Category Archives: anarchism

Validation Day

A few years ago Jane came to stay for a couple of months–she built herself a loft on the side porch, piled the bed with warm quilts and moved in. It was early February, the unloveliest month around here, when the novelty of winter has long since worn off and spring has not yet begun. Outside is alternately muddy and dusty, and inside becomes the same as people track in whatever weather has pooled beyond the window2.jpgback porch. The sky is low and gray. Or high and cold and streaked with remote, windy clouds. Or warm enough to promise endless shirtsleeves for a day before lashing everyone back into sweaters. When the sun does shine the light is hard and charmless, showing up the dirty streaks on the windows and the worn spots on the stairs. Neither the house nor the household is at its best in February.

So I’m not sure that we were entirely gracious when the eight homemade construction paper Validation Day cards showed up on the mantel. Jane had decorated each one with a different cut-out design and written ourfebruary2.jpg names on the covers. The way it works, she explained, is that over the course of a couple of days we all write something about each other in the cards, but we don’t look at our own until February 14th, a.k.a. Validation Day. Fine then. We did it, taking a secret pleasure in eavesdropping on what our housemates had to say about each other. I know that I learned some things—nice things—about the crisscrossing relationships in the house.

Then came the day. We assembled a little awkwardly in the living room; someone took down the sheaf of cards and passed them out. The silence deepened in the room as we sat and read the heartfelt, affectionate, appreciative things that we seldom remember to say to each other in person. You could almost feel the skepticism and validation-day.jpgself-consciousness dissipate as we began looking up from the folded cards and thanking each other; I felt a tenderness for my housemates a little different from anything that I had felt before. I don’t know what other people did with theirs, but I saved my Validation Day card. And I saved the next one. And the one after that. The autumn after she stayed with us Jane went off to college, but every year a big manila envelope still arrived in the mail basket with a fresh set of Validation Day cards.

Everything has been a little out of sorts around the house the last couple of weeks. Stef and Crystal are moving out—Crystal, who is now teaching music at two different schools, wants the quiet and privacy of her own apartment, and Stef, who has been in the house since its inception as a collective more than five years ago, is moving in with two friends who share her interests in vegan cooking and straight-edge hardcore punk. mantelother2.jpgIt’s going to feel strange to have them gone. Skye will be taking over Crystal’s small room; she and Jodi will have their own rooms at last. In addition we’ll be getting new housemates, which is always exciting but also a little unsettling. And everyone is working hard on projects of their own, in and out a lot, passing in the kitchen or on the stairs, but not connecting for very long. It’s just February and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Jane came to visit for a week in late January before she went overseas for seven months, first to study in South Africa and then to travel and work in Europe. I’ve known Jane now for over five years; we met when I was very new at collective living, and Jane, recently graduated from high school, had just returned from stilt-walking and breathing fire as part of a CrimethInc Circus Tour. It was good, as always, to see Jane again last month, to observe how she continues to grow in depth as well as reach. A lot of people wanted to spend time with Jane; we all got a little piece of her, and then she was off.

Given that she was preparing to go all the way to Africa and be gone for more than half a year I was very surprised when a manila envelope, addressed in Jane’s handwriting, once again arrived in our mail basket. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of all the qualities that delighted and moved me the most as I traveled deeper into the anarchist world—the quality that in some ways required the most adjustment on my part–was the willingness to be unironically, unashamedly and openly loving. Loving to other people, loving to the world, loving to the mystery of being alive in a way that is alternately ridiculed and commercialized in the larger culture. I read once in a history of punk music: “What it comes down to is this—life matters, so don’t fuck it up.” That’s it: life matters. Your life matters, the lives of the people around you matters, the lives of the people you pass on the street, the lives of the people sleeping or playing solitaire or shaving their legs or kissing their children in the houses you pass on the highway matter. Life itself matters; and once your mental eyes adjust to that premise it’s hard not to see validation for it everywhere.

At least that’s the way I’ve come to see it, thanks to Jane and to all the other passionate, urgent, hopeful, resolute people I live among. So happy Validation Day everyone and everywhere, and many many happy returns.

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We Are Everywhere

Last Saturday morning I went to an Al-Anon meeting. It was one of those moist gray mornings, chilly but not cold, and it was nice to go into the Methodist church not far from my house and sit in the quiet little anteroom the congregation makes available to us for our meetings. The Saturday meeting is a step study group, which means that we discuss whichever one of the twelve steps coincides with number of the month. On the last Saturday of every month we discuss one of the traditions by which Al-Anon is guided; since this was the last Saturday in January, we were discussing the first tradition, which says Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.

The conversation traveled around the circle as it always does, each person taking a turn to speak. A silent consensus developed as people added to and amplified upon each other’s remarks. Unity is not blind obedience, we agreed; real unity lies in finding common ground, in outgrowing both the need to always get one’s own way, and the willingness to be dominated by someone else’s need to get his or her own way.

The circle was nearly complete and the hour was nearly at an end when someone said “I actually never experienced unity before I came to Al-Anon.” All around the circle people nodded in recognition. “In the world I live in most of the time ‘personal progress’ depends on crushing someone else before you get crushed—I mean everywhere, at home, at work, everywhere. Then I come here and it’s different.” The speaker stopped and looked down at the floor. “I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”

It’s been four years now since I went to my first Al-Anon meeting, four years since my life went totally haywire. At that first meeting I sat on a wooden chair pushed up against the wall of a Sunday school room and felt out of place and resentful. I was creeped out by the way people repeated each other’s names around the circle (“I’m Liz.” “Hi Liz!”). I looked down the long list of twelve steps and found something to quibble with in each one. I felt stiff and uncomfortable with the hugs after the meeting. I ducked out to the parking lot as soon as I could.

But somehow I kept going back. This was in the frantic, exhilarating, terrifying first couple of years of my new life when, looking back on it, I was very much further out on the edge of my own endurance than I realized. I felt sometimes as though I were racing across a series of suspension bridges, pausing only long enough to kneel beside each one and set it on fire. I am not by nature a particularly adventuresome person, but the exoskeleton of comfortable middle-class American life that had held me up for so long had cracked to pieces under a variety of pressures, and in its absence I was making everything up as I went along, obeying some deep instinct because instinct seemed to be the only solid thing I had left. In those days I laughed harder than I had ever laughed before, I danced more often and in more unexpected places than I had ever danced before, I widened the margins of my personal map to include people and places I had never known before. And some mornings the tears began before I had even opened my eyes.

I don’t think I could do it again. The changes in my external life—the collective house, the dumpster diving, the kitchen dance parties–were only the visible landscape over a tectonic shift that was rearranging the deep geology of my heart and mind. All during this time I was reading constantly. I talked and listened and argued, I sat and thought and wrote in my journal, I read some more, I listened and watched more, and slowly, awkwardly, sometimes painfully, the pieces of my shattered life began to coalesce around a new set of ideas. What it came down to was this: I came to see that the world I had lived in all my life, the respectable, order-must-be-maintained, it-may-not-be-perfect-but-it’s-better-than-the-alternative hierarchical world of rigidly defined haves and have-nots—in other words, the dominant culture world—was predicated on the assumption that people are essentially greedy and antagonistic. Every storyline led back to Darwin.

But I was beginning to see the world in a different way. What, I began to ask myself, if people are essentially whole and healthy? What if people long for cooperation more than they long for competition? What if we live best in a web of relationships as complex and mutually supportive as any other ecosystem? What if the world I have lived in all my life is not the world, but just a world, an essentially flimsy and unstable world that is kept in place by violence and fear? I was introduced to the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, a nineteenth century naturalist who countered Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest with “survival of the most cooperative,” developed through his own observations of the natural world. Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince and an anarchist. It was Kropotkin who wrote the entry on anarchism in the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica; it was Kropotkin who introduced the term “mutual aid” into the language with his book of the same name. Anarchism is probably the most reviled, misunderstood and marginalized of all the left-leaning political philosophies, and I certainly didn’t set out to live in its borderlands, but like most of the anarchists I know I didn’t so much convert to anarchism as recognize a set of beliefs that had always been there. As I moved closer to the deep well of anarchist ideas and into a culture of anarchist actions the world started to make sense again.

And unrelated to all the internal and external changes I was making at that time—or maybe not—I was finally able to acknowledge that someone I loved very deeply was ebbing out of my life into a sea of alcoholism. That’s how I ended up at Al-Anon, looking around at all the respectably dressed, earnest, middle-aged people so much like me and so unlike me, and feeling both alien and at home. Here I was, a newly-minted anarchist living with a group of people half my age, feeling a swing of emotions I should have left behind in adolescence, eating out of dumpsters, living a noisy, messy, seat-of-the pants existence, and I didn’t know what they would think of me.

What I didn’t know at those first meetings was that, first of all, no one cared one way or the other who I was or how I lived, but even more important—and more startling—in joining Al-Anon I had, in fact, joined the largest and most successful anarchist movement in the world. At first I was simply struck by the curious similarities between the way Al-Anon worked and the way the anarchist enterprises I was involved in operated. No leaders, no rules, no experts, no accumulation of wealth. Now I recognize that the similarity between Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A is the basis for all other Twelve Step programs, including Al-Anon) and the Circle A is neither metaphorical nor hyperbolic: “When we come into A.A. we find a greater personal freedom than any other society knows.”—this is Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., writing in a 1957 history of the movement—“We cannot be compelled to do anything. In that sense our society is a benign anarchy. The word ‘anarchy’ has a bad meaning to most of us. . . . But I think that the gentle Russian prince who so strongly advocated the idea felt that if men were granted absolute liberty, and were compelled to obey no one in person, they would voluntarily associate themselves in the common interest. A.A. is an association of the benign sort the prince envisioned.” So.

“I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”

It is. I see it every Monday night at my house when we sit down in the living room for our weekly house meeting. I see it at Food Not Bombs every time a group of people—some of them homeless, some of them not–take a couple of boxes of miscellaneous fruits and vegetables and turn them into a meal for thirty people. I see it lots of places. It’s not just the private precinct of anarchists, vowed or unavowed, it’s the way people behave when conditions are benign. It’s the real real world.

So why do those of us who have seen another, healthier way of doing things put up with the conditions of the unreal world? What would happen if we recognized our power, personal and collective, to reshape the community around us? What if we took the principles embodied in the Twelve Steps and in the writings of anarchist thinkers and used them not simply to heal ourselves and our families, but to heal our neighborhoods, our towns, our nations, our planet. We can! We don’t have to do it all at once, and no one of us has to do it alone, but I believe it’s the work that’s most worth doing. One day at a time—but starting now.

The Twelve Traditions of Al-Anon

1. Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.

2. For our group purpose there is but one authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants—they do not govern.

3. The relatives of alcoholics, when gathered together for mutual aid, may call themselves an Al-Anon Family group, provided that as a group, they have no other affiliation. The only requirement for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.

4. Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting another group or Al-Anon or AA as a whole.

5. Each Al-Anon Family Group has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves, by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives, and by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.

6. Our Family Groups ought never endorse, finance or lend our name to any outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim. Although a separate entity, we should always co-operate with Alcoholics Anonymous.

7. Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

8. Al-Anon Twelfth Step work should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

9. Our groups, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

10. The Al-Anon Family Groups have no opinion on outside issues; hence our name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, films, and TV. We need guard with special care the anonymity of all AA members.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

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Permission

A couple of years ago the Food Not Bombs group in Greensboro found itself with an abundance of both food and cooks, so we decided to add another day. No one else in Greensboro was serving dinner on Monday so we chose Monday; a lot of homeless people spend the day down at the Central Library—Greensboro should have a day shelter but it doesn’t, which means that the library serves as a de facto day shelter–so fnbhaircut.jpgwe chose the library. There’s a low brick wall outside the library windows that makes a good buffet table and a couple of park benches where people can sit. It’s nice when the weather’s nice, not so nice when it’s cold or rainy or, as happens in the winter, dark. Still, no one complains.

Until, that is one day when a security guard came out and told us we had to leave. We had been serving there for well over a year but had never asked permission, partly on the Food Not Bombs principle that food is a right not a privilege, and partly on the principle that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission. Except that we didn’t want to ask forgiveness either. In many cities Food Not Bombs servings double as a form of non-violent civil disobedience, a tacit protest against the way poor and homeless people are shuffled out of sight. Food Not Bombs-related arrests are common around the country; it’s crazy, but the movement has even made the FBI terrorist watch list. All for serving food without permission.

It was a chilly night, winter, lit only by the streetlights and the glow of the library windows. “You can’t serve food here without written permission,” the security guard said. He was standing with his legs spread a little apart; he rocked a little back and forth on his toes as he talked.

“Permission!” several people said. “Permission! Permission for what? We’re eating, we’re hungry, this is a public sidewalk!”

“No it’s not,” the guard said. “This sidewalk belongs to the city. You have to have permission to be doing what you’re doing. Who’s in charge here?”

“Nobody! Nobody’s in charge!” That’s true. Food Not Bombs is a decentralized, consensus-based, leaderless organization. I’ve been volunteering with the Greensboro group longer than anyone else so a lot of people think I’m in charge, but I’m not. I was deeply gratified that the people clustered together on the sidewalk recognized that.

“Who drove the food here then?” the guard asked. Everyone was silent; no one looked at me. There was no escaping the facts, though.fnbshave.jpg

“That would be me,” I finally said. “I drove the food here, but I’m not in charge.”

“Well you need to have permission to serve food here,” he said.

“Permission!” someone said again before I could speak. “Why do we need permission?”

It went back and forth like that for a while. At one point the guard went inside and got one of the librarians. The two of them stood in the chill telling us we had to ask permission; we stood in front of them saying we didn’t.

“If you come back and serve food here next week without written permission you’ll be arrested,” the guard said.

“For what?” people shouted. “For eating? For eating?”

“For serving food without permission.”

Nobody would budge but eventually, inevitably, the confrontation ran out of steam. The security guard wrote out a name and phone number on a page of his spiral-bound notepad and handed the paper to me. “This is who you ask,” he said, and he and the librarian left.

“Permission!” The crowd had dwindled a bit but those who remained still felt strongly. I had the little lined piece of paper in my hand. If this had happened a couple of years ago I know what I would have done—I would have apologized to the security guard, taken the piece of paper, and called to ask for permission. Except that a couple of years ago I don’t think I would have found myself in this situation in the first fnbbrian_halfway.jpgplace. That was before I understood the concept of consensus, and the extraordinary power of direct action, before I had read the famous essay of the same name by Voltairine de Cleyre, one of the great anarchist thinkers of the early twentieth century. “Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist,” she wrote in 1912. ”…Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.”

“So what do we do?” I asked. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to arrest and get treated very badly when they are arrested. I didn’t want to do something that would put them in a dangerous position. “Should we come back next week?”

Yes, everyone said immediately. We should come back next week and we shouldn’t ask permission. “I’m tired of asking permission for everything,” one man said. “I can’t even sit in the park without a cop coming up and asking me what I’m doing. We don’t need permission.”

I love libraries; I love librarians; Greensboro has a terrific library. I was so proud of the direct action that the people at Food Not Bombs were taking, in awe of their courage at standing their ground, but as the week went on I began to feel worse and worse about the library. I finally emailed a librarian friend and explained what had happened—explained that this was not about the library, but that we would be back on Monday. We wouldn’t be bringing signs or drums or chants, we wouldn’t be making declarations or demands. We were just coming with soup and bread and salad. But we weren’t going to ask permission.

The next day my phone rang. It was Sandy Neerman, director of the entire library system. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” she said. This whole thing was taking on a life of its own; if this is such a leaderless organization, I thought, how come I’m the one in the hot seat? I stood in my room with the telephone to my ear and looked out the window at the big pine trees at the end of the yard. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” Sandy went on “and I want to apologize. Of course you don’t have to ask permission and of course we’re delighted that you’re doing what you’re doing. Please go on doing it.”

So that’s how it came about that last Monday 40 or so people sat down to eat together in the Nussbaum Room of the Central Library. This is the second winter now that the library has invited Food Not Bombs inside—inside!—to serve. Last winter we simply served food for the most part, but this year Jen Worrells, our wonderful library liaison and a direct actionist if there ever was one, suggested a full winter of programming. We’ve shown movies, done blood pressure tests, held discussions. Cakalak Thunder played after dinner on New Year’s Eve, filling the library with radical drumming (that was Jen’s idea!) This past Monday volunteers gave shaves and haircuts. One of the as hoc barbers was a man who was at Food Not Bombs for the first time—he had come for a free meal, but when he saw what was going on he said “I can cut hair” and picked up a pair of clippers. (Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it….) We’ll be inside for another couple of months. We have some meetings with government officials planned, we’ll be showing more movies, having more parties, maybe having a massage night, a dental care night, a poetry night, who knows?

Anything can happen.

UPCOMING WINTER SERIES EVENTS:

Mondays, 6:00 pm, Greensboro Central Library, Nussbaum Room

If you’re interested in being part of the process, join the Winter Series wiki

January 14 – Government Official
January 28 – Movie Night: War of the Worlds (2005)
February 4 – Culture / Celebration
Febraury 11 – Health and Beauty
February 18 – Government Official
February 25 – Movie Night
March 3 – Culture / Celebration
March 10 – Health and Beauty
March 17 – Government Official
March 24 – Movie Night
March 31 – Culture / Celebration

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So Many Dynamos

The house is quiet on this second day of 2008. Zegota was here last week getting ready for tour: Moe; Will’s brother Jon, in from Sweden; Will; and Mark, who has replaced Ard as the bass player. It was nice having them in and out of the house, hearing them laughing and talking in the kitchen, catching up with them in the living room or passing on the stairs.

I heard Zegota play what was their last show for a very long time in Washington DC is January of 2002. Jon was moving to Sweden, where he was about to become a father, and the band didn’t know when or even if they would be able to get back together again. I remember standing in the church basement where they were playing, moved almost to tears by the undefended emotionality of their performance: me, a middle-class middle-aged mother nearly undone by a hardcore punk band. There was something tremendously generous in their openness. I found myself thinking over and over again: “If they’re willing to take those kinds of risks, what am I holding back for?” One of Zegota’s early saying was “Wreck your life.” In some ways that performance was the last nudge I needed to do just that. And to build another one.

Zegota will be back in Greensboro on January 6, playing with Des Ark, Bellafea and Stef’s band Loss Prevention. If you can’t be there in person, catch their live broadcast on the fancy new HIVE website…

I’ve spent every Wednesday for the last couple down at the Green Bean writing something new for this blog, but on this cold sunny January morning, wingchair1.jpgthe second day of the new year, it’s nice just to sit in the wing chair in my room with the dog asleep on the bed and a CD of Will’s kora music playing in the background. This seems like a good time to remind myself of the things that have been important to me over the last couple of months, and bring some of the news up to date.

*In my first post in September I gave a little background on how I came to live the way I do and why I decided to write about it. Not a lot has changed: I still live in a collective house, I’m still an anarchist (and I just had the fun of being interviewed about my life and beliefs for an interesting blog called Whiskey Before Breakfast.) What I do next has, however, changed. When I began this blog four months ago I was working with a literary agent named Dorian Karchmar who had contacted me after I wrote about our house for The New York Times. In December I faced up to the fact that for whatever reason that relationship wasn’t working, and I withdrew. I’m still interested in writing about my life’s mid-course correction—about both the what and the why of it—but I’m beginning to think that I’d like to find another way to get my thoughts out there. I’ve become fascinated by “print on demand” technology; its DIY nature seems more consistent with my DIY life than traditional publishing does. So unless I get cold feet, one of my resolutions for 2008 is to finish writing a book and to publish and promote it myself.

*In another post in September I wrote a little bit more about our household; Ed Cone mentioned the post in his blog and I was surprised by the flurry of controversy that followed. A couple of weeks later my old friend Stephen Dubner wrote about our household on his blog and the fur really began to fly. It’s strange and a little bit thrilling to eavesdrop in on the discussions—sort of like being in a stall in the girls’ bathroom when the high school gossips come in–but I’m still a little puzzled that our household evokes such strong negative feelings in some people. On the other hand, a lot of people have expressed genuine curiosity about how the house works. It makes me think that a second book, a kind of manual on collective living, might also be useful.

*All summer and into the autumn I thought about climate change—I didn’t need to go to the North Pole to see the melting ice cap, I could see manifestation of climate change in our own parched garden and empty rain barrels. In the last month we’ve had almost normal rainfall, but the Southeast is still in a drought. Near the end of movie The Power of Community someone says that there was no single solution to Cuba’s problems, but many small localized grassroots solutions. I believe that—and the longer I look the more I can see blades of grass pushing their way up through the asphalt, from the HIVE here in Greensboro to Dignity Village out in Portland, Oregon, to Food Not Bombs everywhere. By the way, for those in Greensboro, The Power of Community will be shown on the big screen at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery on February 21 as part of the Sustainability Film Series. It’s well worth watching.

*Speaking of Food Not Bombs, our fundraiser in October was a huge success—we raised over $1100 towards a kitchen at the HIVE. Students from the Interior Architecture Department at UNCG are going to help us draw up the design, and construction should begin in the next few months; if you’d like to get involved in the kitchen project email Tim at hutchstar7@yahoo.com. Keith McHenry, one of the cofounders of Food Not Bombs, came through Greensboro late in October and we had a potluck dinner for him at the HIVE. He talked about a tent city movement that’s gathering steam all over the country—an anti-war tent city is planned for Washington DC early in the summer and smaller tent cities are expected to put down stakes in other cities. In addition, there will be a national Food Not Bombs gathering in Nashville in March. We’re hoping to get a group together to go from Greensboro to Nashville—get in touch if you’re interested in joining us!

*In late October I posted a video, “20 Questions”, featuring the Selectric Piano, a 429.jpgcollaboration between Mark and Fred, operated by Jodi. The Selectric Piano will appear again soon, this time written into a play adapted from Europe Central, a book by William T. Vollmann. The play is being produced by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern in Durham; it runs from January 17 through February 2.

*That’s Cakalak Thunder in the pictures that accompany my thoughts on “Chaos Theory”. Early in October Cakalak Thunder traveled up to Boston to take part in HONK! Fest, a gathering of radical street performers—Will, Jodi and Mark came home exhausted but happy. Most recently Cakalak Thunder rocked the downtown library at a Food Not Bombs New Year’s Eve dinner. I sometimes think about how close-knit this little anarchist activist community, this group of people who are living as though the revolution had already occurred, can be and how intimidating that can be for people standing just outside the circle. Once you’re part of the community you have a network of friends to call on for just about anything you might need, but it’s not always easy to know how to get in. That’s what makes the portals so important, and so worth nurturing and maintaining. Food Not Bombs is one; the HIVE is well on its way to becoming another. And Cakalak Thunder is certainly an important one. They invite everyone to join: “No experience is required to play music with us, only interest and dedication. We hold open practices every Sunday from 1-3pm. And the first Sunday of every month is dedicated to newcomers so make sure you get yer booty over to one of those. Email cakalakthunder@yahoo.com for directions.”

*It’s gotten a little too chilly for me to ride my bike, but Stef still goes out all bundled up in black with nothing showing but her eyes, looking like a two-wheeled Ninja. I wrote in November about the newfound pleasure I take in riding my bike, and I accompanied the posting with Mark’s video about the Safety Bike. Over the next couple of weeks the video took on a life of its own as it got linked to more and more websites; one day more than 9,000 people came to my blog looking for the Safetybike. And now the Safetybike has become a YouTube phenomenon: as of the second day in January the video has been watched over 750,000 times—about 700,000 of those views coming in the last five days. I fully expect that by the time Mark gets back in town for the Zegota show it will be up to a million views. A million! It’s another strange and wonderful manifestation of grassroots in action.

*On December 19 a group of people came together on Lee Street in Greensboro to protest the plans to tear down public housing in New Orleans and the similarly cavalier attitude towards homeless and poor people in Greensboro. It was a great afternoon: Cakalak Thunder, a speak-out, and a tableau of a big steamroller about to crush affordable housing to may way for high-rise condos. As the afternoon went on people began gathering for the weekly meal at Grace Community Church; the “War on the Poor” banner drew the most attention. “They got that right,” people said over and over again. The next day in New Orleans protestors were pepper sprayed and tasered outside City Hall while inside the city council voted unanimously to allow the demolition to move forward. By the end of the week police had finished clearing the last of an encampment of homeless people in Duncan Plaza across from City Hall. An estimated 12,000 people in New Orleans are homeless, double the pre-Katrina number. It’s like climate: we can see the polar ice cap melting and feel as though it’s still far away from our own homes, but it’s everywhere. The war on the poor may be most visible and dramatic in New Orleans but the exact same attitudes hold power here in Greensboro. At least for now.

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UPDATE: Demolition of public housing complex halted in New Orleans; City Council hearing next week

From the Associated Press, December 14
NEW ORLEANS: Demolition of three New Orleans public housing complexes, slated to start this weekend, was halted Friday amid complaints about the scarcity of housing for the poor after Hurricane Katrina.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreed to postpone the start of demolition pending a hearing Thursday before City Council. Opponents of the tear-down plan had filed a lawsuit contending that the council’s consent was required by the city charter….

Read the full article here

Another interesting article from the day before about the protests in New Orleans.bullhorn.jpg

An excellent update on the fight in the courts. It’s well worth reading all the way to the bottom to see the individuals–including John Edwards and the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana–and more than 100 organizations (the AARP, Volunteers for America, Oxfam America, Amnesty International USA, Catholic Charities USA, and the Unitarian Universalists among them) who have come out against demolition until HUD comes up with a plan to replace all the housing units.

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Filed under anarchism, protests, the big picture

The Garden of Hope

The desktop image on my computer screen is a photograph of a garden, sunny and lush with stands of foxgloves, rhododendron and daisies; a path leads away from the viewer toward the green shade of an arbor. The name of the garden is El Jardin de las Esperanza—the garden of hope. I put the picture up a couple of years ago as a reminder of a wonderful late October afternoon Isabell and I spent together. It was 1999 2ab_esperanza.jpgand Isabell was living in New York; I was in the city on business. I stayed in Isabell’s tiny basement apartment in the South Bronx. She had taken a year off from college and many of her friends were older than she was, squatting buildings, hopping freight trains, working in community gardens. Isabell was entering into a whole, complete alternate universe that I was only beginning to understand.

One afternoon Isabell and I took the train into Manhattan and spent a couple of hours in Esperanza. It was autumn so there wasn’t much blooming, but the garden was still lovely, crisscrossed, though it wasn’t large, with paths and benches and arbors. As we walked deeper into the garden the ambient noise of New York traffic faded away; somewhere nearby 7bc_esperanza.jpgchildren were laughing. We knelt side-by-side on the woodchip path, digging up clumps of weeds and Isabell gave me some background on the garden. It had been founded by a neighborhood grandmother named Alecia Torres who began by clearing rubble and trash from a narrow vacant lot on 7th Street near Avenue C. This was during New York’s financial crisis when thousands of buildings were simply abandoned. Arson was common—many people believed that owners were torching their buildings for the insurance money–and the burnt out lots left behind frequently became neighborhood trouble-spots. By 1977 when Alecia Torres began her garden New York had 25,000 abandoned lots. All over the city people began to take the initiative with neglected open spaces, and gardens with wonderful names—the All People’s Garden, the Garden of Eden, the Children’s Garden of Love—sprang up. In stressed and under-served neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, which had close to 80 gardens by 1990, community gardens were true oases, providing not just green space but a place for people to meet and work on community problems.

In the meantime, New York City pulled out of its fiscal crisis and property values began once again to climb. Developers started nosing around once-untouchable neighborhoods, repackaging them as hip and trendy “scenes”. In 1994 newly-elected mayor Rudy Giuliani instructed the New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development to identify lots to sell at auction, and a relentless assault on community gardens began. Although the city owned 11,000 unbuilt-on lots, the city’s community gardens were first in line for auction. The common argument was that the gardens needed to make way for affordable housing, though very little affordable housing seemed to come out of the garden sales. The fact that they had already been cleared made the gardens more salable, as did the fact that they were in neighborhoods that were increasingly appealing to developers—never mind that it was often the gardens themselves that had helped to stabilize those neighborhoods. As the Giuliani administration went into its second term, it also became clear that many of the gardens were de facto incubators for community activism—another fact that hurried them to the auction block.

The day Isabell and I weeded in Esperanza a gentle man named Aresh was working on a 13-foot high 8-foot wide wire mesh and canvas frog whose wide black, yellow and red snout hung out over the chain link near the entrance to the garden. Nearby some children were gathered around a battered wooden table painting papier-mache frog masks. The frog, Aresh explained, was a coqui; in Puerto Rican tradition the little coqui often takes on much bigger adversaries and frightens them away. The children were going to be part of a parade that weekend, one of many events being mounted around that time to try to save the garden from development. After a couple of hours the shadows lengthened and Isabell and I dusted off our knees, washed our hands, put the trowels and clippers away in the garden shed, and walked to the subway. The next day I flew home.

I didn’t think much more about Esperanza. A couple of years ago, however, I was researching something on line that reminded me about that pleasant afternoon in the garden. Out of curiosity I Googled “esperanza garden new york”. I found a picture of the garden, the same one I now use as the image on my desktop. Under the picture in bold red letters was written “Status: BULLDOZED February 15, 2000.”

“I didn’t know they’d torn Esperanza down!” I said to Isabell the next time I saw her.

“What did you think, Mom?” she said. “We talked about what was happening when we were there.”

“I know,” I said, “but I didn’t think they’d really do it.”

“Of course they were going to do it,” Isabell said. “They were always planning to do it. It was just a matter of when.”

Isabell filled me in on what had happened in the months between October and February. By the time I visited it the garden had already been sold at auction to a developer who had bulldozed four other gardens on the Lower East Side and had put up “80/20” housing—80 percent of the units could be sold at market value and 20 percent were set aside as affordable housing. After ten years that 20 percent could also be sold at market prices. Early in November the garden group was sent a five-day eviction notice. Commumity gardens had found an advocate in the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who sought an injuction from the State Supreme Court against demolition plans, arguing that the gardens, should have the legal status of parks.

But while the legal arguments were being prepared and the wait began for the February 15 hearing, the gardeners and their supporters mounted their own inventive defenses. It turned out, for instance, that the coqui I had admired that day had been designed to double as a look-out tower, with windows for eyes and room to sleep three; inside were hidden the tools of non-violent civil disobedience—locks, chains, and cement-filled blocks to which people could lock themselves; a cheerful 20-foot tall steel sunflower at the back of the garden had another lock box hidden high in its petals. Neighbors and other activists began camping in the garden around the clock in the winter cold in case the bulldozers came without warning.

The court appearance in Brooklyn was scheduled for February 15. By the evening of February 14 it was clear that the bulldozers were coming; the next morning the police had to forcibly remove more than a hundred garden defenders, cutting some of them loose from their lock boxes and dragging them away. Bringing down the coqui with metal-cutting chain saws. In the end 31 people were arrested. That afternoon the judge in Brooklyn issued a temporary restraining order, but it came forty minutes too late. The garden with its medicinal plants, its playful coqui, its paths and benches and 22-year-old rose bush, had been bulldozed into the ground. The developer lost no time putting up a seven-story brick apartment building with health club, lounge and high speed internet; a two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,500 a month. With a sense of irony that is almost breathtaking, he named the new building Eastville Gardens.

The day after the garden came down then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani was quoted in The New York Times as saying “If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden.” His version of the realistic world came to light a couple of months later in another article in The Times: the mayor had received $46,800 in campaign contributions from the developer, and the developer had been given exclusive rights to the garden site without the normal competitive bid process. By then, of course, it was too late. The garden was gone.

    The Sierra Club sponsored a documentary on New York’s community gardens with Esperanza–its life and its death–as the centerpiece.  It’s 28 minutes long, but well worth watching.

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Filed under anarchism, protests, the big picture

Dear D.H. Griffin


Dear D.H. Griffin,

I was outraged to find out that a company based here in Greensboro is receiving 3 million dollars to destroy public housing in New Orleans.

jaws.jpgWhy is DH Griffin profiting off of displacement of low-income people? Wasn’t the hurricane bad enough without adding to it by destroying more homes?

This time of year many of us are trying to keep in mind those who are considered less fortunate than us, those who don’t have homes, those who have been displaced. What are you and your company thinking about? Profits?

The brick buildings your company plans to destroy made it through
Hurricane Katrina when many other buildings did not. They provided thousands of units of low income housing for residents. If you destroy them as planned, they will be replaced by mixed income housing offering only a few hundred units of affordable housing. You will be participating in the continuing disaster of Katrina.

If you could prevent Katrina from happening again, would you do it?

Think about how you would feel not being able to afford tosign.jpg
live in the city you’ve lived in your whole life. Imagine being
displaced, possibly homeless or living in another city with relatives,
and then to find out that a company miles away from your hometown plans to destroy the perfectly good housing that you used to live in…and for what?? For 3 million dollars. For some extra profits. For some money.

I bet your company has some kind of holiday charity drive or corporate giving this time of year. But can anything make up for the lost homes your company plans to destroy? Will the companies donations even come close to the 3 million dollars your company will make off this deal?

This holiday season, please consider your and your company’s role in this atrocity. Please pass on this message to whomever in the DH
Griffin corporation needs to see it.

Please know that there are probably hundreds of others around Greensboro who feel as I do but did not take the time to write you a personal e-mail.

Many thanks for reading and I look forward to see whether or not your company will go through with this unjust plan. I hope not.

Isabell Moore
Greensboro, NC

Isabell, I applaud you for your compassion for this subject, but
complaining to a contractor who bid the work along with probably 20 other demolition contractors, is not who you need to blame. The
decision to demo the building(s) was that of the N.O. Housing Authority, not ours. I am sure that the government will again provide a suitable alternative for the people affected.

[Name omitted]
D. H. Griffin Companies
4706 Hilltop Road
Greensboro, NC 27407
Tel: 336-510-4067
Fax: 336-632-3047
“To improve is to change; to succeed is to change often” – Churchill

Dear [Name omitted],

Thank you for your speedy response.

Firstly…I don’t live in New Orleans, I live in Greensboro and your
company is based here. Your company is my connection to what is
happening down there. That is why I am communicating with your company, because it is the place in this whole thing that I feel I have the most stake and connection. I think every person and every company participating in the demolition of perfectly good housing has some control over the outcome, including you and your company, and including even me as someone who heard about the situation.

Secondly…What you’re saying sounds to me like you agree that the
demolition of low-income housing in New Orleans is bad, however you don’t feel responsibility to try to stop it. Or perhaps you feel you don’t have the power in this situation to stop it? Your company chose to bid on that work. Where is the line? If other people are doing something that will result in something terrible, does that make it okay to participate as well? Is there any kind of work that your company would say was so unjust that it was not willing to accept money to do it?

Would you accept money to demolish the house of a family member, if he or she was dependent on that housing, counting on it, could not return home without it? Where is the line? What obligation do we have to do all we can to stop something unfair and inhumane?

right.jpgLastly…Unfortunately the government does not have any plans to provide a suitable alternative to the people affected. They have contracted with various demolition companies to destroy 4,600 public housing units in four complexes across New Orleans and then plan to replace them with private, mixed-income developments that will set aside only 744 apartments for low-income people. Your company has been hired to
demolish the Lafitte project, where the current 896 low-income units will ultimately be replaced by only 276 low-income units. That leaves 620 units that will not be replaced. That’s 620 families without housing this holiday season.

Did you or anyone you know give to the Red Cross or other charities when Katrina hit? How is what you’re involved in now consistent with the compassion that many of us felt for the people of New Orleans as we watched the tragedy unfold on our televisions?

Many thanks for engaging in this dialogue. I hope that whether or not you agree, you will pass on to others in your company the fact that many of us in Greensboro are extremely concerned about the role your company is playing in increasing the misery of New Orleans families.

I hope you and your company consider pulling out of the deal. The
reward will be much greater than any profit your company could have gotten.

I encourage you to watch this video and see for yourself that the
housing is in quite good shape. For a fraction of what HUD is paying
you and the other companies, those buildings could be refurbished and thousands of families could be home in time for Christmas.

Isabell Moore

Thank you for your response. I will forward your comments to our
company management. I hope that you have a blessed day.
[Name omitted]
D. H. Griffin Companies
4706 Hilltop Road
Greensboro, NC 27407
Tel: 336-510-4067
Fax: 336-632-3047
“To improve is to change; to succeed is to change often” – Churchill

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Filed under anarchism, protests, the big picture