"When I saw you scraping wet sandwiches off the sidewalk with your bare hands
that first night, that's when I knew you were really committed." As my co-curator at the Occupy San Francisco Art & Performance Series, Seth Fischer said a lot of funny things, but the sandwiches comment was probably the funniest.
He was right: I was committed. But long before I found myself plucking cold cuts off the concrete I’d been busy at work, spreading words across the page until one day, like so many other Americans, I was asked to pack up my things and leave. My culture writer/editor job at an alt-weekly newspaper was eliminated on September 27, 2011. Culture writers all over the nation were shown the door that same day by the company I worked for; it was a coordinated strike that ended my job of eight and a half years.
I wasn't entirely surprised -- in fact, I was ready to leave. I liked the people there, still do, but because print journalism is dying, the work was hard and getting harder, and in truth, I wasn't personally interested in editing, wrangling freelancers, working for a large company, or getting ahead in the industry. I was only ever in it for the art.
A scant six days after getting laid off, I found myself at the Occupy San Francisco camp [OSF1] at the Federal Reserve Building. I'm a longtime left-wing protester, although not the kind you might expect -- generally I agree with the other protesters on politics but don't want to dress like them or listen to their music. They find me prissy, and I find them lacking in organizational and aesthetic intention. We both have valid points. I found the camp repellent, which shouldn't have surprised me, but did. My usual response to finding myself in a situation like this is to find the horrid kitchen and wash dishes. If I can just do some work, I won't have that look on my face, the look that makes white people with dreadlocks so angry. I quickly located the horrid kitchen at OSF1, and prepared to wash dishes.
The suds had only just begun to flow when I was approached by a white person with dreadlocks asking: "Can I help you?" I was unable to answer. "We're trying to keep this area closed off," Dreads continued snottily. No sign marked any of this; to make or even tolerate legible signage is frowned on.
I lost my temper, said bad things, pointed out every detestable, tired, annoying cliche I could see until I ran into a friend of Seth’s, who chastened me with her sheer enthusiasm. She had never been to a protest before and was glowing and bouncing. "This is so amazing. F**k the banks! I'm going to go to that march over there!" she said, and ran off. Seth and I looked at each other; years before we had worked together organizing a protest against the ground war in Afghanistan, so we each knew what the other was thinking about: our shared impatience with protest cliches. That and the white-hot fury we both felt when contemplating the phrases "too big to fail" or "bailout."
I know history won't treat Occupy kindly; I know I'm not treating Occupy kindly. So let me pause here to say that we thought, in the very early days of October 2011, that the walls were all coming down and it was going to be fun.
The message was out: "We are the 99%," and now, so many months later, I still get choked up writing it. "The 1%," the few people of the world who own most of everything, had been making 99% of the decisions about everything, and it was time to fix that problem, right now. No one you'd ever met could possibly be your enemy -- you've never met a 1-percenter, and you never will. We were all in this together, politics disappeared, and equality was back on the table.
“What are their demands?” Crusty media types kept asking. “What are your demands?” Came the answer.
All of which means I was never on the fence about whether to put my boots on the ground at Occupy. I just wasn't sure how I'd do it. Putting my head down and washing dishes for the duration was one option.
It must have been the very next day that I heard about Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel playing Occupy Wall Street. It struck me that he wasn't playing protest songs, either -- he was playing his own songs, using his own words, and his own ideas, instead of parroting Bob Marley like every single other musician I've ever heard at a protest. Significant.
I started mouthing off to anyone who would listen. "Occupy San Francisco should have awesomer music (and everything else) than anywhere! We have better art and comedy and dance and whatever than most places. And art people are screwed just as hard as anyone else by the economic collapse engineered by Wall Street. They're as angry as anyone else too, and they pay just as many taxes. You know what should happen? Someone should ask all the artists to come down here."
At some point I literally stopped mid-sentence, slapped my own forehead, and cussed hard, because I knew it was me; I had to do it myself. My resumé was tailor made for the uncompensated position I’d unwittingly created. I didn't like the Occupy camp -- and that meant I had to fix it. I knew my comfortable life was over, that I would be dirty, stressed, and exhausted for the foreseeable future. But I would change it to be more like me, to look better, to sound cool, to catch people's attention in a new way: "Classical violinists, stand up comedians, and essayists are the 99%? This is new. This is being done in a new way. Maybe I should do something in a new way too." That's what I wanted, and I had to invent a way to get it.
I wrote to Michelle Tea, the secret centrifuge of culture in San Francisco. "Could you please tell me I'm crazy for wanting to organize an artists' and writers' and musicians' series at the protest? They've got such good stuff in NYC, and here it's brutally hippie-only. But I shouldn't even continue thinking about it. Right?" "No," she wrote back immediately. "Of course you should do it!!!!!!!" That's how many exclamation points she used, exactly.
I posted online:
"Note to performers: It's going to be cold, awkward, dangerous, and difficult. And now, it's raining. Cops will come. Everything will change at the last minute or be cancelled. If you perform at Occupy SF, you will be a complete badass. So awesome! And if any artists out there decide not to join us because they are tired, or depressed, or have to work their non-jobs, or are simply sick to goddamn death of performing for free, we salute them and say: We're out there for YOUR broke ass, specifically."
The first show was an epic, legendary disaster. Seth and I had scouted the camp the day before, to see where performers should set up. There was plenty of space, with good sightlines from several directions. But when we got back to the camp the following evening, it was dark, raining, and a tarp had been rigged up. Underneath the tarp were piles of sleeping bags, garbage, cardboard boxes, clothing, unidentifiable muck, and huddled people. There was no space to either stand or sit, and no one could see anything.
For the next half hour I haggled, wheedled, hauled crap, stacked slippery bags in a corner, and yes, scraped wet food off the Market Street sidewalk with my hands, to make a somewhat recognizable stage area. At the end, I was covered in sweat, freezing from the rain, and filthy. I ran around the camp begging street kids to come see the show. They didn't want to, much. Some did come, I think purely from their love of getting something for free.
Most of the scheduled performers backed out as soon as they got there, citing an obviously hostile crowd and ridiculous conditions. This was understandable, and I shouldn't have called W. Kamau Bell a chicken. Jesus Angel Garcia, a writer with a bullhorn, was the first artist to take the Occupy San Francisco Art & Performance Series "stage." The audience, who couldn’t be bothered to stop talking while he read, mostly ignored him. Then Seth read a beautiful story, using Jesus' bullhorn, and I realized it was working. We were bringing art to the protest.
Then Nato Green took the bullhorn, and died for our sins. A small crowd was paying attention to the stage area by now, and Nato had planned to, and in fact did, tell the world's first joke through the human microphone. Unfortunately right after that he was heckled in a way that made it clear that somebody thought we (the performers and organizers) were the enemy. Later, a self-described poet known as Diamond Dave told us no one liked us because we sucked, and that instead of local comedians, we should have brought Lenny Bruce.
But if they thought they were going to scare us off, or retain cultural control of this protest, they were wrong. Not only because of what Seth and I were putting together, but because everyone -- 99% of everyone -- had started to realize that Occupy was their protest too. I posted another call online:
" ... we intend to expand rather than emphasize the traditional protest aesthetic. This is not a drum circle and this is not an open mic -- we want quality and that's what you got. It's your right to be out there so holler and we'll help you."
Performers began to appear at the camp, everywhere, doing whatever they wanted, whether anyone was watching or not, and totally without asking any street kids whether it was OK with them. One of the more memorable performances (which I had nothing to do with) was a dance troupe of about fifteen young people dressed in street clothes, repeating a graceful pelvic thrust over and over again. "Aren't you tired of getting screwed?" read their sign. It was a stunningly powerful bit of dance protest. I brought them bottles of water from the camp's closely guarded stores.
This kind of thing, as you probably know, was happening all over the world.
The second show, on October 12, 2011, was a magnificent confluence of good luck, insane talent, a full moon, and a lot of running back and forth on my part. A local artist, Debra Walker, had painted and then delivered an enormous, beautiful sign for us, a massively talented band called Foxtails Brigade had agreed to play, and several writers were scheduled to read, among them my very favorite white person with dreadlocks, the hilarious Goth trans film reviewer Sherilyn Connelly. Plenty of things went wrong, but in the end, it was so beautiful and caused Seth and I to feel such extreme joy that I hardly knew how to take it all in. "This," I thought to myself, "is exactly what my version of utopia looks like. Exactly."
That show was the first to give me the specific feeling of having used my odd assemblage of literacies to will a utopia into being. But every show after that, of which there were twelve, each one a painful struggle to organize and a humiliating freakshow to produce, created the same sense: This is what I want the world to be. Exactly.
I want, for example, for the world to be a place in which a drag queen named Lil' Miss Hot Mess can express radical political views while blasting experimental glam-blues punks the Gossip from a boombox, atop a pair of seven-inch heels, while popping balloons.
I eventually worked out a glitchy yet functional relationship with the political organizers of Occupy San Francisco; some hated us, while others were delighted to have high-quality protest art for once. The "stage" was never in the same place twice, since the camp's physical structure ebbed and flowed with the tides of police raids, camp sanitation, tent distribution, and the exact locations of the louder, meaner, and more potentially violent protesters.
The last show I organized (Seth moved to Los Angeles after the first two weeks) was as fabulous and terrifying as the rest, and a bit fancier. It featured one poet, two bellydancers, a stand-up comic, and the Conspiracy of Beards; a twenty-man a capella choir singing the songs of Leonard Cohen. The camp, large and unruly by that time, came to a wholehearted stop as the choir arrived and began, already singing softly, to thread its way through the crowd towards where I stood. The choir director wore the international symbol of Occupy, that creepy, grinning Guy Fawkes mask, on the back of his head, so it faced the audience--- suddenly, and very much cathartically, there was a real audience.
"Everybody knows the dice are loaded," the men sang. "Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed." Helicopters hovered overhead. "Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost." Leonard Cohen is acknowledged to be political-ish, I think, but I've never heard his songs at a demonstration before. Now I can't imagine why not -- I've never seen anything like its effect on the crowd. "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” sounds very different when it's live, on the ground, and being sung to those actually contemplating major societal changes.
I had started by scraping wet food off one of San Francisco’s busiest, and filthiest sidewalks using my bare hands. In order to continue, I’d had to let people help. I experienced confusion, anger, and sometimes heartbreak on a daily basis. But my white-hot fury when contemplating the phrases "too big to fail" or "bailout" was all the permission I needed to exercise my right to protest, and the same was true for everyone I knew. The very people I was trying to entertain and inform said terrible things to my friends, tried to derail my plans, and were generally annoying. In the end, I had to walk away even though people wanted me to keep going. But I made the Occupy San Francisco camp into my version of utopia, and no one could stop me.
can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
and they're going to hear from me."
is a San Francisco based writer. She was born in Moffitt Hospital at the UCSF Medical Center, but grew up in a mobile home on a farm in hippie country, now called wine country. Some people think this makes her a San Francisco native, and some don't.