When I moved to Georgia in the late ’80s, elections, laws and politics were pretty much the furthest things from my mind. I was a struggling single mom, and that was an all-encompassing role. It wasn’t until maybe the mid to late ’90s that I took notice of politics – Douglasville/Douglas County politics, specifically.
Even though Douglasville/Douglas County isn’t the smallest of places, it’s got enough of a small-town vibe to be friendly – and to make it harder to keep dirty laundry from public view. That’s a good thing, since sunlight is the best disinfectant.
I couldn’t look away
Soon after moving to Georgia and even before living in Douglas County, I heard tales about the legendary Earl Lee – the county’s sheriff at the time – who’d send jail trustees out for beer. Later, I heard rumors about how City of Douglasville politicians benefitted from land deals involving the mall development, and County officials who were too simple minded to do anything but fawn over commercial development projects.
I didn’t know anyone who supported, opposed or even paid attention to what was going on, but it became hard for me to ignore the sliminess and dollar amounts involved in these deals.
The good thing about local politics is that, unlike the national political scene, a person actually can do some good. With less potential power (and money), fewer people bother with local involvement. Without devoting countless hours to the task, however, there’s little chance of changing anything of significance. Even a herculean effort is of little use if you’re in the minority.
The more involved I got, the more people I ran into who seemed content to stop short of actually doing anything. They’d pontificate in their little silos, or get lucky and score a government appointment, or win an election and become part of the problem. What a waste of time and energy, huh?
After a while, I discovered that what mattered to me wasn’t usually any issue a politician would take up, and more often than not nothing my neighbors would care about, either.
No surprise there. Y’all know how much we have in common with our neighbors.
I sometimes think there was little point to my involvement. Yes, I helped effect change on two issues. I’m glad I worked on them, but change was somewhat inevitable and the work had physical consequences. Pain provided the ultimate wake-up call I needed to realize I had to step away from local politics.
I finally began to understand that my time and my body are limited resources, and that I should use them wisely. Choosing my battles, for example, instead of trying to right every wrong. Or, more often, walking away – opting out of Douglas County and anywhere else freethinking people are vastly outnumbered.
As I wrote the bit above about “activists” who sold out or were all talk and no action, a handful of notable exceptions came to mind. People who keep at it with issues they’re passionate about, determined to move mountains even if they have to do it one shovelful at a time.
Among those I thought of, by far the most dedicated and doggedly persistent was James Bell.
James – or JB, as everyone called him – was a local activist known for questioning pretty much everything government did. He was also notorious for his advocacy around marijuana legalization.
I first met James in the late ’90s, at the home of a mutual acquaintance who’d decided to run for County Commission Chair. By this time I’d begun to see the dark side of the “good ol’ boy” way the county ran, so I volunteered to help with a campaign website. I eventually also pitched in on the campaign in other ways.
I don’t recall James ever doing more on this campaign than providing insight aimed at defeating the good ol’ boy (who was in this case a girl). The candidate fizzled out, losing in the primary and later becoming a partisan shill (for the party opposite the one under whose banner he ran).
JB, though, remained a constant presence in the community. Had been for as long as I could remember. His name was always popping up in the newspaper. Local media knew who to rely on to cut through the bullshit they were fed by officials and lobbyists.
Whenever there was a grand scheme to siphon money from taxpayers for some government-designed palace or project, James had the facts, figures, mind and mouth to pull back the curtain and reveal the flaws that would doom it from the start. I remember thinking back then “This guy says NO to everything!”
I’m not sure when I learned James was a libertarian. Definitely before we met, and he was certainly the first libertarian I ever met. It wouldn’t have been long after meeting James that I learned about his marijuana advocacy. Typical, I’m sure I thought at the time.
Once I finally had conversations with James around government (our local cast of characters as well as government in general), libertarianism, taxes, the school board and whatever else would have come up, the stereotype didn’t hold. While it would take more than knowing James to make me realize that freedom to live our lives – not politics – was the answer, James is without a doubt the one responsible for getting the wheels turning in the right direction.
James was a free spirit, but occasionally he’d surprise me and turn up at a Libertarian Party meeting. Once he asked for floor time and used it to talk about the Georgia C.A.R.E. Project, an organization he founded to work toward reform of Georgia’s marijuana laws. As I recall we had a guest at the meeting. I cringed at how we were reinforcing the libertarian stereotype.
Now, I believe I’d care a lot less.
Wait – who’s ruining America today?
Seeing coworkers laid off left and right during The Great Recession, listening to Republican hand-wringing over a potential Obama administration, Twitter “activism” (which was mostly just people screaming at one another from the comfort of their computer chairs), and finally losing my own job all shaped my thinking about government.
By 2007-2008, I had read enough to understand that some of the political freak-out was legit. It was longer, though, before I realized that the people screaming the loudest about how bad things were mostly just wanted their chance to continue to wreck the country in a different way.
During this peak freak-out time I made two more friends who shattered the last vestiges of my libertarian stereotype. It was also around this time when Brian and I began dating. Like JB, each of these guys could tear apart politicians’ schemes and show me the flaws they tried to disguise with flashy speeches and softball interviews. Unlike JB, though, while all of these new libertarian friends advocated against the drug war, none used marijuana or other drugs.
What the hell? I thought all libertarians smoked dope.
The more libertarians I came to know, the more I realized that although there did seem to be a stereotypical libertarian, he’s not the selfish, single-issue pothead who can’t be bothered to vote. He’s more like my friends, or Brian. Extremely intelligent. Sees political agendas a mile away. Can tear apart any argument and knows it, so doesn’t usually need to be a jerk about it. And caring – not selfish.
How can they not be selfish when all they care about (besides smoking dope) is not giving out other people’s money?
JB might have stood against every proposed “improvement” in Douglas County’s facilities or services, but it was because he knew the way to do the most good was to simply do what you could. You. Yourself. Directly. Instead of taking from everyone – whether they could afford it or not – and hoping you’d have enough left to do some good after you pay all the administrators who handle the money.
James cleaned rivers, picked up litter, helped neighbors, taught people how to fight an unfair property tax assessment or file an open records request, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and worked tirelessly to help sick kids get a drug he would never be able to legally touch.
The glacial pace of Georgia’s approach to any kind of fair cannabis laws didn’t seem to bother James. He just kept plugging away, winning small victories here and there. Even though I’m personally less concerned with recreational use, the toll Georgia’s marijuana laws take on families is steep – whether we’re talking a 19-year-old jailed for possession or a 9-year-old whose seizures won’t respond to anything else.
I didn’t have time to begin writing this week’s post until Friday, which was my birthday. Brian offered to take me out for dinner, even though we keep saying we’re not celebrating birthdays anymore. I took him up on it because it’d give me more writing time.
I wrote a few paragraphs, and got to the part where it (now) says “The more involved I got, the more people I ran into who seemed content to stop short of actually doing anything.”
On Friday, it read something like “most” or “all” people, because as I wrote I thought about one person after another I’d known who grabbed their participation trophy and got out of the game five minutes after getting in – if they got up off the bench at all.
Then I thought about James Bell. And my friends Richard and Brett. And Chuck Donovan, who sacrificed months fighting a brilliant but futile campaign. None of these guys stopped short.
I needed to rewrite, but couldn’t think and was out of time.
When Brian met me for dinner, he looked beat. Our oldest child was running late, so Brian used the time to get in some steps before joining me. Sleep deprivation was also at work. After a minute or two of conversation about our days, he just stopped and looked at me for a second, and then said, “Oh – James Bell died.”
I don’t even know how I responded. James dying was not in the realm of thinkable things. Not two hours before, I thought of him as I struggled to write. There is nobody that can fill his shoes. He’s not much older than me. I kept thinking leading up to my birthday: What if I’m running out of time?
James apparently died of a heart attack after helping to hang sheetrock on Friday morning. Reading through the outpouring of sentiment posted to his Facebook page it’s clear how much love, respect and gratitude everyone felt for him. Losing James blindsided family, friends and a whole community.
From the Douglas County Sentinel: Citizen activist, Bell, dies at age 58
James at the state capitol