Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.
Thursday, September 27, 2012 12:05 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
Forgive me if I
briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing
has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the
Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to
move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In
the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my
presumed allies again and again.
O rancid sector
of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like
a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not
everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical
enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about
here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one
that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.
Leftists Explain Things to Me
often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I
deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise.
He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing,
and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.
The same has
been true of other politicians: the recent governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in some respects quite good on
climate change. Yet it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without
receiving an earful about all the other ways in which Schwarzenegger was
terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had
been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence
of good ones irrelevant. As a result, it was impossible to discuss what
Schwarzenegger was doing on climate change (and unnecessary for my
interlocutors to know about it, no less figure out how to use it).
So here I want
to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There
are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even
though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not
require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an
interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that
context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the
realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of
the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay
attention to it and maybe even work with it.
constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out
what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive
development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s
current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting
in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response
began, “Excuse me, she's anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her
office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”
are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all
Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take
us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the
discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?
This kind of
response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less
radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building.
Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about
opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.
My friend Jaime
Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: “At a dinner party
recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and
starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of
the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how
inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an
incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and
flat-footed for being grateful.”
Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting
Maybe it’s part
of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and
superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate.
Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid
who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies,
hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.
Believe me, a
lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and
there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the
important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their
triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the
emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.
When you’re a
hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue
to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as
well. Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just
what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you
want to be telling.
with the first occupiers of Zuccotti
Park on the first
anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the
rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have. But, he added, fury is not
a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy
for getting things done.
There are so
many ways to imagine this mindset -- or maybe its many mindsets with many
origins -- in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from
academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of
an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the
habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness
that couldn’t be less productive.
Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would
have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever
good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery
public transit system when the problem was so much larger!
Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master
kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself
like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me
about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I
run into here who have never suffered such harm?
idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants
the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t -- and that it never
will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really,
people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through
élan, esprit du corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.
We talk about
prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This
is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic
means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.
of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four
years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two
evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very
tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there
is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by
saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its
consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.
marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not
the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that
fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate
suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values
perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the
infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and
throw it away.
I don’t love
electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such
elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements
around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more
compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want
to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The
usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two
experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the
Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in
heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.
transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the
differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer
to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t
be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access,
and so forth are not at stake.
immigrant writes me, “The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is
the only party we can negotiate with.” Or as a Nevada
activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but
those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it
electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a
long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo --
and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told
me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got
back to me afterward.
I didn’t like
Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences
did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in
Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned
our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights
in their states to one where less
than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic
policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and
where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often
obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.
I’m with those
who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties,
and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented
immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for
him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also
demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard
of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the
lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own
devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.
Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for
example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.
You could argue
that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote
for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer
children. Virtually all U.S.
presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an
You don’t have
to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its
complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that
when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting
than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the
cultivation of recreational bitterness.
poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive
away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who
do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.
Could Be Heroes
We are facing a
radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only
their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not
valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our
situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them
requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and
intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.
means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing
them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex
understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and
white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.
is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those
facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that
don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze.
Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological
self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of
actually existing poor people.”
Nine years ago
I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as
“snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All
that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse
for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of
saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that
the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is
acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or
reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.
are often much more hopeful than that -- the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is
hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day
slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful
and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway,
Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.
human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was
assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major
victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give
In terms of the
rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze
Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a
time -- with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain
about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change
all the way down to the bottom of your heart.
really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who
do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of
every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making
yourself, and you might as do it with generosity and kindness and style.
That is the
small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want
victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think
about what they would look like.
Image by Vox Efx, licensed
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 10:25 AM
This article originally appeared on
When you fall in love, it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them—or if all goes well, struggle, learn, and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite, them. The Occupy movement had its glorious honeymoon when old and young, liberal and radical, comfortable and desperate, homeless and tenured all found that what they had in common was so compelling the differences hardly seemed to matter.
Until they did.
Revolutions are always like this: at first all men are brothers and anything is possible, and then, if you’re lucky, the romance of that heady moment ripens into a relationship, instead of a breakup, an abusive marriage, or a murder-suicide. Occupy had its golden age, when those who never before imagined living side-by-side with homeless people found themselves in adjoining tents in public squares.
All sorts of other equalizing forces were present, not least the police brutality that battered the privileged the way that inner-city kids are used to being battered all the time. Part of what we had in common was what we were against: the current economy and the principle of insatiable greed that made it run, as well as the emotional and economic privatization that accompanied it.
This is a system that damages people, and its devastation was on display as never before in the early months of Occupy and related phenomena like the “We are the 99%” website. When it was people facing foreclosure, or who’d lost their jobs, or were thrashing around under avalanches of college or medical debt, they weren’t hard to accept as us, and not them.
And then came the people who’d been damaged far more, the psychologically fragile, the marginal, and the homeless—some of them endlessly needy and with a huge capacity for disruption. People who had come to fight the power found themselves staying on to figure out available mental-health resources, while others who had wanted to experience a democratic society on a grand scale found themselves trying to solve sanitation problems.
And then there was the violence.
The Faces of Violence
The most important direct violence Occupy faced was, of course, from the state, in the form of the police using maximum sub-lethal force on sleepers in tents, mothers with children, unarmed pedestrians, young women already penned up, unresisting seated students, poets, professors, pregnant women, wheelchair-bound occupiers, and octogenarians. It has been a sustained campaign of police brutality from Wall Street to Washington State the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.
On the part of activists, there were also a few notable incidents of violence in the hundreds of camps, especially violence against women. The mainstream media seemed to think this damned the Occupy movement, though it made the camps, at worst, a whole lot like the rest of the planet, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, seethes with violence against women. But these were isolated incidents.
That old line of songster Woody Guthrie is always handy in situations like this: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” The police have been going after occupiers with projectile weapons, clubs, and tear gas, sending some of them to the hospital and leaving more than a few others traumatized and fearful. That’s the six-gun here.
But it all began with the fountain pens, slashing through peoples’ lives, through national and international economies, through the global markets. These were wielded by the banksters, the “vampire squid,” the deregulators in D.C., the men—and with the rarest of exceptions they were men—who stole the world.
That’s what Occupy came together to oppose, the grandest violence by scale, the least obvious by impact. No one on Wall Street ever had to get his suit besmirched by carrying out a foreclosure eviction himself. Cities provided that service for free to the banks (thereby further impoverishing themselves as they created new paupers out of old taxpayers). And the police clubbed their opponents for them, over and over, everywhere across the United States.
The grand thieves invented ever more ingenious methods, including those sliced and diced derivatives, to crush the hopes and livelihoods of the many. This is the terrible violence that Occupy was formed to oppose. Don’t ever lose sight of that.
’s Beautiful Nonviolence
Now that we’re done remembering the major violence, let’s talk about Occupy Oakland. A great deal of fuss has been made about two incidents in which mostly young people affiliated with Occupy Oakland damaged some property and raised some hell.
The mainstream media and some faraway pundits weighed in on those Bay Area incidents as though they determined the meaning and future of the transnational Occupy phenomenon. Perhaps some of them even hoped, consciously or otherwise, that harped on enough these might divide or destroy the movement. So it’s important to recall that the initial impact of Occupy Oakland was the very opposite of violent, stunningly so, in ways that were intentionally suppressed.
Occupy Oakland began in early October as a vibrant, multiracial gathering. A camp was built at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza, and thousands received much-needed meals and healthcare for free from well-organized volunteers. Sometimes called the Oakland Commune, it was consciously descended from some of the finer aspects of an earlier movement born in Oakland, the Black Panthers, whose free breakfast programs should perhaps be as well-remembered and more admired than their macho posturing.
A compelling and generous-spirited General Assembly took place nightly and then biweekly in which the most important things on Earth were discussed by wildly different participants. Once, for instance, I was in a breakout discussion group that included Native American, white, Latino, and able-bodied and disabled Occupiers, and in which I was likely the eldest participant; another time, a bunch of peacenik grandmothers dominated my group.
This country is segregated in so many terrible ways—and then it wasn’t for those glorious weeks when civil society awoke and fell in love with itself. Everyone showed up; everyone talked to everyone else; and in little tastes, in fleeting moments, the old divides no longer divided us and we felt like we could imagine ourselves as one society. This was the dream of the promised land—this land, that is, without its bitter divides. Honey never tasted sweeter, and power never felt better.
Now here’s something astonishing. While the camp was in existence, crime went down 19% in Oakland, a statistic the city was careful to conceal. “It may be counter to our statement that the Occupy movement is negatively impacting crime in Oakland,” the police chief wrote to the mayor in an email that local news station KTVU later obtained and released to little fanfare. Pay attention: Occupy was so powerful a force for nonviolence that it was already solving Oakland’s chronic crime and violence problems just by giving people hope and meals and solidarity and conversation.
The police attacking the camp knew what the rest of us didn’t: Occupy was abating crime, including violent crime, in this gritty, crime-ridden city. “You gotta give them hope,” said an elected official across the bay once upon a time—a city supervisor named Harvey Milk. Occupy was hope we gave ourselves, the dream come true. The city did its best to take the hope away violently at 5 a.m. on October 25th. The sleepers were assaulted; their belongings confiscated and trashed. Then, Occupy Oakland rose again. Many thousands of nonviolent marchers shut down the Port of Oakland in a stunning display of popular power on November 2nd.
That night, some kids did the smashy-smashy stuff that everyone gets really excited about. (They even spray-painted “smashy” on a Rite Aid drugstore in giant letters.) When we talk about people who spray-paint and break windows and start bonfires in the street and shove people and scream and run around, making a demonstration into something way too much like the punk rock shows of my youth, let’s keep one thing in mind: they didn’t send anyone to the hospital, drive any seniors from their homes, spread despair and debt among the young, snatch food and medicine from the desperate, or destroy the global economy.
That said, they are still a problem. They are the bait the police take and the media go to town with. They create a situation a whole lot of us don’t like and that drives away many who might otherwise participate or sympathize. They are, that is, incredibly bad for a movement, and represent a form of segregation by intimidation.
But don’t confuse the pro-vandalism Occupiers with the vampire squid or the up-armored robocops who have gone after us almost everywhere. Though their means are deeply flawed, their ends are not so different than yours. There’s no question that they should improve their tactics or maybe just act tactically, let alone strategically, and there’s no question that a lot of other people should stop being so apocalyptic about it.
Those who advocate for nonviolence at Occupy should remember that nonviolence is at best a great spirit of love and generosity, not a prissy enforcement squad. After all, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who gets invoked all the time when such issues come up, didn’t go around saying grumpy things about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Violence Against the Truth
Of course, a lot of people responding to these incidents in Oakland are actually responding to fictional versions of them. In such cases, you could even say that some journalists were doing violence against the truth of what happened in Oakland on November 2nd and January 28th.
The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, reported on the day’s events this way:
“Among the most violent incidents that occurred Saturday night was in front of the YMCA at 23rd Street and Broadway. Police corralled protesters in front of the building and several dozen protesters stormed into the Y, apparently to escape from the police, city officials and protesters said. Protesters damaged a door and a few fixtures, and frightened those inside the gym working out, said Robert Wilkins, president of the YMCA of the East Bay.”
Wilkins was apparently not in the building, and first-person testimony recounts that a YMCA staff member welcomed the surrounded and battered protesters, and once inside, some were so terrified they pretended to work out on exercise machines to blend in.
I wrote this to the journalists who described the incident so peculiarly: “What was violent about [activists] fleeing police engaging in wholesale arrests and aggressive behavior? Even the YMCA official who complains about it adds, ‘The damage appears pretty minimal.’ And you call it violence? That's sloppy.”
The reporter who responded apologized for what she called her “poor word choice” and said the phrase was meant to convey police violence as well.
When the police are violent against activists, journalists tend to frame it as though there were violence in some vaguely unascribable sense that implicates the clobbered as well as the clobberers. In, for example, the build-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, the mainstream media kept portraying the right of the people peaceably to assemble as tantamount to terrorism and describing all the terrible things that the government or the media themselves speculated we might want to do (but never did).
Some of this was based on the fiction of tremendous activist violence in Seattle in 1999 that the New York Times in particular devoted itself to promulgating. That the police smashed up nonviolent demonstrators and constitutional rights pretty badly in both Seattle and New York didn’t excite them nearly as much. Don’t forget that before the obsession with violence arose, the smearing of Occupy was focused on the idea that people weren’t washing very much, and before that the framework for marginalization was that Occupy had “no demands.” There’s always something.
Keep in mind as well that Oakland’s police department is on the brink of federal receivership for not having made real amends for old and well-documented problems of violence, corruption, and mismanagement, and that it was the police department, not the Occupy Oakland demonstrators, which used tear gas, clubs, smoke grenades, and rubber bullets on January 28th. It’s true that a small group vandalized City Hall after the considerable police violence, but that’s hardly what the plans were at the outset of the day.
The action on January 28th that resulted in 400 arrests and a media conflagration was calledMove-In Day. There was a handmade patchwork banner that proclaimed “Another Oakland Is Possible” and a children’s contingent with pennants, balloons, and strollers. Occupy Oakland was seeking to take over an abandoned building so that it could reestablish the community, the food programs, and the medical clinic it had set up last fall. It may not have been well planned or well executed, but it was idealistic.
Despite this, many people who had no firsthand contact with Occupy Oakland inveighed against it or even against the whole Occupy movement. If only that intensity of fury were to be directed at the root cause of it all, the colossal economic violence that surrounds us.
All of which is to say, for anyone who hadn’t noticed, that the honeymoon is over.
Now for the Real Work
The honeymoon is, of course, the period when you’re so in love you don’t notice differences that will eventually have to be worked out one way or another. Most relationships begin as though you were coasting downhill. Then come the flatlands, followed by the hills where you’re going to have to pedal hard, if you don’t just abandon the bike.
Occupy might just be the name we’ve put on a great groundswell of popular outrage and a rebirth of civil society too deep, too broad, to be a movement. A movement is an ocean wave: this is the whole tide turning from Cairo to Moscow to Athens to Santiago to Chicago. Nevertheless, the American swell in this tide involves a delicate alliance between liberals and radicals, people who want to reform the government and campaign for particular gains, and people who wish the government didn’t exist and mostly want to work outside the system. If the radicals should frighten the liberals as little as possible, surely the liberals have an equal obligation to get fiercer and more willing to confront—and to remember that nonviolence, even in its purest form, is not the same as being nice.
Surely the only possible answer to the tired question of where Occupy should go from here (as though a few public figures got to decide) is: everywhere. I keep being asked what Occupy should do next, but it’s already doing it. It is everywhere.
In many cities, outside the limelight, people are still occupying public space in tents and holding General Assemblies. February 20th, for instance, was a national day of Occupy solidarity with prisoners; Occupiers are organizing on many fronts and planning for May Day, and a great many foreclosure defenses from Nashville to San Francisco have kept people in their homes and made banks renegotiate. Campus activism is reinvigorated, and creative and fierce discussions about college costs and student debt are underway, as is a deeper conversation about economics and ethics that rejects conventional wisdom about what is fair and possible.
Occupy is one catalyst or facet of the populist will you can see in a host of recent victories. The campaign against corporate personhood seems to be gaining momentum. A popular environmental campaign made President Obama reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada, despite immense Republican and corporate pressure. In response to widespread outrage, the Susan B. Komen Foundation reversed its decision to defund cancer detection at Planned Parenthood. Online campaigns have forced Apple to address its hideous labor issues, and the ever-heroic Coalition of Immokalee Workers at last brought Trader Joes into line with its fair wages for farmworkers campaign.
These genuine gains come thanks to relatively modest exercises of popular power. They should act as reminders that we do have power and that its exercise can be popular. Some of last fall’s exhilarating conversations have faltered, but the great conversation that is civil society awake and arisen hasn’t stopped.
What happens now depends on vigorous participation, including yours, in thinking aloud together about who we are, what we want, and how we get there, and then acting upon it. Go occupy the possibilities and don’t stop pedaling. And remember, it started with mad, passionate love.
TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 (or so) books, including
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
Hope in the Dark
. She lives in and occupies from San Francisco.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Newtown graffiti, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 3:08 PM
This post originally appeared at
Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.
Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.
When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.
Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?
Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.
Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.
Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They went.
Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.
Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”
The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal “occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.
The Best and the Worst
Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the “Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.
What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.
The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood -- think of them as civil society coming together in crisis -- largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.
We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.
Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop with that morning either. That day, that week they began to talk about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted to put their world back together, practically and philosophically. All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan, but a campaign against civil society. It was aimed at convincing each of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except the government, and spy on each other.
The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring, understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before and then was shut down for years.
That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss, debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation -- that sacred cow which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)
It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the other Occupies I’ve visited -- Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans -- have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk, to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and what solutions to it might look like.
It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after 9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.
It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was back -- without the foolish belief that one man could do it all for civil society. In other words, this is a revolt, among other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.
As for the worst after 9/11 -- you already know the worst. You’ve lived it. The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else it cares to trash in the name of American "safety" and "security." The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind fealty to the 1%).
Civil Society Gets a Divorce
You can think of civil society and the state as a marriage of convenience. You already know who the wife is, the one who is supposed to love, cherish, and obey: that’s us. Think of the state as the domineering husband who expects to have a monopoly on power, on violence, on planning and policymaking.
Of course, he long ago abandoned his actual wedding vows, which means he is no longer accountable, no longer a partner, no longer bound by the usual laws, treaties, conventions. He left home a long time ago to have a sordid affair with the Fortune 500, but with the firm conviction that we should continue to remain faithful -- or else. The post-9/11 era was when we began to feel the consequences of all this and the 2008 economic meltdown brought it home to roost.
Think of Occupy as the signal that the wife, Ms. Civil Society, has finally acknowledged that those vows no longer bind her either. Perhaps this is one reason why the Occupy movement seems remarkably uninterested in electoral politics while being political in every possible way. It is no longer appealing to that violent, errant husband. It has turned its back on him -- thus the much-decried lack of “demands” early on, except for the obvious demand the pundits pretended not to see: the demand for economic justice.
Still, Ms. Civil Society is not asking for any favors: she is setting out on her own, to make policy on a small scale through the model of the general assembly and on a larger scale by withdrawing deference from the institutions of power. (In one symbolic act of divorce, at least three quarters of a million Americans have moved their money from big banks to credit unions since Occupy began.) The philandering husband doesn’t think the once-cowed wife has the right to do any of this -- and he’s ready to strike back. Literally.
The Occupy movement has decided, on the other hand, that it doesn’t matter what he thinks. It -- they -- she -- we soon might realize as well that he’s actually the dependent one, the one who rules at civil society’s will, the one who lives off her labor, her taxes, her productivity. Mr. Unaccountable isn’t anywhere near as independent as he imagines. The corporations give him his little treats and big campaign donations, but they, too, depend on consumers, workers, and ultimately citizens who may yet succeed in reining them in.
In the meantime, a domestic-violence-prone government is squandering a fortune on a little-mentioned extravagance in financially strapped American cities: police brutality, wrongful arrest, and lawsuits over civil-rights violations. New York City -- recall those pepper-sprayedcaptive young women, that legal observer with a police scooter parked on top of him, and all the rest -- you’re going to have a giant bill due in court, just as you did after the 2004 Republican convention fiasco: New York has spent almost a billion dollars paying for the collateral damage already done by its police force over the past dozen years.
The desperately impoverished city of Oakland paid out more than $2 million in recompense for the behavior of the Oakland Police at a nonviolent blockade at the Oakland Docks after the invasion of Iraq broke out in 2003, but seems to have learned nothing from it. Surely payouts in similar or larger quantities are due to be handed out again, money that could have gone to schools, community clinics, parks, libraries, to civilization instead of brutalization.
Out of the Ruins
Maybe the teardown of Zuccotti Park last Wednesday should be seen as a faint echo of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Structures, admittedly far more flimsy, were destroyed, violently, by surprise attack, and yet resolve was only strengthened -- and what was lost?
The encampment had become crowded and a little chaotic. There was the admirable bustle of a village -- bicycle-powered generators on which someone was often pedaling; information, media, and medic sites whose staff worked devotedly; a kitchen dispensing meals to whoever came; and of course, the wonderful library dumpstered by the agents of the law. There were also a lot of people who had been drawn in by the free food and community, including homeless people and some disruptive characters, all increasingly surrounded by vendors of t-shirts, buttons, and other knick-knacks trying to make a quick buck.
One of the complicating factors in the Occupy movement is that so many of the thrown-away people of our society -- the homeless, the marginal, the mentally ill, the addicted -- have come to Occupy encampments for safe sleeping space, food, and medical care. And these economic refugees were generously taken in by the new civil society, having been thrown out by the old uncivil one.
Complicating everything further was the fact that the politicians and the mainstream media were more than happy to blame the occupiers for taking in what society as a whole created, and for the complications that then ensued. (No mayor, no paper now complains about the unsanitariness of throwing the homeless and others back onto the streets of our cities as winter approaches.)
Civil society contains all kinds of people, and all kinds have shown up at the Occupy encampments. The inclusiveness of such places is one of the great achievements of this movement. (Occupy Memphis, for instance, has even reached out to Tea Party members.) Veterans, students, their grandparents, hitherto apolitical people, the employed and unemployed, the housed and the homeless, and people of all ages and colors have been drawn in along with the unions. And yes, there are also a lot of young white activists, who can be thanked for taking on the hard work and heat. We can only hope that this broad coalition will hang together a while longer.
It Gets Better
And of course just as civil society is all of us, so some of us have crossed over to become that force known as the state, and even there, the response has been more varied than might be imagined. New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez got scraped up and arrested by the NYPD when he tried to walk past a barricade two blocks from Wall Street while the camp was being cleared. And retired New York Supreme Court judge Karen Smith got shoved around a little and threatened with arrest while acting as a legal observer.
A councilwoman in Tucson, Regina Romero, has become a dedicated advocate for the Occupy encampment there, and when the San Francisco police massed on the night of November 3rd, five supervisors, the public defender, and a state senator all came to stand with us.
I got home at 2 a.m. that night and wrote, “Their vows to us felt like true representative democracy for the first time ever, brought to us by the power of direct democracy: the Occupy Movement. I thought of the Oath of the Horatii, David's great painting in the spirit of the French Revolution. The spirit in the plaza was gallant, joyous, and ready for anything. A little exalted and full of tenderness for each other. Helicopters hovered overhead, and people sent back reports of buses and massed police in other parts of town. But they never arrived.”
Former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis actually came to Wall Street to get arrested last week. "They complained about the park being dirty," he said. "Here they are worrying about dirty parks when people are starving to death, where people are freezing, where people are sleeping in subways, and they’re concerned about a dirty park. That’s obnoxious, it’s arrogant, it’s ignorant, it’s disgusting.”
And the Army, or some of its most honorable veterans, are with the occupiers, too. In the Bay Area, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War have been regular participants, and Occupy Wall Street has had its larger-than-life ex-marine, Shamar Thomas, clad in worn fatigues and medals. He famously told off the NYPD early on: “This is not a war zone. These are unarmed people. It doesn’t make you tough to hurt these people. It doesn’t. Stop hurting these people!”
To my delight, at Occupy Wall Street I ran into him, almost literally, still wearing his fatigues and medals and carrying a sign that said, “There’s no honor in police brutality” on one side and “NO WAR” on the other. Which war -- the ones in the Greater Middle East or on the streets of the U.S.A. -- hardly seemed to matter: they’re one war now, the war of the 1% against the rest of us. I told him that his tirade was the first time I ever felt like the U.S. military had actually defended me.
Right now everyone is trying to figure out what happens next and quite a few self-appointed outside advisors are telling the Occupy movement exactly what to do (without all the bother of attending general assemblies and engaging in the process of working out ideas together). So far, the Occupy instigators and Occupy insiders have been doing a brilliant job of improvising a way that civil society can move forward into the unimaginable.
As for me, the grounds of my hope have always been that history is wilder than our imagination of it and that the unexpected shows up far more regularly than we ever dream. A year ago, no one imagined an Arab Spring, and no one imagined this American Fall -- even the people who began planning for it this summer. We don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s the good news. My advice is just of the most general sort: Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Talk to strangers. Live in public. Don’t stop now.
I’m sure of one thing: there are a lot more flowers coming.
The first sign
regular TomDispatch contributor
and Utne Reader visionary Rebecca Solnit carried at an OWS protest said “99% hope. 1% fury.” The author of
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she is working, mostly from San Francisco, on her 14th book. And marching, occupying, and wondering.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit
Photo of Rebecca Solnit by Jim Herrington.
Thursday, August 04, 2011 12:01 PM
Like us, you’re probably no Einstein. The question is, “Why Aren’t We Smarter?”
Religious, Republican—and in support of Planned Parenthood and abortion insurance.
The art world has a history of dismissing the role of gay culture. It’s time to make reparations.
Focusing on The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire,and Breaking Bad, Chuck Klosterman argues in Grantland that the rise in morality-based programming has birthed the “four best television shows of the past 10 years.”
The War on Terror will never end: Now, the haboobs are invading Arizona.
How ugly do we look after exercising? Photographer Sascha Goldberger got to work and found the answer. As it turns out, the answer is “reaaaaaaaaal ugly.”
Because you were dying to know, American Scientist published an article about how putting a circular pizza in a square pizza box works. Trust us, it’s more complicated that it sounds.
Rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation’s population, the lowest ever.
Taking a cue from Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Uncoupling, women from the small Colombian port village of Barbacoas are withholding sex from the menfolk until the government repairs some crucial roads in and out of the town.
Something new on the green fashion front: A German designer makes clothing from sour milk.
Do you have a stack of books waiting to be read? Be like Bill Gates and plan a reading retreat.
renders the marriage debate hilarious in a parody starring Pope Benedict XVI and his new gay friends Tony and Craig.
The ambiguously gay SpongeBob riles FOX once again--this time for spreading global warming propaganda.
Go to hell, you say? Well, here’s the top 10 weirdest ways a person might burn.
If your aunt was Virginia Woolf, this might be what she would say about your poetry. Take a look at an original note from Aunt Virginia to her nephew, Thoby.
Three-minute showers will green your morning routine. Are you up to the challenge?
Working just enough to get by while enjoying the good things in life: Welcome to the medium chill.
Did you hear about the married lesbian couple who saved 40 teens in the Norway massacre? Not in the mainstream media, you didn’t.
Rebecca Solnit writes about “the care and feeding of hope.”
A fascinating story about a disastrous hydrogen balloon mission to the North Pole in 1897 (with photos).
Welcome to the Sex Plex.
Image by maisonwb, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 1:36 PM
The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex’s leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn’t find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco. You couldn’t even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn.
The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country’s tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.
Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.
The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there’s no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.
The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster. Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.
The country was far less prepared for a tsunami that would breach every protective sea wall and obliterate huge swaths of coastal habitat, even though sirens and evacuation plans went into effect almost instantly. It was even less prepared for the nuclear reactor disaster that quickly overshadowed everything else.
What Not to Bring
I live in earthquake country, so I’ve been told most of my life that I must have an earthquake kit. Almost anyone anywhere would benefit from having an emergency kit on hand: the usual flashlight, blanket, coins for pay phones (cell phones and cell-phone service die quick in disaster), small bills, potable water, and so forth. To really deal with an emergency, though, you not only need to pack, but to unpack.
Think of your mind as your most fundamental and important emergency kit. You have a great deal of what you’ll need to survive there already, but if you’re not careful, a lot of junk will end up piled on top of your excellent equipment. Lift up that big television of yours, for example, and gently lob it out the window. It will fill your head with hysteria, presuppositions, misinterpretations, stereotypes, exaggerations, and racial slurs that will leave you ill-prepared for what to expect when your world is turned upside down.
Be careful with newspapers, online media, and those emails your anxious friends forward to you. Watch out for experts who aren’t (or who have an unspoken agenda), for authorities who lie and withhold crucial information, for hysterics, and those who fill in the blanks of disasters past, present, and future with invented scenarios. Be clear that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are just that, not breaking news (though what happened in Japan was and continues to be pretty horrendous).
A disaster is a big foray into the unknown and into uncertainty. We hate those things. We like to know what’s going to happen. Even in our own quiet everyday lives, we like to fill in the blanks. The media feeds this urge during crises with a lot of speculation and a stream of stereotypes. After all, it’s their job to know, and yet a disaster means a million unexpected things are going on all at once amid severely disrupted communications networks, which often means that they don’t know either, that no one does.
Read the rest of Rebecca Solnit's essay at TomDispatch>>
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 29, 2010 5:37 PM
This piece was originally published by
This country is being run for the benefit of alien life forms. They’ve invaded; they’ve infiltrated; they’ve conquered; and a lot of the most powerful people on Earth do their bidding, including five out of our nine Supreme Court justices earlier this year and a whole lot of senators and other elected officials all the time. The monsters they serve demand that we ravage the planet and impoverish most human beings so that they might thrive. They’re like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, like the Terminators, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that those were on the screen and these are in our actual world.
We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you.
The results are near-invincible bodies, the most gigantic of which are oil companies, larger than blue whales, larger than dinosaurs, larger than Godzilla. Last year, Shell, BP, and Exxon were three of the top four mega-corporations by sales on the Fortune Global 500 list (and Chevron came in eighth). Some of the oil companies are well over a century old, having morphed and split and merged while continuing to pump filth into the air, the water, and the bodies of the many -- and profits into the pockets of the few.
Thanks to a Supreme Court decision this January, they have the same rights as you when it comes to putting money into the political process, only they’re millions of times larger than you -- and they’re pumping millions of dollars into races nationwide. It’s like inviting a T. rex into your checkers championship -- and it doesn’t matter whether dinosaurs can play checkers, at least not once you’re being pulverized by their pointy teeth.
The amazing thing is that they don’t always win, that sometimes thousands of puny mammals -- that's us -- do overwhelm one of them.
Gigantic, powerful, undead beings, corporations have been given ever more human rights over the past 125 years; they act on their own behalf, not mine or yours or humanity’s or, really, carbon-based life on Earth’s. We’re made out of carbon, of course, but we depend on a planet where much of the carbon is locked up in the earth. The profit margins of the oil corporations depend on putting as much as possible of that carbon into the atmosphere.
So in a lot of basic ways, we are at odds with these creations. The novelist John le Carré remarked earlier this month, “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done -- dare I say it -- in the name of God." Corporations have their jihads and crusades too, since they subscribe to a religion of maximum profit for themselves, and they’ll kill to achieve it. In an odd way, shareholders and god have merged in the weird new religion of unfettered capitalism, the one in which regulation is blasphemy and profit is sacred. Thus, the economic jihads of our age.
They Fund By Night!
In the jihad that concerns me right now, most of the monsters come from Texas; the prey is in California; and it’s called our economy and our environment. Four years ago, with state Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, we Californians decided we’d like to cultivate our environment for the benefit of all of us, human and biological, now and in the long future.
They’d like to pillage it to keep their profit margins in tip-top shape this year and next. The latest tool to do this is called Proposition 23, and it’s on our ballot on November 2nd. It is wholly destructive, cloaked in lies, and benefits no one -- no one human, that is, though it benefits the oil corporations a lot. (You could argue that it benefits their shareholders, but I’d suggest that their biological and moral nature matters more than their bank accounts do and that, as a consequence, they’re acting against their deepest interests and their humanity.)
When he signed AB 32 into law, Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, who’s totally weird, termed out, but really good on climate stuff, said: “Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals. Using market-based incentives, we will reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That's a 25% reduction. And by 2050, we will reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels. We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late."
With Proposition 23, two out-of-state oil corporations, Valero and Tesoro, and right-wing oil billionaires based in New York and Kansas are trying to use the California initiative process, originally intended to allow citizen intervention in the governance of this state, to countermand AB 32 and set policy for us. “According to data from the California Secretary of State's office,” Kate Sheppard recently reported in Mother Jones magazine, “more than 98% of contributions to the pro-Prop. 23 campaign are from oil companies. Eighty-nine percent of the contributions come from out of state… Valero contributed $4 million, Tesoro gave $1.5 million, and a refinery owned by the notorious Kansas-based billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries, kicked in another $1 million. Just last week, Houston-based Marathon oil contributed $500,000.”
Actually, Tesoro and Valero are headquartered out of state, but their refineries in California gave us 2.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals in our air and water last year, and they’d like to continue offering the citizens of my state these gifts that keep giving illness, death, and long-term environmental devastation without interference. The coming vote is not about protecting fancy places for upscale hikers -- the stereotype used to portray environmentalism as a white-person’s luxury movement -- it’s about air quality for inner-city people, especially those who live near refineries and harbors. This is the kind of environmental degradation that’s about childhood asthma and increased deaths from respiratory illness. In other words, Prop. 23 is part of a corporate war on the poor. A vote for Prop. 23 is a vote to turn the lungs of poor children into a snack for dinosaurs, to put it in bluntly Hollywood-ish terms.
Lies of the Living Dead
To sabotage AB 32, they’re spending lots and lots of money and telling lots and lots of lies. Start with the proposition’s name -- “The California Jobs Initiative” -- designed to make you think that this measure will create jobs. Actually, according to most reputable analyses, it will do the opposite. A green economy has made jobs, is making jobs, and will make more jobs. This stealth initiative would suspend AB 32 until unemployment in California drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters, which it won’t anytime soon, if ever.
The implication is that doing something about climate change is a luxury we cannot afford in this bleak economy. That’s a lie. Down the road, if we don’t retool to address a future in which there’s less petroleum (at far higher prices), we’ll truly crash and the suffering will be intense. AB 32 would prevent that crash; Prop. 23 steers us directly into it.
The more we heat up the planet, the more it costs all of us, not just in money, but in colossal famines, displacements, deaths, and species extinctions, as well as in the loss of some of the things that make this planet a blue-green jewel, including its specialized habitats from the melting Arctic tobleaching coral reefs.
Doing something about climate change makes economic sense right now. It’s good business.
It’s hardly surprising that the corporate aliens lie when it comes to the relationship between doing something about climate change and the economy. After all, oil corporations funded a lot of the disinformation campaigns which, for years, promoted the idea that human-caused climate change was a figment of the overheated imaginations of mad environmentalists, and later that there was controversy (as well as corruption) among scientists when it came to global warming. The only honest information would have been that about 97% of the world’s relevant scientists overwhelming agree that climate change couldn’t be more real and is a genuine danger to humanity and the planet -- and that the evidence is all around us in freakish weather, rising oceans, melting arctic ice and glaciers, shifting habitats, and more.
The Phantom of Democracy
The oil dinosaurs want to win so badly in my home state because what happens here matters everywhere. The nation often follows where California goes. In the 1970s, we started setting energy efficiency standards that mean we Californians now use about half the energy of the average American (with no diminishment of quality of life or pocketbook pain). In the last decade, we created cutting edge measures to curb carbon emissions.
In 2002, Los Angeles state assemblywoman Fran Pavley (now a state senator) put out AB 1493, which was to -- and will -- reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. It was, unfortunately, held up for six years by the Bush administration and then transformed into a national standard by Barack Obama as one of his first acts in office. Pavley also authored the now embattled “Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,” AB 32.
If you think oil corporations and life share an interest, you should’ve been in the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago. I was. I saw their oiled pelicans, their unemployed fishermen, and their oil-smeared marshes. I tasted and smelled the poisons I could not see, and I read their lies.
The people of the Gulf will struggle to survive the recklessness of BP for decades to come, but the petrobeasts aren’t just destructive when things go wrong; they’re that way when things go according to plan as well. If the 5.5 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf, thanks to BP, had instead made it to our gas tanks, the consequences would still have been dire. They are dire. The companies funding Prop. 23 are themselves a major source of climate change and, of course, a major obstacle to coming up with solutions to it.
Like the people of the Gulf during the spill, the people of Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, live with those tastes, smells, and consequences all the time, because they’re in the shadow of Chevron’s biggest west coast refinery. (Corporate headquarters are only 25 miles away.) Sirens go off during excessive leaks of toxins like ammonia, and as if out of a horror movie, an explosion at the plant in 1999 that sent an 18,000-pound plume of sulfur dioxide fumes into the air was said to be so nasty it took the fur off squirrels.
Chevron is one of the biggest corporations on the planet. While the average income for a human being in Richmond is a little over $19,000, Chevron’s profits last year were $24 billion, meaning the corporation is more than one million times as rich as the average citizen there. Nonetheless, the humans there won a huge victory recently, preventing the corporation from expanding and retooling its refinery so that it could process even dirtier crude oil (with dirtier local emissions, in a place that already suffers huge health consequences from the monster in its backyard). It may be the world’s first victory against refinery expansion.
Chevron is both the state’s biggest single greenhouse-gas emitter and a huge financial force in Richmond elections, invariably funding campaigns against green candidates. The mostly poor, mostly nonwhite citizens of Richmond are, however, organized and motivated, so if you want to watch a monster movie in which the little guys have been winning lately, follow city politics there.
One of the cool things about the West County Toxics Coalition, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Green Party mayor, and the activists working with them is that they know better than anyone how to act locally and think globally, and even sometimes how to act globally and think locally. Maybe collectively they’re not so little. They’re allied with antiwar groups, with Burmese human rights groups, with the people of Ecuador and Nigeria who have suffered petro-contamination at least as bad, if not worse than BP’s Gulf spill this spring, with groups around the world fighting the petrobeast. There’s a movement out there, and sometimes it even wins amazing victories.
Around the world this month, 350.org coordinated more than 7,000 demonstrations in favor of lowering atmospheric carbon to a sane 350 parts per million, while the climate justice movement had a global day of action on Columbus Day. Among the month's heroic efforts were direct action against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, blockades of refineries in France and Britain and of a coal-fired power plant in Germany, protests and gas-station blockades in Canada, and a rally in the Philippines, a demonstration in Finland, a march in Ecuador, a protest in South Africa, among others. In California, activists worked steadily against Prop. 23.
Think for a minute about horror movies: in some of them, the little people rally and do heroic things and the monsters or aliens are vanquished. The forces that have come together against Prop. 23 are impressive, ranging from inner-city job coalitions and traditional environmental groups to university think tanks and business interests. Winning or losing, however, depends on what happens when California voters look at that deceptive label “California Jobs Initiative” on their ballots on November 2nd.
If your heart isn’t pounding, and you aren’t biting your fingernails and teetering at the edge of your seat, then you haven’t noticed the monsters yet. Look carefully. They’re all around us -- and they’re coming for you.
Rebecca Solnit’s brother David does organizing work against Chevron, and she often shows up for the marches. She is the author of 13 books, including the forthcoming
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
(which maps toxins and right-wing corporations in the Bay Area, among other things) and
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She writes for Tomdispatch.com as often as she can. It’s her personal version of being David in the face of all those Goliaths.To catch Solnit discussing “mixed-up California” in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod,here.
Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit
Monday, July 07, 2008 9:47 AM
This fall the Olympics will bring us the spectacle “of the human body at the height of health, beauty, discipline, power, and grace,” writes Rebecca Solnit for Orion (article not available online). In her elegant essay, "Looking Away from Beauty," Solnit points to the frail connection those bodies have to the nations they represent—“as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.”
Of utmost importance, Solnit writes, is to consider the way those pristine bodies, those symbols of national pride, exist in conflict with bodies less revered, less public:
It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. . . . The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable. . . . But the associations between the two are crucial to our sense of compassion, and of what it means to be part of a global community.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!