like we’re doing something that’s never been done, but we’re optimizing it in a way that we weren’t able to in the past.
What was the genesis of this? Who decided that a national tour of sorts was in order?
We at Fight For The Future had been involved in the fight around the TPP since what’s called fast-track legislation, which is basically a law that Congress has to pass to rush these trade agreements through with a simple up or down vote rather than having there be meaningful debate or amendments. That did pass after a long and bloody fight, but for us we were looking at the polling, which said that once they learn about this agreement, people from across the political spectrum—whether Democrats, Republicans, independents, doesn’t matter—overwhelmingly oppose it. But many people couldn’t tell you what the acronym meant, didn’t know what it was. And so for myself, as someone who has spent a lot of my life using music as a tool for engaging people into action, it made me say, “We need to do something bigger here than just another petition drive and more phone calls. We need to do something that’s going to push this into the cultural mainstream and reach huge numbers of people who we haven’t been able to reach yet through traditional forms of activism.” I reached out to my friend Ryan Harvey, who started a record label with Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, and said we have to make this the most infamous trade deal in all of history. How do we do it? We brainstormed this idea for a tour, and started inviting artists we have worked with over the years. And quickly we saw an incredible lineup of artists coming out of the woodwork to sound the alarm about this corporate power grab that’s disguised as a trade deal.
Who were some who surprised you by coming out of the woodwork?
Over the tour I’ve gotten to know Evangeline Lilly, who is an actress who is probably best known for her role as Kate Austen on the TV series Lost. And she was in The Hobbit, and The Hurt Locker, and Ant-Man. And I think it’s been amazing for her to have a platform—she’s such an activist, and she’s such a passionate person. And her fans really care about what she has to say. These people who come out because they love her in The Hobbit are put in a position where they can’t help but get involved in the activism. The same folks showing up at the teach-in the next day was really powerful for me. Another cool tidbit was when we were in Seattle, we had a packed show, and one of the managers of the venue came up to me and said, “If you want another comedian on the bill, this guy Eric Andre just called, and he would like to do 10 minutes.” He’s a big-time comedian right now, and he just showed up, and the audience went nuts. That type of thing is amazing. When we get to that momentum, it’s not, “How many celebrities can we stack up?” But that there are artists and creative people who care so deeply about this themselves that they’re jumping in and taking the lead. That really changes things, and that’s when we see these issues start permeating the cultural mainstream, which is where I think we need to be as we approach a very likely vote on [the TPP] in Congress after the election this fall. We need it to be something everyone is talking about—not just people who watch Washington, DC like a hawk and are political junkies.
Celebrities definitely take a lot of flack for supporting causes, but they also see a lot more of the country than your average person. And the world. How does that translate to giving a shit about an issue like this one?
I do think creative people have an important voice to add to these discussions. These folks aren’t just showing up and being like, “Oh yeah, I’m so and so, where’s my mic?” They show up well-versed in the issue, really having a lot to say about it. And a lot of them having personal stories. We released a video after the first tour stop where Tom Morello was talking about the small town in Illinois where he grew up, which was hard-hit by previous trade deals and went from having a lot of good union jobs to join the Army or you’re homeless. The fact that so many of these musicians have such a deep connection to this as a personal issue does make a big difference in how these events feel. They don’t feel like a typical telethon or parade of talking heads to raise money for something. It feels like incredibly powerful voices coming together for a cause, and I think people can tell the difference.
How have the shows taken on a regionally-specific flavor, and what are we to expect in Boston?
In each city we have a local organizing coalition that comes together to make the event happen in conjunction with all of the national groups that are helping put the tour on. So in each area we try and highlight local voices for people who will speak directly to how this is going to impact our community. For example, out in Colorado we had someone who is a rancher talking about how [the TPP] is going to affect ranchers, which is new information to me. And out in the Northwest we had people from the indigenous communities speaking about how it was going to impact their lives and their ability to survive. So here in Boston we’ll be highlighting folks from local community groups. It’s important to recognize that these trade deals affect everyone regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. Unless you’re the CEO of a multinational corporation, you can find something to not like about them. These deals are going to come down the hardest on the most marginalized members of our community, so people of color, LGBTQ people, low-income folks. They’re going to be the hardest hit by the special privileges that these deals are handing to corporations that allow them to undermine our basic human rights.
What are you asking people to do after the shows? What’s the takeaway?
At each event, we’re asking people to come out the next day for a teach-in. People who maybe just learned a little about the issue at the show can come out and get more information and learn about other ways to get involved. Massachusetts is an important stop—we have two members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that have not yet stated a position on the TPP. That’s Representative Joe Kennedy and Representative Seth Moulton. The local groups here have already been organizing actions and delegations and petition deliveries to call for those members of Congress to openly oppose the TPP, and the energy coming out of this concert will feed into those efforts.
Check out Rock Against the TPP for free at Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain this Friday, October 7, from 6pm to 10pm. Featuring Mirah, Foundation Movement, Debo Band, and more. Information on the October 8 teach-in will be available at the show. For more info visit rockagainstthetpp.org.