“All remorse, no rebel. A shell of my former shell […] What have we here? The dreaded failed imagineer?”
–Failed Imagineer by Propagandhi
I swear I’m on a trajectory here. Just hang on.
The very late 90’s and early 2000’s were a time in which my adolescent visions of a world turned upside down seemed as though they might be pushing their way into reality. I had considered myself a leftist since I purchased my first Dead Kennedys’ record. Despite a lack of any real knowledge of the history or politics of social movements and class struggle I felt a deep connection to the idea that the world was hopelessly fucked but could be saved with enough opposition and savvy argument. Most of my thinking on matters of politics and comportment was delivered by Maximum Rock n’ Roll, the definitive journal of punk culture in the 1990’s. The unabashedly irreverent leftist discourse of punk served as my touchstone of all things political. It was the only friend I had for a while.
My earliest participation in politics was with an organization of a decidedly Leninist bent that concealed their politics until you were invited to sit down with them for their weekly reading group in which three people at a poker table read Lenin.
In hindsight the Eastern Farm Workers Association was bizarre and cultish. They operated out of a thoroughly depressing building in Bellport, NY and it was never quite clear to me what the endgame was for them. They had me assist in phone banking, tabling and visits to the barracks style living arrangements that seasonal farm help lived in. None of this seemed to have much of a point or goal and if it did I’m sure it wasn’t accomplished.
At 17 they asked me to start living with them and to engage in organizing full-time. Then and now I would be hard-pressed to think of something less pleasant. There was always some vile soup sitting on top of a hot plate and the several people that lived on cots in their office were so incredibly odd that it was hard to envision them existing elsewhere. Their desire to have me commit myself to a life in the miserable hole they lived in caused me to pull away. I was already unhappy. I didn’t need their help in maintaining that disposition.
I remember distinctly an experience of tabling with them outside of a grocery store in the Hamptons. I was probably 15 years old. My hair was bright red and shaved into a mohawk that flopped over in the absence of something to fix it in place. I was still almost a good kid. The quantum superposition of my life had not yet been collapsed into a single, shitty point.
Tabling for workers’ rights in the Hamptons is a curious thing to do. White weekend warriors stopped into the grocery store for beer, wine and liquor. In a lot cases they were continuing a drinking binge rather than gearing up for one. They looked sick and pink.
We had a standard pitch which largely consisted of begging for money. Whatever political program we were supposed to advance seemed lost in the face of the need to keep the broken people who were steering the organization in their bare brick home.
We were essentially panhandling the upper middle class and wealthy. While I didn’t have enough of a political footing to realize it, these were the people who would benefit most from the exploitation of immigrant labor in the housing boom. If they gave us money or signed a contact sheet they were doing so out of guilt or a dedication to the path of least resistance.
I approached a man, anglo and over twice my age dressed in the uniform of the vacationing bourgeois: khaki shorts, a polo shirt, boat shoes and a flushed face. I did my best to deliver my pitch from the script. After I finished speaking he told me that he thought I was disgusting and that if his kids ever looked like me he would disown them.
Rage. Black fucking rage. While I was hopeless in a street fight at the time I thought this would be an appropriate moment to check if this was still the case. I wasn’t quite as good at tearing another human being apart verbally as I am now so I just lapsed into a litany of curses and insults. We began to walk towards each other.
One of the other people tabling got in front of me and gently held me back (bro) and then told me I should go home. We packed up the table early and loaded ourselves into his shitty car, the type of relic that can no longer be purchased in working condition. On the drive west he tried to explain to me why it was important to not be baited like that, but all I could think was that it would have felt wonderful to stab that man in the stomach.
After I pulled away from the Eastern Farmworkers Association I had few interactions with left politics for a time aside from the antifascist gruntwork of being incredibly hostile and willing to fight. When I did resume my participation in constructive politics it was as a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, which is basically a mobile soup kitchen that serves vegetarian meals in public places. This is an activity that garners a lot more police attention than one might initially suspect. We would set up our table, liberally sprinkled with literature from various movements, and feed people at a local train station adjacent to a homeless shelter. Mostly it was fun and sometimes it wasn’t.
I have only two distinct memories of this aside from a gelling together of all the inedible crap we cooked. In one instance we watched a group of three neo-nazis leave the station, thick men with shaved heads and patches with blood crosses sewn onto the breast of their coats. A woman called the police on them, hoping (understandably) that such people were outlawed. Unfortunately this resulted in zero arrested neo-nazis and one instance of the police threatening to cite us for distributing food. On another occasion a shit-faced man who looked as though he’d been dead for several days picked up a pamphlet regarding the incarceration of Mumia Abu Jamal and told us that he was going to kill every black person (not in this language of course) New York to Philadelphia. Again, my rage was hair-trigger and I had to be removed from the situation.
This is all to say that by a very young age I was convinced that the world needed saving and that it was an ethical imperative to participate in this rescue mission despite my boundless rage, bottomless sadness and complete naivete.
There came a time when I decided I needed to do more. My life was utterly joyless and headed nowhere and I thought that if I threw myself on top of the flames of a burning world a sufficient number of times I might help smother them. A friend was leaving New York for the West Coast to participate in a tree sit near Eugene, OR. The ‘direct action’ component of the environmental movement had, from its beginning, bandied about a breed of self-sacrificing macho posturing that was very seductive for me. What was needed was bold action in which the dedicated few put their lives on the line to save the last wild places in the U.S. This appealed to my sense that martyrdom was the best I could hope for out of life.
I imagined that if I gave enough of myself to something good it would make me whole and I would finally shake the self-hatred that consumed me. I bought a greyhound ticket and sat next to my friend on the bus with those too poor to fly or drive making their way to the tiny blips on the map that serv as passable substitutes for a destination.
We arrived in Eugene with our substandard camping gear, a giant tin of rolling tobacco, and not nearly enough food. We slept outdoors in the city that first night. There was a kitten roaming around amongst the homeless and I gathered it up and put it on my chest inside my sleeping bag. It pissed on me and I had only one change of clothes so I went on smelling like cat piss for several days.
We arrived at the action after an endless drive along logging roads and I was pleased to discover that the action was packed full of assorted subcultural stereotypes. Old hippies. Crust punks. Street kids. I felt inferior to everyone.
The most senior and trusted people were camping on platforms in the canopy of a stand of old growth trees. The thinking supporting this strategy was that this would impede any logging. The encampment itself was an attempt at discouraging this. People in the woods could be killed if any trees were felled and so we were told to disappear into the forest if any police agencies or chainsaw wielding he-men closed in. Not long before our arrival a young man had been crushed by a falling tree while implementing this tactic. His hardhat served as a memorial in the camp.
I was no kind of camper. This isn’t my fault. I grew up in an endless suburb and lacked any role models who could have instructed me in the basic skills of sleeping outdoors. I got soaked from below every night and from above every day. After two weeks I was desperately sick and was well aware that I had not a single skill to contribute to the action. At the end of my stay I simply said I was too ill to continue and that I needed to see a doctor. After being driven to town I asked my mother to wire me money for a bus back to New York.
I was feverish as the bus crossed the country. In some out of the way place where the driver was taking his break an older man boarded the train and sat next to me. He reached down and grabbed my groin. I was shocked and disoriented and ill and jumped in my seat then turned to look at him. Without a word he stood up and walked off the bus, headed who knows where.
After arriving back in New York I lapsed into a profound depression. I felt that I had failed at yet another thing, that my life would not be a grand adventure but a ceaseless existence of non-participation in the seat of American normalcy.
In November of 1999 I watched the anti-WTO protests play out in Seattle, unable to tear myself from the television. I was inspired by the militancy and strategy of the protesters and felt a sense of loss. Perhaps if I had stayed on the West Coast I would have been able to participate in what at the time struck me as a turning point. It appeared as though the masses had come together around the goal of beating back capitalism’s endless throttling of human beings and the natural world. I resolved to renew my participation in the movement. Not long after I involved myself in a local organization that was preparing for the direct action that would greet the IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington D.C.
This kicked off an intensive participation in the ‘alter-globalization’ movement where we descended on a number of American cities with the intention of forcing political change by blockading the various ministerials, meetings, and conventions of the apparatus of international capital. I spent a bunch of nights in jail and I was fragile. Emerging from these events I did not feel more free. Instead I felt more weary, cynical and defeated. It was readily apparent that street-level action didn’t have a chance of influencing the slow and boring apocalypses orbiting the turn of the century.
I’m sure that I’m not the only person that came to this conclusion. But I never moved on. I wanted so badly for the world to be better that I was willing to destroy myself in pursuit of some reasonable path through the awful present. I threw myself into everything I could and tried to bury myself in the ashes of one activist flame-out after another.
The revolution is still unrealized. The future is still bleak. The likelihood that anything could wake humanity from the nightmare of pragmatic bureaucracies and cynical, pointless capitalist production seems as far off as anything. But I’m getting old and it is likely that as the young people take to the streets the last thing they need to hear is the naysaying of a failed imagineer.