So, you want to be a communist . . .

Is liberal Seattle still too conservative for you? Well, here's one man's guide to local lefty politics and progressive, grassroots activism

So, you've had it. You can't take any more. You just can't continue to sit on your duff and watch things get worse, and worse, and worse. It's an injustice. Maybe you want to change a law. Maybe you want a revolution.

All your life, you've seen people protesting, the ones marching in the streets or offering earnest opposition at public hearings, laughed off and dismissed: "They're just a bunch of pinko commies." Well, you're not a Democrat, and you're sure as hell not a Republican. Maybe it's as good a label as any. Maybe it's time to make society worry a little, make it a little harder to dismiss that opposition. Maybe it's time you became . . . a communist.

Where do you go?

The Puget Sound area is host to a dizzying array of activist groups, most of which are small, operate on tiny (or no) budgets, have few (or no) staff, and can muster nowhere near the resources of the government or corporate bureaucracies they target. But they have justice, and citizens who care, on their side. Excluding service groups (groups that focus on providing services to underserved populations—shelters, Rotary Clubs, and the like), and excluding the two major political parties, there are still well more than 1,000 environmental groups, peace groups, social justice groups, church committees, unions, community councils, radical art groups, queer groups, women's groups, PTSAs, human rights groups, alternative media groups, campus groups, and, of course, revolutionary sects in our area, trying to influence public or corporate policy.

Generally, these activists are operating under the media's radar—though not for lack of trying. Influencing policy is all about getting attention. But mainstream media's reliance on official sources (elected officials, department heads, corporate flacks) means that private citizens, trying to get an audience, are often given less credibility and little airtime.

The popular perception often is that political activism is a waste of time, and that individuals can't make a difference anymore. But the civil society—political science's term for political actors other than governments and corporations—is becoming increasingly important as government becomes less responsive and fills fewer social needs. At the international level, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are starting to play a key role as agencies that, like corporations but unlike the nation-states that supposedly regulate them, can plan resources on a global scale.

These NGOs sometimes have local chapters in Seattle—Amnesty International, Oxfam, etc. And unions—which are, at their core, simply individuals banding together at the work site to demand more from the boss—range from international to work-site-specific. If all politics are local, so are many of Seattle's activist groups. They are also—despite their fair share of tilting at windmills—at times astonishingly effective. The tidal change in Seattle politics at the City Council level over the past three years can be directly traced to community activism: the West Seattle movement that first elevated Charlie Chong to prominence, the anti-Commons campaign that linked him to aide Matthew Fox, the anti-stadium battle that brought longtime activist Nick Licata back into the public eye.

Most members of the present City Council, in fact, have at least some experience on their personal r鳵m鳠as rabble-rousers, working with groups on the outside looking in.

So, assuming that you're mad as hell and not gonna take any more—or maybe that you're just tired of complaining and doing nothing— where are ya gonna go? You could start your own group, but it's likely that there's already someone out there working on the issues you're interested in.

Once you find the group (or groups) with your interests, the next question arises: Can you work with these people? This is, after all, Seattle, where process reigns supreme and meetings are a favored form of political entertainment. Political and personal schisms are, along with sheer poverty, the main causes of groups falling apart. And all sorts of studies suggest that for volunteer-dependent groups, which includes almost all political activist groups, the social environment is far more important than shared goals in determining whether folks stay or leave. More than a few activists get involved because it's a good way to meet people. But don't tell anyone; it might jeopardize the sanctity of the revolution.

This brings us to the next question: What do you want to do (other than attend meetings)? Activist groups, living from one grant, fund appeal, or hat-passing to the next, generally need to have donated the people skills that your workplace simply buys. That can include specialized skills (legal, accounting, computers, writing, public speaking) or the more mundane (typing letters, stuffing envelopes, phone banking). The compensation is the social environment—which tends to be a mixture of annoying flakes, interesting people, and truly remarkable individuals—and the hope that sooner or later your work will contribute to making something better.

In my experience—and I've been going to meetings for a frightful 20 years now—the most important payoff of political activism is neither social nor political. It's personal. I simply feel better doing something than I do sitting aside and doing nothing. More importantly, doing this sort of work has forced me to examine more closely who I am, what I believe in, and how that translates to my daily life.

Of all of the political groups and issues, including some nationally significant victories, that I've worked on, probably the most significant was one of the first. I was at draft age when Jimmy Carter reinstituted male draft registration— to send the Soviets some sort of message on Afghanistan—in 1979. (The Soviets are gone, but this idiotic law remains today.) I went public with my opposition, and even though we didn't overturn the law, I was forced to articulate moral beliefs I'd never thought much about—and got a lot of public support for it. For a 20-year-old, it was an exhilarating experience. The in-fighting and cliques in that group also drove me out of activism, until, a couple of years later, I was interviewing a local activist on the very same issue for a radio station in Houston, Texas. We hooked up, and my experience advocating Gandhian nonviolence in Texas taught me a lot about composure in the face of adversity (and hostile cops).

Sometimes, advocating a cause, you learn survival skills.

Occasionally you win, too. Tiny, and not so tiny, examples abound. The Cedar River watershed is on the verge of being preserved from clearcutting for the next 50 years because a handful of people from Earth First! and the Pacific Crest Biodiversity Project sat down in a room in 1997 and formed the Protect Our Watershed Alliance (POWA). At a time when no government official or mainstream environmental group was willing to consider not cutting in the watershed at all, POWA first made it an option, then made it the option with overwhelming public support. A new group called Resist the List, whose membership could comfortably fit in anybody's kitchen, forced the state to modify its HIV-positive names-reporting protocol. A surprisingly small number of advocates have managed to get laws passed in cities across the country, prohibiting public contracts with companies that do business with the illegal military regime in Burma. (Seattle, uniquely, turned the proposal down by a 5-4 City Council vote, but it may come back.) Most people in Seattle, or Portland (which did pass such an ordinance), could not care less about Burma, or even find it on a map; but the few who did managed to send a message heard halfway around the world.

A list of ways in which activist groups make a difference could go on, from cleaning up parks to lobbying on national legislation. But it's somewhat besides the point. The effectiveness of activism works in concentric circles: First, you influence yourself. Then, you influence your family, your friends, the people around you. Then, maybe, you change something in a community. And on a really good day, you change the world.

Read our list of some of the more effective groups working for political change in the Seattle area:

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