I am marching
Union members and others walk 365 miles up the state to urge new thinking on California’s budget mess
Thousands of protesters, many of them bused in from around the state, joined the March for California’s Future last week as it made its way from Sacramento’s Southside Park to the Capitol building, 48 days and 365 miles after its core group began walking from Bakersfield on March 5. They congregated, huddled in the muddy park under green-and-white-striped umbrellas to protect themselves from a late-season storm. Then they made their way north on Sixth, west on T, north again on Fifth and finally east along the Capitol Mall, the glorious domed Capitol building growing ever larger as they got nearer.
Out of the speakers on the flatbed truck leading the marchers through downtown Sacramento blared “California Dreamin’,” “Hard Workin’ Man,” “I Feel Good,” “Dancing in the Street.” The lead walkers, all wearing “I am marching” T-shirts, obliged. As their entourage snaked its way into the Capitol Park, they literally danced the last few meters of their trek.
For a few hours along the west side of the Capitol, as afternoon gave way to evening and rain clouds ceded the sky to sun, the crowd, perhaps 5,000-strong, chanted and sang, held up banners and passed out fliers. They were there to urge the state’s voters and political leaders to do two things: end the requirements that two-thirds of legislators have to approve the state budget and any tax increases, and, by extension, work out a way to properly fund the state’s collapsing public-education system—a system that has lost roughly $18 billion over the past several years—as well as to shore up other vital and at-risk social services. Union leaders addressed the gathering; students talked; marchers made their final fiery speeches.
This is, after all, the season of California’s discontent.
From the right, tea party activists congregate at the Capitol and elsewhere to protest taxes and call for the ever-greater shrinkage of government services. Playing to a deep-rooted anti-tax sentiment and the public’s sense of economic insecurity in a time of historically high unemployment, all the major gubernatorial candidates have pledged not to increase Californians’ tax burden. But that promise comes with a cost: Lower government revenues imply less money available for education, public safety, environmental programs and a host of other public benefits. And so, from the opposite side of the spectrum, progressives, trade unions, parents’ groups and others have begun calling for higher taxes on the wealthy as a way to avoid huge public-sector cuts.
In this era of austerity, tax-and-budget models have become something more than a technocratic, wonkish sideshow. In play are drastically different visions of what a post-financial-implosion California ought to look like.
“This is not the end of our march for California’s future,” Doug Moore, head of the United Domestic Workers Association, and one of the march’s most involved supporters, shouted from the podium. “It’s the beginning of a movement. We have people power. We are here today to send a message to the people of California: ‘Open your eyes! Look at what is happening to public education.’”
While the march began mainly as a way to draw attention to the inequities of a system that requires the two-thirds vote, over the weeks, it evolved into something more. The marchers and their supporters wound up laying down a program of action to save a cash-strapped public-education system: plugging corporate tax loopholes, taxing oil production, raising sin taxes and so on. Many of their supporters used a language of working-class solidarity that would have been familiar to their grandparents during the Great Depression, a language rarely heard in American political discourse in recent decades.
“This march,” Jim Miller, one of the core walkers, told the crowd, as his wife Kelly and 6-year-old son Walt, just flown in from San Diego, stood proudly by, “is a civil-rights struggle, and this is a social-justice movement. We are in this for the long haul, and we are in this to win.”Walk this way
The protesters on the Capitol lawn were guest actors brought in for the crowd scenes in the final episode of a drama that, from start to finish, had six main stars—four teachers, a probation officer from East Los Angeles, and a young Brown Beret community activist from Watsonville. These men and women had traversed the Central Valley on foot, sleeping in RV parks, union halls and school gymnasiums, holding rallies and teach-ins every day for more than a month. Some days they had walked nearly 20 miles; other days they had stayed in one place for the whole day, bouncing from one locally organized event to the next.
Atop the credits: Irene Gonzalez, juvenile probation officer based out of Baldwin Park, Los Angeles, on the march to protest recent cuts to her probation department; Jenn Laskin, a young high-school teacher and community organizer in Watsonville, who lived and taught for several years in Mexico earlier in the decade; Jim Miller, a 45-year-old community-college lecturer, novelist and union activist from San Diego; retired Los Angeles physical-education teacher and Vietnam vet Gavin Riley, aged 65, looking to draw attention to education cuts, with a secondary, personal goal of dropping 10 pounds in weight over the long march; substitute teacher David Lyell, a gentle, soft-spoken, vegetarian enraged at state and local decisions that have decimated the education system in recent years, from the beach town of Playa del Rey; and the kid of the group, 21-year-old Watsonville community activist and bike mechanic Emmanuel Ballesteros. A seventh marcher, retired Berkeley-area teacher Anna Graves, had had to leave early on, after she came down with the flu and then suffered a burst eardrum.
These were the ones who had responded, last August, to requests by a Fightback Committee of the California Federation of Teachers, for marchers willing to highlight the state’s savage cuts to public education. A long march seemed, somehow, more tangible than simply chanting slogans at a rally for an afternoon, or writing letters to state legislators, or penning editorials for local newspapers.
The six had left spouses, lovers, children and colleagues to throw themselves in with a group of strangers to march day in, day out through the farmlands of Central California. Miller, for example, who had been involved in the Fightback Committee from the outset, had a 6-year-old son, Walt (named for Walt Whitman, he explained happily) at home; the boy was proud of his daddy’s actions, and periodically would fly up with his mother to join the march for a day or two, but still missed being able to go to ballgames with his father. They had left jobs and wages behind them. They had substituted comfortable, private bedrooms for crowded RV cubicles or shared pop-up tents, having to stumble through dark campgrounds to not always terribly clean bathrooms in the middle of the night in the cold of late winter, early spring; and had left favorite eateries, pubs and home cooking for a prolonged diet of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, burgers and greasy fries, donated soft drinks, side-of-the-road picnics, or sometimes, on a good night, an evening campfire barbecue.
It was both quixotic and also viscerally powerful. At times, they would come into small towns and be greeted like conquering heroes; at other moments, they’d be all but ignored. When they arrived in Sacramento, they had high hopes of national media coverage; instead, the larger newspapers paid no attention to them, The Sacramento Bee printing only an inside-page photograph and one paragraph of text.
In some of the RV parks they ended up in en route, Miller admitted, the longtime residents looked at them like they were nuts, middle-class denizens slumming it for a cause as abstract as reforming the state budget process. “The Merry Pranksters, minus the acid,” Miller said, laughing, referring to novelist Ken Kesey’s group of acid-munching hippies who toured the country by bus in the mid-1960s, their vehicle driven by beat-era hero Neal Cassady, the ultimate goal nothing much more concrete than personal enlightenment and, perhaps, the pleasure of shocking a few suburbanites out of their complacency.
Tilting at windmills or catalyzing a new politics? Whichever interpretation one ended up with, as the weeks went on, the walkers realized they were having the experience of a lifetime.
Visiting towns like Wasco, Delano, Allensworth—a turn-of-the-20th-century utopian community set up by African-Americans, these days a state park being forced to shutter its gates several days a week due to budget cuts—Tulare, Visalia, Dinuba, Fresno, Modesto, Galt, the protesters were, quite deliberately, recreating the meandering itinerary of the great Cesar Chavez walks of earlier decades. They were visiting what one of them called “the backyards of California.” And they were focusing on great social challenges—shuttered health clinics, schools unable to afford to keep on teachers or buy basic supplies for kids—in parts of the state that, historically, have been both poor and conservative, using the protest as a vehicle to get local students and workers more involved in community activism, in pushing for political solutions to economic collapse and public-sector squalor.
The marchers felt that they were walking their way into a glorious history of struggle, a story of empowerment that encompassed not only Chavez but also African-American civil-rights protestors, industrial union organizers in the 1930s, anarchist organizers with the Wobblies at the turn of the last century and myriad other movements. “The generation that came before us was Cesar Chavez,” explained Emmanuel “Manny” Ballesteros. “Now I just want to follow behind his footsteps. The march has been a good experience to learn about labor, teaching me how to be a better organizer, opening my eyes much better to how voting effects the economy—the two-thirds passing [requirement] of the budget, for example.”
For Miller, a keen student of labor history, the ghosts of America’s past surrounded the marchers. “The thing that keeps resonating for me,” he said softly, almost as if he were imparting a fragile secret, “is The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl. In some of these little towns, unemployment is 40 percent. We’re seeing up close and personal this inland depression in California.”
As they got closer to Sacramento, the march became, at least in the participants’ estimation, evermore of a movement, an augur of change not dissimilar in aspirations to Upton Sinclair’s radical End Poverty in California campaign of 1934. It was intended to get people fired up and to make the political classes sit up and take note.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people,” Laskin recalled, somewhat nostalgically, as the march neared its conclusion. “But I’ve listened more than I’ve talked. Trying to get their stories on tape.” Like the others, as the march progressed, she found herself snapping photos almost compulsively, desperate to record her experiences for posterity.
Oftentimes, they would find themselves taking photos of other marchers—people they hadn’t known from Adam weeks earlier, but whom they now viewed like family—taking photos. Miller, who had never even owned a cell phone until the march began, stored up huge photo archives on his new iPhone. When the Brass Liberation Orchestra came out to raucously, anarchically, serenade the marchers one day, Miller hit the record button on his video app. When the entire student body of a small school in a tiny town came out to gawk one morning, he photographed the scene.
People in the small towns of the Central Valley would come up to the marchers and show them their pink slips, perhaps just looking for sympathy at jobs lost and dreams dashed, perhaps hoping the act of showing them the pink slip would somehow convert the dreaded piece of paper into a talisman warding off actual unemployment. Wave the notice of impending redundancy and maybe, somehow, funds would be found for the job to be kept. Older men in farmworker communities would beckon to them to come over and then tell them about marching with Chavez, about their glory days.
Along the route, drivers, many of them in pickup trucks, honked their horns, some in support, others visibly angry at the traffic hold-up caused by the snail’s pace of the march support vehicles, or antipathetic to the demands for fairer—perhaps higher—taxes to fund education properly. During a season of tea parties, the group was traversing conservative rural counties speaking up for the necessity of properly funding local and state government. They anticipated some hostility, and occasionally they found some. Miller blogged, incredulously, on The Huffington Post at one point, about a grizzled old farmer who drove up to them on his tractor to state that children in hard-hit schools should be “swatted” rather than given more educational resources. In one particularly down-at-heel RV camp not far out of Bakersfield, they encountered residents walking around bellicosely with crossbows. It wasn’t necessarily a political statement, but it was terrifying, reminding them of the movie Deliverance.
When the enthusiasm kicked in, however, it could be infectious: One woman followed the marchers for three days in her car, giving them bottles of water and words of encouragement. Pastors invited them into churches to talk to congregants. Some Sundays, they would address three or four church groups before midday. In the fields they marched along, they saw snakes and mice, hawks circling above for their prey. They witnessed the wondrous, intimidating skies of winter storms descending over the farmlands.
They grew to love the low-key beauty of this oft-ignored interior region of California. Evenings, they called home; checked e-mail on smart phones; several of the walkers blogged or updated diary entries. They developed their own rhythm, their own sense of time. They became something of a world unto themselves. And yet they were never really alone.The backup team
The march’s six main stars were ably backed up by a larger cohort of supporting actors: the van drivers who shuttled the walkers to rallies and campsites at the end of each day, one of whom, Bob Benoit, was a fiery Cajun who played a mean accordion when they stopped for lunch roadside. The PR team, led by 24-year-old Melissa Arrigoni, a recently transplanted Chicagoan, that followed the walkers in, and at nights slept inside of a colorfully decked-out Campaign for California’s Future RV that they called the “blogmobile,” driven by an out-of-work-Teamster who had previously driven trucks at the Los Angeles port; it was from the blogmobile that the march posted YouTube videos and regular updates on Facebook, and corresponded with reporters. The union organizers, especially teachers and home health-care workers, who worked night and day to generate crowds at the rallies and in-city demonstrations, and who would join the marchers for days at a stretch along the route. Sometimes, the newcomers would treat the entire group to a feast of In-N-Out Burger come nightfall.
Most importantly, there was Bob D’Ausilio, a larger than life retired firefighter from San Diego who drove the flag-bedecked flatbed truck, chose the music that blared from several huge speakers roped to its rear, made announcements over the PA system, used his first-aid training to treat blisters and keep walkers hydrated, set up the pop-up tents in the campgrounds each night and got up early—5 a.m. some days—to prepare large breakfasts (the food donated by sympathetic trade union chapters) each morning. He played a lot of Beatles music for the marchers, turned “California Dreamin’” into their anthem, got their juices flowing again after a hard morning’s slog with the theme tune from The Partridge Family. Not infrequently, Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers, ramped up to full volume, would set the quiet countryside aflutter. There was something appropriate when passing these time-stood-still little farming towns playing the oldies.
When the music was blaring from the truck crawling along in front of them on the hard shoulder of the fast rural roads, the marchers let their natural walks take over. “Hard Workin’ Man,” for example, would set Gonzalez off walking as if she were dancing, her whole body moving with the beat. Laskin would lean her torso slightly forward as she walked, clicking her fingers to the music. Miller and Riley, the self-proclaimed pace setters, who situated themselves at the front of the group holding their banner between them, would ratchet up their pace, Riley with his balding head down in concentration, Miller walking more assertively, like a New Yorker in a hurry. Ballesteros and Lyell, both of whom took on the role of directing traffic around the walkers, would stay near the rear, walking slowly, meandering, sometimes lost in their daydreams. The blogmobile, its brakes creaking, would slink along patiently behind them.
D’Ausilio was the Neal Cassady for this group of Merry Pranksters, a smart-talking, no-nonsense, impossible-to-pigeonhole jack-of-all-trades; a union activist who voted Republican, loved to bad-mouth communism at any and every opportunity—“Why can’t we produce our own goods?” he wondered, instead of buying everything off the goddamned communist Chinese—and, with a volley of finely crafted swearwords, took immense joy in puncturing any and all intellectual bubbles that floated his way.
Beneath the bluster, though, D’Ausilio was as passionate as the rest of the marchers. “I’m tired of hearing everyone blame unions for California’s problems,” he averred. “We need to start getting back our foundations that our forefathers left us. I still think California is the best state in the union, but we’re tarnished right now. We need jobs back, industry jobs.”They are marching
As they snaked through the middle of California, accompanied, periodically, by burly motorcycle police and California Highway Patrol officers, the marchers and their support crew got ever more immersed in the experience.
Each day they’d put on their white “I am marching” T-shirts and do a round of callisthenic stretches to relax their walking muscles; they’d spray sunscreen onto their faces and arms, then they’d form a circle, introduce themselves to the new contingent of marchers-for-a-day, do a rapid-clap cheer—their version of, say, a rain dance or a corporate pep rally—unfurl their banners and, sandwiched between the flatbed truck and the blogmobile, set off walking.
“Physically, you get used to it,” said Miller, whose major health complaint during the weeks of walking was a worsening of his asthma due to toxins and pollen in the Central Valley air. Some days, smells from the cattle farms, or industrial pesticides off of the fields and orchards, would hover over them like nature’s halitosis. But the walking itself soon ceased to be a challenge. “My feet are fine,” Miller said. “The short days seem like nothing. I enjoy the walking more than the down days.” The other walkers agreed; they had gotten fitter along the route, their bodies tougher and leaner, their minds better equipped to deal with the travails of the road.
In Modesto, hundreds of home health-care workers—whose jobs are on the line due to a near-90 percent cut in state funding for the in-home program—joined them in a spirited demonstration through the downtown. Many brought their children; some brought their patients. Moore and his team had been working their members for months, getting them involved, signing them up to take days off work to come to Sacramento on April 21. Given that most are paid near-minimum wage and don’t get paid vacation time, this was no small commitment. But the organizing effort was paying off. Based on the numbers who had signed up for seats on the buses heading to the demonstration, Moore expected more than 1,000 of his members would show up at the Capitol that afternoon. In Galt, high-school students joined the walkers when they arrived at the little town’s one high school after a 10-mile walk north from Lodi.
“I didn’t realize how poor the Central Valley is,” D’Ausilio explained one evening, at an RV park near a cemetery a few miles north of Modesto, as he let his bravado down and allowed his emotions room to breathe. “In Modesto alone, there’s a 20 percent unemployment rate. Working families that have lost their houses are now living in trailer parks and RVs. Some of the places in California are like Third World countries. I’m shocked.”
It became far more than a march to reform the budget process and reinstate funds for schools, it became a psychological journey. They learned things about their co-walkers, and they learned things about themselves. They learned how to navigate a crowded environment with humor and grace. When an Orange County college administrator joined the marchers for a few days, he rapidly developed a reputation for extraordinarily loud snoring. The pop-up tent in which he slept was christened the “bear’s den,” and those assigned to share the tent with him were genially warned to expect an interrupted night’s sleep. When Laskin had to leave the march for a few days to attend a conference in Seattle, she felt guilty leaving, like she was somehow leaving her friends in the lurch. Her one-bedroom apartment back in Watsonville suddenly seemed to her a huge amount of space for one person to occupy; she’d grown used to living in the blogmobile with four or five other residents.
They were, the marchers started joking with each other, living in a reality TV show, their every move, their every bodily function under the microscope. Perhaps surprisingly, no serious feuds developed. Cliques didn’t form. No one quit the march in a huff.48 days later
For the marchers, the week or two leading up to Sacramento had been one long, slow goodbye. From Stockton on in, they’d started counting down the days. Leaving Lodi, six days before the final rally, Lyell quietly pondered the fact that this was the last Thursday of the march. So was he aware of all these psychological milestones? Absolutely, he declared. Every day from here on in would be the last Friday or the last Saturday … and so on. He missed home, sitting on a beach just watching the waves crashing against the shore, but, in anticipation, he was already starting to ache for his companions from the seven-week adventure. Laskin had started mentally putting together to-do lists for when she got home; she was going to give herself a few days in her apartment to decompress and then had a bunch of presentations about the march already in mind, committees she had to get involved with again, work with her trade union. Jim was scheduled to fly to Detroit the following week to address a labor gathering on lessons learned from the march.
When the group arrived at the Sacramento County line, in the overgrown Delta countryside just outside Galt, they stopped. To a person, they took out their cameras and started shooting photos of their friends next to the green county-line sign. They smiled. They raised their fists. They waved at passing cars.
Despite the marchers’ innate modesty, they had all taken on the trappings of folklore heroes over the weeks and months of walking. They had learned to rile up large crowds in English and in Spanish; had been welcomed into poor communities as traveling heroes, as chroniclers of despair and of resilience—Woody Guthries for the modern age; and had developed intense feelings of loyalty not only to the other marchers but to the broader movement that was building up steam along the route of their journey.
Over the weeks, they had morphed from being simply a group of well-meaning, anonymous protesters to being the stuff of headlines. When they came into small towns, they knew they would be greeted by local reporters and television crews, by banner-waving union members and cheering kids.
Now, as the march reached its conclusion in the state capital, they had to ponder what would come next, what the follow-on chapters of their lives would involve.
That evening, after the union buses had filled up and started the long drive south again, and after Capitol Park was quite once more, the walkers—and 40 or 50 well-wishers—gathered at Ambrosia Café on the K Street pedestrian mall for a private party celebrating their achievement. Top trade-union leaders toasted their accomplishment with Chandon champagne, and the cafe’s waitresses walked around distributing Thai chicken skewers. There were platters of fruit and miniature frosted cupcakes. There were three kinds of red wine and three of white, along with pitchers of beer and chips and salsa.
After 48 days on the road, the walkers had reached their destination. Slightly uncomfortably, they were schmoozing, shooting the breeze with friends and strangers. Already, they were starting to reacclimate to life on the outside. The march, only moments in the past, was already starting to disappear into the irreclaimable mists of time. The folk heroes were starting to make the psychological journey back to civilian life. They promised each other they would stay in touch, gave hugs, wrote messages on each other’s T shirts. But looking in their eyes, you could tell that at least some of them were mentally already on that airplane home.
“Like anything,” said Riley quietly, “you’re anticipating the end, and then, when the end is on top of you, you go through a period of nostalgia.” He stopped, pondering what he’d just lived through. “For waking up freezing in a pop-up tent, stumbling around an RV park, shaving in RV bathrooms.” He laughed, but then got quickly serious about the mission and the message once more. “Everybody ought to be angry,” he said, reasoning out loud as to why he’d joined the march. We hope the Legislature sees the level of anger, because angry people tend to be voters.”