My kind of “hoax”

Disclaimer: As an older organizer who rarely participates in online activism, several friends asked me about my decision to participate in yesterday’s facebook “check in” at Standing Rock. I have no special authority on this topic, nor am I disparaging anyone else’s choice: this is really a response to several conversations, instead of writing four long emails to explain why I took the action I did.


My first reaction when I saw the call to “check in” was skepticism that this tactic could subvert online surveillance of activists. Like many corporate campaigners, I disabled location tracking for most apps long ago because social media surveillance is not a new tactic for law enforcement and the same types of private security companies who are perpetrating harassment and violence against the water protectors in ND.

But even without a clear source for the ask or an easy way to measure the impact, I couldn’t see the harm in participating in a gesture of solidarity to raise visibility and galvanize the movement. After months of donating, divesting, demonstrating, reading, listening, speaking out and showing up, I still wake up every morning in a warm bed, not a cold campsite or a fenced-in cage. In my journey to decolonize my own mind, perfectionism has been one of the hardest ideals to unlearn: letting go of the idea of a “right” way of doing “enough.” Of course, I want to be responsible for any harms my actions may cause – intentional or not – but beyond that, the worst choice for me is silence and inaction.

Often, I don’t take online actions because the time and energy it takes this old dog to think through new tricks can feel disproportionate to the value, and face-to-face organizing can be a better use of my time. But I keep returning to these potent paragraphs by Ricardo Levins Morales who wrote, “there are things in life we don’t get to do right.” For me, this was such a moment: it wasn’t a perfect action but it seemed potentially helpful, with little potential for harm, so I chose to act by checking in, although I linked to additional readings and action steps, rather than the copy/paste explanation about subverting law enforcement.

Since the Sacred Stone facebook page could not confirm who started the tactic, it’s impossible to know if their intentions were sincere solidarity or attention-seeking, half-baked or deeply thought out. But I’ve been around long enough to know that when any mobilization builds power, detractors always step forward to criticize the tactics, if not the goals, of the participants. Before long, I began to see the comments questioning the efficacy of the check-in, even calling it a “hoax” based on a Snopes designation as “unverified” because Sheriff’s spokespeople denied using check-ins for surveillance, and no source for the action could be verified. The word may apply, but if so this felt to me like the best sort of hoax.

I’m the last person to judge those who do or don’t participate in a given tactic. Most of my organizing is never reflected on social media because I overthink the performativity of those spaces, and my best contributions are made in face-to-face work. The speed with which online actions are shared often precludes depth and accountability, and an action about Standing Rock which may not have originated there is politically questionable, to say the least. I’m not sure if checking in was a good or bad choice, but for some, the action may have served as a step towards becoming active accomplices with the movement for indigenous sovereignty.

I’d rather spend my energy planning the next action instead of agonizing over the last one. But most organizers will agree that when thousands upon thousands of people take action to publicly stand in support of your movement, that is a moment of strength and opportunity. As Dallas Goldtooth reflected on the check-ins, while this tactic is “not the gamechanger you may think it is,” it keeps folks engaged, keeps the movement fresh, and “helps show the racist arses at Morton County police department that we are more than just some rabble rousers in a field… we are a fucking global movement of pipeline fighters. So check in and come see the view.”

I have no interest in policing anyone else’s tactics, but I have made the mistake of being overly skeptical in the past, and being on the “other side” of this one felt like progress for me, personally. It’s easy to point out the flaws in any strategy, but for me it’s harder to let go of being “right” and trust in the collective power of movements. I do wish people would fact-check more before rushing to share the latest viral meme, and I will always prioritize organizing over easy gestures like changing a profile picture, or checking in. No one believes that a single facebook action is “enough,” but the speed with which this idea took hold proves that people are hungry for new tactics and ways to help. People of conscience around the world are invested in this struggle and seeking ways to stand together: and we can only find those ways by focusing on our goals, not on judging the “authenticity” of our friends’ harmless tactics.

Anyone who has been building this movement, who has spent more energy seeking liberation than debunking others’ tactics, has every right to critique the check-in and push us all to do more. But as a reformed naysayer, if that’s all you’re bringing, I urge you to try harder. As Kelly Hayes recently wrote, “Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone – including you – to do better, rather than honing the membership of your clubhouse.” The facebook check-in is easy to critique, and I have total respect for the choice not to participate, but if you want to tell me why my choice was wrong, please also bring me a new idea of how we are going to win this fight. Because while I’m working on my perfectionism, I still know that everything I can do is not nearly enough. Let’s do this.

A big “thank you” for a small city (and tiny state)

I moved to Providence four years ago, hoping for a stepping-stone away from an abusive family and space to regroup, rebuild the resources I had lost and figure out where to go next.


In achieving all of that, somewhere along the way I fell in love with this place. I don’t know if I’ll be here for the rest of my life, but right now the answer to “what’s next?” is right where I am.

2For me, Providence has been a supportive, gentle and beautiful place to heal and thrive. It’s not just the elegant architecture, stunning sunsets and wild rabbits; people here have been kind, resilient and genuine, with few of the pretensions I’ve found in bigger cities.

We make art wherever inspiration strikes, large:


or small:


but never boring:


No doubt, we have our work cut out to ensure that Providence serves all of its residents. In fact, one of the first people who reached out to make me welcome here lacks the paperwork necessary to feel secure above the hateful winds of prevailing national politics. But as a place to plant my feet and fight for a better future, this feels like solid ground on which to take my stand.

In addition to sharing my gratitude, I’m recording this milestone as a lesson for my controlling self going forward: you don’t always have to know where you’re going to take the right first step.


Voisine v. US: a Supreme Court ruling hits close to home this week

When a multi-family house on my street caught fire this weekend, in addition to eight people, a dog, and about a dozen snakes, firefighters found a four-foot alligator in the third-floor apartment. According to the downstairs neighbor, she “didn’t know until today” that all of those animals lived in her building.

So when I sat down with my first cup of coffee this morning and found my block barricaded by nine police cars, I was already in a curious frame of mind. My quick search didn’t explain this morning’s incident, but I learned that the building at the center of the activity was the scene of an arrest a few months ago after a resident threatened to shoot his wife and children. At the time, police confiscated “a Springfield XD 45, a Walther PPK, and a Smith and Wesson .357 mm revolver.”

I don’t know whether my neighbor was convicted of anything, nor do I know what brought over a dozen officers back this morning. But learning these facts really drove home to me the meaning of this week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal ban on gun ownership by those convicted of domestic abuse. No question: I am way more frightened of my human neighbor than any alligator. Sure, I was surprised to hear the number of reptiles living in that house, but a “friendly” and properly-regulated exotic animal does not threaten my safety in anything like the way that an armed and violent angry man does, whether or not I’m his primary target.

Now that I’m aware of the situation I can make an extra effort to pay attention and take any opportunity to extend my support to his wife and children. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit I also want someone to take his guns away for the safety of every neighbor on the street… even the alligator.

Defeating my cigarette addiction

Giving up cigarettes a year ago was an enormous achievement for me. Since I smoked heavily for over two decades, several friends have asked me how I did it. In honor of completing a year without one, here are my top three tips for anyone thinking of quitting.

First, and definitely most important for me, is to build up your own determination. Every time I’m struck with a craving, I think: “I want a cigarette, but I want to not smoke even more.” Before quitting, I listed out all my reasons and made sure I always had them accessible in rough moments. We probably all share many reasons in common (health, financial, political, etc.) But I recommend writing your own. Success will come down to your own commitment to your goals and priorities, so these reasons will be your foundation.

Second, when really tempted to cheat, I would think: “the cigarette is the problem, not the solution.” The drug is creating the addiction and the withdrawal, not satisfying it. Even if you cave and have a smoke, it won’t actually fulfill what you want, it will actually just make your next craving worse. But if you push through the moment without a smoke, your cravings will gradually become less frequent and less severe. A year in, I still get the occasional craving, and I still use the misery of that moment to remind myself “I don’t want this to be for naught, I don’t ever want to go through this again.”

Finally, remember you’re not alone: more than a million people quit every year. If you know what kind of support you need, there are tools to help.

QuitIt app tracks my progress
QuitIt app tracks my progress

I use one of these apps to track my progress, but I have also used music as a support. Letting go of something that has comforted me daily for most of my life felt at times like a real loss, so I created a “freedom” playlist to help me re-frame it as a gain. Listening to these songs fortified me against momentary cravings by grounding me in the liberation I was winning through my persistence. I’ll just choose one song to leave here: for anyone trying to break free of cigarettes, get Breathe, by Sara Tavares, into your playlist. You’re welcome.

The Delightful Contagion of Public Expression

This story is a few months old but I hadn’t told it to anyone until last week, when I realized it’s funny enough to be worth sharing and that it requires photos to tell properly, so here goes.

Back in February, in the midst of one of the coldest, snowiest winters I can remember, I was in serious need of some inspiration when I went to my neighborhood mailbox and found this sticker:

2015_2_6 Bway box

I took a photo because I had gone to send music about activism and corporate campaigns to a fellow organizer, and I knew she’d be amused. I also took it as a sign that I was living in a great neighborhood, on the west side of Providence, Rhode Island.

Crossing from the west side into downtown Providence means crossing an interstate on one of the overpasses that are dotted along its length every few blocks. Many of these bridges have water stains, graffiti and other markings, so I probably would have missed it if I hadn’t been on foot, but in the spring I spotted this incredible piece of public art:

2015_6 Washington overpass

If you can’t tell from the photo, the water stains at the bottom are natural formations, but the painting above reproduces the same pattern with dramatic effect. It stopped me in my tracks with pure joy, and also provoked a great exchange with a cyclist who noticed me photographing it while he was stopped at the red light.

This anonymous blessing reminded me of the mailbox sticker and made me want to contribute to the fun. By this time, the sticker had been removed and/or painted over, so I resolved to replace the message. I can’t paint but I do have a decent printer, so I printed the photo and put it inside of a magnetic plastic sleeve, which I stuck on the same side of the box where the sticker used to be:

2015_7 magnet

It was small but legible when standing next to the box. My hope was that someone would be inspired as I had been: perhaps the person who originally posted the sticker would see that it had been appreciated, or someone new would see the message who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. I chose a magnet intentionally to be impermanent; I didn’t want to create clean-up work for anyone but I was curious to see how long it would stay in place.

Not only did it stay for nearly two months, the first time it rained someone adjusted it to protect it better from the rain. I had slapped it on a bit crooked, but someone clearly straightened and centered it, making the slot on the side less exposed to the elements:

2015_7 straightened

…and that’s my story: anonymous public expression inspiring more of the same. On one level, it’s a laughably small thing to do, but at the same time, it felt like a reminder from the universe (or my neighbors) that everything we do matters. Every day we have the choice to inspire each other and lift up the beauty around us. I truly hope I can find more opportunities for public art, humor and silliness in 2016 – and I’m more convinced than ever that Providence is a great city to do it in. Continuing across to the other side of that overpass, you will find this gem:


I rest my case.

Three songs in tribute to water

This week, I’m thinking a lot about the residents of San Bartolo Ameyalco, Mexico whose resistance to the extraction of community water resources turned violent last week in the latest of what the State Department has predicted will be an increasing number of conflicts over water resources.

Working for the past few years on a campaign challenging corporate control of water has sensitized me to the political, economic and public health aspects of water. As the basis for all life, water has the potential to be a profoundly unifying shared interest and foundation for movement-building. You can find much more on that at the campaign website, but in this space I’m offering a tribute to the very personal, emotional, even spiritual connection each of us has with this life-giving element.

From bathing to drinking to washing dishes, every day I benefit from the gifts of the natural environment and the previous generations’ investments in the infrastructure that supports my lifestyle. So in honor of the global movement for water justice and in tribute to our daily relationship with this life-giving element, I’m welcoming June with three songs that speak to my relationship with water far better than my words can:

Welcoming May with Ana Tijoux

I’m welcoming May with Ana Tijoux’s Shock, which celebrates Chile’s student protests for universal access to education and an equitable future. The title is a reference to the neoliberal “Shock Doctrine” imposed on the country through the CIA-backed coup of September 11, 1973 and the dictatorship that followed. The regime combined brutal military rule with harsh economic austerity, which included  public school closures and the implementation of enrollment and tuition costs which restricted access for students with limited means. I won’t attempt to summarize the history, but for anyone unfamiliar, a good starting-point is Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which gives a useful perspective on the Chilean coup as well as its relationship to the broader era it helped to usher in.

Today’s student protesters invoke this history to resurrect the demand for equitable distribution of democratic and economic power, beginning with education for all. Some concessions have been won, including a reduction on the interest rate on student loans, but the work is not done: in November, four student leaders won seats in Chile’s Parliament. There is good reason to hope that the struggle for justice will continue.

Ana Tijoux, whose family was forced into exile by the coup, describes the protests as “a huge lesson about the ability to unite. This is reflected in her refrain: “No permitiremos más, más tu doctrina del shock:” we won’t allow your shock doctrine any more. It’s easy for all of us to feel disempowered by the forces that govern our lives and constrain our sense of what is possible. But by standing together, we demonstrate to each other the timeless truth that when we support each other to envision a better future, almost anything is possible.

Source Note: Since I’ve started sharing music here, I got a request to include the story of how I found each artist, when I can remember it. I’m pretty sure I first learned about Ana Tijoux when she was featured on Control Machete’s “Como Ves,” although it was several years later before I got a hold of her solo work, which is even more powerful. I saw Tijoux perform live two summers ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time – if you get the chance, don’t miss her.

Welcoming April with Faudel

Winter in New England is so long that by the time the first crocuses bloom, I’ve just about given up hope for spring. Even after dozens of winters here, the euphoria of those first blossoms always comes as a surprise. Yesterday was my first sighting of spring flowers, so I have no choice but to welcome April with an exuberant song:

Faudel’s Je Veux Vivre is just the kind of optimistic, energetic tune I crave this time of year. It also makes a nice counterpoint to my earlier post about cheerful messages and depression. No doubt this song won’t be relatable for the truly depressed, but by keeping the tense in the first person, he avoids telling us how to feel, and just shares with us his own joyful experience. Hearing Faudel enumerate the many wonders he wants to live for inspires me to keep in touch with my own list. Music features prominently.

World Poetry Day

Today we celebrate UNESCO’s World Poetry Day, recognizing poetry as cultural heritage and “the song of our deepest feelings.” For many years, I found poetry difficult to read. As a painfully logical thinker, I like to “get to the bottom” of things, and the best poems have no bottom. The longer I live in this world, however, the less I need to find a singular reading. Each time I listen to these three poems, they activate new strands of thought, passion, meaning and commitment. Since I have not yet exhausted what I can get from these, perhaps others would like to join me in making meaning through listening to these poets speak their truth.

Since corporations are a preoccupation of this blog, I start with one of my favorite poems on that topic:

I first saw this clip about a year ago when I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop on poetry for social change. I’ll never say what a poem is “about,” but his relationship to his voice and the need to speak still takes my breath away:

Finally, this piece takes a well-worn word and allows me to hear it anew, one of the most important words that should always be a living act, not just a political buzz-word. There is so much power in this 2-minute performance, it makes everything seem possible:

The Corporate Emperors Have No Clothes

Since the US Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions in its 2010 Citizens United ruling, concerns about corporate political power have been growing in this country. And not just among activists: the vast majority of US voters across the political spectrum believe that corporate money is a major threat to our electoral process. As a 20-year veteran of corporate campaigning, I share these concerns, although the focus on election spending strikes me as overly narrow. Political spending is only one of the ways corporations influence our policies and our very perceptions. From junk science to revolving door relationships to PR and outright ownership of the media, the threat is real, but it is not new.

Citizens United and the rulings that preceded it rest on the legal extension of “personhood” to allow corporations to usurp citizens’ Constitutional protections, with little of the accountability. In 1911, Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” Today’s transnational giants wield exponentially more wealth and power – political, economic, legal and cultural – but Bierce still holds a critical insight: corporations aren’t persons, but their beneficiaries are.

One of the most important precedents for Citizens United was the 1978 Bellotti case, in which First National Bank successfully challenged state restrictions on corporate political spending by means of a First Amendment claim that such spending constituted protected speech. Of course a bank doesn’t have opinions, it represents the interests of its owners and managers: that is who gains extra access and extra representation under this legal regime, through their association with this fictional “person.” If First National, now Bank of America, were a person, it would have been locked up years ago for mistreatment of its employees, customers, competitors, regulators, and the communities in which it operates. This list chronicles the bank’s dozens of fines, settlements and misdeeds since the financial crisis and bailout. And those are just the legal infractions, it doesn’t even capture BoA’s environmentally destructive investments and its equally destructive pollution of our democratic process.

Of course if Bank of America were a person, it would be hard-pressed to find a safety net equal to the 2008 bailout. The fact that we are incarcerating, disenfranchising and abandoning our fellow human beings at heartbreaking and globally unprecedented rates while these serial offenders continue their rampage virtually unchecked should give us all cause for outrage. Unaccountable elites have hidden behind the corporate shield for generations. Granting political rights to structurally amoral, profit-seeking organizations corrupts one of our most important mechanisms for protecting the public interest and pursuing progress. Government of, by and for the people may be an unfulfilled ideal, but moving toward that goal requires a movement that encompasses a breadth of creative strategies and forms of activism. Whether we’re building local solutions, challenging specific harms or building toward broader policies like a Constitutional Amendment, it is we – the human persons on whose consent this government exists – who must make the rules.

I’ll end on a hopeful note because I truly believe in the power of organized (human) people. Do yourself a favor and check out Twice Thou’s the Bank Attack, written for a national protest against Bank of America and starring inspiring organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana, which is fighting back against foreclosures and building strong communities in Boston.