Saturday, July 17, 2010

meet us in the whirlwind: the first workshop, Day 2

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Apple and crackers in the stomach to start the day. Woke up earlier than the rest and attempt to get my things in order. But soon it is all activity in the hotel room, as bodies groan to alertness and snippets of conversation get interrupted with brushing teeth and morning showers. Wi-fi in the hotel room is malfunctioning, stalling my prep for our first workshop today. Soon we are heading out; I carry a laptop, camera, phone, and a stack of book posters clutched in the crook of my elbow.

By the time we arrive at Cobo Hall it is astonishingly busy, packed with even more people than from yesterday; we soon learn that the numbers coming through keep growing each passing day. Parking is a pain, but thankfully not a repeat of the previous night's fiasco of trying to find our parked rental car in the wrong ramp. The moment we enter we head straight for the AK Press table to pick up books. I meet Kate for the first time, which again is strange - yet another person who I've only gotten to know as a voice on a conference call, or words issuing over an email, but still a living breathing human being who worked like hell with us to bring this book into being. After perfunctory greetings I rush off to the second floor and the Media Center, where Melissa from Radical Reference has surveys waiting for me. They're trying to get a sense of how activists get the info they use - a straightforward and useful form of research, so where better to deploy it than in workshops on research? I asked her a few days back how many completed surveys she hoped to received. "One-hundred would be great," she said. "Well," I replied, "in a space of 20,000 people, let's see how we do."

Walk over to the room for our workshop; to my great relief, there are no long lines waiting to get in, no massive logistical snafus that accompanied the first USSF three years ago. All the same, I'm glad to arrive half an hour early. Move through all the little tasks almost habitually, though in fact it is our first time doing this: setting up signs and posters, arranging chairs, writing up notes, preparing money envelopes and shorthand accounting systems for any books we sell. Through all this the panelists arrive: Chris, Harmony, Michal, and of course Craig. Through all this, still, attendees arrive, sit and wait patiently. For many minutes I work with a man in a wheelchair who is trying to find the right room where his friends are. Even as the stress amplifies, so too does the relief: you find the little things - all the panelists are here! we'll have a good crowd for the event! - that take an incredible weight off your back.

I slip into public speaking/event mode easily, welcoming the crowd, notifying them of start times, asking to keep the aisles clear, pointing out open seating, talking loudly and confidently, using choice humor here and there. As friends back in New Orleans used to say, "Professor Peace has taken the stage." I introduce the collective and what we do; I stump for the book; I set up the context for the notion of research in struggle, and get the panel started. All off-the-cuff, which is my favorite way of presenting, yet also not without its frustrations - the moment I stop talking and Chris opens up for the panelists, I immediately regret all the things I wish I had said but didn't, all the ways I could have framed things better but didn't. But this is ultimately not my show; all of us in Team Colors know that, one way or another, the success of our panels and workshops will come from collective wizardry.

As each panelist presents, I feel better and better about how it's going. Each speaker makes clear and powerful points; all of them are prepared and thoughtful. None of them seem at all ruffled by the ballooning crowd in the room which keeps growing and growing throughout. I recalled telling the others in the collective once, "I know we requested rooms for 25 to 30 people, but don't be surprised if we get 75, 100." They countered by reminding me that an obscure collective like ours couldn't possibly draw those numbers. Now, seeing all the chairs occupied, the floor space packed with sitters, the walls lined with standers, the place brimming well beyond what fire codes should allow, I feel no great sense of intimidation and/or pride. I'm still wearing my moderator hat: all I can think about is the comfort of the panelists and attendees. I note with dismay that some people are sitting down right next to the panelist table, getting prime view of their shoes; I note there are older folks in the back with hands cupped around their ears, straining to hear. That people can stay engaged and attentive in spite of their obvious discomfort is one of those human mysteries that I do not understand.

Michal finishes up and I move quickly into the facilitation role. I pass out 25 Radical Reference surveys to a crowd that tops 100. I call for questions and five people raise their hands. My first choice stands up, a large older man with a beard, staring inquisitively at the panelists. "My question is directed to you, the young man who spoke earlier..." and he proceeds to talk at length with nary a question in sight. It is also unclear which of the young men - Chris or Craig - he's referring to. He talks at length about various groups and people that have been providing answers "to the kind of questions you're asking," though what he's getting at remains unclear. I know I have to intervene at some point, but am unsure when. Craig - assuming that the man is talking to Chris - exits briefly to use the bathroom. He misses the point where the man mentions the Illuminati - my cue. As the man pauses mid-thought, I leap in: "So what is your question?" "My question is...won't you all please come down to the table we have downstairs and talk with us more about the work we're doing?" The crowd laughs - we find his question funny, but also that he was finally caught naked with nothing but a shameless plug. I'm actually surprised my intervention cut him short, until later we realize that his attention was devoted to Craig, not Chris, and once Craig left for his bathroom break in the middle of his yammering, it must have taken all the fire out of him. Craig laughs himself silly at his inadvertent but strategic snub.

Another more easily digestible yet equally shameless plug from an attendee has me worried; these first two questions have chewed up over ten minutes alone, and there is precious little time for discussion. Thankfully, the crowd brings the questions back to where we want them, and while it is so little in the end, the panelists make do the best they can. We learn, to our surprise, that the majority of the people in the room are engaged in some form of academic research, and it's clear they've been brooding on all the difficult questions of the academic industry, accountability, and trust.

We break right at noon and people swarm up to the table, excited. I immediately start taking money and getting books into people's hands. Strangers come up and thank me, thank the panelists; I strain to go through the room and find various friends and acquaintances. As the room begins to empty, I rush to the bathroom. My health problems have set in again, much to my dismay, and as always, with no obvious cause or catalyst. My latest theory is that it can all be traced to moments of intensive stress, which for the most part is of the negative kind for me. After our first successful workshop - one that greatly impressed Craig, which is a feat in and of itself - I decide it might be time to revise the theory to include positive stress. Either kind appears abundant at the USSF.

Still, I note that, even in the 10 minutes afterwards, as I return completed surveys to Melissa in the Media Center, Team Colors has managed to launch a feedback loop of support to counter the stress. As I wait in the Media Center, a woman I don't even recognize says, "Hey, I heard about your workshop and that it went really great. Thanks for doing all the work you're doing." I graciously thank her, assuming her comment is an anomaly. As we discover later on, it's one of many small currents that form out of resonance and encounter, and without fail, flow back to us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

meet us in the whirlwind: convergence, Day 1

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aaron drops me and Linda off in front of Cobo Hall in the heart of downtown, then rushes off in the face of peeved policemen who yell at us for holding up traffic. In truth, they have a point. It's barely 10 in the morning but the center of US Social Forum activity is already swarming with people. To my relief, there's lots of open space still; to our annoyance, the line to register is long and doesn't appear to be moving. My health hasn't been great all last weekend and I have to rush to the bathroom a few times while we wait; to my surprise, it's barely occupied. The setting is still somewhat calm. Linda and I gaze at the others in line. Many have slogan-crossed T-shirts and flyers for events, assemblies, promotion for their particular organizations. So many groups I've never heard of. Aaron finds us in line. "This is pretty cool, actually," he says. "It's exciting to be here." To my surprise - sitting as I am at the wake of a 20,000-person convergence of absolutely exhausting activity over the course of 5 days - I feel the same way.

I'm here to promote Team Colors and the book, of course. It's easier than I expected. Everyone is friendly and asks what I'm up to, so I never feel awkward describing the Whirlwinds project. While waiting for about 10 minutes for my registration to go through, the flummoxed yet easy-going woman behind the laptop computer chats me up about the project. I ask her in turn about what it's like to volunteer. "I wasn't even planning this; they just needed people and I said, sure, why not. I just hope someone else steps in for me at some point, cuz I don't want to be doing this all day. The first two hours have been agonizing. Still - all the people you can meet in two hours!" There's a brightness in her eyes.

We head over to Avalon for lunch before the march begins. Craig and Ben finally reach me; they had some trouble getting out of the airport area, but they're finally in Detroit. I guide them to where we are. I spot them before they spot me. They park excruciatingly close to the street corner; the moment they get out and Craig says "Stevie! Great to meet you!" I respond "Nice almost-illegal parking job there." Seeing them both is awfully weird; I've been in talks with both of them for over two years now but am meeting them for the first time. For some reason, their voices don't match their appearances. It occurs to me that they could look like any old thing and I would still be befuddled; when all you know about a person is their voice, you almost feel like this is the only part of them that exists.

We drive to the Motor City Casino Hotel, where we'll be staying for the week. The irony of staying in a place that Grace Lee Boggs and many others have railed against for years is not lost on us. It's exceedingly gaudy; it's even worse, what with all the glittery lights and towering retro image, that all around it are deindustrialized buildings and foreclosed homes. It's the sort of place where security stands outside the elevator, and you have to flash your doorkey to go past them. Craig and I try very hard to hide our panic when they staff inform us that they have, in fact, booked for us a single bed instead of a double; they don't know that we secretly plan to have five people crash in this room. Our panic subsides when we see the room; it's so expansive and well-equipped (mini-bar, shower AND a separate bath) that we feel pampered. We had joked beforehand that Kevin, the last person to arrive at the USSF, would have to sleep in the bathtub; now, after seeing it, we decide that this really isn't a punishment.

Craig drives us to the march and is immediately alarmed at the security that the USSF has hired for the parade: extremely muscular and imposing men and women, donning black bulletproof vests, stoic looks on their faces in the midst of chanting and cheering. "This is fucking insane," he says over and over, as Ben and Linda and I gaze and wonder. We join in near the end of the march and slowly make our way up. We find the Macalester contingent, folks from the Catalyst Project, other familiar faces throughout. The march is a full one but less spirited than what I remember from the USSF in 2007. At one point we pass by large puppets of Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Julian Bond. I prod Linda into getting the gumption to introduce ourselves to various API groups, including CAAAV, the CPA, Asian environmental justice groups, and National Domestic Workers Alliance. Someone hands me a sign at one point; I reluctantly wave it, than discreetly leave it next to a bench, having no idea what to do with it otherwise. My health problems remain annoying throughout, and the moment we reach Cobo Hall I sprint to a bathroom. We file into the main auditorium-like area for the opening ceremony. They say it will last an hour; it actually goes for three. By the time they reach the end, there are less than 15 people present. I complain to my friend Margie about the inability of organizers to organize. "Look, they've listed in the program right here that there'll be statements from Leonard Peltier and Mumia. So why the fuck are they at the very end, when everyone's already tired from marching and hungry and just can't stand sitting through all this other stuff? If I have Peltier and Mumia on my playbill, I'm putting them up first thing while everyone's still energized. Why is that so hard to figure?"

Sometime during the ceremony, Ben and I finally make it over to the Exhibition Hall and AK Press. Copies of Uses of a Whirlwind are holding down the fort at the very end of their table. I take a copy and page through it, not knowing what to think or feel, except for maybe relief. "What's it like, seeing your book after all this work on it?" Ben asks. "Anticlimactic," I shrug. "I've already seen the damn thing 40 or 50 times by now, just in different forms." Ben nods sympathetically, but also laughs, "You know, getting published is supposed to feel good."

After a dinner of Thai food, Craig and Ben and I head back to the hotel for an early night in. I stay up longer than I should, worrying about my how my health will hold up over the next several days in the midst of three workshops and panels, constant promotion, and a mess of people to meet. That's the thing about convergence, I think to myself. A resonance here and there with other bodies and minds and hearts is the stuff of an everyday life; multiply it a thousand-fold, and you end up moving in ways that - exhilirating or terrifying - are simply beyond your control.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

ten days in four sentences

July 1, 2010
7:00 pm
42 Degrees Latitude (restaurant and bar)
Chicago, IL

Craptastic. I can't believe it's been 10 days since I last wrote in this.

Since that time, I've been through an entire Social Forum, a patently ridiculous Friday night that fell to so many mistakes, screw-ups, and unfathomably bad luck that it turned seriously funny, the three most packed workshops I've ever been in, a disastrous event in Bloomington, a day of canoeing and swimming in amazingly warm water, and a social center in South Side Chicago that was practically euphoric.

I think I'm going to leave it at that.