By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
And so, 33 years later, last Thursday, while emceeing a rally on Day 5 of the Retaliation, I had a strong sense of continuity. The rally, held at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, starred Ralph Nader, who was making a stop on his “People Have the Power” grassroots-organizing tour. The event was originally supposed to have been about corporate domination generally, and about the energy crisis specifically, but the international situation intervened: Nader has evolved into an antiwar leader.
As a political satirist, my role was to provide comic relief. Comedy might be tragedy plus time, but in the middle of an intensifying tragedy that showed no signs of dissipating, I was apprehensive — both Vanity Faireditor Graydon Carter and Timemagazine contributor Roger Rosenblatt had already declared “the end of the age of irony,” and this rally marked the first time I’d performed since the attacks.
The audience, however, was enthusiastic. I introduced former stand-up comic and teacher Tom Ammiano, the openly gay president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Medea Benjamin, founder of the human-rights organization Global Exchange and Green Party candidate for U.S. senator from California in 2000. “What one word can sum up the real reason why we’re there?” she asked the audience. Three thousand voices shouted back in unison: “Oil!”
And then there was Nader, who noted that Bush’s campaign slogan, “I trust the â people, not the government,” reeks with irony. “Truth is the first casualty of a nation in crisis,” he said, stressing the importance of guarding our liberties. “Americans must be vigilant about attacks on civil liberties in the wake of the September 11 terrorism.”
Nader insisted that the “inhumane and criminal” terrorists be brought to justice, but advocated an end to the bombing. He posed a question to the audience: “How many of you, since September 11, have wanted to express an opinion that was something other than the thought-police stampede?” To all those who raised their hands, he advised, “If you feel yourself inhibited, that’s the moment to break out and make yourself known. Otherwise, your silence is allowing suppression of the Constitution.” The prolonged standing ovation Nader received was indicative of the burgeoning peace movement, with teach-ins at college campuses and, in effect, on the Internet.
A couple of hours before going on stage, I had watched George W. Bush’s press conference, and now, at the risk of committing comedic treason, I felt compelled to report my own version: “Bush explained that simultaneously dropping bombs and food on Afghanistan is just an example of compassionate conservatism,” I said. “He divulged that the ABM treaty had an expiration date in tiny print . . . and he pointed out that the United States gave $43 million to the Taliban because they’re a faith-based organization.”
I reminded the audience that ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts had been asked if there was any opposition to the war. “None that matters,” she replied. “Well,” I continued, “would you all care to join me in saying, ‘Fuck you, Cokie Roberts’ when I count three? Okay, one . . . two . . . three . . . ” And it came at me like an audio tidal wave — thousands of voices shouting in unison: “FUCK YOU, COKIE ROBERTS!!!” It was déjà vusupreme.
Goo and Gunk: A Toxic Tour
“Welcome to Asthma Town,” announces Gabriel, a 16-year-old with spiked hair and wispy sideburns. We’re in a bus on 57th Street, just off Pacific Boulevard, traversing the little nipple of Huntington Park that pokes north into the city of Vernon. “On your right,” Gabriel continues from his front-row seat, “you can see the school, Pacific Elementary. It’s a special-ed school that takes care of handicapped children from all of Southeast L.A. When we cross the street you’re going to see a factory: That’s Vernon. Huntington Park is where the houses are.”
Most of the 64 teens on the bus, almost all of them Latino, know exactly where they are. They live here. Here, or in the nearby cities of Bell, Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate (which recently won the dubious distinction of beating out Huntington Park’s Asthma Town in childhood asthma rates). They are spending a Saturday on the bus to learn about their other neighbors, the smokestack-sprouting, barbed-wire-wrapped factories that dot their communities more densely than backyard swimming pools do Beverly Hills. This is a “Toxic Tour” given by youth volunteers and organizers from Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental-justice group with offices a couple hundred yards away, above a liquor store in a grubby Huntington Park mini-mall.
The houses in front of us huddle together with their backs to Vernon, an endless landscape of cinder block and chainlink, truck yards and warehouses, bulbous chemical tanks and chimneys piercing the haze of the white morning sky. We drive down Slauson and into Maywood, where we pass children playing handball in the yard of Heliotrope Elementary School. At the end of the block, in a neighborhood of pale stucco homes, is a weed-strewn lot where a small square of green fencing hides an incinerator. It is, says Angelo Logan, a CBE youth organizer, busily transforming carcinogenic toluene — which, thanks to a roofing-tar plant that once occupied this site, fouls the ground water — into carcinogenic dioxins, which foul the air.