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.

Keynote Address to the Seattle Real Change Newspaper

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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?

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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?

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

 

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

 

Why Trump Ignores Russian Interference

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Originally Published February 20, 2018, in Urban Politics – US
by Nick Licata, author of Becoming a Citizen Activist

Columnist Thomas Friedman, who is not associated with any political party, wrote an op-ed column in the NYT February 18, 2018, which offers an incisive insight on President Donald Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge a Russian threat to our electoral system.

Below I provide a short summary of Friedman’s main argument and supplement it with other reporting that has received less coverage to explain Trump’s behavior.

Trump_Ignores

Why Trump Ignores Russian Interference

Columnist Thomas Friedman, who is not associated with any political party, wrote an op-ed column in the NYT February 18, 2018, which offers an incisive insight on President Donald Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge a Russian threat to our electoral system.

The following commentary provides a short summary of Friedman’s main argument and I supplement it with other reporting that has received less coverage to explain Trump’s behavior.

Thomas Friedman in his NYT op-ed Whatever Trump Is Hiding Is Hurting All of Us Now, begins his piece with “Our democracy is in serious danger.” I have heard that, as many others have, on more than one occasion under other presidents. So it is a little bit like hearing the sky is falling. One should always consider that tone of urgency with some reflection.

Friedman ignores a multitude of issues, like climate change, deporting immigrant children, voter suppression, and the list could go on, which alarm those who believe that the public good is being sacrificed to benefit specific financial entities or dogma driven groups. Rather he focuses on an issue that MSNBC and CNN, the NYT and the Washington Post, have devoted much of their investigatory work on: Russian meddling in our democratic elections with the intent to weaken our ability to obstruct their own foreign policy objectives.

Unfortunately that is proving to be true with the recently released Intelligence Community Assessment report (drafted and coordinated among the CIA, FBI and the NSA), which so clearly demonstrates its existence that U.S. national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said it provided “really incontrovertible” evidence that Russia interfered. However, as the most recent polls show, over 80% of Republicans still believe Trump is doing a good job, which would indicate that at least a third of the population either doesn’t care what the Russians are doing, or more likely believe Trump when he calls fear of Russian interference a phony diversion instigated by the Democrats and the Deep State, i.e. bureaucrats who are not loyal Americans or at least not loyal to the president.

Friedman is a three time Pulitzer Prize winner and has taken positions that are at odds with many liberals, such as supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq and defending Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon as a form of “educating” Israel’s opponents. So his criticism of Trump does not emanate from a liberal philosophy but rather from a belief that Trump’s is “unwilling or unable to defend America against a Russian campaign to divide and undermine our democracy.”

Setting aside that Trump may be a fool, Friedman identifies two possible explanations for his unwillingness to criticize Russia for corrupting our elections. First, Trump could be compromised due to Russian information on him that could result in a criminal conviction as the result of his “real estate empire having taken large amounts of money from shady oligarchs linked to the Kremlin — so much that they literally own him.” Remember how Trump said that if Mueller investigated his or his families financial dealings that would be crossing a red line? Could he have thrown a bigger spotlight on this potential conflict of interest?

What we know is that in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. attended a real estate conference, where he stated that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”  A series of studies by the Financial Times show how funds from Russian oligarchs bailed Trump out after the period of his seventh bankruptcy and the cancellation of all his US bank lines of credit.

According to KOS journalist Mark Sumner in summarizing Human rights lawyer Scott Horton’s analysis of these Financial Times reports, Trump is put “at the middle of a money laundering scheme, in which his real estate deals were used to hide not just an infusion of capital from Russia and former Soviet states, but to launder hundreds of millions looted by oligarchs. All Trump had to do was close his eyes to the source of the money, and suddenly empty apartments were going for top dollar.” Sumner concluded that Trump may have been actively involved with and working for Russian sources, or he could have just looked the other way about any deal, so long as it generated some funds to salvage his real-estate empire that was unable to raise money from American banks.

The second explanation for Trump being beholden to the Russians has been rumored to result from him being engaged in sexual misbehavior while he was in Moscow running the Miss Universe contest, which Russian intelligence has on tape and he doesn’t want released. Russia’s decision to begin their attack on our elections began in April of 2014, a year after Trump held his Miss Universe contest in Russia. The timing might invite some speculation on connecting the two.

Ironically, it’s hard to imagine how much more damaging to Trump such a revelation would be, given his current state of affairs. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer has recently admitted paying $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election for remaining silent about her sexual relationship with Trump, while he was married to Melania. And after Stormy’s story broke, former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal claimed she had a nine-month affair with Trump, again while he was married.  Russia exposing additional infidelities would not seem to bother Trump’s Christian base of supporters, since they appear to accept him as he is and forgive him.

However, as Friedman concludes, whatever it is that motivates Trump to not only to resist mounting a proper defense of our democracy from Russia and to undermine the F.B.I. and Justice Department who are investigating his presidential campaign, his behavior is not that of a president sworn to protect our nation. As Friedman says, if he were acting as leader “He would educate the public on the scale of the problem; he would bring together all the stakeholders — state and local election authorities, the federal government, both parties and all the owners of social networks that the Russians used to carry out their interference — to mount an effective defense.”

Instead, Trump shot off a tweet storm over the weekend from his elegant Mar-a-Lago private club that riled Fox News host Shepard Smith, who chastised Trump for failing to address or promise ways to hinder Russia from meddling in future United States elections. Smith stated: “The president’s spokespersons have been on television denouncing the meddling, the president has not. Not once, not on camera, not on Twitter, not anywhere.”

If Fox News hosts begin to see a lack of presidential leadership could they begin to echo Friedman’s conclusion that “The biggest threat to the integrity of our democracy today is in the Oval Office.”

 


 

If you liked this Urban Politics, please email it onto others. People can subscribe to Urban Politics at www.becomingacitizenactivist.org

 

WEBSITE OF FRIEDMAN’S ARTICLE

 

My Book Review of ‘Reclaiming Gotham’ – how cities can close the wealth gap

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments

 

Urban Politics – US – November 2, 2017

‘Reclaiming Gotham’: NYC a case study in a push for more affordable cities
by Nick Licata –  Special to The Seattle Times

Reclaiming Gotham by Gonzalez copy
Author Juan González uses New York City’s politics to illustrate how municipalities can take steps to make urban living more affordable for working families.

You can read the book review on the Seattle Times website here. Or Below.

The core premise of Juan González’s book “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities” is that the nation’s wealth and income gap have resulted in too many city dwellers struggling to pay rent and other necessary expenses. He argues that municipal governments can take dramatic steps to make urban living more affordable for working families.

González uses New York City’s politics to illustrate how that can happen. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York saw the economy boom, with developers replacing huge, rundown inner-city neighborhoods with much higher costing housing for the influx of largely younger, wealthier and whiter residents. At the same time, there were further reductions in public spending on social services.

The result was that many business owners prospered and the richest residents ended up getting even richer. From 2002 to 2012, the top 1 percent of residents went from taking in 27 percent of all income to 45 percent. Meanwhile, 21 percent of the city’s households earned less than the federal poverty level, and a third of renters were paying more than half of their income for housing.

In 2013, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, a former City Council member, won election, along with a slate of very progressive new city public officials. Sharing a philosophy that New York was dangerously out of balance in the distribution of incomes and wealth, they set about reversing that course.
González describes in fascinating detail not only how de Blasio beat the odds to win, but how he began to reshuffle the city’s priorities. His collection of programs provided universal prekindergarten to 70,000 children, paid sick leave for all employees, froze rent increases for tenants in rent-regulated private buildings, and initiated services or programs that saved residents from spending an estimated $21 billion.

Such efforts were not unique to New York. González describes candidates elected in cities like Pittsburgh; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Richmond, California, who ran on platforms that rejected the dominant neoliberalism philosophy that “the private sector did things faster, better, and cheaper than public employees.” Raising the minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave for all employees often followed their elections. Many of these leaders were members of a national network of progressive municipal officials called Local Progress that shared information on legislation being introduced and passed in their respective cities.

However, “Reclaiming Gotham” is not blind to the opposition that such policies generate or to the shortcomings of the advocates themselves. Within New York, de Blasio faced a massive slowdown of police enforcement when department members accused him of creating an anti-police climate. More seriously, financial and real estate interests “spent nearly $20 million on media ads targeting the mayor between 2014 and 2016,” hoping to confine him to one term.

Meanwhile, state and federal prosecutors investigated his administration for illegal influence peddling. They ultimately found “no evidence of personal profit” by the mayor or his staff, and no criminal charges were filed. While his image took a hit, de Blasio won the Democratic primary easily and is expected to have another term. Other progressive politicians faced their own resistance from well-financed campaign opponents or saw their bases splintered on some issues.

González notes that because 80 percent of the country’s 75 largest cities have Democratic mayors, many promoting liberal programs, they can provide a bulwark for resisting President Donald Trump’s reactionary policies. By pushing the twin goals of equity in city services and effective municipal governance, politicians can alter the “Tale of Two Cities” from one where cities are divided rich and poor, white and nonwhite, to one of greater community.

What Happened to The Underground Press ?

By | Nick's Essays, Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments
Urban Politics – US   9/26/17
By Nick Licata – author of Becoming a Citizen Activist
www.becomingacitizenactivist.org

216041b6-1191-4588-bf4d-09a421abd3ec

The answer to that question is not simple but I do explore it in my book review of Celebrating The Rag, which extracts many articles from an era when Austin’s underground paper The Rag was published (1967 to 1977). The book provides a window into a time of counter-cultural revolution, where close to 300 underground, community run, newspapers shared a mission to disrupt the status quo. In doing so, they introduced new ways of looking at the world, and for the most part in a non-dogmatic way.
This book review ran on the Znet website ( https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-underground-press/) which describes itself as “A Community of People Committed to Social Change.”

From the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, there was an explosion of independent, locally controlled print newspapers, collectively known as the underground press, aka alternative newspapers. The boomer generation remembers them, but the millennials and those coming afterwards may not be aware of how they shaped this country’s politics and culture.

One of the earliest and most successful of those papers was Austin’s The Rag; publishing nearly 400 issues running 11 years from 1967 to 1977. Three former Rag Editors and writers, Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree and Richard Croxdale, have published Celebrating The Rag. Its collection of articles helps us understand how this nation shook off a bigoted culture that oppressed African Americans and other ethnic minorities, women and gays. At any one time there were over a hundred underground papers challenging the existing cultural values and political structures.

Dreyer, founding editor of The Rag, continues that tradition by editing The Rag Blog, an Internet newsmagazine, and hosting Rag Radio on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run Austin community radio station. His interviews dive into progressive politics, culture, and history; you can find podcasts of all Rag Radio shows here.

The Rag was the sixth alternative paper to be part of the new Underground Press Syndicate (UGS), following the LA’s Free Press, New York’s East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s Fifth Estate, and East Lansing’s The Paper. By 1971, according to a roster in Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, there were 271 UPS-affiliated papers. The member papers operated independently from each other under various management structures and pursued a range of political perspectives. Nevertheless they shared a common ethos that demanded accountability from government and all establishment institutions in order to advance social justice policies.

Celebrating The Rag’s articles vividly tell the stories of how their staff, writers and readers continually supported the organizing efforts to oppose any institution that hampered the freedom of individuals to seek a productive life. The Rag’s own organizational structure reflected these values.

Bill Meacham, former Rag writer wrote that “… the Ragstaff operated as a participatory democracy. We had no designated leaders… “Although he allowed for how natural leaders did emerge, still “Anybody who showed up at the meetings (of the Rag) could speak up and have input to the content and direction of the newspaper.” Bottom line: “The lifestyle was about community and treating people well and living in such a way that everyone was included and nobody was ripped off.”

Early on this philosophy shaped the structure and content of the paper in acknowledging the feminist movement.  By the end of 1968 the paper was reporting on women’s national protests and conferences. And in the Seventies graphics and photographs of nude women tailed off as women took on leadership of The Rag.

A 1971 article by Sue Hester protested being called a “chick”, which was a term long used at the paper, drew “more than the usual amount of discussion at our copy meeting…” according to former Ragstaffer Sharon Shelton-Colangelo. She notes that while other alternative papers “were being torn apart by gender divisions” Rag female staffers set up a reproductive rights referral service in the Rag offices. Women staffers also successfully lobbied the Austin City Council to provide rape and trauma counseling at the Brackenridge Hospital and recognize International Women’s Day.

While political activism of staff and writers, was openly and proudly pursued at The Rag, as well as other underground papers, the role of electoral politics balanced between being reluctantly accepted as a useful tool and being scorned as a waste of time. Promoting demonstrations and lobbying for changing oppressive laws was part of the every paper’s vernacular from their birth. Supporting candidates however was another matter.

For instance when the paper’s editors expressed their support for Frances Farenthold’s campaign for the governorship of Texas in 1972, it was met by two questions: “Aren’t electoral politics bullshit?” And, “What good can come from liberal reforms?” The lead op-ed against such support concluded that “Under circumstances as they exist now in this country, taking the business of elections seriously is fostering falsehood and undermining radical consciousness.”

The editors responded at length to these criticisms, but in a nutshell they argued that Farenthold’s program goes beyond the electoral process and as such liberal reforms are “a damn sight better than fascist repression.”  Nevertheless, they believed that while revolution was inevitable the people should continue to struggle for the maximum benefits and gains, which are possible under capitalism.

What is refreshing in reading over these debates from over 40 years ago, is how these local discussions were shared nation-wide due to the network of alternative papers. Not coalescing around one solution, they provided a platform for debating what our democracy was about and if it could be saved.

In looking over the many articles in Celebrating The Rag what stands out is a culture of challenging the dominant status quo as the path forward in creating a better nation for everyone. The Rag, along with local Austin chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, in a seemingly innocuous manner broke through the dominant group think that, like a thick fog, hung over not only college campuses but all citizens.

And a battering ram was not use but rather a gentle nudge tipped over the cart of apples. It was called Gentle Thursday, held in the fall of 1966 as The Rag was getting started. It was organized “as a celebration of our belief that there is nothing wrong with fun.” Who could object? It encouraged students on the University of Texas, Austin campus, to look at their personal world differently, from a vantage point of saying “What could I do that is not within the usual expectations, but something that I and others will enjoy?” The poster that went up suggested “you might even take flowers to your Math Professor, feel free to fly a kite on the main mall and at the very least wear brightly colored clothing.”

By simply breaking the everyday routine, it pushed back the curtain of conformity and released a sense of self and being alive. Knowing that you have the power to change your behavior to enjoy life is at the heart of every political movement.

This cultural shift became known as the counter-culture, it opened the eyes of those who benefited from the status quo to see how others were suffering under it. Long before President Donald Trump popularized Fake News through his constant stream of Twitter lies, there was News Black Outs, where the struggles of regular people were not important enough to receive the attention of the major media outlets. The Rag’s efforts to highlight these struggles were repeated through a national network of local underground papers. Not only did they highlight feminist issues, but those involving gays, Blacks and unions were also championed.

The Rag lamented how the Sexual Freedom League was kicked off University of Texas campus in 1966, because they wished to stimulate discussion of the various taboos and archaic laws involving sexual activity. Five years later in 1971 The Rag was promoting and celebrating Austin’s Gay Pride week, following up in 1974 by supporting the first statewide gay conference.

The Rag promoted Black Liberation and covered events that the main stream media ignored, like the 41 year sentence of a prominent black activist, Martin Sostre in Buffalo NY, for selling heroin to a person, who later recanted that he had lied to frame Sostre.

The Rag shed light on labor struggles that the dominant newspapers like the Austin American didn’t find important. It informed the public of a critical NLRB ruling vindicating a strike by a predominantly Chicano union against the Longhorn Machine Works in Kyle, Texas. The company was ordered to bargain in good faith and restore lost benefits to the strikers.

While these are examples of issue specific struggles to achieve social justice, the counter-culture’s message of creating community ushered in the creation of consumer and worker cooperatives as an alternative to the hierarchical corporate model. In both instances, the customers or the workers had a say in how the organization was operated. Meacham, looking back on his experience at the paper, wrote, “Both co-ops and the Ragstaff operated as participatory democracies.” However, even co-ops came under scrutiny for their practices. The Rag covered a struggle in 1975 where the Minneapolis/St. Paul cooperative network of more than a dozen storefront food co-ops, bakeries, and other alternative collectives, came under attack from an organization  (The Co-op Organization –TCO) representing some 4 dozen co-op members and workers. They accused the co-op network of being a white, middle-class hippie trip and instead should be building solidarity with black and working class communities in preparation for revolution. The Rag noted that the issues raised by the TCO were important ones but that the tactics employed by the TCO, such as physically breaking up meetings, was destructive to the co-op movement.

Internal strife over ideological or gender divisions contributed to tense working conditions in many alternative organizations across the country and probably contributed to the demise of some of the alternative papers. Although The Rag did not fold until 1977, by 1975 most of the underground papers had disbanded. There were many reasons. Since many were very dependent on volunteers and low pay full time positions, the supply of willing labor may have just dried up.

Unfortunately, what is missing from Celebrating The Rag is a summary statement on why the paper stopped publishing. It might have helped shed some light on why this phenomenally successful paper, and others like it, did not survive. The rise of the underground press has been attributed to the introduction of cheap photo offset printing, which made publishing a paper accessible and affordable for many small groups. But new technology alone is not enough to make a movement; it takes spirit and a belief that things can be made better by organizing.

I don’t think the counter-culture lost its soul. Instead, it expanded far beyond its founding groups, so that the establishment adopted many of its objectives, such as achieving stronger civil rights protections and ending the Viet Nam War. But before that tipping point occurred, local authorities did resist and try to suppress them.

The Rag successfully legally challenged a ban from selling their paper on the UT Austin campus. The court system, however, ultimately was not friendly to freedom-of-speech rights. In 1973, the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California re-enabled local obscenity prosecutions, which allowed local police and prosecutors to attack the local head shops that often stocked underground papers. While right-wing extremists did not permanently close down the underground press offices through violence, the local authorities were able to harass and shut down their retail distribution network.

The legacy of the underground press was to question all authority and seek answers based on independently verifiable knowledge and not on what was being provided by those in power. The Rag exemplified a first-rate execution of that objective.

The challenge now is to determine how to keep that orientation alive and thriving. Perhaps community radios, which are found in many cities, like Austin’s KOOP, can provide a framework for sustaining such a progressive force. Other media outlets like blogs or podcasts have also begun to play such a role. It may be that the disastrous Trump Presidency will stimulate a creation of a UPS-like network among these outlets, playing a role similar to how the horrific Vietnam War prompted the creation of the underground press. What is certain is that citizen activists can change the world, they did it in the past and they can do it again.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist; Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World, a former 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, and co-founder of an alternative paper The Seattle Sun (1974 to 1982). He can be reached at nick@becomingacitizenactivist.org  twitter @nickjlicata

FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY & SOCIAL JUSTICE & STREETCARS

By | Urban Politics - Seattle | No Comments

 

unnamed-3

Seattle City Council has begun the process for funding the construction and operation of a downtown streetcar project called the Center City Connector Streetcar, and referenced as the CCC. Initially the advocates argued that the CCC was a transportation solution for connecting the South Lake Union and the First Hill streetcars. However, it doesn’t make much sense for anyone to get on the First Hill streetcar at a Capitol Hill stop, like Denny and Broadway to get to SLU, when they could get there in a third of the time by just taking the number 12 bus to downtown, or another bus line at a different stop, and then board the SLU streetcar.

That detail has not deterred the Seattle Downtown (business) Association as its biggest promoter. They have been angling for a downtown streetcar for at least 10 years. As a councilmember during that entire time, I often hosted supporters in my office to listen how Seattle’s downtown could be more prosperous if we had a streetcar running right through downtown’s already congested streets.

The best argument for building the CCC might be that it will encourage shoppers to visit a number of retail establishments along the line, as long as it has enough stops, which would slow it down. Pioneer Square businesses owners also hoped it would deliver increased pedestrian traffic to them, which has clustered further north along First Avenue. However, this business development objective really makes the CCC an economic stimulus project not a transportation project. The advocates soft-peddle that rationale because the city needs federal transportation funding to build the CCC, and those funds are intended to serve transit needs.

WHO IS PAYING FOR THE CCC?

This conflict begged the question that the council needed to answer: What are the public costs and transit benefits for building and maintaining the CCC? To provide that answer, Councilmember Lisa Herbold amended Council Bill Number: 119008which accepted $50 million in federal dollars towards this project, by requiring our Seattle Dept. of Transportation (SDOT) to report to the council detailing the financial operating plan for the CCC, the projected performance measures and contingency plan for funding CCC should the additional federal $25 million that the city expects to receive did not materialize.

Even if those funds are received, the city is already prepared to spend $52 from our transit budget to build the CCC. What other transit needs will be sacrificed? For the SLU streetcar bus service hours were diverted from lower income families being served by bus routes in the Rainier Valley. This was a social justice issue that residents in the south end of Seattle raised and protested the cut in their bus routes.

An article in City Lab concluded, “Taxpayers are picking up most of the bill for the 21st century streetcar renaissance—money which could otherwise support more effective forms of public transportation.” Check it out here

FISCAL RISKS

Director of Transit & Mobility Andrew Glass Hastings delivered the required report 2 weeks ago to the Council. His revenue projections are more aspirational than rational. The bulk of the streetcar network’s operational income will come from ridership. The city’s transportation department wrote that the project would increase the entire streetcar network average daily streetcar ridership from approximately 6,000 today to an estimated 25,000 average daily riders by some unspecified date in the future. However their report shows that by 2025 their daily average riders will only represent 38% of the 25,000 target. Even if they meet 2025 goal, it appears to be unrealistic since it represents an increase of over 400%. Meanwhile, the SLU streetcar has experienced a decline in ridership of 32% since 2013 due to reduced congestion and improved bus service serving South Lake Union. Improved bus service is siphoning off riders from the SLU streetcar.

After reviewing SDOT’s report, the Council’s central staff continued to believe there is financial risk in the Center City Connector’s financial plan. Although, they added that much of this risk already existed with operating the South Lake Union Streetcar and First Hill Streetcar lines, and is not directly attributable to the CCC. In other words, the current streetcar system will continue to face the same financial problems it has now.

If the predicted ridership for the CCC follows the same course as what happened with the SLU line, which the city still has an outstanding loan of over $3 million to support SLU Streetcar operations, where will the additional revenue come from? The expectation is that both King County and Sound Transit will continue their annual subsidies for our two existing streetcar lines and will presumably also help subsidize CCC’s costs.

WHO WILL HELP SUBSIDIZE THE CITY’S STREETCAR NETWORK

For the SLU Streetcar, King County Metro provides an annual contribution that escalates to $1,550,000 in 2019, when the current operating agreement expires. SDOT anticipates that a future agreement will maintain this level of support. This subsidy will probably come by moving service hours that could be devoted to providing more reliable bus service to employees and shoppers coming into downtown rather than paying for a streetcar trying to move through downtown traffic that will not help anyone get to work on time.

For the FH Streetcar, Sound Transit provides a $5,000,000 annual contribution through 2023. SDOT anticipates that a future agreement will maintain this level of Sound Transit support; however, the voter-approved ST3 ballot measure did not include any funding for this purpose. Will the city then be on the hook?

The city council’s central staff also raised an intriguing scenario: the city could be exposed to a greater financial risk of losing Sound Transit funding in the future if the CCC is built because then the city will be operating one interconnected system. Sound Transit funded the FH Streetcar because it served a discreet function of providing access to downtown that was abandoned by Sound Transit when it did not build a First Hill station. However, when the CCC is complete it will be harder to characterize the First Hill segment as a discrete portion of the line that Sound Transit must maintain. If it does divest, the City will then have to pick up the $5 million annual tab.

SDOT’s report to the Council said any future funding shortfalls, like not getting the additional $25 in federal transportation funds that the city has applied for but has yet to receive, could be met by possible additional revenue sources like increased sponsorship and increased fares.

The promise of corporate sponsorships as a streetcar revenue source is like searching for the Holy Grail, it’s got to be out there somewhere. But not in Seattle. Sponsorships did not stop the SLU streetcar from going into the hole. No mention is made in the SDOT report on how much sponsorships currently contribute to either of the existing streetcar lines. For the year 2020, when the CCC is expected to be completed, annual operating costs are just over $16 million for all 3 lines and less than a million in sponsorship revenue is expected; no projection for future years is even attempted.

The one reason that the CCC is being pushed through right now is the lure of receiving free money, i.e. the $50 to $75 million that the feds will be giving to Seattle to build it. But free federal money is not always going to lead to the best solution to improving our urban environment.

Citizens in 1971 realized that when they rejected, by initiative, receiving millions in federal dollars for an urban renewal project that would replace 90 percent of the Pike Place Market with offices, hotels, and parking garages. They were not deterred by the city council voting unanimously to approve the renewal project and both daily newspapers supporting that decision.

WILL TRANSIT RIDERS BENEFIT?

Aside from the financial risk of building and maintaining the CCC, what will be the actual transit benefits? It’s already apparent that it will not serve working people trying to get to their jobs downtown, but will the CCC allow workers or shoppers to move more quickly through it? That’s doubtful. A robust network of bus routes 40, 62, and 70 already connects the ends of the two existing streetcars, along with Link light rail, which is faster than the CCC will ever be.

What makes the CCC particularly challenging is that it will be happening at the same time as the deep bore tunnel opens – closing the current bus tunnel to buses, and I-90 buses will be slowed by the second phase of Sound Transit construction on I-90. The cumulative impact will be more traffic diverting to 2nd and 4th avenues and very likely leading to gridlock.

SUMMARY

Budget Chair Councilmember Herbold considers SDOT’s report a non-answer to the Council’s questions of where the funds will come from. She concludes that unfortunately, the only realistic funding sources may be to cut other spending, such as roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, proactive landslide prevention, and transit. Read her newsletter to understand how $4 million of the city’s limited revenue stream from the Commercial Parking tax could be diverted for the next 20 years to pay for the CCC.

It is clear that the CCC streetcar is only a downtown circulator. Public transit is already good downtown it’s everywhere else in Seattle that commuters need more reliable and frequent bus service. Worse still, there is a fair chance that the CCC streetcar would make downtown circulation worse since it will be using limited right of way space that will be desperately needed for the additional busses that will be pushed out of the bus tunnel.

First Avenue should handle more public transit and shifting bus routes there would be much more cost-efficient than spending at least $60 million in local tax revenues for building a streetcar line. And, that’s assuming the feds cough up another $25 million, if SDOT’s ridership numbers are accurate, and that both King County and Sound Transit continue to subsidize our streetcar system. Not to mention any possible cost overruns.

Other cities have faced similar decisions. Many do succumb to the charm of streetcars as well as the influence of well-organized interest groups that would benefit from such grand public expenditures, such as developers, property owners along the lines, consultants and construction companies. However, just last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  They redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same downtown corridor with buses coming every 4-5 minutes. It would provide the same reliable service that a streetcar would but more importantly it would allow major bus lines to continue to serve those outside the downtown neighborhoods.

The Seattle City Council has been in the national forefront in recognizing that social justice issues must be addressed in our policies and projects. But sometimes they are difficult to apply to capital projects, particularly attractive ones like the proposed Center City Connector Streetcar. Nevertheless, in this instance there is a social justice issue that will impact the poor and the middle class. Will our public dollars be spent most efficiently on a project that does not increase the ease of getting to work downtown? There is scant evidence that laying down those rails will make Seattle any more livable or affordable for its residents.

THE SOLUTION

The Council could hold up any further expenditure on the CCC project, until an outside neutral party can determine if it will benefit residents and employees throughout the city by providing them better access to downtown. That motion could be made by 3 councilmembers introducing a Budget Proviso. However, they would need to do so by this coming Thursday. If they do, then this proposal could be discussed before the full council.

If this approach strikes you as a reasonable step in doing due diligence please let the councilmembers know by emailing citycouncil@seattle.gov and all councilmembers will receive your message.

The city council’s Budget Session I begins at – 10:30 a.m., or right after the Council Briefing meeting, this Monday to discuss SDOT’s budget. Questions about the CCC may be raised. Public testimony will be held just before the meeting begins. Watch the meeting live.