Sunday, August 31, 2008

Convention Watch: Shifting Electoral Winds

Barack Obama received a predictable post-convention bump in most polls, but the race for president remains fluid. John McCain’s surprise pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is expected to excite the Republican conservative base and possibly help him make inroads with women and independent voters.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Gustav provides the Bush administration and GOP with a chance at redemption, showing that it puts the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast above convention hoopla. Most of Monday's planned activities have been suspended.
It also gives President Bush and Vice President Cheney a defensible reason not to attend, which comes as a relief to more than a few Republicans.

In the end, nevertheless, the election again could be decided by how the winds shift in Ohio, Florida, plus a few Rocky Mountain states. According to various state polls, Obama is virtually certain to win in 10 states, with a total of 146 electoral votes. These include Democratic strongholds in the Northeast, as well as California and Obama’s home state of Hawaii. McCain appears to have a lock on 101 electoral votes in 13 states, mainly in the South and the Central Plains. Obama is also favored in five more states in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, which would net him another 44 votes. McCain is favored in nine with 82 votes, including more of the South, Indiana, Montana, and his home state of Arizona.

But even if all this goes as expected, neither candidate would have the 270 Electoral College votes required. Obama looks slightly ahead in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, while McCain currently has an edge in Virginia, Arkansas, and Missouri. Assuming there are no upsets that still gives Obama only 255 votes from 19 states and McCain 213 from 25. This would leave five toss up states – Ohio, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire – with a total of 70 votes.

McCain’s campaign hopes hold on to the states that Bush won in 2004 and pick off Michigan, Pennsylvania or another Democratic-leaning state where he’s in striking distance. But that’s not certain and he meanwhile faces a challenge in Virginia. In Northern Virginia, Obama could benefit from increased Black voter turnout. To compensate, McCain is expected to target military families.

Obama is aggressively going after Colorado, where he accepted the Democratic nomination, and Iowa, where his positions and campaign organization could give him an edge. In addition, one or more Bush states could flip, including Michigan and Pennsylvania. McCain could take New Hampshire, but only four electoral votes are at stake and New England has clearly shifted Democratic in recent years.

Even if Obama doesn’t win, Democratic congressional majorities are expected to grow. The Democrats have advantages in fundraising, candidates, and polls that ask people which party they want to run Congress. In the Senate, the Democrats currently have a 51-49 majority and five retiring senators are Republican, three in states that Democrats look likely to win. No Democratic senators are retiring. The Democrats’ Senatorial Campaign Committee has a 2-to-1 cash advantage, which should help to extent their majority no matter who wins the presidency.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fake News: Lost in Iran-slation

Ever wonder what would happen if Sean Hannity – or maybe Stephen Colbert – went to Iran? Well, here’s how it might go, courtesy of Jesse Guma, a film producer working in Los Angeles. Enjoy.

PS. Full disclosure: He’s my son, he shot this satire in Iran, and he actually can pronounce Ahmadinejad.

In Duvalier’s Haiti: Poverty & Privilege

At noon we waited for the electricity, watching the bare light bulb for a sign. In the afternoon we drank rum and listened to reggae music. After the lights went out again at five we picked out nodes of brightness – hotels, hospitals, the palace, the “Vive Duvalier President a Vie” neon sign downtown.

I’d made a deal to crash at Herve’s house. He was renovating an old ruin along the Rue Pan Americaine, gradually turning it into an art gallery. He was doing all right but needed the cash and had an extended family to support. At 28 Herve was well-traveled, attractive, optimistic and occasionally a bit outrageous. He called himself a “tastemaker.” His gallery was certainly tasteful enough – quality paintings, ironwork and pottery. Artists and intellectuals gravitated to his scene, a nice home plus rum and evenings of bright conversation about change.

In some ways Herve reminded me of an old Bennington friend, the determination, artistic vision, energy and stubbornness, fired by a deep desire to create a cultural movement. Herve’s politics were a bit naïve for my taste – cultural revolution through art – but his desire to improve life in Haiti was compelling and absolutely sincere.

Each day we’d do errands in his Lancer, pickups at the day care center, food buying and visits to the Centre D’Art, speeding through places, classes and moods. On the car radio the announcer would talk about power rationing for the day. One area we visited was called Brooklyn. Why? I asked. “Because it is so bad,” he said, “nothing for the people.” Yet not as bad as some places, he quickly added. At least Brooklyn was near water and had some open space. True enough, but there were absolutely no trees.

The scene contrasted starkly with the lifestyle of the elite, especially places like San Souci. My first impression upon entering the place was “wow,” more white people than I’ve seen in a week. We had come to take in some “folkloric” dancing – AKA phony voodoo – in the hotel nightclub. Before long a white-suited black man worked his way toward us through the crowd, laughing effusively all the way.

This was Aubelan Jolicoeur, gossip columnist, one-time Minister of Culture, recently fired as Minister of Tourism. To young Haitians he was a fool, a caricature and maybe an informer. To people in search of the “bourgeois welcome,” however, he was “Mister Haiti.” He stopped by our table, made the required small talk, then took his hustle elsewhere.

Despite a recent loss of status Jolicoeur still had contacts with the hotels and in the art world. The backstory was provided by Ira, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student studying in the countryside. He’d come to the city for a monthly visit. After an 82 cent dinner and some cheap rum he was at San Souci to reaffirm his anger.

Ira was obsessed with the contrast of privilege and poverty. Habitation LeClerc, originally built for Napoleon’s sister and now a jet set haven, was located in the midst of an incredible slum, he pointed out, yet its guests never saw the reality on the other side of the resort’s high walls. “Those are very rich people,” he said, “people who don’t have to be on business trips to be here.”

The tourists moved to poolside to watch the on-stage show, a collection of three dances with flute and drum interludes. As the lights came up six performers charged on stage wearing tinseled costumes that absurdly exaggerated Latin style. During Act One – a “fertility” dance – two women let their halters drop. “This reinforces every racist stereotype people have,” Ira said.

As the dance continued the two darker women left the stage, leaving a half-nude, light-skinned beauty and one man to complete the “ritual.” Ira snapped, “The white bitch stays! Do you really think that black men have bigger pricks and black women like to screw? Maybe we’ll get some progressive nudity.”

We didn’t. Instead, after a flute solo the rest of the dancers returned for Act Two as “peasants,” barefoot and laughing in colorful hats. “In the city they have a Loa called Uncle Zaca, who doesn’t exist in the country,” Ira said. “He’s the Loa of the country people, a stooge. That’s how he’s portrayed. Look at those dancers, laughing like peasants. Ridiculous. And barefoot. An anthropologist once went into the countryside to see a Voodoo ceremony. He was very surprised to see people wearing shoes. ‘I didn’t know peasants wore shoes during ceremonies,’ he said. And I said, ‘When they can get shoes they like to wear them.’”

The “peasant” dance, basically rural folk leaping around with baskets, was ludicrous. But Act Three exceeded it in grotesque exaggeration. It began with eight dancers, all wearing red. One guy brandished flaming sticks to the sound of insistent drumming. The women circled while exchanging mock-possession shouts.

Suddenly, a dancer jumped into the pool, screaming, moaning and writhing. This brought the audience to its feet. The MC and choreographer “tried” to pull her out and off stage. But she crawled back, as if involuntarily drawn to the guy with the flaming sticks, a stand-in for the fire god.

A second dancer fell to the ground, flipping like a beached fish. Then a third. They crawled around as the “fire god” danced above them, flicking sparks from the torches. The orchestrated frenzy reached its final crescendo and then abruptly ended. The males carried the women off, still “possessed.”

“There you have it,” quipped Ira. “Three’s the magic number.”

Before we left I asked him to define his rage. The city elite lived in luxury, surrounded by intolerable conditions, he said. Child mortality ran high, people were starving, and the middle class was practically non-existent. The San Souci show was a classic display of what was wrong with Haiti – blacks distorting their own culture and then changing into Gucci to go home, whites watching absurd caricatures they took for reality. “But you can’t feel pity,” he added, “because these people know what’s going on and have a lot going for them despite their poverty. So the only response that seems to work is anger.”

“But when you’re angry you usually feel compelled to act,” I said. “It you don’t it becomes frustrating.” He agreed but had no answer, just two more years in Haiti to figure it out.

As the days drifted by the crisis became the norm. Rich Haitians drilled wells while the poor broke water lines with machetes to fill their buckets. The government issued warnings about the need to conserve, but in the wealthy enclaves people still washed their cars. Drought and famine swept the countryside as experts cautioned about impending catastrophe. The forests had been destroyed to produce charcoal, the only fuel most people could afford. But unchecked soil erosion was underway. Forest devastation was altering the climate; the land was getting hotter and retaining less water as the water table fell.

“The environment is shot,” one local expert concluded. “We are beginning to see the effects of galloping devastation.” A radio commentator had his own analysis” “God is not the problem. The problem is man.” This sounded true. Not much was left of Haiti that hadn’t been either destroyed by war and poverty or purchased by investors. Words like independence and human rights sounded empty in the face of ecologically ruin and a greedy, corrupt and potentially brutal regime. The country’s capacity to recover looked fatally damaged.

As a temporary escape from bleak reality we took in a movie. Actually, it was the first Haitian feature film ever produced. Shot with one camera and amateur actors, Olivia was a theatrical disaster. But movies were a popular pastime in Port-au-Prince, and the audience was oblivious to the pabulum plot about a country girl trying to make it in the city. She ended up having an illegitimate kid and finding a rich boy friend. It was a storybook Haiti that didn’t exist, but one the crowd in the theater preferred to crumbling real life.

Chapter Twelve of Prelude to a Revolution

Previous Chapters:

Hard Times in Duvalier's Haiti

Baby Doc's Haiti: Low Expectations

More on Haiti: Lambi Fund

Next week: Media Alternatives

Friday, August 29, 2008

Convention Watch: The American Promise

When it ended, even harsh critics had to admit that it was strong and memorable, one of the best acceptance addresses ever delivered. In “The American Promise,” Barack Obama made the case for his candidacy, outlined a clear agenda, inspired his audience, and threw down the gauntlet before John McCain. “I don’t believe that Senator McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans,” he said. “I just think he doesn’t know.” Here’s the speech:

The Republicans attempted to deflate the enthusiasm with now familiar criticisms about Obama’s inexperience, responding to rhetorical skill and charisma as if they were somehow suspect. At the same time, however, a McCain spokesman hinted that the Republican convention might be postponed if Tropical Storm Gustav strengthens into a hurricane and hits the Gulf Coast on Monday, and The Washington Post reported that President Bush might cancel his appearance Monday, ostensibly for the same reason.

On Friday, McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate. Elected Alaska's first woman governor in 2006, she would also be the first Alaskan on a national ticket and the first woman GOP nominee.

In accepting the call, Palin referred to Hillary Clinton's run for president, and said, "it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all." On the other hand, she questioned the VP job in an interview a month ago, saying it didn’t seem “productive.” In fact, she admitted that she didn’t know what the vice president does.

A hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico could draw attention to the offshore oil rigs, mentioned by McCain as a solution to rising gas prices, being evacuated in the face of the storm. But it also begs the question – raised by evangelical leaders about some other natural disasters –of whether a judgment is being rendered – in this case on the Republicans. If the administration fails to respond effectively this time, it could be a turning point in the campaign.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Convention Watch: The Anti-War Message

After a peaceful march of about 7,000 people to the Democratic Convention Wednesday, a representative of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) met with Phil Carter, head of veterans affairs for the Obama campaign to deliver a letter to the candidate. IVAW has asked Obama to endorse three goals – immediate withdrawal, full veterans benefits, and reparations for the Iraqi people – and allow their letter to be read at the convention. Carter promised to get a response. Obama’s current Iraq plan is phased withdrawn with a “residual force” to remain behind.

For more stories, go to Convention Watch, a guide to highlights, protests, and convention history. For Pacifica Radio coverage, go to Election or KPFA’s Live Coverage. Photo courtesy of Phil Weinstein and the Alliance for Real Democracy.

Baby Doc’s Haiti: Low Expectations

After Papa Doc Duvalier’s death in 1971 Haiti attracted some renewed financial interest from the US, France, Germany and Canada. Most of it came in the form of loans, however, so the country’s deficit grew. Projects were launched only to be abandoned. During my trip in 1977 a World Food Program administrator explained it to me this way: “The real problem in any project here is maintenance. After you spend several years developing crops or putting up buildings there’s no grassroots support for keeping it going, no decentralization of effort. When money comes into the country it goes directly to Port-au-Prince.”

He was just as skeptical about tourism. “People on cruises don’t spend much money and don’t stay long,” he said. “Tourism isn’t the way for Haiti to go, the income won’t reach the peasants. It will go to the resort owners.”

Public aid and private investment were closely linked. The French focused on tourism, the US went with labor-intensive assembly lines. By 1976 more than 150 American manufacturers were producing for export. But the workers making the baseballs, electric motors, electronic components, ready-to-wear clothing and tiny football action figures for the Superbowl were getting only a $1.30 a day.

“The government is full of crap,” said Florian, a 40-something Haitian who had just quit his job as a social planner. It was just too frustrating. I asked for an example. When a $2 million loan was given for an irrigation project in Les Cayes, he said, only $400,000 was actually used for the work. The rest went to Haitian officials and American consultants. His picture was gloomy. There was no way to repay the flood of loans. Taiwanese efforts to develop a rice crop were “really making agriculture worse.” More foreigners were arriving since Jean-Claude Duvalier – known as Baby Doc – succeeded his father. “The ten percent – the literate and the wealthy – are squeezing the 90 percent and are helped by the regime,” he said.

We also talked about Jacmel. After several days in the crowded capital I’d retreated to this scenic spot on the southern coast. It’s a mulatto town, he noted, and didn’t respond to the “negritude” movement or even vote for Duvalier back in 1957. As a result it was “punished,” its schools closed and services cut. Conditions had improved lately, he admitted. At least the schools were operating again. But pressure to back the regime remained intense. Tontons still watchdogged the peasants and posters of Baby Doc and his mother lined most of the streets.

The day after I returned from Jacmel a series of blackouts began. More than half a million people in Port-au-Prince spent the night in total darkness. The next day Gary, a local DJ, explained that, due to drought and broken equipment, there was only enough power to cover five hours a day. He’d just come from a meeting where officials promised to order a Delco generator.

“It’s a bad nostalgia trip,” he joked, a reminder of the old days with Papa Doc when power was cut off for two hours every evening. US interests controlled the electric company at the time and its director was one of the most hated residents. Since 1971, though, Port-au-Prince had been getting 24-hour service.

Gary’s reaction was paranoia, a relatively common and largely justified point of view. The blackout could lead to a coup, he predicted, the “dinosaurs” rising up against Jean-Claude’s poor management. The signs were scarce but he was taking no chances. His plan was to leave the country.

This irritated Herve, an art gallery owner my Vermont friends Robin and Doreen had recommended. “Look, here we are,” he said, “with the windows open, talking about these things.” He wanted Haitians to stop bickering, come together, and work for change. Gary doubted it would happen. His immediate solution was to drown his sorrows at a plush disco in suburban Petionville. Like the expensive hotels, discos had their own generators to handle blackouts.

For most city dwellers a day without electricity was nothing new. Even water could be a luxury. Exploring Port-au-Prince I sensed my privilege. I wasn’t with the elite – days at poolside, nights in air-conditioned bars and hotels. But this was just a visit. For millions of Haitians it was permanent and almost unbearable.

After two weeks word came that Robin and Doreen would be delayed. That meant I was on my own – and running out of money. After my troubles back in Vermont I was still unsettled, but Haiti had been surprisingly restful so far. “I’m ready to live a quieter life now,” I wrote in my journal, “to let go of some of my anxiety. But it is with me beneath the calm. It is contained within my expectations, which cannot fully be met even with the best of luck. Well, perhaps I can limit – not lower – my expectations, ration them like food or drugs, entertainment or a fixed income. I expect to continue writing. For the moment, one expectation at a time is enough.”

Chapter 11 of Prelude to a Revolution

News Update: Protests Over Food Costs

Next: In Duvalier’s Haiti -- Poverty & Privilege

Convention Watch: Realizing the Dream

As a tropical storm threatened New Orleans, Democrats made history in Denver on August 27 by selecting Barack Obama as their candidate for president. Forty-five years after Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincolm Memorial in Washington, DC, Obama became the first biracial candidate selected by a major political party in US history. See this historic moment below.

Hillary Clinton led the way, ending a partial roll call vote when she requested his nomination by acclamation. Even the most jaded observers were moved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Convention Watch: Hillary Hits the Mark

Day Two of the Democratic Convention was supposed to focus on “Renewing America’s Promise.” But the real drama revolved around Hillary Clinton, specifically how she’d handle two big tasks – bringing her disappointed supporters around to Barack Obama and taking the fight to John McCain. She managed both with power and grace, a performance so convincing that if Obama does lose in November she’ll be impossible to blame.

It was also a day to test catch phrases and attack jokes. Describing McCain’s support for the Bush agenda, Sen. Bob Casey offered a clever entry: “That’s not a maverick, that’s a sidekick.” According to pundit Jeffrey Toobin, this is what the Democrats need, “something simple and easy to remember.”

If that’s the challenge, Clinton came ready to play. “No way, no how, no McCain,” she began. And later, “we don’t need four more years of the last eight years.” But her rim shot was a play on St Paul and Minneapolis, location of the upcoming GOP convention. “It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities,” she said, "because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart.'' Ba-dum!

Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s keynote talk was a letdown, especially considering that four years ago his spot was filled by Obama, who galvanized the hall and launched himself nationally. Instead, Warner served up marginal remarks aimed at independent voters. Describing the race as a choice between the past and the future, he barely mentioned the GOP candidate.

But Hillary was ready to do the heavy lifting. Watched from on high by her husband, she urged unity “as a single party with a single purpose” and made the case against McCain – more war, lost jobs, privatized social security, opposition to equal pay for women, and the threat of a “Supreme Court in a right wing headlock,” to name but a few. She also challenged her supporters. “Ask yourselves,” she said, “Were you in this campaign just for me?” Leaving no doubt about how she hopes they’ll answer the question, Clinton declared, “Barack Obama is my candidate” and she can’t wait to watch him “sign into law a health care plan that covers every American.” All in all, a hard act to follow.

For more stories, go to Convention Watch, a guide to highlights, protests, and convention history. For Pacifica Radio coverage, go to Election or KPFA’s Live Coverage.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Convention Watch: Heart & Family Values

Day One of the Democratic Convention left some hungry for “red meat” attacks on George W. Bush and John McCain. But convention planners and Team Obama decided to go for the heart, driving home their “One Nation” theme with moving speeches by Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama. “This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” said Kennedy, echoing a line minted by his brother, President John Kennedy. “The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

Deflating criticisms that she and her husband are too cool and “elitist” to connect with average people, Michelle Obama delivered a warm, emotional appeal, strong on family, values and love of country. “All of us are driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won't do – that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be,” she said. “That is the thread that connects our hearts.”

Talking heads decried the decision not to go negative right away as a wasted opportunity. “We are a country that is in a borderline recession, we are an 80 percent wrong-track country. Health care, energy — I haven't heard anything about gas prices," argued former Clinton strategist James Carville. “If this party has a message it's done a hell of a job hiding it tonight.”

But weren’t the Democrats just taking a page from the GOP cookbook -- first warm the heart, then go for the jugular? If that’s the recipe, some raw steak is about to be served and the head chef will be Hillary Clinton.

Outside the convention, about 100 protesters were being processed today at Denver's temporary jail in a former warehouse, The Denver Post reports. On Monday night, riot police used pepper spray to force protesters out of the Civic Center, then blocked them from reaching the 16th Street Mall.

For more stories, go to Convention Watch, a guide to highlights, protests, and convention history. For Pacifica Radio coverage, go to Election or KPFA’s Live Coverage.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Convention Watch: Cindy Sheehan Bugged?

When anti-war activist and congressional candidate Cindy Sheehan returned to her room in Denver today, “there was a man standing by my desk holding the room phone with a screwdriver in his hand,” she said. For more stories, go to Convention Watch, a guide to highlights, protests, and convention history. For Pacifica Radio coverage, go to or KPFA's Live Coverage

Hard Times in Duvalier’s Haiti

As I walked across a hot, treeless airfield from the plane to the ramshackle Duvalier International Terminal building in March 1977, a row of black faces stared down from the second floor balcony. Later, on the cab ride into the city, we passed wave after wave of makeshift houses and thousands of thin, dark Haitians.

The poverty was extreme; starving dogs searching the dirt roads, mothers cradling emaciated babies in their bony arms, young men struggling with huge carts of charcoal. Naked children, lanky teens and hobbled old folks wandered listlessly down the rutted roads. Drivers talked with their horns. Some people dressed in simple “western” clothing, and there were a few modern cars. But the tiny middle class was eclipsed by the pervasive deprivation.

On the advice of two friends, I'd flown there two days after turning 30. It had been a rough winter so far. My marriage had broken up and there was trouble at Burlington College. Travel and get a different perspective, they suggested. It made sense. I’d been so focused on work and Vermont for almost a decade that I’d missed the chance to explore the world.

They also had the perfect destination: the first Independent Black Republic, ruled by a corrupt dynasty, infused with both Catholicism and Voodoo. They were working on a new film, an animated history using indigenous Haitian art. I could go ahead and they’d join me later. Meanwhile, they could provide contacts and point me to some interviews. Given my dark mood it seemed like a frightening brilliant idea.

The day I arrived the tourist newspaper had a photo of Jean-Claude Duvalier on the cover, chubby in a conservative suit, grinning and sporting long sideburns. The paper said he had lots to be happy about. Haiti’s soccer team had just beaten Cuba, after all, and an “economic revolution” was getting underway. Hey, they might even find oil in Port-au-Prince Bay, the rag speculated. But reality was another matter. For example, workers at Habitation LeClerc, an exclusive $150 a day resort, were on strike for better pay. The bellboys refused to take out the garbage. When a brawl erupted the hotel manager was hospitalized.

Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier had died in 1971 after ruling Haiti for almost 20 years. But before leaving the planet he passed on his title – President for Life – to his chuckle-head son. With a taste for fast cars, a jet set lifestyle and $200 million stashed in foreign banks, the new president was downplaying the “iron rule” image at the time.

The new line was progress – with a smidgeon of liberalism. Jimmy Carter, US president and Trilateral Commission man of the year, apparently liked what he was hearing and promised more development aid. But the liberalism was superficial. Press freedom needn’t mean much when the criticisms targeted Jean-Claude or his Tonton Macoute, the thuggish “national security volunteer” force he’d inherited from dad. With US assistance, Baby Doc – that was the new boss’s unofficial nickname – had even trained his own Delta-style force, the Leopards, just in case armed struggle broke out.

Not even progress looked promising. Investors poured in bucks, but the country was heading for ecological disaster. Drought, crop failures, deforestation, food shortages, bad drinking water, major electrical outages, severe malnutrition and malaria – Haiti had it all. Meanwhile the regime’s two factions argued among themselves – the “dinosaurs,” old time followers of Papa Doc who lined up with his Madame Duvalier, versus the younger “Jean-Claudists.” A mother and child disunion was only a moment away.

Haiti’s story was both heroic and tragic. The richest of the Caribbean colonies, once known as the “pearl of the Antilles,” had become the poorest nation in the Americas. Portuguese slave traders had begun bringing Blacks to the island of Hispaniola as early as 1510. The Spanish had already killed off the Indians that Columbus found there two decades before. Spain eventually ceded the western part of the island to France, and the slave trade accelerated until the end of the 18th century.

Around the time of the French Revolution, one slave read a book by Abbe Raynal, a French priest calling for freedom and revolution. That 45-year-old coachman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, became Haiti’s liberator, a fearless warrior who mastered politics and intrigue. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France, Toussaint had issued a constitution outlawing slavery. He tried to negotiate, but the little corporal assembled 60,000 troops, the largest expeditionary force in history, and tried to overrun the island. He did capture Haiti’s hero, and Toussaint died in a French prison.

In the end, a combination of indomitable resistance and yellow fever stopped the French. Saint Dominique was declared an independent republic in 1804, taking the name Haiti from the Indian word for “land of mountains.” But the country was in ruins, literally burned to the ground, and the next century was a violent time of serial dictatorship and deepening conflict between blacks and mulattos.

In 1915, the US stepped in. With a local uprising threatening US business interests, Woodrow Wilson decided to send in the Marines and set up a protectorate, touting the invasion as part of his “open door” policy. The troops remained for the next 19 years. When Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1934, the local reaction was blunt; crowds tore up bridges and telephone lines. The new empire answered with martial law. The greatest atrocity of the period was the slaughter of 20,000 Haitians working in the adjacent Dominican Republic, victims of a plan by that country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, to cut down the “foreign” labor force by murdering it. For that one Haiti’s government eventually received some compensation, $500,000 or $25 per death.

Papa Doc began his career with government jobs and US aid projects in the 1940s, an era of strikes and calls for “black power.” Speaking for blacks, who were often treated as second-class citizens by the less numerous but politically more powerful mulattos, he created a private army, the Tonton Macoute, who followed his orders, murdered his enemies, and acted like feudal warlords.

In 1957 Duvalier was elected president. The regime quickly degenerated into a dictatorship of unrelenting repression. Haiti was blacklisted from international aid and Papa Doc assumed a lifetime term, using Voodoo as a powerful tool of fear. His Macoutes, sporting “uniforms” of Denham and dark sunglasses, were so macabre that they seemed like zombis, the walking dead.

Part Ten of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Haiti under Baby Doc

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Breaking Out of the Empire Box

Three days after the 2008 presidential election, no matter which political party takes the White House, a convention will be held in Vermont’s Statehouse to consider more radical solutions to the problems facing the nation. The organizing group is the Second Vermont Republic, a citizens’ network that aims to dissolve the United States and, in particular, return Vermont “to its status as an independent republic.”

This may sound unlikely, if not impossible. Yet a recent Zogby poll commissioned by the Middlebury Institute, a think tank studying “separatism, secession, and self-determination," indicates that that 20 percent of Americans think “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede from the United States and become an independent republic.” More than 18 percent told pollsters that they “would support a secessionist effort in my state.”

Could it happen? Frank Bryan, a political scientist who co-authored a 1989 book that called for restructuring Vermont democracy along decentralist lines, has argued that “the cachet of secession would make the new republic a magnet" and "people would obviously relish coming to the Republic of Vermont, the Switzerland of North America.” For Thomas Naylor, the former Duke University professor who launched the movement in 2003, the question isn’t “if” but “when.”

“Lincoln persuaded the public that secession was unconstitutional and immoral,” Naylor has noted. “It’s one of the few things that the left and right agree on. We say it’s constitutional – and ultimately it is a question of political will: the will of the people of Vermont versus the will of the government to stop us.”

As you might guess, there’s no shortage of skeptics. According to Vermont attorney and historian Paul Gillies, "It doesn't make economic sense, it doesn't make political sense, it doesn't make historical sense. Other than that, it's a good idea." Vermont archivist Gregory Sanford even claims that some of the arguments for secession, in Vermont at least, are based on “historical facts of dubious reputation.” The State Archives often gets requests for copies of an "escape clause" in the Vermont Constitution, which supposedly allows Vermont to withdraw from the US. “The truth, drawn from documents, is less satisfying; there is no, nor has there ever been, such an escape clause,” he says.

But the underlying issue isn’t whether there is legal authority, but why millions of people across the country think it’s a reasonable and attractive idea. An answer worth considering is provided by Rob Williams, editor of Vermont Commons, a newspaper that covers secession and related issues. "The argument for secession is that the US has become an empire that is essentially ungovernable – it's too big, it's too corrupt and it no longer serves the needs of its citizens," he explains. "Congress and the executive branch are being run by the multinationals. We have electoral fraud, rampant corporate corruption, a culture of militarism and war. If you care about democracy and self-governance and any kind of representative system, the only constitutional way to preserve what's left of the Republic is to peaceably take apart the empire."

Vermont has been fertile ground for such “outside the box” thinking in the past. For example, the state didn’t immediately join the new United States after the War of Independence, remaining an independent state from 1777 until 1791. Plus, half a century later it was the first state to elect an Anti-Mason governor during a period when opposition to the secret society was growing.

The Anti-Mason movement – which elected two governors and ran a candidate for president in 1832 – lasted only a decade, and most of its political leaders eventually joined either the short-lived Whig Party or the more durable Republicans. Along the way, however, it pointed out the dangers of elite groups and, on a practical level, initiated changes in the way political parties operated. The Anti-Masonic Party wasn’t only the first third party in US national politics. It introduced the concept of nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms, reforms soon embraced by the other parties.

This wasn’t the only time a short-lived political movement produced unexpected change. In 1912, the new Progressive Party, formed by Theodore Roosevelt when he lost the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft, led to the election of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt soon left the Party, but its work continued under the leadership of Robert La Follette. Although La Follette’s run for president in 1924 netted only 17 percent of the vote, he won in his home state of Wisconsin, and successful reforms were implemented there.

So, what can a campaign for secession accomplish, even if the goal isn’t achieved? To answer that, consider the basic agenda underpinning the Second Vermont Republic: political independence, human scale, sustainability, economic solidarity, power sharing, equal access, tension reduction, and mutuality. Running through it all is a strong decentralist thrust. Secession advocate Kirkpatrick Sale describes decentralism as a “third way,” already evident in bioregional movements, cooperative and worker-owned businesses, land trusts, farmers markets, and a wide variety of grassroots initiatives.

In a recent article assessing whether Vermont could “go it alone,” Bill McKibben argues, “Functional independence would be the proper first step, and useful in its own right.” He also provides a list of practical projects to help create more food self-sufficiency, energy independence, and local economic power. Although he thinks “any political independence movement is going nowhere now” – the main reasons given are the hope offered by Barack Obama and problems requiring global action – McKibben’s advice is to build some affection and trust in the meantime by sharing information and making small but effective moves in the right direction.

Naylor aims for the fences, calling secession a rebellion against empire designed to retake control from big institutions, and help people care for themselves and others by “decentralizing, downsizing, localizing, demilitarizing, simplifying, and humanizing our lives.” In some ways, the movement is reminiscent of an earlier effort in Vermont to reframe the debate.

In 1976, dissidents from the Democratic and Republican Parties attempted to create a “third way” called the Decentralist League of Vermont. The group was convened by Bob O’Brien, who had just lost the Democratic primary for governor, and John McClaughry, a Republican scornful of his Party’s leadership. Each invited allies for a series of meetings to define a joint agenda. Contrary to some accounts, left-wing leaders such as Murray Bookchin and Bernie Sanders weren’t involved, finding an alliance with people on the political Right unappealing at the time. Invited by O’Brien, I took notes and helped craft the group’s Statement of Principles.

Although the Decentralist League lasted only a few years, ultimately disbanding when its Left wing opted for electoral politics and Right signed on for the Reagan “revolution,” it pointed to what might unite people who find the current national and global order unsustainable and dangerous. Taking aim at all forms of centralized power and wealth, the League asserted that decentralism is the best way to preserve diversity, increase self-sufficiency, and satisfy human needs.

“Decentralists believe in the progressive dismantling of bureaucratic structures which stifle creativity and spontaneity, and of economic and political institutions which diminish individual and community power,” the statement said. The political platform included support for local citizen alliances; widespread ownership of industry by employees; a viable and diverse agricultural base; a decent level of income for all; education that stresses self-reliance, creativity, and a combination of learning and work; technologies that increase energy self-sufficiency; and mediation of disputes rather than reliance on regulations and adversary proceedings.

On the other hand, the League’s demise underlines the fragility of a left-right alliance, which also has recently created difficulties for the Second Vermont Republic. The controversy began when the Southern Poverty Law Center accused Naylor and the group of talking to an allegedly racist group, the League of the South. Critics pounced, and Seven Days, a liberal weekly in Vermont that was distributing Vermont Commons as an insert, decided to end the arrangement. Labor groups soon demanded the removal of offensive web links on Second Vermont Republic’s website, disassociation from certain groups or individuals, and the release of a statement clearly opposing racism, fascism, bigotry, and discrimination. Although there is no evidence that Vermont secessionists condone such things, they’ve been pressured to prove it.

Whether Vermont’s secession movement can recover and grow, especially in the face of demands to break ties with groups that don’t embrace all progressive principles, remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the Decentralist League and McKibben’s project list may point toward a platform with practical, short-term benefits.

Decentralist League of Vermont
Statement of Principles, March 1977

In a free and just society all men and women will have the fullest opportunity to enjoy liberty, achieve self-reliance, and participate effectively in the political and economic decisions affecting their lives. Wealth and power will be widely distributed. Basic human rights will be protected. The principle of equal rights for all, special privileges for none, will prevail.

When economic and political power is centralized in the hands of a few, self-government is replaced by rigid and remote bureaucracies, the independence of each citizen is threatened, and the processes of freedom and justice are subverted. Centralized power is the enemy of individual liberty, self-reliance, and voluntary cooperation. It tends to corrupt those who wield it and to debase its victims.

The trend toward centralization in our social, economic, and political systems has given rise to a deep sense of powerlessness among the people, a growing alienation throughout society, the depersonalization of vital services, excessive reliance on the techniques of management and control, and a loss of great traditions.

Decentralists share with “conservatives” repugnance for unwarranted governmental interference in private life and community affairs. We share with “liberals” an aversion to the exploitation of human beings. We deplore, however, conventional “liberal” and “conservative” policies which have concentrated power, ignored the importance of the human scale, and removed decision making from those most directly affected.

Decentralists thus favor a reversal of the trend toward all forms of centralized power, privileged status, and arbitrary barriers to individual growth and community self-determination. We oppose political and economic systems which demand obedience to the dictates of elite groups, while ignoring abuses by those who operate the controls. We believe that only by decentralization will we preserve that diversity in society which provides the best guarantee that among the available choices, each individual will find those conditions which satisfy his or her human needs.

Decentralists believe in the progressive dismantling of bureaucratic structures which stifle creativity and spontaneity, and of economic and political institutions which diminish individual and community power.

We support a strengthening of family, neighborhood and community life, and favor new forms of association to meet social and economic needs.

We propose and support:

-- Removal of governmental barriers which discourage initiative and cooperative self-help

-- Growth of local citizen alliances which strengthen self-government and broaden participation in economic and political decisions

-- Widespread ownership of productive industry by Vermonters and employees

-- Protection of the right to acquire, possess and enjoy private property, where the owner is personally responsible for its use and when this use does not invade the equal rights of others

-- Rebuilding a viable and diverse agricultural base for the Vermont economy, with emphasis on homesteading

-- A decent level of income for all, through their productive effort whenever possible, or through compassionate help which enhances their dignity and self-respect

-- Reshaping of education to promote self-reliance, creativity, and a unity of learning and work

-- A revival of craftsmanship in surroundings where workers can obtain personal satisfaction from their efforts

-- The use of technologies appropriate to local enterprise, and which increase our energy self-sufficiency

-- Mediation of disputes rather than reliance on regulations and adversary proceedings

This decentralist program implies a de-emphasis of status, luxury, and pretense, and a new emphasis on justice, virtue, equality, spiritual values, and peace of mind.

Decentralism will mean a rebirth of diversity and mutual aid, a new era of voluntary action, a full appreciation of our heritage, an affirmation of meaningful liberty, and a critical awareness of Vermont’s relationship to the rest of the nation and to the world.

Fox News Covers Vermont’s Secession Movement

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reclaiming Vermont’s Untold History

The Frayed Page Collective had become a local organizing nexus in Burlington by 1976. Steve Cram and Wendy Curran worked closely with the Clamshell Alliance, mobilizing Vermonters to protest at Vermont Yankee and the Seabrook nuclear construction site. My wife made inroads with the women’s community and worked with me on the development campaign. “Women Loving Women,” a Spring issue of Public Occurrence featuring her artful cover drawing of a naked embrace, became our most controversial to date. The Catholic Tribune dropped our typesetting deal, but the dispute led to Associated Press coverage.

Another typesetter took us on in time for the most ambitious issue yet, a special bicentennial edition called Vermont’s Untold History. Bob Mueller, then a radical scholar, later a successful labor lawyer and author on the West Coast, came up with the idea. As the opening line of the book-length “people’s history” explained, “Bicentennial history, like most of our schoolbook accounts of America, tells the story of a privileged few. It ignores our story.”

With Bob’s socialist analysis of early Vermont history as a starting point, I researched and finished the overall narrative and asked others to contribute sections on labor and women’s history. Roby Colodny, a talented young oral historian, produced an eloquently documented essay, “Labor in Barre: 1900-1941.” Additional funding from the Haymarket People’s Fund made two editions possible, first as an issue of Public Occurrence and then, with an index and new cover, a stand-alone version for sale. Thousands of copies were distributed during the bicentennial year.

“Vermonters who wanted to escape King George’s system of exploitation rallied to the battle cry of ‘Property Rights’,” our story began. “The leaders of the battle were, naturally enough, the people who owned the most property – people like the Allens.”

We told the story of Ethan, Ira, Heman, and Zimri Allen, “charter members of the emerging Vermont capitalist class that ruled the state for the next two hundred years.” We talked about the Native American tribes who had lived and hunted along Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River before the Europeans arrived, and how they had lost their birthright. We chronicled social movements like temperance, anti-slavery, and the anti-masons, deconstructing popular myths and celebrating workers’ struggles to resist corporate expansion.

By the mid-1970s, we noted near the end, almost all major manufacturing plants in Vermont were out-of-state owned, several of them controlled by the Chase Manhattan Bank. Strikes had become rare, and were often met with government indifference and union-busting tactics. Recession was hurting almost every part of the economy except trades and services. We also discussed Liberty Union, an alternative political party that had run slates for several years, taking up the fight for social change. Its candidates, including strong speakers like Bernie Sanders and Michael Parenti, took radical stands on utility rates, union fights, human services, and the needs of the poor.

Parenti, one of several UVM faculty members purged for their political views, talked about community control, worker self-management, and public ownership. When asked if this was socialism, he’d reply, “We call it democracy.” Sanders was an equally dogged campaigner, fighting for equal time, building bridges with unions, and challenging the often-empty statements of his major party opponents. Yet they and other third party candidates rarely received more than 10 percent of the statewide vote.

We concluded with a review of the recent international recession and the rising poverty, unemployment and cost of gas, food and fuel it was causing:

The reason for Vermont’s poverty was becoming clear. As Michael Parenti, Liberty Union candidate for Congress in 1974, put it, “The poor subsidize the rich by working for low wages and paying high prices and by carrying a disproportionately greater share of the taxes.” To make matters worse, Vermont workers continued to subsidize capitalists with their health and lives. Forty-three workers died in Vermont between 1973 and 1974. They were crushed, electrocuted, burned and broken for the benefit of their employers. Many more continued to report cancer and other illnesses which are frequently job related.

The idea of an “independent Yankee” Vermont had begun to wane at the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1970s it had become a myth. The reality was a State dominated by a small ruling class, which paid low wages to the workers who created Vermont’s wealth. By 1971 the State ranked 42nd in Per Capita income. Out-of-state, monopoly interests controlled stock even in Central Vermont Public Service Corporate and Green Mountain Power.

In Montpelier, lobbyists for the utilities, the Associated Industries of Vermont, recreation and land development interests, the Wholesale Beverage Association, the Federated Fish and Game Clubs, and Green Mountain Racetrack in Pownal congregated at the capital to make certain that lawmaking suited their taste. In Burlington, a Canadian development firm named Mondev was demolishing a neighborhood to make way for a hotel, office building and underground shopping mall geared to the new tourist economy.

Corporations such as GE, IBM, Textron, Litton Industries, Goodyear, Gulf and Western, John and Johnson, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Standard Register and Simmons Precision controlled employment and industrial development. Vermont’s banks and investors, fearful of competition with these huge corporations, were investing in the tertiary sector – in tourism, retail trade and real estate, or in low risk stocks and bonds with big corporations. All this was making Vermont a net exporter of capitol, a situation that is common in underdeveloped countries.

The “Playground of America” had become another playground for capitalists, and workers were footing the bill. Businessmen said the “climate” for investment was good, due largely to the State’s stiff laws restricting strikes, picketing and boycotts, its low unemployment compensation rate and meager workmen’s compensation benefits. The climate for workers, however, had become as severe as Vermont’s winters.

It was highly rhetorical, and more influenced by a Marxist perspective than I personally preferred. But this wasn’t just a history. It was also part of a campaign to project a different awareness and set of values. Vermont wasn’t a colony is the same sense as Puerto Rico but it was part of the international capitalist system. A strategy for change needed to press that point rather than, as we saw it, “retreating into a petty localism.”

Things were going well indeed. In less than two years I had gone from being blacklisted by state bureaucrats to organizing a political movement with the potential to throw a monkey wrench into major corporate plans. To be fair, many people were just as engaged and instrumental. My contribution was mainly to reach beyond the inner city base, “connecting the dots” between bread and butter problems like housing and the overall thrust of development.

Next in this series: From Vermont to Haiti

Thursday: A special report on Vermont’s secession movement and thinking outside the empire box

To purchase a copy of Vermont’s Untold History, Go to Maverick Media on

 Vermont’s Untold History: Table of Contents

Labor and Capital in the Green Mountains
*Vermont Heads toward Revolution
*Native Americans Meet the White Man
*Revolution … And Betrayal
*Development and the Fight Back
*Farmers under Fire
*Capitalism Matures
*Workers and Owners
*Farming Declines, Tourism Takes Hold
*From Boom to Bust
*Capital Conquers Vermont
*From Yesterday to Tomorrow

Beyond Midwifery and Motherhood

Labor in Barre: 1900-1941

Monday, August 18, 2008

Burlington: From City Hall to the Streets

Protesting on Church Street before the Marketplace

When Burlington’s Youth Needs report was finished in mid-1976, Vivian Hartigan, who had spearheaded the formation of a local Youth Council, wanted a Board motion to accept it and make the Burlington Youth Council permanent. Embedded in the recommendations was an expanded role for city government in coordinating youth services. There was also a proposal to create Neighborhood Councils as a way to improve communication and accountability. As the city’s Youth Study Coordinator, I’d convinced the panel that this democratic initiative was needed to make the administration keep its promises.

Vivian knew precisely where on the agenda she wanted the proposal, and confided that Mayor Gordie Paquette might have a few drinks under his belt before showing up. As far as he knew, the Board of Aldermen was a lock. But she’d worked the phones and convinced a majority to support her motion. When the issue came up, he didn’t know what hit him. And he couldn’t convincingly sell his disapproval. Plus, Vivian was right, he looked almost drunk.

Gordie glared at me, angry and frustrated, yet not sure whether I’d over-maneuvered him or he was just having a bad night. It turned out to be both, and the first of many. Another came only weeks later, at the first meeting of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee formed to look at the Connector.

Mayor Adds 2 Women to Southern Connector Study

“Reacting to charges that the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the proposed “Southern Connector” didn’t include enough ordinary citizens, Mayor Gordon Paquette Wednesday conditionally added two more south end residents to the 10-member panel…” -- Burlington Free Press, July 1, 1976

The Highway Department and the Department of Transportation ultimately controlled the money for the road, but they had asked the city to set up a local committee. Mainly, it was supposed to look at different routes. In planning circles the road itself was a foregone conclusion. But technically the planners had to give the appearance of considering “alternatives.”

They also couldn’t ignore complaints by people who lived near or along the route. Outreach had attracted new people to our opposition alliance, young residents like Jean Hanna and Millie Gautherate. They weren’t trying to “overthrow” anything. They just wanted to be heard. At the Advisory Committee’s first session, they made the case that the panel contained too few south end residents – the group most affected by the road – and too many members from interests that would naturally favor it over another way of handling traffic problems.

Paquette and William Aswad, a manager at the local General Electric armaments plant in the South End and chair of the City Planning Commission, defended their hand-picked choices – local commissioners and reps from industry and adjoining governments. Anyone else could participate just as effectively, Aswad added, by attending meetings as “observers” and speaking out at hearings. He preferred members with technical expertise, he said, in other words people who would accept the basic assumptions.

“I would have liked a 25-member committee,” claimed Paquette, “but when you start getting committees this large, why, it gets a little unwieldy.” The remark reeked of insincerity. But the Aldermen were impressed with Millie and Jean, and urged Gordie to put them on the committee. He huddled with the key players behind closed doors and emerged to announce his decision. Both women would be allowed to join.

It was modest strategic victory, but provided a foothold, a public platform to discuss alternatives to more roads and unbalanced, unsustainable development. We needed to move fast. Several months of organizing had brought in more supporters, residents worried about similar projects in half a dozen nearby towns. It was time for a multi-issue regional group, the Burlington Area Citizens Alliance. BACA would be the clearing house, a planning committee for “action projects” and a grassroots response to “shoddy regional planning, unnecessary road-building and uncontrolled development.” Within weeks we’d set up the group and organized task forces on the Connector, the proposed Church Street Marketplace and adjacent parking garage, the looming expansion of University Mall in South Burlington, and the potential behemoth in Williston, Pyramid Mall.

Burlington didn’t need another “four-lane highway” when local services were being cut and “ecologically sound mass transit” was possible, BACA protested. Suburban development posed a serious threat to a healthy downtown, but turning the city’s center into a better mall wasn’t the answer. BACA would monitor regional development, organize campaigns, and tie the issues together.

In reality it had a core group of less than a dozen highly committed people. But the powers-that-be didn’t know that. Almost overnight groups questioning various development plans seemed to be popping up everywhere. Articles were getting into both Burlington and Rutland newspapers. Whenever city officials held a “dog and pony show,” we brought out an audience and gave a different point of view.

Once I left City Hall, the assault became more aggressive. When City Planners brought out their design for a four-block pedestrian mall on Church Street, with commercial kiosks and electrically-heated sidewalks to melt the snow, Steve Cram and I created a multi-media critique, packed the house, and commandeered the agenda. It was a devastating, irreverent guerrilla politics operation. The design was quickly shelved and the architects went back to the drawing board.

Part Eight of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Reclaiming Vermont’s “Untold History”

Friday, August 15, 2008

Queen City: Finding the Weak Spot

“A $52 million commercial complex will be built in Burlington during the next five years, unless residents of the City strongly resist plans now being made by City and State officials. In bits and pieces, people will be urged to pay $8 million to help business and banking interests turn the Queen City into a regional center for tourism and entertainment.” -- Public Occurrence, Spring 1976

“What’s this shit?" The mayor barked, tossing a copy of the latest Public Occurrence on his desk. He’d already confiscated a pile left near the entrance to City Hall. Thousands more were circulating all over town and across Vermont. The same “call to action” was being printed in several community newspapers.

At the bottom of the back page, below an article headlined “Stop the South End Connector!” was my name. Gordie Paquette could barely believe it. Someone working in City Hall had attacked the biggest commercial project in city history. But I wasn’t a city employee. I was a contract worker being paid by a grant, and the advisory panel didn’t care about my off-the books activities.

I’d been coordinating research on “youth needs” for a few months, using sophisticated survey tools with more than a thousand kids and staff at the various schools and social service agencies. In the process I’d built some rapport with members of the Burlington Youth Council, the panel appointed to supervise the project. It was led by Vivian Hartigan, a savvy local matron with solid city and Party roots. She didn’t trust Gordie to do much about the problems but was determined to make him try.

Access to city records netted some useful information about local projects. I read the files and copied reports, feeding information to the activists. Despite the high stakes for the city no statement had been issued about the true scope of redevelopment. The politicians and planners were hoping to sneak it through, bit by bit, worried that if the general public saw what was really going on, before the pieces were all in place, there could be some resistance. Exactly.

After examining economic and planning data, and identifying various pieces of the Master Plan, I reached the conclusion that the South End Connector, a proposed access road to link the Interstate with downtown, was the lynchpin. It was the key incentive developers wanted, and could only be built if the city won approval for spending, probably by floating local bonds, to cover its share of construction. If the road was stopped, or at least questioned and delayed, other projects might be derailed or changed.

But my thoughts went farther. Step one was to change the local debate, convincing enough people that Burlington faced a series of related crises – housing, youth, employment, traffic, and commercial development. To do that meant finding ways to legitimize dissent through various local media and organizing tactics. It would also be necessary to create more media alternatives. Public Occurrence was just the first step. Step two was to connect the dots between issues, build links between special focus groups, and create new ones to deal with issues like the Connector, mall development, and suburban sprawl. It might take years, but in the end the City would have to respond. Finally, a new citywide organization would be necessary if we were going to split the Democratic Party’s base, motivate the disenfranchised, and win political power.

In short, I devised a Five-Year Plan to overturn the local power structure. For obvious reasons I kept most of the details private. Some friends already thought I was a bit unrealistic. But I did write down and share the basic strategy with a few close associates. Persuaded by the analysis they nevertheless doubted that it would work.

My wife came straight to the point. “Who’s going to become mayor? You?” she asked. I hadn’t actually thought about running yet, focused on creating the right conditions for rebellion. But why not? Was it so outrageous? “You’re really not electable,” she added, answering her own question. “Why?” I inquired.

“You’re just not white enough.” What she meant was that Vermont, even a city like Burlington, wouldn’t accept an ethnic “outsider” as a political leader. Especially not an olive-skinned newcomer with an “exotic” name.

She had a point. I wasn’t “mainstream,” and Vermont tended to elect either born-and-bred Vermonters or professional ex-urbanites like Phil Hoff, Tom Salmon, and Richard Snelling. But I could worry about that later. The task at hand was to frame the issues, legitimize the opposition, and peel off part of the dominant power’s base.

Gordie Paquette had no idea what I was thinking. He barely knew who I was, just some consultant brought in to appease a few locals about the kids. A report would be filed and promptly forgotten, he assumed. But he wasn’t about to let someone work in his building and criticize his agenda.

I’d prepared for this moment. The consulting gig wouldn’t last beyond the summer. There wasn’t much Gordie could do beyond bluster. But I could find out something – what made him tick, what he thought about what he was doing. Basically, I could size him up. Thus, I just ignored the bluster and spoke as if we were equals, just two guys shooting the bull. People were skeptical about his plans, I explained. They didn’t understand why he was ignoring local problems and planning to roll over for commercial developers.

His defense was a shock. “I have no choice,” he complained. If he didn’t back these public improvements some of the city’s biggest local merchants were threatening to relocate to the suburbs. It was blatant commercial blackmail. Williston, a nearby “bedroom” community with Interstate access, was destined to become a commercial center; an upstate New York mall chain called Pyramid was already eyeing property. The only way to “save” the city was to improve access and make downtown more attractive to developers, chains, and tourists, he said.

Gordon Paquette was supposedly a “strong mayor,” the reputed boss of the city for more than a decade. Yet he sounded powerless, weak. Almost whining, he protested that he was really a man of the people, but the people didn’t understand the stakes. I acted sympathetic but stood my ground. Meanwhile I thought: this guy can be beaten with the right campaign.

Part Seven of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: From City Hall to the Streets

Thirty Years Later: Touring Burlington