New Internationalist

Rolling Thunder

Issue 351

The Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy (RTD2) tour is inspired by the Chautauqua movement, which was founded in New York State in 1874. People would get together for several days of education, inspiration and enjoyment. By the early 20th century there were 21 travelling Chautauqua companies operating on 93 circuits across the US and reaching 35 million people a year.

On 27 July 2002 the RTD2 tour hit Tucson, Arizona. Some 130 local grassroots groups and 3,000 people attended. It was the third gathering on a tour that is crossing the US. Here’s a sample of what some of the speakers had to say. http://www.rollingthundertour.org>

Jim Hightower

All photos: David Ransom
All photos: David Ransom

We are gathered here in open defiance of the autocratic, plutocratic, anti-democratic rule of King George W, he and his corporate horde of Enroners and WorldComers, Haliburtons and Harken Energizers, downsizers and globalizers, who are trying to ride roughshod over us, our constitution and our democratic values.

They tell me: ‘Hightower, you can’t talk like that any more. Since 11 September everything has changed.’ Even some of our so-called progressive leaders tell us to tone it down, lay low, hush up, support the President, salute the flag, be quiet.

Be quiet? Holy Thomas Paine! If you do not speak up when it matters, when would it matter that you spoke up? The opposite of courage is not cowardice; it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.

Far from being quiet, our challenge and our joyous duty – what fun it is! – is to speak out and to be agitators. The powers that be try to make that term pejorative. Well, hogwash and horse hockey to all that! It was agitators who formed this country. Were it not for agitators we’d all be wearing white-powdered wigs and singing God Save the Queen. And when I say agitators I don’t just mean Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington and the boys. I mean the pamphleteers and the sons of liberty who got right in the face of King George III. I mean Sojourner Truth, the abolitionists and the suffragists, the populists and the Wobblies, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez.

That’s our heritage. That’s what America is about.

Jim Hightower, the moving spirit behind Rolling Thunder, is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and broadcaster who’s most recent book is If The Gods Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given US Candidates, Perennial, 2001.

Granny D

What a great and glorious fight we are in! But let us know we are in it. We did not declare war against corporations. They declared it against us. Can we survive without the little darlings? Yes – with some inconvenience, of course. Can we survive if we let them continue on as they are? Clearly not. What do you do with a villain who trashes your world, threatens the peace and happiness of your town and family, sends your children off to selfish toil or political wars? You put his picture up in the Post Office and you go after him until this public enemy is caged.

Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock celebrated her 89th birthday in 1999 while crossing America on foot to campaign for electoral-finance reform.

Wenonah Hauter

I know people in Tucson have a real understanding of the pending water crisis here – and elsewhere in the US – with the population in the Southwest exploding. Tucson once relied solely on aquifers for water, but now, with over-extraction, the depth of wells is as much as 1,500 feet. The city has started importing supplies from the Colorado River. There’s a lot of talk about privatizing big municipal water systems here in Tucson. Surprisingly, the US has one of the least-privatized water systems in the industrialized world. So the corporations think that they can make a mighty profit. Wherever you live, you have to be vigilant and watch out for these efforts.

Wenonah Hauter works for Public Citizen in Washington DC, which was founded by Ralph Nader.

Isabel García

We are experiencing a human-rights crisis in our own back yard, on the border with Mexico. We have more people dying in one year than throughout the entire Berlin Wall situation. We live in a deconstitutionalized zone. Ask your friends, ask the activists and organizers that are here in your midst, all of our sister organizations who know what it feels like to live in a police state, where the Border Patrol are everywhere around you.

Go into Federal Court any day at one o’clock and you will see a sea of brown men and women, shackled. Their crime? Illegal entry. You see Border Patrol agents shooting at vehicles, unloading their guns and rifles at people in cars. And what is the crime? Illegal entry. Where do you see, even in the worst police agencies across this country, agents getting away with shooting at a car because of who they suspect is in it – even an armed robber or a rapist? Yet you and I permit not only people to die at the border but the Border Patrol to get away with murder.

Isabel García is a legal defender in Tucson and Co-chair of the human-rights group Derechos Humanos.

Tom Hayden

We have to make sure that we don’t let the War on Terrorism have the purpose, intentional or otherwise, of clouding our minds about the loss of our democratic rights. We have to challenge the War on Terrorism. We can have disagreements about whether there’s a moral and political basis for military action against al Qaida. But you don’t burn down the haystack looking for the needle. You don’t kill hundreds and thousands of people in Afghanistan. There are more wars [being fought by the US] than I can count on the fingers of two hands – none of them authorized. I thought there was supposed to be specific Congressional authorization for specific interventions. Instead we have a War on Terrorism that plays on our fears. The fears are legitimate. But people should not shamelessly exploit our fears to concoct an undefined war against unknown enemies, at unlimited cost, for the rest of time, that’s unauthorized and has the effect of suspending our right to dissent.

Tom Hayden, a prominent campaigner against the American war in Vietnam, was accused and acquitted of ‘outside agitation’ after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. He served for many years as an elected representative in the State of California.

Brian Flagg

When I first came to Casa Maria (a centre for the homeless) in 1983 we served 90 people lunch, and they were mostly single men. Since then, every year for 20 years, our numbers have gone up and up and up. Nowadays we’re serving, every day, 500 single people with bag lunches, and 300 families with white-plastic bags with a bunch of groceries. What makes me angry is that we live in the wealthiest, the mightiest, the richest country that the world has ever known. To have people come to our door and have to beg for food is a sin, and it cries out to heaven. And it’s all happening right here, right outside this damned convention center.

Brian Flagg is an outspoken champion of homeless people in Tucson.

Joel Rogers

Most Americans think of themselves, broadly speaking, as progressives. What does that mean? Nothing strictly fancy. We’re not talking about the Red Baron of socialism here. We not talking about the destruction of capitalism.

Almost half the American population entitled to vote believes basically in equal opportunity and shared freedom. Even larger numbers, super-majorities of Americans, support the following basic propositions. Every kid should get educated, housed, fed and some medical assistance. If you work hard you should not be in poverty. The minimum wage should be brought up at least above the poverty line. No American should be without a doctor. Government monies for economic development should go to where the people are, which means our major urban areas. Americans believe in some form of public financing of elections. They want trade, but they want some fair form of it.

These are not revolutionary views. But what’s striking is that we’ve made no progress on any one of them for the last 25 years. Healthcare is less available to kids now than it was 20 years ago. The ability of the working class to send its kids on to college is less now than it was 20 years ago. The minimum wage is down 25 per cent from 20 years ago. Wages for the average American have actually declined over the last generation; most people now are making less than their parents were in 1973.

The basic point of Rolling Thunder is that we’ve met the enemy – and, in some measure, it’s us. It’s progressives who are not getting together to broadcast a simple message with sufficient force that it’s heard by the broader population. We want to reach millions of Americans. Then we will have what we haven’t had for a generation, which is the ability to communicate with each other.

The Right has a story: you should leave everything to markets; government is bad; liberals are destroying our culture. We need an alternative story that goes something like this: this country could be a really cool place to live if it ever got its act together; this place is so rich, so basically unthreatened from abroad, we could be reinventing the world anew; but we won’t get there unless we believe in our central democratic aspirations that got us this far in the first place.

Joel Rogers is Professor of Law, Political Science and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a contributing editor of The Nation. His books include America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, Basic, 2000.

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