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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Once upon a time, a whole lot of just plain Americans woke up to realize the economic system was working against them. They had believed in it; they worked hard to make it work for them. They knew its shortcomings but saw in it the way to a decent return for their labor and a better future for their families.

Then, one day, calamity struck: The system turned on them. And they discovered that they had been betrayed, bamboozled, by the people at the top.

But they didn't hang their heads and turn tail, like a dog whipped by its master. They organized and fought back — millions of them in a grass roots movement for democracy. What they did became known as the Populist Moment, an extraordinary time in our country's history.

But, the flimflam gang returned with a vengeance in our time — the monied interests and political mercenaries who connived to bring on a calamity that lost eleven million Americans their jobs, robbed people of their homes and pensions, and brought the world's economy crashing down.

But once again, people are organizing and fighting back; as they did in that early Populist Moment that took on the monopolies and financial trusts. The stirrings of a popular insurgency could be seen late this week as thousands marched on Wall Street. These people are angry at the banks that have cost them so dearly and they want reforms to prevent similar disasters in the future. They want to break up the Wall Street oligarchy and require the banks to use their capital to build and revitalize and innovate, to create jobs and security.

Similar protests occurred this week in San Francisco, North Carolina and Kansas City, where people rallied to demand an accounting from the giant Bank of America.

Among their ranks was a contingent from Iowa, proud and vocal inheritors of America's populist spirit. We first met them at a rally last fall.

BILL MOYERS: In October, some five thousand people came to Chicago to rally outside the convention of the American Bankers Association.

CROWD: ABA, you're the worst! Time to put the people first!

BILL MOYERS: This is not the Tea Party crowd, chanting against "government takeovers" and "creeping socialism."

CROWD: We're fired up! Can't take it no more!

BILL MOYERS: They are populists of the old school. They want the government on their side battling against predatory monopolies, trusts, and corporations.

MIKE MCCARTHY: We're losing jobs. We're losing state employees. We're losing industry and businesses. We're losing farms and homes. And meanwhile, these people across the street are trying to divvy up their record profits, in tens of millions of dollars worth of bonuses. And that's not fair, it's not fair.

CROWD: Bust up! Big banks! Bust up! Big banks...

BILL MOYERS: Mike McCarthy and a busload of his Iowa neighbors rode almost six hours to get here.

CROWD: Bust up! Big banks...

BILL MOYERS: They belong to an organization called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Or CCI. They take their fighting spirit, everywhere they go.

LARRY GINTER: If you've seen your pensions or retirement take a hit, stand up. Dissent is apple pie and ice cream. If you think it's time to put people first and hold banks accountable, stand up. Our founding fathers spoke out against the injustice. I mean, they were great populist, great radicals.

CROWD: We're fired up, can't take it no more...

LARRY GINTER: You just can't sit back and let the big boys walk all over you. You have to stand up and fight. Give yourselves a hand!

BILL MOYERS: Larry Ginter still lives on the Iowa farm where he was born. He spent two years in the army, and more than fifty on the prairie scratching out a living from the land.

LARRY GINTER: I seen a lot of heartache out here on the farms family farmers not getting the fair prices. And then you see workers not getting a fair wage. And things like this always got to me. I always felt I had to get involved in that. There's a saying, "Revolution begins in a peasant hut." You got to fight for the justice. You got to fight for the fair wage. You got to fight for housing. You got to fight for healthcare. Fight for the elderly, fight for family farmers and workers. Fight for the environment. And that's what Iowa CCI does.

BILL MOYERS: For more than thirty years, they have marched their Midwest brand of outrage through city streets, rural towns, and bank lobbies.

CROWD: Put people first...

BILL MOYERS: Right into the corridors of the statehouse in Des Moines

CROWD: Put people first! Put People first!

HUGH ESPEY: Alright, we're asking folks to move into room 116. We're going to be starting in there in about a minute and a half.

The power of groups like CCI is its members. It's people that's going to give legs to our organization. People give legs to democracy. We're just everyday people, regular folks. Grandmas, grandpas, people you see in the grocery store. People you see in church. People you see at school. Just regular folks that don't want to be trampled on by big money.

CCI MEMBERS: We talk, we act, and we get it done! That's right.

JOHN BLASINGAME: Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court Justice said one time that you can have great wealth concentrated in a few hands or you can have democracy. You can't have both. And I believe him. You can't.

MIKE MCCARTHY: We are right-

BILL MOYERS: John Blasingame is a union laborer and a student of history.

MIKE MCCARTHY: And we will win.

BILL MOYERS: Both have taught him about the strength of solidarity.

JOHN BLASINGAME: People have immense power. We've got immense power. If we can just understand it and believe it, and use it.

BILL MOYERS: John and his CCI compatriots have come to the capitol to take on a familiar foe: Big Agriculture. One of the most powerful business interests in Iowa.

They are fighting a bill that would allow industrial scale farms to spread liquid manure on top of frozen or snow covered fields; a practice deemed hazardous to the environment and a potential health risk.

CCI MEMBER: People are spreading manure on frozen ground and as soon as it starts to melt, it is going to run into the drinking water.

BILL MOYERS: Despite those warnings, the bill was passed out of committee, and on to the Assembly for debate. Lobbyists for factory farming interests were sent to push the bill through. CCI members were there as advocates for the people.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: House File 2324 is an attempt by corporate agriculture to gut clean water protections that were enacted by the legislature last year.

JOHN BLASINGAME: You really have to get in there and tell your leaders where you want them to lead. And if they're not leading that way, you got to demand why of them. They have to hear from you.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: Sincerely, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

CROWD: Kill the bill! Kill the bill!

JOHN BLASINGAME: And sometimes you have to raise a fuss as Rosa Parks did. Raised a fuss. Got things changed. And what Rosa Parks said, to me, I always see it this way, is, she didn't just say, "No, you can't have my seat." She actually said, "No, I will no longer participate with you in my own exploitation." That's what she said.

CROWD: Put People first! Put people first!

JIM KALBACH: If you don't get involved, if you don't protest, or complain, they can go ahead and pass their bills the way they want.

CROWD: Enough is enough! Enough is enough!

JIM KALBACH: And that's what you got to do. You keep protesting, you keep protesting and protesting.

BILL MOYERS: Jim Kalbach was born into farming, raised in the populist tradition of dissent.

JIM KALBACH: My dad used to complain and protest. I was on the tractorcades. We went down, we protested with tractors and it was blowing and snowing so bad we had to break all the way to Des Moines. That's 35 miles from here, and we broke our way all the way there, through snow banks and drifts, just to make a protest.

BARBARA KALBACH: What's wrong?

JIM KALBACH: Oh, the batteries are cold.

BILL MOYERS: Jim and his wife Barbara farm 1200 acres of corn and soybeans in Adair County. They joined forces with CCI during a pitched battle to stop a monster hog farm from moving in next door.

BARBARA KALBACH: That factory farm was going to be an industry. And everyone around it was going to be impacted, and we felt impacted adversely. We felt that way, but also all of our neighbors felt that way and we all got together and we worked really hard. And what that created in the neighbors and in myself was empathy. I think it's the creation of-- of empathy and being able to empathize with someone else's situation, because you've been in a bad situation yourself. And your bad situation needed the help of others to be resolved. And so, you're willing to step forward and say, yeah, you are in a bad situation. And I remember what that feels like, and I'm going to help you. Now, some-- some citizens want to be very polite about that, but sometimes polite doesn't work. Sometimes you have to be a little more forceful and get a little bit growly about the whole thing. Goldman Sachs had a big piece of the housing bubble...

BILL MOYERS: From massive hog farms polluting her community to giant banks crippling the economy, Barb Kalbach's activism has carried her far off her Iowa farm.

BARBARA KALBACH: And Goldman Sachs got a ten billion dollar bailout from guess who.

CROWD: Us!

BARBARA KALBACH: We the people! You have to try to explain to people why certain things are an injustice to the population as a whole because if no one speaks out, nothing's going to change.

CROWD: Shame on you! Shame on you!

BARBARA KALBACH: And what we feel, is not that we want government completely out of our lives. And that's what the Tea Party people say. They say, well, we don't want government in our schools, and we don't want government making any health plans for us. And government's too big and it impacts our life. What we see is that government needs to impact people's lives in certain areas.

LARRY GINTER: The preamble of the constitution says promote the general welfare. Well, does that sound like a government that's hands off? That isn't involved into the overall well-being of everybody in this country? So this idea of get government out of my life- I don't know how that works. Because we're supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So how do I just take government out of my life? I am government!

CCI MEMBER: ...First time meeting him, this is Jim Larew, the governor's general counsel and top policy advisor. Let's give him a round of applause.

JIM LAREW: I'd like to start out with a few comments-

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: Well, I'm going to start. Jim, I'm sorry. (Laughter). I'm Rosie Partridge.

JIM LAREW: Yeah, nice to see you Rosie.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: We've met before...

JIM LAREW: Yeah. Nice to see you.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: And I'm going to start off with a little bit talking about...

HUGH ESPEY: The role of government, as it's evolved, has been kind of to serve the interests of the wealthy few, of the elite. So what they've done is they've turned democracy on its head.

JIM LAREW: Legislators and the governor worked hard on the manure on ice bill. It took a lot of work, not everyone got everything that they wanted. But it was a reasonable compromise, on what, for many people felt were difficult issues.

HUGH ESPEY: What we're doing is turning it back so that it's just, so that it's right. In other words, that government serves the people, it serves the common good. It serves the public interest.

LARRY GINTER: Now is the time where Governor, stand up and say "No more messing around corporations, we're putting our foot down." Because the corporations, are running rough shot over every part- section of our economy, and it's damn time somebody stood up.

JACK TROEGER: Listen to me. I put a bathtub in your house. Let's pretend that little bugger is just a-filling up so fast, water's just a-rolling and a-gushing out of that faucet. And it's flowing over the rim of that bathtub. What are you going to do? What are you going to do? Are you going to grab a little Dixie cup and start taking that water out and pouring it into the sink? Or are you going to go over to the medicine cabinet and get an eye dropper and start taking drop after drop out and put it into the toilet? That's what you're doing! Stop fiddling around the margins, the edges. Get on with it! We all know, all of us! In this entire country, in this entire country, there are three-hundred million of us who know, you don't get it!

HUGH ESPEY: Good to see people having a voice. People speaking out and speaking truth to power.

MARIA ALVAREZ: I got involved in CCI through the organization of the immigrant issue in my community. But through CCI I have realized all of the different ways the government puts politic and corporate interests before the people.

Society is no longer the people. Society is the money. And that's what society is based upon right now. The money, and who has the power to change society to their way or to their benefit. The people have lost their voice.

DIEGO ALVAREZ: But CCI is here to take it back.

MARIA ALVAREZ: Yup. Because we are the voice.

DIEGO ALVAREZ: I want to live in a state where they have clean water, and puts the health of all Iowans first.

BILL MOYERS: Maria and Diego Alvarez came to America as young children with their mother, to escape hunger and poverty in Mexico. They settled in Marshalltown, Iowa, where their mom works butchering hogs in a local meatpacking plant.

DIEGO ALVAREZ: All day she has to be cutting the meat, and standing up all day, and she only gets one or two breaks a day, even though she's supposed to have like three. And that's why her hands are all the way they are. They don't get straight any more. They just curl up. So-

MARIA ALVAREZ: She says that physically they demand so much out of them and that if they go complain or make complaints, you know, the managers will fire them.

MARIA ALVAREZ (Translating for her mother): When you're physically done, you get fired. That's when Swift doesn't need you anymore.

We're tired of people complaining and not doing anything. So we started working with a bunch of organizations, and slowly we moved up to CCI. And we meet people like Larry-

DIEGO ALVAREZ: Larry's awesome.

MARIA ALVAREZ: Who prep us up and is basically, like, "You know what? This is what happened in my history. This is what happened. This is what I saw. This is- and this is how it could affect you guys." And we're just, like, "Oh yeah, Larry. We got your back." We must stand together. Urban and rural, immigrants and native Iowans, united for what's right.

CROWD: Kill the bill! Kill the bill!

MARIA ALVAREZ: And he has our back, and we have his back. And that's how it works.

BILL MOYERS: It worked. The power of organized people helped kill the bill. One small victory in a never-ending fight.

LARRY GINTER: We had, I don't know- I think we had about a hundred and fifty people there.

As a Catholic, there's one thing that I've always felt about the bible that was, to me, was the ultimate truth. And that is loving your neighbor. Did you find out any more about that rally we were going to have? If you truly love your neighbor, you're going to make sure that that neighbor's treated fairly. Because if that neighbor is taken care of and he knows that you care or she knows that you care about them, maybe just maybe they're going to care about Larry Ginter. And that's going to catch on.

JOHN BLASINGAME: You can fight. In fact, you've got a duty to fight. There's some words to a song that get right to the heart of this.

(SINGING) You law abiding citizens, listen to this song. Laws were made by people and people can be wrong. Once unions were against the law, but slavery was fine. Women were denied the vote and children worked the mines. The more you study history, the less you can deny it. A rotten law stays on the books 'til folks with guts defy it.

And that's right at the heart of the matter. We defy the bad ones and we fight for the good ones. And that's what we're about.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

April 30, 2010

“The only solution to any problem is to get to work on it.”

That phrase is the motto of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) profiled on the Journal. In its 36 year history, the CCI has addressed a number of issues through grassroots organizing — and political action.

Like the original populists of the 19th century south and west, the CCI began its organization around the battle between individual farmers and corporate farming interests. Today they are trying to battle a bill that would allow industrial-scale farms to spread liquid manure on top of frozen or snow-covered fields, a practice deemed hazardous to the environment and a potential health risk.

The CCI has also taken on the challenge of preserving a core aspect of the American dream — fighting abusive lending as well as offering financial classes and counseling to encourage and safeguard home ownership. And the CCI is embracing the changing demographics of their state by supporting the many Latino immigrants who are working the in meatpacking industry. The CCI has taken on labor, discrimination and immigration issues. And again hearkening back to those early populists — the group is a firm supporter of getting big money out of American politics through its arm, Voter-Owned Iowa.

As member and farmer Larry Ginter puts it, the founding fathers liked a good fight — so should their heirs.

“There’s a saying, ‘Revolution begins in a peasant hut.’ You got to fight for the justice. You got to fight for the fair wage. You got to fight for housing. You got to fight for healthcare. Fight for the elderly, fight for family farmers and workers. Fight for the environment. And that’s what Iowa CCI does.”

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  • Anonymous

    ICCI = good people who care about people over profit and protecting our mother earth.  Keep on truckin’ ICCI.