Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rebecca Solnit: Compassion is Our New Currency

I'm out in Indiana right now, which may be one of the few places that still feels untouched by the Occupy Movement and the other social-justice transformational activism we've seen this year.  As I take time to rest, reflect, and be with family, I'm also getting a chance to catch up on all of those things I bookmarked but didn't get a chance to read when they came out.  This one that I read today is from the amazing and always articulate Rebecca Solnit -- "Compassion is our New Currency."  It's beautiful and powerful, and I just had to share it.
"Perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions - and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists... One thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency."

Happy New Year's and looking forward to sharing more writing and thoughts with you soon,

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Compassion is Our New Currency: Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds 

By Rebecca Solnit
Usually at year’s end, we’re supposed to look back at events just passed -- and forward, in prediction mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This moment is so extraordinary that it has hardly registered. People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same.
The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas.  The amiable-looking elderly woman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, “We are our brothers’ keeper.”
The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we’re living through and the astonishing movement that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big letters, with the translation -- “occupy the river” -- in little ones below.
The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves.
Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, ouroperating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he’s saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.
If it’s a movement about love, it’s also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us -- and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people are beginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.
Sometimes love, or at least decency, wins.  One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children.
We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass’s shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.
Hundreds of other foreclosure victims are now being defended by local branches of the Occupy movement, from West Oakland to North Minneapolis. As New York writer, filmmaker, and Occupier Astra Taylor puts it,
Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis -- whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater -- truly boggles the mind.”
If what’s been happening locally and globally has some of the characteristics of an uprising, then there has never been one quite so pervasive -- from the scientists holding an Occupy sign in Antarctica to Occupy presences in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Australia, São Paulo, Frankfurt, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik. And don’t forget the tiniest places, either. The other morning at the Oakland docks for the West Coast port shutdown demonstrations, I met three members of Occupy Amador County, a small rural area in California’s Sierra Nevada.  Its largest town, Jackson, has a little over 4,000 inhabitants, which hasn’t stopped it from having regular outdoor Friday evening Occupy meetings.
A little girl in a red parka at the Oakland docks was carrying a sign with a quote from blind-deaf-and-articulate early twentieth-century role model Helen Keller that said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” Why quote Keller at a demonstration focused on labor and economics? The answer is clear enough: because Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement.  Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?   
Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.
“Compassion is our new currency,” was the message scrawled on a pizza-box lid at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan -- held by a pensive-looking young man in Jeremy Ayers’s great photo portrait.  But what can you buy with compassion?
Quite a lot, it turns out, including a global movement, and even pizza, which can arrive at that movement’s campground as a gift of solidarity.  A few days into Occupy Wall Street’s surprise success, a call for pizza went out and $2,600 in pizzas came in within an hour, just as earlier this year the occupiers of Wisconsin’s state house had been copiously supplied with pizza -- including pies paid for and dispatched by Egyptian revolutionaries.
The Return of the Disappeared
During the 1970s and 1980s dictatorship and death-squad era in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Central America, the term “the disappeared” came to cover those who were kidnapped, held in secret, tortured, and then often executed in secret. So many decades later, their fates are often still being deciphered.
In the United States, the disappeared also exist, not thanks to a brutal army or paramilitaries, but to a brutal economy.  When you lose your job, you vanish from the workplace and sooner or later arrive at emptiness in your day, your identity, your wallet, your ability to participate in a commercial society. When you lose your home, you disappear from familiar spaces: the block, the neighborhood, the rolls of homeowners.   Often, you vanish in shame, leaving behind friends and acquaintances.  
At the actions to support some of the 1,500 mostly African-American homeowners being foreclosed upon in southeastern San Francisco, several of them described how they had to overcome a powerful sense of shame simply to speak up, no less defend themselves or join this movement. In the U.S., failure is always supposed to be individual, not systemic, and so it tends to produce a sense of personal devastation that leaves its victims feeling alone and lying low, even though they are among legions of others.  
The people who destroyed our economy through their bottomless greed are, on the other hand, shameless -- as shameless as the CEOs whose compensation shot up 36% in 2010, during this deep and grinding recession. Compassion is definitely not their currency.
The word “occupy” itself speaks powerfully to the American disappeared and the very idea of disappearance.  It speaks to those who have lost their occupation or the home they occupied. In its many meanings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take possession of it, employ oneself, busy oneself, fill time.  (In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the verb had a meaning so sexual it fell out of common use.)  It describes the state of being present that the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which -- as Mohamed Bouazizi might have dreamed it -- the disappeared can reappear with dignity.
Occupy has also created a space in which people of all kinds can coexist, from the homeless to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrarian. Coexisting in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances is one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy, which is why dictatorships ban gatherings and groups -- and why our First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble is being tested more strongly today than in any recent moment in American history. Nearly every Occupy has at its center regular meetings of a General Assembly. These are experiments in direct democracy that have been messy, exasperating and miraculous: arenas in which everyone is invited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a member, to shape the future. Occupy is first of all a conversation among ourselves.
To occupy also means to show up, to be present -- a radically unplugged experience for a digital generation. Today, the term is being applied to any place where one plans to be present, geographically or metaphorically: Occupy Wall Street, occupy the food system, occupy your heart. The ad hoc invention of the people’s mic by the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, which requires everyone to listen, repeat, and amplify what’s being said, has only strengthened this sense of presence. You can’t text or half-listen if your task is to repeat everything, so that everyone hears and understands. You become the keeper of your brother’s or sister’s voice as you repeat their words.
It’s a triumph of the here and now -- and it’s everywhere: the Regents of the University of California are mic-checked, politicians are mic-checked, the Durban Climate Conference in South Africa had occupiers and mic-check moments. Activism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.
A Mouthful of Truth
Before the Occupy movement arrived on the scene, political dialogue and media chatter in this country seemed to be arriving from a warped parallel universe. Tiny government expenditures were denounced, while the vortex sucking our economy dry was rarely addressed; hard-working immigrants were portrayed as deadbeats; people who did nothing were anointed as “job creators”; the trashed economy and massive suffering were overlooked, while politicians jousted over (and pundits pontificated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when someone other than the ruling class waged it. It’s as though we were trying to navigate Las Vegas with a tattered map of medieval Byzantium -- via, that is, a broken language in which everything and everyone got lost.
Then Occupy arrived and, as if swept by some strange pandemic, a contagious virus of truth-telling, everyone was suddenly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about actual problems. The blather about the deficit was replaced by acknowledgments of grotesque economic inequality. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it became intolerable, as had racism when the Civil Rights Movement named it and made it evident to those who weren’t suffering from it directly. The vast scale of suffering around student debt and tuition hikes, foreclosures, unemployment, wage stagnation, medical costs, and the other afflictions of the normal American suddenly moved to the top of the news, and once exposed to the light, these, too, became intolerable.
If the solutions to the nightmares being named are neither near nor easy, naming things, describing reality with some accuracy, is at least a crucial first step.  Informing ourselves as citizens is another.  Aspects of our not-quite-democracy that were once almost invisible are now on the table for discussion -- and for opposition, notably corporate personhood, the legal status that gives corporations the rights, but not the obligations and vulnerabilities, of citizens. (One oft-repeated Occupier sign says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas puts one to death.”)
The Los Angeles City Council passed a measure calling for an end to corporate personhood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend campaign against corporate personhood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to insert their cash in our political campaigns. Occupy actions across the country are planned for January 20th, the second anniversary ofCitizens United. Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s been speaking the truth alone for a long time, introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United and limit corporate power in the Senate, while Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced a similar measure in the House.
Only a few years ago, hardly anyone knew what corporate personhood was.  Now, signs denouncing it are common.  Similarly, at Occupy events, people make it clear that they know about the New Deal-era financial reform measure known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which was partially repealed in 1999, removing the wall between commercial and investment banks; that they know about the proposed financial transfer tax, nicknamed the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise billions with a tiny levy on every financial transaction; that they understand many of the means by which the 1% were enriched and the rest of us robbed.
This represents a striking learning curve. A new language of truth, debate about what actually matters, an informed citizenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.
We Are the 99.999%
I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate -- until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.   
It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine.  It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the U.S.  
In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit, and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.
But the international .001% who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy -- the oil and coal tycoons, industrialists, and politicians whose strings they pull -- are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.
The groups working on climate change now, notably 350.org and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists, and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.
Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions -- and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.
Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.
In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We -- and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before -- have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Miracle of Chanukah Solstice

Last night, a miracle occurred for this Pagan-Jewish girl: the Winter Solstice and the first night of Chanukah, sacred holidays devoted to the coming back of the light, happened on the same night.
Last year’s Winter Solstice coincided with a full lunar eclipse for the first time in 400 years, and in that moment I felt a tremendous shifting of the energies of the planet and a powerful, beautiful dawning of a new era.  This year has indeed proven to be one of seemingly unimaginable shifts and a global social awakening unlike anything we’ve seen before, which left me wondering – what does the synchronistic alignment of these two holy days portend for the coming year?
Continuing on with the theme of synchronicity, it just so happened that the wisest and most well-studied Jewitch that I know had traveled down from Washington to celebrate the solstice with my pagan community in San Francisco, and just as all of this was occurring to me, I found him kneeling by our bonfire on Ocean Beach lighting two white candles in the sand.
We sang the blessings in English and Hebrew, and I asked him how often this miracle – the Winter Solstice and the first night of Chanukah perfectly eclipsing — happened.
“Oh, fairly often,” he said.
“Really?” was all I could think to say.  What was this guy trying to do?  This was a miracle we were talking about here.  Wisest and most well-studied my tuckus.
My friend proceeded to dispel one of the most esoteric mysteries of my childhood: the first night of Chanukah is not scheduled through some arcane divinatory rite of the ancient Rabbis, but actually predictably falls five nights before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice.  Which means that the middle of the Festival of Lights always falls on the darkest night nearest to the longest night of the year.
Now, as some of you may have guessed, I only went to Sunday school from the age of five until about nine, and that’s pretty much the extent of my Jewish education.  Which means that I know much more about latkes and playing dreidel than anything notably religious.
The story that I remembered from my childhood about the meaning of Chanukah went something like this: the Jews were once again being beaten up by a bunch of bullies, but then at the last minute God came to our aid and we got our temple back, and miraculously the oil that we thought would only last one day actually burned for eight days, giving them enough time to get some more oil, which meant that none of the Jews died of cold and everyone could see and we all lived happily ever after.
It had never occurred to me before that there might be a deep and potentially disheartening connection between these two beautiful holidays that light up the coldest, darkest time of year.  But in a single moment it all became suddenly very clear to me: those Jewish guerillas hiding in the mountains had been in a bloody and violent war with their pagan neighbors, and it may be that the relationship between the Winter Solstice and celebration of Chanukah is similar to Christmas’s all-too-convenient December date.  Both hint at the history of cultural appropriation, colonization, and conquest of nature-based, matriarchal cultures by patriarchal, militaristic cultures during the past two thousand years.
OyGoddess.  That’s a pretty heavy realization to have on the longest night of the year.
Of course, in the specific case of the Maccabees who kept the ritual oil burning in the temple for eight days in order to purify and rededicate it after a long era of religious intolerance, it seems that we are actually talking about two very patriarchal cultures in conflict with one another.  Interestingly enough, in that way, the conflict-filled history surrounding the story of Chunakah is resonant with one story from the Celtic tradition about the Winter Solstice: in that story, this is the time of year that the Oak King – who gets weaker during the autumn, just as his sacred trees lose their leaves – is reborn to do battle with his evergreen twin, the Holly King.  Although mythically this is a story about nature and the turning of the year, many scholars suspect that it also hints at a history of violence and conquest between two tribes or cultures.  Older stories about the Solstice focus more on the dark goddess laboring to rebirth the sun child and return fertility to the earth once again, rather than war between two kings.
Perhaps, a night like last night – when people from different traditions gather to celebrate the returning of the light, purification from a legacy of bloodshed, and connecting to what is hopeful, bright, and possible– offers us rebirth.  These dark times are calling for us to look at what is highest and most sacred in all of our stories, weave together our common threads, and work for a peaceful, fertile world that we can pass down to those who will continue to evolve our beloved spiritual traditions.
There is much that the Pagans of today can learn from a story that is about standing up to Empire and dedicating ourselves to the defense of the place we hold to be most holy.  There is much that the Jews of today can learn from a story that is about connecting to the energy of birth and the renewal that this beautiful earth offers even – or especially – in the dark times that seem endless.
In that way, I still can’t help feeling that there is something quite magical and healing about the first night of Chanukah aligning with the Winter Solstice.
And I’m quite glad that it happens fairly often.
“For sun, moon, and earth,
for the spirals of their dark and light,
for cold and heat, for summer and winter,
for seedtime and harvest,
for day and night,
for the One whose covenant entwines all spirals
–We light all lights.”
– Jewish Renewal Blessing for Chanukah by R. Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Murmuration and Occupation - Shutting Down the West Coast Ports

(photo by Luke Hauser)

Yesterday before dawn, I managed to crawl out of bed, fumble my jeans and boots on, and sling my drum and backpack – the one that has become the indefinite home for my first aid kit, a patchwork bag of herbal tinctures, a squirt bottle half-full of milk of magnesia, a bottle of bubbles, and some lavender essential oil – over my shoulder. 

The night before, Jason and I had landed at Oakland International at 11 PM, by the time I’d gotten home, showered, and fed my very irritated cat, it was half past midnight. 

As I checked my back pocket one more time for my ID and locked the back door, the clock on the microwave read 5:08 AM.  By 5:39 AM, I was snaking through the dark streets of West Oakland in what seemed to me to be a much-too-small crowd, mostly quiet except the occasional heartbeat of a lone drum or the sleepy but hopeful cheer that rose up as we passed under the overpass of Mandela Parkway, encouraged by the sounds of our own voices echoing off the walls. 

You better believe I was asking myself the same questions that CNN, the Huffington Post, the BBC, and Mayor Quan had that morning: Why on earth are we doing this?  Are you absolutely out of your gourd, trying to shut down all of the major ports on the West Coast?

It was striking and slightly eerie walking through the streets in the pre-dawn darkness, surrounded by so many folks with faces hidden by in scarves and bandanas to protect them from the cold or worse.  Because even the coffee shops are closed that early in Berkeley (where I live) I couldn’t even turn to caffeine for energetic inspiration.  My feet felt like rocks with each step, and my eyes felt bleary.  I found myself wishing, in the dark recesses of my mind, that the cops would decide to block off all of the streets leading to the ports before we could get there – as many predicted they would – so I could just go home and go back to bed.

By the time we made it to the port, the sky was getting lighter – and my brick-lined shoes seemed to, as well.  The streets widened, the bay spread out before us to one side like rippling gray slate, and on the other side, the bright floodlights from the port glowed like willow-the-wisps in the misty air.  Shorebirds, waking up luxuriously late compared to the rest of us, stretched their wings and rose up into the clouds as we passed Shoreline Park.  It felt strangely beautiful, this place of industry and concrete. 

The cops made no disguise of their presence this time (when we closed down the port in November, they were quite conspicuous in their absence).  They paraded past us in all of their various modes of transportation: cops in unmarked white vans, already suited up in riot gear; cops driving school buses painted blue, threatening a detention of an entirely different sort; cops on motorcycles blocking freeway on-ramps, cops in the creepy black tank-looking things with the teeny windows, and of course, entire entourages of cop cars. 

After we began blocking the gates of the port, the cops formed platoons and marched here and there, standing for awhile near this or that and sending our twitter streams into – well, a twitter.  But nothing happened.  They marched and stood around, and we drummed and chanted and stood around.  After three or four hours of this, we finally got the “final final” word that the port had been shut down, joining those in Portland and Longview (ports were also slowed down and partially closed in Seattle, San Diego, Long Beach, and Vancouver). 

In spite of the insipid media response, stopping the massive machines of commerce all along the West Coast is a big deal – and if the newspaper isn’t reporting so, it may be time to question which side they’re on and who’s paying them to be on it.  Each day that the port is closed costs anywhere from $4-8 million dollars; on average, the port of Oakland makes $8.5 million a day, none of which is taxed by the struggling city which pays to maintain the roads, traffic lights, and other infrastructure that make port commerce possible. 

The ports were theoretically targeted because of a longstanding but difficult to understand labor dispute that involves the firing of truck drivers who sported pro-union T-shirts in LA, longshoremen in Washington, and the EGT grain company.  But perhaps more importantly, the ports are the bastions of capitalism on the West Coast: the closest thing we have to Wall Street in terms of being a symbol of concentrated capitalist power. 

But to many, these two reasons felt insubstantial, intangible.  By the time the second shift at the port was announced closed, everyone from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to longtime activists and organizers seemed to be questioning the strategic intention and real-life impact of our actions. How much did shutting down the ports really affect those large corporations, compared to the money lost by truckers and dockworkers?  Are we striking back against the 1% or standing in the way of the wellbeing of fellow 99% folks?  

I took these questions to my community, curious about what they would say.  The most articulate and beautiful response was from writer Adriana Camarena.  “I define the Occupy movement as a social movement that simulates a startling murmuration in which participants tug and pull in different directions - even in opposition to each other - but under a principled commitment to question the economic and political structures that have institutionalized a devastating inequality between a top elite percent and the rest of us,” she said.

Murmuration as a phenomenon is something that took the social media sphere by storm in the last few weeks, after two young Irish women happened across a flock of thousands of starlings swirling over the River Shannon and posted the handspun video on the internet (a flock of starlings is called a murmuration, much the same as geese are a gaggle and crows are a murder).  The starlings seem to move as one organism, twisting and dancing in the sky, smooth and flawless as liquid. 

It is one of nature’s most wondrous sights, and how it works remains mysterious for those of us born without wings.  We know that each bird is actually following one other bird – the one closest to it – the same way that schools of billions of herring migrate hundreds of miles in warm coastal waters and still manage to evade predators. But knowing that one small fact explains relatively little.  

“It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds?” asks Wired writer Brandon Keim.  “That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.”

There is a lot that we can learn from starlings and sardines about collective movement – what we know in this moment is that it begins with relating to just one neighbor even as we hold a much larger collective intention.  The neighbor, in this case, could be the longshoremen of Longview, the truckers in LA, the Occupiers in Seattle who were gassed by police officers, or the other protesters within Occupy Oakland who chose this action over countless others that we may have attempted.  All of us in relation, moving together, even when it isn’t obvious how it will work out or if we agree on everything.

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds a little cult-like.  What if someone makes a wrong turn?  What if we end up being lemmings instead of starlings?

Well, it turns out that lemming mass suicide is a myth, which, I’m quite sorry to say, comes from a 1958 Disney documentary that used staged footage showing the poor beasts being launched off of a cliff with a turntable. 

In other words, I don’t think we have anything to fear when we can tune into our deepest, most instinctual ways of knowing and communicating with one another.  When we move, dream, and organize in ways built out of our relationships with one another and trust that we can navigate the complexity and the distance.  When we tap into an intelligence greater than our own and more magnificent than a simple sum of its parts. 

Thinking back to that morning -- the crowd weaving through the dark streets of one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state, the spontaneous drum jams with people I’ve known for years and those I’ve never met before in my life, the Food Not Bombs team that showed up with coffee and polenta just when I thought I’d drop from exhaustion, the friends that I never managed to meet up with but who tweeted me with updates every ten or fifteen minutes from a different gate – I can feel that the shutdown of the West Coast ports, in spite of its imperfections, came from a deep instinctual place of our collective understanding about where we want to go and how we want to get there.  Just as with so many things about the Occupy movement, it’s more complicated than a simple soundbite or facebook update can articulate, because it’s a transformation of the entire paradigm into one that honors our interdependent and interconnected nature. 

And the next step?  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that in the murmuration of starlings and the silver swirl of herrings in the shoals, we’ve finally found a map.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Violence, Gunshots, and Candlelight

Tonight was an evening of candlelight at Occupy Oakland. 

I never thought about it much before, but in our culture, we light candles to both celebrate life and honor death.  Tonight, both felt immediate and present at Oscar Grant Plaza, as people came in ones and twos and little clusters, in both sadness and curiosity, after the news hit the wires that a young man had been shot and killed near the encampment. 

As fate or synchronicity would have it, we had already planned a candlelight vigil to celebrate Occupy Oakland’s one-month birthday tonight.  But that had shifted suddenly, of course, just as everything must change in the moment that a young man was murdered on the streets of Oakland.

Sadly, a young black man being murdered in the streets of Oakland is not an uncommon occurrence.   There have been over a hundred homicides in Oakland this year alone; statistically, two-thirds of homicide victims in the city are African American.  This is a city riddled with poverty and violence, with more school closures being announced every day.  This fact, however, has not stopped Mayor Quan from capitalizing on this tragedy as yet one more reason why the encampment should be shut down, arguing earlier tonight at a press conference that, "The risks are too great for having an encampment out there. It's time for the encampment to end."  Earlier this week, the mayor hosted a press conference that focused on why the encampment was bad for business downtown.

In both issues, she seems to be missing the point that so many Occupy Oakland folks understand at a deep level: the violence, the poverty, and the hardships that the Occupy encampment brings out of the shadows and into the middle of downtown Oakland, where they cannot be ignored, are part of the reason that we Occupy.  We aren’t creating the violence or the pain – we’re just not willing to hide it in social or psychological ghettos anymore. 

In the plaza, a woman from the Oakland Teacher’s Union steps up to the mic, offering her condolences for the victim’s family and her union’s continuing support for the Occupation.  “We teach these kids every day, and some of the kids that we teach die.  There have been nine students killed in Oakland this year alone,” she says.  “Even those that make it, many of them go on to college and get saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.  So we understand why you are here, and we will also be here with you, after school and at night, doing whatever we can to make a difference.”

Earlier in the evening, I went to a meeting of folks committed to creating a unified voice for people dedicated to non-violence at Occupy Oakland and beyond.  It’s a conversation that I’ve been a part of, and desperate to write about, since the police riot last week after General Strike protesters closed down the Port of Oakland.  And yet, each time that I’ve sat down to write about it, I feel stuck – as stuck as the conversation has been within the community, held hostage by didactic idealogues, ego, and distrust.  Strangely enough, somehow in the stark, heartbreaking violence of today’s events, there was a sudden opening within me, as if the energy was forced free from its stuck place and could now pour forth, tumbling out like water against rocks.  Perhaps that’s simply because everything feels shaken and stirred up inside of me. 

As humans, our relationship to violence is confusing and long.  It marks our history books, maps out the eons of cultural evolution on timelines that begin with roman invasions and carry on through two world wars, while the countless days of peace and prosperity are invisible, unremarkable.  For many spiritual leaders, both the ancients and the new-fangled, violence is the external manifestation of something dark and hard to look at within us.  Interestingly enough, those who endorse philosophies such as the innocuous-sounding “diversity of tactics” agreements and the “defense” tactics of the Black Bloc also recognize the truth of this internalized violence – it’s folks like me, who identify with non-violence as a philosophical belief, that can sometimes stridently ignore it or discredit the reality of violence as yesterday’s affliction, somehow passé now that we’ve all become yogis and co-counselors.   

I’m not saying that I’ve suddenly gone all black-bandana-and-gas mask on you.  But I can feel the deep complexity of violence tonight, the fingers of this disfigured thing within us and how, in a heartbeat, it can change everything.  I don’t think that wise folks like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Dali Lama, or Emma Goldman would advocate turning away from the fact that violence in the world is actually the manifestation of something fractal and injured within each of us.  They would say, I’m sure, that we need to look at it and listen to its story in order make peace with ourselves and with our world -- to create healing on a level that we can only begin to imagine from where we stand now.

Tonight, in the yellow glow of the candlelight vigil, I could see in the tears and hear in the hushed voices a movement trying to deal with violence in a real, deep way for the first time. 

An older black woman is singing something wordless and vaguely hymnal when I arrive.  She stands beside a young woman wearing a hat that says “Faith” on it in sparkly rhinestones.  The young woman doesn’t say much, and what she says is fairly unintelligible, though the emotion is clear and unambiguous.  She is in mourning.   She has lost someone that she loves.  Later, I learn that Alex – the young man who was murdered – was her cousin.

After a while, the interfaith group that had meant to host a vigil of an entirely different nature starts singing “Peace, Shalom, Salaam,” and then “Circle round for freedom.”  The amorphous circle around me, however, does not pick up the song.  There’s something awkward yet heartfelt in the group, and after a moment, I remember that most of the rituals of grief and mourning in our culture have been lost.  No one seems to know what to do or say.

Finally, the older black woman speaks up, her voice strong and melodic, like a preacher.  “This is unity,” she says.  “Why can’t the whole world know this unity?  Black and white, all of us together.  We’re not out here for violence – we’re out here for love.  Now, Alex is love.  He is spirit now, and the spirit never dies. He is with God.  And God is with us, because God is love.”

Sometimes, when people say things like “God is love,” and “We’re all here together, black and white,” it just sounds cliché and trite.  But not when someone has died.  In the face of deep mourning and our own human mortality, these simple words become the simple truths that we can fathom in spite of the chaos in our hearts and minds.  And it is true – we are all here together, those who knew him intimately and those of us for whom Alex is a symbol and a moment in time, not a person – lover, friend, cousin.  They graciously allow us to share their grief. 

There is a bright gift in this tragedy, as there often is in dark, sad moments – the energy in the circle around me, even with the slight awkwardness, feels galvanized and cohesive for the first time since the violence following the General Strike.  Just this morning, we were all arguing, almost ready to come to blows about non-violent discipline and property destruction and creating shield barricades around the perimeter of camp -- even the pacifists, or perhaps, especially the pacifists.  And, well, we still don’t agree.  But something has shifted. 

I’m not sure what that shift looks like for the those folks who are more likely to throw bricks or start bonfires, but for me, I’ve come to understand something of why non-violence seems to sit so awkwardly in the collective mindset of the motley Occupy Oakland encampment.  In Oakland, the concept of non-violence, which linguistically can seem like the negation of the reality of violence both internalized and external, doesn’t make sense on a visceral level, that deep place of life-experience and instinctual understanding.

And yet, this is what we are all yearning for in our best moments -- it is part of the driving force behind our occupation.  We are not here for violence.  We are here for love.

“We are a people who’s hearts have been broken,” a woman with blonde hair and a clerical collar in her purple shirt steps into the center of the circle and stands next to the altar.  “A people who’s hearts have been broken, in this plaza where miracles are happening every day.  And we pray to you, oh God, to take Alex’s spirit into your arms… to bring him home at last.”

Silently, I say my own prayer to the Goddess, who is the mother of life and also the crone who brings death and rebirth.  I pray for Alex, who I never met and now never will, and I pray for the ex-soldier who killed himself at Occupy Burlington earlier today, and I pray for this movement as we struggle to find our own path in our quest for love and unity. 

But I do have faith – it sparkles within me, within my grief, like rhinestones, or candles, or stars in the darkness of night.  And I know when my faith seems unfounded or too complicated, I can chose to align with it anyway, in the face of those stark realities.  At those times, it helps to have the solidarity and wise words of friends and allies of this great work – like those of a wise witch named, wonderfully enough, Serenity:

I remind myself that it is not "light" and "dark," or as simple as "oppressive" and "free." It is the struggle within each of us and within society as a whole to recognize and reconcile these selves. Some people feel an intense fear that change won't come, coupled with rage at the system-as-it-is, and feel no patience for prayer or non-violence. I know
that, for many who may turn to property destruction or banging signs on patrol cars, their fear and rage are born in love, and hope: love of justice, and hope that it is indeed possible. Doubt creeps in, we sense in our bones all that is at stake...

Why does system change seem to be more possible in the daylight? Why do some forget their own power when night sets in? Is it that when the sun sets, we recognize that the struggle will continue into the next day, and the next? Did we hope this one action would be enough to change the tide?  And it *is* changing, beings awakening in their solidarity with one another and the earth.   But it will take patience.

I am restored in dark-pit moments when I remember that my brothers and sisters around the world stand with me. The Great Lie that we are alone simply cannot hold up in the face of such activism! May we nurture and support that root love in each of our kindred, and work together to heal the hatred planted there by a system day by day losing power over us.

And with those words, with that serenity in the face of all that’s sorrowful and hard, I’m off to sleep. 

In love and solidarity,

More photos, graciously given permission to reprint by Elizabeth Dougherty...