Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where I learned the most

In 1997, I went to a queer writers conference in San Francisco. I think it was called Readers and Writers. I was living in Seattle. It wasn’t my first queer writers conference, but it was the first one I went to after getting published. I went to Outwrite in Boston in 1995, when I was living there, and I met Michael Lowenthal and he took me into a room with all these white gay male establishment writers, and I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know if I ever wanted to be anyone to these people anyway. All I could think about was doing ecstasy, I needed to get out of there and get high. At Readers and Writers in San Francisco, I met Thea Hillman and Elizabeth Stark. We went to a panel where Jennifer Levin said you can’t write anything truly great until after you’re 30. Or maybe she said 25. Elizabeth, who had just written her first book, raised her hand and said: I’m 25, and I’ve already written something truly great.

I was 23. There were things that I knew then, that I couldn’t possibly know now, and there are things that I know now, that I couldn’t possibly know then. But if we move back to Brown, 18 years have passed since then, that means half of my life was before and half of my life after. When I left I was fond of saying that everything I learned there came from protesting against the university. But here I’m wondering if I learned more, except that then I’m wondering if I’m giving the university too much credit, even if the credit doesn’t have anything to do with classes. Because the truth is that, as soon as I got away, got away from DC and childhood, there were already so many more possibilities, possibilities which would have existed anywhere. I mean I’d already created those possibilities, possibilities for living outside of my parent’s dreams, maybe what changed was that I realized that.

Or maybe I didn’t realize it yet, but I was about to realize it. Maybe that’s what happened at Brown, even if for so long, just saying that word, Brown, just saying that word made me feel gross, like I was a part of something horrible and violent, it still makes me feel gross, even now, even now I prefer to say that school, to leave it at that, when people know. That school I went to for a year, for a year and then three years later I went back for a semester, and then I never went back.

Before I arrived at Brown I had already developed a way not to think too much what other people thought, and a way to act like I didn’t care at all, but then I got to Brown and suddenly I felt a sort of social ease that I’d never experienced, this was one of the things that gave me a certain kind of status or maybe it was the other way around, sudden social status gave me a certain kind of ease? At first I felt an intoxication from this shift, but then it made me feel like I was inhabiting a space that represented everything I’d always wanted to challenge, and that’s when I realized I needed to get away. Maybe I already said that.

But let me tell you about SAMA, Students for Aid and Minority Admissions, we took over the main university building and it was a big deal. We were protesting the university’s policy of openly excluding potential students based on their inability to pay, they called this “need-aware.” So we took over the main university building and 253 people got arrested, the cops came and took us downtown to jail, not to a cell though but right to court the university charged us with five misdemeanors, which included a $2000 fine if convicted; we were there until 2:30 am, it must’ve been a special proceeding just for us but I don’t remember realizing that. I do remember thinking about the irony of the university trying to get a bunch of students, many of us on financial aid, to pay a $2000 fine, we talked about this a lot.

After that arrest, SAMA became the most important thing in my life. I must’ve been involved before, because I vaguely remember going into University Hall early in the day for the sit-in that later became an occupation, looking outside at the demonstration, which was larger than we’d expected. Later, I remember standing upstairs in the room where the famed Corporation met, they were a group of ruling class white men, and one black man, I don’t remember any women but there must’ve been a few, right? They were the group that came to campus once every several years, and they made all the decisions about core policies. In secret. We took over University Hall a few weeks before the Corporation was scheduled to meet, and we ended up having our own meeting in that room, to decide how long to keep the building, whether to resist arrest, things like that, I mean we were probably meeting all day, I’m sure it was frantic. I do remember walking outside in pairs, they took two of us at a time to a bus that was waiting to take us down town.

Afterwards, I would go to steering committee meetings every day, I think they were every day and sometimes there were a bunch of meetings to go to in a day, usually instead of class, which made sense because this was where I was learning everything, everything I wanted to learn. Two other first-years and I wrote a 17-page document about how “need-aware” was racist and classist, this became part of the SAMA press kit. Since we were at Brown, this was national news -- the Washington Post did a story a few days later, CNN came to campus, we were trying to get Jesse Jackson to support us.

The university denounced us, they called us violent, they continued to press charges. We had specific demands about how much more money the university should raise, in order to make their admissions policy “need-blind” or close to it. At one point, the president of the university agreed to meet us, or 12 of us or so who were representing the steering committee or maybe we were the steering committee, I’m not sure. Of course, now I don’t believe in steering committees, but I didn’t know that yet.

Anyway, we met with the president, and it was kind of eerie because he knew all of our names before we introduced ourselves, he came right up to me and said hi Matt, shook my hand and looked me in the eyes. We smuggled in a tape recorder because we knew he would lie and we wanted proof. At some point, the tape ended and there was a click -- I don’t know how the president knew this meant we had a tape recorder, thinking about it now I guess he probably knew in the same way that he knew our names ahead of time. Or maybe it was really loud, I’m not sure. Anyway, he became enraged and the meeting ended.

Remember what I said earlier about how everything can change in two months, everything in your life and that’s how it felt back then? I was talking about when I first moved to San Francisco. But just now I was wondering, when did the Rodney King verdict happen, I remember it was around the same time as our University Hall occupation, so I looked it up: April 29, 1992. One week later.

When the Rodney King verdict was announced, there was a forum in one of the largest halls on campus, right next to University Hall, and also next to my dorm. You know what they always say about kids in ivory tower institutions living in a bubble, we had that conversation a lot in those days, I guess that’s what kids in ivory tower institutions like to talk about. I didn’t think I was living in a bubble, that’s for sure -- but here I was engaged in this struggle for racial and economic justice, and I didn’t even know beforehand that the Rodney King verdict was about to take place. I’m not even sure that I remembered who Rodney King was.

These days I say that there were three things that were especially important in my early activist awareness -- the first Gulf War, which made me realize the audacity of US imperialism; the Rodney King verdict, which made me understand the brazenness of structural racism; and ACT UP, which helped me to understand how racism, classism, misogyny, and homophobia were intertwined and that you couldn’t fight one without fighting the others. So the Rodney King verdict was announced, and for weeks beforehand I’d been flyering for the upcoming SAMA action, talking to blank and not-so-blank faces but mostly blank, unfortunately, mostly I would say blank faces about the importance of need-blind admissions, but here was this huge event, emblematic of the racist audacity of the powers-that-be, and I wasn’t even aware that it was about to happen. The police officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, the famous video broadcast across the country but somehow they were still not guilty. Across the country, people rioted, but especially in LA and I remember going downtown to join the protest in Providence, and then back to organize more SAMA actions.

I’m glad that I save things, because here’s what I just found -- a whole file on SAMA, I mean I found a file yesterday -- that’s how I remembered the date, and a few details -- but actually I have another file, this one includes that 17-page document I wrote with Polly and Alexis, now condensed to eight pages because it’s single-spaced. Plus, a series of angry university press releases, even a large packet addressed to my parents, I’m not sure which of these things were originally in the packet and which weren’t, but the postage says $1.22, $1.22 in 1992 so there must have been kind of a lot. Then there’s a weird letter that maybe those of us who got arrested in what was apparently the largest university takeover in the history of Brown, maybe we signed this letter -- it asks them to drop the charges, and to give each of us two semesters of academic probation. What were we thinking? Maybe this was just a proposal, a proposal that went down.

When I left Brown, I felt like I was fleeing -- fleeing everything I was supposed to be. Three years later I went back to make sure I never wanted to go back. I was getting ready to confront my father about sexually abusing me and I thought first maybe I should get off academic probation. Because I didn’t finish my classes that second semester, but now I wonder if that wasn’t the reason at all, I mean maybe this probation was some sort of university penalty for daring to protest. Did I sign that letter?

Our University Hall takeover was the culmination of several years of activism on the part of students, including everything from a 164-page report presented the year before, including research, analysis, and recommendations -- in other words, students were doing the university’s job. And paying the university at the same time -- what a racket! Anyway, we sent out press releases and held press conferences and went flyering and tabled and made banners and signs and pickets and organized another big demo where we were going to encircle University Hall while the Corporation was meeting, we got faculty and administrators involved and contacted other schools protesting for equal access, across the country but also in Rhode Island, and I even kind of remember a march through downtown, the strange thing is that most of this I’m getting from my notes, my notes that I just found, because I don’t remember it that well, even though in some ways it was my activist foundation, did I block it out because of everything else, everything else I didn’t want to remember, this place between away and away? What did it lead to, all of this struggle -- years of struggle really?

Nothing, that’s what it led to. And that’s where I learned the most.


Anonymous said...

i love your writing... it makes life less unbearable... ;)

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Tony, thank you thank you thank you!!!

Love --

kayti said...

I am glad things can change so quickly.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Sometimes :)

Love --

Anonymous said...

I wish I could learn it.

I am loving the Brown stories!

And THIS was incredible:

"There were things that I knew then, that I couldn’t possibly know now, and there are things that I know now, that I couldn’t possibly know then."

We never think about it the first way, but it is SO true.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Elian, so glad you like these stories :)

And yes yes, I think people forget really quickly that first part, which is of course about what we forget, but also about how every single structure in our culture/s encourages us to throw all that knowledge away.

Love --