People's voice rises to confront powers that be

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 18, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The first thing that happens is my mother on the telephone, putting a minor curse on Roger Hayden. Then come the strangers at the shopping center passing out leaflets, and the telephone squad, and the lady at the candy store, all of them hollering about this same heartless Hayden.

"Call this number," my mother says.

"I can't call the number," I tell her. "I work for a newspaper. We can't take part in protests, we can only cover them."

"They make you give up your citizenship for this job?" she asks.

"Never mind."

"OK," she says impatiently, "then get the kids to call. Everybody's calling Hayden's office. He has to know how people feel."

The lady at the candy store stops me in the atrium at the Greenspring Shopping Center, on Smith Avenue in northwest Baltimore County, for the same reason.

"The nerve of this Hayden," she says. "Doesn't he know what he's doing?"

She means the mini-library, which used to be located two doors from her and isn't there any more.

"Did my mother put you up to this?" I ask the candy store lady.

"Everybody did," she declares.

One day the library was there, the next day -- poof! -- it's shut down in County Executive Hayden's budget-cutting of eight mini-libraries and one regular branch.

Once upon a time, such an order meant tough luck if you didn't like it. A county executive, a mayor, a governor -- they were authority figures, about whom you griped briefly but not too loudly, lest you be overheard and some unseen, shadowy figures arrive to ruin your life.

You can't fight city hall, they used to say.

But they don't anymore.

Not on the libraries, not at Lexington Terrace, not even in Annapolis or Washington, where the rules of the game were changing while nobody in power seemed to be noticing.

On the parking lot outside the Greenspring Shopping Center now, in the gathering twilight gloom, a car pulls up and a window opens. A leaflet is handed out, advertising a protest rally for 4:30 this Sunday afternoon, at the shopping center's atrium.

"If you have any hope of keeping our library open, if you have any hope of changing Hayden's mind, show you care," the leaflet says.

About the libraries, I will say little else. I am in favor of the reading of books, and I also understand Hayden's budget difficulties, but what is gripping now is the sheer conflict that has arisen: democracy in action! The voice of the people vs. the power of the state!

What's more, it seems to be contagious.

At Lexington Terrace Apartments, residents sickened by filth in their buildings threaten to withhold their rent. Suddenly, the mayor of Baltimore and the City Council president show up, accompanied by television cameras, belatedly but ostentatiously demonstrating their concern.

In Annapolis, a Senate committee votes reflexively to endorse John Arnick for a District Court judgeship, and never mind that business about vulgar behavior.

The legislators just don't get it -- until suddenly come hundreds of telephone calls, almost all of them furious. And, just like that, Arnick's candidacy is no longer a living thing.

In Washington, Zoe Baird loses the chance to be attorney general because of an illegal nanny. Big deal, a baby-sitting problem.

But then, on radio talk shows comes the sound of outrage, and Baird is no more.

My mother says she senses a new citizen invigoration that she's never seen in her whole life. She feels this, I suspect, out of her own little piece of the library fight, but something else is going on here.

People are not only making angry phone calls, but they've noticed that mass media are paying attention to them making angry phone calls. One builds on another, back and forth, mirrors gaping at each other. From radio talk shows to newspaper stories about those radio talk shows to legislative offices monitoring both the talk shows and the newspaper stories, a kind of mass self-consciousness has taken over.

It says, if we dare to take part, people in power will pay attention. You can fight city hall now, or the county executive or the legislature, if only you make your voice loud enough.

It's a kind of community primal shriek, and if you watch carefully, what follows may be a politician beginning to catch on.

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