Saturday, July 28, 2007

Local Issues are the Big Picture

--by Mike Adams

The morning of May 7th began in a rather jolting manner for me; I woke cursing the time and wishing for more sleep. I was immediately annoyed with my three children and their morning routine, which requires breakfast, attention, mediation and many other things, which are onerous demands to place on any person who has not yet had even one cup of coffee.

I was annoyed that my wife and I had failed to purchase groceries and my limited breakfast choices were quite unappealing. I checked my on-line fax account and discovered that a very important document had not arrived. Now I would have to appear for Jury Duty without a letter from my employer attesting to my essential presence at the job site.

I worried about losing two hundred dollars in wages and resented the idea of spending the day participating in a justice system which was so broken that our executive branch had successfully politicized several top federal prosecutors with impunity.

Rushing out of my house, I considered strategies to get myself excused from service and shook my head with annoyance at my predicament.

As I sat in the courtroom, I took in my surroundings, surprised by the contemporary office furniture instead of the polished wood and banisters I associate with court rooms. I noticed two framed documents hanging on the wall. Both were far enough away that I couldn’t decipher anything except the first few words, written in larger print. On the first document, I read the words, “We the People”. I knew from memory the rest of that short paragraph: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The second framed document started with four words “The Bill of Rights.” As the significance of these two documents slowly seeped into my heart and mind, I began to feel a glimmer of pride at being able to participate in an important democratic process.

In short order, the prosecutor and the defense began questioning prospective jurors. I experienced a shift in attitude when each prospective juror was asked whether or not they could maintain personal integrity in the event that after deliberation, they were the only juror to disagree on a verdict. A few weren’t sure how they would react and when I was asked, my own answer surprised me in its conviction: “I think that is paramount. Our legal system was designed to end unjust practices which had been imposed on millions of people in the years before our country was founded. I think it important that any juror stand true to convictions of guilt or innocence despite peer pressure. I certainly hope that anyone serving would feel the same.” At that point, I conceded to myself that I actually wanted to participate in the proceeding.

In retrospect, I believe that I wanted to assure myself that our system can work, that it can be just and that people do care. I was selected as a juror and, mostly, the experience of listening to testimony about field sobriety and blood alcohol tests was rather boring. However, during deliberation, when we all sat in a room and hashed out the facts in order to collectively determine guilt or innocence, I discovered that everyone else in the room was deeply concerned with maintaining the integrity of our justice system. One juror said “oh…I could easily find the defendant guilty of that…I’m glad I wasn’t on the road with him.” In response, another juror said, “The facts don’t prove guilt, I believe he is guilty, but our job is to assume innocence and let the facts prove guilt.” Again, we read the jury instructions and concluded that on that particular charge the verdict had to be not guilty. We held each other accountable to presuming innocence; we revisited the evidence and asked direction from the judge. It seems that each of us accepted and embraced the awesome duty of providing a fair trial. We maintained our integrity; we walked away with a sense of civic pride and we rendered a fair and impartial judgment.

How you might ask does this relate to local issues being the big picture? My answer is this: because actions we take on a local level can restore faith in our system, in each other and in ourselves. Every day, across this country, citizens serve as jurors. They hear cases against businesses accused of unfair economic practices, damage caused by pollution or unsafe working conditions, cases for domestic violence, cases for child abuse or neglect. On its most basic level, our justice system is composed of citizens like you and like me…Our justice system operates with whatever level of integrity we bring to it.

As with our justice system, many forms of civic policy are determined by our action or lack of action. In California, my wife became involved with a local issue regarding waterway restoration for salmon habitat. She spearheaded a group of concerned community members and scientists, who studied the issue. This group worked with the local government and citizenry to draft a proposal, which would meet the needs of the local environment and the local community, which seemed to be in opposition. The group was ultimately granted close to two hundred thousand dollars to proceed with its efforts and now, several years later, we were informed that for the first time in perhaps decades, endangered Coho salmon have been raised from hatchlings born in the creek and relocated in that waterway.

Other groups have convinced local governments to adopt Kyoto protocols. Local groups have stopped Wal-Mart from building in their community; others have halted local forest harvesting. Berkeley has passed legislation banning space based weapons from their airspace. Recently, several states debated legislation which would call for impeachment of federal executives.

On a local level, people can get involved and make a difference in their community. Those local changes may very well have repercussions which could be felt in Washington DC. Like so many people, I have often wanted to focus on the “Big Picture.” In 2004, I worked to send a pacifist candidate to the White House and while that sort of effort is important, it is no substitute for being involved in local causes. The nuts and bolts of any movement are composed of individual people working to make a difference where they live, work and play. It is frequently easy to get involved at a local level. The system of small local governments is starved for participants and whoever shows up to participate, has an immense impact on that local government.

Many months before being solicited by her local government water board to form and lead the committee on salmon habitat restoration, my wife, who has no special expertise in any relevant field, arrived on a sort of whim at the monthly meeting. She was carrying a diaper bag and my second step-son a babe in her arms. The room was virtually empty…there were a local non-resident landowner, the five elected Board members, two contractors slated to give reports, one or two environmentalists from neighboring communities and two men holding a tape recorder which made a disruptive clickety clacking sound. The most vocal people present by far were the men with the tape recorder who accused the Board members of every misdeed and form of corruptions short of poisoning the aquifer.

My wife still insists that she was selected to lead this influential committee simply because she showed up consistently, was polite, respectful and interested in the concerns and problems of the local board…but most importantly, she offered to be helpful.

If the vast majority of municipalities passed legislation to adopt the Kyoto protocols, would our federal government’s refusal to participate be as relevant as it is now? Often there seems a “disconnect” between elected officials and those they serve. A strong message being sent by citizens can turn a leader around. Remember Arnold Schwarznegger’s four pet ballot initiatives in 2005? Even “the Governator” could not fight against nurses, teachers and firefighters…all four of his initiatives were soundly defeated and he wasn’t heard from for a couple of years. Suddenly, this year, Mr. Schwarzenegger re-emerged into public view as a champion of environmentally friendly legislation.

Other benefits of local work are that seeing the fruits of our labor can leave us gratified and renewed. Ready for what ever work comes next. Local causes allow us to be of service to people we see, to influence people’s opinions through our actions and values. We have the opportunity to transform our communities, our neighbors and ourselves.

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