Monday, October 19, 2009

revolution! we are in the midst of a great turning and it is an auspicious time to be alive

From Ascent Magazine

adam avruskin
The revolutionary movement for sustaining life is unfolding and blossoming here and now. In fact, it is inevitable and exactly what we are made for. This is the message from Joanna Macy, long-time activist, Buddhist scholar and philosopher of general systems theory and deep ecology. Through empathy and compassion — connecting with ourselves and others — we are consciously turning a critical, troubled time in the history of humankind into a life-enriching and life-sustaining interrelationship with the world. As Joanna puts it, it is now a time when it really matters what we think and how we act because our survival depends on it.
I first heard about Joanna during my travels in Australia in the late 1980s. I was staying at a small communal farm nestled in the tropical rainforest, planting and harvesting organic food and hand-building mud-brick houses. One day we engaged in A Council of All Beings, an illuminating ritual designed by Joanna and Australian rainforest activist John Seed to enhance connection with the earth and all of life. It is deep ecology through direct experience. We explored letting go of our human-centred awareness and experimented with empathically opening to the interconnectedness of all beings.
Following a guide familiar with the process, we acted out the evolutionary journey of this planet and opened to the joy and pain of the beings with whom we share this earth. The exercises had us identify with a sentient being of our choice — butterfly or dolphin, for example — and we explored the world from that perspective. The day culminated with each of us wearing a handmade mask that we’d crafted with natural materials to represent our chosen creature — a heartfelt rendering of the suffering experienced by myriad species that face a world polluted with so many toxins.
Despair and fear are among the emotional toxins that Joanna helps others transform through compassion, connection and action. She leads workshops worldwide that use Buddhist teachings and the wisdom of living systems theory to inspire people to connect with their feelings and needs, explore impermanence, experience interdependence and develop creative collaborations to sustain life.
Through her books and workshops, Joanna reminds us that we change as we change the world, that the world is in us and we are in it. The old paradigm way of thinking that says we must choose between addressing our own suffering or addressing the suffering of the world is now torn open and seen as the illusion that it always was.
Joanna Macy’s book World As Lover, World As Self has recently been re-released with new material by Parallax Press (2007). Her other books include Coming Back To Life: Practices to Reconnect our Lives, Our World; Rilke’s Book of Hours, which she translated with Anita Barrows; and her memoir, Widening Circles. I spoke with Joanna at her home in Berkeley, California.


John Malkin Joanna Macy, I am very pleased to be here with you in person.
Joanna Macy It is a delight. Welcome to my home.
John You have said that we are living in a time of a Great Turning. You call it the third turning of the wheel of dharma, a time when we are experiencing a revolutionary shift from a society based on industrial growth to one based on life sustainability. What evidence makes you feel that this shift is occurring and how is this view different from simply having hope?
Joanna I am so glad that you are starting with that because the concept of Great Turning has been of enormous help to me and my colleagues around the world, particularly at a moment when, on the surface of things, there is so much bad news and many setbacks. Environmental controls are being eroded, military contracts are being awarded and preemptive war is the order of the day.
Many great thinkers of our era have been teachers to me. They see that we are in the midst of a revolution that is as significant in its magnitude as two other recent revolutions. One is the agricultural revolution, which took centuries; and much later came the industrial revolution, which was quicker. Now, right on the heels of those revolutions, comes this revolution.
John Why is the current revolution inevitable?
Joanna It is inevitable because the industrial growth society is not sustainable. We are already on overshoot, as we say in systems thinking. Or, it is a “runaway system,” where we have already exceeded the renewable limits of the resources and have already exceeded the capacity to absorb the wastes that we have dumped into air, soil, water and earth. So we have just a little time left. We cannot continue at this rate.
Then we can look around and see that this revolution is happening particularly in certain dimensions. It has been useful to think of them in three dimensions. The first is in the holding actions to slow the damage, what many people think of as activism. The second is in the new institutions, such as organic farming and alternative health care. And finally, the third dimension is the perceptual shift in consciousness.
This revolution is happening and we don’t know if it will succeed or not. And that is a very useful thing to confront and recognize right on. There are no guarantees in life. And we don’t know if the systems that sustain life will unravel, thanks to our assaults upon them, before the life-sustaining society structures really are set in place. But that is always the case. When you put seeds in the ground, you don’t know if you are going to have a bumper crop. Or if you go into labour, you don’t know if you are going to have a healthy baby. So we have this enormous privilege in our time of being alive in a historical moment when what we do — how we relate, how we think, how we move ourselves about — has enormous effects. That is a great gift. A sense of meaning for our lives is right there and is something quite grand.
I just want to tell you this quote I heard the other day: “The essence of an adventure is not to know the outcome. The essence of a joyous adventure is not to need to know the outcome.” This is the great adventure of our time and it can transform every part of our life. And in the meanwhile, our hearts break all over the place, as we see the huge losses that are being incurred. We can’t stop those losses. We can’t stop all of them, so our hearts are breaking, our minds are opening, and our hearts are opening. We are weaving connections for the future.
John Many people seem to have become depressed and afraid, particularly since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Many people agree that there has been a lot of destruction and dysfunction in our world, in our social, economic and ecological structures. We don’t know if we are going to manage through this. That in itself creates a lot of fear and distress in people and there can be the idea that it is too late to reverse the destruction of the earth. What do we do with that feeling?
Joanna We can realize that our very sorrow for the world, our dread for what might happen for the future beings and for our children and their children, our outrage at what is happening — all of these, which I summarize as “our pain for the world,” are actually evidence of our interconnectedness. Otherwise we wouldn’t care so much.
Now the mainstream thinking would have us privatize this grief and think that we are personally maladjusted or something. But this grief actually springs from deep caring. It is a shift that happens when you realize your sadness, the depth of sorrow — my God, what we’re doing to each other! Look how we are deregulating clean air acts and pumping poisons into the atmosphere, creating so many hundred thousand more cases of bronchitis.
To even feel a little grief is actually good news for you because it shows that you are not sealed off. You are not morally autistic. It matters to you. You are capable of suffering with your world. In every spiritual tradition the capacity to “suffer with” — the literal meaning of compassion — is honoured.
John But how do we know when to reach deeper into one’s own pain and into the pain of the world around us or when to let go of that and move on? I think that in our culture, we are particularly conditioned to want to push away the painful experiences and try to have as many pleasurable experiences as possible.
Joanna The only thing to watch out for here is if you’re afraid of the pain. That is where you get into trouble. It is not that you should be actively seeking to feel lousy about our prospects and to sink into the bottomless pit of sorrow. But you have to keep on going. You acknowledge that it is there without being afraid of it. I would say using the breath, the breathing through, helps a great deal. I always teach that in my books and in my workshops.
This is a time to stay present to what’s happening in our world, and it is really hard to do alone. We are social animals and now more then ever, we need each other. We need that companionship on the way, to help us know that we’re not crazy.
John There seems almost to be a crisis in knowing what truth is now. This is accompanied by the idea that, “Well, I don’t know if this effort I am making will see success anyway.” You touched on that earlier, with a lot of the work that we do to end suffering, we don’t know how it will turn out. Also, I think of Gandhi. He entitled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He viewed life as an experiment without knowing what will happen.
Joanna You don’t need to know. Don’t you find it really boring to hang out with people who think they have the answer? I mean, what is duller than that? Curiosity enlivens us and we cannot be genuinely curious if we think we know it all.
I have a friend who says, “Things seem to be getting worse and worse and better and better, faster and faster.” Well, as things get worse and worse, there is a temptation to get absolutely furious at the people in power who are making decisions that bring so much suffering. Or who are buying the politicians. There is a tendency to demonize them and I want to acknowledge how grateful I am to the Buddhadharma for offering me ways of being able to look at the perpetrators of great suffering and not demonize them.
The roots of suffering are not this person, this politician, this CEO or this terrorist or whatever! The roots of suffering are mistakes the mind makes. They are delusion, ignorance, craving and hatred. That has been such a huge teaching in its resonance, in my life and the lives of so many colleagues. Especially when you see how, in our time, there are institutionalized forms of greed, hatred and delusion. And they are powerful. But they’re not flesh and blood.
John There is still a dominant tendency in activism or in political change to attempt to remove those in power with the intention of gaining power to use that power better.
Joanna You bet! That is called “turning over the dung heap”! (Laughter)
John (Laughter)
Joanna Everything will be great, just put me in there, too! But it is the structures that need change. You get into the way it is structured, the rules of the game. Now, in the rules of the industrial growth society, if the CEO of a corporation tries to make decisions based on the sustainability of his raw materials, he can be ousted by the shareholders.
As we see in the Great Turning, this is one of the most ingeniously inventive times of our whole human story. There are so many new structures and perspectives that are springing up. And at the same time, there is such a radical extension of self-interest. People in every line of work — from radiologists and anti-nuclear activists, to permaculturists, farmers and the economists with their alternative currencies — are taking part in this great adventure of the revolution of our time.
John You are speaking about a very different sort of revolution than people were talking about fifty years ago. The idea of revolution is changing. Along with that, ideas about power are changing. You wrote, and I really appreciate this, “Power adheres not in any entity, but in the relationship between entities.”
Joanna Oh, you got it! The revolution in our time is a cognitive one as well as a spiritual one. That is why I got so excited about general systems theory. It reveals that, in terms of our intellectual understanding of how reality is structured, we are shifting from a “stuff” based view of reality to a process view. It is like shifting from noun to verb. The same thing happened at the time of the Buddha. That is why he didn’t want to get stuck on whether you have an atman or not, whether you have a permanent self or not. He said, “We are process. Karma. We are something happening.” Karma means action. We are action. Power occurs as we act and it occurs when we relate. It is very liberating!
John There can be the view that one must choose between “being” and “doing” or between being active in social change or involved in spiritual growth, or addressing our own suffering versus addressing the suffering of the world. I think that there is a similar dichotomy present between beliefs in science versus religion or mind over matter. Do you think there is a possibility of a third, combined, non-dualistic way of viewing and living in the world?
Joanna Well, that is one of the exciting things about being alive right now. That old dichotomy has been breached. It is so boring, anyway! (Laughter) There were years and years where there was debate whether it was more important to get enlightened first or get psychoanalyzed first or get your head straight first before you took action, before you climbed in the barricades. Or vice versa: “I must stand on the barricades first in order to earn the right to focus on myself. I have to take care of these terrible injustices. I can’t have any rest while there are still the homeless on the streets, and then I can sit on the zafu.”
I think these ideas are tragic and that this kind of polarization has turned a lot of people from doing either well. The Great Turning helps me to see that the truth is that you have to do both. And in a way, you have to do both at the same time. At least not see them as sequential, that you do one first.
This revolution we are in takes all of these norms and shakes them up and intermingles them so that you don’t know when you take an action whether you are going to be finding yourself in the midst of great mysterious awakening when you are just going out to collect signatures for a petition. The change is so deep and it will affect every part of our lives. It won’t be easy, but it won’t be all that hard because a different kind of strength comes through us.
John Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both embraced social change and spiritual practice. King spoke of an “inescapable network of mutuality.” In Buddhism this is referred to as mutual causality or interdependence. Can you explain a little bit of what that view is?
Joanna It is really so radically new for us. It actually is the view that indigenous peoples and all humans have had — in our pre-industrial, pre-imperial, and actually perhaps, pre-patriarchal times — in seeing the natural world and ourselves as parts of each other. We are intricately, actively and organically interrelated as one body. It is like seeing that this world, which seems to be made up of all these separate entities, is actually connected through invisible relationships. These relationships are invisible to the physical eye. Just as an ecosystem is invisible to the physical eye, so is a society. The aspects that make it a society are invisible to the eye.
Interdependence, that view of the Buddha and of the systems thinkers, invites us to see the web of life in which we cohere and to honour it, to live according to its laws, because there are laws. “As we do unto others, so it is done unto us.” And this isn’t just some nice old wives’ axiom or moral. That is actually the way it works. It is the way an ecosystem works; what you do to others happens to you. We are not aloof from what we do. In my workshops, we get into the question of “What is a living system?” It is a process, a dance. Like a whirlpool or a flame, it is in constant transformation. An image that we use a great deal is that we are like a nerve cell in a neural net. So then, as living systems, we are in constant change, thanks to our relationships. There is a constant flow-through of matter, energy and information. It is a physical flow-through and a mental flow-through. And we discover that we are conditioning each other all of the time. This is true of life; it is reciprocal.
Once we understand it, this has immediate psychological effects on our notion of self-interest. My self-interest can’t possibly end with my skin. When we exterminate or contaminate places like the Amazonian rain basin or San Francisco Bay, we are doing that to ourselves. This is the heart of the spiritual, intellectual adventure of our time. We are waking up to the vastness of our mutual belonging, and the vastness of the mind that is available to us in that opening.
John Why is it still worthwhile to cultivate a relationship with the “world as lover,” to “fall in love with the world,” as you put it? How do we do that?
Joanna Well, I think that we’re made for it, for one thing. I think that we are built to take delight in our world with our senses of sight, smell and touch. We have tremendous capacity to connect with each other and the world around us. And we’re miserable when we don’t. It is hard to connect when you are scared. This is the great tragedy of fear.
We must not fall prey to wanting to exempt ourselves from pain or think that we should be feeling great or on top of the world all of the time. Not that I want us to wallow in suffering, but just to see that our very grief is an evidence of our love. It is the other side of the coin. Our pain and love for the world, and our reverence for life and our grief over it is present.
How can we toss in the sponge? Who are we to say it is too late? Who are we, with our finitude and discouragement and our grumpy moods and our bleeding hearts? Just look at today’s news, oh my God! But there is something huge happening for life and if we free ourselves from being dependent on the visible results of our own actions, and just take part in the dance to offer what we can, with curiosity and gladness for the opportunity — then, well, that’s enough for me.
Learn more about the systems of thought that influence Joanna Macy's work: Deep Ecology and Human Systems Theory

deep ecology

At the root of Deep Ecology is the Buddhist-inspired notion of the “ecological self,” an expanded identity beyond skin and ego. The basic idea is that the human identity can widen to encapsulate the people, city and world around us. Deep Ecology is a term that was coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the 1970s. It marked a departure from traditional environmentalism in that Deep Ecology aimed to identify root causes of the environmental crisis, rather than the symptoms. Other leading thinkers in the Deep Ecology movement include Bill Devall and George Sessions. The Deep Ecology approach encourages humans to look deeply at their sense of human superiority, or “anthropocentrism.” As a philosophical movement, Deep Ecology has been condensed into eight main principles, which call on humanity to not jeopardize the richness and diversity of other life-forms except to satisfy vital human needs. Joanna Macy and rainforest activist John Seed have applied Deep Ecology on an experiential level, to help people uncover and feel their wider identity with the living world, and in so doing find their power to act on the world’s — or the eco-self’s — behalf.

living systems theory

(also known as general systems theory, systems theory or cybernetics)
Systems Theory developed out of biology, through observation of the biosphere and ecological relationships as wholes, interrelated patterns and flows of energy, rather than disconnected parts that act upon each other. The founder of System’s Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, called it “a way of seeing.” Systems Theory is now used prevalently in the social sciences as well as the sciences to describe psychological, social and other systems. In essence, Systems Theory outlines four characteristics of living systems:
  1. living systems are wholes that are not reducible to their components (the qualities of water are different than those of oxygen and hydrogen)
  2. they are self-balancing and self-regulating
  3. they evolve in complexity
  4. each system is a holon: a whole within
    a larger whole
One of the most famous applications of Systems Theory was James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, which in the 1970s demonstrated how the earth’s atmosphere is a living system which self-regulates as an intelligent organism. As Joanna Macy puts it, “The Earth is alive, mind is pervasive, all beings are our relations. This realization changes everything. It changes our perceptions of who we are and what we need, and how we can trustfully act together for a decent, noble future.”
1 Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life, p. 40
— Rebekah Hart


The Silence of the Stars

When Laurens van der Post one night
In the Kalihari Desert told the Bushmen
He couldn't hear the stars
Singing, they didn't believe him.  They looked at him,
Half-smiling.  They examined his face
To see whether he was joking
Or deceiving them.  Then two of those small men
Who plant nothing, who have almost
Nothing to hunt, who live
On almost nothing, and with no one
But themselves, led him away
From the crackling thorn-scrub fire
And stood with him under the night sky
And listened.  One of them whispered,
Do you not hear them now?
And van der Post listened, not wanting
To disbelieve, but had to answer,
No.  They walked him slowly
Like a sick man to the small dim
Circle of firelight and told him
They were terribly sorry,
And he felt even sorrier
For himself and blamed his ancestors
For their strange loss of hearing,
Which was his loss now.  On some clear nights
When nearby houses have turned off their visions,
When the traffic dwindles, when through streets
Are between sirens and the jets overhead
Are between crossings, when the wind
Is hanging fire in the fir trees,
And the long-eared owl in the neighboring grove
Between calls is regarding his own darkness,
I look at the stars again as I first did
To school myself in the names of constellations
And remember my first sense of their terrible distance,
I can still hear what I thought
At the edge of silence where the inside jokes
Of my heartbeat, my arterial traffic,
The C above high C of my inner ear, myself
Tunelessly humming, but now I know what they are:
My fair share of the music of the spheres
And clusters of ripening stars,
Of the songs from the throats of the old gods
Still tending even tone-deaf creatures
Through their exiles in the desert.

~ David Wagone

Do you hear them?  Sometimes, out there in the back country, I think I might.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Police Are Rioting by David Rovics

(from Songwriters's Notebook, David's personal blog) 
If any elements of the corporate media have been paying any attention to what's been happening on the streets of Pittsburgh over the past few days I haven't noticed, so I thought I'd write my own account.

There is a popular assumption asserted ad nauseum by our leaders in government, by our school text books and by our “mainstream” media that although many other countries don't have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly – such as Iran or China – we do, and it's what makes us so great. Anybody who has spent much time trying to exercise their First Amendment rights in the US now or at any other time since 1776 knows first-hand that the First Amendment looks good on paper but has little to do with reality.

Dissent has never really been tolerated in the USA. As we've seen in recent election cycles even just voting for a Democratic presidential candidate and having your vote count can be quite a challenge – as anyone who has not had their head in sand knows, Bush lost both elections and yet kept his office fraudulently twice. But for those who want to exercise their rights beyond the government-approved methods – that is, their right to vote for one of two parties, their right to bribe politicians (“lobby”) if they have enough money, or their right to write a letter to the editor in the local Murdoch-owned rag, if it hasn't closed shop yet – the situation is far worse.

Let's go back in history for a minute. After the victory of the colonies over Britain in the Revolutionary War, the much-heralded US Constitution included no rights for citizens other than the rights of the landed gentry to run the show. This changed as a direct result of a years-long rebellion of the citizens of western Massachusetts that came to be known as Shays' Rebellion. Shays' Rebellion scared the pants off the powers-that-be and they did what the powers-that-be do and have always done all over the world – passed some reforms in order to avert a situation where the rich would lose more than just western Massachusetts. They passed the Bill of Rights.

Fast forward more than a century. Ostensibly this great democracy had had the Bill of Rights enshrined in law for quite a long time now. Yet in 1914 a supporter of labor unionism could not make a soapbox speech on a sidewalk in this country without being beaten and arrested by police for the crime of disturbing the peace, blocking the sidewalk or whatever other nonsense the cops made up at the time.

If you read the mainstream media of the day you would be likely to imagine that these labor agitators trying to give speeches on the sidewalks of Seattle or Los Angeles were madmen bent on the destruction of civilization. Yet it is as a direct result of these brave fighters that we have things like Social Security, a minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and other reforms that led, at least until the “Reagan Revolution,” to this country having a thriving middle class (the lofty term we use when we're referring to working class people who can afford to go to college and buy a house).

Reforms are won due to these struggles – proof over and over that democracy is, more than anything, in the streets. Yet the fundamental aspect of these social movements that have shaped our society – these social movements that have at least sometimes and to some degree ultimately been praised by the ruling clique and their institutions, such as the Civil Rights movement – freedom of speech and assembly, remain a criminal offense.

Fast forward another century to Pittsburgh, 2009. For those who may have thought that the criminalization of dissent was to be a hallmark of the Bush years, think again. Dissent was a criminal offense before Bush, and it quite evidently still is today.

I was born in 1967, so I can't comment first-hand on things that happened far from the suburbs where I grew up as a kid, but I can tell you unequivocally from direct experience that I have witnessed police riots before, during, and since the Bush years. Most recently, last Friday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (If you want to read about previous police riots I have witnessed go to

In a nutshell, here's how it went down. I drove to Pittsburgh from a gig in Allentown the night before, all the while listening to BBC, NPR, CNN, etc. on my satellite radio. Naturally, the coming G20 talks in Pittsburgh were in the news. The most powerful people in the world, the leaders of the world's richest nations, were meeting in Pittsburgh to decide the fate of the planet, to decide how to deal with the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and other crises caused by industrial capitalism gone mad, crises which affect each and every one of us intimately, crises about which many of us naturally want to do something – crises about which we would at least like to voice our concerns.

Notably absent from the news coverage is anything about the lawsuits that the ACLU had to file in order to force the local authorities to allow any demonstrations or marches to happen at all. Permits applied for months ago by state senators, peace groups, women's groups and others were only granted in the past couple weeks. Many other permits were never granted. It doesn't say anything about applying for a permit in the First Amendment, and in many other more democratic countries than ours no permit is required for citizens to assemble. In many European countries where I have spent a lot of time, if citizens choose to have an assembly in the streets the role of the police is to escort the march in order to divert traffic and keep things safe, and no permit is required. But not in the US – not in Philadelphia or Los Angeles in 2000, not in Miami in 2003, not in Denver or St. Paul in 2008 and not in Pittsburgh last week.

While various progressive organizations were trying hard to work with the intransigent authorities, other groups took the sensible (but – in the US – dangerous) position that this is supposed to be a democracy and we should not need to apply for a permit so that the authorities could tell us where and when we could and could not protest.

The first nonpermitted march that I heard about was Thursday afternoon. I should mention that I heard about it, but only with a certain amount of difficulty, because I and many other people I talked to in Pittsburgh were having strange problems with our cell phones, problems which started in whatever states we came from and continued in Pittsburgh right up until yesterday. People I talked to – friends and fellow engaged members of society such as Cindy Sheehan, Joshua White, Sarah Wellington and others – reported the same phenomenae. Every time one of us would receive a call we couldn't hear the callers, though we could hear our own voices echoing back to us. When we'd call back it usually would work then. Coincidence? Sure, maybe.

Reports I heard over the phone on Thursday from people I talked to were in between bouts of catching breath and running from the police. Reports on the local media (the only “mainstream” media doing any serious coverage of the protests, as usual, mainly because they were intimately connected to the traffic reports) said the police were “restrained” (what else are they supposed to be?) until the march reached a certain point, at which time it was declared to be an unlawful assembly and the crowd was “dispersed.” How? There was no mention.

Usually – and outrageously enough – whether in North America, Europe or other places I've been, if there's a meeting of the global elite happening you are not allowed in unless you're part of the gang or you're a lobbyist or a (officially-sanctioned) journalist. Usually a perimeter is formed by the police, Secret Service, FBI, and whichever other “intelligence” agencies are there, that you can't cross. This was also the case in Pittsburgh, but like Miami in 2003, St. Paul in 2008, and other occasions in recent years, the authorities were not just being “on the defensive” and maintaining a perimeter around the meetings. They were on the offensive.

If this happened in Iran or China it would be called martial law – but here in America we never have martial law, apparently, even when the military and the police are jointly patrolling the streets with armored vehicles and weapons of all descriptions and attacking people for the crime of being on the streets. Any gathering other than the permitted march (which was a great, festive march involving many thousands of participants from all walks of life, albeit with a ridiculously large, armored and menacing police “escort”) was declared an unlawful assembly and then attacked. I saw it myself on Thursday night and then again, much worse, on Friday night.

And what kind of unlawful assembly are we talking about? Hundreds of students and other folks, a few of whom may have broken a window or two at some point during the evening in the course of being pursued by violence-prone riot police, who were ultimately gathering on the grass on the campus of the university in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh. They had no weapons, they were unarmed, mostly youth, mostly college students from various parts of the country, along with perhaps an equal group of local college students, most of whom were just curious and didn't even have anything to do with the protests – many of whom in fact were just wondering what there is to protest about! They soon found out one thing to protest about – police brutality and active suppression of our Constitutional rights.

I have no doubt that the Pittsburgh police (and cops present from, of all places, Miami as well as other cities) will in the end have radicalized many local students who had previously been apolitical, and for this I applaud them.

On Friday night I went to a free concert a local community radio station was hosting on the campus. It ended around 8 pm. Over the course of the next two hours there were more and more riot cops arriving. Why? Because they knew what I knew – that a few hundred young folks were planning on gathering on the green at 10 pm, many of whom came by bicycle, after having engaged in a criminal, nonpermitted mass bike ride around the city. Around 9:30 I had to leave to go to a different neighborhood, and I returned in my rental car around 11 pm along with Cindy, Joshua and Sarah.

If the police had made announcements for everyone to disperse (as I'm sure they had at some point) we were too late for that. What we arrived in the midst of was a police riot. We parked on the street in front of the campus and walked on the sidewalk on the campus. Within seconds we saw a young man on a bicycle, a student at that very university, being violently tackled by two riot cops, thrown down to the ground with the police on top of him. All of the police all of the time were dressed in black armor head to toe, many of them driving armored vehicles. Earlier in the evening Cindy and Joshua and I were hanging around one of the armored vehicles while Cindy harassed the cops and soldiers strutting around there, telling them her son died in Iraq because he didn't have an armored vehicle like this one. (They studiously ignored her, of course.)

The young man with the two cops on top of him and his bicycle cried for help, perhaps not realizing that there wasn't much anyone could do other than take his name, which he was too freaked out to pronounce in a way that anybody could understand. Within seconds we found ourselves running from a group of cops, along with a bunch of young folks who had their hands in the air, hoping vainly that this might deter the police from attacking them. It didn't. Off the campus, a block away, police were running in groups in different directions, penning people in, throwing them to the ground, hitting them with clubs, handcuffing them and arresting them.

The four of us (an affinity group I suppose) got separated. Sarah and I were running and were about to be boxed in by police coming in different directions. After I was myself clubbed in the back by a cop with his truncheon, we ducked into the front of the lobby of the Holiday Inn and started talking with guests, other protesters, and various students who had also gone there because they were quite naturally afraid to be on the streets. Fifty feet away in either direction the police were assaulting and arresting people, individually and in small groups, picking them off the sidewalks.

Cindy and Joshua had ended up running in a different direction, through clouds of tear gas. They ducked around a corner just in time to watch dozens of young people, running away, being shot methodically with rubber-coated steel bullets in the back. One friend of mine there from Minneapolis said he saw someone who had ten welts on his back from being shot ten times. On both Thursday and Friday nights the authorities used their fancy new LRAD weapons, a sound-based weapon that causes people to flee because it hurts their eardrums so badly. (At future demos, look out for the noise-cancelling headphones accompanying the goggles...)

At every turn you could hear the sound of shocked students who had never seen or heard about this sort of thing happening, who were struggling to come to terms with what they were experiencing. They're just attacking anybody on or near the campus, they're not differentiating between us and the protesters! Some of them seemed to think that it might be OK to club protesters as long as you don't club the students, others had concluded that attacking people for hanging out on the grass was over the top regardless. (This is not an easy thing for a sorority girl from a wealthy suburb to come to terms with, so I was duly impressed at hearing these heretofore clueless youth having such epiphanies.) What was particularly entertaining was the first-hand realization that the local students could not themselves differentiate between “their” fellow students and the other ones who had come from out of town. How could they? It is, in fact, completely impossible to tell the difference between a college student from Pittsburgh and one from Toledo, even if they do have very different politics...

Eventually, by 1 am or so, Cindy and Joshua were able to move without being fired on, and they joined Sarah and I in the comfort of the patio at the Holiday Inn. The people who worked at the Inn, at least some of them, were trying to keep protesters out. The thing was, though, that if you could afford to buy a drink you were no longer a protester, but a guest of the bar, which is what we were. A little while before Cindy and Joshua arrived a convoy of limousines and other fancy cars pulled up in front of the hotel, and then security locked the doors. You could still go in or out, though, just not without security opening the doors for you.

We continued going in and out of the bar, passing by none other than Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia, and his entourage, who were all staying that night in the Holiday Inn (of all relatively downscale places to stay!) and watching some big Australian rugby match on TV. In our confusion at having just escaped the riot police only to find ourselves ten feet away from the Australian Prime Minister, Cindy, Joshua, Sarah and I were all at a complete loss as far as what we should say to the guy. We all talked a lot about what we could say, but by the time we were getting close to coming up with a plan he had gone to bed.

The next day, Saturday, I joined a couple dozen friends and acquaintances outside the county jail where people had spent the night, waiting to get out on bond. Most folks got out on bond, others were (and perhaps still are) being held on a higher bond, waiting for friends and relatives and comrades to come up with the money. Talking to people just out of jail I heard more horror stories. One man, Gabriel, told of being kept outside between 2 and 6 am in the rain, and then being held in a cell where he was handcuffed to a chair along with another man, not able to stand or lay down, for 13 hours.

I left Pittsburgh in the late afternoon from the jail, heading towards New England to continue this northeastern concert tour. In Connecticut this morning I got a call from Cindy Sheehan, who had just gone to the Emergency Room because she was having trouble breathing. People around her the night before had been vomiting profusely as a result of the tear gas. Having suffered injury in the past from getting gassed in Quebec City, I knew exactly why she was in the ER.

There will be lawsuits, and the lawsuits will be won. People like Cindy and Gabriel might make a bit of money from their suffering at the hands of the authorities. Not to worry, though – the authorities have a multi-million dollar slush fund to deal with these lawsuits. They expect them, and they don't care. This is democracy in the USA. It's always been like this, under Democrats or Republicans. If you doubt me, it's quite simply because you don't know your history.

Protest, however, matters. The end of slavery, the banning of child labor, the fact that most working class people live to be past 30 these days, is all a direct result of protest – of democracy happening in the streets. Marches, strikes, rebellions, and all manner of other extra-parliamentary activities. The authorities are well aware that democracy in the streets, no matter what they say – that's why dissent is criminalized. Because as soon as we are allowed to have a taste of our own power, everything can change. It has, and it will again, but the powers-that-be will continue to do what they do best – try hard to make sure we don't know how powerful we are. They require the consent of the governed, the consent of those students in Pittsburgh, and they have now lost it, at least for many of those who were in Oakland last Friday night. They would have lost it a lot more if they had done mass arrests or used live ammunition, which is why they didn't do that.

We don't have freedom of speech or assembly and we never have, but it is through all kinds of “unlawful assemblies,” from Shays' Rebellion to the Civil Rights movement, that change happens. So here's to the next Pittsburgh, wherever it may be. I hope to see you there, on the streets, where our fate truly lies.