Saturday, November 8, 2008

I Have to Testify

Pardon me while I unburdon myself...

I got politically involved at the age of 8 (by making an unavoidable pest of myself until my parents--themselves very politically active--relented & allowed me to accompany them to a meeting about the Vietnam war). That was in 1963. My folks belonged to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so we got their newsletter, The Southern Patriot. I devoured it every time it came to the house, absorbing stories about racial discrimination, brutality, you name it--and the efforts to combat all that. I quickly became a very precocious political activist-grade schooler, haranguing my classmates about civil rights & the war continually. I took part in probably every major antiwar march in NY & Washington DC from 1968-1974 (except the one whose stated intent was to shut down Washington--I knew that wouldn't work & would just end in bloodshed).

Then came high school. Suddenly I was lost in a sea of rednecks. I got caught in the middle of a race riot my first week in high school. There was another a week later, and classrooms emptied so kids could watch. At that moment, I lost all respect for almost everyone in the school. In gym class, people would throw baseballs and basketballs at me. They’d punch me in the back while I was standing on line waiting to get out of gym class. They'd attack me as I walked in the hallways. I was threatened in study hall. (All of this was because I had shoulder-length hair.) Despite all that, in the midst of the worst of the racial tensions, a bunch of us kids, black & white, started talking to each other about what was going on, at first tentatively, then with intense passion. As we talked, a crowd grew around us which quickly became too big to fit in the space we occupied. We moved to the music room, but that quickly filled up as well, so we decided to go to the principal's office and ask for the auditorium. The administration hesitated so we told them they had to give it to us or we'd take it. They responded by opening up the gym to us. So we held an emergency assembly in the gym with the bleachers set up on both sides of the room and a microphone in the middle of the floor. One by one, kids got up & said they felt there was about to be violence & they didn't want it. We basically talked our way through the issue ourselves (the administration had no clue). By the end of the meeting, the tension had been replaced by a new openness and kids started interacting with each other. Participatory democracy is powerful.

I was disillusioned when Nixon was replaced by Ford, then reluctantly voted for Carter (reluctant because my first presidential vote was cast for someone whose campaign platform was the fact that he walked around in a peanut field wearing overalls & swearing he'd never lie to me). Despite that, I still felt optimistic that we could transform American culture into something more environmentally responsible and more perceptive in and domestic policies. Then Ronald Reagan, who I’d always regarded as a right wing kook, was elected in 1980. That was for me the destruction of all the dreams of progress I'd ever had. Mealy-mouthed centrism and economic incompetence was replaced by wacko economics, aggressively militaristic foreign policy and open pandering to racists and assorted other nuts. It’s been a long, hard climb back up to a sense of possibility.

Then along came Barack Obama. I canvassed Easton, PA from Sunday until about 3:30pm yesterday. I canvassed Sunday morning on the south side of Easton, which is apparently the roughest part of the city (it looked to me like Worcester, MA in 1968). The row houses were all on a hillside, so going door-to-door was a matter of going up a hill, knock/talk/leave literature, walk back down the hill. Slow going. The next morning, we canvassed another neighborhood nearby & hit the jackpot—a nursing home. The guy working in the office was an Obama supporter & he’d organized the entire building, arranging for a van to shuttle the residents to & from the polls. Amazing. Then I was sent to canvass Forks Township, which is a vast upper-middle class suburb. I got into an argument with 2 guys who came at me in a (verbally) belligerent way about Reverend Wright. (We were all told not to do this, but I just couldn’t behave myself.) After about an hour, I converted the most hostile of the 2 to an Obama supporter. This put me way behind schedule, so I kept at it until well after dark, which was kind of interesting—there were no street lights, so I couldn’t read the names on the sheets or the addresses of the houses without huddling under the garage lights at each house (it was pretty cold, too).

After canvassing in Forks Township all morning yesterday, I went back to our staging area (the Open Bible Church at 14th & Lehigh in Easton) to eat. As I took in the scene--zillions of people in the basement, waves of volunteers pouring in as others went out to canvass, groups of people being trained in the corners before going out--I was completely overwhelmed & started crying. I felt good going back to NY, not anticipating anything, just feeling a calm certainty. After dinner, my wife (who'd been phone calling with tons of people at BAM while I was in Easton) and I went next door to watch the returns with neighbors. I knew the second they announced the PA results that we had it & said so, but it still didn't sink in. At 11 I was back in our apartment when I heard my wife burst through the door yelling, "we did it!" I ran over to our neighbors to see & as I watched, I started crying like a baby. I've been crying on & off ever since. I’d gotten so used to being bitter, I didn’t even notice it anymore.

Thank God. Thank you. Thank everyone I worked with on the campaign. Thank you to Ken and Ron for your hospitality, witty and intelligent conversation and your commitment to the cause. Thank you Rick for your phone call yesterday—I was on a mission so I couldn’t take the time to talk at length, but it was great to hear your voice. Thank you Mark, John, Pam and Virginia for working with me up & down the streets of Easton. Thank you Eunice Artis for your hospitality in Nazareth. Thank you Tom & Jocelyn Predhome for arranging the rides. Thanks to all the Americans who pulled together and finally put an end to the madness that's been inflicted on us for so long. There are no guarantees that we'll be able to deal successfully with the enormous list of crises left to us by Bush et al, but for the first time in my life I was able to work and vote for a candidate who I genuinely want to be president, and who I am confident has the intellect, instincts and talents to lead this country out of the wilderness. I am really honored to have been able to play some small part in it. (Btw, having never been on the inside of a campaign before at any level, I found it fascinating & really exciting.) I realized afterwards that this is something I've wanted to do my whole life. It's just that we never had a candidate I ever felt I could support unambiguously & I never felt that any previous campaign was open to any other than party insiders.

We're going to face a lot of difficult challenges but I think we're in good hands. I hope Obama keeps his website open & expands it to use for governance, because it's a great tool for both mobilizing popular support and providing feedback. If he takes advantage of that, he can avoid getting stuck in the sort of Washington tunnel vision that seems to affect most if not all politicians who are in DC for any significant amount of time. In any case, he’s right that democracy is our responsibility. So I guess we’ll just have to keep at it (not that anything could stop me, in any case). After all, it’s ours.


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