Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as "Anchorage" broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, "We just didn't know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn't know if you all were going to show up. But I think it's been an unqualified success."
Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation's populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Texas populist Jim Hightower's plan to "put the party back into politics" with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower's friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."
But the organizers need not have worried. The masses were ready for this movement.
"This is just what a lot of us have been waiting for -- the call to action," said Cate Read, an airline industry analyst who watched from her Houston office as employees from the nearby Enron building carried their belongings out of the collapsed corporation's headquarters. "People are ready to start making some noise about what's been going on in this country. The media makes it sound like everyone's for everything George W. Bush does and that is just not the case -- not even in Texas."
By the time filmmaker and author Michael Moore arrived at mid-day, to the foot-stomping, fist-pumping and cheers of close to 7,000 rebels against the consensus, this corner of Texas was definitely not Bush country.
"Where are we? In a barn?" Moore yelled over the roar of the crowd that had packed into what was, indeed, the Travis County Exposition Center's horse and hog showbarn. Clearly delighted, the most populist of popular entertainers let rip with an assault on the suggestion that dissent is no longer appropriate in post-September 11 America.
"Let me tell you something about the (president's) 80 percent approval rating..." bellowed the author of the nation's No. 1 best-seller, "Stupid White Men." "It's bullshit" came the yell from a fellow in a cowboy hat. "That's right," responded Moore, "it's bullshit."
Echoing the slogan emblazoned on stickers many at the event wore, Moore declared, "We are the majority in this country." For the last six months, he argued, we've been told 'watch what you say,' 'don't dissent,' 'don't question the leader.' Let me tell you something: There is nothing more American than asking these questions."
If there was a theme for the day, it may well have been that dissent is back in fashion. Hip-hop, Tejano, rhythm & blues and folk performers including MC Overlord, Ruben Ramos, Marcia Ball and Shocked flavored their shows with rebel yells, performance artists played the Enron scandal for laughs, game booths allowed kids to toss a ball and knock down a nuclear missile. Workshops took on everything from radioactive waste to
genetically-modified food, from militarism to racial profiling, from corporate excess to the "selected-not-elected" presidency of a former Austin resident named Bush. Columnist Molly Ivins got people all worked up.
Everyone got into the act, even Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the country at age 90 to raise the issue of campaign finance reform and who, at 92, is madder than ever about special-interest influence on government. "I have 16 great-grandchildren," she said, to chants of "Go Granny D." "I want them brought up in a democracy, not a fascist state -- which this country is fast becoming."
Between Granny D and Marcia Ball's rhythm and blues show, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill, delivered the day's most passionate address. "We come to this Chautauqua because Dr. King was right: America has issued a promisory note and it has come back marked insufficient funds," boomed Jackson, recalling the sudden shift in attitudes about federal spending last fall. "On September 10, we were told there was not enough money for Social Security. But on September 12 or thereabouts, there was $40 billion to finda cave man in Afghanistan -- and we haven't found him yet."
To rising applause from an audience that stayed into the fast-cooling Texas night to hear him, Jackson recounted the $95 billion in new military and corporate-welfare spending that has been authorized since the September 11 attacks.
"We come to this Chautuaqua because 53 million children trapped in separate and not equal schools, and 45 million Americans without health insurance, deserve the same (level of) national response that bin Laden got," boomed Jackson, as he called for a restructuring of national priorities that recognizes a need not just for security against attack from abroad but also for security from hunger, illness and neglect at home.
"My friends, I don't know how to make the Democratic party better and I don't know how to make the Republican party better," Jackson concluded, as tour organizers were already preparing for Chautauqua events in Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities. "So let us move forward from this Chautauqua not to make the parties better but to make the union better and more perfect for all."