There’s never been sort of a trigger moment.

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

CHIVERS: The United States finds itself in a pretty unenviable position. So did the Syrians. I mean, this war, when you look at it, could not have worse timing. It really couldn’t. It came sort of, if you will, into the public consciousness at the tail-end of the Arab Spring, after, you know, the intervention in Libya had gone not so well.

It came during, you know, it really rose in the, you know, in the public discourse and in terms of the application of violence, really accelerated in 2012, an election year in the United States where the electorate was exhausted by war financially. Emotionally exhausted by war. And had no interest in being involved in another one, or very little interest in being involved in another one.

It came, you know, later in the cycle, if you will, of the way the Arab Springs were playing out, and with very cunning savvy leadership in terms of calibrating the tactics of the war to what they thought that the West could tolerate. And by that I mean, you know, the Assad government did not do what the government or the Gadhafi family did in Libya, where it came out of the gates in Libya hard and fast with armored columns, you know, bearing down on Benghazi. You know, immediate use of attack jets, you know, dropping, you know, dumb bombs on the road outside of Benghazi right in front of the foreign reporters. Which kind of galvanized international will and gave it a sense of immediacy.

And, you know, what Gadhafi got for that was, you know, the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorized intervention. He got, you know, U.N. 1973. The Assad government seems to have looked at that and has realized that you don’t come out with everything at once. You spin this thing click by click or you move it like a dimmer on your wall. You brighten the lights a little bit at a time.

And so you start with arrests and batons and you move to bullets, and from bullets, you know, you move to the army being involved. And you get the mortars, you get the 107 millimeter rockets. And then you gradually move up to artillery. And then you escalate a little bit by rolling out your air force. But when you roll out your air force, you start with helicopters. You don’t go right to jets.

They didn’t go to – you know, they didn’t start using their attack jets against the towns until last summer. And then you go to, from there, to ballistic missiles. And now perhaps to chemical weapons, which would be the last piece, you know, the last arrow, if you will, left in the quiver. And if you follow this sort of boil the frog slowly policy, you sort of, you know, sensitize your political opponents outside of the country.

The West has watched this step by step and not really taken action beyond rhetorical action. And the Syrian government knows that. And they’ve sort of escalated the ante so slowly, so methodically, so smartly, that they’ve almost paralyzed the West. And so the West now finds itself in this position where it’s tolerated all of these things. There’s never been sort of a trigger moment.

And it’s got a population, you know, in our case in the United States, that seems to not want to be involved, that there aren’t a lot of good options. There aren’t a lot of clear paths. And even if there were, it’s not clear what you would do to solve this. I mean I don’t, you know, the West may be able to guide this conflict a little bit, certainly cannot control it.


a new piece of kindling

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m not one typically to get annoyed at horrible news coverage, as I’ve come mostly to expect it as a indicting reality about contemporary life in America. On the whole, I have less anger to appropriately distribute anymore: did it burn too hot for a time, I wonder, to the point that it is mostly now an ashen ruin, or is this just what resignation looks like? Nevertheless, the past two days of news, more really plagiaristic paraphrases of the city’s PR releases, relating to the events in downtown Oakland over the weekend have stirred the dust a bit, and a bit of that old anger found a tiny piece of kindling.

I couldn’t attend the 2,000-strong protest march in the afternoon (a planned takeover of a vacant building) because I needed to collect the wife at the airport and didn’t want to risk her being stranded if things should turn sour. Instead I made my way down in the evening after she’d collapsed into bed for hours on end, weighted down by a week’s worth of exhaustion & emotion. What I saw from a distance, “protected” by the paternally confused expression of police power, were some three hundred people on the sidewalk in front of the YMCA and a line of buses aligned like boxcars bound for suburban detention centers.

(Still from livestream [shot by @OakFoSho])

Theirs was a different kind of resignation – to that of an immediate fate, to be sure, but more importantly (to their credit) one defiant to this fate’s perceived cause & lasting effect. They were accused of (a) failing to disperse from the scene of a riot (when a riot is encased by police, whose riot is it?) and (b) attempting to invade & occupy the YMCA. What I came to learn, and had confirmed by numerous sources sympathetic & unsympathetic to the cause, was that some employees of the YMCA had actually opened their doors to protesters fleeing the bureaucratic pornography of the Oakland Police Department, who rarely issues a dispersal command that isn’t simultaneously counteracted by the corralling force of its bludgeons. A few protesters were, I’m told, fled through the back-alley exits; most, however, were caught. Reportedly, over the course of the day, some were flung down stairs, others absented their teeth.

These, whose weapons ranged mostly from Evian bottles to makeshift shields to tedious rhetorical & graffiti styles, we’re now told by a few leaders of Oakland are the new loathsome face of “domestic terrorism.” The coincidence of President Obama’s signature on new indefinite detention legislation for such enemies of the state is terrifyingly striking – not least because its first high-profile application may well be in the liberal Disneyland that is the San Francisco Bay Area.

I cannot write about Occupy Wall Street without reflecting, too, on the idea of movements. I’ve long ago stopped wondering whether it is in fact one. It is, I think, most certainly. But what kind? Is it, as I’ve suggested before, a kind of drunken stumbling — from side to side, maybe a little forward, but mostly just down, maybe even a little backward? Or, is it a death knell — not of history, never that, but of a certain historical moment? Which brings me back to ashes, from dust to dust. Life, even in decay, goes on.

we’ve been more about sedation than provocation

December 13, 2011 § 10 Comments

A: So . . . I love to see all this action on the ports — light years ahead of anything that’s happened in our lifetime, in terms of activism. But there’s this nagging question in the back of my head — what’s the point?

B: My first (admittedly facile) counter: what’s the point of doing nothing?

A: Duly noted.

B: My second (slightly less facile) counter: it empowers those who are doing it. To be doing something, anything, no matter how miniscule, is a grand gesture in contemporary America.

A: I can also see it as a kind of preparatory exercise.

B: It’s a tiny slice of empowerment –basically what people used to think voting was, vaguely participating in a system, that has no room for them.

[standard conversational deviations ensued . . .]

B: I think what these protests in particular are setting in motion are relationships, as strained as they will be, between non-unionized workers and unions. This action in particular is a provocation on many fronts: toward the obvious players, Goldman Sachs, capital, etc., but also toward those with whom we want allied, the mainstream unions, some of whom rightfully regard this as an undemocratic imposition on the rank & file. But, you know, nothing happens without adequate tension. In contemporary America, we’ve been more about sedation than provocation. If nothing else, this is something different.

A: And I guess just doing SOMETHING keeps the movement going/growing/etc.

B: Yes. And ideally, the “something” to which this might lead is more pro-union reform, where rank & file start pushing for more legislation to make strikes easier/legal. The day’s success cannot be measured by its media coverage, whether that’s positive or negative, though that plays a role. Assessing its success will take much longer than the attention deficient media cycle, though, since we’re talking about building connections that haven’t existed for quite some time.

A: Then we might get a Democrat elected president on a wave of popular support not seen in a generation, with a palpable debt to union organizers — OH WAIT. . . . Maybe the nation should go on a general strike until the fillibuster is abolished.

B: Given my tendency toward ambivalent positions that don’t make for very good slogans, I tend to approach the “what’s all this good for” question from the perspective of “this is all well & good, but do recall, we’re doomed.” For some, I realize, this takes away the need to do anything at all, so it must be advertised with discretion. But for me, it just takes away the need to quantify what success would mean. With that out of the way you’re freed to try just about anything.

a momentary disintegration

November 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

Dear _________.

Old friend, you are missed! I hope this note finds you well.

Last night I was out very late, first standing, then sitting, and then nearly sleeping next to strangers at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley. I came home around midnight or so, I’d say, though I was unable to sleep for quite some time because of the unfolding events of the evening. Things began in Oakland, as they for me so often do. There was a highly contentious anti-vandalism/anti-violence proposal being pitched at Oakland Commune’s General Assembly and the all-hands-on-deck vibe was justified by the new faces in attendance who were carrying placards pleading sympathy with the Occupiers alongside disappointment. (“Oakland’s 99% Feels Occupied by the Occupiers,” etc.) As I sat through the interminable proceedings (they always are, in my opinion, but so it is w/ these things), smelling the quite lovely food being served over my shoulder, I was sent the following video filmed in Berkeley earlier that afternoon.

While I watched the above scene on my phone, I could hear in the Oakland amphitheater words like “vandalism” and “violence” being tossed around as though they were indistinguishable, or at least conversational kin. I was disturbed by the contrast between the muted images on my small screen & the din of good intentions playing out in large all around me. I lingered for a while, but eventually left.

I knew where I was going but was, nevertheless, surprised when I ended up in Berkeley, walking quite hurriedly to Sproul Plaza, where I was greeted, though the cry was obviously not intended for me, “MEDIC! WE NEED A MEDIC!” Someone had been hurt in the police melee that had occurred minutes before my arrival. I do not know how badly she was injured, but she was ushered away quickly. There seemed more anger prevalent than fear on the part of the crowd, though their numbers were not as large as I’d expected. I’m not a particularly brave person, as you well know. Nor, am I an adrenaline junky. I was not interested in being arrested or taking on more tear gas or once again being shot at by non-lethal projectiles. So, yes, I was rather afraid.

Fortunately, the numbers soon increased, dramatically so. Until eventually I could become a part of the crowd. And it was within this crowd, though I cannot place the moment itself, that I realized, despite what I recall recently telling you, I’m not seeking a cause with which to align myself so much as I am seeking an occasion to become strictly a body. I live so much in words. I feel awkward, even with people I know & love, when standing in the flesh, face to face, being seen. I have a confidence with verbal and written expression that I do not in my physical individuality & the space I cut in this world alone. What I want of a crowd, whose motivations, though myriad, are directed against or toward — in a kind of strange harmony, a music to which you would not listen for leisure — that which we may not know or be willing to say by name, is a momentary disintegration — a burning away of myself until all that is left is the presence of a body, not even a voice, in protest. That alone.

I should think not everybody has, or should have, this admittedly retrograde Romantic desire. But I confess it here, to you, though I feel no guilt.


clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.

November 5, 2011 § 8 Comments

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?


Absent a Voice, In Search of the Words

November 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

Sometimes words only expose how inadequate they are. I’m in this position now as I try to reflect on what occurred at the General Strike / Day of Action in downtown Oakland on Wednesday. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that whatever it is that occurred, most of us who participated will not soon forget. Imagine, as an example, the convergence of four parades at a single intersection—one with a thousand or so people marching north, another with a thousand or so people marching south, and still a third and fourth coming from the east and west, each a thousand people strong. At this meeting point, you hear the chants blend. The sounds of their voices, the words, songs, the languages, the music, they all become, in a very strange way that you will sit the next day and try to explain, visual. You see the sound they have become, and that sight is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

So many clichés you’d ordinarily bristle at make you smile; so many people you’d ordinarily not even see, though they were right in front of you, make you want to weep. This is the sight and the sound of the many who have, if but for a moment in time, become one. And what a strange One this is! For a day at least, it is precisely those things that make us both cosmetically and profoundly different (whether they be race, language, political persuasion, personality disposition, or personal histories untold) that somehow manages to animate a convergence of marches into such a powerful and shared moment. (It’s hard not to sound like a token liberal when describing such moments. I apologize.)

“Whose streets?” they cried. To which they responded with the slightest of pause so that we might acknowledge the question: “Our streets!”

It was a three-letter word day for me, you might say: “One,” “Our,” and, oh yes, “Wow.” There was a moment last night in which there was no sound to be made visual. For even the sight itself was silent. I, along with several hundred other cyclists, had biked ahead of the marchers coming from downtown to the Port of Oakland, in order to provide tactical support and communication between the picketed dock gates. While I regret not sharing in the chants and the community of that long walk, I will never relinquish the memory–the “Wow”–of seeing them, from a silent distance, as I leaned against my bike in the shadow of an idling semi, police occasionally texturing the silence by revving a motorcycle engine, ascend the steep climb on Adeline Street that descends into Middle Harbor Road. “And this is only the first wave of marchers,” I said to my camera, as I tried (and failed) to capture the moment. All told, some 10,000 people ascended and descended into the Port last night. You may agree or disagree with its closure for the night, or perhaps even question its purpose and effect, but I defy you to watch the aerial footage or photos and not find yourself mouthing another three-letter word, “How?” How is that even possible? Or maybe another three-letter word, “Who?” Who are these people?

“Whose port?” I screamed last night until I was voiceless this morning. “Our port!”

For now, I insist on emphasizing the uncertainty at the heart of the Occupy movement. It does not represent (or yet demand) anything nearly so much as it embodies this sense of Our—i.e., our discontent with the economic and political systems in place, our desires for something else, etc. And like all bodies, this embodiment is necessarily plural. We do not know what it is capable of. If we agree at all, it is primarily in our shared presence: our occupation of a space. Some of those chants we hear and actions we see may make us cringe, but this is all the more reason for our embodying the alternatives to the cringe-worthy (e.g., impotent acts of vandalism). Those acts speak for and embody the entirety of a movement only if the movement allows them. [ed.: A little naive here, it turns out. The police have even more power in this regard than I allowed in this piece.] (Which reminds me of a speaker at a recent General Assembly who said with a mix of humor & anger, “Ain’t no motherfucker going to speak for me!”) So while I celebrate yesterday’s General Strike / Day of Action, I also see it as issuing an important challenge going forward. As the Occupy movement grows larger and becomes ever bolder, as I believe it may, we will unavoidably find ourselves standing next to and being associated with activities we would like most to avoid. This, I feel, is as much a necessary risk as it is an invitation.

We will be here a while.

October 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

An open email I sent to Oakland Mayor Quan after (a) reading her bizarre letter to the Occupants and (b) watching her come out to speak and then flee back inside City Hall upon not being received with open arms.

* * *

Dear Mayor Quan,

You apologize? Really? Do you seriously believe this is sufficient? Did nobody ever tell you, a mother or a father, a kind uncle, a teacher somewhere along the way, or even a legal adviser you opted to ignore, “Sometimes ‘sorry’ is not enough.” Sometimes, rather, it takes time, and during that time it requires effort. Thus far, since your return from D.C. — how was that, by the way? did you get the funds for more police? — you’re efforts have been somewhere indistinguishably between half-hearted & dim-witted. Where you have tried to act at all, at last night’s press conference & tonight’s embarrassingly coy cat & mouse with the GA, you’ve ended up only stalling.

Do you know what would’ve been classy on your part? Just an idea: coming down to the candlelight vigil & owning up to what your police force did. We took our lumps, you take yours. I promise you, those boos and hisses you just heard, they hurt a lot less than the tear gas and rubber bullets your police force fired at us. Perhaps you might reconsider your retreat, regroup like we did in the streets of your fair city, and give it another try. We will be here a while.

Yes. it will be difficult to sell a crowd on your sincerity at this point, but that’s just how honesty & dignity sometimes works. Your avoidance at every turn thus far explains why every shred of yours is fading in our eyes daily. How are they looking from your vantage point, I wonder? Will your next Facebook status update us on this, or will we need to wait for another statement on city stationary?

Looking forward to your response,

A departure from the regular tone

October 26, 2011 § 6 Comments

Let me start with the confessional preface: I’m not a protester. I used to be. I had my day, bandanaing-up on the streets of Edinburgh, say; or marching with thousands in the build-up to a war in Iraq whose inevitability proved more powerful than our collective will. I stopped not because I felt it was useless, though largely they seem to be. Or because they can be dreadfully boring, though all that talking and bombast, the avoidance of rhetorical landmines, it can certainly be tedious. I simply stopped, opting for different diversions, I suppose. I supported many a cause, mind you. Money here; pillows there. More than a few conversations. But I was no longer “on the ground,” as it were.

That stopped, at least for a night — beyond that, I don’t know — yesterday in Oakland. I’m not going to play maudlin. I kind of did that yesterday. But something snapped, or at least bent in a really awkward way, when I saw the Occupy Oakland camp upended the way it was. I had no real stake in that camp. I visited several times, and each time I joked that the medical tent needed to stock up on some more maximum strength deodorant. Moreover, I did not even think their presence would effect much, quite honestly. But I was happy they were there, and certainly planned to keep supporting them in spirit. Seeing the police trample through the remains of that spirit, lingering about and guarding it, protecting the occupants from themselves, was the official word, was simply too much. I commented elsewhere that at least rioters & looters have the good decency to leave after their destruction — that it takes a mob with a badge to honor its mayhem the way I saw yesterday. And, as I said then, I was angry. Angry enough to become once again a protester.

I was there last night, from 4 pm to midnight — longer than I was at my full-time job, oddly enough — and rarely have I been as proud of a group of protesters. There were some knuckleheads, yes. But it’s hard to have a dinner-party and not have at least one, let alone a gathering of some-2000 strong. There’s no reason to rehearse all that took place. The videos & photos are ample, and actually do a very good job telling the story. Nor will I even vilify the police (they do that well enough on their own, it seems) except to say I suspect they might’ve successfully radicalized the next generation of kids whose heads they’ll bash.

If I have anything to add to the conversations that follow all that went down, it is that we miss the point if our conversations about the police become either too strident or too narrowly focused. Protests haven’t changed much over history: they are each a kind of tango, between state power and those who feel oppressed by it. The cops are going to do what they do (whether it be conceding just enough to the theatrics of the moment, letting people scream themselves out, etc., or, well, what they did in Oakland [& Atlanta] last night). It is up to the protesters to take the lead in this tango whenever at all possible, though it will not be for the entire evening, on this you can be sure. As an example, the greatest moment of the protest last night was the improvisational snake march through the streets of downtown — used first to avoid a direct confrontation at 14th & Broadway (&, I’m told, an oncoming attempt at a kettling) — and then later to regroup. If there is something to learn from this it is that that there is always more than one way to move forward. Unless you’re defending territory that needs defending, keep moving.

None of this is to say we should, because we expect it, exonerate the abuses and ill-directed uses of police power. By all means, use them as motivation to keep going. Use them as propaganda. More importantly still, use them in your ever-growing arsenal of improvisation. But never forget: this is simply what they do — they have their own skill-sets after all. We should be outraged, but never surprised.

The need now is to respond to the police without our response being about the police. This is quite tricky. The images & videos we have are our greatest assets & worst temptations on this point. Yes, they bear witness to the fact that the police have declared themselves an enemy, but we (I first wrote “the protesters,” but fuck the third-person) would be wise to insure the police remain only this enemy’s symbol (whose destruction, I might add, is as useful — if, nevertheless, as vaguely satisfying — as burning a flag).

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