There, on a rainy day in Sacramento, I was one of many union folks, students, and religious and community leaders who spoke to a crowd of thousands gathered to protest the ever-more draconian cuts to education and social services.
All the way from Los Angeles to Sacramento we carried the message that California needs a government and economy that works for everyone, not just the rich. We spoke of the need to end the 2/3rds majority to pass a budget and/or raise taxes and advocated for progressive taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund California’s Future. More than anything else it was a social justice march that followed the footsteps of Cesar Chavez in order to demand a morally just budget.
The results? The central political component of the March, the Majority Budget Act (Proposition 25), made the ballot and passed last November and polling numbers in favor of progressive taxation have never been better. That said, Proposition 25 only solved half of the problem (we still need to get rid of the 2/3rds majority requirement for raising taxes in the legislature) and the most catastrophic cuts yet are on the horizon unless Governor Brown wins his game of chicken with the Republicans.
One instructive thing that the March illustrated is that the mainstream media finds small crowds of right-wing anti-tax nuts to be sexier than an ambitious 48-day protest effort to promote progressive taxes to stop budget cuts. That said, the march did generate significant interest in the forgotten Central Valley (our goal was to talk to “red” California, not just our allies in “blue” California) and it showed the value of the kind of old fashioned, live, person-to-person politics not wedded to data bases, phone banks, and virtual social networks but to really “being there.” But more than anything else, it was about walking, literally walking.
And the existential experience of walking holds its own lessons. It moves us from the insulated inside to the vulnerable outside. Walking as a form of protest is a profoundly embodied form of politics. Over weeks, it involves pain and sacrifice. It is a discipline, a meditation, a prayer that the walker enacts with his or her body.
As Will Self has pointed out in his work on psychogeography, the walker is “an insurgent against the contemporary world” because the walker as “an ambulatory time traveler” blows back the years. The act of walking rather than driving, flying, teleconferencing or emailing is assaulting the tyranny of speed and disassociation. Our modern technologies of transportation and communication have done much to annihilate community and our sense of rootedness in place. They have de-centered our lives, disoriented us, and made a kind of unconscious alienation part of the very fabric of our lives.
Walking, on the other hand, emphasizes “thereness” rather than a disembodied otherness. It humanizes the seemingly small and insignificant. In that way, our 352-mile protest trek to Sacramento was a political dérive. We suspended business as usual and chose this least efficient way to travel, picked the byways and out-of-the-way places as our destinations. Walking through the middle of nowhere on the way to the center of power is a kind of surreal act. We six core walkers were like the Merry Pranksters without the acid: we were on the bus by being off of it.
Just last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that:
“The vast fruit fields, picturesque farmhouses and rolling foothills of Tulare County mask an ugly reality: Nearly a quarter of the population in this Central Valley agricultural hub lives in poverty, and one in three residents receives state aid — the largest proportion in California” and noted that “With state officials slashing billions of dollars in services to help balance the budget, few places will feel the effects more deeply.”
On the march, the children of the beleaguered schools in the Central Valley were vividly present in a way they could not be as statistics. They were bright eyes and smiling faces. Like the stunning fields of golden spring wildflowers they spoke to the heart and the mind.
The unemployed and dispossessed were (and are) bodies on the streets of Fresno or in the park in Turlock. Hunger was written on their faces and we could not look away. Foreclosure numbers were (and are) real families’ houses boarded-up, graffitied husks that marred the pastoral landscape. Pollution from industrial farming was a horrid stench or a mucky canal. The growth of the prison-industrial complex at the expense of our educational institutions was (and is) written on the landscape as we passed by one monument to our collective failure after another along the highways. The blind, elderly, and disabled at risk of losing their home care were at our sides on the March, tapping their canes on the pavement and being pushed in wheelchairs.
Even road kill spoke to us, showing the impact of our incursion into and corruption of wild spaces in the form of a dead mallard or an accidently vivisected skunk, possum, or raccoon forced to wander amongst our hit and run drivers. It makes one wonder at the wisdom of closing or selling off our state parks as a short-term money saver. Once gone, those precious areas that serve as a refuge for our animal brethren will be lost forever. If we care about the future of California, we should care about this. It is literally the world we are leaving for our children and their children’s children. Our current inability to think in these terms is the sin that the prayer of this March sought to redeem.
In the Central Valley, the great recession felt more like the Great Depression. Thus, giving speeches on the back of a flat bed truck and wandering past fields of workers it was hard not to be visited by the ghost of Tom Joad. Images from Woody Guthrie’s songs about dust bowl refugees and Merle Haggard’s nostalgia for Tulare dust swirled through my mind as Mexican music on radio campesino and the red eagle flags of the United Farm Workers. That California history written on the land and in the memories of those we met in places like Visalia and Pixley.
In the little towns where we encountered our neighbors from the Central Valley, the people were warm and friendly and it was a privilege to meet them. Though the people in places like Planada, Merced, and Turlock were welcoming, they were also aware of the fact that most Californians who live in the populated cities on the coast only know them as the occupants of a blurred dot somewhere off of I-5. Indeed, Californians from the coastal cities and the central valley know each other mostly as distorted media images, if at all. And this annihilation of any sense of connectedness has made it hard for most folks to come up with an accurate cognitive map of their world or a politics that moves beyond distrust and distortion.
Still, we yearn for connection with one another and this is frequently exploited in our politics, like when big power companies spend millions to run commercials selling an initiative that would require a 2/3rds majority vote to tax them as “voter choice” rather than corporate greed. The ad featured a woman who looks like your neighbor and wants you to have a real voice. She “cares” about you and your interests. This is the same politics that makes the grocery workers, teachers, domestic care workers, police officers, firefighters, office clerks, and other folks we met into “union bosses” stealing your money.
On this March, our primary job was to fight to restore the promise of public education, a government and economy that works for every Californian, and to promote progressive taxation and the notion that the 2/3rd supermajority requirement for passing a budget needed to end and be replaced by a simple majority. But it is clear that we will only get there when people see the human faces on the end of the cuts and begin to view those losing vital services as their neighbors rather than abstract numbers. That is why were walking to Sacramento rather than sending a text message—to actually talk to the people and perhaps look them in the eye.