You don't know when it will happen, then suddenly you stop on the sidewalk and it dawns on you, "Oh, this is the kind of life I've chosen to live!" I'm arrested again and again lately, the last time handcuffed within minutes of beginning to speak. Then the jail and the judge and it dominates my family and my community of singing-activists...
Now it's two days after the last surreal trial, where they dropped the charges while telling the judge that "He waves his arms in the air and shouts loudly." I'm still groggy from the whole thing. Long slow walks in Prospect Park are good. Reading books to (5 years old on Monday) Lena: VERY good. The Lorax was last night's nighty-night read. She was asleep before the last Truffula tree was felled by the Super-Axe-Hacker.
Trying to breathe and see straight after the professional violence of New York City, I look at my calendar. Oh, we're starting a radio show on Pacifica, I'm writing a book for City Lights, we're off on a European tour with 15 singers, then off to Chicago with 30 singers... All this all at once. April and May. Impossible! Oh, but this is the life I have chosen to live. Earthalujah!
It seems like a dream. Yesterday's BIZARRE COURT-ROOM SCENE. Our lawyers talked to the District Attorney's office all week, after they finally watched the videotape that shows me peacefully submitting to the arrest in Grand Central on January 6th. We learned yesterday while we waited in the hallway outside that the DA would drop all charges. Moments later we stood before the judge and the Assistant DA began to talk.
We couldn't believe our ears. We looked back at the impassive judge. The DA apparently felt that before setting me free they would have to recite the fanciful claims of the police, despite the fact that they are refuted by a clear and continuous videotape. So we listened to a list of about a dozen lies. "Defendant forced the officer's arms." and "Defendant refused to pick up the placards from the floor" and "His protest signs impeded right of way for commuters in the train station." All lies.
Then the DA had the gall to offer his pity. "But in the interests of justice your honor, People offers to dismiss these charges." Completely schizoid. Wylie Stecklow, our lawyers, hit the court-room roof, "We were not told that these false charges would be read in open court. I am deeply offended." But the sad reality that we were left with is that we still have a law enforcement culture that cannot accept the innocence of their political opponents, even a comic spiritual clown like myself. Reality itself is not enough to persuade them to reach out, for healing, to move on.
What does this mean? Do they still insist that there is no epidemic of deadly force against unarmed citizens of color? Do they still refuse what everyone knows? And will they put these lies into the record as a hedge against future activism from me, as some future DA can repeat these fictions to a judge or jury and inspire an idea that somehow I worked the system to win acquittal but in fact was, sort of, guilty of violence?
By walking this lonely path I found out some things for our work. It is a kind of full-body research, and the things revealed point to a long road ahead. I am grateful for all your notes of gratitude. Next on the agenda of the Church of Stop Shopping, we are preparing our call for a ban on the spraying of the Monsanto cancer-causing glyphosate in New York. Monsanto is like these cops. They don't mind the sensation of brazen falsehood.
The five freedoms - Worship, speech, press, assembly and petition - suffer when we're at war. Security trumps freedom. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. But 9/11 was 15 years ago...
I was arrested while speaking on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Five kinds of police stood there watching: Homeland Security, NY state troopers, National Guard, NYPD and police from the transportation authority, whose officers did the hand-cuffing. Later, sitting in the jail cell, I listened to the police try to decide what to charge me with. I was given the usual protest charges of Disorderly Conduct and Obstruction. These charges are a complete fiction and videotapes showed this within hours of the We Will Not Be Silent rally. That evidence was available to the District Attorney's office eleven weeks ago. We were unable to keep the implications of a year in jail from the soul of Lena, turning 5 on Monday.
There are two possible conversations with law enforcement. One is children and the other is the United States Constitution. If we talk to the police about the 1st Amendment, and establish an understanding the five freedoms in it are guaranteed to all of us, then we can work on the interpretation together. The five freedoms were not protected in my case. And children? Many of us are parents and safety from climate change, economic and racial injustice are three great threats. Occupy Wall Street, the Peoples Climate March and Black Lives Matter are three efforts that broke through a pernicious system of injustice.
Consumerism and Militarism are systems that try to outmaneuver the Bill of Rights. We're not at war now. We're building our world with trust, not guns. We're building with free speech in public, not corporate marketing. The Church of Stop Shopping, our little group of singing activists, pledge to return the tradition of the 1st Amendment to every corner of our city. Earthalujah!
I drop off Lena at school at 5th and B and walk to the East Village’s heart, Tompkins Square Park, and walk to where Bendy lived for 130 years. She is the tree that bowed to the east horizontally, about a human head’s height from the ground before rising with her leaves waving in the wind. Through some bribe or something the beloved tree was chain-sawed last fall. The Parks Dept claimed falsely that she would fall on someone soon. But her branches were full of leaves, not a dead branch anywhere. In fact her bent jog in the air was her genius, her claim on our community self. Charlie Parker and Allen Ginsberg and other very odd greats lived nearby. Anyway, the only possible autopsy was the murder of Bendy, which they did, and sure enough she was not rotten inside at all.
When we got texts that they were felling her, Savitri said “We’ve got to stop them! ” and I jumped in a taxi that we can’t afford and a half hour later I was running to Bendy and tried stop the chain-saws with some arm-waving arboreal preaching. By noon is was sitting on a bench in our city jail, the Tombs.
Now this morning, six months later, I walk on the ground above her roots, they even dug out her stump. I hang out with Bendy twice a week, and I sense her roots spreading beneath the octagonal flagstones. It’s the beginning of my day, so I pray here, asking the blessing of peace-makers, talking to them about life and death and activism. I’m just another crazy in the village talking up at Bendy’s branches that are still there in the my memory and the memory of the trees around us and the hawks circling above. Today, though, I stopped in mid-prayer, and then I couldn't help it, I let out an "Earthalujah!" There was Bendy’s ear, the roots surfacing above the paving. Do you hear my prayer? Bendy, I knew you were listening.
We Are What We Are
Earlier this evening Monday, March 16 we (Savitri D and Miss Justice Jester) attended a New York Public Library (Live at the NYPL) event at the Main Branch on 42nd St. The world famous magician and stunt man/ endurance artist David Blaine was being interviewed by Paul Holdengraber, the director of public programming at The NYPL.
Blaine is interesting, a deep and serious person, but it was all pretty scripted and cautious, bordering on the sentimental. Forty five minutes in we are shown a particularly grisly video montage of one of Blaine’s heroes Evil Knievel breaking bones and sliding out on his motorcycle. Blaine narrates. The video cuts to Blaine sitting by Kneivel’s hospital bed. Evil talks to him about how some people have a drive (to defy death) and other people don’t. At the very end he says:
“We can’t help it. We are what we are.” And the video ends.
Holdengraber: Your reactions “We are what we are.” What do you think he meant?
Blaine: I guess he’s saying like even if you could go back and stop you couldn’t, but he was suffering all these results of what he had done to his body later on in life, which he couldn’t really function so well, because he’s slowly dying as a result of the things he had done to his body that’s why he said lets try doing magic instead, and I said well that’s not my work I like to do things for real, and he says I get that, that’s what drives me even if I could go back I wouldn’t take it out
This is when we stood up in our third row seats and moved swiftly toward the center aisle of the room.
Savitri: Hey David, how about some real magic?
Miss Justice: Yeah why don’t you make the books reappear in the library?
Savitri: Make the books reappear
Bring the books back, bring the books back bring the books back bring the books back.
At this point Blaine very skillfully diffuses the action by inviting us on stage and performing a magic trick with the deck of cards he always carries in his pocket.
Blaine: I have an idea
Miss Justice: Yes?
Blaine: Will you guys come up on stage?
Miss Justice: We’d be honored to
Blaine: You guys mind if I do a magic trick
Savitri As long it involves books
David: (to the crowd) You guys mind if I try something with them?
Savitri: As long it involves books coming back to the New York Public Library
After some friendly banter we hear David ask Miss Justice, “ Your not moving are you?” she says, “I’m not getting kicked out am I?” to which Holdengraber, the head of public programming, says “oh no no, certainly not, you are most welcome.” You can hear me giggle at that and then Blaine makes me take my coat off and the audio degrades significantly since the recorder is in my breast pocket. We proceed with the “magic”.
The card trick involved piles and numbers of cards in piles and awesome sleight of hand, including that satisfying patter sharps do when they search around until they get the number they want. Even when you know roughly what’s going on the resolution of a card trick in the hands of someone like Blaine is breathtaking. Still, I was far more amazed by the larger sleight of hand. How did he transform a couple of imposing female activists into a couple of discarded jokers sitting on the carpet behind a pillar stage left? Maybe I should learn a few magic tricks.
We felt okay because our goal was not to create a huge disturbance or educate the room, though we did plenty of that afterward, but to put those Library Trustees and everyone else who is making decisions over there on notice. Bring back the books! We are paying attention!
We Are What We Are?
One of the first things Blaine said was how glad he was to be speaking at the NYPL, because he learned his first trick from a magic book in the Brooklyn Public Library. A librarian led him to the book and even helped him work out the trick. Subsequently we were shown an image Blaine encountered as a young boy in a public library of a strait jacketed Houdini teetering on the edge of what appears to be a very tall building. Seeing the photograph (in a book!) sparked his lifelong obsession with magic and stunts. Clearly this is a man profoundly shaped by libraries and all their contents. So, we aren’t just what we are. We are what we are because of things that happen to us too, things we encounter, things that come into our lives. Blaine may have come into this world with certain proclivities and intuitions, but he had materials too, information, access, and he spent a lot of time wandering around libraries looking at books. Now that’s magic!
The culture we enjoy in New York City MUST include the presence of books in our libraries, from the Rose Reading room and the Sunset Park Branch, to Pacific Street, Downtown Brooklyn, Central Harlem and all the five boroughs. Lives are made in libraries, dream lives, practical lives, whole lives. And, after all, the culture that is made in those spaces is the culture we so heartily enjoy in public programming at the NYPL 25 years later.
On the way out a fair haired European man told me that went to get a library card but when he went in the library all he saw were empty shelves so he didn’t bother to get a card, “I can browse books on a computer at home, that’s not what the library is for.”
We need to go to Ferguson, Occupy, Gezi, Hong Kong, Tahrir, Syntagma in Athens, Plaza del Sol in Madrid, Moscow, and Idle No More and the Sea Shepherd - and Chelsea Manning's jail cell. They allow us to escape the cluttered hall of mirrors that is modern corporate culture. Products posing as sex. Police posing as peace officers. Apps posing as freedom.
The only way to get through this glittering hell is to touch each other. You hold me up, you comfort me. I thank you and love you. These strands of touching have been imitated and sold as merchandise for so long that now we must re-find the sensuousness for ourselves. Touching that is not marketed leads immediately to revolution.
Love and the willingness to die for it is all they have to fear. Not loving is all we need fear.
There's a Christian rock band in the rehearsal studio I rented. How Christian are they? I asked the chuckling Metallica look alikes at the counter. Are they like ISIS? Are they YOGA FANATICS FROM PARK SLOPE? Oh, OK, they are leaving. I'm down the hallway here, dreaming of making a radio show in that room, a Colbert show for the Earth, is my dream.
I've had this "Radio Earthalujah Show" for a while. But I'm sort of wobbling from a trial and a colonoscopy in the last 3 days, so I'm feeling these gigantic gravitational pulls that don't really exist for anyone else.
The Christian rock band is packing up their things, the lead singer is a fabulous shiksa in a yellow vinyl miniskirt who could've carried the torch with the mountain in back for Columbia now Sony pictures. Now all of a sudden there is Jason my radio partner shows up lugging his equipment. He's been at the United Nations all day doing sound for women for Womens' International Month and he talks about how he had to drop a curtain on Geena Davis to get her and her foundation empowering women off the stage so the Sri Lankans could have their moment.
So the idea for this radio show is that I'm a fulminating apocalyptic preacher except that my apocalypses are climate science-supported apocalypses. Right? Anybody still with me here? Welcome to Radio Earthalujah! The sea is rising to snatch your ass down into the deep dark currents of Hellishness!
Something in me resists this. It seems whiny, Lefty kvetching. After the court appearance two days ago, I don’t have another explanation. They have put back my trial another month, when the videotapes and witnesses demonstrate my innocence. They say they “need more time.” Really? The tape is 3 minutes long, and you’ve had 8 weeks. Apparently they aren’t as impressed as I am, by the threat of a year in prison.
Now a new angle has emerged, told to the journalist Hayley Fox at Takepart.com, in their “News” pull-down. They think that I preached “toward” the police. You can observe what they mean by looking at the vid posted here, courtesy of old friend Bob Berger. Yes I was asking the cops to respect the names of the dead. Let me leave it to you to find “obstruction” in the few seconds of turning to the cops that surrounded us that day in Grand Central Station.
Speaking out in a public place should be what they hope I will do. They are sworn to protect the US Constitution. I am exercising our most basic freedom. But throughout this whole process, from fingerprinting me to this adjournment, nobody from “the people” has mentioned this. It’s just not on their minds. It isn’t in their culture. The 1st Amendment, to them, is something that Leftys use to oppose them.
As you all know, in the Church of Stop Shopping we believe in “breaking into public space.” It is the name of one of our signature songs, and we’ve sung it to many a quizzical-faced cop. We oppose the privatization of our speaker’s corners, and the privatizing of our police and prisons. We don’t think the police should take a political position. The cops should not accept money directly from JPMorgan Chase, as they have done in New York. It cannot be permitted that police exist as a right-wing special interest group, manipulating the justice system to increase power.
When an innocent person is brought to the courts, the DA ought to be glad to identify that innocence, establish it and honor it. Our freedoms come from creative protest, from those who shouted their beliefs to friend and foe alike.
All this gratitude you've offered us. These quotations of wisdom, to give us fortitude... And all these declarations of love for me and the choir, usually with a light touch, but often so raw and real.
It strikes us as different this time, different than our bus accident, and other trials and tribulations that got you encouraging us to keep going. This time is more like when Lena was born. This most mundane of arrests, arrested for speaking - you are making it a birth. Standing up for free speech when the police expect to be able to use deadly force, and speaking freely when the crisis of the Earth is becoming routinized by corporations - we ARE at a turning point. The courage that we have long known would have to come up in us and hasn't quite, not yet, is close to becoming action now. We feel it, don't we. It makes us want to hug each other.
We know that the heat of revolution makes love happen in many forms, life-long friendships, educational partnerships with hallucinogens and listening to D'Angelo's "Charade," raising kids together and making that big love, a healthy community. Gratitude and forgiveness are always at the beginning of these longer projects. We think of gratitude as a show of memory, but it is visionary, too. Thankyous have a lot of future in them. I just want to say that your gratitude gives us courage in its encouragement. You stopped our shopping! Thank you! Thank you so much!
I’ve been in the subways a lot, gone this way and that under the city, spent lots of quality time with my fellow zombie citizens, listening to the NYPD recorded announcements about how luggage could explode.
I’m having more memories than usual, more regrets, lost friends, lost moments - as I struggle up the stairs to the sunlight. I’m having more unexpected laughter as I walk down the street and remember something deeply funny from the speeches of the almost-five-year-old Lena.
I feel the large shadow of the justice system. So racist and arbitrary and – such a mystifying subculture. I have lawyers who are friends, but even they flabbergast me. The courts are a place to stay out of, and I’ve failed to. I’m in it. I’m in the system now.
I feel that they have no case. But I’ve had friends, smart and prosperous ones, who were innocent and lost and were remanded into custody. And I didn’t mean to get arrested, not this time. It wasn’t civil disobedience. I was hand-cuffed while I was speaking.
Now I’m staying in a friend’s apartment writing a chapter of my next book. The apartment is on 37th and Park, right near Grand Central. I walk over there and remember what happened and I feel really exposed and delicate. They can walk up to us and put us in jail any time they want.