The first thing that strikes you when you listen to George Goehl’s voice is its bass timbre. It’s a large voice, deep, resonant. It’s a voice one can imagine belting out opera arias. The owner of such a voice, one divines, has heft. Perhaps he is even slightly corpulent.
But Goehl, the 43-year-old executive director of the direct-action organizing group National People’s Action (NPA), doesn’t fit that profile. Medium-height and rake-thin, his hair a mussed dark brown, skin creases just starting to stretch down from nose to mouth, skinny legs highlighted by tight blue jeans, he seems disconcertingly fragile. This apparent fragility makes his voice stand out all the more. Only his eyes, steely gray, unblinking, match the intensity. He looks, in many ways, like a young Mick Jagger. (Perhaps appropriately, he plays bluegrass on his banjo to relax.)
Goehl is as comfortable talking to small, informal gatherings as he is revving up large, agitated crowds. When he speaks, people describe him as compelling, even hypnotic. Des Moines activist Hugh Espey, who first met Goehl at an organizing event on foreclosures in Chicago, recalls that “he communicated electricity; he had everybody’s attention.” Goehl’s friend Ai-Jen Poo, who directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance and has emerged as one of the highest-profile organizers in the country, calls him a “visionary” with a stirring ability to explain to ordinary people the parameters of “the corporate takeover of our lives.”
When he starts talking about corporate power, Goehl can get mad as hell. He doesn’t like the fact that banks screwed millions of homeowners by hawking bad loans and then turned a portion of their “toxic” profits around by spending the money to buy ever more political influence. He doesn’t like the fact that the banks got bailed out by taxpayers without being required to modify large numbers of loans or work out ways to protect communities from tsunamis of foreclosures and evictions. And he doesn’t like the fact that in the worst economic crisis in more than three-quarters of a century, the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while services for the poor continue to deteriorate.
He’s not merely angry, though. Thinking big to tackle such deeply entrenched problems, Goehl continually urges transformative change even when there’s no easy way to finance or staff the campaigns. “He’s able to look over the horizon to where we need to get to, and he doesn’t just focus on what’s doable right now,” explains Stephen Lerner, a longtime union organizer with Justice for Janitors. There’s an optimism to Goehl’s politics, an inherent belief that if his ideas are good enough, a strategy will emerge to bring them to the fore.
It’s for that reason that NPA punches above its weight. The group has established affiliates in fourteen states, but it remains a small organization with a minuscule budget. Nevertheless, it has become a powerful force for economic justice in America. Since the calamitous events of 2008, Goehl has pushed the group to the forefront of national discussions about how to hold corporations accountable for the foreclosure crisis, how to regulate banks, how to restructure tax codes to promote fairness, how to put the long-term unemployed back to work. He hopes that NPA and other like-minded groups can serve as a necessary voice of conscience during Obama’s second term. “We do our values and quite likely do him [Obama] a favor if we hold him accountable,” explains Goehl. “Hopefully in a much different way than we did the last four years.”
* * *
George Goehl grew up in rural southern Indiana. In his teens, he moved to Bloomington, talented but alienated. He played a lot of basketball, pissed around enough to reduce his high school GPA to 1.8, and ended up homeless and eating meals at a soup kitchen. A friend of his killed himself and left a suicide note for George. As George recalls it, the friend told him, “You’re talented; do something.” It was a wakeup call.