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Leaping beneath the radar.

There have been a few periods of my life where I've done everything possible to live below the radar of "the man." Working short-term jobs, moving frequently, living without bank accounts or credit cards. Living the life of a digital nomad, computer disks and portfolio in tow, living out of my backpack or the panniers on my bicycle.

In the days before the widespread use of the internet, google and social networking websites it was much easier to go off the grid. I'm not sure if I could pull off now what I did then.

Today's story comes out of one of those periods of living life underground.

Greyhound buses at depot - Portland, OregonJuly 1993. I'm on the bus travelling east. It's been a long time since I've been home. I can almost taste the bagels of my imagination and hear the clanking of the wheels of the subway in my mind. I got word last week that the case against the unknown John Doe had been dropped, the investigation ended, the trumped up charges erased.

I've got 3 days on the bus. Plenty of time to sit and think; read and dream and wonder if I'll manage to pick up right where I left off and jump back into the NYC Activist scene of the Lower East Side.

On this side of the trip is Portland Oregon, one of the places that took me in and gave me sustenance and shelter. I've spent time in a few cities and towns on the west coast on this trip. I didn't manage to pick up the amount of freelance work that I really wanted. I've been living very light and survival has been mostly due to the kindness and generosity of strangers and friends. A loan here, a place to crash there, a referral for a temp job that won't ask me too many questions wherever I could find them.

But now, I'm going home. On the other end of the journey is Manhattan, the grit and insanity; the dreams and the dreck.

The journey west was via Train (Amtrak not freight) when my coffers were full from a period of full-time employment. The journey home is Greyhound via a ticket purchased by my parents -- mom called it a loan knowing that I did not want her charity and knowing full well that she'd never accept repayment. The bus is a very different world from the comfort of the train. There's no bar car, no ability to sneak a smoke, few if any interesting conversations -- nothing but monotony. Still, I'm glad to be going home.

9 Months earlier I was living in a nice apartment on Clinton and Delancey, overlooking the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a noisy place, sometimes when I was on the phone the person on the other end would ask me if I was calling from a pay phone on the street. The noise of the traffic was intense, especially the trucks who frequently were skidding to a stop at the red light they knew was there but always seemed to think might just be turning from yellow to green just this one time. They would grind to a halt bouncing over the large metal plates that hid the decay that a few years later led to the bridge being partially closed and under reconstruction for years.

At the time of my departure from NYC, my eviction from that apartment was only a matter of time. It was an illegal sublet -- well it was supposed to be a legal sublet leading to me getting the lease but my friend that had the place earlier decided to not follow the instructions from the housing rights organization GOLES (good old lower east side) and screwed my chances to get the lease.

The reality of soon being houseless again, stepping back into my digital nomad persona, was making me think of leaving town for a while.

Now let me point out that I used the term houseless and not homeless. I might not have a place of my own, but I have a community. At times in the past, I'd divided up my time between friends couches, the guest spaces at neighborhood squats, and friends who were travelling who needed someone to watch their space. I spent a lot of time without a place to live, but I only slept outside when I wanted to -- mostly when I rode east towards beaches where you can covertly camp especially if you don't use a car to get there.

The other important context for the rest of the story is that I had been working a full time job doing print production work for a company that put out newsletters for heating oil delivery companies -- a perfect combination of organized crime and environmental nastiness.

I got the job thanks to an associate in the bicycle advocacy/activist community in NYC. He was the editor of the newsletters. The day he had me typeset a story that used a Greenpeace article on the dangers of building new natural gas pipelines as a way of saying "see even Greenpeace thinks heating oil is better than that cleaner burning natural gas" I knew my tenure there was coming to an end. I had been pushed too far; I just could not use my skill for this twisted propaganda anymore. I decided I was going to leave soon (but had a plan that might have allowed me to get unemployment payments). If I had made a couple different decisions I would have gotten what was mine, my unemployment payments. However, I fucked it up and got nothing.

So, the day in question I was all flummoxed over my decision, do I stay or do I go. There was a car-free central park protest, just the thing to clear my mind. I got on my bike and headed over.

At this time, cars were allowed on the central loop road only during rush hour. The rest of the time it was for runners, bikes and skaters. One problem was that the Park cops never closed the entrances and cars would continue to speed around the loop endangering the lives of those using the park for recreation.

Our protest was simple. During the time the cars were allowed, we'd take up one lane and ride really slow. We were legally allowed to take one lane so the cops would back off. At 7:01pm when the cars were no longer allowed in the park, we'd form a line and funnel all the cars out of the park onto Central Park West.

This one night, one car decided to challenge our blockade. He drove slowly into the line of bikes, making it clear that he was going through no matter what.

I had different ideas.

As I watched my friend Mike's bike slowly move under the front bumper, about to meet its death, I leapt (quite literally) into action. Lots of people are shouting, and I'm Flying over the handlebars of my bike. I landed right next to the car. My momentum was moving forward fast and I swung my hand towards the front windshield. My hand was flat open, my intent was to slap the window and scare the driver into stopping the car. But the PTSD kicked in a bit.

SMASH!

Broken car windowEveryone stops, it is super quiet for a moment. Everyone is shocked. Where there was a nice perfectly shaped front windshield a moment ago there's now a fractal pattern of chips held together by some unseen force, the middle layer of auto glass.

No one was more in shock than I was. There was my hand, completely unhurt in the center of a huge depression on the window. I must have been aiming for the driver’s head and not the glass; the glass must have been improperly installed making it vulnerable to breaking.

The Car stopped.

The Driver Got Out.

I reached for my U lock.

A funky standoff indeed.

The crowd starts chanting the license place number of the car as a way of intimidating the driver to back off. We know who you are (or do we).

As the chanting continues, I realize that under the letters and numbers we were yelling was the word "Official." Official plates mean this guy is important, he's in government or some other high level position.

This was the first moment I realized I might be in a situation that I might not get out of. Visions of my police beating in Buffalo flew around my brain and I started to panic.

I was moving slowly to the back of the crowd, starting to plan my getaway.

Bill then came rushing over to me. "Do you realize who that guy is, this is bad, get out of here."

Bill takes off his jacket and shirt and we swap clothes and bikes. I keep my backpack for a few reasons I'll go into some other time.

As we're swapping camouflage Bill tells me to look at the dashboard behind the broken window. Oh shit. Is that? Is that a red siren light? Oh shit. Oh SHIT. Oh, man this is bad. As I'm rambling Bill informs me that he's a Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Parks Department and also a Captain in the NYPD.

I'm out.

Most of the rest of the story is second hand from the folks that lived through the final chapter.

The driver apparently stank like booze and was probably drunk. Lots of folks were still around -- 4 of them decided to stick around until the cops came explicitly to try to file charges against the drunken cop driving the now wounded car.

Of course the cops refused to give a Breathalyzer to the drunken cop, they took the 4 interested in pressing charges to the Central Park Precinct. There they got to fill out accident reports, the first step towards filing real charges. After a couple of them had been given their receipts, the Commander of the precinct came in and tore up all the accident reports (but not the receipts he did not know were already in nervous back pockets).

The tables had turned. The 4 were arrested for disorderly conduct for having been in the roadway legally so they could be hit by the drunk cop.

As the situation progressed over the next week or two, it became clear that all those charges would be dropped if they turned over the "guy that hit the car with the lead pipe" The cops offered to drop the charges if they help arrest the guy that attacked the car. A John Doe warrant was issued for assault with a deadly weapon (a crime more fitting to be charged against the cop in the car if you ask me).

They refused to cooperate. They gave mocking answers.

What was his name? Sven I think... no it was Jose. No that's not it. Homer, it was Homer.

One cop asked my friend for the name of the guy with the lead pipe, he replied that there was no lead pipe. The cop, having watched too many episodes of NYPD Blue, got in his face and asked "well, what type of pipe was it?!"

There was no Pipe!!!

Anyway, after a few liberal types that knew me as a more radical but reasonable activist tried to get me to turn myself in, I decided that all signs were saying one thing: get the fuck out of Dodge.

A week or two later I was on a train from NYC to Chicago, connecting at Chicago for the train to San Fran via Salt Lake and Denver -- One of the most amazingly beautiful sections of train travel in North America.
California Zephyr near Denver, Co. wiki pws
I looked out the windows for hours, got into amazing political debates in the bar car, found out that middle America has some interesting places and people. We wound back and forth for half a day slowly climbing the Rocky Mountains, I was mesmerized by the landscape and wondered how long until I could return home.

The story would end there if not for the epilogue I learned of years later.

The Commander of the Central Park Precinct, the cop that tore up the accident reports and started the campaign to bring the biker with the pipe to justice in order to cover up for his associate’s drunken assault, is now known as the highest-ranking NYPD officer to kill himself. He was due to appear at a commission investigating police corruption and decided to eat his gun instead.

A while after that, the friend who's bike's peril sparked my actions, the friend who still had his accident report receipt when he was told by the soon to be dead by his own hand Commander of the Central Park Precinct, that there was no accident and he was under arrest, was at a family reunion. His grandfather started talking to him about how he was a little depressed; a cousin that my friend had never met was an NYPD cop and recently killed himself instead of appearing at a corruption investigation.

Not so instant karma.

------
Images from the wikimedia commons. listed in order from top of page down: By M.O. Stevens; Lionel Allorge; Peter W. Svendsen

photos, Aug 17

Back before we all had cell phones, it was not as easy to keep in touch or get info to a friend. This was especially true if your friends moved frequently or lived in squats.

People used all sorts of methods to get around this: pagers, inexpensive voicemail services, notes on doors, etc..

Around here, we also had Merlin. Merlin was a fixture in the neighborhood, he lived in front of the Con-Ed substation on Avenue A. Everyone knew Merlin and Merlin knew everyone. More than once as I walked by him and said hi, he would stop me to relay a message from a friend.

15 years ago this week, I walked by as he was being loaded into an ambulance. He had not looked healthy for a while. I ran into Blackout Books where some meeting was going on and gathered a crew to go back and gather his belongings off the sidewalk so when he got out of the hospital he'd still have his things.

I forget if it was that night or a day later that Merlin died.

Every year since, someone puts up a memorial on the anniversary of his death. Today's photos are of this year's memorial. Most of the flowers had already blown away by the time I got there.

Some coverage of Merlin from other places:

http://www.nytimes.com/1996/07/21/nyregion/neihborhood-report-east-villa...

http://neithermorenorless.blogspot.com/2006/08/merlin-remembered.html

http://evgrieve.com/2011/08/flashback-august-1996-two-week-tribute.html

Memorial Day rememberings

as with other long posts/stories, today the photos come first.

 
 
the times they have a'changed

Memorial Day 1991 was a major turning point in the struggle for the soul of the Lower East Side. The riot that erupted in Tompkins Square was used to publicly justify a plan already in the works to alter the park and neighborhood.

It became obvious pretty fast that we had fallen for a provocation; that we had played into the hands of the enemy. We gave the City exactly what it wanted.

Now, keep in mind that at that point, riots in Tompkins Square were more a ritual of summer than a rare event -- starting with the infamous 1988 Police Riot. The stakes were high; a lot of powerful people had a lot of money and future political power riding on the economic shift and wave of displacement of long time residents known as gentrification.

The park was the center of activity for those that opposed these changes. The bandshell in the park was rumored to have been built after some racial hostilities in the 60s. The idea, the rumor says, was that by allowing all parts of the community to easily put on concerts, performances and protests those different parts of the community would learn more about each other and possibly even interact and find common ground.

From what I could tell it worked. However, much to the dismay of the powers that be, it worked too well. The different factions and segments of the neighborhood started to realize that not only did they have common ground, but they also had a common enemy.

The park had to be "cleaned up" and closed at night. The bandshell needed to disappear. The City still had a bit of a black eye in terms of how the public viewed the situation around the park. The revelations that followed the '88 Police Riot still lingered in public memory.

If the City could win back the narrative; if they could regain the moral high ground, the plans could move forward.

Contracts to build a 10 foot fence around the park had already been signed; plans to demolish the bandshell already in place -- all they needed was a pretense.

I was at a meeting of the anarchist affinity group I'd been participating in for a while. It was like a scene from Monty Pytyon's "Life of Brian." The People's Front is meeting and someone comes in to tell them that the revolution is happening NOW. Their reaction... "ok, new agenda..."

OK, that's not exactly how it went, but we were meeting at the apartment I shared with my girlfriend and another friend when one of the affinity group members came in and told us that the concert in the park looked like it was developing into a bit of a riot. We all headed out into the streets; the park was only two blocks away.

The rumor -- to this day I do not know if it was true or not -- was that the cops started harassing a homeless man and he decided that with all those anarchists, squatters, housing activists and homeless advocates in the park that he had no reason to take their crap. One thing led to another and soon the bottles were flying and the back and forth surge of cops in one direction and then bottles and activists pushing them back started.

The cops retreated; fires were built; trash cans were overturned and makeshift barricades went up.

The cops went around to all the stores and restaurants still open and warned them that they should shut down. I'll never forget Ray, the guy that owns the small news stand/soda shop on Ave A. just north of 7th street. When he was told to close, he told the cops that the activists were his customers and as long as we were in the street he'd stay open.

There was a strange mood in the air. At one point, someone that none of the neighborhood activists recognized came out of the crowd. Only a few people thought it was strange that he had a crowbar, only a few objected when he broke the locks off the health and beauty aids store north of Ray's.

The gate rolled up and a mob ransacked the place. Even if we won the battle of that night, we had just lost the war.

Eventually a torrential downpour started, the fires went out and everyone ran for shelter.

Public opinion anywhere but in the neighborhood was turned against us. A couple weeks later the park was closed; the fence built; the bandshell destroyed; 14 months of police occupation had begun.

One night after the closing of the park, during a protest a limousine nearly ran down half the crowd. These days, a limo on Ave C and 7th street could be a tourist partying at one of the million hip bars or nightclubs; even someone who lives in the vicinity. Those days, especially on that corner, it meant one thing: some rich jackass buying heroin. The driver of the limo freaked out, and with hundreds of people on either side of the car marching down the street, drove through the crowd. No one was hurt but a lot of people were angry. In a frantic move to get away from the angry crowd, the driver turned down 5th street.

Anyone familiar with the neighborhood would have known to not make that mistake. 5th between C and B is a dead end. The driver stops at the end of the street, thinks for a minute and then turns around, sees the angry crowd and floors it. Luckily we all got out of the way and no one was killed.

There are two details about this event that stick with me. The license plate of that limo (New Jersey, OL519C) and the way the NY Times mentioned this part of the protest under the subhead "Bad Relations With Neighbors" telling the story, without anything but the reporter's outsider assumptions, of how the protest attacked a neighbor, in his car on his way home.

Even among most of the staff of the radical weekly newspaper I worked for at the time, The Guardian Newsweekly, the view of the story followed the official narrative. Not only did I sense a disrespect of this movement but the story was never covered in depth in the paper.

One staff member even referred to that report as she told me of how the demonstrations and activists, who she believed to be crazed anarchists, acted without respect for the people that lived in the neighborhood. When it came to coverage of foreign issues, she knew not to trust the Times, but when it came to issues in her own city she trusted the Times more than the members of the staff that had seen the protests with their own eyes.

Some good came out of this. Alliances were strengthened among many factions in the neighborhood. Anarchists stood side by side with church parishioners, priests, immigrants, artists and even a few yuppies in an event called "hands around the park."

A nightly ritual that became known as "walking the pig" started the day after the park was closed and continued nightly for at least a month. We'd walk around the neighborhood chanting and singing -- a crowd of up to a couple thousand people, followed by hundreds of well armed riot cops.

Those alliances continue to today, but much of what we were fighting for has been lost.

So, on this memorial day, I sat back in the park and remembered some of my comrades in struggle that are no longer with us. Uncle Donie, Presente! Lisa, Presente! Brad, Presente!, Michael, Presente! I remain inspired by your spirits.

bringing a little chaos to Cleveland

Got a long post today, so I'm starting with the photo, then to the words.

At this point in my retelling of past stories, I've hit a couple of walls. Wall one is my own memory. It has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would to get what I feel is an accurate outline of the event. As I started getting closer, I realized that I had run into wall two -- how would the people I was friends with and participated in protests and organizing with feel about me telling our shared stories twenty some-odd years later? I've lost touch with most of them, although I have recently reconnected with some and have friend-of-a-friend peripheral connections to a few others. The vast majority of those I have any current connection to are still activists, but that's not a guarantee that they want me publicly detailing the stupid things we did when we were young.

It seems that the only way over or around those two walls is to accept (and explicitly state) that there is an element of fiction involved. These stories, because of bad memory and respect for those involved can't help but see me combining different people together into one, giving credit to the wrong people -- even misplacing events in time and place to an extent.

So, if you recognize yourself in these stories, yes that's you. My apology if I attributed your actions to someone else and if I get things wrong. Names are changed; not everything is as it was, and at the same time this is exactly what happened.

Please keep in mind that most of these stories are first drafts, very rough sketches of what I hope to someday complete.

This episode is one that was reported by the press, and that coverage can still be found via many sources. As is typical in political protests, the full story never got reported. I guess that's really our own fault, this part of action was planned and conducted with as much secrecy and stealth as possible.

It's 1986 and the issue of Ronald Reagan's anti-missile system -- Star Wars or the Strategic Defense Initiative -- is the focus of a small but healthy protest movement. For me, it was a good way to open a discussion about the militarization of the University, scientific research and society in general. It was never an issue I thought the revolution would spring from, but I did believe it was possible to fuel the movements that could give rise to real rebellion by getting people to dissect this issue.

At SUNY Buffalo, there was a clear local focus to rally around. The University had been given a research grant that explicitly allowed the results of the research to be classified by the military. The contract clearly required that the military review and approve anything published by the researchers. This was not only a blatant violation of the concepts of academic freedom, but was an explicit violation of the SUNY guidelines -- which banned classified military research after the campus uprisings of the early 70s. I'll go into this more in later posts.

One of the core organizers of that anti-SDI protest movement, -- The other Eric, who I think spelled his name with a k -- had been in connection with a group calling itself No Business as Usual. NBAU quickly got sucked into becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the RCP, but in its early incarnation it seemed to at least have some independence from authoritarian Party-politics. The United Press International wire service's article on the Oct 20 1986 protest referred to NBAU as an organization "based in Berkeley, Calif., made up of religious, campus and political antiwar activists." (source http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1986-10-21/news/8603040173_1_protesters... )

The NBAU crowd was organizing a national day of action focused on SDI and one of the primary actions was happening in Cleveland, not around the corner but not an impossible drive from Buffalo.

So the other Erik convinced a bunch of us to go. He rented a 12 person van and as any good organizer would do, he kept asking until people agreed.

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.