Local Power:

San Jose City Council Bans Vietnamese Flag

How to be annoying: Lessons from your little sibling.

An only child will never know the full torment of a younger sibling, one that teases, mocks, and pesters. Well I guess it might be possible, that is, if that only child becomes a government official. The only problem here, of course, is that for these officials, that little pestering sibling is us.

On Jan. 24, I went to the San Jose City Council meeting to learn more about local government. Luck would have it that this just may have been the most interesting night the city council has seen in ten years. On the agenda was a measure to ban the Vietnam flag from all city owned flagpoles.

A packed house of refugees from S. Vietnam (America’s teammate) got up to speak in favor of the ban. Many that spoke had been imprisoned by the N. Vietnam government (Communists) or had lost loved ones to the fighting. There was so much anger built up towards the “red devil, communist flag” that you could feel the tension and fear. I don’t want to minimize their trauma, but laws banning forms of personal/cultural expression don’t carry an aura of inclusivity and tolerance. And a full ban on the flag of an internationally recognized country is controversial to say the least. Yet an 11-0 decision in favor of the ban most certainly doesn’t represent the complexity of the situation.

Side note on why politics suck; not a single person mentioned getting the Vietnamese community resources to address any of the real underlying issues of trauma.

To the credit of a few local San Jose citizens, there were 6 or 7 dissenting voices among the hundred or so people that spoke on The Ban, and each were met with boos and taunting.

Remember McCarthyism, that crazy time when people would tell the police that they think their neighbor was a commi? Well, talk about a field trip back to the 1950s!

So how does this tie into annoyance, into pestering? I just watched every single city council member vote for a measure to ban a flag from our city flagpoles. The “legitimate” reasoning being, the human rights violations that have been committed by the government of Vietnam. The complexity of the issue was given about 6 of the 90 minutes and so all I could think was the fear that each council member must have felt with the threatened backlash of the entire San Jose Vietnamese-American constituency, one of the largest in the US--110,000 strong. The ability to be re-elected would slip away in an instant had any opposition vote shown up.

That's when it sunk in--the pressure point of political action is local. Most of our political reps got where they are on apathetic communities, broken promises and corporate money but even with that, the more local, the smaller a “large crowd” needs to be.

In an effort to A) confirm or debunk my theory, I started looking at how to “lobby” as a concerned citizen without putting on a suit and flying to D.C.

Indivisible is a group of congressional staffers that put together a playbook based off of Tea Party effectiveness at holding back Obama’s agenda and winning local and state elections that put dems to shame.

The effectiveness guide is a brief intro into the minds of elected officials and their staffers. The suggestions have a way of simplifying the chain of command and ladder of importance.

In summary, it goes a little something like this:

Show up - members of both the congress and the house are there to represent you. They are busy but must make time to meet with constituents. Find out when the next meeting is and attend as a group. Prepare questions ahead of time and stay polite, firm and respectful.

Be a force in the community - photo-ops and local events are great publicity for someone looking to be re-elected. Plan some community volunteer event, invite your local member. If not, attend an event with friends, show solidarity and build awareness of your issue.

Go to their offices - Visit your local district office and demand to meet with your rep. If he/she is out of office then ask for a meeting time. Trying to reach the most senior staffer is also a priority. Again, be polite, respectful and come prepared. My momma always said you catch more bees with honey.

Coordinated Calls - Much more effective than emails but still easy to throw to the wayside. That said, when groups coordinate to call all day on an issue, you better be sure the message gets passed along.

So the point is: We want to see change, we want to be heard and like you, playing politics is something I want to leave in the past. I want people to become public servants to make the world a better place and not to worry about re-election. However, we aren't there yet and I’m not one to ignore strategy or gamesmanship. So get out there, find what's comfortable for you, whether it's phone calls, emails or demanding a meeting. Have no delusions that one is as effective as another and yet don't become disillusioned that you are powerless.

Focus local, learn what your state assembly is doing, learn what your cities are doing and pester, be annoying. Many issues really are big and national or international but sometimes people like to keep the conversation big, full of partisanship and bureaucracy to perpetuate a feeling of helplessness. Take an issue like fossil fuel production or climate change; the problem is certainly bigger than turning off the lights or carpooling to work. However, local issues still have a big impact. Does your city hold its funds in a bank that invests in oil companies (Seattle just divested!)? Does your city have a plan to reduce traffic, CO2 emissions, and promote public transportation? These are local issues. They matter. Maybe they aren’t the biggest fish in the pond but they are fish no less. Take a deep breath, take your time, and focus your efforts in ways you can see effects, while maximizing the impact. Get to a city council meeting, voice your opinion, and be heard. These constituents in San Jose did, and they succeeded--bigly.  

(Published January 24, 2017)