Guest Post - Starhawk - Elections 2012: Lessons from Katrina

by: EJ on 11/05/2012
Posted in: Guest Posts

In her last pre-election blog post, Starhawk shares who she is voting for and why.

“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, Federal Emergency Management Agency (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 ideas for getting people to the polls by making voting day a fun event for all .



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