Twenty-five years ago this weekend, thousands of people showed up to the polls in my hometown. It was a special election, called by the local Board of Education. On the simple paper ballot, there was only one line, a single question, which read as follows:
"Should Michael Moore Be Tarred and Feathered
and Run Out of Town?
Yes [ ] No [ ]"
Imagine a whole town coming together to decided your fate like that. Of course, those weren't the exact words (they were: "Should Michael Moore be Removed from the Board of Education?"), but that was pretty much how it felt. As I sat there all day in the sole polling place (a school gymnasium), watching the people stream in to cast their ballot, I wondered why I had given up going away to college, just so I could try and try to change some things in the school system. I sat there in those bleachers overlooking the voting booths and figured I was just nuts.
Two years prior to this "judgment day," I had become the youngest elected official in the country -- and the first 18-year old ever elected to public office. A constitutional amendment had just passed, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. It was Vietnam time, and I guess the adults figured if we could go get killed (and kill others for no damn reason), then they figured they should let us vote and drink. Some trade off!
So, as I mentioned to you last year in one of these letters, I was a slightly ticked off teenager (this was before the era of school shootings and Ritalin). I decided the best way to fight the high school principal was to become his boss -- while I was still a student. So, I ran for the school board on the platform of firing him. Remarkably, I won. Nine months later, the principal was gone.
Emboldened by this success, I moved on to other issues. I supported students rights and the teachers union. I sued the school board (and won) so I could tape record the public meetings. I turned information over to the local prosecutor on administrators who were braking the law regarding how contracts were being awarded. I wouldn't stand and Pledge Allegiance to the Flag that had already covered the coffins of two guys on my street who died in Vietnam.
After a year of having to deal with this long-haired kid, the other board members decided to start holding the school board meetings in secret -- without informing me. When I found out, I turned them into the Michigan Attorney General and he hauled them into court.
Around that time I wrote and directed a play that included a scene where Jesus yanks the nails out and comes down off the cross. Actors playing locally-known bigots rose out of the audience to stab, shoot and beat "Jesus" to death, drag him back up to the cross on the stage, and re-crucify him. Typical drama from an ex-seminarian.
You can imagine not much of this went over very well with the local business and Born Again establishment. The straw that broke their back was when I made a motion to name a new elementary school after Martin Luther King, Jr. (the district was 99% white). The next day, petitions were taken out for a recall election that would remove my sorry ass from the school board.
Unfortunately, the recall committee could not collect enough signatures in the time allowed by the law. So the board decided to break the law and give them an extra ten days. Ten days later, they still didn't have the required signatures. So what did the school board do? They gave 'em another ten days! But still, they couldn't convince enough people to bounce me, so... you guessed it... the board gave them a THIRD 10-day extension.
Finally, they had enough signatures. But upon inspecting the petitions, there were DOZENS OF DEAD PEOPLE who had signed them! Others had signed their names at least three times. I sued. The judge said, "Well, it looks like a fraud was committed with these petitions, but it seems to me, Mr. Moore, this community wants to have an election on you, so I'm going to allow it."
They scheduled the election on a Friday in December, hoping for a low turnout, knowing that those who would come out to a special election during Christmas season would be those filled with the opposite of good will toward Mike.
I figured I was a goner.
But on that Friday in December, 1974, it was anything but a low turnout. The people were lined out the door and down the block of the lone polling location with its lone question on the ballot. It was the largest turnout in the history of the school district for any election ever held.
When the polls closed at 8, the school officials dumped the thousands of ballots on a long table in the center of the gymnasium in the school I had hoped to name after Dr. King (they called it, "Central Elementary"). The man charged with counting the ballots created two piles, and one by one, as he opened the square pieces of paper, he would announce "Yes," or "No," and then place them in their respective piles.
On one side of the gym, up in the bleachers, sat the business leaders of the town. On the opposite side sat me and my friends -- and about 200 high school students (I think most of them were smokers whom I had saved from being suspended) who had shown up to offer me their support.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the last ballot was placed in its pile. The television cameras and lights went on, feeding the image live to TV sets in homes throughout the Flint area. The assistant superintendent announced the results.
"Michael Moore has won by 312 votes."
The students went crazy, the men in the suits left angry and disgusted, and I learned a not so insignificant lesson that night as I closed out my teenage years.
You have to trust that the people aren't stupid, and sooner or later they will always do the right thing.
Either that, or they will always like a good play with lots of stabbing and shooting.
P.S. Tonight (Sunday) and again this Thursday (Dec. 16), our old friend and TV Nation producer, Pam Yates, will be presenting her documentary "Brotherhood of Hate," an examination of young white supremacists, on Showtime. Pam (and her husband Paco de Onis) produced the segment for the first episode of "TV Nation" where I tried to take advantage of NAFTA and "move" our show to Mexico. She also did stories for us on the School of the Americas and the Zapitistas (all in 1993-94, the first time any of these issues were aired on network television). She continues to do great work.
P.P.S. I've been getting a lot of mail from people wanting to send our videos and books to others as Christmas gifts. I have a better idea: Why not send a contribution, in their name, to Flint's North End Soup Kitchen (735 E. Stewart Ave., Flint, MI 48505) instead? This morning's New York Times contains a front page story about how the need for services to the poor is way up -- and contributions from those who have gotten wealthy is way down. What mean times we live in! Just as some start to do better, they decide to let the rest suffer. Downsized workers increased 135% in November over the previous month, the worst month for layoffs in nearly a decade! Why is this not being reported?
OK, if you feel you HAVE to send "Roger & Me," or "TV Nation," or "Downsize This" to a friend, then click here, dammit!
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