Backbone Campaign takes its show on the road

Moyer hopes to take his ‘Procession’ around the country.


Staff writer

At four years old, one Vashon-born organization just hit a growth spurt.

The Backbone Campaign, creators of such provocative parade entries as the Bush administration chain gang, a 70-foot long backbone and a 17-foot high Constitutional preamble, will take a series of giant floats on the road and hold an entire parade in Portland, Ore., on March 4, in an effort to animate the progressive movement in another city.

For the first time, the nonprofit will sponsor every float in the parade. And for the first time, it will hold an activists’ theme park to inform constituents about the progressive issues the Backbone Campaign is championing.

“We’ve participated in various events before but never at this scale,” said Bill Moyer, founder and executive director of the Backbone Campaign.

The “Procession for the Future” is comprised of a dozen giant floats, commissioned by artists nationwide. Some have seen marches before, but many will debut on March 4: an inflatable doctor holding a national insurance card, a polar bear accompanied by frogs and bees, fair trade farmers exchanging wares and a Pentagon that opens up to show other ways the nearly $500 billion U.S. defense budget could be spent.

While March 17 is the day the Constitution was signed, March 4 is the day Congress first met and the Bill of Rights was proposed, Moyer said.

“You would think that the use of imagery would be seen as a no-brainer, but there’s something special about the way the Backbone Campaign has brought policy and imagery together,” Moyer said. “Beyond telling the Democrats they need to get a backbone or critiquing the current administration, it’s actually putting into physical form and putting into image a progressive vision for the future.”

Moyer’s dream is to take the Procession for the Future around the country, he said. Already, host committees have formed in Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York and Connecticut, and on university campuses in Boston, Madison, Wisc., and Berkeley, Calif.

The nonprofit could never afford to send the bulky and delicate art pieces around the nation without some help. However, it could get the funding influx it needs as soon as next month.

The organization is competing for a $50,000 prize—an amount equal to a third of the Backbone Campaign’s annual budget.

A nationwide competition sponsored by Parade Magazine, Kevin Bacon and the Case foundation will award $50,000 to each of the four U.S. nonprofit organizations that garner the most donations from unique donors — not the most money — by Jan. 30. As of press time, the Backbone Campaign was in sixth place. Three of the top four groups were animal shelters.

“Fifth place is zero, fourth place is $50,000,” said Backbone Campaign board member Carol Eggen.

The grassroots organization, now 7,000 members strong, started in 2003 when 14 Vashon artists regularly gathered for potlucks. The group felt a dissatisfaction with the post-9/11 political climate and saw a lack of critical public debate, Moyer said.

They began putting banners up over freeways, then created puppets for events. In February 2003, just before the United States invaded Iraq, the group created an oversized puppet of Bush dressed as Caesar, sitting on an oil tank throne.

“’If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’” Moyer said the artists then asked. “If a bunch of over-educated, creative people with resources, if not money, can’t do something, then who can?”

From there evolved a creative collective of artists and activists dedicated not to a particular cause, but to what Moyer calls a “progressive platform,” which includes commitments to fair wages, universal health care, civil liberties and nuclear disarmament.

The Backbone Campaign gives out Backbone Awards to elected officials who have stood up for progressive values. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) was the first recipient.

“I think it’s an honor to be considered a member of Congress who has a backbone, and so I put it out where people can see it,” McDermott said of his award, a silver spine that stands upright on a bookcase in his office.

“Backbone from the very start has been a very creative bunch of people,” he said. “The problem today is how to catch people’s attention and keep it, and the Backbone Campaign has been pretty creative in doing that.”

The Procession for the Future, after winding through downtown Portland mid-day, will arrive at a park, where the various floats will set up shop in a theme park for activists, Moyer said. Here, Portland residents can learn about various issues on the progressive platform and pick up some questions to ask political candidates in the months to come. The Backbone Campaign uses a technique called bird-dogging, asking pointed questions on certain topics, to get candidates to stray from their prepared material and speak candidly.

“Regardless of who becomes president in 2009, we’ll still need a movement to be banging at the doors and presenting a compelling vision for the future,” Moyer said. “The Procession for the Future is part of that and will provide a vehicle for training a new generation of activists to do the banging at the doors.”

President of the Backbone board of directors Amy Morrison said the Backbone Campaign has a unique approach among political activism groups.

“We mainly focus on being propositional,” she said. “Instead of being angry and mad and fighting against the status quo, we are proposing what we’d like to happen and showing the country what is possible. We’re not just happy protesting over and over.”

The procession “animates our campaign,” Moyer said. “It’s not enough to just have the words on the paper, people have to be inspired.”

Donate to the campaign

To donate $10 or more to the Backbone Campaign and help the organization win a $50,000 prize, visit its Web site at Look for the Backbone “badge” on the right-hand side of the site. Click “donate” just below the badge, and follow directions from there.

Bill Moyer, Backbone Campaign executive director, urged Islanders to call him at the Backbone Campaign office at 408-8058 if they have any trouble donating.