In the Trenches: An Interview with Members of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC)
By Jason Brown
On May 30, 2009, I met up with David Cobb and Megan Wade Antieau, two members of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC), a community-organizing workers collective based in California. Megan and David were speaking in Eugene, Oregon at a two-day conference on Peace and Collective Action. Visit their website at http://www.duhc.org and see their ad in this edition of the MW.
Jason: I’m here with Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. They have done some amazing work around democratizing local elections and challenging corporate power. They are featured in the documentary The Corporation as an example of a group directly challenging the illegitimate concept that a corporation is a “person” with constitutional rights. So would you guys tell us a little bit about DUHC and its mission?
Megan: We are a grass-roots organization that develops strategies and tactics to exercise democratic power over both corporations and government. Stated simply, we are non-violent revolutionaries dedicated to making the promise of democracy a reality in our local community. And we want to help other communities do the same thing. We started as a study group in the mid 1990s, and quickly learned that corporations are not merely exercising power, they are ruling us. We realized that if we were going to create the peaceful, just, sustainable and democratic society we wished to live in, we would need to work to make systemic changes in the social, legal and political institutions of this country. So we got to work!
David: I am struck by The Mormon Worker’s tagline, which is a quote from Joseph Smith— “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” This really mirrors our belief at Democracy Unlimited that people have the right and responsibility to organize society and to create the institutions that best meet our needs. And not just our basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, but also our need for art, spirituality, connection and community. At Democracy Unlimited we realize what I suspect readers of The Mormon Worker realize: we do not live in a functioning democracy in the United States. It is our task to educate, agitate, and organize. Not just to complain, but to experiment with strategies and tactics to help meet people’s tangible needs while also building the power necessary to shift our very culture. Jason: David, could you give us a few examples of why you say we do not live in a functioning democracy?
David: Democracy means “the People Rule.” The overwhelming majority of Americans want an end to the war in Iraq but the bombs continue to fall; the overwhelming majority of Americans want access to healthcare as a fundamental human right and yet it’s a commodity that’s bought and paid for at a profit; the overwhelming majority of Americans want clean air and clean water, yet toxins and poisons are spewed into our air and water and it’s legal to do so! The overwhelming majority of Americans want direct action taken to address the looming global climate crisis, yet none of the existing solutions are implemented because we the people do not have control over our own institutions.
Jason: Could you talk a little bit about your personal influences, both philosophical and tactical?
Megan: There are five members of our collective, and each one of us would answer that question pretty differently in terms of how our own experiences and what led us to be part of the work that we are doing. For example, five years ago I was an Evangelical Christian and very much involved in that community. I am no longer a part of that because I saw the need for change in our world and I was looking for the best way to do that and ended up with this group. It’s different for everyone. In terms of philosophical influence, Michel Foucault is a huge influence on me, meshed with anarchist thought.
Jason: In particular what attracts you to anarchist ideas?
Megan: I think an understanding of power as a relationship that can be changed and modified. Power is not just other people having power over you. Power is something that is shaped through many things, not just strength or size. Data is power. Language is power. Thought is power. We need to think and act in ways that create “power-with” relationships rather than “power-over” relationships.
Coming out of the Christian tradition I decided that the forms of authority embedded in traditional Christianity are not the types of authority that I believe in. I believe in the authority of the individual experience, I believe in the authority of communities; but I do not necessarily believe in the authority of ordained white men with lots of economic power to tell everybody else what to do.
David: The biggest influence on me and my politics was my mama. I was born out of wedlock and in grinding poverty. Yet from the instant I came into this world I was loved. My mama loved and cherished me. I knew from my earliest consciousness that there was a place in this world for me and that I was wanted. And I think everybody should experience that sense of belonging regardless of race, creed or nationality. It is a basic human right. So I want to give a Mormon Worker shout out to my mama as my biggest influence. As I consider my early childhood, I remember beginning to understand the teachings of Christ—love, compassion and tolerance—and I wanted those principles and values to be a core part of my life.
Jason: Are you just saying that because I’m Mormon?
David: [laughs] Jason, my grandfather was a Baptist preacher! I was raised in that tradition. But as I got older I became disgusted with the hypocrisy associated with most Christian churches. I am reminded of the time Mohandas Gandhi was asked about Christianity, he said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Megan: [laughing] Well, I have received a greater amount of compassion from Christians than perhaps David has.
David: In terms of philosophers, I am also inspired by anarchist thought. To me the core value of anarchism is not around the tactical: are Anarcho-primitivists better than syndicalists, or is the I.W.W. relevant today or not, for example. I profess anarchist sensibilities because I am opposed to oppression and compulsion. I don’t think that we can create the kind of world that I want to live in by imposing it on anybody; we have got to create the circumstances and the conditions to allow genuine liberation.
Jason: Could you talk a little bit about the successes DUHC has had?
Megan: We have several core issues that we are doing education on all the time. We have a number of projects that we are involved with in the community. We have a few economic democracy projects which includes a Community Currency called The Humboldt Exchange. Our Independent Business Alliance is a very recent success; we have been able to publish a guide with over 600 local, independent businesses. People are learning how important it is to help to build a thriving local economy.
I think our greatest program at the moment is our Food and Democracy program, which is meeting a very basic need by connecting consumers and farmers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Another exciting new project that embodies the concept of shifting culture is the Honor Tax. We are based in Humboldt County California, which is traditional Wiyot Indian land. That land was stolen through an intentional and blatant policy of brutal genocide. As an organization, Democracy Unlimited is paying a voluntary Honor Tax directly to the Wiyot tribal leadership. And we are inviting other organizations, individuals and businesses to join us in recognizing the sovereignty of the Wiyot people, by choosing how much and how frequently you pay to recognize their sovereignty and to shift the conversation about native peoples in our society. This provides us with the beginnings of an honest conversation that must take place if there is ever going to be healing and reconciliation.
These projects are attempts to build alternative systems and structures, in addition to the more traditional activist work like direct action or working for laws that stop immediate harm to our community. We need to be doing that and also to be building alternative systems so that we are not always on the defensive. We need to be actively creating the world we want right here, right now.
In order to do that we also need to be teaching one another how to run those systems. In other words, we need to be teaching and learning the arts and skills of democratic decision-making. So we are resisting, we are building alternative systems, we are teaching organizing skills and we are doing general education. Our entire philosophy is intended to shift our culture so that people are not only participating in the alternate systems, but are also learning and experiencing a different perspective, one based on cooperation and collaboration rather than domination and abuse.
David: I would also like to describe our work with the County General Plan, which is the basic blueprint for land use issues. Under California law, every twenty years there has to be an update of the County General Plan. It is usually a pretty boring process, and radicals and social change agents usually don’t get involved. But at Democracy Unlimited we are bringing our unabashedly radical social justice perspective into the process. We want to make sure that we protect our timber and agricultural land; we want to make sure that affordable housing is part of the conversation, and we want to prevent urban sprawl.
We are working with more traditional liberal-oriented environmental groups in a very cooperative and collaborative process. We are also trying to push some of these groups outside of their typical comfort level. Basically, it’s just good old fashioned grassroots organizing coupled with DUHC’s radical analysis. And we are using the General Plan update as an opportunity to do this.
Jason: Lastly I want to continue talking about the politics of the spirit, or the spirit of politics and the role of spirituality in this moving forward of these principles.
David: The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” I believe that. I think that the reason so many people are cynical or apathetic about politics is because they have not had the experience of being part of a beloved community and cannot even imagine what it might look or feel like.
At Democracy Unlimited we are not a faith-based group, but the desire to create the beloved community is the reason that I do what I do. Now, I am not looking for a pat on the head from you or the readers of The Mormon Worker, but I quit a successful law practice in order to dedicate myself to this project.
The effort to create the beloved community is the great human task. It is the great work, and that’s what we are striving to do at Democracy Unlimited. So we invite your readers to contact us. Let’s work together to create the world we want and deserve. Let’s create the beloved community together!