Category Archives: the big picture

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

15 Comments

Filed under anarchism, homelessness, the big picture

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.

Leave a comment

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.

2 Comments

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

6 Comments

Filed under anarchism, protests, the big picture

Look Into My Eyes O’Neil

I was sitting in front of my computer in my small upstairs office one cool October morning eight years ago when I received an email from a friend in New England. He forwarded me a wire service report that had appeared in his local paper that morning about a boater missing off the coast of Massachusetts. The missing boater was my old college roommate Alice.

The story pieced together slowly over the next few days. First Alice was simply, bafflingly missing—she had taken her 25-foot catamaran out on a breezy autumn afternoon and not come back. The next day the boat with all of Alice’s belongings still on board had washed up on some mud flats in Duxbury Harbor. The Coast Guard, the state police and the Plymouth harbormaster searched by boat and by air; Alice’s other friends and I went over and over the possibilities on the phone and in back-and-forth emails, all of them unlikely, but no less unlikely than the simple fact that she had disappeared. Could she have somehow accidentally fallen overboard? Been kidnapped? Gotten off somewhere and been marooned? I sat at my desk sifting finer and finer and finer grains of information and understanding less and less.

Alice had taken her boat out on a Thursday afternoon and the boat had been found on Friday morning. It was getting to be late in the season and Alice had told the Duxbury harbormaster that she wanted to get in one last sail before she put the boat up for the winter. The search went on throughout Friday until dark when the Coast Guard called off its portion of the search, and resumed on Saturday with state police divers. By Sunday the official search party had dwindled to the Duxbury harbormaster and his assistant, sweeping the harbor with a borrowed underwater camera, but by then it was clear that Alice hadn’t intended to be found. On Sunday the newspapers gave the first delicate hints: “Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan said Robinson’s disappearance is being treated as a missing persons case,” I read in the on-line version of the Boston Herald. “Coast Guard officials have said evidence on the boat suggests Robinson, a well-respected sailor, may have been injured. According to a law enforcement source, a splatter of blood and tissue on the boat’s mast appeared to be consistent with marks left behind by a self-inflicted gunshot. Robinson’s boat was found with its outboard motor in reverse and out of gas, its dinghy still in tow.”

The day after Thanksgiving I flew up to Massachusetts for the memorial service. Mara met me at the airport and we drove together to the old house in Marshfield that belonged to the local Audubon Society. Mara had seen Alice more recently than I had. What was it? I asked her. What was it that made Alice decide that those grasses and those trees just coming into yellow and red, that sky and that choppy water, were the last things she ever wanted to see?

I don’t know, Mara said. I don’t think Alice wanted us to know. Whatever it was, whatever depression and darkness, I think she would rather die than ask for help.

I used to admire that in her, I said. Her control.

I guess it didn’t do her much good after all did it? Mara said.

I always think of Alice’s memorial service, of the kind, sad, pleasant people sitting in a circle at the Marshfield nature center, the low late autumn light over the estuaries, the wind in the tall reeds, when I think about Seattle, November 1999. It’s strange how the two of them lie one over the other in my mind like a set of transparent overlays

In November 1999 I had never heard of the World Trade Organization, had barely heard the term anti-globalization, didn’t think protests still happened, believed that chaos was more dangerous than order, thought that the police sometimes made mistakes but were basically always right, thought that this might not be a perfect world but it’s the best one we’ve got. I was beginning to have questions, but I didn’t see my way clear to any answers. “I don’t get it,” I said to Isabell after reading about the 50,000 people on the streets of Seattle, the disrupted meetings, the teargas and broken windows and burning dumpsters. “It all seems so fuzzy and pointless. Is it about the sea turtles or the steelworkers or what? What do people hope to accomplish anyway?”

It took me a couple of years to understand the full ambitious intention of Seattle 1999: nothing less than to confront, resist and banish the dominator model of power and replace it with a power that rested on cooperation and partnership. A year after Alice’s death I met someone who had actually been in Seattle. While I had been going about my autumn business that year, he had been making up his mind to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus. His report of what happened next remains one of my favorite pieces of writing. An excerpt from it is below—Tuesday, November 30, the intersection of 4th Avenue and Pike Street, standing in front of a line of police in full riot gear.

I choose one—at random, for they all look exactly the same. Every inch of his body is hidden under black cyborg armor. He is armed to the teeth. His face is hidden under a gas mask, face shield, and fullseattle6.jpg helmet. O’Neil is embroidered on his bulletproof vest. I plant myself squarely in front of his face and I stare dead into his eyes. He won’t look at me. He blinks constantly, looks down, left, up, right; anywhere but at me. It infuriates me almost beyond words that this coward has the impudence to attack me when I am unarmed but lacks the courage to even look me in the eyes. “Can you look me in the eyes? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? LOOK ME IN THE EYES O’NEIL.” Nothing. I know why he won’t look at me. When he was halter-broken he joined his trainers in a companionship stimulated not by love, but by hatred—hatred for the “enemy” who has always been designated as a barbarian, savage, communist, jap, criminal, gook, subhuman, drug dealer, terrorist, scum: less than human and therefore legitimate prey.seattle10.jpg

I try to make it impossible for him to label me as a faceless protester, the enemy. I pull off my ski mask and continue to stare into his eyes. I tell him that I am from the South, about fixing houses and laying floors and loading tractor trailer trucks, about nearly getting killed in a car wreck in October, about carrying my dog around crying to all the bushes that she loved to root around in the day she died of cancer. I tell him that we all have our stories, that there are no faceless protesters here. Nothing. “Can you look me in the eyes, O’Neil? I am a human being, and I refuse to let you evade that. I won’t let you label me as a protester, and I don’t want to have to label you as a cop. I refuse to accept that they have broken you completely, that there is not something left in you which is still capable of empathizing seattle09.jpgwith me. I want to be able to treat you as an equal, but only if you prove to me that you are willing to do the same. And the only way you can do that is by joining us, or walking away.” I remain dead still, staring into his weak cow eyes. He is blinking excessively and is visibly uncomfortable. “Can you look me in he eyes O’Neil? The difference between me and you is that I want to be here and you don’t. I know why I am here. I am enjoying myself. I am reveling in this. I am rejoicing. I have been waiting for this to happen since I was a little kid. There is nowhere in the world, ever, that I would rather be than where I am right now. There is nothing I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. It has never been so magnificent to feel the sublime power of life running through the marrow of my bones. I know that you don’t want to be here. I know that you don’t know why you are here. I know that you are not enjoying yourself. I know that you don’t want to be doing this. And no one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to. Wherever you want to be, seattle21.jpggo there, now. Whatever you want to be doing, do it, now. Go home and get out of my way. Go make love with your girlfriend or boyfriend, go snuggle with your kids or dog, go watch TV if that’s what you want, but stay out of my way because this is a lot more important to me than it is to you.”

I have not moved my feet or my eyeballs at all. I have been trying to blink as little as possible. O’Neil’sseattle06.jpg eyes are quivering and squirming to avoid me beneath the mask. “O’NEIL! CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? CAN YOU DO THAT FOR ME, O’NEIL? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? Basically the whole ‘Battle of Seattle’ boils down to the relationship between you and me. And really, there are only two kinds of relationships that we can have anymore. If you can either join us or walk away then you will be my brother, and I will embrace you. If you cannot then you will be my enemy, and I will fight you. The relationship that we are not going to have is the one where you are dominant and I am subservient. That is no longer an option. That will never be an option again. Which kind of relationship do you want to have with me, O’Neil? Look around you. Look at all of these people singing ad dancing and making music. Don’t you see how beautiful this is? Don’t you see how much more healthy and strong and fulfilling and desirable and fun relationships that rest on mutual respect and consent and understanding and solidarity and love are than the ones that rest on force and fear and coercion and violence and hatred? Don’t you see that the life and the world that we are beginning to create out here is superior to the one that you have been trained to accept… Don’t you see that we are going to win? Don’t you want to be part of this? If you want to remain my enemy then so be it. But if you want to be my brother all you have to do is join us, or walkseattle02.jpg away.”

At this exact moment the Infernal Noise Brigade appears. For the first time since this surreal monologue began I look behind me. A small man wearing a gas mask and fatigues is prancing about in front, dancing lustily with two oversized black and green flags. Behind him two women wearing gas masks and fatigues march side by side, each bearing an oversized black and green mock wooden rifle. Two columns of about fifteen march behind the women with the guns. They are all wearing gas masks and fatigues, and they are all playing drums and horns and all sorts of other noisemakers. They are making the most glorious uproar that I have ever heard. The Infernal Noise Brigade marches all the way to the front where we are standing. When they reach the line the columns wto121.jpgtransform into a whirling circle. We form more circles around them, holding hands and leaping through the air, dancing around and around in concentric rings like a tribe of elves. We dance with absolute abandon, in possibly the most unrestrained explosion of sheer fury and joy that I have ever seen. On one side of the line across 4th Avenue there is a pulsating festival of resistance and life. On the other side there is a blank wall of obedience and death. The comparison is impossible to miss. It hits you over the head with a hammer.

When the dance is over I return to my post up in O’Neil’s face. I stare into his eyes and invoke all the love and rage I can muster to fashion an auger to bore through his mask and into his brain. And Cow Eyes cries crocodile tears. His eyes are brimming, with red veins throbbing. His cheeks are moist. Heseattle12.jpg won’t look at me. “O’Neil, I don’t care if you cry or not. I don’t care what you’re thinking right now. I only care about what you do. Before long you will get orders to attack us, or one of you will get impatient and provoke another confrontation. What are you going to do? When that happens I am going to be standing right here. If you choose to remain our enemy then you are going to have to hit me first. I dare you to look me in the eyes when you do it. You may be able to hurt me and not look at me. You may be able to look at me and not hurt me. But you won’t be able to look me in the eyes while you hurt me, because you are afraid you will lose your nerve. You are afraid of me, and you should be. O’Neil, you all have been terrorizing us all day. If seattle08.jpgthis goes on all night we will have to start fighting back. And you and I will be standing right here in the middle of it. I have no illusions about what that means. Neither should you. We may get killed. But I would rather deal with that than accept this one second longer. I would rather die that give in to you. I don’t think you cans say that, can you, O’Neil? Would you rather die that be my brother? Who are you dying for? Where are they? Whoever gives you orders is standing behind you, man. Whoever gives them orders is relaxing down at the station, and whoever gives them orders is safe in some high rise somewhere, laughing at your foolish ass! Why isn’t your boss, and their boss, out here with you, O’Neil, risking their lives and crying in the middle of 4th Avenue? Why should they? You do it all for them! What are you thinking? I just don’t get it. They don’t care about you. Hell, I care about youwto.jpg more than they do. You’re getting used, hustled, played man, and you will be discarded the minute you become expendable. Please look me in the eyes. I’m serious, O’Neil, come dance with me….”

Someone whispers in my ear that another cop is crying down the line to my right. For a fleeting moment I can feel it coming, the fiery dragon breath of the day that will come when the servants turn their back on their masters and dance…and then it’s gone. Because O’Neil is not dancing. He is completely beaten. His lifeless eyes don’t even bother to quiver or squirm. And he won’t look back at me. I could whisper in his nightmares for a thousand years, I could bun my face onto the backs of his eyelids, I could stare at him every morning from the bathroom mirror, but he would never look me in the eyes. He is too well trained, too completely broken, too weak to feel compassion for the enemy. His eyes are dead. There is nothing left. The magic words that tank.jpgcould pierce his armor and resurrect him elude me, if they exist at all. “O’Neil, I know that you have been broken and trained. So have I. I know that you are just following orders and just dong your job. I have done the same. But we are ultimately responsible or our actions, and their consequences. There is a life and a world and a community waiting for you on this side of the line that can make you wild and whole again, if you want them. But if you prefer to lay it all to waste, if you prefer death and despair to love and life, if all of these words bounce off your armor and you still choose to hurt me then FUCK you, because the Nuremberg defense doesn’t fly.” I have nothing left to say. I sing the last verse of my beaten heroes’ song, softly, over and over and over again, staring into O’Neil’s eyes and waiting for the inevitable: “…in our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold, we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old….”

Eventually one cop down the line either gets impatient or gets orders. He grabs some guy, completelyseattle07.jpg randomly, pulls him across the line, and starts beating him. The crowd surges to rescue our friend, and O’Neil makes his choice. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, O’NEIL!” He clubs the person standing next to me, and the cop standing next to him clubs me. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, MOTHERFUCKER!” But he never does. I ram into him as hard as I can, praying that the sea behind me will finally break through the wall, drown the both of us, and carry my friend out to safety. But I am not strong enough, and the wall of death beats us back once more. Over my shoulder I watch one cop walk up to a very small older woman and unload a tank of pepper spray into her eyes. Her indomitable and bitter face is the last thing I see before I have to run away.

9 Comments

Filed under anarchism, my life, protests, the big picture

Movie of the Week

Rock the WTO

One of the best films about the WTO protests isBreaking the Spell; if for nothing else watch it for the moving scene in the middle that lingers on the saddened expression on a policewoman’s face. A full-length feature film, The Battle in Seattle,starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson will be released sometime next March.

Leave a comment

Filed under anarchism, movie of the week, protests, the big picture

My Bike Takes Me Places That School Never Could

A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel on immigration: descriptions of undocumented workers, mothers and fathers, taken away in the middle of the night and their children turned over to the foster care system. I turned on the radio in the car the other day and heard a discussion of whether waterboarding is torture, followed by a image_503.gifdetailed description of what it feels like to be brought to the point of near drowning. I was talking to someone on Sunday who said he was trying to decide whether to hold an event before or after the US bombs Iran. “Wait a minute,” I said, “what do you mean, ‘bombs Iran’? You don’t think it’s really going to happen do you?” He just gave me a look. After he left I went online and found a description of the 30,000 pound bunker-buster recently tested in the Nevada desert. Oh great.

All I can say is, thank God for my bike.

I’m not a prodigious biker like most of my housemates, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to think of my bike as my main form of transportation. It’s nothing special, but the more I ride it, the stronger my body and the more extensive my range. I ride my bike downtown now, to the bank, to the library, to the coffee shop, to friends’ houses, to Food Not Bombs, even to the dentist. Next on my list: learn the bus system and start using the bike racks in front of the buses. When I ride my bike regularly I can feelbike-shed2.jpg a difference in my legs every day. I see things, I meet people, I get my blood pumping in a way that doesn’t happen boxed up in a car. Most important, even a short bike ride helps to restore my equilibrium.

There’s not much else to say. Sometimes the world gets hard. There are days when the best possible thing you can do for yourself, your friends, and for the whole universe is just to get on your bike and ride.

The green patch above and lots of other great bike-related and just general good stuff-related stuff is available from Microcosm Publishing.

6 Comments

Filed under collective living, the big picture

Chaos Theory

A couple of years ago I taped some little notices up by our front and back doors. They are headed “IN CASE OF POLICE RAID” and they give instructions on what to do if the police show up and want to come inside. It felt a little strange at first, but in these post-Patriot Act, martial-law-on-demand times they seem more and more like simple household precautions, kind of like the fire extinguisher in the pantry or the smoke alarm in the upstairs hall. I put the notices up after a friend visiting from Indianapolis described the August night when the police, fire marshals, and ATF agents came into the radical bookstore/collective house where she was living and tore the place up. A national governors’ meeting was about to be held in Indianapolis; a spokesperson for the Indianapolis police department said after the raid—whichwill.jpg found no weapons or anything else illegal in the house–“Seattle was nearly burned to the ground and Montreal suffered millions of dollars in property damage when the WTO met there. This is the same type of anarchist group, and that simply was not going to happen here.”

Last weekend I went to a conference on the theories of Carl Jung. I didn’t know much about Jung when I began, and I’m still not anywhere close to an expert, but at least I can now say the words “animus” and “archetype” without worrying that someone will challenge me to explain what I’m talking about. The centerpiece of the conference was a paper presented by a Jungian analyst using examples drawn from the dreams of one of her clients. Her client, she explained, was about to retire after a successful professional career and had found himself confronting a long featureless emotional landscape. He experienced neither sorrow nor joy, neither terror nor ecstasy, and he wanted help.

The first dream the analyst recounted to us went like this: the dreamer approaches his home and discovers a rowdy group of strangers eddie1.jpgdancing and laughing on the sidewalk. He tells them to leave immediately but they refuse; one of them asks him for money. He gets angry and goes inside to call the police.

The analyst stepped away from the podium and looked out at all of us sitting with our notebooks on our knees. “Who are these strangers?” she asked.

“His emotions!” several people shouted at once.

She nodded and went on. In the second dream the strangers have made their way into the house and once again are dancing and laughing. The dreamer orders them out and after an argument they leave. They take their furniture and pictures with them and the dreamer cleans up the house until everything looks the way it was. “He and I joke about it now,” the analyst told us, “but when he brought me this dream early in treatment he thought I would be proud of the progress he had made.” Everyone in the room laughed.

The rowdy strangers kept returning, becoming more aggressive and more dangerous as time went on. And in waking life the man was getting worse. “He developed obsessive-compulsive behaviors,” the analyst told us. “He became anxious, he had trouble sleeping, he was afraid to get on an airplane. I began to question myself, to wonder whether I was the right therapist for him. I began to be afraid I was doing more harm than good.”

She didn’t, however, have any doubts about the outlaws who populated the dreamer’s dreams. They could be found in one of Jung’s mostdrums1.jpg powerful archetypes: the Stranger or the Trickster, the outsider who streaks like a meteor across our individual and collective unconscious defying everything from the laws of decorum to the laws of gravity. As I sat there watching the analyst switch out the transparencies on the overhead projector I had one of those insights that come with such force that they bring tears.

I thought back in my own life to a time six or seven years ago when my conventional middle-class existence was coming to an end, though I didn’t know it yet. I thoughtwalk.jpg about the unlikely friendships I developed then with punk kids less than half my age, about the travelers and train hoppers and anarchists who had begun to fill my world. It puzzled me and worried me at the time, but I couldn’t contain my fascination with their lives; it seemed that they didn’t so much rebel as ignore convention altogether. When Isabell and Margaret moved beyond the margins of the known universe themselves—when they started hopping freight trains and sleeping in abandoned houses and eating out of dumpsters–my deep concern was mixed up with something I can only call envy.

And now listening to the analyst at the conference it suddenly made sense to me. If Jung is right, I was very much like the man whose dreams we were studying. Like him my range of emotions had narrowed, but instead ofrepubs.jpg summoning the Tricksters in my dreams, I invited them into my real, actual, everyday waking life. And as I watched them walk through the invisible boundaries that I had thought were made of triple-tempered steel—walk through them as though they weren’t there—the margins of my own life stretched. I began to feel my own joys and my own sorrows, and after awhile I began to feel a part of the sorrows and the unquenchable joys of the whole world.

A couple of years ago I went to another conference, this one on anti-war activism. The speaker stood in front of an easel with one of those big flip pads. “Here’s how it works,” she said, and she wrote THE STATUS QUO in the lower corner of the paper. “The status quo is established and remains in place even if it’s not working very well; as time goes on people become invested in it and resist any attempts to change it. repub.jpgUntil…” and she wrote NEW INFORMATION at the top of the paper with an arrow swooping down. “Until new information comes in that makes the status quo impossible to maintain.” She scribbled a confusion of spirals. “Chaos ensues and stays until a new status quo is established. This is true in our lives, in our organizations, and in the world, and we’re scared of it because it’s uncomfortable and unpredictable.” She turned back to the paper and tapped on the scribbles. “But this—this—is where the action is. This is the important place. Always look for the chaos, because that means something is happening.”

I spent the whole of my Jung weekend thinking about the Trickster archetype, and I’ve been thinking about it ever. I see now that the chaos-makers appeared in my life when I needed them, sometimes in unexpected and even unappealing disguises. Sometimes they were the people I loved most in the erica.jpgworld. Sometimes they were strangers. Sometimes the chaos really hurt. Sometimes it was terrifying. Sometimes itarm.jpg introduced me to parts of myself I didn’t know, or parts that had been buried so deep I forgot they were there. And something changed.

The world is stuck right now. A lot of people are unhappy, and a lot of the unhappiest people are the very ones who look to their neighbors to be successful, prosperous and secure. New information is washing in on all of us like a monsoon; the psychic effort to maintain the status quo has become almost unbearable. At the stress points where new information and the status quo meet, chaos begins. Chaos and police raids. But despite the chaos, despite the police raids, despite the Patriot Act, the Tricksters aren’t giving up. The outsiders and the strangers, the protesters, the gadflies and the pranksters are tremendously important. That’s where the action is.

The analyst gave us one last dream, a more recent dream than the others. A stranger rides into town on a motorcycle and all the townspeople sam.jpgare afraid. They try to chase the motorcyclist away, but then someone runs up to say that a boy is hurt and needs his help. The stranger hurries over on his motorcycle—There’s been a guts spill someone says. The stranger picks up the boy and carries him to the hospital, where he is gently put back together again. “Notice that in this dream the dreamer is an observer, not a participant,” the analyst explained. “That doesn’t mean he’s absent, though. Quite the opposite, it means that he is present. This time he’s the stranger and he’s the little boy–the little boy who spilled his guts and needs to be put back together again. Something is beginning to change.”

I put up my hand. “Can you tell us how he’s doing now?”

The analyst smiled. “He’s a courageous man,” she said. “He’s stuck with it. The phobias and the obsessions have gone away again and he’s living a richer life than he was before. It’s still not always easy, but he’s determined to see it through.”

policecarbig.jpg


 

2 Comments

Filed under anarchism, the big picture

The Gift Economy

Our neighborhood book group met again last night. When we started in September we agreed that we would read a book (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), watch a movie (The Power of Community), and reassess where we were in six weeks. Last night was week six. We had all come to the group interested in building a little bit more community into our lives, and we’ve succeeded. We’ve decided to disband as a formal group, at least until January when some of us will come back together again to read The Great Turning, but informally we all have new friends and a list of new things we want to do: 2rrfm7jpg.jpgSteve and Cindy are planning to go out this Thursday to the film series Sarah helped to organize; Betsy’s going to bring her boys out to try the vegan chili that Jodi and Mark are making for the Westerwood Neighborhood chili cook-off on Sunday; a lot of us are planning to attend Renee’s dance performance in early November. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t take much to dig your roots deeper in your own neighborhood.

The moon was a fuzzy crescent behind a thin scrim of clouds as Jodi, Crystal, Mark and I walked down the street to Betsy’s house last night. We haven’t had a real rain in weeks and Greensboro, along with the rest of the Southeast, is in a serious drought, but the dry warm October night was perfect for sitting on Betsy’s front porch with the candles lit. One of our members had had to miss most of the meetings because on Tuesday nights she’s often with a family she works with through her job. Last night she was free and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about what she does. Sitting cross-legged on the porch with the autumn night behind her, she spoke with deep compassion about her work to keep families together and to help mothers and fathers become better parents.

“If you could change one thing to make it easier for them, what would it be?” I asked.

“The first things that come to mind is that there just aren’t enough resources in their community,” she said. “They need so much but there just aren’t enough places for them to go when they need help. That’s not really it though….” She paused and opened her hands wide in front of her and looked down at the floorboards. “There’s something bigger than that. 2rrfm6.jpgThe family I’m working with has two parents and they’re both working, working ten and twelve hours a day. When both of them are working there’s enough money for what the family needs and sometimes enough left over for something extra like going out to eat, or filling the car with gas and driving the kids somewhere for the day, but if anything goes wrong, if one of them gets hurt or sick, it all starts to fall apart. And when they’re working the parents are always exhausted, exhausted and stressed. It’s hard for them to be the kind of parents they’d like to be. I’ve thought for a long time that this system didn’t work, but now I see it close up and every day. ”

I grew up on the privileged upper edge of the middle class with so many layers of safety nets suspended under me that I would have to work very hard to hit rock bottom. But through the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs and elsewhere I’ve seen the same things that Renee has seen—seen people try to negotiate capitalism’s high wire act without the safety of a net underneath. I’ve seen first hand the resilience of spirit required to keep intact one’s own dignity and self-respect intact when the money dries up. And I’ve seen what happens when the resilience finally fails and the anger and despair take over.

2rrfm4.jpgMy friend Nego is the chief songwriter for her band Boxcar Bertha. In her song “Disconnect Me” she says “Nothing is just the way it is/ Everything’s the way we make it.” It’s easy for us in the middle class—particularly those of us reclining atop a tower of safety nets—to hear about families like the one Renee works with, or the people I know from Food Not Bombs who sleep out of sight and risk arrest every time they sit on a park bench too long, and say “it’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is.” It’s not. It may be the way it is now, but it’s not the way it’s always been, and it’s not the way it has to be. We live in a very particular economy of our own making, an economy that benefits far fewer people than it harms, but that keeps us all in a kind of hypnotic trance—or so exhausted and fearful that we can’t imagine anything different.

Reading Jared Diamond helped me to see things through a longer lens. In an essay he wrote 20 years ago entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist points out that as human beings we have spent most of shared history as hunter-gatherers: “If the history of the human race began at midnight,” he says “then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture.” He turns conventional wisdom on his head and explains what agriculture brought with it: “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Each hunter-gatherer society has its own cultural markers of course, but what they have in common is that they are all organized around a gift economy. In hunter-gatherer societies respect is not awarded to those who own the most; 2rrfm10.jpgit’s given to those who share the most. The concept of haves and involuntary have-nots is nonsensical; self-interest includes living in a healthy, functioning community, which means that the members of the community should be as healthy and functional as their companions can guarantee. Organizational consultant Gifford Pinchot has written: “Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money.”

The gift economy stands in sharp contrast to the exchange or commodity economy we live under now. Of course all of us live in multiple economies, and one of them is a gift economy. It’s the rare parent, for instance, who presents his or her children with a bill for the time and money that went into their raising. Twelve-step programs such as AA operate as gift economies. Blood banks can only exist as a gift economy. The scientific community has many of the earmarks of a gift economy: scientific knowledge has very little value until it is shared. Open source software is distributed in a gift economy, public libraries are in some ways a gift economy, the internet is one vast gift economy. Right now you are participating in a gift economy—I’m not charging you to read, and WordPress, bless their hearts, is not charging me to write what you see here.

I saw a wonderful gift economy at work on Sunday when a Really Really Free Market was set up in the parking lot at the HIVE. It was the first one held there, but the concept is always the same: people who have something to share, whether it’s goods, services, performances, knowledge, or whatever bring it and anyone can take away whatever he or she wants. 2rrfm8.jpgThe HIVE is in a neighborhood where many people are living the same kind of economically distressed life that I was hearing about last night. I saw a lot of families there on Sunday picking out clothing and toys with their kids; I had some extra cans of soup and some bread that had been donated to Food Not Bombs so I put them out on a table and they went pretty fast too. I looked around myself to see if there was anything I wanted to take home. It feels strange at first to look at goods laid out on a table and discover that the only question you have is ”Do I want it?” Not “Can I afford it?” or “Does the price seem fair?” or “Do I want it enough to pay what they’re asking for it?”, or “If I buy this now will I wish I hadn’t when I see something I like better?” Just the simple question ringing in a strange inner silence: “Do I want it?” And if the answer is yes, you take it.

Really Really Free Markets have become pretty common (Carrboro has a very successful one every month) but the concept is only a couple of years old. The first one was held in Miami in November of 2003 as part of a massive protest against a meeting to implement the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Miami was a bloodbath—the federal government gave the city $8.5 million for security and they used it for tear gas, rubber bullets, armed personnel carriers, and helicopters. My older daughter Isabell was there and described, among other things, seeing a riot cop in full gear pepper spray an elderly auto worker in the face; Nego was there also—her song “Miami” is well worth listening to. On the fifth day of the protest organizers set up a festival they called a Really Really Free Market, both to give protesters a little relief and to demonstrate the gift alternative to the decidedly un-free “free market” economy represented by the FTAA. That first Really Really Free Market included massages, food, music performances, medical aid, puppets, paper hats, dancing—all of it, of course, really really free.

I didn’t go to Miami, but I was at the second Really Really Free Market, held the next summer in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. I was one of the organizers. The day, June 12, was chosen to follow on the heels of another gathering of high muckity-mucks, 2rrfm2.jpgthis time the G8, which was meeting on a well-guarded island off the coast of Georgia. We got a permit to hold the festival in a little park in downtown Raleigh where schoolchildren eat their bag lunches when they are on school field trips. It’s a nice little park with picnic tables, benches and trash cans, convenient to the visitor’s center across the street and the state archives building next door.

My daughter Margaret and I drove over early on Saturday morning to set up. Things had changed a lot since we had checked out the park a few days before. The picnic tables were gone, the benches and trash cans were gone, all the parking meters had little hoods over them, and the 2nyc05.jpgvisitor’s center and the archive building—all the downtown museums—were closed. Bike cops circled through the park as Margaret and I unloaded the buckets of wildflowers I had clipped the night before. A woman drove up and handed us a basket of tomatoes and green peppers from her garden; the whole transaction was recorded on videotape by a policeman who was visibly filming us from six floors up. Mounted police rode by in pairs on big brown horses. When Margaret and I drove off to pick up some old rugs and books that had been stored in someone’s basement we passed a buff-colored school bus retrofitted with grillwork over the windows, and a mobile command unit set up in a park two blocks away. It was weird.

The market itself was wonderful. Someone gave free haircuts; someone else brought a massage chair. There was homemade banana bread and sandwich makings and lemonade. An old time string band set up under a tree, and people danced. All the time a helicopter circled low over the empty and locked downtown, the sunlight glittering off its canopy as it banked. We found out at the end of the afternoon after the last box of old books and bags of tomatoes and bunched of flowers had been taken away, and the last remnants of mess had been carried across the street and put in the dumpster, that forty fully geared-out riot cops had spent the day in the archives building waiting for the call to deploy.

I don’t believe in an armed revolution. I wouldn’t want one. By my reading of history, in an armed uprising the most vulnerable people always the worst of it and in the end a powerful bully is simply replaced by another powerful bully. I do believe, though, that it’s possible to simply ignore a bad idea out of existence. I’m not saying that dismantling capitalism is easy, but I think the more we exist beyond it, above it, around it, outside it, the more unsteady it will become. Maybe some day it will just fall over from its own weight. After all, we carry with us the deep memory of thousands and thousands of years of a gift economy. And no one has ever needed armed riot police and teargas to keep a gift economy in place.

I’d like Nego to have the last word. 2rrfm1.jpgShe wrote a song called “WEF” about her experience protesting yet another economic body, the World Economic Forum. Nego wears a patch pinned to her hat that reads Ni Fronteras, Ni Banderas—no borders, no flags. In the song she recounts getting into a conversation with a bus driver who says he wished that were possible, and asks how she would go about it.

“One person at a time,” she says.

We’d move closer and talk like family,
It would be the way that this life could be.
Loving imaginations,
Facing the music that we are making.

I ain’t waiting on no revolution,
No, I’m living one every day.
It’s in the food I eat and who I eat it with
And where the food comes from…

I’m with Nego. I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate. Nego’s song is posted in its entirety on Boxcar Bertha’s MySpace page.

Go ahead and give it a listen. It’s free.

5 Comments

Filed under the big picture

Disaster Preparedness

I think I’ve reached my limit on lists of “15 Ways You Can Stop Global Warming”. Oh sure, we’ve switched to energy saving lightbulbs at our house, we ride our bikes more often than we drive, we turn down the thermostat and put on sweaters when it’s chilly, we water the garden from the rain barrel (or at least we did back in the days when it still rained), but I don’t believe for a minute that we’re stopping, slowing or even slightly jostling global warming. I think it’s too late, and all the lightbulbs and hybrid cars in the world aren’t going to save us. We can’t consume our way out of this one.

So let’s start with this premise: a disastrous witch’s brew of climate change, peak oil, and species extinction is headed our way (read the stats below if you dare) and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We’ve promised developing countries a way of life that even the fat and happy developed countries aren’t going to be able to maintain much longer. It’s no longer simply a question of hotter summers and longer lines at the gas pumps: we’re looking at resource wars (we’ve got one over oil already; water may not be far behind), millions of displaced people, food scarcities, unemployment, disease. The list goes on.

But wait a minute, no, let’s start with this premise. The disaster has already struck and goes on striking. Right this minute the rug is being pulled out from under someone somewhere. In the last couple of decades it has happened dramatically and on a large scale in places like Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and of course New Orleans and Iraq, but it’s also happening every day to someone in the town where you live. We’re looking at a giant rip in the global safety net through which our whole familiar way of life is falling, but we shouldn’t overlook the smaller safety net failures. Some people survive the fall and some people don’t. What’s the difference?

Last night I watched a documentary called The Power of Community. It was made by a group out of Ohio called The Community Solution about what happened in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its access to cheap oil. For much of the 1990s Cubans experience a stringent time called “The Special Period”, during which much of the Cuban way of life was transformed. Food shortages—Cuban agriculture had been heavily dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides as well as transportation–led to organic gardens, permaculture centers and localized economies. Gas shortages led to better public transportation and decentralized services; energy shortages led to the use of solar and wind power. Cubans actually came out of the Special Period with stronger communities and healthier lives.

I’m convinced that we’re headed for our own Special Period. In some ways I hope it comes as abruptly as it did in Cuba so that we can recognize it when it gets here. Emergencies often bring out the best in people; a slow and unevenly distributed decline in the quality of life often brings out the worst. In any case, I say forget the bottled water and the barbed wire. It’s time to prepare for disaster in the ways that really matter.

Get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood: When the Argentinian economy collapsed in December of 2001 spontaneous neighborhood councils took over, providing everything from daycare to soup kitchens. In New Orleans the Common Ground Collectivebegan in the days after Katrina with three volunteers and $50; while FEMA and the Red Cross were still floundering Common Ground had gathered enough volunteer support to feed people, put them on bikes, and set up a free health clinic. In Boston residents of the Dudley Street neighborhood, collapsing under the effects of poverty, red-lining and neglect, took their community into their own hands and beat the odds. The isolationist survivalist bunker mentality only works if you already have every skill and commodity your family is ever likely to need. It’s much easier to like and trust your neighbors.

Develop skills and share them: During the Depression people used to say: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” We’re living in a strange little era of endless stuff, but it’s not going to last–in what some people call the “post-carbon world” Americans will simply go back to living the way most people have lived through most of human history (and the way most people live in the world now). Richard Heinberg, who has written several books on Peak Oil has just published a new one called Peak Everything, pointing out that it’s not just oil–we’re facing a complexity of shortages including natural gas, coal, fresh water, copper, and platinum. But he goes on to outline some of the things that are nowhere near their peak: personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. Learning to sew your own clothes or build a compost pile or change your own spark plugs may not seem like the first step in a revolution, but it is (and don’t forget that learning to admit when you need help is a skill too…).

Redefine abundance: This gets onto shaky ground for some people—a little too spiritual. But it’s real. Dmitry Orlov, a Russian who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union has written a useful reminder about the lessons Americans can learn from that experience:

“The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.

“If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.”

In other words, learn to value the things that money can’t buy.

I recently came across a statement by something called the E. F. Schumacher Society (“Linking, people, land and community by building local economies”): “A ‘post-carbon world’ does not have to be a dreary place,” they say. “The age we are entering will be an opportunity to celebrate our return to an acceptable level of complexity. Once again we will be able to embrace our neighbors as resources for a better community. The existing skills of the community have been ignored due to abundant energy in the form of coal and oil. Decreased energy supplies would encourage us to create local systems for fulfilling our needs. Waning fossil fuel supply would bring about the harnessing of human energy. Our labor saving devices, powered by the assumption of cheap oil, would be replaced by the skill, craftsmanship and the ingenuity of our neighbors.”

9 Comments

Filed under the big picture