America has become a battleground. Not since the days of the Vietnam War has our nation been so divided. Today, those divisions run deep along economic, social, political and philosophical lines. And people are choosing sides. Whether you support President George W. Bush and his policies, it's hard to ignore the obvious: He is presiding over a fractured land. His administration has inspired more acrimony, distrust and fear than anything remotely approaching unity.
The impending 2004 election has come down to a black-and-white duality: "For Bush" and "For anyone but Bush." In this heated and divisive political climate, there seems to be relatively little common ground -- and the stakes have never seemed higher. Yet there is middle ground that may be successfully claimed by both sides. As long as there are folks out there willing to speak up and engage others in the debate over the future of our society, positive change is possible. The struggle for a say in local and national policy decisions isn't so much a political one, with left vs. right, as it is an economic one, with those of modest means fighting to have their voices heard within a political system where big money does most of the talking.
On a national level, groups like MoveOn (www.moveon.org) have helped mobilize millions of Americans into action, bringing them back into the political system -- a system, they claim, which too often caters to the concerns of large corporations before it does the public's interests. In addition to reaching out to people through its Web site, the group has recently published a how-to guide for political activism. 50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change is a collection of essays, each presenting a compelling personal story of action overcoming helplessness. It offers answers to the question more and more of us are asking ourselves these days: What can I do? Members of MoveOn will be in town on Tuesday night to answer that very question during a reading at Auntie's Bookstore.
Perhaps no event of the current political season is inspiring so much protest-based activism as the Republican National Convention scheduled for Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York City. Political, activist and community groups, labor organizations, musicians and people from every corner of the country are, even now, converging on the Big Apple in preparation for a "welcome" the likes of which, it's fair to guess, no sitting president in the history of this nation has ever experienced. As many as 1 million protesters and activists are expected to fill New York's streets. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, is attempting to squelch the festivities with various city ordinances while tip-toeing around the free speech issue.
While the task of addressing national issues from a local level can seem daunting, activism doesn't necessarily have to impact on a massive scale to bring real change. People working together in their own communities can accomplish amazing things. If you're spending each night in front of the tube soaking in CNN while your soaring blood pressure threatens to turn your arteries into Swiss cheese, maybe it's time you got off your duff and did something. Examples of people doing just that are everywhere you look these days. Even in Spokane.
Lupito Flores has been active in progressive nonprofit groups on a local level for the last 10 years. He currently works for the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP), which provides human services, housing and economic opportunities to homeless and low-income families, children and seniors in the Spokane area. He says he first got turned on to political activism during his time at Eastern Washington University.
"I was taking some environmental planning classes and one class called 'The Human Prospect' that basically talked about how screwed up the planet was. Before that, I didn't really care about anything, wasn't political, didn't know what was going on."
He began by lending his writing talents to the Sierra Club's local newsletter and later went to work on the journal of another environmental group, the Spokane Lands Council (www.landscouncil.org). Along with working for Save Our Wild Salmon and the Kettle Range Conservation Group, Flores also acted as coordinator of the Save the Reach campaign, a Tri-Cities group working with the Audubon Society to protect the Hanford Reach natural area. Additionally, Flores is the station manager of KYRS Thin Air Community Radio (www.kyrs.org), a commercial-free, low-power FM radio station that provides Spokane listeners with alternative music, news and current events programming (and where I volunteer). He joined SNAP a year ago.
"We're starting a new group called the Citizen Utility Alliance," he says, "a watchdog group for residential ratepayers -- gas, electric, phone. We're guessing by the first of the year we'll be tapped out unless we get some big grants or new members. Same old nonprofit story."
In spite of the obstacles to progressive change in Spokane (inadequate funding, apathy, etc.), Flores says he's encouraged by the level of activism he's seeing on the local and national scenes.
"There are definitely a lot more young people getting into politics and coming out to rallies and peace marches," he says. "People are getting fed up. And with the Internet, they are finding more resources, alternative news sources and hearing about things more than they have before. They're getting involved and getting to see what else is going on out there."
What's going on is ordinary people becoming politically aware and active. Pure apathy is giving way to what appears to be a pulse.
For example, two weeks ago, when the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance against camping on public land within the city limits, a group of Spokane's homeless residents set up a tent village on the grassy median in the 1000 block of West Riverside in protest of the pending law. The group's struggle continues as it was evicted from the site by the city, but simply having a protest -- any protest -- seemed to add a little spice to life on the Spokane streets.
Over in North Idaho, Democrats are fighting to regain their voice in a state house almost completely controlled by Republicans. Iris J. Byrne, for example, is an active member of the Idaho Democratic Party. She was the Vice Chair of the Shoshone County Democratic Central Committee and as a delegate went to two national conventions. She's also a firm believer in the lost art of letter writing.
"The Idaho Democratic Party is controlled by a few interest groups and people, as is the Republican Party," she admits. "The media in this area is also controlled. We need to get letters to the editor in these conservative newspapers, and we need to get good liberals interested in retaking positions in the Democratic Party so we can get good people elected to public office. Shoshone County is one of the few pockets lingering in this state and was the reason we were able to get good people like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus elected."
For Byrne, paying attention and becoming involved in politics has never been so important as it is right now.
"We need to be up on the issues so we can make informed voting decisions," she says.
Probably the most significant public protest in Spokane recently occurred on June 17 when President Bush was in town for a $1,000-a-plate Republican fund-raising dinner at the Convention Center. Hundreds of protesters turned out downtown along the motorcade route to greet him and to voice their displeasure with his policies. Among them were members of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (www.icehouse.net/pjals), which for almost 30 years has been a major community force in promoting social, political and economic change, non-violence and human rights education. But this time, they weren't alone. They were joined by a multitude representing people of all ages, persuasions and political agendas.
Not all of the protesters were of the grim-faced, fist-waving variety, either. Many of them, in fact, seem to be having a rather good time while sticking it to The Man. The Spokane Radical Cheerleaders, for instance, were on hand, mixing a big dose of fun into their equal rights/pro-choice/pro-activism message. Two of its members, Krista Benson and Mary DuChene, are deeply involved in local activist culture and work with numerous local activist groups and progressive organizations including Counter Crisis (abortion funding and support), Stop the Clock (working to end violence against women), Take Back the Night (rape awareness), PEACH (an organic food co-op) and in staging the Vagina Monologues.
The terms "activist" and "protester" get tossed around a lot. But the differences between the two are worth noting. Activists may use protests to raise issue awareness. But it's certainly not the only weapon in their arsenal.
"The difference between protest and activism is that protests happen and then they're over and you go home," explains Benson. "Activism is something you do all the time -- it's how you live your life. It can be as simple as deciding where you're going to buy your groceries. Making conscious decisions based on your convictions is what activism is all about."
"Actually," she adds. "I hated protests until I started radically cheerleading."
The Radical Cheerleaders (sponsored by Stop the Clock) show up like superheroes at rallies, protests and other politically charged events to engage others on such issues as race, class, gender, gender identity, war, poverty and violence. They convey their message with slogans, cheers and infectious energy.
"What the youth culture has going for it is the whole street theater thing," says DuChene, "where you're loud and provocative and you're having a great time."
Both Benson and DuChene also participated in the March for Women's Lives protest last April in Washington, D.C., in which a million Americans converged on the National Mall in support of reproductive rights and other women's issues.
"It's still overwhelming to think about," says Benson. "I'm from a state [Montana] with 900,000 people in it. I marched with more people than live in the state I was born in."
Activism happens as a result of being aware. And political awareness can be the happy result of an evolution -- or a revolution.
"Ronald Reagan did it for me," laughs DuChene. "But in high school, I didn't know how to be activist, and I didn't know people who were doing it. The Internet has made everything so much easier as far as organizing and finding people with similar viewpoints."
"So many people think that there's no political action going on in this place, and it's just not true," says Benson. "There's tons going on, if you want to find it."
Watch for more stories on local activists as the November election approaches. If you have comments on this story or ideas for future stories, send them email@example.com