ColorofChange.org came up with a strategy. It would start by meeting face-to-face with corporations to explain to them why their participation in ALEC was troublesome. Some companies made the case, said Robinson, that they were simply dedicated to making sure all viewpoints were represented in public debates. "There's no two sides to black people voting," Robinson said he and his organizers countered. But always present was the cudgel: the tremendous public attention that ColorofChange.org could bring to bear with a few clicks. The group claims a membership of some 900,000 people.
Robinson recalls one meeting with an executive from Kraft. "I told him there are a lot of ways we can elevate this issue," said Robinson, laughing. "Black people buy a lot of macaroni and cheese."
"As we got closer, we showed them the website that would go live if they didn't pull out. That helped them understand that we were escalating these conversations from, 'Let's have a conversation about ALEC because we think you should be making a different choice' to 'We're going to launch a public campaign if you don't make a different choice.'" Those not familiar with ColorofChange.org, Robinson said, could Google the group and read all about its role in getting Glenn Beck off the air.
For months, things rolled along that way. Pepsi dropped out of ALEC. ColorofChange.org used that move to try to persuade Coca-Cola.
In January, the push against ALEC got a small bump when Republican Florida state Rep. Rachel Burgin submitted a bill calling for the federal government to cut corporate tax rates. Burgin had forgotten to strip the ALEC boilerplate from its top. Whereas, it read, "it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council," so on and so forth. Burgin yanked the bill back a day later, but it was too late. Common Cause researcher Nick Surgey posted about it on the organization's blog. It got picked up in social media and joked about on cable news.
Then, on Feb. 26, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot.
As Matt Stempeck, a researcher at MIT's Center for Civic Media recently detailed, the work of getting attention for Martin's case has been multipronged. The Martin family attorney approached the task with savvy, bringing Al Sharpton down to Florida to talk about the lack of charges against Martin's shooter. Martin's parents became vocal advocates, pushing law enforcement to bring charges in the case. A petition also went up on Change.org, the social organizing platform. Started in 2007, Change.org has gone through many permutations, cycling through being a fundraising hub and editorial hub before landing on being a straightforward petition platform.
But, as Stempeck describes, Change.org also has a not-so-secret weapon: It has hired some (some say all) of the best progressive online organizers in the business to help would-be petitioners figure out how to craft their petitions and whom to target with them. Here, it was the Sanford chief of police, the state's attorney in Florida's 4th District, Florida's attorney general, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Change.org also worked on Twitter to get celebrities engaged on Martin's behalf, prompting bold-faced names like Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, and Mia Farrow to tweet about the case. Then the police tapes came out, revealing more about the encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman, driving even more social media and generating more traction for the petition.
As it grew to some 2 million signatures, the Change.org petition gave tweeters and Facebookers what they have been proven to crave: something active to link to. That online swell gave mainstream media a hook for a story of the death of one Florida teenager that was now weeks old.
But this wasn't just about Trayvon Martin. It has proven difficult to pinpoint how, exactly, it happened, but at some point the discussion pulled back from just Martin to the "Stand Your Ground" law that seemed to have let Zimmerman go home that night. Upon examination, it turned out that this wasn't just Florida; Stand Your Ground had passed in recent years elsewhere. "There was a mystery that many people encountered," said Graves. "How did this bill become a law in so many states? How does a bill that seems to immunize a shooter from even getting before a jury end up introduced across the country?"
"As they connect the dots," she explained, "they see more and more dots." As it turned out, the traditional 'Castle doctrine' under U.S. law had been expanded in Ohio, in North Carolina, in Texas -- all in all, more than two dozen states.