Saturday, December 1, 2012

Final report, part two.

 It's taken me a while to post this. Below is the testimony I gave at Call to the Audience on October 16, 2012. So this blog and this project hereby go into hibernation. Perhaps to be awakened at another time, who knows. Thanks, everyone, for your kind support.

Final Report, Part #2 of 2
Tucson, the Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse

Good evening, Mr. Mayor and members of the council. My name is Shannon Cain and I live on Paseo Redondo in downtown Tucson. This is the final segment of my final report on the literary performance art project called Tucson, the Novel: an experiment in literature and civil discourse, which was funded by a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Last week you heard my account of how real life events caught up to my novel and how it all threw me into an artistic tizzy and monkeyed with my genius and got me all blocked, etcetera. Which is true, but it’s also only part of the story. The rest of it is that I realized the book just isn’t great. I always wanted to give Tucson a great novel, and after the shootings that desire turned into an imperative. It’s good, for sure, and I’m sure somebody would have published it. I do think it’s good. It’s just not great.

It’s hard to set aside a project you’ve put so much energy into. And so much time. But I know these last six years haven’t been wasted. They taught me to be a better writer, for one thing. They taught me about Tucson; they reconnected me to my own community. And those pages—all those stories within the story—may some day end up reincarnated as something else. Perhaps as another collection of stories. Or perhaps as a different novel, one with a certain disturbed young man not as a secondary character but as its protagonist.

The project was called an experiment in literature and civil discourse. In fact a professor of public affairs from Virginia Tech wrote a paper on the project at presented it at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association this past August. She asked me what I learned about civil discourse. I told her that I sometimes felt foolish, and even irresponsible, because I was taking time away from real issues. Important issues. Why should the bus riders union or the environmentalists get fewer minutes because I’m insisting on this weird narcissistic exercise?

I told her I found answers in a place I didn’t expect. When the Occupy movement came to town, I eagerly let it hijack my project. My activist self took over. And here I started to feel hypocritical. Why was Occupy and not some other issue worthy of me ceding my 3 minutes?

Well, I tell you I learned more about civil discourse in the 3 times I was here as an Occupy member than I did in the 33 times I appeared here to read the novel. The Occupy movement as it unfolded inside these chambers was I thought a stunning example of how a community’s righteous anger can be expressed forcefully yet peacefully; directly yet respectfully.

Ironically, all I need to know about civil discourse I learned in Occupy. I told the Virginia Tech professor that ultimately it seemed to me that it matters less why you come to this podium than that you’ve come at all.

Thank you for listening.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Final Report, Part One.

Call to the Audience testimony, Tuesday October 9 2012

Good evening, Mr. Mayor and members of the council. My name is Shannon Cain and I live on Paseo Redondo in downtown Tucson. This is Part One of a 3-part final report on the literary performance art project Tucson the Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse, funded by the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Over the next three council sessions I’ll tell you what I did, what happened when I did it, and what I learned by doing it.
Nearly every Tuesday for a year and a half, I read my novel-in-progress, three minutes at a time, here at Call to the Audience.  It’s a political story set in Tucson, with a culminating scene that takes place here in these council chambers. The idea was to keep reading until I got to the end or until the book was in stores, whichever came first. Well, neither came first. Neither came at all. I got about 75 pages into the 300 page manuscript, and then I stopped.

What happened? A lot of things happened. Six months after I began, my manuscript of short fiction—a different book, one I’d been writing off and on for 8 years—unbelievably won a great big fat prize. I found myself on a national book tour that included thirty-three readings in nineteen cities, over the course of 10 months. A huge event, a wonderful blessing, and a terrible thing, timing-wise, for this project. I was out of town as much as I was home. I managed to wrangle a few amazing guest readers—you’ll remember the teenagers from the Tucson High School drama department—but sustaining this became logistically difficult. How many of you could be persuaded to read somebody else’s unfinished novel at a council meeting, utterly out of context?

On the bright side, the book tour was bringing me into contact with audiences of college students and faculty, many of whom were fascinated with the project. I discussed Tucson the Novel before hundreds of listeners at places like Purdue University, University of Colorado, Colorado State, UC Davis, Middlebury College, Bowling Green State University and the University of Indiana.
The second thing that happened, though, was more profound: nine months into the project, we had the shootings at Safeway. That day, I was on a writing retreat in a house on a wintry beach in New Jersey, working on the novel. The book seemed to be coming along pretty well. It was changing through the process of reading it aloud to you, and a new voice was beginning to take over the narrative: sharper, cleaner, more precise. I liked it. At that desk in New Jersey I was just getting to the part where a boy named Jason enters the story, a character who is pivotal to the plot. Jason is eighteen and on the brink of schizophrenia. He’s also profoundly influenced by the political rhetoric of the left wing. He’s obsessed with Tucson’s evil developer, Eric Emerald, and in protest over a luxury shopping mall that Emerald plans to build at Tumamoc Hill, Jason plans and carries out a public act of violence against him. 

I went for a walk on the snowy beach to clear my head and get ready to revise the next chapter, Jason’s. The shootings were happening as I stood on that beach, thinking about the ocean and the snow and about Tucson.
Avalon, New Jersey. January 8, 2011, 10:23 am
As you can imagine, the similarities between Jared Loughner and my character Jason stunned me. And pretty much stopped me cold. When I got home to Tucson I went back to the manuscript again and again, over the course of months. But I could not get past page 80, the chapter where we are introduced to Jason. In my fictional world, Jason is a basketball star at Tucson High, lives in Dunbar Springs, and is falling in love. 

I was writing a novel about contemporary Tucson. How could I possibly write a story about a young man deluded by mental illness and out for violent political revenge? Then again, how could I not?

Coming soon: Part II

Monday, December 26, 2011

Today at Occupy Tucson: Kozachik & Villasenor play the child abuse card. Bad move, guys.

Dear Councilman Kozachik and Chief Villaseñor,

Recent communications from the Ward 6 Council Office and the Tucson Police Department have pointed to incidents of crime at the Occupy Tucson encampment at Veinte de Agosto Park as justification to evict protesters.

But TPD's own statistics show that during the 46 days of the Occupation at Veinte de Agosto, the downtown crime rate was 20 percent lower as compared to the 46 days before Occupy Tucson established its encampments.

Yes, gentlemen, you're hearing this right: downtown was safer with Occupy Tucson present. Twenty percent safer. This despite the fact that the normally deserted park was full of people. And that many of those people were struggling with mental illness and addiction.

The prevailing narrative about Occupy Tucson is that we haven't accomplished anything. Yet in our 46 days at Veinte de Agosto, we fed and sheltered dozens of our most vulnerable fellow citizens, raised awareness around global and local economic injustice, disrupted home foreclosure auctions, secured three supportive votes from city councilmembers, proudly racked up the Occupy movement's second-highest civil disobedience arrest rate in the country (New York being at the top), and left the park cleaner than we found it. Astonishingly, as we were doing all this work, the crime rate in the neighborhood went down.

Wow. Must have been our beloved Peacekeepers from Veterans for Peace patrolling our perimeter, as well as dozens of eyes looking out for one another. Looks like Occupy Tucson set up a pretty good neighborhood watch.

Councilman Kozachik and Chief Villaseñor, how dare you use the threat of public endangerment against us? How dare you peddle fear to the public as justification to clear out a peaceful protest?
How dare you continue to inject the words "child abuse" and "child molestation" into your newsletters, media interviews and press releases? Steve, your newsletter of December 14 reported the false information that "there was a child molestation inside one of the tents at Occupy Tucson." The clarification you issued a week later was weak and self-serving, and failed to correct the biggest falsehood of all: the implication that our presence was somehow responsible.

The truth is that we rescued those girls. They had been drinking—one of them was too drunk to walk—and none of us had seen these men before. Before the men disappeared, they admitted to us it was they who had bought the girls alcohol. One of them was in his late forties.

What really happened that night, Councilman Kozachik and Chief Villaseñor, is that we kept those girls warm and safe and called their parents, and prevented what might have been the worst experience of their young lives. Our encampment—that village it takes to raise a child—was there when those girls needed us.

Councilman Kozachik, your clarification also says "there were two incidents, not one," and that the other incident was "an ongoing TPD investigation into 'child abuse' that involves one of the people associated with Occupy Tucson." Chief Villaseñor, you've cited this incident to the press as well.

Seriously, guys? An investigation that involves one of the people associated with Occupy Tucson? Let's assume for a moment you're talking about one of our active organizers rather than, say, one of our 8,000 Facebook supporters or the hundreds of community members who brought us food and other supplies over the course of our Occupation of the parks. There are roughly 200 active organizers, I'd say — people who have participated in working groups, volunteered in the kitchen, served as Peacekepers and regularly attended our General Assemblies. So let me ask you this: what if we took a random sample of 200 people "associated with TPD" or "associated with Ward 6." Do you suppose that among those people there might also be an ongoing investigation or two of child abuse? And how quickly would you respond with indignation that one bad apple was being used to besmirch the whole institution?

Chief, you hid behind the "ongoing investigation" excuse to decline further comment on the incident. Did the alleged incident even occur at Veinte de Agosto, or is this "ongoing investigation" something that happened before this person came to Occupy? It's an abuse of your authority to drop the "child abuse" bomb into the public discourse and let it sit there, unexplained, for public speculation.

As a survivor of child molestation, a girl for whom nobody intervened, I am so offended by your repeated suggestions that Occupy Tucson's presence led to harm against children. It is underhanded and shameful of you both to try to use child abuse against us politically. We are Occupy Tucson, and this village isn't going anywhere.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Today at Occupy Tucson: The Citizen Misses the Point

In which I respond to a  bit of tediously substandard journalism by Rai Goldin over at the Tucson Citizen about my most recent post.

Indeed, Occupy Tucson has had a really difficult time getting down to the work of overthrowing the status quo. It's been--what?--ten weeks?

Geez, give us some time here. We're trying to fundamentally change an entire system. Any decent community organizer knows that groundwork must be laid. Plans must be made. Organizations must be built. Easy enough to judge from the outside when the pace isn't quick enough. Easy enough to judge our lack of concrete progress when you don't consider the fact we're both trying to change the world and tend to its ailments at the same time. The Occupiers at Veinte de Agosto are radical humanitarians, caring for the hungry and the addicted and mentally ill who have found refuge among us. Imagine the resources we've devoted to the hard work of keeping other people alive; resources we could have been using to fight the system that put them in such dire straits to begin with. The irony of our situation at Veinte de Agosto is astonishing: we've been sidetracked by the symptoms of the very social illness we came here to cure.

Speaking of Occupy becoming sidetracked by internal issues: go ahead and dismiss public accountability for one's misbehavior as "he said/she said." Go ahead and demean the courage it takes for an Occupy insider to finally call out the damaging actions of a colleague, despite knowing it will be characterized by the mainstream media as a catfight. If anything, my action proves that Occupiers aren't insular and driven by dogma. There's plenty of room for alternate opinions in this movement, and the beauty of the "leaderless" part is that it allows for and encourages autonomous action. Which includes public disagreement about what constitutes good strategy and responsible community organizing.

The truth is that we aren't a leaderless movement; we're a movement of leaders. Go ahead and minimize that, too, with the "too many chefs in the kitchen" argument. But we Americans have let someone else do the cooking for far too long. We need to re-learn how to be citizen leaders. Occupy gives everyone this opportunity. And if doing so looks a little messy and disorganized, so be it. The drafting of the U.S. Constitution wasn't exaclty a smooth process either.

The process of consensus decision making--one of the core values of the Occupy movement--is an easy target for those who'd rather condemn than understand. To judge our horizontal structure--the direct democracy we're trying to model--through the lens of traditional representative democracy is to miss the point. We're trying to bring about a fundamental shift, and fundamental shifts take time.

How about a little support from our allies, especially those who wield the power of the media? Use your position more responsibly, Rai. If you really want us to succeed, give us better, in-depth, more truthful coverage. By which I don't mean you should stop criticizing the movement, because all movements rely on the accountability of a free and independent media. If the media were holding irresponsible hotdogs like Jon McLane publicly accountable rather than swallowing his stories without criticism, I wouldn't have had to do it myself.

How about this: you do your job better and we'll do ours better. I'm guessing that the resulting accountability and creative tension will bring about swifter economic justice for us all.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Today at Occupy Tucson: Dramas Manufactured by Angry Boys

In which I hijack my own blog, normally dedicated to my (yes, still ongoing!) literary performance project, for a post about Occupy Tucson, my current obsession and the reason for the relative dormancy of this page. I’ve been so preOccupied!

Shaun McClusky has come after Occupy Tucson again. McClusky was this year's failed Republican candidate for mayor and Tea Party darling who has so far been disqualified from two separate local elections for failing to follow rules such as listing top contributors on his disclosure forms and for screwing up the collection of signatures on his nominating petitions.

McClusky, who has characterized Occupy Tucson as a “smelly stinky presence” and has said he hopes TPD takes our “unemployed asses to jail,” was yesterday awarded a permit by the City of Tucson for Veinte de Agosto Park and De Anza Park—the only two Occupy-related encampments in Tucson—for one-time events on December 28. McClusky’s planned party: a food drive by a group called “Take Care of Tucson” that would benefit the Community Food Bank and three local animal shelters.

Ah, the evil of McClusky’s plan! Canned food! Cats & dogs! How American! How reasonable!!

Except that McClosky’s events clearly aren’t motivated by a desire to feed the hungry. His is a ploy to kick Occupy Tucson out of Veinte de Agosto Park. McClusky is using hungry people and abandoned animals as a political shield for his real agenda: to silence this global economic revolution and squelch its impact in Tucson.

Good luck, McClusky. You think that forcing Occupy Tucson to move a few tents is going to stop this movement? This movement is too big, too important, too timely, to be slowed down by the likes of you.

It also doesn’t take much digging to discover McClusky's personal vendetta against Jon McLane, the activist behind Occupy Public Lands. OPL is a renegade offshoot of Occupy Tucson that irritates the hell out of many of us, myself unquestionably at the top of the list, for unnecessarily confrontational tactics, camera hogging, dramatic grandstanding, a tenuous grasp on the meaning of “leaderless movement,” and/or a general disregard for the well-being of the mother Occupy organization.

Be that as it may, McClusky and McLane have their own tawdry history: they ran against one another in the mayoral race, and were both disqualified over a failure to follow basic election rules. McLane ran as a Green Party candidate. Yet when McLane’s campaign came to its abrupt halt, he threw his support behind X-treme Republican McClusky, even joining his campaign as chair of the sustainability committee. From Green Party to Tea Party? Wow, there’s a leap.

Now it seems the boys once again aren’t getting along. Yesterday on McLane’s Facebook page he accused McClusky of orchestrating this weirdly amateur YouTube video attack against him.

Bottom line is that a silly combination of male ego and a small-time act of revenge from a frustrated political loser shall result in Occupy Tucson leaving its encampment once again.

It’s okay. This stuff is small potatoes. Dramas manufactured by angry boys shall come and go, but this movement is here to stay. We are riding the wave of global change, tossed in the tumult, exhilarated. The people are waking up.

We’re Occupy Tucson, and we aren’t going anywhere.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Spending our Words

While I was in Leipzig this summer, fiction writer Erin Wilcox filled in as a guest reader for the project. Lately I’ve been out of town some more, doing readings and visiting classrooms, (come see me if you’re in Boston or Middlebury), and Erin’s kindly pinch-hitting again. So in honor of what will be her third appearance at the podium (at this Wednesday's council meeting), I’m posting a note she sent to me back in June, reflecting on her experience. Enjoy, folks. Erin gets it so right.

Erin Wilcox
A traffic light contraption at the podium’s edge blinked green to signal my three minutes had started. I took a breath and began to read.
            About a page in, my worry that I might suffer spontaneous aphasia or paralysis of the tongue faded. I took on the point of view of Alice Alexander, a restaurant owner who uses her curb sign to advertise daily specials and political commentary. This literary activist was so easy to connect with, I actually felt a little exposed. Couldn’t I have been given an old man or a morose six-year-old to play? Was I being typecast here?
            I read about Alice sweating in the sun, debating how to arrange her limited letters to create today’s message. Today, I thought, we have so few words and letters to spend. Our readers’ attention doesn’t hold out like it used to.
            Between sentences, I scanned the row of faces I had watched throughout the public comment period. This was city government in action, but I didn’t get the feeling our citizens’ words were swaying anyone with power. It felt more like a cathartic space in which the civically oriented were called upon to vent their grievances so they would go home feeling they had made a difference. The mayor and council members sat onstage and played their bland parts, allowing the production to unfold as it does week after week. The public participated, fulfilling its circumscribed role. 
The traffic light blinked from green to yellow. I sped up, just perceptibly, to fit the whole excerpt within my allotted time. Alice demoted her dinner special to lunch status and sacrificed two dollars a plate so she had enough letter Ns to post: ELIMINATE CORPORATE WELFARE.
I liked Alice. She gave me the opportunity to say the words “right-wing shenanigans” to a Republican mayor, on TV, in a state that recently wrote bigotry into its legal code. In my heart I was again the young UC Berkeley student whose protest sign, meant for a cardboard coho salmon, read “Save Headwaters or I’ll Go Extinct.
            Tucson, The Novel was not likely to find favor among anyone invested in the script of local government process. I knew this even as I reached the final sentence, wishing my contribution to the project were received with uproarious applause. For citizens offering their three-minute public comment in earnest and expecting others to do the same, this Brechtian denial of cathartic release might chafe. For the mayor and council members, the performance shifted their usual role of actors in a civic drama to audience for a work of art. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them enjoyed the reading, but their stonewall expressions should not have surprised me. Whatever the city council members’ internal reactions, it would be a breach of character to show them.
Mayor Walkup was itching to cut me off—I could see it in his eyes—but I finished my segment just as the traffic light turned red. One person, my husband, clapped as I took my seat. The pattering of my heart decelerated. As the next member of the public approached the podium, the room seemed a bit less hostile.
Erin Wilcox’s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Soundzine, Stoneboat, Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska (University of Alaska Press), Veil: Journal of Darker Musings (Subsynchronous Press), and in radio broadcasts including KXCI Tucson’s A Poet’s Moment, Broad Perspectives, and Alaska Public Radio’s AK Radio. In 2010, she exhibited a collaborative poetry installation at the Front Gallery in Tucson. The assistant nonfiction editor of Drunken Boat and former copyeditor for Alaska Quarterly Review, Erin maintains a vigorous freelance editorial practice and writes about writing for various magazines, including Copyediting and TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska, Anchorage 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's a new day in Tucson, pardner

Coinciding in the most fortuitous way with my announcement of Tucson, the Novel: Season Two, an aggrieved and fed up Tucson city council delivered big drama this week over the question of civil discourse.  Last Tuesday, within fifteen minutes of announcing new expectations around civility at Call to the Audience, Mayor Bob Walkup held an offender accountable and had him removed from the council chambers.

Like: escorted out, by police officers. Which, y'know, from a First Amendment perspective rankles me pretty bad. But from the good-riddance-asshole perspective, I'm thrilled.

KGUN 9 News did a good job summarizing the situation. This guy, Roy Warden, is one of Tucson's more famous podium jerks. He's been spewing bile at Call to the Audience for decades, and for decades hundreds of electeds and public servants have been made to sit quietly and allow his hateful rhetoric to poison their workplace. So hooray. The rules that have allowed this situation to continue and to escalate are now under review. Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for standing your ground.

And let the First Amendment conversation begin. Roy Warden has filed a lawsuit, of course, claiming the abuse of said rights. As vile as this man is, his rights must of course be protected. If anyone, after all, could be accused of irrelevant, repetitive and/or inappropriate speech--adjectives used one form or another at yesterday's council discussion--that would be me. I'm a fiction writer hijacking a space meant for the democratic process and using it as a stage for an oral serialization of her novel in progress. While I can (and certainly will) make all sorts of arguments for the political and social relevancy of this project, surely a whole bunch of others, including, let's say, lawyers, might disagree. So let me just go on record as saying that I'm very very invested in the protection of the Asshole Roy Warden's rights under the First Amendment.

So, dear readers: How do you like Season Two so far? I'm thrilled to begin the project's second year with an individual artist grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Under this grant, I'll be using the first twenty seconds of my three minutes at the podium each week to reflect on questions of civil discourse, literature, free speech, the arts, and whatever other crazy thing jumps into my head.

I have so much more to say, and will say it soon. In the meantime I'd love to hear what you're thinking. Comments here are moderated for civility, of course.