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Activism in Motion

Jessica Parsley is typical of many in today's protest movements: young, mainstream, committed and connected. It's a life on the go, and it's not for everyone.


In the crowd of hundreds marching through downtown the other day, Jessica Parsley was the only activist to recognize Pennsylvania state Rep. Greg Vitali, a delegate to the Democratic convention who happened upon the demonstration.

"Hey Greg!" she shouted. He recognized her from a campaign finance reform meeting, came over and got an earful on why Occidental Petroleum's drilling in Colombia is threatening the ancestral lands of the U'wa tribe.

It was a moment that said a lot about Parsley and about some of the leaders of today's protest movements. Like many of them, she is young, mainstream, committed and connected. She is a child of privilege who, like generations of activists before her, fights perceived injustice she herself has scarcely felt.

For the last six weeks a reporter dropped in on her as she made her way from the East Coast to the streets of Los Angeles for this week's convention. Along the way were successes, misfires and always a cell phone.

"I think Jessica provides a good balance between the masses [of protesters] and the people who aren't that far out there," said Kali Coffman, Parsley's roommate and longtime friend. "It's obvious that this is not just the people in gas masks in Seattle anymore."

It was the events in Seattle that motivated Parsley, 28. Long an environmentalist, she made the leap to activist when she saw on television the 50,000-strong protests against the World Trade Organization.

"I realized the movement was up to bat," Parsley said. "The moment was now."

She holds a master's degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School and was employed for two years by the environmental division of the Gap before joining a San Francisco firm that counsels corporations on how to become more eco-friendly. But "environmentally, we weren't making a difference," she said. "It was like putting a Band-Aid on a beast."

She quit and took a sizable pay cut to work for Randall Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network, running the environmental nonprofit's project on campaign finance reform.

Her business experience and contacts were pivotal, Hayes said. "There were plenty of places I could go to find someone with grass-roots activism experience, but she's comfortable with the grass roots and the CEOs. She can cross that strata."

Taking Ideas on the Road

Parsley's odyssey this summer began in July when she joined a group of about 10 veteran activists called Democracy in Motion. They offered workshops on economic issues and protest tactics in more than a dozen cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

The roadshow started in Washington, stopped in Boston and Philadelphia, then headed to Louisville; Lawrence, Kan.; and Denver, among other cities.

Parsley, fueled by frequent doses of caffeine, was constantly in motion. One hour would find her drifting through crowds of protesters, chanting slogans and chatting with allies. The next, she would find a phone line and sit hunched over her laptop exchanging e-mails with activists around the country.

In the midst of it all, she juggled calls to her office and other organizers on her cellular phone.

At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last month, she divided her time among street protests, strategy meetings and staffing the Democracy in Motion table at Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention.

There, she chatted up potential donors for the cash-strapped roadshow. For hours, she took business cards, shook hands and gave out her cellular phone number.

In the afternoon, she snagged a passer-by wearing a suit and tie.

"We're taking this movement to Los Angeles next week," she said earnestly. "We're trying to get big business out of politics. We need your support."

Beside him, a young man in the grunge clothing favored by protesters asked who she works for. "Wow, RAN is so cool," he said. "They're everywhere."

Parsley shifted into twentysomething mode. "Totally," she said, passing him a brochure.

The next day, she was back on the streets hoping to use what she calls the corporate media to get her message out.

"The mainstream media likes photo-ops," she said.

To that end, several times in Philadelphia she donned a risque outfit, a sort of streetwalker version of Lady Liberty, to embody what she calls the prostitution of American democracy by corporations. She wore a gold Statue of Liberty crown, matching pumps, striped hot pants and miniature "Capitol domes" strategically placed over a star-spangled bikini top.

Once she sneaked into the heavily guarded media tent. With fake $1,000 bills tucked into her thigh-high fish-net stockings, Parsley held a sign saying, "Stop Selling Our Democracy." Security eventually caught up to her, but not before a dozen cameras caught her act. Though some protesters scoffed and called her outfit politically incorrect, she insisted she got her point across.

Born and raised in Louisville, Ky., Parsley went to public schools and had no thoughts of activism when she left for Emory University in 1989.

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