Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy your life!

There are protest signs hanging and leaning all over the Occupy San Francisco camp. The most striking is a huge banner hanging from a line strung between two lamp-posts that claims: “This is a living example of a better system.” This ambitious and hopeful message appeals to the Utopian in me. Despite my hopes, Occupy SF is not Utopia. On the other hand, it is naive to expect it to be a perfect society.

The people at the Occupy camp are there to call attention to our collective short-comings. The most obvious of these, and the reason we are occupying Wall Street and San Francisco’s financial district, is the obscene expansion of wealth and political power in the hands of the richest 1% over the past 30 years. Among the revolutionary elements of the Occupy Movement is its General Assembly which features distributed leadership, whereby all members of the community are intended to have equal say, a consensus process which forms community by making group decisions without winners and losers, and the “People’s Mic” which encourages the community to listen closely and repeat each other’s words. These are the hallmarks of an attempt to change the way we relate to power and to those we live and struggle alongside. At the General Assembly I attended at Occupy SF, all people were given equal access to the floor - no one was marginalized for being angry, or inarticulate, or for believing we are all preparing to fly off in a galactic spaceship of love. Where else do we find governance this inclusive?

The occupiers come to the movement with symptoms of our society's untreated illnesses: poverty, hunger, addiction, greed, impatience, authoritarianism, and physical and mental illness. In the few hours I have spent at Occupy SF, I have seen examples of some of the behaviors I like least to see in my community: people arguing, fighting over resources, accusing each other of wrong-doing, making violent threats, and using methods to police each other’s behavior that too closely mimic the authoritarian structures we are talking about changing. I have grown accustomed to this type of behavior in my everyday life, but experiencing it among the people I see holding the hope to change society can be disheartening.

But the banner rings true - “this is a living example of a better system.” Despite the frustrations, and our own and each other’s weaknesses, the Occupiers say, “I am working with you to make a better world and I will work to improve myself, and support you in your growth, as we figure out what this means.” This can be hard and lengthy work. I am grateful no one has defined a goal or finish line for the movement, because to make a change merely to the political or economic structure would leave this deeper work undone. When we change the way we relate to each other, wealth, and power, those structures will adapt to our new relationships. If the changes are only new laws and new leaders, the old relationships will find a way to recreate the themselves in the new environment. True revolution is a change within the people who make up society, not a shift in the hands who hold the tools of oppression.

What this calls upon all of us to do is to go out into the streets and begin to make the society we long to see.  Anyone who is in the bottom 99% income bracket, or sympathetic to their needs, has a right (perhaps a responsibility?) to guide a movement who claims to speak for them. We can go to our local Occupy camp and its marches to ensure our voices are represented when Occupiers speak for the 99%. Also, we can go into our local community and meet with our neighbors, have discussions, make decisions together about what we want our community and our world to look like, and take steps to bring it into being. The example the Occupy Movement is setting calls on us to stay committed to our community and its members; to leave our homes; to live life instead of consuming it in the prepackaged form it is offered to us in, or watching it flicker by on a screen. It is time to Occupy Your Life!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Twenty Dollars

We were sitting on the steps of the First Unitarian Universalist Church reading to each other as we waited for the church to close so we could lay out our cardboard, when someone leaving the Gay Men's Chorus' rehearsal handed us a $20 bill. "Share it - equally" he said, and walked away. I reached for the bill, wanting to secure the funds to ride BART across the bay so I could attend the first meeting about a dream-theater project I wanted to join. Having the bill in hand would make this easier, I thought.

The next day, as I walked with the $20, it started to weigh in my pocket. What if someone asked me for money? Now I had some, and would have to decide if their need trumped ours. Did holding the bill then make me responsible for breaking it so we could each take our part, or leading the group in a decision-making process about how we should spend it as a group (would that mean I'd end up losing my BART money?)?

After carrying the money for a day, I was grateful to be able to toss it onto an altar of the Abundance of the Streets we built in the center of our reflection circle. As I did, I stated that I hoped to use my portion to help pay for my BART ticket. Suddenly, my fellow retreatants reached into their pockets and produced two BART tickets (one with enough fare to get me to Berkeley) and a few dollars, which they handed me. Now, I had all I needed!

By the time we gathered again, someone had broken the $20, and each of us took our $2.50 share. I now had my BART tickets, plus over $5.00 - I felt rich! Maybe I'd buy a burrito on my way to the meeting. (mmmm.....burrito....) But Melissa brought a friend to the circle who, after a few jokes and magic tricks, told us he needed $18 more to reach his weekly $30 goal to supplement his government check. I handed him my $5.00 and said good-bye to my imaginary burrito. The man walked away smiling, with $8 more in his pocket, after a few others chipped in. I ate a free cup of Food Not Bombs, and went to my meeting full and happy.

The next day, I wrote this poem, inspired in part:

I dance lighter with empty pockets
And when they're full
I have no room for more
I suppose I could stuff them
With dollars, pennies, important notes
Things I find on the path
Like cigarette butts
Each item I carry with me
Carries the stories of those who carried it
Why should I trap the stories
In over-stuffed pockets?
Why would I want to make myself lumpy?
When I could just share the stories
Share the objects that carry them
Thus weaving a net of stories
Each carrier a knot
Each item a strand
Like a $20 bill
Earned through hard work
Withdrawn from a Wall Street bank
Placed in a new credit union account
Before being handed by a gay singer
On the steps of a church
To a flock of Fools
Sleeping like they were homeless
Before breaking it at a farmers' market
So it can be passed around
And given to a beggar.

A net like this could catch the world!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reaching Heights

As we sat in reflection this morning, as we do twice a day on the Street Retreat, two images came out strongly. One was the flat Civic Center Plaza we sat in, mirrored by the large flat building facades surrounding it. They invoked thoughts of oppression or a depression-like emotional flatness in some retreatants. The other image was of a ladder, six stories up on a building, with a construction worker balanced on the top rung (the one that says “do not step here”). This invoked a sense of instability and fear in the retreatant who noticed it - a feeling I resonate with, while also imagining the sometimes precarious places we must put ourselves in to reach high points in our lives.
Where do we find those high points, and what do we risk in search of them?
Sometimes, time on the streets feels flat - barely more than one long wait in line: for each meal, for a shelter bed, for a shower, for a medical appointment, for the city to wind down enough to allow me to lay down my cardboard and go to bed, for the time to get off the streets to come. What does it mean to spend your days (not just for a week-long stretch like this one) going to meals which are good enough, but almost never exciting? Or to spend your time surviving, not feeling like you are truly living? As I write this, I recognize this is not a manner of existence exclusive to those living on the streets, but may have been an epidemic in our society over the past decades...
What does it take for us to feel most alive?
I recall two experiences as I imagine the construction worker on the ladder high above the city streets. One was at Burning Man, riding around the huge flat expanse know as “The Playa,” and seeing a huge ladder - seemingly 100ft - reaching up to the empty sky. My first reaction to this sight was “I should climb it.” This was quickly followed by a fear felt in the soles of my feet as I imagined myself halfway up the ladder sweating and shaking once my long-held fear of heights kicked in. My response to this fear of fear was to return to the camp which served as my home at Burning Man.
The other experience was scaling the side of my parents’ home - clinging only to pipes and electrical conduit - to install parts of the haunted house we were building there at the time. The fear of heights evaporated under those conditions, and I felt free and alive! It seems like the fear is not so much about the strength of what supports me, but maybe more about what I feel I’m working towards. Or how I sense my purpose.
While on the streets this year, I have not felt much flatness. For the most part I have been able to see this Retreat as a process of personal development and a deepening understanding of the resources available on the streets of San Francisco. I'm grateful to be able to see my time as purposeful, and hope that can be true for all as they walk their paths.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sitting Reflection

I started my Street Retreat with walking - first to my favorite soup kitchen -  Martin de Porres’ - and then out 16th St. to the Bay. I stopped for a nap on a bench in front of a building boasting “Corporate Headquarters,” in hopes of attracting a renter looking for such a property. I can’t help but think, in the face of vacant buildings, of who among those without shelter could be occupying such space?

I continued along the Embarcadero past the baseball stadium, hosting a Cal football game this day, and on to the Occupy San Francisco camp. It was impressive in its size, and less obtrusive than I had imagined - not in the large expanse I think of when I hear “Justin Herman Plaza,” but rather a space to the south I have never seen get real use. I was surprised to find myself a bit put off by my first encounter: I saw a handful of occupiers and thought “they are more hard-core than me” - they reminded me of the transient youth I associate with Haight Street (perhaps just a by-product of time spent camping in an urban environment?).

I quickly caught up with the “Bank Transfer Day” march, clearly led by the Occupy Movement, as they travelled from Chase to Wells Fargo to Bank of America. The crowd was instructed to sit in front of each as they listened to speakers relating the institution’s particular sins as they “foreclosed” on the banks. I felt some frustration with the leaders’ clear cooperation with the police, who shepherded us from bank to bank while keeping some traffic lanes open on the streets we walked. I believe part of what our protest movements need is a recognition of the power of the people, who will care for the police and treat them civilly, but not look for government approval for our actions.

I left the protest at the Bank of America to join my fellow retreatants in reflection. We sat in a circle outside the Asian Art Museum across from City Hall and shared our stories. As we sat, a police truck - the kind used to confiscate goods from people on the streets - pulled up and an officer got out. He turned to us and said “you can’t sit down there,” as he climbed the stairs to issue citations to two men huddled in the museum’s doorway to escape the rain.

I had forgotten that it is illegal to sit on the sidewalk in San Francisco before 11pm. This left me questioning my apparent privilege, as someone issued a warning without the documentation that could lead to a later citation under the new “Sit Lie” law. It also gave me a new respect for a civil disobedience I had not noticed in the sitting bank protesters, and raised questions about the lack of enforcement in that context, too....

What holds us separate, what keeps us separate? What still connects us?     

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupying the Streets

There is a magic that happens in being there.

This is something I’ve learned in spending time on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin with the Faithful Fools, and streets throughout the country over the past ten years. I learn about the place I’m in with the intimacy of posters on telephone poles, smells wafting from restaurants and alleys, and street corner rants. Taking the time to really be with a place gives me the time to really be with myself, too. I get to learn to read my own internal signs (what makes me uncomfortable, fearful, curious, full of joy?), to know my own smells, and to hear my own rants (what do I care about, right now?). It also calls attention to the peoples’ needs, society’s failings, and the beauty that persists through it all.

This morning I went out into the streets, where I will stay for the next seven days. I left with my ID, library card, a couple books, a sleeping bag, and (hopefully) enough clothes to keep me warm and dry as the weather turns toward San Francisco’s winter this week. I also leave with a cold, triggering questions about how people with no place of their own get healthy. Will I be able to get into a shelter if I need? Where do I go when the warm library (where I sit writing this) closes? Can I find warm drinks? How do I deal with the consequences of staying hydrated when public bathrooms are scarce? How would all this feel if I didn’t know I will have a warm home and bed to return to next Saturday night?

Of course, we can never really know how another feels - this is part of what it means to be separate people. Fortunately, we can get closer to them, and sometimes something important comes across in those moments. This is part of the magic of the Occupy Movement started on Wall Street and now present in cities throughout the U.S. and the world, including San Francisco: by choosing to be close to the centers of financial and political power, the Occupiers create a space for understanding. With so many in our country and the world struggling to afford housing, good food, and health care, we can no longer afford for those who have plenty to pretend they aren’t a part of it.

We go into the streets to make our struggles visible. Some have no other place to go, some would say they are there by choice, and some would say they are compelled to be there. It is a symptom of society’s sickness. I am here to learn about that sickness, and to engage in the healing process. I will spend my next seven days and nights among those most beaten down by a system that has become too efficient at making a few people rich, and among those putting their bodies on the line to call attention to the sickness and engage in a process of healing our power relationships. I will be one of the thousands occupying the streets.

I invite you to join me: in the streets at your local Occupy location, in reflection on where you fit into this story of sickness and healing, in spirit by taking a moment each day to think of us on the streets, or to meet with the eight of us on Street Retreat this week at 10:15 in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza or 5 pm at UN Plaza, where we’ll be daily.
Thanks for your time and compassion.
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