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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Viewing Tucson from afar

This is not Tucson.
What an adventure. I've been appointed the Picador Guest Professor in Literature for summer 2011 at the University of Leipzig, in Germany. So here I sit, blogging (oh dear, lord help me) from a Starbucks in the Innerstadt, less than a kilometer from the final resting place of Johann Sebastian Bach. Believe me, if there were wireless access at the Thomaskirche, I'd be logging on from one of the pews in that magnificent place.

But not to worry: I've recruited guest readers to continue the weekly readings at the city council meetings, beginning with drama students at Tucson High Magnet School.

Auf Wiedersehen for now--

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My New Sponsor, Believe it Or Not: the Arizona Commission on the Arts

5 Arizona Artists Awarded Arts Commission Project Grants to Create New Works

 Seriously, this blows my mind.

I started this project in June 2010 with a fairly vague idea of what would come of it, and while the ultimate outcome remains (productively, creatively, flexibly) vague, the journey has proven fascinating. I could never have predicted this project would be selected by the state arts commission to receive funding. I am surprised and grateful.

(Pledge: I shall not to allow government support of the project to take the wind out of my literary activist sails.)

Well. Thank you, Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I try to be kind.

As time goes on the project gets harder, not easier. The shootings have changed everything. My patience for the incivility grows thin.

And yet. The problem comes only from a few, only a few. A few angry people. The anger spills over, and fixates. In this room, the anger fixates on the podium.  On that microphone.  Anger seeks amplification. He who says it loudest makes it true. Why else would humans invent a means to amplify our voice if not for our desperate need to be heard?

I try to be kind, sitting in the white molded plastic chairs. I send the angry men kind thoughts. I respond to their anger by naming it, by pointing it out, by modeling civility. They are angry, I tell myself, at something else, something that has nothing to do with what's going on in this room. Their rage hides unsuccessfully behind a cool, disdainful machismo. These men maybe have good reason to be angry. Life might be dealing them a supremely rotten hand. A dying wife. A lousy childhood. A house in foreclosure. Their own mental illness. As Tucson's kindness maven Jeannette Mare would say: we cannot know what's going on in other people's lives. So I breathe, and I try to be kind.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

This is Not Civil Discourse

Tucson City Council
Call to the Audience testimony (edited)
January 25, 2011

Mr. Mayor, members of the city council, city staff:

Last week, shortly after I addressed the audience here in a plea for civil discourse, a member of the community came here to this podium and called you "vampires."

I repeat this here not to fan the flames of rhetoric but as a step toward accountability. When we see uncivil discourse, we should name it. He said these words: "we are not your slaves that you should drink the life blood from our bodies like vampires." And he was referring to the members of this council.

This is not civil discourse.

The first time I was booed at this podium I walked away shaking. The following week, a friend said to me that I looked different when I did my reading. I looked more tense, heavier. And he was right.  I'd been made to feel unwelcome. And the second time I was booed didn't get any easier. I think I was a little bit traumatized, and still am. Sometimes just the silence from the chairs behind me is enough to set me shaking again. 

I cannot imagine what it must be like for the council. I sit in this audience week after week with a knot in my stomach from the vitriol that comes into in this room. Everyone here deserves better than this, including the members of the public who have made time in their lives to come here and participate sincerely in the democratic process. Including the people for whom this room is a workplace. 

Councilmembers, we know you make extraordinary personal sacrifices for this job and that you each operate out of sincere desire to improve this community. You deserve better than this.

Mayor Walkup, your civility accord is a wonderful and important first step and we (let me speak for the thousands whom I know agree with me) are grateful for your leadership. I'm eager to learn more about its details. I'm glad and relieved to  hear your position on abusive remarks. This podium does indeed need a firm facilitator. I was so glad and proud to hear you on NPR saying "Not in my house," and that your intention is to stop the vitriol when it occurs.

But we also need to prevent the behavior so that such scolding becomes unnecessary. We aren't, after all, children. We the people need to take ownership of this room and of the culture we create here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tucson as birthplace of the civil discourse movement

public art in Presidio Park
Tucson's heart has broken wide open. And to our pride we discover that out pours love.

This loss of innocence has not closed us down and filled us with fear, as it might have done.  We are wide-eyed, America, at what has happened on our doorstep. We're grateful for one another. There's a lot of hugging going on. We're not afraid to show this country a thing or two about kindness, not to mention heroism.

What good might come? What if these events began a new way toward democracy? Here on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, what if Tucson were to become the Selma of the civil discourse movement? We already have the attention--and respect!--of the country. What if Tucson were to lead by example, what if we pledged henceforth to engage in the democratic process with civility and compassion and respect?

Tucson, America loves us. They love us out of empathy for our loss and also because we have been so openhearted in the media about our pain and grief and our resolve to move forward as better versions of ourselves. If any city can bring America back to civility, it's Tucson. And what better way to return the love of our country.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tucson: learning to live with the discomfort of unknowing

This week, the sort of familiar violence we watch on the news has come home to Tucson, and our hometown  seems suddenly unfamiliar.

So I did what used to be done in this country, not really so long ago, when the senseless struck: I consulted a novelist. The writer of stories, the reasoning goes, has spent a good amount of time thinking about the human condition and might have something interesting to say about it.

Redtailed hawk over downtown Tucson, December 2010
The loss of innocence, says the American novelist Charles Baxter, is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see isn’t always what you get. The loss of innocence leads us to explore, to try to figure out what it all means. To gain insight.

But the mass production of insight in America is a dubious phenomenon, says Baxter, and some of these insights can seem disturbingly untrustworthy. There is a smell about them, he says, of recently molded plastic.

My call today is for reflection, and calm, and a strong yet passive resistance to the demands all around us that we participate, at top volume, in efforts to neatly wrap up this experience. Perhaps, for a while, we should let it dwell in the realm of inexplicability. We should live with the discomfort of unknowing. Soon enough we’ll be compelled to make sense of it all, but maybe for now the most appropriate and most dignified response is to sit quietly and reflect.

Let's not allow this tragedy to be commodified for the national and international media. To join in the noise of a debased and thoughtless rhetoric, the kind that people use gleefully without really knowing what it means or understanding its consequences, is fundamentally disrespectful. We ought to give these deaths and grave injuries and indeed our own grief the dignity of their own complexities.

We are free to reject toxic public discourse.

We can be grateful that Tucson has a history of investing in the arts. In the months and years to come, we're going to need our artists. The role of the Tucson artist in the wake of these events is the same as it always is, in good times and bad: to consider that which she sees and to reflect it back to us in all its beauty and pain. To show us who we are, and in so doing to help us see ourselves differently. Said James Baldwin on his eloquent public resistance against the pain and struggle of black Americans: "I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness." In moments like this, when our hearts are broken open, when the familiar seems strange, when a parking lot becomes a killing field, the artist shows us how to expand our vision. 

The story of what happened on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona is a moral mystery. Good storytellers understand that tales overcontrolled by their meaning, as Baxter says, start to go a little bit dead. When a story hits us over the head with what it’s trying to tell us, it can become false to its own shadings and nuances. Perhaps we should take a cue from the artists and try not to explain this right away, but just to see it. Perhaps we ought for now to reject the self-satisfied declarations and false authority of others who are trying to tell our story. Perhaps for now we ought to allow the mystery to unfold without judgment, without attaching a meaning to it, because when we are too busy interpreting, and then yelling out our interpretations, we can't listen.

Gratitude to Charles Baxter in "Against Epiphany," Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1997)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tucson, I love you.

Tucson, my home my inspiration. I hate you I love you. My heart is cracked wide open. I've spent five years writing a novel about you. It's too soon to respond, that much I know, but respond I must. My incoherence in the face of these events is profound. We're just one city in America, one city with problems. We're a microcosm and we're an anomaly both. We speak for everyone and we speak only for ourselves. I'm a writer and a citizen, an agent for social change, a mother and a person just making her way. I feel responsible for what happened and responsible for interpreting it, for reflecting it back to an equally confused community. I write, I grieve, I don't know what to do.