The Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour Comes to Austin, Texas

Featured Austin Speakers

Down Home Documentary

A few months ago, Jim Hightower asked me to help him document the journey of the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour. Working with a gaggle of passionate and cynical filmmakers from Austin, I tried to capture the essence of the beginning of this remarkable journey towards a rebirth of populist movement. The following clips and descriptions are a few of the first clips I'd like you to see to give you a sense of the kick-off event in Austin on 23 March 2002. Over the next couple of months we'll be editing down the more than fifty hours of footage we collected. Keep checking back at for updates.

Jim Hightower Welcome

It was a little after 12:00 noon when Jim kicked off the day. There were about two hundred people there at the time, and I heard at least one writer from a national progressive magazine mutter that it looked like this festival was just another non-starter. I could tell it was a writer because only writers (and political consultants, I suppose) use words like 'non-starter'. I was back stage with Jim trying to get a wireless microphone on him as he prepared his notes, and I could tell he was nervous. After more than eighteen months of planning, and years of dreaming, the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour was finally getting started. You could still hear power drills in the background as volunteers frantically put together their booths. The site, the Travis County Fairgrounds, had been used for a rodeo the week before. With the smell of fresh manure in the air, and a chilly wind whipping through the open building, Jim headed to the stage. In the few minutes that I had been wiring Jim, people had continued to flow into the venue, some even running, to make sure they wouldn't miss a thing. By the time Jim said his welcome, there were over a thousand people listening.


Molly Ivins

Before I sat down to interview the incomparable Molly Ivins, writer, humorist, and general pain in the ass to anyone who ignores regular folks, she said to me, "I think there's something happening here." By the time her speech started, the number of people in the fairgrounds had grown to over 2000. Volunteers dressed in armadillo suits were circulating and collecting email addresses that will be used to create a massive activist database to be shared with local organizations. Hightower had brought in Dan Carol with the charge to make sure that the technical infrastructure of the Tour was more cutting edge than a ginsu knife. As people entered the fairgrounds they could immediately send a fax to their member of Congress about Attorney General John Ashcroft's violations of our civil rights, or President Bush's antipathy towards our environment. And here was the fun part - the more faxes they sent, the more chances they had to win free gear from Patagonia or Ben and Jerry's. It was amazing to watch progressives use technology as effectively as the right-wing in America has.

Molly Ivins was impressed.

Jesse Jackson, Jr

Undeniably, Jesse's speech was one of the highlights of the day. As John Nichols of the Nation said to me later, "Jesse is one of the few leaders in the Progressive movement who continually works to be better, as a speaker, as a politician, as a leader." He called for a campaign for eight constitutional amendments to guarantee fundamental American rights such as Health Care, a Clean Environment and a quality Education. There's no doubt that we'll be hearing more from Jesse.

I asked Jesse Jackson, Jr. to remove the cell-phone microphone from his sweater before we began filming him. He laughed his deep warm laugh and asked, "Are you saying, that with all of the fashion choices outside in the rodeo right now, the thing you notice is my cell phone microphone?"


Jesse spent hours at the tour, walking around and talking to the folks who attended. He didn't surround himself with a big entourage, even though he's a member of Congress and a rising star in national politics. In an era of cynical politicians who only smile or listen when there's a television camera around him, it was refreshing to see him hang out with the everyday folks who attended. In this clip, we filmed him enjoying a piece of tasty corn from one of the venders, and giving us a lesion in supporting family farms.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore's attendance at the inaugural Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour coincided with a remarkable event in a time when pollsters tell us that President George W. Bush has an 85% support rating. His book, STUPID WHITE MEN, had just been named #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. When your book hits #1, you reach a whole new level of stardom and people demanding your time. It's unfortunately not something that many progressives experience.

He had agreed to sit down with us for a lengthy interview after his speech to the more than 5000 people who packed into the rodeo to hear him. He was obviously tickled at the amazing turn out, and ran well over the allotted time for his speech. Jim Hightower had to come on the stage to get him to wrap it up.

Afterwards, he headed back to the workshop area to start signing books and was mobbed with hundreds of people in line to buy his book. As he started signing the line kept on growing, and he sent word to us that he wouldn't be able to do his interview. Holly Minch, from the Spin Project, who was working with Sean Doles to coordinate the media, suggested we do our interview from the signing line. The result was one of the most hilarious interviews I've even done, with Michael signing books, answering questions, and even throwing a tomato at a heckler.

Margarite Jones

Walking through the fairgrounds you couldn't help but think that all of the big shots of the progressive movement were there. Whether it was Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry's) playing around with the carnival toys that he brought along or Jay Harris, publisher of Mother Jones magazine describing what we were seeing, everywhere you turned there seemed to be a well-known leader. Those who weren't there had promised to be in Chicago or Atlanta at the next tours. People were already making plans to go to the next event the same way grateful dead fans followed Jerry. But the really interesting part was that the familiar faces were the absolute minority at the fair. There were new leaders, folks who had never been involved in politics, mothers who were just awakening to the threats their kids were facing. We followed one such mother, Margarite Jones, for a couple of days to see how the tour might be useful for her.

Margarite is a mother of three, who lives in a small housing complex in south Austin. One day, at a PTA meeting, she learned that Exxon and BP were trying to reactivate a gas pipeline less than a block from her house. The last time the pipeline had been used, it had sustained two massive leaks. Instead of listening to the corporate flacks who told her that she shouldn't worry, she organized the Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition to organize her community to stop the project. So far they've been able to hold it back, but Margarite came to the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour to learn more about how to use the media and to recruit new volunteers to help her get her story out. Although there was fun and games at the event, the work that Margarite is doing is dead serious, and Hightower's vision for the tour is to help people like Margarite get some assistance. In this clip she describes how she first got involved.

Mike Dolan

There is something Napoleonic about Rolling Thunder Tour coordinator Mike Dolan. His booming voice alone could get cats to walk single file. It was ironic that at the end of the night, after having helped create an event that far exceeded anyone's dreams, Mike Dolan was wandering the dusty rodeo grounds looking for his golden bullhorn - a contraption designed to make his voice even louder. It turned out that Davonna and Jessica who helped manage the production and talent for the event, had made sure to put it aside, allowing Mike to use his bullhorn another day. I wanted to finish with this nice clip, because I think the golden bullhorn is a good metaphor for the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour. Maybe all we need now to change the world is a little contraption to bring us together to make our voices louder.

The tour needs your support to keep rolling. I hope you'll think about making a donation through this site. Thanks!

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