No Room for Moderates: Tales of a Community Organizer
There is no room in this politically polarized world for middle ground, even at the local, grassroots level.
Five years ago I got involved in protesting development near my house. I’m not anti-development, but this was an objectively and inherently bad plan, complete with shaky financing and a sketchy developer. I was played by people in power, I got angry, and in the end, when it became clear that I had sweated blood for nothing, I “retired” from public life.
Recently, and not surprisingly, the development scheme fell apart. There is a chance for a do-over that includes public input and transparency.
Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.
“You were so good at bringing people together,” they said, and “you can represent the people who felt burned the first time around. You can heal the neighborhood.” Those last words were like chocolate wrapped in baby bunnies. I saw myself as the Mother Theresa of grass roots political action, binding up the ragged wounds of the disappointed and the disenfranchised and bringing everyone to the table (which would undoubtedly feature a Kinkeade-worthy shaft of sunlight falling on my wise and noble head).
I began attending meetings again, and sharing information. We were not, I was fiercely determined, going to have a repeat of what happened before. No one was going to find out from the newspaper that a ten story building was being erected a block from their home, or that our only green space would be dominated by high-end townhouses. I urged transparency, inclusion, and charity towards City Hall. Many of the players had changed there, and I saw no reason to assume that they were lying. We would be vigilant citizens, but we would also be open-hearted and fair.
Almost immediately, I realized that the angry voices in the community had only intensified while I was out of the game. We had been natural allies five years ago; they were angry and I was angry. We didn’t always agree about everything, but we were on the same side. The City was The Evil Empire, and we were the earnest, honest revolutionaries. I kind of romanticized them - I grew up attending lefty political rallies and watching the Watergate, and went to Oberlin where I protested apartheid and nuclear weapons. (I had a huge crush on the guy who ran all the protests. If I squinted he looked just like Che Guevara). I read about The Chicago Seven and The Weather Underground, and I wept about Oscar Romero. Two years ago, at the peak of my opposition to City Hall, I was oddly energized by the possibility that I was actually one of the Bad Rads. It was a power thing, an approval thing, exhausting, but thrilling.
This time, it is considerably less thrilling. I’m not angry, I see an opportunity for a fresh start, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. I know that we didn’t get anywhere with anger last time. I also know that I, personally, am more Dr. King than Malcolm X, more Ghandi than Abbie Hoffman. I am, by nature, a conciliator, a mediator, and slow to anger. I am a Democrat married to someone who is not a Democrat, and a Buddhist working at a Protestant church – every day of my life I see that differences can be harmonized and that people can work together and accomplish mutual goals. The Dalai Lama gets a lot of shit done in the world, and his charter is compassion.
The folks who were once my allies are really disappointed in me. I’m not outraged, and I’m not fighting. I’m too trusting, and I’m not seeing the truly despotic nature of City staff and City Council. The City folks, to whom I would like to reach out and say “let’s try again,” still associate me with the angriest voices raised against them. The fixing of all of this, if it’s possible at all, would involve incredibly slick political machinations of which I am not capable and in which I am not interested.
Thirty years ago, if the Che Guevera Guy had asked me to throw a bottle through a window, I probably would have done it to get his approval. People like him were dynamic and informed; I acted based on silly things like feelings. Even five years ago I was more susceptible to the notion that the people who saw corruption behind every tree were right and I was stupid and wrong. They FOIA’d, they compiled, they monitored and they knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t know. I never questioned their agendas; I simply accepted that my lazy “let’s all get along” thing paled in comparison to their vigorous, rigorous criticism of City Hall.
These days, I’m too comfortable with myself to need their endorsement. I may get nowhere this time, and I may just drop out of the whole thing and reclaim the hours to spend with my family and friends. I care what happens down the street, I care a lot, but I honestly don’t believe that my presence will tip the balance in any particular direction. I can’t “heal” anything if my time is spent fighting with the people who used to be my allies.
I bring nothing to the table but my naïveté, and my belief in human nature. I am apparently the Jimmy Carter in this story, all good intentions and not enough political capital or street smarts. I know that I lack the grit, the flint, or the stones to engage in perpetual conflict. I am soft, and called to nurture the tender green shoots of common ground. It makes me wince when hopeful new voices are cut off by the interminable drone of negativity. I really just can’t live my life on the basis that everyone is lying, scheming, stupid and venal.
There is no room for people like me on the political scene, local or national, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy here in the middle, where it’s fine to be my vulnerable, soft self.