Friday, September 25, 2009

Going out with a bang... last day at the G20.

This whole week I’ve been wondering, on and off again, about why I’m here.  Today I finally found out the reason.

We left around 11AM for a unpermitted feeder march hosted by the CMU kids about climate change.  We’d been hoping to do our theater piece downtown earlier that morning, as a sort of distraction action for a banner drop, but as many things are here, things did not go as planned.  Flexibility.  That’s one trait that you either have, or cultivate, as an activist.  No banner drop, no theater piece, but no worries.  We decided to pack all of our props into our backpacks and bring them with, just in case.

The Climate Change march was perfect — there was a host of kids with marching drums there, keeping the beat and enlivening the energy, and for the nine zillionth time I found myself wishing desperately that I had brought a lighter drum.  Jason and I did bring a drum, but we kept it in the tent, because its deceptively heavy for its small size.  In fact, after all of the running around in the streets from the police yesterday, we’d lightened our packs considerably for today.  We didn’t expect too much trouble, even with the less-than-legal marches that we were doing here and there, but even so it seemed like a good idea.

So, the kids kept beat with the drums while other students dressed up in hazmat suits with signs that read things like “Climate Change, FAIL” and “There is no Planet B” on their chests and backs.  I brought the canary in his cage out again, and many of us dressed up in our finest banner-capes that read things like “community,” “change,” “power,” and “grow” set against brightly colored backdrops.  Infused with this kind of creative, bright, quirky energy, we set off from the campus towards downtown, where the larger permitted march was to begin.

Although the Climate Change march held a much different energy than the Black Bloc march the day before, it soon showed that it, too, had claws — like the claws of some sort of brightly colored rainforest-living bird of prey, stretching its wings as it clambered through the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.  We started on the sidewalk, took one lane of traffic, then a second, and eventually the whole street.  This, of course, brought the cops.  They spent some time zooming up and down the farthest left lane of traffic to clear it in their cars and vans, sirens going off, but other than that seemed content to let us go where we were going.  And so, we did.  We swelled through the poor neighborhood, where our chants were met with enthusiasm and warnings (or blessings, depending on how you look at it), “Don’t let them stomp you!”  We swelled up into downtown past the University of Pittsburgh, where the cops had used tear-gas on the students the night before in order to clear out the dark courtyards, and called for them to join us.  “It’s our future, it’s your future, come out, come out.”  “Off the sidewalks and into the streets!  Off the sidewalks and into the streets!”  Most of them stared at us with confused, or even excited, looks on their faces, but did not step off the curb. 

No matter.  We kept going, grooving to the drum beats, holding our ground with our three lanes (which, even though one lane was open, pretty effectively stopped traffic.  Most of the drivers seemed good-natured enough about it, although more than one expressed their angry frustration with loud voices and lewd hand gestures).  It felt so freeing, to be marching without lines of riot cops everywhere, to take the streets with our voices and feet, to truly manifest the ideal of freedom of expression in a menagerie of creative ways.  And that creativity, that abundance of diverse voices, grew exponentially once we reached the rest of the march.  It was astounding.  There were all kinds of people there: labor union people wearing hard-hats and t-shirts; Code Pink ladies with their cute fuchsia dresses and gray hair; a whole host of Tibetans with flags and traditional garb; hula hoopers for peace; a motley group with a huge white dove puppet; you name it, it was there.  I saw quite a few signs about universal health care, specifically single-payer health care, as well as ones about climate change, jobs, and economic class issues.  Seeds of Peace came, too, renewed and ready to serve the thousands — literally thousands — of protestors who had come.  It’s hard to say how many people were there, but most of the estimates that I heard were about 8,000.

Once we stepped off, we filled the streets for blocks and blocks.  At the front of the march was a group (I never found out who they were) carrying flags for hundreds of countries, all fluttering in the breeze that occasionally graced us with relief from the hot humid day.  Behind us was the Black Bloc, huge and intense and powerful in a way that I’ve never seen them before — all consolidated like that, I felt like I finally understood them in a way I never have before.  Their energy is proud and strong and direct, like a lion shaking its main, uncowed.  Sometimes they would shout things like “Basta aqui capitalista,” a short chant that gathered power very quickly; other times, the traditional “Who’s streets?  Our streets!”; or, amusingly whenever the cops were around, “You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!” 

As we made our way further into the downtown district, the police presence doubled, tripled, quadrupled.  I thought I’d seen lots of police before, but I have never seen anything like this.  Obama recently ended the summit with a speech that commended how “tranquil” this meeting was, but with 6,000 armed police officers, one can only imagine that would be the case.  One fellow on the news said that the last time Pittsburgh had as many on-the-ground troops present was when the President sent in the national guard to suppress the Homestead Revolt in the late 1800’s.  They were four and five rows thick down every block, armored heavily with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, rifles, dogs, sound cannons, batons, the works.  Every bank had a line of national guard out in front of it, and as we approached a new intersection we would encounter SWAT humvees, tanks, the black LRAT vehicles with their sound cannons, platoons of bike cops and mounted cops.  Even saying this cannot convey to you what it was like — how can I possibly convey what 6,000 fully armed, armored police officers is like?  It feels like marching through a tunnel of hot, bubbling, bristling imminent danger.  Nah, too abstract.  It feels like your insides are being pressed in from the energy of it, as if the walls were closing in on you.  Nah.  I guess its not something you can really get from reading about it.  Maybe some of these pictures will help.  At any rate, it was way more police than one would have imagined for a permitted march, or really for anything short of an invasion of extra-terrestrial beings. 

At one point a couple of us decided it was time for a yummy espresso break, and went off from the mid-point rally in seek of it.  The only thing open downtown — quite literally, the only thing open in the most bustling part of the city, in spite of whatever economic woes the g20 was there to address — was a Dunken Donuts.  This, in and of itself, is a sad sad thing.  Nonetheless, that’s the way it was, so I was forced to put my inner coffee-snob aside and just do it.  On the way there, we saw a group of cops motivating towards one part of the street, and decided to go take a look.  Coming towards us, solid and proud but in a totally different way than our masked companions, marched a band of protestors from Africa.  There were about 20 of them, coming very intentionally and illegally up the street, another feeder march for the big permitted march.  Like the student feeder march, the police were leaving them alone — but in a much more potentially volatile area, nearer to the convention center, and near all the centers of finance that the powers that be were so determined to protect.  I watched them with quiet awe as they chanted and walked up towards us, some wrapped in traditional garb, others holding flags.  They chanted first in a language I didn’t understand, then in English, demanding attention for human rights abuses.  All the while, the police simply watched, even though I knew they very much didn’t want them to go up the street they were on — I overheard one say to another, “If these people meet up with those other guys, the shit is going to hit the fan.”  Even so, they didn’t do anything.  The Africans had a purpose and strength that was palpable.  In that moment, I saw what Civil Disobedience is at its best, at its heart.  I saw the kind of power that I hope that I can cultivate in myself, that I dream of for the Pagan Cluster and the movement as a whole.  It’s the kind of power that cannot be touched by violence, and so does not have to resort to it.  It is as intense as the weapons the police carry and the conditioned hardness of their hearts and humanity.

We rejoined the big march (as did the Africans) and marched across the river, coming as close to the Convention Center on the bridge as we would be at any time before or after the G20 meetings.  Looking out over the railing at the glass-walled building, I realized that although we were still quite far I was actually in eyeshot of some of the most influential, powerful people in the world, and that they were right over there, making decisions that would effect billions of people and animals and other beings.  Somehow, with all of the protests and planning and processing, I had forgotten that was happening — not that it ever truly went away, but it stopped meaning anything emotionally to me.  Standing on that bridge, looking out across the water and to that fortress, I felt it for the first and only time.  Those people have the power to change things so that we either sink or swim, I thought.  There they are, using that power, totally sequestered and removed from all of us.  Even though my day had been wonderful and very meaningful, and that I knew good work was happening, I couldn’t say that what we’d been doing had been very meaningful to those people in that building, those people who can enact legislation and policies that will keep our world from tipping into ecological collapse or that can make healthcare available to everyone.  I was struck in that moment, stung into stillness, curiosity, frustration, awe.  I wanted to tap into my deep magic, to do something that would make a difference energetically and carry to them.  I said a prayer, but couldn’t think of anything beyond that.  And then the march moved on, and the moment was over.

I’ve been thinking a lot about power today, seeing it manifest strongly in many different ways: the creativity and quirkiness of the student march, the uncowed rebellion of the black bloc kids, the violence and ugliness of the police, the collected, unwavering purpose of the Africans, the communal of the permitted march, and the piercing intensity of those at the G20.  I’m not sure what it all means just yet, but I can feel how its impacted me and helped me to question my own innate connection to power and the tribal power of those I’m running with right now.  There’s still a lot to be done with all of this, to be unpacked and understood.  But some of that will have to wait for tomorrow.  Tonight, I’m interested in experiencing the power of connection and love — it’s the last night we’ll be here, because tomorrow we’re heading back home.

This is what a police state looks like...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tears and Tear Gas

Twitter texts transcripts from our Comms people:

12:16 am - Units are responding to hotmetal bridge for reports of protestors gathering.

12:06 am – Student dorms blocked by police with weapons. 

Lots of police need Fuel, can’t find Fuel.  Trying to get Tanker Truck to fuel humvees.

11:51 am – Forbes and S. Craig, protestors breaking out windows.

Police not responding to other calls.  “All units are in Oakland.”


Giving dispersal order – probably 200 people at least there.  Almost entire perimeter is surrounded by riot cops. 


11:00 pm – Radical marching band playing on the steps of cathedral, and riot cops continue to launch smoke bombs at them. 

Gray 2000 Chrysler town and country w PA registration — get the fuck out of there!  The police are looking for you!

And so on...

* * * * *

I didn’t really want to go out dancing when it first came up tonight.  It was a really long day today — the first day we’ve seen chemical weapons (and no, just to end the tension right here and now, the cops did not stick to or even attempt to begin the “escalation of tactics” they mentioned to the press.  They went straight for the gas and this weird sound thing they have that makes you feel unbalanced and confused, followed by rubber bullets).  We set out in the afternoon with a student march from Carnegie Melon University and joined up with a bunch of Black Bloc kids on what Delylah, our medic and spokescouncil rep, was affectionately referring to as “the death march” -- an unpermitted march that involved going down a street with a river on one side and a cliffside down the other.  We had subdivided the cluster into two or three loose groups — the green group, those who desire to stay as safe as possible; the yellow group, in-between; and the red group, those who wanted to wade into the fray and see what’s going on, and yet, because we’re pagans and peaceful, also get out before things got all crazy.

Jason and I decided that we were more yellow than green, and, that decided, tramped off with the college students through an economically disadvantaged area to meet up with the Black Bloc cohort.  I was still feeling ambivalent about that, because it seemed to me that there wasn’t a strong message or intention to what we were doing, and that some property destruction and police violence would ensue.  But, that said, I wasn’t about to sit back with the Greenies while Jason was out there marching around with them, because doing so would be more painful to my psyche than rubber bullets by far. 

It was wonderful to march through the neighborhood: so many people there clearly supported us, and called out to us and honked there horns in support of our message, which although confused, still resonated with them.  Soon, however, the tone changed.  We wove through the streets, corralled here by the cops and then there, and finally being blocked in on two sides and given the order to disperse.  This announcement was followed by a weird, creepy beeping, kind of like a siren but somehow different.  Suddenly, I began to feel very afraid and ungrounded, even more so once I saw the plumes of tear gas up ahead at the front of the march.  Although it felt important to be with the cluster, I realized very quickly that I was almost as afraid of the Black Bloc people as I was the cops — not because I thought they’d attack me, obviously, but because I had heard rumors of many of them wearing football pads and helmets and being ready to physically attempt to take on the police, and I wanted to be nowhere near anything of the sort.  That’s not what I’m about, and breaking windows is not what I’m about.  And I’m certainly not about getting gassed and arrested for them. 

So once the heat got strong (on both sides, for with a crash, the first window — a Boston Market, of all things — was broken), I felt a very strong desire to take off.  In fact,  I was terrified.  The weird siren was going off in my ears and the gas was blowing up ahead, and there were riot cops with batons on both ends of the street.  After a brief debate with Jason, we took off down a side street, leaving the crowds and the cluster behind.  As soon as we emerged onto the next block, however, we saw the march running towards us, followed by another line of riot cops.  Jason swore under his breath and we took off again, attempting to run perpendicular to the march that seemed to follow us wherever we went. 

Meanwhile, people were coming out of there houses to see what was going on — old men, women with children, teenagers with gaps in their teeth.  “Get inside, get inside, there’s cops with tear gas,” we’d say, and they’d stare at us confused, and say, “What’s going on?”  But we couldn’t stop long enough to tell them.  We wove our way through the streets, getting further and further away from where we wanted to go and closer and closer to downtown Pittsburgh, which is where the g20 is actually meeting and is therefore the most heavily guarded area in the city right now.  Jason wanted to cross back towards where we’d come from, but my heart was still pounding from being up there, and I couldn’t stand the idea of going back there.  Eventually, though, it became obvious that we couldn’t go forward anymore, and we had to go back.

It was a trek back, and along the way, Jason and I started to squabble.  He hadn’t been afraid, apparently, and had only left because he’d seen how tripped out I was getting about the whole deal.  At first I was irritated with him, because he’d told me otherwise at the time — but then, as we continued to talk about it, I realized that I’d been much more triggered than I had first thought as soon as the police began to get violent.  I’d thought I was being reasonable, intelligently deciding to get out of there when things looked hot; but I wasn’t acting reasonable, or grounded, or like myself at all.  Every time we’d go over what happened, my story was different.  I needed to slow down, to think things over, but there was no time for that.  We had to keep going, to get back to our friends and regroup.   He kept asking me if I wanted to join the green group so that he could run off with the yellow group and not worry about me, but I didn’t want that.  I didn’t want to be afraid, especially to be overwhelmingly, out-of-my-body afraid.

And so, as we walked, I started to ground out the energy through my feet, noticing each step connecting me to the earth.  I touched the part of my body where I have the feeling of groundedness and the memory of the redwoods at camp anchored into my body, and said the magic word I say to ground.  I walked, and grounded.  We would run into cops, and my breath would quicken until we were safely away again, and then I’d go back to grounding. 

Eventually, we did get back to our friends and made our way (appropriately) to Friendship park, where half of the march had gathered to chill and decide what to do next.  There, I had an opportunity to check in with Lisa, who’s been doing this stuff for a long time.  She knew I was getting tripped out, and promised to look after me and reminded that we were all committed to being safe and unarrested this day, no matter what “color” we were running at the time.  Somehow, between grounding out the energy and her support, I found a measure of my courage again.  It was only later that I learned that the strange sirens I’d been hearing were sound cannons — devices that play a subsonic noise that disrupts the equilibrium of your inner ear and causes you to become confused, disoriented, unable to think straight or move easily.  Although some of the fear and feeling of overwhelm was my own, and brought about by the reality of the violence of the situation, I had also fallen pray to this weird device, which in me disrupted my very though patterns and certainly my energy body. 

Suddenly, the other half of the march — who we had believed to have been cornered by the cops — miraculously reappeared and came sauntering into the park amidst cheers and cries: “Who’s Streets?  OUR STREETS!”  It was amazing.  The last we’d seen of them, they’d been goners.  And yet here they were, reborn.  I felt inspired.  Somehow, these kids had made it through the cops in spite of their many tricks.  We could do this.  I could do this.  And I wanted to do it, to find my voice and not let them cow me.

And then we were doing it.  We swarmed out of the relative safety of the park and headed back down the streets, following the Black Bloc kids as they flowed here and there, sticking with them but not totally immersing ourselves in their doings, which had indeed turned to breaking a couple of windows and such (Elizabeth told me that she thought that at least some of this started with provocateurs).  Flow in, flow out.  Move down this street, move over a block, go back a block because a line of riot cops are blocking the way.  Chant, sing, drum.  Yes, this is what a police state looks like — but its also what those who would live a different way look like, in all that is positive and negative about that. 

Eventually, it was really time to go home.  The march disbanded, we regrouped, and found ourselves a lovely Thai restaurant to nurture ourselves within.  Once there, we got a text from Bash Back, inviting everyone out to a dance party later in the evening. A dance party!  Lovely.  Let’s go.

Unfortunately, the “dance party” had very little dancing in it.  We parked the car on 5th and started heading over, pausing to stop at Caribou Coffee for a pit stop.  As I came out and pushed the doors open, I saw my little crew waiting outside for me looking up the street, where a march had started.  “Oh lovely,” I thought.  “They’re coming to us.”

Then my face fell, and my heart.  The kids were pushing six dumpsters down the street, yelling obscenities instead of chants.  Jason, Delylah, Stan and I quickly moved back along the street, only to be joined by a crowd of college kids who live in the area — the street we were on, apparently, goes right through a major campus.  They led the dumpsters down into the intersection, right in front of a cop van, and proceeded to turn them over to block the street.  And then the smashing began.  A moment later, further down the street, I saw smoke — not tear gas, but the smoke of a fire, of something burning. 

I looked up at Jason.  What I was thinking was mirrored perfectly on his face: The Cops Are Going to Be Pissed. 

Best to get the hell out.

And yet, we did not immediately take off.  There were hoards of college kids everywhere, angry about the windows of their community being broken, and curious about what was happening.  Within moments, the streets were full of cops in riot gear, curious college kids, shop owners, and the smell of burning trash.  We circled around the small plaza where the cops had corralled a large group of protestors — not the ones who had done the window smashing or dumpster turning, but a different group that had earlier in the evening been talking to G20 delegates.   Eventually we stopped at a little wall and hopped on top, along with all of the aforementioned college students and shop owners and restaurant employees and whatnot.  The cops had seemed to control the situation, but somehow, it didn’t seem over.

Probably because it wasn’t.  They brought in the sound cannons, again, and started lobbing tear gas into the courtyards of the university, sending whole packs of college kids screaming and running from the scene.  Then they surrounded the entire campus with riot cops in gas masks, lobbing the tear gas canisters further and further into the courtyards of the university.  Although it was far too late for any classes to be in session, there were still many people around, drunk and partying or studying late or drawn by all the commotion from their frat houses and dorms. 

The only way out was right past the cops, and so we put on our best “these are not the people you’re looking for” auras and, breathing slowly and carefully and grounding down, I followed Lisa and Scarecrow and the rest out through the perimeter of police and back out onto the street.  There was broken glass everywhere, and cars backed up, and “peace” officers of every description moving through the area in lines and packs and tribes, with horses or dogs (I’m definitely noticing that the cops in Pittsburgh love their police dogs) or neither, or bikes.   As we moved away from the scene, I would glance back towards the protestors who’d been trapped in the plaza, and feel a horrifying sinking in my stomach.  I knew, even without being there, that the police were going to be very ungentle with those they’d caught — all 200 some of them, many of them young.  I found myself imaging violent scenes of the whole thing, and tears (natural ones) sprung into my eyes.  I hate the idea of the police beating on, tazering, gassing, attacking all of these kids for breaking windows.  I mean, clearly I don’t resonate or condone the breaking of windows, or of anything, really.  But the truth of the matter is that breaking a window doesn’t warrant a chemical or electric assault on your person.  And often, those they catch aren’t he ones who broke the window anyway.

* * * * *
So now I’m back at Anne’s and we’ve just finished talking about our plans for tomorrow, and I find myself again wondering why I’m here.  It’s rather glamorous, I suppose, to be a traveling climate change activist.  It’s neat to see a new place, and sometimes there’s even a sense of adrenaline and excitement about it.  But tonight, like Tuesday night, I wonder if it really does any good and if there isn’t some more direct route to saving the world, one that doesn’t involve so many cops and so much violence.  That part just ain’t me.  It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.

I’m so tired that my eyes are closing as I write this, but I don’t want to sleep just yet, because every time I close my eyes, a flash of vision — a line of riot cops — appears behind my lids, almost as if written there.  It isn’t every the same line of cops, and I don’t think about it before it happens too much.  They just appear, trapped in my head somehow.  It’s been happening all day and part of the day yesterday, as well — I close my eyes and there they are, unbidden, demanding something of me.  I’m not sure what — I’m simply sure that’s I’d rather NOT pay the devils too much attention or give up too much of my energy to them, and still here they are with every blink or longer, They live behind my eyelids now, constantly a force in my life.

Think I may need a auric brush down where I get home. 

Alright, I’m done now.  Good night, blessings, lotsa love.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Theater of the Possible

Ah, turkey bacon.  It's a lovely way to start your day.  Especially when it's accompanied by eggs, pancakes, grits, fresh fruit, and orange juice. 

Lest you believe we out here in Pittsburgh are shivering in the cold, hungry and calling with shrill voices to uncaring ears, let me tell you a bit about my day.

We overslept our 8 AM breakfast call, and those of us sleeping at the house on Monroe ended up tumbling out of our tents sometime after that and into the cars, arriving at the other house (we Cluster folks are divided into two houses here in Pitts, which has not been easy.  So much better when you're all clumped together in one place, but alas, that is not to be).  Once we got there, late as we were, it was a beautiful sight.  A whole spread, put together by four early-rising pagan folks, was laid out before us.  An embarrassment of riches, a wealth of food.  It was nice to stuff my little belly and have a slow, chatty morning. 

Our first order of business was in-house work: to process our group communication agreements and power dynamics.  Oy, vey.  We must.  We simply must, but its hard -- hard to look at those shadow parts of ourselves, and hard to look at those of the people that we love.  About half way through the meeting, the person who was facilitating asked to step back and allow someone else to step up, and after an awkward pause, two fellas in the cluster slowly came forth to volunteer.  Each of them had already taken a turn facilitating a meting this week, and some of those present asked that we have a woman facilitate instead.  I knew I should step forward, but my own shadow was beginning to act up, telling me that there were many experienced facilitators in the room who were better equipped to tackle it. 

A couple more awkward moments passed, with some Cluster folks begging off, saying they were too emotionally close to the subject at hand.  Finally, the woman who had been turned to me and, under her breath, said, "Riyana... Please."  It was enough to get me past my shadow's sulky whispers and step up.  And, actually, facilitating had a really positive effect for me -- it allowed me to be present and contribute in a way that was much more satisfying then simply listening and witnessing.  So I was happy to have been pushed that way.  In fact, later, when we were going around each taking a turn saying what our needs from the group was, I realized that one of my biggest needs from a group is to be pushed past my comfort zone into my growing edge, which being with the Pagan Cluster in the streets does in ways that being in those places that I usually contribute energy (at home, or in the bay area ritual planning cell, or at witchcamp) simply does not.  It's powerful, every day, even simply being in meetings.

But luckily, it wasn't all just meetings, anyway -- although I did have a conference call about a completely unrelated topic with completely unrelated people later in the afternoon, in the pouring rain at the CMU campus, which was probably the most difficult thing I did all day, including those times we were surrounded by riot cops.  It wasn't a difficult call, but one of the amazing things that has at these actions is that (like witchcamp) the world outside seems to recede, or, more accurately, my senses, physical and intuitive, sharpen so much that the diffuse world of little tasks and conference calls and e-mail is harder to find or maintain interest in for very long. 

That afternoon we headed back out into the streets again.  Apparently someone had publicized a rally at Steel Park -- a place steeped in the rich labor movement history of Pittsburgh -- but hadn't planned anything to do there.  Fabulous!  We of the Pagan Cluster were happy to bring it on, then.  As yesterday there had been a strong police presence at Steel Park, we made our plans flexible... After all, most of us are invested in not getting arrested, and furthermore, it was raining and we didn't know if we'd get the Pagan Cluster + 4 or 100 people. 

It turned out to be somewhere in between: perhaps 40 or 50 people, a couple carrying banners of their own and many more picking up the extras we'd brought, with images of earth wind sea and fire and words like "change," "power," and "sustainability" on them.  We gathered at the park and Deborah, a wonderful woman from North Carolina, began hawking at the motley crowd gathered, preparing them for the greatest show on earth -- not, as you might expect, the G20 (wink) but the Pagan Cluster's awesome climate change skit.  For my part, I was excited about the hat I'd created from an idea that Esse gave me before we left California -- a birdcage with a dead canary inside.  It was awesome (pics when we get home, I promise), and was attracting a lot of media attention.  Last year, in St. Paul, Jason's bright pink shirt stole the show, so it was nice to be able to catch up this year (and without the pain and trauma, too... Which if you don't know about, I'm not going into now... You'll just have to reread Starhawk's posts from last year on her webpage). 

Deborah, in a spiffy purple hat of her own, began a beautiful monologue about opening up the discussion about climate change beyond the false solutions of green jobs and cap-and-trade carbon credits.  "We can't just change the lightbulbs; we need to change our lives."  From there, a song bubbled up and out, "We are rising up, like a phoenix from the fire, brothers and sisters, spread your wings and fly higher."  Indeed, it was true.  After all of the stalled, frazzled energy of the last couple of days, it felt good to be doing our thing unencumbered and free.  We marched down the Boulevard of the Allies and down to the headquarters of PNC Bank, a major investor in "Clean Coal" here in Pennsylvania, and then to Point State Park where Al Gore's big concert was. 

It was so amazing.  The media that we had attracted at Steel Park followed us down (okay, some cops did too, but they were relatively chill) and much more gathered as we began our full skit.  Deborah shone, as did my hat, talking about learning to be in right relation with coal and the other resources of the earth (that is, Deborah did.  My hat is mostly non-verbal).  After a while, some other pagan cluster folks came "on-stage" dressed up all corporate and suit-y, espousing the benefits of clean coal and safe nuclear power and corporate solutions to climate change, and were quickly "sequestered" by other members of the cluster and "composted" by throwing a tarp over them.  They were reborn as all of the good solutions we dream of for the world: alternative energies, community gardens, bike lanes, etc.  We finished up by creating a coal altar, complete with canary hat, and the crowd called out the visions they have for the world and we sang the coal song all together: "Take me down to the coal, take me down, where the earth is whole.  Take me down in your embrace, where I can see your ancient face."

It felt good to priestess the altar, to talk about having a different relationship with coal, who could be a great teacher to us all -- almost all of the coal on this planet was created during another period of mass extinction in our history, and it was in fact the sequestering of all of that carbon underground that made it possible for life on earth to continue.  It has seen the entire evolution of the human species.  It is literally the bones of our ancestors.  When we are in wrong relation to it, terrible atrocities occur that end up causing long term damage to our own bodies and the earth mother.  But in right relationship we could learn so much -- perhaps, if we listened, we would hear the answers we so desperately need right now.  So, the altar was about that listening, and about changing our relationship to time and the earth and abundance.  Preceded by a funny skit and followed by a snazzy skit, and with no cop interference at all.  Fabulous!

As I write this back at Anne's house, happy that the last two members (Aaron and Mary) of the Pagan Cluster have finally arrived, Delylah has just come home from the Spokescouncil meeting.  She is apparently not too impressed with the G20 Resistance organizers, who many of us have had some ambivalence about organizing with for quite some time.  They're the ones planning the big direct action events Thursday and Friday, and have for some reason decided that the "diversity of tactics" model of the RNC Welcoming Committee is a good way to go.  The messaging for these actions, likewise, has leans more towards images of war and destroying than the life-affirming visions that we are drawn to. 

A "Diversity of Tactics," in its essence, is a way of saying that you can break things as long as you don't do it close enough to those of us who aren't breaking things to endanger our non-violent, non-property-destruction, actions.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to really work that way.  The police don't actually watch a bunch of people break windows and rush off after those folks with tear gas and pepper spray, leaving the rest of us quietly sitting with our candles and prayers in peace in the street.  They simply attack, not distinguishing between those who chose to avail themselves of stones and bricks and those who sit in silent vigil, and who may not only be uninterested in any sort of violence (giving or receiving) may also be unprepared physically to run from or be in confrontation with the police. 

Earlier today the Pittsburgh police clearly outlined their methods of dealing with protestors: an "escalation of methods," they have stated through the media, beginning with pushing with batons, then whacking with batons, then pepper spray, then tazers.  So, good news, no tear gas.  Bad news, tazers.  I hate tazers, hate their very existence and especially their use on unarmed, peaceful people.  And I don't trust that the cops are going to methodically go through various "gentler" methods of controlling crowds before getting jiggy with the electricity and chemical warfare.  Our group is committed to staying "green," meaning, getting out of any area that seems to be getting hot long before any of these kinds of tactics are used.  But, then again, Jason and I were simply standing in a cross-walk last year when all the madness went down, so you simply never know.  As Rain said, "What about going for an escalation of intelligence, instead?"

As for myself, I'm not interested in putting on a helmet and football pads and throwing myself at a bunch of cops.  In fact, one of the thing that bugs me about all these protests is how much focus there is on cops.  I don't care about cops.  I don't need to educate them, to help them see the errors of their ways, to push against them as agents of the machine, or anything like that.  I'm interested in the people -- in the parking garage attendant I spoke with today, the nice manager at McDonalds that let us use her "customers only" bathroom even though we refused to buy anything there, the driver of the French ambassadors who told me about taking his clients to the local strip clubs and being paid per customer by the club itself for doing so, and the local labor union organizer who told me a story about doing an anti-war action in the sixties that started like this: "So, there were four or five of us all dressed up like the Viet Cong, with masks over our faces, and we went into a local government office and were running all over the place with these toy assault rifles... Well, obviously the cops eventually caught us, so they threw us in the back of this van and took us down to jail..."

Toy assault rifles.  In a government building.  Running all over the place.  Can you imagine what would happen if we tried something like that today?  We can't even find a place to park a bus. 

Anyway, it was a good day that ended with chocolate torte out on the balcony, people chatting idly about gender and power dynamics yet again and recounting tales of protests long past and what they'd heard on the news about the security zones tomorrow and the Greenpeace Banner Drop that ended in 14 arrests.  Now Aaron (from Teen Earth Magic fame) is here, talking about how different progressive groups are treated by the public and government -- the street protesters, the student co-eds flash-mobs, the Al Gore concert-goers, the Labor Unions.  All of us a motley crew, but in a hierarchy of respectability and marginalization... Seems like an interesting topic to pursue before cuddling up on the thermarest with Scarecrow, who's already turned away from all of the blah-blah-blah and turned in.  On second thought, maybe I'll skip the marginalization of protestors chat.  After all, there's always tomorrow, and getting my cuddle on seems a little more appealing at the moment.

Until then!

PS - I reread yesterday's post and was horrified at the amount of typos in it.  Please forgive my sleepy, stressed out little brain and its inability to conform to proper English standards at times like these.  I'm usually quite put together and capable in that regard.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tuesday in Pittsburgh

I'm here in Anne’s house in Pittsburgh, a packed and messy little place just outside of a nice cafĂ©-kinda neighborhood.  It’s been an up-and-down kind of day.  Ever since we’ve gotten here to Pittsburgh, and for several weeks leading up to this week, the City has been involved in an amazingly effective campaign of denying permits, changing their minds on decisions and permits given, and routine police harassment that has hindered and hacked away at the infrastructure of our organizing.  It feels disorganized here, disjointed, even among the pagan cluster that I love so much there are fine lines of fracture in our communicating and planning.  The Three Rivers Climate Change Group, who created the beautiful messaging and posters that inspired me to come out here, seems to have surrendered after their belongings were taken by the police in the middle of the night from the park they’d been granted by the City.

And Seeds of Peace... Wow... Seeds of Peace.  It’s a saga.  Since they arrived in town last week, there bus was impounded for a minor parking violation, released, moved to a location on private property where it was later swarmed by police who eventually bullied the elderly man who owned the land to ask them to leave.  One woman, who FAWCers know as Thea, was jailed for giving her nickname instead of her legal name when asked by an officer, and held in jail for five days for her egregious crime.  On their way to their next location (also on private property), they were pulled over by the police and surrounded by twenty-some police vehicles, held for hours, and then told that could not move their bus without a special license and yet had to move it from where it was.  Miraculously, the Seeds people managed to find a local Pittsburghian with the special license to move their bus, only to soon be thrown out of that location by the owner who had been bullied by the police who claimed that neighbors were complaining about being scared because of all the commotion — meaning, the police activity of the day before.   Finally, the ACLU decided to take action and file an injunction against the police to attempt to keep them from being able to use these kinds of harassment scare-tactics on us.  

We decided to head out that morning to go to court to hear about the injunction and support Seeds, but before that, it was time to get out and mix it up a little bit.  We woke up and went out into the streets for the first time, carrying banners and making altars to coal out in front of the places that the participants of the International Coal Conference were meeting at, singing songs, chanting.  Much of the time it was fairly mellow, almost like a family get together of activists in the streets, because the ICC participants really didn’t care much that we were there and the cops didn’t, either.   And maybe it wasn’t about the ICC participants, or the cops, anyway.  Maybe it was really to be working the kind of magic that happens in the streets... The magic of community/tribe working for earth healing.   You can see a little video of it here.

Anyway, all was fine until we entered the fortress.  Now, I hadn’t gone on any of the scouting missions, so when I heard about this idea of a fortress in the middle of the City of Pittsburgh, I’ll admit it, I kind of thought people were exaggerating.  Until I went there.

This picture, as cool as it is, does not do it justice, because it doesn’t show you that the spire of black plate glass stretching tall and foreboding into the sky is simply one of five or six buildings made of black plate glass surrounding a small plaza, just like a castle of some evil king in a post-apocalyptic fantasy movie of some sort.  The whole thing reeks of dark concentrated power, of death.  It’s one of the most frightening places I’ve ever been, in terms of its appearance and architecture. 

So of course, we had to go there to do a ritual — right into the belly of the beast.  We walked over to the plaza, circled up, and lay our altar on the ground.  And that’s about all we had time to do, for in seconds, there were fifty cops in riot gear there, their energy bristled and hot, ready for battle.  It was intense.  Clearly, the PPG fortress is one place they will not allow us to protest at, which is ironic, because although it felt personally meaningful to be there it really wasn’t a place where we’d get much participation or witness from folks on the street.  We flowed away through a sliver of sidewalk winding its way through the far end of the fortress walls, the cops’ shouts ringing in our ears.  I didn’t want to feel like I was running away with my tail between my legs, and I also really didn’t want to encounter some sort of violent episode, and was especially keen not to get arrested — especially so early in the week.  So I let myself be pulled away by the flow of people leaving the strange castle of glass into the dirty downtown streets, moved out and away. 

Besides, it was time to go to court.  Court is a hard place to be.  The whole time we were there, the bailiff, who literally looked like an English Bulldog with an upside-down u for a mouth, stared at us with hostility clear in his eyes.  The judge looked bored enough to be asleep, which he probably was, having already made his decision to ignore our request for help before we’d ever stepped foot into the room.  Next to me sat a red-haired Seeds woman and her partner, both young, perhaps young enough to be at Teen Earth Magic.  I kept peeking over at her as the witnesses recounted their stories about the cops coming in the middle of the night with weapons and no warrants, moving the bus again and again, being stopped and searched without probable cause, the whole thing.  I wanted to take her into my arms, to protect her, which I can’t do.  I can’t do it because I’m not able to protect her or anybody else, and also because she has made this choice just as I have, and I have to respect her and everyone else who here’s decisions to do what is best for them.  But I can’t help wanting to, just the same.

The judge ruled against us, as we knew he would, saying that although there may have been violations of constitutional rights in the past couple of days, it wasn’t up to him to worry about that.  His worry was about whether or not the police’s actions were causing “irreparable harm,” which apparently the City’s harassment and willful attack on our organizing is not (this isn’t, however, quite as impressive as his last ruling, which was that the advance of modern technology gives activists other ways to speak publicly and, therefore, restricting their proximity to the summit won't violate the First Amendment right to protest...meaning, we can email and blog-o-sphere our hearts out about the g-20, so who cares whether or not we can get within three miles of the place where the actual representatives — those who make decisions -- are?).   As we walked out of the court room, literally as we walked out of the room and had not yet even gotten to the hallway, we received a phone call from the folks at the Seeds of Peace busses.  The cops were now at their third location (a church), demanding to speak to the property owner and asking about dog tags and some such things.  They had obviously been waiting for a call from their own people telling them that the judge had denied the injunction.

Luckily, the Seeds people and church pastor managed to get the police of off their backs for a bit, which was lucky not only for them but for me... I was getting quite hungry, and after all, these are our food people.  In spite of all of the madness, they had lunch waiting for us at Point State Park when we got there.  Feeling a bit tired of court and cops and all of that, we sat down on the rainy-moist grass and ate lunch with the Code Pink folks, and then went our separate ways for a little while before meeting up again for dinner. 

I hate to say that they are winning, and of course there are many ways in which they are not — the magic, the community building, the experiences I’m having that can’t be taken away.  But there is a way in which they are.  The people who want to come here to protest have had their food threatened, their sleeping spaces revoked and denied, their physical and emotional health attacked.  Even during some of my fun moments I find myself wondering what I’m doing out here.  I want to do good work.  I want to help bring in the Great Turning.  I’m not sure if anything we do here actually matters — but I also don’t know what else to do, so I’m here.   All I can do in this moment, so late in the East-Coast time zone, which I am NOT used to, is give it up to prayer and faith and see what happens in the coming days.  I can feel, in spite of all of this, a glimmer of hope for the days ahead.  I don’t even know what exactly to hope for — I just sense the turning of the tide.  Guess that’ll have to be enough for now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
-- Derrick Jensen, "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change."
      Derrick Jensen is a man who's words have rippled through the environmental movement like a virus, leaving us unable to determine whether or not the man is more a blessing or a curse.  During the JM intensive, I took to reading his book, Endgame, which is a work that is about as depressing as the title sounds.  One of the main premises of the work (there are twenty three) is that "Civilization is not redeemable."  Another is that "Love does not imply pacifism."  I think I was attracted to his anger, because anger is hard for me to access within myself and hard for me to understand when others express it in ways that are not loving or pacifist.   One hundred and something pages into the book, with a thousand or so more to go, I found myself enshrouded in a gray cloak of dullness and dispassion.   I told Joanna about it, and she told me not to take Jensen too seriously.  "You've got to take that man with a grain of salt.  What Derrick Jensen has always needed was a good editor," she said. 

    But this post isn't really about Jensen (although I do think that the article quoted above is a very good read and am not ashamed to plug it one bit).  It's about dumpster diving.  Now, I'm not insane enough to believe that dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that it can stop the corporations or agri-business industry or anything of the other big baddies of the world.  After all, the trash that is rebirthed back into food through dumpster diving comes from those corporations and the agri-business industry.  However, it seems to me that after a couple of weeks of diving that it can provide for many of my food needs in a way that reduces the amount of money (and life-force energy) that I pump into the IGS, and that it helps reduce waste.
    Moreover, I think its one of the best adventures I've engaged in in the urban world for quite some time.
    I'd heard about dumpster divers for years, and for the most part, have found the practice to be only somewhat shy of disgusting.  My mother (who is a devout reader of this blog) instilled in me a distinct wariness of possibly tainted foods, quite possibly because she contracted salmonella sometime very near the day of my birth.  We were always a family, in my memory, that was very concerned about how chicken was prepared, and what if there was any way it might have touched anything during its raw state.  Dishwashing was done with distinct fastidiousness or you'd be doing it again.   Suspicious milk was immediately released down the drain, no questions asked.
    But in my "adult" life, if one can call it that, things have changed slowly for me.  Part of that has to do with my love of Temporary Autonomous Zones, a term coined by anarchist Hakim Bey, which has to do with the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control.   Here's just a tidbit to whet your appetite:
The T.A.Z is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it... Participants in insurrection invariably note its festive aspects, even in the midst of armed struggle, danger, and risk. The uprising is like a saturnalia which has slipped loose (or been forced to vanish) from its intercalary interval and is now at liberty to pop up anywhere or when. 
--Hakim Bey,  Temporary Autonomous Zones (Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism)   
    My experiences at "loosened saturnalias" such as Burning Man, Free Activist Witchcamp, Common Ground in New Orleans, and the like, started to chip away at my attachment to utterly unblemished, pristine foods and food preparation (one more quick side note -- Penny Livingston Stark, with whom I did my Permaculture Training with, often said that we needed to dump all of the doomed-humanity talk and instead talk about "sustainable hedonism."  I love that idea -- and it definitely seems on the same wavelength as Bey's "loosened saturnalias."). 
    Anyway, at some point last year, I realized that I'd eaten tons of dumpstered food -- I simply hadn't been involved in the dirty work of dumpstering it.  The straw that broke the camel's back was when Jason and I were shopping for organic yogurt and found ourselves face-to-face with a young, pimply, and rather arrogant grocery store clerk who was determined to toss the tubs we were considering purchasing into a large trash can in the middle of the aisle.  Apparently they'd reached their "sell-by" date, which might also be considered their date of execution.
    We asked him if we could have the yogurt, rather than see them go into the trash.  He refused.
   "Are you telling me that if we'd come into this store ten minutes ago, we could have bought this yogurt for four dollars, but now we can't buy it or take it for free because it has to go into the trash?" Jason asked, his face getting that dark glowering look that I like so much -- as long as it isn't directed at me.  The grocery store clerk wasn't daunted, however.  He simply ignored us and continued to toss the tubs of yogurt into the gray trash can.
   Growling, Jason took my hand and marched from the store in a way that stated, quite clearly, that they would never get a dime of his money ever again.  We hopped into the car, looked at one another, and then drove around to the back of the store and waited.  That yogurt, we were determined, would be ours.
    Since then, Jason and I have started to become dumpster-diving addicts.  I can't pass a store these days without wondering where the dumpster is, if its locked, and if its better to try and hit it up during the day or at night.  He's the same way.  Just yesterday, walking down to a little organic shop to get some ice cream with a friend for her birthday, I saw him slow up as we got near the doors, appearing for all the world to be reading a flier posted up on a telephone pole -- which just happened to be right next  to the large, rectangular, slightly-smelly green coffer of abandoned goods one can always find somewhere in the outlying perimeter of a grocery store.  Smiling, I asked him if he needed me to give him a hand with anything.  Oh no, he said.  He was perfectly able and willing to do a little scoping while we did our scooping.
    That dumpster turned out to be a bit of a bust, but a subsequent birthday jaunt yielded some valuable information about a different local independent grocery store -- it just so happens that they set out their white "compostables" dumpster on Sunday nights.  Quite nearly the Holy Grail of the diving world.  One little peek inside revealed a whole case of slightly-soft tomatoes, a gaggle of green beans, some apparently-alright avocados, and numerous loaves of wrapped fresh bread. 
    So that night, in spite of the fact that our refrigerator was already quite full of perishable edibles, we decided to hit up the new spots in addition to our most reliable donor, which just so happens to be our neighborhood Trader Joe's.  I had to stop buying food from TJ's some years ago when I realized that the amount of plastic they use to wrap things that in no way need to be wrapped -- such as broccoli -- could rival the Great Garbage Patch, an island twice the size of Texas currently floating in the Pacific Ocean that's made up of cola bottles and shoes and wrappers and bags.  But the very quality of over-wrapping that made me give up purchasing food at TJs has made it the perfect fledgling-dive spot for a woman who's ick-to-"I'm-out" ratio is rather small.  Our kitchen is filled with dried bananas (once fresh), melons of many varieties, artisan breads, baking products, and various types of berries collected from their trash.
   This was the first night that we've ever brought along anyone other than our two selves, and also, coincidentally or not, the first night that we've ever been caught by the staff.  My friend Erin was waiting in the car, breastfeeding her little baby Bella (who is a freegan of the best sort), when suddenly the door to the trash bin area opened and two TJ workers stumbled upon Jason and me, he holding up a box of countless figs, me shaking my head no and going in for a second dive in hopes of another bottle of vanilla extract (can you really ever have too much?).
     It was an uncomfortable moment.  I mumbled something about needing boxes for moving.  Jason, not hearing my embarrassed mumbles, rumbled something about looking for food.  The TJ guys blinked, clearly surprised to find people in their bin area.  Finally, the one wearing a white beanie asked, slightly incredulously, "Are you guys dumpster diving?"
   "Um... yeah," I said.  "I guess so."  I felt amazingly ashamed, and found myself wanting to tell him that we weren't poor, we're simply anarchists.  On the one hand, it's true that we're unlikely dumpsterers -- Jason runs his own contracting business, and I have a successful massage therapist practice.  Erin is married to a successful software engineer.  All said and done, we each take numerous vacations a year and have it relatively easy where eating and survival are concerned.  On the other hand, it doesn't matter what we do for a living or how often we travel, because no matter what, there is no reason to be ashamed.  If anyone should be ashamed, it's Trader Joes, throwing out as much food as they do when there are so many people who go hungry in this world.  As many smarter people have said before me, starvation has much more to do with political will than scarcity of food.   If I didn't know that viscerally before, I certainly do.  This is the other side of abundance, the abundance that blends into excess.
   "That's so cool!"  Beanie Joe smiled.   His co-worker, slightly stockier, wore a wary expression that  clearly expressed that he didn't find it nearly so cool.  Either not caring or not seeing him, Beanie Joe went on, "I always want to keep the stuff that we're throwing away, and sometimes I try to, but if they find out they'll fire me, so..."
   "Yeah, we're, uh, not supposed to let anyone be back here," Stocky Joe said. 
    "Well, maybe we can just go around the corner for a bit and let you guys do what you're going to do, then," I said.  "We don't want you to get in trouble."
   That seemed to pacify Stocky Joe, so we did just that.  As we waited, I began to get worried about Erin and Bella, who didn't know what was going on -- it was taking he Joes quite some time to finish dealing withthe trash.
    Finally, once all was quiet on the dumpster front, we headed back.  I stopped by the car first, where Bella was still contentedly suckling at Erin's breast.  Erin said that the two guys had been by and had brought some eggs with them, which they were worried would be broken in the fall into the dumpster.  One, and I can only guess it was Beanie Joe, had asked us not to take all the flowers because he wanted to bring some home to his girl.  Like we can possibly bring all the flowers, I thought, once we headed back in to collect the last of the night's loot.  Inside the dumpster were lawn-bags full of cut blooms: roses, orchids, gerber daises, dahlias.
   We had so much food after our Trader Joes stop that it was apparent, even to our adventure-hungry hearts that there was no point in going to the compostables dumpster on Piedmont that had kindled the evening's adventure: our three green cloth bags and the milk crate we keep in the car (along with our rubber gloves) just for these occasions were full, and our refrigerator and freezer at home were near to bursting as it was.  Alas.  So, leaving it for another day, we jumped back into the car and started for home.
    As we headed out of Rockridge, I spotted a white dumpster by the Bart station -- peering more closely, I read that it was, indeed, another Compostables.  Sighing to myself, I mentally noted its location and turned back to the road. After all, really, we already had too much food. 
    Jason was laughing.
    "You saw it, too?" I said.
    He nodded.  "Couldn't miss it," he said.