Voting for the First Time

Voting for the First Time

A conversation with Utah Phillips.


Utah Phillips is a folk singer who tours the United States, delighting audiences with his outlandish stories and challenging them with the ruthless honesty of his insights. A veteran of the US Army who served in Korea, he rode the trains for years after coming home in despair from what he’d witnessed overseas. He met Ammon Hennacy in Utah at the Joe Hill House for Transients and Migrants and discovered anarchy and pacifism.

These tenets have since shaped his life and work. Phillips and I live in the same Northern California town, Nevada City, where he was one of the founders of our thriving Peace Center of Nevada County. It was from the community radio station there that he produced Loafer’s Glory, a collection of stories, poems and songs set to the accompaniment of Woody Guthrie-influenced guitarist Mark Ross. And it was to that radio station he went in late September to share with his community an important political decision he’d made, which caused him great difficulty and pain.

You surprised many people who are familiar with your work with your announcement that you were going to register to vote for the first time ever.

This is not easy for me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve been an anarchist many, many years. The anarchy that I’ve followed and practiced all of that time came to me through Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, through Ammon Hennacy, the great Catholic anarchist and pacifist. Ammond taught me, as he did, to treat his body like a ballot. My body is my ballot. And he said, “Cast that body ballot on behalf of the people around you every day of your life, every day. And don’t let anybody ever tell you you haven’t voted.” You just didn’t assign responsibility to other people to do things. You accept responsibility and see to it that something gets done. That’s the way he lived and that’s the way the past forty, going on fifty, years that I have lived. It’s a way to vote without caving in to the civil authority I’m committed to dissolving.

But, we are in a desperate situation here. And it’s not just us in the United States. There are people all over the world who are affected by these people who have staged a coup on our government. I can see a shopkeeper in Damascus who’s threatened by being bombed out. I can see a schoolgirl who’s collaterally killed by the action of these people. There are millions of people in the world who are affected by the actions of this government, and they can’t vote in this election. I have no use for Kerry. I have no use for Bush. I don’t like either one of them, but these folks can’t vote in this election. They have to have people vote for them. And I intend to be one of those. What’s the best chance they’ve got to keep them from being bombed and killed? I don’t know. Kerry is an unknown quantity. Bush is a known quantity. A crapshoot, isn’t it? But I’m going to stand in for one of these people. And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong by myself.

When you made your announcement, you talked about women who have inspired and influenced your decision. Can you talk a little about that?

I learned a great deal from Judi Barry. I drove and talked with her the day before her car got blown up in Oakland in 1990. She had come around to the idea that direct action and political action are two hands of the same body. I think as an anarchist and when you keep company with other anarchists, as I have in the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, and this is my fiftieth year in the IWW, you develop a great antagonism toward the political process, toward statism in any form. However, many of us have come to realize that political action and direct action are two hands of the same body. We have to learn how to work together: the street and the ballot box. In places like Philadelphia or Boston, Massachusetts, when they put freedom in jail, when they put freedom of assembly and freedom of association and freedom of speech in a bullpen with razor wire around it, they put freedom in jail. In the bullpen on Pier 57 in New York, when my daughter [Morrigan Phillips] was jailed for trying to shut down Wall Street in an act of nonviolence civil disobedience.

They’re trying to tie that direct-action hand behind our back. If they succeed in that, how long will it be, how long are we going to hang on to the other hand, the political action hand? Every significant social movement in this country–anti-slavery, suffragette, labor movement, peace movement–all started on the street. All of them began on the street. Don’t give up the street. The street’s where we win. We vote with our feet. That’s where it all begins. Made a song about that. Bodhi Busick put a nice tune to it. No, I won’t give up the street. But in this instance, at this time, at this place, I think the situation is so dire that yes, I have registered to vote and I am prepared to stand in for one of the victims of the kind of brutality that the people in Washington bring to the world.

You’ve said that your choice to not vote, to not participate in the system in that way, is one of the most sacred promises you’ve made. I know what it means to you to make this decision. It’s sobering, because I think: Are things really that bad?

Yeah, it is that bad. Now, I am not putting myself forth as an example. I’m not putting myself forth as a role model. Anarchists don’t make rules for other people. You make rules for yourself and then people have got to learn how to trust you. And if you blow it you have the courage to change, and you do change and an anarchist is always something you’re becoming. I don’t need any congratulations for what I’m doing at all. I feel lousy about it. I don’t feel good about it all. I’m simply going to do it. And if there are consequences of my act, than I harvest those consequences. That too, is anarchy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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