About Utah: Nothing meek about this high road

Published: Monday, Feb. 7 2011 1:30 a.m. MST

Human rights activist Rocky Anderson sits at his desk beneath a portrait of his role model John F. Kennedy.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – Sitting in an office far less opulent — figuratively and physically — than the one he used to sit in, the former mayor of Salt Lake City assesses his latest incarnation as head of an organization called High Road for Human Rights and says, "Everything I've done in my life has led me to this point."

Hey, wait a minute! Isn't that what you say when you come into office, not after you leave?

But no one's ever accused Rocky Anderson of being conventional — name another mayor of a major American city who actively protested the Iraqi War (you can't; there wasn't one) — or of being concerned about outward perceptions, either.

He reflects fondly on the time he spent as Salt Lake's mayor for two terms, from 2000 through 2008, when he crusaded tirelessly to clean the air and improve equality for the disenfranchised, and, before that, the time he spent as a private attorney who specialized in challenging abuses of power…

But now …

… now he's going after the really big bullies.

He opened High Road about a minute after he left office on Jan. 7, 2008 — the time it took to drive from Mayor Ralph Becker's inauguration at the City & County Building to a nondescript building next to a pizza place on 2nd South.

There was no time to waste. "There are a lot of bullies in the world," says Rocky, "and there are a lot of people that aren't very empowered."

Human traffickers. War criminals. Polluters. Torturers. Terrorists. Genocidaires. Discriminators. They're all on HR for HR's radar screen. And Rocky is free to go after them 24-7. There are no ribbon-cuttings to attend, no worrying about law firm bureaucracy.

Just this high road he's chosen.

In a way the name is misleading. There's nothing meek or forgiving about this high road. If you don't shout, no one will hear you. If you don't complain and protest, no one will pay attention. Speak loudly and carry a big placard.

Grants from generous, kind-hearted people — the Rockefeller Bros. and Norm and Barbara Tanner primarily — paid the way the first year, when Rocky traveled and recruited many of the more than 6,000 people who now claim High Road membership nationwide. The economy has taken its toll since. No matter how lofty the principles and how altruistic the objectives, a recession is no time to launch a grass-roots start-up.

There's still enough to pay the bills on time, and hang onto a two-person "underpaid" staff. But the executive director hasn't been paid in over a year.

Rocky shrugs. In the parking lot is his 11-year-old Honda Civic that runs on natural gas.

"I don't need much money," he says. "I drive a few blocks back and forth to the office, that's about it."

The life seems to be agreeing with him. At 59, he looks better than ever. He says he runs regularly, rides his bike, gets to the gym four or five times a week.

"I feel good," he says. "I'm energized."

He admits the money part is a drag. "Obviously I'd like to spend all my time with the substantive work," he says. "But I also know it has to be funded. When it seems insurmountable, I step back and think, what more would I rather do in this life?"

He tells a story to illustrate his quest. It's the same story he told in his 2006 speech explaining why he would not, despite being the odds-on favorite, seek a third term as mayor:

"Two weeks into the Rwandan genocide in 1995, President Clinton's National Security Advisor Anthony Lake told a human rights worker, 'Make more noise!' He said the phones weren't ringing and without a manifestation of Americans caring about the genocide, intervention to stop it would not occur. No one in the U.S. made noise, phone calls weren't made — and 800,000 people were butchered in 100 days."

Says Rocky, "I'm making more noise now than I ever did when I was quote unquote on the inside."

He's not getting paid — hopefully that's only temporary — but that's OK. He is raising his voice. He is sticking up for human rights.

"I just can't see how anyone can sit back and say it's not their business," he says. "That's something I don't understand."

To donate, join, or learn more about High Road for Human Rights, go to www.highroadforhumanrights.org.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. E-mail: benson@desnews.com.

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