We had a peace march in Fort Bragg, California when George W. Bush invaded Iraq. It drew hundreds of coastal citizens who gathered near the Exxon station. We marched down Main Street with banners, flags, drums and a police escort past a contingent of citizens in front of the Shell station arrayed in red, white and blue. They were chanting “We support the troops.” We started chanting “We support the troops, too.” My friend Sherry Glazer and I decided to cross the street and see if we could find some common ground with the “pro troops” people.
We brought information about the latest cuts to Veteran’s Budget. There was a lot of agreement that no medical care for veteran’s on the Mendocino coast, long waiting lists, and a four hour drive to a doctor does not “support the troops.” One of the people we met at the rally works at the local clinic. A conversation about what it would take for the clinic to provide medical care for veterans. It might take redesigning the Veteran’s Administration and the entire American medical system since both may be part of the problem. Problems of this magnitude can only be solved when the peace people and the pro-troops people work together.
There is a lot at stake. Large multinational corporations and entrenched bureaucracies don’t need the peace people and the pro-troops people comparing notes and finding common ground. Keeping these constituencies polarized, on the opposite sides of the street, is paramount to your survival, if you’re a multinational corporation or an entrenched bureaucracy. The rest of us might be better served by comparing notes and finding common ground.
Just how committed corporations are to keeping communities polarized became apparent to me during Redwood Summer. Judi Bari’s book about those days was aptly named “Timber Wars”. Up and down the Pacific Northwest giant corporations were pillaging the forests, cutting trees down at an astonishing clip.
Communities were divided between environmentalists and pro-timber camps. The environmentalists wanted to preserve the forests and the habitat they provide. The loggers and mill workers wanted to preserve the forests and the livelihood they provide. The forests were not preserved. The corporations won. The mill in Fort Bragg closed down last year (2004).
Here in Fort Bragg, California during Redwood Summer, we had a giant rally. A few thousand environmentalists, clad in eco-hippy hues, marched downtown to the intersection of Main and Redwood Streets. We parked a flatbed truck with a sound system and folksingers in front the old company store. There we met up with a big group of “pro-timber” folks who were all wearing yellow t-shirts provided by the timber industry’s marketing firm. A staunch array of motorcycle cops imported from Oakland stood by ready to riot. It was a pretty fine moment and a pretty good time was had by all.
There were a few invectives hurled by the inebriated and unwise. Some moving speeches were made, especially one by a former logger who had seen the light and given up logging and drinking to work at the recycling center “for the sake of his kids and his kidses kids”. After a while we all, and I mean everybody, tree huggers, mill workers and Oakland police, sang “This Land Is Your Land” several times through and then we all went home. Except for the timber corporations who, like all corporations, never rest. They went back to forest pillaging and mill closing until there just wasn’t much of that left.
But here’s where the yellow t-shirts come in. Remember Hills & Knowlton? They are the Washington, DC public relations firm that brought the American public that brilliantly persuasive tale of Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The girl who testified to the Senate about the alleged atrocity turned out to be the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, a fact which emerged only after Desert Storm had blown over. But Desert Storm supporters were wearing yellow t-shirts too. I always thought it was an odd choice of color if the message was to be statement about the courage of the wearer. At least Hills & Knowlton recycles.
Fast forward to the peace march and pro-troops rally in Fort Bragg this spring. It doesn’t matter which side of the street you were standing on. I have more in common with the pro-troops rally than with people who stayed home and said nothing. We all have a civic responsibility to hold our government accountable for actions taken in our name. And those who have the least interest in being held accountable are hoping to keep the peace march and the pro-troops rally on opposites side of the street lest we find common ground.
Suppose we agreed that supporting the troops would necessarily include providing them medical care. Before too long an alliance between peace activists and patriots might emerge with some specific ideas about health care for veterans. This could lead to truly dangerous wide-ranging discussions about subjects like the long-term consequences of using depleted uranium. Imagine such an alliance deciding to discuss health care for everyone. Consider the possibility that there might be a lot of agreement.