The Day I Was To be Tarred and Feathered
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 99 16:32:31 -0800
Subject: The Day I Was To be Tarred and Feathered
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The Day I Was To be Tarred and Feathered
December 12, 1999
Twenty-five years ago this weekend, thousands of people showed up to the
polls in my hometown. It was a special election, called by the local Board
of Education. On the simple paper ballot, there was only one line, a single
question, which read as follows:
"Should Michael Moore Be Tarred and Feathered and Run Out of Town?
Yes [ ] No [ ]"
Imagine a whole town coming together to decided your fate like that. Of
course, those weren't the exact words (they were: "Should Michael Moore be
Removed from the Board of Education?"), but that was pretty much how it
felt. As I sat there all day in the sole polling place (a school gymnasium),
watching the people stream in to cast their ballot, I wondered why I had
given up going away to college, just so I could try and try to change some
things in the school system. I sat there in those bleachers overlooking the
voting booths and figured I was just nuts.
Two years prior to this "judgment day," I had become the youngest elected
official in the country -- and the first 18-year old ever elected to public
office. A constitutional amendment had just passed, lowering the voting
age from 21 to 18. It was Vietnam time, and I guess the adults figured if
we could go get killed (and kill others for no damn reason), then they
figured they should let us vote and drink. Some trade off!
So, as I mentioned to you last year in one of these letters, I was a
slightly ticked off teenager (this was before the era of school shootings
and Ritalin). I decided the best way to fight the high school principal was
to become his boss -- while I was still a student. So, I ran for the school
board on the platform of firing him. Remarkably, I won. Nine months later,
the principal was gone.
Emboldened by this success, I moved on to other issues. I supported students
rights and the teachers union. I sued the school board (and won) so I could
tape record the public meetings. I turned information over to the local
prosecutor on administrators who were braking the law regarding how
contracts were being awarded. I wouldn't stand and Pledge Allegiance to the
Flag that had already covered the coffins of two guys on my street who died
After a year of having to deal with this long-haired kid, the other board
members decided to start holding the school board meetings in secret --
without informing me. When I found out, I turned them into the Michigan
Attorney General and he hauled them into court.
Around that time I wrote and directed a play that included a scene where
Jesus yanks the nails out and comes down off the cross. Actors playing
locally-known bigots rose out of the audience to stab, shoot and beat
"Jesus" to death, drag him back up to the cross on the stage, and re-crucify
him. Typical drama from an ex-seminarian.
You can imagine not much of this went over very well with the local business
and Born Again establishment. The straw that broke their back was when I
made a motion to name a new elementary school after Martin Luther King, Jr.
(the district was 99% white). The next day, petitions were taken out for a
recall election that would remove my sorry ass from the school board.
Unfortunately, the recall committee could not collect enough signatures in
the time allowed by the law. So the board decided to break the law and give
them an extra ten days. Ten days later, they still didn't have the required
signatures. So what did the school board do? They gave 'em another ten
days! But still, they couldn't convince enough people to bounce me, so...
you guessed it... the board gave them a THIRD 10-day extension.
Finally, they had enough signatures. But upon inspecting the petitions,
there were DOZENS OF DEAD PEOPLE who had signed them! Others had signed
their names at least three times. I sued. The judge said, "Well, it looks
like a fraud was committed with these petitions, but it seems to me, Mr.
Moore, this community wants to have an election on you, so I'm going to
They scheduled the election on a Friday in December, hoping for a low
turnout, knowing that those who would come out to a special election during
Christmas season would be those filled with the opposite of good will toward
I figured I was a goner.
But on that Friday in December, 1974, it was anything but a low turnout.
The people were lined out the door and down the block of the lone polling
location with its lone question on the ballot. It was the largest turnout
in the history of the school district for any election ever held.
When the polls closed at 8, the school officials dumped the thousands of
ballots on a long table in the center of the gymnasium in the school I had
hoped to name after Dr. King (they called it, "Central Elementary"). The
man charged with counting the ballots created two piles, and one by one, as
he opened the square pieces of paper, he would announce "Yes," or "No," and
then place them in their respective piles.
On one side of the gym, up in the bleachers, sat the business leaders of
the town. On the opposite side sat me and my friends -- and about 200 high
school students (I think most of them were smokers whom I had saved from
being suspended) who had shown up to offer me their support.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the last ballot was placed in its pile. The
television cameras and lights went on, feeding the image live to TV sets in
homes throughout the Flint area. The assistant superintendent announced
"Michael Moore has won by 312 votes."
The students went crazy, the men in the suits left angry and disgusted, and
I learned a not so insignificant lesson that night as I closed out my
You have to trust that the people aren't stupid, and sooner or later they
will always do the right thing.
Either that, or they will always like a good play with lots of stabbing and
P.S. Tonight (Sunday) and again this Thursday (Dec. 16), our old friend
and TV Nation producer, Pam Yates, will be presenting her documentary
"Brotherhood of Hate," an examination of young white supremacists, on
Showtime. Pam (and her husband Paco de Onis) produced the segment for the
first episode of "TV Nation" where I tried to take advantage of NAFTA and
"move" our show to Mexico. She also did stories for us on the School of
the Americas and the Zapitistas (all in 1993-94, the first time any of these
issues were aired on network television). She continues to do great work.
P.P.S. I've been getting a lot of mail from people wanting to send our
videos and books to others as Christmas gifts. I have a better idea: Why
not send a contribution, in their name, to Flint's North End Soup Kitchen
(735 E. Stewart Ave., Flint, MI 48505) instead? This morning's New York
Times contains a front page story about how the need for services to the
poor is way up -- and contributions from those who have gotten wealthy is
way down. What mean times we live in! Just as some start to do better, they
decide to let the rest suffer. Downsized workers increased 135% in November
over the previous month, the worst month for layoffs in nearly a decade!
Why is this not being reported?
OK, if you feel you HAVE to send "Roger & Me," or "TV Nation," or "Downsize
This" to a friend, then click here, dammit! <A
© 1999 Peter Langston