Politics in Manhattan (Kansas)

Politics in Manhattan (Kansas)

A few months before the ugliest American election in recent history, more than fifty people gathered in a park for a potluck lunch and discussion about what real democracy would look like at the local, national, and international levels. Some got up early to make special dishes—homemade casseroles, homegrown-tomato salads. A few teenagers brought their friends. Many workers took a long lunch break. The crowd was slightly larger than usual because of the few out-of-town guests, but otherwise this was a regular Monday gathering in Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas.

This Manhattan sits bulls-eye in the middle of the country. Surrounded by corn fields, filled with fundamentalist Christians, and made up of squat, one-story houses, it’s home to the agricultural branch of the state university. It doesn’t feel like a “college town,” though; no cafés or nightclubs, no cozy bookstores. The Monday potluck is sponsored by the Manhattan Peace and Justice Society, a committed group of more than seventy-five people, many of whom have been working for progressive causes for over thirty years.

I visited Kansas last summer as part of Democracy in Motion, a “road show” of educators and organizers who drove from New York City to Los Angeles in a ’74 Eagle converted tour bus named “Mabel.” Our goal was to share information about the growing movement against corporate globalization and to encourage local organizing and coalition building. We traveled to places that might have missed other tours: medium-sized cities and small towns that—until this trip—I would have thought were in the middle of nowhere. “It’s so flat,” I commented, when we stopped on the fourth day at a gas station in the middle of a wheat field. “No, it’s actually not,” said one of my traveling companions, a Vietnamese-American woman who grew up in Oklahoma. I looked around again, she was right. The wheat fields rolled and dipped in a way that I could never find in the forcibly flattened and paved streets of New York City. Similarly, there was an unexpected diversity to the crowds we met. At one stop in Kansas City, I found myself sitting between a church secretary and an anarchist. Only some of the crowds were mixed ethnically, but everywhere I encountered a variety of life stories and beliefs that I seldom find at community events in my more-celebrated Manhattan. In Denver, Colorado, native women march daily to save their low-income housing. In Kansas City, Missouri, a group of older women stand by the highway every week, holding signs expressing their hopes for peace. Throughout our trip, I found these and many more examples of politics as daily practice. During one of our conversations, a man in Kansas City apologized for not knowing more about the history of democratic protest: “I’ve only recently emerged from my trance,” he said. Imagine someone in New York so easily acknowledging that there is more to learn.

In Salt Lake City, ...