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.

A Reflection on “A Conversation with Garrett Epps”

Garrett Epps speaking in front of students at Kay
By Liam Carbutt, AU CAS

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps led a conversation about the complexities and burdens of free speech in the diverse and largely unequal society that we live in. Epps is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. He has written and taught about constitutional law and the structure of the Supreme Court for many years. Epps spoke at the Kay Spiritual Center, which was packed with students and faculty.

From the start, Professor Epps made it clear that he wanted the event to be a dialogue, not a lecture. Although he sat on stage throughout the event, he made a point to make time for questions from the audience at all times, even leaving the stage to approach students in the back whom he could not hear. Professor Epps facilitated the conversation in a way that allowed for a diversity of voices to rise up and challenge his ideas, which was the central focus of the conversation itself. Professor Epps made it clear that any discussion about free speech must take place on equal footing and he put this into practice in the way he was intentional about sharing the mic and listening to others throughout the event.

One of the central points that Professor Epps explored throughout the dialogue was the power that speech has to affect relationships within society. According to Epps, speech can be used for anything from inciting violence at rallies to systematically dehumanizing or marginalizing groups of people through mass media and propaganda. Alternatively, speech can also be used to create equity and build a more just society. Professor Epps emphasized that speech is a powerful instrument to change the attitudes and outlooks of listeners.

Additionally, Professor Epps asserted that both the context of the speech and the social position of the speaker are highly relevant to the power that speech ultimately holds. It is undeniable that some speakers are able to appeal to a larger audience with greater influence based on arbitrary characteristics like race, wealth, or high economic status.

Professor Epps cited several contemporary examples of the impact of social position and context on the power that speech holds, the most notable being Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations and testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. In this case, he pointed out that Kavanaugh made an ethical appeal to his audience in the face of an incriminating testimony from a reliable source and he was able to use his speech to discredit Dr. Ford using nothing other than his social position.

Instances like Kavanaugh’s confirmation are unfortunately highly prevalent in our society and it is for this reason that analyses of speech must integrate context and the position of the speakers involved if they are to be effective, according to Professor Epps. Too often, the highly abstract nature of the law surrounding free speech allows discussions about the legality of speech to ignore context and social position. These discussions are removed from reality and they are often unethically manipulated by people in positions of power.

Without question, there are massive power imbalances in this country along lines of race, gender, sex, economic position, and ability, among many other factors. Power dynamics between these groups matter and they have a significant impact on the freedom of speech for citizens in this country. Professor Epps made it clear that people in positions of power have greater freedom in their speech than marginalized people, which must be considered when discussing the concept of freedom of speech in this country.

Professor Epps critiqued what he calls the “Triumphant” view of free speech, which claims that since speech is so free in the American political climate, it is constantly progressing and eliminating hateful and degrading speech. As a critique of this view, he presented his own “Tragic” view of free speech. The Tragic view suggests that we protect free speech in this country because the alternative, which is to give the racist institutions that this country is built on the power to limit speech, is far worse.

Professor Epps claimed that we let people use speech to do “civilized” battle with one another. We do so in the hope that this will allow us to resolve our differences before we take up arms against one another. We protect free speech because it does do harm, but a type of harm that we generally prefer to physical harm. In the Tragic view, we must protect free speech for all, even if it is hateful, because the costs of allowing institutional restrictions disproportionally harms marginalized people and arbitrarily benefits privileged people.

Thus, Professor Epps argued that all conversations about freedom of speech must also be conversations about equity. We cannot make progress and create a society where speech is truly free for all unless we talk about how to raise some voices up and curtail some of the power that people in positions of power hold over others. Ultimately, large power disparities do not lend to democratic discourse in a free society. If speech is to be free for all, equity must be established in this country. It is pointless to discuss free speech without integrating equity into the conversation.

Professor Epps seems very aware of the relevance of equity in dialogues about free speech and it is evident that he is conscious of his own power and privilege based on the way he stepped back and shared the floor during the discussion that he led. He provided tremendous insight about the relationship between conversations of freedom of speech and institutional inequality that I hope can shape the discourse about free speech at AU going forward.

Liam Carbutt is a first-year graduate student at American University studying philosophy and social policy in the Department of Philosophy & Religion’s BA/MA program. Liam works for the department as a coordinator for the Ethics Bowl, a competition hosted by American University for local high schools.

A Reflection on “A Conversation with Josh Blackman”

By Robert Wines, AU SPA ’20

Turning on cable news media, it would appear as if college campuses are consistently in uproar. Conversations are turning into bar fights, professors are cracking down on dissenters, and speakers are provoking riots. While this may produce some good content for prime time, it does not reflect a new normal on campuses. In most cases, two students of differing views can sit and converse without any major issues.

However, there are certainly instances of voices on campus being silenced by a tyranny of the majority. Speaking before a mix of undergraduate and law students at the Washington College of Law on Thursday, September 27th, Josh Blackman reflected on his own experience of being shouted down by students at the City University of New York School of Law. Blackman, a professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston, used this example to analyze the state of discourse on American college campuses.

View of the Warren Building at the Washington College of Law
Credit: American University

Professor Blackman is a self-described right-of-center libertarian. While his talks rarely generate more than an interesting conversation, his one discussion at CUNY School of Law generated a mass protest from students. Entering the room, he was greeted by chants of “shame on you.” Students then lined the walls displaying messages of disapproval for his very presence on campus.

Professor Blackman’s response to the display of discontent is one that could be of value for those instances of uncivil discourse. While Professor Blackman could have chosen to take a defensive approach, he simply chose to thaw tensions by staying quiet, and as he put it, “let[ting] them get this out of their system.” Just like Rocky against Clubber Lang, he allowed them to throw punches until the point of exhaustion. As students began to show signs of fatigue, he began to address some of their arguments, using both ration and humor.

He responded with clever quips, but also sought common ground in their claims. Realizing that he was not providing them with the “triggering” content they wished to protest, a student grew frustrated and countered “f**k the law.” Yes, a student of the law, dismissing its very essence. At this point Prof. Blackman knew his dissenters had been disarmed. Soon after, protestors left, allowing him to field questions from those interested in what he had to say.

Professor Blackman displayed that one can be civil in the face of incivility. And, it was in being civil that he found his self-proclaimed enemies were unable to effectively take him down. Had he given the protestors what they wanted he would have ceded any leverage that he held. He best summarized this in saying, “If you maintain a civil demeanor, you are in a much better position.”

As for issues of free speech on campus, Professor Blackman addressed these issues in his discussion with Professor Lara Schwartz, as well as his Q&A session. His general message could be summarized in this: universities have an obligation to preserve free speech. In doing so, they would see radical viewpoints challenged and undermined.

I cannot find myself refuting his point.

Naturally, the conversation looked closely at the more controversial speakers.  Universities, public and private, would be doing a disservice to their students if they barred speakers from campus. Professor Blackman explained that doing this would create a “mystique and an allure.” However, when given the proper opportunity to be seen for who they are, “people will see that they are idiots.”

On the same token, universities have an obligation to promote the first amendment rights of their students. He went so far as to say, “Let student groups invite who they want and protest the hell out of it.” He endorsed this method so long as the speaker was given a chance to speak, and his/her safety was guaranteed.

I am a firm believer that politics is not a zero-sum game. Very rarely can it be boiled down to winners and losers. However, I will push back on my predisposition in this one instance. Professor Blackman taught us that incivility loses. The person that lacks civility will beat themselves every single time. The students who chose to shout Professor Blackman down defeated themselves. A speaker who chooses to troll instead of educate will defeat themselves. The uncivil defeat themselves.

Robert Wines is a junior at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG), with an intended minor in Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the president of the American University College Republicans, is a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and is a winger for the men’s ice hockey team.