Yesterday was my first Mardi Gras. I had mixed feelings about coming down here during what turned out to be a massive street party signaling the comeback of the city’s tourism industry. Is it ethical to come to New Orleans and have fun right now? Should I spend money here – and if so, where? Are the parades and parties good for the city, or just certain segments of the city? Is is okay to drink and have a good time while there remain hundreds of thousands of survivors still struggling to come back home?

The common sense wisdom is that New Orleans is the #1 city for hospitality. It’s economy is based off events like Mardi Gras, therefore the more the celebrations pick up and resemble the 1 million plus attendee galas that went down every year before Katrina, the better off the city as a whole will be. But this assumes that the money flowing in from tourists makes its way to everyone, hoteliers and bar owners as well as their working class employees. Is there a substantial amount of “trickle down” to the people who cook and clean? Do working class New Orleanians get anything out of the commercialization of the Carnival? The holiday certainly has cultural significance to the city's poor and working class peoples, but how does it translate into power and politics?

My friend Sam “Action” Jackson picked me up early yesterday morning and we headed to the uptown corner of Claiborne and Jackson Street to catch the Zulu parade. Zulu is the only parade that begins on the back of town side of St. Charles. It was founded in 1909 by members of a benevolent society – an organization of blacks that offered insurance and mutual aid to African Americans during an era when most companies denied them coverage – and eventually incorporated itself into the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The parade has forever been the black parade. Its symbolic importance in the whole of Mardi Gras is revealed on Lundi Gras, the day before Fat Tuesday when the King of Rex (the official king of Mardi Gras) enters the city, meets the mayor and declairs the next day to be a day of celebration and no work. The Mayor must concur, and the King of Zulu, almost as though he were the representative of black New Orleans also takes the stage to concur (of course this doesn't mean that works stops in the city, just that the only people working are those cooking up the food and cleaning up the mess). On Mardi Gras day the two major parades are Rex and Zulu.

Sam and I stood on the corner of Jackson and Claiborne catching beads and other “throws” from Zulu. The crowd was jubilant. After this we headed back downtown underneath the Claiborne bridge to catch up with the parade as it neared its terminus. What makes Zulu amazing is that it winds up along Claiborne Ave. where the Mardi Gras Indians march and where thousands upon thousands gather for what is easily the most happening party during the entire two weeks of Mardi Gras celebrations. Under the I-10 free way on Mardi Gras day black New Orleans gathers like nothing else on earth. Sam and I wandered around, he occasionally meeting up with an old friend, and I shadowing one of the Mardi Gras Indians, big Chief Allison Tootie Montana’s son (Montana died on June 27, 2005 while addressing the city council about police brutality and the rights and importance of Mardi Gras Indians). At one point Sam and I spotted Mayor Ray Nagin. Not to let him off the hook Sam walked right up to Nagin, gave him a pat on the back, shook his hand and whispered in his ear, "so when are you going to reopen the public housing?" The Mayor just smiled back.

The Indians are amazing for reasons that are indescribable. They gather under the shade of the freeway and walk up and down Claiborne Ave. When two Chiefs confront one another they face off in symbolic battle. Yesterday even saw an actual brawl between several of them, something that according to Sam and others hasn’t happened in many, many years. The Indians are followed by men and women who give them water, adjust their headdresses and feathers and help to carry things when the going gets tough. Others beat tambourines and drums producing beats to which the Indians and all of us dance and clap to. The whole tradition harkens back to the links between black slaves and the regions native Americans who were at times united in their struggles against the planter elites and racist white society.

The celebrations along Claiborne Ave. are those of New Orleans’ black community. Uptown and downtown residents congregate here to experience and take part in the Zulu parade and Indian struts. I was shocked by the near total absence of whites, especially locals. White New Orleanians tent to stay planted along the parade routes down around St. Charles Ave. and the lower portions of Canal Street. Very few attend the celebrations along Claiborne. Although the official segregation that used to deform Mardi Gras is long gone, the mores and comfort of people still seem to hold them back from intermixing and experiencing one another’s music, food and dance.

One thing that amazed me during the last few days was the level of entrepreneurship and autonomous economic activity going on. Along Washington Avenue near the St. Charles parade route I saw dozens of men setting up parking lots in the driveways of their houses and empty lots nearby. I asked several of them about it and they informed me that it was just another way of earning some money during Mardi Gras and that it’s done during other celebrations also. Depending on the lots proximity to the parade route these men will charge anywhere from $5-20 for a spot. Another example of small time business was the food vendors along Orleans Avenue and Claiborne. Families set up big pots of gumbo and red beans and grilled meat to serve during the day. $2 for a beer, $5 for a big cup of gumbo or a sandwich, many of those selling food cooked it in a friend or family members kitchen down the street. A few people selling the food set up on the lawn of the Lafitte projects – closed down since Katrina. According to Sam, the Lafitte residents always came out for Mardi Gras to sell or give out food and drink, and perhaps a few of these people yesterday were displaced residents come back to make some money on their doorstep.

After a few hours of following the Indians around dancing on Claiborne I went home and took a nap. Afterwards I headed down to Frenchman street where the punks, bohemians and other locals were gathering. There were drum circles blocking the road and crowds of characters pouring out of the bars. Someone was selling nitrous hits and the crowd was sucking them down leaving the sidewalks littered with little black balloons.

The buzz about the city is that this year was big and that New Orleans really is back now. Yesterday did show that the tourism industry can throw a big-ass party once again, but for me it showed that the Katrina Diaspora are still working hard to secure their comeback. The party under Claiborne bridge was a good sign as was the street vending and parking lot gigs, two sorts of jobs out of many that represent the unofficial economy of the city – an economy that is terribly important for the Katrina Diaspora who are working hard to raise the funds necessary to secure a right of return for themselves and their communities. Perhaps some of the money made on Bourbon Street and Canal even trickled down to the people who make the party happen?


We’ve Got a Movement, Now What?

The day after the strike I awakened to the sound of birds and the heat of the sun. I stepped outside and felt the rays of light pouring down on my face and the heat reminded me of that highway where we all sat down in defiance, anger and hope that some sort of new politics and power can be built here and now and that our resistance can be more than symbolic. The heat and sunlight reminded me of all those terrific speeches and chants that are still ringing in my ears. The day after the strike felt to me like the first day of Spring. I’m told that this day is actually March 21st, but remain convinced that for Santa Barbara our springtime has come. Four times a year I feel the change of season. It usually hits me suddenly in one day. In the autumn the days get darker and colder and then one day it’s just dark and cold – Winter. The day after the strike the air was different and the sun was brighter. I felt this literally and I think it’s also figuratively true for antiwar politics on this campus. The days have been getting brighter, and now it’s time to bloom.

There can be no doubt about it; something is afoot here at UCSB. On the 15th we converged for a rally, march and act of disruptive affirmation that was heard far and wide. We have an antiwar movement. We have a community of people who are willing to mobilize and even put their bodies on the line not only to speak truth to power, but to meet the antidemocratic power or the US State and transnational corporations with the power of the people. We have a community willing to do what it can to disobey the regime and the system and to withdraw our complicity. We did just such a thing by nonviolently striking against the perverse “business as usual” that makes this war and so many other forms of exploitation and oppression that infuse daily life possible.

But what now?

Our energy and commitment has attracted considerable attention from many local and national antiwar organizers, organizations and political parties. Our call to strike – to actually withdraw material support and obedience from the political authorities and economic interests that make war and exploitation possible – has attracted much attention because it is precisely what it will take to stop the war. It is an electrifying concept to many because it is democracy in action. It allows all of us to be agents of change. It transformed many of us in ways too difficult to describe. There is a deep and profound desire toward this type of politics and we can help to build it by acting here and now.

In order to build upon this and spread the kind of grassroots action we’ve sparked it’s important that we stay true to what we’ve tapped into. I feel that the strike was powerful because it was an action founded upon principled beliefs, shaped by many diverse standpoints, open and anti-elitist, and rooted in the knowledge, desire and needs of our locality. It also succeeded because we all made it happen collectively. It wasn’t the outcome of a few smart organizers or a couple brilliant speakers. Rather, it was the outcome of repressed emotion and irresistible knowledge possessed by everyone who helped us take that road. It’s an understanding that history is made when we actually do something collectively!

I point these things out because our strike was quite unlike much of the antiwar organizing happening in our nation right now. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Much of the antiwar movement is orchestrated by organizers and groups that look upward at the powers that be in Congress, and that purposefully shape their messaging to appeal to some abstract notion of the “mainstream,” or to the corporate mass media. Indeed, the obsession with what the corporate media will say about us is a dysfunction approaching self-destructive pathology amongst activists. Much antiwar organizing attempts to periodically draw protestors to huge rallies in centralized locations on days that are coordinated across the country – usually on the weekends so as not to disrupt business and guarantee larger attendance. Much of it puts celebrities or “experts” forward as the best spokespersons for the movement. Much of it assumes that the most important thing is to critique the crimes and lies of the Bush administration inside out. Very little of it foregrounds the work of antiracist, immigrants’ rights, social justice, environmental, queer, and womens’ rights movements as not just “allies,” but as the radical inspiration, the heart and soul of the struggle against oppression in all its forms from which the antiwar movement is nourished. When the antiwar movement eclipses these other movements and fails to be fundamentally shaped and constituted by them, it can only submit a cosmetic fix to an ill-identified problem, and it can accomplish nothing of the structural and systematic social change that the mass of humanity desperately wants.

As I see it, the success of our strike was due to the fact that so far we have been creatively spontaneous, anti-elitist, practical and localized, disruptive, and critically self-reflexive.

In truth the creative spontaneity of our strike was the outcome of a dissatisfaction many of us have had with the typical antiwar rally. Usually people are urged to gather so that they can then listen to a number of big name speakers tell them at length about the issues. Speakers typically dwell on abstract problems and political issues that are not concretely connected to the everyday lives of those listening. Sometimes the speakers dwell entirely on the problem, offering few solutions other than signing a postcard or giving money to the organization that put the rally together. People come and leave, and they are not left with a sense of participation that amounts to much more than having been a body in a crowd that will invariably be undercounted by the corporate media, if it is reported on at all.

Our strike rally allowed anyone to approach the mic and talk about the war in any terms they wanted. That most of them spoke of their personal experiences, their friends and relatives serving in Iraq, their own reasons for opposition, and how other things they care about (the environment, Darfur, educational policy) are connected to the war was no coincidence. That the crowd connected with them with such passion is due entirely to this personal-political resonance. Our creativity also allowed us to take the freeway. Had we over-planned we could probably not have acted in unison like that. We resisted that urge to play chess master and instead allowed every “pawn” to jump from the board and make its own move. All of this is related to our anti-elitism. By resisting the urge to allow experts and celebrities to tell us what’s important and what to do we created an atmosphere where learning and transforming was much more about participation and cooperation, not passive listening. Doing so helps us understand that we can make change and that we don’t necessarily need to look upon leaders (both movement leaders but also political leaders) to make it for us.

By practical and localized I mean to say that we acted in a way that had an effect on the war, and that this was appropriate to our locality. The student strike makes sense to students as a means of protest and disruption of business as usual. UCSB is a reasonable target for our efforts because it is the largest institution that students are all directly connected to that provides material and intellectual support to those prolonging this war of aggression. The flaws with trying to organize in the opposite direction, e.g. following calls from centralized organizations to carry out generic actions across the nation is that they are often insensitive to the needs and realities of what’s happening within a particular community. Mass actions coordinated across places are possible and important, but by no means the default sort of activism we should work toward. We should be especially critical of calls put out in a vertical manner, from centralized organizations in D.C. or San Francisco and sent down the food chain of activism to the grassroots. Coordinated actions must be carried our laterally from peer-to-peer if they are to be of any real consequence.

By disruptive I mean that we did something that instrumentally had an impact on UCSB’s material/intellectual contribution to the war, and also that we disrupted the business as usual which allows students and others to go about their daily lives without ever having to think about the war and their connection to it. In terms of measuring the impact of our strike I would estimate that the legitimacy lost to those who rule over our university and country was tiny, and that the actual impact our road occupation had on UCSB’s material/intellectual contribution to the war was very, very small. But it was a very, very small step in the right direction toward collective action that channels our anger and opposition in ways that chip away at the highly complex social division of labor, a chain of work, consumption and obedience that is the war effort. Its smallness was by no means an indication of its futility, but rather its powerful truth because the truth is that we can only contribute what we can based upon our social position. We can only oppose the war through our position’s specific links and what is needed of us to keep the war going. For students this means keep going to class, be a good consumer, don’t ask questions, let the UC take in military research contracts, ignore the nuclear weapons labs, let the armed forces recruit on our campus, and don’t forget to smile. There is no national or global position we can leap into by disembodying ourselves. Believing that there is has led many to waste considerable time and resources on traveling to Washington D.C. or some capitol city on a weekend to take part in a rally that beyond its symbolic significance is pretty ineffective. If latched onto by localities across the nation the strike model could result in the sort of localized movement necessary to stop the war through mobilizations that withdraw real support and challenge authority. Localizing the effort also builds long-term capacity to keep moving forward and changing society for the better.

We’ve also been critically self-reflexive. We’ve been willing to criticize ourselves and others in a positive way. We’ve tried to understand the concerns of our friends and fellow organizers and to shape our plans accordingly. We are, however, just now entering the phase of this reflection (this letter itself being a reflection) and so we have much to learn about ourselves and each other in the coming months.

From here on I feel that we should try to stay true to all of this. A big mistake we could make would be to untether our activity from the local institutions and structures that we actually have the power to intervene in and change. Long time antiwar organizer and social movement theorist Andrew Lichterman has written recently that:

“Issues like imperial wars, the U.S. military budget, or a global economy that increasingly forces development choices on cities and entire countries that benefit only a fraction of their population would seem to require work focused at the national and international level. The foundation for our work, however– the construction of the social power that allows anything more than superficial, ephemeral victories at that scale– still must be built from the bottom. The hard conversations, the difficult process of building trust and working alliances that last, most often take place around concrete struggles over whether and why we should reject a new military base or factory and the high-paying jobs that come with it, over whether a city or region should try to swim against a tide that will raise high the boats of those fortunate few who work for or sell to global corporations, while casting the rest of us adrift.”

What this means for UCSB students and our friends in the greater Santa Barbara community is impossible to spell out before we take action, but we’ll never know unless the actions we take are informed by our locality’s position in the militaristic and imperial order of things beyond our immediate reach and vision. Our action must be informed by our particular relation to this larger chain of oppression and exploitation in order for it to be effective. And it’s got to be more than symbolic. It will have to costs each of us something, but in the process we will gain more than we could ever know.

Students at UCSB who want to build a powerful campus antiwar movement must look first and foremost at the university they attend when addressing the war. As the largest military industrial contractor in the region with a “military sciences” department, and a pair of nuclear weapons labs UCSB plays no small part in the killing. With a missile factory just a mile north of campus and a cluster of military-industrial corporations in and around Goleta and Santa Barbara students must start asking hard questions about this sort of economic base: what are these missiles made for? Who benefits from weapons research and manufacturing in our community? Is it ethical to build weapons that go toward illegal and immoral wars of aggression? Is all of this really for “defense”? What is Vandenberg Air Force Base? In a region dominated by a dysfunctional car culture that just voted down measure D (a bill that would have allocated funding to public transport and green transport infrastructure) students and others should ask hard questions about our community’s oil consumption, something that no one doubts is connected to the war. How can Santa Barbara be more than a pretty place, but also a sustainable place that does not rely on environmental devastation and war in other parts of the world to fuel its highways? Why is there a branch office of the corporation that manufactures depleted uranium ammunition for the US military on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara? And in very general terms, why is Santa Barbara so terribly wealthy? Why is it such a bubble of privilege and pleasure for many of its residents and the students who move here? Why at the same time is there poverty and inequity in our backyard? How can we change this?
On Thursday the students of UC Santa Barbara marched across campus, thousands strong to stop the war. It was huge. The march ended with the taking of a freeway entrance to campus. Students overtook the road and blocked access to campus for almost 2 hours. It was nothing short of an electrifying act of collective spontaneity. Organized through a decentralized process, the action was chaotic and highly disruptive of business as usual. It truly was a "strike" against war.

Last night I hit the streets of New Orleans to join another sort of congregation, Mardi Gras celebrations. I've never been to Mardi Gras in the big easy before. Last year I purposefully skipped it because I found the Mayor and business community's motivations selfish and because I saw the harm that the carnival would do to those still trying to return after Katrina. (The celebration ended with the evictions of residents from local hotels, and the messaging promoted the notion that the city was well on it’s way to recovery when in fact things have mostly stalled.) This year I decided to come to be with friends and to experience on of the biggest parties on the planet.

Mardi Gras is nowhere as big now as it used to be. The bus driver who delivered me to the Marigny yesterday told me this as he whizzed through traffic and road blocks, pedestrians and drunks roaming the side streets around Canal. But it’s still a massive street party spanning two weeks.

Last night I set out from the Marigny around sunset with a few friends toward Lee Circle to see the Endymion parade. The streets were packed with tourists and locals. We made our way through the French Quarter, me drinking whisky straight from a cup while my friends sipped cheap beer and ate candy. At Canal Street we lingered to watch the crowds of college kids stumble about groping and laughing, drinking liquor from tall green hand grenade shaped cups and forty plus ounce containers holding prodigious amounts of daiquiri.

We headed in the Uptown direction along St. Charles Avenue, the parade not yet passing by. Views of the street were blocked at all points by enormous wooden bleachers erected in the days before along on the sidewalk. These bleachers are restricted to private clubs connected with the parade krewes. Other sections of the sidewalk had been cordoned off by people with rope and viciously protected against anyone who might want to get closer to the street. At one point I stood in a walkway to one of the bleachers to get a view of the parade and was pushed out of the way by a club member who then stood in my view purposefully blocking it. Real joyous, really free, yeah right.

When the floats finally came by it was rather anti-climactic. The only real thrill of it was the chance to stand under the floats and put one’s hands up to catch the “throws” of beads and toys that each Krewe drops. Endymion’s throws were pretty lame; mostly generic beads. The parade celebrated Taylor Hicks – some mega-celebrity who I know nothing about, along with a couple of washed up rock bands.

As I wander the streets of this Mardi Gras I still cannot help but feel that it is not time yet to celebrate again in this city. The plight of the Katrina Diaspora remains. The struggle to win public housing is unresolved. The massive land grabs sought by developers and political elites are still percolating. Life in N.O. is still fucked up. Tonight is Baccus, and tomorrow will be big, Tuesday will see Zulu and the Mardi Gras Indians hit the streets. I’ll be there, but I’m not sure how much this party will really make me dance and sing.

It’s funny that so many people come to New Orleans to be part of this big street party. People seek pleasure even at events that turn out to be not all that fun. Maybe big street parties just aren’t my thing because I don’t find Mardi Gras to be that appealing. Then again, I love massive street parties – Thursday’s take over the 217 freeway in California by thousands of UCSB students was at time a tense standoff with the police, a political rally, but at other times a huge street party with drumming, music, dancing, singing and talk. It had that feeling like anything was possible, nothing was choreographed, nothing was privatized, there were no bleachers to view the throngs of people from, you simple had to be a part of it.


Strike to Stop the War

On February 15th the campus is closing down. It’s closing because a student strike against the war has been called. The strike asks that students not go to class, nor buy anything on this day, and instead gather at Pardall Tunell at 1pm for a convergence.

As one of the organizers of the upcoming student strike against war on February 15th I’d like to take the time to clarify a few points about the action and correct a couple of miscommunications.

Why we’re striking?

1. The original justifications for the war have proven false and disingenuous. The president lied to us.
2. The war has costs our nation more than $333 billion and will likely consume upwards of $2-3 billion when all is said and done. This money would better have been spent on college funding and education, healthcare, and on rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Katrina, among other critical needs.
3. Because the war is only getting worse. The last four months have seen more US deaths in Iraq than any other comparable period. According to a rigorous study published in the Lancet medical journal, more than 655,000 Iraqis have been killed. And now the president is “surging” troops?!
4. The Bush administration is now talking about a military strike on Iran.

Why striking makes perfect sense?

1. Gandhi has taught us to always, “act here, act now.” We need to take action where we have power, where we are situated.
2. Striking means withdrawing consent. If we as students continue to go about our lives as though nothing is wrong, then everything that is wrong will only get worse. Striking differs from a protest because we’re actually affecting something in a very instrumental way. Remember what president Bush said about the massive protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003? He called them “focus groups,” and said he pays them no attention. The powers that be can mostly ignore us if we symbolically protest against the war on weekends or between classes. When we start withdrawing consent and shutting things down, then they must listen!
3. The university enables and profits off war! That’s right, the UC is a major military-industrial contractor. Weapons research is conducted on UCSB’s campus; the ROTC program enlists officers into the military and teaches students how to make war; UC manages nuclear bomb design and manufacturing labs for the federal government; and, members of the UC Board of Regents profit off the war and are key supporters of the Bush administration. Even if you think these are legitimate functions of the university the fact of the matter is that our school makes very real material and intellectual contributions to the war. If the war is unjust, if it is criminal, then don’t we have a responsibility to do something? We need to stop being complicit.

On the 15th I’ll be striking for these reasons. There are many more reasons and I encourage people to think about how their lives are impacted by the war and what they can do about it. Hopefully the 15th will be the beginning of something new, where students gain more than just “awareness” about the problem and symbolically oppose it. Hopefully the 15th will give us all a sense of the power that we have to actually change things here and now.