Monday, May 1, 2017

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Action Report on 100 Days of Failure and Tree Hugging, Free Speech, Open Space and Prefiguration

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Tree Hugging and old friends in the Lower East Side. 

Scenes from the Tree Hugger Ride by Jeannine Kiely

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Action Report on 100 Days of Failure and Tree Hugging, Free Speech, Open Space and Prefiguration

In between a street action on Saturday denouncing the new administration and a bike ride on Sunday, supporting open spaces in support of biodiversity, trees, and flowers, we were taking part in a debate about speech, in which I hope a thousand flowers can bloom. Before the action reports, I wanted to offer a few words about debates over free speech.

When I first moved to New York city, Mayor Giuliani was busy creating a censorship zone, zoning out porn all over New York.  The city lost a lot of its edge as the process continued. Without the low to counterbalance the high, the city streets lost some of their gritty pulse. Today, few suggest Times Square is a place where stories start.

“The mayor has turned New York into a censorship zone,” declared Bill Dobbs, a queer civil libertarian.

Giuliani went as far as to call the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum, a display of pedophiles on parade, unsuccessfully attempting to trigger a moral panic over the work.

Amidst the debate, ACT UP veteran Jim Eigo pointed out that much of what had always been censored or called obscene was related to queer themes.   Until a generation ago, gay themed movies and books such as Au Chant D’Amore and HOWL were banned.  Today they show at the Museum of Modern art.  People around the world enjoy them.

I learned two important lessons from those years.

First, we need open spaces for debate, conversation, art and prefiguration.

And two, its better to support more voices, not less voices in public space. Censorship or shutting down voices anywhere can be ugly. It was wrong when Giuliani did it.  And it was ugly when anarchist Scot Crow was shut down on a campus a few years ago. We can combat ideas we dislike with more debate, not less.

Today, the arguments used to justify shutting down platforms for speech, are similar to those used against HOWL and Au Chant D'Amore. They are dangerous voices, causing harm. We can’t have them.  If you support them or oppose us, you are the enemy. Throughout the culture wars, this argument was used those against porn. It was used to censor Mappelthorpe and David Wojwarnowicz. It was used to justify cracking down on the Occupy movement. We gotta watch it when we justify censoring or shutting down things that fly beyond our current tastes. The arguments can fly back in our faces.  

 David Wojwarnowicz , Mapplethorpe, and Sensation - all subjects of censorship. 

Yes, we should protest and educate. And let them talk and protest. We should track hate speech and confront it. We should educate, fight ignorance with knowledge.  We should fight for public education so people have tools to combat hate speech, to break down stigma. But shutting down events is pretty scary. It doesn't prefigure a better world. The fights at these events of late have been pretty awful. I like the pies the pieman used to throw.
What I do not support is the notion that everyone has to march to one drumbeat.  And if we oppose shutting down this or that we are the enemy.

People take different sides on the current hate vs free speech debate.  But I support the NEA and ACLU position.

As an educator, I appreciate the University of Chicago faculty position that the campus supports vigorous debate, instead of trigger warnings and safe zones.  Academic freedom means people with different positions have to be allowed to talk.  I invite this from my students, reminding students civility matters, but so does the right to disagree.  Its boring to share all the same positions. In terms of trauma, I do offer students trigger warnings for movies related to PTSD.  But no student has ever taken the opportunity to leave.  Instead we debate ideas and we reflect on what makes us uncomfortable.  I have students from across the world, some in hoodies, some in hijabs, sharing space and debating.  We let a thousand flowers to bloom.

Following these debates, I was heartened to see my City University Colleague Sarah Schulman's list things she wishes would happen today.  Number seven is:Confused American leftists realize that stopping people from talking is not as effective a tactic as saying what kind of world we DO want to live in.

So lets let a thousand flowers bloom, countering hate speech with acts of love and care, inviting more dialogue, not less.  Let’s prefigure a picture of a better world.  Let’s imagine it and create it.

We can oppose and stand up to things we abhor, such as we did not Saturday, condemning the new administration in the 100 Days of Failure Action that took place Saturday. And we can talk about what we love, supporting trees and public space and debate.  The call for the action Saturday by Rise and Resist, declared:

April 29th marks the first 100 days of Trump, and we’re saying loud and clear that Trump is a failure. “100 Days of Failure” will broadcast all the ways that Trump, his administration and staff, and his policies are not only failing residents of the United States, but also endangering people around the world. We will rally outside of Trump Tower to share all the ways that Trump is putting people at risk and making life harder for ordinary folks, with signs, flyers, and chants detailing 100 ways that the administration is reversing progress.

Please bring your own sign to the rally explaining why Trump is a failure. We will be meeting at the corner of 56th and 5th at noon, and at 1:15 we will march to Trump Hotel. 
 Sadly, Trump is already negatively affecting so many aspects of our daily life, and our messaging will focus on the environment and climate change, immigration, education, health care, foreign policy, Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the rights of people with disabilities, racism, the economy, gun control, and more.

I participated in this action, Saturday, riding up to join activists at Central Park, greeting my friends in ACTUP and Rise and Resist. And then riding to my Lukaks’ reading group and off to Bushwick to see the kids play roller derby. All of New York felt alive and pulsing.

The next day, we organized in support of something we love - the  community gardens in the Lower East Side, full of wonderful trees, flowers, biodiversity and people.
The Call for the Action by the Public Space Party declared:

Join us at Elizabeth Garden as celebrate Arbor Day and this magnificent community garden that the de Blasio administration
wants to turn into condos. We'll celebrate this Elizabeth Street Garden then ride to celebrate other trees we adore, ending at El Jardin Paraiso.

In honor of Earth Day, Arbor Day, and Spring
dress like treefolk, woodland fairy, tree spirit as you wish; bring a poem, stories, and songs about trees to share
Last stop: El Jardin del Paraiso, where we will plant a tree gifted by Ray & Wendy and relax in the tree house to share poems, music and stories.

Bring a poem for us to read to each giving tree!

Some stops: Elizabeth Street Garden, Liz Christie Garden, First Shearith Israel Graveyard, and a few favorite trees of the LES. Tree trees, park trees, between building trees.
el to end the protest. Sadly, Trump is already negatively affecting so many aspects of our daily life, and our messaging will focus on the environment and climate change, immigration, education, health care, foreign policy, Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the rights of people with disabilities, racism, the economy, gun control, and more.

This is a non-violent, legal sidewalk protest/rally.

To contribute an item to the list of failures, you are encouraged to email After the checklist of 100 failures is completed, it will be released via press release before the rally.

A list of protest co-sponsors is currently under formation.

To volunteer with this protest, fill out this form:
For questions or more information:
Media requests:

Hashtag: #100DaysofFailure
Our first stop was at the Elizabeth Garden, an endangered garden in SOHO. Sadly, the city wants to bulldoze this space, instead of any of the other countless spaces available in the area for affordable housing. 

The event started with friends from Public Space Party and supporters of the garden talking about why we are all here.

I started off, asking everyone to introduce themselves. And we went around in a circle.  I mentioned a tree stump on our street when I was kid and my dad could not walk down the street.  The tree stump offered him a place to rest. Trees are friends who give us shade, provide memories, and roots.

Catherine, the ride co-organizer, was just back from the people’s climate march in DC.  She pointed out that the climate is changing; there was record heat in DC for the march. Community gardens are a tool of bio-remediation, storm water retention, drainage, and infrastructure. They are sources of beauty. They help us counter changes in the climate with style.
Sharon, who joined the ride, recalled helping Adam Purple build his Garden of Eden in the 1970’s.

“I love trees for shade,” noted Jeannine Kiely, a longtime supporter of the garden.  She pointed out that this is the only green space in the neighborhood. “We have to save it.” 

Jill, a member of La Plaza, mentioned the 4th Street Co-Op as a similar resource for good, in the neighborhood.

We explored the garden and talked about the things the garden offers the neighborhood.  Some kids ran up and Catherine gave them seeds to plant.

We hugged one of the elder trees in the garden and made our way north to Houston Street.

Before leaving, I read one poem to the trees in the garden, that do so much to support all of us, giving us shade and warmth in a concrete jungle.

Song of the Trees

We are the Trees.  
  Our dark and leafy glade  
Bands the bright earth with softer mysteries.  
Beneath us changed and tamed the seasons run:  
In burning zones, we build against the sun         
  Long centuries of shade.  
We are the Trees,  
  Who grow for man’s desire,  
Heat in our faithful hearts, and fruits that please.  
Dwelling beneath our tents, he lightly gains         
The few sufficiencies his life attains—  
  Shelter, and food, and fire.  
We are the Trees  
  That by great waters stand,  
By rills that murmur to our murmuring bees.         
And where, in tracts all desolate and waste,  
The palm-foot stays, man follows on, to taste  
  Springs in the desert sand.  
We are the Trees  
  Who travel where he goes         20 
Over the vast, inhuman, wandering seas.  
His tutors we, in that adventure brave—  
He launched with us upon the untried wave,  
  And now its mastery knows.  
We are the Trees         25 
  Who bear him company  
In life and death. His happy sylvan ease  
He wins through us; through us, his cities spread  
That like a forest guard his unfenced head  
  ’Gainst storm and bitter sky.         30 
We are the Trees.  
  On us the dying rest  
Their strange, sad eyes, in farewell messages.  
And we, his comrades still, since earth began,  
Wave mournful boughs above the grave of man,          
  And coffin his cold breast.

At Liz Christine garden, a few of us climbed one of the trees and talked about Adam Purple and the ways gardens support the neighborhood through years.  The yin and yang of a garden quite powerful, hence the appeal of poetry.

Brennan Cavanaugh read a poem from his collection Bad Poetry for James Franco.

Catherine read “Landscape of the urinating crowd (nocturne of Battery place)” by Frederico García Lorca.
“There is a normalcy for these hidden people who stumble on corners.”

Our next stop was Tompkins Square Park where we recalled the Bendy Tree, that was gone.
And talked about the trees that remained, many that had shaded civil war soldiers, been witness to riots, and drag marches through the ages. We greeted the sycamore trees and Brennan told us about his favorite tree on the Eastern most corner of the park, reading her a poem about his first celebrity crush, for Christie M, a lusty story about joy and adoration.

We read her some Robert Frost.

Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay 
As ice-storms do.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.  He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground.  He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

The park was teeming with energy and friends.
So we talked and hung out, listened to jazz and payed homage to the sycamore tree, on the Northern most edge of the park.

Jack was leaving as we were arriving at Petit Versailles, where we admired the queer splendor of this space.  Catherine read us Frank O’hara’s poem Mayakovsky:

My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.

I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.

Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,

and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embrace a cloud,
but when I soared
it rained.

That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea

Now I am quietly waiting for 
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Brennan read an original poem about his friends and Heather said goodbye.
She read from Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

... In the room the women come and go. Talking of Michelangelo. 

And we made our way to El Jardin Paraiso, where JK greeted us.
She showed us her favorite herbs, to help with dreams and stories. She gave me a mugwort to help  with my reoccurring dreams of being chased by the minotaur.  She is lovely like her garden.

We learned about the rats of the garden.  Rats love this cozy damp environment, under the willow trees. They are tree huggers too.

Yana read us our final poem of the day.

I think that I shall never see  
A poem lovely as a tree.  
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest  
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;  
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;  
A tree that may in summer wear  
A nest of robins in her hair;  
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;  
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,  
But only God can make a tree.


Riding home, I thought of the lovely trees and my friends and the joyous public spaces we’d shared throughout the day. Poetry buzzed through me. So did the images of the trees and the thousand flowers blooming.


Loveliest of Trees

Loveliests of trees, the cherry now   
Is hung with bloom along the bough,   
And stands about the woodland ride   
Wearing white for Eastertide.   
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,   
And take from seventy springs a score,   
It only leaves me fifty more.   
And since to look at things in bloom   
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go   
To see the cherry hung with snow.

counter protesters

Scenes from a day on the streets, April 29th from Central Park to Bushwick.
The photos below include images of the Tree Hugger Ride. 

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