On Faces and Hands: A Tribute to Doug Boone

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the June, 2007 issue of The Valley Scene

Doug Boone, Oshkosh Waterfest correspondent for the Scene and long time peace and social justice activist, passed away in late May. I’m going to put the media ranting on hold this month and instead share my personal recollections of Doug.

In the grand, historic social movement toward building a just and peaceful planet, there have always been two kinds of participants. The first are the “Faces.” These are the recognized leaders whose names we know and who typically take or are given credit for showing us the way. They are often elected officials, ministers, professional organizers, writers, high profile academics and public intellectuals, filmmakers and even entertainers. They are great at talking the talk even if they don’t always walk the walk. They are the people about whom doctoral dissertations are written, whose birthdays are observed, and whose lifework becomes the stuff of legend.

In contrast to the Faces, the second category of social movement participants I call the Hands, as in “get their hands dirty.” These are the activists who do the work. These are the people who write the letters, knock on the doors, make the phone calls, and stand up to bullies. The Hands don’t always talk the talk too good, but they always walk the walk. The Faces may talk eloquently on the TV about what needs to be done, but Hands walking hand in hand is what ultimately sustains any movement.

A few years ago the great intellectual and political activist Noam Chomsky was asked if he thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most important figure in the Civil Rights movement. Chomsky said that King’s work should not be minimized, but the only reason we know him is because grassroots activists associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations created a context in which a King could arise. In other words, King became the Face of a movement that millions of Hands who we will never know gave their blood, sweat, and tears to create.

Doug Boone enjoyed mingling with the Faces, but he was a Hand. He probably won’t have a doctoral dissertation written about him, his birthday of November 7th will not be a national holiday, and school children won’t see his name on multiple choice tests. Yet Doug would not have cared about any of that. “Forget about me,” I can imagine him saying. “Go out and be the hard working Hands needed to make this country live up to its promise.”

I first met Doug in 1996 when I ran for State Assembly in Oshkosh as a Democrat. At the time I was brash enough to think that I could be the Face of opposition to Tommy Thompson’s and the Republicans’ so-called “reform” of welfare and introduction of big money politics to Wisconsin. I had many conversations with Doug at the time and came to admire his passion for democracy and social justice. I debated incumbent Gregg Underheim 4 times that year, and will never forget how Doug and other Hands in attendance created a raucous environment like what one might see in the British Parliament during the Prime Minister’s question time.

By 2000 I had come to the conclusion that the Democrats were as much of a problem in Madison and Washington as the GOP, and in 2004 I ran for the same State Assembly seat as a Green. Some Dems went apoplectic and could not accept my choice. Doug did not work for my campaign that year, but told me that he respected the fact that I was willing to do what I thought was right.

2004 was also a presidential election year, and I can’t imagine that anyone worked harder than Doug Boone to remove George W. Bush from office. Though not uncritical of John Kerry, Doug saw in the Bush Administration a real fascist threat. Born in 1952, Doug was keenly aware of the McCarthyite hysteria of that time and believed that post 9/11 America had seen a resurgence of that kind of intolerance and ignorance.

I think Doug Boone’s legacy has to be his activism against the Iraq War. As a Vietnam vet himself, he recognized more than most the futility of ill-defined wars. He carried peace signs at Opera House Square Park in Oshkosh, Houdini Plaza in Appleton, and numerous other places. Doug and his signs became a fixture on 9th Ave. and Georgia St. in Oshkosh, reaching thousands of drivers over many months. He told me that by the second year of the war the occasional swearing that came his way had been replaced almost entirely by honking horns of support and thumbs up signs.

In 2005 and 2006 Doug alone collected thousands of signatures against the Iraq War. I watched him petition and stood in awe as he frequently debated war supporters and challenged them to come up with arguments in support of their position.

As bad as we all might want to be the Face of a movement, Doug showed us the power of the Hands. If you want to honor his memory, do something today that will make a positive difference for your community.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.