Watering the Tree of Authority

Back in the gloomy days before “hope” (Bush's first term), sometime after the invasion of Iraq, the president flew to California to give a speech on the state of the US economy. It was May of 2003, I think.

I remember some details of the day very well. (A colleague and I even wrote about it a few days afterward.) A carload of hippies, anarchos, punks, and commies (myself included in there somewhere) had driven to Santa Clara and attempted to march on W's event and hold a protest. Bush's people flew into the San Jose Airport and were whisked in an armored motorcade across closed Bay Area freeways at high speed. My friends and I walked with about a hundred other antiwar protesters toward the spot we knew he'd be: the United Defense plant, an arms manufacturer.

We got about two hundred yards from the entrance when we were met by Santa Clara's finest. The cops donned full body armor and carried not only the usual weaponry (handguns, mace and tazers) but also sleek black katana swords and three foot staffs made out of some indestructible polymer - beat down sticks. I remember a horse mounted officer plowing his animal into us. It whinnied and bit my friend's head. Bush's handlers parked a bus perpendicular in the street between us and the plant's entrance ensuring that we couldn't see the motorcade arrive, and Bush wouldn't see us.

I have similar memories of Bush motorcades speeding through the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. I saw W's entourage on two separate occasions. The last time his black sedans and SUVs sped over the Industrial Canal and I think I caught a glimpse of Laura Bush gazing out a Chevy Suburban window. It was hard to tell from so far away.

Each time I remember the president's appearance being defined by a very militaristic police force, beating back the crowds that might gather and preventing us from getting within much distance. I never even tried getting into the carefully managed events his administration would hold from time to time - imitations of town hall meetings and listening sessions. With respect to that day in Santa Clara, getting into the weapons factory by posing as a right wing war supporter wasn't even and option. Security was always heavily armed and paranoid around president Bush. Looking back I can only imagine what would have happened had I toted any kind of weapon to a protest, let alone a firearm. I imagine the police and secret service would have found some excuse to arrest anyone armed with more than a protest sign or a pithy anti-Bush t-shirt.

This is why seeing so many men, mostly white men, across the nation bringing loaded weapons out to protest events where president Obama is scheduled to appear has thrown me for a serious loop. I attended a lot of antiwar rallies during the Bush presidency and I cannot remember a time when I saw any protestor carrying a firearm. I do remember in San Francisco seeing young black masked anarchists tossing newspaper machines through windows and otherwise getting rowdy, but the president wasn't within a thousand miles of that.

How is that it's suddenly okay for anti-government protesters to pack heat in the crowd? Would this have ever happened during the Bush years without the armed citizens being arrested or at least escorted far away from the event? Did it ever happen? I'm not sure I can recall one instance where a citizen brought a gun anywhere near a Bush event.

The confluence of the birthers, the rabid response to health care reform, ascendant right wing populism, this obsession with "socialism"... it seems we are seeing the violent patriarchal underbelly of America on display. I reckon though that we're only seeing a tiny fraction of what's out there. I often debate people about just how conservative and reactionary Americans really are. I think too many folks have taken the election of Obama as a sign that the nation has progressed, that young people and people of color represent the mainstream now, and that this mainstream is good and gentle and bends toward social justice. A lot of commentators are calling these gun-toting men examples of a "delusional" America. It's the same as all of those who laughed at the McCain-Palin campaign and chalked up its defeat to the irrational and backward attitudes of its supporters, who wer are told are a dying social breed. Perhaps they are, but might it not be true that liberals who think they're now in a majority are in fact the ones deluding themselves.

A prediction: as times get tougher (and they're only going to get tougher over the long-haul) we're going to see strong reactionary movements in the US. They will be violently xenophobic, racist and misogynistic. They will act like a toxin to divide the working class. They will be strongest among the white middle and working class. It will be peculiar kind of facism, one that claims to not trust the state, but which eminates from social groups who have controlled the state throughout American history and used it to prop up their privileges and feed their consumerist lifestyles. People are going to die. It will not be pretty. It's coming soon.


"They Can Have It"

I was standing in line for the next teller in the bank the other day when a familiar face walked right up behind me. I turned slowly and looked at her. Yup. “You're Rose Jefferson,” I half asked and half said.

“Uh-huh.” I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she was trying to place my face somewhere back in her memory.

“I'm Darwin. I helped you clean your apartment a couple years back. We put that generator on your neighbor's porch; Sam and I changed the locks and gave you all keys, and, well damn we lost didn't we? But we put up one hell of a fight.”

Rose was a resident of the CJ Peete (a.k.a. Magnolia) housing development, one of New Orleans' big four public housing neighborhoods that was demolished in 2008. She was the strongest and most stubborn of CJ Peete's tenants that I can remember. Rose and quite a few others resisted demolition of their homes almost till the very end. They had reoccupied their apartments on several occasions and cleaned them up with help from organizers like me. I remember her telling me she raised two kids in Magnolia. I can still see the bedrooms in her apartment with their big wooden bed frames fit tightly into little comfortable rooms. Her place, right on the development's south side fronting Washington Avenue, hadn't flooded in the storm. When we came by one day in 2006 to clean mold off the walls and floors we were wiping up small patches of rot that was pretty much entirely due to the fact that the Housing Authority had locked people like Rose out of her home.

Rose asked me, “what are you up to these days?” I told her I was doing the same old stuff, trying to help public housing residents fight for affordable housing in the city. She smiled and said “okay.” I couldn't tell if she thought I were foolish or headstrong. Perhaps both. She always seemed like a hard-headed realist to me. Rose fought for her home and for her community until she saw the writing on the wall. A lot of CJ Peete's residents did. But when the City Council vote ensured demolitions, Rose and others pulled back from the demonstrations, meetings, and direct actions. Life is a struggle and people constantly measure the risks they take against their chances of success. When the game is up, it's up. People know when to take a different path and pick new battles.

I asked Rose, “are you going to get one of those new apartments their building where Peete was?”

She growled, “oh no! I'm not trying to mess with that no more.”

“You still live over there though?”

“Yeah, I'm still back in the neighborhood [Central City around Washington and La Salle] but I don't want nothing to do with that new development. They can have it.”

Rose is like a lot of public housing residents, from the Desire to St. Bernard, who have been so abused and harmed by the Housing Authority and the developers that they have given up. The authorities and redevelopment corporations promised them happy, new “mixed-income” neighborhoods, but only after being locked out of their homes for years, followed by mass demolitions, several more years of planning and reconstruction; in the end the new developments will only take on a small fraction of the former residents. Many tenants will simply not qualify for a public housing apartment in the ridiculously named new urbanist villages companies like Columbia Residential are building.

Many more like Rose so distrust the Housing Authority, the developers, and the city at large that they have given up on believing in a democratic city. They've moved on to struggle quietly against the odds, for now.

[Note: "Rose Jefferson" is not her real name. A pseudonym is being used to respect her anonymity.]


"god" comes down to earth one night

“god” comes down to earth one night, surreptitiously. A man walking down the street approaches. “god” heard through the great eternal grapevine that the humans, some of them with airs, wrote book claiming “God” —some big benevolent and ass kicking white guy in the sky— made them in his image and did a bunch of other crazy and messed up things like kill his own son to teach the humans... okay, enough of that, you get the point, probably cause you're one of them whether you want to be or not. It's a crazy boat you're in, human. The ideological goop is so thick it sticks to you no matter if you try to shake it off.

So “god” is here to check out the results of what then has to be the most narcissistic culture ever produced. The only problem is that nature, the great eternal unwinding fantastical grapevine, has a lag time, of a couple thousand years at least. Humans are really good at telescoping things, speeding them up. so “god” don't know anymore which “God” to even look for.

god [now in the form of a human being, how's that for irony?] walks right on up to the man approaching and says, “hey, uh....” Well, yeah, what do you say? How do you begin a conversation about some really heavy stuff, your species being, the identity, and the future of “civilization,” on the street, at 10pm, while this poor guy is probably headed home? The stranger, a human being, does what any well-adjusted person of this culture, time, and place would; he looks slightly curious, annoyed, suspicious, pulls out some change and hands it to “god.”

“Here buddy.” He walks off.

Yes, curious, annoyed, suspicious, pulls out some change, and hands it to the stranger, who he doesn't know is “god,” by why should that matter anyhow?

god concludes that had she created this culture she'd sooner kill herself. Then again she just might be doing that. Thank god, or God, or whoever that culture isn't nature, it's man and woman made and unmade and changeable, and we really could get rid of money and all the other creepy spooky monsters holding us back from really good free living.


Social Control

Scene: me sitting on a stoop in a back alley parallel to Conti St., Iberville apartments, New Orleans, USA (the USA part is important).

Pigeons are pecking at the mud around the driveway while smaller birds dart among them. A young man washes his car a few doors down. Across from him a woman sits talking on her cellphone. It's bright and sunny. I'm leafing through a notebook waiting for a friend to arrive. My friend lives in Iberville, the city's last big traditional public housing development. We work together on housing rights and economic rights issues.

A police cruiser pulls up in front of me. The officer, slouched down comfortably in his seat removes his ray-ban glasses, looks out of the corner of his eyes and gives me a hand signal, his fingers barley curling back while his palm pulls toward his chin, like some Marlon Brando tough guy godfather beckoning "come here." I can hardly hear what he actually says, but it's something like "get over here."

"Good afternoon officer."

"What you doing back here?"

"Excuse me?"

"Where do you stay at? I don't recognize you. Why are you here?"

"I'm waiting on a friend."

"You're trespassing."

"Um, this is public property and I'm waiting on a friend. We have an appoint...."

"This is private property. You're trespassing. You have ID? Give it to me."

[I pull out my license and hand it to officer so-and-so who instantly begins running it.]

"You ever been to jail."


"For what? Drugs?"

"I don't do drugs. Do you do drugs?"

[Officer so-and-so don't like that one, he looks over at me square in the eyes.]

"You're trespassing. This is not public property. It's private property, HANO property. You understand that?"

"The Housing Authority is a public entity. This is federal land. I understand that there are restrictions, but I came back here to meet a friend who lives here. There's nothing illega...."

"You're trespassing. Look, I ain't ever seen you back here before. People who don't live back here only come back here for a few things, and they ain't good. How do you know this, er, your friend? What's their name?"

"We work together. Her name is _______"

[Officers so-and-so pulls down a big list from his sun visor and begins scanning it. Police who patrol New Orleans public housing developments have complete lists of the lease holders and other authorized residents. If you're not on the list or you don't know someone on the list, you'll be taken to jail for trespassing. He finds my friend's name and seems annoyed that I'm telling the truth, but still rolls the idea of arresting me over in his head a few times.]

"What do you mean you work together?"

"I'm an organizer. I work on housing rights issues. For example, last I checked this is the United States and we have a constitution, and it guarantees freedom of association. Some would say you riding around arbitrarily stopping people you don't recognize and running their IDs and telling them they're 'trespassing' is a violation of the freedom of association...."

"Look, you might have some fancy words for all this stuff, but you're trespassing and I don't arbitrarily enforce any rules. It applies all the same to everyone...."

"Okay, so do you cruise around Uptown pulling people over for being in certain neighborhoods, and do you ask them for ID and who they know who stays back there? Do your rules apply to people who live in those new fancy apartments they just built up off Tulane Ave.?"

"How'd you get here, you walk?"

"I rode my bike."

[His computer pops up my record which is clean as a whistle, thank goodness. He hands me back my ID.]

"I've been working back here twelve years. You have no idea the kind of stuff that happens back here. I see someone new, I'm going to stop them."

"I've been stopped by you all back here before. Each time it's the same. Maybe if there weren't so much energy put into making this place like a prison, and more put into keeping the grounds nice and providing good, affordable housing there'd be less crime, then you could take it easy...."

[Iberville swarms with police. The development is slated to have dozens of "crime cameras" installed soon. It's trespassing laws are only the tip of the iceberg so far as the social control mechanisms in place that make living it it very difficult. Other developments have even stricter rules banning music outside, drinking on your porch, banning guests after certain times, and holding residents responsible for litter on the grass in front of their buildings. My friend and I have actively campaigned for the repeal of these draconian laws. Residents can be evicted over things as simple as littler or a misdemeanor drug offense committed by a family member. Over in the Guste development I once met a woman who was afraid to change the head nozzle on her shower for fear that she would get in trouble during her inspection.]

"I don't know about that but it sounds like something you should fight in court. Out here the rules are the rules, the law is the law."

"I can imagine, that sounds fair enough. I appreciate you're concern and the work you do keeping residents safe from outsiders, but don't you think...."

"Look, watch yourself."

[Officer so-and-so drives off. Around the corner some young-dumb white boy with a scenesterish mustache is passed out shit-faced drunk in a gutter between two cars. He's wearing a tight fitting red dress, tennis shoes, and is drooling a mighty pool. Police cars and an ambulance are arriving to carry him off. Another tourist who wandered off Bourbon St. and across Rampart]