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.