It’s just a few hours before President Barack Obama gives a national address about a major surge of American military forces in Afghanistan. And Nathaniel Batchelder is where you would expect him to be: on the corner of Classen and 23rd holding a sign opposing the war. He is joined by several antiwar compatriots, and every few minutes, a car horn can be heard endorsing their stance. It is a cold, December afternoon on the street corner, and the signs do not reflect the general sentiment of Oklahomans when it comes to military matters. But Batchelder remains steadfast.
SEEDS OF ACTIVISM
AN ACTIVIST APPROACH
“I’m not unpatriotic. I love the United States,” he said. “But I can also grieve when my nation’s resources are misused in a misguided conflict. But that’s politics, and I want to be involved in politics. I don’t get my way, but I get my say.”
Batchelder is not alone when it comes to patriotism and voicing an opinion. Oklahoma City has several feather-rufflers who consider it a point of pride ” and sometimes anger ” to get involved on an issue, whether it’s war or abortion or publicly funding a basketball team.
They come from different backgrounds and have diverse reasons for public activism on politically charged issues. Some of them have even mustered up the courage to fight inside the political arena and run for elected office, becoming more vocal and sometimes more animated in their beliefs. What makes these people have any ax to grind?
One thing is certain: They can always be counted on to make the topic of discussion more interesting.
SEEDS OF ACTIVISM
For Batchelder, it started as a child raising money for UNICEF, a global organization working to improve lives and conditions for children in developing countries. That and serving in the Vietnam War have led to what is now a career of activism, landing in his present job as director of the Oklahoma City Peace House. Social justice, peace, working rights and the environment have been his calling for decades.
“I have found that I have some values that were natural to me or instilled in me, and they remain passions still today,” he said.
For David Glover, the tingling of the activist spine did not hit until much later in life, when just two years ago, Oklahoma City had to make a choice on whether to give up tax dollars to help bring professional basketball to town. Voters strongly approved the initiative to renovate the Ford Center, which led to the birth of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But a month after the vote, the team’s ownership went to the Oklahoma Legislature and asked for more help in tax benefits. That was too much for Glover, so he took it upon himself to inform the public of his views and conclusions.
“I feel there is a large group of people who are voiceless, who don’t have the time to come home from work and do a research project,” Glover said. “Because of the work I do, I have time to look into these things and see what’s best.”
The work he does is actually very little. He doesn’t describe himself as a wealthy man, but he does have enough money socked away to allow him free time to spend checking government and personal financial statements.
Now a fixture in public economic matters at all levels of government, Glover did come from better-than-average means. A graduate of Heritage Hall, he was a younger classmate of Chesapeake Energy President Aubrey McClendon, also one of the co-owners of the Thunder. In college at the University of Oklahoma, Glover served as president of the Interfraternity Council when future Gov. Brad Henry was his treasurer. Jobs at Harold’s, the former clothing company, and IBM helped put away the funds he now uses. He boasts of having no house, car or credit card debt.
His main source of income these days is organizing hang gliding events across the country. “It’s not how much you make; it’s how much you spend,” he said. “I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t get money from my parents. I’ve had a few good jobs in the past, and I don’t spend a lot.”
Glover’s attitude could be a sign in Mike Reynolds’ state legislative office. If there is one person in state government not afraid to speak his mind, even if it causes eyes to roll, it’s Reynolds.
Whenever a bill comes up concerning the budget or any government funds, which includes about every bill, expect Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, to raise his hand during question time.
For this true conservative Republican, it wasn’t so much as activism that started him on his current path, but rather just wanting some questions answered.
Reynolds recalled the first time he spoke up. It was back in the 1980s while working for an oil company in Houston. He said when the company was bought out, controversy ensued over employee compensation. At a company meeting to address the change, he took the microphone.
“I got up in front of 4,000 employees and asked the chairman, ‘When are you going to give us our money?’ That was the first thing I really did: Sit down and read the law and get in somebody’s face about it,” he said.
Moving back to his hometown of Oklahoma City, Reynolds stayed quiet until he was asked to help a friend run for Cleveland County Republican Party chairman. They knew each other through church and were not afraid to mix religion and politics.
“(He) said church members are not doing their civic responsibility if they are not getting out to vote,” Reynolds said.
A few years later, he decided it was time to run for office himself. He won a seat in the state House of Representatives. At first, the freshman lawmaker played his part, staying loyal to his party, which was still in the minority. But he was already gaining a reputation as a stubborn politician.
“I was used by the leadership because they saw I was willing to debate many, many bills. That’s because the bills would come hot off the presses, literally still warm, and they would say, ‘Reynolds, find something to debate so we can have time to look at these bills,'” he said. “The last couple of weeks of session, I would be up constantly to debate while people were out reading the bills to see what was in them.”
When the GOP took control of the state House in 2004, Reynolds did not always fall in step with the Republican line. Frequently, he found himself at odds with his own leadership, arguing over parliamentary procedures and even trying to stop his own party’s bills from passing. It has led to heated confrontations at times during debate, one involving the chairman turning off Reynolds’ microphone while still speaking.
“The Democrats treated us very fairly when it came time to debate,” he said. “They let us express our opinions, and they didn’t cut off debate, unlike many Republicans have done in the last few years we have been in control.”
Although a member of the majority, very few of Reynolds’ bills have even made it out of a committee hearing. But he has found ways to be effective. In a sense, he has established his own minority status and can stop legislation.
One example came this past year when the House took up a bill to name The Flaming Lips tune “Do You Realize??” as the official state rock song. This was a no-brainer bill that had bipartisan support. There was never any clue it could be in trouble, until Reynolds motioned to speak in debate. He railed against the band’s well-known use of foul language.
When it came time to vote, the bill still received a majority number, but Reynolds garnered 39 members to vote “no,” which, along with 14 excused legislators, kept the song from receiving the needed 50 percent majority. It was a stunner and even made national headlines, causing the governor to issue an executive order to make the song official. But the point was made: Reynolds could be skillfully disruptive.
He also takes great pride in being the only “no” vote at times on bills.
“My favorite quote that was ever done on the floor of the House, Rep. Gary Taylor was asked what the vote on a previous bill was, and he said it was ’99 to Reynolds.’ I went up to Rep. Taylor and said, ‘If there are any remarks that make the newspaper, I hope it’s that one.'”
Getting tough legislation passed was a specialty of Wanda Jo Stapleton. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, Stapleton started out as a farmer’s wife and hardly ever paid attention to politics. But 40 years ago, she learned through the League of Women Voters of a certain law making it difficult for women to inherit property upon their husband’s deaths. But no such provision prevented husbands from inheriting their wives’ property. At about the same time, the Equal Rights Amendment made its way to the state Capitol, and Stapleton wanted to get involved.
“I went with a group of women to the Capitol,” she said. “We thought if we looked good, smelled good and made sense, it was a done deal. Well, about all we got (were) pats on the head.”
She later helped form the Oklahoma Women’s Political Caucus, which led to doubling the number of women elected to the Legislature in 1985. But it was a man, Stapleton’s husband, who pushed her into elected office.
“He said at the breakfast table, ‘Sweet baby, if you are going to spend your life in other people’s campaigns, you might as well run yourself.’ That was a shocker and rather scary,” she said.
But she won and spent a decade pushing bills to enhance her greatest cause, social justice. Thinking about her cause nearly brought tears to Stapleton’s eyes.
“Someday at the end of life, (I) will be able to say I gave it everything I had for justice,” she said.
These days, Stapleton can be found standing next to Glover and Reynolds arguing against proposals like the recently passed MAPS 3. Like Glover, another newbie activist has emerged, one who uses sarcasm as a means of pointing out flaws.
Steve Hunt is becoming a regular at Oklahoma City Council meetings. He has irked both the mayor and city manager, who have been seen with a look of consternation on their faces when Hunt addresses the council.
Back in March, Hunt proposed a “take a lobbyist to work day” idea to the council so, as he put it, lobbyists could see people who oppose them are hardworking citizens.
Hunt said the federal building bombing woke him up to the complexities of life.
“Before that, all I cared about was baseball and making a 2.0 (grade point average) so I could play. Literally, I didn’t know anything,” he said.
Since then, Hunt has relocated to several cities. Community activism has followed him. In Boston, Hunt said he met renowned activist Noam Chomsky. In Fort Worth, Texas, Hunt said he helped put together Garrett Morgan Day, after the African-American inventor who pioneered several innovations in traffic management. It was the first time he addressed a city council.
“(I) thought, ‘This is cool, speaking to city council. You always hear about what a free country it is, but you never see it. Well this is it, this is what people are talking about,'” he said.
Every community has activists, and each activist has his or her own passion. For Batchelder and Stapleton, it’s social justice. Reynolds and Glover laser in on financing. And Hunt, well, he can be passionate just about anything. Their paths do cross, but each has his or her own starting place.
“If you took care of the economic issues, the social justice issues have a lot better chance,” Glover said. “I feel it is a lever and linchpin to more opportunity.”
All five of the highlighted activists were marching together on Oklahoma City’s last major issue: the MAPS 3 proposal. Led by Mayor Mick Cornett and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the proposal called for $777 million for various projects, including a new convention center, downtown park and transit system. It passed with 54 percent of the vote on Dec. 8.
Proponents said it would meet future needs and continue to spur economic development. Opponents felt it was the wrong time for another community development project, and that lower income citizens would bear a heavier load of the taxes collected.
Proponents spent hundreds of thousands pushing their side. Opponents relied on the hard work of the activists.
“Tax policy and public policy is about how you want to move the playing field,” Glover said. “I’m just trying to put my thumb on the other side to balance out the corporate and well-funded side.”
Batchelder and Stapleton have made their marks on issues like gay rights and abortion, and not just at their own rallies. When conservative Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, called upon Oklahomans to come to the Capitol and sign her morality proclamation earlier this year, the first-floor rotunda became an activist sauna for both sides. And standing in the back was Batchelder.
It doesn’t take much to get an activist talking. Just ask a question ” any question, really; it may not have to do with politics or social issues ” then sit back and listen. When asked what gets his passion fired up, Batchelder went from human rights to war atrocities to environmentalism before catching up with himself.
“I need to slow down here,” he said, leaning back in his chair and smiling. “These are things I think about when I am eating my oatmeal. This is my job. I would rather do that than play golf. I would rather do that than go camping for a weekend. These things are nourishing.”
Hunt said at first it was hard for his family to accept the role in society he had established. At one point, he said his fierce passion scared his mother, who told him she was worried he would act out in a radical way.
“That hurt,” Hunt said. “People just don’t understand why you just don’t accept things.”
It is the inability to “accept things” while others just watch that serves as the catalyst for the activists. The picturesque lives of families eating at the dinner table or watching television while someone in their neighborhood or even thousands of miles away is the victim of an injustice is unacceptable.
Coming out of the Vietnam War, Batchelder found himself not only questioning his government, but his family as well.
“My family raised me and educated me and got my teeth fixed and piano lessons. I had a kind of lucky life. But when I enlisted in the Army and got orders for Vietnam, it was sort of like, ‘Well, hope you write. Let us know how it goes,'” he said. “My sister asked me 20 years later, ‘Is there anything unresolved for you about Vietnam?’ I said, ‘The thing that is really interesting is nobody tried to talk me out of it.'”
AN ACTIVIST APPROACH
There is a generational difference in approaching activism. Stapleton and Batchelder come from the old-school days of marching in the street to create change. Whether it’s ending the war or starting the women’s movement, protesting used to mean holding signs and walking to city hall with fists in the air.
Now in her 70s, Stapleton said activism is not the same today.
“I’m a really good organizer. But now I want to hand the torch over. I’m tired. That’s the difference,” she said.
People like Glover and Hunt are ready. Armed with video cameras and keen knowledge of the Internet, today’s protesters use a more high-speed form of activism. They don’t do the talking themselves as much. They let their opponents’ words try to do the damage by posting videos on Web sites.
“I think you can use the Internet to teach people stuff,” Hunt said. “Like, don’t just sit in front of your computer and say, ‘This is horrible, we have to beat it, forward this to 10 of your friends and we will beat it.’ You have to make sure people are doing something or you are screwed, and you are providing the other side with fodder.”
The key ingredient is media attention. An activist may only be as persuasive as the camera allows. Batchelder thought he knew how to grab press headlines from his background in public relations with the Oklahoma City Zoo. Working some years ago to get the story of a group from El Salvador escaping turmoil and fleeing to Canada into the newspapers proved harder than just putting out the word.
“I thought I had talent, but it turns out it’s pretty easy to publicize a baby giraffe,” Batchelder said. “I sent out a press release (on the El Salvadorans) and we got one weekly newspaper. I thought, ‘I don’t understand. When I did this with a parrot, it worked.'”
For the activists, there are usually more defeats than victories. But the next time Sally Kern speaks ill of a particular group of people or the city wants another sales tax vote, expect this gang to be visible and vocal. That includes Stapleton.
“I’m just not going to sit around and rot,” she said. “I’ve got time on my hands, and I need to spend it doing something important.””Scott Cooper