In the Age of Obama, Another One Falls to the Puppetmasters: An Open Letter to Jean Quan

In your face, I see generations of women hunched over endless swaths of cloth for over a dozen hours in a row, knotty and pained fingers weaving, threading, stitching, pushing through the routine of debilitating stiffness.

In your face, there are generations of women who have worked through more squats than the greatest bodybuilders, plowing through muddy water with stout calves and muscular feet, peeling off the leeches that collect on one’s limbs from one row of rice plants to the next.

In your face is the history of a stereotype-basher who smashed through meticulously placed racial divides, who crafted ample space in which to participate in raising marginalized voices to a decibel level that became unbearable to the Establishment.

In your face, the blueprint of your past lies dormant – as a dismissed relic buried beneath the filth of political affiliations, silent and forgotten in the wake of your newly-acquired status.

In your face lies the wisdom of someone who damn well should have known what her constituents would be facing in an impending police raid that was designed to force Occupy Oakland out of the park for good.

When I look at you, I see the Southern Chinese descendant of a people who have and who continue to endure lifelong hardship. I see an Asian American woman who has spent her life keenly aware of the grave inequities fostered by America and bravely, unjustly tolerated by the most vulnerable. In your face, I see myself; except, like a cheaply-bought government informant, you’ve been flipped. I want to know what the fuck happened to you. Yes, your burden was unfair. It was the burden of representing all of us who looked to you as an example of strength within a system that, like some incomprehensible, inbred cancer, thrives on assailing its very backbone. This is personal.

Mainstream media had been especially vitriolic toward the Oakland occupiers in the days prior to the terrorist act that you sanctioned before hopping a flight to finagle more funds for the Oakland Police Department from the fat pockets in D.C. The resilient 99 percenters of Oakland were depicted as filthy vagrants who created unmanageable refuse and invited audacious vermin. You, more than anyone else, should have been outraged at the transparent attempts to smear a population choked by unemployment, student loan debt, depleted social services, and crippled by a historically oppressive police department. Casting decades of your activist-police interaction experience down the cesspool in one deft shot, you ignored the wisdom that must have been tugging ferociously at you when you told interim police chief Harold Jordan to “do it when it was the safest for both the police and the demonstrators.”

And when was it going to be “safest,” Mayor Quan? Would no one’s hands have been broken, no one’s faces marred and scarred if the Oakland Police Department decided to detonate their flash grenades in broad daylight instead of in the pre-dawn indigo? Would an Iraq War veteran’s skull not have been fractured if the OPD decided to launch their heinous rubber pellets directly at demonstrators during the late afternoon instead of during the day’s infancy? As someone who has participated in non-violent civil disobedience, you failed to act on the obvious – that Occupy Oakland, as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, professed and practiced non-violence from Day One of their encampment. When exactly did you think it would ever be “unsafe” for the police to raid the peaceful encampment while wearing full riot gear, armed with grenades and “non-lethal” pellet guns which, as we’ve all learned to our horror, can indeed inflict tremendous damage.

After a day that looked like this past summer’s London riots all over again, you, Mayor Quan, who previously used her fire to scorch the Establishment’s very foundation, issued a statement that essentially claimed victory over the bruised, beaten, and terrorized. Deepening your steely sole even further into the necks of the perpetually silenced, you praised the OPD, Chief Jordan, and your crooked City Administrator Deanna Santana for “a generally peaceful resolution” to the encampment, as if an encampment established to seek justice for this country’s backbone majority was ever the problem, as if calling OPD terrorism “peaceful” or suggesting that they have resolved anything can even be remotely applicable.

“Over the last week it was apparent that neither the demonstrators nor the City could maintain safe or sanitary conditions, or control the ongoing vandalism,” you said, making all the above-mentioned city officials glow in the gold-star moment you were giving them. While scouring the internet to confirm whether you actually stepped foot inside Occupy Oakland at least once before the terrorist raid, I’m unable to find any confirmation. So, did you, Mayor Quan? Did you ever contact Occupy Oakland to request a tour, did you ever walk through that self-sustaining camp yourself, embrace hands with the occupiers and converse with them, one self-determined eye to another? Can you specify from firsthand knowledge what constitutes “ongoing vandalism” within the encampment? Or were your words constructed out of fear of those who might influence your political future?

It’s no easy task being an Asian American woman in public office, particularly if one proves oneself to be a substantial force who resolutely refuses to kowtow to the Establishment’s rules; particularly if one is not a cheerleader for oppressive Establishment policies that reignited this current People’s fight for a just society. I had expected you to carry the fight forward, despite my knowing that the likelihood was bleak.

Your subsequent apologies to Occupy Oakland are akin to throwing a bucket of alcohol on a house that lies in a delicate pile of charcoal ash on burnt grass. Like a typical politician who smothers the people’s voices before inviting them to candid conversation, unlike the revolutionary you once promised to be, now you’re saying how sorry you are. Now, as a hospitalized Iraq War vet awaits brain surgery, as people heal their broken bones, broken skin, and reconstitute themselves with an even stronger resolve, you want to talk.

Now when I look at you, I think about those seamstresses, abused and exploited; the rice field workers, dismissed as unimportant peasants; the parents, students, union members, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the underemployed and the underserved, and about how wrongly you’ve done us all.

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A Glass Slipper and Abundant Blisters

At a leisurely 3 p.m. on Day One, we strolled into Downtown Manhattan and stumbled upon the location where a bevy of activists finally convened after evading the cops for the first half of the afternoon. Hundreds of people had amassed in Zuccotti Park, and artfully morphed into multiple cells of discussion groups in which we tried to craft a way to proceed.

Jeezus, I thought, what the fuck do we do from here? There was nothing in that park. Though it was situated on Liberty Plaza, there was nothing liberating about it. Zuccotti Park, a sunless strip of banality that was punctuated with concrete furniture and buried in a canyon of concrete buildings that were under constant construction, was literally a stone cold outdoor gathering spot where no one arrived for the purpose of conversation or to immerse oneself in any sort of cultural activities. It was a place where Wall Street drones came to douse their breath in the onions of their Subway sandwiches and overpriced deli salads before begrudgingly heading back to a job that paid for all the fancy labels that they wore but could barely afford.

Despite the confusion, the uncertainty, the undeniable lack of readily available facilities, a sizable number of people who gathered there that day had no plans to leave that night. They came from Georgia, from Portland, from Minnesota, and from Madrid, like a bunch of circa-1983-Madonnas with nothing but a few bucks in their pockets and cumbersome packs on their backs. And they stayed, that night, then the next, and the next.

“Hold your space,” said a woman in one discussion circle. She brought a wealth of anti-austerity protest experience from recent actions in her hometown of Madrid, “and the people will come. This will grow.”

Forty days later, the formerly sterile park, which since has been renamed Liberty Square, is brimming with a well-stocked kitchen full of people who actually know what to do with the ingredients, a dedicated sanitation crew, and a media center that buzzes with the 24/7 activity of any major news desk in New York City. Medical and legal teams are constant presences, and tarps neatly secure all belongings that are inclement weather-vulnerable. In defiance of NYC administrative law, actual tents have even sprouted on this formerly barren ground. Despite being ignored, dismissed, harassed, and ridiculed by mainstream media’s usual shameless ass-wipers for the corporate elite (you know who you are: NY Post, Daily News, NY Times, and I’ll include the formerly respectable Mother Jones since it’s working its ass off here and here to jockey for a position on this list), the Occupy movement – with the unlikelihood of a giant lotus in a murky swamp – has flourished. At my last count, there are over 800 cities worldwide that are conducting Occupation operations.

I’ll readily admit that my fear of absent toilets, foreign toilets, and of lingering morning breath – on myself and others – preclude me from sleeping out overnight like the hundreds of other brave souls that have been holding that OWS camp together. The past 40 days of occupation at Liberty Square have seen me miss about six days of participation. After 34 days of trying to find my niche in this movement, I am still trying to get a goddamned foothold. If OWS is a microcosm of the society in which we live, well then, being an Asian American female is still a fucking problem. Any of you AA chicks who are busy chasing blonde-haired potential suitors, buying Chanel makeup, waiting for your new iPhone shipment, or texting and tweeting the minutiae of your wanna-be reality TV life away, this doesn’t apply to you because you’re, well, already occupied.

After participating in a number of GAs, making it a goal to talk to at least one new person each time I visit, and two harried evenings in a row when I scurried around the increasingly dense encampment, trying in vain to locate the OWS security team in light of the sexual harassment I witnessed and mitigated myself, I’m still drifting like a starving, frustrated bumblebee aimlessly buzzing around in a field of barren blooms.

When the People’s Mic was still in its infancy, I responded to an organizer’s request for someone to stand up on one of those concrete park tables and be one of the main mics for a crowd of about 300 GA attendees. This was over four weeks and many actions ago, when my voice was still in its usual sonorous state. Once I got to work, startled white men jerked glances over their shoulders to check out the loudmouth who overpowered the other three designated main mics.

“Wow, you did a great job with that,” the organizer said to me when the GA concluded.

“Thanks,” I beamed.

“Yeah,” he added, “when you first volunteered, I thought, hmmm – I don’t know…she doesn’t look like she can do this.”

Thank you OWS white organizer guy, I thought, for being honest about your Asian girl stereotypes.

During one session with the drummers, while syncopating with cowbell and clave in hands, an observer in the crowd leaned toward me and said with stunned disbelief, “Wow, you’re really good!”

“Thanks!” I beamed.

“Where did you learn how to do that? I mean, did you take lessons?” He exclaimed, excitedly bewildered.

“What?” I said, perplexed and irritated. “I just picked it up…?”

“Oh wow,” he said, eyes widening, as if I’d just told him that I was the descendant of Klingons.

“What – you’re surprised?” I shot back with my hometown-grown attitude.

“No, no –” he uttered in high-pitched defense.

“OK then,” I indignantly lobbed in return, adopting for the moment a tone and stance that was in frequent use during my years in the hometown. Yes I am Asian. Yes I am endowed with a decent sense of rhythm. It shouldn’t be difficult to comprehend. But somehow, usually, people seem to think it is.

In between meeting some beautiful people among the OWS crowds, I mentally scrambled for ways to get more deeply involved in the process of prodding this burgeoning movement ever forward. The OWS engine seemed to have been constructed and operated by white folks, and according to the things I’ve been able to learn – which didn’t take much detective work at all – I was absolutely right. Before letting my frustration froth over the edge of my arduously contained acceptance of this, I joined the newly-formed OWS People of Color (POC) caucus.

I am good at attending meetings, I am good at participating in meetings, I am even decent at enacting a facilitation role within meetings. But I really hate meetings. I hate the admittedly necessary process of strapping a mask onto the face of everyone involved; a process that must repress emotion and encourage stiff, time-restricted discourse so that things can get done. So that resolutions can be passed…and such. As an artist, people always say that one must unequivocally love the process of creating, that the end product is a secondary goal; with this I wholly agree and always have loved the process of artistry, as maddening as it can be. Meetings, on the other hand, can be just plain maddening. And its language, horrifically clinical: consensus, proposal, stack, addendum. Yikes. I’d rather be drumming.

Like OWS at large, POC caucus meetings diligently run through all of the routine protocol, which might be easier to take if I didn’t feel yet again like an outsider. The decades-long dearth of any intensive Asian American organizing, combined with the insular nature of the organizing that did exist in our communities, has rendered a space for quietly questioning whether Asians could really be embraced as POCs. The 90s generation of Five Percenters who regularly preached in Times Square were fond of shouting from one sidewalk corner to another that Asians were nothing more than the white man’s servants. Over a decade later, that sentiment, inflamed by mainstream media’s incessant obsession with devising the perfect concoctions of Asian model minorities, has stubbornly lodged itself in even the most astute of concsiousnesses. Over the years, the sons and daughters of wealthy, hyper Asian parents have found themselves hovering around the lofty white demographic in charts measuring scholastic ability and achievement, while general Black and Latino academic performance has been reported to be lagging behind. Apparently, these charts are supposed to speak for all of us APIs, as if we’re all robotic super-achievers who possess the abundant resources that enable us to aspire to and achieve things close to what the white Joneses so self-righteously own. I personally have never known one of those Asian chart-toppers; if I knew of one, it was always via rumor, never by direct association. They’ve always been like rare rainbow sightings for me, those chart-toppers – resplendent in their success, mockingly glowing from a distance too great for me to ever attempt to close. Me and my kind will never end up on anybody’s chart, except in the morgue, maybe. In that sense, we are undocumented. Invisible, uncounted, and subject to being subconsciously (or not) deemed as unworthy of POC status. It’s a hell of shitcrack in which to find oneself lodged when one despises the existing white privilege construct.

It’s the end of Day 40. I’m still here, trying to be visible, trying to be counted. In the meantime, the visible and counted Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, a mother of Princeton and Columbia grads who was probably one of those hyper-parent types, is sanctioning the savage terrorizing of constituents who were peacefully demonstrating against corporate greed at Occupy Oakland, and enabling her masters to crush constitutional dissent.

Will I ever get a goddamned foothold in this movement? I don’t know, but Mayor Quan’s flawless embodiment of an embarrassingly spineless pawn who sacrifices people’s safety – and perhaps their lives – for one’s own political gain is more than enough reason to keep trying.

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House of Liberation

I haven’t seen this many beautiful people in one place since I was a regular church-goer in the ‘90s.

My churches were the most spiritual places on earth. Places where the ridiculed, the marginalized, the non-conforming and the unfulfilled siphoned peace-inducing nectar from the thick bass notes and ethereally soulful vocals that ensconced their limbs and elicited some of the most remarkable dancing a world’s stage will never see. While most people sought a therapist’s couch, every weekend I took my bouncy soles to whatever dimly-lit house of bass and snaps was being illuminated by wildly gifted DJs.  These were not meat market-and-drinks types of affairs. These houses were reserved for t-shirt-wearing bass-seekers; for the serious worshipers who arrived ready to work. The beats spun were fresh from ballsy independent labels that bestowed them – like offerings of blazing sunshine in the dead of winter – onto a deeply committed congregation of house heads.

Doing justice to the fire that would blare from powerful speakers meant understanding how to give its bass-heavy 4/4 time the syncopation that this level of soul demanded. To do that, worshipers at any certified House of Bass and Snaps had to submit to each incremental moment as it came, and every part of the body – right down to cells and marrow – had to behave as an open pore. The thrill of soul-redeeming, oscillating notes that melodically punctured the steady thump of that 4/4 time kept worshipers on their toes, but breathing deeply. What might come next – a jazzed-out high hat? The joyous frenzy of a samba whistle? The satisfying simplicity of crisp hand claps? A thunderous new bassline? A voice that inspires epiphanies while limbs carve portraits in the air and sweat-soaked shirts tenaciously adhere to flexing spines?  The enhanced sound of a rhythmic percolator, even? This jubilant music of struggle – of deep healing – gave us all a euphoric ride through everything that was fabulous about ourselves, which is why the congregation of the House of Bass and Snaps never shrinks. The congregation continues to expand, with new generations wading through old struggles that are compunded by new ones, onward into the twenty-first century.

As liberating as the House of Bass and Snaps can be, it’s difficult to reach the rest of the congregation outside the walls of dimly-lit, beat-filled solace. We find love inside that house. We find that love by respecting each other’s space and ferocious talents for using our bodies as spectacular conduits for the exuberant highs and lows that are released by DJs to embrace us all. Outside those walls, though, we are dispersed throughout the city’s bustle, hidden behind coffee counters, in drab office buildings, inserted in warehouses, in overcrowded classrooms and shelters. We are neatly wedged within the cracks of society.

I’d been wondering where the beautiful people went, and now I’ve found them once more. I haven’t seen this many beautiful people in one place since I was a regular church-goer.

The mainstream media – and even some outlets that are considered voices for the socially progressive – have done a fantastically decent job of dismissing the Occupy Wall Street movement. We have been called crazy hippies, dirty hippies, self-entitled trust-fund babies, aimless, unorganized whiners who need to shut up, get jobs, and work hard like everyone else. We have even been accused of targeting the working class and “molesting” passersby (thank you Bloomberg, you self-aggrandizing, boot-licking, useless jackhole of a mayor). Any OWS protestor who has peacefully stood on the front line by holding one of Liberty Square’s many ingenious hand-made signs will report that the likelihood of  us being attacked by passerby is infinitely greater than vice-versa. Peaceful protestors have reported being pelted by eggs and aggressively engaged by fervent right-wingers. The yellow journalism surrounding our presence and purpose does not need any more attention than it already does not deserve. Regrettably, the American public, having been deprived of critical thinking skills through a faulty education system and lulled by the great corporate tranquilizers of reality TV, celebrity culture, and iThings, is capable of being extremely susceptible to fake journalism. This is the Wall Street cocktail designed to induce exactly the kind of apathy and feelings of powerlessness that has, at last, given the wide-awake among us the wherewithal to spawn the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And how gorgeous are these folks who have shunned the corporate barbiturates in exchange for the consciousness that hard-earned critical thinking skills induce.

They are of every hue, of every sexual orientation, of every ethnicity, and they all believe unequivocally that a real revolution must be based in love. A love for people and for place, as James Boggs said – and this is evident in our latest sentiment: Occupy Everything – because Wall Street has stolen all of our stuff, and it’s time to get to the business of taking our stuff back. Who are these folks? I meet a new beautiful person every time I’m in Liberty Square; here’s a brief roll call:

Justin – photographer, member of Time’s Up, NYC

Rashad – open-hearted revolutionary, NYC via Colorado

David – lively and loquacious writer, NYC

DJ Glitterati – music lover, drag queen organizer, NYC

Noelle – fine art sculptor, New Jersey

Christine – fine artist, South Jersey

Captain – unemployed thinking man

…and the many people whose kind faces, gestures, and genuine smiles have left their imprimaturs on my psyche.

These are the people who I most likely would have encountered at a House of Bass and Snaps two decades ago, but now we are here, at Occupy Wall Street – a House of Liberation. The 99 percenters who inhabit Liberty Square at any given moment are here to shake us into a cacophony of social consciousness within the rigid constructs of society’s maddeningly repetitive and soulless 4/4 time. The epiphanies may creep in slowly, like the subdued morning sun over a still, dewy landscape. The realizations may crash down upon us like a sudden blast of thunderous rain on an oppressively hot day. The whistles, the high hats, the soulful vocals are all inside the jazzy excitement of knowledge acquired in an unconventional setting that floats freely at everyone from all directions. Like the worshipers at a House of Bass and Snaps, we must remember to keep every pore open, to keep breathing deeply. And the peace will come.

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Occupy. Do or Die.

He’s the type to join a fraternity solely for the privilege of personally performing the harshest hazing rites of passage. He makes it easy to imagine that he relishes unassertive women who complement the inadequacy that masquerades as his cocky sense of superiority. He’s the stereotypical white man who feels especially thrilled by and entitled to putting an Asian girl in her place.

This red-faced, white-shirted Wall Streeter who most likely summers in the Hamptons did not know who he was trying to intimidate.

On this eleventh day into Occupy Wall Street – the boldest protest movement that has hit New York City in the recent past – I held a sign with several other protesters while dressed in dreadfully boring office attire. Smiling, I called out to passersby, telling them that, contrary to what mainstream media says, we are not just crazy hippies – we are students, we are lawyers, we are teachers, we are construction workers, we are the employed, the underemployed, and the unemployed. We are everything you are – the 99 percent who is looking for a way to get out from under the boot of the one percent who own 50 percent of this country’s wealth. Tourists and residents alike stop to take our photos while behind us, hundreds of people exchange ideas, bounce to the beat of our wickedly good resident drum corps, and organize the movement’s next steps in what has become known as Liberty Square. Most passersby look interested but afraid, some smile and pump their fists, and many offer handshakes and express solidarity. There is always a generous presence of NYPD blue shirts with an ample sprinkling of suit-wearing detectives. The difference today was that the blue shirts were clearly marked Community Affairs – an NYPD unit that was created essentially to harass the Muslim community – and the officers wearing those shirts included women and people of color.

“Two suits out of 500,” he sneered. Despite there being a white man in a suit protesting with a sign right next to me, Mr. Red-Faced White Shirt had made an aggressive beeline unquestionably toward me so he could get in my face. “Yeah like that’s a really big deal,” he chided.

Calling upon the wisdom of the youth who so greatly value peace in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I mustered every bit of restraint I could. “I got nothing but smiles and hugs for you my darling,” I called out forcefully as he slowly moved past me.

“Yeah sure I got nothing but smiles and hugs for you too,” he jeered as his rise in blood pressure became clearly apparent. “Get a job!” He screamed viciously at me from about eight feet away. Amused, I swung my hand-held sign to the side and revealed my stunningly conformist ensemble of dress shirt, blazer, slacks, and smart belt with dress shoes in its entirety to all who bustled along on the rush-hour sidewalk.

“Honey,” I said loudly, grinning, “where do you think I’m coming from? I got a job, bitch.” Fazed and terrified, his irrational diatribe continued. He’d decided to make me his target and proceeded to hurl a flurry of nasty, fear-fueled comments as an officer tried to get him to leave the area.

Like a heavy branch that smashes through a mansion’s roof after it snaps during a torrential storm, I quietly apologized to the peaceniks and bombed Mr. Red-Faced White Shirt with a furious string of four-letter words and a variety of hand-picked insults.

“Go back to what you do best – robbin’ and stealin’! Robbin’ and stealin’! Robbin’ and stealin’!” I yelled at the top of my lungs while my index finger jabbed the air toward him in rhythm with my impromptu chant. “Get out of here. Move yourself along,” I directed.

“Don’t you tell me to move it along!” He shook in a deeply ballistic way that only a straight white male with gobs of cash and investments would when confronted by an irreverent, loudmouthed Asian female.

“Move it along, bitch,” I yelled back.

The cops have been a volatile, unpredictable bunch lately. Just two days prior, a lieutenant pepper-sprayed the faces of four non-violent female protestors who had already been corralled in orange netting. Several reports of excessive police brutality surfaced, including those of many peaceful protestors who were each tackled by four or five cops, slammed to the ground, kicked and hit with batons, and yanked by the hair. It is also reported that NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly sat comfortably in his plush black SUV and watched the municipally-sanctioned violence unfurl without objection.

Though I remained stationary, I was unsure about how the cops would handle me and my mouth. To my surprise and satisfaction, it was Red-Faced White Shirt who was actively being hauled away. The only reprimand I received was from a female cop who said, “You’ve got your opinion and he’s got his. Just let it go.” I respected her decorum, so I did let it go, but kept my peripheral on the Wall Street Hothead and vigilantly tracked his progress out of our Square, out of our sight.

“Don’t worry about him. I support you. I support all of you,” said a white-haired woman with a camera.

“What’s that guy’s problem?” Another protester asked. Fear, I told her. Intense fear of losing the stuff he’s acquired through brazen thievery.

The drummers, along with a couple of hundred protestors, returned from their evening march on Wall Street and gave the heart of Liberty Square an even stronger pulse. The musicians are representative of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is: an incredibly diverse group of people of different ages, backgrounds, and capabilities. A spirited djembe drummer joins powerful snare drummers and a slew of rhythm keepers who use a pot lid, an egg shaker, tambourines, haphazard pieces of wood and metal, and a cow bell. The beats and shakes resonate between office towers, bob freely among the constraints of rush hour traffic, and fill cracks in the concrete.

The wide, gracious smile of a silver-haired woman with luminous eyes approached me with her hand extended. “I just want to shake your hand,” she beamed. “Thank you for all that you’re doing.”

I felt compelled to explain that I was just a miniscule part of this movement, but somehow I knew that she knew that but wanted to extend her hand anyway. “Thank you for being here,” I said, warmed by her presence.

For every Red-Faced White Shirt I observe or confront, there are at least ten people who overwhelm me with their warmth and deep sense of humanity. In any American movement, there is bound to be those who are involved mainly to accrue face-time; who are involved mainly to try to give their t-shirt-and-button-wearing sensibilities some credibility without the willingness to do the unglamorous grunt work that is inherent in all substantive efforts. In an American movement that attempts to fight for the 99 percent of its populace, there is bound to be a tendency for white hetero male leadership to emerge. My suspicions of the former are confirmed via a tweet on #occupywallst two days ago that said something to the effect of: “Some people are here to be cool, some people are here to change this sick fucking world. There are too many of the former.” Not surprising, but also not a formidable detriment – because a movement’s wanna-bes put themselves in a position wherein their entrenchment empowers their transformation from hangers-on to navigators who end up developing a genuine desire to create change.

The latter is what I’ve always found more troublesome, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the hetero white males who sometimes become leaders within multi-racial movements by default. Those of us who don’t identify as straight, white, or male, do not usually receive the encouragement that those who do receive – and at a very young age. Being taught that assertiveness and a sense of entitlement is the norm and a right will usually breed leadership qualities, and this is what American society does for white males. Black leaders of the civil rights movement inspiringly blasted this mold to create a new one in which folks of all backgrounds realize that we are the leadership we seek. Like an archived artifact, however, the old mold hangs around, lurking in the record books, in our subconscious, and threatens to undermine our quests for greater leadership capabilities.

I’ve spent some time in Liberty Square for a few hours every day since the occupation began, and for the first several days, I experienced an uneasiness akin to an uncomfortable patient fervently trying to find solace while sitting on a cold, hard chair in an austere waiting room. While standing in the Square and trying to absorb all that I could, I’d perpetually feel as if I were squeezing myself into a tiny girdle; that there was no room for me to fit inside. This lasted for days, but I kept returning to the Square. There was just too much at stake and too much momentum built for me to get caught up in my sideshow of Asian girl issues.

As if they’d read my mind, a magical thing started happening. At the nightly general assemblies, there would be mention of encouraging the non-male identified and people of color to participate. The mentions morphed into active working groups specifically formed for such purposes, and our demographic began undergoing a swift change. There was an uplifting increase of African American females and LGBT-identified folks. Though the LGBT’s “T”s are still underrepresented – as are Asians and Latinos – DJ Glitterati, an OWS participant, tells me that he will be leading a sparkling army of drag queens into Liberty Square on Friday. While not transgender, the queens represent a brilliant, stilettoed-step forward toward the group we need to be, which is simply, representative of every body. In Liberty Square, hetero white males are no longer the norm – just an intrinsic part of the Occupy Wall Street fabric, just like the rest of us.

For the past several days, I’ve watched older, first-generation Asian men in business clothes walk by and ridicule me and this movement. I’ve watched self-identified right-wingers pass by and scream at us about how illegals don’t deserve to be in “their” country. I’ve watched bewildered faces observe us with complex expressions of interest, fascination, trepidation, and fear. I’ve watched others give us emphatic fist pumps and luminous smiles. I’ve watched people in their seventies say that they’ve been waiting a long time for something like this. In the span of just a few days, I’ve watched myself transform from a cynic to someone who actually believes something can happen here. And even if this were the last day of Occupy Wall Street, the message has been sent. We are pissed beyond hell but driven by love, and we will not stop fighting for our fellow humans, so watch your back. If OWS is not the movement to break Wall Street and the power they hold over our government, then there will be a subsequent one that will. And that movement will happen sooner than later, because we’ve already fashioned a damning gash in the Wall.

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1968: Smith and Carlos Display the True National Anthem

He caught me at a bad moment.

A flat, round object appeared in my distant periphery while I shuffled through various scraps of paper and urgently tapped my reserves of sheer will power to push through the morning’s oppressive feeling of being immersed in bureaucratic idiocy.

“Do you want this?” He asked nonchalantly, standing by my chair, round object in hand.

“No,” I said brusquely, entrenched in my supremely unimportant to-do list and intent on completing a bulk of nonsensical busy-work before 10 a.m.

Just as abruptly as I’d answered, divine intervention seemed to spank me into devoting undivided attention to the object that JB had now placed on my desk. He remained, standing quietly and saying nothing.

From a small distance, the object looked like a medal – perhaps a track medal – but it wasn’t anything ordinary. One right-handed fist was raised, sculpted to extend beyond the medal’s circumference. I picked it up, examined closer. The second figure depicted in the medal raised the fist of his left hand. A rustic brownish-bronze, the medal was about three inches in diameter, and it packed a surprising amount of weight.

My breath expanded in amazement. I was holding a piece of history in my hands.

“This is…” I began, gape-mouthed.

“Tommie Smith on the left, and Carlos on the right. John Carlos. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City,” JB continued for me. “After that moment, they were kicked out of the Olympics. Told to pack their bags and get out.”

“Myyyyy goodness,” I beamed, echoing the exact way in which JB, my coworker and retired captain from the Department of Correction, likes to utter the same expression. He smiled and returned to his desk situated adjacent to mine.

“I used to walk around wearing that medallion with my dashiki, you know. My first wife Annette made all my dashikis. I bought that in Harlem. On 125th Street.”

“Where on 125th Street?” I asked. Compelled to sink my teeth into any first-hand story I get about the 1960s, I wanted JB to flesh out the picture. I needed details.

“Oh shoot I don’t know. I can’t remember,” he chuckled.

JB had also separately placed the worn leather lanyard on my desk. I pulled apart the small metal ring attached to the top of the medallion, attached the lanyard, and squeezed the ring shut.

“Did you ever wash this?” I leaned over our cubicle separator, indicating the weathered leather lanyard stretched out over my right hand.

“No. Why the heck would I do that?” He grinningly chided.

“Good,” I said, pleased that the sweat of history hadn’t been sanitized by Tide on the gentle cycle. “But why don’t you want to keep this?”

“What am I gonna do with it?” he shrugged demonstratively, in his usual endearingly deliberate manner.

“Hang it on your wall. Or give it to The Fellas,” I replied, referencing the name he uses when talking about both of his young grandsons simultaneously.

“Only Caroline gets to decide what goes on the walls,” JB said of his wife and home décor, “and anyway I’d been looking for that to give to you.”

**********************************************************

As a volunteer with the National Archives a while back, I had access to historic documents that practically dripped with the blood and tears of struggle. Those archival stacks – housed in a cavernous room and brimming with immigration papers and slave ship manifests – would just about knock me out with the thousand-volt jolts of electricity generated by personal stories of the fear, sadness, anger, and hope that had been neatly categorized and contained within that government paperwork. There’s something about cradling a piece of history in one’s hands that introduces the immediate, unwieldy realization of how profound someone’s contributions can be, whether the person who generated that piece of history ever realized it or not.

Tommie Smith had just set a world record for the 200 meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City; a record that had not been broken for 11 years. Australian competitor Peter Norman came in second. Though he initially took a strong lead, John Carlos finished the 200 meter with a solid third place win. The civil rights struggle was in full, unquenchable force, and an illegal war raged in Vietnam. Each of the two African American men had just unwittingly performed the task of elevating the United States to some semblance of international respectability, and each felt the weight of social responsibility perched on their shoulders like 200-pound endangered eagles. There were two hours of idle time before they were set to take their places at the podium for the medal ceremony, and a moment to call attention to the massive injustices in which their country was complicit could not have been presented on a shinier platter.

There were two black gloves, one black scarf, one strand of beads, and three athletes with a deep-seated desire to show allegiance to not just any one country, but to overall humanity. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their respective first and third places on the podium shoeless, wearing black socks to represent “black poverty in racist America.”

Smith’s neck was wrapped in a black scarf to represent Black pride, and Carlos wore his Olympic jacket unzipped halfway down his torso in an homage to blue collar workers and all those who toiled without recognition. The open jacket revealed a strand of beads that Carlos wore to honor the unnamed who were lynched, who were thrown into the Middle Passage; those for whom no one bothered to say a prayer. Apparently, the Olympic Committee is an insufferably stuffy bunch, and receiving a medal on the podium with one’s jacket unzipped is on par with the perceived risqué tendencies assigned to the innovative, largely anonymous African American performers from whom Elvis stole his style.

Claiming their respective places on the podium, bowing their heads as “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Smith raised his right fist, and Carlos raised his left. The two shared the one pair of black gloves, and used it to form an “arc of unity and power.” Second place competitor, Australian Peter Norman, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge to demonstrate his solidarity with the two Americans. OPHR had initially encouraged all African American athletes to boycott the games, but when that plan never materialized, the OPHR still encouraged the athletes to find a way to protest individually. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, along with ally Peter Norman, were the only athletes at the 1968 Games who answered OPHR’s call.

What a stunningly majestic moment it must have been to witness, an immense manifestation of sheer courage and firmly anchored resolve. A moment to surpass all others, leaving one dripping with sweat and shuddering with goose pimples all in one shot. Though many mistakenly interpreted this powerful instance as allegiance to the Black Panther Party, neither Smith nor Carlos were ever members. For both, the gesture was intended to recognize not only the struggles of Black folks in America, but the injustices that are endured throughout the human race. Sadly, the largesse of compassion and knowledge embodied in their historic endeavor makes too much sense for most.

An outraged International Olympic Committee insisted that Smith and Carlos be expelled from the Olympic Village and eliminated from the US team. Being the politically savvy entity that it ultimately is, the US Olympic Committee collapsed under the weight of international demands to expel two utterly humane and sensible Black men and sent the decorated athletes back to the US.

The Associated Press ignorantly labeled the Smith-Carlos arc of unity and power as a “Nazi-like salute.” A Chicago columnist named Brent Musberger idiotically called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Both athletes, who are reported to be nothing more than casual acquaintances from college, became pariahs in their respective communities, and unable to find work for long periods of time. Unsuited for the life of an outcast, Carlos’s distraught wife committed suicide. His butchered dog was left on his porch. Rocks came flying through Smith’s window, sometimes barely missing the crib in which his newborn slept. Death threats abounded for both. For taking a remarkably powerful stand on human rights, the young Smith and Carlos had no inkling of the life of extreme hardship they were about to face. A question is, this tremendous moment that they created in 1968 – by which so many have been inspired and from which many more have benefited because of its brazen show of courage – would they do it again?

While Peter Norman did not have to fear for his life back in Australia, he was promptly ostracized for supporting the trouble-making Black Americans, and the Australian establishment barred him from competing in the following games at Munich – an event for which he was, at that point in his athletic career, practically overqualified. Australia never let him forget what he did in 1968, and for that, Norman, an extraordinary talent, retired earlier than he should have. After divorce and illness led to alcoholism and painkiller addiction, and long after he’d begun using his silver medal as a doorstop, Norman still held out hope that he would be honored at the Sydney Olympics. He made history as the only Australian Olympian to be shunned from the privilege of making a VIP lap at the Games. Peter Norman helped to shed light on a landscape rife with racism and classism. With Peter Norman’s solidarity, Tommie Smith and John Carlos filled in where the recently assassinated JFK and Dr. King left off. Would they all do it again?

This is the question that sings the loudest when I am holding JB’s medallion from Harlem 1968, this piece of history, in my hands. This medallion that JB proudly donned with his custom-made dashikis; that gave JB the unmitigated confidence, despite the assassinations of two pivotal luminaries of the Black civil rights movement, to march his dignity throughout any place he chose to go.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, having unleashed a swelling of pride unmatched by most things experienced by people of color during the 1960s, today stand as undisputed heroes of a time when speaking out against all that was fundamentally inhumane meant offering one’s life up for sacrificial slaughter. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Tommie Smith has sought to sell his gold medal; an effort to escape the hardships that a life built on human rights principles had brought him. Just one more attempt at seeing whether he can finally start his life anew, perhaps; and for that, no one can fault him.

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Irene and a King’s Dream

The usual suspects of mainstream media, who’ve managed to become favored among a large section of the public who think they’re getting hyperbole-free news, have got their panties all in an ass-chafing, scrotum-scraping bunch. A force of nature that’s threatening to barrel down on us at some time after midnight is being considered so furious that our esteemed local government has shut down America’s largest public transportation system in the midst of early afternoon’s calm breezes and demure drizzles; a system closure that has been enacted a good 12 hours before Irene is scheduled to arrive in town, drop her luggage, demand room service, and stay for a night.

Efforts to remain calm and vigilant about Irene aren’t helped by hysterical newscasters incessantly screaming “emergency” and creating Irene-isms on ad nauseam loop. Having finally weaned myself from a lifetime TV addiction, I’m not about to tune in to tune out by watching coverage consisting of some local dingbat in a yellow rain jacket holding on to her hood and masturbating in her “I’m-a-dedicated-reporter-standing-on-the-front-lines-of-a-hurricane” stance while waving her hand at the beachfront behind her and telling John back in the studio , “As you can see, there’s no one here at Coney Island today! Winds are picking up and the boardwalk is a ghost town!” She’ll then inevitably find a lone figure in the starkness of Coney Island’s eerily barren weekend landscape who will either sputter something about getting the last loaf of bread from the market or express an idiotic, frat boy-like jubilance at the thought of witnessing mother nature’s destructive tendencies.  “Oooo,” she’ll think happily, when the segment is complete, ”on my way to Emmy land!” And onward she’ll go to aspire to the likes of Katie Couric and other similar establishment boot-lickers.

While all the acronymed media conglomerates orchestrate a dramatic symphony of mass hysteria and deference to authority, I stay stranded on one side of the Hudson River and listen to Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech on a radio station that consistently refuses to aid and abet the Establishment’s aggressive efforts to corral us lemmings into a perpetual state of collective non-thought.

A rock-toss distance away from the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, Dr. King’s likeness sculpted in stone was set to be honored tomorrow on the National Maul, I mean Mall. Irate Irene’s anticipated visit to our nation’s capital has squashed those plans, with a future date for the ceremony being pushed to September or October, which strikes me as quite a bit of possible lag time for a celebration that ostensibly has already had its logistics calculated. Nonetheless, the predicted fury of Irene has got nothing on the fierce storm of unease and controversy over the creation of Dr. King in stone – namely, who made it, and who bought it.

Any object that is marked by “Made in China” immediately summons some level of disgust and vitriol, and tends to stoke the low-lying but fiery embers of anti-Asian sentiment with a single stroke.  The tenets of cheap production that the Chinese government forces on its unprivileged citizens is not separated from the very citizens who are coerced by institutional poverty to lead lives consumed by sweatshop environments rife with harassment and extortion. Because Americans as a whole are not encouraged to think critically and dissect the widespread phenomenon of governments that truly do not represent the interests of their constituencies, Asian Americans must brace themselves for the usual rhetoric that comes flying out of media’s mouths and leads right down the path to “foreign, anti-American job-stealer” whenever the Chinese government ruthlessly decides that using lethal but cost-cutting materials in American exports is a good idea.

Dr. King’s likeness in stone was made in China, by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, with Chinese materials. Upon my initial awareness of this unlikely piece of news, I did indeed brace myself; but so far, grasping the safety bar for dear life in anticipation of a tumultuous roller coaster ride through expansive rancor has been only marginally necessary. So far. Despite my trepidation at running the risk of sounding like my America-is-number-one-fuck-everybody-else adversaries, I am an American who deeply respects true leadership in any civil rights struggle, so I’m disturbed and flummoxed by the decision to outsource the work to depict one of America’s greatest leaders; particularly during a time of near-Depression era levels of unemployment, a voracious appetite for union-busting, and national debt as pervasive as the Bible’s swarming locusts.

The MLK National Memorial Foundation that is responsible for conceiving and executing this endeavor is represented through executive architect Edward Johnson Jr., and funded by corporations which all exercise policies that insult and violate Dr. King’s inestimable sense of humanity.

Who’s paying for the suspension of Dr. King in stone? Here’s a partial roll call, courtesy of Dr. Jared Ball at the invaluable analytical resource, Black Agenda Report:

Corporations:                              Individuals:

JP Morgan                                   Andrew Young of John Edwards’ 2008 campaign

Exxon                                           Russell Simmons, killer of radical underground poetry

Target                                          Tommy Hilfiger, producer of offensively boring yuppie wear

Walmart                                       J.C. Watts, former Bush appointee and GOP congressman

Direct TV                                     Earl Graves, corporate mogul and former Bush appointee

Boeing                                           Daniel Snyder, Owner, Washington Redskins

Viacom                                          David Stern, NBA Commissioner

Disney

Coca-cola

General Motors

Edward Johnson’s apparent reasoning for explicitly shunning the employment of an American sculptor to create this monument is that there are no American sculptors capable of handling stones of such immense magnitude. Since America is unique in that we are a nation of immigrants and highly diverse beings who are especially capable of putting forth innovative artistry because of our varied backgrounds, this is a terribly flimsy response by which Johnson should be embarrassed. How far and wide did they search? African American sculptor Ed Dwight was told that the choice of a Chinese sculptor was a matter of money. The MLK Foundation was hoping to coax the Chinese government into donating $25 million toward their $120 million fundraising goal. A small price for promoting Chinese national pride, perhaps.

While the MLK Foundation was busy courting the Chinese to fill its coffers, it also found time to entertain a related skirmish that broke out in September last year over who will help depict a leader who was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Where corporations loom, union struggles reign.

Dr. King contemplates the lunacy of the 21st century.

After The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) protested the MLK Foundation’s plans for employing foreign stonemasons, MLK Foundation president, Harry Johnson, Jr., seemingly conceded to BAC union power and issued a promise. In writing, Johnson declared that BAC workers would be employed “to complete the assembly and installation of the Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope sculpture pieces.” For all of this feel-good posturing by the MLK Foundation, the BAC, a union that has participated in erecting every major monument in Washington DC since the civil war, reaped no benefits. About a dozen Chinese stonemasons accompanied Lei for the Dr. King sculpture’s final steps of assembly, and the BAC was left in the dust of the Foundation’s hollow promises. The president of BAC’s Washington DC area local, Scott Garvin, tried in vain to inquire with Foundation president Harry Johnson. Johnson never bothered to return his calls. Fueled by “national pride” and a desire to bring “glory to the Chinese people,” the Chinese stonemasons were flown to the US without payment and trusted that they’d be paid for their work upon returning home. Hopefully, their government won’t pull a Harry Johnson on them.

Irene’s due to be here in just a couple of hours. It’s predicted she’s going to be something of a hell-raiser – crashing through city streets, hurling garbage cans at everything in her way, ripping out power lines, and flooding lower Manhattan with the juice of her rage. In this union-busting, perpetually xenophobic climate geared toward obliterating the working class, the poor, and people of color with brazen divide-and-conquer tactics, we’d be wise to learn from Irene’s shameless disposition while she’s here.

Just as Dr. King became the target of venomous insult and an outcast who was accused of damaging his own movement by becoming an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, we must not be afraid of standing up for human rights in the face of the oppressive elite. This is something that many of us expected our charismatic, intelligently articulate president to do for us as we glowingly embraced the idea of his being a continuance of Dr. King’s dream. Writes Ron Kipling Williams, “No president – black or not – should ever be juxtaposed to Dr. King if he himself does not oppose war, and does not call for the radical redistribution of the wealth, and does not fight vigorously for poor people.” In this regard, our president has, in fact, been an utter failure, and does not deserve the association with Dr. King. The proliferation of true humanity is up to us; as Dr. King taught, it has always been.

Observe Irene, and respect the legacy of Dr. King far beyond a visit to the new stone memorial ever could. Be a hell-raiser and enact the dream.

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Just another day of giving a shit

I’ve previously identified myself as an individual activist. That was a mistake. I am not an individual activist. I am just someone who gives a shit.

On my way to court, I saw them. In the same spot where I’ve raised my voice for immigrants’ rights, prisoners’ rights, and against FBI repression, a lengthy train of people dressed in white and chained to one another silently began traversing the perimeter of the Federal Building. Some carried a branch of leaves. It was a demonstration that appeared to be deserving of some inquiry.

After completing the mundane bullshit that masquerades as important work in court, I headed back toward the Federal Building and saw three young Black men who were gathered a few feet away from the protesters. Though they were not dressed in head-to-toe white, their attention was trained on the protesters.  I thought they might have some knowledge about the goings-on.

“Excuse me, hi,” I smiled.

“Do you happen to know what organization is out here today?” I asked, motioning to the white line of people.

The two who were standing responded with a blank but defiant stare. The seated third couldn’t be bothered with a curious stranger.  A set of eyebrows were raised in condescension, as if to ask what business I had approaching them.  No one said a word. Hours of unspoken testimony filled those few seconds.

“Do you know which organization this is out here today?” I asked again. My voice stayed even while my eyes darted between the two men in burgeoning annoyance. Peripheral vision caught the government-issued employee ID that one of them had hanging around his neck from an FBI-blue lanyard. ID man dropped his eyelids slightly, pressed his lips into an airtight half-grin, and finally was moved to utter, “Nope.”

“All right,” I said, half-smiling at the attempt to dismiss me. “Thank you.”

Heading directly toward the sizable group dressed in white, I saw a few Asian women in t-shirts whose logo I recognized – MinKwon Center for Community Action – and politely asked of the no-nonsense-looking woman in black-framed glasses and practical ponytail, “Excuse me, can you tell me what’s going on here today?”

She responded with a defensive glare that would’ve been better suited for use against someone who had just asked her to get naked right there on Broadway in the noontime glare of downtown Manhattan. Without saying a word to me, she turned to her friend, also wearing a MinKwon t-shirt, and firmly instructed, “Can you talk to her? She wants to know what this is about.”

Wow. Slapped in the face – two times in three minutes – for nothing more than trying to engage in a moment. I guess that’s what I get for being just a no-logo-on-my-t-shirt-having piece of nobody.

“Oh,” the much shier and soft-spoken MinKwon rep stepped toward me and shoved a piece of hair behind her ear. “Um, this is for the one-year anniversary of a piece of legislation,” she spoke slowly and cloyingly, as if addressing a intellectually-deficient five-year-old. “It’s called SB-1070.”

Right. The SB-1070 for which I spent last summer marching through Manhattan and Queens; once to a Diamondbacks/Mets game at Citifield to protest the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ken Kendrick, who was one of SB-1070s major financiers. The SB-1070 that enraged me and every decent human being because it was designed by terrified white people to launch direct attacks against Latino communities of color by legalizing racial profiling. With the passage of this bill, we’d lost a formidable fight, but kept swinging even as we fell. And now its passage has opened the door for fearful right-wing white folks in other states whose mouths froth at the thought of having the power to legally corral these brown-skinned immigrant threats to the pure-as-Velveeta-and Wonder-bread American Way.

Uh-huh. That SB-1070.

The MinKwon rep’s oddly condescending and shy demeanor, combined with her cohort’s unnecessarily brusque behavior, went down like a spoonful of vinegar and castor oil – equal parts acrid and nasty.

“Oh,” I muttered, nodding and straining to maintain my equilibrium. “I know SB-1070.”

Miss No-Nonsense in her black frames led the shy one away, and I remained standing in that empty space.

“Ok, well, thank you for your time,” I called out after them, shaking my head in complete disbelief and angrily wondering how the hell do we on the Left believe that we’re going to make any progress when its organizations persistently employ exclusionary, clubhouse-type mentalities.

I’ve previously identified myself as an individual activist. That was a mistake. I am not an individual activist. I am an outsider among outsiders; I am just someone who gives a shit. And I will keep giving a shit, even without a logo on my shirt or an organization behind my name.

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