Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Thanksgiving - bringing the movement home for the holidays

Below is my latest column in the Claremont Courier. Meanwhile, two addendums:

1. Occupy L.A has been offered some offices for $1 a year and some land to farm for free in exchange for moving off the City Hall's now-dead lawn, in yet another instance, unlike in other cities, of the city bending over backwards to be accommodating. Mmmmm... I'm not sure if this - being bought off - is, or should be, what the occupiers had in mind. Then again, Occupy L.A has always been the Hollywood version of the movement.

2. There is now Occupy Claremont - two tents set up in front of the City Council chamber by Pitzer College students on Sunday, after my column came out. I can't help but chuckle at the fact that the students won't be there for the Thanksgiving break!


There it was. For all to see. It couldn’t be missed.

The words were spray-painted in deep red on the white wall of the exterior of the Bank of America branch in the Village when I passed by two Friday mornings ago. The paint dribbled down the wall at a few points, like blood oozing from a fresh stabbing.

“Pay tax.”

There was no mistaking the message, and it was indeed a piercing of sorts.
In my last column, I wrote about how the Occupy Wall Street movement, protesting corporate greed and other injustices, social and otherwise, isn’t so far off from Claremont. But I wasn’t expecting it to be this close. Then again, I can’t say I was that surprised.

“That’s horrible!” a friend exclaimed. “How could this happen in nice, little Claremont?” I couldn’t tell if my friend was genuinely disturbed or was being tongue-in-cheek.

When I passed the wall again a few minutes later, a man was working to clean off the graffiti.

“I wish they had done this on the windows,” I heard the man say as I passed by. “That would have made my job a lot easier.”

Maybe it was just as well that he was having a hard time scrubbing off that graffiti. Perhaps we next to look at the writing on the wall, so to speak, here in “nice, little Claremont.”

No one can tell me that there are no people living in Claremont who agree with the sentiment sprawled on the wall, that big financial institutions should be more socially responsible, should be more fair to consumers and shouldn’t be bailed out by the taxpayers. No one can tell me that there are no Claremont residents who are frustrated and hurting, maybe out of a job, maybe out of unemployment checks, having trouble making ends meet.

I don’t think this was some high school kid thinking he was being cool with the message of the moment. After all, it was reported that there was a similar message written on the wall of the other Bank of America office in Claremont, on Foothill Boulevard, that same morning. No, this was someone who knew what they were doing, who had a specific plan and a specific message.

Heck, there are probably at least a few students at the colleges here - or recent graduates sticking around town, who are feeling all but frantic and despairing about paying back hefty student loans, perhaps without being able to find a job.

Not that writing on walls is the best way to express anger and try to change things. But I have to say that I can’t get that worked up about this vandalism. It was not a threat, and I much rather see this than something more destructive or lethal.

I think the real question is, what do we do with the message on the wall? Do we just have it scrubbed off and then go about our way in “nice, little” Claremont?

With the holiday season coming up or more or less already here - we can tick off Halloween and the Pilgrim Place Festival - this may sound like the way to go. It may be best, it may be easier to snuggle into the celebrations and merry-making as the year winds down, even if things are not the best for some or many of us. But it could be that the disturbing, piercing writing on the wall is more bounty in this season of giving thanks.

It could be that, even as we want to not hear all the bad news and all the loud back-biting, this venting, this expression of anger and frustration is a rich bit - a rich, unexpected and even, yes, unwanted bit - in this harvest season.

This venting, this messy, ugly outcrying, even on our quiet, leafy streets, could be seen as a curse, but it is really a blessing - another one this Thanksgiving.

It is unfortunate and sad that things have gotten to the point where people feel that they have to camp out or scrawl messages on a wall, but such activism, such passionate, hands-on civil engagement is something to behold and be thankful for.

That what this is. The Occupy Wall Street movement is way past being a bunch of kooks. It is getting harder and harder not to take it seriously. The question, again, like with the graffiti in the Village, is what to do with it - or should we be doing anything with it here in Claremont?

In my last column, I wrote about visiting Occupy L.A and about how, although things are relatively, even surprisingly calm at the encampment (I think of it as, appropriately enough, the Hollywood version of Occupy), there is notable tension there, with people having differing views and styles, even if they have the same desires and goals. I wrote about the detailed guidelines there for holding meetings and reaching consensus and that, if nothing else, the protesters are learning and showing us all how to and how not to live and work together in community.

Since then, I have heard about people at Occupy L.A getting tired and yelling at each other about smoking pot and drumming late into the night and also segregating themselves. I have heard about people there coming to blows. I have also heard about some of the protesters meditating together and about the suggestion of asking someone who is angry to sit down, “because it is harder to be violent when you are sitting down.”

What can we learn from all this here in Claremont? Is there a message here about making this community more inclusive, where people can express differing views and improve things together, and even more something to be thankful for? Or do we just do what’s easier and only scrub off the unattractive, challenging writing on the wall?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eye in the sky

Starting next year, the city of Lancaster, in the desert roughly 45 minutes northeast of Los Angeles, is set to have a plane flying around 24/7, keeping an eye on the city. One resident quoted in the Los Angeles Times calls it a “spy plane” and is happy that it is coming.

The ACLU isn’t so sure. There is concern about privacy - duh! - especially with the plane videotaping and being able to see into backyards. The Lancaster police point out that the plane will enable them to see someone in trouble and needing assistance, and they promise that certain people won’t be targeted and that a very limited set of people can see the videotape. Meanwhile, Mayor Rex Parrish declares that he wants to make Lancaster “the safest city in America.”

Ah - Rex Parrish. Is he still the mayor there? Apparently so. This is a mayor who tried to have the City Council start all their meetings with a prayer to Jesus. He also tried to make it harder for landlords to rent to people with Section 8 housing subsidies, who are poor and tend to be of color. In fact, there is an ongoing federal investigation into surprise inspections of Section 8 rental units within the city (the annual inspections are typically scheduled weeks in advance) which are usually and very atypically accompanied by gun-toting police officers.

I draw two conclusions from this. One is that it really is the case that things tend to get much less progressive pretty quickly as one heads inland, at least on the west coast. The other is that it might be time to donate to the ACLU.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Looking at looking at the disabled

When I got to the theater, the man who was to speak wasn’t there. But he did speak. He was on a large screen, and not only did he speak live, he could see those of us who were there in the theater at Scripps College here in Claremont.

It is amazing what technology can do, and that was the point that Tobin Siebers, the V.L Parrington Collegiate Professor and Professor of English Language and Literature and Art & Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, started off with in his lecture, pointing out that it makes things easier or possible to do for people with disabilities. In this case, as he said, technology made it possible for him to be with us, so to speak, without having to travel. I am assuming that Siebers is disabled, although I couldn’t tell by looking at him, at least on the screen.

This was ironic - eerily so - since he was talking about how we judge whether someone is disabled or not by how they look. In his talk, entitled “The Mad Woman Project: Disability and the Aesthetics of Human Disqualification,” Siebers discussed the fact that disabled people have been dismissed, pitied, seen as in need of curing or repair, segregated, even eliminated primarily because they are unattractive, ugly, grotesque. Siebers posited that, even with recent civil rights laws and other gains, people with disabilities are the only minority that it is “okay” to do this to (for example, trying to cure them, the implication being that they are “not okay.”) I would add that some may argue that this is also the case with queer people, but I would also say that this is really getting to be less okay.

The talk, part of a series called “The Body Politic” put on this semester by the Humanities Institute at Scripps College, was full of facts and insights - many more than I can convey here - but focused on a collection of photographs called “The Mad Woman Project” by a Korean artist. The photographs, shown on the screen along with Siebers, featured women who were mentally disabled/retarded, looking unkempt, disoriented and disheveled and sometimes behaving inappropriately, and were clearly meant to make us uncomfortable. Siebers later revealed that the women in the series aren’t disabled and talked about how the artist is also commenting on the powerful role of beauty or the lack thereof plays in how women are judged (i.e: an ugly woman is or can be more easily called “mad” or, more often, a “bitch”). He went on to briefly contrast this artist’s (I regret that I don’t recall the name) intentions with that of American artist Cindy Sherman, whose photographs are more simply about theatricality and shock.

I want to mention that Siebers took time to point out that the academic field of Disability Studies is not about understanding the disabled and how to help or cure them. Rather, it is about looking at disability as a social concept and how society, in how it does or does not accommodate, makes those with limitations inferior, left out and, indeed, “disabled.”

Aside from the photo project, none of this was new to me. In fact, much of my artistic work has been about how people judge me by how I look as a severely disabled person, and I have also written here about this and what I call the “disabling society.” It was just nice to see it all laid out plainly and matter-of-factly, if not simply, for a general audience (too bad the audience was small), including in the very way it was presented.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Welcome to Camp Sociology

In my last post, I mentioned my visit to Occupy Los Angeles and said that I would write more about it. I did so in my Claremont Courier column which comes out today and which is below.

I’ll mentioned as an addendum that I read an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times several days ago about how, for the most part, progressive Christian churches aren’t involved in this movement, especially in L.A, despite sharing many of its values and goals. As one religious scholar was quoted as asking, “Where are the Quakers?”

Also, it seems that, with the relative lack of police action and violence and even inclement weather associated with it, Occupy L.A, perhaps appropriately, is the Hollywood version of the Occupy movement. There's something pat and movie-like and not quite real about it.


“Welcome to Occupy Claremont.”

Perhaps not everyone in the Village for the Friday Night Live concert by Squeakin’ Wheels a few weeks ago appreciated this repeated barbed salutation from the band. It is likely that the commentary resonated with fans of the longtime Claremont folk group as it played in front of the City Council chamber, but I wonder if there were other passerby that evening who were shocked that Claremont could have anything to do with the boat-rocking, rabel-rousing Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic as well as social and environmental injustice.

It was about this time, in fact, that it fully dawned on me that Claremont isn’t so far off from this phenomenon - literally. After all, Occupy L.A, which started in September on the lawns flanking Los Angeles City Hall, is just some 30 miles away. Not even that, it turns out.

As I saw several days later, it is an easy Metrolink train ride and a few blocks’ walk away. One can also include a short ride on the Red Line subway. So, really, it is a jump and a hop, or perhaps a jump, skip and hop, away to a fascinating bit of history being made.

In a bit more than an hour after leaving Claremont, I was in the colorful sea of tents that I saw on the front page of the Los Angeles Times before I left. (According to the Times story then, there were about 350 tents, with something like 700 nightly residents.) I immediately thought of the music festivals I have camped at, except that the tents were much more jammed together, and there were many more, and more pointed, signs and banners (mostly hand-made).

Yes, as an article in the next day’s Times pointed out, the lawn was quite brown, but just as notable was, unlike with occupiers in some other cities and in day-and-night contrast with what happened in Oakland last week, how welcoming a host City Hall is. I saw several police officers chatting with the occupiers in a friendly manner, and it is well-known that Mayor Villaraigosa gave out plastic ponchos when it rained last month. I also quickly noticed that, for its part, the encampment is really quite tidy. There are “zero waste” trash, recycle and compost bins in various locations.

Indeed, what struck me most was how very well organized this group is. On a monument at the center of the main encampment south of City Hall were posted a series of large-print broadsheets with detailed guidelines for conducting business and reaching consensus. Also explained was the difference between a general meeting, a committee, a workshop and an affinity group, as well as a number of hand and arm gestures to facilitate communication in a large meeting. Nearby, there was a whiteboard with a full schedule with all these meetings, plus mealtimes.

While I was there, there was a short pep talk by a comedian, Jeff Ross. (Unlike on Wall Street, where the occupiers have come up with the “human microphone,” there was amplification, and it was announced that the microphone was “solar-powered today.”) It was also announced that there would be a workshop the following day on how to make one’s own generator. In addition, during my visit, an affinity group meeting for GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) folks got underway.

These protesters may not know exactly what they are saying, but they definitely know how to say it. Too bad we have seen the focus on the former rather than the latter.

I am not saying that there are no problems and that all is lovey-dovey at Occupy L.A. While I noted the peaceful atmosphere, there was some tension in the air - another thing, as with the drumming also evident during my visit, that the mainstream media unfortunately tends to focus on. It is evident that some chronically homeless/street people and an anarchist element have gotten into the mix.

I heard one occupier, apparently on security/maintenance duty, say into a walkie-talkie, “Oh, that dude! I know the one. He’s always causing trouble!”

Several times during the comedian’s spiel, there would be a shouted interruption (“Down with the capitalists!” or whatnot) and some spontaneous chanting.

And the guys with bandanas over their noses and mouths? What’s that all about? Please don’t tell me it’s supposed to make them look more serious, like they mean business.

The next day’s Times article mentioned that one woman had left the protest, feeling that it was corrupted by people who didn’t care about economic justice. “Everybody is pretty much partying it up,” she was quoted as saying. The article also said that there was tension in the encampment over drug use and drinking. I have to say that I caught a sweet whiff or two during my visit, and I hope, especially with City Hall bending over backwards to be tolerant, the protesters nipped the use of illegal substances in the bud (pun intended). Otherwise, Occupy L.A will be gone. Like that.

As I write this, it sounds like City Hall may be running out of patience, even if the occupiers keep their act straight. Whether or not Occupy L.A remains, it, along with all the other occupiers in other cities, have brought up plenty to ponder.

At one point while I was there, a man rode a bicycle around and around the center of the protest, joyously shouting, “The revolution will be televised!” Whether or not the revolution will be on T.V, it will certainly be on-line. During my visit, I saw a number of people using laptops, and I made note of the “media tent.”

It has been said over and over that the occupiers’ message is vague and unclear. I think the message is pretty clear, and I’m beginning to wonder if the media - and the rest of us - don’t want to hear it.

Another thing that has been said, awfully glibly, is that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the Tea Party of the left. At the risk of being glib myself, I would argue that there is a crucial difference: the tea partiers don’t want to pay taxes to fund services for others, and the occupiers are happy to pay taxes but want everyone to get the services the taxes fund.

At the very least, the occupiers are learning and also teaching us all dramatically what it’s like to be homeless, when having to pee or sleep can be a crime. (I saw that someone had set up a solar-powered shower tent, but why have it so close to the street?) But there’s more. This protest has become a big social experiment, challenging both its participants and the rest of us, both in its message and how it is done, to consider how a fair and decent society works or should work.

As for Occupy L.A being not so far from Claremont, it may be even closer. Soon after I arrived, a woman I didn’t know approached me with the greeting, “Rise up, Claremont!”