Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harvest of Shame

By the fall of 1984, I'd settled in at UMass-Amherst. Life as a student radical agreed with me. The collectively run house I'd moved into lived on vegetables, tofu, and whole grains, which were purchased at the Belchertown Coop and kept in large jars beneath the kitchen counter. We had a chore wheel and decided things in house meetings. I'd joined the puritanical left. Nobody smoked, drank to excess, or took drugs. Sex was OK, but we didn't much talk about it.

During my first year, I was placed on academic probation after flunking French and balancing my one A in Marxist American History with a few Cs. As someone who had skipped most of high school, I was poorly prepared for college. I didn't really know how to study, and the undiagnosed ADHD didn't help either. I wouldn't figure that one out for another twenty years. As long as my coursework mostly involved reading and writing, I was fine. I decided to major in Social Thought and Political Economy and minor in journalism.

My girlfriend Kathleen had a job as a typesetter, and taught me her trade on some funky little terminal that used cassette tapes for memory. I soon landed a job on a Varityper making posters and brochures for student organizations. This was a computer terminal that saved jobs to big floppy disks and printed text to photographic paper. I'd cut out the lines and columns with a metal ruler and exacto blade and use a waxer, light table, and border tape to make things all nice and balanced.

The Radical Student Union was homebase between classes, and the Student Communications Office, which housed my beloved Varityper, was just downstairs. I was happy. Overwrought, but happy.

The College Republicans had a strong- well-funded chapter and offered a convenient nemesis. The Contra War in Nicaragua was in full swing and there were US-funded horror shows in El Salvador and Guatemala as well. Nuclear proliferation and star wars threatened the planet, and apartheid was just beginning to surface as a campus issue.

The night Ronald Reagan was re-elected, a farmhouse party in Belchertown culminated in a solemn flag burning ceremony as we held hands in a circle and sang We Shall Overcome.

That was just the sort of thing we did back then.

Reaganomics, which was characterized by heightened military spending, tax cuts for the wealthy and the middle-class, and large cuts in government spending, especially that directed toward the poor, was bringing homelessness back on a scale that hadn't been seen since prior to World War II.

The call went out from Mitch Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) that protesters were needed in Washington, DC for their month long Harvest of Shame action. We rented a van on the RSU's dime and drove the 400 miles to get ourselves good and arrested. Our English anarchist friend Fiona taught us a song from her homeland that we sang every chance we got:
Trash trash, trash all the nation
We are the anarchist generation,
We're gonna find a new direction
We're gonna have an insurrection.

BOLTCUTTERS! Devolution,
We're gonna have a, revolution
Something, something something,
Something something, something
As our group of baby radicals broke into song at the slightest excuse, the older and clearly exhausted activists from DC would look at us in wonder, and then be happy that we were leaving after the weekend.

When we arrived, Mitch Snyder was in the 43rd or 44th day of a fast that had come to the point of being seriously life-threatening. At issue was $5 million dollars that the CCNV wanted from DC to renovate their famous shelter for 800. This was where we came for our CD training and orientation. This was my first real brush with homeless activism. Hundreds of people had arrived for the climactic end to the month of action and around 80 of us would be arrested in front of the Capitol the next day.

The CD itself was one of those highly choreographed things that involve groups of people going limp and being flexi-cuffed and carted — with various degrees of delicacy — off to jail. Our group went to DC Central Cell Block. Most of the arrestees posted $80 in bail and were free. We, on the other hand, were prepared to gum up the system with our bodies.

The system pretty much took it in stride. We were placed two to a cell in four by eight rooms that had steel plates suspended from the walls as beds and a toilet and small sink. Three times a day they would trundle a laundry cart down the aisle that was filled with paper bags. Each held a baloney, mayonnaise and white bread sandwich and a plain donut. The donuts tasted like baloney. There was also coffee, which was terrible.

Some of us took this as an opportunity to fast. We devised a game that used sandwiches in baggies as a sort of a hockey puck. The goal was to get it through the feeding slot of the opposite cell. Opponents were allowed to block the hole with their hands, but not from the inside. Periodically we'd fish the sandwiches from the hallway using a belt.

The lights were on constantly. It was a long, three day weekend. We lost sense of time. The highlight for all of us was when Todd, who had all of Alice's Restaurant memorized down to the slightest inflection, performed the whole thing at 3 am. The real prisoners down the hall yelled for him to "shut the fuck up."

Eventually, we were taken to court where a judge dismissed our charges and were reunited with the women radicals who had gone to a different jail. They complained of mushy broccoli and scratchy blankets. We, on the other hand, had done hard time, with nothing but baloney and donuts.

I broke my glasses by rolling over them as they laid on the steel plate of my bed. My cell mate was a gay friend named Matthew. We amused ourselves by telling people my glasses were smashed in an attempted jail rape.

Snyder ended his fast on the 49th day when the District of Columbia capitulated to the CCNV's demands. He had lost fifty-seven pounds. When asked if he was afraid to die, Snyder said, "No. It's painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I'm afraid I'm not doing enough."

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

1 comment:

Aria Littlhous said...

Today I was meditating in the yoga studio. The room was flooded with sunshine, the hard wood floors shined, I couldn't feel the ceiling over my head. And then I was in the giant gray cube where I learned about non-violent communication as part of a training in civil disobedience in 1983. I was a baby radical and in a few days we were going to Washington DC to be arrested with Mitch Snyder, the Community For Creative Non-Violence and the DC City Councilors that would bring the whole thing home.

It may have been in that giant gray cube (as I remember every inch including the drop ceiling was gray/carpeted/smelled like acrylic) in the basement of the Student Activities building that I had my first lesson in meditation. Or maybe today I had one of those "aah hah" moments while staring at the mirror, the same kind of moment I had when I first groc'd non-violent communication. At that moment, over 20 years ago, I felt like I learned a truth that would save the world. If only the world knew about non-violent communication and the labor theory of value, all would be well. I knew it. I knew that that I was hearing the truth. I knew it in my soul.