ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Man on a mission: Dave Meserve's stand against the Bush administration
Arcata City Council member, Dave Meserve on the Arcata Plaza.
Photo by Bob Doran



IT WAS THE LATE `90S. DAVE MESERVE HAD JUST FINISHED READING some newspaper accounts of the bombing that was then going on in the Balkans, but he was hungry for more. Trolling the Internet, he happened upon a modest website put out by a group of young people in Yugoslavia.

"They were sending people out to the places where the bombing was taking place and they were reporting back what they saw, how many people were killed and injured, what the damage was, basically exactly what was happening," Meserve recalled in an interview last week at Sacred Grounds, the Arcata coffeehouse.

These raw, on-the-scene reports jibed with what Meserve had read elsewhere in terms of which targets were attacked when, but they described the havoc wrought by American bombs so vividly that the accounts by professional, established journalists paled in comparison. "I started seeing this total disconnect between what the media was reporting and what these young people were doing and suddenly..." Meserve paused, perhaps to reorder his thoughts, or maybe because he was feeling a surge of emotion.

"My daughter was pregnant at the time," he resumed, his voice a little thick, "it was my first grandchild, and I remember I suddenly got this feeling as if someone had grabbed me by the back of the ponytail and said, `You've got to do something about this!'"

This anecdote illustrates a couple of things about Meserve, a 54-year-old carpenter and former high school teacher, who in a matter of months has become Arcata's highest profile city council member.

One, obviously, is that he doesn't think the mainstream press does a very good job of reflecting reality. But the other is more interesting: He feels a sense of urgency. He believes his country, particularly since George W. Bush became president, is going down the wrong path. Big time.

"If you read outside of the mainstream media, then you get a different picture of what's going on in the world," Meserve explained. "For the people who do that there is a very strong consensus that we're in a terribly dangerous time when the executive branch is running amok and blatantly seeking empire and world domination. At the point where you begin to see the world that way it becomes essential to act, because it's not something you can stop if it goes too far."

Once again Meserve paused, and the background cafe buzz flooded in, creating a space for a quick assessment. On the one hand, it sounded like the typical critique of American foreign policy that left-wingers have been making for years. On the other, we're in Iraq, and Vice President Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, is poised to make a bundle on the reconstruction.

And here Meserve turned clairvoyant. "You couldn't say world empire without getting laughed at a few years ago," he said, "but now although people may pooh-pooh it, many know exactly what you're talking about."

Media darling

Meserve sitting at coffee shop tableThis year a number of people, both in Humboldt and in the world at large, became aware of Meserve, the driving force behind Arcata's widely publicized stand against the USA Patriot Act -- and now the leader of an effort that would make Arcata the first city in the country to pass a resolution calling for President Bush's impeachment. The resolution, likely to come before the Arcata City Council next month, has met widespread public support, but so far has not been embraced by a majority on the council.

After taking on the Patriot Act, which culminated in an ordinance requiring city department heads to refer potentially unconstitutional federal requests made under the law to the City Council for review, Meserve got his 15 minutes of fame, and then some. The freshman council member, who'd barely been on the job long enough to know which chair he was supposed to sit in during the bi-weekly Wednesday night meetings, was prominently featured in a front-page article in the Washington Post, appeared on broadcasts by Fox News and CNN and made newspapers in Europe. He was even interviewed by Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network. (The focus there was on how Arcata's ordinance seeks to prevent racial profiling.)

"I campaigned on the platform that the federal government is stark raving mad and I'm glad they put that on the front page of the Washington Post," he said at the time.

It would be concluding too much from all this attention to call Meserve a rising political star; he is, after all, merely an elected official representing a small, geographically isolated, liberal town. But there's no denying that he's tapping into something; perhaps it's the same vein a true rising star, Howard Dean, is exploiting -- muscular opposition to President Bush and all that he stands for. While the Joe Liebermans and John Kerrys of the world search timidly for the middle ground, people like Meserve and Dean are taking off the gloves and telling a president who's grown accustomed to getting his way to "put `em up."

It's a potent stance for a variety of reasons: Pent-up Democratic anger over the controversial way in which Bush attained the White House; Bush's hardball, uncompromising style of governance; his disdain for things liberals hold dear, such as the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, environmental regulation.

And while the country rallied behind Bush following the terrorist attacks of two years ago, the controversy over the Iraq war has served to inflame and empower those, like Meserve, who were already dead set against the president. The recent news that $87 billion is needed to merely start to rebuild Iraq has left many in Washington, D.C., not to mention the country as a whole, stunned, and they're not all from the Democratic Party. A particular sore point is that a portion of the money is likely to go toward health care and education, areas that are going neglected in the United States. As the cost of Bush's war sinks in, his vaunted popularity has finally begun to slip -- which goes a long way toward explaining Meserve's optimism the other day.

"I think there's hope, because people, not just in Arcata but around the country, are beginning to get it, they're beginning to understand that there's something the matter with the policies of our government, and they're beginning to feel that it's not unpatriotic to call for a change in those policies. In fact, they're beginning to see that it's unpatriotic to not fight for a change in those policies."


President George W. BushMeserve is hardly the first person to call for President Bush's impeachment. Ramsay Clark, attorney general under President Carter, has written up several "draft articles of impeachment" that can be found on a website called votetoimpeach.org. A University of Illinois law professor, Francis Boyle, has also used the Internet to lay out the legal justification for impeachment. Activist groups like Veterans for Peace, an anti-war organization made up of former soldiers, have joined the movement, if that's the word. It was from the somewhat lengthy articles of impeachment developed by this group that Meserve, along with Brian Willson, the group's local representative, crafted his resolution.

Like Meserve, the resolution -- which also calls for the impeachment of Cheney -- is straightforward to the point of bluntness. As a legal matter, it argues, Bush should be impeached because he launched an unprovoked attack against Iraq. The only way such an attack can take place under the U.N. Charter is if the invasion is authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Since there was no such authorization, the invasion violated the U.N. Charter, the founding document of the 58-year-old multinational organization. The U.N. charter is a treaty of the United States, and a violation of a treaty amounts to a violation of the U.S. Constitution, an impeachable offense.

Meserve, of course, is not a lawyer and does not pretend to be. But Boyle of the University of Illinois is, so Meserve's resolution may have some legal weight. Still, at least one law expert has stated publicly that when it comes to a legal basis for impeaching Bush, there is no there there. Paul Sanford, an attorney in the Santa Cruz area, where impeaching Bush has been an issue, recently told the San Jose Mercury News that Bush's policy in the Middle East was merely flawed, not grounds for Congress to remove him.

To impeach a president, Sanford said, "high crimes and misdemeanors are required. Period." Nothing Bush has done would qualify, he added.

The other part of Meserve's resolution, what might be called the moral part, has to do with "three main lies" that the Bush administration told to Congress and the American people to gain support for the invasion:

  • Iraq had an active program of weapons of mass destruction.

Meserve noted that, more than four months after the official end of the war on May 1, no such weapons have been found. He also said there is increasing evidence that the CIA had doubts that Hussein possessed such weapons, doubts that Bush turned a blind eye toward. "Bush ignored the advice of his intelligence community," Meserve said.

Jerry Partain, the former head of the California Department of Forestry and an articulate conservative voice in Humboldt, said it remains an "open question" whether weapons of mass destruction will be found.

"When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, we just don't know yet for sure," Partain said in a telephone interview this week. "We know that [President] Clinton and everyone else agreed [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction. That's why Clinton bombed Baghdad a few years ago."

  • Iraq was seeking to buy uranium ore from Niger to use in building nuclear weapons.

Top administration officials apologized in July for allowing a British intelligence report on Iraq's nuclear ambitions into the president's State of the Union address in January. Bush cited the report in his speech, even though the CIA and officials with the National Security Administration had previously deemed the report to be false.

What makes this "lie" particularly egregious in Meserve's view is that one of the American officials who determined the report to be false was sent to Niger by Cheney's office. "Yet Cheney and Bush used this as if it were a known fact," Meserve said.

Partain pointed out that the British insisted they had good information. And he argued that the public does not have enough information at this point in time to say whether the British were accurate or not.

  • Iraq had an ongoing relationship with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Meserve noted that no hard evidence has been presented by the administration for such a connection, and that it's likely there never was any, as Saddam was always a secular leader while bin Laden has long been an advocate of holy war against the West. "Bin Laden had no use for Saddam," Meserve said flatly.

Partain said it was true that Hussein and bin Laden have different beliefs. But he said, "Both hate us and target us. It seems there must have been some connection there."

Referring to the three lies Meserve is laying at the feet of the Bush administration, Partain had his own blunt rejoinder: "These are hardly impeachable offenses."

`Back to the land hippie'

It's not completely clear where Meserve's activism stems from. Maybe it's his Quaker roots, the pacifist bent of that Christian sect. Perhaps it was when, as a 14-year-old, he and his eighth-grade classmates pushed their way to the front for an up-close view of Martin Luther King, Jr's. "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Or maybe he got the bug a few years later in Washington, D.C., when he took part in one of the bigger marches against the Vietnam War.

What is clear is that Meserve, a Pennsylvania native, was in San Francisco for the "Summer of Love" in 1967. He eventually "burned out" on the city and ended up living in a teepee for a couple of years in Whale Gulch, near the headwaters of the Mattole. It wasn't a commune, but instead "a little community that was just growing." In 1969 he found himself, in a sense, when he built a house for someone. "After that I started working as a carpenter and builder and started having kids." This self-described "back to the land hippie" had four children, three girls and a boy, who today range in age from 22 to 33.

In 1975 he moved to Petrolia, where he would live for the next 15 years. He recalls it as an "idyllic" time of hard work and "very direct living."

"We built our homestead. We were pretty much off the grid. We used a windmill, solar panels, we pumped water out of a well, we grew our own vegetables, we had goats, chickens, cows, sheep, dogs, cats. It was a lot of hard work, but it seemed to be the right thing to be doing at the time."

For almost the entire time out there, Meserve never watched TV and barely listened to the news. "We were conscious of where our food came from. I could see the energy of my work go toward the land. It was just getting back to the basics of life."

Even paradise can come to seem oppressive, however. "I guess it was too idyllic," Meserve said. A divorce in the late `80s was followed by a marriage in 1992 to his current wife, Betsy Roberts. Meantime, he moved to Arcata and enrolled at Humboldt State University. He wanted to complete the education he had started at the University of Chicago back in the `60s. He also had a desire to "be social in a larger community."

He ended up getting a bachelor's in physical science and a credential to teach physical science and math at the high school level. He had taught at an alternative school in Petrolia and enjoyed it, and tried it for a little while at Arcata High, but eventually gave it up as he was "unable to find full-time employment locally."

He returned to construction, which is how he still makes his living today. But he was branching out in another direction -- he went before the Arcata Council in 1998 to argue that the city should pass a resolution calling for a halt to the bombing of Yugoslavia, he unsuccessfully fought against the ordinance that prevents people from sitting on sidewalks and he became chairman of the Arcata Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission. Two years ago, he and others founded the Redwood Peace and Justice Center, a clearinghouse for activist groups. Last year he decided to walk the talk, so to speak, and he ran for the City Council.

Popular with Arcatans

Dave Meserve riding his bike on an Arcata streetMeserve was notably successful in persuading his fellow council members to support, first, in January, the resolution declaring the Patriot Act unconstitutional, and then, in April, the ordinance that gave the city's stand legal weight. Of the five, only Michael Machi opposed these efforts.

The impeachment resolution has not gone over as well with his colleagues, at least not so far. When Meserve introduced it in August, it was greeted enthusiastically by the members of the public in attendance, many of them with the Veterans for Peace group. But on the council, only Mayor Bob Ornelas expressed support. The rest, Machi, Connie Stewart and Elizabeth Conner, either expressed outright opposition, or at least reservations. Conner, for example, noted that a letter the City Council had sent to government officials arguing against a preemptive strike on Iraq had fallen on deaf ears, and suggested that people's time would be better spent mobilizing for next year's election.

Futile or not, the resolution has been embraced by the public. At a two-hour town hall meeting that attracted 150 people earlier this month, 41 of 46 speakers spoke in favor of it. It was much closer among phone-in callers to the meeting, but still it was supported by a majority, 43 to 37. Willson of Veterans for Peace, which along with Meserve helped organize the gathering, said that by last weekend 700 signatures had been collected supporting the resolution. The signers were either Arcata residents or people who shop in Arcata. "I think by this weekend we'll have over 1,000," he said. (Willson, whose legs were severed by a military train during an anti-war protest in 1987, was the subject of a Journal cover story earlier this year. See "Painful Odyssey," March 13.)

Meserve expressed confidence that the public backs him. "I think the majority of people favor this," he said.

In telephone interviews this week, Stewart and Machi raised many of the same objections they did at the August meeting. Machi said Meserve should have gotten input from the public and the council before he drafted the resolution. Stewart, who's been on the Council since 1996, acknowledged that the resolution had struck a chord with the public. "I can only think of a couple of other issues where I've gotten so much input, negative and positive." But she added: "It's never a numbers game with me, that's not how I vote. I have to vote with my conscience."

She said she was disturbed by the increasing polarization of American society, and "the impact that's having on our communities, especially in California." She said Meserve's resolution would merely serve to widen the divide. "Fighting seems to be more important than compromise," she said.

She added that unlike Meserve's resolution opposing the Patriot Act, which she supported out of concern that the law might be used to discriminate against minorities, the impeachment resolution seems pointless. "With the election one year away, I have a hard time calling for something that's not going to happen," she said.

Meserve agreed that it was not possible to impeach Bush before next November. But he said that if members of Congress are seriously discussing it by the spring, "It would profoundly affect the election's results." Political calculations aside, Meserve said that if you believe Bush should be impeached, nothing else matters. "If someone has committed a crime, you must go after them," he said.

Meserve said he would welcome any suggestions his fellow council members might have in terms of changing the wording of the proposal. And he indicated he might be willing to accept a compromise -- perhaps something similar to the city of Santa Cruz's recent decision to send a letter asking Congress to look into impeaching Bush.

"I would much rather see a resolution passed, but I would rather see something than nothing," Meserve said.

A moral issue

Perhaps the strongest objection to the resolution is that calling for the impeachment of a president is outside Arcata's bailiwick, and that citizens would be better served if council members focused on city issues.

Meserve's counter to that is twofold: A resolution like the one he's proposing need only require a minor commitment of the council's time and hardly any of the city's money. And there's a long tradition of American cities taking stands on controversial national issues, "from the 1850 Chicago resolution opposing the Fugitive Slave Act, through the 1970s and `80s, when councils across the country condemned the Vietnam War, called for justice in Central America and declared themselves Nuclear Free Zones," as he put it in a recent op-ed in the Times-Standard.

Meserve even has a fiscal argument. Assuming that the total price tag of the Iraq war is $120 billion, a highly conservative estimate in his view, that equates to $400 for every man, woman and child in America, or $6.4 million for Arcata's population of 16,000, about the size of entire general fund budget of the city. "That's an unacceptable local cost for an unnecessary war," Meserve said.

But, clearly, he feels most passionately about what he calls "the moral burden" of all American citizens to take a stand against an illegal war that has killed thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of Americans, a war in which President Bush used the American public's fear of another 9/11 as justification for the aggression.

Which brings up something else Meserve likes to point out these days: All those friends and relatives of Iraqis killed and maimed by American bombs are now "potential terrorists." In invading Iraq, the president hasn't made America safer; he's made it more hated.

"Bush is telling the big lie and increasingly people are having doubts," Meserve said.




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