Friday, April 18, 2014

Unmuzling the Voters Is a Worthy Cause

In 2009 I covered the baseball stadium debate for What I wrote in the way of analysis made no secret of my skepticism about the merits of the $783 million Highwoods Properties development plan, which included what it called Shockoe Center.

Five years ago I saw building a baseball in Shockoe Bottom as another build-it-and-they-will-come folly in the making. When the Highwoods plan was withdrawn from consideration that summer I was delighted. Thus, my opposition to building a baseball stadium in the Bottom is nothing new. So much for disclosure.

Five months ago, when Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement revived the twice-killed idea of dropping a baseball stadium into that same neighborhood, it was disappointing. Although Jones once favored keeping professional baseball on the Boulevard, I won't try to explain his squirrelly change of mind.

However, my own thinking about the issue has evolved in the opposite direction. Since the critical and box office success of the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), Richmond's slave jail history leading up to the Civil War has become more interesting to a lot of people, here and elsewhere. No doubt, there are folks at City Hall who wish that movie’s release could have been delayed a year or two.

Having grown up in Richmond, I’d like to better understand the slave market business that once thrived in this city. Accordingly, I’d also like to learn more about how that aspect of local history was rather effectively covered up for so long. Regarding the institution of slavery, it's time to shine a new light on how our history books were cooked, back in the day. A fresh look needs to be taken at how the truth was systematically processed into palatable lies -- denial.

For instance, in 1961 my seventh-grade history book, which was used in all of Virginia's public schools, had this to say at the end of Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.In 2014, to think building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom will really facilitate the scholarly investigation of that neighborhood’s history and archeology is just more denial.
Please do put me on the growing list of those who believe a world-class slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, sans ballpark, will draw tourists from all over the world. Still, I don’t quarrel with those who oppose baseball in the Bottom for other reasons. Richmond residents who oppose building a new stadium anywhere, saying that with schoolhouse roofs caving in taxpayers ought not to spend another nickel on spectator sports, have a good point. Those who assert that a lot of Flying Squirrels fans aren't likely to go to the Bottom for games, probably know more about local baseball fans than the mayor does.

So now I've become a member of an ad hoc group which advocates letting the voters weigh in. Although the Citizens Referendum Group has to collect a whopping 9,800 signatures on its referendum petitions, advocates for building Shockoe Stadium who stand opposed to our petition drive have a tough job on their hands, too. They have to convince voters that too much democracy can be a bad thing.

My personal reason for having taken up this cause stems, in part, from being asked to write a story about a benefit show in December for STYLE Weekly. Click here to read my review of the “Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert at the National.” After spending the afternoon backstage, watching the musicians and stage hands put the complicated show together, and then being there for the show to feel the vibe from the connection between those on stage and in the audience, I was knocked out.

The common desire to celebrate Hatley’s contributions as a musician/songwriter and to help out his family was uplifting. Filled with admiration for the effort it took to put that show together, I decided to act on something that I had been fretting about for months.

As a co-founder of the Facebook group Referendum? Bring It On!, my pump had been primed by the discussions that followed the failed referendum attempt last summer by Charles Samuels, the Second District's representative on City Council. When I saw the slick Loving/RVA public relations campaign come out, I realized that without a hard push-back from propaganda-savvy people, the developers would win this time around.

After so many years of watching the parade go by and making my wisecracks as a commentator, I decided to cross the line and become an activist. For a worthy cause, I decided to take on the rather frustrating job of helping to assemble a group of people to put a referendum on the ballot.

A meeting was held later in December at Gallery 5. The concept continued to take form with posts by several people on the Facebook page. In February Reva Trammell called for a referendum at a Council meeting. Then Don Harrison asked me to appear on WRIR’s Open Source show to talk about a referendum. Paul Goldman called with an offer to write the language for a referendum and the suggestion of a meeting to discuss the project. Subsequently, there was a series of meetings at the Main Library during March.

At the third meeting Goldman handed out court-approved petition forms with two propositions on them. Members of the group left the confab determined to get the job done. As April began the CRG’s website went live. After a decade of hearing from boosters and experts and politicians, we are working to let the people speak. Join us, if you like.

Now, I'll close with two questions: Who’s against democracy and why?

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