Out in the Streets

Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution

Jefferson Airplane

Marking two months of protests, Thursday was declared a “Day of Action” by the Occupy Wall Street movement with demonstrations across major cities nationwide remonstrating against financial greed and corruption. In Southern California, the LA Times reported: “In what police called an ‘orchestrated series of arrests,’ nearly 100 police in riot gear moved in to arrest 23 protesters who locked arms around tents in the middle of Figueroa Street . . .”

Meditator arrested in Oakland

“Orchestrated series of arrests” is another way to say “civil disobedience.” More about that below, but first, the city of Oakland, California has taken a hard line against the protesters. There has been violence and then Monday, police forcibly evicted demonstrators from their camp in the downtown area. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Oakland police arrested [Pancho] Ramos Stierle before dawn on Monday as riot police were clearing out the Occupy encampment at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. He and two other activists had been meditating for hours in the plaza’s amphitheater as police surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to disperse.”

Criminal charges against Stierle have been dropped, but because he is an immigrant, the cops turned him over to ICE. As of Thursday he has either been released or will be released pending a hearing before a judge. In either case, he is facing deportation. His case has become a bit of a cause célèbre (Free Pancho).

I don’t know if Stierle is connected with any particular spiritual group or whether he’s just a guy who wants to meditate for peace. It doesn really matter to me, and I certainly support his aim and his actions as far as the protest goes. I am not, however, all that sympathetic to his status as an immigrant. Apparently Stierle’s visa expired in 2008, which, as far as I understand things, makes him illegal. I know this is an unpopular view, but frankly I’m not convinced that people who are in this country illegally should enjoy the same rights as citizens and legal immigrants.

That aside, when you engage in civil disobedience you have to expect some consequences. The authorities do not like civil disobedience. That’s an eternal truth. I wish Stierle the best, but I assume that he is an intelligent person and knew what he was getting into.

At the same time, I do wonder if everyone really understands what civil disobedience is all about.

Civil disobedience is the time-honored act of the “professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” (Wikipedia) In this current movement, we’re talking about multinational powers.

I think it is safe to say that a good majority of acts of civil disobedience are designed to provoke an “orchestrated” arrest. At the very least, those who engage in such actions should be cognizant of the possibility of arrest and/or persecution by the authorities. To put it in Buddhist terms, civil disobedience is Bodhisattva action. It invites suffering for the purpose of making a statement against suffering.

Gandhi, whom we can look to as sort of an expert on civil disobedience, called his revolution ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth). His brand of protest was grounded in spirituality, and marked with the force of compassion and acceptance of resulting suffering. Gandhi wrote,

Complete civil disobedience is rebellion without the element of violence in it. An out- and-out civil resister simply ignores the authority of the State. He never uses force and never resists force when it is used against him. In Fact, he invites imprisonment and other uses of force against himself . . .

Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing.”

Nearly a hundred years earlier, Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay, On Civil Disobedience, put it bluntly:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.”

Gandhi behind bars

Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay what he believed was an unjust tax. Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942. All together, he spent 7 years in prison. In the early days of Gandhi’s activism, in South Africa, he tried to organize resistance against the Registration Act. On September 11, 1906, at a mass meeting with some 3000 Indians, Gandhi warned the assembled to expect repercussions: imprisonment, beatings, fines, and even, deportation. He also told them,

I can declare with certainty that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”

Goldman Sachs on trial


The OWS is calling their movement an “American Revolution.” Chris Hedges is an American journalist who has specialized in writing about the Middle East and is now involved with OWS. Last Thursday, Hedges, Cornel West and others held a mock trial of Goldman Sachs in Zuccotti Park. Hedges was arrested. Tuesday, he wrote on Truthdig,

Welcome to the revolution. Our elites have exposed their hand. They have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, food boxes and clothes that were tossed by sanitation workers Tuesday morning into garbage trucks in New York City. They have no ideas, no plans and no vision for the future.

I support the Occupy Wall Street movement. I only hope everyone understands what it really takes to engage in civil disobedience, what it means to be a revolutionary. I hope the mistake that was made in the 1960’s is not made again. The Anti-War movement disintegrated after the Kent State massacre in 1970. All of the sudden protest kids realized, “Hey, you can get killed doing this!” I think in our collective unconscious we decided it might be better to just stay home with Sweet Jane.

Both Thoreau and Gandhi would no doubt subscribe to the notion that it is every person’s duty to protest injustice. That also belongs to the eternal, ultimate truth. But in the conventional world, let’s face it, not everyone is going to join in, and perhaps some should not join on the front lines. Those who have a lot to lose by catching the attention of law enforcement maybe should think twice about putting themselves at risk as Stierle did. I would imagine there are numerous ways that someone can support OWS, and in the future, if the movement comes together and gains a measure of organization, some of the most important roles will be played behind the scenes.

The iconic revolutionary

But if you are going to take center stage, man the barricades, stand on the front lines, then you’d better know that, as CSN&Y sang, to find the cost of freedom, you must “lay your body down.”

Revolution is serious business. Che Guevara once said,

In a revolution, one wins or one dies.”

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down

– Crosby, Still, Nash and Young


Street photo: occupylosangeles.org
Stierle photo: occupyoakland.org
Hedges/West photo: occupywallst.org


Revolution is Poetry

I found this on the web earlier this month and I thought it was something that I must share. It’s by Reinald Arenas (1943-1990), a Cuban poet, novelist and playwright, who initially supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but eventually became disenchanted and rebelled against it. This is a passage from his memoir, Before Night Falls, which was made into a film in 2000. Apparently he is paraphrasing another Cuban poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976):

A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police. Being independent and outside of their domain, beauty is so irritating to dictators that they attempt to destroy it whichever way they can. Under a dictatorship, beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque; to a dictator and his agents, the attempt to create beauty is an escapist or reactionary act.

The other day, I wrote that a smile can be a rescue and a kind word, liberation. In the same way, a revolution can be a poem and revolutionary acts can take many forms. This is from the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm. The writer is Sharif S. Elmusa, currently visiting professor at Georgetown University, Qatar campus, from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he is an associate professor in the Political Science Department. He is writing of the recent Egyptian Revolution:

They rendered acts of poetry – cleaning the streets, regulating traffic, protecting the national museum, guarding houses, breaking bread with someone – even more poetic. These mundane acts became inspiring moments, like that of a poem, spawning a new spirit, free of the dust that had settled on the conception of work and on those who perform it day after day. Writing a poem and engaging in a revolution are both acts of self-discovery.

The revolution dignifies the ordinary, and elevates it, just as poetry transforms common words into rhythms and meaning.

Since it would be wrong not to include a poem in this post, here is one from Diane Di Prima. Called “the original outlaw poet,” Diane Di Prima is the author of 42 books of poetry and prose, and her work has been translated into at least twenty languages. She is now the 5th Poet Laureate of San Francisco. From Revolutionary Letters (dedicated to Bob Dylan), originally published by City Lights in 1971:

beware of those
who say we are the beautiful losers
who stand in their long hair and wait to be punished
who weep on the beaches for our isolation

we are not alone: we have brothers in all the hills
we have sisters in the jungles and in the ozarks
we even have brothers on the frozen tundra
they sit by their fires, they sing, they gather arms
they multiply: they will reclaim the earth

nowhere we can go but they are waiting for us
no exile where we will not hear welcome home
‘good morning brother, let me work with you
goodmorning sister, let me
fight by your side.’


The New Revolution: Habermas’ Public Sphere & Social Networking in the Middle East

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics over forty years ago. Things have changed. The revolution is being televised.

It has been fascinating to watch the events in the Middle East unfold over the past week. Of particular interest to me is the revolution within the revolution. Up to now, with the exception of this blog, I have done my best to ignore the social networking phenomenon. I have a number of reasons, which I may go into in some future post, but this week I found myself somewhat in awe of it.

Social media has been one of the driving forces behind the uprisings, so much so that it’s prompted many commentators, such as former Mideast negotiator and Ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, Martin Indyk, to make statements such as, “You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution.” Speaking on this week’s Meet The Press, Indyk, now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, added,  “And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.”

I don’t know if that is overstating things or not. But this new revolution is certainly changing the face of revolution.

Some years ago, German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of the “public sphere,” a space in which groups and individuals could come together to engage in discussions over matters of mutual interest.  This space within social life is separate from, yet not unconnected to, the private sphere and the “Sphere of Public Authority” or the state. Habermas maintains that one of the main functions of the public sphere is to support discourses critical of the Public Authority.

However, Habermas predicted the demise of this public sphere, and I can’t help but wonder if in considering the rise of the internet and social media whether or not he has revised his thinking. Habermas said that the demise of the public sphere is inevitable because eventually advertising replaces news and media becomes a tool of the state, thus the public sphere ceases to function in the manner originally intended. It’s true that in capitalist societies nearly everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and sold, and that in dictatorships, everything becomes a tool for totalitarian rule. However, what we have seen this week suggests that the public sphere which is social networking may be inherently resistant to any attempt to co-op or destroy it.

Is this, then, an indestructible public sphere? Consider this: On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world. Mubarak’s government then reacted by shutting down access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet access from the country’s four major internet providers was blocked. And yet, Egyptians have been finding ways to break through.

We Rebuild” is a group that has been using landline phones, fax machines and ham radio to get messages out of the country. They’ve also been breaking the blockade by calling numbers that connect to modems available in other countries which provide access to the outside world. The “We Rebuild” group established a connection in Sweden through dial-up and an activist in the group wrote on Twitter: “When countries block, we evolve.”

Some people have used services like Tor, which reroutes a user’s traffic through a network of volunteers’ computers around the world, making it impossible to trace. Others are using Hotspot Shield, software that secures Web surfing sessions. And there have been reports of satellite modems and phones entering Egypt in order to circumvent government controlled telecommunication companies.

The rise of social media is hardly news. However, I haven’t given it much credence until now. Naturally, a debate has already begun about the actual role social media is playing. I tend to think it is significant. Mathew Ingram writes about this debate over at Gigacom, and I agree with his point that “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

Of course, there is no question that the real fuel for this week’s events is a suppressed peoples desire to have freedom.  Here, too, I think we are seeing the impact of social media. For the first time, people around the world can get a taste of what real freedom is like, freedom of expression, as social networking opens up avenues for them to express themselves without the need to go into a physical public square, and as we have seen, it is a powerful tool for pulling people into that physical space when the time comes.

Once people get a taste of freedom, they often become insatiable.

One final note, as much as I would love for the US government to denounce Mubarak as a dictator and get out of the dictator-supporting business once and for all, I know it is not that simple or easy. I remember very well supporting the uprising in Iran against the Shah in 1979 and we all know how that turned out. There are many reasons why the US needs to tread carefully, not the least is that who governs Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to decide for themselves. Middle East peace has many underpinnings and they are all interconnected. Please resist the temptation to look at the situation in black and white and try to see the deep complexity underneath.