Political Choreography

Incredible image of Brooklyn Ballet, (c)2005 by Lois Greenfield
bikes on the landing

Being sick for over a week means I’m way behind on work, so today’s post is just a tiny glimmer of an idea.  Lately I’ve been thinking about choreography as it relates to political action.  Now that EBSol is underway, I’ll be participating in the planning of collective direct actions — hopefully for the next year or two.  Thinking about this planning as choreography is helping to uplift and inspire me to think creatively.

How can we employ different sounds, smells, textures, and movements into our actions?  How can we use space creatively?  How can we create productive tension among multiple people in a space?

Not all actions will involve explicit audiences to choreograph for: we’ll be doing our share of postering, flyering, and letter delivery.  But even in these simpler actions, are there ways we can bring color and intentional physical movement?

I’m reminded of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s advice about the garb of a warrior:

For the warrior, clothing actually provides an armor of discipline, which wards off attacks from the setting-sun world. It is not that you hide behind your clothes because you are afraid to manifest yourself as a good warrior, but rather that when you wear good, well-fit clothes, your clothing can both ward off casualness and invite tremendous dignity.

Sometimes if your clothes fit you well, you feel that they are too tight. If you dress up, you may feel constricted by wearing a necktie or a suit or a tight fitting skirt or dress. The idea of invoking internal drala [energy beyond aggression inside oneself] is not to give in to the allure of casualness. The occasional irritation coming from your neck, the crotch of your pants, or your waist is usually a good sign. It means that your clothes fit you well, but your neurosis doesn’t fit your clothes. The modern approach is often free and casual. That is the attraction of polyester leisure suits. You feel stiff if you are dressed up. You are tempted to take off your tie or your jacket or your shoes. Then you can hang out and put your feet up on the table and act freely, hoping that your mind will act freely at the same time. But at that point your mind begins to dribble. It begins to leak, and garbage of all kinds comes out of your mind. That version of relaxation does not provide real freedom at all. Therefore, for the warrior, wearing well-fit clothing is regarded as wearing a suit of armor. How you dress can actually invoke upliftedness and grace.

I also remember reading, somewhere, from someone, an invitation to move through the world as though we were exploring a spectacular golden palace. This sense of awe and decorum, of self-awareness that helps us relate to the external world, rather than getting caught up in our own worries. Golden palaces may not exactly be my thing, but I know what they’re getting at. Bringing some air of ceremony, some sense of choreography, can help us engage more deeply with our everyday actions — with people, places, beings, and inanimate objects.

Just thoughts.  I’m a believer that political action should be fun and mindful, you know?  So we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the weather outside is blowing my mind.  Didn’t think they made days like this anymore.  Happy Wednesday, everyone!

cars in the yard
ryan makes asparagus
Mr. Posie takes a rest from weed-whacking near his collard greens

East Bay Solidarity Network: Successful First Action!

At 12:24pm today, after a sunny Berkeley bike ride, Mackenzie and I were the first ones to arrive at the designated decoy meet-up location, just down the block from the actual target.  We taped up a sign that read: HOUSE BOY SOLIDARITY.  Slowly, people began to trickle in.  Many knew each other through other political work, greeting each other with big smiles and hugs, and “long-time-no-see’s.”  By 12:50, everyone knew the plan, the choreography, and the goal.  The ten of us headed toward the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house, one leading our chant on the bullhorn: AIN’T NO POWER LIKE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE ‘CAUSE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE DON’T STOP!!!

Thus began our first action as the East Bay Solidarity Network (EBSol).

William had been working and living at UC Berkeley’s Alpha Omicron Pi as a “house boy”: a common term used to refer to live-in cooks who help prepare meals for Cal sororities.  He was still receiving training, and had had no serious reprimands or complaints about his performance.  On the contrary, he often received a “Good work” and a fist pound from the other, senior cook at the end of the shift.  All that changed when they fired the dishwasher and made William and the others pick up the extra work. Without extra pay.

After weeks of working extra hours to cover the undone job, and clearly seeing how exploitative this was, William demanded that his manager hire another dishwasher.  They did not; but not long afterward, he was called in for another meeting.  He was told that he was being fired for unsanitary work practices (again, having never been seriously reprimanded or warned about any such failures), and that he had three days to move out of his lodgings in the basement of the sorority.

Until now, the sorority management had been dealing with one lone, vulnerable worker: easy to exploit, oppress, fire for causing trouble, illegally evict, and all that sort of typical thing.  But today, William wasn’t a lone worker.  He was a part of the solidarity network, and he was joined by his fellow members.

Together, we brought his earthly belongings up from the basement (where they had been packed up without his consent and stored in the boiler room, to make space for the new “house boy”) and, after a brief back-and-forth with his back-stabbing co-worker, took up our formation on the front staircase and passed each item, bucket-brigade-style, down the line.  (Wish I had pictures of the bucket brigade, but it’s hard to be photographer and participant at the same time!)  Meanwhile, Ryan played a militant march on his snare drum.  We had discipline, choreography, and musical flair, man. Doubtless we left an impression.

Now that the managers had been made distinctly aware of our collective presence, William delivered to them the official EBSol letter, specifying our reasonable demands of the sorority managers, and letting them know that if our demands are not met within 14 days, we, as a group, will take action against them.

When all his stuff was piled on the sidewalk, William took the bullhorn and told his whole story to an explicit crowd (our group, now 13 total with some late arrivals) and an implicit crowd (the sorority girls, peeping wide-eyed in bunches through the upper-floor windows; and the managers and staff on site).  A manager from a nearby sorority, an in-law of one of William’s former managers, came storming over and tried to shut him down — grabbed at his bullhorn, and threatened to call the cops on all of us for trespassing in a “private home.”  We pointed out that it was not only a home, but a workplace, and William kept shouting out the gory details of how they screwed him over.

With his passion, his technology, and the cheering response of the rest of us in the solidarity group, William (and we) easily drowned out the flustered and angry stand-in-boss, creating quite a spectacle for the women watching from the windows.  (Whom William was quick to remind that it’s the boss we’re fighting, not the sisters.)  For a while the managers even withheld William’s last check, trying to force us all to stay til the cops came in response to the bogus trespassing call, but soon enough they relented and handed over his payment.  We loaded his belongings into cars, and left happy.

There are a million reasons I’m excited about how today’s action went.  For one, it feels great to take up the case of a domestic worker, whose labor is so completely invisibilized and underpaid most of the time.  Second, enthusiasm in the group was really high, partly because everyone was in a fighting mood, partly because a lot of us are friends, and also because this was not a symbolic action: it had both the moral high ground and specific objectives to accomplish (dramatize the moveout with disciplined formations; deliver the demand letter promising more action to come).  Also, I think, we all felt inspired to see William stand up to his bosses (or their stand-ins), express his anger at being exploited, and be emboldened by the real mechanism of our group.  It made me feel, at least, that if I’m ever getting screwed by my landlord or a boss, and I don’t have a fighting union to help me, then I sure as hell want a solidarity network like this!  There’s a lot to be learned just by being there to help other people’s fights.

As with any tactic, this one had its inherent limitations; and there were moments of confusion and things we could have done better.  This week, the five of us who planned the action (William included) will get together to debrief and reflect on how to improve.  But overall, I think we really pulled off something fine today, and I think everyone who participated felt it was deeply worthwhile.  Now, the campaign has begun — more updates to come in 14 days….unless our victory comes sooner!

On a final note, speaking for my own self, there are a lot of messy, fruitful dhamma questions coming up for me as a result of this EBSol organizing.  Is there room for an adversarial organizing premise like that of a solidarity network — united against corrupt bosses and landlords — within the concept of nonviolent, kind, wise boddhisattva action?  I’ve never really heard anything like that, myself.  Usually Buddhist activists point to the universal lovingkindness of a Martin Luther King, who seemed to be able to embrace his adversaries even as he disobeyed their rules and laws.  SeaSol — The Seattle Solidarity Network, from whence our model comes — makes no such embrace across the class line.  Yet, their actions are nonviolent and strategic.  So to me, it seems there’s more overlap than not.  What’s your take?  How does the solidarity network idea sound to you?  Share your wisdom — or better yet, join us for our next action, and then tell me what you think.  ;)

Bessie Smith, Hideous Umbrellas…..and Look Out For Monday!

Still sick as a dog, folks, so I’m letting Bessie take over for me today.  Found this gem through the James Baldwin essay I mentioned Wednesday.  Just amazing.  I love the way she draws out her first “You can’t trust Noooooooo-body/ You might as well be alone.”

LONG OLD ROAD Bessie Smith 1931 Bessie Smith rec June 11th 1931 New York It's a long old road, but I'm gonna find the end, It's a long old road, but I'm gonna find the end, And when I get there, I'm gonna shake hands with a friend. On the side of the road,I sat underneath a tree, On the side of the road,I sat underneath a tree, Nobody knows a thought that came over me. Weepin' and cryin', tears fallin'on the ground, Weepin' and cryin', tears fallin'on the ground, When I got to the end, I was so worried down. Picked up my bag, baby, and I tried again, Picked up my bag, baby, and I tried again, I got to make it, I've got to find the end! You can't trust nobody, you might as well be alone, You can't trust nobody, you might as well be alone, Found my long lost friend, and I might as well stayed at home! [Lyrics from lyricsplayground.com] (Contributed by Peter Akers - May 2009)

Speaking of the blues, in a way: have you ever had a very hideous umbrella?  Not as a backup in the closet but I mean like your main public umbrella.  Currently I’m saddled with one.  i can imagine equally ugly models, but none uglier.  it’s large and striped like a circus tent, yellow and white.  the yellow isn’t a pretty saffron or gold, but like this really awful chemical lemon-drop yellow.  the fabric is also torn off the spokes in one or two places.  anyway, the reason i bring this up is that thursday morning i had a revelation about my very hideous public umbrella.  before now, the two qualities counting in its favor were (a) that it was free, and a gift from my dad: i think he gave it to me one day when i was unprotected; and (b) that it is big: i think it was originally a golf umbrella, possibly one of the freebies they give you at the end of a swanky tournament (but not too swanky, i guess, since this one doesn’t have any sort of country club logo printed on it).

Random ugly umbrella on flickr; mine not shown. Would you be able to lose this? Didn't think so.

yesterday, however, i realized that the ugliness itself is also an advantage.  because, like so many of us, i’ve lost uncountable umbrellas in my lifetime.  uncountable.  small, shitty ones; big, precious ones.  but this guy i’ve hung onto longer than usual.  why?  precisely because i’m embarrassed about its hideousness.  wherever i go, when i set my huge, janky, chemical lemon-drop umbrella on the floor, i remain mildly self-conscious about it the whole time.  so i never forget to bring it with me when i leave.

has the Hideous Umbrella CurseBlessing ever happened to you?  what do you think of my theory?




Finally, I leave you on an exciting note about fresh news to come on Monday: I’ll be reporting back from the first action of the new East Bay Solidarity Network that I helped to start up with four friends.  We’re taking on a case of a comrade of ours who was unscrupulously fired from his live-in job, and summarily kicked out into homelessness.  Next week, the fightback begins!  I can’t share more details now because the action has to be a secret reveal, but I am suuuuper pumped about getting this production rolling.  Already the organizing feels so solid and healthy with this quality team, based on the excellent, proven “recipe” for solidarity networks that comes out of the Seattle Solidarity Network, or SeaSol.  It’s compassionate action with people power to back it up.  I’m about to learn a TON through this project, and can’t wait to share it with y’all as it unfolds.

SeaSol logo, links to nifty web site

One note: since EBSol needs to get some more groundwork in place before our grand opening in mid-April, we’re not yet having open invitations to meetings or actions.  But we will in a couple of weeks!  So if you’re in the East Bay and want to help neighbors win stuggles against bosses and landlords, definitely hit me up and we’ll get you into our contact list!

love, solidarity, and no hugs for the moment due to unending nasal drippery,


Sick Day Reading

I guess it is a great blessing that being sick makes a person seem grimy and messy — hacking, sneezing, all glassy-eyed, sweaty, and weak — because if it made us more beautiful, radiant, and appealing, then lots of people would flock to us and be consequently infected.

So here I am, nice and off-putting with my wet cough, taking the opportunity to read.  I even get to read aloud to myself.  The James Baldwin was great for that, as was the first response letter from my faculty adviser at Goddard.  (She’s a poet, and shows it in her prose.)

So here are some of the highlights of what I’ve been up to, text-wise.

  • Catching up with Alan Senauke’s travels in India, leading classes on gender among Dalit communities and linking up with the international Think Sangha, on the Clear View Blog
  • Similarly catching up with Maia Duerr’s thoughts, and skillful curating of other people’s thoughts, on socially engaged Buddhism over at The Jizo Chronicles
  • Getting down with the fabulous blog of a friend in Seattle — thorough, meaty posts on feminism and revolutionary organizing — from their perspective as a political organizer and exploited (to be redundant) Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA).  Especially loved this post, and this page.
  • Falling in love with James Baldwin all over again through his 1964 essay Nothing Personal, recommended to me by my adviser.  I don’t agree with him on everything, but damn he’s not afraid to get deep with it.
  • Following updates on the Berkeley steel mill strike that started yesterday, when nearly 500 workers formed a hard picket line at Pacific Steel Casting to demand the reversal of company decisions that would force workers to cover their own health care costs.  Sounds like they want reinforcements down there, so if anyone reading is in the area and less ill than I am, think about heading down there to support!

Ok, friends, time for a glass of water and another nap.  Hope your Wednesday’s goin well.

Dhamma Games

Hey, friends! Today I want to share a new game I learned from a fellow member of my dhamma study group. It’s a Buddhist game, sort of. Here’s how it works.


Team up with a partner and take turns asking each other the following question-pair.

What are you noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

Is that pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?

[Partner responds]

Thank you.

. . . What are you noticing now?

Keep up the exercise for about 2-3 minutes, then switch roles.


Now ask the following question-pairs:

What is something pleasant that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you. What is something neutral that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you. What is something unpleasant that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you.

Keep repeating the cycle (doesn’t really matter what order) for 2-3 minutes, then switch roles.

The responses to the questions can be internal or external — “I’m noticing that I’m having anxious thoughts about finding a job;” “I’m noticing the pillowy clouds out the window;” “I’m noticing a slight coldness in my hands.”  It doesn’t matter whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in some objective sense (for instance, I might call the odor of skunks or gasoline pleasant, while my mom finds them nauseating).  What matters is your own subjective experience.

The point is not to get all deep or articulate with the observations, but to keep it as stream-of-consciousness as possible. I think the game originates from the “noting” practice common among many Buddhists (particularly, if I’m not mistaken, Theravada/Thai Forest/Insight? Zen folks, Tibetan peeps, help me out?). With “noting,” you meditate while bringing awareness to different sensations in the body, and also to the umbrella category of “thinking.” Some forms involve naming or labeling the sensations; others advise against that.

For me, these exercises and games, and the logic behind them, have been quite useful.  They bring our calm attention to what Buddhists call vedanā: a Pali word for “sensations.”  Typically, the teachings say, our habit is to react to vedanā with various types of attachment or ignorance.  When we experience a pleasant sensation, we often crave more of it.  We want it to continue.  When we experience something unpleasant, we wish it would go away as fast as possible.  Neutral sensations, which make up a huge part of our everyday life, often escape our notice altogether; we don’t find them worthy or interesting enough to pay attention to.

What happens when we start bringing investigative attention to vedanā?  It allows us to decouple our experiences from our reactions.

Continue reading

Good Heart, Stability, Spaciousness

Hey friends,

Sorry I’ve been lagging so hard on the posting lately. Things have been super busy offline! Political education classes; meet-ups; meetings; paid work (thankfully); etc. etc. This weekend Ryan and I are going camping with a couple friends. Can’t wait to be among those big trees.

Anyway, recently I’ve been feeling re-inspired about the Radical Sangha idea, and wanted to be more vocal here about the particular “dharma doors” I’ve been encountering lately. Now isn’t the ideal time, since I’m headed out the door to a birthday party, but I wanted to quickly pass along this lovely piece (via Mushim Ikeda-Nash‘s Facebook feed) that helped refresh my practice today. It comes from a Tibetan tradition. Sogyal Rinpoche recalls the teachings of Dudjom Rinpoche on the three qualities every human should cultivate: sampa zangpo, tenpo, and lhöpo (a good heart; stability and reliability; and spaciousness, or being at ease with oneself).

The whole piece is worth a read over on Tricycle, but I especially loved these two paragraphs on reliability and spaciousness.

For example, a string of beads has a thread running through all the beads, keeping them together. What we need is a thread too—of sanity* and stability. Because when you have a thread, even though each bead is separate, they hang together. When we have the teachings in us, stabilizing us, there’s a thread to keep our life together that prevents us from falling apart. And when you have this string, you have flexibility, too. That’s how you can have the freedom to be unique and special and individual and still have stability and humor. This kind of character is what we need to develop; this character is the thread.

*Thanks to insightful feminist critique of similar, though slightly worse phrasing in a different Buddhist essay, I now cringe when the word “sanity” gets thrown into pieces like this. It’s not something to take lightly in a society like ours where people are persecuted and violently oppressed because of a perceived lack of “sanity.” So I want to mark that, and yet acknowledge that most people, even on a broad spectrum of neurodiversity and psychodiversity, probably experience moments and phases of greater or lesser stability, characterized by comfortable, firm groundedness that’s not overly rigid.

On spaciousness, Sogyal Rinpoche writes,

If we are at ease with ourselves, we are at ease with others. If we are not at ease with ourselves, then we will be uncomfortable, especially in company. Imagine you find yourself at a smart party in Paris. All kinds of people are there, from different backgrounds, slightly different from you, and one very suave and successful person turns round to greet you. Even the way he says “bonjour” has a supercilious air about it, as he looks down his nose at you condescendingly. If you’re at ease with yourself, there’s no problem. He can drawl “bonjour” and look down on you, and you feel completely fine, because for you it is actually a bon jour, since you are well with yourself.

When we are well with ourselves, then whatever happens, it really doesn’t matter, because we have equilibrium and stability. We don’t feel any lack of confidence. If not, we’re always on edge, waiting to see how someone reacts to us, what people say to us or think about us. Our confidence hangs on what people tell us about how we are, how we look, how we behave. When we are really in touch with ourselves, we know ourselves beyond what others may tell us.

Spaciousness is an especially great asset for political folks, it seems to me. It allows us to face conflict without feeling backed into a corner, trapped and defensive. Far from passivity, I find that spaciousness means a robust engagement with many different dimensions of a situation. It makes room for anger, fear, resentment, and all that fetid stuff: neither repressing it nor allowing it to dominate the entire mental environment.

Very useful — to me, anyway, and I hope to you, too! Have a wonderful weekend, folks; see you Monday.

Revolutionary and Pre-Figurative Politics

How do the two fit together?

This question’s been yelling itself in my face for the past couple of days. (Weeks?) Not only in theoretical terms, but in practical ways. Touched on by elders, peers, friends, strangers.

Roughly (and this is my own attempt, for which I’ll accept blame but not credit):

Some groups are great at building and exemplifying models of anti-oppressive ways of being. (Pre-figurative politics, as I understand it, means practicing now the kind of society you want to build in the future.) Enacting horizontal group dynamics, confronting white supremacist and racist behavior, challenging and transforming sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, etc. in myriad ways, and continually developing sophisticated, intersectional analyses of these lived oppressions. Honoring and valuing healing; promoting literacy around dealing with trauma and mental wellness. Developing healthy sex-positive cultures grounded in consent. Practicing conscientious methods for dealing with intimate violence and abuse. Giving and receiving criticism with humility, generosity, bravery, and kindness. Doing very practical things like organizing childcare collectives, artmaking groups, and food distribution programs; infusing them with liberatory values. Transforming estranged relationship with our bodies, the earth, and nature. Theorizing these and more practices, and sharing them.

At the same time, some groups are great at developing people’s revolutionary class consciousness. Examining the material processes of history with an eye toward figuring out the best ways to intervene in those historical processes, and change things for the better. Get rid of classes altogether. Put an end to imperialism. Employ practice and theory, in current conditions, to avoid the pitfall of reformism and move militantly and decisively toward a world of “freely associating producers” — a world where violent compulsion is no longer ambient, as it is under capitalism and has been under all forms of class society (to stake a claim against what I learned about Foucault, in college). I’m impressed and inspired by groups that maintain a keen focus on this goal, and whose work reflects the urgency of building the class power necessary for exploited people to liberate themselves/ourselves from the yoke (and rod) of capital.

Now. Is there overlap between these ‘types’ of groups?


A lot?

In the Bay Area? In the US?

IIIIIIII dunno. What do you think? What are you finding?

That’s all for now; more questions than answers.

g’night, friends.

Happy Pi Day From North Oakland

Sweet Potato Pie from Lois The Pie Queen

Do any of y’all celebrate Pi day?  π = 3.14 = March 14th!  My high school math teachers were the first to introduce me to the holiday, which is honored by eating pie.  Sign me up!

This morning I headed down the block to Lois The Pie Queen’s place and picked up a couple slices from the wonderfully warm folks there.  Having just read my friend ChakaZ’s thoughtful, incisive piece touching on gentrification in Oakland (a process that often leads to the overthrow of pie queens, and the replacement of barbecue shacks with fancy coffeeshops), it was even more gratifying to support a Black-owned, Black-cultural business that’s been in the neighborhood — and in their family — for 50 years. And clearly not, might I add, as a gimmicky “exotic Southern food for upscale whites” kind of establishment, but as a low-key, proud-yet-humble, neighborly sort of place.

Image from Sweet Mary

In addition to the beauty above, I also got a piece of banana cream, but a bumpy ride on the bus left it unfit for open-casket photos.

Later in the day, being unable to finish both slices by myself, I would leave the leftover banana cream in its takeout pod in a big paper bag, hidden conspicuously behind a bush in Berkeley.  Fortunately, my hopes were realized: a man named Terry found and enjoyed what remained of the treat.  Unfortunately, I know that Terry found and enjoyed it because Terry also found my cell phone, which I forgot inside the paper bag.

I must have had some good karma on my side, though, because Terry seems like a really nice guy.  Tomorrow we’ve arranged a hand-off for the mobile.  I think I’ll bring him another slice from Lois’.  He was really wild about that banana cream.

“God Bless Practical People”

A quote from Ryan, hailing the makers of this primer on how to build a solidarity network, or “direct action casework” group, along the lines of the dope and seriously successful Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol).  :)

Tonight, a small group of us are getting together to talk about how we can build one in the East Bay.  So I’ma get to readin.  I’ll keep you updated on the work as it progresses!

And today: prayers for people in Japan; strength for fighters in Wisconsin (General Strike?!?!); and nothing but love and respect for Slow Loris.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Yesterday’s International Women’s Day reminded me of how, worldwide, imperialist accumulation, austerity programs, and sexual violence — all swirling together in the global financial crisis — continue to exploit and poison women.  Especially, obviously, poor women of color.  And yet, so many women and allies are fighting back!  In ways big and small.

Here’s a friend of mine making stencils to celebrate the day.  Hope you did something uplifting, too. :)