Trips to the street: antidotes to despair

Opinion

I was back out on the street again today in Brunswick, Maine, leafleting and petitioning about the USA Patriot Act. For the past couple of months I’ve gone out at least once a week in our local effort to educate and activate citizens around protecting the tattered and torn Constitution of the United States. Not much of the public is aware of the Patriot Act but every now and then someone will come along who knows about it and is delighted to see another like mind working to hang onto our sacred founding document.

Today a friend and I were at the public library. When I went there a couple of weeks ago they ran me off saying that a town ordinance forbade setting up an ironing board and a clipboard for petitioning. I challenged the town authorities by talking with the chief of police (who knew nothing of such an ordinance) and town clerk. I told them I had been talking to a lawyer. Within a couple of days the town lawyer called to tell me I was free to do my thing. Today, the very head librarian who ran me off before signed our petition.

Yesterday I was in Portland (30 minutes south) handing out leaflets about the role of the Aegis destroyer in the Pentagon’s Theatre Missile Defense system and its economic costs. For two hours about eight of us held signs, banners, and handed out 300 leaflets to the lunch crowd at the downtown farmers’ market as part of Keep Space for Peace Week.

You’ve got to learn to handle rejection when you do this kind of street work. The majority of people don’t want to be bothered. I work hard to get a clue about why and what they fear. Some things I’ve heard from folks is that they don’t care, they don’t want to be bothered, they’ve had enough “doom and gloom,” they are afraid to get labeled a “liberal,” they want the right wing to succeed, and they don’t like to get involved in political issues. The most often used excuse of those not wanting to take a leaflet is “I’m all set.” I don’t know what that really means and on a couple of occasions have asked the person to explain. I didn’t get a very good answer.

I guess when you think about medieval times, there were peasants who did not want to deal with the fact that feudalism’s power over their lives made for some rough living. Still, folks finally got rid of the supreme rule of the king, though it looks like we are heading in that direction again. To me it speaks to the need for constant vigilance on the part of citizens. Tennis and bingo are fine, but we’ve got to leave time for dealing with the things that affect our lives. Some folks just say, “I’ll let someone else take care of making sure I have the right to free speech.”

I’ve learned to look for the light in some folks’ eyes. Just when I start to get a bit discouraged someone with bright, alive, and loving eyes will come along and happily engage me, take a leaflet and give a kind word of appreciation for my efforts. You also begin to realize that being there strengthens them as well, so it’s a mutually beneficial deal.

Our side can’t afford the high-tech media manipulation that gets movie stars and Texas cowboys elected these days. For now, we still have the right to go out and speak to folks on the street. Today one woman asked me to send her all the materials that it would take to get her started leafleting and petitioning in her community. That made my day.

You don’t always know the results of your work on the streets. But I am confident that my presence unleashes a ripple effect that touches many more lives as the conversation moves from the street to the office, and to the dinner table at night.

I remember how I became an activist. I was in college, after having done my time in the military during the Vietnam war. I was close to graduation at the University of Florida and got invited to join the United Farm Workers lettuce boycott campaign on my campus. I had a test coming up so I declined the invitation. But the next day I skipped class and handed out leaflets in front of the campus cafeteria. I had such a good time that the next day I went again, skipping my test. Soon the UFW offered me a job and I quit school to become an organizer. You never know what getting out on the street talking with folks can do to you.

Try it some time. You might like it. Next week I’m going to the post office for the lunch crowd.



Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, www.space4peace.org. He can be reached at globalnet@mindspring.com