Sunday, October 21, 2012

Occupy Self Care

The internet is wild with a flurry of articles on activism and self care in response to a thought-provoking, but ultimately really flawed post entitled "An End to Self Care." The part I think the author got right was the reality that we need what might be termed "community care" or an ethics of care in the communal sense, as opposed to expecting every individual or family unit to "take care of themselves." That capitalism has fragmented us, privatized our suffering, and commodified nearly every last aspect of our lives. And that this needs to be challenged, and overturned, and it won't be overturned because a privileged minority are able to attend expensive spiritual retreats, or can afford regular acupuncture or massages, to name two common examples of "self care."

However, once you move beyond that point, the article goes off the rails in many respects. Pressing praise for doing 18 hour days and damning those who don't do so as not being "connected enough" with the "deep purpose" of the activist work they're doing. Suggestions that doing "movement work" is self care, which sometimes is true, but more often isn't and/or can't be under the current conditions. Thumbing his nose at things like activist knitting circles, which makes me think of the sexism that is all too prevalent still in many North American activist circles (and elsewhere I would guess). The suggestion that clarity of purpose can override any conditions, when that's not the case, and in some cases, that very belief that you are clear about what you want and the way to get there is exactly what blocks you - and others - from getting anywhere. Despite appeals to classism, there's a middle class stink to the article as well, including especially the upholding of the untiring servant to the cause as the ideal.

I recently went through another round of what might be called activist burnout. After several months of devotion to multiple aspects of the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, I hit a wall. Having left a teaching job the year before Occupy started, I was running out of money, and the few potential options for income that had developed during Occupy hadn't materialized. I was flat broke. Getting concerned comments from a few members of my family and friend circle. And when I surveyed the group of folks who had stuck it out in Occupy, what I mostly saw were middle class, white Boomer activists and broke folks like myself. (There's definitely more diversity than this, but this is the makeup of the two largest groups.) And although there have been some amazing acts of mutual care, including a few Occupy members sharing homes and trading skills to get work done without having to hire expensive help - there hasn't, at this point, developed something like a culture of community care. Not a thriving one anyway. It's a minority viewpoint, the idea that part of revolution - a big part of it perhaps - is modeling what moving beyond the privatization of our needs might look like. For all the big ideals and large scale focused action in Occupy, the deeply engrained notion that it's up to each of us to find and keep a job, get our bills paid, health needs dealt with, housing taken care of, food bought paid for and/or cooked, etc.

The vast majority of people in the local foreclosure movement, for example, are mostly pushing for the banks to allow folks to pay their bills on different time tables. Or at reduced rates from the inflated housing bubble prices of half a decade ago. In other words, at the end of the day, we're still talking about block after block of privately owned houses that have to be maintained - in large part - by those who own them. And furthermore, that our neighborhoods are still broken down into small, privatized units. Into owners, rents, and squatters. Into people who have the means to pay, and those who don't. Which trickles straight down into the capitalist notion that the only people that are "worth" anything are those who can work and pay their own way in the world. For long, long stretches of their lives. In many cases, almost their entire lives. Illness is negated. Exhaustion is negated. Play is negated. Disability is negated. Depression, and other chronic mental disorders are negated. Discrimination that leads to joblessness is negated. And so, all those whose lives have any number of these things intersecting at the same time are negated.

The numerous responses to the End of Self Care article demonstrate this most clearly.

From the Brownstargirlblog:

Middle or upper class organizers from the 1800s to now just looooooove painting majestic, romanticized and simplistic pictures of who poor and working class people are. Hint: we're not all one thing. We are amazing, diverse, complicated in our poverty and working class scholarship. My life as the kid of a working-class white rust belt mom growing up in recession Massachusetts in the 80s who's won a bunch of scholarships, is real different than my friend who grew up the daughter of a poverty class sex working white mama in the 80s, is real diff than my cousin, who didn't get a scholarship and is cutting hair in our hometown. And that's the great thing- as broke folks, we get to have, like, conversations, with each other, about all the different things being poor or working class has meant to us, looked like to us, taught us, gifted us with, and our genius which could give birth to entirely new galaxies of movements and forms of organizing. (Sarcasm definitely in there, and definitely may only be picked up on by other folks who were raised poor or working class.) Sometimes, anyway. There are so many things that make it difficult for us to find each other.

One thing I know for sure we aren't? Cardboard cut out workers who work selflessly for the movement 17 or 18 hours a day, handing out leaflets.

And this from immigrant rights activist veteran Subhash Kateel:

The idea that some of the hardest working people I know need to or should be able to work an hour more than they already do, nevermind endlessly, is pretty freaking terrifying. A lot of people working in change organizations, what we obnoxiously call "the movement," have very little problem working their asses off (whether we work smart or not is another article). We have very little problem "burning the midnight oil" for justice, as I understood B. to be implying. In my almost two decades of change work, including 12 in the immigrant rights movement, I've met thousands of people whose courage, bravery and intellect were matched only by their insane work ethic. Almost all of them were driven by the fact that the folks we care about are struggling, suffering and dying daily. Sometimes they/we developed crazy martyr complexes. Other times we rolled our eyes when someone would bring up self-care, deep breathing or yoga mats (ok that was mostly me).

But I've also witnessed our work ethic create a martyr/persecution/entitlement complex that in any other profession/vocation/calling would be grounds for mandated professional therapy. I have also seen (sometimes in my own life) people who spend all day fighting for families facing deportation and the death penalty who were absent from the emergency room when their own families where sick or dying. Many of us have seen people fighting tooth and nail to stop evictions while their own home was being foreclosed on or participating on ridiculously long late-night conference calls while their owns kids needed help with homework.

And this from Ambrose of The Root Cellar blog:

i wanted to chime in on the chorus of brilliant replies and comments from folks on B. leowes circulating article "an end to self care". I'll link some of my faves below. they cover many things i wish i had the time and energy to speak to, like the classism and sexism present, and the deeply triggering nature of the ableism, and just how interdependent self care and community care truly are. this is a work in progress for me, for all of us...but here's whats on the forefront for me right now...

i often struggle with copious amounts of shame, frustration and confusion over the fact that right now in my life all i have to give is going towards helping raise 2 children. It can feel deeply unradical, ordinary and anonymous. it is adding exponentially to my already intense isolation. While not my intention, my world has become this house, this home. As someone who is disabled and chronically ill, i am tapped . if i don't take time to space out and watch shadows dance on my wall, or have a hot shower, roll around on a tennis ball to keep my neck from going out, scroll thru fucking facebook, grow kale or whatever the hell i can manage that feels -still- and healing, i won't be able to make dinner and clean it all up.

The word "solidarity" comes to mind here. When I hear it in activist circles, it tends to be tied to the kind of 18 hour a day activism that Loewe's article triumphantly upholds. If you show up all the time, or most of the time, you're in solidarity. If you put your own needs on the back burner to the point of placing your life at risk, you're in solidarity. If you offer to put yourself across militarized police lines, get tossed in jail, get beat in the head, etc., you're in solidarity.

Not only is there a limited notion around what constitutes an act of solidarity, but each individual act tends to have a short shelf life. Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. Dude isn't good enough 'cause he won't get himself tossed in the clink again for the cause. It's an insanely unsustainable pattern, one that ultimately seems to be coming less from a vision for a new world, and more out of a reaction - a deep aversion - to the current world.

During the past few months, I've gone through all kinds of internal conflict around my work in Occupy, and the real need to step back and take care of myself. I've had guilt around not doing more. I've felt highly irresponsible for mostly abandoning the eco-centric subgroup that I played a key role in developing. I have felt anger towards those who expect too much, and who get to "run the show" in various ways because they somehow have the resources and energy to constantly be around when decisions are being made. Even I, who has a fair amount of Time Privilege, can't keep up with some of these folks. And I don't want to. Nor should anyone else. Because it's not sustainable. Nor is it the kind of culture I want to uphold as grand and noble. But these are the people who tend to get to decide. Get to be the spokespeople. Get to push the agenda's they are most comfortable with. To some degree, I was one of these people for months. However, because I wouldn't give in to the relentless drive to be at everything, do everything, I was almost always on the outside of the inner circle that developed in the larger Occupy. Within the smaller group of eco-activists, I was in the inner circle though, so much so that I found it really hard to let go of feelings of responsibility and "solidarity," even after I began stepping back. Either way, it seems, brings perils. Which is why it's so vital to keep raising the issues being raised in these articles - even Loewe's article - because much of what constitutes the general culture of activism is destructive over the long haul for everyone, whether they are agents of power and influence or not.

Ironically, one of the missions of the eco-centric group we started as an offshoot from the main Occupy here in Minneapolis, was to develop a culture of caring. A culture of sharing the tools and practices needed to both resist the sick, unjust systems of today, but also which might lead to a transformed tomorrow. To center that within our activist work, as opposed to keeping it tucked away in individualized, privatized pockets. It's certainly possible that this kind of cultural shift will occur in that smaller group, as part of a larger societal shift. However, as it is now, that group is struggling as much as any with issues of burnout, interpersonal conflicts, and conflicting views about the nature of the "good activist" or what constitutes activism.

The sap of the colonial project that brought us modern capitalism has penetrated more deeply than we collectively, or individually, understand. It has stolen not only the material wealth of the majority, but it has also robbed many of us of our basic sense of wise compassion, replacing it either with heavy contempt for those who "don't measure up," or a syrupy, sentimental compassion that ultimately fails to penetrate the marrow of our hearts and uplift the best within each of us.

Any revolutionary vision worth a grain of salt must be one in which caring for one's self is not pitted against caring for the world. How to do this in a new way, one that isn't about advocating for the naval gazing of the highly privileged, or the current notion of self care as a solely private function - I don't know exactly. But I do know that the separation between self and other has been exaggerated by the modern, capitalist world, so much so that it's difficult for those of us born and bred in this culture to move beyond imagining another way of being together, and working together. Lots of visions, but mostly visions that we repeatedly chop off at the feet through our capitalized habits.

And so, in the end, I think it's important to have some compassion for where we are at. For all the ways in which members of different groups are struggling, and so often failing, to come together to resist and break down the oppressive structures that be, and to build something new, and more life affirming. It's heartbreaking at times how much we tend to step on each others' feet and keep the wheels of oppression turning, even amongst folks who are so motivated to not perpetuate that very thing. But it's what people do when they haven't figured out another way.

In other words, we aren't going to get to something called "community care" or a culture of caring for each other as the norm without going through a lot of mud. And being ok with the fact that sometimes, it's too much to take even one more ounce of that mud under our consideration for a day, week, month, or even year at a time. The revolution must be something that moves beyond anything we can think up. It has to include the whole works, and probably needs to defy most of our expectations and desires, in order to be that which our hearts truly long for.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Occupy Movement, Meet Permaculture

When Occupy Wall Street appeared last fall, it was a breath of fresh air in what had become a decidedly stale a depressing political landscape. From the broad collection of issues being represented, to the actual "occupying" of a major public space in plain site of one of the world's most powerful economic institutions, OWS brought people alive and brought people together - sometimes across astoundingly challenging differences. As the movement spread across the country, and went international, it was like watching the flashbulbs of cameras at the World Series or Super Bowl. Everywhere you looked, the lights of grassroots democracy were being switched on. And even those with some sympathy, but also with a lot of questions and reservations, couldn't help but express some astonishment that this was happening at all.

Then the coordinated police repression set in. The untended roots of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and the like rose to the surface, and sprouted all over the place. The attraction to power, and greed, began to overtake the egalitarian processes and structures that had been formed, sending decision-making into a tailspin. The secular activists began to shun the spiritual ones, and many of the spiritual ones either retreated from their messages, or simply disappeared all together.

And then winter came. Stealing the sun. Swamping most of the remaining occupations with snow, or cold, or both.

People went inside, and started rethinking strategies. Many of the affinity groups that had already started to develop around particular issues, values, and/or cultural identities strengthened, while at the same time, the structure for overall leadership and direction - the General Assembly - greatly weakened. At least here in Minneapolis this was the case, but from what I have read, this was true in numerous other places to some degree. The Occupy Homes started receiving national attention for it's work on foreclosures. Occupy the Hood sprung up as a response by people of color to the lack of racial diversity in the main Occupy Minneapolis group. The Whealthy Human Village project arose out of a concern that Earth-based issues weren't gaining the kind of attention that economics and corporate power did. The Well Being committee developed as a response to the internal discord, and a sense that bringing in more compassion, tools for dialogue, and general care would help the overall movement sustain itself. And the list goes on.

With the rise of each of these groups came a degree of segregation. Many folks chose the group or two that most represented their passions, and stepped back from the rest of what was going on. Others tried desperately to "do it all," only to burn out after a few months. Still others have somehow maintained a regular presence across multiple lines, but often at the expense of "going deep" in any one area. This has created a situation where the core team within many groups is a fragile number easily impacted by the dropping out or falling back of even two or three members. The Occupy Homes group has managed to attract a much larger number of people, and yet it sometimes has dominated the Occupy Minneapolis scene, to the point where outsiders have wondered if all we do is address home foreclosure.

Next Saturday, April 7th, Occupy Minneapolis will officially re-occupy two public spaces in the downtown area. While there has been a planning team working on these efforts for a good two or three months now, there hasn't been all that much discussion amongst the larger group about it. While I was one of the last ones standing when we held the People's Plaza, my views about tactics and focus have shifted since then. Which doesn't mean I am necessarily against these plans, but I do have a hell of lot of questions about it all.

What is the relevance of re-occupying public parks now?

How will these occupations sustain themselves?

How does park occupation fit in with the broader array of affinity groups that have developed in the past several months?

Will there be efforts to honor the contributions of everyone, or will there be a repeat of the dynamics that appeared during last fall's occupation, where those who put in the most time on the plaza (or in the General Assembly) were considered the only "true" occupiers?

What is the role of the General Assembly? Or more importantly, how can we both maintain the healthy autonomy of individual affinity groups, while also being intelligent about collective coordination of the whole?

And what about the baggage behind the word "Occupy" itself? Will there be some deep digging in this anniversary year of the Dakota 38 massacre, or are we just going to go on with Occupying, even if it leaves our history behind?

I'll be honest. Part of me is deeply pessimistic about the possibilities right now. A fair amount of people seem to be in love with autonomy and having the freedom to use a "diversity of tactics," but when it comes to working on a broader set of strategies, as well as doing the needed work of developing true solidarity, there's mostly the sound of crickets. The poison of hyper-individualism continues to wrack our movement, as does the poison of untransformed anger and righteousness, and until both of those are addressed head on, things will continue to be fractured.

I would like to take up David Holmgren's 12 Principles of Permaculture Design as a possible framework of inspiring different ways to move forward with the Occupy movement, as well as how we are already doing some of them already to some degree.

Here are the twelve principles:

1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

When I look at this list, the first one that springs to mind as important is number four. Occupy developed as a wide open field where anyone could appear and deposit whatever they wanted into the collective. The beauty of this has been that everyone potentially has a voice, and anyone's ideas potentially have the chance to be put into action. However, one of the major downsides has been that the loudest, and most forceful have often taken over. A single dissenting voice, or a small group of forceful players frequently dominate conversations, push actions in a certain direction, and generally create a hostile atmosphere for those working the edges. Or who aren't as outspoken or articulate. The privileged educationally sometimes talk down those who have lesser or different vocabularies. Professional activists sometimes talk down those who haven't been around activism before. And so on.

What's even more problematic about this dynamic though is that the lack of boundaries and shared basic agreements means that anyone can theoretically enter into any group or meeting, and claim membership. It's a boon for agent provocateurs, although in the case of Occupy Minneapolis, I believe it's been more the case that those with the loudest agendas, or who think of themselves as having all the answers, are more able to influence and disrupt than they should be.

"We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well." Which means that some set of basic agreements need to be put into place. Which means that there must be an understanding that excessive disruptive and/or disrespectful behavior can lead to ejection from a meeting or group. Which means that it has to be ok for some boundaries to be put into place, especially when it comes to affinity group membership and participation.

One of the reasons I am wary of re-occupying the parks is principle number nine. "Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes." The energy of the hundreds or even thousands of people that attend marches and rallies almost always dissipates quickly. They come together, get riled up, and then most go home, only to come back for the next march or rally. Furthermore, rallies as they are often currently structured are highly passive affairs. People stand around and listen to speakers whip them up with information they either already knew, or which doesn't really help them take effective action in their lives, and in the world. Marches, on the other hand, are more active in the physical, bodily sense, but the reduction of complex issues into simple slogans significantly limits their long term impact. People remember the spectacle, and perhaps are inspired by it, but it's not really the work needed to transform society.

I bring marches and rallies up because they were staples of our local occupation last fall, and into the winter. How do you get people down to the plaza? Hold a march or a rally. And the people would come, get riled up, and then most would go home. Some small percentage would get inspired to join an affinity group or committee, and maybe some level of media coverage would happen, but that was about it. There's no reason to believe it will be any different this spring.

Which takes us to principle number three. "Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing."

Now, the way I see it, there are many different kinds of rewards. Occupy Homes has become pretty good at working towards the tangible rewards of blocking foreclosures and helping people stay in their homes. Another set of rewards are more intangible, such as relationship development, and solidarity building through personal and group sharing. The problem with marches, rallies, and over-structured processes like the General Assembly is that there are often neither tangible nor intangible rewards as outcomes. A week's worth of GA meetings can, and have, produced nothing of substance. A rally can, and often does, block the ability for relationships and coalition building to develop during it's time span.

The way I see it, whatever we do as a movement, we must become more creative. We need to apply the template of principle number two to our projects and efforts, and consider whether what we want to do will "Catch and store energy," or not. Will doing X bring more people in? Will speaking about Y attract a diversity of interested parties?

A larger question to ask is whether there are simply too many actions going on? One week in February, I recall that there were multiple rallies, marches, or other events held nearly every single day. That kind of approach might catch some energy in the short term, but I doubt anything is being stored for the long haul. The problems we are facing today have been built up over centuries, and they won't be addressed in a year's, or even a decade's time.

In other words, what sort of movement ecology is necessary to support it's work over a generation or even longer?

Which brings me to my last point, which runs off of principle eleven. "Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system."

In my opinion, what the world is calling for us to do right now is to live on, and act from, the interface of the margins and mainstream. When it comes to movement ecology, this means stepping towards that which has been rejected as "not activism." It's important to note the word "interface" here. I'm not saying toss out the rallies, marches, occupying offices, blockades, etc. No, it's more about integrating those with things like relationship building, the arts, raising children, growing food, skill sharing, dancing, meditation, yoga, and sharing meals together. It's about desegregating and decolonizing our minds, both in terms of the myriad of -isms we've ingested, but also in terms of what we believe it will take to transform our society. Because we don't know what it will take. Or what it all might look like. And actually that's a good thing. It frees us up to include anything that might be helpful, and allows for a true, representative diversity that will outlast the police beatings and attacks from those who want to maintain the status quo.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

To the Men of Occupy and Men in General

Dear Occupy brothers, male supporters, and all men interested in a more liberated life,

I feel mostly alone and alienated when I am amongst groups of you. I find myself stopping, looking in each of your eyes, and recognizing the familiar twisted mess that masculinity has become. Sometimes, I don't even want to look. It's just too much to handle.

Sometimes, I have a sense of superiority with this recognition. Perhaps you hear it in my words or feel it somewhere deep inside you. Or perhaps you don't feel it at all because that is what we have been trained to do: not feel. Except anger and it's various friends. Contempt. Irritation. Impatience. Rage. I know you know these, although even they are experiences you have probably never fully had.

I want to apologize for the thoughts of superiority that sometimes take me over. Believing in superiority is also part of the disease. Another way in which our vital, scared life energy has become divided within us. We learn to think we are better than others and then, soon enough, we are participating in oppression, warfare, and brutality.

It's sometimes difficult to accept how twisted male narratives have become. How what it means to be a man in our society - in many human societies - is intimately tied to oppressing others and ourselves. To being cut off from our emotions. To being cut off from our wild, liberated nature because that is the road to power, glory, and respect.

When I look around the Occupy movement, locally and nationally, it's difficult for me to locate myself. There are small, isolated pockets of men who sincerely are looking at themselves, checking how they act, and considering the ways in which their individual and collective actions might impact others. Women. Children. Other men. Trans-gendered folks. The planet.

What we have been doing to the planet is a direct reflection of the ways in which we are wounded, broken, and cut off from ourselves. It's not an accident that the vast majority of environmental destruction comes from the hands of men, and/or is conducted under the leadership of men.

When will it end? When will the tipping point come when enough men have had it with this way of being? When will droves of us speak out individually, stand together, and act collectively in the name of liberation? Liberation from gender constraints, false stories about ourselves, and any and all thoughts that lead to oppression?

I worry that too many of us are caught up in massive social change actions, intellectual discussions about tactics, and all things "big" to consider the ways our gender has been tied to exactly that which we fight against. It's painfully easy to imagine a revolution in which one set of oppressors and systems of oppression are replaced with another. I don't want that. Do you?

On the whole, men have failed to go deep with each other. We readily gather around the big issues of the day, filled with ideas and possible solutions. And that's ok.

However, we are terribly prone to false solidarity. To staying on the surface with each other. To collectively shaping work containers that are devoid of space for play, vulnerability, openness, story sharing, and any and all expressions of love.

We could blame our fathers, who could blame their fathers, but what good would that do?

We could blame feminism, organized women's groups, "uppity" sisters," numerous other things female-associated, but that would mostly be projection.

I have grown up, worked in, and sometimes played in spaces where the majority of people around were women. Or genderqueer. In fact, I believe that I have often gravitated towards these spaces because whatever their weaknesses, the people present have often been willing to be vulnerable, willing to openly question and challenge not only the "big" social problems of the day, but the very structure and function of gender itself.

How many men can handle other men crying in their presence? How many men are willing to speak about feeling hopeless, powerless, confused, or lost in the presence of other men?

In the 1980s and 90s, the Men's Movement started to open these doors. Some of the groups that developed during that time continue to meet today. And certainly, some powerful connections have been made between men as a result.

However, I'm convinced that lure of the status quo, the sweet lull of safety coupled with the loud excitement of power, played a large role in the degeneration of the momentum of the Men's movement. Too many guys, somewhere inside themselves, as well as together, decided they wanted to remain "guys." That the "old boys network" needed to continue, even if in a reduced, more covert role.

More and more, I am learning how to accept where people are at. Where I am at. And at the same time, to take a step towards liberation, and do my best to plant seeds for others to do the same.

I actually don't know what it looks like exactly to be a liberated man. A liberated woman. A liberated trans-person. Occasionally, I meet someone or hear about someone who might fit the bill. And yet, for each of us, it will probably look a little bit different.

And here we are, twenty years later, with another opportunity to examine manhood, masculinity, sexism, and intimate oppression again on a large scale. Both within the Occupy movement and outside of it.

Will we do it? Will more of us recognize that there is no separation between "inner work" and "outer work"?

There is no revolution without both being done. Sometimes simultaneously.

Join me in spirit or in person. Let's get the real revolution started.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Lover, monsanto - A poem

My Lover, monsanto

My lover, monsanto,
who owns the garden,
who does me well by choosing
the seeds the food will grow by,
is out in the fields as we speak,
sweeping the dead away
so that our love can grow some more.

Who owns the garden?
my lover monsanto,
who is out in the fields
wrenching the soil
for the food the new body
of food needs to grow.

Who does me well by choosing
but my lover monsanto
who is out in the fields
as I lie here on a bed of food
waiting for the August winds
to blow in the harvest
of September.

“The seeds the food will grow by,”
my lover monsanto tells me,
“take the soil by force
and clear the fields
like a fresh sheet
clears the air after love.”

My lover, monsanto, is out in the fields as we speak,
and I cannot wait much longer
for the seeds the food grow by
to come in and make themselves at home.

“Sweeping the dead away,”
my lover Monsanto tells me,
“is easier after the sun has
cooked the bodies down
to a skin so light that
even the slightest wind
can come and take it away.”

“So that our love can grow some more,”
my lover Monsanto tells me,
feeding me the tomato
that ran over all the others,
“So that our love can grow some more,”
I hear, as I eat the corn
that cleared the fields
of all the flowers
and quieted the skies above them
by sweeping away,
ever so softly,
the loud, loud monarchs.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wild and Liberated: Reflections on the Occupy Movement from Minneapolis

Like many around the U.S, and even around the world to some degree, I have been excited by the appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement and it's numerous off-shoot groups. In fact, I have been involved in the work of our local Occupy group in Minneapolis since the day it sprang up last October. It has been a wild ride. I have developed wonderful friendships with people I might otherwise have not met. The sheer ability to discuss the state of the world with people who genuinely care, want change, and are passionate about the issues has been a blessing. It's lifted some of the isolation and marginalization I have long felt as a person deeply committed to jettisoning capitalism, overturning all forms of human oppression, and liberating not only ourselves, but the planet itself.(Actually, I believe that the planet has the skills to liberate itself, if only we'd stop destroying it at every single turn.)

However, at this juncture in the movement, it's quite clear to me how much we all need to heal. How many divides cannot be mended simply by declarations of solidarity and calls to attack a tiny group of uber wealthy folks and their minions. We might be the 99%, but so much of our individual and collective experience has been tamed by conformity, distorted by false notions of power, and trapped in us vs. them mindsets.

Another member of Occupy Minneapolis just started a blog, and her first post inspired me to offer more of my own take not only on Occupy, but on the larger issues that drive me these days. Please head here to read her current piece, and follow her future writing.

"I'm part of the 1%, and you are too. As people living in the United States, by the level at which we consume resources, and by our access to a kind of power to change things, compared to the rest of the world we are the 1%. Also, to the rest of the species on the planet, who would like a say in how we are running things, humans are the 1%. We owe it to them to speak up and also to listen."

Calling ourselves 99% was a bold and brilliant move, that has the richest 1% quaking... and also, possibly, laughing. So much hangs in the balance around this idea. Can we really overcome our differences enough to join forces and reclaim our freedom?

How, exactly, have we been enslaved? There is a general feeling, among most of us, of being trapped. We want there to be an enemy, someone clearly evil we can point to and say, "That person. That 1% person is the root of it all. If only they were gone, then we would be free."

When we call ourselves the 99%, without touching our long and twisted history of injustice and pain towards each other, how "Solid" is our Solidarity? Centuries, even millenia, of human injustice await to be healed. Women still silenced. Indigenous Nations still stolen from. Post-slavery people still pushed to the bottom. People told they are "illegal" and separated from their families because of our Free-Trade policies and unjust immigration laws. How can we expand our awareness of all of these struggles, as we ask for their participation in our movement? How heavily do we take our responsibility, to include their voices as we decide our activist-strategies? Do we include a sense of the other 99% of the world, as we organize? How do we act in solidarity with post-colonial countries still strangling in debt? With repressive regimes where their right to assemble is met with mass slaughter? Do we unionize on behalf of sweatshop-workers around the world, or do we buy their cheap goods? Do we consider the sacrifices in lifestyle we will all have to make, to counter Global Climate Change? Is it too late?

First off, full disclosure: I have been having a lot of in person conversations with the author, so my writing is definitely influenced by her ideas. I am very grateful and blessed to have Malia in my life, and the fact that we met during Occupy reinforces what I want to say next.

Developing real relationships across whatever differences are present, as well as coalitions between groups that have been divided historically, is the only way Occupy or any social change movement like it will succeed.

Our imaginations must expand. Our listening skills expand. Our willingness to let go of being right all the time must expand. Each of us must, in my opinion, learn how to work towards a better future without knowing what that future will be exactly. None of us knows exactly what it will take to break down the current systems of oppression, nor do any of us know what will be needed for a just, healthy society on the other side.

I am troubled by the sense of knowing it all that sometimes pervades both the conversations we have in Occupy, and also the actions that we choose to employ. It's deeply painful to look around the room, see the lack of people of color, and then listen to predominantly white activists say they truly know the needs of their communities. As a former ESL teacher who spent years working in various wings of the broad immigrant rights movement, it's impossible for me to ignore how few immigrant voices are present, and how little the issues that uniquely impact them are readily marginalized as not important, if they are ever raised at all.

Recently, a woman offered to give a teach in on Islamic forms of banking, in connection with the challenges our local Somali-American community is having around sending money back to their family and friends in Somalia - and you could almost hear a pin drop in the room. Whenever the talk is about going after big banks and corporations, people are enthusiastic. However, this affiliated topic, which probably didn't directly impact anyone in the room, didn't seem worthy of more than a few nods of agreement.

Even though I don't want to, I still hesitate talking with my refugee and immigrant friends and former students about Occupy. I wonder what they think of it all. How much they have heard. What they have heard. And whether they feel it has anything to offer them.

Immigrants and refugees are only one group amongst many who tend to have so much more to lose than most mainstream, liberal, middle class white folks do - the people who are easiest to find in Occupy circles. Just consider dealing with the police. I have former students who could easily be deported if they are discovered at a rally. And you have to have your head under a rock to miss the fact that men of color especially are dealing with racist legacies whenever police and law enforcement are involved. Simply being present near a march or action can be grounds for harassment or worse, something the average white person isn't likely to face.

The word "occupy" itself is problematic. Occupying and taking over is exactly what colonialists did for centuries, and what multinational corporations have continued to do to this very day all over the world. Not only was the land stolen indigenous peoples on every continent, but the very ways we think and act have been colonized, to the point where the majority of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, can't even recognize that we are tamed and controlled.

Just as so much of the ground has been covered with a single form of bland looking grass or mono-cropped corn, wheat, or soybeans, so too has the human mind been papered over with lies about what it means to be a "civilized" human. Instead of gender diversity and flexibility, we have been sold a gender binary based on oppressive norms and twisted forms of power. Instead of celebrating the amazing diversity of species on the planet, and the myriad of ways in which they (including humans) can come together in mutual support, we believe we must squash down, control, and manipulate everything for our benefit.

There is so much damage to be undone, and it won't be undone through acts of civil disobedience or legislative lobbying alone. In fact, as long as those actions continue to remain divorced from an awareness of, and willingness to address, the colonizing forces I pointed to above, they will simply be half measures. Which doesn't mean that, for example, stopping foreclosures isn't worthwhile work, but that we need to re-examine the very ways in which we build our neighborhoods and communities - and in my view, aim towards a transformation of how we live together, and how we live in relation to the earth. I fully support efforts to help people stay in their homes, but I deeply feel a desire to see that we all live more liberated lives in those homes as well.

The word "solidarity", as Malia alluded to above, is buzzing throughout Occupy Minneapolis and other Occupy groups. And yet what does that mean, and how might we go about actually achieving it?

Simply put, too many of us aren't really working together as respected peers in solidarity. Or we are only building solidarity with those that we have the most in common with. I have personally been guilty of this to some degree, and recognize the need to reach out more, and offer some form of support to various wings of the movement.

But it's more than just reaching out. I'm keenly aware, as a man, of the need for men in general to step back the level of their speech and action, to recognize the long, painful history of sexism and patriarchy, and act accordingly when it comes to listening to, respecting, and elevating the ideas of women and trans-gendered folks. I'm keenly aware, as a person with European ancestors, of the need for people like myself to step back the level of our speech and action, to recognize the deeply painful and damaging legacy of racial oppressions that have marginalized our brothers and sisters of color. We need to learn how to actually be brothers and sisters, instead of assuming that we are so. We must be willing to cede some of the spotlight, and do our share of the background work and more so. And we absolutely must be willing to commit ourselves to a lifetime of decolonization work on our hearts and minds, without drowning ourselves in unnecessary guilt and shame.

And what about the Earth? What about this amazing, alive planet that gives each of us the very breath we need to keep going?

We have groups likes Occupy the Food System. Occupy Cargill. Or Occupy Gardens springing up. Gotta love that. And yet, they remain on the margins, not terribly sexy compared to going after obnoxious bankers, corrupt politicians, and abusive police officers. Furthermore, even these groups remain human-centric in that they are based on enlightened self interest. Without quality, healthy food, people will die. Without the space to grow it, people will suffer.

But what above movements that don't offer direct benefit to people? Or direct tangible benefits to people? What if a major wing of Occupy had to do with applying the same "step back" principles I just wrote about above to humans themselves?

How might we "occupy" ecosystems in ways that mostly benefit plant and animal diversity? And how can we teach each other to recognize that doing so is not - I repeat NOT - in conflict with our efforts to overturn human oppression and economic and social injustice?

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the planet is calling us right now. It's doing everything it can to shake humanity out of it's collective slumber and stupor, out of love, but also out of a warning of what might come if we choose to remain living as many of us currently are.

The tenacity of the dandelion is living within each of us. The graceful movements of the elm are waiting to be unleashed from our hearts. We each harbor both a lion's roar and an elephant's patience.

It is absolutely time to reclaim the bold, wild, and liberated imaginations that are our birthright. Because in doing so, we are that much closer to becoming the wild and liberated people that we are each meant to be.
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