Cuba between loss and perseverance

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Dodging new and antique cars alike while walking the narrow, cobbled streets in Old Havana. Photo: JC

by José Cienfuegos and Eliana Musterle

On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.

EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and the Revolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?

JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.

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Persevering roots searching for soil among the concrete apartments of Centro Havana. Photo: JC.

For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.

Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.

Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.

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A young girl walking home along the coast near Trinidad. Photo: JC

Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.

Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.

Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as a result of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of the decades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?

Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.

Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who disappeared in 1959, watches over Havana’s Revolution Square, where drivers of pre-Revolution era American cars wait for international visitors willing to pay for a ride. Photo: EM

It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.

[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.

Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.

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One of Havana’s many urban gardens. Its workers are municipal employees and its street stalls provides local inhabitants with fresh produce from the garden itself and rural cooperatives outside Havana. Walking around Havana’s central area, one does not have to search for long to find such spaces, which seem to be central to local food security. Photo: EM.

One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.

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Early morning on a small family farm west of Havana. Photo: JC.

This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.

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An agroecology farm in Pinar Del Rio overlooking the Valle de Vinales. Photo: JC.

As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.

I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.

[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.

Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.

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A makeshift but very efficient irrigation control device, the Programador de riego Franchi, is shown at a model agroecological farm in the province of Mayabeque. It functions without electricity and is made from upcycled materials such as IV drips, a soda bottle, old pipes and metal scraps. The device allows farmers to “program” irrigation to certain crops in advance and eliminates the need for someone to do the thankless job of spending long hours watering each plant by hand. Photo: EM.

Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.

We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get their hands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part of the economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cuba to Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operates under. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalist tourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchist economy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent on tourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?

While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.

I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.

The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.

Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.

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Inside one of Varadero’s high end resorts, rhetorical gratitude for Fidel Castro is one of the many elements included in an all-included vacation, whose material luxuries are however completely inaccessible to Cubans – except as employees. Photo: EM

Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.

I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.

Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.

1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.

José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.

Moving slowly and deliberately at Standing Rock

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

by Nancy Romer

In this report, I will try to give you a sense of what being at Standing Rock is like. Tonight completes my third day here. The weather has been mostly cold but very sunny. The colors, the sky, but most of all the people are startlingly calm and beautiful. The Standing Rock encampment is defined as a prayer site, a place to contemplate and to appreciate nature, “the creator” (not my words), and each other. The Indigenous people here from just about every tribe in the US and some from Canada are so welcoming and warm to outsiders. They repeatedly say how much they appreciate the presence of non-Indigenous folks and how they want to share with us. They are strict on the rules: no violence of any kind, no drugs, alcohol or guns, respect for Indigenous ways, making oneself useful.

The vast encampment contains 4 or 5 separate but connected camps, some on the Sioux reservation land, others outside.The largest one is immediately off reservation land, Oceti Sakowin Camp; it is the one in which most of the activities happen. The others are either defined by age—elders or youth—or vary by activity. We spend most of our time at Oceti but today I took a long walk and visited two of the other camps just to get a flavor of them.

NO DAPL stands for No Dakota Access Pipeline and signs with the slogan are everywhere as is “water is life”. There is a religious feel to the camps and great respect all around. In many ways this is a very old-style Indigenous encampment and in many ways it feels like a post-revolutionary or post-apocalyptic future.

The pace is slow though everyone seems to move with great purpose. People jump in and do the tasks that seem to be needed: cooking, cleaning, helping each other to put up a yurt or a teepee, chopping wood, tending fires, washing dishes, offering legal, medical or psychological help. Cell and internet service is miserable and probably interfered with by the constant drones that fly above the camps.

For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity.

On Friday I attended a brilliantly presented orientation to the camp. One of the presenters was Maria Marasigan, a young woman who was active in the Brooklyn Food Coalition. It was the best anti-racist training for allies that I have witnessed: succinct, not guilt-trippy, and very direct. The three main rules are: Indigenous centered, build a new legacy, and be of use. They shared the Lakota values that prevail in the camp: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom.

For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity. They suggest asking fewer questions and just looking and learning before our hands pop up and we ask to take up space.

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

They clarified a gendered division of behavior and practice, including asking women to honor traditional norms of wearing skirts during the sacred rituals (including in the cooking tent) and for women “on their moons” to spend time in a tent to be taken care of and rest if they choose. Somehow it seemed okay, actually respectful, not about pollution and ostracism.

While I was helping out in the cooking tent—my main area of contribution—an Indigenous woman came by with about 10 skirts and distributed them to the mostly women in the cooking tent and we gladly put them on. It served as an extra layer of warmth over my long underwear and jeans. It was not what I expected but it seemed fine to all of us. We just kept chopping away at the veggies.

Later that day I attended a direct action training that was also quite thorough and clear. Lisa Fithian, an old friend from anti-war movement days, lead the training and explained how to behave in an action and how to minimize police violence. Lisa, along with two other strong, smart women, one Black and one Native, laid out a plan to do a mass pray-in in town the next day. My New York City travel companion and I both felt that we couldn’t risk arrest and decided not to join that direct action but to be in support in any way we could.

At 8 am the next morning about 100 cars lined up in convoy formation at the exit of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, each with lots of passengers—including some buses and minivans—and went into Manwan, the nearest town. The Indigenous folks formed an inner circle and the non-Indigenous formed a circle around them. The Indigenous folks prayed, sand and danced. The tactic was exercising freedom to practice their religion while protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line. No arrests were made despite massive police and drone presence. One local man tried to run over a water protector but she jumped aside; the man had a gun but was subdued by the cops. Lots of videos were taken and the man was brought to the local jail.

On Saturday I finally got a press pass as I got a request to cover the encampment from New Politics, a print and online journal. That gave me the right to take photos (otherwise not allowed), but still limited—no photos of people without permission or of houses or horses, again without permission from the people with them. I set out to interview people at the various camps and to get a sense of what people were planning to do for the winter.

I spoke with Joe, a part Lakota from Colorado who had been raised Catholic and attended Indian residential schools, taken from his parents by the state because they doubted the ability of the native community to raise their own kids. He said it was brutal. When asked why he was here, he replied, “This is the first time since Little Big Horn that all the tribes are uniting against a common enemy—the black snake—the pipeline that will harm our water, our people. This unity is making us whole.”

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

At Rosebud camp just about a 1/2 mile from Oceti, I discovered a group of people building a straw-bale building that was destined to become a school. Multi took a break to tell me how they came to create this project with the full collaboration of parents and kids in the camp. Their project grew out of a team of people from Southern California who are builders and designers who use earth and straw as materials creating almost no carbon footprint and providing both strength of structure and extraordinary insulation—very important for a windy and cold winter ahead.

“We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time.The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders.”

Multi told me, “We didn’t want to bring the colonialist idea of what was needed and just tell people at the camp. We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time. The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders. All the decision-making was ‘horizontal’, engaging everyone with equal voice, avoiding hierarchy. It will be a one-room schoolhouse with nooks for specific tasks and will serve K-8th graders.” A teen center is being built nearby.

When I visited there were five women and one man working on the project and they welcomed any help they could get to finish the project before the cold sets in. When I asked Multi why she was doing this project she said, “For me this is about coming together as a global culture, a people who have the resources we need for future generations. We are here to protect our futures together. Building a schoolhouse is a manifestation of that ancient technology for our future together.”

“This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up.”

Down the road I met Danielle who was helping to build a multi-purpose center housing a kitchen, dining area and meeting room. She told me that “This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up. The needs must evolve for us to create a system that will fit them.” She is particularly excited about engaging people to serve and to be united, to be able to work together with their passions for service, to be happy together in this way. The materials for the building were donated by people from Ashville, NC and were deeply appreciated. All over the camps one sees evidence of creative problem-solving, cooperation and contributions brought from afar. The “donations” building is brimming with winter clothes (adults and kids), foods of all kinds and practical items.

I was particularly interested in the many families that were at the camps, including lots of kids of all ages, including infants. One family from Boulder, Colorado, with 8-year old Oscar and 11-year old Audrey, were unpacking their car when I came upon them. Their mother, Susan, said, “We are here to support the protest and to have our kids learn from it. I want my kids to understand that we do what we can to take care of the water and support the Indigenous people. To step it up these days we have to hold some ground. This is one of the places we can meet. It would be great if Obama would release the land and kill the pipeline.” Amen.

I encountered a father-son pair from Manhattan. Fourteen-year old Declan Rexer learned about the encampment from a single segment on MSNBC news but couldn’t find anything else about it in the corporate media. He was particularly upset by the police attacks on elderly protesters. He then went to alternative and social media and found an enormous amount of information. His interest grew and his father, William Rexer, decided to bring him out to North Dakota to learn for himself.

They plan to bring back lots of information for Declan’s classmates and encourage more people to come out to see for themselves. William, a media professional himself, connected with some of the young documentarians at the camp and will provide some material support to them in order to advance their work.

“I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years.”

I spoke with Joseph, a Salish man from Montana. I asked him how long he was planning to stay at the camp. He told me, “I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years. This is our time to unite and resist. We must protect our water and our tribes.” He thanked me for coming to Standing Rock and being an ally. He asked me to tell my friends to come out and join the encampment, to be water protectors.

Generosity is evident all over the camp. I particularly love working in the kitchen, a huge army tent with large tables, stoves and lots of equipment. On each of the two days that I worked in the kitchen there were about a dozen people busily working in happy unison. There was a chief organizer and then 4 or 5 people who were in charge of a particular dish, each with 1-3 assistants. I was an assistant, happy not to have to mastermind anything. The chatter amongst the workers reminded me of the Park Slope Food Coop squads where people work together with shared goals. As one man put it, “We come together here with one vision. We are building a new world together.”

I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale.

While I attend trainings and sacred fire circles, chop veggies, talk with people, drive people around, and walk around the various camps, I am struck by how happy I feel. Sure, this is temporary. Sure, this is not my “real world”. But it is a lovely world, a loving world, a kind world, where each person is greeted with kindness. Young men and women ride through the camps on horseback, connect to ancient traditions, and bask in the glory of a shared culture of resistance. I don’t come from this culture but I do support their determination, their right to protect their land and water and people, their valiant attempt to build a better world. I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale. Can we decide to be kind to each other, to collaborate, to try to remove ego from our day-to-day practice? I don’t know the answer to these difficult questions. But I do know that when people share a common struggle we can be beautiful. I bask in that beauty at Standing Rock.

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Photo: Nancy Romer

Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with a particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America. Read their first report on life at the camp here

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Regeneration and revival, beyond survival

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Photo: Sam Fentress

by Shaina Agbayani

(1) land

“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

-Malcolm X, 1963


When I was in Luzon this past year, burning sambong allowed me to connect & celebrate the two sacred lands that have given me life. Sambong is a philippine plant medicine, a cousin of Turtle Island sage.

*Turtle island is the name given by several Indigenous cultures to what Europeans have called “North America” since colonization.

Burning sambong became a ritual that reminded me of my braided creation story, raised by a Turtle Island aunt and Philippine mother that have both given me life. Amongst many other medicinal plant beings that connect Turtle Island to the Philippines, partly as a result of Spanish colonial trade relations, are tobacco and corn, both of which hold their places in the stories of my elders’ childhoods.

The more i reflect on my relationship to these two lands, the more i come to relate to Turtle Island as an aunt who was forced to take me in under conditions of violence & force, and yet still has loved and given so much life to me, and the Philippines as the mother whose many children have left her because colonial pillage has fragmented, objectified, and violated her in ways that make it hard for her take care of many of us.

After spending committed time in solitude with mother earth in my ancestral lands for several months this past year, I came back to Turtle Island with a deeper sense of reverence for this Aunt who has taken so much care of me and enabled my life under conditions of settler colonial violence.

 

(2) life

I keep returning to the question of how i can integrate practices of love and care into my everyday survival in a way that will allow me to go beyond surviving to regenerating my self, ancestors and an-sisters, cultures, and the communities and lands that allow us to be. For me this has meant that prayer, song, connecting with plant and element friends, dance, and other body connection practices form intentional rituals in my life. They have become forms of regenerative medicine,  my body being the land that cultivates and carries them regardless of where i am in the world. More broadly, i ask myself how communities and lands impacted by deep colonial harm can not only survive but regenerate in the context of systemic subjugation, extraction, and violence.

At this year’s annual March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, I noticed the powerful smell of burning sage and the use of other sacred medicines. This, as well as the presence of song and dance, brought spiritual, emotional, physiological healing to the march while reviving Indigenous ceremonial practices. It reminded me of how incorporating traditional practices of care and creativity—specifically when these practices are led by people from the communities they are indigenous to—can transform the often sanitized, colonized, cold spaces of marches. I often wonder how spaces of mourning and loss can be transformed into spaces of cultural revitalization. The singing, dancing, and burning of plant allies at the march felt like forms of cultural resurgence as people viscerally connected to their creation stories through medicine and their bodies.

At the march, Ellen Gabriel spoke of how we cannot wait for the state and the law to protect and honor Indigenous womxn. She also stated that the protection and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives requires a cultural shift whose embodiment the law cannot ensure. In this way, she speaks to how politics based on gaining visibility and recognition under the legalistic terms of the nation-state is limited in its capacity for revitalizing indigeneity, healing inter-generational trauma, and ensuring the regeneration and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives.

Photo: Stacey Gomez
Photo: Stacey Gomez

In the same vein in the paper “Anger, resentment and love: fuelling resurgent struggle, Leanne Simpson asks us to reflect on this connection between the violence against Indigenous peoples, the land, and the politics of recognition under the state .

“I am a bigger threat to the Canadian state and its plans to build pipelines across my body, clear cut my forests, contaminant my lakes with toxic cottages and chemicals and make my body a site of continual sexualized violence. What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in politics with the Canadian state? What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in our mobilizations and organizing? What happens when we fully reject the politics of recognition in education? Where do I beg the colonizer for recognition in my own life? Why?”

 

(3) body

“Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry”

-rupee kaur, poetess and spoken word performer. From the poem “Women of color”

While in the Philippines, I felt on the deepest level the truth that our bodies are the land. The silent time of solitude i took to be on the sacred Mt Banahaw and in other spaces of unconcretized, respected earth were truly the most powerful and transformative times of connection to my body & ancestors.

As a queer femme filipinx performer, provider of emotional labour and care work, and as daughter, niece, cousin of many filipinx people who have worked dedicatedly as care & domestic workers, I’ve experienced how my body and other racialized feminized bodies become sites of consumption, fetishization, and energy extraction through, for example, underpaid, unpaid, and industry-specific labour that tends to be domesticated or sexualized.

As a performer and as someone who is often asked to do emotional labour in specific ways, I’ve experienced how the values and stereotypes ascribed to my brown feminized body as a site from which to extract energy connects to the way that colonial-capitalist institutions relate to the body of our mother earth as a site for resource extraction through, for example, mining and fracking.

And so I feel what many Indigenous womxn visionaries like Leanne Simpson and Amanda Lickers of Reclaim Turtle Island have expressed in different ways—that asserting the bodily self-determination and sovereignty of womxn and queer folks, especially those most impacted by colonialism, is intricately linked to asserting the self-determination and sovereignty of the land. As such, both womxn’s bodies and the earth are sacred sites through which communities, cultures and institutions can be made to reproduce colonial values. Womxn play a distinct role as culture-bearers, and the cultures we bear reflect and are enabled by the lands we inhabit.

Image: Shaina agbayani
Image: Shaina agbayani

 

(4) remembering womxn and land through song and dance

The babaylan in Filipino Indigenous traditions is a person, usually a womxn, who, according to Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, “is gifted to heal the spirit and the body; the one who serves the community through her role as a folk therapist, wisdom-keeper and philosopher; the one who provides stability to the community’s social structure; the one who can access the spirit realms and other states of consciousness and traffic easily in and out of these worlds; the one who has vast knowledge of healing therapies.” As noted by Grace Nono in “Songs of the Babaylan”, many babaylans integrate song and dance as part of their healing, spirit, and land connection practices.

The babaylan were seen as a threat to colonial powers because of their strong connection to traditional cultural practices, their dedicated and intimate relationship to the land, to spirit worlds and to plant and medicine allies, and their commitment to preserving all these land-based connections.  Christianization and colonization involved the regulation and removal of Indigenous community connections to the land and suppression of philippine Indigenous spiritualities. As part of this, babaylan traditions were forcefully regulated, and babaylan were demonized as witches or brujas and subjugated—forcing many to go into hiding or minimize their visibility.

In September, I was present at the Babaylan Conference, themed Makasaysayang Pagtatagpo (Historic Encounters): Filipinos and Indigenous Turtle Islanders Revitalizing Ancestral Traditions Together. It was hosted in Coast Salish Territories—an unceded territory within what settlers call British Columbia. The conference has been happening in Turtle Island since 2013 and strives to “build and strengthen our Filipino communities in the diaspora through the sharing of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP)”. This year’s theme focused on questions of how to meaningfully connect with Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems and spiritualities in a way that engages with the realities of our presence on Turtle Island.

Photo: Maileen Hamto
Photo: Maileen Hamto

During the conference, I co-guided “Queer Earth”, a session by and for queer participants. A central intention for me was to invite reflections on the role of song & of queer folks (and queer song!) in movements of re-indigenization. Specifically, I wanted to reflect on (1) how we might re-connect to our intuitive, embodied ancestral knowledge to return energies to mother earth through ritual and specifically song and (2) how my relationship to being queer is deeply rooted in a relationship with the earth which embraces fluidity, diversity, connection, negotiation, and reciprocity not just in relation to gender and sexuality, but in my relations to all beings, and (3) how these two might intersect.

Photo: Nicanor Evans
Photo: Nicanor Evans

What ended up organically emerging was a collective grieving of our queer ancestors—from our unknown queer ancestors, to our queer aunts and uncles within our blood and chosen family—which was marked by spontaneous song, lots of crying, prayer, and oral reflections of what brought us to the room. While communally mourning the lives of those passed, we also collectively and musically affirmed our queer selves, and held one another’s queer stories and the emotions and hopes that sprung from them. In the session I felt a release of grief through my own mourning, a release that seemed to be collective as I witnessed others’ mourning, and shared reflections with participants about the session afterward. One of the co-facilitators, Will, mentioned this was the first markedly queer congregation at the conference since its inception, which left me feeling like this process of queer mourning of lives passed was also inherently a process of queer resurgence.

For me, the organic emergence of song with the percussions we made out of our bones and tongues deeply reverberated through and revitalized my emotional, physiological, spirit self. I felt the truth held by many Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems that storytelling through song is a way of connecting to and enabling the survival, return, and celebration of our an-sisters. As Grace Nono notes, in many babaylan Indigenous traditions, song helps to connect to the spirit world in a way that can and does bring back our an-sisters and ancestors, revitalizing our connection to our selves, the earth, our ancestors, and cultures.

At the conference, I also reflected on the role of dance in revitalization while  witnessing the collaboration between two dance groups. Butterflies in Spirit is “a dance troupe made up of mostly family members of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous womxn and girls across Canada. BIS commemorates the victims of violence in Vancouver and across Canada”. During and prior to the conference, Butterflies in Spirit collaborated with the Kathara Philippine Indigenous Dance Collective in a fusion of contemporary hiphop with traditional dance choreographed by PowWow dancer Madelaine McCallum and with live musical accompaniment by Kathara.

Photo: Maileen Hamto
Photo: Maileen Hamto

The dances at the conference re-created many stories of rebirth and renewal through depicting the metamorphosis of butterflies, the migratory flight of birds, difficult journeys through sacred waters, and the welcoming of nations after long journeys. Dance can be a form of community practice that celebrates cultural life through remembering creation stories in movement, nurturing communal bonding, and affirming relationships with spirits & the land through connection with the body and with emotions. The embodied stories I witnessed reminded me that amidst all the dispossession and violence against brown bodies and lands, communal practices of re-connection with body, culture, and land are well alive.

The collaboration reminded me of what Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, said during the conference that “we are not people separated by land, but people connected by water.” I viscerally felt this as I witnessing the dance against the backdrop of the Sunshine Coast’s waters, which summoned my inner waters to well up through my eyes as I watched.  I left the conference being reminded of the regenerative role that song and dance can play in our movements for healing and justice.

 

(6) (in)visibility and (ir)recognition beyond the nation-state

“While theoretically, we have debated whether Audre Lourde’s “the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house”, I…I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master’s house, that is, which sets of theories we use to critique colonialism; but I am very concerned with how we “re” build our own house, our own houses. I have spent enough time taking down the master’s house, and now i want most of my energy to go into visioning and building our new house” -Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back

“The inner resources of the people that cannot simply be reduced to resistance. This – cultural energy – is also power – but it is a power not meant to dominate nor resist but creatively for a people to become themselves.”

-Albert Alejo, Generating Energies in Mount Apo

In my experience within the social justice communities of Tio’tia:ke—the Kanien’keha or Mohawk word for Montreal which means “where the currents meet”—creative & spiritual practices such as our song & mourning circle in the conference—are less valued forms of activism than more visible, outward, street-based, masculinist, and legally-oriented forms. Activism is often based on making certain peoples, identities, communities, movements, and goals visible and legitimate within a legal, nation-state framework that measures value through positivist, hyper-visible, masculinist, standards. This often looks like demanding for “rights” on the streets and in the courts, on the terms of the nation-state’s legal and political frameworks.

I am forced to adopt these frameworks of being recognized by and visible to nation states for purposes of mobility whenever I travel across the border and am asked for my passport which upholds my “Canadian” nation-state settler-colonial status, and when I apply for my passport and must choose one of the two genders recognized by this nation-state. The nation-state’s visibility and recognition are part of my existence. Its laws and institutions impact my existence even if i would like to opt out of and become invisible from them.  

In some ways, I value making visible the invisibilized, for example in remembering those who have been made missing and murdered by the settler colonial nation state, and in making visible the invisibilized, un(der)paid emotional, spiritual, labour of the black, brown, Indigenous, racialized bodies on which the nation-state depends. I cannot refute that visibility does matter when nation-states regulate many of our lives, and that visibility can be an important way for people to, for example, survive through accessing resources that the nation-state is a gatekeeper of.

Yet we need to remember that these are by and large resources these institutions, and their agents, have violently extracted from the labour, lands, and communities of those from whom they gatekeep these resources. And as as I move toward a place of imagining how to commit to regeneration (of the lands, waters, self, culture, ancestry, and communities that give me life) beyond survival, it becomes undeniable to me that nation-state legal frameworks are based on upholding and glorifying the state as a place to merely ensure the bare survival of racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous womxn. The movements to grant the earth and queer people recognition and protection under the law, such as the global movements toward legalizing and decriminalizing queerness and the “granting” of “people status” to lands and rivers are done in an unequal, western, human-centered power relations where the state at the end of the day gets to set the terms of who is granted protection from state violence itself.

The nation states of Turtle Island have been built on systemic violence against racialized, specifically Black and Indigenous, peoples through impoverishment, dispossession, disappearances, killings, mass incarcerations through the prison industrial complex, resource extraction, and food apartheid that sickens and poisons—slowly and fastly kills—communities. And the more that these realities of this nation-state violence are revealed to me, the more clear it becomes that the legal framework of rights and recognition through which it operates is invested in the bare minimum of survival for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

So the question this begs for me is: do I actually want visibility from the nation-state, or is it precisely invisibility that I want? Of course, the answer to this is very contextual. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that the choice of invisibility and un-recognition from the nation-state as forms of surviving and thriving is invaluable in our recognition and rights centered political/social/spiritual landscape.

Invisibility from the state can enable the conditions for survival, sovereignty, and self-determination, and therefore resurgence and revitalization. During the Japanese occupation of her village in World War 2, my grandmother was given a medallion from her grandfather to make her and her home invisible from Japanese soldiers. Her home was the only one not burnt down in her village. She’s here, I’m here (and queer!), and we’re hella regenerating, fueled by our love for one another and our communities. It is precisely in invisibility from the state that many off-grid Indigenous, Black and Brown communities are co-creating for themselves the conditions to thrive and regenerate beyond the conditions of regulated survival on which the nation-state is built.

 

(7) regenerative medicine: love & creation stories

“You can keep your political purity. I choose love.”

-Lindsay Nixon, an anishinaabe-nehiyaw writer, curator, community organizer, and researcher currently residing in Tio’tia:ke/Mooniyang (Montreal), Facebook post. May 23rd.

Normative political activism for me has too often been devoid of the loving—nurturing, caring, sustaining, (re)creative—energies that make the process of working toward justice feel loving, just, life-giving, regenerative, sustainable.

Activism that celebrates what has been made invaluable and invisible—from all the emotional, cooking, cleaning, & care work that sustains us to the spirit world with whom we co-exist—not only complements legalization efforts to recognize and protect, but is necessary if we want to go beyond survival and de-colonization to regeneration and re-indigenization. I want to commit to an activism that celebrates our connection to all the invisibilized lineages, labour, histories, her-stories that transmit to us and enable our (re)creation stories of past, present, and future.

Of course, there is no one linear, one-size-fits-all way to survive and thrive under all circumstances for all peoples. A diversity of tactics makes sense for the unique, dynamic, fluid, ever-changing times and spaces that call for the heterogeneous “us” to survive and thrive. I am not here to tell people to stop petitioning nation-state governments when the state has a real, violent, impact on our lives. Rather, I am affirming the value of acknowledging and challenging the systems of harm that often prevent us from surviving, and inviting us to reflect on how we can co-create conditions to sustain and regenerate ourselves through harnessing love within our communities independent from the nation-state. This is a call to transmute the (very valid) rage against destructive systems that harm us into energy that allows us to regenerate and sustain one another through nurturing love for ourselves. This regenerative self-love requires knowing, remembering, and re-creating ourselves.

Perhaps through taking the time to mourn and remember those who have enabled us to be here, by breathing, by offering our sisters food and feeding ourselves, or offering our ancestors food on our altars. Perhaps this knowing comes through story-telling, perhaps through song, perhaps through dance.
#waterislife, we cannot dance without water

Support #noDAPL
Two Spirit Warriors & Water Protectors Camp

Oceti Sakowin Camp

Photo: Nicanor Evans
Photo: Nicanor Evans

Shaina Agbayani is a queer femme broom-wielder butterfly-singer, film-maker, dancer, cook, fermentation-fairy, cleaner, and co-creator of beat:root and re:bodies. She resides between different parts of luzon and tio’tia:ke in kanien’kehá:k, haudeonsaunee lands. She keeps offerings at https://queererth.wordpress.com


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In defense of common space

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Photo: La Directa

by Marina Rubio Herranz and Sam Bliss

The Banc Expropiat is an assembly-based project that has made the political decision not to delegate its communication task to any kind of media in order to keep its message accurate. First hand declarations and statements can only be found in the Banc’s twitter account and blog. Our views are our own.

On Monday May 23rd, the Catalan police evicted a beloved community space in Barcelona called the Banc Expropiat. Activists first occupied the abandoned former branch of the bank Caixa Catalunya in 2011, and during the last 5 years it has become a social center for the neighborhood of Gràcia.

The Banc serves as a shared space for organizing free activities open to all—from English and Catalan classes to tai chi sessions, from film screenings to meetings of the neighborhood assembly, from groups working on housing accessibility to sewing and drawing workshops. The Banc has a play area for kids, a free shop filled with donated clothes, and computers with internet for public use. It provides a place to share empowering skills and ideas outside the world of hierarchies, markets, political parties, or other formalized institutions. The property now belongs to a real estate speculator, Manuel Bravo Solano, who asked for the eviction.

With some of our closest friends, we participate in a group called the Xarxa d’Aliments, in which we ‘recycle’ leftover and unsellable food from local businesses to feed ourselves. In return, we help out the bakeries, market stalls, and fruit-and-veggie shops from which we collect when they need a hand, building a network of mutual support.

We would meet in the Banc once a week to discuss local food politics, organize big, free community meals, and part out the rescued fruits, veggies, bread and other tasty things to take home, always making decisions by consensus. The group also publishes articles in a neighborhood magazine and makes presentations to students at Barcelona high schools to spread knowledge about local and international food waste and the issue of food sovereignty. We’ve been so grateful to have a supportive space like the Banc where we can create an alternative vision of nourishment: food as a shared bounty rather than a commodity.

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Photo: La Directa

During the eviction that Monday, two courageous people resisted for more than 8 hours until police finally managed to remove them from the vault of the former bank. Many community members spent the day in the nearest square showing their support but unable to intervene directly because the police had blocked off streets all around the building. A helicopter materialized overhead. The chopping blades would become a soundtrack for the following days of dissent.

In the evening, after the police had sealed the façade with sheet metal and left, nearly two thousand people gathered and marched through the neighborhood, decrying the forceful seizure in various chants—“The Banc Expropiat stays in Gràcia!” “Our best weapon: solidarity!” The massive group ended up in front of the Banc, protesting with a thunderous roar created by rapping on the metal sheets and yelling.

As soon as hooded squatting activists began their attempt to cut open the entrance with a circular saw, swarms of police vans arrived and heavily armed officers spilled out, their faces, bodies, and nameplates covered in black. Demonstrators threw whatever they could get their hands on at the cops and made barricades with containers on fire. Chaos and destruction ensued. Encouragement from shop owners and neighbors on their balconies quickly turned to closed shutters as foam-tipped rubber bullets from the baton-wielding police chased stampedes of protesters through the narrow streets. By the end of the night, Gràcia was covered in smoldering overturned dumpsters and broken glass.

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Photo: Víctor Serri

Tuesday, we demonstrated again. This time some 2,400 marching, chanting protesters returned to the site unobstructed and a small group of activists held up a banner at the entrance as others hidden behind it went to work cutting open the metal sheets. Moments after the Banc was reopened, dozens of police vans again appeared from all sides. Cops poured out and attacked unprovoked, swinging their nightsticks at everyone in a vicious charge to retake the space and then disperse the crowd. Rather than stopping the officers from exercising their right to strike, putting one’s hands in the air exposed vital organs to being whacked by a baton.

We had lost our right to assemble completely. Militarized police broke up any gathering of people in the neighborhood up to a kilometer from the contested area. At the end of the night, they had re-sealed the Banc with a much stronger steel plate where the ephemeral door had stood.

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Photo: El Punt Avui

Wednesday concluded three consecutive nights of protest with a march that circled the Banc, which 580 police officers had been deployed to defend. Thursday was a day of reflection and planning for a weekend full of gathering support and momentum toward returning to our locale. On Friday, in front of the sealed space, we provided passersby with first-hand information and bread with chocolate. On Saturday, we set up the activities that used to take place at the Banc in the nearby square for all to participate: an improvised free shop of newly donated clothes, screen printing pro-Banc flags and T-shirts, all-level language classes, a gigantic meal of recycled food, an open mic for inspired poetry and music, and more. Sunday, police again thwarted plans to return to the Banc. About three dozen vans and the helicopter were already patrolling Gràcia before the mid-day demo. In the afternoon, reinforcements showed up. Tension remained high all day as demonstrators yelled at the police to get out of their neighborhood, their streets.

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Photo: El Punt Avui
reocupació del Banc Expropiat amb BancSorpresa, i desallotjament
Photo: Víctor Serri

Today, two weeks after the eviction, the site remains sealed. The day-to-day meetings and classes of the Banc continue in the street. Supporters periodically stick flowers in the perforations of the metal sheets. Neighborhood associations, independent publishers, labor unions, feminist groups, and other social collectives from all over Barcelona and beyond show their support by spreading the word, raising funds for the anti-eviction campaign, and persistently bringing their energy to Gràcia for events and demonstrations. The mainstream media spins yarns about chaos-creating anarchists wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. Surely the authorities keep a close eye on the area.

‘Anti-disturbance’ squads and undercover cops injured 67 people during those first two days of resistance. The Catalan government pays these police officers to forcefully prevent us from reopening a social center, because the right of a real estate speculator to determine the fate of a privately owned property he will never directly use is legitimate, and the right of citizens to gather in unused space to create community-led projects for social transformation is apparently illegitimate. The Banc is a commons—a resource collaboratively managed by everyone, for everyone. Together we will continue to resist and reclaim the Banc Expropiat as a shared space, not a commodity for profit.

4 willcontinue img_dibernon_20160528-005236_imagenes_lv_propias_dibernon_b52q9420-kCvE-U402107748693o1H-992x558@LaVanguardia-Web
Photo: David Airob

Update

The morning of Saturday, June 4th, the twitter account of the Banc Expropiat unexpectedly announced that five people had re-entered the space. No demonstration or event had been announced publicly or discussed digitally. Dozens of Gràcia residents began to gather around the Banc and the police soon followed, of course. With the brown, sheet-metal façade perfectly intact and purposefully confusing rumors swirling in the twittersphere, neither the police nor anyone else knew for certain if the news of reoccupation was real or fake. After clearing the area by force and hesitantly lingering outside the Banc for several minutes, the police officers sliced open one of the sheets, broke the glass, and clambered in. By late afternoon, the five occupants had been detained and more than one thousand demonstrators marched once more—“If they evict us today, we will be back tomorrow.”

 

Born and raised in Barcelona, Marina Rubio Herranz is working toward building harmonious and empowering ways of inhabiting this world through rehabilitation, permaculture, participation and mutual support.

Sam Bliss rode his bicycle from his parents’ house in Seattle to Catalunya to study ecological economics and degrowth at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and quickly got involved with several local groups and collectives.

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Drifting through the coal mine

by Aaron Vansintjan

(If you play the above video while reading the article, it can provide a nice soundtrack)

As we found out on May 3rd, 2016, coal comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes. Yes, we had “invaded” an open-cast coal mine for the sake of the climate, we were calling for a more just economic system that is not based on extraction, exploitation, and pollution. But in the presence of this substance, we became children collecting shells and pebbles at the beach: we crawled on hands and knees, exclaimed “woah, look at all the layers!”, placed them gently in bags to give to our friends later.

Holding a chunk of coal in my hand, I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible. This opaque matter, which sucks in all the light around it, has stood at the center of social and environmental struggles for the last two centuries. It has powered science and innovation, fueled wars, and helped build the cities we live in. These thoughts imbued the coal I was holding with a sort of enchantment, inspired a reverence I had not felt before.

I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible.

Ffos-y-fran, the United Kingdom’s largest open-cast coal mine, is nestled in the hills just outside of Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh community of just 65,000 people. Miller Argent, the owner of the mine, employs 200 people and has dug up 5 million tonnes of award-winning coal, and intends to extract 11 million tonnes more.

For decades, the community has resisted the coal mine, complaining about the proximity of the mine, pollution of their ground water and air, the noise from explosives, and that it’s really, really ugly. While the community was in favor of deepcast mining—which involves less visible impact on the environment and will often employ local residents—open-cast mining employs far less people, most of whom are specialized in operating specific machinery and will move on once the mine is exhausted. In 2007 Miller Argent proposed to start another site nearby. Once again, the community resisted.

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Reclaim the Power (RTP) is a decentralized network of climate justice activists—they organize without central leadership, coming together for strategic actions to block further development of the fossil fuel economy in the United Kingdom. As part of a two-week global wave of actions against fossil fuels, RTP organized their largest action yet: to invade a coal mine and shut it down for a day, symbolically highlighting the need to shift to a more just, fossil fuel-free economy.

Working with some amazing local activists, the United Valleys Action Group, RTP meticulously planned a campsite with the facilities to support hundreds of people (food, water, even composting toilets), orchestrated a massive media campaign, and even used the opportunity to host workshops, art-making, and dance parties. The result was beyond a direct action: it involved celebration, education, and politicization.

At several points during the action, I heard people remark, “what matters is how this appears in the media”, or, “this is useless if it’s not covered in the news.” Now, a week after the action, I want to reflect, not on its media impact, not on its success or failure—all important concerns. Very simply, I’d like to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a coal mine, explore it, and play with its terrain.

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Unearthing the logic of the mine

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

-Guy Debord, “Theory of the dérive

The Situationists argued that the alienation workers felt in the factory had extended to every aspect of modern life. Our cities have become depoliticized, commodified spaces primarily geared toward profit and social isolation.

To confront this, they developed tactics—games—that could repurpose the city and allow them to engage with it differently. To them, understanding how the city shapes our daily lives was paramount in overcoming alienation from our environment, and breaking down isolation between each other.

If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine.

One of these games was the “dérive”, meaning “drift”, where a small group of people would navigate the city, letting its landscape and terrain guide their movements. This would allow them to come to new conclusions about their city and pin-point ways to counteract its commodification and estrangement.

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If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine. The growth of modern urban life is inseparable from the extraction of coal. London first outmatched Amsterdam economically when the peasantry, displaced from their land, were forced to work in the coal mines. Coal powered the textile mills and food processing factories, which in turn enabled the cotton and sugarcane industries, fueled by slave labor, to flourish in the Americas. Coal kick-started a new world order, just as it continues to be a key ingredient for the industrial development of East Asian countries today.

Since the 1960s—when the Situationists were most active—the world has globalized and urbanized. We are now faced with what geographers call “planetary urbanization”—in which even the “countryside” has been shaped in the likeness of, and for the purpose of, growing megacities, and it has become difficult to say exactly where the city begins and ends. Now, all types of terrains and landscapes have been transformed into an interconnected mesh, a standing reserve of resources, extractive flows, and sites of commodified value.

The coal mine is an essential component of urbanization, and a great place for a dérive.

So why not think of the action at Foss-y-fran as a mass dérive? The organizers realized this: one affinity group dragged around giant inflatable “cobblestones”—a direct and conscious reference to the Paris May ’68 slogan “under the cobblestones, the beach”. The slogan recalled the cobblestones lifted by students to throw at police and create barricades with, but it also suggested that capital could be subverted by engaging with your surroundings in new ways.

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It was this sense of play that many brought to the coal mine. When we arrived at the mine, there was a moment of wonder, excitement. This required weaving our way past giant mounds of slag that had been “reclaimed”—in other words, they grew some grass on top of it and allowed sheep to graze on them. But once past these, we entered a different world: everything around us was black and grey, muddy, gritty. Tall cliffs surrounded us on all sides, and nestled in their shadows were a handful of massive yellow machines—the diggers and the trucks.

The access roads were made for and by these machines. We were told to be careful of the smaller heaps of slag on each side: these could collapse and endanger others below. Finally, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast: the place where coal was being actively mined.

Here we were, in the hundreds, in a landscape not intended for pedestrians, let alone crowds. It was no accident, then, that we tended to gravitate toward the large machines that shaped this landscape. We quickly climbed up them and appropriated them with our slogans and games.

If you string a banner—“NO NEW COAL”—between two large diggers, you can play a game of volleyball with the “cobblestones”. The arm of the digger—just over two meters long—creates a hollow space ideal for amplifying a portable sound-system. When it rains, several dozen people can hide under a digger and start a mini-rave.

Once the initial excitement receded, we took strolls around the site, picking up rocks, inspecting deep pools of water, clambering up ledges. At one point, we stopped in front of a steep cliff. From a crevice in the layers of rock bubbled a tiny stream, staining the rock around it with a bright, rusty red. Even within this site dedicated to excavation, wildness still found a way to seep through the cracks. Amongst several people that I talked to, there was an appreciation for this landscape that I hadn’t expected: we agreed that there was something sublime about it.

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Activists are often worried about whether their direct actions really “make an impact” or “succeed”. At meetings in London I attended in the past year, people would often suggest that community-based (“local”) organizing was less effective than orchestrating a large media presence and announcing clear, attainable demands, achieved through mass movements with precise political platforms. I’ve heard people criticize temporary occupations because they fail to scale up beyond the local, and, without institutionalized resistance or well-defined goals, they are unable to address the root of our problems.

The action at Ffos-y-Fran was highly temporary in nature: a day later, the mine was operating perfectly, without a hitch. It did not change any government policies, nor did participants articulate a coherent policy platform. What’s more, for every coal mine shut down in the UK, there are ten new ones in China, Vietnam, and Australia.

But is this how we want to define success? Ende Gelaende, the Germany-based anti-coal group whose invasion of a German coal mine last year inspired the Ffos-y-Fran action, loudly proclaim: “we are the investment risk!” The joke is that activists are happy to speak in the language that the fossil fuel companies use. Today they are at it again, with 3,000 people occupying the largest coal mine in Europe.

But the joke is double-sided: they are also poking fun at that very same language. It acknowledges that success cannot just be defined according to the language of the status quo. If all we mean by success is a good media presence, divestment of stocks, or a shift in government policy, then anything that does not look like that is ignored.

If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action.

In his book Territories in Resistance, Raúl Zibechi argues that blockades and spontaneous actions have much deeper roots and are less fragmented than they seem. Rather than measuring their success in terms of whether they were able to change the state structure, he instead sees them as “lightning illuminating the night sky”: the direct action is just the more visible part of much larger, non-institutionalized movements that are already creating a new world within, and outside of, the old.

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How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy. For a day, adults became children, they turned machines into playgrounds, and they formed new relationships with each other.

How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy.

If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action. You will miss the heaps of dishes, the hours of meetings, the work put into making food. You will miss the crucial elements of a new type of movement that sees cooking, cleaning, playing, and caring as forms of resistance. These elements are busy rehearsing new ways of doing things, new types of economies.

The nature of the dérive is open-ended: it requires a kind of receptivity to new experiences, to new realizations. In return, it provides fresh insight into the machinations of our world, it suggests strategic weak points that may have not been visible before. If we are to resist today’s economy and plan for a new one, we cannot allow the elite to define success for us. Just as we must imagine new worlds, we must learn to create life and play in the ruins of the old.

 

Lifting the spell

The action was nearing its end. By 2 p.m., many of us were getting tired, others were just anxious to move out of the site we had occupied for the past five hours.

As a group, we decided that some of us would guard the diggers, which had become so familiar to us, and others would go explore the rest of the mines and try to stop the works that were happening elsewhere.

On the way there, we were met with a convoy of white Land Rovers filled with roughly 80 fully-outfitted riot police. They gave us two minutes to leave the premises. Now about 70 ourselves, we gathered in a circle to make a quick decision. I split off from the group with about fifteen others—not wanting to risk arrest at this point—and we made our way up another excavation site, which then curved around and over the hillside, finally leading us to the jagged edge of the mine.

The day had turned dark. I felt a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings: in the very guts of Mount Doom, my thoughts transformed by the landscape, all willpower receding in face of the challenge ahead of me.

When I reached the edge, I felt a thick layer of moss under my feet and saw the rolling Welsh hills in front of me. I collapsed onto the green ground. All of a sudden the dark spell was lifted. The massive black coal pit, at one point so impressive, had shaped my mood, and it gave the impression that there was no escape. Hugging the moss, I realized the extent to which the mine had clouded my judgements, and knew that it could no longer affect me.

From this edge we could see the events unfolding below us. A group of activists stood aside from the police, who, having left their vehicles, marched in impressive formation down the road, toward the deepest part of the mine, toward those who were guarding the diggers. We stayed at this look-out spot for about an hour, sharing snacks, talking about the day, and observing the show-down between the police and the handful of activists that remained.

It was at that point that the action was mostly over. It would take about two more hours for everyone else to leave. Some successfully stopped activity in other parts of the mine. Others chained themselves to the diggers. No arrests were made. In groups, we arrived back in camp, and were met with a warm welcome from those who had stayed behind.

A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out of the mine. Business as usual.

The next day, I set off back to the city. A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out from the mine. Business as usual. It seemed like yesterday was an illusion, a trip into the Kingdom of Narnia. Waiting for the light to change, I reached into my pocket and my fingers found a small rock. I took it out and looked at it: it was black, the size of a coin. It glinted in the sun. The traffic light turned green, and I put the piece of coal back into my pocket.

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Postscript: lessons learned

If our action was like a “dérive”, I’d like to contribute three small notes to its methodology, none of them particularly new but each reinforced by my experiences of the action.

First, the structure of the “affinity group”—developed by activists to maintain autonomy and decentralization within actions, while ensuring trust and cohesion among the participants—is also useful for drifting through the terrain of the coal mine. Guy Debord notes that a dérive works best when capped at 2-4 participants. We could say that the affinity group, which tends to be comprised of 2-10 people, and will often be broken down into “buddy groups” of 2-3 people, makes it possible to conduct a dérive en masse.

Second, anonymity—upheld by activists in these kinds of actions for fear of surveillance and political persecution—is a double-edged sword. Paranoia inhibited trust between us, deflating some of the potential for making connections with others and multiplying strong bonds. It also inhibited some from being more outgoing and honest in their opinions, and created a hierarchy between long-time activists who knew and trusted each other and newcomers, like myself. Then again, the necessity of anonymity in the action led to a new experiential relationship for those who didn’t already know each other: who a person is was stressed less than the interactions you have with them. In these fleeting interactions, you were judged by your immediate acts and not by your ideas, past, political stance, etc. Kind of like at a party—a mass trespassing party.

Third, problems of exclusivity and ableism were apparent throughout the action. I met an older man who was almost in tears because he had been excluded systematically. Whenever he had tried to join an affinity group, people turned away or stopped talking. As a result, he didn’t feel comfortable joining in the day of the occupation. His way of speaking and interacting was unusual, and I thought that many of these activists might have been uncomfortable engaging with someone who seemed like he was mentally unstable.

In addition, one of the participants of the action used a wheelchair, and she constantly had to assert herself to make the action accessible to her. At one point, some people in her affinity group accompanied her to observe the edge of the mine: doing this could be seen, not as an inconvenience, but as an extremely radical action. It challenges both the world shaped by and for machines and the often inaccessible world of activist actions.

If an action is based on trust, it also means that the dominant group will define who is “trustworthy”, and not being member of that group or having mental health issues may increase the chance of not being trusted. Similarly, if an action is organized by mostly able, white folks, then the activities will likely feel alienating to those not part of those demographics, and they will need to work so much harder to be involved. A dérive can be so much more instructive if people excluded by this alienating, isolating society were to participate: they may be better equipped than anyone else to notice the weak points in the oppressive terrain.

All photos and videos by Aaron Vansintjan except for #17 (of the feet under the digger), which was taken by Anonymous. 

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, and long bicycle rides.

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Plastic and the city

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by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley

The burden of single-use plastic bags on urban infrastructure has been a focus of the environmentalist movements and urbanist thought in the 21st century. Single-use plastic bags, however, are not the only plastic that becomes entangled in the cityscape. In fact, plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

Plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

In the urban context, plastic is ubiquitous. Like the concrete, steel, and tar that compose the urban landscape, plastic is integral to the form and function of urban space of the 21st century. Plastic piping carries water from dams to cities; plastics encase fiber optic cables and electrical wires. Plastics are necessary to power electronics, maintain the shelf life of foodstuffs, and move goods quickly across oceans in vast quantities from one node to another. And while each of these differs in chemical composition, once discarded, they all are obstacles to urban waste management systems.

Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects.

What follows is an exploration of the intertwined social and material landscapes of Dakar – the bustling capital of Senegal. Senegal banned plastic bags one year ago, in April 2015, as a means to curb environmental and infrastructural damage particularly severe in the nation’s capital. The vignettes capture social interactions in which plastic objects transcend material stagnancy and figure dynamically in the social lives of Dakar’s inhabitants. Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects

These vignettes highlight the ambiguity of this material, and the challenges that such ambiguity poses to reimagining urban infrastructure in a way that meets the social and material needs of diverse inhabitants. Ultimately the social world of the city complicates the 21st century politics of plastic.


 

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill. His artwork hangs everywhere, along with other things that I assume serve as artistic inspiration. Madické’s work features recycled materials—trash, really. He repurposes cellphone cases, old water bottles, anything commonly found in the city’s litter. He sells his works at Gorée Island, one of Dakar’s major tourist attractions.

Tourists come to see the Museum of the Slave House, and then meander the island to buy souvenirs, like Madické’s art. From Madické’s home one can observe European visitors, unconditioned to the Sub-Saharan sun, huffing and puffing up to the hilltop with red faces. Madické is passionate about his work,  that much is clear. He tells me so as he balances himself on his plastic chair, whose spines are broken. His balancing act gives him an air of stoicism as he speaks, slightly leaning forward, quietly bracing against the precariousness of the chair.

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill.

He talks about what he incorporates into his work, how he finds these items, and the ecological message he tries to convey. He uses cigarette butts for mud huts, discarded cellphone cases for human torsos, spoons for legs. He is moved by the tragedies he sees in Dakar. Seeing young boys begging in traffic sickens him, he tells me they often get hit by cars. Society treats them like trash, he says. We converse for a little over an hour, with mostly Madické speaking intensely about the social problems he sees, and how he wields his perspectives into art. He needs a break. He pulls out a little bag of weed and another little bag of tobacco and rolls a spliff.

He moves the dilapidated plastic chair to the entryway for me to sit.

Source: author


 

I went to see Moustapha. We met at the tea shack, and he expressed an interest in speaking with me. I sat down with him, and began our conversation with the following question: why do you make this art from recycled materials?

He shrugs, what an easy question. “Because white tourists like to buy it.”

Moustapha took me to see his other works, all the while carrying on about all the European tourists who want to buy art made out of trash. It really cuts down on overhead costs, he says, to use discarded items found in the street rather than purchasing materials from an art supply store.


 

The first time I bought one of Modou’s wares, I tried to begin the conversation in Wolof, but he quickly changed to French. He doesn’t speak Wolof. Modou is from Guinea. He must be in his 60s. I walk by the corner where he sells his fans and woven baskets almost every day to get to  my office, to go to the grocery store, to the bank. His stand is placed in a perfect thoroughfare, with lots of foot traffic, but right at a corner where pedestrians naturally have to slow down and observe surroundings to safely navigate the intersection. I imagine his small business does well. He always says hi, and I always say hi. It is a nice feeling to see this familiar face in the neighborhood on my way to work and on my way home.

We are both foreigners in Dakar, but in different ways. Modou explained that he had been a basket weaver all his life, and that he had lived in the capital cities of countries in the region like Guinea and Sierra Leone before making his way to Senegal. I asked where he got the long spools of colorful plastic thread with which he crafted baskets, fans, and tote bags. As he speaks, he reaches to touch fans hanging from thread in the acacia tree, directing my gaze at different items. Modou has only ever used plastic twine to make baskets in Senegal; in the other countries he used natural fibers, like raffia.


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I walk down one particular road often. It is just adjacent to the main road, but it’s so quiet. It is narrow, and it has not been repaved in a long time. In fact, it looks like someone started repaving it and had removed the top layer of tar to do so. Two buildings on the street are currently under construction, and piles of mixing sand pour into the weathered city street. There are rarely people out on the street. Sometimes the neighbor kids play soccer, and the soccer ball ricochés off the divets in the road and bounces  back and forth between the tight walls. It looks like much more fun than playing on a flat pitch; exciting in its unpredictability.

This morning, I walk down the street on my way to work. Near the bend, there is a large plastic water container in the road. There is a calm breeze, and the container skids back and forth on the unpaved road. It is scuffed from this friction, but it still catches the sunlight in a few places as it rolls. On this quiet street, the only sound is of the container’s movements against the concrete.

Bump bump bump. Bump. Bump bump. Then a thud, when it hits against the curb.


 

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

“Women’s work is very hard.”

Pierre said this in a pensive but stoic way as she passed.

Nearby, in Nabu’s small home, I sit with her, her cowife, and her husband, who is sprawled across the bed. We are in their bedroom, and a t.v. in the corner is playing Senegalese sit-coms. I began to go through the consent process prior to beginning our interview and she just begins to tell me about her work. She, with great enthusiasm, told me everything I wanted to know. I didn’t ask a single question. She makes juice for the mechanics that work on taxis. Her stand is right next to the gas station. She puts the juice in these used plastic bottles, which she buys at the market.

Yes, there are these people who collect used plastic bottles and then they resell them at the market. Only 25CFA per bottle! It’s a great deal!”

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

Less than 5 cents USD a bottle. Nabu runs out of the room, and comes back with a large clear plastic trash bag filled with empty plastic bottles. The bottles were all used – old plastic coca cola bottles, fanta bottles, and so on – but in good condition, and well cleaned.

“Look, I buy them all at the market!”

Nabu’s colleagues – the market vendors – collect the discarded bottles mostly from restaurants and corner stores, and resell them to Nabu and other juice makers, who then resell them filled with juice.


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Ali met Moussa and me at the entrance to the waste dump. He is very energetic and I am not because I’ve been sick. Moussa is calm as always, and Ali’s intensity stains our quiet. After a bit of awkward formalities at the Waste Pickers Association’s center, Moussa puts the car in gear and we move slowly into the heart of the waste dump, Moussa careful to protect his tires from the compacted debris below.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle? All the things that nobody wanted anymore, and wanted out of their personal space, found its way here. All of this below our feet, as we stood atop a large hill made entirely of trash, the integrity of its structure maintained by non-biodegradable discarded plastics. I began to mentally catalogue my contributions to this trash mountain since arriving in Dakar earlier that summer, since May. How many plastic bottles? A shampoo bottle maybe. I sometimes indulge in a Coca-Cola, but they are always in glass bottles, whichI return to the butik once I’ve finished. So, no Coca-Cola bottles. But perhaps a plastic bag or two, or three? Definitely an empty ibuprofen bottle.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle?

Ali’s job, and the job of his fellow workers, is to search through the trash, pull out plastic objects, sort it, and then sell it to plastic companies to melt down and make plastic pellets or plastic reams. New things will be made from these old worn plastic things. But most of these old worn plastic things will just remain in the waste dump.

A man walks by with a horse cart overflowing with mesh bags full of single-use plastic bags, the kind you get at the grocery store. I watch as he trudged through the waste, leading his tired horse, on his way to sell all the dense bundles of plastic bags.


 

There are a lot of tubaabs in Dakar. The presence of tubaabs – white westerners – is just one feature of Dakar’s international fabric. Dakar is a cosmopolitan city and its urban dwellers hail from across the globe. These foreign diplomats, dignitaries, NGO workers, interns, and volunteers are sprawled throughout the city. They tend to congregate in certain spaces more than others. Mark’s potluck brunches are one of these spaces. At these events tubaabs tend to talk about ‘back-home’ as though Europe and North America are planets in a distant galaxy and not one nonstop flight away.

Mark is younger than most of his guests, a charismatic undergrad from a prestigious university whose social finesse makes him seem much older and more refined than his counterparts. As we prepare the meal, Mark asks if anyone would like some water.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village?

And so the grand drinking-water debate is initiated. A ritual really, amongst tubaabs in Dakar, between tubaabs in Dakar and their loved ones on Skype. The debate centers on whether or not one is either brave enough, or stupid enough – depending on who is holding court – to drink the local water, rather than buy endless supplies of bottled water. Once a tubaab divulges his or her personal practices pertaining to one’s bottled water use while in this Sub-Saharan African city are discussed, you will know which tubaab sub-group you belong to.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village? A woman offered you some water from the ndaa upon seeing how uncomfortably hot you were, red-faced and sweating profusely under the Saharan sun. You found an acceptable way to reject her offer, or you boldly accepted, sacrificing your health and maybe even your life to maintain social graces.

Mark drinks the tap water exclusively. He is willing to face typhoid head-on, daring microbes to defy his immune system.

As we chop potatoes together at the dining room table, a young woman quietly comments to me that she only drinks bottled water. With furrowed brow, she pauses to share with me her frustration over the hassle of making so many trips to the corner store to buy bottled water. She doesn’t know what to do with all these bottles.

 


 

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

“I don’t carry plastic bags anymore”, the clerk of the corner store told his customer. This small neighborhood corner store is filled from floor to ceiling with all kinds of food items, beauty products, and sundries. There is just barely enough space for the clerk and his customer to occupy either side of the counter, and I stand on the threshold waiting for this transaction to be settled so that I can buy credit for my phone. The rusted doorway, contrasted with the colorful packaging of the stocked items, has an aesthetic quality, serving both to beautify and define Dakar’s residential neighborhoods. By the casualness of their body language, it’s obvious the clerk and his customer know one another. His customer must have come to his shop several times a week for who knows how long – sometimes a morning coffee, an evening cigarette, a bottle of soda on a hot weekend afternoon.

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

The customer was not pleased. He bought a small bottle of juice, a bag of potato chips, and a card of phone credit. The items were displayed on top of the glass counter, and the clerk gestured to each one, silently mouthed their individual prices, paused to mentally tally, and then finally announce the total out loud.

“We don’t carry them anymore; they stopped making them.” He explained as he took his customer’s crumpled bill and searched for change in the cashbox.

His customer became more vexed. The customer had not been aware that the government banned single-use plastic bags almost a year ago. He held the clerk accountable, and pressured him to explain how one is to conceal purchases. The thought of walking through the neighborhood with his – the customer’s – purchases exposed is an indecency that disturbed him. In so doing, he would be inviting the curiosity of his neighbors, who would see this open display of consumption as an equally open invitation for them to engage in additional social faux pas in the microcosm of the neighborhood. What a gross negligence on the part of his trusted neighborhood clerk to not provide him with an opaque black plastic bag, a requisite for appropriate public behavior and consumption, however insignificant they may seem at times.

He gathered his purchases, and with a disgruntled sigh shoved the snack in his pants pocket, taking extra care to pull his shirt over his pockets to conceal his purchases from onlookers.


 

Plastic has always been meant to be molded, bent, melted, into many forms. At times plastic catalyzes new social arrangements, at other times it disrupts these arrangements, and still at others its presence is barely significant. Plastic often factors into social engagements as a central topic of inquiry – whether that involves debating whether or not to consume bottled water instead of drinking the potentially contaminated tap water, or making  political statements through art about the intersections of plastic pollution and social ills.

Yet the very objects that cause us to take pause and question the damaging ways in which they affect urban lives are also the very same objects that in other ways uphold that life—offering a chair for a friend to sit in, a cup to drink from—without reference to or acknowledgement of the fact that these items are as much a part of the industrial economics of plastic materials in urban circulation as that notorious plastic water bottle and single-use plastic bags.

While our environmentalist conversations focus on plastic bags, we often ignore the fact that plastic is present everywhere and in many different forms. Because of its ubiquity, it more often than not occupies an ambiguous and contradictory role in social life. It plays an important role in social lives and urban spaces, but also results in challenging impacts on city infrastructure. Its benevolence is counterbalanced by its own malevolence. As urban spaces like Dakar phase out plastics and turn towards alternative materials and systems to mitigate problems, questions of the benevolence of those materials will continue to arise.

All photos by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley.

Special thanks to Dr. Richard Kernaghan. His ethnographic writing workshop was the catalyst for this piece.

Thérèse d’Auria Ryley is a design anthropologist whose work explores the nexus of environment, urban infrastructure, and public life. Her work explores the impact of modern living on urban space in Philadelphia, USA and Dakar, Senegal. She is a proud Philly native. She tweets at “@thérèsedauria.”

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Broadway, New Haven

 

 

by Michael Lee-Murphy

Sunday May 17 was graduation day for Yale University. The day is more properly called commencement, and refers to the time when Yale graduates commence the part of their lives when they don’t live in New Haven. The day was marked by the full closure of several blocks of downtown, massive police presence, and sun dresses. The interchange of I-91 and I-95 was completely closed for a full half hour to allow for the escape of Joe Biden, who had addressed the graduating class.

I was on the corner of York Street and Broadway when Biden’s motorcade happened to pass. It’s been a pastime of many in New Haven to complain that Yale’s recent restructuring of the Broadway strip has been to effectively keep the non-White and poorer populations of the predominantly Black Dixwell neighborhood away from Yale. This was at the very least the result, if not the outright goal, of the University’s buying up of most of the property on the block. An article in Sunday’s paper, however, laid bare the racism at the heart of Yale’s machinations. Ethnic and economic cleansing was the desire as well as the result.

Sunday’s edition of the New Haven Register featured a front page with two stories both running several thousand words in length about what a great place Yale is, and what the school has done for New Haven. You could read in the paper what the cops and the secret service were telling you in the street through barricades and wags of the finger. Stay away, this is not for you.

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The stories hung under the massive blue headline IVY + ELM, a photo of the Sterling Memorial Library and the text:Yale pumps more than $2B a year into city, region. The headline cleverly merges the city and the region as if the divided politics of the two in real life isn’t one of the big problems about urban policy in Connecticut.

One of the stories, by Yale beat reporter Ed Stannard, ran just over 3,000 words. The headline in the print edition gave us two words for the act Yale has performed upon Broadway. “Yale the star of rebuilding Broadway,” read the print version, while the web version of the story reads “Yale University and New Haven team up to remake Broadway for retail, restaurants.” Already there are some interesting differences between the version of the story meant for single day consumption, and the version archived to the internet.

“Remake” means “make something again, or differently.” Rebuild means “build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.” So which act has Yale performed upon Broadway?

Yale’s Vice President for New Haven Affairs Bruce Alexander, of whom the article is essentially a profile, gives us yet a third word for the act Yale has performed upon Broadway. From the article:

“Alexander said he was walking on York Street near Broadway and noticing litter and storefronts such as barbershops and liquor stores. Since Yalies went through the area on their way to the Yale Co-op, he thought it needed an upgrade.”

An upgrade. A remake. A rebuild.

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The Broadway of the 80s (?)

When was Broadway damaged or destroyed so as to be rebuilt? Why would the Sunday print edition of the paper need to imply that it was? The headline and the article itself was quite obviously geared toward the parents of Yale students in town for the weekend, looking for a souvenir of the day. The choice of headline, articles, and layout reflects what is a truism about Connecticut’s cities in general: they are not built for the people that live in them, especially in the era of late capitalism.

“Poor people will not be allowed to ruin the mall. People of color will not be allowed to ruin the mall. Barbershops will not be allowed to ruin the mall. New Haven is a mall and Yale kids are its customers.”

The article doesn’t say when Alexander had this stroll along York Street and slouched toward Broadway, but Alexander has been Yale’s downtown property man since the late 1990s.  Before he came to Yale, Alexander negotiated with cities throughout America to build malls for the Rouse Company. The complaint of many that Broadway now feels like a mall rather than a city block is not a curmudgeonly gripe about the good ol’ days: that has been Yale’s goal for Broadway from the start.

Brian McGrath, the business manager of Chapel West Special Services District — a sub-municipal development organization with its own taxation and zoning policies, currently trying to change the name of the Dwight neighborhood to Chapel West — illuminated to the Yale Herald in 2012 Yale’s philosophy behind the redevelopment.

“If you want synergy, and you want the maximum number of customers, you need to run it like a mall. You need everyone opening and closing at the same time. You have some stores that close early? That’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer leaving trash on the sidewalk—that’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer attracting bums—that’s going to ruin your mall.”

This fear of their mall being ruined led Yale to force out a number of undesirable businesses along the road. Streetview on Google Maps has a feature which allows you to take a cyberstroll down Broadway and compare what the street looked like in 2008 to what it looks like now. The Yale Co-op, a locally owned bookstore, was forced out in favor of a Barnes & Noble branch. Next door, the new Apple store gleams into the night, and happily offers workshops to the New Haven Police Department. Next to the Apple store is the building York Sq Cinema used to share with a store selling Yale themed clothing. York Sq closed in 2005 and the building is now entirely Campus Customs. Cutler’s Record Store. Quality Wine and Liquors. Even the Au Bon Pain at the intersection with York was seen to be not fit for Yale’s purposes when Yale decided not to renew its lease back in 2013.

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The Broadway of the mind

Yale has had varying degrees of involvement with the closure of these businesses — Yale said it loved Cutler’s — but at the very least, the Art House theater, record store crowd ain’t the J Crew Kiko Milano crowd.

There were usually homeless people outside or inside the Au Bon Pain. Now they are gone. No longer will the homeless of New Haven be allowed to ruin the mall. Now the location is a “Emporium DNA,” where you can get a pair of shiny trousers for the price of a month’s rent.

But for Win Davis, the executive Director of the Town Green Special Services District,  it is the Apple store that is the jewel in the shitcrown that is the new Broadway. The store is “a huge get. … That’s a huge bellwether for our retail community and what is difficult about retail and something that Yale has helped us overcome is talking with people and getting people to come to town despite the census data.”

There are only two possibilities for what “despite the census data” means here: either despite the people of color, or despite the poor people. In New Haven’s segregation, there is significant overlap between the two categories.

Poor people will not be allowed to ruin the mall. People of color will not be allowed to ruin the mall. Barbershops will not be allowed to ruin the mall. New Haven is a mall and Yale kids are its customers.

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The Broadway ripe for ruin

 

It is further unclear in the above quote which “people” Davis was trying to convince to come to New Haven. Either he means national chains who want to sell their high-end shit despite the fact that 25% of New Haven residents live below the poverty line, or suburban types who would come into town, but have been looking at the census data and doing reconnaissance on the skin color of the people that live there and they don’t like what they see. Let us keep the community away so we can bring in a retail community, which along with synergy is an unspeakably horrible phrase that only signals the destruction of things we hold dear.

The remaking of Broadway as a mall is in fact a very old tradition in New Haven, representing no new ideas. As Mandi Isaacs Jackson details in her book Model City Blues, the 1960s saw an effort to “remake” New Haven as “New England’s Newest City,” as if there was no New Haven that existed before.

Here’s a 1960 pamphlet from New Haven’s Redevelopment Agency replicated in Jackson’s book, with an army of zombie housewife shoppers lurching toward New Haven.

Look out

As Jackson writes,

“[G]eographer Don Mitchell argues that inherent in spaces like the new downtown “shopping mecca” is the ‘perceived need for order, surveillance, and control over the behavior of the public.’ The primary aim of corporate planners, like those who planned New Haven’s new downtown shopping, parking, and hotel center, argued Mitchell, was to impose ‘limits and controls on spatial interaction.’ In this way, public spaces such as malls, shopping centers, and redeveloped downtowns become what Mitchell calls ‘spaces of controlled spectacle.’ But Mitchell also asserts that such spaces have never actually been inclusive, even in their most basic early forms–such as the forum of ancient Rome or the colonial town square. It was only through what he calls ‘concerted social protest and conflict’ that they were opened up. ‘Spaces were only public,’ he asserts, ‘to the degree that they were taken and made public.’”

Broadway must be made public again. They’ve ruined Broadway by making it a mall. We have to ruin it back.

Later Jackson quotes historian Eric Hobsbawm, who says that “the rebuilding and reorganization of cities is one of three strategies employed by the state to counter urban insurrections.”

Indeed, during New Haven’s last major insurrection of May Day 1970, Liggett’s (where the $1000 shiny pants store is now) boarded up and demanded freedom for the imprisoned Black Panthers of the city.

Broadway’s past and possible future
Broadway’s past and possible future

Broadway is just one block in Yale’s master plan. Of Yale’s properties, only $108 million’s worth is taxable, bringing in $4.49 million in tax into New Haven. Yale owns a separate $2.5 billion dollars worth of property that goes untaxed. Here is a map of their empire.

The arguments defending Yale’s designs for large parts of the city usually feature some variation of this: “New Haven without Yale would be Bridgeport or Hartford.” Whether this is more insulting and condescending to the people of New Haven who have no involvement with Yale, or to the people of Hartford and Bridgeport is an open question. The other argument is often, “We need Yale for the money it brings in to the city.” This argument is a variation on the first, and we hear it parroted anytime Yale buys up another street (literally), or forces out a locally owned store for a high-end chain.

This is the nerdish warbling of a company stooge, and it makes us all look like assholes. As a friend pointed out in a Facebook discussion about this, that argument almost completely overlooks the fact that the money Yale brings into New Haven is meant to be circulated within Yale’s properties. The whole point of the rebranding of Chapel Street and Broadway as “The Shops at Yale” is that Yale money never gets spent at something that is not Yale-owned, and furthermore to keep non-Yale people away from the area. (Observe the closing of the Anchor, as an example.) The other work the argument performs is that it turns every complaint about Yale’s behavior into an argument about Yale’s existence. This this the Stockholm syndrome of a hostage. We need them, so we can’t criticize them.

Certainly it strikes me as the same type of thinking that would operate in the coal towns of Appalachia, where, robbed and exploited by the company store, the townsfolk plead with the company to be nice to them.

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Is New Haven a place of its own, or is it a company town? (And let’s be clear: Yale is a company as much as or even more than it is a University. Its University Properties real estate holding company has done things like buying out locally owned stores and leaving the storefront vacant because they didn’t like the fact that booze was being sold so close to campus.)

What is the purpose of New Haven? Is it for the people that live there to be able to live happy lives, or is it for Yale to crank out raw materials and provide these raw materials with ample shopping opportunities?

Let’s ruin the mall. They haven’t won yet. Skate it like Jim Greco did in the 1990s. Wear punk patches. Be drunk. Sneer. Don’t buy. Don’t cede.

Michael Lee-Murphy is a reporter and writer based in New England, USA. He has written for Jacobin, Ricochet Media, and Maisonneuve Magazine.

This story originally appeared on Michael Lee-Murphy’s blog, A Furious Return to Basics.

 

“My neighbors…”

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photo and words by Cindy Milstein, chalk by Lisa Ganser

Just as I was about to snap this photo, two guys walking by stopped to read the pavement, too, and said, “Another arson. They keep happening here in the Mission.” They hadn’t noticed me, but our eyes met after the one spoke, and I nodded agreement. We all had a worn look about us, deep in those eyes of ours.

I took my picture.

The chalking is becoming too routine on the dirty concrete in my neighborhood. I know who does it, carefully, with solemn respect and raw pain. Chalking, as public and plain as the mourning in the Mission, but likely washed away by tears and time, not rain.

There is a lack of rain here. Drought they call it, as in a period that “causes extensive damage.” Yet there is no lack of people “getting killed and displaced by fires, gentrification & police.”

Minutes later, as I tried taking another shot, this time of the haphazard array of flowers clinging desperately to the padlocked security gate pulled tight across the front of the charred liquor store at Treat and 24th streets, another couple of folks strolled by, walked past, and then turned back toward me.

“What happened?” they inquired, as if somehow they knew that I would obviously know. Maybe it was those serious eyes of mine.

Burned household objects litter the street still in two big mounds, one to each side of this corner store’s entry, like sentries, like graves, smelling as if still smoldering, still dangerous.

The blackened piles are remnants of life, tossed quickly out windows in haste, one imagines, to battle flames. Yet they feel an affront now, left as if warning sign for others — by landlord? by city? by police? — as a way to spark further fear for the marginalized and precarious in this neighborhood.

Mostly, it feels like a violation, an injury, a dishonor toward the people who used to call these things “home.” This is not a fitting part of the communal makeshift shrine and quiet witnessing, quiet processing, that’s going on in between the smelly, messy heaps of disaster.

Indeed, one can still hardly take in a breath for the stench of it all.

“A 13-year-old, Amal Shaibi, died last night from smoke inhalation during the fire last week,” I tell this second pair of passersby. “Her 38-year-old dad, Mohamed Shaibi, died a couple nights ago. I heard the 13-year-old helped a younger sibling out a smoke-filled window during the heat of the blaze.”

I go into detail, too much probably, weaving in nearby evictions, nearby harassment by landlords and immigration agents and plainclothes cops, who also murdered 21-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez only about a block and a half away, only about three weeks ago, and wander further afield to offer the story of the enormous fire on Mission at 22nd streets that killed one and dehoused many dozens of longtime, low-income, mostly Latino residents. I repeat the words heard often these days here: arson. “Or that’s what everyone thinks, at least those who think about and are impacted by gentrification.”

I can’t quite tell if they wanted to hear this thoroughly interconnected story, but they listen eagerly, and thank me profusely. They aren’t from this neighborhood, so all this seems like news to them. I can’t quite tell, either, if it touched their hearts or not, or was simply spectacle after a nice dinner and evening walk.

Earlier today, at a public hearing at city hall about all the fires of late, politicians fell over themselves to congratulate city workers for bravery, courage, and hard work. The workers fell over themselves to cover each other least they’d made any mistakes, and speak of how they are objective in determining the cause of fires. The politician who called the hearing for his district, David Campos, mentioned that people in the neighborhood have “conspiracy theories,” by which he dismissed any thought of arson even as he vaguely noted that such theories arise from “what’s happening in the Mission,” by which I assume he means gentrification and eviction by whatever means necessary.

The closest that any of these officials, all feigning investigative vigilance, got to touching on what nearly everyone at risk of disposal in the Mission believes — that the fires are part and parcel of dispossession — was when they danced around how sometimes landlords don’t keep their buildings up to fire codes in terms of safety.

This is, I think, arson as well, by any means, whether flagrant conflagrations are the result of landlord “negligence,” or secondary-degree burning of buildings comes in the form of winking away code violations until rent-stabilized apartments, say, catch fire.

Funny, people in the Mission observe, how the huge 3-story building at Mission and 22nd got thoroughly destroyed but the extremely expensive new Vida apartment complex right next door — literally touching each other — didn’t seem to receive even a scratch.

All “conspiracy theories,” mind you, but they have a certain ring of reality down on the street level, especially around 24th and Mission these days.

Meanwhile, on Treat and 24th, two shopkeepers across the street from the vacant burned building, with plastic blowing out its windows now, tell me they are collecting funds for the family. “They keep refusing money, though. So we’re encouraging cards. But yes, we’ll insist they take the money for all their health expenses.” They explain how the family returned earlier today, briefly, and said they were doing OK.

I imagine they can barely begin to understand how they are doing, and hope they somehow didn’t notice those two sprawling heaps of burned objects, so they won’t become a memory, when memories return.

Grief settles slowly, like ash.

This family is now a woman, wife, and mom, now in a wheelchair from her own injuries, now with one husband less and one child less, no home, and no family business below it. She is left with two kids, ages six and sixteen, and too much pain to almost comprehend.

All that’s left on this forlorn building — ripe for the plundering for some new, bland, luxury project that has no community — is another chalked sidewalk soon to fade, flowers already beginning to wilt, and a cardboard sign with handwriting briefly attempting to explain the loss, attached on the liquor store door next to a beer ad with an image of the Bay Bridge, on this sad corner of a neighborhood being disappeared.

#LaMission #RestInPower

 

For two news stories about the family, fire, and their needs now, see:
http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/injuries-from-fire-take-13-year-olds-life/

http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/after-fire-shaibi-family-searching-for-2-bedroom-in-mission/

 

Cindy Milstein writes about gentrification struggles, police brutality, anarchism, and capitalism. She’s also actively engaged in “solidarity not charity” forms of anti-displacement and anti-police organizing, ranging from Eviction Free San Francisco to Coffee Not Cops, in her neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission, alongside fighting her own eviction. Cindy is the author of Anarchism and its Aspirations, coauthor (with Erik Ruin) of Paths toward Utopia, and recently curated the zine “Revolutionary Solidarity: A Critical Reader for Accomplices” following the Ferguson uprising. 

This story originally appeared on Cindy Milstein’s blog, Outside the Circle.