The Line, the Hall, and the Senator

Vineyarders are notorious for not RSVPing, signing up early, or buying tickets in advance. Case in point: Last Tuesday evening I shucked my soggy shorts and T-shirt for a crisp, presentable summer dress and headed into Vineyard Haven to see I Am Not Your Negro, which I have managed to miss on several occasions since it was released.

My big concern was parking. The film was showing at the M.V. Film Center, located in the Tisbury Marketplace, where parking can be horrendous even in the off-season. Mid-July is not the off-season. Sure enough, the parking lot was jammed. The only spaces available were the 15-minute slots for people picking up pizzas at Rocco’s. But I found a place at the nearby Ace Hardware lot and all was well — until I got to the theater and learned the film was sold out. Buying an advance ticket, or calling ahead to find out if tickets were available, had not occurred to me.

Elizabeth Warren speaks behind the West Tisbury library while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, summer 2012.

So a week or so ago it became apparent that staffers for Elizabeth Warren, my state’s senior U.S. senator, were concerned about the possibility of a low turnout for her upcoming town hall. True, the venue — the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school — is one of the island’s largest, with capacity around 800, and also true, in high summer there can be as many as a dozen events competing for one’s attention at any hour any day of the week.

Still, Senator Warren is popular among year-rounders, several local activist groups had been putting the word out to their members since late June, and there’s a reason that so many high-profile Democrats do big-ticket fundraisers here in the summer.

Still, the off-islanders were worried. They had set up an event page on Facebook to get an approximate head count, and with barely a week to go the “Going” and “Interested” numbers were well under 20% of the 800 necessary to fill the hall. Could we locals who were helping get the word out perhaps devote a couple of hours to phone-banking, calling people up to tell them about the upcoming town hall?

The line stretched back to the front of the high school and then around it . . .

We locals mostly fudged it, in part because in mid-July most of our waking hours are already committed but mostly because we didn’t believe for a moment that it was necessary. We were convinced that an overflow crowd was far more likely than a half-full hall. Yeah, we got that the “optics” of a half-full hall would be a PR disaster: imagine how the Republicans would be crowing if their nemesis couldn’t fill a venue on bluer-than-blue Martha’s Vineyard in the summer!

. . . and up to the front doors.

We were right. The event was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., with the doors opening at 9:30. When I arrived at 9:15, I snagged one of the very last available parking places in the very large high school lot and the line stretched from the not-yet-open doors of the Performing Arts Center all the way back to the front of the school and then around the corner. I checked at the table out front to make sure that a friend needing assistance had managed to get in (she had), then started walking toward the end of the line, greeting the many people I knew en route. Before I got that far, I fell in with friends.

Soon the line started moving. It moved in batches: the staffers inside were both counting people and keeping an eye on the number of empty seats. The banked “stadium” section at the back was cordoned off till the orchestra section was filled. It was close to capacity when my group arrived. We didn’t see five seats in a row anywhere, so we moved the cordon out of the way and occupied the front row of the house-right side of the stadium section.

People kept coming in. The organizers set up two rows of chairs in the wide space between the two sections — then they started setting up chairs in the foyer. This is what the place looked like just before the event started:

This morning the Facebook event page reports that 214 went and 226 were interested. Yeah, right! 😉

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times report:

There were 1,000 people inside, 150 listening in the lobby, and another 150 people who couldn’t get in got a private audience with Sen. Warren before she came into the school, state Sen. Julian Cyr said in introducing Sen. Warren: “I feel so fortunate and blessed we have someone so interested in talking to people who couldn’t get in the door.”

I expect the whole event will be available on MVTV and/or YouTube before long. Will post links as available. Suffice it to say, the senator is a dynamo and the crowd left even more energized than they came in.

Sorry about the fuzziness — my little point-and-shoot was at the brink of its zoom capacity, but here’s our senior U.S. senator onstage.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to The Line, the Hall, and the Senator

  1. Juleann says:

    I am left concerned that Warren staffers believe — or rely on — anything having to do with Facebook. As the major distributor of false and misleading information, many of us refuse to participate on the site, much less use it as a reliable source to determine group behavior. I hope Senator Warren, and her staff, now realize that our community is not represented within the confines of Facebook.

    So glad you were able to get in, Susanna! As always, thank you for the report.

    Like

    • I think this had more to do with off-islanders’ inabiiity to “read” the Vineyard, and that’s been a fact of life since long before social media. 😉 Organizing from a distance is always a challenge, and in this case the Warren people weren’t all that well acquainted with the local groups helping promote the event. Most of these groups are either new or newly energized, and/or have new people in charge. (I’m thinking especially about the MV Social Justice Leadership Foundation, which made the initial contact, We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos, and the MV Dems.) Without personal connections it’s hard to know who’s reliable and who isn’t. In the planning we established those connections, and the Vineyard people have demonstrated creds than we didn’t have before.

      Facebook does look monolithic if you’re not on it, but I continue to think of it as the grapevine on steroids. I was a late adopter because I was already spending so much time online for my work. I was afraid it would pull me even further out of my real-world face-to-face community. But it’s had the opposite effect. Almost immediately I was hearing about events before they happened instead of in the newspapers afterward, and in the 6 1/2 years since I’ve gotten to know many Vineyarders I didn’t know before, or knew only by name, and I’ve gotten to know some of those I already did know a lot better. I also get more firsthand info and insight from friends on the ground in all sorts of places. It can be addictive, however!

      Like

  2. Celebrity envy…. I can’t imagine any prediction of low turnout for such an interesting and gloriously feisty woman!

    Like

    • The staff was managing the event from afar and they knew nothing about Martha’s Vineyard except what they read in the papers (i.e., nothing), plus they knew very little about the local organizers. I get why they were antsy, but really there was no way this event was going to be anything but a sellout.

      Like

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