At today's "Rally to Save the Internet," a protest in New York City aimed at preserving net neutrality and preventing the Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger, 30 people showed up. And then 50. And then 100. And then 150. And then more.
What was, at first, a fairly unimpressive turnout filled mostly with diehards holding up handwritten signs that said things like "Time Warner + Comcast = Disaster" and "Equal Opportunity Still Loading" turned into a mishmash of tourists, random passersby, businessmen, taxi drivers, students, hippie protester types, and upstart politicians like Tim Wu and Zephyr Teachout.
There were black people and white people, Arab people and Asian people, old people and young people, rich people and poor people. People who might as well live on the internet and those who use it for nothing besides Facebook and Netflix.
"Net neutrality is a kitchen table issue," Teachout said to the crowd. "Everyone has a computer on their kitchen tables, don't they?"
It showed how the battle to save net neutrality isn't solely about what needs to be done or what should be done. It's about the sense of hopelessness when the will of the people goes so starkly against the will of corporations and the politicians those corporations have funded. To the people at the rally, it's clearly Us versus Them and, of the people who really give a shit, just 1 percent of people are with Them.
But They don't care and why would they? The comments don't matter, the votes don't matter. What are The People, who understand little about how regulatory processes work, going to do?
But The People, as it were, do care. Nowhere was that more clear than in front of New York City Hall on Monday. I've covered a number of protests, some big, some small. None of those grew in size as they went on. None of them attracted passersby for more than a photo opportunity. None of those grabbed people's attentions on a busy Monday afternoon and held it for nearly an hour.
Teachout is right. If net neutrality wasn't a household issue at this point, no one would have stopped. No one would have seen signs bearing the names of Time Warner or Comcast and immediately decided that they had to cancel whatever else they were supposed to be doing at 1 PM on a Monday afternoon in order to be there.
At Monday's protest, the people outnumbered the signs, by a long shot. They weren't ready for this protest, they didn't know it was happening (to be fair, it wasn't advertised all that well). And still, they were there and what did they want? Net Neutrality! When did they want it? Now!
It's an argument that, by now, is implicitly understood by the masses. One that might not be on their minds all day, one that might not warrant more than a click on a form letter, but an issue that is understood and cared about nonetheless.
How else do you explain Teachout, an unknown who raised $600,000 total, snagging 34 percent of the New York governor's Democratic primary campaign (against an incumbent with $35 million in the bank), other than because she and Wu ran almost exclusively on a platform of free and open access to the internet?
At one point, a guy wearing a multicolored poncho and holding a sign said, to no one in particular, "Who wants to fight this power for me, I can't right now? Who wants this sign?" There were dozens of people ready and willing to take it from him, who had been aimlessly going about their days five minutes earlier.
Net neutrality may die, Comcast and Time Warner may form the largest ISP of all time. But those people—those random people willing to take that sign, those people who voted for Teachout because they wanted someone uncorrupted by cable company money—should make those interests nervous.