Monday, September 11, 2017

Anatomy of A Protest

The Media's Movement

My daughter and I attended a rally and march against a small far right group in downtown Portland yesterday.  Here and around the US, the frequent protests against the right have gotten massive amounts of media coverage.  I'm generally all for protests getting media coverage, but the extent of the coverage is so disproportionate compared to the way the media usually covers leftwing protesters and social movements, one might develop the impression that there is some kind of massive movement against the right and the people in the White House who represent the right.

There is no such social movement occurring in the United States today.  In order to think there is such a movement happening, you would need to be staying home from the actual protests, and just watching them on TV and on your social media feeds.  If you're a leftwinger from the US and you do Instagram and most of your friends are politically somewhere in your camp, you probably saw lots of pictures of protests yesterday.  If you were listening to NPR or watching MSNBC, you heard and saw scenes from various protests both yesterday and today (they're still talking about yesterday's protests on the news today).

If you have been participating in these protests, you would only think you're participating in a mass movement if, as they say in the entertainment business, you believe your own bio.  That is, if you believe what they say on the news.  Or if you've never been part of a social movement before, and haven't read much about past or contemporary social movements in the world.

I do not mean to be critical of anyone who is organizing against this horrible administration or the administration's rightwing supporters.  But as someone who is here on the ground in one of the main cities that gets national media coverage on a regular basis for being a center of this stuff, I feel like it's worth jotting down some notes, while it's all fresh in my brain -- if only for those hypothetical future historians who may be trying to make sense of what was going on here in the year 2017.  (Plus I'll be speaking to a class at a university in a few days and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on the subject.)

Backing up slightly to set the stage here, I attended two similar protest rallies in the past couple months in Portland.  At one of the rallies the sound equipment they had was so inadequate that only a few dozen people standing right around the speaker could hear anything.  The other few hundred people there were just quietly standing around, trying not to make any noise, so they might hear the occasional word being said from the speakers.

At the next rally, I brought my battery-powered amp and stand and such, thinking I'd offer to provide sound for the rally.  I saw they had a much better sound system all set up, so I didn't offer mine.  They had inexplicably set up their sound system in an area that was like ten feet down some stairs from where most of the rally participants would be standing, and on top of that, no one seemed to know how to turn up the volume, and once again, what was said from the speakers was inaudible to most of the several hundred participants.

I have learned that unless I know rally organizers and/or the people with the sound gear personally, it's usually wise not to offer to help, lest I be seen as an unwanted intruder.  Certainly offering to sing in such a situation can be seen as an unwanted intrusion, since decisions about who's going to speak or sing and for how long are generally made by committee in advance at such protests -- and this practice has merits, as well.

Several weeks in advance of yesterday's rally I got in touch with the organizers and offered to bring my amp, and I offered to bring my guitar if they wanted me to sing (separate offers, if perhaps related ones).  I also explained that my amp was not ideal for a crowd of several hundred, but that it was better than what they had used at these other two rallies.  I got word a few days in advance of the rally that they wanted me to bring my amp but that they weren't sure if they wanted me to sing.

In terms of whether or not they wanted me to sing, the question was whether to have me open the rally with a couple songs when it was officially scheduled to start at 12:30 pm, whether I should sing a few songs before the official start time as the crowd was gathering, or whether I shouldn't sing at all.  The day before the rally, I got messages from two different organizers, one saying I should sing as the crowd is gathering, the other saying I should sing at 12:30 to kick off the rally.

I figured if there was some question about whether people wanted me sing as part of the official rally program or not, maybe it would be more diplomatic for me to sing before it officially started, so that's what I did.  I started playing around noon, when there were several dozen people sitting or standing around, waiting for the rally to start, largely in silence, some talking quietly, a couple of groups of people with certain roles (security, medics) having meetings.

Although people could hear me fine, and I was singing songs related to the protest they were attending, there was a strangely morose atmosphere in the park.  At first the only tepid applause came from the couple of people there I personally knew.  After a couple songs, tepid applause came from a few more people.  Around 12:15, a couple hundred students marched to the park.  I think they were coming from Portland State University nearby.  Many of them were marching behind banners for a variety of small socialist political parties, mostly campus-based, parties that have little or no presence in the city outside of the college campuses.

They came in chanting a variation of one of the chants that has been interminably popular since the Sixties.  Sort of the left equivalent of a nursery rhyme, or "Happy Birthday" or something equally cloying.  For some reason, as they walked in they didn't want to fill up the park, but mostly wanted to stand behind their banners in the area where the speaker was set up, facing the few people who were already in the park.  There wasn't room for all of them there, so, since I was in front of the mic, I encouraged them to keep coming in.  I think my advice was contrary to their plan, and so they naturally ignored it, so it took quite a while for everybody to manage to find a space in the spacious park for these strange logistical reasons.

I don't know if they had been planning on keeping up with their chants until the rally began, but I think I messed their plan up, with my pre-rally entertainment going on.  I figured they'd have time for more chanting later, so I kept singing into the mic.  The crowd was of course now much larger, and applause after songs was thus a little louder, but still basically polite applause rather than anything enthusiastic.  I think I was as perplexed by the looks on the faces of people there, especially the students, as they were by me.  They looked like they were thinking, "who is this guy?  What is he doing?  Why is he doing it?"  I felt like I was visiting from another planet and singing in an alien language, even though I was doing songs about recent events with which everyone would have been familiar, such as the recent murder-by-car of a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There seemed to be some confusion about who the MC was supposed to be, and how the chants went that the MC was supposed to lead.  One of the MC's, a Lakota veteran of the struggle at Standing Rock, repeatedly referred to the KKK as the KK.  There was no one trying to keep speakers to the time limits they had previously agreed upon as far as I could tell, and the speakers went on longer than planned.  Halfway through the rally, someone else showed up from a labor contingent with a sound system was that better than the one I brought, and there was a haphazard transfer between my system and his that included someone not related to either sound system helpfully putting the microphone in front of the speaker and causing painful feedback.  (I tried not to sound condescending when I quickly explained during the transition that putting a mic in front of a speaker causes feedback when everything is turned on.)

Aside from me opening the rally with music, which I believe only happened in the first place because I was offering the use of my amp, the only music was a lovely a cappella song the Lakota woman sang in Lakota.  The speakers were all pretty good, talking about struggles that people are facing now with the repeal of DACA, racist attacks, ever more restrictive policies against taking refugees, and other things.  Most of the speakers were young, and all but one of them were people of color.  The one white person who spoke was a rabbi named Deborah, I believe.  Having attended many rallies where most of the speakers were white men, this was a welcome change.

The woman who introduced the rally to begin with said right off the bat that the process of organizing the rally had been challenging.  I had heard that from other people involved, as well.  I think there were something like 72 organizations involved with getting several hundred people in the streets.  I don't know what the difficulties were in the organizing process.  (I'm not an organizer of such events and I have no intention of becoming one.  I have other priorities that make better use of my skills in the service of the people.)  Considering that about 90% of the crowd was white, perhaps choosing to have all but one of the speakers be people of color was contentious, I don't know.  I wonder if the fact that there was no music, poetry or other such forms of expression in the program was part of the contention.

For all the arguing about the program that evidently went on, apparently very little attention was paid to the logistical aspect of anybody being able to hear the program, given that they were using me to do sound and I had already explained that what I had wasn't ideal for the situation, and the guy with the sound gear that was good for the circumstances showed up well after the rally had started.

So basically, it was a rally very typical of the sort of rally students in Portland have been organizing periodically since I moved here ten years ago, and very typical of the sorts of rallies students and the usual suspects in the progressive community (or the left, or the activists, or whatever you want to call that small sector of the population that reliably shows up to these sorts of things) have been organizing in cities across the US for a very long time.

That is, this is what a rally looks like in the absence of any kind of social movement backdrop.  In the context of a vibrant mass movement, you would see many different contingents of people organizing many different sorts of things, including music, food, art, and civil disobedience.  Lots of people would be spreading the word about lots of upcoming events, and there would be areas of town where everybody knows they can go to physically be with and work with other participants in the movement.  And, with far less media coverage, if any, there would have been far more people present at such a rally and march -- if there were a social movement happening now in the US that's worthy of the term, as the term is understood by participants in such movements historically.

What's a bit different now as opposed to a few years ago is the Black Bloc is now more widely known as Antifa (yes, of course Antifa has existed for a long time, but it didn't become such a well-known word until very recently).  And Antifa had their own rally, separate from the one the 72 organizations organized.  Antifa's rally was I think somewhat smaller than the one I was at.  I couldn't tell, because once the marching started, the two rallies merged into one march, more or less.

Being with my 11-year-old daughter, I strategically stayed away from the center of the action once the march was going, but from what I learned from friends a couple hours later was at least one of the seven people arrested was arrested for throwing a bottle of water at a riot cop.  The number of riot cops was probably in the low hundreds -- after fighting between rightwingers and Antifa at a recent protest where the police were largely absent, yesterday the police were doing their more traditional thing of keeping the groups apart with their bodies as well as barricades and police vehicles.

When the Antifa crowd can't reliably get more than a few dozen people to come to one of their own protests, they usually just join other protests where their "diversity of tactics" is unwanted ("diversity of tactics" being Antifa's antipathy to agreeing on tactics with everybody else and their desire to do their own thing anyway).  Since Trump, Antifa is able to get crowds in the low hundreds in certain cities at least now and then, so they've been calling their own protests against the right.  The right, in this case, being represented by not more than ten people waving flags by the waterfront behind a wall of riot cops.

At various points throughout the downtown area you could see and hear young people dressed head to toe in black, faces covered, yelling at cops and yelling at random Portlanders who happened to be downtown at the time and had the temerity to ask them why they were wearing masks.  Whether the other six people arrested had thrown stuff at the cops or were just acting aggressive or not doing anything at all, I don't know.  Those who were arrested were, according to people I talked to, violently thrown to the ground by the police.  In other words, the police were provoked, and they responded with excessive force, as usual.

At the end of the march, at least half of the people who originally came to the Terry Schrunk Plaza, where it began, reconvened there for yet more speeches.  This time it was more of an open mic.  This time I wasn't in the background quietly advising each speaker to speak directly into the mic, so some of the speakers were much more audible than others, and most seemed to be representatives of student socialist groups, reading speeches from their phones that sounded like they could have been written by Karl Marx himself.

If the patriotic dude in the pickup truck across the river in Vancouver had successfully driven his pickup into the crowd of marchers as he apparently wanted to, instead of getting arrested by the Vancouver police before he had the chance, and if a hurricane weren't currently destroying parts of Florida and if fires weren't still engulfing much of the forestland of the west at the moment, then we'd be seeing Charlottesville-level coverage of these events.  As it is, media coverage has been impressive, but not quite that massive.

I remember one time there were tens of thousands of people committing civil disobedience, shutting down a major city in the US during a time when there was something approaching a mass movement in this country, around the turn of this century.  It was barely covered in the news at all.  At the time, it was widely understood on the left that if the protest had had any chance of getting media coverage in the first place, this chance was blown by the fact that Michael Jackson had gotten nasal surgery that day.  It ain't like that now -- you can have the biggest Atlantic storm in recorded history and the biggest forest fires in recorded history happening in different parts of this country at the same time, and a few hundred people protesting in Portland will still make national news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I'll be very excited if a mass movement does develop in the US, but evidently, as much as it may try, the media can't create one by itself, and a few socialist groups from the university still can't create a social movement by themselves either, no matter how much they wish their rhetoric could match the reality.

I don't want to beat up on anyone who is trying to do useful things, and I applaud everyone's efforts, regardless of how effective they may be.  I applaud people for trying.  That's what I do with my music -- I tell stories of people and movements who have tried to make a difference (including those that have made a difference, not just tried to).  I think it's important to play that role -- the role of cheerleader.  This is what I'm trying to do by singing and providing sound for protests, no matter whether they're well-organized ones or not.  I'm just trying to do my part, and other people are, too.  And I don't know what series of things need to happen to make a real social movement get off the ground -- if I did, or if anyone did, such a movement would be happening now, and a long time ago.

What I can say for sure, though, is that social movements don't look like this, and I think it's important for people to understand that, in the hopes that they don't get too discouraged by what they're seeing -- in case they think this is what a social movement looks like and they feel discouraged and dejected and just want to go hang themselves instead.

No, this isn't a social movement, but it might be a building block for one -- maybe.  Though I suspect if we're going to have any hope of building a real movement, we need to hold frequent public events that look more like movement events would look -- forward-looking events, talking about the world we want to create, not just the one we want to tear down, and events that communicate these messages through music, art, food, community, laughter, love for humanity, and taking over physical spaces -- buildings, city parks, forests -- and holding onto them through various legal and illegal means.  This is what democracy looks like -- not a small gathering of mostly student socialist groups joined by angry teenagers with masks on throwing water bottles.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Whose Privilege...?

Some Thoughts on Effective Communication

OK, I've been mulling this subject over for a long time without blogging about it, but here goes.  I think terms like "white privilege" and "male privilege" are, at best, useless, and at worst, counterproductive.  The main reason I say that is because I'm pretty sure most people don't understand what the terms are supposed to mean -- and the people using the terms usually just keep the confusion going.

I rarely use words like "anarchist" or "socialist" by themselves because there are too many different ideas people have in their heads about what those words mean.  A two-word description of one's politics can be slightly better.  Like if people think "Stalin" when they hear the word "socialist," if you add "democratic" to "socialist" then people probably don't think "Stalin" anymore.  But adding "white" or "male" to the word "privilege" still leaves lots of people in the dark.

I think words like "racism" or "sexism" are helpful because they clearly are referring to discrimination against people based on their race or sex.  I think most people understand these concepts.  They'll disagree on the particulars -- how extensive these problems are, how to solve them, etc., but the basic concept is clear in the words themselves.

As far as I can tell, in the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege" and other words that people put before "privilege," we are meant to understand that we are talking about comparative privilege.  That is, the privileged group or person in question is privileged in comparison with those who are discriminated against.

But we live in a society (in the US, anyway) where there is a vast confusion over the very concept of class, so calling people "privileged" (whether we're talking about comparative privilege or not) just adds to the confusion.  I mean, the average white American living in a trailer who has at least seven remaining teeth will almost always refer to themselves as "middle class" or "lower middle class."  If they're middle class, then how do we describe someone with an office job who can afford to see a dentist now and then, and can buy a house with a basement and plumbing in it?  Rich?

So the term "middle class" is also meaningless, since it has way too many definitions.  What tends to really add to the confusion is that so many of the college students, professors and NPR hosts who constantly throw around these terms involving the word "privilege" actually did grow up really privileged, by any standard.  I know what this privilege looks like -- I grew up in a town where the vast majority of the population lived in big houses, drove new cars, took ski vacations with the whole family every winter, bought a car for their kids when they turned 16 and then paid to send them to private colleges, from which the kids graduated and then went on to business or medical school like their parents.  But that's not how most people grow up -- of whatever color or gender.  Most people in the US aren't privileged like that.

Does racism and sexism exist?  Are they massive problems in our society?  Hell, yes.  So then let's take on the perspectives, behaviors and institutions that perpetuate racism and sexism in a way that communicates what we're actually trying to talk about.  But if you throw around the word "privilege" without defining it every time, you're just making confused people more confused.  If someone living in a trailer thinks they're middle class, how are they going to react to being told they're also privileged?  (I mean, other than by voting for Trump?)

As someone who spends half the year traveling for a living, I've gotten out of my bubble a bit.  I still hang out in fancy suburbs for a few days in a given year, but mostly not.  And I spend a lot of time outside of the US.  Sometimes it can be helpful to think about a situation as it is somewhere else -- just try to imagine.  For example, it's pretty widely known that people of color face serious discrimination if they live in Siberia.  But is anybody in their right minds going to go around saying that the white Siberians are privileged in any sense of the word?  No, it would be patently ridiculous.

But for a lot of people going to private liberal arts colleges or hosting NPR shows, the Siberians might be about as distant a concept as the West Virginians or Nebraskans.  Plain and simple, most people in this country are suffering in very obvious ways -- primarily because we live in a corrupt country run by kloptocrats who spend half of our taxes on wars, and paying off debt they ran up spending money on wars in prior decades.  We have virtually no welfare state, millions living on the streets or in tents or shelters, etc.  The corporate/liberal media generally prefers to ignore these basic structural problems, and focuses instead on the minor differences between the two ruling kleptocratic parties, particularly when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation.

Historically, the reason they focus on these issues is not because they're real and need to be addressed (which of course they do), but because they're convenient ways to divide and conquer the population.  That is, as long as you can get people pointing fingers at each other for not fully understanding the extent of our relative states of privilege -- as long as that gets to be the parameters of the debate for a lot of people and media institutions -- then we're a lot less likely to point our fingers at those with the kind of privilege that doesn't need to have words like "comparative," "white" or "male" stuck in front of it in order to make any sense.

To be crystal clear (I hope), in preparation for the possible deluge of criticism I'm going to receive sometime after I click the "Publish" button up there:  I am by no means saying here that class is more important than race or gender.  In the US, class and race are inseparably intertwined, and this is by design, since around the time the English colonists first arrived several hundred years ago.  What I am saying is that in the process of tackling these endemic problems in our society, we need to communicate effectively and use terms that help us to understand the structural nature of the problem, rather than obfuscating it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Blame, Shame and Responsibility During the Apocalypse

The world outside my window looks, smells and sounds apocalyptic.  The sound is primarily the sound of silence, since few people want to walk or ride a bike when the air is so thick with haze from out-of-control forest fires burning up and down the western half of the continent.  There are few clouds in the sky, but the sky looks a lot like the eclipse did a couple weeks ago, when it was at about 50%.  We're in the midst of another almost-unprecedented heat wave due to climate change, but the haze keeps the temperature a bit lower, makes everything look orange and dusky.  As the newsreaders are fond of repeating, the air quality is worse than it is in Beijing.

And of course that's just outside my window.  In other parts of the US, hundreds of thousands of homes and vehicles have been destroyed by flooding, flooding which has also unleashed massive amounts of toxic waste from superfund sites and petrochemical refineries all over the region -- as also happened on the Gulf coast in similarly massive environmental catastrophes in 2005 and 2010.  Another huge storm is currently bearing down on Puerto Rico and Florida.  And what's happening now on the Gulf coast pales in scale compared to the flooding going on right now in parts of South Asia and Africa.

What strikes me as I navigate my social circles online and in my physical neighborhood in Portland, Oregon is the degree to which shame appears to be so much more pervasive than outrage.  I can't quantify this and I haven't taken any polls, but the distinct feeling I get from a lot of people out there is they feel responsible for the situation we find ourselves in.  There is also a widespread awareness of the shortcomings of our political leadership in dealing with the apocalypse effectively.  But many people seem more ready to blame themselves for driving a car, owning a smartphone and using electricity than they are prepared to blame the oil and coal industries for their role in this.

But more insidious than this widespread shame in terms of how we got to where we are now is what I hear around me in terms of how we need to deal with the situation.  I hear people talking about individual lifestyle changes they need to make -- ride the bike more, use mass transit more often, stop driving a car, use less electricity, become a vegan, don't have kids, etc.

I imagine some readers asking at this point, but who cares about whether people feel guilty or not?  The point is we need to do something about all this.  Which of course we do.  But in order to understand where we need to go, we need to understand where we're at and how we got here.

Obviously, any society is made up of individuals.  But only in some philosopher's fantasies does there exist a society that is actually made up of equals, who participate equally in making the decisions that shape a society.  Only in some people's heads does there exist a society where individuals can create their own realities, independent of the societies in which they live.

So, while it is true that individual settlers carried out genocidal policies against Native Americans, it was also true that they were paid very well for every Native scalp that they brought in to the colonial authorities.  While it is true that individual farmers in places like Oklahoma planted cotton on their arid farmland in the early twentieth century, it is also true that the only way they could get credit to borrow money to plant crops was if they agreed to plant cotton.  While it is true that millions of individuals in the US bought cars when cars started to become more affordable ninety years ago, it is also true that the country's infrastructure was being consciously designed by those in power to be a car-dependent one, with a rail system that became ever more anemic with each passing decade.

Individuals have choices, of course.  Some people have many more choices than others -- especially if you have lots of money, citizenship in the right country, an engineering degree, or other such advantages.  But for most people now and throughout modern history, in practical terms these choices have been far more limited.  For the much-vaunted "pioneers" that they talk about incessantly in the elementary schools of Oregon, their choices were to live and die as tenant farmers, breaking their backs and dying young somewhere out east, or to take the land the government was offering them for free out west.  For those Oklahoma farmers I mentioned that were participating in the process that resulted in the Great Dust Storm of that period, their choices were to plant cotton and starve later, or don't plant cotton and starve now.  Or go to the west coast and be a farmworker (which is generally an even worse fate than being a tenant farmer).

And for all the people living in the suburbs and driving into the urban centers to work in cities across the US with traffic-clogged highways every day of the year, they are doing what people have been doing in the US since long before the invention of the suburb or the invention of the automobile:  they are buying, building or renting a house or an apartment somewhere that they can afford to live, and they are finding work somewhere where they can find work.  By design and/or as a result of market economics, these places are usually not anywhere close to each other.

I'm pretty sure that what I've just laid out in the past few paragraphs isn't news to many of the same people who feel this intense sense of guilt for what is now happening around us.  This contradiction between what we know and what we feel should not be surprising.  As the father of a sixth-grader I am keenly aware of the messaging that pervades both public and private schools here in Oregon and elsewhere in the country.  It's drilled into the heads of the children in so many ways on a daily basis -- we humans are responsible for the situation we're in, as a species, and we must be more vigilant about recycling, not idling your car engine when you can help it, not wasting paper, not buying too many things made of plastic.

Just as pervasive as these messages of individual responsibility being daily drummed into the heads of children and adults alike is the message that we live in a democracy and we can change the situation we're in by mobilizing around a political party, by voting for different candidates.  While I'd welcome a situation where Bernie Sanders' wing of the Democratic Party became politically dominant, we're not anywhere close to being there in reality.  Both parties are solidly in the hands of the corporate elite, in ways that are easily measurable in terms of who funds the campaigns of those in office and the bills they propose, the bills they don't propose, and how they vote on the bills that do get proposed.

And as a student of history I can say definitively that this has always been true in the United States.  We have always had a two-party duopoly.  The two parties have, throughout much more than 95% of the nation's history, ruled essentially as one.  That is, the policies that have defined our country and gotten us to the point we're at today -- things like genocide, slavery, imperial wars, conquest and annexation of neighboring states, feudal land ownership policies, the abolition of rent control, the building of the interstate highway system, the destruction of the railroad network, zoning laws to encourage suburban sprawl, the wholesale clearcutting of the forests of the west and southeast, to name just a few policies -- these policies all enjoyed massive bipartisan support among the leaders and so-called elected representatives of both major parties.

We don't live in a real democracy.  If we did, we would have had choices when it came to all of these policies.  And let's be clear about the historical record in terms of these policies that enjoyed such massive bipartisan support:  they were extremely controversial at the time.  It's just that those in opposition to these policies were not the ones making the decisions, and they had no parties or candidates to represent their views -- not ones with any chance of getting far within the confines of a completely rigged political system.

There is no such thing as "taking America back" or "restoring American democracy" or any of that nonsense.  We've never had democracy (at least not since the conquest and annexation of the Iroquois Confederacy).  And although individuals carried out all of these policies, their implementation had nothing to do with individual choice, and everything to do with the obscenely dominant position of the rich and their corporate Political Action Committees (which existed in one form or another long before we had the term "PAC," and long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision).

As long as the powers-that-be can convince us -- in direct and indirect ways -- that we are individually to blame for the situation and individually responsible for changing it, then we are a defeated and useless population, just the way those in power want us to be.  But your enemy is not yourself or your neighbor or your desire to feed yourself and your family or your desire to live somewhere with hot running water, electricity and a TV.

As a songwriter, I always say that the most powerful way to make a point is to tell a story that illustrates your point, and let the listeners then draw their own conclusions from that story, without summing it up for them.  Well, this essay isn't one of those songs.

Point blank, the problem is not your lifestyle.  The problem is monopoly capitalism, and the fact that we do not have any semblance of democratic control over anything of importance, when it comes to the survival of our species.  Because the apocalypse is happening by bipartisan consensus -- and reversing course, to the extent that that's even possible at this late stage, will require nothing short of the overthrow of monopoly capitalism and the institution of real democratic control over the things that matter.