When the Trump campaign announced it would hold its first “post-quarantine” rally in a 19,000-seat stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19 — or Juneteenth — people were outraged. Not only were there the health concerns posed by an indoor rally with people who likely would not social distance, but there was also the troubling likelihood that the campaign had deliberately chosen the date and place for its connection to the horrific massacre of Black people by white mobs in 1921. Although the campaign eventually moved the rally to the next day, it was still a slap in the face to the millions of people across the country rising up in defense of Black lives.
On June 11, TikTok user Mary Jo Laup posted a video and a call to action. Overnight, the video got 2 million views, and TikTok users and K-pop fans mobilized across social media platforms. The action was simple: reserve tickets for the rally and don’t show. They did so by the thousands. Days before the rally the Trump campaign bragged that it was expecting a million people to pack the stadium and the overflow spaces that had been hastily put together.
However, on the day of the rally, the Tulsa Fire Department counted only 6,200 attendees. With a capacity approaching 20,000, the stadium glistened with empty seats.
While there’s been some debate as to exactly how much TikTok users and K-pop fans were responsible for the low turn-out, it’s clear that their mobilization caused the campaign to overestimate the attendance. There is no doubt they helped shape the narrative of the campaign’s hype around the rally, and therefore played an important role in embarrassing the campaign as it tried to explain the empty seats.
In truth, no single act of organizing is ever responsible for victories or shifts in public opinion. As author Rebecca Solnit has pointed out, social change is nonlinear and cumulative. And in this context, the TikTok/K-pop fan action can be seen as a beautiful work of nonviolent activism that took its cues from the uprising for Black lives — certainly not a prank, as many media outlets have termed it.
As a result, there are some important lessons we can draw for efforts going forward:
1. Seize the moment for action.
Black organizers and activists have demonstrated the power of this lesson for centuries. Most recently, the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder have spurred necessary and significant shifts in our public conversations and policies, made possible by the decades-long organizing by Black folks.
This climate also made it possible for K-pop fans to flex their imagination and considerable power to take action in the best way they know how — not just with the rally. A few weeks prior, K-pop fans broke an app put out by the Dallas Police Department to capture video of “illegal protesters” and “looters.” They flooded the cops with videos of their favorite stars singing and dancing. They also subverted racist hashtags, posting pictures and videos of K-pop stars.
A lot of social change work is about laying the groundwork — the slow, hard work of organizing, building relationships, creating infrastructure, making mistakes and figuring out new ways of doing things. When there is an unexpected spark that mobilizes millions of people, we must trust that the groundwork is solid. And we must channel all our imagination, creativity and courage into action.
2. You have the skills and tools you need.
Apparently, K-pop fans are masters at snapping up tickets for the concerts of their favorite stars. They know how to get their hashtags to trend. They have skills that most adults over 30 can’t even really begin to understand. They put all these skills to use, not only helping to turn the rally into a mere sputter, but also creating a huge data mess for the campaign.
Street protests grab headlines, and there’s a tendency to focus almost solely on policy and electoral politics as the pathway to change. That’s great if you live to organize rallies, love to lobby for policies, or can’t wait to get door-knocking for your favorite candidate. But beyond those activities, there’s a whole world of work that needs to be done.
Artists, writers, filmmakers and other storytellers are critical in shaping stories that determine who has value and power, what solutions are possible and what a different society could look like. Educators and parents have tremendous power to shape the next generation. We need coders to help build alternative platforms that help us connect without turning us into data-mines for corporations. From cooking to growing vegetables to making accessible, beautiful and sustainable spaces — there are so many ways to help create the change we need.
3. Connect across differences toward a common goal.
K-pop fans have factions and feuds — fans of BTS (known as ARMY) vs. fans of Exo (EXO-L), for example. But for the rally and other disruptive political actions they’ve taken lately, they’ve joined together to become a formidable force. Also, K-pop fans are racially, nationally and age-diverse. In this moment, some have been having difficult conversations with each other about racism and the appropriation of Black culture within K-pop.
If some K-pop fans can do it, can the political left in the United States do it too? How do we join forces as a vibrant, diverse movement, where differences are not just acknowledged but honored? Grappling with our differences honestly and respectfully is an important part of moving us toward the strongest and most equitable solutions to the economic, climate and societal crises. This necessitates that the white folks who have historically been running the show and setting the agenda for the left need to step back, listen and stop decrying identity politics. They must follow the leadership of the people who have been on the frontlines of these crises for decades, and who have some brilliant ideas of how to move forward — Black and Indigenous people, other people of color, poor/low-income people, disabled people, women, and queer and trans people.
4. Be smart and stealthy: Don’t let the powers that be catch on to what you are doing.
Apparently, the TikTok users and K-pop stans who were rallying their fellow fans to snap up rally tickets deleted their posts after 24-48 hours, so the mainstream media wouldn’t start picking it up. And it worked. Neither the Trump campaign nor its opponents suspected that the rally wouldn’t be the million-people, virus-spreading, racist bonanza that it was predicted to be.
“All warfare is based on deception,” Lao Tzu wrote in the 5th century BC. “When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.” So yes, this lesson has been around for thousands of years. But in the age of social media and emphasis on transparency, it is worth meditating on. Alt-right trolls have recently infiltrated Black Lives Matter Telegram channels, while police and the FBI continue to spy on Black Lives Matter activists. Those working for social change will need to get increasingly smart about how to keep tactics and strategies under wraps, how to organize without forecasting their moves, and how to “flock,” as author adrienne maree brown describes it in her book “Emergent Strategy,” writing: “Staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.”
5. Imagination, play, art and joy aren’t bonuses — they are absolutely essential to the revolution.
K-pop fans are unabashed in their love for their favorite stars, their music and dancing. It’s what brings them together in the first place. And their recent, politically disruptive actions are imbued with the playfulness and energy that they bring to their stanning.
In the 1930s, Emma Goldman famously declared that if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of the revolution. Almost a century later, political and social change work still too often has a sense of grim determination and seriousness. It makes sense: We’re challenging enormous institutional power, work every day knowing that systemic racism, patriarchy and capitalism are causing real harm to people — it’s serious work. But as K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, art, play and love are also necessary. They create a joyful, powerful movement that draws more people in and reflects the kind of world we want to live in.
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