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

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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.

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under collective living, the big picture