Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Peace Riots, Activist History, and the Rebirth of History

Gran Fury

another reason to riot.
When legal advocacy around issues such as budgets and stop and frisk bear little, people turn to other means.

It was a calm end to a roaring week of cycling, teaching, speaking and still more cycling.
I spent a lot of the week thinking about the ways we try to enact change - be it through formal channels or social networks and cultural change.  Vito Russo, of Gay Activist Alliance and ACT UP, used to remind the world that social change was not going to happen through laws. It was going to happen through celluloid, movies, and cultural animation.   These thoughts were on my mind all week as Times Up! looked to the movies and arts to influence and inspire.  It was a week of street riots and peace rides, history making and field work.

Thursday night Brennan showed movies at the first Times Up! movie night, followed by the No Criminality Suspected Ride, which borrowed from the work of graffiti artists to inspire a conversation about cycling.  Sometimes art and direct action are what helps ignite conversations about the world in ways few other forms can.

These ideas churned through my mind during my 50 minute ride up from our home in Brooklyn up to 104th and 5th Ave for the Museum of the City of New York conference on Teaching Social Activism in the Classroom.  The museum's show Activist New York highlights the ways regular people have impacted the city's future.  

I was speaking on "Engaging and Activating: Teaching Activism to College Students."  The abstract for my talk noted:

New York is being remade in front of our very eyes.  As an educator whose organizing around non-polluting transportation, sustainable development, housing, and AIDS activism constitutes a major part of his life, I was pleased to see these topics highlighted in your show Activist New York.  Social activism has long influenced who we are and what kind of a city we live in.

Note to the reader.  The show features countless images of activism in New York, from Settlements to Stonewall, Civil Rights to ACT UP, and the Battles of the Bikes Lines we've seen in recent years.  Seeing this show helps us contextualize recent activist struggles over safer streets for all.

Images from a generation of cycling advocates who used direct action to push the city to support non polluting transportation including members of Times Up! Norman Siegel, Monica Hunken, Barbara Ross, Detta, this writer and the Times Up! bike lane clowns all featured in the activist New York show. 
Images from AIDS activism, civil rights, and neighborhood preservation movements, including the famous slogan Improve Don't Move from December 1980. 

The history and practice of activism offers countless pedagogical opportunities. 
A core component of the Common Core Curriculum my college, City Tech/CUNY is Community/ Civic Engagement.   I address this topic through a course in community organization.  The goal for community organizing, a course which forms the foundation of my teaching, is to establish the grounding for the budding practitioner's subsequent social justice work.  Throughout community organization students engage in high impact learning practices such as team projects in which they engage with community groups around issues which impact their lives.  I have had students organize projects around creating community gardens and centers for the elderly.  Each student is asked to pick a topic around which they feel a personal connection.  They are asked to conduct research around the scope of the problem, its history, who is involved, what needs to be done, and what are the best strategies and tactics in which to address the problem.  Along the way, I ask each student to connect with community resources, learning to be part of the solutions for a global city.  Countless students have taken up this call, developing the tools to help remake New York through activism and community organization.  Through such community organization regular people carve out solutions for a range of problems we face in our global city.     


Over and over again, the first step in such efforts is getting to the bottom of issues - what's at stake, whose involved, what happened, what's the scope of the issue.  Friday, some of the Living Lab fellows from my college took a trip out to Sheepshead Bay, to check out where the community is at after a rough few months since Sandy.  We were there to pilot surveys for disaster preparedness  moving forward.  Instead of riding a bike I did for the other Times Up! relief rides out to the Rockaways and Ft Tilden, I took the subway from Park Slope to Brooklyn College, where my ten mile trip dropped me off a few miles short of our destination.   Watching the B44 buses pass me by at the connecting stop, the reality of this community's isolation from the rest of the city was daunting.  Instead I ran down Nostrand from Ave H to Z to the bay.  The 45 minute jog offered ample time to reflect on the limitations of the woefully inadequate rapid transit system out there, which along with cars, broke down during the storm.  We met at Best Western, where we paired off with community partners, from local organizations.  Fran took us down her  block where the water rose some four feet during the storm, just gushing down the street to her home.  Those who did not leave immediately were left to fend for themselves without electricity for months.  While FEMA was nowhere to be found, Occupy Sandy arrived the day after the storm, bringing supplies for pets, food, and water.  Most of Fran's street was heightened during construction and repairs in the 1970's.  The same could not be said of the courts, which run below street level in between streets, and are inaccessible to most automobiles. While water flooded the basements on Fran's street, it ran up to the first and second floors on the Courts, leaving folks stranded for days while their apartments filled with water.  Most everyone we talked to stayed for the storm.  Yet, what of the weakest, the most vulnerable, the disabled, or elderly on the block, where were they to go?  Few had any desire to leave, so they survived with the support of their neighbors.  But now most are willing to be part of an energy outreach list in the event of another storm.  Fran and her neighbors smoked cigarettes and swapped stories.  They have been through a lot. Yet, far too many communities impacted have been left out in the cold after a long cold winter. 

Water largely flooded the courts where people were left hoping for assistance. 

Their experience was with me all weekend, hanging out with the kids, riding to the museum and back for the Times Up! peace ride.   But where does peace fit in a world with so much neglect, hunger, and pain?  It is what we want with the gardens and the space for a sustainable future.  But can we achieve it?  That's another question. Is there another vocabulary for living beyond love and hate, violence and peace?  

What are you thinking about as you ride Nadette asked us - bikes and peace some answered; others gardens or health.  I answered "Riots'' thinking about the events on Flatbush.  Sometimes when you do everything you can do and it still doesn't work, a riot can change history.  When no one can hear your silent screams, sometimes other means are necessary  to make a point.  I adore the lessons of Gandhi and the impulse to aggressive non-violence, yet I do not really think a street riot is a huge departure from this repertoire. Sometimes it is an extension of it, a way of moving the city forward, hopefully by waging non-violence, and igniting a peace riot. 

Effie's paper don't walk, dance

Throughout the ride, I loved thinking about this as we left the Gandhi statue to the House of  Sufism where we read Rumi.  Keegan lead the ride with Nadette, riding the Times Up! Bullett, pulling the soundtrack to the revolution.We sang to peace train  and danced to won't don't we do it in the road.

Words worth singing and dancing to from the Surf Bard

And we kvelled at John and Yoko's former home on Bank Street.  I still think I want to hold your hand is one of the great love anthems, peace anthems of all time. 
Hanging out at John and Yoko's house on 105 Bank Street and riding downtown. 
And we enjoyed the scenes of from Tom Otherness' "Real World'' installation in Battery Park.  There the city becomes a playspace where pennies no longer declare 'ín god we trust''.  Otherness found that a little overbearing.  Here workers and radicals mingle with everyone else in a whimsical world, which just might offer some insights into what our world might look like, what it does look like.

Otterness’s artwork goes beyond mere appearance. His work always has a more obscure meaning, normally too subtle for children to pick up on. The Real World, for example, represents many different parts of the New York society. His work is meant to depict the social strata of our community. Statues of predator and prey are meant to show struggle, while his other sculptures are created in such a way to symbolize blue collared workers, white collared workers, and radicals. Several of his statues also have sexual implications as well

According to the Battery Park City web site, Otterness’ work “is a map that tells stories of the real world beyond the playground […] stories about struggle, lust, power, loss, humor, fantasy, and death. Otterness believes that children appreciate the direct manner in which the stories are given to them, without ever being told what to make of it all. It is the real scoop on life without the sugar coating.”

Workers and radicals, cyclists and statues together again ... all part of the real world. 
Photo and caption by Outi Popp

10 years ago we were marching against Iraq war but we were ridiculed. Still hoping 2 c Bush, Cheney, Blair in Haig and still marching and biking for peace! Pic: Piece of Berlin Wall @Battery Park City. Time's Up & Peace Museum Peace Ride.

Play, like love and peace, moves in a tragicomic continuum, etched with violence and hope, exploration and liberation, frustration and expectation.  Ten years ago, we marched and screamed against the war, trying to create images of care in a world of violence.  they laughed at us. We were arrested, detained and prooven right.  These contrasts are built into the very fabric of the this global city.  Rides such as this mix art and play with direct action in a delightful immediate ways.  But they are also responses to a world of violence, of car crashes, hostility and neglect.   They marks  contrast with the visceral experiences of those coping with the aftershocks of the killing of unarmed Kimani Gray, though they need not.  The riots taking place in Flatbush last week, mark a start continuation in an era of riots, extending from Los Angeles to Tahrir Square.  Along the ride, we passed the Stonewall Inn, where another historic riot changed history.  It also included a kickline and chant: "We Are the Stonewall Girls, We Wear our Hair in Curls."  I first started witnessing riots in LA in 1992, connecting this experience with other uprisings of the era.  Sometimes, doing the right thing does not work, particularly when a community is left behind, when a community has worked to create change through the ballot box and see still more cuts and sequestration, budget cuts, and continued stop and frisks.   


Yet, a riot is a declaration of existence, Cleve Jones explained after the White Night Riots in San Francisco in 1979.  As Alain Badiou explains in The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, we live in an era of riots, "wherein a rebirth of history, as opposed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst, takes shape." (p.5 ).  Riots, such as those taking place in Flatbush, these moments offer "an abrupt alteration in the relationship between the possible and the impossible...."  They create "a de-statification of the issue of what is possible."  (p.94).  They change our thinking forcing us to challenge the oppressive, racial profiling, prison industrial complex funding, balancing budgets on the poor supporting, neoliberal politics as usual.  The only way I know to push back against the racist, sexist, anti-gay NYPD is with a riot.  You can sit at a million meetings with them and they will ignore you, while checking their messages.  I would propose a peace riot where we dance in streets, fighting injustice, while offering an affirmative. I would propose we use art, stories, organizing, and direct action to challenge entrenched systems of  power.            

Resistance takes shape in countless forms.
OWS Resistance

More Gardens, Less Asthma! by Geoffry Croft, NY Parks Advocates

Peace riots open up a place where we see the yin and the yang of experience, the productivity of a riot and violence of the status quo.  They help us see there is a something we can learn in all these moments.  We can create rivers of joy, abundances of justice, gardens, art, disruption, pleasure, and dance in the snow.  Like a riot itself, some see a snowy night in March as ugly, but its more fun to see the beauty. 

Snow in Washington Square Park.
Photo by Madeline Nelson
At least this was our thinking as the snow flakes cascaded from the skies of Brooklyn and we descended from the forth floor and out into the snow streets last night, enjoying what the world was offering us. 

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