Photograph by Carlie Arnold
Separated at death: Ed Frey and skeleton crew, coming to a post office near you.
First Santa Cruz, Then the World
Ed Frey and his colleagues take to the streets for weekly 'o-rations and gy-rations' as part of an ambitious plan to hold politicians accountable to their constituents across the nation
By Bill Forman
Ed Frey is contemplating what might have happened, if only he'd gotten to work earlier. "If we had had this in place before March of 2004," says Frey, "the people could have said, 'Wait a minute! Hans Blix and the other fellows are doing their jobs in Iraq, they're not finding any weapons, there may not be any weapons. So just hold off, Mr. President!' We could have done that on television, with him across the table having to listen."
The item on Santa Cruz activist attorney Frey's To-Do List which is meant to accomplish that is nothing less than a 28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. While right-wing pundits (and even the occasional mainstream Democrat) push to ban everything from abortion to flag burning, Frey's amendment would require the president, vice president and members of Congress to face the nation--one citizen at a time--during public broadcasts to be held every 30 days.
Frey's "modest proposal" is a far cry from most contemporary politicians' "town hall meetings," where audiences of supposedly ordinary people may be carefully screened for their ability to lob softball questions that just happen to set up the politician's latest talking points. Instead, his "citizen-office holder dialogues" would be one-on-one dialogues, with the citizens chosen at random from among all volunteers.
Once chosen, a citizen could even opt to send in a ringer like--Frey picks the first name that comes into his head--Noam Chomsky.
Late last week, Frey sent a letter to John Cullerton, a state senator from Illinois who is not only close friends with Barack Obama but also happens to be Frey's brother-in-law. Frey asks Cullerton to pass the letter along to Obama in hopes of getting this "citizen-office holder dialogue injected into the 2008 federal and state elections."
Toward that end, Frey also lays out his current "plan of action" to test-market the concept--you guessed it--right here in Santa Cruz.
"We will start convening at the local post office every Sunday at noon, beginning the first Sunday in spring, March 25, 2007," explains Frey, who's hoping that communities across the country will be inspired to do the same. It's a "simple organizing technique," adds Frey. "Name a day, a time and a place that exists in every city, town and village in America."
Gang of Four
Frey isn't alone in pursuing his dream to feature two hours of speech, dialogue and music each Sunday outside Santa Cruz's downtown post office. His colleagues, whom he wistfully refers to as his board of directors, include Santa Cruz musician Henry "Rhythm Hawk" Harris, who spent his formative years in Arkansas sharing stages with groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy (and who will be personally performing at the event's launch). Harris and the collective's two other members, Denise Ostlund and Kelley Landaker, all grew up together in Santa Cruz's Chanticleer neighborhood.
The eldest among the group, Frey says it was his own childhood memories during World War II of lining up outside the post office for food rations ("for cooking oil, A rations, B rations. ... ") that eventually inspired the idea for the forthcoming "o-rations and gy-rations."
The o-rations, or speeches, will focus, according to Frey, "on the people's lack of political power and on the proposal to amend the constitution or other potential methods by which to get the voices of the people heard. The gy-rations and music will make for the kind of communal spirit and public celebrations whose passing Barbara Ehrenreich laments in her new book, Dancing in the Streets.
There was a time when the public shared the sacrifice, lining up together for their weekly supplies. And, as Ostlund notes, "everybody was rationed, not just the poor."
Of course, with today's "all volunteer" military, such sacrifices are more likely to fall on the disenfranchised. "We pay soldiers the same as the poverty level," says Landaker with a shake of his head. "We wouldn't want to give them any more than they were used to."
No Rules for Radicals
In Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, the "founding father of community organizing" argues that radical organizations inevitably lose their way in the quest to become self-perpetuating institutions.
"Right," says Frey, "and you build mailing lists, and volunteer lists, and contributions. We don't want any of that. We just say: across the whole country, meet Sunday at noon at the post office. That's the organizing. It's real simple."
In addition to its use as a public gathering place during some of America's most trying times, the institution also played a crucial role as a forum for free speech in our democracy's earliest days.
"It's the federal presence in every town and village," says Frey, who test-marketed a similar idea at the post office a few years ago. "In fact, when this country first started, the post office was the instrument of political dialogue, because they distributed and delivered political pamphlets and newspapers--postage-free!--to get things going, to get things like the Bill of Rights going. It was the post office, you know, it was a communication medium. So it's a good symbolic place to meet."
Interviewed late last week, the group had yet to obtain a permit to hold their event, though Frey insisted they have the right to hold it even if the city rules otherwise." "There's also that rule that's set out in the First Amendment," says Frey.
Ostlund hopes that local elected officials will want to take part in the Santa Cruz test-marketing of the citizen-politician dialogue by eventually bellying up to microphone themselves. "Maybe some brave souls among our politicians would like to be the first ones--before the amendment is passed--to come out there and stick their necks out."
Each week, would-be orators and musicians will be able to throw their names into the hat and be chosen at random for the following week's event.
So what happens if the person gets up there and wants to talk about the latest in fall shoe fashions?
The group suspects that, given the nature of our community, it's a safe bet that political issues will remain at the forefront. "This is Santa Cruz," says Ostlund. "How could it be otherwise?"
Kicking and Screaming
Gathering back copies of their proposed constitutional amendment, Frey grabs a pen and starts adding in a few small word changes he'd made earlier in the morning.
"We just got him a laptop the other day," says Landaker of the crusading counsel, who admits that he's being dragged "kicking and screaming into the 21st century."
While Frey has twice run for office in Santa Cruz--he got the Robert Anton Wilson Illuminati endorsement during his 1994 bid for district attorney--he insists he no longer has political aspirations himself. "I doubt whether I'll ever run for office again," he says.
Recalling a four-page publication called Sundaz that was "the rant rag of Santa Cruz for five years" back in the '70s, Landaker admits that "Ed and I are ranters, but the public dialogue amendment is more than a rant--it's a process change that is needed to get a minimum response from our government."
"What Ed and I have actually been doing for the last two years--besides being, you know, disgruntled--is talking about and analyzing the history of the United States," says Landaker, "and the fact that it was originally set up, as Cornel West says, as a corporate charter for slavery. And only around the top 20 percent could make any money. It was never, ever intended to expand beyond that, until in the '60s when there was civil rights, not just for blacks but everyone woke up and realized nobody has any civil rights! It took a while to realize that privileges are not the same as civil rights."
Meanwhile, less than 11 days out from their inaugural event, Frey's gang of four are contemplating a looming post office deadline.
"Hopefully we'll have a website together by then," muses Landaker.
"Well, I put one here in this letter you'll see," responds Frey, explaining that "there's an address we think we're going to be able to get; it's PublicDialogueAmendment.org."
Landaker agrees, untroubled by the prospect of a last-minute swoop from Rupert Murdoch.
"Yeah, nobody cares about competing for that one," he admits. (Frey and company subsequently switched over to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/PublicDialogueAmendment/.)
Worshipping False Idols
Let's escape, for the moment, from both past and present, and envision a future in which Frey's collective get their wish and we eventually find America's Top Model-Politicians squaring off with individual Voices of America, once a month on national television.
Will it get good ratings?
"That's a good question," says Landaker. "American Idol has 68 million people, and only 48 million voted in the last election So how do you compete with American Idol?
"Leave it to the gyrator!" laughs Harris.
And then, of course, there's always divine intervention.
"You're gonna find a little bit of religious talk in here," says Frey as he hands over his letter to Sen. Cullerton, "but there is absolutely no organized religion behind this movement."
So this isn't a stealth religious group?
"No way! I haven't been to church in 25 years," insists Frey.
"I only bring this up because Bush raised the issue of religion. He raised it first!" says Frey, sounding for a moment like one of the toy-gun-weilding children upon whom so many politicians appear to model their actions these days. "First of all, he said he was a Christian--of course you have to be to run for president--and then in the year 2000, before the first election, somebody asked him just a neutral question:
"'Who's your favorite political philosopher?'
"And he said, 'Jesus Christ'!"
"Are you sure he wasn't swearing?" jokes Ostlund.
The laughter subsiding, Frey continues: "And then in 2004 in his debate with Kerry, he said, 'I follow Christian principals in setting my policy.' OK, so we look all around the world and we see how much religion is playing in politics. Religion is playing a major role, probably one of the major roles in politics, along with commerce.
"So we gotta talk about religion," continues Frey, cruising into his rap with the fervor of a fundamentalist preacher. "We have to talk about it. So the religion I wanna talk about is the injunction to love your enemies.
"You've heard it said you should love your neighbors? No, no, you have to love your enemies!
"That's on page two," adds Ostlund.
"Yeah," smiles the activist attorney. "It's in the small print."
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