Archive | July, 2012

A Visit to the NATO 5

Chicago, IL–For someone who’s never been arrested, I sure spend a lot of time at Cook County Jail lately.

As part of Occupy Chicago’s ongoing jail solidarity effort for the NATO 5, who are facing terrorism charges, I have been attending as many court dates as my schedule allows.  Most of these court dates are just for updates, or to set new court dates, but being there is an important show of support.  At the first few I attended we pushed our luck a bit by standing and raising fists in solidarity, so much so that the judge has taken to reading a decorum order before calling any of their cases.  He claims it’s not really aimed at us, just meant as a point of information for “people who only know about court from TV,” but since it uses words like “conduct of solidarity” and “protest,” I tend to take it personally.

Here’s what a NATO 5 court decorum order looks like:

All persons in the courtroom must remain silent during all proceedings. There will be no talking, noise making, standing, kneeling, waving, hand raising or other conduct of solidarity, camaraderie, protest, approval or disapproval in the courtroom or in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Going to court is always a bit of a hassle, but worth it to me in the end, even just to see a glimpse of them through the tinted glass that separates us from the courtroom itself.  It makes the long drive, seemingly random security procedures, and waiting through other cases worthwhile.

Visiting hours for the NATO 5 always conflict with work and other obligations of mine, so I haven’t been able to see any of them until this week, when I had a few days off.    For me, spending my time off making visits to friends in jail is the new normal.  I put out the word that I was planning a visit for Monday afternoon and found two small groups of friends also planning to visit.  I met up with the earlier group and we left our stuff at an occupier’s apartment within walking distance of the jail and set out on our way.  (Note to everyone: being without my cell phone for several hours makes me twitchy.)

We walked about a mile to Division 9, the maximum security jail where the original NATO 3 are being held.  It was a cool 97 degrees, abundant sunshine and humidity making us sweaty within minutes.  We walked in holding only our IDs but were still patted down and sent through a metal detector.  Inside we waited to sign in for our visits – I was seeing Jared Chase.  I’ve never met any of them personally, but have been sending books from the Occupy Chicago library and Jared had sent me a personal thank you.  So I figured he would be my first visit.  When they asked me what my relationship to him was, I wanted to say “comrade-in-arms” but settled for the safer description of “friend.”  Then we sat on stone-tiled benches and waited to be called. There was a lot of bureaucracy and waiting involved, which isn’t surprising, but does start to feel mind-numbing after a bit.  When I was finally called I walked through another metal detector, got patted down again, then made my way to an elevator that took us up to the visitation room.

The visitation room has no air conditioning, and I soon felt sticky and claustrophobic.  It is a long, narrow room made entirely of gray concrete, barely large enough to accommodate friends and family on one side of the Plexiglas, up to 10 or 12 prisoners on the other.  With no phone I had no idea what time it was, because who wears a watch anymore?  It’s a tiny taste of what prisoners feel all the time, miserably uncomfortable and cut off from the outside.  I must also admit that I felt my privilege, seeing the racial breakdown of the room.  The number of young children visiting their fathers — and how routine it seemed for them — was heartbreaking.

Eventually a group of prisoners was brought in, and most of the people I had come up with had their visit.  No Jared.  I waited through the visit, which lasted 20 minutes or so.  Then waited for the guards to exchange one batch of prisoners for another.  Still no Jared.  It had been at least an hour at this point, so I went back downstairs and asked at the desk.  They told me to go back up and wait.  I saw my friends in the outer waiting room, already finished with their visit to Jacob, another of the NATO 5, and felt bad for holding things up.  But I would have felt worse if Jared came out for a visit and nobody was there.  So up I went.

I sat in that sweltering room through another prisoner switch and watched as a third batch started filing in.  By this point I had become friends with some of the other visitors, who were impressed at how long I’d been kept waiting.  They began flagging down the guard and asking him when Jared Chase was going to be brought in.  Soon some of the prisoners whose visitors weren’t there yet chimed in as well.  It was a surprising show of support to me, all these strangers wanting to make sure I got my visit.

About halfway through the third visit, they finally brought Jared in.  I had been getting discouraged and wondering if it was worth sticking around, but one look at him gave me my answer.  I introduced myself and he thanked me again for sending books.  He is quiet-spoken and it was sometimes hard to hear him over the noise of 10 other visits in progress, but we managed to have a good conversation.  He told me what other books he’s been reading and asked for updates on the student protests in Montreal and the impending teachers’ strike in Chicago.  He hadn’t heard much about the police violence and subsequent protests in Anaheim, so I filled him in.  He told me he grew up in Anaheim.  He wanted to make sure the others were getting visits as well, and I was touched at his concern.  It would have been a lovely conversation had there not been a window between us, had he not been cuffed, had we both been free to leave the building.

But parts of the conversation were more difficult.  He told me that he’d been “in the hole” (solitary confinement) all of last week, and hadn’t been allowed visitors.  The reason they gave him was that there “weren’t enough cells.”  I could tell that he didn’t buy that excuse, and neither did I.  He looked sad and a bit lost when he said, “I didn’t even do anything, and they put me in the hole all week.”  I wanted to give him a hug, because he looked like he needed it.

He told me he’s getting lots of letters, and he really appreciates them.  He’s trying to write back to everyone but currently isn’t allowed to have a pen, due to a prisoner stabbing last weekend that put them on lockdown.  Hopefully he’ll be able to resume writing letters soon.  Looking in his eyes as he told me this, I felt a mixture of sadness and outrage.  This man doesn’t belong in a place where pens are considered weapons, and not in the metaphorical mightier-than-the-sword sense.  He belongs in the streets with us, changing the world.

I reassured him that we haven’t forgotten them, that we will continue to visit and write and send books and show up for court.  But I could see that being in jail, and periodically in solitary confinement for no apparent reason, is wearing on him.  As our shortened visit drew to a close, he thanked me for messages of solidarity from other occupied cities and gave me a solidarity fist on his way out.

I want to encourage anybody who is able to please visit those who are still incarcerated while they fight these ridiculous charges.  I know the above story is full of frustration and bureaucracy, but it’s so necessary and so worth it in the end.  They are trying to break these guys down by randomly imposing solitary confinement on them and making it nearly impossible for them to see visitors.   But we won’t let the games they play keep us from supporting our comrades.

We will not forget them.  We will not waver in our support, no matter what they do to discourage us.  Our strength lies in our solidarity.

To learn more about the NATO 5 and our jail solidarity efforts, visit http://nato5.occupychi.org

To learn more about the Occupy Chicago library’s efforts to coordinate book donations to the NATO 5 or to donate shipping funds, visit http://ochilibrary.wordpress.com/books-for-the-nato-5/

-Rachel Allshiny-

Posted in Jail Solidarity, StoriesComments (3)

Critical Mass: Now Cycling is a Crime

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at the Occupied Times.

The following is a personal account from one of the cyclists arrested for participating in Critical Mass on Friday 27 July, during the opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games™.

Critical Mass is a celebration of cycling, taking place on the last Friday of every month. A global event, it started in San Francisco in 1992 and came to London two years later. Being a keen cyclist, I was really looking forward to last Friday’s Critical Mass on the eve of the Olympics.

Hundreds of cyclists turned up at the starting point at Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank. The atmosphere was buzzing despite the presence of police, who had imposed unreasonable, disproportionate conditions on the event, including using powers under Section 12 of the Public Order Act to stop us to cycling north of the river.

We cycled peacefully over Blackfriars Bridge in defiance of the police who had parked their van across the bridge going north, blocking off lots of traffic and causing a hold up. Many of us outmaneuvered the police, which is quite easy when you’re on a bicycle, and continued the journey to Stratford High Street in East London, where many cyclists were eventually kettled.

Much of the journey was fun, with bystanders cheering and waving, but along the route I witnessed police aggression and antagonism on Bethnal Green Road as they pushed us away from their vehicles and accelerated away – recklessly endangering peaceful cyclists. There were also reports of police and other cars ramming into cyclists, and footage on YouTube shows police pepper spraying an elderly disabled man on a tricycle.

The police eventually arrested 182 cyclists. I was one of them, bailed without charge until, conveniently, after the games end in late September. The policing of Critical Mass demonstrated to me who the police serve; not innocent people who want to go about their lawful business free from oppressive interference from the State, but corporate interests bent on airbrushing out any possible dissent from the spectacle of the Olympics™.

That impression was reinforced when Sergeant Seffer QK75 told me he knew I was involved with “that Occupy lot”, which was “further evidence that I had committed offences.”

During the six hours I spent in a grotty cell, I was reminded of the words of Olympic Black Power hero John Carlos, who spoke in London recently and told us to repeat after him: “I am not afraid to offend my oppressor”.

- Melanie Strickland -

Posted in StoriesComments (0)

Revving up for August, Montreal, Night 94

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC–It’s a bit after midnight, and I just got home from a perfectly curated musical fund-raiser in the Mile-End neighborhood of Montreal titled carré rouge sonore (“red square sound”) organized by HOWL! arts collective. HOWL! was also largely responsible for dreaming up the Rêve général illimité (“unlimited general dreams/strike”), an unpermitted creative intervention during the Jazz Festival and hopefully another version will take place before the start/nonstart of schools here in Montreal on August 13. From what I’ve seen so far, HOWL! doesn’t sit back quietly but instead tries to use the language of cultural creation to voice political aspirations for a new world, as tiny as those voices might be right now or even for a long while to come. Social change is hard work. So conversely, it should be pleasurable hard work — or at least that seems to be part of the unspoken aim of HOWL! This arts collective doesn’t ask permission from arts councils or cops; rather, it imagines what music, say, might sound like in an altogether different form of social organization — one premised on what’s been facilitating and sustaining this student strike: direct democracy in various forms. (For those of you agitating just south of here, in that place still called the United States, and maybe even folks outside this Francophone province, please take heed: if anything is key to this strike, it’s the long-lived legacy, infrastructure, and practice of face-to-face decision making — not easily replicated quickly, but necessary nonetheless.)

For example, the École de la Montagne Rouge crew, made up of still-striking students who are still making posters and other brilliant (and often brilliant red) visuals for asocial movement instead of sitting quietly in rows of chairs in a classroom, brought their own collective envisioning of red squares to this musical fund-raiser by designing the logo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stefanchristoff/7625011812/).

Such infinite dreams, of course, are largely circumscribed by the present culture industry, but nights like tonight show that a few stray notes that can’t quite be captured by the capitalist logic manage to slip through to a few eager ears and open minds — many of them opened by the student strike itself. At the “red square sound” event, I ran into still-striking students who are busy taking gorgeous photos and writing indie news accounts for this social movement, or further discovering anarchism by recently taking a road trip to the Anarchist People of Color convergence in New Orleans; there were teachers there, also strike allies, and Mile-End popular assembly folks who are busy organizing a “casseroles and orchestrole” go downtown to illegal night demo 100 this coming Wednesday, August 1 (http://www.facebook.com/events/408425942526577/), and an August 10 “Mile-End Bloc(k) Party: Toward a Social Strike” (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/) — basically, hopefully, a large (perhaps red) square of street turned into an open-air classroom to illustrate what free education looks like, via a festive direct action in disobedience of special law 78, and to let the students know that the neighborhood assemblies are behind their strike, just ahead of the start/nonstart of their schools. It, in turn, emerged out of a call from the St. Henri popular assembly for a “day of action” in neighborhoods on August 10, building toward the notion of social strike in complement to student strike and, again, also just making visible popular support for the students, so they don’t feel alone. So they aren’t alone. Although if CLASSE has anything to do with it, its also-August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see.

If the major student association, and the most radical and bottom-up one, CLASSE, has anything to do with it, its August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see. Oh yeah, and then there’s the callout for an international convergence in Montreal to support the Quebec student strike during the week of August 13 to 17 (http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12). [Update: I could start adding a lengthy string of student and social strike organizing here, often starting to overlap in people's enthusiasm to organize, which is a good "problem" to have in a social movement if one thinks about it. Indeed, as of the afternoon after I wrote this piece, there are now three separate calls for neighborhood casseroles and orchestroles to converge at the night 100 demo, and a 6 p.m. call by Anarchopanda to also do a solidarity demo in front of the Russian Consultate for the Riot Pussy women in jail. Somehow I imagine it'll all work out, since after all, it's great that there's such widespread popular support for what's called a "social" or "popular" struggle, and the point was to demonstrate to the students and greater public that neighborhoods, too, are behind the strike!]

Tonight’s sounds of the red square displayed a preview of this togetherness. It included the music of resistance, from jazz to the first-ever indoor orchestrole (with loaner cookware on hand, so others could join in, loudly and boisterously) to hip-hop to protest chant in between, amid a room full of red squares and rabble-rousers. Despite the forecast of rain, it turned out to be a lovely evening here in Montreal to raise legal funds for the Quebec striking students. Those funds are signaled by another graphic play on the red square in the logo of the legal helpers je donne à nous, a group that’s still gladly taking contributions for the coming storm of riot police and, as rumor has it, actual implementation of special law 78 when school soon starts/doesn’t start come August 13 onward.

The benefit was held in a neighborhood collective space, which felt both part homey, part social center. It was only a block or so from where the autonomous popular assembly of Mile-End met earlier tonight, in a local cafe that itself features local musicians all day until closing time at 6 p.m. Due to the potential of wet weather, the cafe folks loaned their space for this fledgling experiment in neighborhood direct democracy. There, in week 6 of so of our assembly, old faces and new ones heard a presentation by one assembly participant — also a lawyer — on special law 78. We’d decided this at last week’s assembly after doing a go-around of the some 45 or so people in attendance at our usual outdoor park spot about how we, as a popular assembly, wanted to lend support to the likely still-striking students when they likely will try to keep their schools shut during the increasingly key week of August 13-17, when some 13 schools are supposed to open by law — backed by the force of this new special law 78 that seemingly makes any kind of dissent criminal, including probably all neighborhood assemblies. We offered our views on comfort levels around “green, yellow, and red” zones, or levels of potential risk of arrest, and then seemed to concur that such designations would more likely be up to the police, not us. Banging a saucepan, for example, could flare into “red” in cop’s eyes. Wearing a red square that week could fuel the same overreaction on the police’s part. But despite varying degrees of worry over risk and the law, our go-round last week showed strong support for us tangibly supporting the students, though it’s unclear what that will look like other than, for now, remaining open and flexible, and creating as many links and lines of communication as we can between other neighborhood and student assemblies.

It’s not that we can’t start imagining various things we could do; rather, it’s because everything and everyone has to wait on the individual schools (and sometimes individual departments within schools) to hold their own student assemblies to decide whether to continue the strike or not, and if so, how. In what’s becoming a nail-biter moment for this social movement, student assemblies largely don’t convene until the few days before the start/nonstart of schools that August 13 week.

This nervous anticipation translates into low-grade inklings of what’s to come. For example, one of my friends who organized tonight’s fund-raiser said he got stopped by a cop yesterday for allegedly jaywalking some “three blocks away,” when clearly the cop couldn’t possibly see that far to spy the alleged infraction of the social order. When my friend asked if he was actually being stopped because he was wearing the red square, the cop’s face pretty much confirmed it. But it’s not just the cop versus people tension that emerging right now; it’s also the clock ticking away toward August, and how much needs to be decided, directly, before those school doors are supposed to open (or not) for classes. If Facebook is any indication of anything, student-strike-related invites are piling up and indeed overlapping for all things rebel red starting August 1, that pivotal day 100 of illegal contestation night after night in Montreal’s streets — a small count, relatively, compared to the soon six-month-old student strike.

Earlier this afternoon, I got a feel for the weight on the shoulders of these students, many of whom are probably pretty new to politics and also likely now have become fast learners and incredibly savvy at striking. Most of them have blocked many a door, seen many a riot cop up close, and gone miles on many an illegal demo, not to mention gotten really good at self-governance — or better than average, at least. I went and sat in on today’s UQAM strike council of some 75 people, give or take, mostly students (though most students are still away on break) in a lifeless UQAM lecture hall, but the room was brought to liveliness by the discussion — a bit slowly, though, since no one seemed to step up to facilitate what was clearly an informal direct democracy today. Brainstorming about everything from how to block classes to what logistics are needed to organizing solidarity demos, it suddenly became clear that this was an enormous puzzle given all the schools meeting as assemblies to decide whether to stay strong on their strike and then opening/not opening their schools within a tiny window of time in mid-August. The brainstorm also showed that nearly every school, for various reasons, thinks it is deserving of extra support, which of course is probably true.

Someone suggested they create a giant “calendar” on the chalkboard, which only underscored the incredibly complex communications and organizational task ahead. For instance, 4 schools open on August 13, and many of the schools are nowhere near each other geographically. How to communicate what all the student assemblies decide (including one that is supposed to meet the same day that the students are supposed to return to their classes at that school) to all the other schools, and all the students, and all the neighborhood assemblies, teachers, parents, allies, media, and the list went on. After some 45 minutes of trying to even begin to figure out a calendar, the task of doing so seemed to be abandoned in favor of trying to talk about the communications and organizational quagmire. I had to leave to get back for the Mile-End popular assembly, but the council meeting reminded me that, first, this strike is remarkable in that given all this complexity, the students have so far figured it out and stayed on strike, using these face-to-face decision-making structures; and second, as this sidewalk stencil from Mile-End urges, there’s a need to: “Prepare for August!”

Or better still, as this poster around Montreal proclaims: “On August 13. The Strike Continues.”

Or rather, both are true: there’s the need to prepare, and near impossibility of truly preparing given all the variables (elections, student assemblies, popular assemblies, police, special law, public opinion and especially material support, and the list goes on), and yes, it looks highly probably that the strike will continue nonetheless.

For now, as July draws to a close, so much radical subversion is being debated, imagined, and enacted through collectives and assemblies — the imperfect practice of what created a strike, what might let it go forward, and what might be its historical contribution more than anything else.

And likewise, so much of this radical subversion is being read through the tiny little red square. Sometimes, like in the photo below from much earlier today, taken on my walk to the UQAM strike council, all the eye thinks it sees is the pleasurable aesthetic of intended square converging with an accidental one, or the randomly lovely visual of this symbol in all sorts of places and spaces across the urban landscape, so quiet now during the two-week summer holiday that hits Montreal at the end of July. (In fact, there’s basically a voluntary “social strike” of sorts already going on, since many businesses simply close altogether for these two weeks and go on holiday too — making it maybe a little easier for folks to perhaps imagine what a social strike would look or feel like: leisurely noncompulsion, for starters, so as to do what one wants instead.)

Somehow, though, in the context of the building drama toward the opening/nonopening of school in mid-August, every scrap of red feels fraught with organizational and strategic difficulties, and yet ever so revolutionary.

(For more “Seeing Red” snapshots beyond those sprinkled through this piece, take a peek at my ever-growing archival record of red squares in Montreal and on Montrealers at http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/.)

- Cindy Milstein -

Posted in #manifencours, StoriesComments (0)

Pieces from Orchestrole 4, Montreal, Night 93

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC–Thanks to the orchestrole, the past four Wednesday nights in Mile-End have been more than magical, which itself would be enough — in this neighborhood famous for its magical Montreal bagels (the one filling thing besides poutine you can get 24 hours a day). In the orchestrole, struments and cookware bang out a loud protestation against special law 78; friends, neighbors, and fairly new autonomous popular assembly participants reclaim whatever streets we settle on taking that evening — or rather, decide to borrow as we temporarily take them — as a marching illegal demonstration against the criminalization of dissent. The magic comes in because it’s festive to stroll down tree-lined streets as the sun sets and stars begin to appear, and people in their homes pop their heads out doors and windows to watch, listen, or wave, or step on to their balconies with their own instruments or cookware to join in, briefly, in our orchestral cry against the government trying to shut down the student strike. And magic, too, because some sort of addictive joy seems to come over us all while we’re orchestrolling (for my story on the first orchestrole, see here).

More important, however, the core crew of our popular assembly and neighborhood musicians have transformed protest into the art of prefiguration with this orchestrole invention. It is a creative intervention that reshapes public space on its own terms, without permits or permission, while expressing not only outrage but also solidarity for the student and social strike, and each other too, precisely because we’re doing it in a way that builds bonds between us, allows us to do political outreach and organizing, and shows that we can make our own culture, sans commodification.

Tonight’s highlights in our fourth orchestrole included the following:

The innovation of lyric sheets, in both French and English, to some of the songs put together by some of the musicians, who decided to do a practice session before the march this week. I’m not sure if this first rehearsal of theirs is because they are increasingly enjoying being the newly named “Mile-End Orchestrole” as musicians, in demand from others in our neighborhood who aren’t musicians, or due to the fact that they’ll be playing the first indoor orchestrole tomorrow night at a “Red Square Sound” fund-raiser for legal funds for the striking students, morphing our new protest-prefiguration form into new ways to contribute to the DIY sustenance of this movement as well.

We also handed out five different pieces of literature — up from nothing the first week, to one piece the second, and maybe two last week. One of those was an invite to a new neighborhood assembly, in nearby Outremont, so we swung into the edge of Outremont to lend aid and music to our autonomous assembly comrades with a bit of outreach for them. I’ve walked through that neighborhood several times in search of red squares, and there’s been hardly a one, so perhaps this explains why it’s taken them so long to call for an assembly, or may later explain why so few people show up. But several of our orchestrollers were insistent on doing neighborly solidarity for Outremont’s first effort in a park this Saturday.

As we marched on and night grew darker, we seemed to better have each other’s backs this week, more than ever, as we assuredly blocked the whole of St. Laurent, or the biggest, busiest of the streets that we borrowed for a while. Unlike last week, when some 100 or so folks showed up, there were probably 30 at most this week by the time we reached St. Laurent. We were only loosely blocking about half of the lanes, and you could feel the cars and motorcycles edging up behind us, menacingly, about to put foot to pedal and try to drive way too fast past us on the other half of this one-way street. One person within our posse looked at a few other orchestrollers, and said, “Should we take the whole street?” Bodies moved quickly in answer, without breaking the music, spreading out across all lanes, as the drivers grew visibly more frustrated at not being able to get by. Several folks turned to face the oncoming cars, went up to talk to drivers, and made sure there weren’t gaps that would allow a car to attempt a zip by us. One of our crew on a three-wheel bike kept sort of doing circles around the cars. Even those folks who’ve been concerned at the popular assembly about defying law 78 or engaging in what they perceive as direct action seemed completely pleased that we were holding the streets, safely, for each other. (I suspect this doesn’t seem like it “counts” as a direct action, which is one reason it and casseroles have opened us space for those who might be nervous about such activities).

As we neared the end of this long stretch of St. Laurent, and chose to turn left on the main drag of Mile-End, St. Viateur, and start winding down our orchestrole for the night, the police finally decided to catch up to us with some three cop cars for the remaining 25 or so of us. The cops began to act as if they were blocking the streets for us, staying well behind us. There was a brief moment where we turned to look at them, and then everyone quickly agreed in word and motion that we should just ignore them. We ended up hanging out in an intersection chatting for about a half hour while the police sat in one lane, telling us several times to leave, then helplessly watching when we didn’t. They finally pulled their cruiser up close, and one of our crew played them an instrumental solo of a song that isn’t exactly cop friendly — but they didn’t seem to understand. They were probably too busy wishing they could assert control over what was simply a group of friends and neighbors talking politics, life, and music in the night.

I know the police could have asserted their power; at the same time, the fact that no one paid them much mind seemed to go far in this context to shatter their authority. That, in turn, gave us extra time to have an informal organizing chat of sorts about next week’s orchestrole — on consecutive night 100 of the illegal downtown demos, when we decided to take our neighborhood assembly banner and orchestrole downtown (plans since then include multiple neighborhood casseroles meeting at various points to bring many assemblies downtown, and a solidarity demo for Riot Pussy called by Anarchopanda, plus the Mile-End orchestrole gathering at Gamelin Park at 8:30 p.m. to then take the streets with likely many people on this special marker of a night against the specially awful law).

This is, certainly, nothing earth-shattering or world-changing about the orchestrole, whether week one or four Wednesdays in. But like the little red squares that are scattered here and there, disappearing and reappearing, each of the many little illegal and prefigurative acts here in Montreal and Quebec have added up to a near-six-month-long student strike that only shows rebellious-red signs of reemerging in early August, when students return and school, well, maybe doesn’t open.

I’ll end this overview of orchestrole 4 with a personal favorite moment from the evening. We’ve taken to taking the one particularly upscale street within the Mile-End neighborhood, where there are a bunch of expensive restaurants with outdoor seating and lots of unsympathetic-looking patrons. My contribution to the orchestrole is making red-felt squares and filling up a pot, then banging on that pot, but also holding it out to folks to take a square, so they can then wear and spread the solidarity. People often take several red squares, for themselves and friends, and on this fancy street, the waitstaff frequently want one too. The well-heeled diners always stick their noses up at us, avoid eye contact, and refuse my squares. Which makes me put my pot under their noses, across their fancy dinner plates and wine glasses, just to annoy them. This week, when I did that to one woman who sported fancy dress, thinking she too would reject this gift, she instantly took a red square, then raised her fist and said, in French, but in words I now perfectly understand: “To the infinite social strike!”

- Cindy Milstein -

Posted in #manifencours, StoriesComments (0)

In the Middle and In Between: A NATO Retrospective

Editor’s note: This story is part of our coverage of the #noNATO protests in Chicago.

Chicago, IL–It’s quieter than you might expect.  I’m in the middle of a crowd of NATO protesters, and nothing is happening.

Not “nothing,” exactly.  We are marching, though it may be more accurate to describe it as trudging.  (To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a person who has nothing left in life except the impulse to simply soldier on.)

Hours earlier, we marched this route in reverse, in much larger numbers.  There was chanting and singing.  Bullhorns blasted our messages to curious residents and concealed snipers on high rises lining South Michigan Avenue.  Signs waved, flags flew.

In an hour-long ceremony, veterans of the misnomered War on Terror threw their medals back toward the leaders who made unilateral decisions that ended in needless loss of life.  The crowd alternately cheered and hushed in sympathy with the brave men and women standing up for their beliefs.  It was impossible to witness without being moved.

Even the violence was quieter than you might expect, at least from where I stood, slightly removed.  I could judge what happened by the injured being pulled from the epicenter.  Street medics tended to head wounds, carefully and methodically checking for evidence of leaking spinal fluid.  Their calm demeanors belied an underlying sense of urgency.  Hundreds of riot police stood behind the makeshift triage unit, silent in their all-black body armor, batons ready to inflict more pain if deemed necessary.

No Imperial March played in the hot sticky air as the Stormtroopers moved in to begin clearing the intersection.  With the exception of some shouted commands and a periodic dispersal order broadcast via LRAD, they simply pressed forward, forcing us back.  Their eyes stared through us from behind sealed visors as if we were not real, or as if they were not fully present in the moment.

A photographer took pictures of me filming the scene, streaming it live to the Internet.  We exchanged pleasantries and credentials.  The police line pressed ever closer.  If this were a movie, there would be a melodramatic soundtrack accompanying our slow retreat down Cermak.  Instead we moved through a sea of silent tension almost worse than the implied force itself.

We played cat-and-mouse games with columns of riot cops all afternoon.  They tried to contain us and direct our movements; we tried to outmaneuver them and get to the convention center.  We succeeded, making it to the eight-foot metal barricades three times only to be threatened by the Special Forces guarding the dignitaries meeting beyond.  I did a stand-up TV interview at one barricade, telling the reporter that our goal was to be seen and heard by those inside the summit.  I was only seen and heard by the soldier who cut the interview short, barking a command to leave the secured area immediately.

Now, hours wearier and sweatier, we have finally gotten ahead of the riot cop formations long enough to head north, back toward downtown.  It’s a four-mile trek and we have been marching all day in 90 degree heat.  There is no energy left for chanting; signs have mostly been discarded.  We just put one foot in front of the other, advancing our small offshoot protest march and its ever-present bike cop escort.

It’s about to get loud again as we meet up with the other marches downtown.  We’re about to stop traffic and close down Michigan Avenue.  We’re about to sit outside a dinner being held at the Art Institute for the NATO spouses, demanding to know why we weren’t invited to join them.  More people are about to get hurt, including my friend Harrison, who will be hit over the head by an overzealous baton for the crime of playing his tambourine in the street.  We’re about to end the night with a dance party in the rain, followed by another five-mile march to the jail where they took our friends.

But now, right now, all is quiet.  The sun is setting spectacularly over the skyline and we are blocking four lanes of traffic, winding our way back to the heart of the city.

This is the part that never makes it to the movie, or the textbook – how the protesters get back home.  These are the spaces in the middle and in between that automatically hit the cutting room floor.  This is supposedly the least interesting part of the day.

And yet it is also the most human.  After all, the media loves to paint a caricature of us in opposition with the stiffly regimented forces of law and order.  They look for the loud, flashy moments and show them in eight-second clips devoid of context.  But we are human.  We get hungry; we look for a bathroom.  We get sweaty and tired and thirsty.  If you hit us with a baton, we will bleed – human blood, not protester blood.  Yet we press on, because we feel righteous anger and indignation.  We eschew personal comfort in order to amplify our message and champion our ideals.  We shout our dissent from the pavement to the rooftops, and it echoes back to us through the concrete canyons that have been abandoned by all but the most dedicated this weekend.

This is the hardest part of the protest, when we are tired and alone and one blister away from giving up and finding a train that’s still running.  This is the part when I wonder if we made any kind of difference at all.  This is when reality sets in, that we face a long road ahead with no express route to the finish line.  We will put in the hard work, one step at a time, one day at a time.  I have friends by my side and more waiting ahead.  This isn’t the end; it’s just the first in a series of memorable adventures.

This is the part that nobody sees but me.  This is the true measure of my convictions, because to me it’s not a long, arduous journey back.  I enjoy every sweaty, bloody step of the way.

- Rachel Allshiny -

Photo courtesy of Kelly Hayes

Posted in #noNATO, StoriesComments (2)

The Workers Rising in Union Square

New York, NY–Yesterday afternoon I attended the Workers Rising rally in Union Square. I had visited the ConEd rally a week before, and this time around found a similar scene: handfuls of unions represented by hundreds of people assembled at the northern plaza of the square passing out flyers, embracing one another, and cheering against speakers recounting their struggles.

Last week’s rally had many unions showing solidarity for workers affected by the ConEdison lockout, it being a primary example of injustices against labor workers. This week, ConEd was just one of many targets of the day of action, including a group of delinquent employers such as Toys R Us, JC Penney, Chipotle, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burlington Coat Factory and more. The crowd was diverse, and altogether the mood seemed festive, but not without bite: a banner held high read “Gov Cuomo does not care about union workers,” and some class war rhetoric was tossed around mixed with religious sermons denouncing the powers-that-be as evil—to wild applause and cheers.

After the speakers were finished, energy was cultivated with a short hip-hop performance before the crowd departed the square to march. Most would be marching towards ConEd, and other groups would tackle the other targets along the way. I came to the rally with little information on what was going to happen, so my uninitiated self was confused at first with how the march operated. I had assumed there would be defined separate marches each going to the different targets to picket outside; instead, everyone left in one big march that broke off and divided itself. Just as the march crossed Park Avenue, some continued moving east while others turned to walk south on Park; those moving down Park divided again when some stood outside Babies R Us and others continued on to ConEd. Some seemed confused as I was, and at one point I didn’t know if I was marching or simply walking alongside civilians caught in the shuffle.

I stood with the group outside Babies R Us. Initially the police halted the action to give the familiar rule: do not take up more than half the sidewalk. We tried to spread out but the group admittedly did spread across the whole sidewalk, and police seemed not to care after all and let the action continue. A member of the clergy blessed the store of its bad karma, a funny sight as customers continued to enter and exit the place. After this, we backtracked north and onto 16th Street, assembling outside the NYC Human Resources building. There were maybe 50 of us here, a line of civilians across the street standing or sitting on the sidewalk watching to see what was up. I noticed on nearby Irving Place a cavalcade of protesters moving south towards 15th Street. I was eager to follow the action, so I scurried over that way.

Here’s where the party was: an estimated 4,000 people assembled (according to a Twitter update) on the west sidewalk blowing horns, playing music, chatting and cheering alongside ConEd’s locked out workers. There was a series of barricades: a line of them in the street, allowing protesters some space in the street, and another in the sidewalk to facilitate pedestrian traffic. Funnily enough, as we stood together in this moment of solidarity, a large line of civilians stood packed against us waiting for a show at Irving Plaza.

Again, the police were being lenient in this permitted action. Every so often one or two protesters would walk down the street just to be there, enjoying applause from us on the other side as they walked by, but the police didn’t care as much as I’ve seen on Occupy-related marches, in which literally one wrong step is enough to put you in a jail cell for the night. Eventually police tightened up the barricades, but as a few entered the streets—and I’m surprised so few did—there remained no conflict between the people and the police.

Once 7pm came around, the permit was up and many dispersed quickly. One protester went in the street and yelled “Let’s go! Time to go home!” to encourage people to leave before there could be any conflict. It was weird to hear fiery language at both rallies only to find protesters reticent to be daring in their actions; within the span of 10 minutes maybe half the people who were there had left. I crossed 15th Street only to find a whole other section of the action between 15th & 14th (I stood between 15th & 16th the whole time), where there was a big push for noisemaking before closing the action. On my way out, rounding the corner on 14th, I was happy to see a large group picketing outside Chipotle. And then I went on my way.

- Joe Sutton -

Posted in StoriesComments (0)

A Small Red-Square Story, Montreal, Night 87

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC–I’ve been doing dual-purpose with my pot to bang on during the weekly (now in week three) Mile-End Orchestrole by using it to hand out free red squares too as we orchestroll our way through the streets, sans permission. The Orchestrole itself, an outgrowth of the Popular Autonomous Assembly of Mile-End, is multipurpose: bringing friends and neighbors together, outreaching about the assembly that meets weekly on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. in a neighborhood park, serving as a magical wake-up call in residential and business areas about the student strike and related austerity concerns, showing solidarity with the students, and asserting with our voices, sounds, and feet that special law 78 won’t silence people nor keep them from demonstrating . . . and making music. (For my earlier story, written about our first Orchestrole, see here.)

As I hold out my saucepan filled with red squares to passersby or folks who come out of their front doors to see the clanging, singing, dancing, and beautiful-sounding (and growing, with well over a hundred folks this time) band, people first hesitantly peer in and then their faces light up. If they are in support, of course. That’s usually a lot of people — except when we swing through the more upscale part of Mile-End. So many people are so appreciative and excited about getting this surprise gift as they are wandering down the streets when our ragtag solidarity march goes by. Others, strangely enough (or strange to me), ask me how much the squares cost, and then are overjoyed when I say, “Nothing! They’re a gift.” Last night, I must have given away some two hundred red-felt squares, and I can see — to my great joy — that people generally pinned them on their shirt or bag ASAP. And multiple folks asked for me extras, for friends or to give out. One guy told me, “Great, a new one! I’ve given away about ten and figured I’d never be able to keep one of my own.” I told him to take about ten, which he did. I arrived home last night with maybe twenty squares left in the bottom on my pot, and sleepily put it aside, knowing that tomorrow I wanted to get more felt to make more squares.

So this morning, when I emptied out the few remaining red squares in this saucepan before heading off to the fabric shop, I was surprised to find $6 in coins underneath–either from confused or kind people, and magically, just enough to buy another yard (at $6!) of felt today to cut out more red squares during tonight’s popular assembly in Mile-End.

I’d been to this same fabric store before. The cashier is a talkative — really talkative — woman. But she didn’t seem to be there. Instead, a completely silent guy took the bolt of red felt from me, and without any words, cut the two yards I’d requested — since I figured, the more squares, the merrier, and so why not double my good luck of last night’s donation with my own $6. He set my felt on the table and then, just as wordlessly, disappeared.

The talkative woman rushed back in, apologizing profusely that I had to wait maybe thirty seconds for her to ring up the sale. Then she launched into a much-longer tale of how she went out to take a cigarette break, after working hard all day, and had asked the guy who helped me (who apparently isn’t allowed, in the workplace hierarchy, to use the cash register) to keep an eye on the counter. Apparently, too, she’s not allowed to take such cigarette breaks, because she told me that her boss had run after the guy when he went to out to fetch her and admonished her severely. She told her boss that she’d only been taking out the trash, because she’s supposed to do that. “But he smelled the smoke on my breath!”

She then looked at my red felt on the cutting table and the red square pinned to my shirt. “To make red squares? For the student strike?” “Qui,” I responded. “Good! Good luck! Good!” she exclaimed over and over, as she raised a thumb’s up high into the air. So I, in turn, figured it was OK to wish her “good luck” with maybe telling her boss that she deserved breaks. She kept her thumb in the air and smiled a knowing smile, without words, as I walked out, my red felt in hand ready to be turned into other small red squares.

* * *

Photos by Thien, who made and gifted me many of the red squares I handed out last night. He also told me recently (something that others have said too) that what’s great about the red squares, among many other things, is that they open up a space to smile at people on the street who are also wearing them and sometimes talk to them about politics too. For many other magnificent photos of his documenting the red of maple spring-summer, see here.

- Cindy Milstein -

Posted in #manifencours, StoriesComments (0)

Solidarity Circle

New York, NY–We gathered downtown in New York City to welcome home our fellow Occupy Wall Street protesters and occupiers from around the country who had just marched in the blazing summer weather on a multi-day trek from Philadelphia to New York. We welcomed them and of course marched on Wall Street, converging at Zuccotti Park where it all began last September. It was beautiful: we were singing, speaking out, and talking with friends whom we had not been seen in a long time. It felt a bit like the park last fall. It was peaceful, loving, and communal.

At the height of this beauty the NYPD came into the park and began arresting someone for drumming. This man had been drumming the entire day but the orders were not given to come in and make arrests until we were all at the height of our solidarity, that thing which threatens state and corporate power so absolutely. Another man was filming the arrest and then cops jumped on him, threw him to the ground, and beat him before arresting him. I witnessed this entire scene personally as did many others. The occupiers from other locations were dumbfounded by the militancy of the New York Police Department. Of course, when beatings and arrests like this happen we converge and it all becomes very emotional because the brutality of the state, while they are doing the bidding of neo-liberal capital power, is the embodiment of what we are  rising up against. It is a very direct tactic the cops use to break up our communal experience; it is when we are at the height of our peaceful experience and connecting with each other that they break it up thru violence.

Needless to say after this the momentum of our gathering was interrupted and cops began marching through the park randomly picking people and making futile efforts at intimidation. It was a scene I have seen so many times at protests, scattered people in shock. This went on for some time while the violence and threat of violence only grew as did the separation of the masses. After the police action the crowd that was originally a cohesive body of people was a mass of individuals and small gatherings who were in shock and awe of the violence.

It was in this space that I began to hear something. It was very low like a background noise but it was growing. It sounded calming, like a humming of some sort. I looked over and saw a few individuals who had come together and where ohming, you know, going “ooooohhhmmm,” a meditative sound. It was so calming that the shocked individuals began gravitating toward the sound and joining the circle.The circle slowly began to grow and grew and grew, bringing more people into it. As the circle grew the calming sound grew. I joined, and the feeling of peace while I stood in that circle ohming was so powerful that it took me away and grounded me at the same time. I closed my eyes and let myself go into that experience. When I opened my eyes the circle had grown so large that it had encompassed much of the park, and all of the cops were now on the outside of the circle, and outside of the park. What remained in that space where violence, fear, shock, awe, and fragmentation had existed only moments before was now peace, calmness, safety, solidarity, and love.

I promise you all that another world is possible and we can create it–even in the face of greed, violence, and selfishness. We created it that night at Zuccotti Park.

- Sean McAlpin -

Editor’s note: You may read another perspective of the same night in Zuccotti here. If you were there as well, share with us your story. Photo by Julia Reinhart.

Posted in StoriesComments (0)

From Philadelphia to NYC: the #99MileMarch

Editor’s note: This story is one of many that recount events related to the Occupy National Gathering in Philadelphia. You may read another account from the 99 Mile March here.

New York, NY–The first Occupy National Gathering had just come to an end, and occupiers lined the fence surrounding Independence Hall, waiting to depart on the Guitarmy 99 Mile March from Philadelphia to New York. The march would take seven days, but I was only able to accompany them for the first three.

We made our way through some pretty unpleasant areas on the first day. Hours after the march had begun, we hadn’t even encountered the smallest park. There wasn’t even an attempt to recreate nature. Someone made an observation that we had lost our connection to it. “We paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” they said, making reference to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. We usually drive though cities so quickly. It’s harder to recognize what you’re missing when you move so fast. We slowed down time that day, and it was really unsettling seeing just how much we’ve paved away the beauty of this world. The last time I remember feeling that out of touch with nature was when I first walked the streets of Florence, Italy, where the streets are so narrow that they can’t even line them with trees. It leads me to ponder what was behind the drive to almost totally remove ourselves from that which gives us life.

We encountered many people over those first three days. Some people would look on us with an air of total confusion. “Why would anyone walk in this heat? What are these people doing? Are they crazy?”  Then, there were those who would look on with curiosity, look on as if they were searching for something and didn’t fully realize that this was it yet. They were undoubtedly intrigued. They wanted to know more. I was able to pass out a flyer for my blog in those situations hoping that they would pull up the web address and come to see the real reason why 70 people would march 99 miles in that heat, why we felt it so important to bring our message to the road. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the time to really relay that message in person.

Of course, we encountered a handful of people who felt the need to throw pure venom. A car would pass throwing phrases like, “Get a job” or “Take a bath.” One man even honked at us just to give us the finger. One’s first reaction to this might be anger or retaliation, but I just get sad now when I witness this because it’s so uninformed. The ones who are confused or curious are half awake or in the process of waking up, but the ones that are that angry are still so deep in slumber that it really demonstrates how far we still have to go. Luckily, those people were the exception.

I would say a good majority of the people we encountered responded in a very positive way. Some were overcome with joy at the sight of Occupy. The sound of horns honking in support of us was quite frequent and definitely uplifting. People would often smile and throw their arms up as we’d pass. The first of three encounters that had the most affect on me was where a man strung a hose out of his basement window to give us a break from the heat of the day. He told us, “I’m too old to be out there with boots on the ground, but I’m grateful that you guys are doing it.” A woman at his house offered their bathroom to the marchers, and he decided to march a mile or so with us, getting a taste of what he longed for and supported from afar. The second incident was when a young girl and her mother were running cold water out to us from their refrigerator, and the third was when we passed a bar with all of its windows open, and people came to the windows to cheer and wish us success. It was amazing to see the faces of the people who struggle with us and clutch to hope that this might bring the shift that they’ve so longing for.

There were occupiers from all over the country on the march, as well as an indignado from Spain. Among the marchers were occupiers from Houston and Portland and New Haven and Los Angeles and Philadelphia and New Jersey. All would form a real bond by the end. There was tension in the first few days arising from some miscommunication and the lack a horizontal structure that occupiers so long for. We’re all still learning how to walk. People made some mistakes, but every time we have the courage to put ourselves in these situations that can be uncomfortable, we learn from them, and that will make us more prepared for some of the things we might have to face in the future on a much larger scale.

It’s beautiful that some put so much of their time into putting such an action together, and it’s extremely beautiful that we are among people who refuse to just be taken care of. Occupiers want to have their hands in it. They prefer horizontal rather than hierarchical. It’s important that everyone is able to contribute and play a role in society, and for that week, the march was a society. Like Zuccotti, as I’m sure other occupations around the world, building a functioning society is not done without its tribulations. I wish I had been able to stay for the entire march to watch that evolve.

Another challenge that the community faced was the serious mental instability of one of the members. It was clear that the trauma this person had experienced living in this dysfunctional world had really had a debilitating affect on her. She was poised for confrontation. Even saying something nice to her at the wrong time would provoke an insult, and at times when she would come to you and seem in a better state, the littlest thing could trigger her and send her into a rage. In the time I was there, I started to observe things that would mitigate here. She liked to cook, and she liked to sing. She even expressed during one of her moments of clarity that she needed to keep busy to stay out of her head. It would have been a real sign of progress if the community had been able to keep her on and encourage the activities that made her feel good about herself. Unfortunately, she was given a bus ticket to New York. Perhaps it was too difficult a situation to really give her the time and energy that would have been required. I really feel that the movement needs to work at creating a safe and empathetic place for people like that. This society that we’re fighting against has created a lot of dysfunction and instability. I think Occupy was probably the most accepting environment she had ever been in. At times, she begged us to work with her condition. I think a great deal of healing could come from an environment that really took the time to do so.


It was overall a really beautiful experience, and nothing to me brings beauty in a way that music does. The first night at the farm, we had a concert. It was a time that we really got to see our old and new friends shine individually. Each person brought their beauty to the experience, a collective beauty that erupted when we reached the Staten Island Ferry Station. An Occupier from Houston belted out the beautiful lyrics from a song called One Day by Matisyahu, and the rest of us sang along. I can’t imagine a more relevant song for our current situation. It was a beautiful moment. The energy and love and passion and determination all swam together in a colorful symphony. Everyone was beaming with joy, accomplishment and hope.

On our arrival to Zuccotti, the marchers sang it again to all of the New York occupiers who came out to welcome them, and for one day, we were able to again experience the vibrancy and energy of our occupation at Liberty Square, and it will not be the last time. The NYPD can harass us. Congress can make laws to try and stifle us. They can even incarcerate a beloved member. We will not stand down. This revolution is happening. Embers of it can be seen in cities all over the world, and each step we take forward brings us closer to a time when it’s a blazing inferno of love. The members of this march took a lot of those steps, and I am honored to have been able to share some of those steps with such beautiful people.

 - Stacy Lanyon -

Photos by Stacy Lanyon. Check out Stacy’s website, At the Heart of an Occupation, which profiles individuals of the Occupy movement.

Posted in #NatGat, Pictures, StoriesComments (1)

Exile & Austerity, Montreal, Night 86

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

A [Paul] Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)

One must have a home in order not to need it.

— Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (1966)

Montreal, QC–I’ve been thinking a lot lately of home, history, and exile, and the intertwining legacies between them. Of the wreckage.

I’m in voluntary exile this summer. In so many small ways, though, my exile can be traced to my own brokenness, a “personal” narrative that is also constructed by the contemporary social conditions, which in turn are shaped by the “catastrophe” of history. Thus I experience a twist on another Améry essay, ”The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”: the necessity and impossibility of being at home in this world.

His essay speaks volumes to me, a godless Jew, in the wreckage of the Holocaust (which Améry survived and didn’t survive) and the state of Israel. As an assimilated Jew prior to the Shoah, Améry had no relationship to Judaism and didn’t identify with being Jewish; with the onset of National Socialism, he couldn’t avoid being Jewish, or rather, it picked him out, tortured him, and put him in a concentration camp; after the Holocaust, he conjectures, it’s both necessary to embrace our histories and impossible to do so. “With Jews as Jews I share practically nothing: no language and no cultural tradition . . . for me, being a Jew means feeling the tragedy of yesterday as an inner oppression. On my left forearm I bear the Auschwitz number; it reads more briefly than . . . the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information.” Hence his further query, in another essay in his collection At the Mind’s Limits, “How much home does a person need?” after he and millions of othered Others — Jews, Roma, queers, those considered mentally or physically impaired, and more — were forcibly exiled, and if not annihilated physically, then annihilated culturally, emotionally, materially. Their communities and worlds, often even a memory of them, were forever gone.

This necessity-impossibility paradox seems to mark the human condition at this juncture in the twenty-first century. Most of us have been exiled from all that we’ve produced, reproduced, created, dreamed of, cared for, and loved — our sense of being at home in our own world — reduced to pressing our noses against the glass houses of the few who’ve stolen nearly everything from us and yet cruelly flaunt their abundance (a situation that’s captured, even if poorly, in the 1% language of Occupy). We, the vast “pile of debris,” can only look forward to austerity, which daily gets more austere.

I’m one of the relatively lucky ones in this present-day exilic existence, since it’s more parts existential than, say, geographic or material, although at times — like this past week, when I experienced a minor health issue — it viscerally hits me how much most of us are increasingly being forced outside the human community in terms of basic needs like health care. For too many, the necessity-impossibility paradox has already heaped “wreckage upon wreckage” on them for decades or even centuries.

Like the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, five hours north of Montreal, who are presently trying to fend off Resolute Forest Products, which began active clear-cut logging of the Algonquins’ traditional territories last week, and the riot squad, sent in by the government to enforce the logging (there’s a solidarity casseroles at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 18 at 111 rue Duke, Montreal, http://www.facebook.com/events/413763868670087/). Like a family from Ville St-Laurent that due to racial profiling and the criminalization of immigrants, faces the deportation of the father this August, after thirty years in Canada, to a country he hasn’t seen since he was nine, separating him from his partner, mother, and kids for years and perhaps forever (Solidarity across Borders is holding a “Beat the Borders” reggae music fund-raiser at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19 at 2009 Decarie, #108, Montreal, http://www.facebook.com/events/267149120057721/).

So many peoples, so many names, over so many catastrophes. Like in the now-tourist-attraction Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where between 1954 and 1959, two painters took it on themselves to inscribe the names of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian Jews murdered in the Holocaust on the walls of the main nave and adjoining areas. They included each person’s birth and death dates, but in most cases, a deportation date to a concentration camp was the last known moment of each individual’s life, and all that the artists (or perhaps these angels of history, battling in vain to “awaken the dead” with their act of remembrance) could record.

It’s hard indeed to feel at home in this world, because this world offers little comfort and shelter to most of humanity. I come from a country that, for instance, spends three to five times more per year on incarcerating someone than educating them. Where it’s normal not to have health insurance (forget health care), and just a routine part of life in a big city to see lots of people sleeping on the streets. Where’s it’s someone’s own fault if they go hungry, can’t pay their bills, or lose a job, or get depressed because of this. All this is reason enough for exile, and reason, even more, to stay and resist with others. A necessity and impossibility, bound up in the recent paradox of the name “Occupy,” signaling an awakening for some and a further erasure and pain for others.

So last week in Montreal, when I ran across another piece of street art by Harpy, “EXIL,” I got to thinking a lot about home, history, and exile. Because like exile, Harpy’s work unsettles, as all good street art should at this unsettling moment (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Harpy/249684105126331/). Maybe this bison, a stopped-in-its-track still image from the stop-action series of photographs taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) as well as a shorthand symbol for the exile and extermination of indigenous peoples of the Americas, like Benjamin’s angel of history, isn’t running away from something — a passive victim. Perhaps this bison in Harpy’s “EXIL” also has its face turned toward the past, toward the wreckage piling higher and higher, even as the winds of “progress” propel it with “such violence.” Or maybe it’s racing full-steam ahead (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Muybridge_Buffalo_galloping.gif), propelling itself toward its own half-compulsory, half-self-imposed exile, from which to then linger, look backward in its own good time, and contemplate what it would mean to “make whole what has been smashed.”

That’s likely not what Harpy intended, and maybe Harpy didn’t even intend for our bison friend to evoke images of the “tragedy of yesterday” that was the American West but rather exiles and genocides of many peoples, from many places, over many times. I can ask Harpy in person the next time I run into their alter ego on the streets of Montreal, of course, but good street art is, I think, less about what the artist wants you to think; that would make it street decoration or paid advertisement. It’s about making you think. Putting you outside yourself, and perhaps into the exile of engaging with the impossibility and yet necessity of social transformation.

I’d heard rumor that Harpy had some new pieces related to the student strike, ready to grace various alleyways and crumbling urban walls. So when I heard another rumor that Harpy and their late-night fairy-helpers were out wheatpasting one night last week, I wasn’t expecting to see “EXIL” the next day. And I wasn’t expecting it to stick in my head, like a song heard in the background, on radio waves wafting out of an open apartment window on the heavy summer air. I couldn’t stop humming it in my head, turning its rhythms — of that bison, galloping, fleeing, racing, running, maybe scared or maybe proud, or both — over in my mind to try to hear what it was saying to me.

A few days later, I found another “EXIL” wheatpasted under a bridge, but this time it was in the same vicinity as another new Harpy piece, a triptych on austerity: “Time,” “Debt,” and “Work.”

It was suddenly as if this bison was hurtling itself toward a new battle, even if it becomes it’s last stand, against a capitalistic world seemingly hurtling itself toward its own self-annihilation, by destroying its own home — its ecology, along with everything and everyone that inhabits it. “Austerity” is one more ugly means to exile vast swathes of humanity — us — by taking away all we need, and all we also desire, to be comfortably at home. Out of the impossibility of this moment, and certainly from necessity, people around the globe are (re)turning to experiments in what it might mean for us to take ourselves out of exile: from struggling toward the right of return to simply returning, from defending land to simply taking back the land, from fighting occupations to simply occupying those places that should be ours in common(s).

This is and probably will be no easy homecoming. The government does and will send in riot police, in greater numbers than the bison at their peak, to trample us. But maybe there’s also no pristine home to come back to, either. We may be finding that we need to invent wholly new ways to house ourselves by first looking squarely at that “pile of debris,” in which there’s no comfy narrative of good guy versus bad guy, but only us fallible humans, most of whom are now suffering from the necessity and impossibility of being human in the face of austerity. The story of the bison’s habitation and exile, life and death, stretches across many peoples and social structures, even if settler colonialism and commerce were the largest and final nails in its coffin. (Ah, I forgot, capitalism is breathing new life into the bison as niche-market commodity!)

I started this blog post thinking I was going to write about “The Form & Content of Social Goodness,” which is probably just the flip side of the same coin I’ve been tossing around this evening, and what I’ll turn to next. Because I’ve also been thinking a lot lately of the good society, the present, and making a home for ourselves in this world. Of reconstruction.

So I was struck today by the simple “social goodness” perpetrated by an anonymous crew of wheatpasters who seem to have done a second round of poetry posts to cover the corporate ads on the city rental “bixi” bikes. They proclaim that “BixiPoésie is the work of a group of . . . . students, workers, artists, activists . . . who dream of a world where art and culture flow freely in our streets. Where our minds are no longer stuck in the logic of might and economic reason. Where public space belongs to the citizens, rather than corporations” (http://bixipoesie.ca/). It is just one (albeit minor but telling) example of how the student and social strikers along with their allies are dreaming up strategies not to replicate the wreckage, which is kind of what Occupy feels like to me at the moment, or not to get “irresistibly propel[led] by “the storm” of the likely provincial elections “into the future to which [their] back is turned, while the pile of debris before [them] grows skyward.” Instead, there is an effort here to “awaken the dead, and make whole” by focusing on a relation between means and ends, which is another way of asserting a relation between form and content, versus what seems to have become a lopsided fixation on form as content in Occupy, eviscerated of an ethics — or social goodness. (Here’s one example from Occupy, where both the “choices” offered by this author are just different versions of contentlessness as well as a lack of imagination, especially if one actually hopes to grapple with the wreckage of history and fly intentionally toward a better future; http://truth-out.org/news/item/10358-occupy-national-gathering-electrical-storms-and-insurrectionary-corpses.)

This isn’t meant to romanticize Maple Summer. It’s just to say that exile, chosen or not, unsettles one’s perspective, and maybe there’s something that can be gleaned from that — to bring back home, if one has a home, or as the basis for even thinking about making home, or having the strength to attempt to do so.

The one thing I’m sure of tonight is, as imperfect angels on earth trying to make our own history in this inhospitable world, we’re going to need strong wings indeed.

- Cindy Milstein -

Posted in #manifencours, StoriesComments (0)