Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beaver County's Big Knob Fair Meets the Peace and Jobs Movement

Lessons Learned at the

Big Knob Grange Fair

By Carl Davidson and Randy Shannon

Beaver County Blue

The Big Knob Grange Fair, held Aug. 30 through Sept. 4 up in the lovely rolling hills above Rochester, PA, a distressed mill town at the confluence of the Beaver and Ohio rivers, is a “big doin’s’ in Beaver County, and has been for 70 years or so.

It features blue grass and country rock bands, tractor and truck ‘pulls,’ a demolition derby, dozens of rides for kids, booths for local politicians, hunting clubs, garden clubs, home improvement vendors, and local artisans. The Grange members serve delicious home-cooked food, display prize-winning livestock, fowl, and garden produce. The oldest and the latest in farm equipment are also on display. In recent years, the Fair draws from 30,000 to 40,000 semi-rural farmers and blue-collar workers with their families, and a horde of young people, and this year, with glorious weather, was no different.

This year the Fair had a new feature co-sponsored by Beaver County Peace Links and the 4th CD Chapter of Progressive Democrats of America. Near the middle of the big striped circus tent was a table with a large banner hanging behind it: ‘War Is Making You Poor!’ Many of the hundreds of passersby on any one of the five days stopped and did a double take. Some ambled on, but a good number stopped to chat and see what it was all about.

“We were there every day from 4pm until 10pm,” said Randy Shannon, treasurer of the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America. “People start flowing in after work. In addition to our banner, there was a giant 4ft x 5ft poster showing that Beaver County taxpayers have shelled out $54 million per year for the last ten years for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is almost the same amount as the county’s annual general fund tax collections.”

Carl Davidson explained his contribution: “We set up an internet connection with a cell phone. With a monitor and a laptop I showed some antiwar videos picked by Beaver County Peace Links, including a looping video of an apple pie being divided like the US budget. The military got half the pie.”

Todd and Emily Davis made a unique contribution to the table. Todd, a Methodist pastor, is the chairperson of Peace Links. They labeled 10 jars with the main categories of the federal budget. They were arrayed in front of a small backdrop that read: 'Take the penny poll: how would YOU spend your tax dollars.’

“We gave people a cup of 20 pennies,” explained Emily, “and said, ‘think of each one as 20 billion dollars. Imagine that you’re in charge, and put them where you want the budget to go--vet benefits, health care, education, transportation, military, and so on.’ When they were done, we showed them a colored graph of how the money was really spen, published by the National Priorities Project. Reactions ranged from shock, to surprise, to resignation, to outrage. All spending for the wars, the military, interest on military debt, and care for casualties of war received 59 percent. Education, like other human services received around 2 percent.”

“I had one pro-war veteran who dropped all his pennies in the military jar, and walked away with a big frown” said Davidson. “But five minutes later, another tough old vet from the Korean war put all his pennies in for vet benefits, but told me, ‘I won’t give a cent to the military. These wars are destroying us and our youth, for no good reason. You run them through two or three tours where everyone and no one is the enemy, and they come home with their brains wrecked and get no decent health treatment or jobs. We even have homeless Iraq vets. No, not a penny more for the damned wars.’”

“On the other end of the table we had a sign that said "Hands Off Social Security," said Randy. “Next to it was a stack of postcards addressed to our ‘Blue Dog’ Congressman, Jason Altmire, which folks could sign or take with them.” The message was simple: don’t cut Social Security or raise the retirement age, and it was very popular, especially with people over 50 years of age.

“Another young man looked at our budget categories,” Randy added, “and with tears told us that his girlfriend was dying because she did not have health care. He was followed a little while later by a man hobbling on a cane. Without hesitation he dumped his 20 pennies into healthcare and kept on going.

Marcia Lehman from Ambridge was working the table Saturday night. “A 10 year old boy approached the table with his parents and a younger sibling,” she said.  “All four got involved in the Penny Poll. You could tell by the interaction that these parents were smart and engaging, and really got the kids involved. After they played the poll, we gave them the bar chart - Where does your money go? There was some explaining by the parents to the kids, which was very well done. Then the 10 year old studied the bumper stickers we had laid out on the table in this order:


“This bright-eyed boy promptly said:  ‘Well, if we do the 1st two, the third will take care of itself.’  The parents proudly looked on---Dad said, ‘wow, even a 10 year old gets it!’”

There were the other political booths outside the tent—one for Republicans, one for the regular Democrats, and one for Congressman Altmire. They were getting ready for November, passing out yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers. Congressman Altmire stood at his booth for several hours on Saturday evening greeting passersby.

County Commissioner Joe Spanik stopped by our table to talk about the fight for money to grow jobs. The following day Tony Berosh, Beaver County’s District Attorney and Terry Tatalovich, Beaver County Coroner, stopped for a while. “Here’s a question for you,” said Davidson. “From the perspective of the DA’s office, what’s our biggest problem?” “That’s easy,” Berosh replied. “Jobs, jobs and jobs. I don’t care what all the wacky theories people come up with. There’s a direct relation between the number of arrests and the level of unemployment. The more jobs, the less arrests. The less jobs, the more arrests. Sure, there’s more to it, but that’s the heart of it.”

Naturally, in an event as large as the Big Knob fair, all kind of people stopped by, with a whole range of views. One wiry tough-looking 50-something woman, after defending social security while denouncing all politicians, declared “The only way they'll get my guns is bullets first!” Why did she need them? “They’re going to attack Israel, and the Lord won’t stand for that. Like the Bible says, we have to be ready for Armageddon!”

Said one woman: “I won't put any money in for housing, because only Blacks need housing.” There was a big discussion with one person who claimed that the only purpose of the federal government should be the military. Another claimed that his CPA had told him that social security would be bankrupt in two years and nothing could be done and anyone who thought otherwise was getting “questionable information.”

“One woman told us she loved Sarah Palin,” said Lehman.  “’OK,’ I said,  ‘but all the Federal programs we use and see benefiting our seniors, Sarah Palin will cut and try to eliminate: the regulations for the environment, big oil and gas, social security, Medicare, etc.’  She looked at me in disbelief and said, ‘Do you really think that is true?’  She clearly did not understand the agenda of the right wing, but was just caught up in the personality of Sarah Palin.”

Another 40-something man, Lehman added, said government should not be in health care at all: "’It's God's job to take care of us, not government.’  I asked him what happens if someone gets diabetes or cancer, does God drop the insulin on the front porch?  ‘No, God will heal me’, he said. ‘People don't have enough faith.’  Rather stumped, I said, ‘OK, I hope that works for you.’”

Our best responses were from women over 30 and trade unionists. Said Lehman: “Two women, retired school teachers, were just so thrilled that we were there. They took the literature and said they were on-board.  Another older SEIU organizer from nearby Ohio came up, took a quick look, reached into his pocket, and stuffed a handful of bills in the donation jar before saying a word. But we talked with him a bit on the Oct 2 March for Jobs in Washington, which he’s doing in his area.”

Todd Davis reported on Thursday night: “Due to schedule conflicts, I had to be there several hours alone. One man wearing ‘intimidation’ sunglasses stood for while at the center of the aisle looking intently at the posters. Then he strode to the table and whipped off his glasses looking me square in the eye.  He was tall man, as I am, so we were at eye level.”
“He said to me, ‘My son was killed in Iraq.  No one out here gives a damn about what’s happening over there. This means more to me than you will ever know.  Don't feel sorry for me.’ He helped himself to literature, put his glasses back on and disappeared in the crowd.”

Tina Shannon, PDA chapter chairperson was attending the table on Friday evening. “A man and his wife came by the table. He was older and clearly intoxicated. He spent a good few minutes staring at the banner ‘War Is Making You Poor!’ He came closer to the table and looked at the bumper stickers and recited ‘War is making you poor?’ as a question several times getting a little louder and with a slightly sarcastic tone. Then he lowered his voice saying ‘My son was killed in Iraq.’”

We learned that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing more than $54 million a year. For some people here the wars carry the immeasurable cost of the lost lives of children and loved ones. Young people who could have become teachers, firemen, farmers, veterinarians, mail carriers, pilots, nurses, or doctors, are now a painful memory of loss for their surviving families.

By the end the end of the fair, there were hundreds of pennies in every jar. But the totals told a poignant visual story: they were almost an exact reverse of the current priorities of the federal government budget. We learned from the penny poll that our neighbors want the federal budget spent mostly on healthcare with 18%. Veterans’ benefits and education share second place totaling 28%. The military budget is fourth with 12%. And the remaining 42% goes to alternative energy, agriculture, science, homeland security, housing, transportation, in that order.

Nearly a dozen volunteers helped at the table. We collected a good number of cards to send to Altmire asking him not to cut social security, and collected about $70 in donations, and added some names to our mailing list. We gave people something to think about that they don’t usually encounter at the Fair, a different path ahead: peace and prosperity instead of war and austerity.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened was a discussion of the war in a public arena. Plus the fresh lemonade, funnel cakes, and home cooked food at the Grange hall couldn’t be beat. And if you were a fan of tractor pulls, they were terrific as well.

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