As a veteran of local community activism, I can say with some authority that there are two things missing from much of our region's grassroots agitation that would make a big difference in helping our public policies better reflect the needs and desires of ordinary folks.
One is the doubt many of those folks have that their opinions count and that their actions can help make a difference. The other thing that's often missing is, um—well, how shall I put this?—fun.
Activism—stop the presses—need not be a grind. It can be creative, it can be liberatory, it can be both deeply personal and a social blast. It can be more than sitting through another goddamn meeting.
Which brings us to Rolling Thunder.
More specifically, the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, brainchild of Jim Hightower, former Texas agriculture commissioner, radio and newspaper commentator, and general hell-raiser. But it's not High-tower's idea alone; based on the traditional Western New York chautauqua—popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays—it's also involved many dozens of people in each of the half-dozen or so cities it's hit this summer, making it a peculiar mix of festival, carnival, soapbox, street fair, and extension college. Rolling Thunder will run for 12 hours Saturday, Aug. 24 in east Renton.
Each stop thus far on the tour has looked a bit different, the product of a combination of the national tour's sensibilities and local activist interests. In Seattle, the roster includes speakers (headlining Tom Hayden, Granny D, and, of course, Hightower); any number of bands and other performers (Zap Mama, Holly Near, Fishbone); dozens of workshops (full disclosure: I've been asked to lead one on activism and the media); a full carnival; areas for music jamming and play; and much more.
The goal is twofold: effectiveness and fun. Along with the usual information on issues, a number of the workshops are devoted to developing skills. And in this era when everything seems to be going to hell in a very, very large handbasket, it's also intended as a morale boost: a reminder that we the people really do have the right—not always recognized—to call the shots in this country, that we have the knowledge, passion, and commitment to do so, and that our rights aren't just a rhetorical flourish or nice abstract theory. They really do exist. The instances when policies got changed for the better because ordinary folks gave a damn are legion, if not always acknowledged.
Frankly, at this particular moment in history, we could use the reminder. And we also need inspiration so we'll improve our skills in order to reclaim, right now, the very large portion of our democracy that is being stolen from us. And have fun doing it.
One of my biggest and most consistent frustrations with progressive politics is its insularity: the enormous speaking event or street protest that gets hundreds or thousands of people together and gets them fired up and feeling good (and self-righteous). Then they go home and nothing happens. There's no follow-up, and there's no impact; it was a pep rally that many of the participants (and often the organizers) mistook for the game itself.
Rolling Thunder promises to be different on several scores. First, it does not purport to change the world on its own; that's still our job. Second, it's up front about the fun thing, which is often the guilty little secret of activists who go to events to have a good time but dare not admit it because of that very, very large handbasket. ("Quit laughing! This is serious stuff!") Third, it helps share skills that can be used effectively.
But most importantly, Rolling Thunder promises to break through the insularity. More Lollapalooza than WTO, it should be an event that folks outside the Committed Choir will not only feel comfortable attending but enjoy—where the dancing is not simply a warm-up act for the tear gas, but an end in itself. It's not a bad way to spend a Saturday. It's also not a bad blueprint for future community organizing and for building a movement that not only can but does reclaim that democracy thing. One of the first rules of any attempt to challenge power is not to play to its strength. They'll always do lawyers better than we will; they'll always have more access to violence.
Fun. Now there's something we can do better.
Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., Aug. 24, Petrovitsky Park, Renton. Tickets are $5 in advance, $10 at the door, kids under 12 free, available at Elliot Bay Book Co., Bailey/Coy Books, Take Another Look Books, and others. For more info: www.rollingthundertour.org or 686-2975.