Sunday, October 23, 2011

“We are Coming Here as Bodies in Alliance, We Are Standing Here Enacting a Democracy.” From Folk to Genderfuck: Street Aesthetics, Cultural Resistance and Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street has become a space where play mixes with cultural activism, as ludic rhythms disrupt the everyday.  There are times in life when business as usual should not run smoothly.  And this is one of those times.  Much of the disruption emanates from this space where musicians, writers, theologians, and philosophers join with a leaderless movement for a different kind of experience in democratic living.  Here, movements, cultures and cohorts mix and share space. Much of this was on my mind throughout the previous week while away.  Once back in town, I was lucky enough to watch semi clad bodies shake and dance to drums in the sunshine as preachers preach, knitters weave, and artists draw.  From renegade folk songs to radical street performances, a world making performance in democracy is taking shape here most every day.   

Last Monday, I grabbed a flight to San Antonio for a conference.  On the way out, I started hearing rumbles that folk icon Pete Seeger planned to drop by Occupy Wall Street some time during the week.  While I was ok missing Cornell West and Michael Franti appearances at OWS, content to watch their moments online.  The live video stream and advent of You Tube generally makes a replay a workable alternative for moments one has to miss.  But in certain moments, the video feed does not cut it.  And seeing Pete play in a protest situation was going to be one of those moments.  As a man who played with Woody Guthrie, filibustered the House on Un-American Activities Committee, and has stayed involved with activism into his ninth decade of life, his appearances take on a dynamic, historic importance.  You never know when a particular performance is going to be his last.  Yet, mostly they are lovely to take part in.  Participation, this what Pete’s commitment is all about, just like OWS.  Everyone is allowed to take part in the chorus. 
Fortunately, the appearance at Zuccotti Park was not confirmed, although  his show at Symphony Space that Friday was.  So I felt sure he was going to make an appearance.  The folk icon lived for these moments.  I had seen him play at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Clearwater, Joe’s Pub, and a church, but never at one of the protest scenes where he once famously engaged some 500,000 to sing “Give Peace a Change” and “If I Had  a Hammer” decades prior. 

It was a hard week away from the movement.  Usually, I am pretty good at distancing myself when work comes up.  But OWS is one of those unique moments.  And an observer of social movements does not want to be the one who was out of Paris for the riots in 1968 or cooking lamp chops inside a West Village apartment when the Stonewall Riots rage inside.  One does not want to say to their grandkids that they were on vacation in the country during the revolution.  But life happens faster and in less linear ways than any of us can imagine. 

By Thursday at the conference, the National Organization of Human Services approved a resolution in support of Occupy Wall Street at our annual meeting in San Antonio.

Be it resolved that the NOHS supports the position of the occupy wall street movement.  We urge our regional groups and our 1500 members to contact their elected officials.
NOHS believes that the disparities of our tax and economic situation must be addressed equitably including support for the extension of unemployment insurance, funds to support human services including teachers and other public services and education.
We urge our legislators to act on this important program in a spirit of cooperation and for the good of the whole country. 
This will be promulgated to all our members, on our website and to all legislators and our publics. 
While social work has a long proud radical past, its been a while since Jane Addams helped organize the Settlements or Piven and Cloward helped mobilize Welfare Rights.   Regardless everyone at the meeting was excited to support a poor people’s movement for a new generation.  

Back in my room after the vote, I received a call from my friend Tim in New York who asked if Times Up planned another late night dance party, which might intersect with a late night street action he was planning. Lately the group has been concentrating on serving in the sustainability committee, so no ride was planned.  Regardless, the plan for Friday was simple.  A folk music icon was interested in supporting Occupy Wall Street with a late night rally, street performance for the movement.   He planned to lead the crowd in a rally from his show at the Symphony Space on the Upper West Side down to Columbus Circle for a performance of We Shall Overcome at Columbus Circle.  As Tim later wrote in an email announcing the show with  the subject heading: “Midnight Occupation of Columbus Circle - Pete Seeger, Tao and Other Folk Singers March in Solidarity with Occupy Wall Street”

Friday, October 21st at 10:30 PM : March Departs Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (95th St. and Broadway)
Saturday, October 22nd  at 12:00 AM : Occupy Columbus Circle
Songs of protest won’t just fill concert halls in New York City this Friday night. They’ll be reverberating off the glass facade of the Time Warner Center, too.
Folk musicians are planning to stage a midnight occupation of Columbus Circle, following a performance featuring Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Suzanne Vega.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement is about to pass the six-week mark and has now gone global, the concert hall didn’t seem big enough for all these voices, at least not according to Tao Seeger, grandson of Pete.
“I plan on taking our audience and performers into the streets of New York City to support the Occupy Wall Street movement,” Tao said. “My grandfather and I know that music can move people in ways that rhetoric can not.”
“I look forward to seeing beautiful, energized people marching and singing together,” Pete Seeger added.
Performers and audience members will be invited by Tao to unite with protestors from the downtown encampment on a march that departs from the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (95th Street and Broadway) at 10:30 PM.  They will process down Broadway to Columbus Circle for a midnight occupation, which will include, of course, singing.  Some of the old-time songs of resistance that Tao expects to sing as they process include We Shall Overcome, Down By The Riverside, and I Ain't Afraid Of Your Jail Because I Want My Freedom.
“To play music, you have to listen to others, and then you develop empathy,” Tao Seeger said. “If we could just get all the politicians and all the bankers to play music, we’d have fewer wars.”

And fortunately, my plane was supposed to arrive back in town at 4:30 PM.  Friday morning I said goodbye to my pop in San Antonio.  He was the one who first played me Seeger’s music some three decades prior.  Dad, of course, had listened to him during the 1950’s as an aspiring beat poet himself. 

Fall crackled through the fall air as I walked back down Smith Street to my home in Brooklyn.  Riding from my home across the  bridge into Manhattan, I thought of the other Brooklyn writers – Hart Crane, Walk Witman, and so many others – who have made a similar passage and seen the poetry in the connections between this geography and mish mosh of people who made their lives here.  Or course, Whitman and Crane crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, while I was riding the Manhattan Bridge.   Ride in ascent, my legs burn.  Looking downtown and to the left, I revel in the lights rippling off the water, cascading down for my descent, Ellis Island, South Shore Seaport, and downtown in the distance.  Looking at the graffiti on the rooftops as I careen into Chinatown, I sometimes wonder if this is the last ungentrified spot in all of Manhattan.

By 10 AM was expecting to meet a friend from Times Up! We rode up from Houston and the Bowery over to 6th Ave and uptown.  By 14th street we heard police sirens, which only escalated. 
By the time we got to 95th and Broadway, we saw a group of police standing around the Symphony Space, as well as helicopter.

“You guys here to protect us from Pete Seeger?” I asked one of the police. 

The police did not respond.  But it quickly became apparent that few of the police wanted trouble or to have the distinction of arresting someone during a performance by an icon of the peace movement.  

A few hundred of us milled around until Tao and Pete Seeger, as well as a handful of musicians poured out the symphony hall in song.  Tao, Pete’s grandson sang.  And Pete ambled out to the pedicab, hoarded by paparazzi, news cameras, and a handful of groupies, who seem to treat him like Jesus.  Seeger gave a brief statement to NY1 and decided he’s rather walk from 95th down to Columbus Circle. 

The mix of protest cultures is jarring and thrilling in these moments.  I walked with a friend from ACT UP, who reveled in the moment of watching this demonstration make its way through the Upper West Side.  So many memories.  Its an elephant’s graveyard, he lamented, pointing out addresses of friends who had passed from the virus, who he wished he could call to invite down and participate in this demonstration.  Others from my father’s generation smiled, just wanting to be close to Seeger.  And yet another generation helped organize the rally in solidarity with all that Seeger, Guthrie and company have always meant.

Police walked up to greet Guthrie, who played “If I had a hammer.”  Many of the younger activists did not know the words, but that did not seem to matter. 

“Who bailed out the banks?” I chanted, capping in a call and response. “We bailed out the banks!”
The week before the crowd animated Times Square with their version of
"This Little Light of Mine." 

Still, more sang along.  “We are climbing Jacobs Ladder,” “This land is your land,” “Oh Freedom,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and, of course, “This Little Light of Mine,” a some which is becoming a bit of a movement anthem.  Songs propelled the Civil Right’s Movement.  Punk helped ignite a DIY cultural ethos which inspired Reclaim the Streets and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra has build on these traditions to reignite the streets for years now. Cultural resistance changes hearts and minds, bringing people together, helping them cope, and igniting their spirits.  Friday night was no different.  “May the circle be unbroken by and by Lord, by and by,” others sang, as Arlo played along. 

“In Columbus Circle, we’re gonna Occupy - Occupy, Occupy Occupy.” 
“Everywhere we go Occupy - Occupy, Occupy Occupy.” 
“We’ll occupy the circle - Occupy, Occupy Occupy.” 

Arriving at Columbus Circle I walked up and stood right in the middle of the circle.  And next thing, Pete, Tao and Arlo walked up to the same spot.  Singing along to “We Shall Overcome” I realized I was having my Zelig moment, as camera’s snapped.  But the words still resonate, with a new generation of movements building on a connection with a folk movement, inspired by spirituals, the labor movement, Civil Rights, the Highlander folk school and so on.
My zelig moment. photo by Joshua Paul.
Photo by Joshua Paul.

Onward and upward, Seeger seemed to gesture as we sang, seeming energized to be there.
“I’m glad no one asked if they could do this” I noted to a friend.  “It’s a good thing they did not asked seasoned activists who have been around or we would have been told it can’t be done. 
“Or we would have just tried to reinvent the global justice movement, which we already fucked up. “

            By 2 AM I was crossing the bridge again, just as Hart Crane had done so many times before, filled with awe. 

So many things go through my mind when I think about this movement.  There are my dad’s concerns – that its gonna fizzle, been there, done that.  There is my worry that this is becoming a cultural movement, in every way, but that things such as police brutality, income inequality, fracking and other forms of environmental decay will only continue.  This is why I love the drums, which so many hate in the space.  The following day, the 22nd, the sound of drums filled the space, contributing to a both frenetic and ludic quality, most important for a movement simultaneously disrupting and creating something better, a movement aimed to take apart a system of inequalities and create  more loving model of living.

Arriving at the space is like entering a sanctuary, with stations of the cross.  After parking, I usually walk to one of the venders to buy rice and beans or chicken and survey the scene.  The socialists are hocking their wares, hoping to inspire people to join them.  People stand facing Broadway with signs: “I’m in a union, I work, I vote, I pay my taxes, I’m pissed off So I’m here,” reads a sign held by a man in a hard had. “Ban corporate donations to campaigns” reads another. “Another Verizon worker against corporate greed sleeping at Liberty Plaza.”

My favorite sign was: “Wall Street: Manufacturing Bubbles for a Century.”

Anarchists pass out English and Spanish zines on anarchism and mutual aid.  Two kids call for “mic check” announcing a meeting of a committee.  A group of about fifteen sit meditating in a circle, while another group just as large photographs them.  The library seems to have quadrupled since I was last hear a week prior.  Two folks stand by a sign declaring, “ Queer Space.”   
            “This space is going to be bigger when Circus Amok performs here next week,” I noted.
            “Of really, I did not know they were coming down.”
[Reader – this is description of “Queer Tea Dance in Zuccotti Park!!” next week.

Yes we Camp!!

We're here, we're queer and we want to dress up in fabulous clothes and have a sunday afternoon tea in Zuccoti park, it'll be fabulous!!

Sunday Oct 30, 3:00pm

Calling queers of all colors, queers of all genders, and the rest of us...and our allies!!
The village square is open. The days of rage are upon us and we love a good party!!
Come to Zuccotti park Sunday Oct. 30 3:00 pm for a wonderful afternoon of occupying wall st with friends.

sequins, lashes, timberlands, plaids, and earings that pinch encouraged - but not required. Its a queer day of resistance.

There are no marches or performances planned in association with this invitation...just opening up some comfy queer space...

come on down...]

Walking down to Trinity, people pose with still more signs.  I pass back by the sleeping and food areas and the media center, and walk down to Trinity, where the area for devotional objects, a budda, candles, mandalas, etc is growing.  I stand to watch the drums, which some do not like as they can be noisy to the neighbors.  First there are eight.  I turn around.  Looking back, the number seems to have doubled with people beating trash cans or whatever else they can if they do not have a drum.  I love the drums.  “We deserve whatever we will tolerate.  Wake Up!” reads another sign. Maybe that is just what the drums are for.  Maybe that is what this movement is for.  So for, people around the world are joining.  Many are. Some are cooking and sewing; others are supporting the experiment in mutual aid.  Still others are supporting the external goals of the movement as it expands and these calls for justice echo from a carboard box, to camera lens, up to satellite, into policy proposals and organizing agendas.  For many years, Central Park was the place to be in NY.  It was the place where people met, played drums, and lived.  Today, that space is in this park.  Sunday afternoon, tourists pulsed through the space; musicians performed while people danced and hoola hooped.  And culture felt alive and thriving in Zuccotti Park. 

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