The Loneliness of a Lonestar Liberal
It's not easy being a progressive activist in Texas. Not only are the state's progressives up against a conservative majority and completely ignored by national politicians, they're also stuck with the media's label of "red state voters" who have completely different values from "blue state voters."
"I'm a redneck. I was raised Pentecostal and listen to country music. So what?" says Diane Wilson, 51, a member of Code Pink and author of the forthcoming book, An Unreasonable Woman, about her battle to save her hometown from industrial chemicals. "Redneck progressives are capable of a lot more than the media would have you think."
The repetitive use of the term "red state voter" makes it easy for the country at large, including progressives living in Democratic cities, to lose sight of the fact that Texas is a diverse state full of activists.
Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimp-boat captain, has been an environmental activist since 1989. She was born and raised in Seadrift, a small fishing town in East Texas, where chemical plants dominate and protesters are considered whackos. Shortly after Wilson learned that Seadrift was the most polluted region in the nation, she began staging solo hunger strikes. "People would say, 'Women don't do hunger strikes in Texas! Especially solo hunger strikes.'"
At the time, Wilson says she had no idea what it was like to have a support network and connections in the activist community. "A lot of activists are really good at networking. Because I was a fisherman, I was solitary anyway, so for a very long time, I would do actions by myself."
Wilson's actions eventually forced Formosa Plastics, a manufacturer of petrochemicals, to stop pumping discharge into Seadrift's waters. Since then, Wilson has been traveling around the country talking about her victories and encouraging influential progressives to reach out to working-class folks like herself. "The movement will continue to die if that doesn't happen," she says. "I still feel like I'm kind of an outsider looking in, but I do what I need to. I don't count on the Democratic or progressive parties to save me. I don't have time to wait on that. I've got chemical plants dumping daily."
Texas activists in small towns like Seadrift are making an impact; the problem is, they rarely receive the attention and press they deserve. Activists in and around Crawford, President Bush's adopted hometown, worked tirelessly to reelect Democrat Chet Edwards to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, making him Bush's congressman. Still, expressing opposition to Bush and his policies is frowned upon in Crawford. The locals make it very clear: if you're not a Bush supporter, you're not welcome. Life-sized cutouts of Bush and his family stared at me as I ate French fries at the only cafe in town. Shop and restaurant windows are plastered with W stickers and receipts say, "Home of President George W. Bush."
That's the climate Crawford Peace House activists face on a daily basis. In March 2003, John Wolf made national headlines when he announced plans to buy the house and convert it into a resource center and meeting place for those who oppose the Bush administration. On the highway leading to Crawford, just past the sign saying "Home of President George W. Bush," the Peace House is the first structure you see.
"We the People Say No to the Bush Agenda" and "Veterans for Peace" banners hang in the window, while information about everything from the war and military spending to Israel/Palestine and social justice can be found inside.
Kay Lucas, an activist who drives 25 miles to maintain and care for the Crawford Peace House, says the few locals who've expressed support for the Peace House are brave. During our interview, two men stopped by to say hello and check out the house. One agreed to answer a few questions, but didn't want to give his name for fear his neighbors would find out he voted for John Kerry (but preferred Ralph Nader).
I asked if he thought the Peace House has any impact on the locals. "I know it does. It gets some people to look deeper, but not very many. This is Bush country after all." Lucas tells me that when locals stop by the Peace House, they don't want passersby to see their cars in the driveway.
Crawford activists are trying to ease those fears by changing the dialogue. "We no longer protest," Lucas says. "We now have parades. Lots of parades." Have they made an impact? "If it weren't for us, there would be no alternative voice. I hope we've made some sort of a difference."
Even progressive activists in large Texas cities like Houston face many challenges and often work in small groups. "Houston is hard to organize because there is no mass transit and no commons area," says Theresa Keefe, who, along with her husband Keith Koski, brought a large cash cow to a Halliburton shareholder action in Houston last month. Keefe says the most effective activism in Texas involves visuals. "People in Texas won't listen if you scream," she says. "Big silly props reach more people, especially those who don't agree with us."
In addition to attending actions, Lee Loe, a 77-year-old member of Houston Code Pink, uses newspapers to spread her message. In 1996, when Loe learned about the impact sanctions were having on Iraqis, she started Iraq Notebook, a newspaper about the history of and current happenings in Iraq. Today, Loe selects stories with Houston's low-income Latino community in mind. The latest edition of Iraq Notebook includes eyewitness accounts from soldiers serving in Iraq and information on military recruiting efforts.
"The Latin American community is being heavily drafted here," Loe says. "The only people reaching out to the Latin American population are the ROTC. They were at the Cesar Chavez parade."
Loe distributed 12,000 issues of her last paper at local Latino festivals, including that parade. "It's such a drop in the bucket, but it spreads," she says. "One woman picked one up at a conference and gave it to her friend. She read it and used it in an exam for her students, so the information is getting out there."
Loe's paper doesn't have an accompanying Web site; she believes the progressive community often forgets that not everyone owns a computer. "I get mad when an event is posted and they put a web address with no telephone number. Are you kidding? That's elitist," she says. "I always hear, 'People can go to the library.' Yeah, right, with their five kids on the bus?" Loe is currently working on a new edition with the help of volunteers, donations and grants from the Green Party and Resist Illegitimate Authority.
The activists I've met over the past month and a half in Texas are dedicated and determined. Unlike progressive-leaning places like San Francisco, New York and Washington DC, activists here face strong and often hostile opposition. When Texas Governor Perry signed anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation at a church in Forth Worth last month, a few hundred activists stood in the hot sun waving signs and chanting slogans to 1,000 Perry supporters as they drove by in air-conditioned cars.
"We are beginning to learn that we have to speak out," says Mike Herrington, a sixth-generation Texan and member of Soulforce, an organization devoted to changing the minds of religious leaders who engage in anti-gay campaigns. "I'm also standing up for my own rights and I didn't used to do that. I think we're beginning to spread the message here in Texas. We have to be willing to take risks."
Lanore Dixon, an activist who drove 55 miles to attend the event, says openly talking about politics in social situations is taboo. "That has handcuffed us as activists. We're gonna have to face the uneasiness in our families. We're gonna have to risk being the black sheep that dares to open their mouth at Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthday parties. If we don't, we really are going to lose democracy," she says. "My goal is to turn Texas blue again. We need pointers on how to organize and how to inspire each other."
It's easy for progressives and national politicians to ignore Texas, especially since Bush got 61 percent of the state's vote. But local activists who break down the numbers remain somewhat hopeful. In Dallas County, Bush won by just under 10,000 votes. "If a national Democrat came here and talked to the people, I'm sure Kerry would have won Dallas," says activist Lynn Walters. "We also would have won more local races."
Texas activists say support from national politicians and progressive activists living in liberal cities would give them more power and influence. "It's pretty scary down here. We're sitting in one of the most conservative Bible Belt areas in the country," says Madeline Crozat-Williams, a Code Pink organizer in Houston. "We feel like we hear shreds of the conversation about where to go from here, but we're struggling. We could use all the help we could get."