Welcome to Becoming a Citizen Activist BlogAfter writing Urban Politics on Seattle politics for over 19 years, I will now also be covering urban issues in other cities that could have importance to metropolitan areas in general. Seattle issues will still be covered in Urban Politics – Seattle, but will not come out as frequently as in the past. In a couple of weeks a searchable archive of all former Urban Politics will be available on a newly redesigned www.becomingacitizenactivist.org. If you do not wish to receive Urban Politics – US reply with “Unsubscribe UP-US” in the Subject Line.

All posts by Stephen Crane

Mississippians are Organizing to Get Government Accountability

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Written By: Nick Licata

Not all deep red southern states are alike.

    Virginia over the past several years has become more purple while Mississippi has remained deep red. Democrats won more legislative and congressional seats in Virginia. As I pointed out in my last piece, that trend was kicked off by a successful constitutional based lawsuit against the racially based gerrymandering that the Virginia legislature had created. Court cases are one of the three primary tools available to make government’s more accountable.
Unlike Virginia, there is no court ruling pending nor cases filed challenging Mississippi’s gerrymandered state or federal district boundaries. A seasoned research and legal staff are required to file effective lawsuits against a state legislature’s gerrymandering. In Virginia’s case the fair redistricting advocacy groupThe Princeton Gerrymandering Project provided relevant data analysis, which specializes election and political law, and Kevin Hamilton, a litigator from the law firm Perkins Coie, brought the case representing the interests of African-American voters.
They are not involved with Mississippi’s situation. And the other the most likely institution in Mississippi to have available legal staff would be the ACLU. However, Mississippi’s ACLU has focused on directly stopping excessive force abuses against the black community; they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against county deputies who used unconstitutional tactics to target black people. As a result, the courts are not currently looking at any cases that would overturn Mississippi’s racially biased gerrymandered districts.
Mississippi allows citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, but none is currently being planned around redistricting or expanding voter access. Past progressive initiative efforts have failed at the polls. In 2001, a vote to change the state flag by eliminating the Confederate emblem was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters. Reflecting that same conservative culture, another amendment in 2011 requiring a strict Voter ID law passed. However, that year an amendment supporting an extreme anti-abortion failed. And although the last citizen-initiated promoting greater government accountability, in this case by increasing funding for public education, failed in 2015, it almost passed.
A recent survey indicates that these last two election results reflect a growing dissatisfaction by Mississippi’s citizens with their state legislature’s extreme conservative policies. In January of this year, a survey conducted by the Institute for Civic and Professional Engagement at Millsaps College and Chism Strategies found that the disapproval rating for the Mississippi Legislature’s work was nearly twice as high as its approval rating (46% to 24%). The public’s attitude appears to be swinging toward a rejection of a rigid ideology, as U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ran as a strong Trump supporter against the moderate Democrat Mike Espy, had a 50% disapproval rate of her work in the Senate but only 38% in support of it.
That survey also showed strong support for funding public services that the Republican-controlled state legislature has opposed. It reported that “A majority of Mississippi voters (65%) say that funding for the state’s public schools is too low, cutting across lines of party, race, gender, educational attainment, and age. Likewise, over 75% support providing for a 3% pay raise for Mississippi public school teachers.”
Brad Chism, the president of Chism Strategies released a statement saying, “This information is not filtered through special interests—it comes straight from a representative sample of voters across the state.” Unlike a number of other surveys that appear to have a particular political bent, this survey’s results, analysis, and crosstabs were publicly released.
The road to achieving greater government accountability now is dependent upon electing officials who recognize the need for better public services. Still, just presenting good candidates is not enough. This past November Mississippi saw two strong and articulate democratic candidates running for the U.S. Senate defeated.
Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Mike Espy came within 8 points of beating Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith for an open seat, which was the closest U.S. Senate election in Mississippi in the last 30 years. Espy ran as a moderate and Hyde-Smith as a strong Trump supporter. Meanwhile, the Democratic leader in Mississippi’s statehouse, David Baria, lost to the incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker by 20 points.
Baria’s race is typical of how well Democrats do against Republicans in Mississippi, which has been described by analysists as one of the least elastic states in the country, largely because of its demographics. Although at 37%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents of any state and 75% are Democrats or lean that way, the white voters are almost as strongly Republican at 65%, but they make up 61% of the population, leaving relatively few swing voters.
Overall Mississippi is mostly Christian, largely rural and is among the least-educated states. President Trump does well with voters who fall into these categories, but he only got 1% higher of the white voter turn out than McCann did in 2016. Meanwhile, Obama got a 10% greater black turnout than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. So, Espy, a black liberal candidate, turned out more of the Democratic base and didn’t generate any measurable increase in conservative white voters. If a Democrat can keep his or her base while also appealing to independents and those that lean Republican, that person could win.
Baria, who is white, supporting gun control and reproductive rights, was more progressive than Espy. Baria’s Republican opponent Wicker was slightly more moderate than Espy’s opponent Hyde-Smith. The total turnout of Baria’s race was 17% lower than Espy’s, with Baria receiving 66,000 fewer votes than Espy. Nevertheless, Espy’s vote tally was short by that number of votes to win his election. The results would indicate that a moderate Democrat could come closer to beating a Trump Republican by appealing to more cross over voters, but that candidate still needs to get out more voters who support progressive positions if they expect to win. It is a delicate and difficult balance to achieve.
Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes, running for lieutenant governor, is walking that tight-rope. He announced his campaign as a “people-powered, grassroots campaign about inclusion, not exclusion.” His opponent is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who enjoys a net approval rating of +30%, attracting both Democrats and black voters. His current popularity is higher than any other candidate running for one of Mississippi’s 7 executive offices. Hughes needs to hold onto his base and still attract Hosemann’s support. Hughes has done so by attracting many conservative white working-class families from smaller towns and rural areas as he emphasizes the need for funding for better education and roads, that surveys reveal voters want better funded.
The problem that Hughes faces, and one that other Democrats in Mississippi and other deeply red states confront, is how to keep the support of progressives who could sit out a race if a candidate does not support a woman’s right to have an abortion for instance. As a current state legislator, Hughes recently voted for an anti-abortion measure similar to the one that was defeated at the polls. He understandably explained his vote as one that was necessary to retain his seat and make him a competitive candidate for lieutenant governor, but it could also result in a lower turnout from his voter base.
Another strong democratic candidate, Jennifer Riley-Collins, is running for the vacant Attorney General position. As a retired decorated army colonel with 20 years of military service and an active in the religious community, she can also attract traditional republican leaning voters. However, she is the current Executive Director of Mississippi’s ACLU and has represented it in opposing state laws that violated an individual’s civil rights. As Attorney General, she would now have to defend those laws. She says that if elected she is committed to “represent the legal interest of the State of Mississippi.” And she strongly states, “My commitment to serve and protect all Mississippians fully qualifies me for the position.”  She has several popular Republican opponents and any of them are expected to outspend her in the general election.
The best chance that the Democrats have for capturing a state-wide office is with the current Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running for the vacant Governor’s seat. He has been the only statewide elected Democrat in Mississippi for some time. Like, Rep. Jay Hughes, he has support among white working-class families, particularly from rural areas, which is critical since Mississippi’s only urban center is the Greater Jackson area, and has a population of less than 600,000 in a state with a total population just shy of 3 million.
Hood’s opponent is Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has big financial backers but polls only 47 percent with those leaning Republican while Hood scores an approval of 46 percent, and with independent voters Hood leads Reeves by 13 points. But like all of the other Democrat candidates, campaigning on some liberal social policies are constrained by the need to retain the support of those culturally conservative families.
Even with viable democratic candidates, the road to victory depends on getting out more voters and providing them good information on the issues. Espy’s campaign did that according to Beth Orlansky, the Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, saying “There was a groundswell of excitement to get registered and vote, Espy’s campaign energized people that hadn’t voted before. There still is an appetite for change.”
Mississippi Votes has a proven track record of turning out new voters, Izzy Bronstein, the Grassroots Organizer for Common Cause, said: “Mississippi Votes is one great organization getting out new voters.” Arekia Bennett, the Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, explains their strategy for particularly reaching young new voters: “Mississippi Votes is Millennial led and youth-centered — in an effort to stay true to that founding principle, we have campus ambassadors on 9 of the 17 colleges and universities throughout the state of Mississippi. It is our goal, by August, to have that same youth civic engagement programming in 5 high schools across the state.” Focusing on youth makes sense given the economic difficulty they are having. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found Millennials born in the ’80s have a net worth 34% below what was expected.
But just getting them to vote would not be enough. Bennett explains that “Mississippi Votes does political education, voter registration, and conducts research that informs our organizing strategies in and with communities that have historically been disenfranchised and/or have a below average voter turnout rate during non-presidential elections.”
While Mississippi Votes has supported online voter registration, which appeals to youth, Mississippi still does not have Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Adopting any of these measures would greatly contribute to increasing voter turnout for all residents. Mississippi residents are strongly behind making voting easier for them. The January Millsaps / Chism survey found 71% of Mississippians favored allowing for early voting in their Circuit Clerk’s offices 14 days before an election, something that is allowed in 38 other states. However, these measures will only be adopted when the Republican supermajority in each chamber can be reduced to at least a simple majority and the Governor is a Democrat so that a Democratic Governor’s veto of restrictive voting measures could not be overridden.
It will be a challenge to reduce the number of Republicans to the level that drops their seats below 60% in either chamber. The Democrats would have to win either 10 seats in the House or 5 seats in the Senate for that to happen. Without redistricting, the current gerrymandered state districts will be used, but that does not eliminate the possibility of flipping the necessary number of seats to deny the Republicans a supermajority in either chamber. It was done in Virginia under the same conditions, it can happen in Mississippi.

Electoral wins take grassroots organizing and good candidates. If Mississippi Votes can turn out the youth voters and others who have not registered to vote but want more government accountability, those wins are very possible. As the Millsaps / Chism state-wide survey showed, the populace wants to change. They need to believe that there is a chance for that happening. Local organizations like Mississippi Votes, One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute and Fair Vote, need assistance from national groups like the NAACP, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) and Common Cause. These groups must provide assistance if Mississippi’s state government is to have a bi-partisan distribution of power and finally provide greater accountability to its residents.
John Chappell, a young student volunteer in Mississippi Votes, bluntly summarized Mississippi’s challenge, “Our institutions aren’t going to save themselves. We need to deliberately push for more inclusive, more democratic governance. Our institutions rely on citizen participation, which means that everyone has to do their part.”

Virginia’s Approach to Government Accountability

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Part II of Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy

Written by: Nick Licata


 

Despite the top three elected Virginia State Democrats generating national headlines for being accused of past racist or even criminal behavior, a movement to reform their democratic process continues to grow. These efforts can use three tools for making structural changes in government: the initiative process, court rulings and electing new public officials.

Virginia does not have the first option. Citizens can only vote on a specific institutional change when their General Assembly (their Senate and House chambers) brings a state constitutional amendment to a vote of the people. Virginia, like a number of other states, has a constitution that is very prescriptive. Consequently, what may be handled as a legislative solution becomes a constitutional amendment, which is a three-step process: it must be passed by two sessions of the General Assembly, followed by a vote of the populace. Despite an arduous journey, constitutional amendments are voted on regularly, most of which are non-controversial.

Their General Assembly completed its annual session in February. On the last day, they overwhelmingly approved a ground-breaking amendment to establish a bi-partisan Redistricting Commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. Next year’s General Assembly must vote on it again before it is placed on the ballot as a referendum during the November 2020 election.

The proposed commission will have 16-members, eight legislators (four Senators and four Delegates, with equal representation between the parties in each chamber) and eight citizen members (selected by a committee of retired circuit court judges from lists submitted by majority and minority party leadership in each chamber).  The Commission’s redistricting plan must then be approved, without any amendment, by a majority vote of their General Assembly’s two chambers and if passed cannot be vetoed by the Governor. The new boundaries would be in place for the 2021 state district and congressional races, which could shift the control of either chamber or both from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, was very enthusiastic about the proposed amendment, saying that “This is the most comprehensive reform ever passed through a state legislature.” OneVirginia2021 believed that powerful computerized mapping tools and detailed demographic data in the past had turned district boundary mapmaking into a weapon to keep the party in power from being elected out, as well as giving incumbents the advantage over outside challengers.

Although OneVirginia2021 has a budget under a half-million, with donations averaging $100, they have created 10 regional chapters and garnered over 1,000 core volunteers to collect 100,000 petition signers to support an independent redistricting commission, which would use a transparent process and clear rules that protect communities. They then laid out, in Brian’s words, “a close-to-perfect kind of plan that we thought they (the General Assembly) could use. It served as a marker, though we are far from perfect in what we got.”

Another grassroots organization, the New Virginia Majority, has also played an instrumental role in pushing for redistricting reforms. Jamaa Bickley King, the board chair of NVM has been quoted as saying “While various plans have been put forward, we at New Virginia Majority believe that the only way to remedy the blatant racial discrimination that took place is to ensure a new map maximizes the voting power of minority communities.” NVM hired a national data firm, TargetSmart, to construct a map that respected communities of color and communities of interest and introduced it to the General Assembly as an alternative redistricting map.

Although appreciative of what the General Assembly proposed, Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of NVM, still has concerns, which she believes should be addressed in next year’s legislature’s session. They have introduced redistricting criteria legislation to provide clearer district guidelines and make-up of the commission. Nguyen says, “We must make sure the voices of racial and language minority populations are not ignored in this process.” These clarifications of the proposal would be administrative guidelines, and hence could be passed by the General Assembly without violating the rule denying any amendments being made to what was passed this year.

While both NVM and OneVirginia2021 pushed for an independent commission to draw the districts instead of legislators, they didn’t get that since legislators compose half of the commission membership. However, they strongly approved of commission’s transparency provisions. Those elements consist of requiring the commission to have open public meetings and to hold at least three public hearings in different parts of the Commonwealth and to have all records and documents associated with the Commission’s work be available to the public. These measures provide community organizations to mobilize residents to express their support or displeasure on the administrative rules that will guide the commission’s operations.

The Republican-controlled legislature was motivated to create the commission after they lost 15 house seats in the 2017 elections when they had said they expected to lose no more than five. They were facing a real possibility and still do, that the Democrats could control the General Assembly and use gerrymandering to their own advantage just as the Republicans had been doing.

Those electoral victories were due in large part to the efforts of the New Virginia Majority registering 140,000 new voters the prior year. By targeting low voter turnout communities, like people of color and young people, and lower income folks of all color, they helped overwhelming defeat the Republican-backed “Right-to-Work” constitutional amendment at the polls in 2016, winning the vote in every county. NVM continues to register voters and is expecting that their “get out the vote” effort will result in several hundred thousand new voters in 2020 when the constitutional amendment creating the redistricting commission comes on the ballot.

Winning elections is more than just increasing the number of voters, it’s about reflecting the public’s wishes. The desire for more accountability is a non-partisan issue. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that a poll taken last December by Virginia’s Wason Center for Public Policy found that 78% of Virginia voters support a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan redistricting commission. But the message must be delivered with bipartisan support because past polling has shown that the public is suspicious of political parties using democratic “reforms” to promote their own advantage. Although an all citizen independent redistricting commission would probably receive the most public support, this one’s bi-partisan structure will likely be seen by voters as moving in the right direction, particularly if there are good administrative guidelines.

It is also critical that the public’s wishes be informed of their constitutional rights, which ultimately are determined by the courts. It’s about safeguarding our liberty. The initial force that made Virginia’s elections more accountable to all citizens resulted from a Federal Court ruling in 2016, which found that their Congressional boundaries were discriminatory against black communities. New boundaries used in the 2018 election resulted in 3 of the 11 seats in Congress flipping from Republican to Democrat. A separate court decision in 2017, came to that same conclusion for state house seats and over 20 house district boundaries were redrawn.

Democracies do not sleep. They are dynamic organizations, pushed by technical innovations, demographic fluctuation, and economic cycles. These all contribute to improving or hindering citizens access to the polls. For that reason, it is necessary to continually evaluate if voter access is being maximized. After redistricting, it is the next challenge that state governments must move onto. In Virginia’s last General Assembly session four automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting – early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. If the Democrats have a majority in either chamber, it will be incumbent upon them to take up and pass these measures where they can.

There is no final victory in keeping our democracy alive, there is only constant diligence to care for it, or else it will slip away.

Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy in 2019

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Written By: Nick Licata

What does a win look like?

Seeing a win depends on who’s looking at it. I take the viewpoint of a Pragmatic Progressive. I define a pragmatist as someone who sees that a path forward consists of one step at a time, and that small steps are meaningless compromises if they are not followed up with another step, which goes forward with the same principles.

And what about being a Progressive? Historically the progressive movement grew out of the urban areas in the early 1900s. It pursued reforming government so that it would be more accountable for providing better environmental, social and economic conditions. Its message is the same today, although I would add safeguarding liberty. Promoting these objectives will attract people from across the political spectrum and improve everyone’s quality of life. That movement is afoot today in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana in trying to achieve more accountable and representative state governments.

Why are 3 Southern States in Play this Year?

I found examples of progressive successes in these three states; the only state’s holding elections in 2019 for their state legislators. All of their state senators are up four-year terms, as are the representatives in Louisiana and Mississippi, while Virginia’s representatives will serve two-year terms. Mississippi and Louisiana’s Governors and all of their state-wide executive positions will also be voted on. The total of their legislators is only a fraction of the 5,000 state legislators who will be elected in the 2020 elections, nevertheless, they could shape the national 2020 elections by providing a winning strategy for promoting fair redistricting and greater voter access.

Many residents in these three states have limited access to the ballot box and live in gerrymandered voting districts that favor Republicans winning. Since they controlled the state governments, they were able to draw the state legislative boundaries to their advantage. If voter participation can be expanded in some of the most voting-restricted states in our nation, the path toward electoral wins in 2020 for more representative, responsive state governments will have begun.

At first glance, the political terrain of Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana

is similar. In each, the Republicans control both legislative chambers, albeit they have only a one or two seat majority in Virginia’s legislatures, while in Louisiana and Mississippi they have supermajorities in both chambers. All had been required to receive advance federal approval to change their election laws under the Voting Rights Act because their racial minorities faced barriers to votingThat obligation in the Act was nullified when the Supreme Court ‘s five conservative justices ruled that racial discrimination was no longer a problem.

Limited Voter Access

None of these three states have any of the following practices that encourage voter participation: Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Legislation to enact them has been consistently blocked by the Republicans.

In this year’s Mississippi House of Representatives four different bills, introduced by four different representatives, promoting automatic voter registration failed to even be considered in committee. In Virginia the response was the same, four automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting — early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. The same experience is expected in the Louisiana Legislature once it convenes in April.

One critical change that would increase voter turnout, particularly among youth, is to adopt automatic voter registration (AVR) when applying for a driver’s license for example. The nonprofit Center for American Progress released a study finding that the percentage of young voters dramatically increased in Oregon and California after they adopted AVR. As of the beginning of 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only seven states have AVR, none in the south. With a citizen’s grassroots movement, Virginia, Mississippi or Louisiana could join that list.

Gerrymandered Districts Have Led to One Party Rule

Achieving fair state and congressional district boundaries is the basis for having citizens being fairly represented in their state legislatures and Congress. That will likely not be achieved in Mississippi and Louisiana until the Democrats control at least one of their chambers. Republicans have controlled the state governments in all three states since 2010. As a result, they gerrymandered districts to their benefit, effectively barring Democratic and black community voters from being fairly represented in state government and Congress.

Before the Republican landslide that swept across the nation, halfway through President Obama’s first term, Democrats controlled both chambers from 1992 to 2009 in Louisiana and Mississippi. Since then Republicans have dominated both chambers. Party control over Virginia’s chambers has been more divided with the Democrats controlling both chambers only from 1992 to 1997, with the Republicans more often controlling one of the chambers and the governorship than the Democrats.

Although Virginia was considered one of the most gerrymandered states, thanks to citizen organizations, like OneVirginia2021 and New Virginia Majority, their state legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. More information on how that victory was accomplished is covered in my next piece in this series on Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy.

Three Paths to Stopping Gerrymandering

The Brennan Center for Justice, after interviewing a diverse group of more than 100 stakeholders using commissions for redistricting maps, concluded that commissions could significantly improve satisfaction across the stakeholder spectrum in achieving better representation than what is provided through legislatures gerrymandering districts. They did caution that commissions had to be structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.

There are only 3 political paths that can lead to creating such commissions: by a direct vote of the populace, by order of the courts, or by electing representatives and a governor who agree to establish one. In most states, the governor can veto a legislature’s proposed redistricting plan. In Louisiana and Virginia, a governor’s veto applies to both state and congressional districts, while in Mississippi the governor can only veto plans for drawing congressional districts.

This introductory piece is followed by three more pieces describing how citizens are applying these strategies in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Their efforts are not grabbing the national headlines since they are overshadowed by Congress’s battle with the President. However, they are laying the groundwork for a systematic alteration in each state’s democratic process so that more citizens have a hand in determining a better future for their families. And by example, they point the way for citizen groups in other states on how they could pursue these changes.

The Wall, The Democrats and The Art of Negotiating

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Originally Published Jan. 9 on Medium by Nick Licata

wall

The first rule of successful negotiating is to do so from a position of strength. If you are not in that position, still declare that you are. If you are negotiating in the public arena, the general audience will not really know which side is stronger, if both are claiming to be such. And if the consequences of just the negotiations negatively impact the public’s welfare, it doesn’t take much brainpower to realize that the public just wants it to end. Who wins is not their major concern. A rising chorus of “please compromise” usually is the refrain to let them get back to leading normal lives. The details of that compromise are secondary to this primary concern.

This is the framework within which President Donald Trump and the Congressional Democratic leaders Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer find themselves in.

The second rule of successful negotiating is to not overplay your hand by assuming that your side has more “facts” than the other side has in proposing the right solution to the problem before them. This is a bigger danger for the side that actually does have more and better facts. That may sound counter-intuitive. If they have a better set of facts and they share them with the public, shouldn’t their side be able to sway public opinion to support their side of the negotiations?

That only holds true if both sides have the same size megaphone. If the side with the weaker facts can reach more people, they can blunt and most certainly muddy the factual basis of who is correct. And once they do that, the role of “facts” diminishes. This has been Trump’s consistent “modus operandi.”

And, it is the conundrum that the Congressional Democratic leadership find themselves wrapped in. The President has a bigger megaphone. House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer, retort to Trump’s televised address, was rational but also defensive. Worse they didn’t say the magic words “let’s compromise”, which Trump did. Even though the facts show that the Democrats already did when they voted at the end of last year to pass legislation, with both majority Republican and Democrat support, for funding a portion of the wall. Trump originally indicated he would be fine with the legislation. And then he rejected it.

What drives the Democrats, and even a trickle of Republicans, crazy is that Trump sends mixed messages and changes his mind in mid-course. Worse yet, he makes sweeping statements, that while they almost always contain a thread of truth, they present a blatantly false tapestry of reality. His national address justifying the wall was a classic example. He has said we are in an emergency situation, however, the number of people crossing into the US from Mexico is down 90% from 2000. How do you have an emergency when the apparent threat to our security has been shrinking not expanding?

Trump also claimed that “Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border.” The Drug Enforcement Administration says “only a small percentage” of heroin seized by the U.S. comes across on territory between ports of entry. They concluded that a border wall would NOT choke off most smuggling methods.

By repeating exaggerations and then abandoning them when challenged, Trump has been able to keep his opposition, and his allies, off balance. The result is that the political power to make final national decisions has devolved into his hands alone. Even his cabinet members have been corralled to stay within the boundaries of his ever-shifting fencing.

The Democrats have seized on Trump’s inconsistencies, thinking that they have struck a vein of unlimited gold nuggets. While exposing these mistakes, exaggerations or lies, every day of the week, the net effect has not been so dramatic. Trump’s national approval ratings hover around 40% with his Republican base seemingly stuck at over 75%. And he is counting on that trend continuing no matter how long the government is shut down. The Democrats are certain that while Trump has a hard core of supporters who may never abandon him, the Republican Congressional Members are more exposed, particularly in states and districts with more ethnically diverse and educated voters. And they are beginning to waver.

Now is the time for the Democrats to shape a message of “compromise” but without abandoning social justice principles. Right now they are in a stronger position than Trump or the Republicans. But if the shut down continues, political anger will rise and neither party will be spared. The path forward becomes uncertain, that is why timing is important.

What does a compromise look like? It must acknowledge that security is important. That is Trump’s go to message. Democrats need to grab it from him. But rather than approaching it as a more pro-wall or more anti-immigrant policy, which some Democrats fear a compromise might entail, the better approach is to attack the concept of Trump’s Wall as ineffective and wasteful government spending. This is an issue that cuts into the heart of the middle-class voters who are sympathetic to immigrants but are still fearful for their own families’ safety.

The Democratic leaders have often said they support greater border security, so that ground has already been paved. The Democrats just need to drive on it, right up to the middle of the debate. They need to champion security for everyone, including immigrants, who are often the victims from criminal elements in their own community, which plays off of Trump’s own statements of how immigrants are victims of crime.

The second prong of the Democrats response must be to call out the concrete or steel wall as a bumper sticker slogan, not a real solution that offers security. We need wise leaders who will not drain our tax dollars away from real and effective strategies. And there may indeed need to be funds available, as was agreed to in the past by the Democrats, to maintain certain physical barriers along the border. But that should only be done in conjunction with other more sophisticated security measures and with a better administrative system for handling the flow of immigrants wanting to enter our country.

This approach will attract the support of Congressional Republicans who are being beaten up by their own constituents wanting an end to the government shutdown. They will support something that works as a solution to addressing the border security issue and ends the shutdown.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leading House tea party conservative has said in describing his party’s determination, “I think you can’t cave. That’s what the Democrats don’t understand — it’s all or nothing.” That is exactly what enrages the public because it’s just about who wins a bare-knuckle fight.

Now is the time for the Democrats to drive home a counter message by proposing a workable, cost-effective and humane solution. And it will be a win for everyone, not just one side.

Keynote Address to the Seattle Real Change Newspaper

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Originally Published September 24, 2018

Urban Politics – USA

By Nick Licata

Below is my keynote address to the Seattle Real Change newspaper, published by those who are either homeless or had been. Real Change is thought by many to be the most successful weekly newspaper published by the homeless in the country.

My talk ties the cause of homelessness to our current dominant national political philosophy that considers the freedom to accumulate wealth to be more legitimate than the freedom from want.

A video of my talk, taken by Mind Over Matters producer Mike McCormick can be seen here.

The news program Mind Over Matters has been on the non-profit radio station KEXP giving a forum to those not normally heard in corporate media. The station is cancelling MOM at the end of this year, 2018. For further information go to their MOM’s Facebook page.


Nick's Keynote

Nick Licata’s Keynote at the Real Change 24th Annual Breakfast

Sept 18, 2018, Seattle WA

 I wrote Becoming a Citizen Activist because I believe activism begins by noticing things which we had ignored or accepted as a given, that at some point just don’t seem right.

It’s asking ourselves, as Rosa Parks did, why am I sitting in the back of the bus, instead of the front?  Thoughts like those spark movements for change.

So, how do we spark that inquisitive mind? And then take the next step; by helping others also see it differently? In order, to make a better world.

I think it begins by questioning the status quo. Is it serving our needs, those of our neighbors or fellow citizens?

Let me define “citizen” at this point: It is anyone. Living here. And, contributing to our democratic society. It is not just a piece of paper.  Or, running through a gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape. And, having a big bank account, should not allow someone to cut into the front of the line for becoming Citizen. And certainly, it is not based on the color of one’s skin, or the religion they practice or not having a religion at all.

A quote, from of all people, the conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, summed up what being an American is all about.

After President Trump, had finished railing, in the Oval Office, to a group of Republican leaders, sharing, what some seemed to be white nationalist thoughts, – who would have thought? Sen. Graham spoke up. He looked directly at President Trump told him bluntly, “America is an idea, not a race.”

And what is that idea? President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it in real terms, in his 1941 State of Union address. He said, “The Republic grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, and free worship.”

Then, he went on to say,  “As our nation has grown, as our economy has expanded, these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization, of the fact, that true individual freedom, cannot exist, without economic security and independence.”

He was adding a 4th freedom, “the freedom from want.” That speech became known as the 4 Freedoms Speech. Recognizing that last freedom is at the heart of our nation’s current political struggles.

It goes beyond debating how many beds we can afford to provide for homeless people. It goes beyond expressing sympathy for the most vulnerable among us. It comes down to Americans having to decide what kinds of freedoms are most important.

Is it the “freedom from want” OR the “freedom to accumulate wealth” – without restraint. Since 1977 we have seen 12% of the Nation’s Wealth, as measured by the GDP, transferred from middle class working families to the top 1% of our population. That trend cannot sustain a functioning, responsive democracy.

This is not a new debate in our country’s history, but it is now reaching a crescendo. And we see it playing out in our Supreme Court decisions. Unfortunately, we are relying on our court system, because the other 2 branches of government, under both parties, have already allowed for the highest concentration of wealth this nation has ever seen

In seeking a path forward, I’m not talking about socialism, I’m not talking about capitalism, and I’m not talking about class warfare.

I’m talking about, what a democratic society needs so that people do not give up hope in our system of government so that our citizens do not seek solace in cynicism or embrace the false security of believing in demagogues’ accusations on who is responsible for our problems.

Unfortunately we can see that happening, the first with the decline of voter turn out, from those who have the most to lose from an unrepresentative government and the second with the explosion of conspiracy theories, that blame the weak or those that have the least political power, and unfortunately they are too often echoed by the White House.

The effects of a shrinking middle class on the national stage are now well documented; to get by, people are working longer hours or multiple jobs, having poorer health and then when they are too old to find work, they are left with miniscule savings set-aside for retirement. For instance, the median savings for all U.S. families is just $5,000. And, according to a 2016 survey, 35 percent of all adults have only several hundred dollars in their savings accounts and they are still better off than 34 percent have zero savings.

Closer to home, here in Seattle, we are witnessing the decline of the middle class and the growth of the poverty class. It can happen to anyone who is barely able to pay for his or her basic necessities. According to the King County “All Home” website, the leading cause of someone becoming homeless is their loss of a job.

I consider the grand myth of homelessness to be the belief that it’s someone else’s problem. For too many people it only becomes their problem, when they find tent cities and campsites, sprouting up in neighborhoods that never saw before.

I travel around, visiting other cities, and let me tell you, Seattle is not alone in witnessing these hardships. We see poverty expanding because the dominant national political philosophy that says the freedom to protect marketplace investments is more legitimate than protecting the economic welfare of our citizens.

The response to this mindset is not simply spending more money to provide social services or even more affordable housing. Those are good things and they are needed.

But if you just go down that path, of only providing services and not altering our laws, you will end up arguing about the burden of taxes and the management of government. Which were raised as objections to pass a head tax on the largest Seattle businesses, in order to provide more affordable housing? Even though, less than 2% of Seattle Businesses would have paid any of it.

That is why we must go beyond just treating the damaging effects of that dominant philosophy. We must change the expectations that our fellow citizens have for our nation so that it is a society we want to live in. A society that provides the economic security that FDR referred to.  And the people in this room and thousands of others, beyond this hall, have shown that we can change our laws to create, not a perfect society, but one that is certainly a more just and an equitable one.

Seattle’s victories have been adopted by other cities, in both red and blue states. They have taken root because citizens realize that they have more in common in protecting public welfare than protecting the power and wealth of the few.

Seattle has begun that effort by adjusting the structure of our economy so that people will gain some stability in their lives so that they have an opportunity to reach the American dream of economic independence and not be dependent on government.

Let’s identify a few significant steps that Seattle has taken toward that goal  – in just 2 areas: improving working conditions and increasing rental security. Both have made Seattle more affordable to those who are in the middle to bottom half of the family incomes.

They are not final solutions, but they are real and long-lasting changes.

With regards to working conditions:

We set a national standard by gradually moving to a $15 minimum wage for all employees in Seattle. We listened to all sides, but we did not retreat from this objective. It did not happen overnight, but it was achieved. And as a result, thousands of lower paid; part-time workers can now better manage their financial burdens.

We also adopted one of the most progressive Paid Sick Leave ordinances in the nation, which allows sick employees to stay home or stay home to take care of their sick children, and still receive pay. Before this law was passed nearly 40% of the private-sector workforce, who are among the least economically secure, did not have this benefit. Illness forced them to take time away from work without pay and put them at the risk of losing their job.

We’ve passed a Wage Theft ordinance so that workers actually get paid for the work they are doing. Too often in the past, businesses would require extra work time, before or after an employee has punched in, without compensation.

Lastly, to ensure that our labor laws are enforced, the city established an Office of Labor Standards. Without enforcement, there is no change.

 

With regards to rental security:

Seattle City Council passed a law requiring rental property owners to assist financially strapped tenants to enroll in installment plans to pay the high upfront-costs for securing a rental unit. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve announced that 46% of adults could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money. And the vast majority of these folks are renters.

A Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance was established after an extensive public involvement to help write it. Inspectors will now make sure all registered rental properties comply with minimum housing and safety standards. This preserves the quality of life for renters in all neighborhoods.

Afterward, a Tenant Protection Law was enacted, to guarantee that rental units are fit for habitation before a landlord increases rents. According to the 2009 American Survey, approximately 10 percent of our rentals have moderate to severe physical problems. A housing code violation plus a rent increase now trigger this protection.

Lastly, to assure that renters’ interests are fairly represented, a City Renters Commission was established last year.  Formally and systematically hearing from renter’s representatives is critical to keeping Seattle affordable. Because rising rents have left Seattle with the 3rd largest homeless population in the U.S. according to Zillow.

Passing these laws shows that we are not helpless. We do not have to wait for Congress to act. Here in Seattle, and in other cities, there is an urban movement to provide for “a freedom from want” to stop more people from sliding into a state of homelessness.

It does take persistent work, innovative solutions, and a commitment to be engaged in our democracy. But, isn’t that why all of us are here: to be citizen activists and to assure that freedom rings – for all of us.

Thank you.

Convictions Will Not Alter Trump’s Reality

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Originally Posted on 8/23/18
By Nick Licata


 

Convictions Will Not Alter Trump’s Reality

Convictions Will Not Alter Trumps Reality

            To understand President Trump, one must take him at his word, when he said, in effect if someone hits you, hit back harder. He is no President Obama, who whatever his shortcomings, was publically self-reflective in assessing his actions and even beliefs. For Trump, Obama’s approach represented weakness.
Trump derives his strength by avoiding any hesitancy in declaring the validity of his actions and beliefs. This is true even when this actions and policy positions lead down different paths because, at the moment when he speaks, he truly believes that they are valid.
Hence, his current attorneys do not want him to be interviewed by Special Investigator Mueller, because Trump’s public statements are a string of contradictions. His current personal attorney Rudy Giuliani correctly characterized this danger as a “perjury trap.” Any interview with Trump would challenge his ability to see the world other than how he sees it: one that shifts as circumstances change.
He and his supporters do not see this inconsistency as “lies”. They are simple truths at the moment they were spoken, and not necessarily before or afterward. Like all of us, his reality is influenced by his frame of mind. However, in his case, his self-confidence seems to allow him to believe that he is actually shaping the reality around him, even when it is inconsistent with evidence that can be seen by nonpartisans.
This reality gap was visually demonstrated his first week in office when he declared that the crowd size for his inauguration was the largest ever. The photo evidence proved him wrong. But he refused to believe the photos, continuing to argue, through his public servants,  that there were conditions that impacted the photos, which accounted for him not making an error.
Of course, that was minor stuff in comparison to where we are today, with his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, both admitting or convicted of felonies. Trump, however, focused on a technical sliver of truth: he was not named in either conviction. However, the description of “individual-1” identified in Cohen’s plea agreement, was a federal candidate who directed him to make or oversee payments in 2016 to secure the silence of women poised to accuse that individual of having adulterous affairs with the candidate. Who could that possibly be? Whoever it was, that person may well have committed a federal crime.
Fox prime-time commentators Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, who reach 25% of all TV news viewers, encourage and support Trump’s alternative view of reality. Hours after the convictions were announced they argued that even if it was Trump, so what? There was no federal crime since he was not President at that time and he was just using his own funds for a non-campaign purpose. It was likened to settling a lawsuit from a disgruntled employee. Were Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal Trump employees? Check out Hannity & Levin’s exchange from Tuesday, August 21st.
Trump’s second truthful statement was that neither conviction mentioned collusion with Russia. This message was repeated throughout the day by Fox News commentators. However, the continual reference to Russian collusion is a misdirected focus. Interestingly, when Sean Hannity asked his guest commentator former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy how did the trials of Cohen and Manafort come about when Muller’s search was for Russian collusion. McCarthy told him that the Mueller’s main focus is obstruction of justice and that Russian collusion was just one thread of Mueller’s investigation. Trump denied Russian collusion multiple times after the convictions were announced, but made no mention of a possible obstruction of justice charge.
It’s apparent that no matter what future convictions may uncover, Trump will fight their revelations as phony and accuse Mueller of being out to get him. The enemy for him will continue to be the corrupt Democrats, and the fake news media, with the exception of Fox News. It’s not altogether a weak strategy, up until the Cohen and Manafort convictions, Trump’s constant attacks on Mueller’s investigation has lead to less than half of the public supporting it and two-thirds wanting it to end before the November elections.
Trump’s insistence that reality conforms to his perception, leads to the inevitable conclusion that even if the Democrats somehow won the House and impeach Trump, he would most likely conclude before any final vote was taken in the Senate, that Congress was rigged against him. He made a similar remark of the entire election process when as a candidate he was behind in the polls and it looked like he might lose.

            Despite being a pugnacious fighter, who enjoys taunting his opponents, he has another characteristic, which rallies his core supporters. He is a victim of The Deep State, the ever-present demon of the far-right, which secretly manipulates our nation’s future. Numerous polls indicate that it’s a belief that may be shared by up to a third of the nation.

            If Trump feels he can no longer tolerate the conspiracy of his enemies to oust him, he may well ignore the decisions of our democratic institutions and appeal to his core supporters to save our constitution from the evil deep state. That crisis may just force Republicans in Congress to publically object to his inability and disinterest in maintaining our democracy. If they don’t, then the foundations of our democratic society will have shifted off of their institutional base to one dependent on the beliefs and whims of whoever is “the leader”.

The Campaign for Abolishing ICE – Is it a Winnable Strategy?

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Originally Posted on 7/12/18
By Nick Licata 


 

The Campaign for Abolishing ICE – Is it a Winnable Strategy?

Abolishing ICE

     What does a win look like for the Campaign to Abolish ICE? Let’s assume for the moment that it is to stop the agency’s increasingly brutal deportation raids because, as The Nation writer Sean McElwee said in a lead article, they have “become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives.”

This is a view shared by a growing number of Democrats. Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, accuses ICE’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws of “conducting raids at garden centers and meatpacking plants” and “breaking up families at churches and schools”. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, called to abolish ICE, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that given Mr. Trump’s “deeply immoral actions,” the entire immigration system should be reformed. Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. joined Rep. Pocan in promising to introduce a bill to eliminate the agency.

The call to abolish ICE also gained momentum in the second week of July when well over 100 state and local elected officials from 20 states joined in calling for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Their released statement said “the lawless federal agency that, since its creation in 2002, has terrorized immigrants and separated families in the communities we live in and represent,” must be ended as soon as possible.

However, while the message of “Abolish ICE” is powerful, it also can be easily misconstrued to mean a decline in public safety. The critical question to ask, and one that must be discussed, is how does this strong campaign slogan affect the fall congressional elections? In other words, will a campaign to eliminate ICE turn out more Democrats or Republicans?

The underlying lesson that needs to be remembered is that mobilizing popular opinion is not the same as mobilizing voters. That was proven most painfully when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote.

That same lesson played out with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s eventual loss of political influence. Their goals initially had more popular support than the Tea Party’s, but John Wellington Ennis, documentary filmmaker of PAY 2 PLAY, points out that the Occupy movement “viewed officeholders as courtesans for the corporate class” and hence rejected electoral politics, while “the Tea Party turned outraged at the government into electoral gains”, admittedly with the help of corporate money. The bottom line is that the Occupy Movement rejected working within the Democratic Party, while the Tea Party chose to work within the Republican Party, and take it over.

The call to abolish ICE can motivate the Democratic Party’s base, and even a significant portion of the independents, to turn out to vote in the fall. The proponents point out that a clear message of abolishing ICE is less murky and less definitive than simply arguing to reform ICE. There does seem to be fertile ground for believing that. According to a January 2018 poll by New Post-ABC, half of independents and 6 in 10 Democrats feel strongly that immigrants strengthen our country. That same poll found that more than half the country strongly opposes the idea of building a wall.

But politics is like a game of chess, in that a winner prepares for possible future moves by the opponent. The Republicans have already said they intend to use the abolish ICE campaign to mobilize their base. Vice President Mike Pence has said that abolishing ICE would lead to more human trafficking, violent crime and the proliferation of drugs and gangs. This is in direct reference to the ICE office of Homeland Security Investigations, which actually has more employees than the high profile ICE Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations whose abhorrent behavior in separating children from their parents had lead its critics to call for abolishing ICE.

The HIS office pursues criminals and terrorists involved in drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, cybercrime, financial crimes, and identity fraud. Eliminating this office is the Achilles heel of the abolish ICE campaign. How would anyone defend not pursuing criminal and terrorists? So while those championing the abolition of ICE begin their campaign by focusing on the abuses of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the right-wing will focus on how the left supports dropping drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, etc. Pence’s response was just the first missive.

The bill being proposed by Rep. Jayapal would create a commission to look at transitioning some ICE functions to a new agency that would presumably include HIS’s work. This, in fact, is what 19 ICE investigators requested in a letter sent in June to Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary. The investigators did not call for the abolition of ICE, as some claim, but rather for separating the investigations division from the immigration enforcement arm so that jurisdictions would no longer refuse to work with them because of the perceived connection to immigration enforcement, which had hindered their ability to investigate cases. But creating a commission would take time and the message of abolishing ICE ignores that subtle proposal. In other words, the campaign is immediately put on the defensive of trying to explain what they mean by abolishing ICE. Long explanations bore and confuse voters; it puts a candidate in a weak position to win an election.

The poll cited earlier supports the argument that a big campaign to abolish ICE could energize conservative voters more than liberal voters particularly if the Republicans accuse liberals, progressives and Democrats as being weak in protecting the public’s safety. The findings showed there is slightly more support than opposition to the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Republicans broadly support the crackdown. Independents lean against it and while more than two-thirds of Democrats say that the crackdown is a bad thing, nearly a quarter say it’s good.

I see these results pointing to greater motivation to support ICE’s enforcement activities from Trump supporters than motivation from the liberals to oppose them. The desire for safety from dangerous immigrants, unrealistic as it is given reliable statistics, is so great that 22 % of those who disapprove strongly of Trump’s job as president say that the crackdown on undocumented immigrants is a good thing. And that is based on just concerns about “undocumented” immigrants. The Republicans will focus on how investigations of those involved with drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, and cybercrime would be eliminated. It’s easy to project how a critical portion of the voting public will swing against a candidate that appears to eliminate this protection.

The moral high ground of protecting the welfare of immigrant families may quickly erode if one’s personal safety is being sacrificed. And that is exactly what the Abolish the ICE Campaign will discover in parts of the country that are not solidly liberal. The result could easily lead to both congressional chambers remaining under Republican control as a critical portion of independents and soft Democrats wish to minimize their public safety threat by retaining ICE’s enforcement against criminal elements.

A better approach in pursuing fair treatment of “undocumented” immigrants is to build on the proposal being made by the ICE investigators to separate the investigations division from the immigration enforcement arm. Remove it from ICE. That would lay bare ICE’s enforcement mechanism and avoid a convoluted explanation for defending ICE’s abolition or transformation into a new agency.

This is admittedly an incremental change, but a winnable one; and, one that opens the door for further changes. It puts the Republican’s on the defensive because then they have to explain why these offices should not be separated when ICE’s own officers are saying that the current arrangement endangers public safety.
Most importantly it improves the chances for the Democrats regaining control of one of the chambers.
Don’t aim for the sky without keeping your eye on the ball. It’s not a home-run, but it’s better than striking out. The strategy is to keep in the game.

 

I am a Trump Addict – And so are Others

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Originally Published – 5/28/18

By Nick Licata


 

Dear Urban Politics Reader,
The political environment in many of our cities, large and small, has been impacted by President Trump administration’s policies. Consequently, I feel it is useful to comment on and distribute information on the administration’s policies. 

Trump Addict

I am a Trump Addict –And so are others           

Addictions sap away your ability to lead a normal life and over time you need stronger doses to get your rush. The nation is currently in an opioid addiction epidemic that cuts across party lines. But the bigger addiction that has swept the country is with Donald Trump. And it too cuts across the political spectrum. It is not limited to the 80% of the white evangelists who are committed to him hell or high water, it seems just as firmly anchored within the liberal community. Let me describe my experience.

I have voted in every presidential election for the last 50 years. Afterward, I read about his policies, what he said in speeches and said in interviews. Regardless of the political party, each would give a rational explanation for what they were doing; so rational, as to be boring. As a result, like many others, I drifted away from watching the evening TV news. I am now addicted to watching it because Donald Trump became president. Like a locomotive crashing into a granite mountainside, my boring, orderly world of normality was demolished.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I was lulled into being satisfied by a proper decorum that had framed political discussions for the last couple of generations. Then Trump came along and ridiculed both the Democrats and Republicans in a manner that he sharpened as a reality TV host; making seemingly off-hand outlandish statements and ridiculing “losers”. If you could prove you were not a loser then you could be his apprentice, as a number of his former Republican competitors did after he won the Republican nomination. Trump’s America is now divided into two groups, the apprentices and the losers; Trumpeters are the designated apprentices and the rest of us are losers.

While the losers are focused on exposing every single Trump lie, misstatement, and exaggeration, all dutifully recorded by journalists in a collection of over 3,000 Trump statements since election day, the top Trumpeters are quietly dismantling protections that past administrations had instituted: providing safer drinking water supplies, protecting national forests and parks from mining, protecting access to voting in elections, protecting students from being scammed by for-profit colleges, prohibiting needlessly higher prescribed medication costs, and a host of other laws that allowed a better quality of life than in the past. But addicts don’t notice the diminishing quality of their life if they get their fix.

It doesn’t seem to matter to either the conservative evangelist or the liberal professional that Trump’s Make America Great Again means we are now back to a culture of “Buyer Beware” where each of us is now free to seek out a better life without government protections, i.e. interference.

And why aren’t we able to grasp the details of what is happening around us? I suspect it is because many are like me, glued to our TV watching and listening to the knights of the political roundtables as they endlessly analyze what Trump’s tweets reveal, what his press secretary’s answers reveal, what each and every utterance by his cabinet members and advisors may reveal.

Admittedly, there is something in these erudite explorations that really hooks me, and seemingly many others as well given the skyrocketing viewer ratings for MSNBC and the CNN. Not to mention Trumpeter Fox News, which has the largest audience. Our addiction to Trump may be compelled by our growing dependency to know how will this all end? Who will go to jail? Will anyone go to jail? Who actually helped the Russians influence our national election? How many songbirds will it take to nudge Congress to take some definitive action?

I sense a national yearning for some closure, to break from our Trump addiction, some way to pull us away from the tube. Perhaps the sideshows, like Stormy Daniels’ licentious tale, will all be linked through some overarching scheme that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will finally expose. Until that happens, the story continues to grow more convoluted and more gripping than the Game of Thrones. Are we all just waiting for winter to come?

As each day begins I realize we are in a national reality show, even when the TV is turned off. And yet, it is too hard to walk away from it without grabbing the remote. What did Trump tweet today?


 

Nick Licata is the author of “Becoming a Citizen Activist” and founding board chair of Local Progress. Read his essays at becomingacitizenactivist.org

 

Netflix Series on Rajneeshpuram

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Originally Published March 23, 2018 

UP – USA – Netflix Series on Rajneeshpuram

By Nick Licata

Paradise Lost as Guru Flees

The Strange Tale of a Paradise Lost

            This month, March 2018, Netflix began a six-part documentary “Wild Wild Country” about Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Oregon Commune, Rajneeshpuram that flourished for about four years before it collapsed in October of 1985. Bhagwan was arrested that fall with some of his closest followers while boarding a rented jet on a North Carolina airstrip to escape federal prosecution.

Before then he and his commune were often in the news for their contentious relationship with the small town of Antelope, and later with the state and federal governments as well. The leaders of Rajneeshpuram were accused of violating everything from not having proper building permits to propagating germ warfare on Antelope’s residents.

As soon as I read that the Bhagwan had fled Rajneeshpuram, I sensed that the nations largest and most well known commune was about to implode. Having studied social movements while receiving my MA in sociology, I dropped everything and raced down to Oregon to witness the final days of this grand experiment.

I found a culture of such total commitment to the idea and practice of leading a new life through embracing a Guru’s vision, that individual deviation from it was unthinkable. My following story describes how his followers dealt with the Bhagwan vanishing overnight. Up to that point their reason for being in Rajneeshpuram, which literally was in one of the most isolated areas in Oregon, was the Bhagwan’s presence.

I do not go into the details of Rajneeshpuram’s elaborate history involving sex parties, armed guards, attempted assassinations or the invitation of some 3,000 homeless people onto the commune. Wild Wild Country covers those events, providing views that are both supportive and critical of Bhagwan and Rajneeshpuram. While these events make for great story telling, I was seeking a different story; how seemingly rational people could become so enthralled in following a leader, that they dismissed the reality of the outside world until it crashed down on them.

Paradise Lost as Guru Flees  – “It’s all a joke.”

            Upon arriving in Portland I called Paul, an old acquaintance. He gave me advice about visiting Rajneeshpuram, the commune in Eastern Oregon founded by the Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Paul is a sannyasin, else known as a Rajneeshee — a follower of the Bhagwan.  As a professional engineer, he designed the commune’s million dollar buildings. But he chose to live in his hometown of Portland working for an engineering firm rather than live and work in Rajneeshpuram.

“You should have come earlier, when the Bhagwan was talking every day, “he said in reference to the Bhagwan having broken his three and a half years of public silence to answer questions from the public. “Now that he’s gone, there isn’t much happening. He is the whole trip. Without him, it’s lost its meaning,” he said quietly and with a bit of melancholy in his voice. After a long pause he asked, “So, why go there?”

“I want to visit the place before it disappears,” I said half joking. Publicity surrounding the Bhagwan’s arrest for attempting to flee the country from a federal indictment had the press speculating on an immediate exodus if he didn’t return. Little did I or anyone else know that two weeks after my visit the Bhagwan would plea bargain with the Feds and leave the country vowing never to return. Soon after, the mayor of Rajneeshpuram would declare the commune finished and all of its assets up for sale.

Prior to arriving in Portland, I had decided to take a break from work and see for myself how people lived in America’s largest commune. And, if they would want it to continue should the Bhagwan not return. I knew religious communes had come and gone in this country. But previous groups, like the Shakers in the early nineteenth century or the Reverend Jones followers who went to South America to found Jonestown, led austere or ascetic lives. They withdrew from the temptations of the world.

This group was led by someone calling himself “the guru of the rich” and attracted many worldly professionals who, like my friend Paul, were successful in their occupations–they were not social dropouts.

The Bhagwan claims to merge eastern mysticism with western materialism. He preaches the enjoyment of life now–there is no God. With a meditation, people could feel good about making money. Unlike past isolationist groups the Rajneeshees embrace the world like the Calvinists embraced financial success during the Reformation: to conquer the world, not retreat from it; although, Rajneeshpuram itself is isolated.

Four hours after leaving Portland, I came across a small patch of buildings lost among the barren hills. It’s the town of Antelope, made famous by its stormy relationship with the commune. Almost four years ago, the first Rajneesh followers purchased the overgrazed Big Muddy Ranch previously owned by John Wayne, located twenty miles outside of town. I had always thought that Antelope had been physically taken over by the commune. But, miles of narrow winding roads separate the two.

As the number of sannyasins increased and talk spread about building a world center for their cult — the Bhagwan had envisioned one hundred thousand followers living at the commune–the locals became alarmed. Soon they were opposing the issuance of land use permits on the ranch. The sannyasins fought back by creating a new city, Rajneeshpuram, which incorporated about five percent of the ranch. Big Muddy became Rancho Rajneesh. And, as sannyasins replaced the locals who were leaving in fright or disgust, the town of Antelope became the town of Rajneesh.

Rancho Rajneesh is huge, about twice the size of San Francesco. As I entered the ranch guard towers began to appear alongside the county dirt road that slices through the ranch. Images of guards with Uzi machine guns, like those I’d seen on TV surrounding the guru, flashed across my mind. I could see them peering at me. I imagined that they saw themselves as an island in a sea of hostility. For the last fifteen miles, most of the road signs had been heavily pot marked with bullet holes.

I smiled, waved and tried to look nonchalant at the man and woman entrance guards. They smiled and waved back – no guns appeared. Behind the last guard post there was fenced entrance to the town with a paved parking lot, as immaculate as any at Disneyland, spread out before a modern single story frame building. It’s the Welcome Center, known as Mirdad. Inside there was a bustle of activity as visitors registered, most were Rajneeshees visiting from one of the other 300 communes located around the world.

I filled out the various forms. Yes, I would allow my luggage to be searched for guns and drugs, and yes, I would allow my picture to be taken. A sannyasin appeared with a German shepherd and asked me to lead him to my auto. The dog sniffed inside for any illegal smokes. A quick patting down of my body was the last little formality. Their determined effort to keep drugs out provides protection from having hostile state officials, like the Attorney General, bust the commune for the possession of illegal drugs.

Friends cautioned me that even if I could get into the commune, they would charge outrageous prices for accommodations. As it turns out, the commune’s vice president announced just the week before that they would be “throwing the doors and windows open” to encourage tourism. It didn’t appear that the word had gotten out yet, considering that I was the only non-sannyasin visitor aside from a handful of journalists. But instead of paying the usual $65 a night at the hotel ranch, I landed a one-room mountain cabin in the Walt Whitman grove for $20 a night including three vegetarian meals a day and free transportation.

There are no private autos on the streets. The commune purchased eighty school buses to make the Rajneesh Buddafield Transport, the fourth largest bus system in Oregon. There are also a number of new Cutlass Oldsmobiles driven by commune leaders. It must be municipal policy to “Buy American”.

I took a bus to the sprawling ranch hotel, which is built around a couple of landscaped courtyards. In the lobby, furnished with ferns and framed colored photos of the Bhagwan, I met Marcel Bruuns of TROS, Netherland’s largest TV network. This is his second trip to the commune. In the summer he had the opportunity to interview the Bhagwan for an hour. He gave me his impressions:

“I tell you, I’ve been a journalist for over twenty years traveling the world over meeting leaders and revolutionaries. I’ve never met anyone like this Rajneesh. He looks at you and you feel that he is someone special. I could not trip him up. It was maddening.”

“What do you think will happen now that he has been arrested? How strongly attached are they to him?” I asked.

“They will follow him wherever he goes–even in death,” Marcel said looking at them walking all around us. I felt uneasy. “This could be another Jonestown. You should have seen how they cried when the news clips showed their guru in handcuffs,” he went on. “You know he is not a pacifist. He does not teach turning the other cheek like Christ.”

I surveyed the lobby. Everyone but us was dressed in red. I felt conspicuous. I should have brought my pink tie. I quickly ran through my mind a possible Jonestown scenario and then discounted it. Since the Bhagwan’s beliefs are not predicated on an afterlife, there seemed to be little incentive for suicide.

Just then a crowd gathered around the lobby TV to watch videotapes of last night’s news on the Bhagwan. There is no local radio or TV station to provide live coverage. I sat next to a sannyasin, Ma Anand Prashant. She is in her early thirties, has dark brown wavy hair and is of slight build. This is her fourth visit to the commune from her home in Perth, Australia. Like other foreign visitors, she tries to stay as long as her passport will allow her.

She is on the Rajneesh Humanities Trust program. For $400 a month She gets room and board. About a thousand of the Bhagwan’s followers are in the program at any one time. They cane from around the world. I soon discovered I was just as likely to hear a sannyasin speaking German or Dutch as English.

“He’s so darling, so cute,” Prashant says of the Bhagwan as he is shown being led handcuffed by Federal Marshalls. Her comment seemed a bit slight for a guru or holy man. I couldn’t imagine Sister Angeline, my old Catholic high school teacher, describing the Pope as cute. Others looked distressed as they saw the screen but no one cried or seemed visibly upset. From previous news accounts, I half expected to hear grumblings about “how come the guru split without saying good-bye to anyone?” But I never heard a critical word or intonation regarding his abrupt departure (he left within an hour of hearing of his imminent arrest). Rather, Prashant sums up the prevailing attitude: “This is all so exciting. There are always surprises here!”

Getting hungry, both Prashant and I went to the cafeteria, Magdalena. Many of the buildings have names plucked from Judeo-Christian, Classical Greek and Buddhist literature. The Bhagwan liberally pays homage to anyone before him who might have had some spiritual advice. Having once been a philosophy professor and a member of his national debate team, he chops and slices through past religions like a Cuisinart. The resulting mixture has taken him over three hundred books to explain.

“Everyone eats here. There are no separate kitchens in our own living quarters,” Prashant explained as our bus pulled up to Magdalena. It reminded me of my high school cafeteria–nothing fancy, just functional and clean. Five hundred could easily eat together. Like others, we deposited our coats and shoulder bags on racks outside the entrance. We then filed past a couple, of commune members; one sprayed our hands with alcohol to kill germs. The other checked to see that everyone entering either has a Mala (a necklace with a picture of the guru dangling from it) or a plastic visitor’s I.D. bracelet.

I showed my bracelet and walked by one of several tables that have huge stainless steel pots containing the vegetarian meal for the evening. Most of the food was grown on the farm and then prepared at Magdalena. It was better than typical cafeteria food–it actually tasted good. And beverages were served freely, including beer on tap.

Ma Prashant filled me in on the commune’s tumultuous happenings over the past summer. In July, the Bhagwan spoke publicly for the first time in almost 4 years. Up to that time, his personal secretary, Ma Prem Sheela, had been the only person to speak to and for him. In effect, she was in charge of the commune’s daily activities. While the Bhagwan remained silent and content in his daily drive through the commune in one of his Rolls Royce’s, Sheela was running a $100 million corporation and battling hostile public officials.

In September, Sheela and twenty of her supporters fled to Europe. The Bhagwan and Sheela then proceeded to trade accusations. Sheela accused him of not being the slightest bit interested in enlightenment but being more interested in his fleet of ninety Rolls Royces and other riches.

The guru, in turn, accused her of numerous crimes including the attempted poisoning of his personal doctor, Swami Devaraj. He also accused her of becoming power hungry and setting up a fascist state at the commune. Two weeks after she left, the Bhagwan had the Rajneesh Bible, compiled by Sheela, publicly burned as he declared his religion to be dead. He said she tried to create a religion where there should have been none, in effect, creating a church with herself in administrative control.

In an interview he gave from his jail cell in North Carolina while I was visiting his commune, he said, “The moment I came out of silence, I finished that religion. I am not a leader; I am a friend and a guide.” Previously he had also said that he offered no creeds, dogmas or doctrines. He just gave advice. He may also be just smart. Oregon’s Attorney General, Dave Frohnmayer, filed a suit to have the municipality of Rashneeshpuram declared unconstitutional for co-mingling of church and state activities. With the commune up for sale, the Rajneeshees argued that the suit was no longer relevant. But Frohnmayer successfully argued before a Federal District court that the Rajneeshees are “no more entitled to sell a city than it is for them to own a city.”

I asked Prashant what she thought of Sheela. “I love Sheela. She did treat us like kids and we didn’t have to think. We worked a lot, twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. It was exhausting. Although once the Bhagwan started talking, we would attend his discourse every other morning, where he answered questions for a couple of hours,” she said. “Other than work there wasn’t much time for recreation.” she added with a small smile. But then she enjoyed the work, or meditation as the Bhagwan calls it. At Rajneeshpuram, to work is to meditate.

“And how is it with Sheela gone? Have things improved?” I asked.

“Oh, we still work every day. But it’s different now. We have moral responsibility. I guess it’s better now, too. She’s done what she could do,” she said, referring to the incredible amount of construction and farming that occurred in the three and a half years that Sheela ran the commune.

Once a semiarid land, Rancho Rajneesh now has one thousand acres of prop land, over sixty acres of vegetables, and greenhouses producing four hundred tons of produce a year. All of this productivity is supported by a new irrigation system. The urban setting grew from a house and a barn to over $50 million in buildings including townhouses, meeting halls, school buildings, machine shops, and a shopping mall complete with a disco and ice cream parlor. An electrical substation, a sewer system and a water system were built to provide modern urban comforts.

It was this burgeoning metropolis in the middle of sagebrush gullies and desert mesas that aroused the animosity of one thousand Friends of Oregon, an old conservation group originally based in Western Oregon. Eastern Oregon residents seeking a means for ridding themselves of the Rajneeshees revitalized it. They brought suit alleging that Rajneeshpuram’s urban development conflicted with state land use laws and damaged the environment.

If this suit or the other one involving constitutional violations are upheld, all of the capital improvements are worthless since they can only be used in a municipality. The commune would then sell for only a fraction of its value. Ironically, the Rajneeshees are now fighting to save the municipal status of Rajneeshpuram so it can be sold. Rumor has it that the State might purchase it in the end for a prison site.

Sannyasins are eager to show visitors that the thousand Friends of Oregon were wrong: they point out that their urban development has not damaged the environment. All products made on the ranch are recycled for future use and the extensive bus system cuts down on air pollution. To make the brown hills greener, twenty-three thousand trees had just been purchased. And since they had stopped the main creek’s erosion through forming reservoirs and planting wild grass, the number of bird species has increased by fifty percent. It appears that indeed the land has benefited since the days of being overgrazed by the previous owners.

We took a bus from Magdalena to Rajneesh Mandir, a giant two-acre assembly hall capable of holding 15,000 people. Originally built as a greenhouse, when it was converted to a meeting hall the commune found it embroiled in another land use struggle. County authorities argued that their building permit only allowed an agricultural related structure, such as a greenhouse, because the ranch was designated as a farm. Rajneeshpuram was enjoined from erecting any more buildings until the court could resolve the issue. As we drove past townhouses and other buildings, I was impressed how much had been accomplished. In the outside world, improving cities, let alone building new ones, is usually dependent on federal block grant funds. And then again, having two thousand people working twelve hours a day for three years does keep labor costs down.

That evening there was to be a special meeting of all commune members to listen to the most recent news on the Bhagwan’s arrest. We arrived early and walked up to the door. A guard motioned that we were not allowed in just yet. We sat on the outside stairs next to another sannyasin waiting.

He turned to Prashant and said, “I don’t see why they can’t let us in. They’re not doing anything inside.” Prashant smiled at him and quietly said, “They have to learn new ways, now that Sheela is gone. They’ll learn that there is no longer any need for so much control.”

Hundreds of followers began arriving at Mandir by bus. The doors were finally opened and a sea of red sannyasins quietly entered. Swami Dvaraji had just returned from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had been arrested with the Bhagwan. Tall, blond and handsome, he reminded me of a Southern California beach boy. He spoke softly and told a number of funny stories about the arrest: “They had us in so many chains and led us past so many locked doors, you could just see how happy they were to get us. Like they were saying to themselves, ‘Oh boy we got them now and they aren’t ever going to get away.”‘ The crowd roared with laughter.

After he talked, a large screen hung from the ceiling replayed coverage from local TV stations on the Bhagwan’s arrest. There was no other news; but any coverage on the Bhagwan’s arrest was shown. A disc jockey in Charlotte, North Carolina played a new song he had written: “Don’t you take my Curt from me.” The audience regaled in laughter. Another clipping showed a woman bicycling on the ranch while the voice-over told of sannyasins exiting the commune – even more laughter. I joined in. The thought of someone bicycling out of the ranch on miles of gravel roads stretched the imagination.

The levity with which all of the news was received revealed a side of the commune that I wasn’t expecting, although I suspected that they had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor when I saw their first road sign outside of town:

“Soft shoulders, Blind curves, Steep grade, Big trucks. Good luck!” I had also spotted an official city council agenda at the Welcome Center, which had “joke” as the second item and another “joke” at the conclusion of the meeting. I showed up to listen to the jokes. Enlightened consciousness notwithstanding, the jokes were bad.

The Bhagwan urges his followers to pull others towards them through an infectious happiness. He writes in his magazine, Truth and Celebration: “You just dance and sing and enjoy, and soon they will be taken over. That’s how we are going to take over the whole of America!”

Those words were written in happier days. After the Bhagwan settled with the Feds, he urged his non-American followers to leave the States. And he compared the U.S. to the Soviet Union, which he had previously declared the greatest evil in the world. No longer was “this is the only country that had any hope for humanity” as he described the U.S.- the summer before his arrest.

The next day I talked to Ma Apara, who used to be an account executive at an insurance brokerage in the posh seaside town of Laguna Beach, California, and now headed up the Rajneesh Insurance Agency. Like most members of the commune, she was well educated (one survey concluded eighty percent of the sannyasins had college degrees), white (I estimated less than five percent were nonwhite) and female (looking around, I judged sixty percent were female).

We had breakfast in the Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Restaurant, an elegantly furnished restaurant, which I would have expected to find in Bellevue, Washington or Laguna Beach, California rather than in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon. After the waiter sprayed our hands with alcohol (a precaution to stop any spread of AIDS) and took our order, I asked her how she or anyone on the commune was assigned work.

“On the ranch there is a department, like an employment bureau, which reviews your skills and qualifications and then assigns you to a job. I had experience servicing large commercial accounts so I ended up here,” she explained.

Intrigued by the array of businesses on the ranch, I asked her who is actually in charge of the overall commune.

“There are about fifteen to twenty different corporations. The biggest is the Rajneesh Investment Corporation which owns title to most of the property in Rajneeshpuram,” she replied.

“But how are decisions made?” I asked still trying to comprehend the maze of interlocking corporations, which are all under the umbrella of the commune.

She told me: “Each corporation makes their decisions separately.

There is no conflict between them and because we’re all under the guidance of the Bhagwan we live in harmony.”

I had a difficult time understanding how someone who could

rationally outline the insurance needs of a one-hundred million dollar operation could go on to talk about a community of heavenly bliss running the business. She assured me that there wasn’t even a coordinating committee among all the corporations. They carry on business transactions like other businesses. The restaurant buys its vegetables from the farm. The various corporations rent their autos from the auto leasing company. And so on.

“But if they are so independent why are they all called Rajneesh something or other?” I persisted in airing my doubts.

“It’s just like if everyone in Kent, Washington decided they liked them name Joe and named their stores Joe’s TV, Joe’s Supermarket, Joe’s Insurance Agency. They just like the name Joe, but that’s all there is to it,” she said laughing.

The Bhagwan is just a good old Joe. Everybody loves the guy and names everything after him. In fact, Joe (i.e., the Bhagwan) doesn’t own one nickel in his own name. Ma Apara said that the Bhagwan holds no official positions, in any of the corporations. Even his Rolls Royces aren’t really his–they belong to the Rajneesh Investment Corporation.

“We are not his followers so much as his friends,” she said. But then she explained that the word sannyasin is a Sanskrit word to describe a follower of a master. I have the feeling that I’m at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Things aren’t really what they seem or claim to be.

“Is it out of friendship that folks work twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” I asked, wondering how many people I knew would freely contribute such labor. Political campaigns came to mind, but then the mobilization of thousands of volunteers is usually only for a few hours of doorbelling, not months or years of twelve-hour workdays.

“Look, this is a meditation center. Work is a form of meditation. If you’re not involved in meditation, this place is pretty boring,” she said matter-of-factly. I looked around the barren grounds and agreed. If you had not already become part of this community of believers, there would be nothing to keep you here.

Before leaving the commune I talked to two female sannyasins, Ma Prem Sunshine and Ma Ananda Sarita, who ran the Rajneeshpuram Chamber of Commerce. Sunshine is glad that Sheela is gone. “She tried to make a religion. I’m against isms and institutionalizing a movement. When that happens it inevitably becomes exploitive. We listen to Rajneesh and giggle a lot,” she said.

I thought about what Ma Prashant had said the day before: “We do as he says. These are the best of times, because we know now that we are his disciples.” There is quite a draw to the Bhagwan whether one calls it religion or not. If there is no religion, there certainly is adulation of the guru and subservience to his wishes. I thought about all of his followers wearing red clothes and dangling his photo from around their necks. Not even the Moral Majority folks wear medallions of Jerry Falwell. The irony of such behavior is that the Bhagwan’s philosophy expounds the virtues of the individual. Beware of Socialism is the title of one of his books displayed at Mirdad. On the liner jacket he is quoted: “The individual cannot be sacrificed for anything.”

I asked Sunshine what she thought about the recent events. She explained, “It’s a great sensational story. The television stations are playing to their Christian audiences. The Bhagwan is the false prophet to them. And Reagan is taking advantage of it. People can say, ‘They did get the Guru this year.”‘

As she talked I noted that most of the chamber of commerce staff were women. I asked her if women dominated the commune’s management.

“Under Sheela eighty percent of our managers were women, but that is changing. Now, it’s about seventy percent,” she said. “The Bhagwan was concerned about tidiness and cleanliness, so he felt that warren would provide better managers. Bhagwan says that women are more nurturing and they are also perfect nags,” she says smiling.

Managers were called “Moms” when Sheela was in charge; they became “coordinators” after she left. It was through the Moms that Sheela wielded her influence. When leaving, she asked the Moms to depart with her. Most refused.

Ma Anand Sarita was one of the first sannyasins to move to the ranch with Sheela to help found the commune. Sarita is from Riverside, California and she would look perfect in a Southern California setting with her long straight hair and strong angular features. And yet, she hasn’t been back to Riverside since she left. Like many other Americans I talked to on the ranch, he had been with the Bhagwan in India.

For the first year and a half at Rajneeshpuram, Sarita was Sheela’s housekeeper. Now, she’s responsible for the commune’s public relations. Since she knew Sheela so well, I asked her opinion about the rift between the Bhagwan and Sheela.

“I feel that things are one-hundred percent better now that Sheela is gone. She became corrupted by power and made a mess of things,” she said and then repeated what others have said about not wanting a religion to be established.

From everything that Sarita and others have said, Sheela derived

her power totally from the Bhagwan. If she became corrupted by the power bestowed upon her by him, I wondered what good was his spiritual guidance? It’s a question that the public has resoundingly decided without a doubt: “Yes, this man is a huckster.”

For sannyasins living at the commune a corruptible Bhagwan is an unfathomable one. He is the teacher and they are his students. You may not always understand your teacher, but you trust that he has more knowledge than you. And like a teacher, he is always testing them, like having them dress in red. He wanted his followers to stand out, to experience a new way of relating to the world. And then one day he called a halt to the test.

Sarita told me how the Bhagwan made changes all the time: “He told us that we needn’t wear red one morning at his public discourse. I was there and he said it almost as an afterthought, like it hit him just at that moment.”

After Sheela left, Bhagwan started to make some other major changes. He asked his followers to put away their guns, which were always evident when he appeared in public. He also sought to make peace with the residents of Antelope by requesting his followers not to vote in the next election and thereby relinquish control of the town.

I asked her what it meant to be a sannyasin. She said the word originally stood for someone renouncing the world in search of a higher spiritual existence. A person would walk away from family and friends, don an orange robe and seek alms with a wooden bowl. The Bhagwan however preaches that poverty is not a piety. Consequently, the Bhagwan coined the term neo-sannyasin to describe someone who lives in the world to the fullest and who is not burdened or corrupted by it. Sheela was someone who became corrupted because she took it too seriously, according to Sarita. On the other hand, the Bhagwan retains a carefree detachment reminiscent of the literary character, Zorba the Greek. Sannyasins call the Bhagwan, Zorba the Buddha.

It must have been this detachment that allowed the Bhagwan to leave Rajneeshpuram, Oregon and the U.S. without fighting the charges against him. And yet, the week before he left, the Bhagwan said over national television, “I am absolutely certain about being victorious in the courts of America…so I am not going to leave this country. I am going to fight for American constitution.”

On the day I arrived in Rajneeshpuram, Ma Prem Anuradha, the president of the Rajneesh Commune, expressed a similar attitude in the commune’s newspaper, Rajneesh Times: “I certainly don’t think it’s the end of Bhagwan or of the commune.” Swami Dhyan John, president of the Rajneesh Corporation, said in the same article: “This commune is the major expression of Bhagwan on this planet. To me, there are only two things of great value on the planet. One is him, and the other is this commune. He’s gone, the commune remains-¬and it remains strong and solid. We have enough money to keep this community running. The cash flow situation is good and getting better.”

The commune had attracted fifteen thousand visitors, mostly sannyasins, that past summer to celebrate one of the four celebrations held each year at the ranch. These events provide a huge influx of dollars. At the same time, the commune has been trying to encourage non-Rajneeshee tourism on a more continuous basis.

And yet, while talking with the various residents during my visit, like Sarita, they hedged their bets. I expressed my concern to her that the impressive physical improvements and the sophisticated organization of Rajneeshpuram would be for nothing if the commune were to disband. She disagreed. For her and many of the other disciples, proximity to the Bhagwan overshadowed any collective worth of the commune without him.

I wanted Sarita’s own opinion about the future. I was tired of listening to her repeat a variation of whatever the Bhagwan wants is fine with me. I asked her if the commune should continue. Since it is such remarkable example of a community working together, shouldn’t it exist to serve as an example of the Bhagwan’s teachings? If she said yes, then I felt that she and others would be placing themselves on an equal footing with the Bhagwan by giving the commune some value outside of his mere presence. Sarita looked hard at me, almost as if she sensed a debating trap, and slowly said with the confident voice of a teacher repeating instructions to a student, “I don’t think of the word should.”

Her words captured the paradox of this place: the commune was not really a community. The residents had no desire to determine their own future. The apparent equality among all sannyasins–in their outer garments and in their shared living spaces–palls under the influence wielded by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and those nearest to him like Sheela. The whole issue of whether they are a religion is irrelevant. They don’t need a church when they have a guru.

Power flows from the top down. That’s why a Sheela can one day be the holy interpreter and the next day a fallen angel. Those closest to the Bhagwan, who is seen as the ultimate truth, determine what is right. I found no group process, which could weigh various opinions to reach a final decision.

Rajneeshpuram had a city council that took votes. It had a land use planning commission, which made sensible growth plans for the ranch. It had corporations that operated efficiently and made profits. Individuals, who not only dressed alike, which was a superfluous element in their beliefs, but sought the ultimate truth from one person and only one person, ran all of these organizations.

At each morning’s satsang, the commune meditation session, the sannyasins gather and bow before a picture of the guru repeating aloud three phrases in Hindi:

 

I go to the feet of the awakened one, the awakened consciousness.

I go to the feet of the commune of the awakened one.

I go to the feet of the ultimate truth of the awakened one.

 

The morning after such a satsang, the mayor of Rajneeshpuram declared, “The property is available. Rancho Rajneesh is for sale.” In light of the Bhagwan leaving, he said it was almost a “non-decision.”

On leaving the ranch I looked back across the valley and felt a sense of awe at the physical improvements that had been made and at the level of cooperation that had been achieved by so many people. But I had this feeling that they were all playing minor roles in the Bhagwan’s play.

The Bhagwan may start a commune somewhere else. Many of the Rajneeshpuram residents will probably follow him to the new place. Others will either drift off’ to other Rajneesh communes or fall away from the religion altogether. The physical legacy of Rajneeshpuram will probably be transformed into some type of state institute or corporate venture. The spiritual legacy will be tied to the Bhagwan.

But the legacy of the commune — “a self-sufficient community where people can at last live in unity…a living example to America and the world” – as their press release said, will be shallow if not largely forgotten one. However as the Bhagwan said his was “the only religion with a sense of humor,” so the collapse of Rajneeshpuram might be seen by the Sannyasins in that fashion. Sheela had said “I think life is a joke for Rajneeshees. Entire life is a joke. This commune is a joke.”


Post Note: Sheela was arrested and later convicted for her part in a conspiracy to poison 751 people with salmonella to suppress voter turnout in their local county election. Bhagwan pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and returned to India, where he died in 1990. There are still thousands of Rajneesh followers worldwide.

 

 

Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation?

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Originally Posted in Urban Politics – US – 3/5/18
By Nick Licata 

Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation?

This nation’s politics have become ever more divisive as we have entered the twenty-first century. It did not begin with Donald Trump being elected President. According to the most recent poll taken by Pew Research Center last year, fewer Americans hold a mix of conservative and liberal views today than they did a generation ago. The trend has grown so great that as of 2017 Republicans and Democrats are now further apart ideologically than at any point in more than two decades.

There have been a number of proposals for closing this gap, but the most innovative one that I’ve come across is the And Beauty For All campaign. Many of its basic ideas harken back to City Beautiful Movement and the Country Life Movement, which promoted beauty campaigns like this one in the first two decades of the last century. John de Graaf, who initiated the current effort, has been studying those past movements as well as Lyndon Johnson’s beautification campaign of the 1960s. He concludes that Johnson’s efforts, in particular, offers a record of bi-partisan success in Congress that may allow the And Beauty For All campaign to break our current gridlock in D.C.
De Graff, and hundreds of others, from architects to urban planners, to small farmers, environmental leaders, real estate professionals, diversity advocates, university provosts and recreation leaders are supporting his campaign because they believe that preserving our country’s beauty can bring Americans of all political persuasions together to restore our environment and revitalize our cities and towns. De Graaf will be presenting this month at their Energy, Environment & Natural Resources (EENR) Committee standing committee during NLC’s annual Congressional City Conference in Washington D.C.
There have been a number of proposals for closing this gap, but the most innovative one that I’ve come across is the And Beauty For All campaign. Many of its basic ideas harken back to City Beautiful Movement and the Country Life Movement, which promoted beauty campaigns like this one in the first two decades of the last century. John de Graaf, who initiated the current effort, has been studying those past movements as well as Lyndon Johnson’s beautification campaign of the 1960s. He concludes that Johnson’s efforts, in particular, offers a record of bi-partisan success in Congress that may allow the And Beauty For All campaign to break our current gridlock in D.C.

The essay below was first posted in the National League of Cities’s blog Cities Speak by Bob Sampayan, Mayor of Vallejo, California; John de Graaf, Outreach Director for the And Beauty For All campaign, and me describing why cities across the country should be joining the And Beauty For All campaign.

Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation

America’s Infrastructure Should Be Beautiful

“If anything can save the world,” North Face and Esprit founder Doug Tompkins once said, “I’d put my money on beauty.”

This year, as part of a new campaign, called And Beauty For All, we’re challenging NLC and its member communities to put that hypothesis to the test.

We believe that, as our cities work on the theme of infrastructure development in 2018, a comprehensive vision is essential. To that end, And Beauty For All seeks to bring Americans together to restore our environment and revitalize our cities and towns.

Infrastructure development must be about more than the speed at which residents get from place to place and the prospect of short-term economic growth. It should improve opportunities for healthy activities, allow greater access to nature and green space, be sustainable over the longer run, and build a sense of community connection. Beauty is a focus that includes each of these considerations.

True beauty is life-enhancing. It calls us to awe and stewardship and demands that we reproduce it in art, in design. It softens us, makes us kinder and less aggressive, awakens generosity in our hearts, and as Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry argues convincingly, moves us toward justice. The words “fair” as in beautiful and as in just, come from the same root.

Hermann Knoflacher the lead designer of Vienna, Austria’s remarkable public transportation system, argues that beauty stirs pro-environmental behavior: when Vienna added separate paths and greenery alongside traffic-filled streets, its residents were willing to walk three times as far to use public transit instead of driving, or simply to cycle or walk where they needed to go. Their stress levels dropped sharply.

When Vienna beautified its Metro stations, making them varied and artful, ridership doubled, and unexpectedly, crime around the stations was cut in half. “Beauty produces energy in people like a battery,” says Knoflacher.

Beauty was once very much a part of the American dialogue and tradition. It animated the urban parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, the City Beautiful Movement of the early 1900s, and the urban dreams of Jane Addams, Lewis Mumford, and Jane Jacobs. It was prominent in the arts and building projects of Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA. And it was the heart of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to revitalize American cities in the 1960s

Johnson wished to unify America—polarized then as now, especially by race and inequality—around stewardship of its immense beauty and the promotion of beautiful urban design, and he was clear: the beauty he dreamed of was not meant to be a luxury for the fortunate, but a birthright for every American.

Thomas Jefferson, Johnson reminded Congress, had written that communities “should be planned with an eye to the effect made upon the human spirit by being continually surrounded with a maximum of beauty.” Every aspect of urban planning, Johnson said, should center on beauty and community. He proposed a major investment in open space to “create small parks, squares, pedestrian malls, and playgrounds.”

Beauty provides objective material value as well as subjective pleasure. Tacoma, Washington, was once declared “the worst city on the West Coast,” by the Washington Post. But the February 2018 issue of SUNSET magazine includes it among the five best cities to live in the West — because it converted ugly, polluted shoreline properties into parks, and aggressively cleaned up hazardous waste sites, attracting $350 million of new investment.

Since then, Tacoma has gone on a beauty binge. In 2014, voters approved a $198 million park bond, likely the largest per capita park bond in US history. The goal of the new bond was to bring greater environmental justice and fairness, with parks in every neighborhood, improving access and health for children and the elderly. A comprehensive study by Earth Economics, an ecosystems services firm, found widespread benefits that far exceeded the cost of the investments.

Vallejo, California, is also actively involved in beautification. The revitalization of our downtown includes an emphasis on public art, a Second Friday Art Walk, and a self-guided Art & Architecture Walk. With a significant grant from the State of California, Vallejo youth are planting trees in the less advantaged neighborhoods.

We hold an annual “Visions of the Wild” festival to connect our residents, and especially our children, more closely with parks and nature. Local nonprofits and government agencies are restoring wetlands, managing citizen science projects, and engaging with an exciting new project called Resilient by Design, which focuses on solutions to climate change and sea level rise.

This year, many American cities will celebrate And Beauty for All Day on or around October 2, the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s signing of four major “beauty” bills—the Redwoods and North Cascades National Parks Acts, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Scenic Trails System Act. As we reflect on these momentous bills, we’ll also promote urban nature, beautiful infrastructure, clean urban waterways, and urban trails, especially in our least affluent communities, projects that inspire healthier, more sustainable and more socially-connected living.

We don’t need to re-invent the wheel. We almost got there 50 years ago. When we think of new infrastructure, beauty should be at the top of our thoughts. We invite all cities to join the And Beauty for All campaign.


 

For more information, contact John de Graaf: jodg@comcast.net