Monday, February 8, 2010

Depression Tales, or 'The Prunes of Sloth'

The tall man in the heavy green jacket kept a laborious stride, careful not to waste a single inch in between steps. Sounds of alt-country playing through dollar-store headphones added a little warmth to a frostbitten morning, but the lyrics undermined the effect. He looked up from the sidewalk to see paper-thin curtains of snow closing in around the city, casting a hue of medieval gray on the banks, bridges and bistros. Across the street a young homeless man with desert-print BDU's poking out from under Carhartt overalls sat with a sign "VETERAN, HOMELESS, NEED WORK- ANYTHING HELPS".

Apparently, Uncle Sam wasn't getting any better at keeping promises.

The man in the jacket crossed the street and made his way to the Job Service. Index cards advertising lucrative positions in bank management and financial administration lined the walls, sort of mocking the average applicant that came through the door. Maybe these poor souls could apply for the two custodial positions highlighted in blue to the right of the superfluous white collar vacancies.

Leaving the Job Service in his usual discouraged mood, he stumbled into one of the roommates in the house he'd been crashing at. "Anything worthwhile?" they asked.

"No, not really. Just a couple of janitorial jobs"

"You apply?"

"Yup."

"So you hear? The University is thinking about cutting a day off the schedule and going to a four-day work week?"

"Yeah, I heard" the man in the green jacket said, reaching to his pocket for a sniped cigarette. "The faculty and students are gonna get fucked, but I'm sure the President will stay in six figures."

"Yeah," the roommate said with a sigh, offering a lighter "that's the way it is with everything. The banks get bailed out, but hey, I have food stamps so that's a deal, right? If we're gonna have another depression, we should at least get another John Dillinger."

"We got one. His name's Colton Harris-Moore"

"Oh yeah?"

"Really, this kid is fucking beautiful. Get this- he's 18, broke out of a youth home last year, stole a car which he then drove to a private airport, where he stole a Seattle DJ's plane, then flew it across Puget Sound and the Cascades and crash landed it three-hundred miles from point A. Thing is, it was the first time he'd ever been in a plane, much less flown one. He's ripped off about 50 millionaires by now and the last time the cops caught up with him, he picked his way out of the cuffs and the back seat of a cruiser, stole an M-16 and took off into the woods."

"Damn."

"Yeah, I just hope he doesn't jack my shit if he ever comes through town," said the tall man, taking the last drag of his snipe, staring at one of the plain blue-and-white license plates the state had switched over to in order to save money. "Not that I have anything worth stealing."

"Yeah, it's hard times" observed the roommate.

"And you know it for certain once everyone starts talking like a Steinbeck character."

"Ha...nobody's that riled up yet. It kind of pisses me off. Everyone's losing everything, and for the most part nobody cares. What's our generation's big novel going to be called? The Prunes of Sloth?"

The tall man in the green jacket snuffed his cigarette as a pained grin crossed his face, "I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thank you, Howard.

Last night I walked over to Flipper's Casino for a few beers after another social center exploratory meeting. As I walked in, a large plasma TV in the corner broadcast the CNN talking heads' summary of Obama's State of the Union. I took a seat with a few others who had gone to the meeting- members of Northern Rockies Rising Tide, The IWW and the Misoula Anarchist Contingent- and began discussing things much more crucial than Obama's attempt to save face after a year of failures. We talked about Haiti, the ecologically disastrous tar sand mining in Alberta, the resurgence of the radical right and the drop-in-the-bucket "job creation" schemes of the rich. Basically, we bypassed the spectacle in favor of those things that really matter. And I would not have been there, with these people, talking about these things, if it had not been for one person- Howard Zinn.

When I was 17, I almost joined the Army under a program where I would spend a summer in basic training, keep my grades up through a senior year in the National guard, and then go from the frying pan into the fire after graduation. September 11th 2001 happened at the beginning of my Junior year, and I hadn't done too well through the first half of my High School education. I'd thought that I could "do something for my country" and take advantage of the GI Bill- maybe my only chance at an education. There was more than a little desperation hidden behind the wounded nationalistic pretext I gave for wanting to join the "service".

Then came the talk of Iraq. As much as I'd let myself get sucked in by the post 9-11 bullshit, I was still sharp enough to make out that Saddam had nothing to do with the Twin Towers. I was angered that our leaders would tell us that he did- did they actually WANT a war? Nine months after I'd almost joined up for the military, I joined a student antiwar group with a focus on educating the community on the projected damage of an invasion of Iraq. A strange turn- I still thought the war in Afghanistan was justified, and I still "loved my country but feared my government." The realization that one tends to define the other was still a ways off. But I was getting warmer, and I'd completely put the prospect of being a soldier out of my mind. My grades had come up significantly anyway.

I was shocked, awed and disgusted by the carnage I saw championed by the news media in March of 2003. The morning the bombs started to drop, 50 Stevensville High School students walked out of first period and called it a day. Some of us went down to the "Peace Pole" on the river walk with our signs and took our fair share of abuse from rednecks with Yellow Ribbon magnets on their Fords. Hadn't they seen the flyers we'd put up around town? The ones that said 48-100,000 Iraqi civilians would die in this war? Plenty of people had said this was an exaggeration but history has shown it to been a gross underestimation. As civilians were crushed beneath the fury of JDAM missiles in Baghdad, I lost my virginity and felt guilty that something so blessed could happen to me as other people were being murdered or scarred for life by a government my existence seemed to justify. I felt guilt when I got my letter of acceptance to the University of Montana in April- I was going in as a pre-journalism major, but now I was looking at journalists as cheerleaders for mass murder.

And so I entered the summer of my 18th year- a confusing time if there ever was one. I had graduated and was college bound, but not sure why; my first real relationship had ended and between working for my father and road-tripping when I could I tried to keep my mind off things. Hundreds of miles of asphalt rolled beneath the wheels of my 1990 Ford Taurus- to Billings and back, up to Calgary, through Banff and back down through Washington and then home. I traveled by myself for most of these trips, but after one stop at a Butte bookstore I was never alone- Howard Zinn rode shotgun.

I found a copy of A Peoples' History of the United States at the Silver Bow Mall Book Exchange and skimmed through it- it seemed interesting enough. A few hours later, as I laid out my sleeping bag in the foothills of the Tobacco Roots I started into it in earnest:

"Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

And so started my re-education.

I'd always been a history buff- to the point that I taught a section to my classmates on the Civil War in 5th grade. But my historical knowledge was largely limited to that of the "big men"- Jeffersons, Grants, Roosevelts- all absolved of their crimes. Like so many born in America, I bought into the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" doctrine of the late enlightenment, well aware of the nation's crimes in places like Sand Creek, Wounded Knee and My Lai- but always thought that "we're getting better. give us time." I could no longer tolerate the sort of cognitive dissonance that reconciles a nation responsible for genocide and total warfare on civilian populations with notions of liberty and equality.

I'd certainly never heard of the Ludlow Massacre, or the Haymarket incident- this was not taught in American History class. After reading A People's History once, I didn't want to believe it at first- I checked his footnotes at several libraries. It all held up. Because of Howard Zinn, I entered college an ardent anti-nationalist. Someone who would never, ever again pledge allegiance to a rag soaked in the blood of millions- a flag not "large enough to cover up the shame of killing innocent people".

My freshman economics course, designed to instill an awe of "the market" in the students, had simply showed me that capitalism is a brutal and inefficient system that, like nationalism and the state, exists to secure the interests of a very few. I explored Marx, appreciated his critiques but couldn't reconcile myself with a "dictatorship of the proletariat" which seemed to have produced the USSR- a destructive juggernaut no less murderous than the one I had just rejected. So I was open to the writings of Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin and George Woodcock when I found them at 19. A People's History of the United States had also informed me of the history of the IWW, who I had been vaguely aware of from the short time I'd lived in Butte. I sought out Wobbly history books at the library, and from these sources was directed to others on anarcho-syndicalism.

In short, without Howard Zinn, who passed away yesterday at 87, I would not be an anarchist. I would probably be a Sunday liberal, making excuses for the inexcusable. Zinn broadened my horizons and opened me up to another world, a better world, that is always there for the making.

Thank you Howard. Rest well.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I Have a Dream- Now Tell Me Yours

Last Monday, M@C came down to a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Caras Park to offer up a Food Not Bombs serving. The other attendees' reactions were interesting- and encouraging. At first, we set up our table a ways away from the main group, which resulted in a few curious- if not accusing- glances. We decided to move closer so folks manning the tables could hear the speakers. Our move finally sparked some positive interest- I suppose the smell of vegan tamale pie and curried vegetables has a way about it.

As a couple of compaƱeros arrived with a bike cart full of bread salvaged from Le Petit Outre, I moved closer to the speakers and listened. The focus of the rally was on Dr. King's efforts on behalf of the working poor- a huge part of his mission that's neglected in the sanitized grade-school version of history most Americans have been taught to be comfortable with. The theme of the speeches seemed to be in line with the MLK quote on a sign I brought, that "capitalism was built on the exploitation of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, black and white" (from King's Address to the National Conference for New Politics, Aug. 31st, 1967). I was encouraged to see such a radical critique emerge in what I had expected would be another watered-down liberal event. As Missoula has just been listed by MSN Career Builder as the second worst place in the country to seek employment, the sentiment couldn't be more timely.

Perhaps a certain realization of the failings of capitalism, no doubt unimpeded by the offer of free sourdough loaves, opened people up to us. As the event wound down, a good segment of the crowd that didn't cross the bridge for the State Superintendent of Schools' presentation stayed behind to talk with us and eat. They were about as diverse as our own membership- which is not as some assume, only the M@Cistas that dress in the stereotypical "anarchist" fashion (meaning 'punk'- a misconception that briefly got Missoula In Action labeled a "black bloc" after May Day, owing to the attire of a handful of associates).

They were people from the construction trades and office workers, they were single mothers with their children and elderly couples with their pets. They were hippies and hip-hop kids, squares and hipsters- Missoula, in other words. And they were extremely curious as to what our take on this current quagmire is- not to mention receptive to our answers.

I talked to a self described "old hippie" who wanted to know what sort of work we do on womens' issues- I explained our solid pro-choice stance and opposition to sexism and directed her to one of our associates who works with the Womens' Center. I chatted with a travelling underground rap crew from Minnesota who share KRS-1's certainty that the Federal Reserve, if not the love of money itself, is the root of all evil. I tried to explain that in my opinion the root of the issue goes much deeper than a state institution- to the heart of wage relations, really- and it seemed to resonate with a couple of them. These same people are making a documentary while on their travels, and interviewed my friend Reg for it- the interview is now up on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIv6ChKSRGI).

When all was said and done, we had signed a few people up for our mailing list; a few others expressed their intention to come out for this week's Food Not Bombs serving- which happens at 6 tonight. I look forward to picking up where we left off in our conversations. It's becoming ever more apparent that the fight for the realization of Dr. King's dream, for black, white and every shade between and beyond, has been abandoned for far too long.

I have a dream- now tell me yours.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

We Need (A) Space

I attended an open meeting of the IWW Two Rivers General Membership Branch last night, after urging other M@Cistas to do the same. Ultimately, the only Anarchist Contingent members who showed up were myself and my friend Reg (as has been the case with non-M@C gatherings in the past), which is unfortunate because the Wobblies approved a motion to start working with other groups to establish a radical community center in Missoula. A meeting to bring different people together to get the ball rolling on the project has been planned for next Wednesday . Perhaps the move towards creating such a space will give folks a concrete goal to get fired up about and focus their energies on. Ultimately I hope it results in something that will contribute to greater solidarity between like minded groups and a cultural bridge to the rest of the community itself.

As much as the M@C has accomplished in a short time, it has yet to truly build community bonds past a few preexisting circles of friends. This is one thing that our predecessor, Missoula In Action, was better able to accomplish. I think this was largely due to MIA's home base in the Blaine Street House (RIP), where people could casually drop in and talk about or do whatever with other MIA associates (I remember a very lively morning conversation on the stoop involving Sartre's Nausea and sugary breakfast cereal). The attendance at the last couple of M@C meetings has been dismal compared to past gatherings that saw upwards of twenty people turn out, and I think it could largely be due to the absence of such a radical locus. Meeting once every ten days or so may start to seem like an oppressive obligation in the absence of a location where people can go to discuss ideas and work together on projects.

In the month of December, and now January, we've seen the faces of M@C members at Food Not Bombs more often than the organizational meetings, which may be telling. A Food Not Bombs serving creates community, however temporary it may be in the larger sense, and provides a sense of purpose and direction for those involved in the food's preparation. I recall Missoula In Action's tabling efforts downtown and on campus also creating such temporary micro-communities, which isn't practical in the current weather- but is definitely something to keep in mind.

We can raise grand ideas at our meetings, but they're quickly buried when we find we do not have the space or resources required to carry the ideas to their conclusion. The resulting discouragement could be the reason why we've seen a few less people turn out each meeting since the week of our highest attendance. It seems that our comrades in the IWW have been having similar issues, and I look forward to working with them in establishing stable ground where the seeds of radicalism may bear sweeter fruit.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"Merry fucking Christmas, we're shutting the mill down."

"Merry fucking Christmas, we're shutting the mill down"- This is the message Smurfit-Stone employee Dougie Gibbs imagines on a Christmas card from company bosses in Alex Sakariassen's December 17th Independent article "Stone cold" (http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/stone-cold/Content?oid=1198579).

Perhaps Smurfit-Stone will send out New Year's cards instead. On that day 417 Missoula county residents will lose their jobs in highly specialized manufacturing positions at the company's cardboard mill out by Frenchtown. The workers have been making a solid union wage, the loss of which is supposed to have no small impact on the area economy. The union projects an immediate loss of $18 million in revenue. Most speculation in the area press has stated that for every single job lost at the mill, three more will be lost in the Missoula Metropolitan Statistical Area.

When the facility closes these workers have several options, none of them that appealing. One is moving to another state where there may be openings in similar positions- which are apparently few and far between. Another is staying in the area and going through a two-year work retraining program provided by the union. The last obvious option is to stay in the area and take whatever work is available, likely in construction or service industries. Construction would clearly be the preferable choice for a fatter paycheck, but the west Montana building trades haven't been doing well for the last five years. Many of those who opt for the union's retraining program will likely have to do some amount of service sector work to make ends meet.

It doesn't seem unreasonably pessimistic to assume some of these people will be unable to juggle survival with the union's program and find themselves wholly in the low-paying death embrace of the growing tertiary sector- this is how highly trained and highly paid union laborers melt back into the unorganized mess of the general labor market. These are the mechanics of post-industrial capitalism and just as they represent an attack of the bosses on the workers, they also represent a failure on the behalf of the American labor movement.

The vast majority of union workers and officials in the United States have long been just as convinced as the bosses that capitalism works. And why not? It's an easy pill to swallow if you have paid vacation time, full medical and a retirement program. These were the gains made by earlier business unionists, acolytes of the doctrine that the workers and the bosses have some common ground to stand on. Maybe the ultimate irony is that this idea bore itself out by constructing a platform that (for a while) the unions and the employers did stand together on: the bosses conceded to some of the more pressing demands of the workers, and the workers provided the labor needed to keep the wheels of capitalism turning.

Now that the blueprints of such a platform have been brought into public sight, we can clearly see they've been gallows all along. The Smurfit-Stone employees will be hung out to dry as the bosses sail away down the Clark Fork with $1.4 million in executive bonuses. There are plenty of other distant, hard-to-pronounce places to get cardboard from (on the cheap) these days. American unions stayed American with no pretense of internationalism, and ignored any critique of capitalism- largely because for a while labor shared in the spoils.

But no longer.

Smurfit-Stone spokesman Mike Mullin has made this plain to see, saying "the decision was rooted in our commitment to the company's long-term growth and profitability."

Workers, take note: you are not the company. There is only one way to become the company. Go to that guy we see on the news every so often with the sign and the yellow raincoat. You know, the recently laid off union member running his mouth to the camera, something about "if this continues we should just take over the factory." Find that guy and talk to him.

Talk to him and tell him to turn his threat into a promise.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Snow Day's Introduction

It's a little past one in the afternoon but on this snowy Sunday it could easily pass for nine in the morning, especially as I sit here barefoot, typing away with a mug of coffee in front of me. It's nice- I'm in here, the snow's out there, and we'll agree to keep our distance for the time being. Sadly this party won't last forever.

The Missoula Anarchist Contingent (to be simply called "the M@C" from here on out) has decided on focusing some of our energy on a "Community Consciousness Project"- which presently consists of snow-shoveling teams. These groups will go through neighborhoods, clearing the public sidewalks and the walkways of residents who would like such a service. People are encouraged to come out and help us help their neighbors, hopefully to continue on when our street teams aren't around. Since today is the first snow, I imagine the street teams will either be going out today or tomorrow. I'm waiting on a call.

I should probably explain that the goal of this isn't to generate "recruits" for our group, it is to get people outside and talking to their neighbors to see what needs to be done. I personally think that the heart of anarchism, beyond its essential rejection of the artifices of nationalism and capitalism, is the notion of grassroots direct-democratic consensus as the rightful engine of society. If for only a moment, people escape the alienation instilled in them by the spectacle-box in the living room, and consider how combining their efforts with those of their neighbors could improve their immediate environment the project will have "paid off". Regardless of how people respond, the work itself will have been worth it- the vultures downtown who represent themselves as "The City of Missoula" do nothing to clear the sidewalks (many of which are a century old and uneven) and this creates a dangerous situation for children, the elderly and the disabled.

This neglect by the so-called "City of Missoula" is symptomatic of such governmental phantoms, who demand the utmost allegiance and compliance from the people while doing next to nothing for them. Witness our City Council's recent decision to ban sitting or sleeping within twelve feet of a business entrance: city government will tell you where NOT to sleep (evidenced not only by the new ordinance, but also by tacky signs cruelly driven into live trees in our parks which read "NO SLEEPING OR CAMPING") and when asked where TO sleep, they will direct you to a shabby overfilled soup kitchen (the Poverello) while various real-estate properties degrade in a state of vacancy.

So what's an anarchist to do? Fetishize homeless existence as some of the middle-class crimethinc-ish people have done, try to join the crowd down behind The Oxford and preach the Gospel of Freeganism? Write angry letters to the editor? Maybe post anonymous fliers around town urging the homeless to visit the residences of local politicians in a direct appeal for help, as some unknown individual or group in Missoula did several months ago? There are no easy answers, but the fallback option is obvious: START A CHAPTER OF FOOD NOT BOMBS!!!

...and this is basically what the first action of the M@C was, a chapter of Food Not Bombs. We go out in front of the county courthouse on Broadway every Sunday at 6, offer up hot meals, facilitate a free market and have a little insurrectionist literature on the side. I think it's one of the more worthwhile things someone could do with their time, but I hate to admit that it's still a token effort. A free meal once a week shows the best of intentions but it's nowhere near meeting the full scope of needs.

I was rather excited a few weeks ago after discovering that another person in town, unaware of the M@C's efforts, was organizing a chapter of Food Not Bombs. It seemed a good opportunity to pool resources, or at least have two operating free kitchens who could coordinate serving times and areas in order to feed the greatest amount of people possible. However, the person organizing the other chapter experienced snags in receiving donations for a group with radical overtones from restaurants and grocery stores. Finally she decided to change the kitchen's name to "Cooking for Peace"- a smart move in liberal Missoula, where couching anything in the language of peace (without seriously considering how to arrive at such a "peace") instantly wins hearts and minds.

We love Jeanette Rankin here, and we don't want to hear about her stockholder status in munitions companies during wars she voted against. Leave our totems alone.

I sound cynical here, and to an extent I am. I do hope that things go well for the "Cooking for Peace" group and would be all for greater coordination between them and Food Not Bombs. I'm just aggravated that so many people still seem complacent with the cozy, feel-good, liberal rhetoric that means absolutely nothing once scrutinized. This is the stuff that put Obama in office, and everyone that checked off the guy with the "D" next to his name can hold themselves directly accountable for the deaths of nearly 600 civilians from drone attacks since the inauguration (source: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). What a strange "peace" we have.

In any case, that's the view from here, right now. I've got some snow-shoveling to do.