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The tour began during the first few days of August, a bit ominously with consecutive events in New Orleans, Waco and Oslo. Someone said I should call it the Unnatural Disasters Tour. In New Orleans I was there, for the first time in several years, to protest the meeting of the Koch Brothers' rightwing thinktank, the American Legislative and Exchange Council.
There were several dozen people who came in from around the US, including a very strong showing from Cincinnati for some reason. Adding to their ranks was a few dozen local representatives of labor, in particular the Longshoremen as I recall. They were generally bigger than the scrawny students from Cincinnati and had large banners, which made them altogether easy to pick out of the crowd...
ALEC's conference happened to coincide with the trial of the cops who shot people for trying to cross a bridge during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the ALEC protesters were gathering for the protest, the word came that the cops had been found guilty. A little justice, every now and then, meted out by the justice system.
As people were marching around the Mariott, where ALEC was meeting, a self-styled anarchist passing through town decided to throw a smoke bomb. No one was expecting this, including the people he seemed to think were his comrades, folks associated with a local anarchist book store. He called out for them to come to his aid. Exactly how a dozen scrawny anarchists were supposed to free him from the clutches of the entire New Orleans police department was not made clear as he was hauled off. The labor contingent of the march promptly decided to leave the premises. Mission accomplished...? Who knows.
In Waco it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The Friends of Peace had organized a concert in a large pizza place, and it was a nice little reunion for me, seeing all sorts of people I had met along the way over the years. Generally not in Waco, though -- they were mostly people I had met at a number of different protests and other gatherings in Crawford, when Bush was president and had his ranch there. I hadn't realized until this visit how close Crawford is to Waco -- Waco is clearly the nearest city of any size, by far. But for Bush to have chosen a ranch just outside the site of one of the most horrific domestic massacres carried out by the US government in living memory would've looked bad, so Crawford was just a little town with a ranch in it somewhere in Texas...
Sitting in the litle airport in Waco, awaiting the first of several flights which would eventually land me in Norway, CNN was full of news from England, where riots had engulfed neighborhoods in London and several other cities in flames. Mindless criminality! The Tories, with their impeccable upperclass English diction were tripping over each other to denounce the hooligans. No, this has nothing to do with massive budget cuts and Cameron's vile denunciations of multiculturalism. It's all about the decay of morality among the working class, which apparently has happened in a social vaccuum...
I arrived in Oslo to kick off a 6-week tour in Europe, and just about as soon as I got off the train from the airport to the center of town, the bomb damage was abundantly evident. Only around two weeks before, one of the worst peace-time massacres in post-war western European history had taken place -- by far the worst thing ever to happen in Norway since the Nazi occupation ended.
Although the vast majority of Breivik's victims were left-leaning youth on an island outside of the city, the bomb he set off in the center of Oslo before he drove off to Utoeya was immense. For the size of the blast, the death toll seemed fairly modest. Windows were smashed and boarded up for blocks around the parliament, and a combination of fresh and old, rotting flowers were strewn all over the city. There was the Oslo Cathedral, where I had spent quite a bit of time a few years before when two dozen or so Afghan refugees were holding a public hunger strike for close to a month in the church's front yard. Now the yard was a foot deep in flowers, and Norwegians of all ages with uncharacteristically emotional expressions on their faces were streaming in and out of the building.
It took the police an agonizing 1-1/2 hours to make it to the island where the massacre was taking place, and it became widely known at the time that the apparent reason for this was that Oslo only had one police helicopter, and the crew was on vacation at the time. So all of us at my concert that night in Nesodden were keenly aware that Oslo's one police helicopter flew directly overhead our gig that evening, as the sun was behind us above the fjord, low on the horizon.
I had an earlier experience with Oslo's sole police helicopter. It was right around the time President Obama was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Stein and Tanja were out protesting somewhere in the city, and I was at their apartment getting some things done on the computer or something. Apparently not realizing that Stein, one of the most feared anarchists in Oslo, had already left the building, Oslo's one police helicopter hovered directly above his apartment for several hours. I know it was several hours because I was there the whole time. It left, and soon afterwards Stein came home, not the least bit surprised that a police helicopter had spent most of the afternoon hovering above his home...
Getting to the island of Karlsoey to attend the small annual festival there was a big part of the excitement, especially since no one had told me how to get there aside from the fact that Tromsoe was the nearest airport and one shouldn't arrive too late in the day. This turned out to be questionable advice. I flew in from Oslo in the morning, after far too little sleep, only to discover that the next bus to Karlsoey wasn't until 6 pm.
I took a bus into the center of town, left all my luggage behind the counter with the nice young hipster at the little bus station, and spent the day wandering around town, drinking too much coffee, and realizing that I had not brought a warm enough jacket. We were a long way from Waco. A long way from Oslo even, where it had been comparatively balmy. Here it was almost always close to freezing, at least during my stay. But rarely below freezing, which is something to be happy about I guess, given that we were just within the Arctic Circle. The next day I borrowed a warmer jacket from my hosts, who had lots of them, and after that I only enjoyed the weather.
Exploring Tromsoe, walking down a small street not far from the bus station, I came across a plaque remembering the Jewish community the city once had. Each of those deported and killed by the Nazis were listed, in alphabetical order, so families all were listed together, age 43, age 26, age 70, age 3, all with the same last name. Some of them had the same last name as some of my relatives, Caplan, and the family ran a local market. Though the people on the plaque were all born at different times in the 19th or 20th centuries, all of them died right around 1943. Later, on a bigger street in town, I discovered a much bigger memorial to everybody in town who died, including the few Jews that lived there. They all died around the same time, too, though some of them died a bit earlier, maybe defending their city from the initial assault, I don't know.
When it was time to board the bus to Karlsoey it quickly became clear that half the people on the bus were also headed to the festival. I immediately began to feel a bit out of place, since I had neglected to bring any warm clothing other than a not-very-casual-looking suit jacket that seemed altogether far too clean-cut and not full of holes compared to many of the other passengers.
Most of the other Norwegians who boarded the bus along the way were more colorful than the norm, and also varying degrees of ripe-smelling. The ones who had clearly bathed and washed their clothes recently were all foreigners, I mean of the ones on the bus who were headed to the festival -- two young women from Russia, one young Palestinian man, and me.
The Palestinian had come from Oslo, where he and other Palestinians had been encamped in a public space near downtown, also very close to the venerable squatted social center, Hausmania. Oddly enough, justaposed as their camp was with Breivik's xenophobia-inspired massacre, the Palestinians there were publicly encamped in order to protest their conditions there in Norway, with no papers, never knowing if they were going to be deported to a country that doesn't exist. The young Palestinian beside me on the bus was supposed to be giving a presentation at the festival about the situation for Palestinians in Norway and in Palestine, but he had never given a presentation before and wasn't sure what to say, so we spent much of the bus ride talking about talking points...
One of the older festival-goers on the bus used to teach at the school at Karlsoey, which closed years ago. The island to which we were headed was populated mostly by a few dozen people whose numbers had once been somewhat larger, back in the 1970's, when they moved to Karlsoey to form an intentional community, have and raise children, and goats, all of which had a very unconventional hippie existence there on a little island surrounded by mountains and fjords there in the Arctic, where it is light half the year and dark the other half.
As soon as we got to the island it was abundantly clear why people would abandon their lives in the civilized world and move onto a frigid place in the middle of nowhere. The way the sun shone, always at a long angle near the horizon, upon the water and the snow-capped mountains all around us was breath-taking. And it wasn't just me -- throughout the festival, seasoned Scandinavians accustomed to fjords and mountains were constantly snapping pictures of the impossibly beautiful scenery. These were mostly hippies who normally aren't big picture-takers, but for the entire week they may as well have been Japanese tourists for all the photos they took. And this, even knowing that most were only using their cell phone cameras, which they generally must have understood were no match for the scenes they were trying to capture. But no matter, the attempt had to be made. I understood -- I was doing it, too.
When I got there, people were setting up their booths from which they'd be selling stuff when the festival really started. I immediately saw a crew of wonderful folks I knew from Trondheim, a city far to the south of Tromsoe, until then the furthest north in Norway I had been. There was Bjorn-Hugo and Ruca, who organized shows at northern Norway's premiere anarchist social center, and ran a little clothing store in Trondheim's answer to Christiania, a neighborhood known as Svartlamon.
And there was Yuan-Yuan, probably the only Chinese squatter in Svartlamon, and her boyfriend, a good-humored, tall Norwegian hippie who had been happily living in Beijing for eight years when he had the bright idea of starting up an anarchist study group. He posted a flyer about it and eight people came to the first meeting -- seven foreigners and one Chinese intelligence agent. He was deported to Norway the next day.
Over the course of the week-long festival most people are camping in the freezing cold, and as the days go on they are starting to talk about how much they're looking forward to sleeping in a bed in their heated homes wherever they're from. I start to feel guilty. Although I always like to open the windows and sleep in a cold room anyway, I'm staying in a comfy bed with a very warm duvet and a bathroom with hot running water down the hall, at the home of one of the founders of the community.
And although the kitchen tent for the volunteers is making some good food, it can't compete with the three meals Mona is whipping up every day for her lucky lodgers, always some fantastic cross-cultural mixture of Scandinavian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Mona is a Swede who converted to Islam as a young woman, traveling around the world, and ended up settling and having a family in Arctic Norway based on the advice of a sage she met in Africa. She has several fine grown kids who live in the region, though only one on the island itself, and a number of adorable grandchildren. Also staying in Mona's house is an Argentinian with a crafts booth, a fellow Muslim as well, who lives in Morocco, and her young daughter, who is completely fluent in Spanish, Arabic, and English interchangeably. (I'm so jealous.)
Given what a generous and affectionate host Mona was, and also what an amazing and tireless cook for all her guests, as well, I was horrified to hear about how one member of this Swedish hiphop band behaved when they spent the night. Warning had come ahead of time that one of the band members was a vegan, but Mona apparently didn't know what that meant, exactly. Aside from that, though, this vegan hiphop guy from Sweden was also bizarre. He (or his manager) insisted on organic maple syrup with his organic oatmeal, and when he was presented with a little bottle of maple syrup he apparently cast it aside in disgust. Now, I grew up in New England and I am deeply familiar with maple syrup, and also a big consumer of organic food, but I have never heard of organic maple syrup. Maple trees just grow in the wild, last I checked, and people don't necessarily assist or impede this process with pesticides or whatever else. The trees grow, and people tap them for sap, that's about it. When her fellow Swedes were leaving Mona asked the vegan guy if he had had a troubled childhood. Good, Mona...
In the summers in Arctic Norway it's not just the visitors from the south who don't know when to sleep. In those months when the sun basically never sets, the locals also don't know when to sleep, and they often seem to do it in bits and pieces. In any case, at 1 or 2 in the morning it's not uncommon to find entire families out for a stroll. Certainly that was the time of night that I found myself taking long walks around the island every night. On one of those nights -- and it does feel a bit like night, the sun is definitely closer to the horizon, sometimes just below it, and it's definitely less bright than during the day -- I met a man who was walking in the same direction as me, coming from the shore.
We greeted each other, and quickly discovered that neither one of us was from Norway. He had just gotten off his little boat after sailing for five days and nights with his sister and his sister's boyfriend from Iceland (south and west from where we were). He was dragging a large, heavy-looking sack with a rope. The sack, it turned out, was full of cod he had been catching along the way. I thought it's not every day I run into a cod fisherman from Iceland who just got off his boat after sailing for five days and nights.
The last night of the festival, after most of the festival-goers were gone and it was mainly volunteers and locals from the island and a couple other stragglers like me, involved an all-night techno party on the beach on the side of the island where there are no houses or people living. (The weather varies drastically depending on which side of each island you're on, so people tend to live and farm on the parts of the islands that aren't engulfed in fog 24 hours a day most of the year.) I took a walk out there, hung out a while, then went to bed. Techno isn't really my thing, to put it nicely.
As a result, I was just about the only person on the ferry off the island the next morning who had slept a wink, as well as one of the few who had had much of a chance to bathe. The only ferry off the island was at 7 am, so it was a sorry-looking bunch that dragged themselves onto that thing. Worse, the entire Trondheim crew was flying from Tromsoe to home on an evening flight, which was the only way to go. So they had to somehow stay awake the whole day, or take a nap in some freezing park in Tromsoe, before they could finally get home.
As for me, I had a tight connection with a flight to Copenhagen. The connection was too tight for the bus to work, but someone from the island was planning to drive into Tromsoe and had volunteered to get me to the airport. The ferry was full of people from another island, who always apparently got first dibs on the limited number of spaces for vehicles, so nobody from Karlsoey could take their cars on this ferry today. A local Karlsoey woman on the ferry who knew everybody lined me up a ride, though, with one of those folks from the island who got their cars on, a fisherman with a large gold chain around his neck who was driving one of the two Mercedes he owned.
At the Tromsoe airport and on the plane to Copenhagen the newspapers were full of headlines about the latest rumors and scandals related to Anders Breivik, the self-proclaimed leader of the modern-day Knights Templar. I had debuted my song about him and the Knights at the festival, and it was very well-received.
Upon landing in Copenhagen I took a taxi to Valby, the neighborhood where two of my favorite Danish communists live, Gerd and Jan. Many years ago Gerd offered me lodging when I was in town, and also organized some great gigs, and I've been a regular fixture of her house ever since. They have a spacious backyard by urban standards especially, with a sizeable vegetable garden, a porch, and a little shack. The shack has electricity, a desk, a lamp, and a little bunk bed, and it's my home away from home. I end up spending several weeks there over the course of a given year oftentimes. Jan's daughter, Mette, used to live in the shack when she was a teenager. She was a heavy smoker back then, and although she hasn't lived in the shack for over a decade it still bears the scent of stale cigarette smoke. I don't care, though -- this smell just triggers fond memories of past times in Denmark, when the entire country smelled like stale cigarette smoke. (Before they joined Italy, England, Ireland, most of the US and many other parts of the world and banned smoking in most public places.)
I spend so much time in Denmark people often assume I live there, and over the years they become increasingly offended that I haven't yet learned their lovely language. I have to remind them that several weeks a year may be a lot of time to spend as a visitor to a small country, but it's not enough time to learn the language. (And anyway, if I'm ever going to get around to learning another language, the first one is going to be Spanish.)
Danes often ask me, why Denmark? Which is funny, because they're Danish, and may perhaps have some more insight into the answer to this question than me. I don't know. But I'm pretty sure I have more fans per capita in Denmark than anywhere else. A woman in Flensburg showed me last spring how you can tell on YouTube where viewers are from. Also what age and gender they are, which would seem to confirm something Steve Earle said on Democracy Now about what happens to your fans when you sing too many political songs -- they become older and more male (or something to that effect). But in any case, many of them are Danish, and you can see that there on YouTube, it's all color-coded. The countries with the most viewers are darker, and Denmark is always a little black spot on my YouTube map.
One might think it could be the fact that the Danes are almost all highly fluent in English, are often leftwing, and usually have more free time and more money to spend on going out to concerts and buying CDs than most people in the world. But all that would also describe a similar number of Swedes and Norwegians, but I have decidedly fewer fans in those countries. I'm pretty sure the key lies in having had a certain amount of access to a well-distributed selection of Danish teenagers who are now in their twenties or even older by now.
Communist groups in Denmark took a big hit when the Soviet Union fell apart, as in many other parts of the world. They had splintered before on a number of occasions, and now they splintered some more. But for a while after this post-Soviet splinter some of the parties remained fairly vibrant, including the DKP-ML -- Danish Communist Party, Marxist-Leninist. I got an email from a man in Randers, a DKP-ML organizer who was putting a lot of effort, quite successfully, at maintaining the vitality of the ecumenical youth wing of the DKP-ML, Red Youth.
The most popular leftwing youth center was undoubtedly the Youth House, Ungdomshuset, most of whose participants were unquestionably anarchists, complete with all-black clothing and plenty of facial piercings. Michael, the DKP-ML organizer, explained to me by email around 1999 that the anarchists were having more fun and that communists had to re-learn how to make music a part of their scene. Happy to sing for anarchists, communists, or anybody else to the left of Al Gore, I readily agreed to Michael's proposal that I do an entire tour of Denmark organized by him with the help of Red Youth chapters throughout the country.
Denmark is a small country, so to do a gig in every city of any size takes about two weeks. Within a couple years of touring Denmark the anarchists overcame their suspicion of me -- I had at least four marks against me: I was an American, I played the acoustic guitar, I associated with communists, and I was clearly a hippie, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. I began to do regular gigs at Ungdomshuset and other anarchist institutions that had a solid teenage following, along with somewhat older folks. Playing all these gigs for all these impressionable youth, it was only a matter of time before they grew up and started making the inevitable positive association with the music they listened to when they were first doing things like getting drunk, having sex, and rioting (all important Danish rights of passage). So after a few years of that I found myself becoming a (very minor) Danish musical institution.
And here I was, back in Denmark for probably my twentieth visit to the country, playing for a packed audience at another squatted social center, Folkets Hus (House of the People), doing a gig organized by a highly competent activist named Tannie who is currently facing ridiculous charges of inciting a riot during the COP15 climate talks, singing for a crowd of former members of Red Youth, along with anarchists, hippies and all sorts of other people, many of whom clearly know every word of every song, including songs I had only written weeks before, which I hadn't even learned yet. Bucking popular notions of Danes as being fairly quiet and reserved by nature, these Danes sang loudly, especially the communists, who drink the most.
"On the way" to doing shows in Germany I had one in Athens, Greece. My flight got in after midnight, and I took a bus into the city. I wasn't sure where to get off, and I asked a young man near me who was dressed like some kind of carnival performer if this was Syntagma Square. Yes, he replied, this is where the thieves and criminals operate, and he pointed to the well-lit parliament building across the street from us.
Athens, along with Madrid and other cities, particularly in Greece and Spain, has actively embraced the tactic made famous in the course of the Arab Spring beginning in Tunisia last December. The Indignados -- the "indignant ones," that's what they call the Occupiers in Europe -- were taking August off, but until recently Syntagma Square had been full of tents with people holding a 24-hour protest camp, just like in recent weeks in the USA. And just like here in the US, the movement in Greece has been met with a combination of elation and annoyance from more "traditional" left elements, whether they be anarchists or communists or whoever else. Elation because lots of new people are doing something significant -- because in Greece as in the US, most of the participants in the Occupations are people who are new at this sort of thing -- and annoyance at the perceived lack of political sophistication of the movement. (Personally, I'm just elated, not the least bit annoyed. But I don't go to meetings, so that's probably why...)
Nikos met me in the Square and we took a taxi back to his apartment. Nikos is a retired university professor and long-time activist for freedom and democracy in Greece and elsewhere in the world where he has lived and worked, which for a long time was the US. Nikos is an avid supporter of the Indignados, but he's never camped there -- unlike Michael, my other sponsor in Athens, who lived in a tent in the Squre for months on end until recently.
My gig was at a marvelous squatted social center, the Gardens of Petropoulos. It was some kind of EU-funded thing that ran out of money and became a shooting gallery, but was then claimed by leftwingers who turned it into a flourishing little farm, and turned the administrative building into a cafe/bar. Outside the bar is a large wooden stage. When we got there folks were hanging out outside and others were setting up the PA.
I had a free day in Athens, and Nikos and I wandered around town. Partly we were continuing my ongoing search for Loukanikos, Greece's preeminent leftwing canine. We saw a few dogs that more or less fit the description, but we were told none of them were the dog himself. We took a taxi with one man who had heard my song about Loukanikos on the radio there. (It has been by far my most successful song in recent years, garnering well over 50,000 views on YouTube, a whole lot of them in Greece.)
Although it was August, with the universities mostly closed up and many people on vacation (even the Indignados at Syntagma Square), we still happened upon a festive march of many thousands of mostly young people. The government was taking advantage of the August lull in demonstrations, marches and riots to sneak in some new legislation repealing the law that had barred police from entering university campuses. Despite the march, the law was repealed the next day.
In Berlin some folks were trying to start up an Indignado movement, but it wasn't really gaining steam yet when I was there in August. Lots of leftwing sentiment throughout Germany, particularly in Berlin, but maybe not quite enough economic suffering to inspire this particular movement, I don't know. Part of the problem was undoubtedly the authorities, who were not tolerating any overnight camping. So Heiner's bar/gallery a couple blocks from the platz had become the nerve center of the operation, it's welcoming atmosphere, couches, free wifi and cheap beer, with Heiner behind the bar, somehow seeming like a natural extension of the nearby Occupation.
Heiner helped organize the show for me again this time, but it took place at a more spacious brewery in former East Berlin, on Karls Marx Allee, rather than at his comparatively cramped bar or the windowless gallery in the basement below it. Elsa was the other main organizer of the show -- a filmmaker from Colorado who had moved to the country of her father's birth decades earlier, a few years after directing one of my favorite films of all time, the Killing Floor, about the 1918 Chicago meatpackers' strike and race riots. I was first introduced to the film, along with a lot of other good movies, via Bill Watkins, when he ran Morningtown Restaurant, in the late 1980's. I never anticipated I'd randomly meet the director of the film at a gig in Berlin, but that's what happened last spring, and now I was staying at her place -- sleeping in an office surrounded by film editing equipment.
One of the folks who came to the gig at the brewery was Florian, an aid to a Green member of parliament. (Yes, in Germany, as in most European countries, leftwing parties are actually in government, though no one to the left of social democrats ever manage to get a majority anywhere so far...) Florian had offered to give me a tour of the Reichstag during my few days in Berlin, and I certainly couldn't pass that up. Via email I had sent my vital statistics to him so he could do the mandatory check to see if I was a terrorist, and I passed, as did Elsa, who joined us for the tour.
I don't know what most Europeans think of buildings like this, really, but to me they are always impressive and beautiful. But Americans are endlessly fascinated by stone buildings, I've noticed -- whereas Europeans coming to North America are often wildly impressed by all the wood buildings, which are not common in Europe outside of northern Scandinavia, from what I've seen of it anyway. But architecture aside, the most memorable thing about the Reichstag was all the Russian graffiti.
When the Russian soldiers got to Berlin, after tens of millions of their colleagues perished along the way, they covered the walls with graffiti, which all those running the place since then have decided to leave in place. It's powerful stuff, somehow. For all the big decisions made by the rich and powerful, it is these semi-literate Russian peasants and workers with their sloppy tags on the walls who actually fought and won the war against fascism.
A few weeks after my visit to the Reichstag there were elections in Germany, and the Pirate Party won 9% of the seats in the parliament. This was fairly unexpected. Few people took the Pirate Party very seriously before then, including many members of the party itself. But now they had 9% of the parliament and they had to quickly decide what their position was on issues other than patent and copyright law, freedom of expression, and transparency of government.
Like, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, probably the most divisive issue in this guilt-ridden nation, which is what seems to have been pounced upon by all of those from outside and from within the Pirate Party intent on sowing division. Oddly enough, the most caustic indictment they could make was that one of the founding members of the party, Christian Hufgard, had organized a show for me before. Therefore, if he refused to denounce me, he was guilty of being a terrorist sympathizer. Why? Because I did a benefit concert in Christchurch, New Zealand so the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine could buy a printing press. Therefore, I am a supporter of terror and Christian is a terrorist sympathizer. Convoluted, to be sure, but Germans are known for convoluted logic.
That very gig that Christian organized was canceled twice because of very legitimate fears on the part of the people that ran the venues we were going to use about the possibility of being physically attacked by a strange German group called the Anti-Deutschen, whose main slogan, as displayed at the G8 protests in Rostock, as I recall, is: FOR COMMUNISM, AGAINST ANTI-AMERICANISM AND AGAINST ANTI-SEMITISM. Therefore they were threatening to picket and to otherwise disrupt a concert by a Jewish American leftist. Confused? So are they.
When I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal a very nice, bilingual leftwinger picked me up at the airport. I should remember his name, we spent a lot of time together that weekend, but it's slipping through the membranes of my porous memory. He escorted me to every gig I had at Festa do Avante that weekend. As it turned out, all but one of the sound people I dealt with spoke good enough English that I didn't really need any help, but I felt special to have someone assigned to look after me throughout the festival nonetheless!
I had never seen so many red flags in all my life until I arrived at the festival outside Lisbon. Red flags of all sizes, all kinds of good slogans, and big busts of Che, Lenin and many other communists all over the place. Hundreds of thousands of people throng this festival every year. Although the Communist Party of Portugal never gets a whole lot of the vote, regular Portuguese people certainly don't seem to have a problem going to their festival and being amongst all the red flags. My translator says that's mainly because there's so much good food at the festival, with each region of Portugal representing itself with their own music stages and food stalls, featuring the music and cuisine of their area.
Standing out for me in the whole experience was watching tens of thousands of people completely enraptured by a concert by a 200-piece symphony orchestra and chorus performing on a well-lit stage, brilliantly amplified by some genius sound engineers, all broadcast on two giant screens on either side of the stage. Classical music for the people, along with everything else, complete with a light show and fireworks.
The last time I came to Portugal an old man told me about 1974, when the leftwing military officers led a coup against the Salazar dictatorship, apparently inspired by guerrillas they had until recently been fighting in Africa. The leftwing officers and their troops were to begin their advance on the government buildings, and the cue for the people to pour out into the streets were two different songs of the resistance that everybody knew somehow. When they heard the songs, they poured out, and this man saw one old woman castigating a tank driver for stopping at a red light. What are you doing, she asked? You're making a revolution but you're stopping at a red light? The soldier's response: we're making a revolution, but we don't want anybody to get hurt!
From Portugal to Ireland, another economy in a shambles ever since the subprime mortgage debacle in the USA and all its many devastating ripple effects. People there are much less likely to direct their anger outward, at their government or at transnational financial institutions. "We are incapable of self-government," you will hear many people joke in Dublin.
You won't hear that line in Belfast, though, where anger at the economic situation and anger at the ongoing British occupation is at a constant seethe. Many of the people I've met in Belfast have spent many years in prison for alleged offenses against the Crown, often involving bombs and guns and British soldiers. The obvious dedication of these people, and the apparent serenity of spirit of many of them, always impresses the heck out of me -- all arguments over tactics and strategies aside. So it was slightly shocking to me to be at a gig in a Republican venue and hear some young people, too young to remember much of the Troubles, talking about the old Provos as if they were irrelevant sell-outs and worse. Seething.
Yes, here it's a very different kind of Occupation, the imperial sort, the armored vehicles and molotov-throwing youth still a regular feature of life on the street. The first gig I had in Belfast, several years ago, was an event with Moazzam Beg, among others. Moazzam was talking about his horrific experiences as a prisoner at Guantanamo, and the immediate bonding between him and the ex-IRA prisoners, the hooded men, was palpable and profound. There was also some good comedy involved here and there -- the ex-prisoner showing us around Belfast in a little van spoke a version of English that was completely indecipherable to Moazzam, me and my Danish companion. No one but natives of Ireland could possibly understand this man, and our friend John had to basically interpret for us. John is also from Belfast, but speaks an intelligible version of English for us foreigners.
Damage done during recent riots around the corner from one of my gigs in Belfast, in the Ardoyne, was evident. The same was true when I got to London, where parts of various neighborhoods were still boarded up and blackened. I stayed in London in a Council flat with my friends Guy and Beti, in what we in the US used to call Project Housing (the English version is generally quite a bit nicer, but it's still abundantly evident to all that you are not among the ranks of the middle classes). Guy is a photojournalist by trade, but during the riots people were naturally sensitive about having their pictures taken, so he had to just take a break from his job and get out the marshmallows...
North of London another sort of Occupation was coming to a head. I'd been getting emails about it for weeks. A Traveler community, which had moved as a community onto a bit of industrial land which they had bought, cleaned up and brought in trailers to live in, was about to be evicted. I hadn't spent much time among Travelers, they are a private bunch generally, but here I was in a Traveler community listening to people who had lived in England for generations, yet still spoke English with a clearly Irish accent. Traveler society is largely very separate from other elements of society in England, but this community was reaching out to the rest of society, looking for support, and at least to some extent, they were getting it.
Many hundreds of people showed up at the nearest train station and began a long walk from there to the Traveler site. There were some impassioned, impressive speeches from Travelers and supporters alike. The United Nations and the European Union had even gotten involved, condemning the local municipal government for the actions they were about to take. But many racist local people and various levels of government in England were united in their antipathy to the Traveler community's presence, and soon after my visit they were evicted. Moved on, again.
A few days before I left Europe to begin a tour in the US and Canada, I got a message from someone I hadn't heard from much since the days of the short-lived movement against corporate globalization a decade ago. It was Justin Molito writing to say that he was involved with organizing a protest on Wall Street set for September 17th and was wondering if I could come. I already had plans for a gig in Brooklyn the night before, as it happened. Justin said that various people from the old Direct Action Network were involved, and sure enough, soon after I got to Manhattan on September 17th I ran into Lisa Fithian, one of the best organizers on the planet.
Still, I had been to protests on Wall Street before. The last one I was at, on May 1st, 2000, began very similarly, but ended differently. It began with the same scruffy-looking bunch of 200 or so people. This time, though, more than half of them were holding small video cameras and iPhones and computers, and occasionally big video cameras, too. Eleven years before they had puppets.
This time, as with the last time, there was an overwhelmingly large police presence, and the cops themselves had already caused a partial shut-down of Wall Street even before any activists had managed to do anything like that. I don't remember how many arrests were involved in 2000, but the sheer number of police made the idea of shutting down Wall Street with a group of 200 college kids completely ridiculous.
This time, however, after two large-scale mass arrests, the people kept on coming back. Inspired I'm sure in no small part by the Arab Spring, the way people there have kept on facing far more intimidating obstacles, such as frequent massacres and mass-scale severe beatings by riot police and soldiers, and yet they kept on coming back, day after day -- and they do now, as I write, in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
And then the media finally caught on, after the 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. As I traveled, doing gigs each night, criss-crossing the Canadian border frequently, covering various parts of the US -- northeast, midwest, southeast, west coast -- the atmosphere became increasingly electrified. Something is finally happening again in the US. There is a sense of hope again in the possibility of a social movement, and it's coming from the most unexpected places, particularly people who had never been involved with any kind of activism before, and many others who had not done anything like this for decades.
The folks at Zuccotti Park were getting assistance from many quarters, and despite mass arrests and widespread police brutality, they were staying put, it became evident. Soon people all over were mobilizing, meeting, and forming their own Occupations. As my daughter and I drove into Philadelphia, where I was to do a benefit concert for Cheri Honkala's "no evictions" campaign for sheriff, we drove under a bridge where hundreds of people were marching to their first General Assembly to discuss the formation of Occupy Philadelphia.
The next day I was in Washington, DC, where I heard some confusion on the street about why there were two different Occupations in town. Simple, I thought, though for people a bit more peripheral to these sorts of activities it may not seem so. The same sorts of diverse folks who were starting up the Occupations in New York and Philadelphia were doing one in DC, but the event I was coming in to sing at was in a different park and had been planned months before Occupy Wall Street was in the works. These were mainly antiwar activists, Veterans for Peace, Code Pink and others, who had also been inspired by the Arab Spring and wanted to start up something like that in DC. So long before Occupy Wall Street they were also planning to camp out on the spot and stay there for a while to try to get something happening.
Without Occupy Wall Street I doubt there would have been much, if any, major media at our antiwar rally there in DC on October 6th. There weren't probably more than two thousand of us in the park, and I had been at rallies fifty times as big that had had almost no media present. This one, however, was awash in major media from all over the world. It felt like they desperately wanted to cover the Occupy movement, but they weren't generally being handed easily-covered events like rallies on a stage with speakers and performers, the kind of thing they're more used to. But now they had just such a thing to cover, and they covered it. I got more press that day than on any other, that's for sure. I heard from people who heard me on NPR, BBC, CBC, and German television.
A few days later I was on the cover of the Style section of the Washington Post, and on MTV's website. David Montgomery at the Washington Post was doing an article featuring me, Emma's Revolution and Rebel Diaz, basically saying "here's the protest music!" And then a couple weeks later the Guardian and the New York Times ran articles asking the perennial question, "where is the protest music?" Apparently the folks at the Guardian and the Times don't read the Post. And they certainly don't know how to surf the web or, apparently, to ask protesters what they're listening to.
I was messing around with the guitar in our hotel room near Orlando, hanging out with my wife, Reiko, and daughter, Leila. I had a nice riff going that became the chorus, "we're gonna stay -- right -- here"... The next day, while waiting in many different lines, sometimes in the rain, at Disneyworld, I wrote most of the verses. I recorded it late at night on October 8th in our hotel room. Which, given the economy, was actually a fairly luxurious suite we were renting for several days for $65 a night, which included a water park... No, I wasn't sleeping in a tent in an urban park -- just singing about it...
I sang in Gainesville, at the venerable anarchist institution known as the Civic Media Center, to an appreciative crowd, which might have been slightly smaller than we might have hoped, except that the Occupy Gainesville General Assembly was concurrently under way. This pattern would continue in many different cities for weeks to come. Nonetheless, the people at my gig who weren't at the Occupy meeting were all part of the Occupy reality, and when I hit the chorus, "stay right here," it was like hitting a nerve, the crowd veritably erupted, to the extent that a couple dozen people sitting through a folk gig can erupt. This would also continue to be a pattern with that song. On the rare occasions I manage to really nail it, to really say what people are thinking, the effect can be wonderful, almost flammable.
In Tampa I sang in a little outdoor theater made of cement, with amazing acoustics, surrounded by skyscrapers. Almost all of the Occupies would follow this trend, quite appropriately, strategically located in the middle of the madness, in the financial districts of each city, right next to the big banks and the local halls of political power, often already located conveniently right beside each other. At least one member of my audience there at Occupy Tampa had never heard of the events in Tunisia of last winter, when their dictator, Ben Ali, was made to flee the country because of the popular revolt. I thought, this could be helpful, making sure folks at these places are aware of the important relationship between what they are doing and recent events in the Arab world.
The next day, driving to my next gig, I got a text from Kelly Benjamin there at WMNF in Tampa that the camp was being raided. At future encampments I'd visit it would become very clear that whether or not people were successfully able to camp would be a massive factor determining the mood of the place.
In Houston, as in many other Occupations I sang at, I did a late-night acoustic show for folks after the paying gig I had earlier in the evening, which was generally the reason I had been planning to come to the town in the first place. There were usually a few people going from my show to the Occupy, some of whom had never visited it before. At the end of my set a nice, older man with long hair gave me a joint inside a box of wooden matches. I already had all the pot I needed, and I passed it onto an Occupier who looked like he'd put it to good use. (So all those rumors about drug-users infesting the Occupy encampments, it's true, and I'm to blame.)
In St. Louis, as I would have imagined, it started becoming clear that the Occupations were going to be natural magnets for the local population that was already living in the streets -- and often not even with the dignity of a tent. Here is a population that is most emphatically part of the 99%. And although it was clear to all that in many encampments a lot of energy was going into dealing with the physical and psychological needs of homeless, troubled, and sometimes alcoholic or drug-addicted people who joined some of the camps, there was a beautiful thing happening. Reminiscent of various initiatives of homeless people I had seen around the country over the years, here and there, usually getting crushed by the authorities at some point, here was something that sometimes looked like a homeless encampment, a modern Hooverville, but it was more like Hooverville was than many of the others since, because these camps included both the down-and-out as well as college students and the like, working together, camping in tents together, risking arrest together. Motivations varied, but they were living in the same boat.
In Memphis I ran into a number of folks who had been at the rally in DC on October 6th. They were a band of train-hopping young people with instruments, one of whom was a mean banjo player. They called themselves the Revo-leujahs, a clear case of bluegrass musicians from the outback who had been infected with youthful revolutionary fervor. They had mushed Appalachia with Occupy Wall Street in various ways, including with a festive and catchy "Occupy Everything" song. They backed me up for a set, there in front of the Foot Not Bombs-style kitchen, beneath the street lamp, and then did one themselves.
I got to Nashville days before the first of many police raids and arrests. As with everywhere, people were anticipating such an eventuality. As with other places, the Nashville camp was a mix of idealistic young activists inspired by the meme, pissed-off people with and without jobs, and those who are just happy to have some company when they're sleeping in the streets anyway.
At a late-night show in Asheville, North Carolina, I played with one of the best violinists I've ever met. The camp in Asheville was a few blocks from the center of town, and it's not a big city, no financial district to speak of. The camp was large and thriving, and very much had the feel of a tent city for the homeless and downtrodden, with various other folks dropping by and hanging out a bit.
Cincinnati was a very different story. Well before I arrived, the police had taken down all the tents and arrested a lot of people. There were several days of multiple arrests, and the Occupy group had run out of money for paying the fines to get people out of jail, someone explained. People were now having their encampment, such as it was, during the day, and then packing up by 10 pm, when the park was officially closed for the night.
As with a picket, we were allowed to exist only if on the move, so at 10 pm sharp when the police arrived we all walked out of the park and onto the sidewalk surrounding it. After that, a dedicated 20 or 30 people -- including one of the Cincinnati activists I had met in New Orleans in August -- marched around the park, and the police, singing and chanting, for hours, maintaining some kind of a haggard overnight presence, even with no camp.
In Chicago the scene was similar but on a somewhat larger scale. The tents had been taken down by the police early on, no camping was being tolerated. On the corner of Jackson and LaSalle a dedicated several dozen people were keeping up a presence, listening to music, talking, drumming. As at many other Occupies, General Assemblies during the day were attracting hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, as were demonstrations, but the all-night presence in a no-camping Occupation was a dedicated few.
Ironically, the rightwing press has lately been trying to portray President Obama as a supporter of the Occupy movement. If that is so, it's hard to explain his former Chief of Staff's behavior. Mayor Rahmbo, as he is known by the left in Chicago. Mayor Rahmbo, on a Rahmpage, zero tolerance, sending in his police just like his infamous Daley family predecessors. Some of those supporting the Occupy movement are also involved with planned protests when the G8 and NATO come have a joint conference in Chicago in May. But as with everywhere, the core of the thing is made up of people who are more or less hitting the streets for the first time.
In Minneapolis, another city where the local government has been intolerant of any kind of encampment, I begin to get a sense of the desperation of this position. It's really cold there by the time I arrived, for Halloween. The authorities are allowing people to sleep on the sidewalk, but not with tents. This is sadistic to begin with, but in a climate like this it's really sickening. It's a sort of brinksmanship on the part of the authorities -- are these Occupiers going to give up or freeze to death first, they seem to be wondering.
The Canadian encampments -- generally the coldest, of course -- were generally being tolerated by the authorities, and actively supported by the unions and lots of other folks, as in New York and elsewhere in the US. Since my visits to Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal, London and Windsor, however, the authorities have been making efforts to close down several of them, sometimes through duplicitous means.
In Halifax, the local government negotiated with the Occupation to move during the week of Remembrance Day. When they cooperated and reluctantly agreed to the temporary move, the government waited until they had moved and then went back on their promise to allow them back in after the week was over.
But in all the Canadian encampments, tent-building was being raised to new heights, with insulated structures that were really more cabins than tents, being made often using a combination of recycled materials, pallets, tarps, plus various things that looked like they had just been purchased at Home Depot.
In Montreal, where summer is a constant overlapping bunch of festivals, although it was starting to get cold out, the Occupiers were persevering with a very large tent city, at one end of which was a stage and, every Sunday, a full-blown professional sound system and a roster of bands, poets and hiphop artists holding down the fort.
Walter and I were walking around the Montreal camp together each day of my visit to his bustling city. Walter is a Chinese-Canadian immigration lawyer with an overtly activist bent to his work, and to his life in general. As a young man, in 1989, he spent several weeks with the students at Tiananmen Square. He showed me a picture at his house, and the scene bore more than a little resemblance to one of the bigger Occupy encampments. "Revolution is dirty," Walter explained.
The only Occupies I recalled where the residents even had access to portapotties was Windsor and Portland. In Windsor, Ontario, the government supplied one. In Portland, when the City shut down the public toilets that had been a feature of the parks people had decided to Occupy, local labor people provided portapotties. Otherwise such amenities tend to be significantly lacking, along with things like running water.
When I arrived home to Portland after three months on the road, I was in touch with people involved with the Occupy, which was still a tent-filled presence for two square blocks' worth of downtown parks. Portland has a massive homeless population, and the encampments were providing homeless residents with better food and medical care than some of them had seen in a while -- though even without an Occupy happening, Portland has some great institutions that provide for the homeless and hungry, such as the Catholic Workers that run Sisters of the Road, not far away.
The mayor and other such people had been talking for weeks about the danger to the community, the public health problems, etc., leaving all of us sensible folks to wonder, what do you think life is like for people living on the streets when there's not an encampment like this happening? No danger or public health problems then? It's clear to anyone who's been around any of this in reality, not just on TV, that there's more than a little mutual aid happening here, and that despite all the challenges thrown up by politicians and police, the situation for some people living in the camps is better than it normally would be, not worse.
In any case, the propaganda machine had been in full gear for a while, in Portland and in other cities, and the mayor had decided it was time to act with gusto and finality. I had been scheduled by the arts and entertainment committee to sing for the Occupiers on Saturday evening, November 12th, which turned out to be the night the mayor set -- with a midnight deadline -- for the Occupiers to pack up and leave.
I was scheduled to go on at 6 pm, an hour before the GA was set to begin. I originally thought I'd do a concert for a few dozen Occupiers, but there were a thousand people there for the show, and for the GA. Then, as we got closer and closer to midnight, it became delightfully clear that many people in Portland didn't buy the mayor's line of thinking here, and many thousands of people descended upon the parks by midnight. The police, who had seemed numerous at 6:00, now were engulfed by the masses, and stood around doing not much of anything until the next day, when the numbers of Occupy supporters had dwindled to several hundred. Then they moved in and made the mass arrests and committed yet more acts of brutality against peaceful protesters.
In Oakland, as in Portland, the General Assemblies continue, though the camps have been cleared of tents. And although people haven't had the 24-hour numbers required to set up a new camp, the meetings are attracting hundreds and there have been regular demonstrations attracting thousands. Earlier in the month tens of thousands of people shut down the port -- one of the busiest ports on the west coast.
I was visiting the Occupations in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley when we heard about the sadistic pepper spray incident at UC Davis. There had been only a dedicated few in Davis involved with the effort to Occupy the campus, but when the police behaved with such sadistic brutality it not only inspired a lot of international media attention, it inspired almost the entire student population to say "that's not OK."
I got to the campus a half hour before the rally was to begin and there were already thousands of students and other people gathered. I knew it was going to be big, and it quickly became apparent that the inexperienced student organizers of the rally hadn't been told about the need to rope off an area behind the stage in order to physically allow speakers to get on and off of the stage without being crushed by the mass of people. It was chaotic, and nobody seemed to be able to figure out how to work the sound system properly, but it was an inspiring event.
Most of the people who spoke, before they attempted, more or less successfully, to have a General Assembly meeting with many thousands of people, were students who had been pepper-sprayed. Some of them seemed just shocked that the police would behave this way, and also perhaps shocked at just how painful pepper spray is. Some of the students, clearly thoughtful leftwingers, tried to engage the very large audience as fellow radicals, people who were part of a movement for social change. These pleas were met with silence and discomfort on the part of the crowd, which wasn't there as part of any movement, but just gathered temporarily because they universally thought pepper-spraying students for sitting on the pavement with their arms linked together is outrageous.
Pepper spray, clubs, rubber-coated steel bullets shot at returning war veterans, students, city councilors -- these are the traditional methods of control, by force. But these are also traditional methods for radicalizing large numbers of people. There's nothing like being beaten and arrested for exercising your First Amendment rights to teach you what kind of democracy you live in.
The press keeps hailing the death of the Occupy movement, always prematurely. I don't know any better than you what's coming next, but what's abundantly clear is no matter what they say, our narrative is a powerful one -- that one percent of the population has way too much money, power, and influence, at the expense of the rest of us, and that nonviolent civil disobedience is a powerful tool, as we've learned from the Arabs in recent months, to change everything.