Change, Anyone?

(A Response to Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”)

By Clive Matson

Inequality is what we have, I think, as I walk to the market, wondering if my strategy to give every beggar something will work, if there’s sufficient change in my pocket. I’m not looking forward to meeting deadened eyes. “Inequality for All” is Robert Reich’s film and the title suggests he realizes what we’ve got.

He also knows that democracy doesn’t work without a strong middle class. His film repeats the image of a bridge with two stanchions, like the Golden Gate, and the cables between them represent, over time, the stock market, levels of income, political trends, and social forces. These all follow an almost identical arc from one stanchion to the other, from the 1929 crash to the 2008 crash. After the 2008 crash, the forces follow the same arc into the present. Reich, with the goal of reversing the inequality, proposes ways to strengthen the middle class. His fleeting mention of Occupy and the one percent shows he may know how extreme the inequality is.

The major forces will continue, though, even if the laws Reich suggests are enacted. Reich likes capitalism, and doesn’t see the obvious: corporations don’t follow the laws. They listen to their stockholders. Inequality will increase, and we’ll have another crash before long, likely a worse one. The system needs its ceiling lowered and its floor raised. A lot. Capitalism can be as vigorous as it likes, within serious constraints.

After the ’29 crash Roosevelt created Social Security, vast public programs, and taxed the rich at more than 90 percent of their income over 250 thousand dollars. For the ceiling, the tax should be reinstated to at least 90 percent of all income over one million or so, and all, I wrote all and I mean all, loopholes closed. In addition, the annual 15 percent profit and 10 percent expansion that stockholders expect of corporations should be outlawed. Something much less, 5 percent and 5 percent as the ceiling, would reduce day-to-day pressure immensely. Profit from selling a business should be limited by that 5 percent, too.

I like the cheap taco shop next to the elegant hair salon in my neighborhood, the tattoo parlor next to the organic ice cream shop next to the shoestring gallery. I don’t like the poverty. I don’t like the begging, the depression, the outright pain, the depravity. “The system does not work, ask someone who isn’t.” (1) And the system has no compassion. Corporations, including the health care industry, the educational system, and the insurance companies, spend much of their resources getting around the few compassionate laws that we do have.

Raise the floor? Strengthen Social Security, make education free at all levels, health care free for all, create vast public programs. No work to be done? Hah! Ride a bike through our broken-up streets, notice the abandoned buildings and businesses and empty lots, for starters. And institute a guaranteed annual income. You object: won’t people cheat? Well, they cheat anyway. Or, where’s the money? There’s plenty of money. And if everyone’s bringing in a living wage, duh, they’re all spending money and small businesses thrive. Neither happens now.

There’s much more to do. Take the profit out of war, for instance: make zero profit mandatory. And the shell game of giving Pakistan and others billions of dollars so they can buy our military hardware? That shifts taxpayer money within this country to military corporations within this country. No compassion there. We’re all together in the same boat, hasn’t everyone noticed? The wealthiest 85 people earn 1 trillion, 648 billion dollars, as much as the bottom half of the planet, 3.5 billion people, whose average annual income is 470 dollars and 86 cents.(2) And, of course, those 85 get much of their money from the 3.5 billion. This is so much worse than “obscene” we don’t have a word for it. “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them,” Pope Francis quotes, “and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” (3)

The movement to raise the minimum wage is a tiny beginning and any increase would be compassionate. Am I writing about justice? Yes, but there’s no real justice without compassion. In the struggle for the survival of our species, greed is far, far ahead of compassion. Even if everything I suggest is done right away, I mean now, we’re only setting the table. Or I should say, we’re only getting ready to clear the table. The mentality that got us here, the trance that is this culture, must change. Drastically.

Compassion is at the root. And I haven’t brought enough change. The lady asking for money is someone I’ve seen before, and she looks worse, bloodshot, rheumy eyes. Every bone in her body speaks of a losing fight to stay healthy and to stay alive. Inequality is what we’ve got, and will get, without a surge of compassion taking over, everywhere. System-wide.

Change, anyone?

 

 

1 – Bumber sticker from 1980 on the West Coast

2 – These figures are from an Oxfam report, January 20, 2014.

3 – Bob Burnett’s column “Pope Francis: 2013 Politician of the Year,” December 27, 2013.

Why Occupy?

Why should “Occupy” be a movement with any integrity? Whatever answers I’ve heard, and mostly I’ve heard complaints, the question irritates me. I’ll bet it irritates others, too. While writing a short essay, “Out of the High Sierra,” I hadn’t meant to address this issue.

 

Coming down Feather River Canyon from the high Sierra, from altitude and clean air and lodge pole pines and cliff swallows and lupine, we’re aware of entering mercantile space. We were in pristine Darwinian and geological environs at a brief confluence of eons, in stark contrast to the few signs and cars along the road. The cars speak money and class and style, or lack of them. These eddies become a flood as we enter the Sacramento Valley.

Billboards and the radio and businesses clamor for attention, and at a fruit stand people’s dress and conversation display their positions. It’s all about money and “all” means all. There’s little else. And we haven’t yet entered the city. “By the abundance of your commerce you have become violent” (Ezekiel 28:16). Our car is tracked and billboards flicker and personal defenses of wit and cynicism keep me somewhat grounded. These mental gymnastics, though, suck immense energy. And they are scaffolding that surrounds and, oddly, protects greed. Greed enters our lives at every level, from food to posture to thought. It operates in the unconscious, mostly beyond our control.

What’s desperately needed is a counterbalance. Like sacred space. A ubiquitous belief in sacred space of some sort, one that we devote half our thoughts and energy and money to, would half solve the problem. Total destruction might be more apt. Could the violence of commerce at every level provoke superior violence at every level? The problem is more nearly universal than has been stated. Anywhere. Noticing a tiny corner is a crucial first step to understanding.

We’re pummeled by storms of images. And these images bind like proteins to sites in our minds, sticking like tiny, powerful leeches. Somewhere behind those leeches is our unacknowledged, pure, beautiful human nature.

 

We have no idea how to solve the problem. And it’s getting worse. Business and a few rich people are in control and emerging technologies will give them increasing power. They’re taking over more and more psychic and physical space.

You could say it’s exploitation, yes. But, more catastrophically, it’s invasion. What might you think as you read this? The author’s promoting hopelessness? Bogarting a position? This would be my thought, to suspect the author’s motive. To suspect it’s something invasive. Both my suspicion and that motive are commercial thinking.

My intention is description. What I appeal to is your power of observation. Who are we? Nothing on the drive into civilization relates to our nature. Nothing. Only to our susceptibility to competition and greed and our wish to rise.

The empty road shrinks and vanishes in the rearview mirror. We move into busy activity and our nature is like that road behind us, like the blank universe behind my cynicism. Have we ever occupied our own nature? Maybe in fragments. Maybe not at all. Maybe we’ve always, throughout history, lived in the service of something. Money, the class above us, the church, the goddess, the pagans, the weather.

Occupy gains integrity from this double meaning. We need to occupy this vaguely intuited space. The space of our own sense of awe, our own wish to belong, our own hearts, our own souls, our own health.

Let’s occupy ourselves.

 

Shopping

“That was a great idea you had, Clive.”

I remember this email as I’m standing, bike helmet in hand, waiting to speak with an author who has given a presentation at an elegant bookstore in Elmwood. It was the most annoying note I received, by far, three months into Occupy. The author had sent it and asked to be taken off the list.

Was that a compliment? It “was” a great idea, but it’s worth little because the movement debased itself?

The author won’t be free soon, so I converse with the person nearby, a woman well-dressed in casual style, slacks and a careful, lace-edged blouse. She turns out to be a long-time friend of the author, and asks how I know her.

“Occupy,” I say. “She answered an email setting up our blog ‘Writing Occupy.’”

“Oh, Occupy!” Her faced brightens. “We went to a number of their meetings,” she and her friend the author, and, to begin with, they were enthusiastic. The same must have been true for many people, and these two seem like good, progressive, middle-class citizens. Occupy would likely appeal to them. Occupy needs them, too, and the corollary must be true, I think, that they need Occupy.

But the movement soured.

“Why did it fall apart for you?”

I can’t meet her eye, and this surprises me. I try to control the impulse, but find I’m unable to pull my eye into line with hers. I give up and look to the side, hoping not to appear disinterested.

“Two things,” she says and pauses, considering her audience.

“The violence,” I jump in, a not-so-wild guess. “Or the threat of violence?” I’m offering an opening, if she’s inclined to say more.

“Yes. And the Black Block didn’t help.”

“No, of course not.” They had followed Occupy Oakland well, if she knows the Black Block, some of whom justify violence against property and the police, and do that eloquently. My expression of understanding puts her at ease, but she acts as if she’s answered the question completely, with total composure. This is obvious at a glance.

And one glance is all I can muster. I still can’t make my eye obey my will, and this puzzles me. I must be frustrated or angry or something, and nothing has surfaced.

“What’s the other thing?”

“Occupy proved that horizontal organization doesn’t work.” Now she catches my eye and holds it with easy authority, with the air of a professor who’s used to respect.

I’m too flabbergasted to speak. Does it have to be like this, when the crucial moment comes, that words fail? And then it dawns why I have trouble meeting her eye. I’m afraid I’ll see my own cautions, and next I’ll think my support of Occupy is misguided. Too disturbing an issue, and too close to home.

I can meet her eye now, but I’ve got no idea what to say.

I make my excuses and leave this pleasant, independent bookstore and this precise, well-spoken person. I let go of my wish to speak to the author. I’m afraid I won’t be able to look her in the eye.

It takes the whole bike-ride home to figure out what I’m thinking.

First, Occupy hasn’t been visible long enough to prove anything, other than it isn’t an instant fix. And that’s not going to happen. No one can expect an instant fix, for such a variety of severe, deeply rooted, and related ills. So how could Occupy prove anything else, in a short time?

Next, I get the feeling somehow that these women are picking and choosing from a distance, as if they’re in a market. Shopping. And this product doesn’t quite fit what they want. Or what they think they want. Well, is it exactly what I want? We have to notice, in any case, that in the aisle of significant change the shelves are about empty. Do we want a more pleasant package? A different label? Something less expensive?

I get the sense that my acquaintances didn’t read the label, either.

I think the Occupy label says, “Choose this if you’re willing to work. The cost is exactly what you give. If there’s something you want to change, you need to pick up a shovel and get in the dirt with the rest of us.”

It works if you work it.

(With help from John Paige.)

Sirens

Sirens this morning, lots of them. Not sure how close, if they’re on the freeway looping  around north Oakland a mile away, Highway 24, the sound will keep changing. It’s coming from that direction, but the howling seems pretty steady. Several fire trucks and police cars could make this noise and could I identify them? No, not even if I listen closely.

My fourteen-year-old son has a cold and his mother will bring him over at 9:30. Not yet in the shower, I phone friends who live to the north to ask about the sirens, but no one picks up. I don’t bother turning on the tv. If it’s a car chase that doesn’t end in a spectacular crash, it won’t be on the news, same for a fire or robbery or domestic violence. I’m very nervous, because of something Kristen told me yesterday. She’s in a military medical intervention group and her Lieutenant said events in this country are not being reported.

I call Kristen and we check in. I mention the sirens and she bemoans she could do nothing yesterday. Her group had a disaster training the day before and she watched pictures of wounded people all day. Does she think that’s not stressful? You can get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from looking at pictures, or the pictures will trigger the PTSD buried in our psyches, and it will erupt. She should take a day off.

When I get out of the shower, the sirens are gone. They made enough noise while I was under the water to hear them, but no more. Why are they bothering me so much? Sirens are  commonplace. Has Occupy made me more aware and more irritable? And something could be happening that concerns me and my loved ones, and I might not find out. A news black-out would keep me out of the loop. Is Homeland Security blacking out bombings so that we, the general population, won’t panic? So that we will continue working and buying and keeping the economy going, as George W. Bush recommended? “Go shopping.” But we’re at war, so they say, and blacking out news is unsettling. Especially if we know it’s happening.

Kristen’s training was about caring for the wounded at a bomb blast. Look for the injured  first along the walls, as walls are no protection. They amplify the blast. The compression waves accordion into the walls and, if you’ve followed the instinct to lie down against a wall, you’re right there. Getting squashed. Then the compression rebounds and creates an extreme vacuum. Parts of the body that contain air are the most vulnerable: ears, lungs, large intestine. If you survive and there’s no other damage, it takes a year to heal from nothing but the pressure and the vacuum.

Would you have warning enough to do more than duck? Kristen said the most destructive bombs go off in enclosed areas containing many people, subways, train stations, and concert halls. Someone yelling, “He’s got a bomb! Look out!” could provide a second or two to run. One should head for a doorway, the middle of a large room, or open ground, where the blast expands into three dimensions.

Dirty nuclear bombs might be the biggest worry, but the material is so closely guarded, and the bombs so difficult to make and transport, that they haven’t become a problem. The terrorists make high-explosive bombs with ammonium nitrate, or TNT, or nitroglycerin in pipes or drums or cars filled with ugly stuff, too, nails, screws, broken glass, and, believe it, human body parts and feces. The goal is to injure people, not necessarily to kill them. More damage if several people have to care for the injured for years, and they’re life-long reminders. And it’s plenty horrible being unable to breathe properly, if there’s no other injury. And then to clean off feces? One suicide bomber had hepatitis B and a bone fragment penetrated a bystander. She came down with the disease.

We want to think only psychopaths do this stuff, or sick people who don’t take their meds. But Occupy lets us know the context isn’t easy to dismiss. The ugly part of the culture spawns some people who suffer so long and so deeply that such actions seem appropriate. They’re not aberrations, and they’re not illogical, and their logic is not unfounded. They’re responding. And agent provocateurs could be mimicking these people, and acting out their impulse to the extreme.

I haven’t heard the sirens again. I’d like to ignore them. I’ve forgotten it’s my birthday as I write this and the doorbell rings, it’s an old friend dropping off a card. We greet and hug and then she’s off. I walk back into the kitchen and back into my thoughts. The doorbell rings again and I imagine a guy standing on the porch in a trench coat, holding a package. When I open the door, I should know who’s there.

I peer through the window and see it’s my son, looking cool in a black jacket.

Graffiti

“Fuck Art, Let’s Kill.”

Whoa, is that what I saw? Words spray-painted on a wall as we drive under the tracks at MacArthur Station, and I caught only the briefest glimpse.

“Did you see that?” I ask Dana, but she didn’t notice.

We’re going to Marin for a writing workshop but we have time, so I drive around the block and circle back on MacArthur Boulevard toward BART. There it is, scrawled in shaky black letters but perfectly clear, chest high on the cement buttress above the sidewalk. Prominent and visible to the many people who travel this road.

“Uhhh,” Dana lets out a moan.

I shake my head. “Fuck Art, Let’s Kill.”

I repeat these words at the workshop and reactions range from horror to amusement. Art is sacrosanct for these writers, and we want Occupy to respect the vocation we love. We want art to inspire Occupy and we want Occupy to birth a gentle, respectful society. “Fuck Art, Let’s Kill” doesn’t fit the bill.

It does go to the core. If you could imagine the single, most offensive thing possible to say to a nonviolent activist, this might be it. It’s severe, mischievous Edgar Allen Poe-ish “Imp of the Perverse” plus an absurdist, Dada-esque provocation. I imagine an obsessed little person gleefully writes words like these at eye-level, throws the sharpie in a gutter, and runs off, laughing hysterically, down a dark alley to a filthy, rug-lined cardboard box where it lives and eats rats.

“Fuck Art, Let’s Kill” is a call to put away vanity. How often have I heard, “Oh, you’re a poet!” as if this provides cache. I might lap it up, but I’m queasy at the same time. Poetry is not exempt from problems. What plagues the culture plagues poetry: rankism, narcissism, lack of empathy, blindness, greed, and especially being out of touch with the body and with health. These problems may be even worse in poetry because there’s so little money. And how often does it change our lives? Art that inspires is rare; art that inspires right political action is almost nonexistent. Ask those who’ve tried to write it. Ask what result we’ve seen.

“Fuck Art, Let’s Kill” is a call to action. Let’s get things moving since, follow the impulse or not, things have devolved to where killing is contemplatible. It’s that bad. If it’s not, the Oakland Police may drive us there soon. If all this seems too offensive, consider that a provocateur might have written those words, just to alienate us and push us back into our, well, possibly comfortable homes.

Dana takes exception. “You’re being an apologist for violence.” She’s referring also to my comment about bombers, that the culture has spawned people who are responding to it aptly, and they are neither crazy nor ill-informed. But my goal is simply to describe the situation we’re in. Accurately.

Kayla was part of the conversation when we started Writing Occupy Workshop, and the first thing we heard about was violence. She reared up and said that blood will be spilled. Kayla didn’t say she liked it, she just sees it as inevitable. “Make no mistake about it, blood will be spilled.”

Two days later I’m on my way to the gym, and I swing by the same intersection. The graffiti is gone. Fresh grayish white squares cover the cement, where a paint crew has been at work. How soon did they come around? You can hear the tired arguments already. “Who do they think they’re kidding? We’re the 99%, and they‘re giving us trouble. The City has to clean up after them, and the money could be much better spent.” No kidding.

I wonder if the painters make a record of what they blot out. Does the City have a photo gallery? Do individual painters? This would be worth researching. How much are we missing, how much that’s original, humorous, provocative, and to the point. “Fuck Art, Let’s Kill” may be gone from visual memory. But it’s here now.

I proceed toward the gym through a block-long tunnel on Webster Street under the freeway, and it’s been recently painted gray from street level to seven feet high, a shiny gray I assume won’t let spray paint stick. For the present it’s clean and noncommital. Except that conventional forces are busy spending our money on looking good.

I park my car at 28th Street and walk to the gym. On a lamp post a letter-sized picture of a very bedraggled youth looks out, hair in strings and a gaunt, lost, intense look on his face. With this inscription:

“They Cannot Kill Us. We Are Already Dead.”

(photo credit: C. Lenk)

Green scarf

A clear cool winter afternoon and helicopters are circling to the south, over downtown Oakland. I count four of them, red and white blinking lights in the fading sky, they look like intricate sci-fi bugs. But that kind of angry rapping sound and the fairly high altitude tell me they’re police copters. The demonstration set for noon today must be still going on, the Occupy people were to take over an empty office building on Lake Merritt.

I’m on my way to the gym to shoot baskets. My boy and I were at a bike-riding session in Marin, so the demonstration was out of the question. And since I was only an observer at the bike session, I’m quite happy to go to the gym in my sweats and basketball shoes, with the ball under my arm, and work out. The gym is almost empty, a couple of young guys at one end and an older ballplayer running back and forth across the court at my end. I’ve got plenty of room, though, to shoot jump shots, what I came to do, make a hundred of them, fifteen- to twenty-footers, and fill out the hour with some experiments.

Halfway though my session there’s commotion on the street, audible even in the gym, shouting and some sirens. Then a rush of people into the mezzanine, a short track that circles the gym twenty feet above the floor. I can’t see much, because of the steep angle, but some heads are visible for a moment. There must be thirty or forty people up there. And they’re being herded in by police, who are shouting and stomping around. The two people I can see are police, with face guards and riot gear, in dark blue, no, those are dead black uniforms. The others are making no noise, but the police are aggressive and ugly, shouting, rasping, “Go over there.” “ Keep quiet.” “Stand by the wall.”
But they don’t seem to know what they’re doing. They’re walking back and forth, then one disappears, then the other, then one comes back. Some confusion? I wonder if I should leave, but nothing’s changed on the court, so I continue shooting baskets. I feel protected, perhaps foolishly, as I’m simply going about my private, lawful business.

One person I do see climbs over the rail on the opposite side of the court, away from the police and the protesters. He’s twenty feet up above the floor, and he grasps the railing and swings round, his back to me and the court, and climbs down the backstop, putting his foot on the rim, then bends and lowers till he can grasp the rim with his hands. He’s got a long green scarf and the backboard’s supporting wire snags it as he drops to the floor, pulling it right off from around his neck.

“You lost your scarf,” I tell him.

He glances back, shrugs, and smiles at me, clearly pleased. He leaves the court, walking, not running, toward the rear exit.
The scarf was caught beyond the top of the backboard and hangs down just below the rim. I interrupt my routine and spend several minutes throwing the basketball, attempting to free the scarf from the wires. No luck. And I can’t jump high enough, any more, to catch it with my hands.

One of the young players comes over, jumps up easily, pulls down the scarf, and hands it to me.

“Thanks!” I say, but doesn’t respond.

I finish my workout and as I leave the older player smiles at me. “You got a scarf out of this.”

“Yes.” The scarf is an attractive, open-knit wool, pea-green, and I like it.

The crowd on the mezzanine is quiet, but I’m aware they’re still there. The gym’s exit follows up some stairs away from the mezzanine, and in the lobby are another thirty of so demonstrators crouching and sitting against the wall, calmly, with eight or ten police, again with thick plastic face guards and very dark black uniforms, standing in a line, penning them to the wall.

I walk by, throw my towel in the bin, and an officer motions me to the rear exit. I look at him blankly. I’m standing in my sweats and ball shoes with a basketball under my arm. No way can I look like a demonstrator.

“You can go out the front it you like,” he tells me.

There are many, many demonstrators on the street, sitting on the median, handcuffed or with their hands behind their backs, and a long line of police guarding them. The demonstration must have gotten out of hand, and seems to have ended right here at the Oakland YMCA while I was in the gym. None of the demonstrators are standing, they’re all sitting and all are quiet. The vibe is calm, really kind of sweet, and acquiescent. I’m embarrassed for the police. They seem aggressive and hostile, just in how they’re standing, as if this quiet group in front of them is about to erupt. But there are no signs of this. Even though, indeed, some demonstrators might be thinking about doing exactly that.

People are standing around my car, which I happened to park at the near corner. I walk along between the Y building and the police, who are lined up facing the median, away from me, until I get to my car. Here they’re facing out, toward me, and I realized those standing around are onlookers, possible demonstrators in the eye of the police I suppose, with cameras and video cameras. The police line keeps them separate from the demonstrators.

How will I get my car out? Ahead are police, police cars, some identified by writing on their doors as from Pleasanton, twenty some miles away, and demonstrators, filling Telegraph Avenue, and around my car the onlookers, and a police line crosses right in front.

I approach an officer in the line, and the officer happens to be a woman. “There’s my car,” I say, pointing, and ask now could I get it out.
“Go yell at that woman.” She motions to another officer, one behind the line.

This stuns me. “Did you say ‘yell’?”
“Yes,” she smiles, her expression just visible through her face guard.

I touch her hand. “I don’t want to yell at her, I want to have a conversation.”

The officer looks abashed and smiles again.

I walk along the lines toward the officer she pointed out, her supervisor I’m sure. I’ve still got the basketball, I’m in my blue gym sweats, and around my neck is an elegant green scarf. On my way I will pass in front of a tall African- American policeman, and as I approach he stiffens and stands taller. Is he readying himself for an attack? I wonder if I can take him, and how would I do that? It’s an automatic response, and I don’t change my stride or alter my composure as I pass him. It’s only a single second, and in the same second I notice how much bigger he is than I am. And how stupid I’d be to start a fracas.

I point out my car to the supervisor, and we strategize. She tells me I could make a sharp u-turn and drive away from the demonstration. “If those people,” she motions to the onlookers, “will let you.”

Why wouldn’t they? I think, and then speak to the officer. “I’m not obstructing you in any way, am I?”

“Not yet, you aren’t.”

What’s wrong with these people? Are they all spoiling for a fight? I throw my ball in the car, unwrap the fine green scarf and think, if someone recognizes it they can have it back, of course. Meanwhile I’ll put it to good use. I start up the engine and swing a slow u-turn through the onlookers. They move aside, some slowly, some with alacrity, a few throwing me annoyed looks.

They must have seen something I haven’t.