Last Saturday, I, along with 100,000 other folks, put on rain gear and headed for downtown Portland for the 4th largest march in the country. Five of us started in Corvallis, parked in Milwaukee, picked up another, and took the light rail into town. It was packed, but peaceful. While we stood, pushed in like sardines, waiting for the march to start, an elderly woman, clearly stunned by the crowds, needed to leave. She was moved, hand to hand, arm to arm, through the crowd; people reached out for her as she swayed and guided her on, towards, I hope, the waiting EMTs. We moved, chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” through Portland, waving signs and smiling at the police who monitored the route. They smiled back. After the march, we went out for dinner and rode home through the dark night, singing along to Carol King’s “You’ve got a Friend.”
Mass marches of like-minded folk are a part of democracy, it is true. But they are only the beginning. For the rest of the week, I wondered what democracy actually looks like on a daily basis. Because, really, democracy is hard work. It involves a lot of meetings, documents, and moving of chairs.
On Sunday, we gathered to plan a large seed order; my way to save on shipping and split packages of seeds. Everyone brought lists and catalogs, and we tossed varieties around for an hour or so. Then, spouses joined in and we broke out the potluck dinner. Served on terra cotta colored plates, the deep green kale salad and golden dal looked lovely. Democracy is growing community, though plants and food.
On Monday, I gathered with fellow League of Women Voters to meet with the city’s community planning director. We are considering our April event and wanted to see how it would mesh with work the city is considering. We are in a land use planning crisis, being reactive rather than proactive, and are working to change that. For an hour and a half, we talked land use code and development. Democracy is about meetings, searching for common ground.
On Tuesday, I was home to make dinner. I chopped up a squash from the back yard and some onions from a local farm and roasted them in the oven. With a huge green salad and a bit of rice, we were fed. We’ve been eating only local, seasonal food for so long now that we really don’t miss the old ways. By doing so, we support our local farmers, who are also active in the politics of our city and county. Democracy starts at home.
Wednesday was another home night. I spent some time listening to “Democracy Now” on the radio, a program I love because it discuses a few topics at length, for 20 minutes to the full hour, rather than in three minute segments. It allows me to consider several viewpoints—all to the left of center, to be fair—and gain a more nuanced perspective on the news. We also read The Economist and The New Yorker every week, as well as the local paper. Democracy is about staying informed, but also about focusing on just a few subjects. We cannot know everything. But we can learn who to ask.
On Friday, I came full circle and walked downtown at five for the peace vigil held by Veterans for Peace. They have been standing in front of the courthouse every day since 9-11. It is the longest vigil in the country. I spent time there before the Iraq war, when the number of protesters lined the block every day, but I have not been down in years. Now it is a small group, but welcoming. Standing for an hour while the sun goes down and people drive by on their way home to dinner is a peaceful act, meditative. Sometimes people chat, sometimes they are quiet. Some have signs. Friday night, we were visited by a man from India who had moved here as a young man because he loved America’s values. He taught engineering at OSU for years and he was very concerned for the state of our country. He moved down the line, telling everyone his story, one by one. When he moved on, three guys in “Canner” garb—heavy grubby coats, big bags, dirty boots—stopped by. “Ask me how cold it was a few nights ago,” one demanded, a grin on his face. “How cold was it?” “So cold that when I took these out, they were still chattering,” he proclaimed, waving his dentures around. We all laughed. “Peace wins!” he shouted as he picked up his bike to move on.
Peace wins. Democracy wins. But not by huge marches, although they have their place. But by daily acts of community, repeated over and over, by those who show up.