April 1, 2004

How Now Wow COW! -- Chicago Activists Use Clever Media Tool for Outreach Success

One justified criticism of a lot of left political activist efforts is the lack of outreach, bringing in outsiders and people entirely new to such efforts. Instead, all too often, such efforts tend to congregate at events where the already converted already congregate. And what passes for outreach too often consists of dull, uncharismatic papers or flyers which are handed out or sold, glanced at, ignored or barely read, and then thrown away. But there's one Chicago project which is working to bring political activism to a genuinely new audience, and is succeeding.

The project is called Compassion On Wheels, or COW for short. It consists of a van whose right side has built into it a 36-inch television screen and outdoor stereo speakers, all tied into DVD and VHS players loaded inside. The idea is simple: park the COW in or near an area with a lot of people or a lot of foot traffic. Then COW shows a video or movie which is apt to garner the attention of random passersby. The potential effect is two-fold: One, people are certainly attracted to the novelty involving a van with widescreen TV built into its side. Two, moving images can be arresting (if you're apt to be attracted to computer screensavers, you can understand the idea), and the right images can be educational, invigorating, even life-changing.

COW is the project of two animal rights' groups, the Animal Defense League, and EarthSave Chicago. As a result, most of the footage shown by COW to date pertains to animal rights, like graphic footage of the insides of factory farms and animal slaughterhouses.

COW organizers report tremendously positive effects from the project. COW has established legitimacy and issue-oriented connections in people's minds like few outreach projects have. Growing numbers of passersby report that COW opened their eyes to animal rights' issues, and encouraged them to explore such issues further. Some report even having become vegetarian, thanks to COW. "You're no longer seen as a sign-toting activist," says COW organizer Mike Eberson. "It tears down the walls between activists and the public. It's really empowering."

The ideas which inspired COW echo two other similar car-and-TV-related projects. One involves a documentary called "The Witness" released in 2000. The 43-minute movie tells the story of Eddie Lama, a metal construction contractor who became a vegetarian and animal-rights' activist. Lama had the idea of putting a TV in a van, much like in COW, and using his van to show footage of factory farms directly to people.

The second similar project is SHARK's Tiger Video Truck. SHARK, another animal rights' group, stands for SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness. SHARK activists have built a much more ambitious tool -- a truck mounted with four one-hundred-inch video screens, each high-mounted on one of the truck's four sides. The Tiger Video Truck focuses on displaying dramatic footage of venues where animal abuse is rampant, including rodeos, bullfighting rings, circuses, and furriers.

Chicago animal rights' activists snapped their fingers and said, "If they can do it, we can do it." An animal rights conference in July 2003 brought the organizers (with Eddie Lama) together to hatch the plan. Collaborative planning efforts followed, and a 1979 Dodge van was secured from California for the project. A month and a half of fabrication time on the van later, and COW was planned to debut on Fur Free Friday, a roving protest march in downtown Chicago against merchants that sell fur and timed for the Friday immediately after Thanksgiving.

On Fur Free Friday, COW accompanied the hundred-plus protesters who took part in the march and showed videos during the march. But problems arose: The van's inverter burned out in the course of the march, COW was eventually pulled over by Chicago police, and COW was ordered to leave the march under threat of police confiscation.

But it was a victory for COW organizers since the efforts for Fur Free Friday got COW got off the ground. Since then, COW has deployed on repeated occasions, mostly on college campuses across Chicagoland as a concerted outreach to college students and young people. The demographics are no accident, particularly since dietary patterns are less apt to change after age forty.

Another victory is that COW was built on a lean budget. The Dodge van used for COW was gotten for free. The TV was bought for about $500, the van's inverter for about $400--all told, a mere $1500 (roughly) in costs. Fundraisers for COW have helped to upgrade some of the van's innards, including new aluminum shelving and a new set of stereo speakers. COW's total look says that it's clearly not a slick big-money operation, but still shows that a good idea with a lot of hard work can still go a long way.

As Spring is poised to spring and the weather warms up, plans are afoot to deploy COW publicly more often, at least once a week, at high-traffic venues like certain CTA train stations and outside concerts venues.

Looking into the future of COW, one priority is replacing the van: a 25-year vehicle with more than 90,000 miles on its odometer threatens to be a dead van walking. But also, one clear priority is to keep using COW, and keeping the project alive, solvent, and strong. Its effectiveness is clear, its financial status.

The focus of COW's work has been on animal rights' issues, but other left and liberal political causes can also effectively make use of COW. The only limit is your imagination and a legal parking space. Compassion on Wheels is available for rental by nonprofit, labor, environmental, antiwar, and other causes. One caveat to COW's use is that COW is not meant to promote animal consumption or abuse. If you're interested in renting COW for your particular outreach efforts, you can contact the Chicago chapter of the Animal Defense League at adlchicago@yahoo.com

To order a copy of the film "The Witness", contact Tribe of Heart productions at www.tribeofheart.org. Learn more about SHARK's Tiger Video Truck at www.sharkonline.org.