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Netflix Series on Rajneeshpuram

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Originally Published March 23, 2018 

UP – USA – Netflix Series on Rajneeshpuram

By Nick Licata

Paradise Lost as Guru Flees

The Strange Tale of a Paradise Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a difficult time understanding how someone who could

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From everything that Sarita and others have said, Sheela derived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation?

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

Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation?

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

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

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

Can Promoting a Beautiful America Unite this Nation

America’s Infrastructure Should Be Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Why Trump Ignores Russian Interference

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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.


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.”



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

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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 ?

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Urban Politics – US   9/26/17
By Nick Licata – author of Becoming a Citizen Activist


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


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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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


Becoming a Citizen Activist Live Webinar and PowerPoint

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Have you recently become more politically engaged? Would you like to know how to make that engagement as effective as possible? Recently, Nick Licata was joined by Indivisible Plus WA and Whats Next for a live webinar about his experience as a citizen activist and what you can do today to be part of effective change in your community and country. Check out the live recording and download the PowerPoint, 7 Steps to Becoming a Citizen Activist below.

Download the Powerpoint here: Powerpoint Citizen’s 7 Steps V1


If Politicians Actually Want to Make Change, They Have to Think Like Organizers

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Six Strategies

To empower your constituents and help get you the votes you need to pass progressive legislation

“What has fueled Seattle’s progressive victories, isn’t some mystery potion or innate Northwestern goodness, but the same hard work that has forced progress in other cities: grassroots organizing, tenacity, and political allies,”

This simple little pamphlet outlines the steps that council members can take to distribute the power they have as elected officials to their constituents to create a partnership with them for improving their lives.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

First Step – Have them recognize that complaining is not a solution

How many times have you had constituents come into your office making legitimate complaints. You listen and nod in agreement. Then having felt that they have been heard they prepare to leave. DON’T LET THEM LEAVE YOUR OFFICE WITHOUT MAKING AN ASK.

The first step is to work with them to define a specific remedy. One that is not so distant in the future to be put off by endless studies. Ideally, it is something that can be accomplished within a week or two. It’s the first step in gaining momentum for making changes; by showing them that by working with you, they can taste success.

Second Step – Explain both the technical and social dynamics of city hall politics

Share with your constituent knowledge on how your city government works. Many citizens don’t understand the committee structure or the legislative process. As an elected citizen, you have learned these details. Tell them which relevant committees would address their issue. Describe the council members on that committee and recommend who they should approach with your help to sponsor or co-sponsor the legislation. In addition, if they have staff, or if the council has staff, let them know who they are and how they can be approached.

Describe how the committee chair votes. Let them know who the chair is close to on the council and in the community. These people will likely influence the chair; they need to be approached and convinced to help on the issue.

Work with your constituents to have their issue brought before the relevant committee. If your council has open committee meetings, which they should, then see that there is time to take testimony before the committee either in a public period of comment or as a guest to sit at the table with the council members to explain an issue from a community view. Prepare them before hand on how to present information and to bring no more than a 2-page handout.

Third Step – build momentum by finding allies

Encourage your constituents to reach out to bring in new allies as a way of increasing the chance of success. Start with those people they know, neighbors, workers, those from the same religious community and finally any citizens that may be serving on citizen advisory groups to the city. Even a simple petition, on paper or on line, shows that the issue has more than a handful of supporters.

If the issue is geographically based, work to approach the leadership of the local community council or religious organization. Even if just one of their board members is willing to sign up in support of the issue, it could open a conversation with other council members. Also, approach former elected officials to sign on, which may help garner media coverage.

If it is a non-geographically based issue, invite in a representative from a national interest group or union that is engaged in this issue. If they need money to cover their costs, use that as a focal point for holding events to build community and raise funds. Moreover, when they arrive offer to have them speak before a council committee and invite the media to cover it.

Approach neutral parties, like the League of Women Voters, or any other local civic group, to write a letter of support. The point is to show the opposition that the issue goes beyond the immediate advocating group.

Fourth Step – use facts and data, and question the reliability of opposition’s information

Using hard data gets the attention of the media and gives them something to include in their coverage. It also shores up support among those who are or favorably inclined but have doubts. Demonstrate that the advocates know their subject matter.

As an elected official, you should have access to information that community groups do not. Use that power of access to release statistics or data collected by various city departments. If they refuse to release that information, then the issue becomes “Why are they hiding this information?” It puts the opposition on the defense and forces them to account for their behavior.

If the opposition sites a survey to derail your effort, demand to see the entire survey instrument, all questions, responses and demographics collected. Again, if they refuse, then you raise the issue of a lack of openness and accountability – an excellent position to be in. Once you receive their information, look for inconsistencies and expose them. All surveys have multiple ways of being interpreted, pursue them.

Conduct your own opinion survey on the issue. You do not have to spend $10,000 for one. A reliable survey with a few questions can cost under a $1,000. Consider using university students and faculty to assist with one. Keep in mind, you just need one strong fact to stand out to derail the other side by forcing the media to include it in their coverage.

Fifth Step – Get the word out

Politicians have the ability to get media coverage. Use it! Don’t fear taking a strong stand, because most people will forget what you even said, but they will remember that you said something that was important because the media covered it.

If there are protests, talk to the media about why there are protests. Use the incident by pointing out how future protests could be avoided by taking certain actions.

Use all media tools. If you send out an e-newsletter, include information about the issues that your constituency is organizing around. You don’t have to say what you’ve done, say what you want done and how you are going to get there. Ask your constituents to re- tweet your points so that they reach as many people as possible.

Hold a forum in city hall on the issue at hand during lunch hour in the council chamber that is open to the public. Invite both sides on an issue, because it is more likely to get those on the council who are undecided to attend and it will garner more media coverage. If you cannot use city hall, find a community hall, church, library or even a tavern to hold a forum.

If you have surplus campaign funds because you are a sure winner, use your campaign material to educate the public on an issue.

Sixth Step – Encourage optimism by celebrating every win no matter how small and believing in democracy

Don’t dwell on the goals not achieved because you will never achieve all of them. Instead, with every struggle that you join your constituency on, make sure that you know what a minimum win looks like from the beginning. When that is achieved, celebrate it. Then remind folks that it is just one stage and that the next day or week the fun begins again in fighting for and winning the next battle.

Integrate cultural activities into every organizing effort, because people like to have fun and if it isn’t fun, it’s harder to grow your movement. Everyone loves a parade.

Encourage your constituents to listen to the opposition to understand where they are coming from. Knowing your opposition improves your insight into their strengths and weaknesses. And that makes you smarter, more confident and a more articulate proponent of democracy because you are practicing it.

Keep in mind that the greatest obstacle to achieving progress is cynicism – distrust in democracy and a democratic government. Those who want to shrink government speak of freedom and liberty but a weakened democracy cannot protect those freedoms.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

Young Child at Rally

Seven Steps to Becoming a Citizen Activist

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Despite who is elected as President or elected to Congress or City Hall, each citizen has the ability and the tools to influence whether good or bad things happen. But you must be willing to do something about it.

To gain political power you don’t have to be a super hero or dedicate your life to activism. However, you should know what you want and how to get it.

This brochure briefly outlines the steps toward making effective change based on the more detailed lessons described in Becoming a Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

Complaining is therapeutic – not an action plan

When meeting with a public official you must explain the problem you want addressed and what you want that person to do. It should not be so general a request that the politician can nod and say he or she supports your goal and will work toward it. That is fine but not enough!

Make your ask for something specific and measurable. For instance, ask the politician to hold a press conference, issue a statement, hold a public hearing, be the main sponsor on a piece of legislation or work with you to write that legislation. All of these options must be tied to a specific time line. And one that is not so distant that it can be postponed indefinitely.

Present the problem and your request on no more than 2 pages, which should include your contact information.
When you leave it with them ask for a specific date when they can get back to you.

This is the first step in gaining momentum for making greater changes. Demonstrate that by working with you, they can taste their own success. If you can only meet with the public official’s staff, meet with that person and follow the same routine. However, also ask for confirmation that the politician has personally received your request.

Know how government works

No matter whether it is a city, state or federal government there are basic structural and procedural features that they all share. Know what they are and how they work.

They all have issue committees and chairs of those committees. Determine in advance what committee will deal with your issue. You can do that by either looking at the committee title or looking at what issues it has dealt with. Almost all levels of government have this information on their websites.

Know who the committee chair is and members of the committee. Do research on them. What groups have endorsed them? You can find this out from looking at their past or current campaign websites. Find out if their campaign contribution donors are listed on any government websites. Find out if you know any of the groups or donors.

Know the schedule for introducing and passing legislation. For instance, how long does it take for a piece of legislation to be introduced before coming before the full deliberative body? Who has the authority to introduce it? How many sponsors are needed to move it forward?

Find a committee member who will work with your group on some level. Best if they can hold a hearing on your issue. But if not that, see if they will allow testimony before a committee meeting or at a committee meeting. Or at a minimum bring the issue up at the committee meeting to get it aired publicly.

Build momentum by finding allies

You cannot win working alone. Strength comes from numbers. Reach out to individuals and groups to increase the chance of success. Start with people you know: neighbors, workers, those from a religious community and finally any citizens
that may be serving on citizen advisory groups to the city, state or congress. Providing

even a simple petition, on paper or on the Internet, shows that the issue has more than a handful of supporters.

If the issue is geographically based, approach the leadership of the local community council or religious organization. Even if just one of that organization’s board members is willing to sign in support of the issue, it will make an impression on a politician. Also, approach former elected officials to sign on, which may help garner media coverage.

If it is a non-geographically based issue, invite a representative from a national interest group or union to speak out. If they must travel to your city, see if you can cover their travel costs. Use that need as an opportunity to hold fundraising events and attract a broader base of support. If you have a noted speaker, request that they speak before a committee, a public forum or a hearing and invite the media to cover it.

Ask your supporters, including allied politicians, to contact potential sympathetic groups for a letter of support. The point is to show politicians and the public that the issue goes beyond the immediate advocating group from just one district or interest community.

Use facts and question the reliability of the opposition’s

Using hard data gives the media something to include in their coverage. It also shores up support among those who may have doubts about the merit of an issue. Using facts demonstrates that the advocates know their subject matter.

Encourage supportive elected officials to share government reports from departments and drafts of legislation under consideration. If an agency refuses to release information, then the issue becomes “Why are they hiding this information?” It puts the opposition on the defense and forces them to account for their behavior.

If the opposition cites a survey to derail your effort, demand to see the entire survey instrument, all questions, responses and demographics collected. Again, if they refuse, attack their creditability because of their lack of openness and accountability. Once you receive their information, look for inconsistencies and expose them. All surveys have multiple ways of being interpreted, pursue them.

Conduct your own opinion survey on the issue. You do not have to spend $10,000

for one. A reliable survey with a couple of questions can cost under a $1,000. Consider using university students and faculty to assist with one. You just need one

strong fact to stand out to derail the other side by forcing the media to include it in their coverage.

Get the word out

Even after you make a specific request and have strong allies, you still need to keep the public informed of your efforts and the relevance of the issue. Make a list of journalists and bloggers who might cover your issue. Personally contact them to tell them what you have accomplished, no matter how minor it may seem.

You want to show that the issue has the attention of a number of people and groups. And that it has momentum. Reporters want to see movement, something that is developing, and something that is changing the public discussion or could significantly change the political landscape.

If you hold a protest action, follow it up with having your participants post on Facebook and tweet with photos and comments. Make sure that your supporters share your group’s posts and retweet them. This requires having an email list serve to your supporters to remind them to spread the information among their friends and media contacts.

Hold an open forum on the issue at your place of worship after a service, at a public library community room or even at a city hall council chamber during lunch hour. Try to get a public official or sympathetic organization to host the event. Invite all public officials to attend, even if they do not speak their attendance will be recognized.

Celebrate every win no matter how small

Don’t dwell on the goals not achieved because you will never achieve all of them. Instead, with every struggle make sure that you know what a minimum win looks like from the beginning. When that is achieved, celebrate it. Then remind supporters that it is just one victory and that the next day or week the fun begins again in fighting for and winning the next battle. A meaningful and joyful journey is the end objective, because there will always be something to work on.

Integrate cultural activities into every organizing effort, because people like to have fun and if it isn’t fun, it’s harder to grow your movement. Have a parade, a party, a dance or a movie; any opportunity to enjoy oneself with others keeps people engaged.

Make these activities open to everyone, because a growing supportive community achieves success far more than a stagnant or shrinking one.

Believe in Democracy

If you don’t believe you have the power to change your life, it will not change. If you withdraw from participating in the democratic process, those that remain engaged are those that benefit most from the status quo and have the most to lose from any change. So, things are likely to remain the same.

As a result cynicism replaces hope, leading to distrust in democracy and a democratic government. If that happens, those who want to shrink a government that is accountable to the public, and replace it with a corporate or elitist model that is not open and accountable to all citizens will determine your future. That may be good for a business or closed special interest groups but not for the general public whose needs and rights can only be guaranteed when citizens participate in guiding their democratic institutions.

Always keep in mind that being a citizen is knowing that you have the opportunity to make a difference and then acting according to your needs.


To download this article as a PDF, click here.

Defunding the Dakota Access Pipeline City By City

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

President Trump faces a new challenge from city governments. These are the cities where many progressives live and feel powerless to challenge the Trump administration’s new anti-environmental policies. Their solution is to inventively use the tools that are available to them.

They are taking a lead in defunding the Dakota Access Pipeline by using tactics that Trump’s federal powers cannot quash as his administration is attempting to do with sanctuary cities protecting undocumented immigrants.

An effort is unfolding to go after the banks that are funding fossil fuel climate change. Each city has public funds that need to be deposited in a major bank to allow a daily shifting of revenues and expenses. They also have a need to deposit their pension funds in a bank. This is a local decision and not one the federal government could halt.

Some cities are focusing on divesting from Wells Fargo. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission the bank has supplied $347 million in credit to the companies building the pipeline and administers an additional $3.7-billion line of credit to help the project.

On February 7th, Seattle terminated its $3 billion relationship with Wells Fargo in large part because it has been funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. A few days afterward, Davis in California cut ties with Wells Fargo, as had Santa Monica just before it.

Very likely most big banks serve corporations that despoil the earth. However, cities should consider taking a useful tactic that unions applied for decades in successfully negotiating better wages and working conditions for autoworkers: they focused on just one company at a time not all of them at once. After they succeeded in bringing one of the big four auto companies to an agreement the other companies usually followed, knowing what they faced. The same tactic could be applied to divesting from banks by choosing to go after Wells Fargo first through identifying those cities that use its services. Another key targeted bank would be lined up after concessions have been wrung from Wells Fargo.

Attention is also being focused on public money held in pension funds for city employees. These funds seek stability. Divesting from fossil fuel investments not serves to help address climate change but it also is a more responsible approach to safeguarding pensions.

Seattle’s Pension Retirement Board began looking at what the possible consequences of divesting from fossil fuels would be after the city council adopted a resolution to support such an approach. A letter to the mayor, city council and the retirement board signed by local politicians, church and community groups was presented on the 15th of February, it asked the city to proceed with the following actions:

  1. Stop any new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies,
  2. Drop coal, oil and gas from its investment portfolio by divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies by 2020,
  3. Commit to reinvesting at least 5 percent of its portfolio into climate solutions defined as, but not limited to, renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean technology, community adaptation funds, transit, and clean energy access.

This approach makes financial sense. A report commissioned by 350.Seattle showed the City of Seattle losing over $65 million by remaining in fossil fuels in the last ten years. Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has lost billions by remaining invested in fossil fuels in recent years. A combination of the Gates Foundation’s losses on fossil fuel investments and the public outcry for fossil fuel divestment resulted in them divesting 85% of their fossil fuel holdings from a starting point of $1.4 billion in 2014.

Community organizations, like DivestYourCity have begun to identify cities to join in withdrawing their business from banks funding the North Dakota Pipeline. Those in favor environmental protections, who live in cities and feel unsure how they can impact national policies that are beyond the control of their local governments, need to look at their own tool shed and see how previous uses of these tools, like the use of public funds, can be handled in a manner that can have a national impact.

This strategy augments resisting Trump Administration’s policies by pursuing actions that are beyond the reach of the federal government. Then, let President Trump spend his twitter time trying to resist it.