Truckers live in an alternative dimension, at least so I conclude when trying
to figure out how to meet up with the convoy of trucks coming into to DC to
protest high diesel fuel prices on Monday. JB, aka Mike Schaffner, one of the
organizers of the action, calls early in the morning to suggest various highway
intersections, and I have to explain there's no way a pedestrian can be just
standing on one the super-highways around DC. We eventually settle on a spot in
a desolate area of southeastern DC, but even so, I probably couldn't have made
the connection without the genes of a grandfather who rode the rails. When I
hear the honking, low and steady, and see the first trucks rising out from an
underpass, I scramble up to a narrow walkway along their route and start waving
frantically. Everyone waves back nicely, and about the fifth truck actually
stops. It's JB and I leap aboard.
JB and I have become friends-by-phone in the weeks since I blogged about the
first truckers' protests in the beginning of April, but all I knew about him as
a physical presence is that he always wears a black cowboy hat. Its brim is
turned down, locating him in Larry McMurtry's rather than John Wayne's West, and
his eyes twinkle deeply when he smiles, which is pretty much all the time.
Everything seems to delight him: Being in DC for the first time, having 250
trucks behind him, the friendliness of the tourists on the street as we inch our
way toward the Mall.
Since he hasn't been home in Texas since January 1, this -- the "bobtail" of a
truck based in New Jersey -- is JB's world. There's a neatly made bed behind our
seats and a laptop that can swivel into view while he's driving, as well, of
course, as a GPS, a cell phone and CB radio. From this little control room,
which is also a workplace and a living space, JB has helped assemble the
hundreds of truckers and their families who are with us now. It's a life
stripped bare: He ordinarily eats only one meal a day (nothing fried or from a
buffet), sleeps rarely (just an hour and half last night), and drinks no coffee
("it leads to stops") but admits to an occasional Red Bull.
We circle the Mall, slowly, triumphantly, twice. It's hard to talk over the
honking and the excited CB chatter, but JB wants to know if I've ever been at a
demonstration in DC before. Ah, I explain, I go back to the 60s, but the most
recent one was an anti-war demonstration organized by the women's group Code
Pink. He laughs, making me think he finds the name amusing. But no, he shows me
he has Code Pink in his cell phone. They had contacted him and will be joining
us at the rally at the Capitol.
We are to park the trucks at the RFK Stadium and walk from there to the
Capitol, giving us about a half an hour to mill around on foot in the parking
lot first. There's a bobtail with "Truckin for Jesus" painted on it and, under
that, "Truckers and Citizens United." There are Operation Desert Freedom caps
and a POW/MIA flag, as well signs indicting oil companies and "Wall Street
speculators." I chat with members of the mostly African-American contingent of
DC dump truck drivers and with Belinda Raymond, a trucker's wife from Maine, who
tells me that people in her area raised $9000 to send a convoy of trucks down
here, with the Knights of Columbus accounting for $2500 of that. Whole families
have come, and I see a boy carrying a sign saying "What about My Future?" A
smartly dressed woman from New Jersey carries a sign asking, "Got Milk? Not
Without a Truck."
If there's an ideology at work here I'd call it small-d democratic
fundamentalism: We own the government, we pay for it, and now it better do
something for us. In fact, JB is carrying hundreds of copies of the Code of
Ethics for Civil Servants he's downloaded from the internet to hand out at the
Capitol and remind Congress of their duties. The only time I see his smile fade
is when the protest's media coordinator -- contributed pro bono by the liberal
think tank The Institute for Policy Studies -- lays down the ground rules for a
meeting with Senator Jeff Sessions (R, AL) scheduled for the afternoon. "But he
works for us!" JB protests.
On the 45 minute long march from the stadium to the Capitol, things
degenerate toward the level of farce. No one had counted on the rain, which is
back in force, or on the fact that, as one guy puts it to me, they're "truckers,
not walkers." JB, I and a few others fall behind because JB insists on running
back to his truck and changing into a shirt printed with the American flag and
Constitution. Our little band includes Mike Groff, a heavily pierced
20-something from Pennsylvania who is one of the original organizers of the
protests and his pregnant wife Melissa. JB and Mike take turns pulling a wagon
carrying batteries for the sound system that will be used at the rally. The rain
turns into a torrent. We trudge through the ghetto, then on into a middle class
neighborhood sporting azaleas and Obama lawn signs, not entirely sure of our
direction and soaked to the skin. Melissa reassures me that, if we pee our
pants, which seems increasingly likely, no one will notice.
But things look up when we get the Capitol, thanks largely to Senator Susan
Collins (R, ME), who arranges for the truckers to stage a press conference
inside the Russell Building lobby and out of the rain. Three truckers -- two
white and one black -- speak about their dwindling livelihoods and the need for
immediate government action to push down fuel prices. I can't fight my way
through the media to hear much of what they're saying, but one speaker mentions
foreclosures. This is a wide-ranging cry from the strangled middle class -- or
working class or whatever you want to call it -- and all I can think is: Where are
the Democrats? Why aren't they are pouring out of their offices to show support
for the truckers? And wouldn't have been wonderful if Obama had shown up?
Because he's not going to make it unless he learns to channel the frustration of
people like JB, Melissa and Mike.
That's just my concern though. The whole event has been strictly nonpartisan.
The truckers are already focused on the May 1 Truckers and Citizens United
protest in New York City (see
www.theamericandriver.com). That one, JB tells me, will be in solidarity
with the San Francisco longshoremen's May Day actions against the war.