a trip in the way-back machine

Raise your hand if you were of voting age in 1994. Everyone else, you may want a peek into a history book before reading this post.

For those of us who remember 1994, let me set the stage for you. Clinton's health care scheme had gone down in flames, but many of us still thought we could have a shot at doing decent things through his Administration. "Here Come the Hotstepper" topped the charts. Forrest Gump made a katrillion dollars. Arkansas won the NCAA championship. OJ got arrested, after his infamous Ride of the White Bronco.

In 1994, I was 26 years old, and I ran a sizable door-knocking operation for a progressive non-profit organization in California. About three months before the election, our organization's PAC donated staff (including landisdad) to a variety of Congressional campaigns. We recruited tons of our members to volunteer. Our whole staff took the day off on Election Day to volunteer for political campaigns–some working to oppose Prop. 187, some supporting various Congressional candidates, some on local ballot measures.

And we lost. Everything. The Gingrich revolution swept the land, and the forces of tyranny and repression that continue today were victorious.

The day after Election Day, nearly my entire staff called out of work, but I knew that I couldn't. I knew that I was going to have to go in and do some version of the anger, hope and a plan rap to get people riled up, but I had no idea what I would say, or how I would motivate my staff when I was so incredibly depressed and angry myself. I got to my office, and I commiserated with the director, and some of the other senior managers of the organization about how awful I felt, and how none of us knew what to say. We were standing in the financial office, when suddenly we heard chanting coming up the street.

I looked out the window, and I saw a stream of high school students, filling Mission Boulevard. Kids who had walked out of school to protest against the 187 vote, because they hadn't been able to vote, hadn't been able to have their voices heard about who deserved to go to school or get health care. In the days before widespread cell phone use, these kids had organized with pagers, and passing notes, to simultaneously walk out of high schools all over the city.

It gave me hope.

It gave me something to tell my staff–that they, who were adults (although we were all so blisteringly young–some of my staff had just voted in their very first elections) couldn't lose faith, when those students hadn't lost faith, that something they did, that we did, could make a difference.

I've thought of those kids often, over my organizing career. They have inspired me, when I needed inspiration.

I've been thinking of them recently, with the student walkouts that are going on all over the country against the Sensenbrenner bill and supporting comprehensive immigration reform. I posted last month about un dia sin–a day without an immigrant–and since then, there have been massive demonstrations in cities around the country on this issue. Next Monday, when I join millions of Americans at rallies supporting the right of undocumented workers to earn citizenship in this country, I'll be thinking of them again.


April 6, 2006. politically motivated.


  1. Becca replied:

    You know what’s weird? I do not remember the 1994 election at all. And I was in California too. Now I could go on and on about 1984, when I was so immersed in the congressional district where I was coordinating volunteers that I actually thought Mondale could win… And I could talk about 1992 when we actually believed that when Clinton became president, things would change. We really did, or at least we pretended we did. I remember walking home from a bar talking about how when Clinton was president there would be peace and justice and health care and cute clothes for everyone and free drinks…

    The immigrant rallies are so cool, especially the kids.

  2. Craig Curtis replied:

    I must add a brief comment here, not pertinent, but en pointe.
    I worked for a NPO serving African Americans Who Were Homeless With HIV/AIDS. Part of the problem? That was out TARGET POPULATION. It was several years after your story, and we had a drop in center. At 6:30AM the phone started in. And I do NOT like to be bothered when I have another full hour to sleep. Finally, I tossed on a robe, made a quick bloody mary, and answered the goddam pest.
    “What? This better be important.” I clinged the ice around all full of myself…drinking before 8.
    “Craig? It’s Arvella. Have you seen what is happening on TV?” I put the drink down. This was my BOSS calling.
    “No. I hate Katie Couric before 9.”
    September 11.
    “Should we open today?”
    “Are we handing out weenies and beer?” I asked. “Hell the fuck no!”
    “But don’t you think somebody will come in and want to see what’s going on in the drop in center (which had a TV, so I knew where this was going).
    I called half the staff. She called the other.
    No one, not a single soul without a place to go came in that day. Most of the staff sat and ate Egg McMuffins, drank cheap coffee, WAITING for one of the suits to come on and say, “I FEEL YOUR PAIN.” But those days were over.
    A new regime was in place.

  3. chichimama replied:

    Students are amazing. I was at my most active politically before i could vote. I think it WAS because it was the only way to make my voice heard. Well, that and I went to an outrageously liberal private school and holding protests was cool, and generally an acceptable excuse to be a few days late with a paper as long as you framed the argument well and executed with style…

  4. chip replied:

    those marches have been truly inspiring. And you know they are effective because of the way they’re being denounced by the wingnuts!

  5. MetroDad replied:

    As always, we’d be much better off as a nation if we followed the hearts and passion of the children. What the heck happens to people as they become adults?

  6. Jessica replied:

    What a beautifully written and powerful post….I love the idea of those kids and how you have thought of them so often. It appears as though their efforts continue marching on.

  7. jackie replied:

    Love this post, especially as I was 16 in 1994 and a very politically apathetic 16 at that. I love watching all the student protests and dreaming that someday my girls will be in them, or better yet– that there will be much less to protest by the time they reach 16.

  8. Anjali replied:

    I got chills reading this post. I remember that year well. It ranks as my second worst political memory, with the first being when Bush beat Gore.

  9. HeatherJ replied:

    As metrodad said, what happens to us as we get older, how do we become so apathetic? I too seemed to be much more politically involved when I was younger.

  10. brettdl replied:

    There is another side to these student rallies. School systems around the nation are tyring to penalize these kids for exercising free speech. I think parents are going to have to speak up on behalf of these kids to protect them from overzealous administrators and superintendents.

    That said, you would be proud of the protests in downtown Los Angeles. During one of them, I couldn’t get to work, which is right next to City Hall, for hours

  11. Comfort Addict replied:

    I love to see political action in these days of cynicism. It is the life blood of our government.

  12. mixednuts replied:

    I saw a National Geographic Feature about how people from countries like Honduras cross the border. It made me sad. They get robbed, killed, pushed off trains, hunted like a pack of dogs. That documentary also mentioned that annually, social security receives $11 billion from undocumented workers who don’t have a hope of claiming the benefits due to them.

  13. Ty replied:

    OMG!!! I was in high school at the time. I protested on Mission Boulevard. Where are you from???

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