Saturday, March 24, 2012

Guest Author

Montage on Broadway is a restaurant as casual and sophisticated as its name, even though it’s in Greenville, Ohio, home to prosperous farmers who influence the town’s “super conservative” majority, according to Lianne Spidel, poet, host, and friend. She got the Friends of the Library (not so conservative) to invite me to read from my novel on Author’s night, which was yesterday, and I would not have been apprehensive except that my characters are the sort of people super-conservatives warn us against. Lianne suggested I explain a bit before reading.
How would that help? I imagined saying "These people are naïve ideologues trying to change society and overturn the government." Not a good beginning.
So I asked people (sitting at tables in subdued light) what they were doing in 1968. Many of them were having small children or being small children. One man had finished his tour in Vietnam shortly before. One woman was four; she remembers that year with vivid, painful confusion. That’s how I remember it, too, though I was in college, as was another woman in the audience. Some people didn’t respond, probably because they weren’t born yet in 1968.
To introduce the book I said “year that sticks like a giant cleaver in the memory,” said “a historical novel is about the time it’s written as well as the time it’s set in,” said “young people unable to count on a definite future, dubious overseas war, polarized society,” said “I hate polarization.” That is true.
And then I read, mostly scenes I’d read before, with dialogues between male & female, soldier & anti-war activist, young man and older lady.
I read the scene with Ivy, who plans to live with her boyfriend Chuck, talking with her mother, who knows all the reasons that’s a bad idea. There’s a moment: Mum says, “What if you get pregnant?” and Ivy says “I’ll just get an abortion.” Mum has a kind of meltdown.
Someone in the audience noted the irony of Ivy’s being against the killing in wars and in the inner city, yet still able to casually refer to an abortion. I said something like yes, Ivy’s focused young men’s right to life, and someone else pointed out that Ivy’s not yet had to deal with the implications of a pregnancy. And the conversation went on. A woman noted that Ivy and her mother could talk much more reasonably than she herself had been able to talk with her own mother at that age. The mention of abortion did not end the scene, which seemed to be mitigating polarization in the here and now.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Update: two phases of the Movement, 1968-9 & 2011-12

A look at Google results for "Occupy Non Violence" shows an active discussion, with most of the writers and publishing organs sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street.
Eyeball summary: Of course Occupy should embrace the practices of non-violent resistance.
In contrast, a look at Google results for "Occupy Violence" shows mainstream media coverage with phrases such as "threat of violence" and "turns violent."
What I notice: violence is not news in early 21st century America. NON violence is such important news people don't know how to report it.

I've been working on this thread -- two phases of the Movement, 1968-9 & 2011-12 -- since mid February, but couldn't post till yesterday. It's worth scrolling down.

The Question of Violence

Feb. 12, 2012
The violence debate has come to the Occupy Movement.
Last week (February 6) journalist Chris Hedges published “The Cancer in Occupy.” He didn’t mean “cancer;” he meant masked people dressed in black marching in a block and committing acts of vandalism, such as breaking store windows. The comparison to out-of-control cells in a body is disturbing. A loosely organized egalitarian movement is open to variety in tactics, as the black blocs are characterized; as tactics they’ve been used since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999. In Oakland, where 400 people were arrested January 28th, a black bloc, a small group with more than its share of attention, promoted the idea that Occupy was turning violent. Hedges writes: “The corporate state understands and welcomes the language of force. It can use the Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics and destruction of property to justify draconian forms of control and frighten the wider population away from supporting the Occupy movement. Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob we are finished.”
That’s true. Of course violence-prone hypermasculine actions play into the excitable hands of the media, the police and city governments who want the occupiers to be discredited, who are making new first-amendment-violating rules about where and how citizens can assemble.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, a war correspondent in the Middle East, the Balkans, Central America, and Africa. He was arrested with others in Occupy Wall Street. He also has a Master’s from Harvard Divinity School. But there he is on radio being challenged by Kristof Lapaur, an activist with Occupy Oakland. Lapaur thinks Hedges should have said more about the actual organizing tactics and policies of Occupy Oakland. He sort of accused Hedges of doing what Hedges doesn’t want the media to do: focus on a small off-kilter group that performs random destruction of property. The detail was dizzying: the Occupy Movement has grown huge and complicated, though it’s still what I would call a participatory democracy (the phrase on the New York General Assembly website is “direct democracy”) anti-heirarchical, “open, participatory and horizontally organized”. Also consensus-seeking. So a great many people are doing a lot of things—many many small decisions, a lot of complex organizational rhetoric (both Hedges and Lapaur are fluent), plenty of disagreement—to keep it going on a nonviolent trajectory.
Nonviolent tactics include long frustrating meetings, complex rhetoric, many leaders, and lots of disagreement that must be worked through to resolution. That much I know.
Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, issued a call (in The Nation, Feb. 27th) for Occupy to explicitly adopt a policy of “strategic nonviolent direct action”: “By renouncing violence against persons or property, Occupy would enhance its appeal to the disabled and people of color, who have good reason to stay away from volatile confrontations. By isolating those who seize the spotlight by smashing things, it can prevent them from trampling the ethos of a brilliantly leaderless movement.”
Gitlin, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society and co-author of the Port Huron Statement of 1962, reminds The Nation readers of the Weather Underground and other groups from the New Left Movement of the late sixties who grew violent and brought down SDS. The agonized section of his book is titled “The Implosion.”
Which brings this commentary around to my fear.
My novel, Riders on the Storm, takes place in one corner of the movement going through Gitlin’s “implosion.” It’s based on events that warped my life in an amazingly short time. Among other things, I learned from experience that tactics such as the Weather Underground’s Days of Rage and the black blocs’ anarchist window-breaking are obvious, tempting, and intuitive. They transform fear and anger into a sort of wild joy, an illusion of power. I can readily imagine wanting to break a huge plate-glass window in an imposing building that serves the ruling class.
Chris Hedges reminded the radio audience that in the Balkans and El Salvador, the police and the military eventually came to side with the protesters. The police, he points out, are obviously not part of the 1%. I wonder if waiting for the police to wake up as city administrations become increasingly dictatorial is a way of martyring your constituents to retain the moral high ground.
Another non-violent tactic: incredible patience.
I learned, in passing (a news clip? a brief email mention?) that Occupy has been urging nonviolence since last fall and is conducting nonviolence training across the country. Nonviolence does not film well. It’s not exciting until the nightsticks come out, the campsite is trashed, and a woman screams bloody-murder.
After the Chicago ’68 demonstrations at the Democratic Convention (determined by federal commission to be a “police riot”), I remember a sort of constant hysterical excitement: we were afraid, and we were attracting a lot of public attention. It felt as though the general public was finally ready to listen to our discourse on the Power Structure or University complicity with the war machine. We got aggressive. Our accusations were salted with street language. Some of us got into explosives.
I had what I suppose was a crisis of conscience that led me away from the Movement and was followed by guilt about leaving. You could say the book I wrote 40 years later was one way to come to terms with that guilt.
When I join Occupy, I will need non violence training.

Monday, March 5, 2012

I GET the Occupy Movement

6 February, 2012

Occupy fills The New Yorker, The Nation, and Common Dreams, stories of and by gentle angry people. I haven't read as much as I intended to. Am I afraid of what I will learn? afraid I won’t like the people I want to admire? Or that I will love them and be flooded with sorrow that I am not there? The police evictions came, inevitable as the cold weather, and the occupiers have stayed: in the news, in the streets of cities across the country. They have not needed a platform beyond “We are the 99%.” The public gets it. We will not let you look away, nor avoid our gaze.Here we are, here we are, here we are. We know that you know that we know that you know. The movements with more focused agendae swirl and soar: Move to Amend. Their lines are clear: Save the planet. Corporations are not people. Good for them.
No high profile leaders have come out of Occupy so far--that I know of. But I’m not reading carefully. There are “General Assemblies” – big, rambling meetings – as close as Toledo. I realized I could actually go and didn't want to attend a long meeting mixed with people trying to plan, people just thinking out loud, people glad for a podium at last.
Saturday, I watched a video of a confrontation between D. C. occupiers and police clearing McPherson Square, which was full of tents. The occupier doing most of the talking wore a knit cap with teddy bear ears. The policeman had a helmet with a clear plastic visor and a big dark coat. “We need to clear the area,” he said. The occupier said, “We’re not going.” They did not yell; they talked.
The video shows the police moving in a line with clear plastic shields. The protestors chant – “Sit down! Sit down! Sit down!” then something I don’t understand, then “Shame! Shame ! Shame!” Then a woman screams, full-scale horror-movie scream, as she’s lifted by the waist. Then the video screen goes black.

Once I was a confrontive activist, smart, principled and, maybe for a few moments, effective. Now I spend time with college students, listening and (less usefully) telling them things I know.
Hold on to humanity, that’s what I know. Here’s an apple for you. Here’s a song. We need to care for each other, present ourselves as witnesses, avoid fruitless rhetoric, resist polarization. The police, economically and socially, are in the 99% along with us. In Chicago, we yelled to the police, "Join us! Join us!" It didn't work. Now, however, I'm here to tell you it CAN work.

Joy, Longing and Fear

Oct. 13th 2011:

Of course I want to Occupy Wall Street, though Toledo is a nearer city. I want to sing in a big crowd of gentle angry people … singing, singing for our lives. (Thanks to Holly Near.) I want to help fill the streets, share sandwiches, look deep into the eyes of strangers and let them look back until the strangeness vanishes.
So exciting, this new Occupy movement. In the New York Times, David Brooks and Gail Collins are disingenuously puzzled. Mayor Bloomberg is about to bring shame upon himself by forcibly evicting people from Zucotti Park. Don’t they get it? My Facebook page is filled with blood-stirring videos. Deepak Chopra (surprise!) speaks eloquently with the “human microphone” – the words repeated and passed on by many voices, echoed and re-echoed. Common Dreams and The Nation are full of smart essays. MoveOn, Credo, Act Blue – all the new-new Left cyber groups have signed up to join the Movement.
Oh, the Grand March, with banners from every group, oh the glad young faces. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round! Turn me round! Turn me round …

Then I saw the video of the NYC occupiers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and Chicago’s Jackson Street bridge surged up out of Old Memory: I was being nudged along by a cop with a billy club and sassing him by singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
I didn’t know I was a smartass. I thought I was reminding the police of a Great American Truth, if only they would listen. That’s how young I was.
Memories have kept rolling, vivid and fresh: the Michigan&Balbo melee. The Bandshell, where Alan Ginsberg desperately chanted OM in what was left of his voice Ah Ohhh UUMMM and then the police charged the audience, moving across the rows of seats, clubs swinging.
Then the excitement grew to war-lust: One, two, many Chicagos. COINTELPRO infiltrators, ugly dogmatism and rhetoric replaced with other, fresher dogmatism and rhetoric—anachronistic versions of Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, ferociously argued in the Student Union. Weatherman’s Days of Rage. Explosions. Weather Underground: “We are outlaws! We are free!” I discovered nothing within me that wanted to blow things up.
But in a far corner of my soul, I am still an outlaw.
So my first reaction to Occupy Wall Street: joy. The second: fear.
Because, I thought, there will soon be leaders with bodyguards and speaking engagements, intoxicated with stories of pain and heroism. There will be villains who undermine the Movement from within as well as politicians and police eager to villainizing the occupyers. Multiple arrests. Rancorous divisions. Personal ambition, resentment, envy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Diamonds and Rust

I've been to Cleveland and back with the novel, a reading at Case (formerly Case Western Reserve, where I was officially a student at Flora Stone Mather College for Women). I read in Guilford Hall, once my dorm, in a parlor with colorful period wallpaper and heavy woodwork, very much as I remember it. Visited my darling room, the one with a walk-in closet and a dormer window. There are no longer phones on the stairwells. The view from the porch is crowded with the Gehry building, but otherwise much is the same: the wonderful trees are still there, color fading this time of year.
In the audience was a former colleague of Louis Masotti, the professor who led the investigation of the Glenville firefight (or rebellion or insurrection, depending on how you saw it) July 23, 1968. Originally, I told the audience, I was going to write something close to what happened on campus the following spring, as the word leaked in to students: Ahmed Evans, on trial for killing policemen, was almost certainly innocent, whereas the police themselves were culpable. We also learned that the Masotti report, written for the National Commission on Civil Disorders (I think that's the correct name) had accurate details that were NOT being admitted as evidence. Injustice had never come so close. We wrote broadsides, demonstrated, occupied Adelbert Hall, and talked incessantly; I'm glad I didn't write this version.
For the novel, my protagonists had to come close to the action, so I put them on the scene in Glenville; the Masotti report (a paperback titled Shoot-Out in Cleveland) was a key source. It is indeed full of relevant details. The scenes I wrote are accurate, except for the presence of my characters, and pretty gripping.
Masotti's colleague remembered with dismay the furor on campus, including the trashing of Masotti's office; we guess activists were hunting the report. That must have happened in the fall of '69, after I'd left Cleveland. The other professor moved all his research home. Masotti's two student assistants, both brilliant and energetic, both headed for Harvard, both ended up badly: one ran afoul of the law. The other went "off his rocker," wrote an incendiary anti-Obama book and is now in Kenya causing trouble. Nothing ends once and for all.
A woman in the audience was a nurse on July 23, 1968, in an emergency room dealing with a wounded policeman in one bed, a black nationalist in the bed next to him. She and her husband were stopped as they tried to drive home to their apartment on Superior hill. Like the professor, she is still traumatized by the memory; her body was rigid with it.
I loved being there close to those memories, one of those gray afternoons with the leaves in their last throes of being incandescently golden. Listened to Joan Baez on the way home: "... we both know what memories can bring; they bring diamonds and rust."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The situation then, the situation now:

Writer Patricia Hampl says, of the impact of the Vietnam War: “We had lost the national connections and were heartsick in a cultural way.” I learned this from reading an interview in the current Writer’s Chronicle.
It’s worse now, she says, “the problems have leached into a much larger part of the society. Not just the culture, but also the economy.” And she adds, “I mean, think about it. Guantanamo?”
I think how it’s become difficult, lately, to pay attention to the news, how economics and politics have become interlaced, and it’s too easy to become incensed at the Corporatocracy (or the Republicans). I don’t want to be incensed, not all the time. Fury prevents thought.
Hampl says, “The draft in some ways made it easier for us to protest the Vietnam War. I sometimes have thought of Iraq as the credit card and Walmart war because a lot of the people joined the National Guard in order to improve their lot in life. … There’s a quality of life that they wanted to achieve, and they bet on the odds.”

Patricia Hampl makes more sense to me than articles about the political scene or “the economy” (where does it end? Not at the U.S. border.) Hample cares about language, saying, for example, “mercenaries” rather than “independent defense contractors.” All this is from page 22 of the Chronicle. On page 23 she says, “Remembering is a political act.” Then she takes the thought further: “Is an act of the imagination not the real resouce for one’s ethics? The imagination is where empathy happens. If I can imagine that you might be pained, wounded, harmed, by something I would do or say, and if that has meaning for me, then that’s the beginning of empathy.”
Good reading. Patricia Hampl’s words fill in the blanks and the cloudy wordless spots in my mind – about language, about empathy, about why I think certain kinds of literature and film get too much attention, even in the Think Magazines, and about why I wrote a book about 1968.