Reflections of a New Political Activist, by Pete Kalajian

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Like so many of us on the left, on election night, I watched the results come in with growing unease, and with resignation in my heart went to bed at 11 pm. No need to prolong the agony, better to shut it all out with sleep. The reckoning could come in the morning. I awoke, half hoping that it had all been a bad dream, but the headlines confirmed the worst: a misogynistic, bigoted, brutish thug had been elected to the presidency. I listened half-heartedly to the punditocracy what-went-wronging on the morning radio show, and drank my bitter coffee knowing that we were in for a long, slow, unpleasant and difficult time ahead.

For the next couple of weeks, I watched the unfolding of the transition with glum resignation, pictures of Bannon’s besotted face searing into my imagination. What could I do? The people had spoken, and we were getting what we deserved. Presidency, House, Senate, Governorships, all gone to the dark side. Anti-Muslim rhetoric, chest-thumping militarism, jingoistic nationalism, the stupid, empty “make America great again” trope all competing to drown out nuance in public discourse. Hidden trolls rising up out of their dank lairs, freed to be as nasty as they wanted to be. White supremacy in the White house. I recalled reading It Can’t Happen Here as a teenager, and muttered to myself, “it is happening here!”

Something snapped in me as I watched the inauguration speech. The small-minded bully shredding the world order with his “America First” rhetoric was the last straw. “I can’t just sit by and watch him destroy my country like this,” I muttered to myself. I watched the Women’s March on Washington, and realized that there were a lot of people just like me who were not going to sit idly by. Somehow, marching seemed like it was more for the marchers to feel good, and less about effecting change, and I wondered what would be the best way for me to resist Trump and his ridiculous agenda. I can’t exactly remember where and when I first heard about the Indivisible Guide, but I do remember thinking, “Hey, this is brilliant in its simplicity.” Call or visit your member of congress and resist the Trump agenda. What could be simpler? I read the Indivisible guide Google doc and decided right there to start doing something.

I believe it took me a few days to hone in on my particular action. I started an Indivisible group on twitter and emailed Senator Collins’ appointment office with a request to visit with the Senator’s Augusta, Maine staffers. That was it. The Tuesday visit was born. I tweeted out the visit, put together a list of people in my contact directory who I thought might join me, and emailed them an invitation.  People retweeted and shared my email, and that first Tuesday, five of us carpooled up to Augusta to meet with the staffer.

I’d never met with a senate staffer before, so had no idea what to expect. We knocked on the door on the fifth floor of the Edmund Muskie Federal Building and were greeted by Pattie Aho, who showed us into the conference room. We took our seats. “I am committed to being here every Tuesday for as long as necessary to engage in civil discourse to make sure the Senator knows how her constituents are feeling about upcoming votes,” I assured Pattie. “It is important to me that we establish a long-term face-to-face relationship and keep the visits civil.”

Around the room we went, each person sharing their particular views on Trump’s nominee for Department of Education. Each person spoke their truths with eloquence, heart and respect. Pattie scribbled on a legal pad, copying down a particularly pithy quote now and again, all the while giving us the impression that she was listening carefully to our words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not a wet-behind-the-ears political neophyte, nor do I have any outsize notion of the impact we were having on the staffer or by extension the Senator, but, damn it, this felt good! Here were humans, speaking clearly and from the heart about matters of great import, being listened to carefully by someone with access to the levers of power.

We’re now through our sixth week of visits, interrupted only by the vicissitudes of the Maine winter storm cycle. Pattie continues to listen carefully and scribble dutifully. Each week we have different people besides me and my co-host, Cleo. Each week, I put together an agenda informed by the week’s fresh indignities. Each week I ask the group how many of them are new to political activism, and without fail, the majority, who are all well past the onset age for social security, say this is their first time visiting their member of Congress. Each week, the level of fear and pain seem to ramp up.

This last week, by the end of the hour, I felt completely wrung out listening to people’s genuine fear for the survival of our republic spill out in emotionally raw and painful testimony. There was a clear message: Folks did not feel that Senator Collins has any real understanding of how scared people are by Trump and his agenda. There were heartfelt and repeated pleas for the Senator to schedule some sort of face-to-face meeting with her constituents so that she could witness this fear first hand. Pattie’s face color seemed to drain out during the session. She was certainly feeling the fear.

Who can say whether this sort of citizen activism actually makes any difference or not to the course of history, at least when we confine history to the events and actions of governments. What I can say uncategorically is that it does make a difference in the lives of the people who take the time to get in the car, make the trek, and sit down in that conference room. Instead of being helpless before the waterfall of devastating news thundering down on us from media, we have acted, taken agency, and are no longer passive victims. We are participants in the great flow of human history, and however tiny our role may be in shaping that flow, it sure feels good.

Won’t you join me next Tuesday?

 

Pete Kalajian is a teacher and learner who realizes that his time on the earth is short and is trying hard not to waste too much of it, with varying degrees of success. He can be reached at alnitak@gwi.net or @peterkalajian on twitter.

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