In his senior year of high school, Rashad Robinson organized a protest. It was, says this veteran connoisseur of protest, a "very successful" one. A drugstore in his hometown of Riverhead, N.Y., had decided that it would not serve high school students during school hours.
The policy, Robinson says now, was a clear example of the kind of infuriating circular thinking that adults sometimes inflict on teenagers: Kids who play hooky are not in school during school hours; therefore, any student not in school during those hours must be playing hooky. And we wouldn't want to encourage that, would we?
"But there were breaks during the day when students could leave the campus," says Robinson, a 2011 The Root 100 honoree, who for the past seven months has been executive director of the national activist organization ColorOfChange.org. "It was a very discriminatory policy. Young people used to go into the drugstore during those hours to buy sodas and things."
The series of sidewalk demonstrations that the teenaged Robinson spearheaded, involving dozens of students at a time marching in front of the drugstore and its alarmed managers, was so successful that it drew the attention of network television stations and Newsday, the paper of record on Long Island. The drugstore quickly folded.
"There was no way they could hold out after that," Robinson says.
The protest turned out to be a small victory for non-truant high school students with a yen for sodas, but a big-time lesson in political power for everybody involved. "We learned very quickly the power that everyday people can have in creating accountability," he says.
Robinson is putting that knowledge — seasoned and expanded now from dozens of other campaigns throughout his career as an activist — to work for the 800,000-member ColorOfChange.org, the largest black online political organization in the country. This is the group that scuttled talk-show host Glenn Beck's Fox-TV program after he asserted, among other racially divisive statements, that President Obama was a racist. ColorOfChange.org launched a petition drive to get Beck off the air, garnering more than 200,000 signatures, then focused on his advertisers, demanding that they withdraw their support.
Robinson took over the reins of the organization just in time to see Beck depart from Fox to cable-television obscurity. "By then his advertisers were, like, that company that asks you to send them your gold for cash or the makers of home face-lifts," Robinson says. "Not McDonald's or Johnson & Johnson."
In person, Robinson, 33, is energized and articulate, a dynamo who speaks passionately about the business of "advocacy." "ColorOfChange was born out of the principle that democracy works when all of our voices are heard," he says. The idea is to use the power of sheer numbers to effect social change. When several hundred thousand citizens get behind an idea, it's amazing what can be accomplished.
The founders of ColorOfChange.org — James Rucker and Van Jones — started the organization in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, vowing not to let black people suffer again in silence. It was a response to "the abject failure of the political system" to protect the interests of black people, Robinson says.
What started out as a series of petition drives evolved into volunteer initiatives and political actions, addressing a myriad of issues. "It's not just about giving money," Robinson says. Aside from targeting right-wing media figures, the Robinson-led organization has taken action on issues as diverse as the disparate treatment of whites and black who wear "saggy" pants, the arrest and prosecution of an Ohio woman for sending her children to a school across district lines and the execution of Ohio death row inmate Troy Davis.
All of this is grist for Robinson's very active political mill. He grew up the son of a building contractor on largely white eastern Long Island. "In an area that's only 10 to 15 percent black folks, you learn how to organize around black issues."
He was politicized at an early age, he says. Both parents were active in civic organizations like the NAACP and in local politics. "The first time I knocked on a door for a candidate, I was 14," he says.
Around that time, he started hosting a monthly show on public-access television addressing teen issues. When he got to college at Marymount University in Virginia, the political drive kicked into high gear. He was elected student body president in both his junior and senior years.
Before taking over ColorOfChange,org, he worked as a senior director at GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). He has also worked for the Right to Vote Campaign and served as national field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy. He has settled happily in New York, he is single and he has many friends, he says.
As for ColorOfChange.org, expect more of the same under Robinson's guidance. Much more. There's already a new target to replace the fast-fading Beck. The organization is asking cable's MSNBC to get rid of right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan, a paid talking head on the channel's programs. The provocative Buchanan, Robinson says, has been promoting his new book, Suicide of a Superpower, on at least one far-right-wing talk show, suggesting that racial diversity is a sign of American decadence.
"He has a history of sending coded messages to the white-supremacist community that he considers his base," Robinson says. "That's everything from saying black people should be thankful for slavery because it made them Christians to claiming that David Duke has been plagiarizing him. So we're running a campaign against MSNBC for using Buchanan as a paid contributor."
More than 85,000 have signed anti-Buchanan petitions, and hundreds of members have flooded the MSNBC switchboard with protest calls, Robinson says. ColorOfChange.org alerted MSNBC on Oct. 24 to its goal of getting Buchanan fired. "Buchanan has not appeared on the network since then," Robinson contends.
Buchanan could not be reached for comment, and an MSNBC spokesman would not comment on The Root's query.
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.