March 22, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 12

‘We the People’ works to promote ‘bottom-up’ democracy

“We the People,” a local group that grew out of last fall’s Occupy Wall Street protests, may soon be advocating for increased polling by the Haines Borough and promoting the idea of discounts at local stores for use of cash instead of credit cards.

The group also will sponsor a student debate 7 p.m. Monday in the high school open area on the theme: “Current income disparities in the United States threaten the American dream.”

With a stated goal of giving voice to all citizens and promoting a model of democracy that’s “bottom-up” instead of “top-down,” members of the new group freely admit they’ve bit off a big chunk of work.

They also acknowledge they’re taking an unorthodox approach to it. The group has no elected officers and a different member chairs each meeting. About half of a recent, hour-long meeting was spent setting the agenda and discussing meeting formats.

Longtime resident and activist George Figdor, who attended Occupy Wall Street protests last fall, said the group’s focus on procedure is deliberate.

“Process, in a lot of ways, comes first. You have to be as democratic as you want the country to be, and that can be difficult, because democracy takes time,” Figdor said. “Our meetings reflect the kind of democracy we’d like to see. But that’s a rigorous exercise because we all want to take charge and we all think we have the answer.”

The group’s mission statement is: “To re-establish that a person is a human and to re-assert the people’s authority over our community, state, nation and world by ensuring the voices of all persons are heard.”

Sixteen residents attended a recent Saturday meeting, about half of them veteran activists. Discussion included outreach, such as inviting members of the Chamber of Commerce to meetings or moving presentations around town.

A recent showing of “Inside Job,” a video documentary on corruption in the finance industry and the 2008 bank collapse, drew about 50 residents, but group members thought they could do better. “It didn’t turn out a wide segment of the community, and we need to keep working on that,” said Figdor.

Nancy Berland, a longtime spokesman for Lynn Canal Conservation, said at the recent meeting that transactions in town paid by credit card often benefit Bank of America. “Bank of America is one of the bad guys,” Berland said. “With cash, our money doesn’t go to Bank of America, but stays in the community. It would benefit everyone.”

Members also discussed an Internet polling system the borough could employ to gauge public opinion inexpensively. Such a poll may have been helpful when the assembly was debating on whether to demolish the old elementary school, said Deborah Vogt, a former assembly member.

Dana Hallett, a retired schoolteacher who moved here in 2009, has been involved with the group since its inception last fall.

With its concern about the influence of the wealthy on government decision-making, We the People has some commonality with the Tea Party movement, Hallett said in a recent interview. Hallett said he talks with conservatives in town about issues, but has been unsuccessful in recruiting them to the group.

Next week’s debate is part of the effort to get a broader segment of the community involved in a discussion of the group’s issues. The high school debate team argued the same proposition about income disparity during its regular season.

Nineteen-year resident and school board member Nelle Jurgeleit-Greene said she was motivated to become involved with the group by the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts. “Those entities were at fault, but no one was held responsible. I think it’s time for people of this country to know we’re not happy about that.”

Jurgeleit-Greene sees the group’s message as not drawn on liberal-conservative lines. “It’s not right wing or left wing. Everyone’s affected except for the top 1 percent (of income earners).”

She said she doesn’t have illusions, but said she believes small efforts like the group’s will work their way up to national level. “It’s a long way coming, it will be hard and it may never happen.”

Will the new group have staying power?

“We’ll see,” said veteran activist Figdor. “There’s a lot of people involved and a lot of places that are hurting economically. People are losing their jobs and homes and dropping out of school. Alaska is doing a little better than those places, but we still have some of the same issues… Corporate personhood is in state statute and in borough code, as well. We have to raise questions about the difference between people and corporations.”