And I feel
Like I've been here before
Like I've been here before
And you know
It makes me wonder
What's going on under the ground
from Déjà Vu by David Crosby
I was a paperboy. From the time I was around 11 until I was 15, I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood. And once a month, I’d go “collecting.” For those not old enough to remember paper carriers and home delivery by children, “collecting” was when I’d take the receipt book that the newspaper company gave me and knock on the doors where I’d been delivering papers. When someone answered, I’d say, “Collecting for the [name of the newspaper]” like every other newspaper carrier did. Then the adult who lived there would reach into a wallet or purse for cash, or they’d go over to a desk to write a check. I was responsible to collect the household’s subscription fee for the month. I’d give the majority of what I collected to the route manager, and I’d keep a percentage as my salary. At a time before automated, computer-driven billing, it was an ingenious system that saved newspapers all over the country from having larger billing and collections departments; and it helped me learn the responsibility of earning and managing money. The job also led to lots of adventures that adults never intended, and those adventures helped shape my world view; but those are for another time.
For the most part, the people from whom I collected were pretty good about my collecting. While some of them didn’t otherwise treat me especially well, they seemed to understand the relationship between my providing a service and then showing up at the doorstep requesting payment. The exchanges were polite and formally cordial. There was an exception, however. The John Birch House. That was what I called the house where members of the John Birch Society in the neighborhood lived. I don’t remember ever having any discussion beyond being handed payment, giving a receipt, and wordlessly being expected to leave as the door closed. Like just about every other house in the neighborhood, they had children in school, so the lack of communication wasn’t because the adults didn’t know how to converse with children. There was always silence and the tacit understanding that even in this most American of commercial interactions, having a Black kid on their porch wasn’t what they preferred – no matter the reason.
This less-than-amicable interaction won’t be surprising to anyone who even casually knows the John Birch Society. Think of all of the crackpot conspiracies fomented in recent years by the “Q” crowd and White-nationalist groups that stormed the nation’s capitol building on January 6. All their ideas and beliefs have their antecedents in the John Birch Society of the late 1950s and 1960s. Disbelieve government experts? That was a hallmark of theirs, whether it was water safety or education. Mistrust “mainstream” journalists? The Birch Society believed them to have been infiltrated by communists and communist sympathizers who sought to destroy the nation. Don’t believe that the current president is legitimate? They believed that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, the man who’d led Allied troops a few years before, was a communist dupe. The list of whacky beliefs goes on. So much so that the Republican Party of the era renounced the John Birch Society as being outrageous and dangerous to democracy. John Birch Society members were especially hostile toward the civil rights movement that they saw as fueled by communist conspirators who were teaching Black folks to step out of line. Black folks who didn’t know their place as subservient weren’t welcome where members of the John Birch Society lived, even if they were just collecting for the newspaper.
I don’t remember any specific collecting moments during my career as a newspaper carrier except for one at the John Birch House. At that visit, I knocked on the door. When it opened, I offered my standard introduction, expecting the usual silence that accompanied it at that house. The mother of the house who had opened the door, quietly turned and walked back into the living room where a group of men and women sat. As she retrieved her purse, the group that had been talking became suddenly silent as they stared at me. Because I was the paperboy, and because I went to school with the children in our area, I knew all of the adults who lived in the neighborhood. These men and women were unfamiliar. I grew up in a family that was politically active, and I immediately recognized the signs of a meeting, rather than a social gathering. It was mid-day on a Saturday, and seating was arranged in a circle. Some chairs had been brought from the dining room to complete that circle. People’s postures weren’t casual. The group was arranged for a discussion, not in an informal gathering. Some of the people needed to shift their position to look at me. They continued to stare motionlessly at me as the woman of the house brought back her purse and paid me. I wrote her a receipt and she held out her hand to take it, then stepped back and closed the door. It was only as the door closed that I began to see some movement in the group that had been observing me intensely for the few minutes that the exchange took.
When you’re one of only a few Black kids in a White community of over 30,000 people in the 1950s and ‘60s, you get used to staring and silence. But I also immediately realized whom and what I’d seen. This was the local John Birch Society having a meeting. They were a very active group in that community as they sought to protect the community from godless communism and fluoride in the drinking water. They weren’t out burning crosses in people’s yards, but they were clearly about maintaining a system that benefitted White men at the expense of all others. Their beliefs were very widely known, but it was difficult to know who was a member. I only knew about the people in this house’s membership because my parents had told me. Catching this rare glimpse of their meeting was as rare as finding an undiscovered flock of endangered birds.
While there were lots of community groups that people could join, the John Birch Society wasn’t a group where you could attend a membership recruitment meeting or an open forum they offered. They met in small groups like the one I’d seen, and they did their work behind the scenes. They started rumor campaigns that employed coded language to rail against Jews as greedy or African Americans as lazy or dangerous in letters to the editor. They ran for the school board under the banner of protecting traditions and history. They were quietly persistent, preferring to be cautious about being open about their group membership. They would never, for example, speak at a school board meeting as the president of the local chapter of the John Birch Society. Their public posture was that they were individuals who cared about values and tradition and their interpretation of important concepts like liberty and freedom.
They never stood up as a group to say, “We’re the John Birch Society, these are our members, and this is what we believe.” That openness of their beliefs often happened at the national level, especially through their founding leader Robert Welch. However, despite their local collective silence, there was a clear local agenda that tied to the national agenda, and that became clear through the actions and comments that aligned to the national organization’s policies. You only knew that local neighbors were members of the John Birch Society if you paid attention to what they said and how they said it when they engaged publicly. Again, as a Black kid who grew up in a White community and who was raised by an activist father, I paid attention.
At the local level, they stayed in the background and created small agitations. They’d fight for the recall of a school board member. They’d launch a formal complaint against a curriculum or a particular teacher in schools. They’d appear as concerned citizens at city or county council meetings. On the surface, it looked like these individuals were good citizens who were exercising their individual rights by advocating for their communities. In truth, in the pre-social-media-era, through books like None Dare Call It Treason or Robert Welch’s Blue Book, that they could get from the right-wing American Opinion Bookstore in nearby Oakland, they developed a common ideology. Through meetings like the one I accidentally witnessed, they would plan collective action. But it never looked like collective action; instead, each action appeared like an individual, citizens-led initiative. This was the late 1950s and early 1960s, and their insidious, concerted actions that occurred simultaneously in suburban communities around the country helped to shape actions and beliefs that would later emerge as the anti-taxation movements in the 1970s and, eventually, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.
At that moment on that porch in the mid- ‘60s as the door closed and I walked away from the porch, I was left wondering what they were discussing. Were they planning the next attack on some unsuspecting teacher because she had students reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Or were they intending to have members of the group show at the next county planning committee to complain that fair housing laws were just a smokescreen to bring down their property values? Or were they planning a letter writing campaign to thwart new taxes that were the result of the wasteful government spending they believed existed? Whatever their immediate topic, I suspected that the conversation shifted to my family and me after the door closed. In the wake of their silent stares, I was certain they would be they talking about the dangers of having a politically engaged Black family around the corner. If nothing else, the family of the house would have to explain how someone like me could find himself in their neighborhood. Guessing their conversation was the best I could do. And that’s the way it was at that time in that place with that organization. I could see the outcome of their actions when they did act, but they planned clandestinely behind closed doors. It was like that often-cited metaphor of only being able to see the top half of the duck as it swims on a pond. There was much happening underneath, even though what was visible didn’t show it.
I’ve watched the news in the past year with much interest.
The nation has now had an attempted insurrection that sought to subvert the most recent presidential election. There are also movements all over the country to create new legislation that restricts voting. Republicans who stood up for the rule of law and fought the subversion of democracy are quietly being replaced by radically extreme people in many localities and states. A woman’s right to make decisions for her health is being challenged. Groups are showing up at school board meetings to protest teaching practices and curricula. There are demands and protests against mask mandates and vaccinations. All these actions appear to be grassroots efforts among concerned conservatives who are answering the call of patriotism. That’s what the defenders of the insurrection attempt, the voting restrictions movements, and anti-women’s choice all suggest. But that’s what the John Birch Society looked and sounded like 60 years ago. While their national leaders made wild claims that were easily refutable, the local followers quietly and persistently agitated for the changes that national leaders suggested.
Donald Trump, his My Pillow sycophant, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Steve Bannon, and the others who have a national profile are easily dismissible as buffoons, incompetent, devious prevaricators, or worse. None of what they say is ever proven, and their antics are easily dismissed as laughable. But here’s the danger that my childhood observations taught me: These nationally visible influencers have acolytes at the local level who are much less outrageous, much more covert, and much more dangerous. These local workers push toward the larger vision that the national leaders articulate in a choreographed pas de deux. National and local dance partners each take their steps to move the nation toward the same kind of exclusionary ideology and practices that the folks meeting at the John Birch House 60 years ago would find familiar. It wasn’t the prominent, national figures of the movement that made that shift. It was the local advocates who remained true to the cause and maintained a determined message that never wavered over time.
An insurrection doesn’t organically happen; it’s not by accident that these voting exclusion laws and vote “audits” are popping up in multiple places; and it’s not by serendipity that women’s rights are being challenged in many places all at once. There’s some serious organizing behind all this. And a significant part of its danger is at the local level. For these actions to happen simultaneously as they have, folks have to be exchanging ideas online, and also they have to be meeting regularly and quietly to plan like my childhood neighbors did. While the national news looks at, and generally dismisses, the national-level nonsense, the lack of local reportage means that these local efforts go unchecked. At a time when local journalism is waning, there aren’t enough local reporters to ferret out the story of local groups and what the impacts of these groups are. The best that local reporters seem to be able to do is to identify the most radical of these groups: the Proud Boys, The Three Percenters, etc. Those are easy to spot, and it’s easy to see what their impacts are. Less visible are the soccer parents or and PTA factions who also meet to plan action. They meet on social media to arrange for the next school board protest or the next campaign to denounce vaccines. We see the duck moving, but don’t know anything about what’s causing the movement.
We’ve seen this happen in the past, and the result isn’t good. Over time, the Republican Party evolved to adopt many of the beliefs and perspectives of the John Birch Society – beliefs that it rejected as laughably too radical in the 1960s. That group patiently acted locally and like a drip that eventually breaks a dam, it persistently pushed its agenda until the party eventually started to believe what the John Birch Society members offered. With time, the steady messaging of these groups from the base creates a narrative that becomes commonly accepted. That slow movement toward the extreme is how two-thirds of Republicans in recent polling have now come to believe that the last presidential election was stolen by the winner – despite all the evidence to the contrary. At the local level, and online, the lies they hear and see are being spread by people they trust. That trust extends to national leaders like Trump, but it begins in living rooms and in online postings. Over time, those mistruths become facts, despite any evidence to the contrary. These mistruths are spread even more virulently than they were 60 years ago because of pervasive social media. We’ve learned in recent months how a virus can spread physically. In the world of the Internet, viral ideas spread as quickly and as dangerously through contacts that happen every day.
So here’s my question to you: If you’re seeing what looks like concerned individuals who are pushing for the current anti-democracy and fear agendas in your community and state, what’s the local organization that’s really behind what you’re seeing? Like you would for any virus, do some contact tracing. Look for the names that keep getting mentioned in these actions. Look for the names of groups, especially fundamentalist churches that have become a hub, that are involved. In many ways, the fundamentalist church has taken the role that the John Birch Society had in its growth era. Look for the patterns of who is doing what, and you’ll soon find who and what groups are active in your community. I think you’ll be surprised when you uncover the answer to that question. Even more importantly, you’ll discover who is spreading what story. Once you make those connections, then you can encourage the few remaining local journalists who cover your area to look further. There are definitely many local stories there.
Because, like David Crosby ended the song, “We have all been here before….”