27 Sep


Letter to the police

Part of what moves me so much about the Occupy Wall Street protests and their offshoots is the earnestness. Part of it is the times we live in seeming to demand direct action, part of it is the commitment to non-violence and to thoughtful communication.

But probably the biggest part of it for me is semantic.

The protest movement has failed in the last 20 years, in part, because it has harnessed a rhetoric made up solely of demands and statements that are factually incorrect, or at least are arguable. NOT IN OUR NAME always rubbed me the wrong way because it wasn’t true. Our government did go to war in our name. The soldiers doing the killing and dying were our family members and friends; they were absolutely fighting in our name. The 2000 election was stolen by the right and relinquished by the center in our name. What has been so painful is that our name has been used to perpetrate unspeakable wrongs.

The tenor of that language cut me off because it made the ineffectual nature of the protests that much more palpable. The more people said it was not in their name, the more was done in our names. And so at a certain point, why bother. And that manner of speaking, that kind of poster, leaves no room for wonder or debate, sorrow or hope. It’s just a command – you’re either in or you’re out – and that is not the world I want to make.

When I look at the signs, the blogs and the interviews with Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, I’m seeing and reading and hearing something else. “We are the 99%.” All of a sudden I can decide whether or not I’m part of that percentage! Thanks for the invite! “I can’t afford a lobbyist.” Neither can I! I keep hearing stories of the way strangers are welcomed at protest sites, that non-violence is championed, and that people in the movement are clear about what they don’t know, as much as what they believe.

It’s hard to admit that maybe it’s just an aesthetic shift that has brought me into this. Maybe I really am that shallow. (Though I know I’ve been slowly becoming more radicalized anyway). But as someone who is obsessed with the way we talk to each other, as much as what we say, I think what’s happening here, how it’s happening, speaks to something deeper in the grain of this activism. 

Occupy Chicago on non-violence.

Chris Hedges.

25 Sep

Labor Day in Urbana, IL

I had an awesome experience on Labor Day, here at the Urbana, IL Labor Day Parade. There were the usual floats – unions, candidates, fire trucks, etc. And then a woman of about 60, dressed head-to-toe as a thrift-store Mother Jones came by on foot, waving a flag and talking to people. The family of folks next to us were clearly conservative – they applauded the republican candidates and stood cross-armed at the union floats. And then Mother Jones came by, and stopped in front of them and said “Hi! I’m Mother Jones! I travel around the world speaking on behalf of the poor and the working people! I am here to tell you all about equal rights and justice!” She went on like this for a couple minutes, the whole time her wig was sliding down, she was sweaty, her shawl kept coming off, and I thought, ‘fuck, that is so much ballsier than almost anything that calls itself political art right now.’ In a way the protesters remind me of that moment, right at the end of Mother Jones’ speech, when the family next to us unfolded their arms and smiled.

21 Sep

How does a city evolve?

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in Detroit. Among other activities, I got to hang out and work with some incredible artists who’d just been awarded fellowships from The Kresge Foundation, I had beers with a couple radical priests, one my father-in-law, I drove through the always mystifying cityscape, and I talked to Grace Lee Boggs, an amazing 96 year-old activist and writer who has been inspiring me a lot lately.

One of the through-lines over the weekend was the sense that Detroit is in the midst of a set of changes, the outcome of which no one can predict. It was sort of shocking to hear folks who’d been there for 30, 40 or even 60 years, who’d witnessed many cycles of ill-conceived urban renewal and thwarted hopes for their hometown, tell me that things might work out for the better this time. Or they may just continue to collapse.
Detroit is undergoing what Boggs calls a “dual power structure.” There are small enclaves that are basically taking on everything from farming to policing to education, as the city becomes less and less able to provide those services in our declining economy. At the same time there is a lot of speculation going on by real estate developers and politicians about the possibilities of a creativity-led rebound for the city, fed by a combination of cheap housing, fine architecture, and what locals sometimes refer to “ruin-porn” (the fetishization of decay into an attractive commodity).
Even Boggs, an activist in Detroit for nearly 60 years, a PhD, one of the most forward-thinking writers I have ever read on the subject of political change, when I asked her what she would imagine for the city going forward, said, “I have no idea. It is impossible to predict.”
Perhaps what we are witnessing is a tension between Detroit as the city American capital has left behind, and as a city that is forming the next iteration of whatever a new predicament could become. Meaning, five or ten years from now, perhaps it will again be impoverished and neglected, its population again abandoned by corporate and government misuse and disorder. Perhaps it will embody a new communitarian movement. Perhaps it will be gentrified into a mall-like version of its former self. Ruin porn with fairtrade lattes.
Maybe all these potentialities will exist there. It will be the city with the hip gallery district, rehabbed Victorian homes and Niman Ranch barbecue, next to the inventive and inclusive projects that Detroit Summer has undertaken, next to the $1,000 homes complete with available farm plot, where you just have to provide your own electrical wires, neighborhood patrol, home school and art event.
Like the residents I talked to, I find myself hopeful and harrowed at the same time. It is possible there in a way few cities could imagine: the footprint of Detroit is the same size as Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston combined; the population is only 720,000. So there’s a lot of space.
I like to think it’s not too late for an alternative strategy to emerge. I like to think people taking the shortcomings of the existing power structure into their own hands could actually amount to a real and profound change, person by person, in a city that is struggling and growing and celebrating itself anew.

Further reading
Bill Wylie-Kellerman
The Boggs Center
Detroit Summer

08 Sep

Contemporary National Politics Today

So, the right are basically two-year-olds throwing tantrums, pulling everything off the shelves, breaking all the dishes and hurting themselves. They are tearing apart the house. The Democrats’ response is to stand in alternate between saying “don’t do that,” and, “Look at us! We’re not that mad! We’re reasonable!” Meanwhile the kids have gotten ahold of the frying pans and are smashing out the windows, flooding the basement, pissing on the art. Maybe our job is to keep them out of danger, remind them that we love them, and let them spin themselves out until they take a good long nap.
02 Sep

Prose poem?

I am cleaning out files and folders. I came across this. Is it enough to stand alone as a prose poem? Please answer in the comments below:


” She could tell by his breathing what the dream was about. He had told her enough times after waking and she could often remember the particular qualities that signified running, or loving or flight. She had catalogued his subconscious before he fell asleep. And she was keeping it a secret from him – as far as he knew she was asleep beside him. She came from a long line of insomniacs, worriers, night owls, minds that never took vacations. She didn’t love him any less for it; it gave her a certain power over him, about which only she was clued in. This was the beginning of their real intimacy.” – November 2009.