Thursday, November 8, 2007

Drama As Addiction

I find myself drawn to drama. Everybody around me seems to be that way as well. Acting out scripted roles, full of emotion, entertainment for a higher realm. The world is going to war over this, as the scenes unfold.

For me, I seem to seek it out, in a way. It's like I'm drawn to it, and in so doing, it is drawn to me. It is a common topic of conversation for me, it occupies a lot of my thoughts and worries, it seems to be a common way for me to live my life.

Oh My God! Oh My God! Oh My God! Can you believe it?! How could he do that?! What will happen next?! Oh no!

That's the template - just plaster it everywhere. It passes the time and it gives a quick-fix of artificial meaning. But more importantly, it fucks you up. It gets you high. Strategy then becomes "need", and it is an addiction.

There are lots of addictions. I have lots of addictions. Everybody has lots of addictions. You can't walk five feet without somehow stumbling on somebody's addiction. Same goes with drama - also an addiction. Why addiction?

Let's take sugar, for example, as a point of comparison or analysis. I am addicted to sugar. I crave that shit, I eat/drink it every day. It fucks me up. I've grown used to it though, I've had it regularly since I was a child. But I see the effects - on my body, my teeth, my face, my moods, my energy - I see how all of that is affected by it. But still I go for it, and often I don't even see myself going for it.

Sleep-walking to my doom.

And I think that the same goes with drama.

Oh, the injustice of it all! The unfairness! How could they! How scary! How nerve-wracking! What to do next?! Fuck you!!!

Around and around it goes, until eventually somebody gets hurt. Or I get hurt. Or I notice that I have been spending the last 29 years of my life watching the television of my own thoughts, and they scare me. And so I don't go outside, and my muscles grow weak.

So, what am I doing?

I don't want to blame "it". ("It" being the world, institutions of oppression, my parents, you) Because I realize that "it" is really a series of choices that I am making. I am choosing my own prison, I am choosing to ride the roller coaster of drama, and I am choosing to eat shit.

And I can choose differently.

And so can you.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vignettes of Hope

Sometimes moments of beauty, hope, inspiration only comes in flashes. Brief moments, it's here, it's experienced, and then it's gone. Swallowed up by the monotony & despair of everyday life (which is one possible story that can be told). These times are a divine source of fuel.

Here are a few.


It is night-time, dark. The block is filled with drunk people & inane conversation. I go to the levee, to escape it all.

"What hope is there? What point???" I ask myself.

I hear a voice and I follow it.

Somewhere, someone is singing. Gospel. I don't know where, but I follow it.

Along the levee, around the turns, I go. I follow the voice, and it only gets louder with each step I take, the closer I get.

Finally I come to a house. It's the only house in the vicinity, all the others have been wiped away. Inside this one house there is one light on. And that is where the voice is coming from.

The voice is beautiful, amazing, bellowing with passion, celebration, worship and praise. Shameless, unrestrained, filled!

Parked outside is a pickup truck, a pile of rubble, and a man sitting on top of it. He is smoking a cigarette. I sit down too, taking it in.

Outside it is dark, except for that one house, with that one light.


A squad car pulled up to the main community house at Common Ground. Then another pulled up behind it. They bore the markings of being "military police."

A group of Common Ground volunteers was curious & concerned. We walked over to see what was up.

A C.G. volunteer was in the midst of a heated argument with a group of four young people in military fatigues, sporting "MP" arm-bands. He was angrily calling them "stupid", "control-freak", "fascist" - they were shouting back with "crazy", "delusional", "ignorant". Eventually the irate volunteer left the fray, hands in the air cursing all the insane shit that he has to deal with.

I approach two of the soldier-cops and ask about what is going on. Apparently the volunteer was seen sitting cross-legged at the end of a bridge connecting the upper & lower 9th ward. He was openly praying in a median next to cars taxiing off the bridge. This man was once a preacher, before he gave up on all of that. The soldier-cops confronted him, and after hitting on a female soldier-cop & protesting the injustice of the situation, he left. Somehow the intensity of their interaction was so strong, that the after-glow of the whole thing drew them together again once more - in front of my home.

I was curious, and asked the two of them nearest to me: "Are you all in the army?"

The female soldier-cop replied: "We", she motioned to herself and the black guy soldier-cop standing next to her, "are with the army national guard. They", motions to the other two men in uniform, "are from the air force police." I notice that the later group is wearing jungle fatigues, while she & her comrade are wearing desert fatigues.

"How old are you? I'm curious." I ask the female soldier-cop. "22", she replies. "How old are you?" asks her uniformed companion. "29", I respond.

"Do you get hit on a lot?", I ask. "All the time," she says, "you get used to it."

The two Air Force soldier-cops were excitedly talking with a group of other volunteers, while the other army reserve soldier-cop was looking back & forth between them & us.

"Have you been to Iraq?", I ask.

"We're going in a few months," she replies, "we all have to go sometime."

"Are you scared?"

"No. I don't focus on that. If I focused on that, I would more likely do something stupid. I would more likely get hit with an IED or something if I focused on being afraid."

A short-term volunteer appears. He's a big white guy, tall, muscular, crew-cut.

"I signed up", he says. "I'm in the Marine Corps. I'll be in boot camp in a couple weeks."

There is a brief silence, everybody is stunned and impressed.

A bond is then formed, and the soldiers, would-be soldier, cops, are immersed in conversation. They talk of boot camp, contrasting Army with Air Force with Marine Corps. And they talk about uniforms, and boots.

Later on, I would see the Marine recruit and his girl-friend alone standing in the middle of the street. They were directly in front of each-other, eye-to-eye, arms folded. They each held an intense stare, lowered voices, tight posture. They were Talking.


It was a night when the block was empty. It was somebody's birthday, and people were out drinking.

I was lonely, and I wanted to be around people. I found myself in the company of two people, one enormously well-read guy waxing eloquent on abstract philosophy with no obvious relationship with anything in real life. And the other person considerably less well-read, bitterly repeating himself about how you can't understand the Lower 9th Ward unless you were fucking born & raised there.

I wanted out. So I proposed to the group that we all go outside, to go find someone, somewhere.

"C'mon, man, everyone is out at the birthday party. Nobody is here! You know that," one of them says.

"I want to go find something to drink," the other person says. He then disappears into the night.

Jesus Christ, I thought, I will never find companionship in this place. I will never find someone whom I can talk to, have a real conversation with.

"No!", I blurt out, "we'll find someone! Let's go!" I then march off down the street & after a moment of hesitation, the other guy follows. I did what I did half out of sarcasm, half seriously, half for myself, half for show. I figured that the worst that could happen is disappointment, which is nothing new.

We come upon a Common Ground house, darkened & empty. We find two people up in the balcony talking. It is a CG volunteer and a woman whom I've never met before.

We climb up the stairs and introduce ourselves.

"My name is 'Nola'... I am named after New Orleans. I was born here and my parents really loved the place... I'm moving back here because I really need a change in my life... I want to devote more energy to public service... I want to work more on my writing... I felt called to come to New Orleans."

After that, things began to change.


I open a door, and find that there is a full-blown political rally/pep-talk taking place. This is unexpected. I walk in and take a seat.

Malik is standing up addressing a group of volunteers, seated & gathered around him, holding their attention.

He said many things, among them:

"Every big movement, every big thing, begins with this..." he looks to the ground & takes a few steps forward "...the first steps."

"I see people here walking around confused, I see people walking around feeling sorry for themselves. But this is not the time for that. This is the time for action, this is the time for getting it together."

"People come up to me, 'Malik, can you help me with this? Malik, I need that...' But this here is not about that. This is not about 'I', not about 'me'. This is about 'we'. What is it that 'we' need?"

"Sometimes I worry that I haven't done enough. Sometimes I think that I haven't taught enough about collective living, how to do stuff as a collective."

"People come up to me all the time, wanting to interview me, wanting to talk with me about what is going on here. But it shouldn't be like that. It should be that they can come & talk with any one of us here about what is going on."

"What is the first thing that you see when you cross over the Claiborne bridge into the Lower 9th Ward? Common Ground. I'd like it to be so that as soon as people cross into the Lower 9th, that they see a beacon of hope here, and they are drawn to it. Inspired."


It was a wet & rainy day. The entire day seemed to be painted in a dismal bluish gray and soaked in mud puddles. This lead to a kind of captivity in a way: You have to stay inside & work with others. The entire day my spirit felt cooped-up, constrained. And my soul was fed the soup that looked like a mush of bluish gray.

Then at some point it all stopped. The sky was no longer falling and the puddles ceased to grow. It was now safe to go outside.

I ventured out and the place was empty - nobody was out to be seen. It was a barren & glistening wet landscape.

And the sun was shining.

Everything out was given a different tone and a different color. Everything out was of a twinge of yellowish gold. Warm.

And my spirit felt alive. All around me, I felt a resurgence of energy, a replenishment.

Where at once I felt a drain, now I felt a revival.

This is a moment where it felt good to be alive.


Children & barges, gang-bangers & tourists, saxophone & powdered sugar. I watch the solemn mellow light of the sun permeate the sky & fade, water of the Mississippi lap up by me with a riverboat echoing jazz. And the street lamps turn on.

I love New Orleans.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Communication for a Better New Orleans

I originally wrote this up for the Common Ground web-site, and am posting it here to help further elaborate on the picture of life here in New Orleans - (I)


In these times of widespread social violence, a devastated city, & devastated lives - an honest public dialogue, conversation without selling an agenda, is all the more important. That is just what happened on October 17th of this year, thanks to the Communication Department of Xavier University of New Orleans.

The event took place in the cavernous ballroom on campus, five people in a row on a panel, moderator at the side by a podium, numerous seats pointed towards them. Presented with the title of "Media, Communication, and Community: Private & Public Interests in Rebuilding New Orleans", this dialogue was moderated by Bruce France, a former public-speaking professor of Xavier University and a co-founder & co-artistic director of the local art company Mondo Bizarro. France began with a few remarks of his own, one of which was a question which he used to present to his students at Xavier:

"Are you paying attention to the world around you, or are you paying attention to what is going on for you?"

He then answered this question, for himself: "I can barely be paying attention to any of this stuff (world events). Why? Because I live in New Orleans." He then remarked on how "more people die per capita here in New Orleans than in Baghdad," and on some other challenges the city faces, and thus, the discussion began.

This dialogue consisted of a panel of five people, and the audience at large. The panel was comprised of: Bart Everson, a local activist & blogger and multimedia artist for Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Nick Sile, a co-founder and co-artistic director of Mondo Bizarro and director of Theater Studies at Nunez Community College. Jarvis DeBerry, a writer for the local newspaper Times Picayune. Rebecca Snedeker, a documentary filmmaker and director of the film "By Invitation Only". And Sakura Kone, the Media Coordinator for Common Ground Relief.

Bart Everson spoke first: "Different demographics in this city are impacted in different ways. Middle-class, home-owners, whites - have the easiest time in coming back. Working-class, renters, blacks - have a harder time in coming back." He quoted the author Naomi Klein in her new book, "Disaster Capitalism", in regards to how disasters used to be a great social leveller, and now they have the opposite effect - leading to more stratification.

Nick Slie spoke next: "If we want to live in a different way, act in a different way, to exist in a different way, then what are we offering that is different? How do we come together to address how we share resources together?" He spoke of a philosophy of mutual aid that he believes in: "We try to say: 'if we are partnering with you, you will have the full weight of what we have, for better & worse.'"

Jarvis DeBerry then spoke: "Usually when people think of a ravaged New Orleans, what they are thinking of is the results of the free market." He added that "when I think of the free market, I usually think of corporations displacing people. But sometimes it means that nobody comes at all."

Rebecca Snedeker then spoke: "There is the important question of: 'who are we, what is our history, and how do we see ourselves?' ... when we are in this time of chaotic change, we need some beautiful images of ourselves." She ended her remarks with "the ability to absorb stories and to be inspired by them can be a valuable way for us to move forward."

Finishing the panel statements was Sakura Kone: "New Orleans was once the place with the highest rate of slave rebellions, now it is fast becoming the suicide capitol of the world ... It is incumbent upon us to not allow the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans to occur. Because if that happens, then the flood-gates would then be open, and no place will be safe." When he spoke of his coming out from California to volunteer in New Orleans, he said, "Confronted with the spirit of the people and their will to survive, I found that I could not turn my back on the situation out here."

After that, the floor was opened up to audience participation. The audience was mostly comprised of young students from Xavier University, Xavier being the country's only both black & Catholic University. The first to speak directed a question to the panel:

"How do we not become discouraged and just...leave?"

Jarvis DeBerry gave a thorough response: "Keep in mind that no other American city has ever had to deal with having 80% of the city being under water, first figure out how to rescue people, then figure out how to pump out the water, then figure
out how to rebuild. ... I think that all of us are torn between patience & impatience. ... But we need to figure out how to do something that has never been done before."

After that, the group conversation traveled to a number of different areas. Some of these included such topics as...

Collaboration, to which Bart Everson said "For just about every particular aspect of recovery, there is some organization that exists to address it." And Nick Slie said: "The big question is one of processes - how do we work together?"

Artistic expression, to which Rebecca Snedeker said, "To see some ripple effect of some project of yours, gives you the energy needed to ask for support for another project." And Nick Slie said: "How can we have a cultural economy here in this city, where we are not investing in the cultural production, but are reliant upon the marketing of culture?"

The plight of home-owners, to which Sakura Kone said, "The city passes ordinances to punish property owners who are struggling with insurance companies playing word games." and Jarvis DeBerry commented "Everybody is afraid of their property being taken away, but we can't have the alternative being nothing being done."

At one point, an audience member asked: "What are we going to be doing in the future, when we don't have people in New Orleans running things in New Orleans, because they are not educated?"

The general sentiment that was the closest to "answers" to all of the problems addressed, was two-fold:

There was the call for more discussion. To quote Jarvis DeBerry: "We need to have conversations where we ask: 'How can we build a city that works for everyone?'" An audience member said: "Just sit down and listen to someone, because everyone just wants a good ear."

And there was an explicit can-do attitude. To quote Sakura Kone: "You are only as limited as your imagination." And paraphrasing Gandhi, "Be the change that you advocate."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

At the corner of breakdown & hope

This is an account of something that happened last night. I was interviewing two visiting college kids about their experience at Common Ground, while other activity was going on outside.


“You can’t have positive change unless you have negative stuff,” he said, the naked bulb hanging above him, lighting up his face, illuminating a particular glint in his eye, the gaze following a partially-seen rat scurrying by his side. “They just feed off of each-other, you know?”

Outside, there is chaos. Shrouded in the darkness of the night, with gutted desolate houses on either side, is a road. Right now that road is filled with people, some of whom are screaming at each-other. $280 is reported missing, and many suspect that a thief is in their midst. For some, this is a final straw, and they demand resolution.

“That’s it, this is enough!”, said the man in the white shirt, voice booming, striding determinedly down the street. “I want everybody up, I want everybody out! We are going to handle this right now! We are going to figure out who’s who, we are going to figure out what’s what!”

“So”, I ask the woman interviewee, now sitting under the bulb, “why do you think this is happening?”

“It was building up”, she said, leaning forward in her seat, “I have been noticing the tensions. The tension was really high, and then it just exploded. I was not surprised.”

We are at the Common Ground Relief site, in the lower ninth ward, in New Orleans. We are at the spot referred to as “Ground Zero”, where the levees first broke, flooding 80% of the city.

The male interviewee speaks: “Coming from our up-beat, cheerful lives, and then coming here, it is a real kick in the face. It’s definitely a depressing place to be in.”

The devastation is everywhere, the obvious physical infrastructure, as well as people’s lives. It’s all observable in some way. “I definitely see that the government is not helping in any way,” the female interviewee says.

The male interviewee looks at me, pauses. “When people are talking with you here, you definitely feel what they went through. And it has an impact on you.”

Two Katrina survivors are in the street now, locked together in a stare of rage and combat. The man lost his house, previously on this block, thrown out to a couple of blocks over. The woman was at the superdome during Katrina, experiencing a collective horror forever etched in so many people’s lives.

Now the accusation of thievery is screaming before them, and none will have this stand. Chests puffed out, hands & arms at the ready, these people are poised to tear away injustice – their shouts tell their willingness to fight.

Inside I ask “How”. How can we fight in a different way? In a way that works for all. This is, after all, what Common Ground is here for. “Solidarity, Not Charity” is a guiding principle for the organization.

She replies: “I am not really sure what will replace that kind of thing. Maybe more strength of community, more social ties. People need people.”

Outside, nervousness, a cacophony of chatter, people on cell phones, others asking each-other what to do. Nobody has any answers.

The man being interviewed thinks that what we need is hope. He sees the bringing of hope as being the most important work that Common Ground is doing. “Perhaps it takes things breaking down, the levees to break, whatever. Perhaps it takes dramatic break-down to inspire people to work together. Hope is generated by what people see is being done.”

A car speeds up to the site, and stops next to the crowd. A bunch of Common Ground coordinators jump out. They fan out throughout the crowd, each one approaching one of the most obviously distressed-looking individuals. An air of relief washes over the crowd, while many others remain uncertain of what to do.

“Community is more than building houses”, she states, “it is more social interactions.” She pauses to watch a cluster of people walk by from her group. They are carrying back-packs and bags to load up their vans. A man in a door-frame peers out from behind a curtain. “It is about having people to rely on,” she says.

Outside, the man in the white shirt screams: “We are having a circle! Everybody in the circle! Right now, we are all going to get together, and we are going to find out just what the fuck is going on!” The onlookers are stunned. Nobody knows how to respond. The crowd moves back & forth in indecision.

“By bringing people in, you’re bringing in a community”, the female interviewee says. “You need to have something with more meetings between people. You need a place for people who don’t have anywhere to go, who need that, that sense of community, that wholeness in their life.”

Inside one of the houses, about 20 college kids cringe together in fear. Some people are crying, others complain, others yell. Nobody knows what to do. They feel trapped in a place where they do not want to be. And they are terrified.

“What is this about?”, I ask. The male interviewee responds: “When you’re going through rough times, this kind of stuff is more bound to happen. People still need some hope though.” He smiles. “I know it sounds cliché to say, but hope really is the most important thing.”

Outside a steady stream of college kids are forming a moving line, like ants. They are carrying back-packs & bags from the gutted-out houses to their vans. They are walking past drunk screaming people, across empty lots where houses once stood and concrete slab foundations now remain.

“I definitely see that a lot of people rely on a kind of faith here,” the female interviewee says, “it definitely helps people to continue seeing & relating to the world around them. It almost seems, like they need it, it keeps them going.”

Outside the man in the white shirt is leaning against the tail-gate of a pick-up truck. His head is hanging down, and he is regretting yelling at the woman earlier. “We’ve always been good with each-other, me & her. I didn’t mean to ruin that. I guess it turns out that we are just too similar. A part of me is also in her.”

Inside, the woman remarks: “We saw the destruction with our own eyes. He showed us that, we can see it, and now we can spread the awareness around.”

The draw-bridge nearby is now mysteriously broken, dis-connecting the lower & upper ninth wards. Traffic is backed up on it, on both sides. The vehicles are beginning to turn around and drive away.

“Hope diffuses through the neighborhoods,” he chimed in. “Once it’s there, in a community, it just gets out there. It’s all one big diffusion.”

The doors shut on all the vans. The people are inside, the engines are running. Two roads form an intersection, and there is a van at each corner. One-by-one a vehicle takes off, until all four are leaving, in one big caravan.

The block is then empty, and quiet.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A spiritual kind of yearning

Sunday morning, I wake up, and I have a desire to go to church. I ask myself, what needs are driving me to want to go? Greater meaning and a stronger sense of purpose, is the response. Like that I/we are going somewhere important.

I react. I chicken out and choose not to go. It's a pernicious persistent response, wanting safety. I worry about the lack of social acceptance. I am also stunned, realizing that me wanting to go to a church out of my own personal heart-felt desire to be at a church with people, would be a drastic difference from how I have so far been living my life. In other words, I have never freely chosen to go to church before.

The options abound here. A Common Ground co-worker has a brother who is a local preacher. There is a local Baha'i (the religion that I grew up in) community here. And a child on the street the other day invited me to go to a church that meets in somebody's house each Sunday. I am certain other interesting spiritual-oriented places exist here as well.

I have a definite desire for more of an, I don't know, spiritual feeling in my life. I have been noticing this lack for years now. This yearning has only strengthened over time.

I also notice that I have been wanting more of a sense of "community of faith" with others. In other words, I have a strong desire to live with others who tell each-other the same stories of what is the meaning within life. I want to collaboratively create meaning together, with others. To creatively draw patterns and weave texture onto the contours laid out by our actions. To fill in the void, with something beautiful (or ugly).

Having a sense of meaning does something for me. It gives me a sense of confidence that ultimately the world that we live in and the things that we do with our lives is fundamentally both safe and good. I don't know what it does for others, but I would like to know. I have all my life, in some way or another, sought solace through living with others who in some way share a sense of faith together in something. This has never changed for me.

The last few days, I have had a spontaneous prayer flash through my mind at random moments. It is a prayer that I memorized and used to recite as a child. It goes like:

"O God, guide me, protect me, illumine the lamp in my heart, and make of me a brilliant star. Thou art the mighty and the powerful." - Abdu'l-Bahá

Thinking about this prayer has given me a sense of comfort and solace.

I believe that together, based on the meaning that we share with each-other correspondent with our actions, we can actively support each-other in either improving ourselves or destroying ourselves. It all depends on what kind of qualities we want to support into coming out. What kind of world do you want to live in?

Personally I want to support the qualities of compassion & care among people. I want a sense of freedom & being true to one's self. And I want us all to be clear on the reasons for doing things & understanding each-other on that. This is a personal value-statement on what is important to me.

The thing is, I think that everybody deep down wants these things. I am by no means unique on this. With that in mind, I then re-frame what I want, and also take it a step further by putting it in the form of a question:

"What specific agreements can we make regarding the actions that we do, in hopes of encouraging the qualities that we want to come into play?"

First off, we need a space to make these agreements. I can't even imagine having the conversation to begin with, where such a question is openly posed and seriously considered. We are so mired in superficiality and lack of focus. The first order of business then is to create the spaces where the conversations can be had.

Places for collective meaning-creation. Both the strengthening and negotiation of it. Particularly I am looking for a kind of life-inspiring meaning, something that stirs up a sort of constructive collective activity. For me, what this is referring to is a church.

Seeing this line of reasoning, I am again stunned. "Church". Perhaps it is that word. What is the meaning that I give it that makes it so?

Respect. I am so used to viewing churches in such a way that I associate them with a lack of respect. I don't think that everyone has this kind of association with the term/concept. Otherwise, how else can one explain this kind of profound motivating-energy that people affiliated with churches tend to have?

I don't know what I am going into, actually. Part of me wants to go off and join some kind of seminary or spiritual movement somehow. I just know that I want to live in a kind of shared faith together with others. And I want us to all consciously choose the stories that have of our world & that which we do to be the most wonderful as can be - all the while keeping an eye on what we are actually doing and how we are affected by that.

Ideally, everything would all be seen in the same light: the beautiful thing that we are going for, where we are, and our experience of the whole situation.

To quote the Nonviolent Communication trainer Miki Kashtan:

"Practice supports vision, community supports practice."

In short, I want it all. And I know that this involves walking forward into the dark. But I want some people there with me, to hold my hand as I stumble in the dark. The comfort of shared faith. To know that you are not alone dreaming the dream - that other people can see it too. You can see in the dark, this particular kind of vision.

I wonder what next Sunday will bring.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Walking Around War & Peace

Last Saturday September 15th I went to an anti-war protest in Washington D.C. I went with a group of people from the Common Ground Collective, based out of New Orleans. I was assigned the task of writing about the event.

The organizers of the event (the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition) say that there were around 100,000 people present. The Associated Press says "several thousand". I feel as if I can only speak in integrity by writing about the experience as one individual, myself, who was also a part of a group, and was also joined in common cause with thousands of others.

First, let me say a bit about the context of the event. This context was certainly hanging over me the entire time, and perhaps it was also for many others there as well. This protest took place immediately after the commander of the U.S. military forces in Iraq, General Petraeus, presented a report to Congress about the status of the war in Iraq. Simultaneous with that are continuing stories and reports of increasing social deterioration and violent tensions. These come both from within Iraq, between the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Iraqi & U.S. governments, various different militias, terrorist, and insurgent groups, and other forces there, and outside of Iraq, within Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries. In the U.S. there is growing discontent around this war, with public support for the war falling, soldiers being sent out on far more tours than expected, and troops returning back to the U.S. injured or maimed at an unprecedented rate. Looming over all of this is the impending possibility of a new U.S. war with Iran, which could very easily set off a much larger pan-regional war across the Middle East.

Put together, this context lead me to see this event as potentially a turning-point of some sort. At the very least, it was a highly symbolic social experience, very much charged with meaning. This event meant a lot of different things to different people. I can only speak to what it meant for me, and guess at what is was for others.

The event officially began at noon, although myself and many others were there hours before, setting up and watching the population density increase. The pre-noon period was primarily an introduction to the rules and regulations of the area. No tables were allowed, no boxes allowed, no tying ropes around trees to hang things, no selling t-shirts or CDs, proper identification and screening required before entering the stage-area. People were also informed of the potential consequences of getting arrested at the nonviolence civil disobedience, "die-in", planned for later on that day. The crowd gathered at Lafayette Park, near the White House, and the arrangement of each group's display was carefully scrutinized by the proper authorities.

At noon, the protest began in full, with different family members of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan starting things off. Parents, children, spouses, and siblings, of different ages, races, hometowns. One-by-one they introduced themselves and their loved ones. Most people spoke in the monotone of fear, of addressing a crowd of strangers. But some people, they visibly had a point to make. These people added a something extra. They looked at the crowd, they paused, they had emotion in their voice. Be it sadness or anger, they wanted their loved one to be seen. That was why they were there. They wanted it to mean something.

After the family members introduced themselves, there was a long series of short speeches that took place on that stage in Lafayette Park. One person that stands out to me is this eight-year-old girl poet who spoke at about 1pm. She gave some political rants and recited some poetry that she wrote. The content of what she said did not stand out to me, most of the anti-war sentiment at this gathering seemed pretty similar and familiar to me. What stood out with this eight-year-old girl is that she had passion, that she cared. She believed in something and she was speaking about it. People all over the crowd were remarking about her.

At about 2pm a new element was visibly introduced to the gathering. A man got onto the stage and thanked the crowd for being there. He said that this was an unplanned speech, that he was moved to talk because he was so touched to see all these people there for their beliefs. He said that he personally has a bit of a different background - "I am an insurgent."

Immediately a scuffle broke out on the stage, as the organizers forced him away from the microphone, turning it off, and tried to drag him off-stage. The crowd protested, a chant arose: "Free speech, free speech!"

Begrudgingly, the organizers let him back on. The crowd cheered. He then spoke: "Now, we all agree that war is bad. But sometimes, that bad is our country's best defense."

Immediately a "boo" broke out from the crowd and the organizers took the guy off the stage.

The speeches continued as planned. Ralph Nader spoke, looking worn-down, yet earnest. Malik Rahim, a co-founder of Common Ground, spoke, elaborating on the diverse history of people "standing up" on that day of September 15th. At one point a fiery reverend spoke, referring to the corporate domination of mainstream media and the participatory nature of venues like You Tube, said "The revolution will not be televised, but it will be up-loaded!"

Eventually, a feeling of restlessness set through the crowd. A few people started chanting "enough talk, let's walk!" One of the organizers assured the crowd, "just a few more speeches left", the crowd acquiesced, and things went about as planned.

We marched past the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Capitol Building's south lawn. At the permanent tent encampment for peace, which has been going on consecutively now for decades outside the White House, the guy staffing the tent was openly weeping. And so we marched, law enforcement on either side, a river of people flowing down the street. All manner of signs, banners, t-shirts, flowing in-and-out of each-other, changing configuration. Some were clever, some were funny, some thought-provoking. Others were pre-fabricated, uniform, and totally expected. Others were insulting. Some put the horrors of war right in everyone's faces.

We were all moving along a tossing, turning sea of messages and content. We were all generally there "to make a statement", and statements were there, everywhere, all around.

Closer to the Capitol Building, our eight-lane-wide river met with a current coming from another direction. These were the counter-protesters. We first met them as we walked by them on the side of the road, with metal or concrete barriers and police between us. They stood there, cold hardened faces, scowls, signs, chants. Some shouted insults at us, others prominently displayed their messages to us, some simply stood there, empty-handed, arms folded, glaring.

The dynamics of the march changed when confronted with the counter-protesters. What was once a steady-moving stream became a much much slower-moving clump around the areas where the counter-protesters were. Particularly the outspoken ones. Inside these clumps people were screaming at each-other, the content of which existed somewhere between debate-points and slurs. People didn't really go into it there, though, it was mainly just a series of conversational hit-and-runs.

On the lawns of the Capitol Building there was a massive act of nonviolent civil disobedience, a "die-in". This consisted of hundreds (some say thousands) of people lying down on the grass or the steps of the Capitol Building when one of the organizers sounded a siren. I believe that this is supposed to symbolize the enormous number of deaths that happen in Iraq everyday because of this war. It was kind of a life-sized visual representation of tragedy. The effect was a bit scattered, however, because not everyone wanted to lay down, out of fear of arrest.

No one was arrested for that act, so a new strategy was pursued. An anti-war message was to be hand-delivered to Congress. This would involve crossing the police line set up around the parameter of the building, and climbing up the massive number of stairs. What happened was that immediately upon crossing the police line, one was arrested, and then escorted in police custody up the massive number of stairs to be detained.

197 people were arrested crossing this line, usually one-by-one. Most people surrendered peacefully, others resisted. One guy was pepper-sprayed by the cops during this process. By and large it was a very solemn affair, lasting a number of hours, seeing people one-by-one being escorted up the massive stairs, high above us, for all the see. This kind of set the tone for the rest of the day - a kind of highly-visible perpetual sacrifice to the gods.

I wandered about through the gathered crowd. People were alternating between different chants, themes of pro-peace/anti-war, anti-cops/pro-good intentions. I was looking for something of interest to me, and I found it.

The counter-protesters had gone beyond the police barriers that were separating us from them, and a fight had broken out. There was yelling, chaos, and the police had swarmed in and arrested some people.

From what I gathered through talking with people there, apparently it started around an anti-war protester man who travels with a coffin that has an American flag draped over it. This is in honor of his son who was killed in Iraq. There was some kind of confrontation around this guy and the counter-protesters that were near him. Things got heated, and someone (it is unclear who) kicked the coffin. Upon seeing this, one of the counter-protesters lunged and beat the crap out of someone, and the fight began.

"Yeah, you peace people are all so god-damn peaceful!" a woman shouted at me as I approached the scene. To be honest, there was not that much that I could make of that situation while there, aside from raw emotion. Anger, rage, fear, panic, curiosity - all was on display on people's faces and in people's voices.

I continued walking around. I found another confrontation between protesters and counter-protesters. This exchange I found to be the most interesting, because it was the closest thing that I saw that resembled a public group conversation in that whole event. What it was was mainly a shouting matching, at times a shoving match, between mostly men. At one point a woman came in chanting something about how Bush & Cheney were damned by God.

What I liked about that situation is that strangers were there gathered in a circle, protesters & counter-protesters mixed together, people talking and responding to each-other. Things weren't just one-way anymore.

The way that this conversation was carried out, however, was entirely unproductive. This sentiment was voiced by a crew-cut soon-to-be-a-Marine counter-protester who got into the middle of the circle and shouted: "Look! Look! If we all had met each-other in a bar, we would have been able to fuckin' talk to each-other! But because we are out here, with these fuckin' lines between us, we fuckin' hate each-other!"

People continued yelling at each-other. I decided to approach people one-on-one. I asked a reporter there if she had seen any interactions between protesters and counter-protesters that day where people were actually listening to each-other and understanding each-other. She said "no".

I asked a counter-protester dude why he was there. He gave me a bunch of jargon in return. I cut through the jargon. The crux of what he seemed to be saying hinged around how he and other Vietnam vets were spat on and disrespected upon returning home from war long ago. He said that he is there to make sure that returning soldiers are greeted with a "welcome home" kind of attitude, so that the past is not repeated.

Now, it is debated about whether soldiers were actually spat upon returning from Vietnam. Some say that that only happened in a movie. That is beside the point, for what I see that guy as saying is that returning soldiers are people who have just returned from a sustained life-threatening situation, that they have just gone through any number of different traumas & intensities, and that they can really use some respect, care, support, and help re-integrating back into a place that they call "home". "Some of us have been carrying around this pain for over 30 years. And here we are", he said.

I approached the counter-protester who made the comment previously about the "lines between us". I asked him to elaborate. He gave me patriotic jargon (Jargon-speech seems to be the default mode that people are in at these kinds of events). That wasn't what I wanted to be talking about, so I re-framed my question: "How do you think we can have better conversations among the different sides here, so that we can actually listen to each-other?" "Well," he said, "the first step is to get rid of all these signs. They get us all into a one-track mind."

I have my own thoughts on the situation. For me, it is imperative to find practical ways to have peace between people & groups in the public sphere. "Peace" being a way of relating that is the opposite of "war". At this event, I saw first-hand how social disintegration happens: People put themselves into different camps, and separate from each-other. People talk at each-other, and don't listen to each-other. Because they're not being heard by the other side, they lose hope in that being possible, and start insulting each-other. People then test each-other's boundaries, and push up against them. Someone then perceives some action as being an assault, and then retaliates in kind. A fight then begins, the aftermath of which leaves a lingering resentment-filled residue. This is carried over into future interactions, an element that sets the tone from the very beginning.

This is why I also see it as being imperative to find ways to support emotional healing and recovery from trauma. At the protest I saw Vietnam & Iraq war vets alike on both sides, protester & counter-protester. Both having gone through the same kind of brutalization, both there for the same reason - "Never Again!" This kind of screaming out for relief, while pointing to some really important needs, can create a frame of mind that is not conducive to everybody's needs being considered.

So much of what I saw at that protest was people trying to find ways to speak & be heard, and trying to find acknowledgment for the pain that they and/or others are in. What else is trying to send a message to congress and getting arrested in the process, trying to grab the microphone and being forced off-stage, carrying around blown-up pictures of victims of torture and bombings, shouting back-and-forth between complete strangers, introducing your loved one to everybody, along with the day that they died? So much, people want to be seen, want to be heard, want to be acknowledged - that here we are - we are doing things, we are feeling pain, and that this all matters.

The tragedy of that protest environment is that so much of that was said by so many people so intensely, all at once, that the meaning often got lost among the clatter.

I do not claim to have all of the answers, this is why I see public conversations as being important. I have faith in what people can accomplish together, if they really put their hearts & minds into it. This includes a peaceful & respectful way out of the mess in Iraq, and the Middle East.

But how do we get to that point of "together"-ness? We can start by having honest conversations with each-other where we gather. A different kind of conversation. Conversations where we try to cut past the jargon, and get to what is really important to us. This can be done at protests.

Especially protests. Protests are places where people get together because they are passionate about something, because they believe in something, because they feel something. And this something affects us all, so why not talk about it?

This kind of public conversation can be set up pretty easily. All that is needed are clearly marked spaces for people to gather to talk, a few people who are conscious about preserving the intentionality of the conversation, and skilled facilitators who can help guide the conversation towards personal meaning and away from ideological trappings.

The public talking together candidly in public about public issues - this is where grassroots democracy begins.

New Orleans Gave Me Paciencia y Passión

OK, so, the title here is not exactly accurate. This is something which is spray-painted on the levee near where I am living now. These actual qualities come & go, but it would do me a lot of good if I had them on a more consistent basis. So, maybe having this as the title of my first new blog entry can help to remind me of 'em.

I am now living in New Orleans, in the lower 9th ward, volunteering with the Common Ground Collective. I've been here for about 3 weeks now, with a road trip in-between to go to an anti-war protest in D.C. (see my article after this for more info on that).

My time here... Well, let me paint you more of a picture here first.

Common Ground Relief, right now, is a semi-formal organization of about 30 people, a rented floor of a house in mid-city New Orleans and a bunch of houses in various states of gutted-ness indefinitely on loan by the owners in the lower 9th ward. Common Ground was started shortly after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it used to be very different in the recent past and it will be very different in the future as well. Things change very fast here.

The Common Ground houses in the lower 9th ward are all on the same block, on the same street. A picture of one of these houses was on the cover of the September 10th issue of the Nation magazine recently. This area is where the levees first broke (referred to as "ground zero" here) and flooded the area, and where a barge came in and demolished a bunch of houses before ramming to a halt against a large two-story house owned by a 100-year-old woman. That house, and that woman, stand strong and remain cherished by all, and we hope to fix up that house to show appreciation to her.

Always in the background, and what I am looking at right now as I write this, is a large multi-lane draw-bridge that goes across the canal from the lower 9th ward to the upper. The bridge is many stories tall, with an operating room up high and gross but impressive brown & tan rust stains all over. There is constant car traffic on the bottom & pigeon traffic on top. Also always in the back-ground, and below & to either side of the bridge, is the levee (technically a "flood-wall"). In big block-letters, visible from the the bridge & the upper 9th ward is the word: "HINDSIGHT".

The houses all around here are mostly in various states of disrepair. There are also many lots where there used to be houses, were bull-dozed, and now there only remain concrete slabs where it all once was. The Common Ground block has an empty spacious feel because there are so many vacant lots where houses once stood. This used to be a vibrant neighborhood with families, churches, activity of all kinds. 1600 people died here because of hurricane Katrina and Rita.

The neighborhood here is a poor black neighborhood. Most of these people owned their own homes and had these homes in their families for generations. Some 250,000 people are still evacuees living in other states waiting for some kind of government or insurance-based financial assistance in re-building their homes.

Apparently it used to be odd to see white people here, before Katrina and the subsequent influx of white volunteers and aid workers. Another source of white skin is the national guard, which patrols this area in humvees and camouflage uniforms. Many of these people recently returned back from Iraq, and where immediately re-deployed to New Orleans.

To generalize a small group of people that I live & work with - the volunteers here are a mix of 20-somethings unsure of what to do next with their lives, older people whose lives were at a breaking-point and they needed to have a change, and residents & other local affiliated people who needed something to plug into. Before coming here this time I was under the impression that Common Ground was an anarchist/activist group of primarily white 20-somethings. That once was the case, a couple of incarnations ago, but is not the case now. There certainly is an activist element to Common Ground, and a community organizer element, and a whatever-else element, but all of these are parts of a multi-faceted social organism. No label or term entirely describes what Common Ground is.

This is partly because of the changing nature of the place. Volunteers are constantly going in, and going out. The coordinator people also all seem to be juggling a million different projects at once. Also the various properties that Common Ground is associated with seem to always be changing and in flux as well. The alliances and associations that Common Ground has also seems to be in constant transition. New friends and enemies seem to be created every day.

So what does Common Ground actually do? A lot of different things. To name a few: construction, demolition, food preparation, supplies distribution, job skills training, bio-remediation, legal aid, yard-work, independent media, political activism, social networking, research, lending tools, operating a community computer lab, and tech support. All of this is free to the public. There also used to be a bike shop, some health clinics, and a women's shelter that were all a part of Common Ground and have gone off to become their own entities.

Common Ground seems to be a gathering spot for ADD people. As well as drunk people. Sometimes these are the same people. As with my last time in New Orleans, the omnipresence of alcohol consumption in this town is a continual challenge for me.

So what have I been doing in New Orleans, if not drinking? Yard work, I love it. I particularly enjoy using the machete. There's nothing more satisfying than standing in a jungle, formerly somebody's home, chopping down weeds that have become small trees. And this isn't just for the sake of prettiness either. There is a law here in New Orleans that if someone has a lawn that is unmanaged, they can have their property confiscated by the government. This is called "the Good Neighbor Act". Here in this crazy town, mowing lawns saves homes, and using machetes clears the path to salvation.

I have also become a part of the Common Ground media team, where I wrote about the recent protest in DC and have edited some articles written by others. In the future, I could be doing some investigative journalism, be a part in helping to start a community radio station, and edit the Common Ground web-site.

Another job that I am transitioning into is that of volunteer coordinator. This involves corresponding with new applicants, keeping tabs on who all is present, and who's doing what, and making sure that everyone is happy. This is an area where Nonviolent Communication ("NVC") skills can be useful.

I largely have been out of NVC consciousness though. Like, just, out. This is because I don't know anybody here that has NVC skills. The common way to deal with emotional pain here is to drown it out with alcohol, television, joking, or computer games. My own general tendency is to repress shit, to the point where I feel the strong urge to just cry intensely for a while, but don't. There are some NVC people here in the New Orleans area, though no organizations or practice groups exist. Hopefully I can get something new started, and get some empathy.

One thing that I would like to get started here in New Orleans is some kind of Restorative Justice something-or-other. This is partly because of my meeting Dominic Barter earlier this summer and seeing so many of my friends inspired by his work. Also, talking about our collective pain, trauma and drama seems like a good way to build community. Violence sells, after all.

Lastly, there seems to be an urgent need here to find new ways to address crime. The whole city is talking about it. Everybody is constantly being stolen from, and the cops here are fuckin' brutal. The other day I walked by some military police who were taunting some guy who they had hand-cuffed to a large concrete slab on the ground. Abu Ghraib shit. Nobody wants that.

The thing is, what immediately comes to mind with this, and other issues, is the topic of race. In other words, I don't want to go in with some kind of race-based arrogance blinding me. "The Great White Savior" coming to save the day. Because of my skin color, there is an automatic barrier to how much the residents trust me, and because of my white cultural (and sub-cultural) back-ground, I don't think that I understand the lives of black people that well to begin with either. I believe that I have much to learn.

The other day, I was walking down the street by myself in broad day-light, and some black kids started throwing some rocks and glass bottles at me. They did not say or shout anything at me, they just started throwing. Luckily I didn't get hurt. Was this some kind of race thing? I was wearing a Common Ground t-shirt - was this the by-product of some past Common Ground conflict with somebody? Were they just fucking bored? I don't know.

I do know, however, that I have a certain love for New Orleans. Perhaps it is the shitty accommodations that remind me of living at that squat house in Oakland, California, the mosquitoes, fleas and ants biting me that remind me of living in Florida, or the standing in line waiting plate-in-hand for a meal that reminds me of living at Twin Oaks Community.

Or, perhaps, it is the totally unique culture here. A "Deep South" so deep that it goes through and comes out into another world. A world of Napoleonic Code, alcoholic slurpees, and funerals where people dance down the street.

What I think that I like the most about New Orleans is the blatant confluence of signs-of-the-times. Here you have it all, right in your face, out in the open - all that ails us. Gentrification, violence, the effects of global warming & the Iraq War, martial law, drug addiction, devastated lives, fragmented communities, racism, poverty, refugees, political corruption (in Louisiana, corruption is just expected), and patriarchy (I invite you to a take a walk down Bourbon Street). Oh, and bad diet. There seems to be a state-wide epidemic of poor diet here, and I'm sick of eating white bread. I miss hippie food.

To me, all of this stuff, all of these problems are inter-connected. It is all connected, and these problems go down to the depths of our psyches, how we relate to each-other, and how collectivities of people interact. It's all a big tangled mess, and I feel stuck in it. I see New Orleans as one big gordian knot. And out here, I enjoy using machetes.