Sunset in the Foothills


   When I first became a political activist, I assumed that simply presenting an effective, reasonable argument to a body of elected officials would magically open their hearts and minds and make them do the right thing, but I quickly found out that people in power rarely pay attention to citizens who do not have conspicuous political influence. Elected officials are keenly aware that being an activist in the San Joaquin Valley is like stepping with a bow and arrow into a mine field to face the tanks of a well-equipped army, so they tend to pay attention only to individuals and organizations with political fire-power. When I first stepped into the political arena, to my great chagrin I discovered that I was easily dismissed as “misinformed" and “un-American" like other activists working for sustainable communities. That all changed when I started knocking on doors for a conspicuously effective but ill-fated group that gathered a massive amount of local grassroots support through canvassing.
   My introduction to local politics occurred around the time of a federal investigation known as “Operation Rezone.” Local jurisdictions are required to adopt general plans that maintain a high quality of life for the community, particularly through smart, sustainable growth. In the Valley, however, developers tended to chomp at the bit for local jurisdictions to adopt general plans so that they could get down to the business of amending them. Rumors of bribery and extortion circulated widely in the Valley, but it wasn't until the 1980s, as developers began speculating on farmland at the edges of towns, that developers and politicians blatantly made a mockery of zoning laws and general plans.
   One lobbyist, proud of his ability to influence local elected officials, drove around in a car with a license plate that read, “REZONE.” A federal probe only began in 1994 after a Clovis City Councilman told an influential developer that he wouldn't get his property in the city rezoned to “residential” unless he paid a $10,000 "fee." An investigation finally commenced after the developer started working with the FBI to gather evidence of the shakedown.
   The San Joaquin Valley, once a vast wildlife area fed by rivers flowing from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, by the late twentieth century had become almost completely cultivated and urbanized, with wetlands dwindling to four percent of their historical levels. Herds of deer and antelope and tule elk, as well as the predators who stalked them, had vanished in less than a century. The “natural” areas left in the Valley were farms and river bottom areas and a few wildlife refuges. By the 1980s, activists in the Valley fought to protect remnant farmland and wetlands as well as air and water quality, caught in a seemingly never-ending political and philosophical battle between the rights of the individual property owner and the rights of the community.
   Activists at that time had to have an especially thick skin. One activist testified at numerous public hearings before local elected officials who usually dismissed or ignored his logical arguments. He continued to participate in local land use meetings week after week even though elected officials continually questioned his credibility--if they paid any attention to him at all, revealing that one voice carries little or no weight--unless backed by money or massive public support.
   Ignored on a political level, he chose to work his way through the legal system, demanding higher review of local land use decisions. In one case the activist claimed that a prominent developer had not adequately addressed the precedent-setting and growth-inducing impacts of a subdivision in the floodplain of the San Joaquin River. The judge fined the activist $300,000 for pursuing a "frivolous lawsuit." The judge claimed that the activist, despite going on public record, had not established an adequate record on which to base a lawsuit, calling into question what can be legally deemed an “adequate record.” Since the developer opted not to open his books for review of the “damages," the judge reduced the fine to $100,000.

Nine of Wands

   Being acquainted with the law, the activist appealed the case and won. The developer then turned the tables and appealed that decision, eating up more of the activist's time and money and edging him into financial ruin.
   Another activist, hoping to preserve dwindling farmland, sued his county for inadequate environmental review of a rezone application after elected officials had ignored the concerns of his organization. The developer essentially wanted to create a new business district on farmland between two neighboring towns, which would induce massive urban growth. The lawsuit succeeded in convincing the developer to set aside a few acres of farmland in perpetuity as mitigation. After that bit of success, a county official phoned the activist and revealed that the school district “had been informed” that the group’s activities were “immoral.” Coincidentally, the activist’s school district from that day forth stopped calling him to work as a substitute teacher.

Goldfields and Baby Blue Eyes near the Kings River (Wonder Valley)

   All laws can be amended, but zoning laws are particularly vulnerable to alteration. In the Valley and many other places, great public pressure must be brought to bear upon politicians to keep them from amending general plans and altering zoning laws to allow development on agricultural or open space areas. Organizing this level of public opposition is not an easy task, especially when organizations rely on volunteers.

Pestles on Pounding Stone

   There are basically two ways that democracy actually works in places like the San Joaquin Valley: You can develop a strong relationship with sympathetic elected officials or establish a large base of public support for your position on an issue. Both are daunting tasks and are seldom combined as strategies due to the limited time and resources of groups that rely on volunteers.
   Politicians tend to become sympathetic to your cause if you help get them elected, which takes a lot of grueling volunteer work, and even then politicians won’t necessarily lean toward your position on an issue since they work with other organizations and contributors and politicians in a system where quid pro quo greases the machine. The other tactic, establishing a large base of public support, works well at a local level, especially in areas like the San Joaquin Valley where city and county officials are surprised by citizen participation. This method, which necessarily focuses on one side of the issue, is often perceived as adversarial by politicians and vested interests.
   I know because for several years I organized and led a coalition of local environmental groups while I canvassed three days a week. Backed by massive public support gained through door-to-door canvassing, the coalition inevitably became extremely effective, the leaders targeted and undermined.
   My organization paid its canvassers half of what they raised, which still ruffles the feathers of purists who believe that true organizing is only accomplished by volunteers--even though, oddly enough, politicians and developers are not asked to force their children to go hungry. If we did our jobs as canvassers, we made enough money to survive, which kept us from being targeted as troublemakers in the workplace (not uncommon in a society where you can be fired for chewing gum and not going in on your days off or getting sick too many days--even with a doctor’s note). When an activist loses a job, whether or not the activist’s political involvement is the real cause, his or her days of political organizing are usually over.
   We gathered massive public support through signatures on petitions, letters to elected officials, and contributions of any size, and the organization became an effective, powerful machine. Doors were slammed, threats were made, and guns were occasionally pointed in our faces, but we kept knocking on doors night after night, identifying and activating supporters. Local politicians finally paid attention and became hesitant to threaten or ruin or blackball individuals who participated in the democratic process--due in great part to the conspicuous public support gained by canvassers.
   Public hearings became truly beautiful events. Individuals and representatives from many different organizations would stand before elected officials and give effective and impassioned testimony. Even though we never orchestrated the testimony beforehand, each person who testified tended to focus on a different facet of the issue, creating a powerful cumulative effect. Democracy was actually working and the good ol’ boys who machinated behind closed doors had to operate in fresh air and sunlight. Sometimes, even when they received the required permits, developers would later give up on a project, such as a hazardous waste incinerator, because of what they rightfully perceived as overwhelming public opposition.
   Hardcore political organizers were no longer labeled “un-American” or dismissed as “uninformed” at public hearings or in the press. I had been continually amazed that elected officials could so easily toss out a term like “un-American” at citizens who were obviously taking great personal risks by participating in the democratic process in the first place. Apparently these officials meant to imply that any citizen who interferes with an American's right to “make a buck"--a corporation’s inalienable right to make money, in other words--is either a communist or a socialist--while also suggesting that the citizen is so void of patriotism that he or she is both immoral and unemployable.
   As soon as my organization became effective, trouble descended upon it from every side. The office was broken into several times, and the organization was evicted from the office complex for overdue late charges. A sexual harassment lawsuit, which named a canvasser and several directors (for allowing a hostile environment), was brought against the organization by an employee who had also conspired to form a copy-cat group with no a board of directors that lured veteran canvassers away from the original organization by promising higher pay under the table. Unfortunately, settling out of court proved much cheaper than a legal battle. The Fresno Bee placed the organization’s recruitment ad under “Sales” to create the impression that canvassers would be selling door to door. The final nail in the coffin was an article in the Fresno Bee by a respected journalist who, without stating his sources, claimed that the organization kept one hundred percent of the contributions.

Trough at Native American Village Site

   The organization was a not-for-profit citizens group, not a charity, and worked for those who didn’t have the time or the money or the knowledge or the temperament to participate in the democratic process. People gave money and support to fuel an effective political machine that represented their point of view--a powerful force that included canvassers who alerted and activated the public on a large scale and directors who organized issue campaigns and testified at public hearings. (I’m sorry, but I can’t help but believe that the “respected" journalist who implied that the organization was crooked had to be either blind to political realities or a total sell-out.)
   After the organization closed its doors, community organizers went back to suing local governmental bodies, usually for inadequate review of the environmental impact reports, and elected officials went back to ignoring the general public.
   Unfortunately, success in the courts only throws a project back into the laps of the same elected officials who approved the original permits--for further review of the report’s legality, not for further examination of the project’s potential harm to the community. As long as an environmental impact report is properly laid out, a project can admittedly contain numerous and severe “adverse impacts," and a body of elected officials can legally approve it. The process depends on citizens’ groups holding elected officials accountable for their decisions. In addition to advocating for a specific position on an issue, a group of canvassers can also go night after night into an elected official’s district and let the public know how the politician, on behalf of vested interests, is attempting to gut beneficial legislation or voting for bad projects.
   Going to court is a last resort that only reveals the public’s ineffectiveness on the political level. Going to court requires a high level of expertise, far beyond the range of most college graduates. And going to court is extremely expensive. Instead of using contributions to alert the public and gain political support, an organization can instead spend tens of thousands of dollars on court costs, which can soon land them in bankruptcy court. Instead of using the contributions to support activists, the money goes to lawyers who can only stall a project, not stop it in the political arena. (This strategy can also lead to the “adverse” consequences for activists that I have already mentioned above.) Yet for some reason going to court is still a respectable strategy, far more respectable to many people than the more grassroots method of canvassing door-to-door.

Eleven Pestles on Pounding Stone

   Unfortunately in places like the San Joaquin Valley activists often end up twisting in the wind, no matter what method they choose. On a personal level, after finding myself in that unpleasant position more than once, I became cynical and bitter and dwelt obsessively on the negative, even concerning people I knew before I became an activist.
   For instance, in college I took writing classes from an anarchist poet who had aspired as a young man to be a boxer. His trainer informed him at one point that the boxing arena was no place for mediocrity. So the boxer made the classroom his arena. He would dance around a poem, jab at it several times, dance a little more, then deliver a knock-out blow. His only rule was that his students could not at any time defend themselves.
   He would also verbally pound to a pulp any student who did not show absolute reverence for the vulnerable and downtrodden. At the same time he revealed the kind of attitude that only the powerful have: He believed that he could say anything.
   When I first took his poetry writing class, he got my name wrong, so I wasn’t sure if I should answer when he called on me. Another student told him of his error, and he snarled, “I don’t give a shit who he is!” This intrigued me.
   He would confide about going home and putting on his wife’s clothing or about his fantasy of committing suicide by driving into an irrigation ditch. At the beginning of one semester he even openly confessed, “I will do everything in my power to destroy anyone who ends up being a better poet than I am.”
   Since he was a respected writer in a provincial town, I took several of his classes and eventually discovered that his Procrustean modus operandi as a teacher was first to ridicule your poetry if you didn’t sound like him and then to ridicule your work if you did sound like him.
   He traveled halfway around the world to place flowers on the graves of anarchists who had fallen half a century ago, but didn't lift a finger to help activists who were threatened, blackballed and ruined by the local power-elite. The last time I saw him, the anarchist poet was cruising around Fresno in a white Mercedes Benz. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the best bourgeois poet ever to claim that property is a crime.

Pestles on Pounding Stone

   It’s hard not to become bitter and cynical if you are an activist in the San Joaquin Valley, and negativity is extremely bad on a spiritual level, creating blocks to higher awareness. After a decade or so, I stopped dwelling on the negative and am now all about forgiveness and self-renewal.
   One method of purifying the mind and re-establishing harmony in the soul is through a method of banishing negative energies and invoking positive forces using the Tarot. Even though I have not yet been able to return to activism, I have at least found some measure of peace and a sense of renewal using this method. (See link below.)

Take the next path.
Banishing negative energies.