Lessons from the other night, when I thought I killed my friend

The bed of my dump truck broke free from the body, flipping to the side as two and a half tons of dirt and metal crashed to the ground. For the first three seconds, my friend was under that massive pile. For three seconds, my friend was unquestionably dead. Except that he wasn’t actually under the mound, he had moved out of the way. But I didn’t know that. In my mind, I was in some way responsible for a death. In my mind, I was helpless, incompetent, terrified, confused, and utterly broken. I called his name and at first there was no response. I ran around the broken truck and saw him. I have never been so relieved. I wasn’t thinking about the thousands of dollars of repairs, I wasn’t thinking about the jobs to be postponed. I was grateful, utterly, deliriously grateful.

That moment and the two days since have taught me some things. Here are some things that I’ve learned:

*What the fuck are we doing?          

Seriously, what the fuck are we doing. If you’re old enough to be reading this than you will be dead in the next 90 years. I guarantee you, it will happen. It could happen today. The bed of a truck may fall on you now. What are we doing? Why are we giving so much attention to such petty bullshit? Why can’t we put the excuses aside and really love the people that matter to us. Why can’t we put the bullshit aside and love?

I read a book a few years ago where when you forgot what was important in life you had to play Russian roulette. You had to put a bullet in the chamber, spin it, put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. If you lived you’d understand how valuable your life was. I’m not advocating this as a good practice, but I can understand the result. We need a good, humbling smack in the face every once in a while. Most of the time we’re too damaged to realize the value of what we have. Most of the time we don’t see the sunset.

* A truck is not a truck

A truck is not a truck, it’s the product of many decisions. Sometimes it looks like a truck, other times it looks like iron ore and rubber plantations, other times it looks like a welder who was distracted because his kid is sick and he’s having a shitty day so he rushes a weld. A truck is not a truck, a house is not a house. It is sometimes and other times it isn’t. These things change quickly, we should expect that. Things break, sometimes fall. Sometimes they move soil and transport people, other times they kill people. Proceed with caution.

* I have an amazing, caring community, and that scares the shit out of me

Since the truck attempted homicide the support we’ve received has been amazingly humbling. My neighbor, who I was pretty sure didn’t like me the first few years we lived here, spent ten hours helping me deal with the problem. Today he was driving around helping me look for a new truck bed. Other friends have offered money, ice cream, love, and concern. Two friends are letting me borrow their trucks to help me stay on my work schedule while we’re dealing with our truck.

This is so wonderful, and so scary. I don’t like getting help. I don’t like needing it. It terrifies me. I’m not sure how to give it back. I believe in community. I want to be a member of a strong community. I am,  but it still scares me. Why is this so hard? Earlier today I was listening to “On Being with Krista Tippett.” The guest, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bad ass, the type of radical Christian I can get on board with. She said that she doesn’t believe the aphorism that “you’re only given as much as you can handle.” She believes that you are only given as much as your community can handle. Our hardships must be distributed, used as a thread binding us together, solidarity in the flesh. I believe this. I am struggling to live this, and I am so, so glad to be alive.

Solidarity Wherever: Remembering West Virginia- in South Africa

Last month 34 striking mine workers were killed when police fired automatic weapons at a crowd of protesters demanding higher wages in Marikana, South Africa. Tensions have been building for months as miners demand an increase in their pay from 4,400 rand a month to 12,500, or in U.S. dollars a raise from about $450 a month to $1350 a month. Thousands of miners went on a wildcat strike in mid-August to demand better compensation for their dangerous work in the Lomnin platinum mines and were met with bullets instead of negotiations, resulting in the largest display of force by South African police since the days of apartheid.

I heard about the Marikana massacre on Democracy Now the next day, but didn’t really begin to investigate the conflict until a few days ago. As I was reading articles about the strike I was listening to a new album called “Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising.”  The album beautifully documents the dramatic history of labor struggle in the mountains of West Virginia and continues the work of protecting those mountains by fighting against mountain top removal mining today.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest uprisings in US history, was the most dramatic event of the South West Virginia mine wars. Though the Battle took place in August of 1921, it bears striking resemblance to August of 2012 in South Africa. In 1921 West Virginia coal miners were fighting for their right to form a union and were met with bullets and even bombs. Like in South Africa, they tried to negotiate until it became apparent that the owners of the mines had no interest in sharing their plentiful profits. The Battle of Blair Mountain ended after the Sheriff’s Department had fired over a million rounds of ammunition and nearly 100 miners and 30 from the Sheriff’s Department were left dead. In South Africa, West Virginia, and so many similarly tragic struggles, the police aligned themselves with the owners of the mines over their own class interests.

The Blair Pathways album does an incredible job of transporting the listener to West Virginia in the early twentieth century. As I close my eyes and listen to the traditional songs of the time, of the ballads about the mine wars and Mother Jones, and to the spirited rendition of Solidarity Forever, I can feel some of the anger, pain, and joy of those struggling in those mountains. So, what songs will we sing to mourn the dead of the Marikana mines? What songs will we sing to unite our own struggle with theirs? What songs are they singing to mourn their dead, to continue their struggle? Can we hear them singing?

*For more on the struggle in South Africa, go here : www.democracynow.org/2012/8/21/massacre_in_south_africa_police_defend

*If you would like to buy an album and support the Blair Pathways project go to www.blairpathways.com/

Recognizing the Heroes in our Midst: My Tribute to Pam Africa

As I type, I look on the walls of my office and see posters and photos of people that inspire me. Many of them; Malcolm X, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Charles Darwin, I can only know through their writing and reputation. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to know and build relationships with many of the people who’ve inspired my life. One of those people, a very important one, is Pam Africa.

Last weekend there were events to recognize the life of achievement and endless energy that Pam exhibits. I was deeply upset to have been unable to attend those events, so I’m taking some time tonight to write some of the things that I would have liked to have said then. Many know Pam for her tireless work to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the MOVE 9, and all political prisoners. They’ve witnessed her incredible strength in standing up to repressive police, forcing the Philadelphia police department to back down and give ground. In the over thirty years that Pam has been fighting for justice her reputation has spread internationally as she has traversed the globe speaking, teaching, and working, constantly working for justice. Many know of her ability to work all night and day, with little to no sleep, and yet still have an unexplainable and contagious energy.

However, I feel like I’ve been incredibly privileged to see a side of Pam that not everyone gets to see and learn from. I first met Pam in 1999, when I was 15, at a demonstration in DC against the U.S. Bombing of Yugoslavia. I’d been organizing around Mumia’s case for over a year at that point, had read a lot about the MOVE Organization and was supportive. I knew that Pam would be speaking that day, and having heard a great deal about her I hoped to meet her. I don’t know what I was expecting; a giant, an entourage, I’m not quite sure. I looked around for a while and asked a man near the microphone if he knew where she was. He directed me to her, and I was a bit surprised to find, not a giant, but a woman a good bit, a very good bit shorter than my 15 year old self. I was taken aback by how accessible and patient she was, taking time to talk to an awkward teenager.

My next encounter with Pam was later that year when PA Governor, Tom Ridge signed Mumia’s death warrant. In the preceding months I’d become close with people who knew Pam well, and after driving up from Norfolk, VA we went to Pam’s house to help drive signs to the demonstration. Pam was on the phone running up and down the stairs grabbing signs, pressing t-shirts, and organizing fliers. Thinking I was being helpful I offered to help press the t-shirts. Well, not knowing what the hell I was doing and being too shy to ask proved to be a bad combo. I managed to leave the press down far too long and burn the t-shirt press together, making it completely useless. The way Pam reacted in this stressful moment, when expensive machinery was ruined, when Mumia was literally threatened with imminent murder, with thousands of people waiting for her at Broad and Spring Garden, is a perfect example of her character. She didn’t lose her temper, she gently moved me toward another task, and didn’t let me know what I’d done until years later.

Upon graduating from high school in 2001 I moved to Philly, for what was supposed to be three months, to staff the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia office. After 11 years of living in or near Philly I’ve received many valuable life lessons from Pam. That first summer Pam spent time on the phone calming my mom down when my car was stolen outside of the Mumia office at two in the morning while a friend and I were burning the midnight oil printing fliers. She consoled and advised me a few times after I was picked up, at times due to my own naivete and youthful arrogance, by Philly cops for Mumia related activities. What many don’t know is that aside from being an international spokeswoman, and one of the most bad-ass organizers of this era, Pam is always wearing a dozen hats. She is caring, present, and empathetic. She is a fiery revolutionary and an incredible mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.

When I was staffing the Mumia office in 2001 a fellow activist commented that Pam shouldn’t be running around getting fliers made, and other such small tasks. She thought that Pam should stick with the important stuff, speaking tours, demonstrations and the like. But that’s Pam. She’s involved in everything. She’s rooted in the community and she’s an international figure. She’s on the phone with an organizer in France while she’s attending to her grand kids. I’ve watched as Pam made soup and purchased groceries for an injured activist, hauled them up four flights of stairs and cleaned his apartment, not once, but many times, often a few times a week, until he recovered. This is one of hundreds of similar stories. Pam exhibits a love for people, a love for life, that isn’t bound by political campaign or category. A few weeks ago we were driving up to visit Mumia, and during the ride she was on the phone organizing against Mayor Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public. I could go on for many more pages, but it’s not necessary. We have the benefit of a living hero as an example of how to love and how to fight. At times Pam has been my second mother, my sister, my role model, and friend. I’m infinitely grateful to her, and am proud to struggle by her side.

Lessons in simplicity from another kind of Monk

I’ve had the same Thelonious Monk album in my cd player for over a month.  Our house’s last remaining cd players sits atop the refrigerator, a dusty three-cd changer that was all the rage in the early nineties.  I spend a great deal of my time in the kitchen and usually listen to NPR or a podcast of “Democracy Now” as I cook.  However, lately it’s Thelonious Monk.  Each time I listen I get more and more from it.

I listen to music constantly, but for some reason this is the first time in a long time that I really feel I’m listening.  I’ve gained such enjoyment from eight beautifully orchestrated tracks.

This all makes me wonder why I have hundreds of albums; 40 gigs of music, meticulously catalogued on a back-up hard-drive.  I’ve probably spent over a hundred hours uploading albums, labeling info-less tracks, and cursing the false-gods of Apple.  All that time, when I could have been listening.

The Classroom, the Cell, and the Street

The night before last I had a gun put to the back of my neck for the contents of my backpack and pockets.  There was a book in my bag that I can only hope the three teenage assailants will read.  I know it’s not what they were robbing me for, but if they read it with the attention it deserves it would be far more valuable for them than any amount of cash they could have stolen.  The book is the latest work from the brilliant minds of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America.

Abu-Jamal and Hill converse with comfort and ease, logic and love, about some of the most serious issues of the day.  Both men grew up in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods.  One has written seven books from the confines of Pennsylvania’s death row, the other teaches at Columbia University.  Together they have an expansive view of Black life in America.  The Classroom and the Cell is a must read for building a movement against the school to prison pipeline.  This daring text elaborates on Michelle Alexander’s mind-blowing work, The New Jim Crow, by providing personal insights into our national epidemic of mass imprisonment, specifically concerning populations of color.

Hill and Abu-Jamal advance the goal post for the prison abolition movement by transcending academic discussion and delving deeply into personal reflection and palpable empathy.  I’ve been educated and impressed by Mumia’s previous works, such as Jailhouse Lawyers, Faith of our Fathers, and We Want Freedom.  However, this is something different.  I’ve had the privilege of spending many hours visiting with and getting to know Mumia.  This text is the closest one can come to getting to know this complex and beautiful man through the written word.  The Classroom and the Cell brings the reader into the conversation with its honesty and vulnerability.

While the work focuses on Black life in America, Abu-Jamal and Hill passionately discuss the roles of nationalism, homophobia and patriarchy as interconnected systems of oppression.  The Classroom and the Cell is a humanist work of profound love for people.  The authors understand the necessity of building community in organizing social movements.  Much of my political education began in the era of “the Battle of Seattle” in 1999.  Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms had a tremendous impact on my early activism.  Now, in the era of the vibrant Occupy movement, The Classroom and the Cell should be on every activist’s bookshelf.

Maybe the teenagers who robbed me will read the book in my backpack.  I hope so, but I doubt it.  After being failed by their school system and left without options or direction I’m not certain books are where they’ll turn to seek relief.  However, we must change the discussion.  We must challenge the dominant dialogue that condemns the poor for conditions caused by the greedy.  We must expose the disproportionate jailing of people of color for non-violent crimes.  More importantly we must challenge these systems with the love and humanity expressed by Hill and Abu-Jamal.  As Mumia wrote in his essay, The Lost Generation?:

“This is not the lost generation.  They are the children of the L.A. rebellion, the children of the MOVE bombing, the children of the Black Panthers, and the grandchildren of Malcolm; far from lost, they are probably the most aware generation since Nat Turner’s; they are not so much lost as they are mislaid, discarded by this increasingly racist system that undermines their inherent worth.

They are all potential revolutionaries, with the historic power to transform our dull realities.  If they are lost, then find them.

Let’s do it.