Missoula was infiltrated by at least one subversive movement last weekend: the Elvis Underground Church.
Deacon Rivers, who rode into Missoula for the Global Justice Action Summit (GlobalJAS) aboard a bio-diesel powered school bus, slipped me some Elvis Underground Church literature as I spoke with one of his followers. The Berkeley, Calif.-based Elvis Underground has 11 commandments, all of which take their names from Mr. Swivel Hips’ most famous ditties: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Treat Me Nice,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Do the Clam,” etc. They then relate the titles to themes like environmental protection, which is where we find our point of connection between Elvis and bio-diesel (and not, as I initially suspected, in French fries, though we know Elvis had a weakness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches).
“It’s nice to be riding in a vehicle that’s a little more sustainable than plugging into the whole fossil fuels industry,” said Andrew Thompson, who spent most of Saturday lounging in front of the school bus with his shirt off, handing out pamphlets, talking transportation, and basking in the shade. He was one of the many exhibitors at last weekend’s GlobalJAS sustainability, self-sufficiency and simplicity fair in Caras Park.
Thompson, Rivers, and the rest of the crew of about 15 people from Arcata, Calif. heard about GlobalJAS through their local Peace and Justice Center. For both men this was their first visit to Missoula.
“I guess I’m seeing the more progressive side of things, but it seems like a very bike-friendly, dog- friendly kind of town, with lots of green space and friendly folks,” Thompson said of the Garden City. “It’s a real good first impression.”
After Missoula the Arcata clan plans to trek north to Calgary and then southeast to the upper Midwest for this year’s Rainbow Gathering. But they weren’t the only rainbow family members at Caras Park on Saturday. In fact, if you wanted to find Rainbow Family members at GlobalJAS, you needed only to go find…a cop?
“We’re the cosmic cops,” said Chuck Mills, whose GlobalJAS T-shirt had “Peace Keeper” stamped on it in green letters. Mills, who was decked out in a feathered cowboy hat with a peace sign button, a leather vest with a Harley-Davidson patch and a yin-yang symbol, preferred that I not share his age. Let’s just say he can legitimately claim to be one of Missoula’s first local hippies.
Friday night got a bit rowdy after the downtown bars and discos closed and some drunken rabble-rousers made their way down to Caras Park. “They threw things in the river and made a lot of noise, shook some cars up,” Mills said. “We had all the stuff here so we had to protect it.”
The exhibits at Caras Park amounted to a smorgasbord of Montana’s progressive causes. Supposedly, the tables even spelled out “Sustain Us All,” although you would have to have swung from the rafters of the Caras Park Pavilion to tell for sure (Earth First! did have a rope setup, but I didn’t have the cojones to borrow it). After chatting with folks about carpooling, gay rights, Catholic justice philosophy, third world debt, and about a dozen different environmental issues, I ambled over to the Global Wheel of Fortune. I was a bit bummed out that there weren’t more games like this one (I’m into gimmicks), but I guess the organizers already outdid themselves on Earth Day. I was not disappointed by the wheel of fortune, though, which randomly places you somewhere on earth and then exposes you to some basic facts about the quality of life in your new home.
I had the misfortune of landing in China. While there’s always the possibility that I could become a globe trotting dissident, a drab Communist Party apparatchik, or a Hong Kong action star, odds are that I would be an impoverished peasant. My reward: I got a whole two inches of Red Vines licorice (the length was based on a calculation of that country’s Gross Domestic Product and various other factors). By contrast, my companion spun Italy and walked away with two whole sticks of Red Vines (the United States was at the top with three vines, Sierra Leone at the bottom with .25 inches).
After all the feel good, laid back festivities at Caras Park, I then headed over to the First United Methodist Church to experience some of the summit’s wonky substance. I was trying to go to a panel discussion on hunger in Montana, but somehow ended up in a roomful of people talking about breeding corn and “LGUs” (which I later found out refers to land grant universities, not legumes). What have I gotten myself into? I thought, as my entrance disrupted the whole room and people shifted their chairs around to accommodate me, cutting off any chances for a hasty exit.
And yet—would you believe it?—it was really interesting.
That would be thanks to speaker J.J. Haapala, a farmer from Oregon who gave a dynamic talk that for the first time really helped me understand the agricultural issues that were such a large component of GlobalJAS. I came admire his approach as well as his stances. When the big agricultural companies start producing organic products he sees it as a victory for activists and a step in the right direction. His role as a small farmer is to keep on innovating and competing, he said, to keep a place for himself and expand the voice and power of small producers in the marketplace.
Finally, I thought, here’s a progressive voice with no sense of victimization who doesn’t fear competition but wants to work within the system to create a better world. It all came together for me in that tiny room in the church basement I’d stumbled into by mistake. And I didn’t have to consume any legumes either.