It was late July 2004, and it was a hot day for Seattle. The park was filled with activists, organizers and regular folks, there to hear a battery of speakers who had come together for this stop on the Rolling Thunder Democracy Tour.
The Best of Us
Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
— Words inscribed on the gravestone of Brandon Lee
It was late July 2004, and it was a hot day for Seattle. The park was filled with activists, organizers and regular folks, there to hear a battery of speakers who had come together for this stop on the Rolling Thunder Democracy Tour. I spent a couple of hours that day in a crowded tent with election reform activist Andy Stephenson, running a teach-in on electronic touch-screen voting machines, corporate control of the vote, and what could be done about it.
I threw in my two cents here and there, but this was Andy’s show. He had thrown his entire life into the fight for election reform, he had crisscrossed the country a dozen times, he had raided the offices of public officials with camcorder in hand to ask questions and demand answers, he had run for the office of Secretary of State in Washington on a platform of reforming the way we run elections in this country, and on that hot July day in Seattle, he was despondent.
As we sweltered in the tent, Andy ticked off all the problems we were sure to face in the coming November presidential election. There was no independent vetting of these voting machines, he explained, so there was no way to tell if the hardware and software within was counting things properly. There were no paper ballots involved, so recounts were a thing of the past. Votes tallied on these machines would be transferred via unsecured modem to central processing computers – which were basically PCs with Windows software – that had no security and could be easily tampered with. The companies distributing these machines and counting the votes were run by men who gave money to, and in some instances actively worked for, the Bush for President campaign.
I watched the crowd slump lower and lower into their seats as Andy rattled off the grim news. Meek hands were raised here and there. "What can we do about it?" people asked. Not much more than I’ve done, I could feel Andy thinking, and what I’ve done hasn’t fixed this damned situation one bit. He squared his shoulders and replied, "Get in touch with your Secretary of State and explain the situation. Write letters to the editor. Let people know this is happening. Do what you can."
Flash forward to a cold day in January 2005. I walked the route of the Bush inauguration in Washington DC, counting the protesters and the Bush supporters who were squaring off in shouting matches on every corner. It wasn’t Boston cold, but it was cold enough, the chill in the air enhanced by the overwhelming police and military presence. I made my way down to the main protest gathering point, and there in the crowd was a familiar face.
Andy Stephenson stood off to the side, red hair sliding out from under a black wool cap, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his pea coat, ruddy face downcast as he watched the parade go by. We looked at each other a moment, no words available to capture the bottomless depths we felt yawning before us, and then turned to watch the show. When Bush went by in his rolling cannonball of an armored limousine, Andy and I and everyone gathered on that corner turned our backs.
Later that night we sat together with a large crew of activists in a bar that had come to be our gathering point for post-action decompression in DC. I looked over at one point and saw Andy weeping silently, shoulders shaking as all of the frustration and anger poured out of him. Everything he had warned us about in July had happened – in Ohio, in Florida, in New Mexico – and on that night he felt like an utter failure.
Several of us gathered around him to console him. I took his hand and said, "You know, Andy, it could be worse." He looked up at me and asked, "How on Earth could it be worse?" I looked at him with straight-faced solemnity and said, "You could be straight." He smiled that utterly incomparable Andy Stephenson smile and laughed until he was fit to split.
That was the last time I saw him.
Andy Stephenson passed away Thursday night from complications due to pancreatic cancer. A series of strokes caused by the cancer in his bloodstream and a post-operative infection carried him to his rest. At his side were his family and Ted, his partner of nineteen years. All across the country, thousands and thousands of people who had rallied to help him heard the news, and bent their heads, and wept. He was 43 years old.
The story of Andy Stephenson’s life and death carries with it all the brightness, and all the unspeakable darkness, that exists today in modern American politics. Here was a man of rare passion, an activist who poured his life into a cause, who continued fighting for this cause even after stricken with his disease, who encompassed the death of his sister and kept working, who never stopped believing that one person could make a difference.
Still, there is that darkness. It has been said that you can best know a person by knowing his enemies. In Andy’s case, his enemies rank among the foulest, most despicable sub-humans ever to draw breath. A small cadre of graveyard rats endeavored to convince the world that Andy was faking his illness, that the money raised to offset his medical expenses was lining his perfectly healthy pockets. They constructed websites dedicated to this premise, and they spammed dozens of blogs with their spurious claims. They deliberately interfered with the PayPal donations process organized by Andy’s friends, causing a delay in payment to the hospital which blew Andy off the surgical rotation for many critical days.
After Andy died, some of them found a thimbleful of decency within themselves and felt bad for their part in hounding a sick man into his grave. Others were not so kind. "We need to start pushing a story about how Andy Stephenson faked his own death for insurance reasons," wrote one such ghoul on the conservative forum FreeRepublic.com, where much of this horrifying behavior was organized. Another, going by the screen name AndyScam, commented another forum where these actions were organized, "I wonder if the ‘modified whipple’ is what they use to treat fake cancer. lol." A few even pushed the idea that Andy had faked his death and was lounging on a beach somewhere.
The list of comments like these, the evidence of actions taken with the direct intent to harm a dying man, has been collected exhaustively. The names of the prime movers behind these attacks are known. Legal actions, both civil and criminal, are in the works. Personally, I feel that those responsible for this should be forced to dig Andy Stephenson’s grave. I believe they should be forced to spend a day with his mother, who now mourns a son after having lost a daughter. I believe they should fear the wrath of the God in Whose name they so often cloak their deeds.
That is for later, however. Andy will be remembered by his friends and family in Seattle this coming weekend. We will gather, we will sing his songs and tell his stories. We will remember the life of a man who gave of himself far more than he received, who was a patriot in the best sense of the word, whose smile could outshine the stars. We will rededicate ourselves to the causes he espoused, and we will prevail with his spirit as the wind at our backs.
Andy believed he had failed that night in January. If I could have one more chance to speak with him, I would tell him how wrong he was that night. You won, Andy. You were the best of us.
William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books – ‘War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know‘ and ‘The Greatest Sedition is Silence.’ Join the discussions at his blog forum.