Short Story: “Engaging Constituency”

The need to find your true voice isn’t limited to individuals. This series started with “Crossing the Line“, and continued in parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

“Engaging Constituency”
[Part 7 and conclusion of a series]
by P. Orin Zack

“Emulating Hong Kong?” The wiry old man with thinning white hair shrugged off his oversized backpack and flipped through the information packet he’d just been handed. “What does a modified GA have to do with Hong Kong?”

Norman Knox, a 30-something commercial real estate agent who’d recently had his fixation on profit margins forcibly perforated, gazed at the crowd streaming past them for a moment while he figured out how to safely backpedal the glib remark. Volunteering for community-service duty felt like overdue penance for years of chasing after a pot of tainted gold. They were standing just inside the entrance to the city’s newly renovated sports stadium, which was filling up with an electorate that didn’t reflect the population of any district in the city. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that even though they entered as strangers, they quickly engaged with one another, and were deep in discussion well before they reached the stands. It was nearly ten o’clock, and the meeting was about to start.

“I’m sorry,” he said over a nervous laugh he thought he’d outgrown in college. “Forgive me. My— my mother’s a librarian, and I forget that not everyone’s addicted to research.”

“Look, kid, there’s no reason to talk down to me. I may be homeless right now, but I got a Masters in Chemistry before you were born and medical expenses ate my life savings. So let’s try that again. What does Hong Kong have to do with a city council election?”

“Well, you have to admit,” Norman said, gesturing at the stadium, “this isn’t exactly the usual kind of election.”

“Well, yeah,” the man said. “It’s closed. That’s why we’re doing it with a General Assembly. So what?”

“Try it this way. Representation in this country has always been based on where you live — city council, state assembly, house and senate, even judicial and sanitation districts. But thanks to Buster Flange’s change to the city charter, the 99% now have a virtual district, and anyone who chooses to be part of it gets to vote for their council member.”

“I know. I’ve read the Sidewalk Spectator, which was a damn sight easier to understand than the blather in the fish wrap this city calls a newspaper. Would you get to the point already? I’d like to find a seat.”

“It’s just that Hong Kong’s done this sort of thing in a big way. A third of their legislature represents functional constituencies like this one. But this city’s the first one in the US to try it. We’re making history here by following in their footsteps.”

The old man harrumphed and picked up his backpack. “One,” he said. “One of Hong Kong’s FCs is like this. The rest of them are just lobbyists in legislator’s clothing. If we’re making history here, it’s because the people forced this change. There was a lot of money riding on getting the first PAC into the front door of government. But they lost anyway.”

“Hey, it was a fair election. There were over a dozen choices on that ballot. The commissioner even called for a recount!”

“Of course he did. The money lining his pockets depended on one of his cronies coming out on top. Maybe you ought to sell real estate or something. You’re lousy as a teacher.”

Norman was about to object when he felt a hand on his shoulder, so he turned to see who it was. “Frank! Marty!” he said uncomfortably. “What are you two doing here?”

His business partners glanced at one another. Frank, who was taller, smirked. “Looking for you, numbnuts. After that meltdown you had talking to JonesCo yesterday, we figured you’d gotten burned out and needed a vacation.”

Marty shooed the old man away and stepped in front of Norman. “Clearly,” he said, “we were wrong. It’s not a vacation you need, but a backbone transplant.” He grabbed the papers out of Norman’s hand and tossed them over his shoulder. “What are you now, an usher at a loser’s convention?”

The PA system suddenly crackled to life. “Good morning everyone! I’m Sid Carson, and I’d like to welcome you all to the first General Assembly of the city’s newest city council district.”

Marty shook his head in disgust. “Well that figures. I should have known that bozo would have a hand in this charade.”

In 2011, Carson, the owner of a low-key shopping mall that engages in community outreach, had offered a vacant building site to the city’s Occupy for as long as they wanted it. JonesCo then took an option on the property, conditional on OWS vacating the site. But Wendell Jones was notoriously impatient, so he had the mayor institute an absurd rule that outlawed concerted action of any kind. The next morning, the riot police swept in to clear the site. They arrested everyone – including the OWS librarian, Norman’s mother Natalie, so that Jones could claim the site.

Because the encampment had been warned in advance, Natalie Knox had enough time to coach a team of live-streamers in Wobbly-style hand-off tactics before the raid. Thanks to them, when she and a string of others were arrested for using the People’s Mike, everything went out over the Internet. Which was why Norman’s son Kenny saw Grandma Natalie being arrested. He tried to tell his parents about it over breakfast, but because they ignored him, he ignored their orders and ditched school to go looking for her. Later that day, he ended up on the Internet himself for inspiring friends and families of the arrestees to retake the site.

The following week, while JonesCo’s claim to the property was being heard in court, and he was petitioning city council to rezone the site, he sent his construction crew in to clear the site. They refused, and his actions lost him both the property claim and the rezoning request. Once the dust had settled, Sid Carson revoked Jones’ option and deeded the property to a trust to serve the needs of the community. He hired Jones’ former crew to build a new shared community center on the lot, which was named for Norman’s unionist grandfather, Oscar Kendrik.

Beset on all sides by liberal activists in his family, Norman finally capitulated. He was surrounded. And it felt good to be home again.

“What’s gotten into you, Norm?” Frank said, shaking him roughly. “I watched you stand up to your whole socialist family way back in college. Unions!” He spat in disgust. “They’ll steal you blind and then tell you they’ve saved your life.”

Norman glared at him, grabbed his wrist, and pulled it free of his shoulder. “Get out of here, both of you. This is a closed meeting, and you’re not invited.”

In the silence of their momentary standoff, Carson’s voice echoed through the deserted entrance. “Instead of the People’s Mike,” he said, “our facilitator teams are equipped with Google Glass, so when you’re recognized to speak, everyone will not only be able to hear you, they’ll see you as well on these big screens. Watch…”

“And you,” Marty said angrily from an inch in front of Norman’s face, “have no business here either. These are not your people. They’re not your customers. Hell, they’re not even useful for an introduction! Losers and takers, every one of them.”

“My family’s here.”

“Them, too,” Frank said. “And if you can’t even control an eleven-year-old kid, so are you!”

Norman saw red. His heart pounded. “That’s it! I’ve had enough from both of you. It’s one thing to rail on me; it’s another thing entirely to pick on Kendrik.”

A stocky man in a bright orange vest came out of nowhere, reached between Marty and Norman and pushed them apart, a callused palm on each man’s chest, while a younger man, also in orange, watched from a few steps away. “Cool it! All three of you!” the older one said forcefully, his voice echoing unnaturally in the deserted entryway. “Now what’s going on here?” After getting a look at Norman, he added, “Hey, aren’t you K2’s dad?”

“Jesus,” Frank said, “your brat’s a celebrity now, too?”

A cheer suddenly erupted from the crowd in the stands above them.

Marty threw up his hands. “I give up. Look, Norm, we’re gonna draw up some dissolution papers. Come in when you want to get your stuff. But as far as we’re concerned, you’re out.”

“That’s fine with me. Now get out of here, the both of you.”

While Norman watched his now-former business partners stride back into the daylight, the younger of the two facilitators put a finger to his ear and then approached him. “You’re wanted upstairs, Mr. Knox.”

As they entered the stadium proper, Norman glanced at the big screen that Sid Carson had mentioned earlier, and was startled to see himself from the rear. A few seconds later, when the feed switched again, he gaped at the sight of his mother and son, laughing and applauding.

The camera then approached her until it was a head-and-shoulders shot, and she looked straight out of the screen. “Norman,” she said, “we’re all proud of you. But for everyone else here, there’s more to the story, and I think it will help to give you some perspective on what we’re about to do today.”

While Natalie spoke, Norman turned to face the man who had intervened. “Why’d you do that?”

The younger one slipped off his Google Glass and took a step closer. “Why did he intervene? Don’t you know who Rafael M’Bordo is?”

“Should I?”

“Son, no!” M’Bordo said, gesturing for him to stop.

“He’s only the first of JonesCo’s crew to refuse the order to illegally clear the Occupy. He’s why there was a walkout. He’s why there’s a community center named after your grandfather. I should hope you’d know who he is.”

Embarrassed, Norman extended his hand. As he ascended the stairs, and his mother told the crowd about the ethic of activism she’d learned from growing up in a Wobbly household, he thought back to his days at college, and the callousness with which he had disparaged the whole idea of unions and what they had accomplished. By the time he reached the landing, he’d decided that he needed to apologize.

“So, for anyone who wasn’t there,” Natalie said as he stopped to look at her, “when I said ‘Mike Check’ that morning and triggered a chain of events that led us all to today’s election, I was fulfilling a promise that I’d made to my father. I’d passed along the ethic of civic leadership that made the Wobblies so powerful that the tycoons lurking in the shadows had no choice but to foster a different kind of union to bring them down, highly structured ones that focused all of the power at the top. When I was dragged off, another leader took my place, and then another, and another.” She looked around the stadium, smiled when she saw Norman gazing up at her, and raised her opened hands in benediction. “The people, united, can never be defeated. That’s why we’re all here today. Thank you.”

As the crowd erupted, Norman sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs to the spot where his family was standing. He mouthed his apology, but it was drowned out by the commotion, which petered out into scattered shouts of ‘K2!’

Once the crowd had settled down and everyone took their seat, another speaker took the screen. He read the background blurbs provided by the seven people who’d stepped forward and announced their interest in being the community’s representative on city council. The first one was Anand Kalib, a founding member of the church council that has been hosting the city’s oldest roving homeless encampment. The second was Marcia Dodge, who had been instrumental in organizing the recent one-day walkout of fast-food workers in support of a nationwide effort to demand a living wage. He had just read the name of the third candidate, who was attempting to organize tech workers with H1-B visas, when Kendrik stood up and made the sign for asking a question. The facilitator watching their section of the crowd came over.

“This is wrong,” Kendrik told him.

“What is?”

He pointed at the screen. “That is: candidates for office. That’s not the way this is supposed to work. Those are people who want the job.”

“So you want to say something about it?”

Norman and Natalie looked on as Kendrik nodded solemnly.

The facilitator texted something and waited for a reply. When the speaker had finished the introductions, he noted that several people had been queued up to talk, and handed off to the first of them. The facilitator faced Kendrik squarely, and a moment later, the stream from his Glass filled the big screen.

“There’s something wrong about this,” he began. “If leadership is supposed to be a dynamic thing, like the Wobblies said, then why are we choosing between people who actually want to be in charge? Shouldn’t our new city council rep be someone who fills that role simply because it needs to be done? I mean, what are we doing here? This is supposed to be a GA. When we retook the Occupy site, we didn’t have a leader. Nobody was in charge. We all just pitched in and it happened.”

There was a brief murmur, and then another face from the crowd filled the screen. “What are you suggesting, then?”

Kendrik stared at the facilitator for a time, not even noticing that he was on camera. “I’m not suggesting anything. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, only that this doesn’t seem to be it.”

The tech organizer’s face then filled the screen. “Look, we’ve already started down this road. We’ve invested time and effort into holding an election today. Shouldn’t we go through with it, if only so we can fill that seat on the city council?”

The silence that followed was ended when someone called out, “The kid’s right! This guy wants the job!”

Again the feed shifted, this time to a woman in pink overalls. Norman recognized her as the woman who had helped Buster Flange to stump for changing the city charter, and mouthed her name. “Althea Gordon.”

“I was part of the flash mob that resurrected Occupy’s encampment after the arrests,” she said, “and I agree with K2 that we may be going at this the wrong way. But I have an idea that might help. What we need right now is for someone here to speak for the rest of us at City Hall. Not someone to be in charge. Not someone to be a leader of this community in any traditional sense — just someone to speak for us, to speak for all of us. That means someone who is not engaged in any of the many activist causes and social needs that have brought us all together in one community.’

Althea gazed at the crowd for a moment before continuing. “I’m an artist,” she said at last. “I work in metal. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that, it’s this: the idea that inspires my work is not in any single piece of scrap that goes into it. It’s what all of it together means to the person looking at it. The person we need to speak for us at city hall is that kind of person – someone who embodies the ideas that have brought us together today.”

*   *   *

The city council chamber was packed. This was the first meeting after the big GA, which meant it was also the first meeting at which there was one additional member than there had been before. Norman sat with Kendrik and Althea Gordon in the visitor section at the back of the room.

“The last time I sat here,” she said wryly, “I nearly got arrested. Again.”

Norman shook his head in annoyance. “What really bugs me, “ he said, “is that if I was here, I would have been on Jones’ side. After all we were trying to get his business at the time.”

“You’re kidding, right? You would have let them arrest your own mother?”

“What can I say? If everyone’s supposed to be treated equally under the law, then why should anyone get a free pass?”

Kendrik made a face.


“But Gram? You wouldn’t even have made an exception for my Gram?”

Norman opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Fortunately, he didn’t have to, because that was when she tapped the new Bluetooth device that hung from her ear and said, “Mike check.”


Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack


2 thoughts on “Short Story: “Engaging Constituency”

  1. ‘From the mouths of babes’…..
    Pretty much every organizational spot in human civilization, has been filled by, “someone who wanted the job.” rather than just someone who was willing to do their part.
    A lot of that is the fault of our collective shirking of personal responsibility.
    If we hand the power to others, they will naturally abuse it.

    Good story!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s