Garrets of Dissent and other Thoughts on Activism

I am not an activist.  First of all, I hate meetings.  I know this sounds funny, since I lived for three years in a co-op where we had a lot of house meetings.  Meetings that went on for hours, meetings where I just never knew who would cry or when it would happen.  Would it be over crumbs on the counter? Or the chickens’ bedtime?  Would I be the one in tears?  Now that I write this, it doesn’t sound funny at all.  But the thing is, I already hated meetings.  So why did I move into that house? Friends and cheap rent.  $188.50 a month.  And that was 2010 Seattle.  Cheap rent = time.  Friends who are housemates= an automatic social life.  Both pretty good things when you’re spending much of your time up in a garret, daydreaming and scribbling about imaginary people.  Besides, I lived in a garret.  One might have called it an attic, and most did, but I knew better.

There are three kinds of people who live in garrets: a)poor writers, b) mad Brontean wives, and c) anarchists.  (Sources: a) author’s personal notes, b) Jane Eyre, and c) common knowledge — see below.)  Before I lived in a garret, my bike-punk friends in Missoula used to sing this song, before relieving themselves of their Carhartts in unheated winter basements.  Even the most hard-core of them, it seems, eschewed garrets.


In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean
Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.
They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails
And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.
Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;
The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.
Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,
So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Sister Jenny took the bomb and started off.
“Oh, mind you now,” said Mamma, “to blow up Templehoff.”
And so the party waited, while the dawn turned into day,
And the little Slavic children set up this mournful lay
Oh it’s Brother Ivanovitch’s turn to throw the bomb.
Sister Jenny’s gone the way of Brother Thom;
Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copsky’s all know Dad,
So it’s Brother Ivanovitch’s turn to throw the bomb.

Which gets us, in a sardonic way, back to activism.  Because that’s exactly it — not only does classic activism involve more meetings than a co-op, it brings out the harshness in me, and not in a useful way.  I used to struggle with this.  I have many friends who are committed activists, and I share most of their convictions.  I really, really care about helping the world be beautiful, healthy, happy, wild, and alive.  I just don’t want to go to a lot of meetings about it.

I have been thinking about all of this all day, ever since I watched a beautiful video of Arundhati Roy giving a speech in a New York church for Occupy Wall Street.  She says a lot of pertinent stuff, eloquently (and there’s a typed out copy of her speech at that link, too, for those who like quick info).  The speech was not electronically miked.  Instead they were doing a human mike — she spoke phrase by phrase, and everyone who could hear echoed it out to the people farther back.  It is slow, but the words gather power, and it has the effect of being a religious ceremony.  In a way it is, just as everything that is deeply human is spiritual.  She speaks hard truths passionately, but without the swinging, harsh grief and anger that I struggle with in many political/activist things.  She is sad, and she is angry, but it is grounded in beauty.  I think it is no coincidence she does both art and activism.  Not, of course, that that is the only way.

One thing that she said struck me particularly.  She said that this in not a “battle for territory.  We’re not fighting for the right to occupy a park here and there.  We are fighting for Justice.”  In other words, the protests in the parks and streets are a tool, serving a larger purpose.  And there are other ways to work towards justice, that are symbiotic with the protests.  Justice is an idea.  It has endless physical manifestations.  But it starts inside us, like all ideas.  It comes through our heads and our hearts into our hands and words.  If it doesn’t get grounded in actual actions, it’s just some high-flown philosophy.  Abstraction.  And don’t get me started on those — just pop the word in anywhere I said “meeting” earlier, and you’ll get the idea.

Occupying physical Wall Street is important, but largely because it is a voice for something bigger.  It is important because it captures our imaginations, and perhaps the bad dreams of the good ol’ one percent.  It helps this something bigger to come through us, light us up, make us wriggle a little, excited, uncomfortable.  It helps shift our calculations and decisions, our actions, the bravery of our dreams, which in turn can shift the course of the world.  Or something big like that.  Exciting, yes.  I can hardly put it into words.  For starters, work this big needs to happen in many forms, and not all of them involve meetings.



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