Elections 2012: Lessons from Katrina

“I’m not inspired to vote,” she says.  “Everyone I know is voting out of fear, not inspiration.”

I’m in Chicago for their first-ever Bioneers conference, and the beautiful, clear-eyed, curly-haired young woman before me has just told me that my previous blog inspired her to register.  She can’t know how gratified I feel, hearing that.  As a writer, you hope you influence people, but rarely do you get direct confirmation.

As we talk, I think about fear.  We denigrate fear, we sneer at the fearful and the cowardly, and fear is definitely an unpleasant emotion to carry, but perhaps fear is actually a fine reason to vote.  Fear, after all, is one of the great life-force emotions.  Fear arises when we are threatened, and primes us to act.  Fear cuts through denial, and gets us up off the couch.  It’s a great motivator.

Generally I’m more in favor of hope and vision as motivators, for the long term.  But elections are not poetry readings nor religious revivals.  Our hopes and visions are inevitably ground down in the mills of pragmatism when electioneering turns to governing.  Hope and vision are what we agitate for in the streets, clamor for in our protests and petitions and demonstrations, and build together in our neighborhoods and towns and local communities.  Until we make some overarching changes in our larger systems—most notably restraining the influence of big money!—our hopes will always lead to disappointment.

Nonetheless, who and what we vote for, and against, is vitally important.  We should be afraid, terribly afraid, of what will happen if the Republicans can claim a mandate for policies that increase economic inequality, hamstring the government from everything positive that it does to help people, denigrate women and deny the reality of climate change.

We’ve just seen one of the biggest storms in history inundate the East Coast.  We can expect more.  Although climate change was never mentioned in any of the debates, it is the overriding reality that will shape our future and that of our children and grandchildren.  We are already seeing its impact, in drought and floods, tornadoes and more frequent and powerful storms.

After Hurricane Katrina, I went down to New Orleans to volunteer.  I saw first-hand what happens when all the big systems—the government, FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross, were absent or mismanaged.  What was up and working was the smaller, self-organized groups like Common Ground Relief, with whom we volunteered, distributing food, setting up a clinic and offering medical care, organizing programs and projects long before the big systems were operating.  The experience deepened my faith in self-organization.

But it also showed me its limitations.  All of our best efforts were a tiny drop in the flood of need.  A hundred, a thousand Common Ground Reliefs could barely have begun to address the extent of the damage.  It required a larger system—a system which functioned in the way that government is supposed to function, with the massive resources and organization that could work on a large scale.

And in the months and years following the disaster, Common Ground Relief suffered its own organizational woes.  Some of its projects, like the clinic, continued and became ongoing institutions.  Many other projects fell short of their potential.

Today, Occupy Wall Street is providing relief in some of the areas of New York.  I salute them and honor their willingness to turn their energies and hard-learned organizing lessons to serve the immediate needs of those whom the big systems have neglected.

Yet there is a world of difference between the disaster response under Obama compared to that of the government-hating Republicans.  Romney has explicitly proposed dismantling FEMA and turning disaster relief over to the states and to private enterprise.  When we consider the prospect of Halliburton and its like profiteering on the pain and suffering of disaster victims in a world where  floods and hurricanes and tornadoes are bound to increase, we should tremble with fear.

And so I’ve voted for Obama.  I’m in California, a so-called ‘safe state’, and might have voted for Jill Stein, whose policies are much closer to my ideals. But I believe that it’s important that Obama win the popular vote, not just the electoral vote so that the mandate is clear—not for him as a person, but for policies which favor a government that actually works for the majority of people, not just the 1 per cent.  I voted for him not because I love him, or believe that he will make it all good, not even because I’d so much rather look at him for the next four years than the slickly-coiffed white guy.  I voted for him because I believe that he will move us more in the direction of what I truly want, and create conditions more favorable for all of us to organize, agitate, and ultimately transform this system into something far more just and fair, something that can inspire us.

Still need inspiration?  Consider the sixty years women struggled to get the right to vote.  Think of those suffragists on hunger strike, force-fed through tubes, lying in rat-infested prisons—they want you to vote!  Think of the civil rights workers in the South, risking their lives to register voters, think of the three who were murdered in 1964, Shwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  They want you to vote!  And think of how damn hard the Republicans are working to stop you and people like you from voting.  If they’re pulling out the stops to keep you away from the polling place, don’t make it easy for them!  If they don’t want you to vote, there must be a damn good reason for voting!

Check out Van Jone’s latest: “Don’t Just Vote!”  It has some great resources.


And for you Californians, even if you leave the slot for President blank, PLEASE get out there and vote for the incredibly important propositions—here’s my list:

YES on Prop 30—YES on taxing the rich to pay for our crumbling schools and other vital services, like firefighters!

NO on 31—would allow local governments to opt out of state programs, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation by special interests.

NO on 32—which would effectively cut union influence in elections while leaving corporations free to fund their favorites.

NO on 33—an auto insurance industry scam, essentially.

YES on 34—ending the unfair, racist death penalty (and saving us money!)

NO on 35—sounds good to punish human trafficking, but the relevant laws are already on the books and this could penalize sex workers.

YES on 36—rewriting the incredibly unfair three strikes law to let minor offenders out from a lifetime in prison!

YES on 37—YES, YES, YES on labeling genetically modified foods!  If you do nothing else, get out and vote for this.  Monsanto’s lies, spread by its big bucks, have eroded support for our right to know what’s in our food, and every vote counts!

YES on 39—Holds out of state corporations responsible for taxes on income they make in California.

Yes on 40—maintains our citizens redistricting boundaries.

8 comments to Elections 2012: Lessons from Katrina

  • Miki Landseadel-Sanders

    May I include all of your fervent plea to vote in a Facebook comment to a person who is wavering on the side of Jill Klein? Please let me know asap…clearly.

    • Yes, of course. If she’s in California, voting for Jill Stein is not necessarily a bad thing to do, and I might have gone that way if I were voting on election day and it was looking good for Obama overall. But I had to vote early, so that played into my decision, love Star

  • Jon Jackson

    Starhawk, seriously, Obama? Really? The Nobel Peace Prize laureate who expanded the wars into Yemen, Somalia, Libya? The constitutional law professor who hates habeas corpus and likes indefinite detention and extrajudicial assassination, even upon American citizens? Other presidents have assassinated enemies but I cannot recall until Obama one brazenly killing American citizens, unchallenged by Congress.

    Chris Hedges puts it much more eloquently than I do: Why I’m Voting Green

  • Sue Gee

    Well said. Here in Oregon it is the 100th anniversary of woman’s right to vote, today. It seems fitting to make sure that we honor all those women that worked so hard to make sure we have this right.

  • I’m don’t think winning the popular vote matters that much for president. (Ask Al Gore.) 😉 The Electoral College is all that matters in the end. (Messed up, but true.) So I truly believe that people in non-swing states (i.e., the vast majority of us) should feel free to vote our conscience. Both Jill Stein & Rocky Anderson are great options who both reflect my higher values. But in a swing state, I would never risk helping Romney win the presidency. I completely agree that he would be a disaster for humanity, the planet, & other living things.

    Thank you, Starhawk, once again. I’m also posting this to my FB page.

    I wish more progressive/radical activists understood the importance of combining efforts within this messed-up system with our necessary grassroots agitation outside the system. Too many seem to think that the importance of the latter negates the former. Much better to have potential allies within the system, however flawed, than continue to beat our heads against a brick wall that will never be influenced by our outside efforts. I greatly appreciate your calls for a balanced approach.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you Starhawk for you post today. I especially loved the line “I voted for him because I believe that he will move us more in the direction of what I truly want, and create conditions more favorable for all of us to organize, agitate, and ultimately transform this system into something far more just and fair, something that can inspire us.” So many I know poo-poo Obama because he hasn’t performed as they would like. And while I certainly would like to see more movement in some areas, I do believe that overall he has improved things and that he does come from a place of caring. It’s up to us to keep creating the changes – and while while most of us would like an overnight shift, organic growth is rarely so quick (unless you like earthquakes!)… Thanks again!

  • Very nice post and right to the point. I don’t know if this is really the best place to ask but do you guys have any ideea where to get some professional writers? Thanks 🙂

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