We Can’t Hear

I arrived at the house of a family friend early in the morning- a Lobbyist Nun with a devotion to social justice. The Sister started and continues her social justice career visiting prisoners with a guitar and communion in between regular visits to the Capitol building to lobby for immigrants and the poor. We drove together to the Kansas People’s Agenda together in the Kansas Capitol in Topeka: the People’s Voice to the People’s House.

The People’s Agenda opens with a spoken word poet.

“You sit in your offices while we fight your wars.”

Enter the Rabbi, enter the Reverend. “All injustices are interconnected. This is a movement, not a moment.”

An Elder from the Potawatomi Nation and Vietnam Veteran approaches the microphone next, and introduces the following speaker with a prayer. He wears a flannel shirt, he has a quiet voice, and wrinkles across his face that tell stories.

“WE CAN’T HEAR!! CAN’T HEAR!” Non-natives from the back of the room shout at the man while he is praying. They realize a little too late that this is poor form, but the elder merely looks back at them, continuing through with his prayer and calmly ignoring their commands. The people in the rally grow quieter, and the speaker can be heard now.

“I like that he calls god, ‘grandfather,’” the Sister whispers next to me.

After the prayer, he quietly welcomes a Potawatomi woman to the stage. This woman has no problem speaking loud and clear, and maybe some people in the crowd wish she wasn’t quite as vocal once she starts laying it all out.

“I remember a time when immigrants were called ‘boat people.’ Maybe I’m aging myself. But I would like to remind everyone in this room that you are all ‘boat people.’ Native, Indigenous, whatever it is that you would now like to call us, we Native Indians are a cultured people. No other people in the world exist with three citizenships, have to prove with the blood in their veins that they belong to their people, adhere to many laws so that we can practice our worship, so offended by other cultures that we had our beliefs and our religion beat out of us, the Indian Child Welfare Act that was meant to protect us but continues to hurt us, police and state troopers constantly on our reservation, harming people left and right. That’s what we live under. We should be beyond that.

“I’d like to remind everyone that, just north of the Capitol is our Potawatomi reservation. I bet you didn’t know that. I’d like to remind everyone here though, I feel somewhat humbled that we are all standing on Indian land. But when I say that, when we assert ourselves, we are seen as savages. As crazy people.

“Our culture believes in color, our culture is rich. Yet we are on the bottom of the totem pole. Bottom of the totem pole with the priorities of the government, the people of the country, and the bottom of the totem pole with the media. Our struggles are not reported. We have the highest rate of poverty, violence, abuse, highest rates of any data you want to throw at us. Yet, we are considered over zealous for respecting our people and our land and being concerned about the laws that affect us. We used to have an Indian desk with the Kansas legislature. It’s gone. Pushed out. I guarantee you though, there will be efforts to restart that. But we need you to support us.”

“Isn’t this exciting?” Lobbyist women behind me whisper. “Grassroots organizing! This is the most exciting thing I’ve done since ‘69!”

Halfway through the People’s rally, Sister and I visited the House of Representatives chamber. Walking in, the Sister introduced me to two men, who each knew my long lost relatives out in Western Kansas. The balcony has such small seats- it’s almost like they were designed to make you feel uncomfortable. While the Representatives below had cushy big chairs, you were squeezed in a wooden pew that was too shallow of space to even cross your legs. The House adjourned ten minutes later than the starting time on the agenda.

*GAVEL, GAVEL

“Shall we pray?”

The Chaplain came up to the speaker phone and encouraged the legislators, before God and Jesus Christ, to make good decisions today.

“In Jesus Christ’s name we pray, Amen.”

We all stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance, crossed our hands over our hearts, and then the legislative session began.

Back at the rally, “We the people of Kansas , the supreme governing body, do so demand:

Economic Justice, Equitable Public Education, Healthcare Access, Racial and Indigenous Justice, Environmental Stewardship and Sustainable Agriculture, Voting Rights, Gender Equity, Religious Freedom, LGBT Rights, Responsible Gun Policy, Immigrant Rights, Criminal Justice Reform, Anti-Corruption Reform, Disability Rights, Infrastructure Investment, Child Protections. We demand progress and equity in opportunity and outcome in all measures of human life, right and dignity. We demand. May it be so.”

“We realize that all our you may not be behind every single one of the issues stated on our agenda, but it so important that you get behind the group message, because regardless of difference of opinion on certain issues, we all move forward when we work together.”

Creed, an old friend from my time at Sunflower House Co-op in Lawrence, walked past me then. He slapped my on the back and said, “Annie, how you doing?” It has been about 4 years since we all lived in that radical hippie Co-op together, and I’m happy to see that both of us are still continuing on the tradition.

Sister and I stopped by Governor Brownback’s office to pick up information about the MLK march the next day. I met many lobbyists paying for their rent and weekly groceries by advocating for a spectrum of issues. They realized the interconnectivity of issues, but advocated for one issue specifically so that their voice could be stronger and more informed on specifics. I was pretty intimidated by it all, and felt insecure about my lack of money or social clout in comparison. A weird feeling that I haven’t felt since high school.

“We want to build communities, not prisons!” The next speaker cried from the rally in the center of the Capitol building. “The legislators are complaining. Can we make some more noise?”

The rally had arranged for a full array of singers and musicians to perform throughout the rally, but apparently when they arrived that morning, they were told by Capitol staff that they were only allowed to play music between 12-1, so as not to interrupt the legislators. Regardless, People’s Agenda starting singing around 11:40. A casual finger to the regulations.

“We will rise as one, we will fight as one, we will sing as one…” The performers at the front grabbed hands and raised their arms together. Some of the crowd did it, but it was all kind of awkward to be holding an old hippie themed rally in a suit and tie building. They were unable to mobilize the people of the rally. The rally ended without a great commotion at the end, and participants were encouraged to stay for the afternoon, and speak with their district representatives and sit in on legislative meetings.

I wrapped my Keffiyeh around my neck, and headed out the Capitol doors and into the January Topeka streets. As I was walking out, I comforted myself with the idea that government is designed to be dry and monotone so that all the activists and artists with the shit stomping combat boots, faux hawks and Keffiyeh solidarity will stay out. Even with all the self soothing and distancing myself from the legislature, I still felt pretty low about myself. I knew I wanted to understand government, but it all seemed to go over my head this morning, so I wanted to run. I didn’t want to deal with people in suits, people who shook your hand like they were swiping their credit card for a purchase. So I pulled up into the only cafe in sight, and wrote.

No matter where I go in the world, I can always find refuge if only I can locate a cafe or restaurant that serves hot coffee, or cold beer. This cafe had both, but it was also full of legislators and lobbyists.

To my left were two women discussing politics and legislature: “Small businesses… corporation… looks better to have… majority leader… regulations…” They were both eating salad, and both had dyed hair and bright outfits.

I penned in my journal, “A shame to see them in the flesh and blood, making deals and planning strategy, drinking coffee out of paper cups with the common people like me. They have such AGENDAS and such an excitement and fear of life that it’s exhausting to watch.”

I had the feeling of absolute loneliness that a traveler gets. It wasn’t for lack of being around people- but it was for feeling invisible, weak and optionless. Embarrassed and upset by those with opinions, probably because I want to be the person with the opinion. And spending a  day in a building that doesn’t allow hot drinks through its doors. Where am I at? A feeling of complete inadequacy in understanding the world and the people within it. A feeling that my causes are mere nothingness compared to all these real lobbyists and activists who get to do it full time with a budget. I felt like a tiny fish in a big, boring ocean of suits and ties. Give me back the first speaker from the rally, ‘Let me remind you all that we are standing on Indian Land.’”

I wrote about how I feel like I am doing my best in my own way, and social work with refugee resettlement and domestic violence shelters made me feel like I was helping to change the world, one smile at a time. But when I pop my head above water, and see players who are really moving numbers and figures around and changing the facts of our life underwater, I see that I am still just a band aid. And all of this chaos that goes on in the legislature and executive branch is not necessarily done by individual evil doers either- but by the culture that supports them, that allows them. It makes me feel that all the moments I’ve had my eyes opened by others, and had the chance to help open others eyes as well, means nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s money and influence that talks. And the People’s Agenda Rally almost seems like a dying cry from the neutered animal, and I wonder if that’s how the legislators see it.

With my notebook open at the cafe, I feel better. I should not compare myself to a politician, and I should also not just resign myself to being a social worker. I am a writer, and I am going to share what I see. And that is my one little bit I can contribute to the world.

I thought about what I had experienced this morning- a seeming clash between hand knitted sweaters and high profile suits, shiny sterile floor existing alongside unwashed hands of hippies who don’t believe in soap, bad microphones along with ‘60s protest songs, right in the Heartland of America in the dawn of 2017.

Was there going to be a lot of change? Were the suits and hand knitted sweaters ever going to learn to work together to find solutions? It was the strangest protest rally I’ve ever been to in my life. Toned down with the formality of the Capitol building dress and etiquette, yet trying to tune it up with rallying cries from the ‘60s and radical politics from 2017 spoken.

Waking me from my reflection, the man to my left at the cafe sighed heavily and grunted in repetition for the next few minutes. I made a face and moved away to another table, making no effort to hide my disgust at his human noises.

Walking back into the Capitol, I see all the people from the rally in new eyes. I guess I just needed to get over my own insecurities and write them all out. Because I see the people of the world in the Capitol today, the people of the world represented in all shapes and colors and genders and sexual orientations and abilities. I see these people, and I fall in love. These are the people I love, and if you want to learn the legislation, you don’t do it for love of semantics. You do it for love of the people. I want to help in growing a healthy and diverse community with the world. I want to participate. When we lose focus, it’s important to realize that it might be our own insecurities influencing this. I think the same goes for all the Trump supporters. I don’t believe they are evil people, I think they are insecure and are scared of the people of the world because they don’t have enough confidence in their own ability to be.

That being said, I don’t think we should coddle the conservatives of America. I think we should understand that their insecurities influence their political beliefs, and attempt to humanize them more by realizing that we all have insecurities. Mine happen to be germs, and that doesn’t have so much to do with domestic or international policy, as thus I am free to be an uninhibited, “love is the answer” free spirit hippie in terms of politics. But those who are scared of those outside of themselves, probably because they don’t truly know themselves, fall into a hateful, fearful political trap.

What to do with this?

Well, I guess we all have to accept the task of tackling our own personal demons. Some people’s demons are affecting policy on a large level, and that is not okay. It’s not okay for us to be fearful, let us all be free from fear. Let us take the time to understand ourselves and our current limitations, and thus understand the world and its possibilities for growth.  

Returning from the cafe and walking through security in the Capitol I am greeted by another rally taking place. This one is much smaller, and the demographics are much different. Instead of tattoos and handknitted sweaters, this group is made up of sunglasses, blue jeans, sun beat cheeks, bandanas, red patriotic shirts and 99.9% white skin and big burly beards with references to the Constitution and the Star Spangled Banner. It was the gun lobby. A weird juxtaposition for the day.

I found Sister in the Kansas Library, and then we went to see the Kansas Senate in action. We found solidarity with other progressives sitting in the balcony with us: piercings and blue jean jackets and an air of protests over politics. Soonafter, we left the Capitol, and headed back to Kansas City together.

I spoke with Sister on the way back, and asked questions as she navigated I-70. She told me that she thought that there were a lot of people who started out in the legislature with good intentions, but were then seduced by power and prestige.

We listened to NPR for the rest of the ride home, hearing newscasters detailing the new American life of impending Fascism with our new President-Elect.

I told Sister how I was initially intimidated all morning at the Capitol as she was introducing me to all of her Lobbyist friends, but by the afternoon I had warmed up a lot more and realized that I had a place there as well. All Americans did.

We talked about politicians manipulating people, and the idea of each person putting effort into a few issues they care about, because no one can know it all. She told me that there are people who know certain issues really well, so one of the biggest things to learn is who to trust in politics. I told Sister about how I had learned some things about myself today- I was out of my environment at the Capitol, and was insecure. I realized when I pushed past that insecurity though, the space became more comfortable, and even familiar. I learned that smiling at the strangers that you meet is important, but policy is also important and affects many. I’d learned I needed to look where my interest and my fear lay, and to learn and grow through it.

The Sister and I had gone to Brownback’s Budget meeting first thing that morning, and I told her during the car ride that it was way over my head, and I had no idea what was going on. The Sister replied by telling me that “most of the legislators were on the same page as you, I’m sure. They have to know who to trust as experts on those issues as well.”

I asked the Sister about running for office, and she said that not everyone was born to do it. Some people worked best behind the scenes, but also behind the scenes could be a place to cower as well. She said you didn’t always have to have a microphone in your hand, or constituents to speak for, but we all do have a responsibility to be a citizen and pay attention.

“Democracy is fragile, it won’t make it if the money takes over. You have to have hope. I believe God turned Jesus’ corporal death into a resurrection. That doesn’t mean I don’t get fearful and tired, but I have to stay at it for the sake of the children of the world.”

 

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2 thoughts on “We Can’t Hear

  1. I loved reading this account for its honest reflection of what it feels like to be “one of the People” looking into a process that often barricades us, separates us and humiliates us. As she reckons with how ordinary folks can have a voice in the political system, Annie takes us through those layers of empathy, curiosity, identify, repugnance for power, shame and then exhilaration, cooled by peace and reflection in one day at the State House. Marvelous! Keep writing, Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

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