Story by Tara Pettit | Photo by Simon Brubaker
“Resist, Don’t enlist.” The mock army graphic tee that stretched tightly across Damon’s small frame was the first thing that caught my eye when we met at the student center at Ohio University. The T-shirt was a classic portrayal of his attitude, nonchalantly countering convention with radical ideas. I hadn’t seen him since the last meeting we both attended for The InterActivist, a progressive publication he initiated as founder of the activist organization InterAct. I occasionally wondered what he was getting into these days, where he found himself fighting against the grain in the political realm of Athens, Ohio.
In many ways, Damon Krane can be considered an average Athens resident, living and working among all the other 21,000 Athenians within the town. His job at the locally- owned and celebrated Burrito Buggy contributes to the small-town economy, making him a bona fide Athens “townie” with a working resident’s status.
However, as much as Krane has rooted himself within the community, diving headfirst into the town’s politics and culture, he doesn’t always blend in with the masses. His attachment to Athens extends far beyond his existence within the city limits. For him, Athens is more than an address, but a destination to pursue his passion in community activism.
Community activism is not just a lifelong pursuit for Krane, but a daily job. Early in his career, Athens became the central location for his work, a cultural and political hub where much of his local organizing came alive. Ironically, Krane was raised in an ultra-conservative country town in Pennsylvania, where leftist politics was rare and the road to pursuing community activism was one that required many outside connections. Krane’s introduction to local organizing began in high school as a co-founder of an underground magazine that promoted free speech for students and published under limited authority.
“That experience taught me through first hand experience that a group of people could be extremely productive without needing to have a central authority figure,” he said.
When Krane was 19 years old and fresh out of high school, he fully lunged into more politically active scenes. Opportunity arose in Athens, a small town in Ohio he had never heard of, which would eventually become his primary outlet to organize local activist groups and voice opinions.. While still living in Pennsylvania, Krane proposed to launch a community project called Free Student Press, a development from his research on students’ free speech and press rights. The project was helped initiated by Jaylynne Hutchinson, one of the most influential community activists in the area. It was connections such as the one he made with Hutchinson, Krane says, that essentially became “why [he] fell in love with Athens.”
As founding member and director of the Free Student Press, Krane developed a youth-based volunteer project as apart of the organization, educating students at Athens, Nelsonville-York and Alexander high schools on their First Amendment press rights and basic journalism law. According to Krane, the project was viewed as a way of trying to counter the authoritarian social influence of public schooling.
Soon after his involvement at Free Student Press, he sought out different organizations around town. “As soon as I got to Athens, I made my rounds to the different groups’ meetings and started organizing students…I just dove right in.”
“When I came here I found a community that was much more supportive of progressive activism than anywhere I had ever been before,” he said. “In that sense, Athens is a very special place.”
Krane soon became closely connected with an existing organization called Positive Action, a radical, anti-authoritarian group that addressed many campus and community social justice issues. In 2002, the group worked to shed light on administration’s violation of the Cleary Act, legislation requiring public schools to notify students and employees of campus crime. Positive Action persisted in exposing administration’s negligence with sexual assault prevention, coming down with full force when the group organized a 300-person student walkout. The walkout attracted regional media, spotlighting the university and Positive Action in its radical efforts, but more importantly forced Ohio University to comply with the Cleary Act.
Positive Action also worked to initiate and develop grassroots organizing within Athens by hosting conferences and workshops for community members.
“Positive Action was really a valuable learning experience for me in that it was self-consciously focused on how to create an egalitarian community and how to make decisions that don’t exclude people,” Krane said.
However, through Positive Action Krane also experienced first-hand the constant stream of struggles and hardships that undoubtedly follow an activist. Not only did the struggles come from inevitable failures when trying to create change, but many were a direct result of differing views concerning community organizing itself. Krane elaborated on how most internal problems stemmed from a difference in opinion regarding how democratic structure should be utilized when forming and maintaining an activist group.
“A lot of group members thought ‘these institutions are screwed up, therefore I am against institutions, and therefore I am against social organization.’ The mistake a lot of people make is in confusing authoritarian organization with organization period.” However, it wasn’t just with Positive Action that Krane saw the conflicting differences in creation of democratic structure, although it was with Positive Action that he was most personally affected.
Krane has shared many failures and successes of his work, and openly emphasizes the foundational problems he has experienced in local organizing in Athens. One of the main problems he sees in maintaining activist groups within the community stems from what he refers to as a “double-edged sword” --the disconnect between university students and community members. This divide is a logical problem with the continuous cycle of new students, few to none remaining in Athens for more than four years, Krane says. This creates a lack of stability in organization membership and overall progressive development in active movements. He observes that while student activists come to school with a fresh perspective and passion to get involved in activism, the movements students may create are short-lived as they leave after graduation. Community members become reluctant to work with students, and an age gap persists in the community, affecting the quality of activism performed. “A lot of what goes on in Athens appears to be people constantly reinventing the wheel,” Krane said.
However, amidst the struggles and difficulties of being an activist in Athens, Krane recognizes the characteristics of the town that inspired him,
“Athens is a very unusual place, especially for the Midwest,” he says, and briefly chronicles the town’s unique streak in progressive politics that contrasts greatly with the surrounding region. Athens was the host of the first 2004 North American Anarchist Convergence and has been a pioneer in many local cooperative businesses and intentional communities in comparison to nearby towns. Amidst the ongoing controversy over legislation outlawing same-sex marriage, Athens became an anomaly, being the only county out of 88 not to vote for the gay-marriage ban.
Krane has contributed to Athens’ unique progressive nature in his own personal endeavors creating many more organizations that have served as building blocks in furthering future community activism.
“The dominant theme in all my work has been trying to address what I feel are the root causes of a lot of bad policies…typically, one of those root causes is simply a lack of meaningful democracy,” he said.
As the founder and co-founder of InterAct and the Athens Anti-War Coalition, Krane helped initiate anti-war demonstrations with the 200-person march and counter-recruitment protest at the Athens Armed Forces Recruiting Center, as well as an anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. With InterAct, Krane was able to develop a group structure that involved direct democratic decision-making processes to coordinate various community-building projects. InterAct began publishing its own newsletter, The InterActivist, which chronicled its activist work. The newsletter eventually evolved into a (quarterly?) magazine, covering radical leftist and local progressive news on both local and international levels.
Krane regards community activism central to what makes Athens a unique and thriving town. “Even in the popular conception of Athens… progressive politics and grassroots activism are largely a part of it,” he said.
As for Krane, Athens provided a storehouse of possibilities when it came to launching his career in activism. Although work in the Athens community isn’t the end for his career, his experience in this small Appalachian town has served as a stepping-stone in helping him evolve as an activist. It’s been an exchange of giving and receiving, creating and transforming, molding and refining between man and community, an unusual bond between an activist and the town he serves. And that’s where real soul is found.