It’s hard to choose a favorite. Maybe yours is the sign with the words “We Shall Overcomb” floating atop that familiar, impossible, hay-colored hairflap. Perhaps it’s the one with the number 45 twisted into a swastika, like a freak show contortionist. Most people who’ve been to a protest since last November, though—an astronomic and historic amount of people—tend to remember at least a couple of eye-catching standouts. The protesters’s highly instagrammable creativity is often discussed nearly as much as the protests themselves. But what rarely gets any recognition is the creativity involved in getting those people to show up in the first place.
Despite what certain sources in the executive branch claim, the idea of paid protesters on a mass scale is a myth. It’s also a vicious insult to the actual grassroots effort that goes into effective messaging for a protest. The organizers of the Tax March NYC can attest as much, having already weathered a Breitbart accusation of George Soros sponsorship as they race toward the finish line. With less than a month remaining until the March on April 15, the group is ramping up efforts to boost attendance. Their last best hope is The Media Jam, an all-day gathering of graphic artists, animators, writers, social media experts, and advertising creatives with the aim of crafting the kind of clicky, sticky assets that get asses out of seats.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I trudge through an industrial stretch of Gowanus, Brooklyn, dodging crosswalks sludgy with dissolving snow. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but from the Facebook page it seems like some combination of a sitcom writers room, an advertising blue-sky session, and a programming hackathon.
Once inside the pristine space on 4th street, awash in fluorescent lighting, I’m greeted by a boombox blasting Jurassic 5, and two women holding sign-in sheets. Halloween-hued extension cords snake around the room, maxing out their power strips. A food table occupies the center of the space, an overflowing cornucopia of Trader Joes snackables and fruit. Pizza is reportedly on the way as well.
“I know we’ll learn a lot today,” says Kathryn Jones, an intensely smiling woman with auburn hair who’s in charge of this event. “Or maybe nothing!”
Jones is a live-streaming specialist who works with a group called Resistance Media Collective, which sometimes produces materials in-house, and sometimes does so by leaning on a database of creatives with whom it’s forged relationships. She got the idea for the Media Jam after live-streaming a series of coding hackathons and being blown away by the creativity that came out of such a pressure-cooker mind meld. People from different disciplines worked together with a common goal and a time constraint, and produced top-shelf results. If today’s event proves effective, Jones thinks it might be a new way forward for small movements with small budgets to generate killer assets.
More people soon trickle in, along with the promised pizza—five boxes worth, generously donated by a pizzeria friendly to the cause. The man responsible for its retrieval is a curly-haired former Colbert Report writer named Frank Lesser.
Lesser is not only involved with the Tax March; he’s also its Patient Zero. Back in January, the day after Kellyanne Conway’s notorious pronouncement that people don’t care about Donald Trump’s taxes, Lesser was sitting down to revise a screenplay, when inspiration struck. What if, he thought, the next major protest was on Tax Day, to prove how much people do in fact care about Trump’s taxes? He fired off a tweet with the idea and attempted to start working. That’s when his phone pretty much exploded. The tweet was immediately amplified, tens of thousands of times over, by boldface names like Patton Oswalt and Michael Moore. Although it turned out some scattered Tax Day protests were already in the works, Lesser’s tweet galvanized the mission, with strong endorsements from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon and his Action Group Network. Since then, Marches have spread to 119 cities in the U.S, with others joining in around the world. Lesser was initially assisting at the national level, but he soon decided to focus on the New York branch.
It makes sense that a former Colbert writer would be integral to the effort since this protest particularly lends itself to humor. While there was plenty of funny signage at the Women’s March in January, and there are many dead-serious concerns surrounding Trump’s taxes, a large-scale protest demanding the president reveals something he desperately refuses to reveal is a comedic goldmine. It is for this reason that one of the major images the team has been experimenting with so far is a chicken with a Trumpian pompadour.
“I think the chicken works because it’s modifiable in so many ways, but it’s still the same character,” says Jamie, a voiceover artist and writer whose work on hundreds of commercials has informed his sense of branding.
Among the 13 people who have shown up so far, none are graphic artists—Tax March designers Cassady Benson and Kelli Anderson, who have created several logos–unable to attend—but that won’t stop the group from making choices about the event’s imagery. We’re sitting around a trio of gray tables pushed together, MacBooks strewn across the surface like giant silver napkin squares between pizza plates. I’m the only male who is clean-shaven, the beard styles ranging from deep stubble to full-on tangly thicket. Together, the women in the group form a rainbow of scarf varieties, as we wait for the bright, mercurial space heaters to kick in. It’s a unanimous decision from the group that the chicken will be the main image focus in any media generated today.
The chicken-as-symbol was born when a San Francisco volunteer, Danielle Morton, had the epiphany that Trump is too much of a chicken to show his taxes. The real breakthrough happened, though, when she Googled “Trump chicken” and discovered that, back in December, massive inflatable roosters with Trump’s likeness had sprung up around China to kick off the Year of the Rooster. Morton not only tracked down the Seattle artist who created these “Trump Rooster Cocks,” she also discovered that surplus roosters were available for purchase in 13- and 30-foot size.
“I’m trying to push for a 30-footer for us,” Lesser notes.
Fundraising efforts for the Tax March’s Chicago branch procuring a 30-foot chicken ended up name-checked in Rachel Maddow’s recent, record-setting stunt, in which she winkingly suggested over Twitter that she had Trump’s missing tax returns. (In a way, she did. Just not in any kind of satisfying way.) Since then, enthusiasm for the chicken has soared. Lesser suggests we come up with an idea for an animated video involving the chicken as designed by Cassady Benson, a softer, more cartoonish, hen-like version than the Chinese one.
“The march is less than a month away,” Jones points out. “Whatever our idea is, it has to be something we can get up in a week.”
Everyone’s faces scrunch up momentarily as they contemplate video ideas. The first suggestion is to have a bald eagle come by and kick Chicken Trump off a nest, taking the egg he’s guarding. Or, someone else suggests, the eagle could knock the egg onto the ground so we can see inside of it.
“The egg could crack open and anything that’s in his taxes could come out.”
“Putin could come out!”
“A big, burly, bare-chested, Russian accent-having Putin-hawk.”
“Or Chinese banks.”
As the idea picks up steam, with Jones furiously jotting down notes, nobody touches their pizza. Although the core message of the March is that Trump must release his taxes, some ideas sprawl out to include side issues, like one where Chicken Trump tries to kill Big Bird–meant to represent Trump’s initiative to remove the National Endowment of the Arts, Sesame Street’s benefactor, from the government budget. When the room eventually becomes silent and everyone remembers there is still a lot of pizza in the vicinity, Jamie speaks up.
“We start with a single-color field,” he says. “We’ve got Donnie the Chicken entering from one side with an egg, and he’s looking behind him. Out of frame on this side, looking behind him quicker. Then the other side.”
As he speaks, Jamie stands up and mimes a suspicious chicken carrying a large egg, Granny Smith-style. When he whips his head from side to side, his navy blue baseball hat with the word, FACTS, embroidered across the front jostles a little.
“The White House is now just behind him and we see him put the egg on top, sit on it on top of the White House. Then we show a bunch of people heading toward the White House and there’s text to the effect of, ‘We know where you’re hiding it, and now we’re coming to… uh, crack that egg.’”
Soft but sincere applause breaks out. Everybody loves the idea. Something about it ignites a spark and soon supplementary ideas fly wildly around the room; ideas about what the chicken’s hair will look like flouncing in the breeze, what sort of implements the people chasing the chicken will be carrying, and why viewers deserve the treat of seeing a chicken that looks like Donald Trump strain to lay the egg before anything else happens.
“I think one thing we need is the sense that he’s hiding something and that’s why he’s a chicken,” Lesser notes. “It could be as simple as a voice saying ‘Hey, you chicken!’ and then everyone watching will get it.”
It can be easy when you’ve been steeped in a project for a while to forget that this thing you’re now intimately familiar with may not automatically scan for someone seeing it the first time. This point comes to a head a few minutes later when a late arrival joins the group. Debra Solomon is a slight, veteran animator who created a video for Vote.org on Hillary Clinton’s behalf during the election. After Jamie reenacts his video pitch for her, Solomon has one question: What’s the egg?
“The egg at its simplest form is whatever’s in the tax returns,” says Mohammad Naaem, a creative wearing an epically cozy-looking sweater. “But in a vacuum, I guess there is no semiotic context.”
“I think it’s important for this animation, it has to be really clear,” Solomon says, and when she gesticulates I see she’s wearing a Cookie Monster wristwatch. “I saw the image before, and I wasn’t sure what the egg was.”
Ideas soon emerge about how to make the egg’s contents clearer, perhaps with some question marks on the shell, or by simply overlaying the words ‘tax return’ on it. The matter is set aside.
“It’s not just the idea that he’s hiding something, though,” Jamie says. “It’s also that we’re coming after him.”
Solomon considers for a second.
“One way to imply an ‘us’ is when he looks from side to side, we can add crowd sounds,” she says. “Boo or angry noises, whatever you want it to be.”
Jones seizes on this moment to coax an assurance from Solomon that she’s definitely on board to deliver this animation.
What’s different about the Media Jam from any of the writers rooms or creative briefings it resembles is that the people involved are doing it for a different reason. It’s not for money, it’s not for prestige, and it’s not because they’ll get fired if they don’t. It’s because they’re committed to a cause they’re every bit as passionate about as any of those other drives, if not more so. Everybody here is willing to give up a Saturday (in most cases, one of many, many Saturdays) to apply their artistry and other skills to this set of tasks, and nobody is half-assing it.
Even the less-great ideas end up laying the groundwork for solid ones. At one point, someone suggests sending rubber chickens to the White House in advance of the protest, an idea that’s shot down for being too removed from the original message. But this concept then evolves into an initiative to get people to call the White House and cluck like a chicken, which begets a widespread effort to tweet “cluck” at Donald Trump, possibly with the aid of a custom emoji, and ends up being the idea to cluck when calling congresspeople demanding to see Trump’s taxes. (“Cluck Your Rep,” is then coined.)
An idea bubbles up about releasing a hoax tax return on April Fools Day that reveals Donald Trump is secretly the world’s most generous charity donor. This one is shot down for being too likely to be picked up as a pro-Trump meme.
“Come on, nobody would believe that,” says Nancy, a music composer for feature films.
“’Nobody would believe that’ is how we got here,” a voice replies.
Everyone agrees that there is something to be done with April Fool’s Day, though, something aside from the proposed Easter Egg hunt which would involve little plastic eggs carrying little branded tax items all over Central Park. (A similar initiative has been proposed for San Francisco.)
“A fool and his money are soon parted?”
“A chicken and his money are soon parted?”
“Oh, what about a fowl?
Three people simultaneously shout out “April Fowls Day!” and then the room fills with laughter.
It’s over four hours into the Media Jam and people are starting to show signs of fatigue. It’s unclear whether April Fowls Day is something brilliant that the team can use for the March, or if it’s… nothing. Jones jots the idea down with all the others.
“Okay, we have about an hour left so we should start wrapping things up,” she says. “Should we divide into groups and brainstorm some more ideas, or should we put everything we’ve come up with into actionable items and assign teams to them?”
In another unanimous vote, the group opts for the more clerical of the two choices and spends the remaining time setting an agenda for the next couple weeks. By 5pm, they’ve produced a detailed list of what needs doing and when. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the list will be fulfilled.
After a lot of yawning, stretching, and rediscovery of the snack table, everybody bids each other goodbye and leaves to enjoy what remains of their Saturday. Many will see each other soon at the next all-hands meeting for the Tax March. It’s scheduled for Monday night.