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Tracking a Political Movement in Progress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here is a strange event in Orange County politics:

In the early evening shade at a Midway City gathering, a recently released Nigerian political prisoner stands before a cheering crowd of mostly white Orange County residents, thanking them for their help in freeing him from jail. The help included picketing and letter-writing and a boycott of Shell Oil.

The reception earlier this month was a defining moment, a demonstration that Orange County’s smattering of tiny alternative groups has coalesced into a new progressive alliance. Still small, to be sure, but with enough numbers to help in the nationwide effort to free Beko Ransome-Kuti from prison.

This mutual aid society of disparate groups started last year when members of the local Green Party began attending meetings of another organization that seeks to amend the state’s three-strikes law. The anti-three strikers reciprocated by joining the Green Party picket of a Laguna Hills Shell station on the Nigerian issue. Then other groups joined in.

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Also among their causes: opposing the death penalty and, for many, legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Nuclear disarmament is of renewed importance since the tests in India and Pakistan, and the preservation of open space is always popular.

Thus, when Ransome-Kuti finished his speech, he was buoyed off the stage by an unlikely concord of applause:

Green Party members, Libertarians and Veterans for Peace clapped. Volunteers from the Catholic Worker, which feeds the homeless, clapped as did members of the Orange County Hemp Council. The families of prisoners serving three-strikes sentences cheered Ransome-Kuti alongside folks from Food Not Bombs--advocates for vegetarianism and social harmony.

“A lot of people were skeptical that we could bring together a broad-based coalition,” said Tim Carpenter of the Catholic Worker and long-time liberal activist. “We demonstrated to the skeptics that there is a progressive movement working both inside and outside the political mainstream.”

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In weekly and monthly meetings, third-party political and alternative groups sidestep prickly differences to focus on the shared goal of reigniting a progressive political movement in the state’s most conservative county.

The event during which Ransome-Kuti spoke was called “An Evening of Music and Progressive Politics Behind the Orange Curtain.” It drew about 500 people to the spacious back lawns of the Brotherhood of St. Patrick’s, a Midway City novitiate, for a sort of progressive debutante party or alternative Orange County Fair, complete with booths.

The Nigerian military government had jailed Ransome-Kuti for faxing to the media information damaging to its reputation. Through picketing and petitions, letter-writing campaigns and the boycott of Shell Oil, which critics say profits an estimated $220 million a year from Nigeria’s oil while communities there remain impoverished, an Orange County coalition had been a forceful voice for freedom, he told his audience.

Many of those attending were unabashedly liberal.

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A major backer of the event was Beat Bob, a group “dedicated to the eternal political retirement” of former conservative congressman Robert K. Dornan.

Even the Libertarians, who resist both liberal and conservative categorization, defined themselves as progressives.

“Traditionally, we get looked at as ultra-conservatives,” said Vice Chairman Mark Hilgenberg. “But that’s not accurate. What we have in common with everyone here today is that we are compassionate people.”

Shared by almost all the groups is a disaffection with the two major parties.

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“It sounds strange--progressives in Orange County--but actually the best conditions for breeding progressive politics is having conservative politicians in power,” said Bruce Cain, a politics professor at UC Berkeley. “Nothing unites people more than opposition to something else.”

Singly, the alternative groups and parties have membership numbers so small that they are barely a blip on the political scene.

Yet in 1996, the fastest-growing party in Orange County became “none of the above,” according to data from the registrar of voters office. The Republican Party, though still dominant in Orange County, drew fewer than half of the new voters and Democrats fewer than one third.

Progressives do not really see themselves as taking aim at the Republican Party--the distance between their ideologies is too cavernous to bridge.

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But Democrats, they say, should consider themselves warned: True liberals are driven further left by a creeping centrism in the party.

In response, the Democratic leadership politely dismissed any threat, saying the progressive movement is not large enough to be of concern.

“Not that we don’t respect their point of view, but they’re just not in the mainstream,” said party Chairwoman Jean Costales.

“We’re more liberal, certainly, than the Republicans, but just not as liberal as Tim Carpenter.”

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It is not the progressive way, however, to seek strength purely in party numbers.

“It’s not just a question of Green Party or Democrats or Republicans or Reform Party,” Carpenter said. “It’s about a conversion of the heart.”

One of the top items on their agenda now is the three-strikes law, which calls for sentences of 25 years to life in prison for people convicted of their third felony. Currently, 71% of third strikers in Orange County received their third conviction on a nonviolent drug offense.

The alliance seeks to amend the law so that the third strike would have to involve a violent crime to count.

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It was Carpenter, well known in political circles for decades of activism against military-industrial interests, who fashioned the three-strikes cause into a rallying point for the coalition.

“‘We used to get together and talk about how awful everything was,” said Christy Johnson of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes. “Then Tim came along and now we’re like OK, what are we going to do about this.”

Johnson, whose husband, Daniel, is a three-striker incarcerated on drug charges, now is a veteran of leaflet distribution, petitions, rallies and marches.

Looking at a photo of herself picketing a gas station as a member of the Orange County Nigerian Action Coalition, she smiles.

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“Truthfully, I never really knew anything about Nigeria before,” Johnson said. “But now you know what? It really matters because an injustice is an injustice.”


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