A Reflection on “Activism, Discourse, and [Secret] Identity with Amanda Werner”

Amanda Werner dressed as the Monopoly Man at Senate hearing
By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA
Editor’s Note: Amanda Werner changed their name to Ian Madrigal on November 5th.

You may not recognize them on the street, but if you keep up with the news you are likely familiar with the work of Amanda Werner, also known as the Monopoly Man. Though protesting at hearings for Wells Fargo and Equifax by acting as the Monopoly Man may be their most notable work, Werner has been the architect of a number of innovative and, as they put it, “theatrical,” activist efforts in recent years. On Thursday, November 1st, American University students had a chance to talk to them about the how’s and why’s of creative advocacy.

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Werner began by explaining their background as a self-described troublemaker, organizing their first protest at the age of 14. While their passion for protest continued to develop, they realized that to create effective change they needed to have tools on the inside of system as well, leading them to earn their JD from UCLA. Though they intended to focus on consumer law, they soon realized that their goals were more suited for the world of policy advocacy.

Werner believes creative activism is “particularly effective in this cultural moment” due to today’s focus on distraction and entertainment. To be effective, activism must mirror the current culture, which means that you must be able to pull attention to yourself and your cause and “force the reporters to cover you.”

Amanda Werner speaking to students
Credit: Alexandra Long

But once you have this attention, what’s the next step? Werner asserts that the key to creative advocacy is combining activism and theatrics in order to inspire hope and make change. The current presidential administration, they claimed, is quite good at the attention part of the process. President Trump is perhaps the most attention-grabbing politician in the recent history; however, there is no clear message in the actions. They compared it to watching a car crash: you can’t turn away, but there’s really no good reason to watch.

They also talked about the need to keep lightness and laughter in activism. Many movements tend to be very focused on anger and sadness, and sometimes that is completely warranted, but we should also use happiness and humor. Without this, they ask, how are we to maintain our humanity? But not all creativity has to look alike. Sometimes humor is the most practical, especially in our current political climate. But other times anger and sadness are more effective. “Disgust can be a compelling emotion,” they explained, and this sentiment is evident in the variety of protests they have organized.

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Of course, Werner discussed their biggest claim to fame, where they protested at the hearings of Wells Fargo and Equifax as the Monopoly Man. In particular, Werner was protesting the practice of “forced arbitration,” which is a contractual clause that essentially has people waive their right to sue, appeal, or participate in a class action suit and instead go to arbiters who tend to favor the companies. Though it’s a pretty technical term, Werner and their colleagues worked to make it more understandable by comparing it to Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card and handing out materials on the Hill of the same theme. Werner was then able to enter the hearing and sit in a place where cameras could capture their comical expressions – the twisting of their mustache and the wiping of their sweat with a hundred dollar bill – during the actual hearings.

By “cause-playing” and becoming a real-life meme, they were able to garner significant media attention and use this newfound spotlight to explain in comprehensible terms what forced arbitration was and why it was so important to end it. Because they were prepared and stuck to their points, they were able to effectively bring their message to a much wider audience. I found it particularly interesting that Amanda noted that even though they were in costume, they were actually afforded more privilege because the Monopoly Man is a rich white man and they looked “respectiable” in a twisted way.

Since the Monopoly Man, they noted that it has been hard to replicate the same hype but they have continued their work as a creative advocate. They engaged again in “cause-play” by dressing up as a Russian troll doll at the Mark Zuckerberg testimonies. Due to staging, the absurdity of the event itself (with Senators basically asking how the internet functions), and a more complex costume idea (a troll doll with Russian elements, which was less instantly recognizable than the Monopoly Man), it was more difficult for them to grab the same attention. Because they weren’t able to get into the spotlight at all, they were not able to use the same surprise factor that made the Monopoly Man so effective: being dressed up as an absurd character, but also being able to coherently explain their position.

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Moving on to a different approach, they talked about when they organized a protest of Kirstjen Nielsen eating at a Mexican restaurant in the midst of the family separations at the border. This time the theatrics were quite diferent, as they were fueled more by disgust and anger than humor. And even though this was an incredibly last-minute event, they were able to maintain a clear message and be effective in their efforts because the people involved were members of a Democratic Socialists group and well-versed in the art of protest. Werner discussed that there was a lot that could have gone wrong in this situation. Had one member of the group done something violent or said something in poor taste, the whole protest would have become responsible and the intended message diluted. But the group’s unity allowed them to avoid this, though they did unintentionally spark a larger conversation on what civility is in the political sphere.

The final experience they shared with us was another more serious example of creative activism. At the confirmation hearing for Kathy Kraninger as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Werner revived the Monopoly Man character. After the first half of the hearing, however, they thought the situation warranted a more serious, drastic approach. When the hearing resumed, they played the recently-released audio of children crying in a detention facility.

One of the cardinal rules of protesting in a hearing is that you cannot make noise. As such, Werner was prepared to be removed and even arrested for the cause because, as they explained, this was a situation where it made sense. Perhaps the absurdity of the Monopoly Man getting dragged out of a hearing would be even more effective in getting attention. But there were a number of things that went wrong; Werner discussed how most people didn’t notice what they were doing or didn’t recognize the audio, which was clear when they were neither removed or arrested from the hearing. They also spoke about “how hard it is to get arrested as a white person” and using that privilege effectively. Even though this might not have been as successful as some of their previous works, they still were able to learn more about what works and what doesn’t.

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Werner’s combined use of identity, opportunity, knowledge, and creativity to inspire people and make change was thought-provoking and encouraging. Their culture- and situation-based approach in combination with humor and purpose has made me really rethink my ideas around protest and what it means to be an effective activist. Theatrical advocacy allows us to have our message heard loud and clear while making complicated issues a little less tough and a little more human.

Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.

Weekly News Digest, No. 8

Welcome to the eighth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. Last week, the Project hosted Amanda Werner (better known as the Monopoly Man) for a conversation on activism and identity. Jason Steuerwald, a peer facilitator for the Project, wrote about the event, which I encourage you to read.

Common Ground

Drawing in her own experiences as a young girl, Tayari Jones writes about the fetishization of and misguided need to find common ground. There’s nothing inherently virtuous about meeting in the middle – a space which is not automatically safe, neutral, and civilized. Revisiting several points in American history, Jones asks the reader where the middle ground is: “Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? What is halfway between moral and immoral?”

Discourse in the Classroom

It can be challenging to lead and participate in discussions on contentious issues, especially for middle and high school students who aren’t familiar with what a productive discussion entails. Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, professor and former middle school teacher, outlines seven ways to teach civil discourse to students. Students should avoid personal attacks and come prepared, while educators should keep the discussion structured. Discussions should cover easier topics first, but educators shouldn’t be afraid to take politics and social movements head-on.

On a broader scale, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, writes that universities have a responsibility to protect free expression, inquiry, and fact-based discussion; promote diversity and inclusion; and respond to obfuscation, misinformation, and outright lies. This is, after all, part of a university’s mandate: “to expose falsehoods, to gain agreement on the facts of a matter, and to leverage those facts for better public policy.” Importantly, Roth notes this response is not a call for partisan, political indoctrination. Rather, it is a call to “preserve intellectual diversity and freedom of inquiry by standing up to the poisonous pollution of our public life.

Civility in Politics

Last week, WBUR’s On Point produced a program on civility in our nation’s political conversation. David Folkenflik hosted a variety of guests, from a write at the National Review to the mayor of Duluth, MN. Listen to the program (46:40) on WBUR’s website, iTunes, or Stitcher.

Hate Speech

Psychiatrist Richard Friedman recently wrote an op-ed about the neuroscience of hate speech in response to recent politically-movitated violence and anger. Citing several scholarly studies, Friedman writes that hate speech, which is becoming increasingly normalized, can increase prejudice and create stress, anger, and fear. President Trump has facilitated violence by dehumanizing those he dislikes and linking district of an out-group to anger.

Thanks for reading!