Snapshots of India #4

This is part of a series of posts on the trip I took in India from February to April 2013. They are in no particular order, just moments that stand out from the greater backdrop. 

46 C. The hottest yet this summer, and only April. Pushkar swelters in the middle of the day.

I am crouching on the side of the main road, near the bus stand. In the terra cotta coloured dust that swirls a bit around my feet, caught in some unfelt breeze.A blue and gold sarong tied around my head, my four-continent hiking boots on my feet. I am staring into the eyes of a somewhat leperous-looking calf, telepathically willing it to stop trying to eat the t-shirt it’s chewing.

Even as I do this I wonder, What has India done to me?

Trying to mind read a cow, veiled and crouching, is not the strangest thing I saw a Westerner do in Pushkar these two days. The city is known for its sacred lake, as well as for its proximity to one of the most sacred Muslim sites in the Subcontinent. Only Snake Mountain (yes, that’s really its name) separates the two. This is the realm of the hippiest, earthiest, patchouliest travellers in India…second only to Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills.

Surely, though…If Pushkar were a sacred place, if all those healing crystals actually held power, if all the metaphysical advice in the bookshops were put into practice…surely it would not look like this. The presence of a few well-placed money changers (in the Biblical sense) has sucked the sacred right out of the place. They attack passersby with flower petals, demanding that they visit “their” sacred lake. They know that post-colonial guilt about disrespecting cultures works as excellent leverage to squeeze a few extra rupees out of a tourist. They curse those who refuse, not just cussing but a real “may you suffer” sort of curse.

Yet so many Westerners flock to Pushkar, and attempt to integrate with the spirituality of the place. They bring their crystal balls to sunset. They smoke the local cannabis substitute. They dress in falsely Indian clothing, artfully torn to make it more “authentic.” They play with the babies of the Dalit family selling carved elephants on the corner, playing at being Dalit themselves. All of that is about as effective as my attempted telepathy.

At sunset on the eastern ghats I wondered aloud how many of the young people around us had ended up in India after Occupy Wall Street broke up. The sense of wanting desperately to be counterculture and to change the world and to reset Western culture was palpable. Even as someone who participated in OWS and who considers herself to be a bit of a hippy, it was too much. So much time spent focused on being authentic, thereby ignoring the really shitty nature of Pushkar. The sacred lake is full of crap both literal and figurative, and trying to adopt Hinduism (but only the parts you like) while pretending you can choose to be Untouchable. Maybe it’s authentic to them, but to me it seemed hokey at best and culturally imperialistic at worst.

And yet here I am, dressed as some incarnation of an Indian woman in a kurta and long pants, veiled. Trying to focus enough to tell the calf that he has to stop with the t-shirt or he might hurt his tummy. I am somehow part of the culture-counterculture of Pushkar. The night before I lit some sandalwood insence and stuck it in the ground of the eastern ghats.  A cow walked directly over it, through the sweet smoke. If I were spiritually inclined, that would have been a huge sign. A communication from the sacred cow.

After ten minutes crouching, my telepathy is clearly failing to produce a result. The calf has a hunger-dulled look in its eyes and continues to chew the torn tee. Time to act instead of just thinking. We buy some cookies for the journey on the bus ahead of us, the usual 24 hour bus fast. I take two cookies from the package and lay one on the ground before the calf. He drops the t-shirt and makes for the cookie, and I put one more farther along. Distracted by actual food, he moves away. I grab the sodden shirt and huck it into the ever-growing trash pile.

Our conversation over, the calf moves away.

I’m Breaking Up With You, Occupy

It’s not me, it’s you, Occupy.

You woke up the world and changed the political and rhetorical discourse. You brought people from all walks of life together in their commonalities instead of their differences. You woke up and mobilized a generation. You have the tools of connectivity around the world that your forebears in 1968 and 1848 would’ve died for. You had every potential to change the world forever.

But you’ve fallen off the bandwagon and wandered off into the woods. Not even you know what you want anymore. I don’t believe the rhetoric that those who never felt your pull have spouted since the beginning, that you are an aimless amalgamation of smelly hippies that never had a path anyway. I know better. I was there. I saw that you had real aims, reachable goals, motivated people.

So what’s your excuse for falling apart?

I’ve seen an ugly side of you in recent weeks, a side I never saw in November when I joined you in the streets. You’ll need concrete examples, and I’ll furnish them.

You’ve begun squashing dissent within your ranks, pushing out those you and your cliques decide “isn’t ______ (revolutionary, counterculture, whatever) enough.” Exclusion is contrary to every aim that occupy espouses. But you didn’t even stop there. Members of Occupy went so far as to shove a livestreamer, Tim Pool, because he may not have been enough on their side.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, dear Occupy. This moment has caused an open schism within the Occupy Wall Street movement, because it’s become the age-old debate of violent vs. nonviolent civil disobedience. Have you forgotten, Occupy? Have you never read your history about the Civil Rights Movement, about the French Revolution, about the Arab Spring? You’re kowtowing to those who believe that BlackBloc tactics are the next step. You’re afraid of those who believe violence is the only way, and you’ve allowed your fear to drive you into their arms.

You lack self-discipline. How many times have you marched against the abuses of the system, and then gone back to trying to exploit it in your favor? People have problems with drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. But you give them a free pass, and fail to hold each accountable for her/his own actions. You willingly bring on negative stereotypes by smoking pot in the park, and then complaining of police brutality when an officer tickets you. 

You distract from the true police brutality, and discredit your brothers and sisters who suffer it. 

You’ve been swept up in the furor of the “Fuck the Police” marches. You’ve forgotten that the police are a part of the 99 Percent. You’ve made it Us vs. Them, in everything. You’ve forgotten that it was supposed to be about all those disenfranchised by the current economic system. You let the police violence intimidate you into losing your focus. Are you so blind that you truly believe that wasn’t the aim?

You hide behind your masks and proclaim that this is freedom. Instead of humanizing the movement with the faces of real people, and being courageous enough to own your rebellion with your real name, you hide. You espouse a global revolution, but you buy your masks to symbolize your commitment to liberty from factories in China that keep their employees in slave labour. You line the pockets of those you were sworn to oppose.

I waited my whole life for this movement. At five, I was telling my kindergarten teacher that when I grew up, I wanted to be an activist. My generation’s acquiescence and anesthetization through sugary sodas and constant stimulating enraged me. I thought, Occupy…I thought we really had a chance.

And so, my dear Occupy…I’m breaking up with you.

I’m not saying it’s over. We might be able to salvage this once we’ve both taken some time to decide whether we want to. In the meantime, I have only one request.

Stop. Just stop. Stop wandering into the woods and stand there a moment. I’m not asking you to come back to the path because I can’t make that decision for you, but at least to consider it. Drop the “Vs. Them” and make this simply about “Us.” All of Us. Consider the confusion and emotion and hypocrisy, and decide what to take.

I’m going to go back to changing the world in my quiet, no-tent-required ways. I can’t wait to see where you go from here.

United States of Indefinite Detention

Let me tell you a story to illustrate how seriously US citizens should take loss of liberties in the 21st century. In late October I was in Annecy, France. After my fluency test and four weeks of French improvement, I found myself in a youth hostel. I’ve spent a lot of time in such places this year, and I knew the drill. I started a conversation with the girl in the bunk above me, who was a very nice woman of about my age from mainland China. She’d moved to Paris for work and was on vacation. We talked about culture, language-learning, and *gasp* politics.

I mentioned the Occupy Wall Street protests, and highlighted how many people had been arrested. Her face turned white, her eyes widening.

“But…will they be released?”

For a moment I wondered why she looked so terrified. Then I remembered what happens to the thousands arrested for political dissent in China. They have no right to a speedy public trial. They are sometimes held without charge for years. They often simply disappear.

“Oh…” I stammered, “Of course. They will probably be out within a few days on bail.”

She went back to arranging her belongings, a dark cloud over her face. I didn’t pry into what personal experiences she may have had with indefinite detention for political dissent. At the time, I didn’t want to offend her. I may soon have experiences of my own to cloud my mind, thanks to new bills passed by my own representative government.

Watch that video. It if doesn’t make you feel a chill at seeing the true state of Freedom of Speech in the USA today, I’m not sure that I can help to open your eyes. An unidentified woman with blue hair leads a Mic Check in Grand Central Station in New York. She is interrupted by uniformed members of NYPD and dragged away, even though none of the other protesters repeating after her are. I dare you to find a clearer-cut example of suppression of political speech in a public venue.

Despite the fact that I am now a full-fledged member of a progressive and transpolitical radio show and my Twitter feed is full of stories about recent complete failures in US politics and legislation, I’ve mostly stayed away from the issues here out of misaligned respect for my readers. No more.

Prepare for some scary shit.

What was Laura, the woman leading the protest in the video, talking about? The newly-signed National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. It was signed into law on New Year’s Eve by President Obama, after an all-but-cursory hour long debate in the Senate and House of Representatives respectively. The bill passed the Senate by an overwhelming 93-7 vote and by a wide majority in the House. This bill essentially does away with the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution by requiring indefinite military custody of terrorists and those with whom they associate. Yes, also US citizens. Yes, also on US soil. Yes, anywhere else.

The Obama Administration opposed the passage of the bill initially, first saying that it was against our collective principles and threatened a veto, but then issued a statement condemning the bill for not granting the President enough power to detain accused terrorists without trial or change.

The worst part? One need not even be a terrorist. One only needs to be associated with them. However loosely that might be remains to be seen.

The last time this kind of bill passed Congress, the United States was in the throes of Macarthyism and the Red Scare. Thousands were blacklisted for being associated with communism (most of them innocent), and many were imprisoned during the nationwide witchhunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Don’t think it couldn’t happen again. This bill is dangerous to the very principles upon which this country was founded. But wait, there’s more! Congress is currently preparing to vote on another bill to limit US citizens, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill would severely curtail activity allowed on the internet, and along with another bill (PROTECT-IP) could allow for the monitoring and criminalization of sharing links, videos, and news over this medium. Other countries with such restrictions include China, Turkey, and Iran.

This week, the headquarters of Global Revolution Live, a non-associated media outlet that covers many subjects not limited to the Occupy Wall Street movement, was raided by the NYPD. They confiscated or damaged much of the equipment on hand, and arrested five members of the news team. I’m shocked that there hasn’t been more coverage of this clear case of supression. It reminds me of the Red Scare and the HUAC. It reminds me of supression of dissent in China and Myanmar. And this is only the first.

Congress will vote on SOPAand PROTECT-IP this month, which have been labeled as acts that would break the internet as we know it. Without getting into too much detail, suffice it to say that Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and other major internet players are considering a “nuclear option” in the form of a 24-hour blackout in protest. You’ll know when you can’t access your services on January 24.

Between the fuzzy language of NDAA on the definition of who can be detained under its broad-reaching powers and the power to suppress undesirable posting on the internet with SOPA, the potential for innocent people to be caught up and detained without charge is much higher than it should be in any self-respecting “Democracy.” These laws directly contradict the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and potentially 8th amendments to our Constitution. 60% of the Bill of Rights, removed by what feels like the three sole acts that actually had chances to pass the gridlocked Congress in the last year.

Back to the moment of true conversation in Annecy.

“Um…forgive me if this is too forward,” I ventured to my Chinese friend. “But…do you like your government?”

She smiled. The dark cloud was still clinging to the corners of her eyes.

“Oh…no…not at all. Most people our age want China to change and become more democratic.”

She paused.

“We base our hopes on America. We want to be like you.”

Now a slight dark cloud encroached on the corners of my own eyes.

“I wish I didn’t have to tell you about people getting arresting for protesting in my country.”

“It’s very disappointing. I worry for the United States.”

Me too. Me too.

Off the Couch and Into the Streets

Courtesy of the Denver Post–Yes, that’s me in the middle with the sign above my head

Today, my support of Occupy Wall Street took a new form.

I’ve supported the movement from its inception, two months ago. Even though I was in France, I kept up with the events on Twitter and through the news. I brought it up (probably a little bit too much) in my French classes. My Twitter account brought me the news that Occupy Oakland was under attack the night of October 25, and I watched in horror as the police department fired tear gas and flash grenades into the crowd. I was moved to tears watching the protesters try to pull Scott Olsen (an Iraq veteran who was injured by a tear gas canister) to safety, only to have another stun grenade thrown into their midst.

The Steps

A mixture of anger, shame, pride, and sadness merged with a desire to do something. I challenge anyone who disagrees with Occupy Wall Street to watch the videos from that night and the other coordinated police actions across the US and across the world, and not feel something. I wouldn’t deign to suggest what you should feel, but you must feel something. If you don’t, something isn’t right.

Lisa, who was on her lunch break to march with us. She kicks ass.

Today I took the advice of Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old activist who took a faceful of pepper spray at Occupy Seattle on Tuesday night…”Whatever you do, take one more step out of your comfort zone.”

This. Should. Never. Happen.

I joined the protests in person. I was nervous. I’ve never protested before. I was alone. I had my purse with all the money I currently have to my name ($30) in it, and my camera. I am female, and I worried that maybe someone would hassle me. I’m not going to lie, the violence over the past few weeks and the potential to be caught up in a riot were deterrents. I drove around Civic Center Park to check it out, looking for protesters and police. At first, all I saw were police cars. Everywhere. I was intimidated. I hid my sign in my purse and walked through the park, prepared to leave if I didn’t think I could go through with it.

The Capitol

But I walked up to the steps of the City and County Building, about thirty people were gathered. They used the People’s Mic to spread the word about their ideas, grievances, hopes, and stories. The crowd grew, and the more vocal and annoying protesters were calmed by the group.

Then we left to march into the streets.

The March

Into the Streets

The police pulled into the intersection, lights blaring. I was emboldened by the hundred people who had showed up in the half hour we had been at the step, but I worried that a confrontation might break out. We walked directly through the intersections, under the carving on the side of a building declaring, “What is the city, but the People?” The police followed us on bikes and with squad cars, blocking off the streets to prevent us from getting leveled by lunch hour traffic. That was actually pretty nice of them.

I felt apprehensive to walk in the streets, through traffic and scared-looking people trying to get to Chili’s for a lunch meeting. One step further, Coleen. Come on. I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curb. People in the cars were responding with smiles and honks to my sign, “Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE.”-Martin Luther King Jr. 

We turned onto the 16th Street Mall, marching directly down the middle and stopping traffic. Our shouting bounced off the buildings and people moved out of the way, taking pictures, sometimes cheering. Everyone was on their lunch break. The Mall Ride busses were forced to stop in their tracks, a hundred of us blocking their way.

People in suits, watching us march past on the 16th street mall

Dude, quit ruining my photo!!

I still felt nervous, but I was beginning to get stronger. There was a giddy, light, happy feeling to taking the streets. I felt proud of us, connected, and proud that I live in a country that (at least for the moment) allows peaceful protest.

A woman in front of me leaned over to a police officer.

“Feeding the hungry is not a crime! Not a crime…” she said, walking away.

“Your ass is a crime,” the officer joked to his colleagues, obviously thinking that no one was listening.

“Dude, really?” I rounded on him, my best “shame on you” teacher voice and expression confronted with a doughy, and rather surprised-looking young officer. “That was totally inappropriate.” He seemed frozen. I made a noise of disgust and kept walking.

Um, holy shit. Did I just scold a uniformed police officer? One step further. The nerves were gone.

“Who’s streets? Our streets!”

By the time we reached the Federal Reserve Building, I felt liberated. That sounds cheesy and contrived, but it’s true. I was no longer quiet. I felt connected to the people around me, the hippies with dreads and guitars, the kids in business suits, the parents with their babies in strollers, the people walking their dogs amongst us, hell…even the giant transvestite in leopard print. We all had different reasons for being there. We all had different ideas. But we shared the megaphone. We clapped and cheered. We respected the stories. We even cracked jokes and laughed together.

Sharing, playing, dancing, singing, learning. It was kind of like kindergarten, but all grown up. That gives me hope.

Mirrored perspective of the Denver Post

We walked back through the mall and up 17th street, through the financial district of Denver. People came out of the bank buildings, making videos on their phones. They leaned out of offices and apartment buildings. I smiled to them and waved. Hardly anyone waved back. Again, our chants bounced off the cold glass.

“We are…Occupy Denver!” “We are…Occupy Detroit!” “We are…Occupy New York!” “We are…Occupy Melbourne!” “We are…Occupy Oakland!” “We are…Occupy Seattle!” “We are…Occupy Cal!” “We are…Occupy Everywhere! And we aren’t going anywhere!”

We walked through one of the largest intersections in Denver at Colfax and Broadway, to loud cheers and honking from the cars stopped by our progress. The gold of the Capitol Building shone in the sun as we marched across the park, and back to the City and County Building. We addressed Mayor Hancock directly, and I could see people watching from inside. We filed the paperwork necessary to begin recalling him from office following the violent crackdown on protestors in Denver.

Very rarely have I felt the sense of community that I felt today with complete strangers at Occupy Denver. They were so welcoming. They all watched out for each other. They all shared and were respectful, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or age (which unfortunately could not be said for that dummy officer who made the ass comment). There was a pervasive sense of collective goodwill, and the desire to work together to change things.

We didn’t always agree. We certainly didn’t speak with only one voice, even through the People’s Mic. We chose to act together, in unity as individuals drawn together by a least a bit of common ground. I felt empowered.

It was amazing!! 

After we announced our recall of Mayor Hancock and the City and County building shut its doors in our face, I walked away. It was time for this occupier to go to her new job. I slipped away, drawing a few snarky laughs as I walked back to my car. I didn’t care. I walked down the middle of Broadway armed with nothing but a piece of posterboard and  a camera. Laughing doesn’t phase me.

But this did.

A few blocks away.

Two blocks from the City and County Building, I walked past this staging area for the Denver PD riot squad. As I came around the corner, one of them was messing around with a pepper ball gun, and practicing aiming it. For just an instant, it looked like it was aimed at me. My blood went cold.

I was nervous again. I no longer had a hundred fellows around me for support. One step further.

I took their picture. Several times. In the open. I rationalized, “I’m near the art museum. I could pretend to be a tourist if they have a problem.” I tweeted to Occupy Denver the intersection, and within minutes another protester had arrived. The police looked over at me. I calmly turned and walked away.

This is not over. It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are. This is not about politics. I learned today that the Occupy movement is incredibly welcoming. They accept people as they are, and are happy to have healthy debate. They encourage others to join in. Just check it out for yourself. Take one step further than your worries, your nerves, or your fear. Go see it for yourself! You are welcome anytime!

Get off your couches! Democracy is not a spectator sport!