Tag Archives: activism

United in Anger– ACT UP for all ages

I don’t actually write about it all that much.  Not because it doesn’t matter, it so very much does matter.  But with race and adoption and Jewishness and the general state of things for young people in the mix– I just barely get to it.  But let’s talk.  I am a lesbian mom.  It’s a big deal– even if I wish it weren’t.  In many ways, if I’m honest– life is harder because of this.  I don’t mean at all that it’s worse– it isn’t.  Not in the slightest.  But many things are harder.  And some things are just plain unbelievably amazing.

All of this next paragraph is full of important things about which I could write many words, but for today, these things are just important backdrop.  AIDS 2012, the first international AIDS conference hosted in the US because of our previously terrible immigration restrictions for people with HIV, was here until Friday.  In my town, blocks away.  I did AIDS law work for a very long time and I miss that work and the community of people with whom I did that work a great deal.  At times acutely.  I did not attend the conference at all, but I did get invited to an event honoring many HIV lawyers and HIV legal programs including the program I led for many years.  At that event, I reconnected with two women, from very different parts of my life– neither of whom I had seen in a very long time.  Both of whom are special to me.  And since I am going for candor here– one is an ex-girlfriend and it had been an exceptionally long time since she and I had seen or spoken to one another.  My heart swelled and expanded to see her, talk to her, reconnect.  It did my heart good.  Like me, she has an 11-year-old, two months younger than my daughter– a boy I’ve not met.   She and I had written but until last week had never spoken since we became mothers in our respective cities.  But this too, is another story.  It was she who told me I should come to see the screening of the documentary film, United in Anger.

So last Wednesday after work, I headed to United in Anger, a documentary about New York ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).  Earlier, as my partner and I were making all our week’s childcare plans, I decided that for reasons logistical and for reasons not logistical , I wanted to bring my daughter with me to the film.  I wanted her there for reasons both educational and familial.  Like in any family and not because we are a lesbian family– there are so many things she doesn’t know about me.  My life is full of many experiences, cultural references, things that happened with great emotional resonance, that are not part of her experience or point of reference.  But perhaps because we are a lesbian family some of these things are more hidden and certainly less commonly shared.  My experience is not hers because she is a different generation.  But my experience is also not the experience of most of her friends’ parents.  Because I am lesbian.

To be very clear, I was never an ACT UP member but I was a supporter.  And I was a witness.  I told her only a little bit beforehand– about AIDS and about the fact that people didn’t get what they needed and so people were scared and they were angry and sad; they organized.  That was about it. We were late and there were no seats left when we got there– except for one lone seat in the front row.  I headed down the dark aisle for that seat and pulled her onto my lap– but a guy sitting next to me gave up his seat, over my objection, and she sat next to me.  Scared or thrilled, or air-conditioning cold– I don’t know, but she curled into me and wrapped her arms around me like a very young child and she held onto me and I held onto her throughout.  And we watched.  There were demonstrations, crowds, talking heads, meetings planning demonstrations, discussions of the terror of that time, anger and outrage, humor and silliness and the great, enthusiastic, brilliant, shining, creative, courageous energy of ACT UP.  There was plenty of courage to go around, and that shines through in all that footage.

In the dark with the film rolling, the questions came.  She wanted to know — what is civil disobedience, why were the police carrying people away?  Were they getting hurt?  Why did they have (fake) “blood on their hands”?  What were they doing now?  Why did they “practice” their civil disobedience, were they scared?  What was he saying?  What did that sign mean?  What is that woman talking about?  What is a condom?  Where was that bus taking them?  Why were they protesting in a Catholic church?  Look, that guy is wearing a Jewish star, he’s Jewish, like us!  That was funny, and that seemed scary.  Why are they yelling?  Where did they buy that casket or how did they make that prop? And on and on and on.

I answered dozens of questions– as many as I thought I could, given that people around us were watching the film.  There were many more to which I said– that is such a good and interesting question– but it’s too long, I’ll talk to you about it later.   More than once I said simply– I was there, I was at that demonstration.  She was so alive and lively watching and it carried over into the next day.

Next day, next scene, dinnertime at our lesbian household.  Around the table my daughter and my partner were eating dinner and I urged her to tell my partner– who wasn’t there the night before, about anything she wanted to tell about the film, what she thought about and what was interesting.  And she did.  Her eyes shining and her beautiful smile breaking across her face as she told things funny, poignant.  And then because she has the heart of humanity– because she knows important things without any lecture or being “taught”– she asked the big question.  She was just about ready to end this conversation and get up from the table and she asked– such an important question– of my partner and me.  Did we win?  I loved the question and I loved the clarity of her understanding of who she is in this world.  She didn’t ask, did they win.  She asked did we win.  In that moment, I understood many things I had not understood on many fronts.  Yes, I said, we haven’t yet won everything we need for people, but yes, yes– we did.  We won.

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Wisconsin; 68,000-strong, continues to rock

I had the privilege of spending time on the phone with a woman very close to me who is a teacher in the Madison public school system– listening to her describe the local union meeting of attended by almost 3,000 people yesterday. She told me stories that made me laugh and cry– about how they didn’t have the technology to count votes on many issues on which they had to vote, so many times over they all filed out of the room and then walk back in either through the yes or the no door and be counted. She told me that she took the microphone and spoke of Nachshon who, when the Jews were fleeing Egypt and slavery, was the first to step into the Red Sea– not knowing, of course, what would happen.  As things always are– in a critical moment, there is always a person or a small group who take that first step.  Uncertain of what will follow, but knowing that they must take that step forward.

She told me how deeply teachers worry about public opinion and that the teachers worried about what is being said and thought of them.  She spoke of Rosa Parks, saying that when Rosa Parks sat down and refused to move to a different seat on the bus, they thought this would be a short, perhaps one-day or days-long boycott.  Which went on for a year.  And that when the all important bus boycott began, public opinion had not been on their side. That what was on their side was that they were right.

I listened to her as she figured out what she wanted to communicate when she will be one of a panel of speakers on a Madison radio station today– representing the viewpoint of teachers in Madison. As I have watched and listened, I understand more and more about how we can make each other hopeful and inspire each other to take bold action, to keep going, to do right, to not be passive and to believe that we can do big, significant things.   We need to keep letting them in Wisconsin know that we are watching, behind them, proud of them, on their side and standing with them.

There are about 68,000 people protesting in Madison today. I caught a glimpse of a protest sign that sums up my perspective on the meaning of preserving collective bargaining rights. It read: “Teachers’ Working Conditions are your children’s learning conditions”.

Today I cheer for the teachers, the parents who are supporting the teachers, the students out in support,  the firefighters and police who have resisted Scott Walker’s attempts to divide people, the working people not grumbling but figuring out alternative arrangements for their school children and for all of stand-up Wisconsin.

Here is the link to a NY Times op-ed piece called Wisconsin Power Play— about why this matters to all of us. The tag line is “What’s happening in Madison isn’t about the state budget.” I am glad that at least some parts of the mainstream media and the East Coast are catching on here.

http://nyti.ms/gv1l75

Wisconsin

If you long for many things to change in the world as I do, you may think a lot about the hopelessness and sense of defeat that seems so endemic (both of which feelings– defeat and hopelessness, I often experience myself).  When you periodically come upon the thrilling surprise, the amazing mystery of moments where a wildfire of activism, courage and dedicated, thoughtful, collective risk-taking, speaking-truth-to-power–are set in motion, you may wonder, “why did this moment result in forward motion rather than more hopelessness and inertia?”  I want to understand better and better what allows these hopeful, forward moving times to happen.  I want to bask in these moments of thoughtful, hopeful, determined action, and hopefully be part of one or more movements in which many of us will generate more moments that give way to action and forward motion.  So let’s talk about Wisconsin.

On Thursday, midday, I ran into a friend and neighbor who unexpectedly took me to lunch.  At the very end of our time together– she tossed out a quick comment about the wild uprising in Wisconsin.  I had heard from neither my sister nor one of my closest friends, both of whom live in Wisconsin.  I had no idea what she was talking about.

I raised a questioning eyebrow, she told me a tiny bit and we said goodbye.  I promptly searched the internet, and turned on CNN (despite an almost immovable policy to never watch tv during the day while unemployed).   I learned that in Madison, a mass protest was (and is still) underway led by roughly 35,000 school teachers, other public sector employees, and I think many students– in response to a bill that the recently elected, utterly dishonest Tea-party Republican governor, Scott Walker, introduced a week ago Friday– which would strip away most of the hard-won collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin public sector employees.

The bill was introduced on Friday, February 11 and slated for a vote on Thursday, February 17.  And the protest was going strong.  There are thousands of people who were and are still sitting in and protesting at the State Capitol in Madison.   I called one of my closest friends, a Madison public school counselor and learned more from her.  She had been at the State Capitol on and off for days and was involved as a member of her union, in the decisions made that set all of this in motion.  The reporting by CNN about Wisconsin consisted of truly reprehensible and utterly biased verbal attacks on the Democratic State Senators who had left the state house, in a legitimate strategic move to block a vote on a terrible piece of legislation that was going to be forced on the state of Wisconsin with less than a week’s time for public discourse, debate or amendment.  The CNN anchor kept throwing out accusations that in leaving the state to ensure that there wouldn’t be a quorum, that the Democratic State Senators were “not doing the jobs they were elected to do”.   In the most vicious and derisive tone.  When the spokesperson the anchor was beating up on, countered that the Governor had given no notice, no indication in his campaign that he intended to pass legislation that would strip workers of collective bargaining rights, the anchor said “Oh that’s just politics”.  Apparently lying in electoral campaigns is ok, but taking procedural steps, as an elected official, to block a vote on legislation with which you and thousands of your constituents have disagreement, is simply lazy.  If it helps to put all this in context, the Governor had sent the police out after the missing Democratic State Senators– to try to drag them to the State Capitol to ensure a quorum for the vote on Thursday.  I could and should go on and on about the distortions and bias of the CNN anchors on Thursday afternoon.  That what I heard from two different CNN anchors on Thursday afternoon pass as legitimate journalism astounds me.

But back to the subject at hand– I am deeply proud of the solidarity that is being demonstrated by the Wisconsin protesters.  And although I won’t try right now to articulate why; I think it is no coincidence– that this uprising, this saying of “No, we are not going to take these lies and moves to further silence working people” is happening in the Midwest.  I am proud of the Wisconsin protesters, of the history of protest in Wisconsin and I am proud that this is happening in my Midwest.

Although I have lived on the East Coast for over 20 years, I am a Midwesterner through and through.  This truth about me shows itself in many ways– for one, when I open my mouth and speak.  I was born and grew up in Chicago and suburban Chicago.  I got a lot of excellent higher education in the 70s and 80’s– all of it in Madison, Wisconsin.  I lived in Madison for about 10 years.  I learned a lot there– both in and out of the classroom.  I have often said that Chicago is my hometown but Wisconsin is my state.  So look beyond the mainstream media, and dig deep to follow this.  Although you won’t find much helpful or honest on CNN, Rachel Maddow, the Christian Science Monitor and many others have had some interesting things to say.   Wisconsin is important and what is going on there is profoundly important.  To you and to me and to all of us.

Split this Rock

Split this Rock was a poetry festival, two years ago– a poetry festival celebrating poetry of provocation and witness.  It was a festival about the role of poetry in activism and social change.  The next Split this Rock festival is coming up in Washington, DC –Wednesday, March 10- Saturday March 13, 2010.  Although I have been getting their emails for almost two years, I have only just taken a little time to look closely at some of what they send– they send a link to their “Blog this Rock” which is full of amazing poems and news of interesting and very alive people doing very interesting and very alive things with poetry and writing. 

In 2008 I got to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read– and brought my daughter to hear her and meet her.  I heard Martin Espada whose work I have known for a long time, but it just got better hearing him in person; I was introduced to the work of Alix Olson http://www.alixolson.com/ whose work is part of a remarkable and wonderful new generation of female spoken word artists/ writers/ performers — and Alicia Ostriker whose work is part of an immeasurably important and also inspiring older generation of women poets.  Remember how I said I wasn’t feeling so great on Thursday?  Well I got better, but then much worse today.  I have a hope that I can soon find some way to sit on the couch and read a little for awhile this evening.  You should check out Split this Rock– the webiste and the blog.  

http://www.splitthisrock.org/

http://blogthisrock.blogspot.com/

In the past few days, in addition to doing a little bit of writing, I have spent some time trying to painstakingly and slowly (I don’t wish for it to be slow and painstaking, it just goes that way) figure out simple things, like inserting the links above into a post– and I would still like to be able to do it that cleaner way– by just writing Alix Olson and having the link to her website embedded in her name…but I still have to learn how.  So check out Split this Rock and keep the patience with me as I learn on this blog.