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.
I just got back from my prayer spot. It’s a small cemetery with a sign out front that says “Let Peace Prevail On This Earth” in 9 languages. Peace-a-lujah!
My prayer approach: I quiet down and the sound of internal combustion engines fades into the distance and the rustle of winter leaves is beautiful. There’s a big hawk who sits with me, over my head, still as night.
I ask my counselors to join me. These are people who took the time to be my teachers when they were alive. I imagine them in a circle of unusual chairs that hover in the air half-way up the trees. I say hello to them one by one. First, Kurt Vonnegut, then Christine Stevens, then Sidney Lanier and Roxanne Lanier, then Glenn Gabel and on and on around the circle above the graves.
My counselors have been known to laugh at me and vanish, because like in life they don't suffer fools gladly. When I’m in trouble, like if I was cruel to a friend and I’m sobbing there in the trees, then they always help me. One of them will stand up with her head up in the branches and give me good advice, a hologramic ghost dispensing wisdom - stop feeling sorry for yourself!
Today I thanked them all for the teachings of Lena. The way she and her friend Shanti ran and sledded across the snow yesterday. The way they fell down and went into dreams and then got up laughing and then ran and plunged intensely again, a whirlwind tour de force for hours…
I asked them for that flight in our activism, that bravery and fresh creating-all-the-time and fearlessness. I asked them that in the Stop Shopping Church that we teach this to each other, and demonstrate it in the face of corporate marketers, cops, and bankers...
When I’m finished with my praying then I have a passage back to my life, in a series of steps. First, I put my hands in the air above my head and I use the line between my thumbs like a sling shot and hurl myself up through the branches. I’m flying until New York is the size of a postage stamp below me.
I’m following my hands up into the dark sky and the dark sky at some point turns into dark soil. Then I’m riding a blade of grass up into the sky and the wind is taking the grass and we're swinging up and down in the wind. Earthalujah!
Then I let my arms down and I’m standing on the snow again in Brooklyn, surrounded by the dead. That’s it. Amen. I walk back to the living ones.
It is somewhere around here. It seems to have a mind of its own. I feel the power once in a while, coming up from inside me. Or I'll slump in a chair, exhausted, powerless. All I can do is read about it, read about Malcolm. I’ll say, “We need a Malcolm X for the Earth.”
Where will we get the power won’t be ideology. It won’t be god. It won’t be art. It won’t be money. It won’t be environmentalism. People from those tribes are working hard. The sea rises and the wind screams that it's not enough.
The power to save the Earth will come from the Earth. That isn’t a mystical statement. It’s the most practical thing I’ve said in years. To walk straight up to the Man and overwhelm him with life, we must have the power of death. Death. That thing that is inside every living thing. My daughter’s world before she was born and me after I go where she came from.
We defeat that German-American swashbuckler George Armstrong Custer, and his children Chase, the Koch Brothers, Coca Cola, Monsanto and the Pentagon when we know in our hearts, when we really believe, that today is a good day to die. We can walk up to the earth-killing executive and end his depredations by having the power of our death within our life.
Oh, but we will take back our lives because we are glad that death is in life again, the way it always was. Then we turn to the Earth and ask what we can do to help. Earthalujah!
Reverend Billy faces up to one year in jail for this brief #BlackLivesMatter sermon at a peaceful vigil honoring unarmed civilians killed by police.
Please help us exercise our 1st Amendment rights by making a contribution. Reverend Billy will sign a copy of his most recent book and mail it to you if you can make a donation of $30 or more.
It looks as if
Our brothers and sisters in uniform
Of the names
Of these victims
Of there heroes
Of these children
Of these fathers and mothers
And what they are doing goes right to the heart
Of the uprising
That started with Michael Brown
Black Lives Matter
One of these policemen right now is thinking
What a PR disaster it will be for them
To force away from this public space
The names of our citizens who have been murdered unarmed
Sleeping on couches
Walking the dog
Being a human being
But they don't have protection
Call your marketing people
This is a disaster for you
You should stand here and respect these human beings
Don't take those names
Black Lives Matter