Monday, December 25, 2006

Ubiquitous Sprawls of America

Once when I was touring Denmark my friend Jenka was visiting Europe at the same time. I picked her up at the airport and we headed into Copenhagen. As we were approaching the city, she got excited. “Wow,” she said, “it’s like a constant Critical Mass bike ride!”

As we wait at traffic lights at major intersections we pass through, the traffic passing by ahead of us generally includes a few cars and a lot of bicycles and pedestrians. Bike paths are as common as streets, and most people of all walks of life get around town by bicycle. Trains and buses full of passengers traverse the city, and you rarely have to wait long for the next one. Each neighborhood has a commercial center with shops, cafes, public spaces and streets off-limits to cars altogether. Most people live bicycling distance from where they work. Like so many European cities, it is a place that seems to have been designed for people. People like it that way and, to a huge extent, they keep it that way.

Some cities in the US share much in common with Copenhagen. Though they almost entirely lack bike paths, cities like New York and San Francisco at least have a lot of pedestrians, decent mass transit, centrally-located parks and neighborhoods where people both live and work. These are also the cities people tend to visit, whether they’re tourists from Europe, Asia or domestic travelers. Go to the movies or turn on the TV and you’ll see that so many of the stories take place in New York or San Francisco. It would be easy for many people to develop the impression that cities like these are representative of life in the US. But they’re not.

My friend Ash came to visit the US from Denmark once while I was in Washington, DC to sing at a protest. It was January a couple years ago. Her plan was to join me for a week in DC, but first to spend a week soaking up the sun in Florida. She flew into Tampa. She managed to make it to the hotel she had found online, checked in, and then thought she’d go try to find the beach. Like most hotels in the US, hers was located some miles down a highway outside of the city, in an area that used to be woods, swamp or farmland. An entirely recent development, a sort of sprawling cluster of hotels, fast food restaurants, and big box stores, surrounded by vast parking lots, connected by four-lane roads and six-lane highways. A sidewalk has never graced the area, and certainly not a bike path. Ash discovered a bus stop eventually, on the side of the highway, but no bus ever crossed it’s path. Welcome to the real USA.

Ash had never seen or imagined such a place. An entirely alienating environment where everybody gets around by car, and there is not a pedestrian to be seen unless it’s someone walking from their car to the mall. Where walking is actually somewhat dangerous and certainly not pleasant, there on the shoulder of the four-lane road with the trucks and SUV’s whizzing past. I had warned Ash that there would be no way to get around the area without renting a car, and that this was really the only way to get around most of the country, but this idea had seemed just too preposterous to be believed, and she didn’t rent one.

The European exchange students usually find the real USA. I used to cringe when I’d meet one and ask them where they ended up in their year abroad. The answer never seems to be one of those few really endearing places. It’s always some suburb of Dallas or Phoenix or something. And of course, I eventually realized, and decided to stop cringing. That’s where most people live. Those are the areas where somebody can find work, where a family that’s not rich can buy a house that might be spacious enough to put up an exchange student. Few people can afford to live in those interesting cities like New York and San Francisco. Few people are likely to find decent jobs in nice university towns like Madison or Berkeley, unless they’re students, living there for a few years while they spend their parents’ life savings and accrue massive debt.

New York state is losing hundreds of thousands of people every year, while cities like Houston are gaining population at a similar rate. The loss of population is coming from the abandoned cities like Buffalo and Troy. New York City’s population, on the other hand, gains some and loses others. Specifically, it gains yuppies and loses lower-income people. It’s strange, because if you go to New York City and ask people of any walk of life why they live there, many will tell you they moved there, or they stay there, because they like the place. Ask people in Houston why they moved there and the answer you get will usually be two words: “for work.” Which is probably not entirely the explanation, since there is work to be found in New York City as well – it’s just that the cost of living is so much higher there, it’s impossible on most salaries to pay the rent.

So people end up in Houston, and try to make the best of it. They buy a car because there’s no other way to get around. Usually they buy an SUV or a pickup truck, because that’s what everybody else drives, and besides, gas is still comparatively cheap, and it was really cheap a couple years ago, when they bought their SUVs. The most reasonably-priced property is always a few miles or a few dozen miles outside of what was once the heart of town. And the town lost any semblance of a heart a long time ago – if it ever really had one, and as a city of any size it has never had one. It is a monstrous creation of car culture gone horribly wrong. Most of it is pavement. Between the highways and the endless miles of strip malls lining them from east to west, north to south, are the parking lots. Far above your head, always, are the huge, flood-lit billboards advertising every product imaginable. Aside from a few blocks near Rice University, or a park or two on the outskirts of town, or inside the malls, there is nowhere in the city that people walk. The few people riding bicycles or attempting to navigate the barely-functioning bus system are Mexican immigrants too poor to buy a car yet. Naturally, the population is among the most obese on Earth.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone living there who thinks that places like Houston are models of urban planning that anyone should ever emulate. But the powerful forces of economics, of survival, dictate that the sprawl will sprawl even more. And what else should people do? In a society where corporations make all the important decisions, where private property rules and the profit motive is a kind of religion, there will be no mass transit, bike paths, local shops. But these are the places where it is where it is possible to live, to have a house and a job that will eventually pay for it.

And if you’re not a tourist visiting the chic bits on the coasts, or an exchange student ending up in some nondescript middle-class suburb somewhere in between the Starbucks and the Wal-Mart, there is yet more of America that you are unlikely to see. If you were driving all over the country and had a penchant for exploring “historic districts,” as the signs call what used to be known as “downtown,” you will see these places. You could select random GPS coordinates within relatively populated areas and visit them, that could be another way to see the forgotten majority of American towns and cities, these cities that have become towns again, you could say. You’re unlikely to go to these places for school, or work, or because there’s any sort of tourist attraction there, because there is really nothing to attract visitors in places like Trenton or Camden, New Jersey, or Corning or Elmira, New York, or Flint or Albion, Michigan.

The “historic district” in these places consists of a few blocks of dilapidated, abandoned buildings, some of which used to be shops, some used to be apartments, others used to be factories. In some cities, like Detroit, the old buildings in some parts of the city are being razed and turned back into fields. But in most places, the buildings sit there, abandoned, a silent testament to what used to be. If you drive west from Boston, the next really thriving metropolis you’ll get to is Chicago, about a third of the way across the country. Most of the cities in between, if you stop and look, after you go past the cluster of hotels, fast food places and Wal-Marts right by the highway, are ghost towns. Victims of the great one-two punch of deindustrialization combined with a few big box stores replacing what used to be downtown as the commercial “center” – the places where people shop, at least, for it cannot really be called a center, it’s central to nothing, in the middle of nowhere.

The few young people remaining in such towns as Dayton or Youngstown, Ohio don’t really seem to know that it used to be any different. People have a remarkable ability to accept reality as it is. I remember visiting my teenage cousins in a city just outside of Trenton called Morrisville, Pennsylvania. It was one of my earlier visits to their place. I asked them where’s downtown? Their response: what do you mean by that? It was an unfamiliar concept. Town begins when you pass the sign on the highway that says “entering Morrisville.” It ends when you pass the sign that says it’s ending. In between those two signs is the town. This is how it is understood.

When I was a child, every year my family would go to the Danbury Fair, outside the town of Danbury, Connecticut, where there was an annual season on the fair grounds with animals, rides, clowns, games, etc. I remember going to the last fair, before the fair grounds were converted into a massive parking lot, surrounding a massive shopping mall. For a few months it was the world’s biggest, I think until they built a bigger one outside of Minneapolis. They called it the Danbury Fair Mall. All that remained of the fair were a few pictures in the hallway to the toilets. Who can be expected to remember what was once beneath the asphalt, or the bustling downtown that used to exist before the Stetson factory closed and the mall opened. But at least there is a new condominium development miles from what used to be downtown, called Stetson Place.

With economics as they are in these many cities, even many of the malls end up being abandoned, along with the town centers they once helped destroy. I remember being on a march from the White House to the United Nations that the group Kensington Welfare Rights Union organized. Abandoned strip malls and ghost towns is most of what you’ll see in between DC and New York, and endless miles of not-yet-abandoned strip malls, and wealthier suburbs, with row upon row of house after house.

In St. Louis there is a neighborhood that used to have 30,000 residents, and now has 3,000. The bricks from the old buildings in what was once a working-class neighborhood are being sold to real estate developers in California, to make more homes for the rich, or at least the gainfully-employed. St. Louis is an interesting case – a city where one of their great claims to fame is the fact that Lewis & Clark passed through, on their way to explore Indian Territory with no visas. They left St. Louis. There’s a statue of them looking to the west.

Maybe Thatcher was right, society doesn’t exist, it’s just a collection of individuals. That’s certainly what it looks like in most of the population centers here in the USA. And these centers spread with no oversight like cancer cells, and the people drive more and more, and naturally, the cancer rate rises to go along with the cancerous, pavement-ridden suburbs of often nonexistant cities. We even bring skyrocketing cancer rates to the countries we invade, where we steal their resources to defend our insane way of life. We poison them just as we poison ourselves, in order to profit from burning their oil, so we can poison ourselves some more, along with the rest of the planet.

And what’s the point of all this, this thing that some have dared to call a civilization? Is it some kind of macabre, grand-scale economics lesson? Like here’s what happens when nobody is in charge of development policies aside from stockholders in very large corporations. All of society begins to resemble a mass of cancer cells. Some cities grow wildly in every direction, eating up all land and community around them, spewing toxins from coal-fired power plants and the exhaust pipes of SUVs. Other cities die, leaving behind their toxic shells. The people move further and further away, driving ever more, working ever more, losing their time, their physical and mental health. For the mental health, at least there are psych drugs. For the physical, well, cancer has always been with us, hasn’t it? America is #1, so there is no need to look beyond our borders to see whether people in Brazil are dying of cancer. By and large, they’re not. It’s an industrial disease, but that’s just how progress goes, the inevitable, unstoppable dictates of capital.

What of the legal opposition? My friend Jason West is the mayor of New Paltz, New York. Like the majority of the town council, he’s a Green. He was telling me about some big box store that opened on the outskirts of the town. Because of jurisdiction issues, there was nothing the town of New Paltz could do to prevent the store from opening. The best they could do was to require the store to buy more land that they had to keep in it’s natural state.

And the extra-legal opposition? Those youth who have taken the law into their own hands, in the tradition of anti-nuclear and anti-war activists around the world, usually under the call letters ELF (Earth Liberation Front) and destroyed the offending property -- the property of the corporate bulldozers destroying the last of the ancient forests, the property of the corporations building massive new developments in the already over-developed suburbs, the property of the corporate SUV dealerships selling the cars that are poisoning our air, our lungs, our children – these people are serving or facing prison sentences of up to 23 years in prison for their alleged crimes.

Perhaps the powers that be will learn from their mistakes by themselves, before they’ve completely destroyed any vestige of society, and the planet along with it. Perhaps they’ll realize that turning the entire country into one big National Sacrifice Area for profit was a mistake. When NASA gave tens of millions of the Earth’s inhabitants cancer by having one of their plutonium-filled satellites blow up in the stratosphere in the early 1960’s, they abandoned the use of nuclear fuel, at least until recently. Perhaps the developers can also learn. Perhaps after the last city has been turned into a strip mall, after the last Wal-Mart has been built, after the last bit of nature has been paved over, after the last Appalachian mountain has been blown up to find the coal to power the ever-expanding suburbs, they will decide it is time to pave a little more, perhaps a bike path there beside the highway, next to the parking lots, beneath the billboards.

Monday, December 18, 2006

500-Year Siege

I was in San Francisco, California a couple months ago, and I saw Klee Benally there. It had been a long time since I’d seen him. I tend to go where the gigs take me, which often means going in and out of certain orbits in unpredictable ways. There at the American Indian Center of San Francisco, Klee was the master of ceremonies for an event that was attended by 200 or so people, mostly indigenous.

The event was one of many of it’s kind to draw attention to plans by the Arizona Snowbowl Corporation to build a 14-mile pipeline from the city of Flagstaff to the nearby San Francisco Peaks. They want to expand a ski resort there, and make snow out of the wastewater.

These mountains are sacred to 13 different local tribes, but as usual, this is not a problem for the corporation. The message here is not lost on anyone. Once again, it is a case of the USA saying to Native America: we shit on you. Your land, your religion, your people. The 500-year siege continues.

Klee is a member of a 3-piece band called Blackfire, along with his sister and his brother. Their music is hard, dark, loud, punk-metal kind of stuff, with lots of growling and power chords. Together with their father, a Navajo medicine man named Jones, the four of them also perform traditional song, dance and drumming together. Sometimes the Benally Family opens for Blackfire, which is always a fascinating exercise in contrasts. But usually Jones is in Flagstaff, employed as a medicine man at a local hospital.

I was on one of Blackfire’s European tours, opening for them at a bunch of shows in Germany and Prague. We were a day late getting into Prague. We were traveling in an old but functional VW van. We had a gig in a squat in Prague during the week of the World Bank/IMF meetings there.

The Czech border police didn’t know what to make of us. They were on the lookout for black-clad anarchist youth from Spain and Italy. We definitely didn’t fit that description, but they knew there was something about us. I’m sure they had never seen a Navajo family before, and they must have realized that Jones was far too old to be throwing rocks at anybody.

After a while they decided we had to stay in Germany because there was a small but fairly jagged dent near the back of the van. The said they thought this could be dangerous, someone could cut themselves on it. We spent the night at a friend’s place in Nuremberg and succeeded in getting into Prague the next day by train.

Around that time, in 1999-2000 and thereabouts, I was spending a lot of time in Germany, in a relationship with a woman from Hamburg, hanging out with the radical farmers in the Wendlandt region, singing at anti-nuclear protests and such.

Germany has a very active leftwing, especially when it comes to US imperialism and nuclear power. For many German leftists, though, as with their counterparts in the rest of Europe and the US, Native America is a non-issue. When approached about getting involved with Native struggles for self-determination in the US, some will tell you that the issue is “esoteric.” In other words, basically, Native Americans are a thing of history, irrelevant except for certain hippies who like to make sweat lodges, live in tipis, and imagine what it might have been like way back when.

Others in Germany know better, and there are probably more functional groups working in solidarity with indigenous struggles there than anywhere else in the industrialized world. They know that Native America exists and it is under a constant state of siege. And they know that resistance is widespread, and needs to be supported.

I spent Y2K in a trailer on a farm in the Wendlandt, figuring it might be good to be near a source of food for when industrial society collapsed. After the world failed to end I went back to Hamburg, and along with a dozen other people from around Germany, I made my way to Arizona. February 1st, 2000, was to be an important marker in the struggle for Big Mountain, and this date would see the largest number of outsiders coming to show solidarity with the people there for quite some years.

Since long before Europeans began their savage conquest of the Americas, Navajo and Hopi people have lived side by side in what we now call the Southwest. Traditionally, Hopis are farmers and Navajos herders, so there have at times been tensions between the two peoples, as is the case anywhere in the world where these two ways of living intersect. By most accounts, though, the Navajo-Hopi “land dispute” is basically a creation of the US government, the state of Arizona, and Peabody Western, a giant multinational energy corporation.

The Navajo and Hopi people, like most indigenous peoples in North America, suffer from the very same affliction that keeps most people in countries like Nigeria or Angola in grinding poverty – that is, great wealth, in the form of tremendous deposits of coal and uranium.

There was a brief “renaissance” for many indigenous peoples in the west. This was in the early part of the twentieth century – in the brief span of time in between. In between the time when native people were slaughtered en masse, forced onto reservations, and starved, and the time when coal, uranium and oil were discovered on their lands. Since then, things have continued to go from bad to worse.

Those of us coming from Germany to Arizona to support the struggle on Big Mountain arrived by mid-January. Driving onto the Navajo reservation, it became quickly apparent why some rental car companies in the Southwest make you sign a contract saying you will not take their cars to Mexico or to any Indian reservations. The area of Black Mesa/Big Mountain is just the sort of place Hertz is afraid of.

The roads, if such a term can be used to describe what we were driving on, were beyond anything I’d seen anywhere in the world. It was beyond the general neglect of the federal government and the corrupt tribal councils.

The area around Black Mesa was subject to a US government-imposed freeze on all construction, including road maintenance, which had been going on for several decades. The roads, such as they were, consisted of two humps, like little mountain ridges, with valleys in between them that were often several feet deep. If you fell off the humps at the wrong spot, whether you were in a pickup truck or an SUV, you could seriously damage your vehicle. We managed to stay on the humps in my old pickup truck.

We had long since passed the nearest town. After many more miles of driving down a dirt road that had been maintained, we passed a little school and a water tower. Soon after that, the road turned to humps and we drove many more miles, slowly, constantly vigilant to avoid falling into the ditches on either side of us.

We passed many ancient driveways that led to hogans that were no longer there. Finally, we came upon one of the very few driveways left that led to a hogan that was inhabited, by Louise Benally and her family.

We had brought a couple of big Army tents with us that we bought in Flagstaff, and there on Louise’s land we set them up. Her homestead there would come to be known as Camp Anna Mae, named after Anna Mae Aquash, the Micmac woman who came from Canada to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to support the struggle of the Lakota people there against the mining of uranium on their land. Her death was one of several dozen unsolved murders in South Dakota in the mid-70’s. The FBI is widely suspected.

I quickly realized one of the many things that made Louise Benally special. Along with the tenacity of her spirit, her willingness to stay on the land so long after the vast majority had been driven off, was something else – she spoke English. There we were, sitting around a fire outside Louise’s hogan, with several elderly women in colorful skirts, slowly cooking a hunk of a lamb they had recently slaughtered, which was wrapped in foil and lay beneath hot coals. Louise was several decades younger than the rest of the women, and the only one who spoke a language in addition to Navajo.

These elderly women were the backbone of the struggle. Collectively they were known by all as the grandmothers. Their bravery, their dark, weathered faces, their short stature and their colorful skirts all reminded me of the Mothers of the Disappeared I had seen standing between us and the riot police in Buenos Aires. But they were several thousand miles north of those Madres, and speaking Navajo instead of Spanish.

At it’s peak, during a pipe ceremony on February 1st, there were 250 people who had come from outside to show their support. There were people from all over Indian Country, including from as far away as the Dakotas. There were the Germans. There was a French chef. There was a sizeable delegation Japanese, many of them Buddhist monks. And most of the rest were young white people from across the US and Canada.

But for some while before and after that date, at any given time there were several dozen people, mostly young people from across the US, living with the grandmothers, working with them, herding their sheep, cutting firewood, and otherwise just being a presence, organized then as now with the name Black Mesa Indigenous Support.

In contrast to the clean, colorful elders they were living with, these youth were often dressed in anarchist chic – dirty rags they had gotten from dumpsters and stitched together themselves, covered in patches, facial piercings, and dreadlocks. The grandmothers called them “goat heads” because of their dreads.

Peabody Western runs North America’s biggest coal mine there in Navajo country. For decades they had been using millions of gallons of water from the aquifer below to slurry their coal 270 miles from there to Las Vegas, where Las Vegas and other cities got most of their power. The Mohave Generating Station is temporarily shut down and the coal slurry is not running. Water is returning to the once-empty wells, and some of the streams are slowly coming back to life.

But poke around briefly on the web and you can see that this is a very temporary situation. Other energy corporations are making plans to open new mines and new power plants, tacitly promising to maintain a local cancer rate that is many times the national average.

In fact, as I write this, Alice Gilmore and a number of other elderly Navajo women are blockading a road near their homes on the New Mexico side of the reservation, where the Desert Rock Energy Company is attempting to expand their mining operations.

Peabody has also been trying for decades to expand their massive mine. The problem is, there are people living on top of the coal, and they refuse to leave.

The government is just barely too tactful to forcibly remove thousands of Indians from their land in the modern era, so they have employed various other methods. Very much along the lines of the sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990’s. Starve them into submission. Make their lives unliveable. Take away their water. Make sure they have to drive dozens of miles down unmaintained roads in order to get water for their sheep. Impound their sheep and make them pay to get them back. Fine them for making repairs on the roofs of their hogans. Fine them for collecting firewood.

Until 1974, the Black Mesa area was the home of one of the last remaining intact communities of 20,000 or so people living traditionally, speaking mainly Navajo, living as sheep herders, in community, as they had for centuries. But then Peabody decided they wanted to expand their mine and people like Senator John McCain wanted to do their best to make sure this could happen. This meant moving 20,000 people off their land, some at a time, by making their lives impossible if they tried to stay.

Most ultimately moved. Many were sent to live on land that was made radioactive by the Church Rock uranium spill. Their sheep died from drinking the water, and many of the people died soon thereafter.

After losing their community, living increasingly isolated lives made miserable by constant harassment by the authorities, some 17 families still refuse to leave their dusty land.

Rena Babbit Lane is one of them. Last month her supporter left the land, and then the Hopi Rangers, working for those who seek to expand coal mining operations, took the occasion to visit Rena, who is approximately 80 years old, and push her around, yell at her, threaten her, and cause her to have a heart attack. And now she’s back from the hospital, back in her hogan, once again refusing to leave the land.

As in Palestine or Colombia, the mostly white supporters are able to be useful largely just because they’re white. The corrupt tribal authorities know who butters their bread, just as Israel or the government of Colombia do.

Just being there and being white doesn’t stop the general trends, but it can effectively prevent the authorities from harassing the grandmothers for another day. Also, the fundamental racism of the reservation system is such that the tribal authorities are not allowed to arrest non-native people – the most they can do is escort them off of the reservation.

When I first got to Black Mesa I didn’t know if I’d know anybody who was there. That was a silly thought. I remember when I was a young man living in Berkeley I kept running into people I knew at various leftwing events. I said to my friend David Said, “it’s a small world.” “No,” he said to me, chuckling haplessly, “it’s a small left.”

Sure enough, there were all my friends from the IMF/World Bank protests. There were folks from the struggles to save the old-growth forests on the west coast. Julia Butterfly was one of them, visiting Big Mountain scant weeks after she came down from the old redwood she had been living in for two years.

My friend Wes from Philadelphia was telling me how illuminating it was for the grandmothers when the Seattle WTO protests happened. The grandmothers had noticed that there was a week or two when most of their supporters had left the reservation.

Only 18% of the Navajo reservation has electricity, and virtually no one in the Black Mesa area have it. But those who had televisions quickly spread the word – young people with dreadlocks looking suspiciously like our supporters had shut down the city of Seattle. The protests were over, then the supporters returned.

Many of the supporters had come from Minnesota, I think about thirty of them at the high point. They were veterans of a struggle there known as the Minnehaha Free State.

In Minnesota a lot of place names begin with “minne” because that means “water” in the Mendota language. “Haha” means, you guessed it, “laughing.” Minnehaha park was nearby part of the Free State’s encampment, and also part of it. By the end, all of the Free State would be in the park.

One of the things that always disturbed me about the heroic struggle of the people of Big Mountain was how ignored it was by most of the non-Native community in the region, including most of the activist community.

The sinister brilliance of the reservation system is how the people are out of sight and out of mind to other people in the region. There were and are people doing important work trying to raise awareness of and struggle for all kinds of good things in places like Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott. But for most people there, the Navajo reservation is about as nearby as Iraq, and Iraq is much more in the news. This was not the case with Minnehaha, which was right there in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

I first read about the Minnehaha Free State in the Earth First! Journal, and visited it many times during the course of it’s tumultuous 16 months in the late 90’s. It was a case of mutual interests coming together in often beautiful ways.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation had plans to build a highway through a residential neighborhood in Minneapolis and through the park next to the Mississippi River, in order to better facilitate a speedy drive from downtown Minneapolis to the massive Mall of America outside of town. The completing of the highway would shave a good three minutes off of the trip.

Local residents wanted to keep their neighborhood intact. Local environmentalists wanted to prevent the building of yet another highway. The Mendota people wanted to save land that was sacred to them. Residents of the neighborhood and environmental activists all lived together in the Twin Cities, as did many Mendota people, who had never been given a reservation by the federal government.

It was a powerful collaboration that captured the imagination of many people in the region and beyond. Though the encampment was ultimately destroyed by MDOT and other government agencies, it spawned a new generation of activists, friends, community. In the beginning, the Free Staters were occupying several houses that were slated for demolition, with the blessings of the former residents forced out by the state of Minnesota.

When 800 police were sent to evict everybody and burn down the houses, the Free State moved downhill, into what was then still part of the park. Someone made a brilliant, conical-shaped structure that could sleep 18, in cubby holes on two floors made of pallettes and other found materials, with a firepit in the middle, to keep everybody warm through the long, cold Minnesota winter.

I used to tour mostly by van. Once or twice a year I’d make a big loop around the US, dipping into Canada here and there if they let me across the border. Either before or after visiting Minnesota, I’d pass through one of the Dakotas.

Several years ago I was driving from Missoula, in western Montana, to Rapid City, South Dakota. I had left myself two days to do the drive, preferring to amble along at a more leisurely pace when possible. I was making better time than I thought, though, and was coming into Rapid City the night before my gig there.

Charles Ray was organizing my show there. He’s a local activist and punk rock musician, files stories for both Free Speech Radio News and South Dakota Public Radio. I called him to ask if I could stay at his place an extra night, and he said great, glad you’ll be here, you can come in the morning with me to Pine Ridge for a church-burning. Like in Mississippi…? No, an entirely different king of thing. A healing ceremony.

Fifty miles from Rapid City is the Pine Ridge reservation, where there are intensely beautiful, huge, colorful, crumbling rock formations, and lots of uranium mines and Lakota people. There’s only one FM radio station that comes in around there, and much of the time it’s in the Lakota language. It was here that Anna Mae Aquash and so many others were killed by the FBI’s death squads in the 1970’s.

We pulled in to a tiny little town just outside of Pine Ridge. It had 17 residents, nine white and eight Lakota. A few decades earlier, though, it had been somewhat bigger, a white town with a racist history. The bar was covered in buffalo skulls and had a big sign that said “no Indians allowed.” The “no” had been crossed out, so now the sign read ominously, “Indians allowed.” One might draw the conclusion from this sight that they were not necessarily welcome, but were at least allowed.

A hundred feet from the bar stood a dilapidated Catholic church that was no longer used, but had once been the center of the white community there, along with the bar. It was also a place with connections to the boarding schools where the white settlers, their churches and their government, tried to “Christianize” the natives with the sorts of barbaric practices typical of European civilization.

I remember a couple different folks talking about their experiences with these brutal schools. Of the school Jones Benally was forcibly sent to when he was already in his twenties, many years ago, he would only say, “I learned to say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

My friend Chris Interpreter talked to me a bit more about the Baptist school he was sent to. Chris got his last name because his grandfather’s grandfather was interned in the starvation camp that the Army drove the Navajos to, and he was one of the few who was able to speak English, and so was used as an interpreter between his people and the occupying army.

When Chris was a young teenager on the Navajo reservation in the 1980’s, a Baptist revival came through and set up camp. His grandmother was a woman who actively practiced her traditional religion and lived with her sheep on what was left of her land with what was left of her people. Perhaps feeling that the old ways weren’t working out and she should try something new, she converted to Christianity. When given the opportunity, she and Chris’s parents sent him to a school for Indians that the Baptists ran. The government-run Indian boarding schools had finally been stopped a decade earlier, but there were still private ones.

Chris didn’t want to go. Though he felt betrayed when she converted to Christianity, Chris loved his grandmother and wanted to stay. At the school he was beaten and humiliated for doing the daily rituals his grandmother had taught him, and for the crime of speaking his language.

After a few months he ran away from the school, and made his way a hundred miles or so back to his grandmother’s hogan. When she and his parents heard about how he had been treated they told him he didn’t have to go back. When the representatives of the school came to bring him back, his mother told them to go away.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the destructive impact these schools had on communities, and on the minds and spirits of the people sent to them. I remember once being in a little Hopi town nearby Black Mesa. There was one general store in the town. An elderly Navajo man was looking at the shelf full of aspirin, cough syrup and such.

He was elegantly dressed in classic Western garb, like he had just gotten off his horse. He spoke no English, but wanted to know from me, the only white person in the store, what pills he could take that would help is ailing heart. I don’t know much about pharmaceutical drugs, and also had no idea whether he was suffering from heartburn, irregular heartbeats or something else, so I apologized and said I didn’t know.

Anyway, there by Pine Ridge, South Dakota in front of the old church stood Big Jim. An aptly-named, tall, buff Lakota man in his 30’s or 40’s, Big Jim had bought the property the church was on and planned to build something new there. He had decided that rather than bulldozing the old building, he would publically, ritually burn it in a healing ceremony, for all his people, all the commuities ruined by the Christian invaders with their murderous armies, and their armies of miners, thieves, schools and churches.

A small group of Lakota men and women had gathered for the occasion. The event had been announced on public radio in Rapid City, thanks to Charles, and also gathered was one elderly white Catholic couple who had been married in the church.

One local, older white man in a pickup truck pulled up momentarily and said, good-naturedly, “the Indians are burning the church down!” Big Jim smiled.

For the old Catholic couple it was a solemn occasion. For the Lakotas present it was a bit of a celebration, and out of respect for the elderly couple, they quietly walked around the corner of the church, to watch from a different vantage point and give the old couple some space. When the fire was lit the dry old wood caught quickly, and soon it was a massive conflagration.

After interviewing Big Jim about the occasion, Charles had set up a video camera fifty feet from the church. That was the closest I could stand to be, the fire was so hot, the hottest fire I had ever experienced.

Around the corner from the old Catholic couple, Lakota men could be heard uttering phrases such as, “man, that altar’s really cooking!”

The cross on top stayed standing long after most of the walls surrounding it had collapsed. Eventually, though, the flames that had engulfed it brought it crashing to the ground, too, and all that was left was a smouldering pile of rubble. It was a brief moment of hope in the midst of the death and destruction that characterizes the ongoing conquest of Native America. A brief respite in the 500-year siege.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Youth House vs. Father House

There are certain things that jump out at you as soon as you arrive in Denmark. One thing you’ll notice, especially if you come from a place within that large mass of the world that is at least a bit closer to the equator, is that there is rarely anything you’d call direct sunlight. It’s twilight most of the time. In the summer it’s only really dark for an hour or so, but it’s never completely light, either. In the winter it’s dark most of the time, and the darkness is often accompanied by a cold, light rain.

You’ll also quickly notice that there are far more people with blond hair and blue eyes per capita than just about anywhere else you’re likely to have been, and at any given time, a vast number of them are riding bicycles. All the cities feature elegant networks of bike paths and lots of pedestrian-only streets. The country is largely designed for use by bicycle, train and foot, and most people think this is as it should be. There is universal health care and higher education, and every Dane I’ve ever met thinks that this is self-evidently a good thing.

While Denmark may be an easy place to be a social democrat, it’s different if you’re an anarchist squatter. If you reject the notion of private property you are outside of the social contract. If you think that when a building is abandoned and empty, people have the right to move into it and make use of it regardless of what individual or corporate entity officially owns it, you are a pariah to be vilified, violently opposed, or bought off, whatever works.

It’s early December, 2006, and along with the scant sunlight and the blonds on bicycles, another thing becomes quickly apparent. Some people have been hard at work with large posters and cans of wheatpaste, and the city of Copenhagen has been blanketed with a picture of somebody’s fist and the words “Ungdomshuset – the Final Battle.” Below that are more specific bits of information – the Final Battle is taking place between December 13th-17th, and so on. Tattooed on the fist are the numbers “69” for 69 Jagtvej, the address of Ungdomshuset. Ungdomshuset means Youth House – using really literal names like this is very common in Scandinavia.

The Final Battle may not make the news in most of the world, but in Denmark it will be material for headlines. Ungomshuset is the last anarchist-run, squatted social center in Denmark outside of Christiania, and an institute of iconic significance throughout Scandinavia. I’m on a tour of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and in every city I visit it’s easy to find posters alerting people to the Final Battle, encouraging everybody to get on the buses that will be headed to Ungdomshuset from Oslo, Trondheim and even as far away as Moscow, rumor has it.

The 1980’s was the heyday of the autonomous movement in Denmark, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Thousands of mostly young people squatted hundreds of abandoned buildings in dozens of urban centers, creating alternative societies that embraced community, art, music, and a culture of resistance that rejected consumerism and empire. A community was formed that rejected the domination of the world by multinational corporations and the governments that supported them, whether they be outright militarist states like the US or more watered-down NATO members like Denmark. They defended their squats in pitched battles with police, and at the same time debated sexism within their movement and organized protests in support of refugees and against nuclear power. The movement existed in a near-constant state of siege. Many squats were ultimately taken by force by the police, and others were legalized.

Not far from Ungdomshuset is Bumzen, one of the now-legal former squats, which still has the dynamic atmosphere of a squat, with residents constantly making artistic and structural improvements to the 5-story building in which they live. Most of the residents are actively involved with day-to-day life in Ungdomshuset. They run Ungomshuset’s infoshop, sell beer behind the bar, organize concerts in one of several performance spaces, use one of the many rooms on the upper floors as rehearsal spaces for bands or rooms for holding workshops, meetings, film screenings. They cook vegan meals for the community using the massive pots and pans in the kitchen.

I remember one of the first times I played a concert at Ungdomshuset. There I was in the bar surrounded by black flags with skulls and crossbones, and people of all ages, but mostly in their 20’s, mostly dressed in black, except for the glittering silver of nose rings, lip rings, eyebrow rings and other various facial piercings. There were probably a hundred people in the room, most of whom listened to a lot more punk rock than acoustic folk. It was a standing room-only situation, but when I started playing there was silence in the room, and everybody was listening to every word.

Everybody in Denmark learns English in school from an early age, but there are still various levels of English fluency. Nearly all the anarchists of Copenhagen speak English extremely well, and often a couple other languages to boot. They are a highly educated, well-traveled bunch, as accustomed to discussing World Bank policy or the history of Spain as they are to defending themselves against marauding police. The peak moment of the autonomous movement in Denmark may be in the past, but to hang around Ungdomshuset you get the distinct feeling that you are in the center of a movement that is far from waning. You get the feeling you are in the midst of a force of nature, a militant but thoughtful phenomenon with a collective sense of itself.

I played that show years ago, and some of the folks from behind the bar took me to Bumzen a few blocks away, where they put me up for several days. They showed me to my penthouse suite, a sort of attic space with a little porch overlooking much of the Norrebro neighborhood. Before I climbed the ladder that led to my little room I was handed a clean duvet for my bed, a lamp, an alarm clock and a bag of pot. (They had ascertained I was a hippie and correctly surmised I would appreciate such a thing.) Looking around my attic apartment, on the little porch overlooking the street far below, lit up by the moon there was a large box full of empty bottles. Bumzen may at that point have become legal, but there was still the problem of the occasional gang of Nazis, who don’t like immigrants or anarchists, and it’s important to be prepared.

Now in the last month of 2006 and back at Ungdomshuset, I’m about to play another concert. The place is bustling even more than usual. Adam, a member of the collective, asks me if I want a tour of the place. I’m tired from hours of driving and not thinking clearly, and I ask him if anything’s new since the last time I was there. “The barricade-builders have been hard at work,” he replies.

Ah yes, it’s the beginning of the month, and for some weeks now the community has been in high gear. The battles in and out of court have apparently been lost, and this squat that has been a flourishing social center for 25 years is facing it’s biggest challenge. In a bizarre twist, a rightwing Christian sect called Faderhuset (Father House) has bought the historic building with the intention of destroying it. The leadership of this sect seems as intent on levelling this well-known anarchist center as it is intent on making money in the real estate market.

The 5-story building that is now Ungdomshuset was built in 1897 by the Danish labor movement, and was for many decades known as Folkets Huset (People’s House). VI Lenin spoke there before he launched the Russian Revolution. The Second International took place there. From that house the first International Women’s Day was declared. It fell into disrepair in the late 70’s. A supermarket chain bought it, wanted to level it and turn it into another supermarket, but the city wouldn’t allow the destruction of the historic building. When it was squatted by the anarchist youth and declared Ungdomshuset in 1982, the city eventually decided to let them keep it, but there has always been contention over this, and over who was the official owner of the building.

For the first time since the building was squatted, a majority of the Copenhagen city council is in favor of the house staying, but they say there’s nothing that they can do, it’s owned now by Faderhuset and property law is property law. Half the well-known bands in Denmark, it seems, are playing shows in the house during the first half of December, and lots of prominent artists and other public figures are speaking out in support of the Youth House. “Ungdomshuset blir” – Ungdomshuset stays – has become the rallying cry for all self-respecting leftwingers in Denmark. Anarchist youth have organized many protests in recent months that have been met with wanton police brutality. Some of the brutality has made national news, but the protests and the brutality continue unabated.

Politicians have tried to negotiate with Faderhuset to sell the building to a leftwing foundation that would then give it to the youth, but there is no negotiating with this Christian sect. At the same time as the negotiations are happening, the government is preparing it’s armed assault on Ungdomshuset. Rumors are flying, and one of them is that the police force that will attack the house will be comprised entirely of volunteers – cops who really like the idea of beating up punk kids.

Inside Ungdomshuset, preparations for the defense of the building are making it look more like a medieval castle with each passing day. Two of the most talented barricade-builders were arrested at the last protest at the headquarters of Faderhuset, and are both facing deportation to North America. Massive beams of wood reinforced by steel are blocking doorways and windows, and if one defense is breached there is another beyond it. I’m reminded of other heavily-armored buildings I’ve been to, like when I had to go to the US embassy in London to get a new passport, or when I visited Sinn Fein’s headquarters in Dublin.

In past assaults, the police have gone onto the roof or, using cranes, through the second-floor windows, rather than attempting to ram through the formidable barricades on the ground floor. There are too many windows to turn the entire building into the kind of fortress the ground floor has become, but no effort is being spared to do just that. The upper-story windows from which you could once look out at the neighborhood are now completely barricaded, and the only light that shines within Ungdomshuset now is artificial.

The most famous rock band in Danish history, a leftwing band that has been putting out great music since the 60’s, Savage Rose, will play at Ungdomshuset on December 13th. By then, thousands of supporters of the Youth House from all over Scandinavia, Germany and elsewhere in Europe will have arrived in Copenhagen. On the 14th there will be a protest outside City Hall. The 15th is the date the city set for the youth to vacate the premises. But with posters all over Scandinavia alerting all to the Final Battle, the city has changed it’s mind, and is now saying that they will set the date when the house must be vacated later.

Later, after the Youth House’s supporters have gone back to their countries of origin. Later, probably later at night, probably at 4 o’clock on a Monday morning, after the previous evening’s activities are long over, when the only people up are the few dedicated collective members on guard duty. Perhaps the barricades will hold off the police long enough for a call to go out to supporters across the city, in time for them to watch the building get stormed by 300 heavily-armed riot police backed by battering rams, cranes and helicopters.

But history has not been written yet, last-minute compromises have been made in the past, and support for the Youth House within Danish society is steadily growing as the days go on. The unions have said that they will not work under conditions that call for police protection. Without them Faderhuset would have to try to find sufficient scab labor to demolish the house and build something new in it’s place. No small feat in a country where the vast majority of workers are unionized.

The Final Battle will probably come in one form or another, and how the dance between the autonomous youth, the authorities, and civil society will play out is yet to be seen. Whatever happens, though, the Danish media will be covering it, and the international media will ignore it. For the rest of the world, there is no Danish autonomous youth movement. For the rest of the world, Denmark will continue to be the mild-mannered social democracy with blonds on bicycles who all have cradle-to-grave health insurance, where it is always twilight. Not a country where state-sponsored vigilantes smash through the windows of community centers to go and systematically pulverize children with clubs.