Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

Peter Marcuse and the Right to the City

So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Peter Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?

For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.

There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.

You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.

Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.

And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:

  • The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
  • The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.

And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.

I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.

(also published at drpop.org)

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at www.pmpress.org]

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Revolutionary Ghosts of Waldheim Cemetery

My first real time in Chicago, and so I am so glad Tom thought it was as important to take me to Waldheim Cemetery as I thought it was to go. So many people I have read, looked up to, found inspiration in, are buried there. And not only does Tom have a car, but he also knows more than I do. And he has a lot of great stories I shall not repeat here…

Having looked it up as I invariably do, I was fascinated to find that Ferdinand Haase established it in 1873 as the only German non-denominational cemetery in the Chicago area. And he felt it necessary to expand by adding a second section for English speakers in 1876. Which I find interesting and rather inexplicable as this was one of the few places that did not discriminate based on race or religion…but I suppose not many people of color are German speaking? So my cynical self goes, but I’m prepared to believe another story. And as somewhere that absolutely anyone could get into, it has, of course, many of the very best people. That’s one of the secrets of life (and apparently death).

It’s now officially called Forest Home, we had to translate Waldheim.

It is where the Haymarket martyrs are buried…and I confess I expected it to be, well, not busy, but not empty. I would have thought everyone would have wanted to drop by, pay their respects, think about life and struggle.

But it was the two of us only, skating in just before the place closed at the abominable hour of 4:30 pm, and therefore sin flores. I am fairly certain the dead like flowers, just as they like fine liquor, the fragrance of food, candles, and a little company. This is a just a gut instinct that goes against most of what I think, but I listen to it. And yet showed up empty handed, there wasn’t time.

Haymarket…back from the time we didn’t have at least the stated standard of an 8 hour day. To win it there was a general strike on May 1st, 1884. On May 3rd, police killed two strikers. On May 4th there was a rally in Haymarket square, a bomb went off, people died. I think it was probably the Pinkertons, but the police arrested 8 anarchists for simply inciting the act and hanged 4 of them. It didn’t help when they were later cleared of all blame…the damage was done, the press had crucified all ideals of justice and so we live in a country that inspired May Day and yet has never celebrated it properly…

Lingg was one of the defendants, but not one of those hanged. He blew himself up in his cell.

If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire, you cannot put it out.
August Spies

…if I am to die on account of being an Anarchist, on account of my love for liberty, fraternity and equality, then I will not remonstrate. If death is the penalty for our love of the freedom of the human race, the I say openly I have forfeited my life…
Adolph Fischer

 

I am an Anarchist. Now strike! But hear me before you strike. What is Socialism, or Anarchism? Briefly stated, it is the right of the toiler to the free and equal use of the tools of production, and the right of the producers to their product.
Albert Parsons

…as long as workingmen are economically enslaved they cannot be politically free
George Engel

And around this monument are gathered the graves of so many bright lights of the movement. Lucy Parsons, Black, Mexican, Native American…in a time and place where none of those was worthy of respect, she fought tirelessly her entire life for a better world.

Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.

The disinherited must work out their own salvation in their own way

Chicago Police Department description of Lucy Parsons: “More dangerous than a thousand rioters…”

And Emma Goldman, it was her birthday on Saturday!


Heaven must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there.

If love does not know how to give and take without restrictions, it is not love, but a transaction that never fails to lay stress on a plus and a minus.

The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.

Voltairine de Cleyre, another anarchist and feminist

I never expect men to give us liberty. No, women, we are not worthy until we take it.

Josef Dietzgen, one of the inspirations for Marx, he developed his own theory of dialectical materialism independently, and fought in the 1848 uprising…

The terms anarchist, socialist, communist should be so “mixed” together, that no muddlehead could tell which is which. Language serves not only the purpose of distinguishing things but also of uniting them- for it is dialectic.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the rebel girl of legend, and a tireless labor organizer with the IWW

The IWW has been accused of pushing women to the front. This is not true. Rather, the women have not been kept in back, and so they have naturally moved to the front.

What is a labor victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory.

Edward Balchowsky, who lost an arm fighting in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War…he still played the piano.

Ben Reitman, I confess, I know him mostly as the lover of Emma Goldman

Raya Dunayevskaya, founder (is that the word?) of Marxist Humanism. a theorist and the secretary of Trotsky while he was in Mexico…she broke with him though, and formed the Johnson-Forest tendency with CLR James

He who glorifies theory and genius but fails to recognize the limits of a theoretical work, fails likewise to recognize the indispensability of the theoretician. All of history is the history of the struggle for freedom. If, as a theoretician, one’s ears are attuned to the new impulse from the workers, new “categories” will be created, a new way of thinking, a new step forward in philosophic cognition.

And Claude Lightfoot, African American member of the CP, and indicted under the Smith Act

And so many more. Being a small piece of this movement, this struggle for a better world, is no small thing. Amazing people have come before me and so many more will come after…

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SF and Politics at Think Galactic

It was my first time at Think Galactic. And I must admit, it was my first time at any SF con. And I must further admit that it was my first time really talking about the convergence of science fiction and politics in any real and sustained way. And my final admission is that the combination of these factors resulted in me actually talking very little (or at all) in the panels and discussions, though I certainly talked up a storm in smaller venues, between panels, over lunch and dinner and beers. I realized there is so much I haven’t read and need to read, so much I’ve only vaguely thought about, but never sharpened into real coherency by translating it into the concreteness of actual words.

And it was brilliant, of course.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in a room where everyone seems to have read and loved Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Where radical politics are related back to zombie wars and the struggle for life on Mars. I think I’ve been wanting a room like that for some time without consciously realizing it, much less looking for it. My own great loss. There are two things I love about…what should I even call it? Speculative fiction is the term  I think. I admit I have a wee bit more love for fantasy over straight sci fi, though I think much of the distinction between the two rather absurd. Still, I love those splendidly feral worlds of the imagination, rich tapestried language, monsters, magic, places where no one has the same rules, or they have invented new ways of breaking them. I’m the kid who heard fairies outside her window growing up, and hasn’t given up on them yet. And of course you have authors like William Gibson who take technology into places where my experience can’t follow, and it all comes back to what might as well be magic again (for me, I don’t mean to cause any controversy by labeling cyberpunk magical, which I know it’s really not!). Still, fantasy leans towards the callings of destiny, the great kings, the happiness that comes from feudalism…I don’t like that at all. But there are those novels like the Gormenghast trilogy that have brought so much wealth to my world through their very existence, and books by authors like M. John Harrison and China Mieville where I see some of my own politics echoed back at me, even amplified.

I love things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy too, but they don’t make me hold my breath until the page dims due to lack of oxygen.

For so many years I never consciously brought that together with my love of social justice and my struggle for a better world… as an organizer the books didn’t seem to have the same importance and I stopped reading so much. Of course, that wasn’t just true of speculative fiction, it was true of absolutely everything. Sleeping itself was cut down to below the minimum needed, much less literary exploration. It’s been nice to emerge from the fog of living emergency to emergency, political moment to political moment, meeting to meeting.

And what a joy to come back to these books, to re-read things in light of all I’ve learned, to hurl myself into the world as it was or could be or is now with some (monsterific) modifications, all through the words of some of the greatest writers bar none. At its best the genre allows so much scope for playing with ideas, for turning ideals and theory into things that are alive on the page. It is a genre for dreaming, for analyzing, for theorizing, for experimenting… all the things that turn me on the most when paired with imaginations that spark my own.

Friday night I saw Eleanor Arnason reading an exquisite little story about a silly king and a statue and the little hatmaker…I sadly missed the other reading as it was a long train ride home to the place I was staying. But Eleanor is a fascinating author dealing with so many issues of class, race and gender in her work, and always a pleasure to read. Even more of a pleasure to meet in person, we talked quite a bit over the course of two lunches, and I am proud to say that we at PM Press will be publishing one of her stories and an in depth interview with her next year, Mammoths of the Great Plains.

I also spent a great deal of time with Josh MacPhee, who brought a load of incredible prints and posters from Just Seeds. PM will also be publishing his next book Paper Politics, which is exciting. And it was nice to have someone else in the same boat more or less…the perilous dinghy of being a fan but much more of an activist, with little experience in combining the two. I think both of us felt we were in a little deep! But It was great to finally meet someone I’ve worked with and chatted with over email face to face…And there were so many more people I talked with, but I’ve limited mention to people who I know enough about to give a plug for and a nod to their work!

And the panels? Oh, they were great. They covered race, class and gender in the genre, looked at the future of food, the role of science and technology in the world we are building, the place of the superhero in comics…and so much more. Everything ran smoothly, the food was delicious, the stencil and print workshop was brilliant, the games mightily enjoyable…and Roosevelt University an incredible space. All in all I enjoyed myself immensely. Everyone there seemed amazing and I’m just sad it wasn’t longer, as there were a number of folks I didn’t talk to at all (I’m still a bit shy as well!). But what I have taken away is the compilation of a massive reading list, and the percolation of a million great ideas. The extraordinary women who put everything together deserve an immense amount of credit, and I definitely hope that it continues long into the future…

El Salvador and such…

It’s early but feels late…a great dinner with old friends from Carecen days, veggie sausages and Belgian beer and amazing fries and good conversation, everything you could ask for from a Wednesday evening really.

Dan was down in El Salvador for the elections, and I was rather jealous…I was invited and considered it for a hot minute and then just didn’t bother to put it together…I did have a lot of deadlines, and vanquished them all to be fair. Had everything not been crumbling I would have felt on top of the world. El Salvador puts South Central into perspective though, and I know millions before me have loved and lost, tried and failed. Somewhere we are winning, and that’s what matters.

God damn, but it was 10 years ago now I was down there. With Don White, who just died. And I fucking miss him. The crazy thing about the elections this year…Dan was saying that TPS was almost a defining issue…Temporary Protected Status, it’s a temporary work permit that allows Salvadorans to stay in the US legally and work. Americans have no idea what it is of course, but it is everything to the immigrant community. I remember those applications, and the charlas for a hundred people at a time, and the lines of folks waiting at Carecen’s doors. And apparently the night Dan went down a couple of the hard right-wing people in the congress and the house stated that the FMLN were known terrorist collaborators and that if they won, it would put TPS at risk. And something that wasn’t even news here, well, it was front page headlines down there. And Arena milked it for all it was worth, saying that if Funes won, then everyone in the US would lose their status, the remittances would stop. And it closed up the difference and instead of winning in a landslide Funes won by a couple of percent. Arena owns the media of course. And the tragedy that losing TPS would cause…well, it gave a lot of people pause. And many voted against their consciences.

And Arena still didn’t win. I was there in ’99 for the presidential elections, and monitoring the elections in La Libertad. And there was this one guy in Arena colors, I still remember him sitting at a table, staring at me, hating me. I took his picture, my way of refusing fear. It wasn’t very brave of course, I knew he couldn’t touch me.

The thing is, I carry people’s stories inside of me. When people tell me things it lives in me, I know it has none of the crippling strength as it does for those who lived it. But I am still afraid of helicopters. I am still afraid of anyone in a uniform. I hold memories of rape and torture, and they are dear to me now, as were the people I knew who had suffered these things, who survived these things, who taught me what strength really is.  I remembered Raul, who only a few years before had been forced to flee for his life. From Arena. They burned down his house, assassinated someone they believed to be him, threatened his family and anyone who spoke to him. And this was years after the peace accords. I knew fear while he watched me, I can still feel it wriggling in my stomach though as a white American I knew damn well that in that time and place I was perfectly safe.

Arena won that election. We were staying in the local school, and that night we were kept awake by Arena’s supporters who ran in a large crowd around and around the town, setting anything that said FMLN on fire and waving it in the darkness, clapping and yelling.

And I knew fear then too, peering between the crack in the large wooden doors that separated the school’s courtyard from the street.

I remembered Arcatao in Chalatenango, a center for the FMLN and one of the places hardest hit by right wing forces during the war. The beauty of the church there, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, both for the scenery and the people who lived there, though everyone and everything carried the mark of war.

and they honored those who were murdered thus, a church lined with crosses

There the stations of the cross are represented by the stations of a people in struggle, few things have moved me like that place.

And there is also the memorial of Monsenor Oscar Romero in San Salvador, with drawings on the wall of torture and death, a memorial of all who fought for something better, and whose lives were taken.

I have not believed in organized religion for a very long time, but I could pray in a church like this. And I did. Romero once said that a priest’s place was with his people. And if the people were living in poverty, were fighting for justice, were being killed, then the priests should also be facing death by their sides. And so they killed him. He is one of the people I have been thinking about in my own little crisis of faith. It is tiny. It is a tempest in a tea cup. I am getting over it.

So I cried when Funes won, for someone who doesn’t really believe in elections, I have been doing a lot of crying I must say! But after years of civil war and torture and disappearances and an intense war of the people against the oligarchs, well. For everyone I know who had been raped, tortured, had family murdered…I cried when the FMLN took power. And I am thankful that a few nut jobs in the senate and a media that made them seem far more important than they were weren’t enough to change that. And now I sit with the same feelings I have about Obama, thinking things will get better. But probably not much. But it was a symbolic change and that carries its importance. And god knows we need to celebrate any victory that comes along, we just can’t think that’s anything but the start of a new struggle.

So…I dunno. I dunno where I’m at as I sit crouched in the echoing space that used to be filled with things I believed in. I’m getting used to that. I biked home rather tipsy, my favourite sweater streamed behind me in the darkness and my shadow rode before me in the street lights like a crow, a harbinger of things to come. I looked cloaked and daggered, something from times long past or times to come, I’ve been feeling like that. I’ve been living in the moment and living well and loving every minute of it until I am alone, and then I am outside of time somehow, poised on the edge of something. I’ll find out what it is I suppose.

And my packet arrived today from LSE so it all feels truly official and done and dusted and I’m in and I’m moving to London, and life really feels pretty good. It doesn’t really matter that everything else has crumbled into dust, because where else do amazing beginnings start from? A big packet in the mail gives such happiness.

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Downtown Los Angeles at night

I suppose this could be the title of a number of posts…

It’s the end of January. The night was cool but not cold, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and felt the air sweet against my naked skin. The streets between Mals bar and home are my streets. Along Olive I rode through the darkness, glad I didn’t go home with the car salesman. I turned on Pico, passed the corner where I always used to find Mark, before we lost the Morrison, before he lost his home, before he died.  He’s been on my mind a lot, his county issue wheelchair sits empty at Saje now, right by the back door. I see it and think of him, feel a little of the despair and loss and…I don’t even know what you feel about someone you love who died an alcoholic on the streets. And I passed the Morrison and it’s still boarded up, Hope has never been well lit there. Hope. I don’t want to hope any more, I want to see my way to winning.

I headed towards the convention center, all brightly lit, welcoming people with degrees like mine to network and shmooze and score business deals. It offers shit jobs and shit treatment to all those I work with, stand beside. I belong to neither world, though I look to be part of one, and have chosen to stand in the other. For my job, I became part of the first for a couple of days earlier this year. It made me feel split into two people, uncomfortable in my skin as I walked down carpeted corridors and flashed my badge and talked books. And wished I were chatting to the janitors instead. I felt traitorous. And lonely. I wanted to know someone who understands these things.

Down Figueroa I passed the Staples Center and the new L.A. Live, it is like another city. The other day I was biking down Olympic and suddenly didn’t recognize where I was. I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel that way about a section of street you have worked off and on for 8 years. The Baker Building is gone, all of the families I knew there gone. A skyscraping hotel rises to the left unfinished beneath its giant crane. The cold clean unwelcoming space of LA Live bristles alongside it, over 200 families used to live there in 1998. They tore the buildings down to turn the land into parking lots. And now they have created something that Narnia’s Ice Queen might have built. Though she probably didn’t know enough about surveillance cameras. It’s yet another of LA’s quasi-public spaces, easily controlled for the right kind of people, easily managed with its up-scale chains that represent conspicuous consumption without taste or orginality. Figueroa was crawling with cop cars as the great searchlights proclaimed it the place to be against the night sky. Superficial glitz and implicit violence dominate this city.

I biked through downtown, Orishas on my i-pod, every traffic light against me. Office buildings towered into the sky, their patchwork of lights replacing the stars. The spatial inequalities of this city, the pain and displacement, the contrast between ultimate wealth and ultimate poverty, all of these things carved into my heart. I like biking through the darkness, even though it hurts. It is time and space to think, a way of experiencing LA like no other, a physical release of stress and memory. And it is nice to come home at the end of it. To write.

The absurdity of mass repression

Documentary after documentary. It is how I have been spending the tail end of my nights lately, after long days of work and time with friends. Some we have published, some are submissions for us to consider publishing, a few I throw in as reminders of what is already out there.

They are all of struggle, so at some point every night I have sat here with tears pouring down my face. Sometimes they are indefinable tears. I don’t know why masses of working people in the streets and facing down riot police always make me cry, but they always do. Perhaps for the hope they give me where there is so little hope left. Too often they are tears of sadness, for those who have been injured, tortured, killed. The worst was Black and Gold, where there is a mother grieving for her son shot by the police. I have heard that grief before, it is hoarse and raw and rending, it shatters everything in you to hear it. It flays you to bear witness and be able to do nothing. It takes me back remorselessly to the burial ground and the huge machine already covering the coffin and tamping the ground even as the mariachis still played. Maria almost screaming, if she had had any voice left. I cannot understand how this can be the world that we have created.

And I cannot understand how these things continue. Chicago, Alabama, Buenos Aires, Oaxaca, Burma, Greece…these are just a fraction of the confrontations where governments have turned on their own people.  Intellectually, of course, I understand the intertwining of government and capital, the need to retain power at all costs, the strength and cunning of propaganda combined with media silence. But fundamentally, everything in me revolts at its very possibility. Everything revolts at the idea that a government that turns its army and security forces onto thousands of its own people could retain the slightest shred of legitimacy. With anyone.

What is a government for, and why does it exist?

How can a legitimate government defend itself from its own citizens with police bearing clubs, tear gas, pepper spray, pistols and machine guns? With helicopter attacks, secret and open raids, illegal arrests, disappearances, torture, assassination, bombs?

How is it possible that we have come to accept that a government can repress a mass movement of its own people? Who else do we think it is accountable to?

In my cynicism I know that’s a beginner’s question. Of course they are not accountable to the masses of their people; they are accountable to the few, the wealthy, the elite that they themselves are part of. They hold the money and power, and if persuasion does not work, they will use force. I understand all of this, but even so. I rage at the fundamental absurdity of this being the universal system that defines the lives of all us.

Robert King in L.A. and San Diego

I had the honor to drive Robert King around Southern California this past weekend to a handful of events centered on the Angola 3 campaign and his new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of ex Black Panther Robert Hillary King.

It’s an incredible story of what it means to be Black in this country; beautifully written and deep and it made me cry at two different points. And never fear, it has an inspiring ending.

I learned that I actually eat more than King, I wake up MUCH later, and that      there were possibly a few too many things edited out of the book (which I take responsibility for, though all complaints should be sent to my colleague ramsey). And a lot of really great stories that should have been in there but somehow never made it. Like the exact plan of how he escaped from Angola, and climbed walls using rope made out of the ticking from the mattresses and stepped on someone’s face and heard one of the women yell hey Tarzan, take me, it’s Jane…Which is why you have to hear him speak. But we were there to educate, not just tell stories, so I’ll be serious for a moment.

Slavery has continued in this country under the guise of prisons. There are now approximately 2.3 million people in prison, another 5 to 6 million people are on some kind of parole or probation, and 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 21 and 29 are incarcerated…

And there is a vast amount of money to be made on prisoners. The prisons get money for housing and feeding prisoners, and money for transporting them. They get money for the work that prisoners do while in prison. Prisons form the entire economic base and are the principal employer in many a small town. In Angola, Louisiana the 5,000 prisoners are counted in the town census as citizens allowing the town to receive additional federal benefits. Angola is 18,000 acres that went from plantation to prison with no break in between, even maintaining the sugar cane and cotton fields. Prisoners are guaranteed no rights in the constitution that supposedly abolished slavery. Here is a view of the place from the book:

So Robert Hillary King. He joined the Black Panther party in a Louisiana prison and worked to organize prisoners to protest the terror of the conditions they lived in. He, along with compañeros Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were actually succeeding in some things, like getting holes cut in the cell bars so that their food no longer had to scrape along the bottom of their doors when it was shoved underneath. They held classes in literacy and political education. They protested and worked to end the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, the constant invasive strip searches, and the prevalence of rape. They were reaching out to white prisoners. And so they were stopped.

King was framed in the murder of another inmate on his tier, found guilty though the man who had killed testified it had been in self-defense and that he had acted alone. Albert and Herman were framed in the murder of a prison guard (based on the testimony of seven eye witnesses – each of whom claimed they were the only ones at the scene besides the murderers! One of whom was shortly released on furlough due to his blindness. All of whom received incredible treatment from that day on, in spite of testimony that was hopelessly contradictory). King, although he was not in Angola at the time, was put under investigation as an accomplice, and was held in solitary for 29 years on that ground.

King fought his case over the years, and walked free in 2001. He said that he might be free of Angola, but Angola would never be free of him. He has kept that promise. Herman and Albert continue in prison, though Albert’s conviction has been overturned. The State has appealed the decision, and are resorting to character assassination in their attempt to ensure that both Herman and Albert remain safe and sound behind bars until they die.

So we started with an event sponsored by the Southern California Library at the L.A. Grand Theatre, a showing of the documentary on the Angola 3 (could use a bit more editing but is really a great documentary) with King speaking after. We had dinner with Gary Phillips and Gilda Haas (both future PM authors), then drove down to Whittier to stay with the Cambrons. It was a weekend of brilliant people and great hospitality I have to say! Then on Saturday we drove down to San Diego, where we stayed with Dennis Childs and his wife Saranella, both of them beautiful in every sense of the word. That day’s event was at the Malcolm X library, and the following day at UCSD.  Here he is at the Library:

And here are King and Dennis at UCSD:

And of course, we were traveling in style in the rented red mustang, here are King, Saranella and I, it has been extraordinarily hot here as you can see:

A brilliantly intense weekend, though I’ll admit my thoughts had a certain tendency to stretch somewhere rather different in a smiley day-dreamy sort of way. And it was an exhausting though rewarding trip, so happy reverie came as some relief in the rare downtime. I don’t think that’s why I did my best to make King miss his flight up to the Bay by jumping on the 605 North rather than South in rush hour traffic after a last lovely night in Whittier, it’s the fact I’ve yet to try my bike on the freeways I believe! Or that I don’t know Whittier. Or that I forgot to clarify the direction with Arturo before leaving. But everything worked out all right in the end…

There is much to be done on the campaign to free the remaining two of the Angola three. For more information on how to get involved, go to www.angola3grassroots.org, and for the book or dvd, click on the images above or go to www.pmpress.org.

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Unidad Campaign puts the “Public” back into “Public Meeting”

Tonight the City of Los Angeles held a scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report on the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. Community Plan. Exciting, right? You’re on the edge of your seats…

Usually there are a handful of people at these meetings. Some men and women in suits. Maybe a handful of people in the community with the time and the money and the training to look into the issues and show up. They represent an incredibly small slice of the community interest, and generally a conservative one.

Tonight was different though. First, a lot of people showed up. A lot.  People not usually at this sort of bureaucratically mind-boggling morass of legal and environmental jargon, why would they be here? It is designed to preserve the facade of participation while keeping people out, to ensure planning is left to the experts who can then do whatever they want to do. These experts spent decades removing almost all services and cutting funding to everything left; tearing down homes to build factories; permitting liquor stores, hourly motels, and strip clubs to march side by side with schools, parks, churches. They used planning to devastate the neighborhood with one hand, and withheld any sort of aid to struggling organizations with the other. The war zone that breaks my heart every day has been the result. And in spite of them, in spite of an absence of jobs and hope, in spite of the crack explosion of an earlier decade and the constant battle of drugs and turf that claims our youth, in spite of high rents for slum housing so overcrowded that people sleep in bathtubs and their beds in shifts, in spite of all this we have created some things that are beautiful. And the goal seems to be to plunk down a lot of high end retail and luxury housing on top of that, pushing people from one slum where they have managed to build networks and community to another that is unknown. At least, that’s what has been happening to date with the city bending over in its eagerness to facilitate it.

So people stood up tonight to reclaim the place of the public in a public meeting. To demand that the city recognize decades of racism, greed and neglect that have resulted in a devastated community. To reclaim their right to continue to live in that community even as they fight to improve it. And to reclaim the word environment…when was it reduced to spotted owls, air quality, density, parking and green space? It is all of these things and they are all important, but how can it not also include the buildings, the people who live within them, and the conditions in which they live?

So it was a meeting of righteous anger, of stories that could make you cry, of great applause for all of the community speakers. And comedy of course. You’d really think that planners would be overjoyed at this break in a life of regulated tedium! Monic gave a ringing list of all the groups and organizations present at the meeting and over 60 of us stood in a show of strength, so the Planning Department’s enforcer got snippy and said we had to “keep the agitation down.” I don’t think he knows what that word means precisely, but Jesus, who spoke next, promised to be gentle. Though perhaps you have to know Jesus to appreciate how funny that was. And then there was someone from the neighborhood council, one of those privileged people who always challenge my belief in the efficacy of direct democracy due to their terrifying ubiquity in all community institutions (I’ll let you imagine the kind of annoying person I mean to escape any libel charges). At any rate, she said she lived in a district that had been recommended for a historical preservation zone as the “18th Street HPOZ”…and then she continued (in shock horror) that she couldn’t BELIEVE that the city had called them that and she OF COURSE would never…ha! 18th street is, of course, one of the biggest L.A. gangs, so it’s just funny all the way around, but the thought of her identifying as 18th street had me rolling. And I wonder if the city planner actually had a sense of humor. No one actually laying down the law in an HPOZ (what colors you can paint your house, how high your fence can be, what windows can be used etc) has ever had one in my experience.

At any rate, it was a good and dare I say enjoyable evening that really shed some light on some of the structural inequality within our city, and perhaps will make a difference.

For folks who need details, LA’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) threshold guidelines actually do state that displacement and housing are environmental issues; that’s just been conveniently ignored even though I believe we have pointed it out before. They also look at overcrowding and excessive rent burden (sections C, D and J.2 for all you communities under fire).

For more information or to get involved in an amazing effort you can contact the Unidad/ Unity campaign, unidadcampaign@gmail.com. You can also check out www.saje.net, or do some reading on the work of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice.