Last weekend, Sharon and I joined the happy crew at the “Uncloaking the Kochs” event, which our friends at Common Cause, Anjuli Kronheim and Kathay Fang, had helped organize.
By now you know the story. Progressive activists, union organizers, and assorted lefties from throughout Southern California drove and were bused last Sunday to Rancho Mirage, the desert town near better-known Palm Springs, ultimately forming a spirited and rather well-mannered crowd of perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 protesters. Organized over several preceding weeks by Common Cause and sponsored by a number of other activist groups and publications — including our LA Progressive — the event was designed to place a withering spotlight on a four-day, invitation-only gathering of 200 wealthy, conservative business and political leaders organized by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Wichita, Kansas-based sons of John Birch Society founder Fred C. Koch.
The day started with a lively, overflow panel session moderated by Common Cause President Bob Edgar and featuring Van Jones from the Center for American Progress, UC Irvine Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Think Progress reporter Lee Feng, and DeAnn McEwen, Acting President of the California Nurses Association. (Common Cause’s new Chairman Robert Reich was slated to participate, but reportedly picked up a bug on a visit to the Galapagos.)
The protest itself began with speeches by Jim Hightower, Courage Campaign’s Rick Jacobs, and Bob Edgar, among others, after which the chanting crowd looked both ways and then surged across Bob Hope Drive to barricade the Rancho Los Palmas resort where the Koch brothers, their wives, and well-protected guests watched, no doubt with amusement and ill-conceived disdain. Ultimately, 25 willing protesters were taken away by the police, charged with misdemeanors, and released.
At first blush, the event was designed to protest the powerful sway the Koch brothers and their extraordinarily well-heeled cronies and political waterboys have on American politics and the lives of ordinary citizens. As former congressman Edgar wrote beforehand:
“Through those groups and others, the Kochs and their network seek to eliminate laws that give us breathable air and drinkable water but which have cost the Kochs millions of dollars in fines. They work to discredit the scientific consensus that pollutants from manufacturing operations maintained by Koch Industries and other firms — even with clean air laws in place – are dangerously warming our planet. And they sponsor public events aimed at defeating cap-and-trade legislation, which would make Koch Industries and other companies pay for the air pollution that they create.”
On a deeper level, the event was organized as an exercise in organizing.
Much was made at the morning panel session about how the Left is right on the issues and deeply passionate, but also forever underfunded and fragmented — as difficult to organize as herding stray cats, as the saying goes. By contrast, no matter how wrong the Right can be about issues that matter to most Americans, it is disciplined and backed by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers and their like.
It would seem that Common Cause wants to play a role in rectifying at least the organizational needs with its “Uncloaking the Kochs” event, which they clearly intended not as an end in itself — no one could really think the Kochs and their pals would be discomforted by a few long-in-the-tooth hippies capering in the street down below — but as the first of many such events.
“If anyone thinks herding cats is hard,” Hightower remarked more than once that day, “they’ve never tried a can opener.”
Perhaps Common Cause can be a kind of can opener in offering its resources as a clearinghouse for information about progressive causes and as an organizing agent to pull together like-minded individuals and organizations as it did last Sunday. The venerable organization wants to broaden its scope from the election reform issues that have occupied it in recent years, according to Edgar, and this was a good start.
But it’s hard to see just how real movement will happen. Years ago now it seems, Sharon, my daughter, and I participated in lively, well-attended anti-war marches to demand an end to the Iraq invasion, our long line of protesters winding through the streets of Old Pasadena with jaunty defiance and appreciative smiles at passing motorists who honked their support. But what has ended? The wars? The bombings and killings? The senseless deaths of our soldiers and marines? No, just the marches.
But Van Jones offered a bit of hope.
“The Tea Party was just a loose, fairly ridiculous collection of wachos until Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts,” he said. “That ‘triggering event’ gave them credibility and set them on their way. Then look what happened.”
Maybe. Certainly, Americans are angry. Not Tunis angry. Not Cairo angry. But angry and afraid. As Lee Feng remarked, “People on both the Left and the Right are mad at Big Government, mad at Big Business, mad at Wall Street — and that anger has to go somewhere.”
Rancho Mirage itself triggered nothing, not yet anyway. But maybe it does provide a blueprint for organizing, collaborating, and generally raising coordinated hell until our moment comes. Lord knows, Americans of all stripes need that moment.
Editor, LA Progressive