175 arrested for breathing together

Gene, I am gonna make this a kind of open letter, it’s more urgent to write publicly and privately at the same time. I’ll write to you what I’ll publish for everyone.

Urgent means last night, downtown in the park on Congress and Michigan, where a couple thousand people had marched from the corner of the Federal Reserve and the Board of Trade. Urgent means moving in public, speaking with and listening to people you don’t know: feeling the necessity of this movement as the tents go up and the word goes out that the idea is to stay, take this place, create a political heart that beats in this cold city of the corporations.

A group of us came direct from our seminar on Three Crises: 30s–70s–Today. We knew when we began planning it six months ago that “today” was no joke, this is a major crisis of capitalism, the kind that comes once every forty or fifty years. Only in a major crisis does the basis of the system nakedly show: exploitation, corruption, exclusion, domination. And only then, it seems, do all kinds of people think spontaneously and together, including with their bodies and their feet. These are moments that some of us prepare for, the now-time. We opened the seminar on September 17. Only that evening would we learn that the New York occupation had begun. Yes, it’s a good time, an important time, actual possibilities in the USA. At last there is a chance to do something, on the street, in writing, in art, in organizing, these are the days.

Last night was Saturday, and just a few days ago, on Monday, it was even bigger. We were thousands more in the city, coming in from five directions to converge on the Modern Wing of the Art Institute where the futures traders association were convening for a high-class drink. “Shame, Shame, Shame on you” roared the crowd from below. It was the teachers’ unions and the SEIU and the old lefties and the young Occupy Chicago types, a beautiful and powerful composition of social forces that made me feel the streets alive beneath my feet for the first time in years — the years since I returned to the USA. In such a demo the mothers come out with their kids (like Rozalinda and Liana). There is every kind of face and every age, I love it.

I had just gotten back from New York on that Monday afternoon, so I rushed to the foot of the Chicago Board of Trade where the crowd filled a plaza the size of Zuccotti Park aka Liberty Square. It was not so dense as in New York, but the drums and brass orchestras filled that little canyon between tall builidings. We looked up at the blankness of the place where the traders work with their machines, and then we took to the street. I wasn’t with Claire because she had decided to get symbolically arrested in front of the museum that lends its name (probably regretfully) to the school where she teaches. That’s exactly where things are at in the United States today: corrupt, totally corrupt, to the point where no one escapes. To not know it you have to make an effort, and receive a payoff. Which is the norm, the crushing norm. We knew it on Monday, not only because of seeing the traders up there in their glassy rooftop cafe, but also because of seeing the cops coming linked-arms up the street, pushing us off the street, with those horse-mounted bone-crackers right behind them. Resistance is futile. Shame, shame, shame on us! We have nothing in this country, no power, no public space, no free speech, no equality. “Police partout, justice nulle part” I would have said in an earlier life, but never have I seen it so true.

So there we were last night, second time in a week, at this big-small demo. Big for us in here in Zombieland USA where such things do not happen. Small against the backdrop of global trade, trillion-dollar collapses, transnational news ninjas, Presidents of Planet Fear. It’s about the courage of starting small, no? And the courage of not staying small. Avoiding the traps of manipulated violence is one way people hope to make this a lot bigger.

What I like in the Occupy movements is that people speak, individuals, lost souls emerging out of their labyrinths of passion and loss and deep disorientation, with a unique chance to speak as their only way out, their only thread. We had already been on this little plaza where General Assemblies are held, also on that night after the big Monday demo when all the union buses had already gone away. It was only maybe five hundreds then, a radical nakedness of co-presence with the huge skyscrapers at our backs. Some kid from nowhere who hadn’t made it, a young drunk who wasn’t proud, he told us not to repeat with the people’s mic because he wasn’t clever. But he knew exactly what he wanted to say. It was “dead end, no chance, doors closed, please try somewhere else”: what happens when there’s no place for you in the system. It’s strange to feel myself, over fifty years old, with accomplishments and self-discipline and a name that others recognize, reverberated in the speech of this honest kid. What it means to me: dead end for practical idealism, no chance for real cooperation, doors closed to care and solidarity, try somewhere else for your humanity. There’s no place for people like me in this system, that’s how I feel, stripped bare by the crisis like all the rest. It’s because the 1% have blocked all vision of anything beyond what they can grab, and that’s practically everything, the whole cookie.

The 1% is a name for the ruling class, it’s so obvious that the people who know don’t say it to the cameras. Everyone is understanding it as they connect the numbers to the lived experiences. We will have to find words, better words, but before speaking them out loud let’s get bigger.

The Tea Party started here in Chicago when some trader-turned reporter at the Mercantile Exchange started ranting about how all the people with repoed homes were just “losers.” This guy was saying class hatred on national television, he was shaking with excitement because he was really saying “dump the poor.” That’s true TV these days.

Occupiers prefer the human mic that amplifies some body’s speech with dozens and hundreds of others, speech that links breath in solidarity. Not because we don’t want to be heard through our streaming media, not because we don’t want to reach the thousands of speakers and writers and public figures who take up our causes. Just don’t want corporate media-speech — or politicians which are mostly the same thing — to block out the realities of this crisis. On Saturday night at Congress and Michigan, people were grabbing the mic of each other: “I’ve been here since day 4,” “I’m from the janitor’s union,” “We want art and music in our schools,” “Like all the immigrants my name is Maria.” The point was to start a revolution in the now-time. Start tonite with the tents, right here.

Well, it soon became obvious that the choice was not to leave or spend the night right here on the square. The choice was to leave or go to jail. Half the crowd chose to go to jail, but the other half didn’t choose to leave. Resistance is not futile. Hundreds of us stayed just a few yards away for long hours to chant and witness and stare down the police. At one point some tall guy, visibly shocked at the way the arrests were going down, started yelling, “They’re dehumanizing those people.” It was shockingly true. That guy was humanizing himself, and the rest of us. He was remembering something I’m sure he never saw in public space: the respect of one living person for another.

So the news from Athens — where unlike us they really know how to stop business as usual — is that slowly it’s all collapsing, the fabric of daily life is falling apart. And yet no one has a Plan B, there is no replacement for the system. It must be like in Argentina after the 2001 uprising: people filled the streets, police barricaded the stores, some banks went down but in the end, order returned. And although many things had changed for the better, the basic order remained the same.

I think we need a Plan B. I think it takes a tremendous amount of work. My intuition is that the only effective revolution would be an ethical surge in the universities, where people think and connect that thinking to action. I mean in engineering departments, in social sciences, in the deep connection between artistic fictions, philosophical concepts, and values made into concrete machines. I mean a revolution in the pilots’ seats of knowledge that builds another society. This used to be the very idea of Left intellectuals. I don’t buy the idea that we should only riot in the street. Just one thing though: there is no more time for a “long march through the institutions.”

Some guy in New York, he said, what’s important is our questions. What an intellectual does is bear witness. No, I think a collective intellectual actually comes up with Plan B. The A team has been doing it for a long time and the results are atrocious. To question and to bear witness are essential acts on the way to another reality.

Good luck, man.


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