Sunday, October 16, 2011

What it means to really live here

Occupy Santa Fe, weekend three: this time it's moved to the Roundhouse, the State Capitol, and it feels kind of like a be-in. People are sprawled out in the grass – someone yells out: who wants to discuss healthcare? And a group forms. By the street, people are lined up to face the traffic again – Jessica wants to see if anyone mentions decolonization. No, no, no – oh, wait! Someone with a huge handwritten sign that says Occupy Wall Street – Decolonize America. Brilliant! And, Jessica knows the person, one of her students, a transmasculine young queer with a shaved head. Later, I will have a discussion with this person’s lover, who points to the people drumming on the corner, white hippies of a certain age, and asks: who does that exclude? A lot of people, I think, although to tell you the truth I appreciate the music and the enthusiasm, but this person adds: who is excluded by the way they are using and I'm sure misusing those instruments?

It's this kind of question, even if only asked once at this gathering, that makes it feel important to me. Once again the crowd is vastly white and straight, mostly 40s and older, and knowing that this age demographic would probably not be the case at almost any of the other Occupy gatherings, I’m intrigued not just by the limitations but the possibilities. But then a gesture so apparently small as drumming on the side of the road where once again people are facing the street with signs in order to get the cars to honk in support, and to think about its ramifications. If anything will come of all of these gatherings – over 1000 now, simultaneously – of course we will have to grapple with the layers of ramifications, the (intentionally and unintentionally) colonial gestures of bodies attempting to resist, the question of who is excluded – not just from the big picture, but from every decision made and unmade.

Apparently, a group has left to march towards the Plaza, the symbolic center of town, which sounds kind of exciting. Across the street, someone is dressed as Lady Liberty, green facemask and all, holding a sign that says Freedom and Liberty for the Rich. There's a bit more satire overall, which I always appreciate. I wonder about the signs from people who certainly came of age in the ‘60s, reading “Give Peace a Chance – AGAIN.” Perhaps a few hundred people in total, although later I will see a figure of 800-1000, which must have been at the very beginning. I arrived by noon, and the protest was scheduled from 10 to 5, but here in Santa Fe people show up early, another difference to note.

Jessica and another adjunct professor from the community college are having a “grade-in,” grading midterms underneath a tree, with signs noting that 80% of professors at the community college are adjuncts, who lack benefits and job stability. The word goes around that a general assembly is scheduled for 3, but my energy is fading fast so I go home to rest for an hour, call Jessica just before 3 to see if she wants to pick me up but apparently the general assembly started an hour early, by the time I succeed in walking over it's finished. I feel finished too, struggling to form sentences. Apparently, not much happened at the general assembly – people were using the human mike even though it wasn't necessary; they decided to have a meeting tomorrow to figure out what comes next.

Did I mention that this was a permitted demonstration – which means someone paid the fee for the permit, a payment that goes directly to the cops, who actually only seem to have showed up with one police car in the center of the road. The fewer the better, of course, although I wonder if those two cops get to split the rumored thousand-dollar fee. We were told ahead of time that we could use the bathrooms in the Roundhouse, but when I walk up to the door of course it's locked: private event, security tells me. I always like private events in public buildings, what a great idea! As I'm getting ready to leave, I see someone pouring out all the purified water on to the sidewalk, what the hell is going on? We were told that we were not supposed to leave any chalk markings on the sidewalk, he says, and that's what makes me really angry. I'm not angry at this arbitrary rule, but angry at his obeyance and the ways that this Occupy Santa Fe organizing seems to lack even a basic confrontational stance.

And yet. And yet I wake up, thinking: is this a mass movement? And: what does it mean to be part of a mass movement? The people who planned Occupy Wall Street met for three months before starting the occupation. Here in Santa Fe, it's been going on for a little over two weeks. There were no meetings before it began, just a Facebook posting from someone who didn't have experience with political organizing. Another week and then a campsite emerged, sanctioned by the mayor and the police chief – meetings there for a week, and then the campsite was dismantled once the city declared that actually it was privately owned, and the owner wanted everyone to leave. The next day, the Roundhouse. And here we are now.

Even in this short time, I can see the leaders who do not identify as leaders emerging, I can see the way they talk to one another and I know that intoxication from my own experience with activism. In a decentralized movement that's allegedly about participation from everyone, how do you prevent the follow-the-leader mentality that always emerges, how do you expose the secret intrigues so that everyone is on the inside? Here in Santa Fe, we are far from the media, population, and political centers – it's a different experiment than in the occupations that have received the most attention – New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston.

I've lived in a lot of depoliticized towns in this depoliticized country, but Santa Fe takes the cake. Here counterculture moved in the 1960s, and hasn't moved since. It's a frontier town with an art-world mentality, where a self-congratulatory emphasis on the rhetoric of diversity without critical engagement reigns supreme. Here dominant paradigms of colonial entitlement exist basically unquestioned. Wacky subcultures do little more than infuse the tourist economy with hints of desert flavor – sure, you can disappear in your all-terrain vehicle down a dirt road to hide out in your fauxdobe casita, but all this means to me is that everyone drives everywhere and connections are rare. Sometimes this makes me feel desperate, other times lonely, almost always separate.

And so, when I stepped into a tent on the side of a thoroughfare, and found 50 people clamoring to engage politically in some way, however limited, I couldn't help but get excited. Maybe this is what it means to really live here.


Nick said...

What do you think this person meant when they said I'm sure misusing those instruments?

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Nick, lovely to hear from you – I think she meant to address cultural appropriation, and the likelihood that the instruments these (white) people were using (drums, mostly) were originally intended for other purposes…

But what's going on in Houston – I must find out!

Love –