Ukrainian journalist and prominent activist Tetyana Chornovil was brutally attacked on Christmas Day just hours after publishing a story accusing top government officials of corruption. Chornovil, who is expected to recover, suspects President Viktor Yanukovich was behind the assault. Her accusation comes after weeks of street protests against Yanukovich for reneging on a promise to sign an economic agreement with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovich made a deal with Russia that offers Ukraine a $15 billion bailout and lower gas prices -- and keeps the struggling nation under Moscow's thumb. The street protesters fear Ukraine will lose its independence and autonomy if Yanukovich gets cozy with Russia. As The Guardian reports, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians brave freezing temperatures and aggressive security forces to have their voices heard. Democracy -- still in its relative infancy there -- isn't a given for them; they must be vigilant to protect it.
Ukraine held its first presidential election in December 1991, in the midst of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More than 90 percent of Ukrainians went to the polls. Now, over 20 years later, 72 percent of eligible Ukrainian voters still regularly cast ballots in presidential elections. According to the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara, we've not seen turnout above 70 percent in over a century in this country. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate puts the 2012 U.S. Presidential election turnout at just over 57 percent of eligible American voters -- down from turnout in both 2008 and 2004.
Granted, we do not face ruthless Vladimir Putin meddling directly in our internal affairs (See my July 2013 column "The Bear Wakes"). But locally there's certainly still plenty of concern and ire over the Police/Fire renovations, the defeat of the 1-percent optional sales tax, and the looming substantial increase in our taxes here in Brattleboro. More than one friend, referring to the Town Meeting vote that approved the Police/Fire project, has said: "What were the reps thinking? We can't afford that!" I am an elected Town Meeting Representative here in Brattleboro, and I can report that the discussion was long and deliberative. You may not agree with the decisive vote, but it was neither capricious nor uninformed.
When I suggested to another friend -- frustrated by past Town Meeting decisions -- that she should attend herself, her response was: "That's just not for me. I don't like sitting in meetings for all those hours! Ugh!" I smiled a tight little smile and resisted the urge to say, "Who exactly do you think enjoys hours of messy, tedious democracy in action?" But then I realized, in a deep sense (when I can ignore the fact that my butt falls asleep in those awful folding chairs), I do. Here's why.
This past week civil rights activist Franklin McCain died. McCain was one of the "Greensboro Four" -- a group of African-American students from North Carolina A & T State University that occupied a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in 1960 and ignited a sit-in movement across the South. He told Washington Post contributor Mary C. Curtis that one of the most important things he learned from that protest was not to stereotype people. He explained that as he sat at the counter -- feeling utter elation and pride -- he warily watched an elderly white woman approach him. She leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Boys, I am so proud of you." This remarkable moment shaped his views for the rest of his life.
I value Town Meeting because I hear what my neighbors genuinely think about important local issues. It is an incomparable opportunity to practice withholding judgment and earnestly releasing the urge to pigeonhole fellow residents. I wish more residents viewed it this way. Mirroring lackluster turnout in presidential elections, our local political engagement has also waned. Annette Cappy -- Brattleboro's town clerk for the past 25 years -- recently told me she has seen a marked decrease in the number of residents willing to run for office. Cappy recalled that in the past it was not unusual for 30 people in each district to run for 15 Town Meeting member seats; now there are often not enough candidates to fill the seats. But, Cappy notes, "Running for Town Meeting member in Brattleboro is basically the same responsibility as that of any other voter in other (Vermont) communities ... You go to town meeting and you vote your conscience."
If you are a Brattleboro resident, and have never served your community in this vital capacity, please consider running. We need you. You can pick up a petition from the Town Clerk's office; you need only gather 10 signatures from voters in your district to get on the ballot for the March election. Town offices -- such as Selectboard or school board -- require just 30 signatures. There are many positions open, including seats on the town school board, the Brattleboro Union High School board, and the board of listers. All paperwork is due to the Town Clerk's Office by 5 p.m., Monday, Jan. 27.
If you doubt the need to keep our democracy fresh and vibrant, consider that a 20-something in my Modern World History course at the Community College of Vermont some years ago, argued that "fascism really doesn't seem all that bad. Things work better. It is just easier to have someone else making the decisions." Indeed, which is why George Bernard Shaw -- the Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics -- astutely quipped, "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
I'm confident that the people of Ukraine -- or those in other tenuous democracies -- would be relieved and delighted to have the opportunity to vote on our more mundane, but no less important matters.