In the spring of 2008, my cell phone rang. I couldn't answer it because I was bartending at Augusta, Maine's swankiest hotel bar. That was my night job. By day I did freelance writing including a weekly column for Maine's largest daily newspaper.
It was former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel. He was running against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the democratic party's presidential nomination. But things looked bleak. Gravel was losing to either the mainstream democratic steamrolling machine or to a fakes-left-but-runs-down-the-middle newbie. Since I had been the Green Party's vice presidential nominee four years earlier, Senator Gravel wanted to explore opportunities that might exist in a party of true progressives.
If the name, Mike Gravel, sounds familiar, that's good. He's the guy from Alaska who worked with others to give us the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, & OSHA. Richard Nixon was president and he signed those bills into law. Who - besides Nixon and his lethal lapdog, Henry Kissinger - ever thought we'd be nostalgic for the Nixon administration?
But there's more to Gravel than just improved workplaces and clean water. Mike Gravel's also the guy who saved countless young men from rice patty deathbeds by filibustering to end the draft. Oh, and he read the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record informing a befuddled nation and saving Daniel Ellsberg's life.
Gravel was hounded by the feds, in United States v. Gravel, because he told the American people the truth. He was exonerated and remains one of the most authentic and ethical elected officials in the history of the republic. So when he called and invited me to meet him in Boston, I took the night off and headed for Harvard.
When I walked into the hall, Senator Mike Gravel was addressing about a hundred politically invested students. One might argue that this room contained many of the U.S.' best and the brightest college students. The room was silent. Gravel was passionate. He spoke of ending the failed illegal and immoral Iraq war. He spoke of much needed healthcare reforms, education reforms, eliminating student debt. He spoke of the old silk road and U.S. foreign policy expansions into Asia that spelled disaster. He spoke of brighter tomorrows and a safe future for all regardless of race, religion, or nation. He spoke of a better U.S. and subsequently a more secure world.
I stood in the back and listened as one by one the students lamented that there was nothing they could do. They filed politely out of the room, thanking the idealist senator on their way.
One kid made the mistake of asking me - perhaps I looked like a moderator of the lecture - how Gravel thought they could affect such sweeping changes. I asked him, "Do you know where Route 128 is?" Route 128 is the beltway around Boston and suburbs including Harvard's Cambridge campus. "Of course," replied the young man. "Good," I said, "go get your friends and sit in the middle of it. It should only take about a hundred of you. If you got everyone that came tonight, that'd work great."
Not surprisingly, he looked at me like I was crazy.
I softened my tone and went a little easier on him. "Ok, if you're afraid of getting killed, how about going to your congressman's office and sitting there? People are dying every day in wars we started. Soldiers your age and Iraqi and Afghani children much younger are dying together by the thousands. Surely you can spend 24 or 48 hours on a nice comfortable congressional office floor."
Our conversation ended.
I didn't get the chance to tell him to protest poverty in the U.S. and around the world. I didn't get the chance to remind him that children in the U.S. die each year because they lack access to healthcare. I didn't get to remind him that usurious banking laws were saddling his generation with unprecedented and irreparable fiduciary obligation. I didn't get the chance to remind him that climate disasters like Hurricane Katrina would be succeeded by more and more devastation because his and my generation refused to implement effective environmental regulation. And I didn't get the chance to remind him that he was sitting in a mostly male, mostly white room.
Honestly, I can't recall a single person of color, although Harvard boasts that they are now accepting more black students than any other institution known for their "selectiveness." I didn't get to tell him that "Black Lives Matter" and not just because the movement hadn't started yet. But because the facts so far prove that Black Lives Don't Matter.
In 2013, I wrote Daddy, What's the Middle Class? It's about class warfare, the civil rights movement and the achieved goal of a median decency standard in America. It's about riots and protests and peaceful resistance. It's about the murder of Native Americans, miners, autoworkers, all workers regardless of age or gender. It's about the wanton abuse of students struggling for an education. It's about the preservation of natural resources and public lands. And it's about those gains that are now being lost.
The middle class is shrinking. It's been shrinking every year since Ronald Reagan began his public relations attack on the little guy. The U.S. has spent 36 years regressing. We again have foreign wars of aggression and racial divides have grown. We've ceded all the ground we took in our war on poverty. We've destroyed public education, lost the fight for social justice. And all because we've stopped being heard. We've stopped having sit down strikes, and work stoppages, and civil disobedience.
Because of 36 years of surrender, we are preparing ourselves for an inferior president to take office. And one way or another we're going to get one. Because we don't stand up - or sit down - for what we do deserve.