This is another attempt at a thing for Matt. Matt, sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner.

I turned 30 recently, which as Matt has informed me means I am no longer to be trusted. It also means I’ve been thinking back a bit, assessing where I’m at in my life and how I got here. I’d like to share a few moments that meant a lot to me, and the lessons I think I’ve drawn from them.

And I’m just a kid- I can’t believe that I gotta worry about this kind of shit! what a stupid world!
– Propagandhi, “And We Thought Nation States Were A Bad Idea”

There are a few moments that were crucial to making me who I am, moments that I think of as my waking up moments. One is when I was 18 and I read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I felt like I had been lied to for pretty much my whole. Things were clearly wrong with the world, with the whole world, and deeply so – the big structures of power were rotten to their core. Another is the first time I attended a Take Back The Night Rally, at 18 or 19. I heard women and men speak of their experiences of sexual violence and abuse by their partners. It opened my eyes to inequalities of power along the lines of gender and sexual orientation. It also made me see that the big and deep problems with the rotten world were not just with the big structures of power but existed in people’s everyday lives and small behaviors. Put differently, it made me see that the big structures of power are not way out there, like the beams that hold up the roof of a building, but include actions that ‘ordinary’ people carry out as well. This lesson was especially brought home to me as I became active with the group that put on Take Back The Night where I live. In those groups I met people who called me out for the first time for my use of homophobic and misogynist terms as insults. That was not an easy thing for me, but it was incredibly good for me.

As part of all this I read the book Refusing To Be A Man, by John Stoltenberg, about patriarchy and sexuality and violence which deepened my understanding of structural forces and of my own role in them. I also started reading a lot of Marx and marxism. I thought, and still think, that Marx provides a lot of useful material for understanding capitalism. At the same time, the marxists I knew kept telling me things like “the end of capitalism will do away with that” whenever I would talk about homophobia and sexual violence and domestic violence. That didn’t make any sense to me, and eventually the type of marxism I was absorbing stopped making sense to me.

Through Take Back The Night I eventually started to speak publicly about my own experiences with domestic violence, and to start to understand the difference between being a victim and being a survivor. The thing is, I only understood the difference in theoretical terms. My feminism and my marxism and even more than that, my gut feelings, did not really match up with this. I didn’t feel like a survivor of any sort, let alone someone who could do things that mattered. All of this was quite depressing. For a long time I basically felt like the structures of power in our society were inescapable and nothing could be done to change them. No matter what we did, we would play out those patterns.

Negativity’s too enchanting cuz the world seems so depressing … We all need inspiration.
– Crimpshrine, “Inspiration”

Through Take Back The Night I started doing work with other people with terrible experiences, talking through what had happened, helping them talk about it, listening a lot. Some of these people had decided they wanted to speak publicly about their experiences, at a speak out, but they were afraid and intimidated and wanted help to get to where they felt they could do that. It was very depressing and upsetting a lot of the time, with powerful swings of emotion. On the other hand, watching people quite visibly change and improve – going from afraid and quiet to angry and loud, from frightened and shy to confident (or at least appearing confident) and speaking publicly – was a very powerful experience. By hearing others talk about how all of this had changed their lives, I began to realize that Take Back The Night had changed my life too. I slowly stopped feeling that sense that nothing could be changed, and I started to realize that I had had a role in people’s lives changing too.

Around this same time and a few years after I had some more experiences, some more moments, that changed how I thought and I think even more importantly how I felt. In April of 2000 I went to Washington DC for the protests against the World Bank. I had friends who had gone to Seattle the November before, and had seen and a read a lot about it. It was incredibly exciting. It felt like something really big was possible. I didn’t really understand a lot of the issues – except the key parts, the moral outrage at how wrong things are, and how the big structures of power are rotten to the core – but I knew I wanted to be part of it. So I went to DC. While in DC I helped block a street with some people carrying around beautiful puppets, especially a big yellow face.

I also saw the black bloc in action. One black bloc moment for me was particularly key. I came around a corner and saw an intersection blocked off at one side with a chain link fence. A small group of police stood behind the fence, closer to me. On the other side, the intersection was full of protesters. People were filing in from one street in big numbers. Blocking the other two streets were big police lines. It looked like it was going to get ugly. The black bloc entered the intersection and began to gather by the fence. Suddenly the fences came loose. The people at the front had some how disconnected the fence. They held the sections of the fence and charged forward at the police behind it. The police ran. The bloc pushed the police back for a long way. Maybe it was only a block or three, but it felt like miles. I was watching police run from protesters. I had never seen anything like it.

Another moment for me was an anti-war demonstration in Chicago in March 2003. We gathered at the starting point and set off on the march. The people at the front diverted the march from the permitted route, pushing through the police line. We ended up on Lake Shore Drive, marching up the northbound lanes (the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago is one of the most beautiful places in the world as far as I’m concerned, especially at night when the city is lit up, this makes it especially bad that so much of it is buried under asphalt and people have to travel it mostly at high speeds in cars). I stopped at one point and looked back, and watched the line of people feed onto Lake Shore Drive. It seemed to go on forever. I’m not great at estimating crowd size, but my guess at the beginning of the rally was that there had been about 1,000 people. It was big, compared to the anti-war stuff I had been to before. But this march was HUGE! I later saw estimates that it was about 10,000 people.

Later during that march, comrades from the Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives (FRAC) got out big banner and covered their faces. They and others led the march over the median wall, so we started to block south bound traffic as well. The cops didn’t like this, of course, but they couldn’t stop it.

Sometimes when I start to feel down, when that “the big structures of power can’t be beaten” kind of feeling starts to come back, I remind myself of this stuff. I carry these and similar sorts of moments in my pocket, so to speak, to pull out when I need them, to help keep going, to remember that things really are possible. I hope the protests against the RNC here in the Twin Cities – part of those big structures of power who are rotten to the core – provides moments like this to others. I know the fate of the world won’t be decided here, but I think some lives can be changed. I hope so.

Together in Union we will fight, carry on. Together in Union we are strong.
– The Strike, “Communique”

Here are a few other moments that changed my life and that I carry in my pocket. The first time I knocked on a strangers door to get her to have a conversation with me about her job. That was hard and it didn’t go very well. After many more of those conversations, they started to go better. I remember a few people who started crying because their jobs were so stressful and their bosses so abusive. Later on I helped a group of tenants do something similar in their building, where the landlord was carrying out illegal and disruptive construction (the noise kept people up late and the dust caused seniors and babies in the building to have asthma attacks). Going door to door to talk to people then calling group meeting led to a building-wide committee forming, which turned into the tenants withholding their rent. Being a part of those people forming coming together to alter the balance of power between them and their boss and landlord, so they could have more control and have better lives, that was very powerful.

In 2003 I became part of an effort to organize a union at my own workplace for the first time. I had been part of other people organizing before, but never done it myself, putting my own job at risk. It was frightening, and hard, and exciting. And I felt such a close connection to my coworkers We called each other brother and sister in good old labor union fashion, and I have to say, it wasn’t nostalgia – we really meant it, really felt it. Later I spoke up to an employer in a way I never would have before. (People who know me in my personal life sometimes don’t believe me, but I’m actually quite shy by disposition, and still get nervous about speaking in front of groups even though I’ve now done it a bunch.) I didn’t want to speak up, I was very afraid both of conflict and of speaking in front of a group. I was also really afraid of losing my job and not being able to pay my bills. But conditions were bad and all of us were pissed and things had to change. Our group had rehearsed who was going to say what, but we didn’t think about what to do if someone froze up under pressure. That’s what happened. I said my bit, then the other people didn’t say their’s. I waited a moment then said some more, really telling the boss what I thought. He turned bright red and started to stammer. Then other people started to speak up. Our manager looked sick, like he thought the big boss might fire him over this. It felt really good to make them listen to us for once, to turn the tables at least for a moment.

I’ve since met a lot of other people with similar stories. Hearing others’ moments is exciting, and adds to the store of things I keep in my pocket to keep me going and to draw lessons from. Sharing them can be useful also for building relationships, and it’s fun. Like I said, I hope the protests this weekend provide some new moments like this, and I hope they provide some time for people to share their other moments. And I hope that after this weekend there are more moments made for people. Maybe moments like these few I mentioned, moments which involve smaller numbers and less visible conflict but which still change lives. Moments where people who maybe don’t come to these protests get together (and maybe the experience changes them so they’ll be at the next protest), get together to challenge parts of the big structures of power that are rotten to the core.

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