Monday, February 25, 2008

Radical returns to Austin for Cornyn protest

Radical returns to Austin for Cornyn protest

Thorne Dreyer back after 40 years.

By Brad Buchholz
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ten minutes before the demonstration, Thorne Dreyer ­ the guy in the
chocolate-brown dog costume ­ ambles toward the corner of West Sixth
and Lavaca streets in downtown Austin, looking every bit like a man
who can't wait to bark out in the name of democracy, in the guise of
political street theater, in the company of his activist friends.

Dreyer's dog costume covers him from neck to toe, his face open
beneath a floppy-eared dog hood and bright red Houston Astros ball
cap. His stride is long and tall and lopey. He pumps his arms high.
Though he's 62 years old, Dryer's posture is youthful, expectant and
a little jazzed ­ never mind the sudden, chilly rain that splatters
the sidewalk in front of him at the start of rush hour on Feb. 15, a
Friday afternoon.

"It hasn't rained a day in, what, three months?" says Dreyer, hands
on his hips as he takes inventory of a restless, dark gray sky that
seems to promise nothing but more chill and harder rain. Yet Thorne
Dreyer ­ a prominent Austin activist from the 1960s who moved back to
town three years ago ­ isn't about to let a little rough weather
spoil this 90-minute piece of socio-political theater. The show will go on.

Dreyer's aim on this day is to poke fun at U.S. Sen. John Cornyn ­
drawing specific attention to the Republican senator's longtime
advocacy of President Bush's increasingly unpopular administrative
agenda, particularly his support of the Iraq war and the Guantánamo
prison. The president's nickname for Cornyn is "Corn Dog." But the
way Dreyer sees it, the senator from Texas is more "lap dog" ­ the
president's eager-to-please pup.

Riffing on this dog idea, Dreyer has assembled two dozen members of
Austin's peace and social justice community in front of the Chase
Tower (where Cornyn keeps an office) and invited them to express
their disdain for the senator's politics. The only ground rules:
Honor the dog theme, and absolutely no speeches. Dreyer wants humor,
not stridency.

David Hamilton, who demonstrated with Dreyer on the University of
Texas campus as a member of Students for a Democratic Society in the
1960s, and his wife Sally come dressed in Scooby-Doo costumes.
Members of the Code Pink peace group arrive as pink poodles with
painted noses. A man in a George W. Bush mask walks a saw-horse-sized
pull-toy dog emblazoned with a John Cornyn face. As traffic lurches
down Sixth Street in the premature darkness, the pretend president
wags his finger at the Cornyn dog, imploring him to obey.

"Curb the Corn Dog!" shouts Dreyer, pacing the sidewalk, his droopy
tail dragging behind him. And as the rain lets up a bit, his
supporters join in the chant. The scene is scruffy and soggy and
chaotic, in a small-scale kind of way. Several demonstrators have
brought their own dogs to the protest, inciting a confusion of
barking and snarling and tangled leashes. Behind them, a man stands
on a crate, in a blindfold, arms outstretched ­ his posture
suggesting Abu Ghraib, with wires dangling from his fingers. The wind
gusts, suddenly, so hard that Scooby-Doo's head blows off.

Some drivers honk their horns in approval of Dreyer's message; a few
flash the peace sign from an open window. But most look blankly at
the road ahead. On the street, a middle-age man with short, gray hair
glances over his shoulder and sniffs in disdain as he passes
Scooby-Doo and the prisoner and a cardboard John Cornyn doghouse.

"I hope you point out that these are serious people, among the
brightest minds in Austin," says Steve Speir, a Democratic precinct
chair who has stood in the rain in his dress shirt and slacks ­ no
coat or hat or umbrella ­ to lend his support to this day's
demonstration. "A lot of the people here have been committed to
making this a better world for a long, long time."

For all his experience in the movement, Thorne Dreyer is just now
realizing how hard it is to pass out his Cornyn "barking points"
leaflets on the street while wearing a dog suit. "Man, these mitts
make it really hard," he says, looking down at his damp, chunky dog
paw-hands after dropping a clutch of papers onto the street. But he
laughs it off and continues to hand out more leaflets.

This man in the dog suit ­ the only son of Houston journalist Martin
Dreyer and his wife, the painter Margaret Webb Dreyer ­ was one of
the leaders of the Texas student protest movement as a young man. He
joined the SDS as a UT freshman in 1963 and embraced its
socialist-tinged manifesto of participatory democracy, world peace,
economic justice and environmentalism, even though the UT Board of
Regents sometimes labeled its members "subversives and
revolutionaries" and tried to revoke the group's status as an
official university organization. With several SDS friends, Dreyer
co-founded The Rag ­ Austin's influential underground newspaper ­ and
worked as its first editor in the mid-1960s.

Dreyer moved to Houston in the late 1960s and helped launch a second
underground paper, the Space City News. During the course of the next
30 years, Dryer worked as a freelance journalist, hosted a talk show
on the Pacifica radio station, did public relations work for artists
and politicians, managed a Houston jazz club, dabbled in the theater
and at last, in the 1990s, suffered through a divorce, depression and
two prison sentences for cocaine possession.

After three decades away, Dreyer returned to Austin after attending a
reunion of The Rag staff in 2005. It was an event, says Austin
activist and former staffer Alice Embree, "that reaffirmed people had
not lost their sense of outrage ... or outrageousness." Last year,
Dreyer helped start the local chapter of Movement for a Democratic
Society ­ a national offshoot of the old SDS.

"This is such a weird time, an outrageous time," says Dreyer, who has
been contributing to the Next Left News, the Texas Observer and The
Rag Web site since moving back. "Everything Bush has done is such an
abomination, I think there should be hundreds ­ thousands ­ of people
in the streets every day. And while the consciousness seemed very
high in Austin when I came back here, there didn't seem to be much happening."

Much like SDS, MDS "believes in solutions to the problems of the
world without war," says Dreyer. "We believe in universal health
care. We believe in a world without racism, sexism or class-ism. And
we believe all things are interconnected, at the core, by our
economic system and who controls the economic system. So long as we
let corporate powers control the decisions of how we live, we're not
going to live very well."

At last light on Sixth Street, Thorne Dreyer knows his "Curb the Corn
Dog" rally hasn't changed the world. His demonstration drew four
dozen people and a lot of raindrops. Yet Dreyer's spirit is bright
around 7 o'clock, when he slips off his dog suit and joins a handful
of friends for post-rally Mexican food at Maria's Taco XPress.

"Hey, Thorne Dawg," someone shouts out when Dreyer arrives at
Maria's. "Sit down and chill out."

Dreyer orders a mango margarita, then tugs on a pale blue T-shirt
emblazoned with the words "Dogs for Peace." The picture on the front:
a half-dozen dogs seated at a table, flashing peace signs with their paws.

"During that Vietnam time in the 1960s, we believed ­ sincerely
believed ­ that what we were involved in was unique to history. You
felt something on a gut level," Dreyer says later, reflecting on
movements old and new. "You felt that something momentous was
happening. And there was such an incredible sense of community that
evolved from that, that helped shape that, that you really don't see
as much of today.

"But this is really important: We don't want to sound like we're just
into nostalgia. We don't want to get up and talk about the glories of
the '60s. This is not the 1960s. There has been a loss of innocence.
It is a different time. But like Alice Embree likes to say, 'I'm more
interested in what we're going to do tomorrow than what we did in the past.' "

Unlike a lot of SDS alumni, Dreyer believes in the possibility of
electoral politics, inspired in part by his interactions with Houston
politicians such as Kathy Whitmire, Fred Hofheinz and the late
Congressman Mickey Leland. Dreyer was an enthusiastic supporter of
Sen. John Edwards' run for president ­ "he was more concrete, and
class conscious" ­ yet he's intrigued by Barack Obama's ability to
inspire. "For the first time in a long time, people believe in
something and have some hope."

"In the old days, we thought electoral politics was just a trick ­ a
trick bag, we used to call it," Dreyer says with a smile. "I didn't
vote. I didn't believe in voting. I never did it back then. Because
either way, the problem was societal. What either party created was
just the illusion of change. But as I matured ­ and I don't think I
ever sold out ­ I began seeing things slightly less in black and
white. There are things you can do (in electoral politics), so long
as you keep your perspective."

Thorne Dreyer's belief system for a new millennium is anchored in
community and participation and a sense of humor. As a younger man,
he led a charge to change the world, thinking it his generation's
calling. Today, Dreyer has the gentle feeling at times that the
movement has repaid the favor ­ and saved him. For the first time in
a long time, he feels at home.

"Hey, my friend, this is for you," activist Carlos Lowry calls out to
Dreyer as he presents him with a plate of exotic ice cream. All
around, there are claps of appreciation. Dreyer is hesitant to accept
the gift, but the demonstrators urge him to grab a spoon and dig in.
"Every dog has his day, you know. ... "


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