Do you have one minute to stand up for human rights?
No, no—wait! Don’t click away from this page! I’m not one of those clipboard toting canvassers that you see half a block away and cross the street to avoid talking to. They’re part of the city’s ambient-level background noise, like Sbarro storefronts or subway etiquette ads. But when I saw three Amnesty International canvassers standing on St. Marks Place yesterday morning, I found myself wondering what it must feel like to stare denial in the face all day long.
Joseph, a bearded twentysomething in a leather jacket and beanie, met me with a smile and a firm handshake. He proceeded to enthusiastically tell me about Amnesty’s work securing reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago and protecting pipeline protesters from police brutality in North Dakota, and explained that he and his compatriots were recruiting pedestrians to sign up for membership and support Amnesty with monthly donations. I was impressed by Joseph’s spiel, so I decided to hang around and watch him work his magic on the people of the East Village.
I soon realized that my go-to lie for turning down canvassers (“So sorry, I’m running late for an appointment”) is not at all original and probably sounds much better in my head than in reality. I quickly counted four passersby that used unconvincing versions of the same excuse. They definitely weren’t in a rush to get anywhere.
Joseph, unfazed, carried on. “Excuse me miss, do you care about police brutality?”
The college-aged woman pursed her lips and kept walking.
On to the girl a few steps behind: “Do you care about police brutality?”
Three more whiffs followed in quick succession.
“It’s kinda rough starting off, but you get used to it,” said Joseph, explaining that he works five days a week as a paid canvasser. “We don’t get that many people who want to talk, but when they do they’re usually really interesting. I met a guy once who knew Malcolm X and was at the Bay of Pigs.”
With his five weeks of experience on the job, Joseph seemed more at peace with getting blown off by strangers than his companions, Omar and Luis, who were each canvassing for the first time. Omar half-raised an arm to wave hello to a young woman and managed a meek “How are you today?” before trailing off and looking slightly discouraged as the woman walked by him as though he was invisible.
“They ain’t gonna do nothing to you,” he reasoned. “If they don’t wanna speak it’s not the end of the world.”
Luis, who explained he’d gotten involved because of police brutality he’d seen in his Bronx neighborhood, said his first day was “going alright,” but that he hadn’t managed to sign anyone up yet. “It’s like you’re asking a girl on a date and you get rejected every time,” he laughed after a gruff old man turned him down with an irritated shake of the head.
Joseph had some tricks up his sleeve, though. A middle aged woman with a white mutt approached. Joseph took the lead: “Hi, can I pet your dog?” The woman smiled and stopped, at which point Joseph continued: “…while my friend here talks to you about human rights?”
Her jaw visibly dropped as she realized what was happening. “You can pet the dog, but…” the woman stammered out as she dragged the pup along and continued on her way.
Joseph laughed as he told me about his recent attempt to recruit a pizza-eating pedestrian to the cause. “I asked him, ‘Do you care more about human rights more than pizza?’ And he said, ‘Nope.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll be honest, I’m hungry too. I can’t fault you for that.'”
The three canvassers seemed genuinely invested in the causes they were promoting and good humored about the whole thing, which I would imagine are prerequisites for lasting in this business. In the half hour I shadowed Joseph, Luis, and Omar, they managed to get three people to stop and talk (but zero sign-ups) out of the several dozen they approached. (It’s possible that their lack of success had something to do with their wardrobe—none of the three were wearing the familiar Amnesty International vests.)
Have some compassion, people. If you do have a minute to stand up for human rights, Amnesty International will be happy to sign you up on their website. But the guys told me that it’s more cost-effective for Amnesty if you get involved by talking to canvassers the next time you see them on the street. And I’m sure they’d appreciate the human contact too.