Starhawk Articles from Reclaiming Quarterly
Starhawk.org - writings, workshops, online events, and more!
Dancing the Spiral: A Companion to the Writings of Starhawk - our new book!
Starhawk's earlier RQ features can be found on our archives site: ReclaimingQuarterly.org
RQ#91 - The Living River: Toward an Activist Spirituality
RQ#91 - Review of Direct Action: An Historical Novel by Luke Hauser
RQ#92 - Siempre Victoria: The Cancun WTO Convergence
RQ#97 - The Price of an Orange (For Rachel Corrie & Tom Hurndall)
The Road Forward (from RQ #96 - Winter 2005)
On election night, I felt an intensity of grief, rage and anguish that rivaled any of the worst nights of my life. Not so much that Kerry lost, but that millions of people could vote for Bush, apparently because they define "morality" as preventing two people who love each other from making a legally-recognized commitment, while turning a blind eye to a regime that has invaded another country for totally invalidated reasons, lied to the American people, legitimized sexual torture, and all the rest of it.
It's enough to challenge one's faith not just in Americans, but in the essential goodness of human beings. Can we apply to join another species? The wolves, perhaps?
I want to acknowledge my own grief, rage and despair. People often look to me for words of hope, and I have some, but they come only when I let myself feel just as rotten and awful as I'm sure you do. Van Jones, organizer of Books Not Bars here in the Bay Area, says we need to learn to grieve as a movement, and also to celebrate - and the two are linked. This is a moment to grieve, which means also to yell and scream and be mad as hell, to question whether life makes any sense at all, and then maybe to crawl under the covers and rest, for a bit.
The day after the election, I really didn't want to get out of bed, but I went to the demonstration anyway. I would have liked to curl up in fetal position and sleep for possibly the next four years, but I roused myself to go down to the plaza and join those hardcore souls who had planned to rally and march for health care regardless of who won. I did it because I felt it is exactly what we need to do, the counterintuitive thing - advance instead of retreat, carry on, see our friends, support each other, share our grief, rage and shock. It felt good, to march down Market Street, to stop at the hotels where workers are striking and support them, to make some small, renewed effort at continuing to build the alliances we need.
All day I kept thinking about the vision I had at our Spiral Dance ritual a few nights before - the certainty that we are on the good road. I remembered that John Kerry said, "You can be certain and still be wrong." But I also remembered the voice I heard in the vision saying over and over: "The good road does not look very different, at its beginning, from any other road."
We all know that the changes we need to make are deep and systemic, that no politician=s victory will make them for us. Had Kerry won, I believe we would be on an easier road. Now the way ahead will be hard and stony, but it may be clearer and there may be unexpected twists and turns ahead. And it may yet turn out to be steeper but shorter than the easier path.
Many good things happened in the last few weeks. We mobilized many, many people to become active and engaged. Many progressives set aside their own deep disappointment with many of Kerry's positions to work hard to assure access to voting for all, and to prevent the worst abuses of the electoral process. We strengthened many of the coalitions we will need to transform power in this country and the world. Although the media and the Republicans will try to spin this as a mandate for the worst of Bush=s policies, we have built a broader, deeper, more committed opposition than we have seen in this country in a long, long time. Now we must nurture those alliances and turn opposition into a clearer, positive alternative vision - and a longterm strategy for getting there.
We need time to reflect. It is easy to rush into analysis and blame and learn the wrong things. So I want to be cautious in offering thoughts prematurely on what we should do now.
However, one lesson I take away from is this: As progressives, as radicals, those of us who are far left of the left, anarchists even, cannot afford to ignore or disdain the electoral process. Not because we see it as fair or just or empowering C which it is not C nor even a potential arena for power, but because it is a powerful arena for mobilizing people and building the alliances we need to transform power.
There are some things we can do immediately. We can contact our senators and representatives and demand a full and thorough investigation into all the voting irregularities, especially the voting machines that gave results so mysteriously at odds with the exit polls. Whether or not the number of missed votes would have elected Kerry this time, we need to push for clean and fair elections for the times ahead.
We can support each other. As I've been traveling around the country, I see many progressive groups faltering or splintering not over deep political divisions but out of frustration with interpersonal conflicts. Maybe it=s time to take a deep breath, think of one irritating ally you have trouble getting along with, and resolve to allow them just a little more leeway for being imperfect and human. We will never have the luxury of building a movement solely of likeable, congenial friends. We need to develop more skills for resolving conflicts among us, and a realization that even annoying people can still have common goals and take common action together. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen our solidarity, give each other comfort and succor, know that we are all in this together, and together we can make it through.
We can start thinking about how to build our base, pro-actively. The right wing came to power by starting small and local, taking over school boards, organizing door to door and house to house. We can create living examples of alternatives in our communities, making our positive visions real. We can turn our frustration, rage and disappointment into creative action.
Last night, we had a beautiful march of maybe five thousand people, all the way through San Francisco from downtown out to the neighborhood where I live, exuberant, defiant, saying, "We're still here!" We came back home, shared food and conversation and frustration and sorrow with good friends and neighbors, experiencing the healing balm of community.
And I remembered, marching, that we are on the good road when we choose to be, with each step. When we choose compassion, choose freedom, choose hope, choose to resist injustice, choose to serve life. We do have a hard road ahead, and making those choices will not be easy. It will require an effort of will, like it did to get out of bed and go downtown to march. It will require sustained, stubborn effort when times get tough. Making systemic change is like home renovation - it always takes at least twice as long and costs twice as much as you expect.
But we can still step out onto that good road, if we refuse to give up, refuse to go back, refuse to hide, refuse to flee. And instead, with courage, with hearts open and open eyes, let us take hands and go forward together.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of ten books, including her latest, "The Earth Path." She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills, and works with the RANT trainer's collective. For teaching/travel schedule and other writings by Starhawk, visit Starhawk.org
Thinking About a Twenty-Year Plan (from RQ#98)
Recently, the Pagan Cluster decided to begin considering the question of our twenty-year plan. After all, if long range planning worked to get the neocons and right wing Fundamentalists into power, why shouldn’t it work for us?
The idea has sparked a lot of interesting thinking and imagination, and some resistance. In one email, a friend quotes a woman as saying that she’s a powerful Witch and if she thinks about the future she’ll create it — climate change crisis, peak oil, whatever.
I say, hey, if she’s that powerful, tell her to think fast, and think of something good! I know I’m not powerful enough to create the future merely by contemplating it — in fact that’s one of the beginner’s fallacies about magic, that our thoughts alone make things happen.
Actually, it takes a particular type of thought — directed, focused, intentional, and imagistic, in a particular state of consciousness, directing energies through images — to make things happen. And even then we’re often working against some big opposition. But I digress.
What came up for me when I actually began thinking about a twenty-year strategy is how deeply uncertain I am about what the world may be like in twenty years. Here are some possibilities:
Things Stay More or Less The Same: That is, those who hold power continue to accrue more, but slowly and subtly enough that they don’t provoke a crisis. The holders of wealth continue to concentrate wealth, but not so blatantly that the rest of us realize we’re being sucked dry. The weather continues to be odd, but the worst effects of climate change are still felt mostly in out-of-the-way third-world countries that global power holders can pretty much ignore. We go on to wage the War du Jour, year after year — but not on our turf. Civil rights and social programs are continually eroded, but gradually. New products, new techno-toys, new reality TV shows keep us all fully occupied and distracted.
In which case, we might wage a long-term campaign to slowly persuade the rest of the world to adopt more just and ecological values (which, in fact, is what we have been doing for the last twenty years), strengthen our own networks, and maybe look at ways to pool our collective resources to increase them and to extend our support for one another. In addition, we might act to shake up the equilibrium of the system, wake people up, make visible the real destructiveness of the system and thus bring about change — which we have also been attempting to do.
Enlightened Capitalism Saves Itself: The architects of our current system realize that shifting to renewable, sustainable sources of energy and reducing or eliminating pollutants is good business and a great long-term investment. And that the best way to assure the continuity of the current system would be to lessen the greed of those in control so that everyone could have enough, to assure strong social safety networks and supports. And that unless we forestall global warming, no one will be doing much business. The resources of the private sector and government resources are poured into renewable energy and other ways to restore health and balance to the planet. In which case, we could all join in, invest in renewable energy stocks, and shelve our dreams of deeper change.
We’re on the Titanic: And the idiotic Captains are running full steam ahead into the iceberg of climate change and global environmental collapse. Various scenarios branch out from here, depending on whether we believe:
We’re About to Hit the Iceberg: In which case we should be doing all we can to turn the ship or grab controls away from the current Captains.
We’ve Already Hit the Iceberg: Global climate change is already massively damaging and probably irreversible. The ship is filling with water — we just don’t notice because we’re on the upper decks and the orchestra is playing. A variation on this might be: We’re about to hit the iceberg but we cannot succeed in turning the ship. In both cases, we should be madly building lifeboats. Where those lifeboats go, however, is determined by other factors, such as whether we believe we’re facing:
Death by Fire: The world gets hotter and hotter, major areas become uninhabitable, lowlands drown and real estate in the Yukon starts looking good:
Death by Ice: Global warming triggers changes that make various parts of the world much colder. The Gulf Stream (which is already slowing!) shuts down and Scotland, Ireland and England become a new Siberia. Alternatively, global warming somehow triggers a new Ice Age and that Yukon real estate is buried under a mile of ice, along with most of the North American continent.
Death by Plague: Escaped biowarfare germs or natural microbes spread some massive epidemic that takes most or all or just a whole lot of us out. A new virulent influenza, Marburg or Ebola, an AIDs-like virus spread by coughing—take your choice. In which case there’s not a whole hell of lot we can do, except perhaps to start stockpiling healing herbs and growing medicinal mushrooms.
Fascist Takeover: The power holders consolidate their power in the face of the massive social disruption caused by any or all of the above scenarios, and institute even more draconian levels of control.
The Great Turning
Or, because we live in a universe where miracles do happen, we could actually achieve — The Great Turning/Global Revolution!
“The Great Turning” is Johanna Macy’s phrase for the massive change in consciousness that could bring about a new order of social justice and ecological balance. Some form of massive shift in power would accompany this. Power would be reconceived, not just transferred from one group of power-mongers to another. Human beings as a whole would be empowered to make the decisions that shape their fate, to be actors, not just spectators on the stage of history.
The Fifth Sacred Thing Scenario (Some of All of the Above)
About fifteen years ago, during the first Gulf War, I wrote a novel set in 2048 that encompasses a bit of all the scenarios above. Global climate change, environmental disasters and massive epidemics have reduced human population and left areas isolated. Southern California has gone through the Fascist Takeover: Northern California has achieved The Great Turning. Then the southlands invade the north...
This was a scenario in part crafted according to the demands of fiction, but as I think about it it does make sense. Whatever the future holds it will not be unitary, but diverse. Some places might get better, others worse. Some communities might fall under tight control, others become more liberated.
So what do we do? Morally, I believe that if there’s even a chance we might avoid the iceberg, we have to do everything within our power to turn the ship. Some other time I’ll speculate on how. Right now I just want to think about a plan to support and nurture each other while we do that.
First, let’s consider a few certainties:
We hold something of value to the world and we want to see it be sustained, grow, thrive, and be available to others. (Let’s just take this as true and not argue, okay?)
If we don’t die first, we’ll get older. As we get older, our needs for care and material support will increase.
Eventually we will die. Something will have to be done to dispose of our corpses.
If we want our tradition and our values to carry on, they must continually be passed onto a new generation.
Reclaiming represents a broad, extended community of interest, but to really offer each other the kind of tangible, ongoing support we will need through tough times and into middle and old age, we need communities of place, people around us who can come by and cook a meal, watch a child, change a tire if not the world. Right now it seems that half the people I know are dreaming of buying land in the country together. In a recent post to the Spider list, Katrina suggested instead forming urban groups, consortiums to pool resources, co-ops to buy food together. In my own life, I’ve lived collectively for over twenty years, and while it’s worked well for us, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. A cohousing model, where people share some resources and connections but have clear, private space, is much easier to make workable. A strong neighborhood full of friends and allies is even easier. I’ve bought land collectively, and disastrously, in an area where many people started out to form communes, and ended by forming a neighborhood, an extended area where we do know each other, help each other, work together on projects and socialize together, but where we don’t have to argue about how messy your living room is.
Pagans aren’t generally phenomenally wealthy, but we do have resources. What if we thought about pooling them in neighborhoods and networks of various kinds? Buying land, or houses, or forming land trusts to take land off the speculative market, not necessarily with each other, but near each other? Looking for ways we can begin to meet tangible needs by pooling resources How many of us don’t have health insurance? How many are paying for it individually and privately? How many send kids to private school, or summer camps? How many would like to have some Pagan programs for them?
This is not a terribly radical proposal. It won’t turn the ship around, or transform the structures of power. But it might give more of us a strong, healthy base from which to do the work of furthering the Great Turning.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of ten books, including her latest, The Earth Path. She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills, and works with the RANT trainer’s collective. For teaching/travel schedule and other writings by Starhawk, visit www.starhawk.org
My Personal Journey (from RQ #99 - Mid-2008)
A few years ago, I spent a month in Scotland helping to design and build an ecovillage encampment for the protests against the G8. As part of that work, we had to present our plans for graywater installations and composting toilets to the relevant local authorities, including members of the town council of Stirling, the small city that had given us land to camp on.
I went before the committee with plans, drawings, graphs and photographs, and introduced myself. One of the members smiled and nodded.
"Ah, Starhawk," he said. "I know your work."
That was gratifying, and our plans were approved with no difficulties. At the end, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed.
"As I said, I’ve read a number of your books. I understand why you’d be involved in the political aspects of this. But what I don’t understand is, why the compost toilets?"
From trancing with the faeries to shoveling shit—that sort of describes the trajectory of my life and work over the last few years. Why, indeed, would anyone take that path?
For me, it’s a direct outgrowth of my deepest understanding of the Goddess — that She is life itself, and that connection with the Goddess means embracing the sacredness of all of life. Moreover, it means that this world itself is the terrain of our spiritual journey, the place where our growth and development is enacted, where our challenges are faced and our truths are lived.
From that point of view, taking responsibility for our own shit, on every level, is a spiritual necessity. There is no myth more fascinating, no realm of spirit or faerie more strange, exotic and entrancing, than the amazing creatures of the microbial world whose birth, growth, death, and decay makes compost out of waste. For gardeners, soil builders and Earth healers, there is no greater treasure than compost, with its recycled nutrients and complex colonies of microbial life.
My original attraction to the Goddess, as a young woman, was to her femaleness, to images of what Carol Christ calls "beneficent female power" that were so lacking in the world I grew up in. My actual encounters with the Goddess, with that deep sense of interconnection, awe and wonder and love that infuse the universe, were always in nature. Throughout the eighties and nineties, as I became more and more aware of the grave ecological crises we face, I began to feel a deep pull to do more than chant and sing about healing the Earth, but to learn some practical techniques for doing it. "Grow food," I was told in trance. "Teach people to grow food."
I first heard about perma-culture when I was writing early drafts of The Fifth Sacred Thing, from a friend who had taken a design course. I began reading about it, talking to practitioners, and learning, but it wasn’t until 1996 that I was able to take a course myself, with my friend Penny Livingston-Stark.
Permaculture is a system of ecological design, a set of ethics and principles that guide us in developing human systems that can meet our needs while regenerating the natural environment around us. While food growing systems are probably its primary application, it can also be applied to social systems, living systems, urban planning — pretty much every human endeavor. I found it a helpful framework for learning the practical skills of Earth healing and for developing and implementing real solutions to our environmental problems.
I’ve always been an activist — for me, the understanding that the Goddess is immanent in nature and human beings means you can’t just sit back and let idiots destroy Her without trying to do something about it. After the successful blockade of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, I dove into a period of frenetic activism as the global justice movement grew — in part because I had lived long enough to know that movements are like waves, you have to catch them when they are rolling in, and know that they don’t last forever.
In the mobilizations against the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the G8, I met thousands of activists, many of them young and on fire with fervor for social justice. But many of them, I found, did not know what the solutions were. In permaculture and related movements, I knew hundreds of skilled designers, gardeners, builders and inventors who had amazing solutions, but often didn’t seem to recognize the vested interests and power structures that were keeping them from being put into place.
So in May of 2001, Penny and I began teaching a new kind of permaculture course, one which would have its grounding in Earth-based spirituality and would also incorporate training in organizing, political strategy, and direct action. We called the course Earth Activist Training.
We’ve been teaching them ever since — and in fact, now more of my time goes into EAT courses than Witchcamps — in part because around the same time I pulled back from teaching most of the Witchcamps in order to leave space for others to step forward into leadership.
EAT courses are two weeks long, and while we begin and end every day with ritual and weave magic into much of our teaching and work, we spend less time in intense ritual than at a typical Witchcamp, and more time learning practical skills and the science and theory behind them. A typical day involves a morning circle where we create sacred space and learn a magical skill, a longer morning session devoted to some aspect of earth healing — water harvesting, natural methods for cleansing soil and water from toxins, sustainable forestry, etc. and an afternoon session where we put that skill into practice. In the evening, we might have a slideshow, a ritual, a guest speaker, or an interactive session. It’s intense, but I find the balance of theory, magic, and hands-on is also renewing, and not exhausting in quite the same way as spending a week doing three-times-a-day trance as at Witchcamp.
Out of the EAT courses has emerged an approach to activism that applies the magical principle that we are stronger when we work for what we want, and not just against what we don’t want. EAT students created a Green Bloc to bring permaculture techniques into mobilizations — both teaching workshops and also providing infrastructure for encampments. They’ve locked down in community gardens to protect them and carried plants into the streets to protest genetic engineering. They’ve enticed some of the thousands who come to mobilizations to put energy into local community gardens. They’ve even built a mobile, bicycle-driven composting toilet to provide relief for those long blockades.
That was how I ended up in that council meeting in Scotland, building compost toilets for the encampment to protest the G8. But it was later that same year, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, that we felt a call to take the work to yet another level.
As New Orleans lay in ruins, torn by the elements and abandoned by the federal government, a group called Common Ground Relief formed and put out a call for activists to come down and help resist attempts by the military to forcibly evacuate those who had managed to remain in the city, and also to offer services which FEMA, the Red Cross, and the National Guard were utterly failing to provide. The Pagan Cluster, our group of Reclaiming-inspired magical activists, organized ourselves to go down and help out.
I went because for my whole life I had always had a sense that our present system is unsustainable and would ultimately crash and fall apart. Katrina, a hurricane intensified by the warm seas of global warming, seemed like the harbinger of things to come. I wanted to see what the world looked like when everything had fallen apart, and whether or not our skills, organizing methods, and magic had anything to offer.
What I found was a place devastated beyond imagining, almost surreal in its zones of complete destruction and other areas that were physically intact but emptied of people. It was a place where every large-scale system, from the government to the Red Cross, was virtually nonfunctional, and where the most effective work was being done by small scale, self-organized grassroots groups like Common Ground Relief. We picked up garbage and helped distribute supplies. Some Pagan Cluster members volunteered at the clinic, while others helped in the main organizing — some ended up spending months and years in New Orleans. I found that we did indeed have valuable skills and methods to offer — and also that we did not have the ability to employ them at the scale that was needed. I’m still digesting that insight.
A small group of us — myself, Juniper, Lisa, Scotty from the Rhizome Collective in Austin — began a bio-remediation project to bring to the community some of the low-tech methods of healing soil from toxins. We worked with local permaculturalists and were given use of a community garden. We brewed up actively-aerated compost teas to break down biofuels and planted Indian mustard greens and sunflowers to uptake heavy metals. We tested soil and seeded selected areas with mushroom mycelium to transform toxins to compost.
I learned a tremendous amount from the project — in no small part, about our own limitations. And the experience left me with a great sense of urgency, in preparing for and attempting to mitigate the disasters to come.
There’s a Native American proverb that goes, "If we don’t change our direction, we’re going to end up where we’re headed." Where we’re headed, without a major, fast, global shift in our technology, food production, economics, and values, is a world of multiple Katrinas, intensified storms, rising seas, drowned coastal cities, drought, famine, and the wars that come in their wake.
We still have a small window of time to avoid that fate, and we have the knowledge we need to do it. I believe we bear a special responsibility, those of us who love the Goddess, who honor the sacredness of life, who draw our sense of renewal and our vitality from contact with the elements and the natural world. We belong in the forefront of the movement to heal our damaged earth, to learn the skills and tools for doing so, and to agitate for public policies to put those skills to work. There’s no more vital work we can do at this moment in history.
How do we begin? There are, of course, changes we can make individually, from changing lightbulbs to driving less and walking more.
But the big changes we need to make are at larger than individual levels. The first step is to educate ourselves. Read, take courses, learn what the policies are that we should advocate for. My latest book, The Earth Path, is full of helpful suggestions, and there is no lack of information around us now.
Many people in our extended community have these skills to offer. Midwest Witchcamp at Diana’s Grove, where I’ll be teaching in June 2008, has a theme of Priestessing Gaia. Feral and I will offer a path on the microcosm, where we’ll look through the microscope at the world of tiny life around us and explore it with all our magical tools. Other paths will focus on nature awareness. Within the Reclaiming community are many gifted teachers offering ways to open up more deeply to the natural world. You can come take an Earth Activist Training course, or find other courses in your area. I’d like to see Reclaiming develop a new core course—an Elements course that focuses on the practical earth-healing aspects of each of the elements. Ecoliteracy can become a core part of our magical and spiritual teaching.
Then organize. Change your lightbulbs—and get your workplace to change all of theirs. Grow a garden—and get your kids’ school to start one and to teach more of their lessons in the garden and fewer indoors. Re-use your graywater, and get your town or county to legalize graywater re-use, train people how to do it safely, and understand its connection to climate change. (Huge amounts of fossil fuel energy are used to pump water. Conserving water means reducing that carbon load.)
Take your magical and spiritual practice outdoors. Keep on with your inward focused meditations—but also step outside and practice being present with all your senses, observing the natural world. Bring your magical awareness into the everyday acts we do to take responsibility for our impact on the planet. Making compost is a profoundly sacred act. When we become conscious of what we do with our wastes, when we learn to transform them into fertility, we also heal ourselves.
Plant trees. Build soil. Grow food. Express your love of the Goddess with head and heart, but also with your hands. Put them into the dirt, and let them become her healing hands, transforming waste to food, regenerating life.
US Social Forum (from RQ 101 - Mid-2010)
Detroit — June 22-26, 2010
June 23 — We’re Here!
I flew into Detroit last night with two wonderful women from the Hunters Point Family agency, a san Francisco group which our Earth Activist Trainings partners with. Lena Miller directs the agency and Jasmine Marshall runs the Peacekeeper program.
We arrived just at the moment Detroit’s Riverfest culminated in a massive fireworks display. A million people went down to the river to watch — which made reaching our motel a challenge. We finally had to abandon our taxi and walk the last block, with all our bags.
We got there to find the streets humming with people, a party in progress in the parking lot, barbecues happening on patches of grass by the sidewalks, and the sky alight with the thunder and a rain of light and color.
We got settled and headed out to find food. I have to say it was a different experience for me, walking down the street in those crowds and crowds of people, mostly young, mostly black, all of them dressed to look good. The whole city was drenched in heat haze and pheromones, and I enjoyed seeing it a bit through the eyes of much younger women who were looking pretty good themselves — and definitely attracting far more male attention than I ever do on my own these days.
Jasmine, who is twenty-three, was so excited. “I can’t believe it — all these black people out on the streets, just chillin’, having a good time, and nobody shuttin’ it down! Why can’t we have that in the Bayview?”
And it’s true — with all the economic devastation of Detroit, there are thousands of people out here enjoying themselves, wearing short shorts and gold platform shoes. A trio of trumpeters in an empty lot blast out a riff. A couple of trombone players across the street answer them — and they play back and forth, a musical conversation in the street.
Why can’t we have it in the Bayview? There’s a long history that goes back to the bulldozing of San Francisco’s Fillmore District back in the 60s for redevelopment, destroying a thriving and lively Black community. To the closing of the naval shipyard, once the biggest employer in the Bayview, and the resulting unemployment, poverty, and the residues of toxic wastes. And most immediately, to the intertwined gang violence and police violence. More people die violently per capita in the Bayview than in Iraq, or so I’ve heard. The infant mortality rate in the Bayview is on par with Haiti or Bulgaria.
As I’m writing, Jasmine and Lena are gossiping and the conversation moves to all the young men they know who are dead. Jasmine says, “My whole age group is gone. All the boys I grew up with — they’re all gone.” Dead, or in prison.
We spend a lazy morning, sleeping in, and finally make our way down to Cobo Hall, the big convention center that houses registration for the Social Forum, then on to the march.
The march is quite wonderful — colorful, lively, not painfully loud, but mostly what’s wonderful is the incredible diversity of people. As Lena puts it, “It’s not only every type of person, but every shade and variety of every type.” Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, every race, age, style of dress, and political persuasion seems represented. There are environmentalists carrying sunflowers and a contingent of domestic workers in magic T-shirts. There are a couple of anarchists with black flags and Revolutionary workers selling newspapers and big puppets of Martin Luther King with recordings of his speeches playing. A brass band plays and four young people in pink T-shirts dance. Two clowns walk by on stilts, and drummers play a samba beat.
The march is a beautiful vision of what a real social movement could be. Ironically, we march through downtown Detroit, an area blasted and blighted by the city’s economic losses. Vast areas are simply empty — full of weeds, with here and there a burned-out carcass of a house. Beautiful stone churches, relics of a time when there was money and jobs, loom over vacant lots. The old Detroit Free Press building, a dignified stone castle, is now boarded over with a sign offering free rents to any enterprise that would venture to locate there. Faded signs grace the tattered marquees of boarded-over department stores. London had more signs of life after the blitz.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any enemy nation inflicting more damage on a city than has been done here by capitalism at its most irresponsible and brutal.
Through the devastation winds this lively and beautiful march, a sign of hope and resilience. If there’s any hope for our poor country and our battered world, any chance we can turn our direction around toward real justice and balance, it lies in the people here, this beautiful coming together across all the divides.
June 24 — a New World from the Ashes of the Old
Settling into the conference. We get up late, but I manage to catch most of a morning workshop led by an environmental network of youth — so sweet to sit in a circle with all these beautiful young people, so very diverse, and hear them make connections between social justice and environmental issues.
I run into Jim Haber, an old buddy from San Francisco who does interfaith organizing around the Nevada Test Site and peace and justice issues. He’s asking me if any of the folks in the Bayview are interested in making the connection between the funding cuts for social issues and the war — when a black woman of about my age who is sitting at a table taps us and points at her button, which says “A million a day”.
“That’s why I can’t get a job,” she says. “We’re spending a million a day on those wars.”
We show our video of the permaculture work in the Bayview, which you can see for yourself at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bdKgBt6LbE
Lena talks about Hunters Point Family, the agency she started when she was only twenty-three. She created a program for girls, Girls 2000, to help be a safe haven from the violence around them, to build their skills and self-esteem, and to provide the resources that might be lacking in their homes.
Lena is an impressive speaker. She’s honest and passionate and people respond to her sense of vision, the same vision that drew me in to help support their work with the gardens.
Then Jasmine talks. She has such an engaging, confident, radiant personality, telling us about coming up in the program herself and now being a Case Manager for the girls. She runs the Girls Group and she’s young enough to be kind of a big sister to them.
I talk about our Earth Activist Trainings and how we came to be involved in the Bayview. One part of EAT’s mission statement says, “To bring the knowledge and resources of regenerative ecological design to communities with the greatest needs and fewest resources.“ When a friend introduced me to Lena, and I heard her vision of the Bayview becoming the “green jewel in the crown of the Emerald City,” I knew we could support that work.
We talk about what has worked well in our collaboration — a strong, shared vision is the beginning. Respecting the community — coming in with questions, listening rather than slapping down ready-made solutions, employing the permaculture principle of thoughtful and protracted observation — all that is key.
Most of all, keeping the goal firmly on capacity-building for the community, on transferring knowledge and skills even when sometimes that means sacrificing efficiency or immediate results.
Then we open it up to questions and discussion from the audience. Aresh, who started Homes with Gardens in the Bronx, talks about some of the legal issues in New York and their efforts to defend community gardens.
Shea Howell talks about the Detroit Summer urban gardens and offers to take us to see them. A young woman who is organizing against mountain-top removal coal mining asks some thoughtful questions. All and all — a great time!
The evening, like everything, is double-scheduled. I catch some of the plenary to hear Grace Boggs, an amazing Detroit organizer now in her nineties. She and her husband, Jimmie Boggs, who is now dead, have been the center of much of the creative and transformative work here for decades.
She and other great organizers from Detroit talk about the movement history of the city. The point they make, over and over again, is that Detroit is a strong center of resistance and resilience. With all that’s happened to the city,” Grace says, “we continue to come back with something new.”
When we get chased out, finally, I end up back at the plenary sitting next to Jim Haber. We decide to go out to the Anchor Bar to hear David Rovics and Anne Feeney, and walk out in the rain. The bar is crowded and noisy, but I decide to have a beer. Up front a man with a guitar is singing a country-rock version of “Solidarity Forever” and everyone is standing and singing.
Someone grabs my hand and holds it up — it’s Dave, whom I met on the Gaza Freedom March. We’re all singing together, the whole crowded room, crammed with old comrades I’ve marched with so many times and with so many people I’ve never met but who have nonetheless been marching together, whether we knew it or not. We’re singing that old song that raises the ghosts of so many marches and strikes and struggles, and I’m happy.
“We will build a new world from the ashes of the old,” we sing, “Solidarity forever.”
I believe it.
June 25 — An Inspiring Day
Some highlights from yesterday:
Hearing Grace Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein, two elders of the social change movement. Most memorable quotes:
Grace: We have to use the negative to advance the positive.
Wallerstein: We want a world that’s relatively democratic and relatively equal. I say ‘relatively’ because nothing is ever perfect.
Lisa Fithian’s organizing workshop, with slides from her union organizing work. I want my friends from the Bayview to hear her, because we may need to start a new form of organizing to protect our community garden from being bulldozed by developers. Check out Lisa’s website www.organizingforpower.org for her own notes and lots of resources. A really incredible resource!
Meeting my old friend Marta Benevides, who does community organizing in El Salvador. Reclaiming, my extended spiritual network, has had a long-term solidarity project to help support her work, ever since she came to a gathering of ours back in the 90s. Visit www.reclaiming.org/resources/elsal/circleoflove.html
We talked with some of the young people who have been working with Marta. In El Salvador, she’s started an Ecohouse and a museum. She works with communities striving to build a culture of peace amidst the growing violence.
In El Salvador, as in Mexico, as in the Bayview, the lethal combination of drugs and violence opens the door to even more lethal police violence and intertwined corruption — and in El Salvador it’s gotten much, much worse in the last few years.
A couple of the young men are from Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, another community plagued by violence. A Texas company is planning to move sixty thousand workers to Williamsburg to open up a huge natural gas field.
As we sit, one person after another comes by. When there’s an open chair in the circle, it gets filled over and over again with another amazing person doing great work. My old friend Grove Harris turns up — she has been doing lots of interfaith work and was a major organizer of the World Parliament of Religions.
We go on to Grace Lee Boggs’ ninety-fifth birthday party in the ballroom. It’s a beautiful tribute to her life and work — and sweet to see how much she is loved and respected. Listening to Grace Boggs, connecting with the wonderful people she and her late husband James collected around them, I am struck by how unafraid they are to talk about love. With all the anger, our own frustrations and the violence we face, they still put love at the heart of their work. So do the other great organizers I know — Marta, Lisa, and Lena in the Bayview. Anger is real and vital but you can’t sustain a life built on anger as its sole foundation.
Marta wants to dance — her style of organizing requires much dancing. I remember one great day when I visited her in El Salvador. We were cleaning up and rebuilding a school to be used for technical training. But before we started work, we had a gathering and some of the organizers were honored and given certificates. Then a local band played. After that we put on some music and danced the Macarena. Later we worked — and blasted through a lot in a few hours. Finally we went to the beach and swam and played in the waves. At the end of the day, I led a ritual. By then we felt we had known each other forever. “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
There’s a sense of love and joy that permeates this gathering. Very little grumbling — although there are things we could grumble about — and lots of radiant delight. If we can knit these strands into a whole with a unified sense of purpose, what a power we can be!
June 26 — A Confession and a Great Day
I confess — I stayed so late at the party last night that I didn’t make it up in time for the March for Clean Air.
What can I say? I could plead age, or asthma — the march is against the world’s largest incinerator, which fills the air with toxic smells — and I’ve been staving off an asthma attack since I got here. But really, I think you should just stop reading now and denounce me. Go ahead. You’ll feel better, and so will I.
Okay, now that that’s over with, let me give you some highlights of yesterday:
Our morning workshop on Organizing for the Long Haul — a great morning hearing some of my own elders talk about what keeps them going.
After a too-quick lunch, a workshop on Vision-Based and Solutions-Based organizing. We move outside under a shady tree, and talk about vision and story and drama in how we frame our issues. Our time runs short, but something comes clear to me that I’ve been pondering for a long time about reframing the story around Israel and Palestine — I promise to write more on that soon.
At the end of the workshop, Shea steals me away for a boat ride. She’s got an old inboard/outboard motorboat and we cruise down the river while a couple of the Detroit Summer folks make a music video. The river is blue and cool, the sun is hot, I even get a short nap and come back refreshed just in time for the ritual.
We do a simple ritual at the Canopy Village, making an offering to the land, then calling in the elements by asking people who work on issues involving air, fire, water, earth, etc. to come into the center. I lead a short meditation, using an image Shea spoke about in the morning when she described being six years old, and seeing a spiderweb covered with dew illumined by the sun, and suddenly knowing what ‘beautiful’ meant.
We raise energy for the web of connections we have and are creating — like a spiderweb, we don’t always see them until the light hits them just right. The forum has been like that light, allowing us to link up with others working on the same issues or facing the same challenges. And like that dew melting back to Earth, the energy from those links will flow into solid work and manifest change.
We imagine the water flowing, pooling underground, rising through springs to become streams and great rivers, bringing healing to the land and spilling out into the oceans, sending special healing to the Gulf. We dance a spiral, leaving the pattern on the grass, raise a cone of power and ground it back into the Earth, and end with gratitude to all we’ve invoked and to each other.
By the time we find food and make our way to the party, it’s after midnight. The party is spread over a whole street of warehouses, with lots of tables out on the streets and music and dancing inside.
Lisa and I enjoy cruising around outside, seeing such a beautiful mix of people filling the space and enjoying themselves. We find Jasmine and Oya, another young woman, sitting at a table and join them. It’s a joy just to watch the interactions around me — everyone feeling good, a table of young black kids performing hip-hop, a couple in a long kiss, a mix again of every race and color.
Why can’t we have this in San Francisco? Why can’t we have it everywhere?
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of many books. She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills. Visit www.starhawk.org
To learn more about the U.S. Social Forum, visit www.ussf2010.org
The Price of an Orange (from RQ #97 - Spring 2005)
For Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall
I am writing this as we approach the anniversary of two murders. And I find myself thinking about an orange, a ghost orange, growing on a branch on a ghost tree that no longer stands in the courtyard of a home crushed to bloodstained rubble.
In Rafah, the border town that lies on the dusty frontier where Gaza meets Egypt. A place of cement tenements pockmarked with bullet holes, streets choking in dust and smashed concrete, barbed wire and fences and sniper towers, where Rachel and Tom died, like so many of the Palestinians they had come to stand with in solidarity.
In March of 2003 Rachel Corrie was killed as she was trying to stop an Israeli soldier from demolishing a home. The bulldozer driver saw her, and deliberately ran over her. She was twenty-three years old.
Just a few weeks later, an Israeli soldier firing from a sniper tower shot Tom as he was trying to save some children who were under fire. After nine long months in what the doctors call a "vegetative state", his body breathing but his mind and brain destroyed, Tom died in January 2004, just a day after his mother whispered in his ear that his murderer had finally been arrested. He was just twenty-two.
Tom and Rachel were not unique in dying in Rafah. Palestinians are killed every day. At the time of Rachels’s death, the toll was more than 250 dead in Rafah alone since the beginning of the intifada, more than 50 of them children. Now the count must be much higher. The same day Rachel died, Akhmed, a 50-year-old street sweeper who lived with his mother, went outside to smoke a cigarette. The soldiers gunned him down, for no particular reason, and his death made no international headlines, caused no controversy, evoked no words of condemnation from a shocked world.
The children Tom was trying to save were playing on a mound of dirt on the border, a zone of rubble and razor wire, half demolished homes and dirt piles and walls riddled with shell holes. A barren zone of scraped earth where tanks prowl at night and death comes whizzing out of the air from an unseen source. And yet, because of the danger and the emptiness and the destruction, the area right along the border has a sense of wilderness, of spaciousness, of being at the edge of something, like the sea.
The children of Rafah cannot play by the sea, which lies just a few miles away. In fact, there is nothing much to play with in Rafah, no playgrounds, no swimming pools, no swings or slides or climbing bars.
So the children in Rafah are bored and infected with the restless unease of children whose lives and homes and families are constantly being shot away all around them. They run in packs. They follow strangers and mob you if you stand still. They all seem to know only one English phrase, "What’s your name?" and they call it after you, over and over again. If you ignore them they will gain your attention by lobbing a few stones at you. If you make the mistake of stopping, you are soon surrounded, groped and patted and poked by small hands as voices cry, "What’s your name? What’s your name?" until you think you will go mad.
In the few days Tom spent in Rafah he must have been plagued many times by these children. Nonetheless, when he saw a group of them crying in terror as bullets ricocheted around them, he acted instinctively to save them, running in under the fire from the sniper tower to rescue a small boy, going back after two little girls trapped on the wrong side of the mound. The sniper lowered his sites, and put a bullet in Tom’s brain. Under interrogation, the soldier first lied, claiming Tom was armed and firing at him. Later he admitted that he knew Tom was an unarmed civilian. He says he did it deliberately, as a ëdeterrent’.
I went down to Rafah after Rachel was killed to support the team who was with her, most of whom were so young that they had never experienced a death of someone close to them. I went back again after Tom was shot, to support the team that was with him, many of whom had also been with Rachel. We agonized about just which picture to put on Rachel’s martyr poster, held a press conference after Tom’s death, tried to regroup and figure out how to go on. At night we continued to sleep in homes that were at risk of being bulldozed, hoping our presence would be some slight deterrence to the soldiers, or that we could intercede with them if they came, or if nothing else, bear witness.
I stayed mostly at Abu Akhmed’s home. He was a farmer, who grew olives. His groves were destroyed by the soldiers, and he had only a few trees left. Each night he sat in the small, cement-enclosed courtyard in front of his home, making a small fire in a tin can, brewing tea for us and the visitors who would stop by to smoke and gossip, as men have talked around the fire since the days of Abraham, father of both the Arabs and the Jews.
Around that fire, the concrete and the bullets, the tanks and the shellfire, the warren of refugee tenements and the rubble filled streets seemed just a thin overlay on an older pattern of life. Look through the shell holes at just the right angle, and you might catch a glimpse of an ancient Rafah, a paradise of sun and orange groves, small farms and donkey carts laden with fruit and oil and flowers, where life went on much as it had since the beginning of time, and guest were always welcome at the evening fire.
The house was strangely bare because all of the family’s important possessions had long been removed to safer places. Abu Akhmed’s sons stayed elsewhere — the border is too dangerous a place for young men who may be perceived to be fighters and so are at risk of being shot. But they would sneak back some evenings to join us around the fire.
Abu Akhmed was old, but no older than my husband, I had to remind myself. He would tease me, saying, "Star, she Jewish — she kill you and me!" and then laugh and say, "No, Star, she good!" and discuss the possibility of finding me a husband locally, so that I might stay on in Rafah. The U.S. was bombing Iraq, troops were moving in toward Baghdad, and in the middle of the night he would often get up, turn the TV on full blast, and yell back at the news.
It was harder to sleep through than the gunshots and the periodic firing at the house, which I was used to. The room I slept in had had a big shell hole where the window was, that was now repaired. I suppose that was evidence that it was not safe, that another shell might come through in any of the nightly tank assaults. But I was grateful for the space, and the privacy, and the mat on the cement floor, and slept well whenever there was quiet to sleep in.
Some nights, I stayed at Abu Akhmed’s sister’s house. Abu Akhmed’s sister’s name is Sorari, and she is the grandmother. The house was a big, rambling farmhouse, with many rooms and a large kitchen and a long balcony across the front. Behind it was land that had been an olive grove before the soldiers bulldozed the trees. There were still a few trees left: a swath of olives and oranges and a pen for the chickens.
Not all of the rooms were usable: one had bullet holes through the front window and bullets lodged in the molding of the doors and Nahed was afraid to let the children sleep there. One had a huge shell hole through the wall and much of the floor: the children liked to play there because they could jump through the hole in the floor to the outside and they thought that was funny.
I remember clearly the first night I stayed there. They gave me the best bed, in a bedroom all to myself where normally Abu Ahkmed’s sister’s son Foad and his wife Nahed would sleep with the youngest children. Now Foad came to the house only for dinner, leaving before the night grew too dangerous. The mattress was covered in plastic, which crackled whenever I turned over in my sleep.
Nahed was beautiful as a Madonna, holding her children on her lap as they did their homework or cuddled up to watch TV as tanks shot at the house. The kids were so used to gunshots that they didn’t even notice. Joe, one of the team that had been with Rachel, was playing his guitar and singing, the kids were looking at my video camera and wanting me to take their pictures and play it back, all to a soundtrack of rifle fire that no one paid any attention to. Until the shots got loud and close, hitting the walls of the house. When the kids dove to the floor, I started to worry.
"This is bad," Joe said. "It’s dangerous. Maybe we should do something."
"What did you have in mind that we could do?" I asked.
"We could go out with a light and a bullhorn and tell them that there are Internationals here," Joe suggested. "Are you comfortable with that?"
"Comfortable" isn’t the word I would have chosen. It was just over a week since Rachel Corrie was killed. We were hoping they wouldn’t kill us, too. I should have been afraid but I was actually not feeling much of anything at all, just a kind of deadly calm, in that dangerous, numb state when you can no longer discern whether a given act is brave or stupid. Joe picked up the light, a long flourescent lamp that runs on rechargeable batteries, and the bullhorn. We put on our high-visibility vests. Nahed, nervous, holds the door for us. We stepped out into the courtyard, still protected by the concrete wall. I was holding the video camera. Cautiously, Joe pushed open the narrow, metal door, and steps out with the light on. I followed
"We are internationals!" he called out. "There are internationals in this house. And children. You are shooting at a house full of children."
We waited for a moment. No one shot us. The tank rolled away, and we went back inside.
Nahed had a few orange and olive trees left in the back yard and the front courtyard, and chickens. Most of her land had been confiscated, the trees bulldozed. In the mornings, she served us eggs, telling us with pride that they were from her own birds. I would have loved to help her with her garden, or to learn from Sorari how to bake bread on the domed, clay oven in the yard, its design the same as models found in Neolithic burials. The kids played in the yard, when the tanks weren’t around, jumping in and out of the shellhole in the back room, making a game of it.
I stayed with them one more time, after Tom’s death. I had to leave early in the morning, to go back to Beit Sahour near Bethlehem for the meeting in which we would try to make sense of these murders and decide how to go on as an organization. I didn’t want to wake anyone, or take time for breakfast, but Sorari wouldn’t let me leave her house unfed. She got up, made me coffee, gave me some pita bread to eat. As we walked out, she paused in the courtyard to pick ripe oranges from her tree, and filled my pockets.
It was the simplest gesture, one every gardener knows, the slightly smug generosity that draws on nature’s bounty, the sense of wealth and pride at having so much that you can give without feeling any lack. Just so, if she had come to visit me, I might have handed her an apple or a plum, or sent her away with a small jar of my own apricot jam. A very ordinary gesture. Yet everything we were fighting for was in that gesture, in the simple dignity of a woman who stands on her own ground, who has something to offer, gifts to bestow, fruit from her own tree.
I left, and never returned. When I tried to go back, the borders were closed. One by one, the internationals who were there in Rafah were forced out or eventually had to leave. Laura stayed on, for ten months, but now even she is gone.
And the tanks and the bulldozers marched on. The house Rachel died trying to save is gone. Abu Akhmed’s house, Sorari’s house, the courtyards and the olive trees and the orange tree, all bulldozed into oblivion.
I carried those oranges for a long time, finally ate them on a long night’s bus ride back from the hospital in Haifa where I’d gone to visit Brian, the ISM volunteer who was shot in the face by soldiers in Jenin. They tasted sweet, so sweet they surprised me, as if all the sweetness of ordinary life were concentrated in that juice. All the stories Rachel will never write, all the pictures Tom will never take, all the moments of tenderness neither will ever know, all the undone homework of the children and the unbaked bread of the women reduced now to beggary and homelessness, all the unsung songs and unlived dreams of all the thousands of bloody martyrs in whose company Tom and Rachel now rest, who paid their lives as the price of an orange. A ghost orange, that has yet to be plucked from branches daily ripped from a tree that has maybe already been uprooted, or maybe has not yet been planted, cannot be planted until a flood of the world’s outrage cleanses this bloodstained, bitter ground.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of ten books, including her latest, "The Earth Path" (see page 8). She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills, and works with the RANT trainer’s collective. For teaching/travel schedule and other writings by Starhawk, visit www.starhawk.org
Miami: a Dangerous Victory (from RQ #93 - Spring 2004)
Free Trade Area of the Americas protest draws massive police response
For those of us who participated in the protests against the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, in Miami the third week in November, it’s a bit hard to feel victorious. We are bruised, battered, worried about compañeros still in jail, and grieving for Jordan Feder, a young medic who died of meningitis after the action. We’ve been harassed, arrested, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, hit, beaten, assaulted, lied about, and in some cases literally tortured and sexually assaulted in jail, and we’ve stared directly into the naked red gaze of the New American Fascism.
Nevertheless we have had a significant victory that we need to understand and recognize, not least because it throws us into a new and very dangerous phase of activism.
Our victory was not tactical. None of our own attempts to physically enter or disrupt the conference were very effective. I’ve heard rumors that one group did actually take down a section of fence, but most of us just managed to march up to it and maintain a presence for short periods of time before being driven back by police riots. And while I could list numerous missed opportunities and tactical errors we made, I can’t honestly think of anything much we could have done, given the overwhelming police presence and the physical layout of Miami, that would have made for a significantly different tactical outcome.
We were Iraqued — that is, we were attacked not for anything we’d done but for someone’s inflated fears of what we might do; shot, gassed, beaten and arrested for weapons of destruction we did not have; targeted for who we are and what we stand for, not for acts we had committed. The $8.5 million that was allocated for the policing of this event came out of the $87 billion appropriations bill for Iraq. Miami was the Bush policy of pre-emptive bullying brought home.
There is a certain visceral sense of satisfaction in breaching a barricade and directly blocking a meeting, but those are not actually the measures we should use to judge our success. The direct action strategy in contesting the summits is not really about physically disrupting them. It’s about undermining their legitimacy, unmasking them, making visible their inherent violence and the repression necessary to support them, and undercutting public belief in their beneficence or right to exist. And there we are winning, not because of any tactical brilliance on our part, but because in truth all we had to do was show up, to be there as a visible body of opposition and withstand the onslaught.
Our most effective direct actions may have been those we did in the days and weeks before the meetings: the outreach, the community gardening, the door-to-door flyering downtown, conducted under the constant threat of arrest by a police force acting like Nazi bullies, arresting protestors for walking on the street, standing on the sidewalk, talking to people or witnessing other arrests. In spite of the major fear campaign and the negative propaganda being put forth by the police and the media, just about every interaction we had with ordinary Miami folks was positive. Locals were told by police that dangerous anarchists would burn their shops, would shoot them with squirt guns full of urine and feces, would smash their windows, and destroy Miami if they were not contained.
Local people were scared, but still interested in what we had to say. The poor and immigrant populations of downtown Miami understand the underlying issues of economic injustice. They could quickly grasp what the FTAA might mean for their jobs. They told us stories of water privatization in their home countries, of 16-hour-a-day workshifts on cruise ships that unions couldn’t organize because the ships are registered in other countries, of their daily struggle to survive on the streets, of the ongoing police brutality faced by the homeless and the poor.
When we were driven back into Overtown, Miami’s black ghetto, people smiled and waved, came forward to help us, offered places for hunted activists to hide, sheltered our puppets in their backyards. Other local people came forward to offer housing and shelter, to donate food, plants, and time to the mobilization, to hold vigils at the jail and to provide support after most of the action had left town. It was as if the bulk of the population pressed the “mute” button on the soundtrack spewed by the media and the police, noticed what their own eyes were telling them, and knew who their true allies were.
That gap — between the reality that the power structure was attempting to construct and the actual reality of ordinary people — is the fertile political space we need to nurture and explore in order to move forward. It leaves the bullies building a more and more elaborate fortress of control that is unsupported by any foundation of credibility or legitimacy. Where there should be the concrete of credence and the rebar of faith, there is only air. Such a structure is bound to fall. In its fall, it may well take a lot of us with it, and therein lies both the danger and the opportunity of this political moment.
Miami was a clear example of the New American Fascism brought home. I don’t use the word “fascism” lightly. I use it to mean that combination of brutal state power applied ruthlessly against its critics, backed by surveillance, media distortions, hate propaganda, and lies, allied politically and economically with those who profit from the industries of weaponry, prisons, and war.
In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is represented by a red, glaring, all-seeing eye. To be in Miami in November was to suffer that searing, hostile gaze. The red eye of fascism is a double-barreled gaze: the eye that watches, that records, that holds you under surveillance and videos your comings and goings and compiles the records; and the media/propaganda eye that frames the story, that defines and distorts you and tells everyone what the justification is for your repression.
For true totalitarian control, misrepresenting facts, telling a false story is not enough. Total control requires control over the frame of the story, the meaning of the language you use, the boundaries of what it is possible to think about. So “violence” becomes a word whose meaning changes radically when it is applied to protestors as opposed to agents of the state. “Violence” is simply not applied to police by the media or the political powers that be. The use of sound bombs, pepper spray, rubber, wooden and plastic bullets, wooden batons, bean bag pellets, and tear gas, illegal arrests, beatings, deprivation of basic human rights, medical care, food and water, overt torture and sexual assault are properly characterized by the word, “restraint,” as in “the police acted with restraint.”
Friends of mine who were watching the news on the days of action all reported a similar experience. They saw police move in on a crowd of peaceful protestors, swinging billy clubs and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. What they heard was commentary suggesting that protestors were “violent”, and that therefore the police were justified in whatever measures they chose.
Applied to activists, “violence” means, “any act of opposition to total military and police control, any act of resistance from walking in the wrong place to talking to the wrong people to allying with other suspects.” Above all, any attempts to remove oneself from the all-seeing gaze, to mask oneself, to carve out any space free of that hostile red arc light, are evidence of violence.
Totalitarian control is deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic, for it depends on division and separation. Police attempted to divide the unions from the direct action folk by pushing the action into the area where the permitted labor march was scheduled to go, attacking the crowd there, attacking union members, and punishing them for associating with “potentially dangerous” others.
Activists of color were singled out for special abuse by the police and prison guards, subjected to brutal beatings and outright torture in jail, in spite of solidarity efforts by other activists. Sexual assaults were carried out on women and transgendered prisoners. Queer prisoners were harassed and mistreated.
The greatest victory we achieved in Miami is that these strategies of division did not work. Instead of dividing labor and direct action, repressive police tactics angered the unions who are now calling for a congressional investigation. Our solidarity with labor remains strong, as does our commitment to stand together and support each other through the aftermath of the brutal attacks against our fellow activists, and to name and unmask the racism, sexism and homophobia we encountered.
The overwhelming military force and brutality of the police was a measure of the utter bankruptcy of the policies they were defending. Neoliberal economics, the “Washington consensus” behind the various free trade agreements and institutions, is not hard to delegitimize because it doesn’t work. It promises increased prosperity for all if we allow corporations free reign over the globe, privatize all public resources, and end government support for any arenas of human activity that actually increase health or well-being or quality of life. Somehow the poor are supposed to benefit from this. But this promise has proved overwhelmingly false. Countries like Argentina that implement these policies have lost economic ground or gone belly-up. The gap between rich and poor has grown into a vast chasm. NAFTA has been devastating to the U.S. economy, costing us over 785,000 good manufacturing jobs, and allowing corporations to sue governments for loss of their projected profits if governments pass inconvenient environmental or labor regulations. The developing countries have not been able to use the WTO or any of these trade agreements as platforms to reduce tariffs for their products or to persuade the U.S. and E.U. to reduce the agricultural subsidies that have devastated small farmers around the world — hence the walkout in Cancún of countries from the global South.
No one was defending the FTAA with any passion. In fact, brute force seemed to be the major argument in its favor. And the FTAA summit ended in a glossed-over failure. To prevent its utter collapse, the conveners referred all controversial issues back to committee, ended a day early, and pulled back from the original vision of an overarching agreement to a truncated “FTAA-Lite” — which even in its watered-down form has little chance of being adopted.
Their failure was a result of the years of organizing, education, truth telling, and direct action we’ve done in the North to create and foster that gap of belief. Perhaps even more, it is a result of the absolute social disruption that the policies of neoliberalism have spawned in the global South, where governments have already fallen and ministers know their populations will not tolerate more of the same.
We in the north are left confronting an alliance between economic powers desperate to retain their advantage in a sinking economy, the most powerful military/police force ever amassed on the planet, and a subservient media willing to tell whatever story the rulers command. But the more ruthless and brutal the system becomes, the wider and deeper that gap of legitimacy may become.
Our political success and personal survival may depend on our ability to understand and deepen that disconnect between eyes and ears, between direct experience and propaganda. At what point does it set in? When do people start to believe their own eyes, to question the authority of the commentators? How do we prevent the power structure from consolidating a new foundation of belief? How far does that gap extend? How do we widen and deepen the gap, and how do we mobilize and empower those who have ceased to believe? And as the fortress of control begins to crumble over our heads, where do we find shelter from the falling debris, and what new structures will we build in its place?
If we can build on the successes of Miami — the solidarity, the deepened alliances, the trust — if we can turn those alliances into real political power, we will have a strong victory. If the combined forces of the progressive movements and the unions and the NGOs can succeed in making the political and police powers of Miami pay a political and social cost, we can stem the tide of repression.
There were actions we took in Miami that undoubtedly contributed to the support we received: we waged a proactive media campaign, we planted a community garden in Overtown and gave away dozens of trees. Above all, we went out and talked to people on the street. In the worst moments of police assault, there were always those who moved forward to put their bodies on the front line and slow the assault of the storm troopers. People helped and supported and strengthened each other, and the shock of the violence we experienced was tempered by the sweetness of support and the inspiration of acts of courage.
We can go further in making our actions and organizing more welcoming and friendly. We can perhaps devote more of our efforts to outreach and connection instead of obsessing on our tactics, confront our own vestigial racism, sexism, homophobia and the other prejudices that can divide us.
And we can frame our actions and organizing with a clear strategic goal: to broaden and deepen that gap of belief, to make strong alliances with the disaffected and to mobilize the political power of dissent, to unmask the violence, repression, and sheer ugliness of the structures of control, to counter them with the beauty and joy of our visions brought to life.
Then we can stare back into that red, totalitarian eye and pierce it with a white-hot gaze of truth, a spear in the eye of the Cyclops. And we will have the support and strength we need to withstand the monster’s crash, and to begin the process of building the world that we want.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author who teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills. She works with the RANT trainer’s collective, which offers training and support for mobilizations around global justice and peace issues. Visit www.starhawk.org for articles, actions alerts, schedule, and more.
Siempre Victoria! (from RQ#92 - Winter 2004)
The last day of negotiations at the 2003 WTO. Things are not going well, and the ministers have until 11:00 p.m. to come up with agreements. Some of us in the streets want to make one final push into the conference center area, make one last show of opposition.
Sunday, September 14
The group of exhausted people who met the night before could only come up with a time and a meeting place: a beach just south of the security zone. While I’m on my way there with a carload of us, we get a call that the military have blocked off the beach. We try to spread the word that the location has changed to a beach farther south.
When we get to our fallback beach, the military have blocked that off too. But I get a call from Brush that they are up at the first beach, have gone through the military blockade, and that there’s lots of press there. We get there quickly, park, and walk past a line of soldiers standing by orange, metal barricades that open and let us walk through.
A group of 20 or 30 of our friends are standing in the sand, and more are in the water. We quickly strip down to our bathing suits and run into the waves. For most of us, it’s the first time in this action that we’ve made it to the beach. I see lots of pale activist flesh around me, a contrast to the deep tans of the tourists. The water is clear and cool and the waves roll in gently and everyone is tumbling around like a pack of baby seals. I don’t actually care whether we do an action or just play in the water together, to demonstrate that self-care and pleasure are as vital a part of a sustainable movement as self-sacrifice.
The action is organized as fluidly as children organize games. The media are there, and we can’t resist playing with them. We get out of the water, and one laughing group bares their butts to the press while Valerie writes on them with lipstick to say “¡Ya ganamos! We are winning!” The media crowd in to snap photos. The message will prove prophetic.
The soldiers up at the road are blocking people from getting in.
“Let’s open the barricade,” Lisa suggests. We run up to the top—well, they run, I slog more slowly through the sand behind. We take the orange metal fences and carry them down to the beach. The soldiers stand there, a bit stunned, as we run off with their barricade.
We are arranging the sections of it on the sand to spell “No WTO!” when they rouse themselves to come down and get it back. They are clearly under orders not to attack us or get violent, and in fact several of them are laughing as they pull on the barricades one way and we pull another. Finally we get the idea of lying on top of them. Valerie fends off the soldiers while we arrange a metal/human living message, “No WTO!” Finally we take pity on them and let them take the barricades back, but the beach stays open.
We reorganize, and a few stay behind with our stuff while the rest of us embark on what I am soon calling the Cancun Death March. The sun is blazing hot and is searing new parts of our flesh that have previously been decently covered under cargo pants and bandanas soaked in lime to give that special Mexican flavor to tear gas protection. We don’t have enough water and the sand is deep and hard to move through. All the youth are nonetheless striding ahead at a great pace, while I am falling farther and farther behind, wondering why I keep doing this, keep trying to keep up with twenty-three year olds, why I can’t just admit my age and settle into some more sedate form of activism. Finally I yell at them to stop for a moment, and suggest we drum and chant as we pass tourists at the big hotels that front the beach. They put me up front, and we process up the sand, chanting, “No OMC!” or “On the beaches, in the streets, we’ll shut them down, anywhere they meet!”
One of the hotels has a bar fronting on the beach and we stop there for a moment in the shade. They offer us water, and we line up and fill our bottles from their garrafons. As we are relaxing, Lisa gets a call on her cell phone from Antonia, who is inside the meetings. The Kenyan delegation has just walked out, and the WTO ministerial has collapsed. We’ve won!
The march becomes a jubilant procession. We continue on, drumming and chanting and cheering, announcing the news to surprised tourists courting skin cancer in lounge chairs. My fatigue has fled, and even the sand seems firmer underfoot. We meet a small police barricade and sweep through it, simply taking their barricades away and running on down the beach. Then we get another call. Some of our friends are trapped up near the Conference Center where they were marching in the streets, and are asking for us to come support them. We are still several kilometers away but a few of the young men are eager to charge ahead. We have a moving meeting, trying to decide whether to keep to the beach and try and go around the point or to head up into the street where we will probably be corralled ourselves.
A line of rocks juts out into the water up ahead, and we see that the military have made a stand there, with a line of men and the metal barricades planted on the rocks. It looks like a difficult situation to try to push through, so we head up, climbing a rock outcropping, scaling a low wall, and pushing through the line of the hotel’s security guards in more or less nonviolent fashion. They aren’t too serious about hurting us and we don’t want to hurt them. We just want to get to the street. But we end up on a green lawn that leads nowhere, trapped between walls and a high fence with barbed wire. Now masses of security guards and hotel workers have come down to see what’s happening. We try to negotiate a safe passage to the street, but before we can one of the government officials shows up and offers us a free bus ride back to Cancun or wherever we want to go, if we will only go voluntarily and quietly.
We sit down and have a consensus meeting about what to do. A few want to try to stay and make some kind of stand. “Why?” I ask. “We don’t need to block anything or disrupt anything anymore. It’s over — we’ve won!”
There seems to be general enthusiasm for that point of view, although one voice cautions us that just because we’ve won is no reason to abandon the struggle. Clearly there’s still some momentum to do something more, but we also have a debrief meeting planned, and we’re hungry. While we’re talking, the hotel workers bring out a whole case of water for us. Finally we agree to go, file onto an extremely comfortable air-conditioned bus, and head back. Students pop the skylights and ride on the top.
Because of the threat we posed marching on the beach, and because of our friends who got deeper into the security area, the authorities have apparently shut down the entire area, and no traffic is moving. The roads are lined with workers, waiting for their rides home. Their travel time has been extended, they’ve been waiting in the sun instead of relaxing on their off time, and yet they cheer and wave and flash peace signs and raised fists as we pass, sharing in the victory.
Back at the Parque de Palapas, it seems that everyone from the action has gathered. We are all greeting and hugging each other in a moment of pure, radiant joy. I am looking at each of them and thinking how each one contributed to this victory. I’m thinking about all the organizing and strategizing they’ve done and their grueling bus ride here and back. I’m hugging Tristan who has stalwartly organized security for the Convergence Center, and Luke who pushed so hard for our action inside the zone, and Rodrigo who came down from Mexico City to help build the eco-village, and Eileen who took on so much of the media work, and Gloria who cleaned the kitchen and fed us breakfast every day, and so many more, the whole self-organized volunteer army who have come to fight with puppets and drums and our bodies and ideas as our weapons. The choices each one of us has made, the tasks we’ve taken on, the work we’ve done, have all been part of this moment. Finally Lisa and I throw our arms around each other. We’ve been working on this together for so long. I can’t even begin to count the tasks she’s done and the things she’s pulled together and grueling work we’ve both been doing for this and the times we’ve sworn we’d never do it again. But we smile at each other, knowing damn well that we will, that there is nothing we’d rather do than help twine together the strands of the rope that we can grip to move the world.
We go on to a debrief meeting in the Convergence Center. The mood is high as we recount the highlights of the actions. So many things have come out of this mobilization—solidarity between campesinos and anarchists, students from the south and students from the north, street activists and NGOs, new connections and new networks that will strengthen our form of globalization: the globalization of resistance and vision.
Opposition Inside and Out
At the end, Antonia gives a report on what happened inside. The Kenyans were part of a “Green Room”—one of the small “informal” meetings where the real decisions of the ministerial are laid out, where the big, powerful countries represent themselves and the developing countries might have one representative for dozens. Kenya was representing not just themselves but the whole group of African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations and the African Union. The developing countries wanted agricultural agreements to limit the subsidies for US and European crops that keep prices artificially low and allow the dumping of grain in their countries that destroys the livelihood of their farmers. The US and EU wanted to put investments on the table, to craft a new version of the old Multilateral Agreement on Investments that civil society defeated back in the ’90s. When it became clear to the Kenyans that the US and EU were saying they would have to accept the investment agreement if they wanted to talk about agriculture, they walked out. When they announced their decision, they were joined by South Korea and India. At least two of the delegates were now referring to the WTO in the past tense.
“And the delegates from Brazil and Swaziland both said that if it weren’t for the actions inside and outside, they wouldn’t have been able to stand strong,” Antonia finishes. An electric shock of joy pulses through the room, and we burst into cheers. That was our strategy — the hope we held throughout all the work and planning, that if there was clear, strong public opposition to the WTO in the streets and in the forums and in the conferences themselves, the disaffected delegates of the developing world would be empowered and supported to rebel. And they did.
“I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so purely happy,” Brush says to me after.
“Seattle,” I say to him.
Monday: The Last Update
A day of cleaning up and carrying out the debris of a mobilization: the cardboard, the used paints, the leftover flyers, of scraping paint off floors. And of goodbyes.
We’re sad, saying goodbye to so many people we’ve grown to know and respect and love. We’re happy, with a deep, sweet sense of satisfaction at having derailed the most ambitious institution of corporate greed. We’re eager to bring more people in and empower them more fully and communicate more clearly. In spite of the work, the exhaustion, the frustration, we’re ready for the next joyful exercise in dismantling the institutions of injustice, and building a better world.
And now the sun is setting, and the streets are full of wandering activists with backpacks, moving out of the Parque de Palapas, out of the streets of Cancun, out of Ground Zero. The delegates have gone home, the roads are open, the barricades are down. A cool breeze is beginning to blow, and Chac hints of a blessing of rain. The self-organizing wandering army releases its troops for some well-deserved R & R, and this organism that has sprung into being dissolves. The kaleidoscope turns, the pattern changes. No formal structures hold us together, no hierarchy, no contracts or pledges. But we know that we will come together again, and again, drawn by that sweet, insistent call, and by the threads of love that twine together stronger with each fight, each sacrifice, each space reclaimed, each life given, each vision made real.
Starhawk is the author of many books on Goddess religion. She is a feminist, activist, teacher, Witch, gardener, drummer, and one of Reclaiming’s founders. Visit www.starhawk.org.
The Living River (from RQ#91 - Fall 2003)
Toward an Activist Spirituality
No sane person with a life really wants to be a political activist. When activism is exciting, it tends to involve the risk of bodily harm or incarceration, and when it’s safe, it is often tedious, dry, and boring. Activism tends to put one into contact with extremely unpleasant people, whether they are media interviewers, riot cops, or at times, your fellow activists. Not only that, it generates enormous feelings of frustration and rage, makes your throat sore from shouting, and hurts your feet.
Nonetheless, at this moment in history, we are called to act as if we truly believe that the Earth is a living, conscious being that we’re part of, that human beings are interconnected and precious, and that liberty and justice for all is a desirable thing.
When we founded Reclaiming two decades ago, our intention was to bring together the spiritual and the political. Or more accurately, some of us for whom the spiritual and the political were inseparable wanted to create a practice and community that reflected this integration.
Now, with the Bush forces pushing into an aggressive war, with horrific environmental and social problems left unaddressed, the need for activism is stronger than ever. The stakes have never been higher, and the sense of urgency is palpable.
Reclaiming folks have been out there — taking part in marches and demonstrations and protests from Seattle to Washington DC, bringing magic and ritual and spiral dances into what sometimes seems like the zone of battle. And doing the proactive work beyond the protest — helping to organize our communities, provide healing, food, nurturing for children, music, art, and ritual — all the things that embody the world we want to live in.
The integration of magic and activism sometimes means bringing magic into an action — doing a spiral dance in the midst of the tear gas of Quebec City, or in Grand Central station surrounded by riot cops. It might mean starting our strategic planning with a trance or a Tarot reading, or invoking Water as we work against the privatization of water resources.
But that integration also means that our rituals are informed by our activism, and by the real life issues that we address. It means a different conception of spirituality — that spirituality and ritual are not something removed from the world, but are deeply embedded in it.
Reclaiming is founded on Earth-based spirituality, which rejects the split between spirit and matter, and claims nature and the physical, material world as equally sacred with the spirit.
We don’t ideologically believe in the separation of spirit and matter, but in practice, we still tend to think that things that are too material, too real-life, are somehow not as spiritual. So a trance to Faery is perceived as “spiritual,” whereas a trance to a Brazilian favela slum is not. We can argue about the reality of Faery, but the favela is undeniably real. If we truly believe that our spirituality is about deep interconnectedness, maybe it’s more important for us to grapple internally with the reality of the favela than to dance with the faeries.
Of course, visualizing the faeries generally makes us feel good, whereas thinking about slums and wars and international trade agreements often makes us uncomfortable. Even angry or sad or hopeless or guilty?
Much of our magic and our community work is about creating spaces of refuge from a harsh and often hostile world, safe places where people can heal and regenerate, renew our energies and learn new skills. In that work, we try to release guilt, rage, and frustration, and generally turn them into positive emotions.
Safety and refuge and healing are important aspects of spiritual community. But they are not the whole of spirituality. Feeling good is not the measure by which we should judge our spiritual work. Ritual is more than self-soothing activity.
Spirituality is also about challenge and disturbance, about pushing our edges and giving us the support we need to take great risks. The Goddess is not just a light, happy maiden or a nurturing mother. She is death as well as birth, dark as well as light, rage as well as compassion — and if we shy away from her fiercer embrace we undercut both her own power and our own growth.
There are times when it is inappropriate to feel wholly good. Now is one of them. As the saying goes, “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”
This doesn’t mean that we need to be in a constant state of rage or irritability or guilt. It means we need to use our magical tools to face the stark and overwhelming realities that confront us, acknowledge our feelings, and transmute them into the energy we need for change.
Last Fall, before the Spiral Dance, we received a letter strongly objecting to an invocation from the year before, when we had staged a mock march to invoke Water, complete with a river of cloth and chants that began, “No FTAA, NO WTO, No Privatizing, Let the river flow!” The writer objected to the ritual being turned into a “pep rally.”
I never had time to reply to her letter, but I was grateful to the writer because it stimulated a lot of thinking for me. Everyone has the right to their own opinion about a ritual, and to their own aesthetics. There’s generally at least one invocation in every ritual that I could personally do without. But what interested me about the letter was her unspoken assumption that an issue such as the privatization of water was somehow an extraneous element that didn’t really belong in ritual, and turned it into something else.
For those of us who created the invocation, the privatization of water is a deeply spiritual issue. Because the water we hold sacred is not some abstract image or fantasy of Water, but the real stuff that we need to drink and bathe and grow our gardens, that provides the crucial habitat for fish and plants and thousands of other creatures, that is the Earth’s literal life blood.
If two thirds of the people on the Earth don’t have access to the water they need — as is predicted within another decade or two — and I am integrally connected to those people, that’s a spiritual crisis as well as a physical and political crisis. And if I’ve been engaged with that issue, politically and magically (as we have been in many of the actions around global trade agreements that further the corporate takeover of the planet’s water), I need my rituals to reflect that struggle and energize my work.
Another common, unspoken assumption is that spirituality is about calm and peace, and conflict is unspiritual. Which of course makes it hard to integrate the spiritual with the political, which is all about conflict.
In New Age circles, a common slogan is that “What you resist, persists.” Truly spiritual people are never supposed to be confrontational or adversarial — that would be perpetuating an unevolved, “us-them” dualism.
I don’t know from what spiritual tradition the “what you resist, persists” slogan originated, but I often want to ask those who blithely repeat it, “What’s your evidence?” When it is so patently obvious that what you don’t resist persists like hell and spreads all over the place. In fact, good, strong, solid resistance may be the only thing that stands between us and hell. Hitler didn’t persist because of the Resistance — he succeeded in taking over Germany and murdering millions because not enough people resisted.
On some deep cosmic level, we are all one, and within us we each contain the potential for good and for destruction, for compassion and hate, for generosity and greed. But even if I acknowledge the full range of impulses within myself, that doesn’t erase the differences between a person acting from compassion and love, and another choosing to act from hate and greed. Moreover, it doesn’t erase my responsibility to challenge a system which furthers hate and greed. If I don’t resist such a system, I am complicit in what it does. I join the perpetrators in oppressing the victims.
I am often astonished at well-meaning, spiritual people who advocate beaming light toward world leaders, who scold activists for expressing anger toward authorities or police, who define compassion as loving the enemy — but somehow lose sight of the need to love our friends, our allies, and those who suffer at the hands of the perpetrators. I really don’t feel much call to beam love and light at Bush or Cheney or the directors of the International Monetary Fund. Whether or not they suffer from lack of love is beyond me. From my perspective, they suffer from an excess of power, and I feel called to take it away from them. Because I do love the child in Iraq, the woman in the favela, the eighteen-year-old recruit to the Marines who never dreamed he was signing up to bomb civilians. I can’t love them, or myself and my community, effectively if I can’t articulate the real differences in interests and agendas between “us” and “them” — between those who have too little social power and those who have too much.
To equalize that power means changing an enormous system. And systems don’t change easily. Systems try to maintain themselves, and seek equilibrium. To change a system, you need to shake it up, disrupt the equilibrium. That often requires conflict.
To me, conflict is a deeply spiritual place. It’s the high-energy place where power meets power, where change and transformation can occur.
Part of my own spirituality is the conscious practice of placing myself in places of conflict. As someone in the Pagan cluster said after the February 15 antiwar rally in New York, which was seriously harrassed by the police, “When everyone else was running away from trouble, we were running toward it.” I run toward it because I generally believe I can be useful there — sometimes de-escalating potential violence, sometimes just holding a clear intention in the midst of chaos, sometimes just as a witness.
Our magical tools and insights, our awareness of energies and allies on many planes, can deepen and inform our activism. And our activism can deepen our magic, by encouraging us to create ritual that speaks to the real challenges we face in the world, offers the healing and renewal we need to continue working, and a community that understands that spirit and action are one.
Starhawk’s travel schedule can be found at www.starhawk.org. Starhawk is the author of many books on Goddess religion, from “The Spiral Dance” to “Webs of Power.” She is a feminist, activist, teacher, Witch, gardener, drummer, and one of Reclaiming’s founders.
Read more of Starhawk's writing at ReclaimingQuarterly.org/web/starhawk/
Direct Action: An Historical Novel (RQ#91 - 2003)
by Luke Hauser
Reviewed by Starhawk
In Direct Action, Luke Hauser writes fiction so steeped in reality that he reproduces an era for us, with all of its excitement and frustrations.
Although the 1980s are generally thought of as a kind of dead zone for progressive activism, in the San Francisco Bay Area the early part of the decade was a time of fervent activism around nuclear issues.
Hauser's novel, set in that era, recreates the emotional and political milieu of the anti-nuclear blockades at Livermore Lab, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the San Francisco Financial District. The nonviolent direct actions of the 70s and early 80s against nuclear power and nuclear weapons were the forerunners of a style of organizing that came to fruition in the blockade of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in '99. Many of the assumptions about nonhierachical organizations, the power of nonviolent direct action, and many of the tactics and strategies that inform the movement today were pioneered at that time.
Hauser was one of the organizers of the Livermore Action Group, which focused attention throughout the early eighties on Livermore Lab, run by the University of California - one of the two places in the U.S. where nuclear weapons were designed and developed. Livermore Action Group was born when organizing against nuclear power expanded to include nuclear weapons.
New Models of Protest
In the 1970s, as nuclear power plants began to be brought online, the dangers of nuclear power were becoming highly evident. The near melt-down at Three Mile Island in the Spring of '79 increased opposition.
On the East Coast, a group called the Clamshell Alliance pioneered a new mode of organizing in direct actions against the Seabrook Nuclear Plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire. Movement for a New Society, a Quaker-based social action group in Philadelphia, had conducted trainings in nonviolence and helped mold an organizing style. Instead of a central committee making decisions, the actions were organized by affinity groups, small groups of like-minded people that included both activists willing to risk arrest and those who would offer support. The affinity groups made decisions by consensus, and sent representatives to spokescouncils that made decisions for the whole action.
In California, Pacific Gas and Electric had begun building a nuclear plant on the ocean at a place called Diablo Canyon, just west of San Luis Obispo. Huge public opposition was aroused - especially when it came to light that the plant was being built over an earthquake fault. After a long campaign of legal challenges, the plant was finally ready to be licensed in the summer of 1981. As legal modes of opposition were exhausted, a group called the Abalone Alliance formed, modeled after the Clamshell Alliance. They held a huge rally in 1980, and a small blockade, but their major organizing effort went into a call for an emergency response, to blockade the plant and prevent the operators from loading the fuel rods, once the license for testing was granted,
The Diablo blockade took place in September 1981, and lasted about three weeks, during which over 5000 arrests were made. For everyone who took part, the blockade became a life-changing event. Three weeks of collective decision making and shared leadership gave us a strong sense of our own personal and collective power. Getting arrested, confronting authority, surviving custody, and often getting out of jail and returning to the blockade gave us ample opportunities to test our power, courage, and commitment, and come out stronger. While in jail, we used our time to hold workshops, talent shows, and meetings, and to discuss strategy. Reagan was pushing to build up our nuclear arsenal, characterizing the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire," and talking about how to make nuclear war winnable. Nuclear war seemed a real possibility in the immediate future. Our new mode of organizing, combining direct democracy and nonviolent direct action, was so empowering and powerful that some of us decided we should expand and organize in a similar way against nuclear weapons.
Questions of Hierarchy
And so the Livermore Action Group was born. LAG, as it was familiarly called, organized its first blockade in February of 1982. It was followed by a larger blockade that June, on the Summer Solstice, billed as the International Day of Nuclear Disarmament. In these days of computers and the internet, when international organizing is easy and expected, it seems quaintly archaic to remember that we organized across borders by using regular mail and occasional long-distance phone calls. We had allies in the German anti-nuclear movement, and later developed allies even further afield, in Kazhakstan and Palau, wherever weapons had been tested and toxic residues left behind.
LAG soon acquired an office in Berkeley and a small paid staff-underpaid, but paid. There was always a tension in the organization between the paid staff and those who identified with the affinity groups, between a pull toward some centralization and core leadership, and an outward push into more direct democracy. The tension was mirrored by the emergence of a new group, the Vandenberg Action Coalition, which formed to oppose missile testing at Vandenberg, in Southern California.
The Vandenberg Action Coalition was more 'pure' in its devotion to nonhierarchical organizing, with no paid staff, no coordinating council, only representatives from affinity groups and working groups. LAG and VAC planned two actions in 1983 - a fixed-date action in January, noteworthy because almost all of us contracted dysentery from the camp food, and a floating date action that was planned to interfere with the actual testing of the MX.
Arrest at a military base meant Federal, rather than state, charges. After the January action, everybody was "banned and barred" from coming back to the base, but most were not charged. Repeat trespassers, however, faced greater risks in the Spring action. We planned a jail solidarity strategy - that we all would stay in jail to keep pressure on the authorities to drop or reduce charges, or at least to insure that second-timers were not treated more harshly. Part of that strategy was to withold names, to keep them from simply releasing some protesters and singling out others.
Hauser's novel traces the tensions and conflicts, and also the creative interactions, between the groups and the different approaches to organizing. He recreates the feelings, the issues, the controversies, with great fidelity. The novel goes through arrest and jail, and the central part of the narrative takes place during the extended jail stay after the June of '83 blockade. LAG had also planned for a jail solidarity strategy, which proved vitally important when the courts attempted to give us all (in addition to jail-time) a long period of probation, which would have prevented us from civil disobedience for months or years.
We ended up staying in jail for nearly two weeks, until the authorities gave in and dropped the idea of probation. Hauser does an excellent job of recreating the experience, the frustration, the waiting, the high points of mutual support and solidarity and the low points of depression in our unexpectedly long sojourn in custody. He brought back the experience so vividly that I could smell the unwashed bodies, feel the cold and the rough wool of the blankets, and taste once again that inimitable combination of spam and fruit cocktail the guards called "The Empire Strikes Back!"
The book continues through the following Summer, with a series of San Francisco protests at the 1984 Democratic Convention that were direct precursors of today's urban protest movement. The story ends with the dissolution of LAG, but stirs embers of hope among the ashes.
Anyone interested in the history of social movements or the antecedents of the global justice movement kicked off by Seattle will find this book fascinating. Hauser tells a good story, and creates characters that live and breathe. But he does more - he brings alive a part of our history that might otherwise be forgotten, and offers its lessons and legacy to the present.
Reviewed by Starhawk - visit Starhawk.org