When Henry Poole met Dennis Kucinich last May, politics fused with passion and technological savvy. What emerged from the meeting was an electronic presidential campaign, run in part from a room in a house that was once Berkeley’s best-known radical commune.
“We’ve created the basic technological infrastructure for a national campaign, an online fund-raising system, e-mail, and the software for e-mail campaigns,” Poole says.
Among his creations are Kucinich’s campaign website, www.denniskucinich.us, his electronic bulletin board, us.denniskucinich.us, and a WIKI—a site each user can edit, alter, or otherwise contribute to—www.civicactions.org.
While the city on the Bay is a long way in time and space from the Oklahoma plains where Poole was born 40 years ago, politics was in his blood from the start.
“My mother teaches philosophy and religion at University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma,” he explains, a liberal arts college 40 miles south of Oklahoma City.
“Back in the 60s, Oklahoma was going through some of the same political upheaval that was happening everywhere else in the country, so the conservatives decided to get rid of the hippies by sending them to the liberal arts college there,” he explains with a warm smile.
“The political environment changed and they fired all the professors, so a bunch of them—including my mother—organized a legal battle and fought to get their jobs back.”
While political activism came from his mother, an understanding of the intrusive nature of the system came from his father, a private investigator. “That woke me up about the lack of privacy we all have,” he says.
In Oklahoma—a state never known as a vibrant hub of culture—the bright youth with the unconventional parents sought solace in technology.
“I was interested in software and abstractions, so I got into programming at 14 as an escape form small town thinking. I got very comfortable with the machine.”
It wasn’t long before he blended his outsider’s passion for connection with his technological gifts.
“I’m really working on trying to open up communications and create an infrastructure for building up decentralized communities,” he explains. “That takes various forms. With technology you can bring light and connections to people who think they’re alone, so that once they’re together they realize they can have power.”
Arriving in Berkeley five years ago, he found a grand old house on Ashby Avenue that only later he discovered had once been home to the city’s notorious Red Family commune—the hotbed of revolution presided over by Chicago 7 radical and later Democratic state legislator Tom Hayden.
Poole’s revolutionary impulses follow a gentler course. Now 40, he’s a longtime member and current boardmember of the Free Software Foundation. “It’s a huge group of people working around the country on free software, which is a very important issue,” he says, quiet enthusiasm evident in his voice.
“Technology controls so much of our lives, and it’s not healthy to have it all controlled by a few powerful corporations.”
It was Catherine Fitts, a professional collaborator and fellow activist, who introduced Poole to Herman Gear, Kucinich’s campaign architect.
“Through our e-mail discussion, I learned that Kucinich was going to be in San Francisco in May, so we went to his town hall meeting on the 24th and I heard him speak. I liked what I heard, but I had a question, so I went up afterwards and asked him. We started talking and we got along really well. Then he asked if I could help him with his web campaign. I started working with Steve Cobble, his campaign strategist who’d had the same role for Nader.”
The weblog was up and running within two weeks, and the Wiki followed soon afterwards.
“It’s really been an amazing thing to see the response.”
Poole cites the supporter who, after he used the web to announce a cross-country walk in support of the candidate, was soon joined by four others, who are now going door-to-door in New York recruiting votes for their candidate.
The electronic campaigner isn’t discouraged by media portrayals of Cleveland congressman as an outsider with little chance of winning the Democratic nomination.
“The media’s corrupt. From my personal experiences, when people see this man, they experience a sense of hope that wasn’t there before. They become very supportive, unshakable.
“Besides, we don’t need that much time. Look at the Governator. Arnold Schwarzenegger took over sixth largest economy in the world in a campaign that lasted just six weeks.
“Yeah, Dennis is a long shot, but I’m willing to take a long shot. I don’t think the planet will sustain itself if we don’t make a radical change. We need someone we can trust, who doesn’t put corporate interests above human rights. I have two young kids, and I’d hate to see us lose half our planet before they’re in their twenties. As it is, both parties put corporate interests above human rights.
“All my friends who are progressive voters tell me they are more aligned with Dennis than Howard Dean, but they say they’re putting their energy into Dean because they think he’s electable. In this country, so many people are voting against someone.”
Poole says the Democrats won’t be able to pick a candidate until the convention, and “there’s a lot going to happen between now and then. He’s the only candidate with an exit strategy for the war, the only one with a real grasp of what’s happening to the environment. Those things might begin to resonate in the next few months, and people could decide they want their civil rights back, that they’re not willing to give them up to become the aggressors of the planet.”
Whatever happens in the election, Poole’s not about to give up. Another project he’s working on with Catherine Fitts—a former Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton Administration—is whereisthemoney.org.
Based on a 2000 audit of the Defense Department that revealed the Pentagon has a billion dollars a year in unaccounted transaction, the site shows how that money could be used to fund education, children’s healthcare and other programs.
Poole’s particularly fascinated with Wikis (the word’s an Hawaiian term meaning “quickie”), the increasingly popular user-built website, of which the best known is Wikipedia.com, an encyclopedia written entirely by website visitors.
“You’d think people would go online and trash the sites, but they don’t. It’s really amazing. And hopeful.”
So the house once famous for psychedelics and revolutionary politics is hosting another revolution, more sober and less inflammatory perhaps, but no less challenging for all that.