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Collecting Signatures for Nader in Detroit

Margaret Guttshall
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001

"Antiwar, did you say antiwar?"

Collecting signatures for Nader in Detroit

I have been standing by workplaces, grocery stores, schools, and street corners for nearly 40 years, passing out literature and collecting signatures for causes. It's something I enjoy; I like learning what working class people are thinking and feeling; I like sharing my thoughts when I'm not at work and don't have to worry about being disciplined or fired. It's an activity that has sustained my confidence in the future.

Collecting signatures to put Ralph Nader on the ballot as an independent candidate has been no exception.

When I started collecting signatures in April, I asked people, "Would you like to sign a petition to put an independent candidate on the ballot?" This is what I have always said; it worked before, I assumed it would work again; it did. But as U.S. forces got more involved in violent conflict in Iraq, as stories came about U.S. forces torturing Iraqi prisoners, I began to meet people who were outraged, unspeakably angry, about what U.S. forces were doing. I began to say: "Would you like to sign a petition to put an antiwar candidate on the ballot?"

Hundreds did. What was most interesting, this brought me to groups of people I don't usually communicate with.

I was standing at the door to Wayne State University library, one of my favorite places to collect.

"Would you like to sign a petition to put an antiwar candidate on the ballot," I said. A young man walked past me, kept on walking, walked halfway across the plaza, stopped, turned around, and started walking toward me. He had a short military haircut, a pale face, and, as he got closer, I could see he had boils on his face and arms.

"Antiwar, did you say antiwar?"

"Yes, would you like to sign a petition to put an antiwar candidate on the ballot?"

"I sure would. I just got back from Iraq. Look at me; I got something over there; I've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; a bunch of my buddies have been diagnosed with the same thing; now I'm supposed to go back in August; I'm trying to get a medical discharge but I can't . give me that . let me sign that ."

I usually focus on collecting and don't spend time talking, but he and I talked for a while.

On another day, outside a grocery store in my neighborhood in mid-town Detroit, I was getting some typical flak: "Antiwar candidate . I don't want an antiwar candidate on the ballot . we need to support our troops!"

A big African-American woman walked by with a cart full of groceries, stopped and turned around. "Support our troops? What are you talkin' about? Those boys are over there, actin' the fool . We need to bring those boys home, now . Give me that . I'll sign it!"

Fortunately, for me, the number of men and women like her far outnumbered those who didn't want an antiwar candidate on the ballot, but did want to give me a hard time about it.

At the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, I met young people from the suburbs and from distant small towns in Michigan. This was especially interesting because I have lived in or near Detroit for 25 years. When I'm talking with people about political issues, quite often, it's African-American Detroiters; we Detroiters tend to share a certain mind-set; the rest of Michigan sometimes seems like a foreign country to us.

These young people taught me different.

"Antiwar? Why would I want an antiwar candidate on the ballot? I've got friends in the army ."

A group of young women was in front of me, dressed-up for the festival in similar outfits; they looked as if they were still in high school.

"Well, if you've got friends in the army, then you, especially, should be antiwar," I said.

"I'm antiwar," said another. "But what good is getting an antiwar candidate on the ballot going to do?"

"Well, if we get a well-known antiwar candidate on the ballot, like Ralph Nader, then people are going to hear an antiwar message. The more people hear antiwar messages, the more they are going to think about the war, the more they are going to be against it. The more people vote for an antiwar candidate in November, the more pressure there will be on whomever is in the White House to bring the troops home."

"That makes sense to me. I'll sign it. We'll all sign it, won't we. Come on everybody, let's sign it."

They started to talk among themselves; I handed them a board with a petition for their county on it; they passed it around. They had all signed and started to leave when one of them stopped. She said, "You see these tattoos we have on our arms," and pointed to a pink heart with a name inside and a banner swirling around it. "That's for our friend . She was killed in Iraq."

Some of the most difficult conversations I had were with young men who couldn't find work and were thinking about joining the armed forces.

"Antiwar . Why would I want an antiwar candidate on the ballot? . I'm going to join the armed forces!"

"If you're going to join the armed forces, then you definitely need an antiwar candidate on the ballot."

"I'm not worried. I talked with a recruiter the other day; he said if you do a good job on this test they have, you can pretty much pick your job. I'm going to be a mechanic; I'm not going to see any action."

"That's what they say when they're trying to recruit you; wait until you are actually in. Do you really want to kill or be killed? Do you really want to get ordered to torture somebody?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell him," his buddy says.

"Look, I can't find work. I'm not workin' for $5 an hour. What choices do I have?"

We talked for a while; they both signed the petition; I made him promise that before he signed paperwork joining any armed forces, he'd call me; I told him I knew people in the plants who might be able to help him find work.

I had a similar conversation with another young man, but with a twist. "Look," he said, "My mother's trying to get me to join; she says it would be good for me; she says I need discipline." "Don't worry," said his young female friend, with her arm firmly locked around his. "I'm not going to let him join . Now let's sign this petition and go listen to the music!"

Let's hope she wins and not the mother!

I met over 1,000 people who wanted to sign a petition to put an independent, antiwar candidate on the ballot in less than 8 weeks. Some had never heard of Ralph Nader. For others, Nader was a hero, a star. "Awesome . I love Ralph Nader . let me sign that!" young people would say to me, some with multi-colored hair and rings in eyebrows, noses, lips and ears.

When you are out there, talking with people who are NOT part of the movement, who don't read all the email, go to all the demonstrations; when you are listening to them, trying to understand them, encouraging their doubts about the status quo, encouraging, supporting, strengthening their antiwar sentiments and actions . you know you are making a difference; you know you aren't wasting your time .

Campaigning for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo is a way to do this.

Margaret Guttshall,
Volunteer for Nader and Camejo in Detroit
August, 2004