I almost got myself fired today.

So I’m pretty sure I came within an inch of losing my job today.  For being an atheist while on the clock.

For my day job, I work at a private educational company (they’re terrible), and sometimes I administer evaluative tests to potential students.  A few weeks ago, I was testing a boy about nine years old.  Between tests, I make small talk.  I can’t remember the lead-up to this, but at some point this kid made the comment, “Well, my mom says this world is ending and the next one is coming.”

It’s my firm belief that one of the major ways that religious hegemony is enforced is by silent consent to worldview expressions like these, despite the fact that they are not uncontroversial viewpoints in the slightest.  I feel one of the most imperative acts I can commit as an atheist is to speak out in situations like these, to not grant consent to the illusion of universal acceptance of religious ideology.  In my view, the fact that I was working with a young child only made my dissent more urgent, to challenge those notions before oppressive social expectations became established.  So I said, “That’s cool.  People think a lot of different things about the universe.  I’m an atheist myself, so I don’t believe in god.  But the great thing is that you get to decide what you believe.”

At the end of my shift today, I got sat down by my boss, who’d evidently been confronted by the kid’s parent.  As nicely as she could, my boss told me that what I’d said was “not appropriate” and could not happen again.  To which I replied, “I don’t want to lose my job, but I don’t think there was anything unethical about what I said, and it shouldn’t be controversial.”

My boss politely tried to find a common ground that wasn’t there, saying that she appreciated that I held ‘strong beliefs’ but that our (my) role was just to provide educational services and there was no reason to ‘go there’.  At this I had to wonder, what other kinds of crazy-town views would this company’s management abide for the sake of not offending a parent-customer?  I’ve set kids straight in the past when they’ve said homophobic remarks.  What if a parent got upset that I had done that?  Would my boss reprimand me, and then turn around and shake the hands of the many LGBT parents that bring their children to our learning center?  What if a child talked about how their parents said there was a race war coming?  Would I even be allowed to say, “You know, some people don’t think there’s an imminent race war.  You can make up your own mind about it”, or would I have to zip it?

The conversation ended with her restating that it couldn’t happen again, and with me smiling wryly, unwilling to give any guarantee that I wouldn’t do the same in the future. I have no idea whether I have any legal rights or protections here (I’m not hopeful), but I stand by my conviction that what I said–that different views exist, that I held one of them, and that he the student was free to decide–should not have been controversial in the slightest.  Diverse belief systems and religious freedom are all natural facts of the pluralistic society that we live in, and the seeming attempt by the parent at denying their existence is possibly even more troubling and dangerous than the crazy story about the next world after this one.

“Stone’s Throw (#J28)”

On Thursday I debuted a brand new song (my first of the year) at an Occupy 4 Prisoners screening of the new documentary Broken On All Sides (very good) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.  The song is called “Stone’s Throw (#J28)” and obviously is inspired by my own experiences that day.  My performance is right at the beginning of this clip:

I also highly recommend watching Elaine Brown’s portion, starting at 22:44.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

“The fight is dead,” the riot cop said as he sat me on the curb
with my cramping wrists, piss and apple cider vinegar.
Though I’m trembling still, from nerves and chill, I will have to call your bluff
if you think you can stop this struggle with a pair of ziptie cuffs.
A clear sky storm of flash-bangs, beanbags, hazy and surreal;
a scarlet letter spray-painted on a makeshift trashcan shield.
But they tossed our stuff before they loaded us on a stolen public bus:
goggles and a spray bottle, the only LAW I trust.
They held us twenty to a tank of cold concrete and steel,
where you’ll lose your mind trying to keep time by counting orange peels.
I don’t know which is worse, missing the warm bath of daylight,
or waking every hour to the same fluorescent night.
I got released to a fast food feast on the front steps of the jail,
but we know our work ain’t finished until we empty every cell.
So you can ban us from the Plaza, stay away from City Hall,
but sure as we burned that flag, that edifice is gonna fall!
So we rage on like a Greece fire, I heard they torched a bank today.
And we raise a fist to Cairo, we’re just a stone’s throw away.
If you’ve got a pot to piss in, don’t be afraid to call it black,
or you’ll never break the kettle and take your city back.

My #J28 and the Triumph of Occupy Oakland

I had set aside all of this past weekend for the Occupy Oakland Move-In Festival, not making any specific plans because I expected to be busy, though I didn’t know what with.  Turns out I made the right call.  A fog of sleep deprivation and worn nerves is still somewhat upon me, but here’s my #j28 story.  Apologies if it’s scattered and incomplete.

I got to Oscar Grant plaza around 12:30 in the afternoon on Saturday for the first march.  It was such a beautiful day for a march.  We snaked our way through downtown and across the Laney College campus, a move that seemed creative but ultimately slowed us down and confused many marchers.   As we approached Kaiser Auditorium, an attempt was made to break into different flanks, but due to lack of clear leadership or preparation for that moment we were sluggish.  Still, there were at least four hundred in the flank I was in, so I’d have to estimate that the total number was at least twice that.  I was there when the fence came down on the Lake Merritt Blvd. side of the convention center, and when we beat our retreat back to Oscar Grant Plaza under a surreal hail of tear gas, flash bang grenades and other less-lethal projectiles.

I was just out of frame in the last segment of this video:

My first experiences with police mistreatment–getting shoved hard enough to trip over a fire hydrant and land on my ass–were only just last weekend at the #j20 #owswest actions in SF and the next day’s counter protest to the Walk For Life, and having things shot at me was definitely the next level.  I was already pretty dazed and overwhelmed by the time I got back to OGP.

The second march/building occupation attempt began shortly after 5 PM.  Though a lot of people had apparently left, there were still at least five hundred of us.  That’s an easy count to verify, as most but not all ended up in jail.  I was there when we were kettled and gassed at 19th and Telegraph, and when we escaped by taking down the chainlink fence on one side (a tactic that the November 19 one-night occupation of that park had prepared us well for).

In retrospect I wish we had declared our flight a victory and dispersed, but adrenaline was high and we kept marching; it’s unclear whether we were headed to another building or just avoiding police lines.  The thrill was short-lived as we were kettled at the Y a few minutes later.

Shortly after it became clear that all of us were being arrested, the occupation of City Hall (by some of our comrades who had escaped the kettle over a tall fence) was announced.  I was later to learn that a third march of a few hundred took place at 11:00 that night, not to mention the solidarity actions of over twenty other Occupy sites across the country.

I spent the next twenty-four hours in custody, which was as awful as you’d expect.  I slept maybe a total of three hours on the frigid concrete floors, got accustomed quickly to peeing in front of twenty other men, looked forward to any change of surroundings, from sidewalk to bus to cell, only to grow immediately bored with new but equally alienating setting.  I witnessed both a man with HIV and another who had blood in his urine denied medical care, despite the clear declaration of the right and imperative to seek medical attention in case of emergency posted prominently on the jail walls.  My own partner was denied her meds.  If cops are pigs, then COs are the shit they roll around in.  That you haven’t been either charged or found guilty in a court of law makes no difference to them; they are going to treat you like a piece of garbage because it’s the only worldview that can justify their inhumane profession.

Since Saturday, my social networks have been abuzz with discussion of the action, and while the main topic is the egregious actions of the police, there have also been a sizeable number of people quick to declare the day’s events a disaster and Occupy Oakland dead or at least hopelessly marginalized from the mainstream.

I disagree.

Yes, there were plenty of mistakes.  The confrontational letter to the city and OPD, while exciting to read and I’m sure satisfying to write, might have played a role in the pre-emptively robust police response (mutual aid from up to seven different agencies was present early in the day, unlike November 19 or December 12).  As I mentioned before, the lack of clear leadership and preparation for the first building target was a significant tactical blunder.

But we also had three highly visible marches in the course of one day, no small feat when you consider that the third happened after four hundred of our most active folks were already detained.  We have footage now of the OPD’s wanton use of force and blatant disregard for their own policies in broad daylight, with hundreds of first-hand witnesses.

Some have said that Occupy Oakland is losing the PR war, but I challenge the notion that this is the most critical front upon which we must prevail.  What is portrayed in mainstream media is important, but so is what happens within and between all of us.  There are scores of us who are being radicalized, who are seeing the true face of law enforcement and the state for the first time, who are turning away from electoral representation as a means of redress and embracing direct action.  I reject claims of substitutionary offense on behalf of some mythical, monolithic mainstream moderate, such as, “I don’t personally care that they burned a flag in City Hall, but it looks bad to…” whom?  When I got out of Rita, reactions from my middle American politically moderate family members ranged from “Thank you for standing up for our rights” to “I hope you gave them hell”.  Provocative symbolic acts like flag-burning or even throwing something at line of riot cops (and yes, it is a symbolic act, because you’d better believe ain’t no bottle gonna injure a pig in riot gear) that I might have found off-putting even a few months ago now feel empowering as sincere, authentic expressions of outrage.  I’ve heard from a few sources now that as many as eighty OPD officers have resigned since the beginning of Occupy.  We may be taking a beating, but there must be something we’re doing right.

Download “Witness”, my Occupy song, for free.

It’s been over three months since I visited OWS in Manhattan and was inspired to join the nascent Occupy movement, and so much has changed and changed again.  I have to confess that I’ve also been a little distant from OO for the past two weeks, not for any principled reason, mostly just consumed with getting ready for Wednesday and other personal affairs.  Not that that’s stopped me from obsessively monitoring my Twitter feed.

This song was written so early in the process of what I now recognize as a profound political transformation which has still not yet run its course.  There are some ways in which a certain naivete is apparent, like the lyric “we ain’t settled on a story yet, ‘cuz the conch keeps going ’round”; clearly the voice of one disillusioned and disappointed by the current order, but lacking conviction in any other framework for justice.  Still, that’s who I was when I penned it, and it still seems apropos regarding the perennial tensions between forces militant and nonviolent, radical and conciliatory within the movement.  I am not bringing this up to pick a side, only to note that we are all a part of this, and no sect has sufficient clout to exclude another, nor should we.  Solidarity must be more than a slogan.

Download the song for free, share it with whomever you think might appreciate it.  If anyone wants to use it for some relevant purpose (video, etc.), just write me at shareef at shareefali dot com.


Mic check! Mic check! 
Let me know I’m not alone! 
I’m a witness to this movement, 
Manhattan to San Anton. 
We ain’t settled on a story yet, 
‘cuz the conch keeps going ’round. 
Like Jesse said, we need a gathering, 
not just another crowd. 

Mic check! Mic check! 
You know there’s always been a war! 
Black, white and brown don’t wanna scrounge 
for table scraps no more! 
Best come up with what we ask for. 
Someday always comes too late. 
You wonder how to do it faster? 
Allow us to demonstrate! 

World keeps on swinging, and a mighty arc it makes. 
So no, I don’t know how long a revolution takes. 
But it’s better to burn long than to burn too hot or bright. 
Brother, leave a light on, we could be here all night! 

Mic check! Mic check! 
Hey, is this thing even on? 
Sometimes I can’t hear my voice, 
been screaming for so long. 
You say you don’t hear a message, 
but that’s ‘cuz you’ve plugged your ears. 
But I know my brothers and sisters 
all receive me loud and clear! 

Mic check! Mic check! 
Hate to occupy your time. 
Then again, maybe that’s one more thing 
you’ve taken that was mine. 
You’re scared you’ll topple from your totem. 
No, I don’t feel bad for you. 
I know you’ve got ninety-nine problems, 
but guess what? We’ve got problems too! 

World keeps on swinging, and a mighty arc it makes. 
So no, I don’t know how long a revolution takes. 
But it’s better to be misunderstood than to never make a sound. 
Sister, bring a blanket, we’re sleeping on the ground!

2011: My best year yet?

In my retrospective from last year, I declared 2010 to have been my best year yet.  I think I would have to say that this year topped it.  While some of my goals were met and some were not, it would be impossible for me to deny that I had taken huge strides in my music and in life that I wouldn’t have been able to at any previous year.

The biggest obvious accomplishment is the tour, which, despite some small setbacks and things to do differently next time, was amazing and incredibly reaffirming of my path.  In doing so, I met what was arguably my most ambitious goal of playing at least twenty out-of-town gigs.  I played twenty-four on the tour.

I succeeded in recording and releasing both a full-length album with the band, Holy Rock & Roll, and a solo EP, How To End The War.  While the latter was not a full-length as I had originally intended when I conceived of it last year, in truth I think I produced a better record than even I had envisioned, which was more of a B-sides/oddities/release-and-be-done-with-it effort.  Instead, the general trend has been that each release I’ve been as or more proud of than the last.  I also surprised myself by how much my voice has improved over the course of just a year from when we recorded The Once & Future Boyfriend (which I’m still totally proud of).

The most notable case in which I didn’t meet the goal I set–I won’t call it a failure, because I don’t think it is–is in songwriting volume.  I had set a goal of twelve songs, which is what I managed in 2010, and I only wrote half that.  However, I realized in May when I was planning the tour that the scale of my undertaking was such that if I wanted to be successful with it I had to put something else on the back burner, and from a practical point of view of having more than enough repertoire to gig with, I made a conscious decision to set songwriting to the side for a few months.  I got back into it in October on the train, and wrote a song for each of the last three months of the year.  Here are all the tunes I penned this year:

  1. You Don’t Have To Stay
  2. Tucson
  3. The Tenderness In Me
  4. Witness
  5. Ain’t Nothing Sweeter (Train Song)
  6. For The Rest Of My Life

Notable features about the songs I wrote this year:

  • Two of them, “Tenderness” and “For The Rest Of My Life” were purely diatonic, and “Tucson” almost was too, save for a little chromatic run.  I think the last time I wrote diatonic music was in high school, but it took a decade of songwriting to figure out how to craft a song with other thematic elements strong enough that chromatic color didn’t seem necessary.  At the same time, “Ain’t Nothing Sweeter” is as tonally interesting as anything I’ve written.
  • The last three songs of the year were all under three minutes.  As a writer who used to not be able to do it in under five, but has always admired concentrated brevity, I consider this a great accomplishment.
  • In “Witness” I had my first purely political song.  And in case you didn’t see it, Amanda Palmer retweeted it, which pretty much made my year.

Not least of all, this was definitely my best year for updating this blog semi-regularly, with thirty-five new posts, more than I published in all of 2009 and 2010.  This is largely due to being involved with the Occupy movement, which for all its complications has been nothing short of transformative for me.

Goals for this year, then?

  1. Tour the Northwest in the Spring again.  And maybe the Northeast in the Fall?  I have a three-quarters-baked idea about seeing how long I can couchsurf across the Eastern Seaboard.
  2. Play more high-profile local venues.  I’ve got the drop on this one, with my upcoming first appearance at Bottom Of The Hill on January 18!
  3. Record and release another album.  Because why not?  Release early and often, that’s my motto.
  4. Get the fuck out of debt, completely, so I can  quit my job and tour forever and ever.

Okay, go!

Port Shutdown and the Dialectics of the Occupy Movement

I took Monday off work make myself available for every phase of the West Coast Port Shutdown.  I went into the day with equal feelings of excitement and dread: spirits and attendance had been flagging slowly but steadily at the GAs for a few weeks, and I think a lot of us were counting on this action to breathe some new life into the movement, both in fresh faces and in a renewal of our own vigor.

I was immediately heartened by the teeming crowd that turned out for the early shift starting at 5:30 at West Oakland BART.  I had expected a band of maybe 100; while I’m no crowd-counting expert, my good-faith estimate for the morning was more like 800-1000.  We shut that mother down, and then I retreated to my house to run my toes under some hot water in the tub and nap fitfully for two hours.

I got back to Oscar Grant Plaza around 3:30, in time to hear Scott Olsen address the crowd; I got to meet him later that evening, and stammered something about how we all admired him.  As we marched down to the Port for the second time that day, I became aware that this was our biggest showing since the day of the General Strike.  Though in actuality it was a bit smaller, it was nothing you could tell while in the thick of it.

In response to police repression of other #D12 actions, it was decided that we would shut down the 3 AM shift to which much of day’s work had been pre-emptively rescheduled.  So after dinner and another hour and a half of sleep, I returned again, this time to the Matson terminal at the base of Market Street.  There was no drumming or sound system, only a lone clarinetist screeching through “Misirlou” and “Walking After Midnight”.  Nobody chanted; while I think some entertainment or other participatory activity (other than walking in a circle) would have been appreciated, everyone seemed to know that the chants were not going to cut it.  Eventually, I broke off with a group of about twenty cyclists to block another entrance to the terminal.  We did a ‘biking picket’, and things quickly got very silly.

“Let’s do two concentric circles!”  “Going in opposite directions!”  “It’ll look so trippy from the chopper!”  “Let’s do a figure 8!”

I consider Monday’s action to have been a great success.  Of course the media has already settled comfortably into the narrative that just happens to maximally highlight tensions between the Occupy movement and our closest natural allies in labor.  Should anyone wish to understand these tensions on a serious level, I recommend reading the open letter from an autonomous group of port truckers; the excellent, even-handed summary from Labor Notes; and Hyphy Republic’s account of the Port Shutdown and micro-history of Occupy Oakland (be sure to read the comments as well).  But now that we know that we’re not dead as a movement, the question looms as tall as before: what next?

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading up on my Marxism, and really feeling the concept of dialectics (from Hegel et al): that reality is always churning with tension between opposing forces and only appears static for relatively brief moments, and that from these contradictions a new, synthesized reality is born, supplanting and even obliterating what was before, but nevertheless has a continuity with (and even a debt to) its predecessor.  Through this lens, I’m kind of awed by the unpredictable chain of developments the Occupy movement has gone through.  As I’ve seen it, Occupy has been:

  • A highly collaborative compiling of personal histories of hardship, from debt to unemployment to unfulfilled economic promise.
  • A disorientingly diverse outpouring of grievances and demands from activists mainstream and marginalized, serious and decidedly not.  Mostly leftist, but a few right-wingers and off-the-spectrum crazies.  Repeal Glass-Steagall.  End The Fed.  Legalize Hemp.  Forgive Student Loans.  9/11 Truth. Say Yes To Class War.  Sometimes I miss the creative signs.
  • A squat turned ad hoc human services drop-in center, stepping in with little to no formal training to meet basic needs that capitalism and the state have both washed their hands of.
  • An organic populist movement dangerously close to being tamed into a Democratic and/or non-profit industrial complex street fair.
  • A heated, wounding internal struggle between pacifists and militants and their sympathizers.  As an aside, it’s remarkable how much of a non-issue this has become; apparently the number of folks who are philosophically amenable to property destruction far outnumber those zealous enough to engage in it.
  • A heated, wounding external struggle with law enforcement over human rights to speech and assembly.  For all the radical charges from the earliest stages of Occupy, I mark this as the moment when the movement at large transcended itself and its fixation on only the most recent widespread economic injustices.  People were shocked not only at the degree of police violence but the logic behind it at all.  Eyes were opened, and questions asked about the true nature of the state and of our society.
  • A splintering off into autonomous, only loosely affiliated contingents focusing on direct coordinated actions, forgoing the proposal process and official sanction by the General Assembly.

It should go without saying that I haven’t a clue where this going next.  Many of us are feeling weary, but that’s not to say that we won’t still come out in force for something we think is well conceived and orchestrated.  But as great of a success as the Port Shutdown was, I think most of us know that our target must be different next time.  No single direct action we can take will bring the 1% to their knees, though I like to think we ruined their day.

For my part, I would like to see a ball get rolling on some sort of national congregation of the Occupy movement, which could even be the germ for–dare I say it?–a revolutionary party.  This idea has floated around since at least sometime in October, when it was all so exciting and new, and despite the repression it seemed momentum was really on our side.  Still, I think a lot of us didn’t believe we would still be here two months later, yet here we are.  But I want to do more than just surprise our former selves; I want to dialectically evolve into an ever more empowered, conscious and potent force for revolutionary change.

Who’s with me?

A long overdue tour retrospective.

I’ve been back from tour for over a month, and have laid pretty low musically for most of it.  Save for the Utah open mic I didn’t perform for all of November, but that’s changing with a number of fun gigs this month, starting with an Oakland house show this Thursday (email me at shareef@shareefali.com for details).  In some ways my re-entry to the atmosphere was a little rocky: annoying fallout with the person subletting my room, who left it a total mess and lost my trash can because she left it *outside* (I know, right).  As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’ve also been putting in a good bit of time at Occupy Oakland, which is by turns saddening and inspiring–I’m trying to stay mindful of balancing my involvement there with keeping focused on my music, which so far feels okay.

So.  The tour.

I loved it.  Every bit as much as I thought I would.  The heart of the tour experiment was really, “Is this really the life you want for yourself?” and the answer is an emphatic yes.  Of course, it was much different that I expected in many ways.

Transportation was remarkably easy.  I loved riding the rails, even wrote a song about it.  Friends often helped me out with rides, but when that failed I could always figure out public transit, or just hoof it.  More than once I decided to walk more than two miles to my next stop, having nothing but time.  The biggest snafu of tour was of course the rail pass debacle, but I done sent in for my voucher and hopefully that’s all getting squared away.

I was very lucky to have friends in every place I visited, who were wonderfully hospitable with lodging and sometimes food as well.  And I got to reconnect with some folks I hadn’t seen in five, ten, and even twenty years.  It’s easy to talk shit about people today being hyperconnected to randoms from their past via social networks, but I think if we’re brave enough to actually engage with each other despite the gulf of time between our previous acquaintance and the present, it can be really rewarding.

I loved playing music almost every single day.  On one hand, playing to mostly strangers who don’t have any investment in you can be unnerving; you have to win it every time.  But this also makes the songs new to you every time you play.  I never got bored of my material.  It was interesting which songs I found I liked to play every night (there were four that made it into every set; can you guess?), which ones I liked to play semi-frequently, and which I only played once.  Bottom line, I think touring is the absolute best training a performer can get.

UPDATE: I decided to rank my 24 shows on this tour into three categories: Good, Fine and Janky.  I’m pleased to report that the most populous category was Good, which had 11.  There were 7 shows I’d classify as Fine and only 6 that I’d call Janky.   And even those were fun. 

I loved all the new places I saw.  Hands down favorite: New Orleans.  I’m particularly drawn to pretty cities: NOLA, Portland, Seattle, obviously SF.  But there was a lot of character in every town I visited, and every stay was too short.

There are a number of things I’d do differently.  I wouldn’t bounce around back and forth between cities on the East Coast like I did, even though it’s technically feasible.  Rather, I think next time I’ll just have my tour either stop or start with that whole region, and maybe spend a month or two on the seaboard.  I wouldn’t do any epic legs of travel, like New York to NOLA or LA to Seattle, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to get truly restful sleep on the train.  I did, however, get some great reading and blogging and writing done while in transit, though it was mostly all in the second half of the journey, and I had to make myself do it.

Here are some stats:

I spent a total of $641 on daily expenses over forty-eight days, coming out to $13.35 a day.  This broke down further to an average of $5.19 on food, $3.58 on travel and $4.58 on miscellaneous expense.

Between merch, cover charges and tips, I made $574 over 23 shows (I’m not counting the Amsterdam show, since 1) I was visiting with family and not yet spending my own money and 2) I didn’t make any money).  This comes out to an average of $10.78 on merch and $14.17 on cover and/or tips.  So, not quite breaking even on the day-to-day, but not bad.

I can’t wait to do it again.  I’m looking at either a Pacific Northwest or Southern California tour (or both?) in the spring.  Who’s coming with me?

Album Review: Wolf Larsen, “Quiet At The Kitchen Door”

Capturing a Wolf Larsen performance on tape seems like one of those simple yet impossible tasks.  On one hand, it’s all already there: the aching clarity of her voice, the spare yet elegant finger-picking on nylon strings.  I want for nothing.  But how do you convey the breathless hush that falls over a once-raucous barroom, the pristine stillness of  the moment?

I guess you don’t.  Instead, Wolf and producer Nick Stargu have created a very different sonic experience from her live performances.  Rich swells of chamber strings, gently whining electric guitar lines and other ephemera are woven through the songs, but her guitar and voice–that unmistakable voice–are always the centerpiece.  This extended palette also reveals a broader range of musical influence: far from just a folksinger, Wolf draws on the jazz, gospel and soul traditions as well.  If seeing Wolf Larsen live is scripture, then Quiet At The Kitchen Door is a canon of Renaissance paintings.  The beauty and poetry of the stories* is not diminished but transformed as it’s translated into a new media.

Similarly, many of the song-stories on Kitchen seem to be retellings of each other**, like a folk tale that has different endings depending on how far the storyteller has wandered.  In one version, the speaker wistfully leaves her lover; in another, she begs the beloved to stay.  Our hero longs for companionship; or perhaps he succeeds in resisting its charm.  In her first single “If I Be Wrong” Wolf follows in the tradition of Jeannette Winterson’s Written On The Body by defying gender, and in doing so makes the listener question what we think we know about the character or its creator.  All we’re left with is the bare essence of the song: a plea, not for love, not for forgiveness, not even for understanding, only for a shared presence.

Quiet At The Kitchen Door sounds terrific, and has remarkable balance.  Just when the serenity of long-form songs like “Kitchen Door” and “If I Be Wrong” seems almost too wonderful to bear, there’s the relief of a dainty, playful palette-cleanser like “Maybe, Baby” or a rough-around-the-edges romper like “Wild Things”.  My all-time personal favorite is “Jedi”, a lyric of which I once asked Wolf to write on my guitar.  A sword inside a song.  This is the weapon that Wolf wields, and Quiet At The Kitchen Door is the sound of her running you clean through.

*As an atheist, I shamelessly reserve the right to invoke religious tradition whenever it seems rhetorically poignant.

**This is the part where I begin to wildly conjecture about the meanings of the songs.

Reflections on Violence and Property Destruction at Occupy Oakland

I’ve been back a full week now. So much going on–tour reflection, planning the next one, ENGAGEMENT–but right now I just gotta jot some stuff down about Occupy Oakland’s General Strike on Wednesday. Specifically, about the property destruction that occurred. I’m really torn on the issue, but I want to try to compile some of the important observations and reflections I’ve had or heard from other community members on Thursday’s debrief. Here goes.

  1. I firmly reject the notion that property destruction is tantamount to violence.
  2. The mere fact of property destruction being illegal does not mean that it’s unethical or ineffective.  It’s illegal to camp in most public parks, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
  3. Occupy Oakland has not, as a body, made any resolution of nonviolence.  From what I’ve observed, OO is in the minority in this regard amongst other Occupations, but how sizable that minority is, I don’t know.
  4. What OO has resolved to do is to “respect a diversity of tactics” and, despite strategic differences, maintain solidarity in the face of assault by the State and Traditional Media.
  5. There were reports of certain zealously ‘nonviolent’ protesters using actual force and violence (specifically, throwing chairs) at other protesters who were defacing Whole Foods.  As one person put it at the OO debrief Thursday evening, “I don’t know what kind of fucked-up definition of ‘nonviolence’ you’re using.”
  6. As one protester remarked, “Respecting a diversity of tactics goes both ways.”  People who want to take militant action need to recognize that their actions have a effect on everyone in the movement.  This is most obviously exemplified in police retaliation, but another example I heard was if one group were hypothetically to occupy a building (thinking about the winter here) and risk misdemeanor trespassing charges, another group starting fires could potentially put them at risk for felony arson charges.
  7. A number of people have called upon Occupy Oakland to disavow property destruction and anyone who employs these tactics (notably, I’ve seen this mostly from folks who do not consider themselves to be part of the movement, but outside commentators).  However:
    a) this is pretty clearly in violation of both the letter and spirit of #3, and is (fairly, I believe) taken as a betrayal by some;
    b) from what I saw Thursday, support or at least sympathy for these tactics is too widespread for this to be feasible.
  8. It seems to me that one of the reasons OO hasn’t committed to nonviolence is a lot of folks involved, specifically young men of color, have had to contend with violence from police their entire lives, and aren’t coming from the same mostly white, middle- to upper-class, formally educated culture that the nonviolent protest tradition is rooted in.
  9. On the other hand, the anarchist culture that is so eager to embrace Fucking Shit Up is overwhelmingly white and male, as were most of the folks I saw speaking out in favor of it on Thursday.  If the voices of women and folks of color were being sufficiently encouraged and amplified (and keep in mind that Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the country), would this approach seem quite so popular?
  10. I want this movement to be inclusive, but I think there’s a distinction between inclusivity and mainstreaming.  I’m not sure that I think property destruction is an effective tool for change, but if it’s not unethical (I’m not sure on this one, but let’s assume for the sake of this argument that it’s not), then I think it’s a legitimate expression of anger.  Compare this to certain incendiary verbal expression:  the statement “Fuck The Police” may alienate some people, but I’m firmly opposed to repressing passionate speech in interests of being more palatable to a mainstream audience.  We need to be seeking solidarity on what we stand to gain from transforming/toppling the system and knowing our common enemy–not how we express our outrage.
  11. All I feel (sort of) sure of is that it’s important for all of us in the movement to be conscious of the effects that one’s actions have on all of us, and on our future as a movement.

If anyone thinks any of these notions are rationally or ethically flawed, I certainly welcome your comments.  Though I reserve the right to take a long time to reply because I’ve already out-debated myself for the day/week.  Seriously though, let’s dialogue on this.

Shameless Idealism and the Occupy movement

I want to try to articulate something about the Occupy movement, and it may come out kind of scattered. People have been asking (both open-ended and directly to me) since this all began, “What is the goal here?” Early on this was indistinguishable from the unserious “what are the demands” line, but now the question seems to have evolved. It’s different also from the question of immediate, practical goals, like surviving the winter, or the questions of addressing inclusivity or racial justice. It’s the real question of, what do I dream for this movement? Do I feel brave enough, confident enough to put that down into words now, after several more weeks of growing momentum? Well, maybe, though it might still be unsatisfying to some. But here it is.

I want this to go on for a long time. I want us to never stop. Until when? Until we get everything.

Now maybe you’re thinking, that’s ridiculous. You can’t possibly hope or expect that this movement will lead to getting everything you want, from a truly progressive taxation system to breaking up of TBTF banks to permanent security of social welfare programs. And my response is, so what? That’s what I want, and I have tremendous moral authority in demanding it.

You might say, Shareef, you’re never going to get all that, you might even end up going home with nothing. So what? We’ve been asking for too little and going home with nothing anyway for so long, why would I do my dreams of the world I want to live in the dishonor of asking for anything less?

You might say, Shareef, that’s all that is: a dream. It’s never going to happen. To which I reply, you know what else will never happen? Working folks of all political stripes in this country will never rise up en masse in protest of the oligarchy. Protest will never be reinvented in a way that confounds our existing political and media power structures. Fuck your never. I want what I want.

The Occupy movement aligns with a lot of ideals that the Left has held for a long time, but it doesn’t belong to the Left. And that’s fine. Political ideologies shouldn’t exist just to carve out identities and tribes, but because their proponents actually hold them to be good for society and the world. Of course on the Left we’ve long thought that our ideas should have broad appeal to 99% of people, and this movement is borne of all of our shared outrage, if not strict agreement upon the solutions. But these distances between us are miniscule compared to the chasm between Doing The Right Thing and whatever the fuck our so-called leaders have been doing for decades. I don’t think I’m alone in having lost faith in the conventional channels of power. At best we find our leaders hapless to Do The Right Thing; at worst we can’t believe we were so naive to think they ever meant to do it in the first place. So don’t ask me what my demands are; you know what you were supposed to have been doing all this time. Don’t tell me you’re ‘on the side of the protesters’; if that were true, none of this would even be happening. We’re out here because we would be fools to buy any longer that anyone in power has our interests at heart.

The public trust has been violated, not once but many, many times. Let us not even dream of forgiving that for a long, long while. And if anyone in power should wonder when we’re going home, here’s my answer at least. We’re not. Not until we get everything. Now if you’re worth a damn, by all means try to prove it to me, but I’m through holding my breath. We’re going to go ahead and build a better world with or without you.

One last thing. As the movement has continued to grow, the comparisons to Egypt have grown more frequent. There are those who roll their eyes at this claim, but this reflex towards skepticism (and often towards inaction) is one that many of us are reconsidering and unlearning, myself included. Yes, obviously there are huge differences, but just yesterday Egyptian activists chose, independent of any direct influence from Occupy Oakland or any other branch of the American Occupy movement, to march in solidarity with our struggle. Clearly they have no hangup about identifying with us.

No, we’re not trying to overthrow the regime of a personal dictator. But we are railing against the progressive undermining of our government and society by the corporatist campaign that’s been waged, mostly successfully, over the past half-century, which is a different kind of tyranny. Are we afraid to call this a revolution, and ourselves revolutionaries? If so, is it because of our global privilege? Do we perceive ourselves as being insufficiently downtrodden to warrant revolt, or do we think we’re too ‘civilized’?

Maybe these are just projections of my own insecurities, but I’m determined to cast them off. Naomi Klein said that we should treat this as if it’s the most important thing in the world, because it is. I’m through pretending not to have a dream.