14 May 2012

Trayvon Martin petition website launches in the UK

The website used to bring the man accused of Trayvon Martin’s murder to court, launches in the UK with the aim of “radically changing” how the public influences those in power.

Change.org launched on to our global consciousness after a petition to prosecute the man accused of shooting black teenager Trayvon Martin gained a staggering 2.2 million signatories.

Trayvon, 17, was shot and killed in Florida in February following an encounter with armed neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who said he acted in self-defence.

The rapidly growing online platform allows users to launch petitions on any subject and as of Monday, has now launched in the UK. Of the 15,000 petitions it hosts each month, 300 are currently UK-based, but this number is now expected to soar.

The site is billed by its founders as the ‘YouTube of social action campaigns’ and its open-access nature, combined with the wide reach of the internet and accompanying social media campaigns, have enabled the site to develop into a new form of grass-roots community activism.

Change.org helped consolidate support for Bettina Siegel’s campaign: when Ms Siegel learned that ‘pink slime’ – a ground-beef filler – was going to be used in US school dinners, she was horrified. A food blogger and parent, Ms Siegel started a petition to prevent the product – made up of fatty slaughterhouse scraps more commonly used for pet food and banned in Europe – being fed to children.

In under two weeks, she gained 250,000 signatures, the support of several members of Congress and the US department of agriculture was forced to back down. Not only that, but a number of leading companies volunteered to stop selling ‘pink slime’ products, such was the public disdain.

Corrective rape
A campaign to get the South African government to address the problem of ‘corrective rape’ gained 171,000 signatories from 175 countries, resulting in a pledge by the South African parliament to set up an investigative team and increase penalties.

Taking on the banks
Molly Kathcpole, a 22-year-old American graduate set up a petition against Bank of America after it introduced a monthly $5 (£3) for the use of a debit card. Her campaign to leave the bank went viral with 300,000 petitions in three weeks, and America’s second largest bank scrapped plans for card charges.

“We’re radically changing the way in which people can influence those in power to deliver social change at every level,” said Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org.

“From huge international movements, to taking on companies, to hyper-local campaigns thousands of people are logging on, launching campaigns and winning victories every week. The UK has a proud history of campaigning – we’re putting the tools they need right in the hands of the people.”

We’re radically changing the way in which people can influence those in power to deliver social change at every level. Ben Rattray, Change.org founder and CEO

The website has 14 million users worldwide, and other successful peitions include Elizabeth Plank’s campaign to stop boxing bosses forcing female boxers to wear skirts, and a campaign by cabin crew against Ryanair using ‘sexist’ staff images in advertising.

Sites like Change.org have the potential to be an antidote to voter apathy, bypassing politicians and yet harnessing a desire for change. The site’s UK campaigns manager Brie Rogers Lowery says the fact that less than a third of the electorate turned out to vote in the recent local elections reflects a need for an alternative.

“People desperately want their voice heard on issues but no longer trust traditional politics to deliver on them,” she said. “Change.org is here in the UK to fill that gap – giving everyone the chance to build large scale campaigns on issues they care about and deliver change at both a local and national level.”

Current UK campaigns
• Teacher Leo Hardt’s campaign to remove convicted rapist Ched Evans from the Professional Footballers’ Association ‘Team of the Year’,
• Philip Dawson’s campaign to stop MPs accepting interns from a charity which sponsored an event advocating a ‘cure’ for homosexuality,
• Jean Norton’s campaign to save the park that served as the inspiration for the novel Watership Down from development.