By Al Giordano
I can’t verify that this alleged transcript of today’s US State Department daily press briefing is real, but it came across my desk and it sure does sound like those crazy flashback-plagued hippies down at Foggy Bottom:
US Department of State Daily Press Briefing – December 8, 2011
Thu, 8 Dec 2011 17:42:34 -0500
Daily Press Briefing
September 30, 2011
12:45 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: Afternoon, everybody. I have one thing at the top and then we’ll go to your questions.
This is with regard to the reported leak of covert State Department documents claimed today by Narco News TV in its release of a video offensively titled “Narco-Mania.” The US Department of State can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the so-called “Operation Oh-No” to break up the Sinaloa drug crime organization in Mexico by fixing up Chapo Guzman with Yoko Ono. However, we have two words for whichever public employee leaked this alleged document to Narconews.com: “Bradley Manning.” Got it?
Furthermore, Secretary Clinton has asked me to pass along her personal offense, as a lifelong Beatles fan, that Narco News TV chose the date of December 8 for release of this alleged video about our alleged covert plan. As everybody knows, today marks the 31st anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I am sure I speak for every American citizen over 60 when I deplore the tasteless choice of this solemn day to premier a video that parodies that classic American film, A Hard Day’s Night.
John Lennon himself, if he were here today, would surely denounce this video’s message of ridiculing the war on drugs, one that promotes the legalization of illicit substances while claiming that ending a war would “give peace a chance.” Furthermore, we emphatically deny that four agents of the US Embassy ever held a “bed-in for war” on the Mexico City Zocalo, as portrayed in this offensive video. We strongly urge all American and Mexican citizens: Do not watch this video. Do not click http://www.narconews.com/nntv. Do not turn up the volume. And, of course, do not use any illegal drugs while watching it.
Now, let’s go to your questions…
Oh my. Let’s see what the harrumphing is all about! This is the new Narco News TV video, directed by Gregory Berger, “Narco-Mania!”
Greg began working on the idea for this video late last year, and the first scenes were filmed in Mexico City last February. And I have to say, to imagine family members of drug war victims chasing US Drug Enforcement Administration and Embassy agents out of Mexico seems a more hopeful and inspiring message than shouting and chanting slogans about 50,000 dead from their “war on drugs.”
The short film shows how the declarations of war by Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2011 sound too much like US President Richard Nixon’s discourse 40 years ago, before our filmmaker Greg (affectionately known in Mexico as “Gringoyo”) was even born! Forty years of fighting the drug war the same way – a prohibition policy enforced by police and armies that deploy weapons and prisons and other punishments - without an iota of success. We noticed that so many of today’s leading drug warriors – from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich – were once the very sixties hippies that Nixon targeted with his drug war and look at them now: They’re doing the same things to the next generations, too.
In this video, the US State Department cooks up a plan from their drug-addled brains to break up the Mexican drug “cartels” by fixing up alleged “cartel boss” Chapo Guzmán with Yoko Ono. The “expert analyst” in the film, one Jorge Martín, explains: “We have to remember that the US State Department is led by aging baby boomer Hillary Clinton and lots of other former 1960’s youth. And they all suffer from one traumatic, collective memory: The break-up of the Beatles in 1970.”
Watch as the fab four US agents try every dumbass thing they can think of to play Cupid to Chapo and Yoko (including an Easter “Bed-In for War” on the Mexico City zócalo reminiscent of Beatle John Lennon and Ono’s Christmas “Bed-In for Peace” in 1969) and it may occur to you, as it did to us, that these bizarre tactics are no less absurd than every other hapless way they are waging the so-called “war on drugs” today.
The video began shooting weeks before a Mexican citizens mass movement to end the drug war rose up in April of this year – a nonviolent movement that last week saw one of its own fledgling leaders, Nepomuceno Moreno, gunned down in Hermosillo, capital of the state of Sonora – and if the movement is going to keep growing and stripping away the institutional rings of support for the drug war, it is going to have to do what all successful movements have done: Learn to laugh as well as cry, to triumph as well as mourn. Ridicule and humor are among the most powerful nonviolent weapons available to those of us who understand that you can’t beat gunfire with gunfire.
This video is also an appeal to the hearts and minds of those of you elder folks who were once rebellious youth but now fill the halls of government, media, business and every other power: Would you please get your generation under control and stop it already with the hypocrisy of claiming to love the rebel music and celebrities of your era while doing the same terrible things to today’s youth that Nixon et al – look in the mirror, you’ve become him! – did to you and yours. Remember that the Nixon White House tried, in 1972, to deport the British ex-Beatle, and the “drug war” (his 1968 guilty plea to misdemeanor marijuana possession) was the pretext they used to do it. Maybe you cried when Lennon was gunned down on this week of 1980, even if you didn’t know him personally. Imagine how family members of 50,000 Mexicans killed in the past five years of the US-imposed war on drugs have cried as a result of the policies that you prop up with your silent consent (or, even in the case of too many who do advocate ending the drug war, your ineffective self-indulgent forms of “activism”).
In the United States, you have not succeeded in organizing a mass movement against this war, despite decades of trying. Your steps are as repetitive and unimaginative as those of the drug warriors you oppose. But in nine months, Mexicans have already done the job you did not want to do. This video aims, from their creative foxhole, at the heart of your stinking war on drugs and its policy of prohibition. The events in this video are so ridiculous and yet at the same time tell an awful truth. You may not know whether to laugh or to cry. But perhaps if you can laugh with us, together we can wield the weapon of ridicule to weaken the prohibition policy and gain more heart and strength to organize ourselves for the nonviolent battle required – and long overdue – to defeat it once and for all.
You can start by helping this video to “go viral” by posting it on your Facebook and other social network pages, embedding it on your blogs and email lists, and helping us to scout and recruit journalists and other talents to apply for the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism – we just announced this week that it will happen March 21 to 31 in Mexico, and completed applications are due December 28 (to receive an application write to firstname.lastname@example.org) - so that we can continue to multiply the number of people trained to do the kind of effective journalism and video creation that Greg and so many others of our graduates and colleagues do… eight days a week.
By Al Giordano
“hay una música
que sabe nombrar esa luz
que disipa la noche
y convoca a las palabras
a reunirse en el poema”
- Sergio Borja
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO: Thousands of locals, tourists, journalists, human rights observers, anthropologists, archeologists and more who live in or have passed through this mountain city enjoyed Sergio Borja’s voice, guitar and songs, but few knew him by that name. At Bar Revolución, Dada Club and other venues he was Capitán Flais, leader of the band. His profound influence on the art, music and poetry of this region, and on so many of the talents that create those works, is felt heavily now after a cardiac arrest that took him on Sunday, November 6, at the age of 48.
His words, above in Spanish, roughly translate as “There is a music/that knows how to name that light/that disperses the night/and calls upon the words to unite in the poem.”
At his November 7 wake, jazz pianist Patricia Reyes remembered to some friends the year, 2000, when she came to San Cristóbal from Mexico City: “There was almost no place to play jazz. The local clubs only wanted salsa or reggae. There were only two places to have an event, La Galeria and Las Velas. So concerts were organized at parties in people’s homes.” She met Flais at a monthly bonfire held on the full moon, “De Músicos, Poetas y Locos” (“Of Musicians, Poets and Crazies”). “Flais was important in that event and I also got to know his work through the magazine ‘Las Hojas de Huitepec.’ A lot of people knew the songs of Sergio Borja. Jazz, for him, came later. He always composed with lyrics and then discovered Coltrane and fell in love with jazz. He started composing songs without lyrics, of pure music.”
Today, in 2011, there are twenty bars and restaurants in San Cristóbal where a new generation of jazz virtuosos regularly perform. Capitán Flais was among the pioneers who blazed that trail and turned this remote burg into Mexico’s capital of jazz.
Some of the talents he mentored, like guitar wizard Fermín Orlando, a native of San Cristóbal, were teenagers when Flais turned them on to the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the rest of the jazz greats. Others who came up through the ranks of la banda del Capitán Flais include bassist-cellist Otto Dadda Anzures, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez; drummer Enrique Martínez of Zinacantán, Chiapas; Jalisco-born trumpeter Rafael “El Viejito” Cervantes; Chicago jazz singer Kelley Gaunt; and local violinist Albán, whose bow brings the most amazing sounds from all thirteen Mayan heavens down to us puny humans on earth. These are accomplished improvisers who have filled halls from Mexico City to India and Europe. It was Flais who gave them their first, and best, pushes. All were featured soloists in Flais’ band in 2005, when the San Cristobal music scene swept your writer into its vortex.
Over the years, on any given night, Flais deployed the finest A-Team of musicians under the sun to interpret his catalog of original songs. On another, he would just as likely be flanked by novices trying to keep up with him. Flais took great joy in getting beginners out on stage to make them learn by doing. More important to him than technique or perfect sound was whether the participants were growing and advancing in their mastery of improvisational music: Every concert was a rehearsal, and every rehearsal, a concert.
By the time I began playing my own works in San Cristóbal’s clubs with the band Zapa-Sutra, there was a rich pool of talent to be recruited for musical projects with jazz and improvisational influences. Every talent I rehearsed and performed with was a better musician than I, which is one definition of a songwriter’s utopia. The cost of living here is low enough that for many of the local musicians, it’s the only job they need to have. They pick up 150 or 200 pesos ($11 to $15) a night, as well as a constant stream of new audiences, muses and opportunities from the flow of tourists in and out of town. Every day in San Cristóbal, musicians congregate, jam, rehearse, attend one another’s gigs, assemble new formations, compose and enjoy together. New blood is always arriving, a trumpet or a sax player, invigorating the creativity of all. And nowhere did that happen more regularly than in Flais’ rustic studio apartment. (Perhaps calling it “rustic” is gilding; his two-by-three-meter room was a chilly box on the top floor of an unfinished brick-and-mortar house, on the windswept hill of the barrio El Cerrillo.)
Young musicians would often step out from their start with Flais to form their own trios, quartets and such, creating and playing their own new compositions. Those musicians became the backbone of what today is the most vibrant jazz scene I’ve known in any locale, including New York or Mexico City. Drifting in and out of Flais’ ensemble at one time or another, simply for the pleasure that he made of the playing, the musicians always tended to gather at Flais’ apartment in the hours before showtime. He would strum a new or old chord progression on his nylon-stringed guitar and others would play along. And then we’d all fan out to conquer the night at simultaneous gigs in various locales.
Sergio Borja, a.k.a. Flais, was an aesthete whose daily life was a search for beauty, visual and audial. Passersby would see him on the street or in a park with his easel and paints, brushing Monet-like portraits and landscapes, sometimes tutoring a less accomplished painter. Bespectacled and skinny, wearing sneakers and often popping around town with his vinyl guitar case on his back, Flais was himself a reluctant tourist attraction who often seemed shy about public attention. When a new thought struck him, he’d write it down on any scrap of paper available. Later he might turn it into a poem or a song, or just leave it by his bedside as a reminder note.
“El viaje/no es sólo el viaje físico/de equipajes y autobuses/y habitaciones y espacios/de un cambiante caleidoscopio/que gira con la tierra.”
- Sergio Borja
Disinterested in material things, the Argentine-born Borja had lived 25 years in Mexico without a visa. This left him unable to travel outside of Mexico, or even very far within it. In his poem “El Viaje,” he wrote: “The trip/is not just physical travel/of baggage and buses/and rooms and spaces/of a changing kaleidoscope/that turns with the earth.”
Contacted by Borja’s friends after his death, his mother, 83, said she hadn’t seen her son in a quarter century, although they had spoken in the last year, and he had recently sent her one of his paintings. Flais’ entire clothes collection fit on two shelves, and was wrapped in plastic to protect it from soaking up the scent of whatever the ever-present gang of musicians, poets and painters were smoking. What few knickknacks and possessions he had were typically tidied up in small containers, each with its own place to park; glasses, sunglasses, guitar picks, and the omnipresent piles of notes he had written. He lived without a refrigerator (as many do in this cold mountain climate) and his diet was Spartan: a loaf of white Bimbo bread, a carton of juice, and hot dogs aligned neatly in a Tupperware box.
Some years back, I pleaded with Flais to join me for a meal in a restaurant. His gaunt frame and apparent malnourishment were worrisome. This required repeated insistence, and after a few weeks he grudgingly accepted, suggesting an economic family restaurant, Alebrije, by the city’s bustling mercado, instead of the multitude of fine tourist restaurants that fill the city. We made a party of it with some of the other musicians, and over lunch I made the mistake of expressing a preference for handmade, fresh-corn tortillas over the thinner machine-produced ones on our table. He pointed his finger toward me and then to the sky, lecturing: “All food is blessed!”
One thing many of his friends learned this week during his wake and cremation was that, as a younger man, Borja had entered the seminary and studied to become a Catholic priest. The lyrics to his songs were über-positive, rejoicing in what he saw as the essential goodness of all of life; they could in fact be credibly played in Buddhist temples or Christian churches alike. Sarcasm was not in his playbook. I never heard him say a nasty thing about anyone, despite the setting of this tourist town, where cruel gossip oft seems the favorite sport, and where the best defense is often a good offense. The one time I saw him angry was at a local cultural center, where he saw some dirty coffee cups and immediately took them to a sink to wash them. One slipped from his wet hands and shattered on the floor. I applauded and shouted, “Bravo!” To which he snapped back: “I NEVER take joy in other people’s disgrace!”
Despite those rare clashes between two of the older wolves of the local music scene, Flais and I got along splendidly. A lesser artist (and there have been many, many frustrated gatekeepers along this writer, journalist, organizer and musician’s road) would have felt threatened by the entrance of a new ringleader into his territory and begun circling the wagons. Flais, refreshingly, went out of his way to make me feel welcome as the newcomer who had begun playing with some of his most accomplished protégés. What was more important to him than his own position in the show (at Bar Revolución he always stood below the stage while conducting other musicians both on and off it) was the tutelage of his musical disciples: If they were learning and inventing new sounds, he was visibly happy for them. It was as if he were standing back and looking at his own painting while the figures on the canvas moved to rhythms and the paint itself emanated the most sublime sounds. He befriended other accomplished musicians and encouraged them to teach his crew, people like the above-mentioned pianist Patricia Reyes, the bassist-composer Ciro Liberato, and the guitar virtuoso Julio Flores, who left behind his life as a rock-star bassist for the Mexican ska musical sensation Antidoping to return to his home town of San Cristóbal and rededicate his unique talents to jazz guitar. (Those three and their trio, Ameneyro, played at the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism; they and the other musicians mentioned here are family to this publication.) Many of the younger musicians who learned from Flais are today schooling newer generations in the jazz renaissance of these mountains.
Sergio Borja’s status as an illegal alien prevented him from engaging in any political activity at all. In 2005, he accepted an invitation for his band to play at a public event of the Zapatista Other Campaign during the November Day of the Dead celebrations. On the eve of the concert, he canceled, citing his lack of a visa—and having lived through the expulsions of 400 foreigners (human rights observers and journalists, mainly) from Mexico in the 1990s because the government viewed them as supporting the rebel indigenous insurgents in the hills around this city, he was probably smart to do so. And yet I would define him as a true revolutionary, a vocation that he didn’t shout slogans about but, rather, lived. He didn’t rail against consumer culture; he kept it altogether out of his daily life. He didn’t shout slogans; he wrote gentle poems and lyrics and put them to beautiful melodies and arrangements. He painted impressionist works on canvas rather than graffiti on other people’s walls. He didn’t go around trying to show off how much he “cared” about others; he really did care, and he treated everyone in his path with kindness and the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t proclaim himself an anarchist, but he lived and survived a quarter century without registering himself with any government. He was a free man in militarized Chiapas.
Since the Zapatista rebellion of 1994, San Cristóbal has become a kind of Disneyland for nongovernmental organizations, human rights workers and journalists. Their organizations often compete for press attention, for funding, and for what they call “access” to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) and its elusive Subcomandante Marcos. All this made for a perfect cocktail of vicious gossip, backbiting, and sectarian quarreling among too many of the NGOs, political organizations and their staffers. I had things to do in that town in 2005 and 2006, leading up to and during the Zapatista Other Campaign and its national listening tour. The musicians provided a perfect escape and shield from the shrill cross-fire of political activists, a kind of underground passage, an invisible Bauhaus subway line through the city. Because of the name of my band, people started calling me “Zappa.” Beyond the great fun and meaning of composing and performing music with such worthy instrumentalists, the jazz scene provided cover. Sometimes strangers would talk to me about the journalist “Al Giordano,” and I seldom let them in on my little secret. A few I’d never met before claimed to be that writer’s good friend, and I’d ask them to arrange an introduction. I wasn’t exactly lying when I responded only, “I’m a fan.” People still approach me now and then to say, “I never realized that you were him.” I felt as if the musicians and the nickname they gave me had provided me with my own Anne Frank attic to evade the storm troopers of Political Correctness and the petty push-and-shove that too many activists dish out to one another.
Musicians are, of course, famous for hedonism, and most, if you gave them truth serum, would have to admit that the extra amorous and sexual attention that comes with the gig is one of the benefits. In a tourist mecca, that’s even more the case. But Flais was an anti-Lothario, of very few affairs, and those he had were serious ones in which he gave his heart wholly and sometimes got it crushed; the process of falling in and out of love was grist for his lyrics. There was once a dashing Parisian, Audrey Hepburn–esque femme fatale in town who most of the male (and some female) musicians were absolutely throwing themselves at, but it was the mild-mannered Flais whom she sought out. She would come to his apartment each day, and he’d write songs in front of her, at least one of them to her, but if there was anything more gossip-worthy going on, Flais never let it be known. He was nothing if not discreet.
Flais had another quality I really liked, too: He honored his elders, peers and predecessors: the poets Francisco Alvarez Quiñones, Javier Molina and Juan Gallo, of San Juan Chamula (each of whom he wrote about back in 1993), and the painter and saxophonist Arturo Pacheco, among others. Flais encouraged their intergenerational participation with his young and merry band. He got young people interested in them and their craft. A lot of locals outside of the bohemian music and arts subcultures knew Flais and appreciated him. Our colleague Mercedes Osuna and her mother, doña Paula, when I mentioned coming to town for his funeral, remembered a month years ago when he was editing a text in their store, a market for clothes and crafts made in Chiapas’ indigenous communities. He came every day around lunchtime, and the wily Flais took the entire month to finish the text. They were happy to feed him, day in, day out, and even happier to enjoy his upbeat company during those memorable meals.
“Mudarse/aunque sea un piso/es como llegar de nuevo/de modo que a los pocos meses/todavía se duda/de la ubicación de una mesa/del cilindro de gas/de las macetas/y sí/mudarse es concederse una renovación espacial/imprescindible/y de paso poner a prueba la inteligencia/la practicidad/el estilo/además de ser una forma de limpia y renuncia/ya que siempre un cambio/de domicilio o de altura/deja escapar –y con razón–/las cosas que ya no nos necesitan.”
– Sergio Borja
When Flais had to move a few years ago from the second floor to the third floor of the house-under-construction where he rented his room, he wrote this poem: “To move/even just one floor up/one still has doubts/about the location of a table/of a gas cylinder/of the flower pots/and, yes/to move is to concede a spatial renovation/indispensable/and in its steps to put intelligence to the test/practicality/style/as well as being a form of purification and resignation/now, that a change always/of home or of altitude/allows the things that no longer need us – with good reason – to escape.”
If moving his few possessions the distance of one short staircase brought that out of him, I can only imagine what was going on in his mind last week when he faced a deadline to leave his address altogether. I don’t know, but I imagine that his decision not to get a visa or to otherwise legalize his presence in Mexico served his dislike of traveling or moving around. It gave him perfectly defensible excuses for not doing so. He had already traveled extensively before arriving in San Cristóbal about two decades ago, but apparently he had decided to roll to a permanent stop here and channel his inner traveler through his flights in music, word and image.
And some may not forgive me for this particular expression of grief or how I say it, but here it goes, anyway: Everybody knew that Flais didn’t just live humbly out of a vow of poverty; he really was poor. Everybody knew that a diet of hot dogs and white bread does not nourishment make, and that he was shrinking thinner all the time. Everybody knew that he was being evicted from his 700-peso-a-month ($52 dollars) tiny room because the owners of the house had finally saved up enough to finish construction of the third floor, where he had his little closet and roost (some of his paintings are of the views of the city from his two windows; in addition to his daily hosting of musicians and other friends, he also spent a lot of time alone there, but people didn’t see that part of his day). Everybody knew that November 6 was to be his eviction date. After his death, a few of his friends mentioned that they knew that he had not been feeling well. He told one that there had been blood in his urine since a month ago. He told another it was coming out of his ass. He told yet another that he’d been bleeding from the nose and mouth. The rest of the community around him only heard these things after it was too late to encourage him to get medical help. After he died, friends found by his bedside the stained cup into which he had been spitting that blood.
The horror of it all is that this was a man who had devoted so much love and attention to creating and building a community of music and painting and poetry and friendship and culture, yet when the warning signs began, that community was not sufficiently alert to notice, much less to help him. There are certain kinds of people who don’t seek medical attention unless dragged by the ear to the doctor. This is not to point at anyone in particular. We’re all to blame – those of us who no longer live here but didn’t check in or ask the right questions of our old friend and teacher and those mutual friends who saw him almost daily. And there certainly were people who generously helped Flais materially, like his good pal, the British anthropologist and musician Tim Trench. Two days before his death, Flais bathed, combed his hair, put on a clean shirt and knocked on the door of drummer Enrique Martínez and his wife, the actress and theater director Barbara Guillén. In what must have been the hardest words for him to ever speak, he asked if he could come to live with them and their seven dogs, starting Monday.
They welcomed him immediately – enthusiastically! – to his new home and set to work planning the organization of his studio, far more spacious than his previous haunt. He said he wanted to paint a landscape on a wall that a neighbor had erected, which was blocking a view from the home. These, and many more, were the acts of a “real” community, or what the San Cristóbal artist’s community could be if it had more posture or more people who did. But one thing about living in tourist towns is that it hardens the heart. High seasons come and go, and with them the invasion of new people and talents. Everybody who has come here and stayed has, at one point, been flavor of the month and then later settled for being another in the cast of extras. Then come the low seasons; the hotels and bars empty out, and the year-round residents are stuck with each other – and with the knowledge that everyone else saw and gossiped about their high-season antics and affairs, because high season always brings a blessed dose of crazy – time and again. One ends up saying good-bye to so many people who were once passersby that the heart tends to harden, and in some, it becomes more mercenary, less able to give a damn about anything or anyone. Paradise may or may not be overrated, but without a doubt it comes at a high price.
“A través de esos grandes ojos/con los que también respira una casa/se disipa el miedo de las paredes/y se atenúan las fronteras gregarias/de la propiedad privada/una habitación despierta/se integra a la luz de afuera/deja de estar a solas y escondida/y se da cuenta de que está en una casa.”
- Sergio Borja
In his poem, “El valor de las ventanas” (“The value of windows”), Flais wrote: “Through those big eyes/with those that a house also breathes/the fear in the walls disperses/the gregarious borders of private property dissolve/the light from outside joins in/one stops being alone and hidden/and realizes that one is in a house.”
The local firefighter Inti visited Flais on Sunday to help him organize the movement of his things, but he found him deathly ill. Inti called an ambulance to bring Flais to the hospital, where, hours later, he died in Barbara Guillén’s and Fermìn Orlando's arms. This was on the eve of his moving day. And when friends went to clear out his room, videotaping every step and item to ensure the rest of the world that nothing would be stolen, they found only 300 pesos to his name. They clicked on the Walkman that connected to his little speakers, and found a lilting piano progression by Monk, which now serves as the soundtrack for that sad and lonely video.
Unfortunately for us as a species, we take our visionaries for granted while they are alive and lionize them only in death. Many of them have eccentric qualities, or they play the jester or other roles as part of their technique to bring the out the best in others. Many are addicts of one kind or another (Flais wasn’t into alcohol or hard drugs at all, but some did frown upon his smoking habits even as they went to hear and enjoy his singing voice). Flais at times seemed like the prototypical absent-minded professor, so buried in his quest for knowledge and beauty that he’d forget to take care of himself. He was so thin that a gale wind might have come at any moment to blow him up into the sky. Well, it kind of just did.
Visionaries don’t always make it easy to help them. They almost never ask for help; that would be humiliating. There’s no beauty in imposing on others. But I feel much as I did in 2004, after the suicide of our colleague-in-journalism Gary Webb, that the real dysfunction is not with the heretic, but with the rest of us. People talk about community, they talk about friendship, and they blather on and on about “caring” and altruism and good words and the importance of good deeds. Everybody claims to be a lover. But in the end, we’re a pestilent species of egoists and scared little weenies; almost every one of us is so self-absorbed and out for ourselves that even those who work hard at appearing to care are eventually revealed as selfish brutes.
Here was a guy, Sergio Borja, our very own Capitán Flais, who really lived the idea of community, who did unto others as he would have done unto him. He is the father of the most vibrant jazz scene on the continent, and he forged it from nothing! He rose up an army of jazz! But his attention to the wellbeing of others wasn’t reciprocal, honestly, was it? He never got to turn 50. And I can’t say that he would be alive today if the community had been more attentive and responsive to the reality that he needed us to take care of him a little bit better. But I’ll always wonder. And it’s a terrible feeling, the kind of existential question I would seek out Flais’ counsel on, looking to him for some kind of silver lining to the tragedy, one that would spring from his innate optimism and belief in people. His advice and philosophy are what we sought at moments like this one. But he’s no longer here to give it.
By Al Giordano
If James Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life of Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (2011, Doubleday) becomes, deservedly, a movie, it will be an edgier East Coast cousin of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. This coming-of-age story brings to resurrected life the “semi-dirty” portals and characters through which a young writer evolved to become one of America’s foremost cultural critics, on the cusp of waves that his own prose helped to create.
Imagine if instead of cutting his teeth on redneck jam bands like the Allman Brothers for the pretentious Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, a writer had come up as the fledgling critic who sat at the bar at CBGBs scribbling John-the-Baptist prophecies on napkins to herald the coming of Patti Smith and Talking Heads, navigating the story through the shark-infested newsroom of the Village Voice (my god, it was as cutthroat as I’d always imagined it: “nobody at the Voice told you anything for your own good unless he was up to no good,” recalls Wolcott: “like the gangster families in The Godfather, the Voice convulsed into feuds every few years to purge the bad blood and begin a fresh cycle of animosities”), so that 14- and 15-year-old New York boys and girls, your correspondent included, could gobble up his prose and race down the Bowery for a front-table and a sloe gin fizz (we were never, ever, carded) in the opening rounds of what came to be known, later, but not yet, as “Punk.”
The wunderkind Crowe had Lester Bangs as a mentor, true, but Wolcott, we learn from Lucking Out, was caught in a love triangle with that brilliant and bombastic music critic and a mutual girlfriend during the final months of Bangs’ life. In the same 1973 when a 16-year-old Crowe was roaming the longhair frat halls of the Hyatt in Hollywood, the proverbial “Riot House” of established seventies rock stars and groupies, a 21-year-old Wolcott was waiting endlessly, over and over again, for Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television to get their guitars stringed to taste (“it always took them forever to tune up, bent over their guitars like car mechanics over a tricky transmission”). There, he would often step out the CBGB’s gate onto the sidewalk at the Bowery and Bleeker Street for some air. Let’s go take that walk with him, for Wolcott’s is a pen with superpowers – the kind that Stan Lee and Jack King Kirby assigned to the Marvel heroes that inspired our scribe as a boy – that transports the reader to places and times of legend:
“If nothing else, the seventies in New York taught me situational awareness, a vital attribute for every slow-moving mammal prone to daydreaming. Like so many who came to see Patti, I would sometimes glide backward to the street when the opening band began tormenting their guitars after tuning up on each other’s nerves for five or ten minutes. It wasn’t like cooling your heels out on the piazza. Bottles would be dropped from the Palace Hotel men’s shelter above CBGB’s, their green and clear glass smashing on the sidewalk, some of them exploding with pee, the contents recycled from the beer or Thunderbird that the bottles formerly contained. It wasn’t a nightly occurrence, but it happened often enough to keep you limber. Scraggly panhandlers who didn’t bother to work up an inventive line of patter to go with their outstretched palms would pester anyone stationary, even though the CBGB’s customers themselves were the very portrait of slim pickings and linty pockets. Abuse was shouted from passing cars, on general principle, not for anything in particular, and the occasional curiosity-seeker or casual-date couple would serenade by, open the front door for a peek, and get a face-ful of inchoate racket blasting from the stage – all the deterrence they needed to keep moving to find a different lovebird destination, assuming they weren’t eaten by cannibals before they got to Canal Street.”
That “situational awareness” would, in real life, prepare some of us to live and navigate in places like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or the Lacandon Jungle, but it readied Wolcott for an even scarier place: the offices of the New York media. Over the subsequent decades he has deliciously taken down the mighty knowns and risen up the worthy unknowns as a widely-read critic of – you name it – movies, music, television, politics, news media, bloggers, and classical ballet, among other contact sports for the Voice, Esquire, The New Yorker, New York mag, The New York Review of Books and his current longtime gig at Vanity Fair.
Too many of the “New York media elite” occupy its overpaid cubicle spaces and column inches with formulaic, banal, effete and careerist drivel. But every rule has an exception and mine, as a reader, is Wolcott. Reading his prose is as flavorful a venture as chomping on a slice of Joe’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue, and, no, not because he may have once in a while tossed a few literary bouquets my way. There are plenty who have been generous with praise toward this bad boy but if they have a new book out I still cross the street when I see them coming, cowering in horrific fear that they’re going to ask me to review it, which, gasp, would mean I’d have to read the damn thing first. I don’t even like books anymore! I used to love them, but then books, much like New York, changed.
I spend too many hours already racing through the well-lit hallways of the Internet, so the last thing I want to do during leisure time is stress these eyes even more. And if you’ve walked into any of the chain bookstores that have supplanted the mom-and-pop ones, you may, too, have noticed that fiction died in the 1980s and that nonfiction didn’t last much longer. It had been more than two years since I read any book, prior to Lucking Out, and I confess that I’m proud of to be part of such illiterati. Books come out too slow to be timely, and the publishing houses churn them out according to formulaic focus-group research of what book buyers think will bring them status, make them seem smart, or get them laid if they leave the product lying around the coffee table. The thousands of books that once cluttered up this mind were either sold on Rivington Street or given away before my ugly divorce with them. Books are heavy and clunky. They don’t fit in a pen drive. And if adventure is your calling you eventually conclude that they must be cut like ballast from Phileas Fogg’s balloon.
Yet when a review copy of Lucking Out arrived last week, conveniently while I was in New York (we don’t give out the address of the Narco Newsroom to publishing houses, because then they consider it permission keep sending all kinds of crap), I ripped open the padded envelope like a kid on xmas day. I knew it would bring me back through the doors of CBGB’s (Wolcott calls it “the only place where my memories are three-dimensional,”) and felt that tingly sensation I had each time I stepped across the threshold, with my high school buddies Philip Shelley, Emily Wasserman, Jon Frankel, Kathy Lamantia, Billy Johnson – people who remain in, or have returned to, my off-screen life 35 years later, none of us ever having quite recovered from such formative experiences – and so many more, into its long, dark cavern as a teenager. A truly great writer just published a book about events in seventies New York that he and I were party to, although we sat in separate sections of the bar, and that was enough to keep me in bathrobe all day on Saturday to devour its 258 pages. I opened the book around 8 a.m. and only got around to having breakfast at three in the afternoon. My hardcover-devouring girlfriend - who slipped an egg-and-cheese sandwich in the slot under the door - says that Wolcott should get the Nobel in literature for his contribution to world literacy: he got Al to read a book. “I’ve never seen you smile like that,” she said, “while reading something,” which is more often than not, a duty or a chore.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve liked a book (there have been many) about those over-hyped days at CBGB’s, a place and time where everybody claims to have been, but when you ask a question that begs details, it turns out they saw it in a YouTube video or in a magazine. You could have fit us all into a thimble, truth be told (as I was boasting with Wasserman and her Brooklyn pals the other day, “there are photos of Emily and I at CBGB’s in 1975.” And that still isn’t considered credible until one adds, authoritatively, “and they’re on Facebook.”)
Fifteen years ago I wrote an impassioned Boston Phoenix review for Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk (1996). The previous winter I had enjoyed a bit of a re-run as a court scribe on the bus with the Patti Smith Group on her comeback tour with Bob Dylan, when Verlaine taught me the secret to better guitar playing – “drink a lot of coffee,” he said, pausing his phrases like Miles Davis’ silence-between-the-notes. (Then-media critic for the Voice, Cynthia Cotts, later commented, “that tour destroyed you as an employable commodity in this industry: you learned from Patti that you could become a kind of rock star yourself simply by acting like one.”)
My punk encore did indeed, very quickly, lead my journalism career to go up in self-immolation that year. Those moments were the Tunisian street vendor to my own personal Egyptian revolution, which spit me out of Boston and New York and hurtled me south of the border. Yet, in October, November and December of 1995, in Patti’s entourage, I was merely sweeping up the hallowed ground that Wolcott had trail-blazed twenty-one years prior: He had reported, for the Voice, on the night that Dylan showed up at CBGB’s to bestow his Excalibur sword to Patti, back in 1974, a glistening passage of prose that is revived for three pages of Lucking Out.
It’s so much fun to read Wolcott give a bit of justice in column inches to David Byrne and the Franzes of Talking Heads, and to Verlaine, art-rockers of “punk,” who were inexplicably granted slight billing by Please Kill Me. Wolcott writes of his crush on the (married, therefore perfectly untouchable) Tina Franz and his excited visit to the apartment where the Talking Heads lived back in the day:
“Byrne’s ambition was harder to spot at first because his voice broke like a choirboy’s and his head was always bobbling or askew, not Fixed in Purpose or rapture-lost. He was as willful as Verlaine, but his willfulness woke outward, toward the honeycombed world, whereas Verlaine’s narrowed to a shrinking portion of what he sought and fought to control. Byrne’s very accessibility, his approachability, set him apart from Verlaine and (later) Patti, whose don’t-bother-me-I’m-an-artist signs on their faces deterred those who might idly come knocking. One night a CBGB’s regular named Valerie, a gorgeous speed freak whose chat accelerated into gibberish the longer she hung at the bar, said to me, spotting Byrne, ‘I’m going to pick him up and swing him around.’ ‘That I’d like to see,’ I said. As David headed toward the stage area, nodding his bashful hellos, Valerie grabbed him around the chest in a skilled grappling move and twirled him around, and as he spun, he said, ‘Whoa!’ like a teenager on an amusement park ride, and when he stopped, he pretended to act a little dizzy, as if bopped on the head by a fuzzy hammer. Had she tried that with Lou Reed, he might have burst into mummy dust.”
Don’t even try to tell me that this book wouldn’t make a wonderful movie, if only so somewhere from the back row of Heaven’s Cineplex, Pauline Kael might see it and review it.
Kael was Wolcott’s mentor, and his memories of being taken in by, and learning the craft of criticism from, Kael dominate pages 53 to 104 of Lucking Out. Despite that the book gifted me a worthy reunion to my own times (and who doesn’t love a good jaunt down Amnesia Lane?), the Kael section was my favorite part of Wolcott’s latest work. It was a worthy homage to a mentor by a student, but, more tellingly, it stands as an eternal paean to, and roadmap for, the very concept of a mentor-protégé relationship. Unlike so many opportunistic what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ingrates, Wolcott remains fiercely loyal to his most important teacher and guide, a decade after Kael (1919-2001) passed away.
Movies may have been produced in Hollywood, but in the seventies (a golden age when directors enjoyed a renaissance of artistic freedom to control their own flick, a concept that, alas, does not exist today) they had to get through the lofty trenches of a few choice New York movie critics, generally, to have any hope of box office success. Kael was among the most influential, writing from her country house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains, and commuting to the offices of The New Yorker (staying at the Royalton Hotel at 44 W. 44th street, and only at the Algonquin when the Royalton was full) for her six-month-a-year shift at the cinema desk. If there is a magazine, today, that would let a critic work for six months a year, I’d like to know about it.
Kael was much like those great seventies film directors in that she ran her own show. Movie companies would hold private screenings for her, to which she would bring a posse of fellow and sister critics, and other friends, to watch (always a “movie,” she detested calling them film, which she said was just a kind of tape that one put in a camera). In 1974, the 22-year-old Wolcott received an unsolicited phone call from the 53-year-old Kael, who invited him along for the ride simply because she liked his writing in the Voice. In the following years, Wolcott would go through various, as he called them, “serial monogamous” relationships with girlfriends until later meeting his wife, but the section about Kael in Lucking Out is a romantic platonic love story between the author and a unique New York character; authentically Big Apple, because Kael really didn’t care who she offended when expressing her opinion on their work (“she was blaspheming everything the New York Times Arts and Leisure section held hallow,” Wolcott recalls). After reading Lucking Out, I’m in love with Kael, too.
Reading those 51 pages on Wolcott’s years of opening doors for the five-foot-tall dynamo, of carrying Kael’s briefcase, and of walking her home to the Randolph after so many nights of film screenings followed by Algonquin round tables with her posse, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from one of the Jurassic Park movies (not being schooled in cinema, I couldn’t tell you which one), in which a baby T-Rex is taught to kill its prey by its mother and Junior proceeds to bite off the head of one of the bad guys.
Over the years, Wolcott’s own critiques have exasperated actors, directors, musicians, choreographers, dancers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, and the agents, handlers and moneymen behind them. At times I wince when he savages some of my favorite artists and their art (Bertolucci’s 1900? the CBGB’s-born Blondie? and it takes a lot of guts to have publicly yawned, as he did, at a sacred icon like Bruce Springsteen at the precise moment when he emerged to conquer rock and roll), but mostly I’ve taken great vicarious delight in watching Wolcott turn effete snobs that pose as leftist or rightist gatekeepers into piñatas: Ellen Willis (cough), Newt Gingrich (double cough), Susan Sontag (hack, wheeze)… Lou Reed! Look up the word “iconoclast,” kids: Wolcott’s photo is in the Pictionary.
A particularly entertaining takedown of Reed, the former Velvet Underground front man, already an icon by 32, in Lucking Out, informs as it pleases. The point of the writing, in fact, was not to knock down Reed (although it does, like a bowling pin in a Bronx lane on a Saturday morning) but to rise up Reed’s ex-partner in creating the Warhol Factory soundtrack, John Cale, who once drunkenly strangled Wolcott with his hands along the bar at CBGB’s, over a misunderstanding on the slurred pronunciation of “Molson”:
“I didn’t take it personally. There was no repeat performance. In fact he (Cale) was unfailingly genial and chatty whenever I ran into him, and his presence on the scene, despite the sporadic aggro-surges, cast a more generous corona than that of his former co-pilot, Lou Reed, whose cool-as-shit sarcasms seemed to come out of a private loop of Bob Dylan’s surlier moments from Don’t Look Back projected on the inside of his sunglasses…
“One night Lisa Robinson, rock journalist extraordinaire, came up to me with the winged-Mercury enthusiasm of someone with some really good gossip to share and asked: ‘So, did you hear what just happened? Verlaine confiscated Lou’s tape recorder. Went up to him and demanded that he fork it over.’ Which Lou did, like a shoplifter surrendering a pack of cigs.”
For a decade or more after those years, our scene and we were forgotten: old news, yawn. We used to say, you had to be there, and I often got the idea that we were received like shell-shocked ‘Nam vets by people who didn’t ask and didn’t want to hear what it was like over there. Kurt Cobain would eventually generate some interest from a later generation, but New York “punk” got all rolled up, in popular culture, with other things that were really nothing like it: the British version of “punk,” the West Coast one, a “new wave” market niche along with artless “hardcore” and corresponding fashion statements associated with spiked hair and such. Thanks to Lucking Out (like Please Kill Me, before it, for which Wolcott’s book serves as a long overdue addendum reviving important parts that somehow got left on Legs’ and Gillian’s cutting-room-floor), the kernel of the idea is now better preserved. The 1970s works of the author and a precious few colleagues fast-forwarded us and prepared us to have Wolcott’s “situational awareness” that is now a survival skill in this treacherous media-dictated future that we live in, when Verlaine’s pioneering act – one just didn’t even consider taking away an icon’s tape recorder back then; Tom did – gave us a clue and pointed us toward the present-day skills we need.
Wolcott didn’t write only about these young pre-cyber culture jammers. And this is the most interesting twist in a book that begins with a 20-year-old cub reporter dropping out of college and coming to New York from the Maryland-Delaware border with nothing but a recommendation letter from Norman Mailer (given, it was not exactly “nothing,” but it still carried no guarantees). In Lucking Out, we read not only what he learned in his New York salad days, but more importantly, how he learned it, from his magnum-teacher Pauline Kael. In the pages of this book, we then watch Wolcott apply that knowledge in his first lasting journalistic venture: the promotion of Patti Smith and the CBGB’s scene around her, before it was clear that any of it was going anywhere.
Lucking Out teaches us all to be critics, with the proviso that the greatest thing a critic does is not to tear down, but to build up. All the tantalizing takedowns that authentic critics make merely establish the ground upon which, when they find something or someone really worthwhile to raise up, they can open the space for something truly new and interesting to happen. See that guy or gal in the back row of the theater, the one who hates everything that sucks and even some things that we don’t want to suck? Well he or she suddenly really likes something now! Let’s go see what the fuss is about!
Back to what the student, Wolcott, sponged-in from the mentor, Kael:
“One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care. It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.”
And, thus, as Wolcott puts it, “leaning on the throttle to hurry up the future,” we read in this book an excerpt from his 1974 Voice piece that proclaims boldly that unsigned and largely unknown Patti Smith is the next big thing, a “knockout performer: funny, spooky, a true off-the-wall original. Like the character in Dickens, she do the police in different voices,” and the young writer went out on a very long limb to proclaim: “skinny schizzy Patti is on her way to becoming the wild mustang of American rock.”
There is no yardstick available on this mortal plane to measure whether Patti’s triumphs then happened because young Wolcott, the critic, wrote it. But nor is there any way at all to prove that it would have happened had the critic not done so. These things are in the realm of reasonable doubt from both sides of the pessimist-optimist divide. Such is the life of a critic. The crowd is always eager to blame you for killing something, but averse to credit you with the midwifery of anything demonstrably inspiring.
Beyond the secret histories from Kael to Cale, Lucking Out adds Wolcott’s memoirs of corners of seventies New York that had never captured my imagination: Classical ballet and porn among them. (His odes to the NYC pornography industry quickly segue into a theme of more personal interest: sex in Manhattan, even if I’m grateful that while all those guys were whacking away their afternoons in XXX theaters in Ye Olde Times Square, not a single one was, at that precise moment, competing for a real-life gal’s attention). But Wolcott does pull the dirty trick of making me think that maybe one day I’ll load up on nicotine gum and actually enter Lincoln Center – if they’d have me, I don’t know – to see what all his dancy-prancy fuss is about. That’s another sign of a great writer: one that can make you curious about matters that previously held zero interest.
I will assign Lucking Out to my own students and protégés, and not only to wave his pages on Kael in the air shouting, “this is how a mentor should be treated!”
And speaking of “lucking out,” a couple of weeks ago, while ushering some participants of a workshop on journalism and civil resistance through the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park (as we entered, Narco News TV director Greg Berger wondered who we’d run into and I confessed that in previous visits I had seen more than a few annoying activists from previous misadventures that I had the “situational awareness” to skillfully avoid), the first person I ran into was Jim Wolcott, chatting with one of the occupy media committee organizers. “I knew you’d be here,” he said, which was a good use of dry humor since he knows I live South of the Border. We talked about the challenges of finding the different-drummer stories in an event that has had been under a pack-media magnifying glass (who have written too much about drummers there, anyway), and he graciously gave his sage time to some of the scholars from our workshop. I have no idea what his coming Vanity Fair story on “occupy” will say, but I find myself clicking refresh waiting for it to happen.
When recounting the turf wars, rivalries and catty dialogue among the New York media newsrooms and hangouts, Wolcott extends a generous appreciation to just how vicious so many of the divas there had been to him and to each other:
“I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. But I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.”
That counsel is pure gold for new and future generations of writers and critics. If I had a 35-cent New York City seventies subway token for every time a present-day blogger or aspiring journalist threw a whining tantrum when, for a change, he or she were at the receiving end of a critique or a putdown, I’d be able to buy the Huffington Post and the New York Times just to be able to padlock the doors and put them all out of their wussy pack-journalism misery.
So, you want to be a writer? A critic, you say? Then you can’t give a fuck about what people say about you after you’ve fired your keypad and crestfallen their fragile egos (or those of their sacred cows). In the few times we’ve spoken, Wolcott has struck me as gentle and sensitive, much more of an officer and a gentleman than Pauline Kael (“tough” she used to say when someone objected to her words, Wolcott remembers, often followed by “shit”). Really, he comes off more as the sort of mensch that rescues stray kittens from alleyways in his spare time, later to appear in his prose as the house ocicats of a tea-totaling domestic bliss. And yet I suspect in that uptown apartment he sometimes lets us peek into that one can still regularly hear the Jay Dee Daugherty backbeat to Patti Smith’s annunciation of “the sea of possibility… seize the possibility!”, a credo for authentic writers and critics anywhere.
Kael, the subject of his greatest homage to date, was able to summon and forge a healthy sense of detachment out of her young charge. One gets the sense that the brickbats and cruelties fired back at New York’s greatest surviving critic might sometimes hurt Wolcott’s feelings, but that his big liberal East Coast heart is gym-toned and plated with enough Bowery grit to save him from the trap of pulling punches or turning the volume down the next time he sits down at the keypad in his lifetime duel against the bores.
And for once, when, someday, some cinematic genius in Hollywood makes an irresistible motion picture out of Lucking Out, bringing its ageless, history-making characters to life on the screen, I’ll be able to murmur across some hissy uptown cocktail party salon, “but the movie wasn’t as good as the book,” and then let drop that I reviewed the original on its route to the left coast, with the immeasurable ever-so-New-Yorker suggestion, unspoken but hinted nonetheless as subtly as a sock in the nose, that perhaps this very review planted that idea in the director’s head. I’d never be able to prove it. And you’d never be able to disprove it.
That’s the magic to being a critic. Wolcott is the Merlin who has rescued and tended to those hexes and spells during decades in which the art of criticism has been battered and obscured by mercenaries who, try as they might, are no longer worthy to lift the sword from the stone. When we could distinguish between “uptown” and “downtown” and Fourteenth Street was still a kind of national border, he was able to traverse both sides and cross-pollinate between them. Now that all Manhattan has been annexed by uptown, and everything and almost everyone truly downtown was extinguished, pushed to the sides, or ran like hell, he’s still crossing the Bitfrost between Asgard and Midgard, mythical representations popularized by the Marvel comics that he soaked up as a kid. Today, this working class autodidact from Maryland patrols the streets of New York much like his childhood heroes, avenging the never-ending crime waves of banality that make the Son-of-Sam years look like a holiday. On second thought, he’s not Merlin. Wolcott isn’t old enough – he’s not even gray – for such a stuffy Arthurian role. In a media industry of mere mortals, look over there: he’s the dude with the hammer of Thor in his hands. I can’t wait to see where he hurls it next.
By Al Giordano
It’s no secret that the war on drugs has inflicted more pain, death and suffering on Mexico than any people should ever have to bear. Headlines daily proclaim the latest casualties – 50,000 human beings murdered by criminals, soldiers and police in less than five years – and yet the prohibitionist policy that causes the mayhem remains, so far, intact. The international media reports the same story over and over again in different configurations – a murder here, a mass grave there, another seizure of the South American cocaine that flows through Mexico toward the gringo’s nose (we are told that it breaks the previous record of last month’s record seizure, and await next month's even more triumphant claim), and a series of “cartel” bosses with comicbook villain names served up as if they, and not governments, are the real kingpins of this disaster – and yet very little attention is offered, comparatively, to the real story happening south of the US Border: That everyday Mexicans, especially the family members of these 50,000 dead, have organized themselves into a national movement over the past seven months to end the violence and the drug war that brings it.
For example, the poet and journalist Javier Sicilia – around whom this vibrant Mexican movement has risen up after the assassination of his son last March – is in Washington DC today, with other drug war victims, where he testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, documenting this tragedy, and not a single story has yet appeared in US wire services, daily newspapers, national TV or radio newscasts, about it. They have entire offices, news bureaus and paid reporters in Washington, but not a word is spoken.
International human rights and “press freedom” groups regularly put out press releases denouncing the latest murder or violation, and almost nobody pays them any mind either. Some activists do the same, but they can shout from every mountain about 50,000 dead, even in the country next-door, and the only response is typically the echo of one’s own voice across the barren canyon.
I have an idea of why that is. It is related to Robert J. Lifton’s theory of “psychic numbing” that he pioneered during the Cold War and its nuclear arms race. (Indeed, such numbing impeded and delayed movements to end the threat of nuclear war for decades: it took a citizen movement not against nuclear arms, but against nuclear power plants, in the late 1970s, to re-sensitize American public opinion to the overall atomic threat, creating the opening for the national nuclear weapons freeze movement of the 1980s; a movement that, if nothing else, convinced the people of the Soviet Union that most Americans didn't want to incinerate them with cruise missiles, and, once losing that fear, began to address their domestic grievances.)
Paul Slovic advanced Lifton’s ideas when he wrote about “genocide neglect”:
“Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem. Why does this occur?”
The same dynamic has numbed policy makers, media organizations and American public opinion alike to the wholesale violence of the drug war in Mexico. And yet if you know any activist or person who has tried to tell you about what is happening down south, you have likely heard them spout mainly the statistical body count and bloody horror stories from the latest headlines, to the point of being really, really annoying. Too many well-meaning people seem to think that if they just tell you how terrible something is that you will want to right that wrong and fix that injustice. Then they often berate you for not being as "caring" and "compassionate" a person as they. But think about it: when was the last time a statistic or a guilt-trip got you off your ass to do anything?
And this is one of the values of Javier Sicilia: one human being’s pain, and his ability to articulate it in words to which most humans can relate, has re-sensitized so much of the Mexican population so that it can begin to confront the drug war that is the source of so many of the evils it confronts every day. It has reduced the numbing. And from the story of one, well told, quickly came others: that of Julian LeBaron, of Teresa Carmona, of Maria Herrera and so many others whose individual stories break through the numbing that the activist-speak recitation of numbers could not touch.
We’ve reported each step of this movement in detail on these pages, stressing these individual human stories, but never from the perspective of merely denouncing that something awful has happened to them and their loved ones. Narco News reporters devote our labor, instead, to the stories of how people gather and organize to create justice where there is none. When reporters come to us proposing to write about, say, a political prisoner who recently went to jail, our response is “find the family members or friends or organizations that are campaigning to get him or her out of prison. Tell the reader how they are organizing. We’re not here to depress people! People are already depressed and it immobilizes them! Find the ray of hope in this story that helps us see that something can be and is being done to change the story.”
That’s because after so many years of doing this work we’ve learned that denouncing evil alone accomplishes nothing to fix any problem, and it in fact dulls and numbs and creates even more fear even among everyday people who may have thought about taking action, but feel too overwhelmed, or fearful, to do so. Lifton’s “psychic numbing” and Slovic’s concept of “genocide neglect” explain perfectly why 50,000 murders in Mexico produce a collective sigh or yawn (a non-response that also deepens the despair and numbness of public opinion about the drug war).
Sometimes a story of a terrible violence or injustice does crack through the numbing and arouses public response. Such was the case on December 22, 1997, when paramilitary soldiers assassinated 45 indigenous men, women, elders and children as they prayed in a church in the Mexican state of Chiapas. What made the Acteal story different than so many tragic cases of violence is that it was a community that had already begun to organize its own autonomy in how it farmed and worked, how it ate, how it educated its children, how it healed its ill, without accepting any money from the government. It was for this reason that its residents – already, in 1997, avowed practitioners of nonviolence – were massacred.
On September 15 of this year, the Caravan of Peace of family members of drug war victims stopped in Acteal. Authentic journalists Greg Berger and Marta Molina were there reporting it for Narco News. They returned inspired to tell the story of what they saw and heard. Molina wrote the story about it and, working with young audio technicians from the community, recorded everything that had happened. Berger videotaped. During the hours that the community awaited the caravan, they interviewed community members, and recorded the ceremonies and words when the caravan arrived. In subsequent days they caught up with LeBaron, Carmona, Herrera and other family members of drug war victims who had been there that night, who told compellingly of how meeting the people of Acteal had inspired and taught them about their own struggle.
The challenge then was to do something with the video and audio that would be seen by many people, to share the story beyond the “already converted,” to bring the story to people not already in the struggle. And online video has greater potential than text to accomplish that. Still, scores of videos have been produced about the peace caravans and protests of the Mexican movement, a lot of them repeat the "50,000 dead" script but tend to only circulate among those already involved in cause. I suggested to Greg that he resurrect one of the characters he has performed in other videos that have “gone viral” - that of a sympathetic, overly-earnest, but hapless North American activist in Mexico - precisely because he makes people laugh and entertained enough by a video so that reporting on life-and-death issues like the violence in Mexico might lessen the “drug war numbing” among viewers. And one of the best ways to get people to let their guard down is to make them laugh.
The result is “Hungry for Justice,” and in short time more than 6,000 viewers have now seen the Spanish version, many of whom are sharing it in their social networks, via email and word of mouth (which is how videos go viral: when somebody says, “hey, you gotta see THIS!” and it passes that way from person to person). The English version has, so far, about one-tenth as many viewers, perhaps because there is not yet a wide grassroots movement in the English speaking world to end the drug war violence in Mexico or in their own countries.
So, we’d like to try a little experiment. Today the English version has 705 viewers. Check it out, by clicking the “play” arrow, on the video atop this page, and then follow these easy and rapid suggestions:
You've seen the video? Good! Did you enjoy it? Did you learn something from it? Now - quick! - think of your friends, co-workers, family members, social networks and email lists that might also want to see this story, and have a few laughs about the character Greg plays – the gringo activist who tags along on Mexican protest caravans for the free food (believe me, we've met people like that!) and learns a powerful lesson when he gets to Acteal. And let’s see how many more English-language viewers we can bring to learn along with our silly gringo connoisseur of Mexican popular cuisine!
It’s also the story about organizing in a push-button culture where media and advertising program us to want immediate results in such an unrealistic hurry that many people become “activists” for a while only to burn out or despair or move on to something else – a danger right now for many “Occupy Wall Street” participants, just as it was for many Americans in the 2007-2008 Obama campaign who confused “yes, we can” with “yes, he can” and now they just pout instead of organize - when “the change” is slow to download.
The inspiring people of Acteal have struggled, now, for 14 years seeking justice for their dead, and still have not obtained it. But look at them! They’re joyous and optimistic in their struggle. They don’t give up. They keep coming and coming, training and bringing new generations up to carry the torch. They see how so much of Mexico is now coming around to their chosen path of nonviolence to bring profound, and not superficial, change. And, in 2011, they’re “fired up and ready to go.”
If after what they’ve suffered they don’t whine and throw tantrums, why should anyone who does have so many of the material advantages most of them don't have, like, say, a computer and Internet access?
And that’s another lesson we’ve learned by reporting alongside social movements, especially in indigenous Mexico: that lasting change requires lasting campaigns and a culture of resistance that infuses all aspects of daily life beyond any protest march or encampment. It’s a lesson we learned again this year from our friends in Egypt who continue dismantling a dictatorship months after they toppled the dictator and after they ended their occupation of Tahrir Square. An authentic struggle, once entered, is entered for life. It is not how we spend a summer vacation or a six month unemployment check. It is so much more than a march or a protest.
Anyway, I’d like to tell you more, but watching that video again just made me hungry. Consider this video food for thought...
By Al Giordano
Once upon a time, twenty thousand people descended on Wall Street, the capitol of capital, occupied it nonviolently, and won exactly what they demanded.
This is not a fairy tale. It really happened.
This is the story of how it happened. And it is also the story of one of those 20,000 occupiers and how immersing himself in those events at a young age changed the direction of his life. These words are dedicated and addressed to people not so unlike him: any and every individual who is currently occupying Wall Street, or anywhere else, or anyone else who is thinking about doing so.
The truth is that there are two “occupations” going on simultaneously; that which the media is reporting, often badly, which is now a societal spectacle, and the more private and personal occupation by every individual involved. The spectacular protest may not know, or be able to coherently articulate, its own demand or demands as anything other than a shopping list of disembodied causes and issues. But that should not stop any individual involved in it to get to know, embrace and advance upon his and her own more personal demands that brought him and her to occupy Wall Street in the first place.
Wall Street, ahem, isn’t just in your wallet: It’s in everything you own, rent, use, borrow, find or steal. It’s also in the “identities” and roles we put on and take off in each department of our daily lives. And one should never worry as much about the police on the street – there are time-honored tactics for working around them, developed by pioneers in nonviolence, available to every person who wants to learn them – as much as one should be very concerned about the cop in one’s head. There are also tactics available to make that police force – the invading army in our innermost thoughts and fears that polices our very behavior, officers of the psyche that we all have, through unspoken fears, invited into our brains and hearts – retreat and even disappear.
About the Wall Street within each of us and the quest to free ourselves from it: In the years leading up to the general strike that shook Paris and much of France in 1968, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem published Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations (Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations), which when translated to English was titled The Revolution of Everyday Life. It was written for a generation that had been schooled in the Hegelian dialectics of Marxist writings, and plays considerably with that writing style in ways that don’t always make it easy for generations that grew up with cable television and the Internet to read. Vaneigem and others in the Situationist International developed strategies and tactics to take back the terrain and pleasures of daily life while simultaneously destroying the illusion created by “the spectacle” (what might, in Twitterspeak, be called “the media,” today) that propped up a destructive economic system.
If we were to try to put some of the key concepts into Twitterspeak (that is, into phrases of 144 characters or less), we might say:
Occupy your daily life. Occupy your body. Occupy your home. Occupy your building. Occupy your neighborhood. Occupy YOUR STREET. Occupy your own head! Occupy your own media. Occupy your own school. Occupy your own workplace. Occupy your own time. Occupy your own space. Occupy your own life story! Yes, it requires collaboration with others to win those terrains back. But they're not the people already protesting. They're the authentic 99 percent. The ones right next to you already.
Or maybe they’re not right next to you. In a world where the advertising industry shouts that “everybody is connected,” that’s really to distract from the alienation imposed by an over-mediated technological society. Maybe your family, your relationship, your classroom, your workplace, your home, your building, your neighbors are so caught up in dysfunction and the food chain of domination of one person over another that everything within you screams for an EXIT sign and that you must go out and find that place where you can see a path to begin to drive Wall Street out of your body, the cop out of your head, and the imposed loneliness of residing in a technological “paradise” out of your aching heart. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what brings you to occupy Wall Street.
Let me tell you about the kid who once did occupy Wall Street. Some of my friends know him. And, no, his name is not Steve Jobs.
The Wall Street Occupation that Won
The Wall Street occupation that won happened on October 28 and 29 of 1979, and in case you don’t believe it, here is the poster that called them there:
This poster was made before there was such a thing called Photoshop. You can see that the letters are uneven. They were pasted onto a 23 x 17 inch layout board with hot wax. There were only two colors, black and green, on the white poster paper, in order to save on costs. There were no color photocopiers then. It had to be produced at a print shop. The event had no Facebook page and no Twitter account. How did they get 20,000 occupiers to Wall Street, then? To spread the call, community organizers visited each other, made telephone calls from landlines, put stamps on envelopes, and passed the poster and other materials printed on paper from hand to hand.
Community organizing? What was that? “It was kind of like social networking, except there was no Internet,” notes Renny Cushing, organizer and theorist of the 1979 Take It to Wall Street occupation. “You went to people’s homes, sat around their kitchen tables. You listened to their concerns and ideas. You were able to correct bad information they had gotten from the media.”
Cushing had done this organizing in his hometown of Seabrook, New Hampshire, where construction began on a twin nuclear power plant in 1976. He and the other organizers in fact used the word “occupation” to describe a series of escalating nonviolent actions in which, first, 18 people, later 180, and later 1,414 people were arrested for trespassing on the nuke construction site. From that local movement, sprang a regional movement, and soon, a national movement against nuclear power that had local organized bases wherever nuclear facilities existed or had been proposed.
That poster made its way up a country road in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts. A 19-year-old community organizer who had recently launched a campaign to close the Yankee Atomic plant in the town of Rowe was learning to chop firewood to prepare for the winter ahead. He wasn’t from there. He was a city kid from New York who had dropped out of school to throw himself into the anti-nuke movement. So, this wood-chopping thing wasn’t easy. It was one of the skills outside of his own experience that he had to learn, among others, not only to heat his $25-a-month rented cabin, but also to live as the local people he wanted to organize lived, another thing that organizers did.
What did he learn from that poster? That on Sunday, October 28, there would be a “legal rally.” And that on Monday, October 29, there would be “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience” at the NY Stock Exchange, and that “Non-violence training is required.”
The story of this kid is just one of 20,000 stories of that Wall Street occupation more than three decades ago.
The Capitol of Capital
He saw the two addresses on the poster: That of the original P.O. Box of the former Clamshell Alliance, and that of the War Resisters League in New York. He really liked the idea for this protest and occupation: It combined his experiences as a Big Apple youth and as a rural organizer, and drew a common cause from the two. The problems he’d seen and known in both places each had economic causes. The buck stopped where it began: at Wall Street. And when the sun went down and he came inside in to fire up the woodstove, he picked up his guitar and started to write lyrics on a yellow legal pad and compose a song to promote that action: “Take it to Wall Street/In New York Town/Just pull up in your limousine and sit yourself right down/Take a seat on the exchange with the bulls and the bears/It’s the capitol of capital/The buck stops there…”
He penned the first verse about the struggle he was in, to organize a popular civil resistance to an operating nuclear plant in the Berkshires. He wrote the second verse about how banks redlined his old Bronx neighborhood (a process by which speculators starve a neighborhood of building improvement loans, creating slums, forcing down property values, and then buy up the real estate at a lower cost before gentrifying the neighborhood in a way that displaces the old residents with newer, wealthier ones who pay top dollar). And he made the third verse out of oral history; about the Great Depression he had heard of from his grandparents, and their suffering after the October 29, 1929 crash of the stock exchange…
Where do we draw the line/Against this kind of violence?/It’s where the Berkshires and the Bronx draw our alliance… Take it to Wall Street!
For the 19-year-old, these were not things he had learned in school or from books. They had been part of his lived experience. And each of them had their roots in a financial system that helped a greedy few take from a hardworking many. “Take it to Wall Street” made perfect sense to him. Why didn’t we think of it sooner!
And so a day or two before that October rally he took a Greyhound bus back to the city of his birth to participate in that Wall Street occupation. From the Port Authority bus terminal he took the subway to the West Village and practically ran down Bleeker Street with his guitar case in hand and then up the stairs at 339 Lafayette Street. The people there, organizing the protest, were mostly older than him. Some had trained him in nonviolent civil disobedience. Others had been arrested with him at the gates of nuclear facilities in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut. A few had heard him sing at small coffeehouses throughout New England, a habit which didn’t pay the bills as much as dishwashing, restaurant cooking, or silkscreen printing did, but was nonetheless part of how this kid had cobbled together enough rent and food money to be able to follow his passion for organizing. There were “movement heavies” there, who had written books or worked at desks in peace organizations. There were also people, typically of the “sixties generation” whom he felt he rubbed the wrong way. They would show up at anti-nuke rallies waving tie-dye banners, trying to relive, he supposed, the Summer of Love, while he was of the punk rock generation that didn’t believe in any of that shit. He’d show up at those same marches, fresh from the barber shop, in a lumberjack jacket with an American flag lapel pin, and try to talk with them about “getting real people involved.” Their eyes would glaze over. He believed that their cause was his cause, but he did not yet feel a sense of agency in their meetings, or that their movement was really his movement, too.
I can imagine that there are individuals occupying Wall Street right now that might feel much the same: You believe in the cause. Maybe you’re camping out in Zuccotti Park, participating in work groups, have found some small role to play in this larger thing. But maybe you find some of the language, or preconceptions, or ways of doing things, of the activists a little off-putting or alienating. Maybe the long consensus process meetings look similar to the floor of the stock exchange to you: “Unsafe space, sell!” “Ideology, buy!” “Watch what you say, sell!” “Drumming circle, buy!” “Wearing a shirt, sell!” “New identity for sale, buy!” “Look at ME! Buy, buy, BUY!” There are Wall Streets and markets within every protest, too.
Anyway, back to the kid who had come up the stairs at 339 Lafayette Street. He mentioned to those organizers of the Wall Street protests that he had written a song to promote the protest. Some of them expressed zero interest at all. But some others from New England who had known him and his music or his organizing said, “let’s hear it” and so he played it for them. When he finished, the group applauded and invited him to sing it on stage during the rally, where Pete Seeger and other topical singers were also going to perform. This was all, of course, very exciting for the youth. To have piece of it, a role to play, a big one!, in a movement much larger than himself: he would have been happy just to attend the rally and join the sit-in at the stock exchange and go to jail if need be. To be able to return to his city and share his own song with many people brought almost too much ecstasy to contain. He worked off all that bouncing-off-the-walls energy that night with an open guitar case on MacDougal Street, singing for coins, and encouraging all who would stop and listen to attend Sunday’s rally.
Sunday arrived and by noon 20,000 people had arrived for the Take It to Wall Street rally. (The NY Times had reported that it was only 2,000 people; some things never change.) He sang his song and people really seemed to like it. They paid attention. They sang along. They applauded. (After all, getting a few minutes on stage at a political event isn’t by itself a guarantee that people won’t talk through your song or speech. When you have a chance at people’s attention, you’d better make it entertaining and fun for them. Otherwise you’re wasting their time.) He felt enfranchised, more part of “the movement” than he had before.
The next day, as trading was about to open at the New York Stock Exchange building, an army of NYPD officers surrounded each of the entrances. “Affinity groups” of a dozen or a half-dozen participants – the organizing cell groups of these actions – chose their entrance and sat down, as they were trained. Some sang freedom songs from the Civil Rights movements. Others held hands in silence. Our 19-year-old kid had another plan. He wanted to get himself arrested inside the stock exchange, where twelve years earlier the first Wall Street occupation took place, in 1967, when Abbie Hoffman brought some news reporters with him on what was then tours of the building, for tourists and grade school classes. There, from the balcony, Abbie dumped bags of dollar bills down onto the floor and trading came to a stop as runners and brokers fought each other to collect the bills. Newsweek and other media reported on the spectacle, which not only exposed the institution’s innate greed, but more importantly, ridiculed it, stripping away its mythical power.
Our youngster came to the main entrance and saw an affinity group of people seated on the steps, some whom were people he knew. He had put on a three-piece suit that morning with a tie and came up to them and loudly asked them to move so he could “go to work.” But the theater was snuffed out when they simply laughed and somebody said his name aloud and he was exposed before the police as another protester. So he went to another entrance, around the corner, looked for and found an affinity group that didn’t have anyone he recognized. He walked up to them and looked across them at the line of police. “Officer! Officer! Will you please get these hippies out of my way? I need to go to work!” These protesters were horrified. They began chanting at him, now a symbol of the enemy. And some police officers actually helped him step across and over them into the building. In the lobby of the building, however, there were security guards who asked to see his stock exchange ID. His goose was evidently cooked. So he turned around to the other NYSE employees in line and said, “You have to stop investing in nuclear power! Every dollar you invest in a nuclear plant will be lost! We will stop you in Seabrook! We will stop you at Shoreham! We will stop you at Indian Point!” At which point NYPD officers were ushered in and placed the kid in the suit under arrest. As trained, he fell limp and made the police carry him out of the building where the people he had just called “hippies” suddenly realized he was one of them. And he joined many of the one thousand-plus civilly disobedient occupiers – a smaller group than the 20,000 legal rally participants – in jamming up the New York City night courts by refusing to provide his name to authorities until all the “John and Jane Does” were released. Others who did give their names faced trials for “disorderly conduct” that would bring something like a $100 fine.
Within months the financial industry did indeed begin to question the profitability of investing in nuclear power. Demonstrations, occupations, citizen lawsuits and increasing public awareness about nuclear accidents (the Three Mile Island accident had happened in March 1979) and nuclear waste were bringing Congressional hearings and bad publicity. It would be too much of a stretch to say that the 1979 Wall Street occupation had any direct cause on that effect. Its influence came through another route altogether: By, for the first time, focusing the anti-nuke movement’s attention and learning on the economic problems with nuclear power, the local and grassroots sectors of the movement increasingly began to organize on that front: They challenged rate increases by utility companies, blaming them on nuclear plant construction cost overruns. In that they found new allies among labor and consumer organizations, including some that had very advanced door-to-door canvassing operations going. The nuclear issue quickly turned from one of morality or environment or averting disaster to, also, a bread-and-butter pocketbook issue for working people struggling to pay power bills.
The 1979 Wall Street occupation – it only lasted for two days! – is historic not because of the occupation itself, but, rather, because it inspired a change in the movement’s direction and language, bringing it more coherently in line with everyday people’s daily life concerns and worries, which are not about the environment or the morality of what we do as a society to future generations, but about next month’s bills and making ends meet. This helped shift public opinion more solidly against nuclear power, and many opportunistic state Attorneys General began filing lawsuits against utility rate increases. That nearly bankrupted some public utilities. The great economic “ratings” houses began to tick down their grades on the nuclear industry’s health as an investment. And dozens of nukes that had been proposed were cancelled.
And I would like to be able to say that this is a fairy tale where everyone “lived happily ever after.” But movements, even those that win, like life, are not like that. The truth is that the Wall Street occupation in 1979 was also the regional anti-nuclear movement’s last gasp.
Yes, it destroyed the nuclear industry in the United States. But, like a mother who dies in childbirth, it gave its own life to do so.
Death by Consensus Process
Every heroic story, by law, should disclose the messy and depressing process by which the heroes only became heroes because their first strategy or tactics had failed miserably and they were forced to change course. After all, really, isn’t that what turns an everyday person into a hero? It’s the wisdom to cease repeating what didn’t work over and over again, learn from those mistakes, and try something else.
Do you want to know the real reason why the anti-nuclear movement went to occupy Wall Street? It happened because others who sought to coopt and seize that movement toward different goals chased that movement and those who built it out of the very terrain they had created.
Think about the aforementioned occupations, in New Hampshire, of the Seabrook nuke site: 18 arrests in 1976, 180 later in 1976 and 1,414 in May 1977. This is a good example of the term “sequencing of tactics.” These actions were organized by a group called the Clamshell Alliance, a coalition of local anti-nuclear organizations throughout the six states of New England, each of which had grievances with nuclear facilities near them. The Seabrook nuke project was the industry’s new kid on the block: the one that hadn’t been built yet.
Environmental groups had sued in courts to stop the Seabrook construction, and had failed in those courts. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that tactic, and it didn’t work.
A then 20-something Renny Cushing and other Seabrook residents decided to try a different approach: Community organizing. And through a vote in the New England style “Town Meeting” form of government (in which the voters of a municipality assemble in public and vote, not by secret ballot, but in open view), the people of Seabrook had voted to oppose the construction of the nuke. Then it was no longer just an environmental issue. It was a matter of democracy itself. The people had voted, fair and square, the American way, and rejected the proposal for their town. From that point on, public opinion kept moving their way. They made their cause, thus, also a pro-democracy one.
The strong and organized local base of the movement was the foundation that allowed all the rest to happen. The organizers were smart about that. Why were only 18 people arrested in the first occupation? Because the Clamshell Alliance decided that action would be limited only to New Hampshire residents. Everyone who participated in that and the subsequent occupations was required to go through a full day nonviolence training session. This requirement not only helped the encounters with the police and courts happen more effectively from a public relations standpoint. It also helped create a shared culture of resistance among all participants. The same was true of the southern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Nonviolence training was key to fomenting self-discipline and teamwork among the participants, two qualities of movements that win.
In recent years, most protests in the United States have had no such requirement. Perhaps the organizations that call on people to join protests feel their numbers will be less if everyone had to spend an additional day, prior to the action, being trained. Maybe others feel it is too “authoritarian” or “exclusive” to require training, or require anything at all. Still others who fetishize violent conflict or rhetoric loathe the very word nonviolence. And so, since the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, activist protests in the US have been plagued by parasitical grouposcules that hide under the skirt of the larger action to act out tactics that put every other participant at greater risk of arrest and harm. They smash store windows by throwing garbage cans at them and taunt cops with the cowardly knowledge that if things get rough they can simply run and hide among the rest of the crowd, letting somebody else receive the brunt of the police response.
Thankfully, the most extreme grouposcules of that nature have not – yet – latched themselves onto the Wall Street occupation. Still, the protests have been marked by a lack of discipline. A September 23 report by Nathan Schneider in Waging Nonviolence, four days into the protest, illuminated this dynamic:
“A terrific storm gathers around the phalanx of police, who shove protesters with hands and sticks, then grab one or two out of the crowd, throw them to the ground, bind their hands in plastic cuffs, and take them away. You can tell who has had nonviolence training before—they go limp, they make no sign of resistance. But others, especially the youngest, will squirm and cry out in pain, inviting the police to push more, hit harder, drag more ruthlessly. There’s the feeling—surely intentional—that anyone could be next. This escalation only reinforces what the police seem to have been told: that what they’re seeing is the beginnings of a riot.”
Almost two weeks later, on October 5, it was evident that the protest’s “general assembly” decision-making body hasn’t seen this as a problem or priority. After the largest march to date – 15,000 union members joined the protest for a day – a white-shirted member of the NYPD brass was captured on video maliciously swinging his nightstick at defenseless protesters. For some reason many of the protesters seem to think that a video of police violence automatically brings public support to a cause. At least one leader of the post-Seattle genre of protests has written so much in a NY Times column: “when police attack peaceful occupiers (and the protesters catch it on camera), it generates tremendous sympathy for the cause.”
That is truly awful advice. It would doom any movement that followed it to abject failure. Entire swathes of the American (and New York) public in fact are prone to cheering the police when they beat up on certain kinds of protesters. Hey, everyone knows that America is a violence-loving society. Why is it such a stretch to understand that much of “the 99 percent” that many protesters claim to speak for actually like to see the cops bust the heads of people they see as different from them? Anybody who has knocked on doors and gotten to know the public beyond their own demographic niches understands that very well already.
If the YouTube video of the October 5 confrontation were widely seen, that would indeed be the response from much of the public. Why? Because the way the protesters responded to the situation – yelling hysterically at the cops in the most visibly disorganized way possible – does not endear the protesters to public opinion. It does quite the opposite. A few chanted “the whole world is watching” while dozens of people with cameras and cell phones elbowed each other for the best shot of the moment. Mainly a lot of screaming and whistleblowing drowned out any sound of substance or meaning from the video. More than 430,000 people have watched that video in just a few days and while the police behaved badly, to many observers the protesters would seem like an unruly and dangerous mob, too.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, no slouch at pandering to public opinion, “gets” this, which is why he does not hesitate to posture against the protesters at every chance the media provides him. Police violence only creates public sympathy when the people they are beating are themselves viewed sympathetically. Any movement has to work very hard to make that happen. It doesn’t come simply because it is deserved. People trained in nonviolence would understand what to do at a moment like that: protesters would sit down, silently, or maybe while seated they’d all sing the same song, and then anything the police do would become magnified and seen as bullying by the wider public. Instead of practicing this easy and basic political ju-jitsu, many Wall Street occupiers seem to think it serves their cause by escalating any conflict with the cops, by fighting stupidity with buffoonery. It’s like getting into a pissing contest with a skunk: everybody ends up smelling badly.
The consensus decision-making process used by the protest’s governing body, a “general assembly” that meets for hours each day, into which anybody can walk in or out at any time at will, may seem like a cute and harmless form of peaceful action. But it actually contributes greatly to the lack of discipline of the revolt. Consensus process is by definition exclusionary to most of “the 99 percent” of the public in whose name these protests are held. That’s because most people are working at jobs or taking care of children all day and don’t have the time, or the interest, in trying to write a declaration by committee-of-hundreds.
Within any venture, there are “doers” and there are “talkers.” Typically, the talkers spend a lot of time discussing and debating what the doers should do. Perhaps this is not the kindest way to say it, but here goes: The world is filled with terribly boring people who can put even bartenders and psychologists to sleep. They’re lonely and we feel bad for them, but nor do we want to spend our days and nights listening to them drone on and on with their inner monologues. Consensus meetings attract this kind of person like flies to shit. They also attract ideologues – the proverbial “socialist with a shopping bag of his own press clippings,” as Lower East Side performance artist Penny Arcade has observed – and also people who love to debate the semantics of language and identity politics ad nauseum.
Meanwhile, what kinds of people don’t like to go to long meetings? Almost everybody in “the 99 percent” hates meetings, but especially community organizers and people with skills who are busy using them to advance the cause. Paradoxically, these are the folks most experienced at doing things and therefore have real lived experience to aid in the development of strategy and tactics. Consensus decision-making processes, however, screen too many of these people out of the game. They wouldn’t be caught dead there. They’re too busy wielding their talents to while away their hours in processes that they already know go on too long.
Those who romanticize “general assemblies” often site their use among many indigenous communities. And there is truth to that: In 35 years of participating and reporting on social movements, the only places I’ve seen it work effectively have been in rural indigenous communities where all the participants share the same language, culture, socio-economic level and line of work, typically, subsistence level farming. (For similar reasons it might also function in a workplace, where everyone is paid for the time and labor spent in meetings.) Among homogeneous groups, it can work. The inverse observation to be made about Occupy Wall Street is that the consensus process has survived for three weeks now only because it maintains and encourages the demographic homogeneity of the core participants: college educated Americans. Its use may in fact reflect a subconscious desire by many participants that the protest remain homogeneous and narrow, a kind of defense mechanism against having to open the cause up to the real 99 percent.
The experience of the Clamshell Alliance and the anti-nuclear movement with consensus process is instructive. Once that movement had brought nonviolent civil disobedience back into popular use, other ideological and political sectors sought to wrestle it away and take power over the movement. Indeed, a kind of coup d’etat occurred in 1979, months before the Wall Street occupation that year, the result of a series of long consensus-seeking meetings on what the next action by the Clamshell would be. A group calling themselves “direct action” advocates (“direct action,” to them, was distinct from “nonviolence” most specifically because those people wanted the movement to bring wire cutters to the next protest to cut the fences around the Seabrook nuke construction site) obsessed on this proposed tactic to the point of fetish. This, despite the fact that the local residents of Seabrook who had provided the farmland and staging areas for previous occupations warned that this escalation of tactics would lose significant public support for the movement at its most local geographic base.
The “direct action” faction – overwhelmingly they were activists, students and ideologues from metropolitan Boston – found, in the consensus process, its wedge to blow up and then take over the name of the Clamshell Alliance, even if it meant losing most of the organized bases that had created and built it. At first they used the power of any person to “block” consensus on any decision (and therefore block any taking of action at all) on any and every proposal that did not include fence cutting. This went on for weeks. It was frustrating for many movement organizers, so much so that, one by one, they walked away and stopped attending the long meetings where the same point got debated over and over again. After almost everybody who had organized the movement had been worn down, the last few adherents to the idea that this fence-cutting nonsense would destroy a lot more than mere fences (it would also wreck the cohesion, unity and public support enjoyed by the movement) eventually “stepped aside.” In consensus-speak, that means they expressed their objection but agreed not to block consensus. It was on that day, in the Marigold Ballroom of Salisbury, Massachusetts, across the state border from Seabrook, that the Clamshell Alliance shattered into splinters and for all practical purposes, was no more.
Eventually the fence-cutters had their day, and it proved a public relations disaster for the movement. Their efforts quickly petered out after that and vanished into nothing at all. The rest of the movement went home. Many participants organized local movements against the nuclear facilities nearest to them.
And what about our 19-year-old kid? What happened with him? The Wall Street occupation of 1979 breathed new inspiration into him. He went back to Western Massachusetts and organized the campaign to close the Rowe nuke. Eight years later it would become the only commercial nuclear plant to be closed before its life expectancy. The plant’s gigantic metal dome and turbine building were taken apart, and all of it except the high level nuclear waste spent fuel rods were carted off to a low-level nuclear waste dump. Where the nuke once stood there is now a grassy field alongside a lake and a hydroelectric dam.
Some say that kid – the one who would play guitar on one day and wear a suit to get arrested on the next, who had to learn to chop wood to be able to organize a rural community – eventually moved to Mexico and today walks alongside social movements, studies their strategies and tactics, and writes about what he sees and hears. He might correct that he only does those things between composing and playing his next song and otherwise serving his daily pleasure. (A California professor who was also part of the 1979 Wall Street occupation recently remembered his experience aloud, and our kid and his song appear there, too.)
I like to think that kid is every kid. And he or she might be sitting on a bench in Zuccotti Park right now, maybe writing a song to promote the cause, maybe strategizing in his or her head about how to occupy his or her own life, win his and her own freedom, drive Wall Street out of his and her own heart and the cop out of his and her own head, and organize somewhere that the real 99 percent live and work to make authentic and victorious movements possible.
You know what was the most inspiring and empowering thing of all about the 1979 Wall Street occupation? It wasn’t the good times (although they were good). It wasn’t even, for that 19-year-old kid, getting to sing his song to the crowd, or having it appreciated and remembered. It wasn’t skirmishing with cops or breaking the NY criminal court system for a night. None of those things would have mattered a whit except for the most important part of the story: It was that the movement won.
“There is no greater high than challenging the system, giving it your all, and winning,” wrote Abbie Hoffman, architect of the first Wall Street occupation in 1967, which had maybe a half-dozen participants. There are so many causes and protests that fought the good fight but lost. And they went into the annals of “youthful indiscretions” of participants who later became politicians and Wall Street stock brokers. The most disempowering thing on earth is losing. But to take on an attainable goal – in 1979 it was “stop nuclear investment” – launch a strategy and sequenced tactics, organize and mobilize people to implement it, and then win: that is the small victory that makes larger ones possible because it empowers and inspires everybody involved.
The last Wall Street occupation didn’t end Wall Street, or capitalism, or greed, or injustice. Even its major advance, stopping a new generation of nuclear plants, was a victory that is today having to be defended all over again (as our friends in Egypt learned, too, this year when they toppled the dictator Mubarak; no victory is permanent, nor in an authentic democracy should anything ever be engraved permanently in stone; all battles entered are, authentically, struggles for life). Yet it is the small victories that lay the groundwork for larger and larger ones, whereas struggling and losing wreaks cynicism, apathy and surrender. Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.
Nobody knows how long the current Wall Street occupation will last or how exactly the media virus that has sprung from it will mutate and spread. It seems that its own core organizers have set up a cumbersome and easily coopted consensus process by which not even they can steer the ship. And has there been any strategic aforethought whatsoever about timing this thing in harmony with the seasons and the weather? As Ezra Pound knew: “Winter is icumin in Lhude sing Goddamn. Raineth drop and staineth slop, And how the wind doth ramm!” By November or December, Lower Manhattan becomes an icy wind tunnel. “We’re staying here and we’re not leaving” therefore isn’t the sort of declaration that inspires public confidence among the 99 percent. Making promises that one can’t keep: Isn’t that what caused us all to lose faith in Wall Street and the rest of today’s institutions in the first place?
Still, every individual involved has immensely more power than a consensus assembly could ever provide to determine how he and she will proceed from here, if and when it seems that everybody else scatters and goes home. That’s the revolution: the one that lives in the hearts of those who immerse themselves in struggles larger than them. The revolution belongs to those who simultaneously develop their own tactics and strategies, and figure out how to sequence them. The revolution comes to those who study what has worked and what hasn’t worked for others who have gone before them, and who organize others into collaborating in that quest, on the most local scale, to win back the terrain of daily life. Occupy that, and the revolution is yours.
By Al Giordano
In memory of School of Authentic Journalism professor José Mirtenbaum (1948-2011)
South of Mexico City, at 2,700 meters above sea level, is a rural town named San Miguel Topilejo. While technically part of the Federal District known as Mexico City, in its borough of Tlalpan, the 26,000 residents of Topilejo live in a forgotten town, too often abandoned by the municipal government that doesn’t provide the most basic of services (sanitation, water, education, etcetera) at the level it does for the more urban zones of this megalopolis.
Last May, Topilejo, for one night, became the campground for hundreds of participants in a march for peace and against the drug war led by poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, who, weeks earlier, had lost his son to the violence that has claimed, now, more than 50,000 Mexican lives in five years. The locals – many of whom are descendants of the Nahuatl indigenous ethnicity (known as Aztecs in the English-speaking world), some of whom still speak the ancient tongue – prepared tamales, beans, coffee and sandwiches for the walkers on their way to Mexico City from Cuernavaca, Morelos.
Towns like Topilejo don’t see many visitors, and they exist all over Mexico. They do not appear in the Lonely Planet guides for backpacking tourists. They are invisible to the mass media. So the arrival of hundreds of people from other towns and cities marks a significant moment in the daily life of residents, who then get to know their guests, and vice versa, through conversation and breaking bread and tortillas.
In towns like this throughout the country, efforts come and go to improve the life of the community, often they are led by the Catholic church when a liberation theologian is assigned to the local parish, but they are typically met with either indifference or violent repression and a fatigue sets in among the population, a sense of resignation, an apathy borne of the conclusion that nothing can be made to happen. Many men in the community, including fathers of young children, finding no work to support their families, leave like so many other millions of Mexicans to seek employment in the United States or in Mexico’s urban centers. This trend has accelerated since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lowered the value of the food crops traditionally grown on rural Mexican lands to the extreme where former farms now lay dormant.
Single mothers raise many of the children, who, if lucky, live among extended families; grandmothers, aunts, cousins and older siblings. Many others are abandoned to fate and extreme poverty, where organized crime is happy to press them into service as either providers or consumers of illegal substances.
In other words, Topilejo is a mirror for how so many tens of millions of Mexicans live, unnoticed by governments and media unless and until a bloody massacre or spectacular violence plagues their territory.
The story told in the video, above – filmed and produced impressively on the road, edited in buses and cars on a laptop, by Narco News TV director Greg Berger, in less than two days – is a different one than ever gets told about places like Topilejo. It is a story narrated by the town’s residents about their own accomplishment in recent weeks. It is the story of one of the small victories that has the tendency to inspire, empower and lead to greater triumphs and advances.
It is a story of community organizing; that is, a story about what the people of a town – any town, every town – always could have done for itself if it had only believed in the power of its people to organize and win.
In the video, the townspeople credit the May visit by Sicilia and the marchers with inspiring them to act to force the Mexico City government to comply with a promise to construct a free university in Topilejo for local youths. The promise went unanswered for many years and the locals simply shrugged their shoulders out of the belief that the promises of authorities are almost always broken and nothing can be done about it anyway.
But between May 7 – when Sicilia’s march arrived in Topilejo – and September 9 – when the poet returned, this time, with a bus Caravan of Peace on its way to the Guatemalan border – the townspeople had already achieved that the university will now be constructed, and they invited Sicilia to cut the ribbon at the inaugural ceremony for classrooms that had already been constructed and equipped with desks and chairs and such.
Truth is, neither Sicilia nor the May marchers nor the September caravanistas did anything directly, to our knowledge, to make the university possible. Yet the townspeople in the video credit the movement with a victory that is, properly, their own.
Some might say that this is because the appearance of Mexico’s first walk for peace last May gave them hope. I would correct that, rather, it removed enough of their despair and immobilizing pain to create a space for the people to do for themselves what they – what every town and neighborhood – can do for itself when motivated to do so.
This story, to our knowledge – ten days after it happened – still has not been reported by any other media, not the official press, nor the “alternative media,” many of which had correspondents on the three press buses that attended this September 9 event in this previously forgotten town. See, it’s not a “sexy” story. It doesn’t suggest higher television ratings nor does it fit into the turgid discourse of the “activist press” with its own ideological axes to grind. Rural, indigenous, Mexico is invisible to everyone, it seems, if it does not don a ski-mask. Not even if that corner of rural Mexico is part of Mexico City, where so many of the aforementioned players live only a short trek from it.
What is interesting about this story to us, and the reason we report it to you, is that it suggests what can be made to happen in every Mexican town and neighborhood when the punishing despair wrought by violence is even briefly wiped away. And this is one of the “secret histories” of these caravans by Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims, as they pass through Topilejo and so many other towns and neighborhoods like it. It is the alchemical, contagious, power of a different way to fight. Some call it nonviolence. Others call it civil resistance. Whatever one calls this strategy, it is very different than that which previous movements in this vast country have deployed.
(Narco News correspondent Marta Molina has just published a story about similar alchemical dynamics when the caravan passed last week through another region: Nonviolent Struggle Arrives in the Lands of Guerrero, Mexico: 20,000 March in Acapulco with Javier Sicilia and Drug War Victims, September 14, 2011, Narco News.)
Unlike the long history of aspiring “vanguard” movements – electoral and non-electoral alike – including of the Mexican left, that too often have treated rank-and-file Mexicans as pieces on a chess board to be “mobilized” according to a centralized plan, Sicilia and the movement he inspired seek to treat the peoples of communities like Topilejo as equals with the same capacity to think and do for themselves as the drug war victims and he are, in recent months, trying to do for themselves. It is enough to show up and simply listen, share a meal, exchange ideas (and to the horror of some doctrinaire “activists,” a hug or, gasp, a kiss!) and create a space where everyone can more easily think for themselves – outside the screeching noise machines of media and ideology alike – about their community’s problems and possible solutions. (It was during the May march’s pass through Topilejo that I quoted a friend who said, while there, “It was like watching what we all hoped the Other Campaign of 2006 would become.” Those words now seem prophetic.)
Another truth is that not even everybody who boards the buses on these caravans understands this process of community organizing and how it can be made to happen. Many are learning, some more rapidly than others, or “get” that something different is happening that they want to learn. Still others resist the process of listening, choosing instead to tag along on these ventures because they are the protest du jour or the only circus in town (I’ll be writing more about this phenomenon later in a story about the caravan’s cross through the state of Oaxaca). Some come along to inflict their tired old chants and slogans or the banners with the names of their political organizations into the news photo and video of the caravans. Others see their activism in alternative media as a career move toward gaining the attention of grant-givers, documentary festival prize-givers, or freelance gigs publishing in the national and international media. But they’re the sideshow, so much so they don’t even see the bigger story happening right underneath their noses, not even in communities where impoverished peoples share what little food they have with the traveling visitors who pass through for a night, or an afternoon, or an hour.
One of the emergent roles of Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims who have been trekking through Mexican territory in recent months is that of catalyst; an ingredient that is added to another collection of ingredients that changes the chemical make-up of their union and then moves on, leaving behind something different than it first encountered.
This – according to the testimony of the local residents in this video – is what happened in Topilejo. The visit by a movement four months ago inspired them to do something for themselves, something called community organizing. And while some might view the mere construction of a free university in an abandoned town as insufficient a victory in a land that many observe needs a full-scale revolution or transformation on a national scale, it is a victory nonetheless. And no larger victory ever happened without small triumphs along the path that inspired and built momentum toward even greater change. That’s what community organizing is and does. And now, via Narco News TV, in San Miguel Topilejo, that forgotten rural appendage to the gigantic city of Mexico… you are there.