By Ted Mcdonough
email@example.com photos By John TaylorEighteen months ago, Rocky Anderson stood on the steps of Salt Lake’s City & County Building calling for the impeachment of the president. Protesters, some wearing rubber Dick Cheney masks, surrounded him, along with papier-mâché tableaus of Bush cabinet members chained together in black-and-white prison stripes. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, famously dismissed the protesters as "nutcakes." Conservative TV personality Bill O´Reilly later gave his own assessment of Salt Lake City´s then-mayor: "kook."
With George W. Bush in the White House and many Democrats afraid of invisible terrorists and their own shadows, the idea that Bush administration officials would ever be charged as war criminals did seem a little crazy. What a difference an election makes.
Today, calls like Anderson’s echo throughout Congress. Just one week into the Obama administration, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.—with whom Anderson has been meeting for the past year—filed a bill calling for a “truth commission” to examine alleged Bush administration abuses of war powers and civil liberties. The bill is backed by a 500-page report, “Reining in the Imperial Presidency,” based in part on judiciary committee hearings in which Anderson participated during the summer of 2008. A separate Judiciary Committee report recommends criminal probes. Conyers has already subpoenaed former Bush adviser Karl Rove to testify.
Anderson, interviewed by City Weekly one year to the day after he left the mayor’s office, says it’s an example of what a committed citizenry can do. When he stepped down as mayor, Anderson didn’t join a law firm or become a lobbyist. Instead, he launched a nonprofit advocacy organization, High Road for Human Rights, which took, as its first task, forcing a probe of the Bush years.
As Democrats everywhere prepared for Barack Obama to walk into the White House with talk of a new era of hope and looking to the future, Anderson’s organization was ramping up pressure on Congress not to forget the past. Those signed up as High Road members received regular e-mail updates urging them to send letters to the new president and Congress endorsing High Road’s seven-point plan for “an end to torture and restoration of the rule of law.” At City Weekly’s press deadline, the letter had 5,000 signatures.
Anderson may not be mayor any more, but Rocky is still Rocky. And the new stage he’s invented for himself might just become Anderson’s lasting legacy.
Today, High Road for Human Rights consists of Anderson and one full-time employee in a 200 South office donated by longtime Anderson friend and political ally David Ibarra.
There’s also a Website (HighRoadForHumanRights.org), and a handful of High Road “chapters” just barely started up in Salt Lake County and Utah County, and pending in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Casper, Wyo., where Rocky pitched the idea at Dick Cheney’s high school.
Rocky’s office looks much as it did when he was mayor. There is a pop-art painting of four John F. Kennedys and posters advertising protests Anderson headlined as mayor. An article headlined “Electricity Without Carbon” sits atop one of several neat piles on Anderson’s desk. Anderson doesn’t have employee benefits. His health insurance ends in June. Grants used to start High Road are running out. Anderson, who is supporting High Road with his speaking fees, says the organization is holding on by its fingernails. High Road currently has just 250 members who have pledged to help by writing members of Congress, screening slick High Road video presentations and penning letters to the editor.
But Anderson—dressed casually in cords, a sweater and no collar—looks more relaxed than he did during his last days as mayor. He recently turned down a job offer and says he’s sure his new project will work. Everything he’s done before has led him to High Road, Anderson says. In January, he hired a full-time chapter coordinator to start new chapters across the country.
“The ACLU had to start from somewhere,” he says.
Let your leaders know The mission of High Road at first glance is absurdly overreaching. Anderson wants to end genocide, international sex slavery and global warming. And, as if that weren’t enough, he tacked stopping torture and “restoring the rule of law” to the High Road mission statement as his work lobbying the House Judiciary Committee to hold the Bush administration accountable began taking up much of his time. But, in concept, the High Road is simple. Anderson says if he learned anything in politics, it was that politicians don’t do anything difficult unless pushed. The big problems, like global warming, are ignored, he says, because elected officials don’t hear about them from voters. High Road exists to provide the shock troops, “to make it clear there will be short-term political costs for those who continue to ignore these kinds of problems.”
High Road’s pitch is, “You never again have to say you don’t know what you can do.” It promises that changing big policies really isn’t that hard. “Imagine if you had a group of just five people. Every time a congressperson or senator comes home and they hold a meeting, there is a group there pushing on the same issues,” Anderson says. The idea appealed to Utah Valley University senior Kindra Amott, who started Utah County’s High Road chapter in December after Anderson presented a video on genocide and human trafficking to her “peace and justice” club. “I think so many people feel so powerless,” says Amott. “To know there is something as simple as writing to a congressman or attending a meeting— to have an outlet, finally, where it’s, ‘Hey, let’s do something’—is cool.” The sex slavery issue was cemented onto Anderson’s personal agenda during a 2002 trip to New Delhi for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change. Anderson asked his guide to take him to the most notorious brothel street, then went in and interviewed the women and girls kept as slaves inside. Anderson says U.S. policy has talked a good game against sex slavery, yet simultaneously has granted waivers to oil rich countries. Climate change may seem an odd fit for High Road’s human-rights banner. But Anderson argues stopping global warming is about preventing the human-rights tragedies of mass migration and loss of traditional cultures.
Michael Posner, president of New York City-based Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), says High Road is the first attempt at starting a grass-roots human-rights membership organization since Amnesty International. Human-rights lobbying organizations like his have lagged well behind the environmental movement in drumming up grass-roots support, he says, and “we’ve learned the hard way that policymakers and opinion leaders tend to set agendas by the broader public debate.”
Anderson says it was a book that convinced him to forgo a third term as mayor in favor of becoming a fulltime activist. In A Problem From Hell, about genocide in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, author Samantha Power (now a senior advisor to Obama) relates Clinton administration officials telling human-rights advocates that the U.S. government wouldn’t intervene unless advocates “made more noise.”
“Since the phones in congressional offices weren’t ringing, President Clinton and Congress sat on their hands during two genocides,” says Anderson. “We keep expecting elected officials will do the right thing, and the fact is they never do unless they’re posted.