Truckers Take Their Case to the Capitol

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The Nation

Truckers Take Their Case to the Capitol

Truckers live in an alternative dimension, at least so I conclude when trying to figure out how to meet up with the convoy of trucks coming into to DC to protest high diesel fuel prices on Monday. JB, a k a Mike Schaffner, one of the organizers of the action, calls early in the morning to suggest various highway intersections, and I have to explain there's no way a pedestrian can be just standing on one of the superhighways around DC. We eventually settle on a spot in a desolate area of southeastern DC, but even so, I probably couldn't have made the connection without the genes of a grandfather who rode the rails. When I hear the honking, low and steady, and see the first trucks rising out from an underpass, I scramble up to a narrow walkway along their route and start waving frantically. Everyone waves back nicely, and about the fifth truck actually stops. It's JB and I leap aboard.

JB and I have become friends-by-phone in the weeks since I blogged about the first truckers' protests in the beginning of April, but all I knew about him as a physical presence is that he always wears a black cowboy hat. Its brim is turned down, locating him in the west of Larry McMurtry rather than John Wayne, and his eyes twinkle deeply when he smiles, which is pretty much all the time. Everything seems to delight him: being in DC for the first time, having 250 trucks behind him, the friendliness of the tourists on the street as we inch our way toward the Mall.

Since he hasn't been home in Texas since January 1, this -- the "bobtail" of a truck based in New Jersey -- is JB's world. There's a neatly made bed behind our seats and a laptop that can swivel into view while he's driving, as well, of course, as a GPS, a cellphone and CB radio. From this little control room, which is also a workplace and a living space, JB has helped assemble the hundreds of truckers and their families who are with us now. It's a life stripped bare: He ordinarily eats only one meal a day (nothing fried or from a buffet), sleeps rarely (just an hour and half last night) and drinks no coffee ("it leads to stops") but admits to an occasional Red Bull.

We circle the Mall, slowly, triumphantly, twice. It's hard to talk over the honking and the excited CB chatter, but JB wants to know if I've ever been at a demonstration in DC before. Ah, I explain, I go back to the '60s, but the most recent one was an antiwar demonstration organized by the women's group Code Pink. He laughs, making me think he finds the name amusing. But no, he shows me he has Code Pink in his cell phone. They had contacted him and will be joining us at the rally at the Capitol.

We are to park the trucks at the RFK Stadium and walk from there to the Capitol, giving us about a half an hour to mill around on foot in the parking lot first. There's a bobtail with "Truckin' for Jesus" painted on it and, under that, "Truckers and Citizens United." There are Operation Desert Freedom caps and a POW/MIA flag, as well signs indicting oil companies and "Wall Street speculators." I chat with members of the mostly African-American contingent of DC dump-truck drivers and with Belinda Raymond, a trucker's wife from Maine, who tells me that people in her area raised $9,000 to send a convoy of trucks down here, with the Knights of Columbus accounting for $2.500 of that. Whole families have come, and I see a boy carrying a sign saying "What about My Future?" A smartly dressed woman from New Jersey carries a sign asking, "Got Milk? Not Without a Truck."

If there's an ideology at work here I'd call it small-d democratic fundamentalism: We own the government, we pay for it, and now it better do something for us. In fact, JB is carrying hundreds of copies of the Code of Ethics for Civil Servants he's downloaded from the Internet to hand out at the Capitol and remind Congress of their duties. The only time I see his smile fade is when the protest's media coordinator -- contributed pro bono by the liberal think tank The Institute for Policy Studies -- lays down the ground rules for a meeting with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) scheduled for the afternoon. "But he works for us!" JB protests.

On the forty-five-minute march from the stadium to the Capitol, things degenerate toward the level of farce. No one had counted on the rain, which is back in force, or on the fact that, as one guy puts it to me, they're "truckers, not walkers." JB, I and a few others fall behind because JB insists on running back to his truck and changing into a shirt printed with the American flag and Constitution. Our little band includes Mike Groff, a heavily pierced twentysomething from Pennsylvania who is one of the original organizers of the protests, and his pregnant wife, Melissa. JB and Mike take turns pulling a wagon carrying batteries for the sound system that will be used at the rally. The rain turns into a torrent. We trudge through the ghetto, then on into a middle-class neighborhood sporting azaleas and Obama lawn signs, not entirely sure of our direction and soaked to the skin. Melissa reassures me that, if we pee our pants, which seems increasingly likely, no one will notice.

But things look up when we get the Capitol, thanks largely to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who arranges for the truckers to stage a press conference inside the Russell Building lobby and out of the rain. Three truckers -- two white and one black -- speak about their dwindling livelihoods and the need for immediate government action to push down fuel prices. I can't fight my way through the media to hear much of what they're saying, but one speaker mentions foreclosures. This is a wide-ranging cry from the strangled middle class -- or working class or whatever you want to call it -- and all I can think is: Where are the Democrats? Why aren't they are pouring out of their offices to show support for the truckers? And wouldn't have been wonderful if Obama had shown up? Because he's not going to make it unless he learns to channel the frustration of people like JB, Melissa and Mike.

That's just my concern though. The whole event has been strictly nonpartisan. The truckers are already focused on the May 1 Truckers and Citizens United protest in New York City (see theamericandriver.com.) That one, JB tells me, will be in solidarity with the San Francisco longshoremen's May Day actions against the war.

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