Thursday, August 7, 2008

Educating Minds & Influencing Hearts

In 1956, Frank Wilkinson, a housing organizer from Los Angeles, was summoned to appear at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Los Angeles. The Committee had already wrecked the local housing authority in a search for Communists. It had also cost Wilkinson his job. When subpoenaed, he refused to speak – but not on the usual Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) grounds. Instead he took the First Amendment on grounds that the Committee, by forcing him to answer questions and using tactics of intimidation, was violating his right to freedom of speech.

Wilkinson went to jail for a year, but emerged to fight for the abolition of HUAC for more than a decade. In his dissenting opinion on Wilkinson's Supreme Court case, Justice Hugo Black called it an attempt by HUAC "to use contempt a weapon against those who criticize it." Fortunately, the weapon didn't work on Frank. He poured his energies into the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, which the committee finally succeeded in doing in 1975.

I met Frank around that time, during on one of his tireless tours of the country to talk about constitutional rights and the threats of repressive legislation. As HUAC faded away his organization’s name had changed to the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, or NCARL. Nixon was gone, but a Senate bill to recodify and revise all federal criminal laws was still being actively considered. It was packed with new draconian features, he warned, and left obsolete laws in place. Frank lobbied against the bill in its various forms and guises – S.1, S.1437, HR.6869, S.1722/HR.6233, and so on – until he retired from field organizing in the 1990s.

One of his main arguments was that so-called "omnibus" legislation usually gets worse before it passes. In this case, it was also unnecessary. Like many things, criminal law can be reformed and unified step-by-step. The need to improve fragmented, inconsistent laws is obvious, but the atmosphere in Congress makes comprehensive reform virtually impossible without compromising rights. At one point in the Criminal Code fight, a bargain was struck in the Senate between Edward Kennedy and the archconservative Strom Thurmond to co-sponsor this basic legislation. Their brainchild was a bill that liberalized some statutes while making others much worse. Provisions against dissident activity were kept and new offenses were created.

When I finally cornered Kennedy behind the stage in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium during his 1980 Presidential campaign, he denied there was a problem. Constitutional rights could be violated, I warned. “We won’t let that happen,” he testily replied. Famous last words. Two decades later, under the Bush Administration and an extremist Congress, the ghost of Criminal Code Revision was resurrected within the USA PATRIOT Act and other “war on terror” laws.

Explaining the dangers of “omnibus” revision, Frank would point to the enormous size of the bill – hundreds of pages, thousands of provisions. Then he would note wryly that legal experts, sitting quietly in a library, could carefully make a thousand amendments and probably come up with a decent law. But the Senate and House aren’t law libraries, and the chances of a slow and dispassionate debate are slim.

Beyond his power to persuade, Frank was one of those special people, a truly courageous and fully human being, a peaceful warrior on the side of the people. Several years later, when his files – literally several hundred thousand pages -- were released under the Freedom of Information Act, we learned that he’d been tailed, harassed and generally messed with by the FBI for decades on the personal orders of J. Edgar Hoover. The Bureau even watched as an assassination plot was hatched.

Over the next few years, we became friends and allies. I organized several Vermont visits, carrying his bags, doing advance work, and learning more about civil liberties and the life of a committed organizer. His grasp of history and politics, combined with a selfless and compassionate style, was deeply impressive. He also knew how to work a crowd, getting his audiences activated and motivated to contribute.

Frank was the first in a series of influential mentors, people who demonstrated through their thoughts and deeds how to make a difference and, in some cases at least, live a conscious life. For spiritual grounding I turned to Buddhism, studying with Chogyam Trungpa, the exiled leader of the Surmang Monestary in Tibet. He had come to the US a few years earlier and established his first meditation center, originally named Tail of the Tiger, in Barnet, Vermont. I visited often, meditating for days or even weeks. Later, I would learn from anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, Toward Freedom publisher Bill Lloyd, and peace activist Dave Dellinger.

Even while working for the government I hadn’t completely stopped writing for publication. Few alternative magazines, newspapers or new services paid much, but they liked my analysis. Gradually, by listening, writing, and staging local events to stimulate interest in local, national and international issues, a political agenda was taking shape. Anti-imperialist and anti-nuclear, libertarian, ecological, nonviolent, humanistic, suspicious of the State and all forms of centralized, negative power, it was a mixture of neo-Marxist critique, Anarchist intentions and Buddhist philosophy, with some faith in the power of belief, love, and individual transformation.

There was a war on, and not just the deadly brush fires throughout the so-called Third World being stoked by the two Superpowers. It was a profound, long-term battle for hearts and minds, a struggle to influence how people saw the world and their place in it. My task – the career I’d picked for myself – was to educate minds and influence hearts, to “mass market radical ideas” in a way that changed society for the better. The “system” had given me some skills, opportunities and knowledge, but it was corrupt and destructive. Such a system, I decided, must be challenged and changed. As the saying goes, with power comes responsibility.

How to do it, that was the question. How does change happen? Where does it start? Locally, I concluded, with individuals, small groups, and communities, and by helping people reflect on their reality and reclaim their voice. If I was really a Dionysian leader I should be able to “see” the essence of the problem and somehow reflect it back. And what was the problem? Repression, fear, alienation, and illegitimate power running out of control.

In January 1976, I caught a glimpse of where the country was headed – toward a transfer of power from the Republicans to the Democrats, with Jimmy Carter as the anointed figurehead. In many ways, a similar dynamic has emerged in the 2008 Presidential race. In early ‘76 Carter was just one of several candidates for President. Despite Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign, the GOP establishment was sticking with the colorless, compromised, accident-prone Gerald Ford. But Time Magazine had published a glowing story on the obscure Georgia Governor, with a manipulative cover rendering that made him look remarkably like JFK. The rest of the mainstream media soon joined the chorus.

Shortly before the New Hampshire primary, I attended a huge Democratic rally at a southern Vermont estate called The Plantation. Carter was already surrounded by more than a dozen Secret Security agents and an enormous entourage. No primary votes had been cast, yet he was being treated like the nominee. After his election that November it quickly became apparent that he had been recruited by the Trilateral Commission, a transnational “think tank” funded by David Rockefeller and run by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter promptly became Carter’s National Security Advisor, and Trilateral members dominated the top levels of his administration.

In short, the national establishment was hedging its bets – much as it is doing at the moment with Barack Obama – hoping to restore confidence in government by ushering in another “reform” era. In Vermont, however, the Democratic Party was fractured into several camps and might not be able to ride the wave. With the exception of two Democratic governors, Phil Hoff in the 60s and Tom Salmon in the early 70s, Republicans had controlled state government for more than a century. Now they had Richard Snelling, a successful businessman who had paid his dues and was determined to take power.

The Democrats had ruled in Burlington for decades, but it was a closed club run by French Canadian and Irish clans, an ossified political machine that was openly hostile to newcomers and other “outsiders.” The Republicans had retreated “up the hill” and held few city council seats. The Democrats had City Hall, a super-majority on the Board of Aldermen, and city commissions and jobs packed with the loyal. But election turnout was embarrassing low, about 30 percent of registered voters, and candidates, including Paquette, frequently ran unopposed.

The city – Vermont’s largest – was at a tipping point. Change was coming. But Mayor Gordie Paquette and his crew ignored the signs, plowing ahead with traditional, “business-friendly” development plans and – since “keep the taxes down” was Gordie’s campaign mantra – cuts in city services. I could see a social, economic and cultural tsunami on the horizon, and with that “perfect storm” the chance for some local regime change.

Part Six of Prelude to a Revolution

NEXT: Queen City -- Finding the Weak Spot

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