Category Archives: randy smith

where would mt view be without community organizers?

A reader of this blog took me to task for saying that conservatives don’t care about improving Mt View. While I stand by that statement, I also realized that my goal here wasn’t to get overtly political — that most of Mt View’s burning issues transcend mere politicking, and we have to learn to thrive and grow whether or government is led by progressives or reactionaries.

You can see where I’m coming from by glancing at the links on the sidebar. And overall Mt View is a leftist neighborhood, even while we notoriously under-participate in city, state and national politics. So, at risk of further hacking off moderate and conservative readers, I’m going to go there again, and more forcefully this time.

During her RNC speech, Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocked Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for working as a community organizer — implying that community organizing is a waste of time and pursued by scofflaws without the knowledge, gumption and ability to pursue work that has “real responsibilities”. The cruelty and thoughtlessness of her words are exceeded by their inaccuracy.

Mt View is today a good place to live mostly because of the efforts of Randy Smith [1943-2003], an activist’s activist and the best community organizer we ever had here. [He was also a rock-ribbed Republican, gun owner and redneck.] When the streets weren’t being cleared of snow in the 1980s, he went downtown and banged on some counters with his fists. He would spend all day making phone calls, poke his head into offices, and make noise continuously until he got the action he wanted. I saw him yell into the phone many times, and rant and rave when talking with mid-level bureaucrats at city hall. He was big enough and crazy enough to be an intimidating physical presence, so people paid attention.

He turned his energy to various different topics, and worked on each one with a thoroughness and ferocity that was flat-out stunning. He started a community patrol, to keep an eye on goings-on and identify problem people, activities and properties. He monitored and confronted residents of homeless camps in the woods around the neighborhood. He started an annual cleanup that moved 200 tons of trash and recyclables, even crushing cars right in the neighborhood on a vacant lot. He cared about this place deeply and purely at a time when 99% of the rest of Anchorage had written it off. No one in city government at the time was even close to being engaged and effective regarding Mt View and its problems.

Every recent investment in new infrastructure, housing, public facilities and social programs happened because Randy and his co-conspirators laid the groundwork; and all would not have been possible without his accomplishments and advocacy.

Unpaid volunteers, whether self-appointed or part of an organized movement are the backbone of America. Indeed, all the best and most loved parts of a city can be traced back to people caring about them, and showing up for meetings and workshops and forums when they didn’t have to; a constant pushback and a grounded, grassroots effort — one that assures the powers that be don’t intentionally or accidentally ruin lives and drain value out of settings and local experiences.

To have Palin stand there and try to make a snide joke out of community activism was tragic. She should have known better. She probably actually does.

Update 9/13/08: The Anchorage Daily News published a similar version of this rant as a guest column. There was also a third version of it on Daily Kos. I wrote it a little differently for each audience.