another chapter of my misspent youth

Another long post so again the photo this time comes first.

This is one of the stories I referred to a couple days ago -- one of the adventures I had with Slugthang (and lest I appear to downplay her role, let me say that Orna was a star of this episode as well). I can't tell you the exact date, I can't even remember what year it was. 1993? 1995?

This is one of those events that seems to have vanished down the memory hole of the Tasini decision. I know it was reported, I was there, I remember reading the press coverage afterward. I can't find it anywhere.

So, on some day in some year in the early to mid 1990's I step off an AMTRAK train in Seattle and into another story. The cross country train ride was an adventure of its own, part of which is worth a tangent.

[After finishing the first draft of this story, I was reminded that this happened during the height of the Tonya Harding Olympic scandal, so I can definitively say it was 1994]

I was on my way to visit Slugo and Orna in Portland. It's day 2 of my 3 day trip from NYC to Seattle. The plan is for them to pick me up in Seattle and head to Portland for a week or two. As with most of my long-distance train trips around the U.S., I spend most of my time in the lounge/bar car. The sun is starting to set and it's just starting to get to the point where the light outside is less bright than the lights inside the train. The sights outside start mingling with reflections of the human adventure inside the train.

The night before, I crossed paths with a woman I would never see again but who for years would be one of those "what if" relationships. We kept in touch infrequently for a few months afterward. What if I had replied to her letters; what if I had not stopped calling her back; what if we saw each other again?

Oh boy, my tangent is diverting onto a tangent. Let's just say that after our day and a half flirtation she looked up and wondered aloud "I wish it was the 60's when love and sex were less stressful. For example, if not for the way that AIDS has changed sexual attitudes, what are the chances that we'd be finding a secluded spot on the train so we could... well... you know?"

An hour later, thanks to the bar-car bartender's "emergency rations" (stock of condoms) and my comfortable sleeping bag, we'd be answering that question as if it was still 1968.

Anyway, that experience had me feeling pretty good about the world and confident about myself. That plus a few beers leads me from tangent b back to tangent a. There I am, watching the world going by outside slowly morph into the reflection of the world inside. The reflections were just strong enough for me to notice one guy being picked up by his shirt and pushed down the length of the car by someone much larger than him. Hell, he was about twice my size as well.

The violence of the situation was not immediately clear to me, but when I heard the larger of the two say "fucking faggot, I'm going to push your faggot ass off this train" things became all too clear.

Being all hopped up on my own virility and beer, without thinking I got myself involved in the scuffle. I stood up, positioned myself between the two and said to the large fascist gay-basher something along the lines of "hey man, I'm not sure where you come from, but where I'm from this sort of shit just does not fly, leave this guy alone and go back to beating your wife."

He was confused just enough to hesitate before taking a swing at me. His hesitation was just long enough to give two AMTRAK staff time to grab him from behind and tackle him to the ground.

Over the next few hours, as the attacker, the intended victim and I were kept under the supervision of various AMTRAK employees, I would learn the back-story to the mess I had just jumped into.

The guy that was attacked, and the well-prepared bar car bartender were flirting with each other. The fascist and his friends heard them and when the two were making plans for meeting up in San Francisco a couple days later, they decided that it was their red-blooded American duty to bash the queers.

If not for the fact that an AMTRAK employee was involved and made it clear to everyone else who was the aggressor, I'm not sure what would have happened. I might have been the one to be dragged off the train in handcuffs at the next stop.

We get to the next stop and I'm asked to give a statement to the police. The AMTRAK employee and victim of the attack had already given theirs and I was needed to corroborate their story. The cop involved obviously did not want to deal with it and was doing his best to downplay the situation. As I was telling the cop what I had seen, the gay-bashing pinhead sticks his head out of the train, looks at me and says "you getting off in Whitefish (a resort town a stop or two away)? I'll kick your ass"

The cop had no choice at that point. "OK idiot, go back into the train, get your bags and come back. You're under arrest." Then, one of his friends makes a similar threat, this time to the AMTRAK bartender. With an annoyed look the cop says "You too. You're under arrest"

One by one, each member of this 10 person crew of bigots would do something similar. One by one they were taken from the train and arrested. Imagine if you will, a clown car of fascists.

With these two memorable and bizarre nights behind me, I arrive in Seattle.

Slugo and Orna welcome me to town and announce to me that we're not going to Portland just yet, there is an Earth First! demo at the Port of Tacoma the next day and we're heading there first.

That night, we arrived at a house where the final planning for the action was going on. Someone told me we were in Seattle. In different times I would have wanted to know more details. In those days, even knowing we were in Seattle felt like knowing too much.

Plans had been made to blockade the section of the Port of Tacoma where old growth forests, having been sliced into easier to stack boards, were exported across the oceans.

This was during the phase where Earth First! was moving from a focus on back-woods direct action to experimentation with merging their "no compromise" philosophy and public protest. Many of the methods that came out of those experiments would evolve into critical parts of events like the 1999 shut down of the WTO meetings in Seattle.

A few days earlier, a number of 55 gallon barrels had been filled with cement, lengths of steel rebar, and some pvc tubes that would allow people to stick their arms in -- using chains and either locks or (more often) carbineers to secure themselves to the barrels and become a very hard to move blockade.

Still on a total high from the insanity of the past couple days, I looked for a place to plug into the action. I had no interest in the planning, in making the decisions and in some ways I had no place there either. This was not really my struggle, and only peripherally my community. I knew those involved for enough years to put my trust in whatever they had in mind. They knew me enough to trust that I was not an agent or provocateur so I was allowed to participate.

They needed another person to ride in the back of a box truck which would be among the first vehicles to arrive at the gates, delivering the payload of barrels before the security forces had time to figure out what was going on.

As the sun came up the next morning, the caravan hit the road. A mile or so away from the blockade target, the truck stopped and 6 or 7 of us jumped into the back. The truck moved on and we all spent the next 5 or 10 minutes doing our best to not end up crushed to death by the barrels. We had failed to secure them to the sides of the truck and with each turn and hill the barrels slid around. If not for the intense desire among that group of comrades to live to see the next day; if not for the evolutionary gift of adrenaline our friends would have opened the back gate of the truck to a very gory mess of crushed parts.

You can tell a lot about the politics of a doctor, chiropractor or massage therapist by their reaction to an honest answer to the question "how did you initially hurt your shoulder?"

The truck stopped. The door slid open and we rolled out the barrels. Other friends quickly put them into place and the lockdown crew attached themselves to complete the chain. In a matter of moments, that section of the Port of Tacoma was shut down for the rest of the day.

Slowly the cops, with the help of Sanitation and road construction workers, dismantled our blockade and filled a police van with those arrested.

Most of us kept a safe distance, singing and chanting and making sure our friends were not mistreated. A small crew made their way over the fence and to the nearby warehouse and unfurled a banner. The only violence of the day happened as they tried to get back and were grabbed by some dock workers. They all made it back, teaching their would-be captors a lesson -- these hippies hit back.

As the last member of the blockade crew was removed from his barrel, a news crew asked him for a comment. He was a total anomaly to them -- wearing a suit and a Tonya Harding pin. He looked into the camera and with a little quiver in his voice explained that "I'm doing this for my god, my country, and Tonya!" at which point we all started chanting "Tonya! Tonya! Tonya!"

The total absurdity of it all gave one young woman (I think she was 17 or 18) the chance to scramble under the police van and lock her neck to the front axle. Now, the police van was the blockade.

The sun started to set, the arrestees were moved to another van, the axle was removed allowing the young woman with lock still around her neck to be taken away with the other arrested activists and we switched to legal support mode.

Years later, an alliance between these activist and some dock workers would be built; the logging company would go bankrupt due to its shortsighted policies. Clearcutting of the old growth forests continues but has been slowed a bit. This was mostly due to the spotted owl, but it still feels like we had changed the world, even if only just a bit.