Rachel’s official Occupy Wall Street roundup

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests as much as I can from Ecuador, and I’m completely in love. So I thought I’d take a minute to share my favorite articles, photos, etc. from the various occupations going on around the country:

Steve Fake sums up the origins of Occupy Wall Street and the issues that have led to many people to protest.

The official declaration of the occupation of New York City.

The Nation takes on OWS’s refusal to align itself with the Democrats and the White House, and why that’s crucially important for the movement. And another article speaks about female protesters and how OWS culture has evolved to encourage diverse voices to speak up.

Slovakian philosopher and leftist intellectual Slavoj Zizek makes an awesome speech at Zucotti Park.

Literally the best protest sign I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

Average Americans share their stories over at We Are the 99%, and n+1 explains what we should make of this self-identification.

Over at Feministing, an awesome piece on how OWS has taught average white Americans something people of color have known for a long time: the police aren’t there to keep you safe.

One of the best arrest photos I’ve seen. Great photography, great storytelling, and absolutely heartwrenching.

Feminist and activist Naomi Wolf describes getting arrested in New York.

Mother Jones calls for Occupy Earth, in solidarity with the planet the 1% are destroying.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, on why homelessness is becoming an OWS issue.

The New York Times on what Wall Street thinks of the protesters in private.

Some reflections on the role violence has played in protests in the US, and how this might apply to OWS.

And the deep green crowd calls for escalation to literally, not metaphorically, stop the 1%.

Happy reading, everyone!

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Turtles, time and something like silence

It’s almost one in the morning when I see my first turtle. She’s a leatherback, black and almost six feet long. She moves up the beach in the dark, slowly, as if carrying a great burden. Turning her massive body, back feet now facing us, she begins to dig. There’s sand flying everywhere, and we move to avoid it, trying to be quiet. There are six of us staring at her, but she seems almost oblivious to our presence. She’s focused on the task at hand. With the hole dug, she stands over it and lets her eggs drop in. They come in bursts, slimy and about the size of golf balls, falling into the sand, plopping into the nest she’s made. As she lets them go, tears stream down her face. Locals say that she’s crying at the thought of being separated from her babies. Science says she’s shedding salt from her body. There’s so much gravity in the air, so much at stake that I want to believe she feels what’s going on. In a world where fewer and fewer turtles are able to survive long enough to complete the cycle she’s beginning tonight, her presence here is beautiful, awe-inspiring, a tale of triumph. And yet the odds are stacked against her. I’m thirteen, only in eighth grade, but something in her eyes speaks to a much older part of me. I feel the emergency of the situation, the sad truth that the actions of my species are driving her kind to extinction. I see the same recognition in her tears, not directed at me, but a general sense of weariness, of someone who’s lived too long and watched the world grow less familiar, less safe. I’m afraid to move, afraid to disturb something much older and more profound than I will ever be. We all watch in silence as she covers her progeny in sand and heads back towards the ocean. And then the stillness of the moment is gone. Walkie-talkies crackle, informing others that we’ve got a turtle nest. And our work begins.
This night, I’m at a turtle station in Costa Rica. The station exists because leatherbacks and other sea turtles are under assault on multiple fronts. Habitat loss and pollution are disrupting their lives in the ocean. Human development and construction threaten the beaches where they lay their eggs. Hatchlings are confronted with a loud, confusing world upon their emergence from the safety of an eggshell, and too many of them head towards the glowing lights of civilization instead of into the water they should learn to call home. And as if all this weren’t enough, poaching of nests has become more common, turtle eggs having become a valuable black market delicacy. Our task, on this one stretch of beach, is simple. We find the nests, dig them up, and move the eggs to a fenced-off hatchery where they can be monitored and guarded against poachers. We take away their wildness in exchange for a higher survival rate because right now, the stakes are too high to sit by and let nature take its course. I’m on the late patrol, 12:30-4:30am. Since I’m thirteen, I’ve only stayed up this late once or twice in my life. The feeling that I’m awake well past my bedtime only adds to the gravity of the situation and makes the entire night feel surreal.
That week I spent in Costa Rica awakened something inside of me. I’d always known conservation was important, but that trip put that knowledge right in front of me. It’s so easy to rationalize away extinctions, to shrug and sigh and ask what we could have done differently. But spending a night watching turtles lay their eggs, and you start to see the stakes. You know in your head that their tears are just a process that’s evolved to allow them to live in salt water, but you still feel like you’re being initiated into the process of life and death, like the universe is giving you a glimpse behind the curtain.
Now, I’m in the Galapagos Islands. The air here is pregnant with environmental conflict and scientific importance.  This is where Charles Darwin himself discovered natural selection, for God’s sake. And after centuries of human interference and millions of tourists coming in and out, Galapagos is threatened too. There are introduced species threatening native birds. There’s trash building up from residents and from ever-increasing levels of tourists. I don’t need to see turtles laying eggs in the wee hours of the morning to feel that same imperative, the same sense that very real things are at stake. Today, we hiked around Santiago Island on lava flows, and we saw a species of plant that’s endemic to that island only. This tiny little succulent vine has managed to survive growing between the black cracks in the lava, and it’s found nowhere else on earth. Everywhere we’ve been in Ecuador is ecologically important, and everywhere has endemic species. But something about the Galapagos Island manages to capture that imperative better even than remote corners of the Amazon that are threatened by oil extraction. The blue waters and sun and geologically spectacular islands make me feel like I’ve come to the end of the world, or a close enough approximation to serve as a set for either Planet Earth or Pirates of the Caribbean. There are sea lions and marine iguanas everywhere, plus Darwin’s famous finches. And it’s beautiful. Spectacularly so.
Here too, there are turtles in the water. They’re green sea turtles, smaller than the leatherbacks I saw in Costa Rica, but they look similar enough that I get the same feeling. These are old animals, both individually and evolutionarily. They’re reptiles who would not look out of place alongside the dinosaurs, and each individual lives longer than most humans ever will. The nature writer Craig Childs told me last fall that you should never listen to anyone who tells you not to anthropomorphize animals, because assigning human emotions and motivations to animals is the only way we have to relate, empathize and care for them. So I watch these turtles, the way they move through the water with such slow grace and I think that they must feel the changes in their world. Maybe they’re largely insulated from the effects of civilization since they live in one of the most protected marine reserves on earth. But turtles have been known to migrate extraordinary distances, and I can’t help but think that they must notice the plastic building up in the oceans, the rising temperatures and sea levels, the way more and more two-legged creatures come in boats every year, pointing cameras at them and exclaiming in delight every time one of them sticks its head above the water to breathe. More than noticing, I look at these old sea creatures, and I think they must understand. They have to see how it’s connected, how the increased presence of humans is tied to the trash in their home, to the slow erosion of their slow way of life.
I want someone from the animal kingdom to hold us accountable, and these ancient reptiles seem like appropriate stewards of the place where life began in a primordial stew. Every single species of marine turtle is endangered on a global level, and I worry that this is the only reprimand they’ll give us. Turtles don’t cry out asking to be saved, and they don’t hold the same imperative that seems to come with polar bears and wolves. I worry that their last message will be almost silent, that they won’t warn us. I worry that they will slip away, and their absence will speak louder than the rasping way they take in air, heads just barely above the surface of the water, entering our above-ground world for a second before vanishing back into the blue-green depths of the ocean.

Danger in the forest

Temperate forests train us to be passive. Occasionally, hikers get eaten by bears or cougars, or gored to death by mountain goats. But by and large, the biggest threats you face in a temperate forest are the elements. You’re much more likely to hurt yourself by getting lost, falling off of a cliff, drowning in a raging river or freezing to death. You’re constantly battling the elements when you’re outside–taking off a fleece, putting on a rain jacket. You’re afraid of getting wet, of cold, of the setting sun.
In the tropics, the elements are more or less constant. It might rain, but it’s so warm that it doesn’t really matter. It’s always hot and humid, and so you’re constantly drenched in your own sweat. And yet, walking through a tropical forest, you have to be constantly on guard. Here, all the threats to your existence are living. There are the standard subjects of nature documentaries—anacondas lurking in rivers, poisonous snakes tangled in the vines of a tree, ants whose sting will have you in bed for two days with a fever. But really, the danger is everywhere. Wasp stings become routine, like getting bitten by a mosquito while hiking in the Cascades. You have to re-learn how to walk in an environment where you can’t grab a tree to stop a fall because the trunk is covered in spines, home to a toxic caterpillar, or protected by a group of army ants. You’re constantly vigilant, because everything around you is full of poison—the spines of plants, the insects living on them, the snakes you’ve been afraid of your whole life, the frogs hiding between the leaves. There’s no place for idle daydreaming, for putting your hands on a blind ledge or grabbing a vine without really looking at it.
And yet, here I take risks. I strip naked, wearing nothing but my rain boots, and let wasps sting me in unmentionable places as I bathe in a puddle of water on the forest floor. I run through the forest on a moonless night without a headlamp, where the dark is so total that I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I swim in a river where I’ve seen an anaconda the night before, where there are piranhas and caimans and parasitic fish that will swim up your vagina and have to be surgically removed. I do this for a week, get stung by something large and black that I can’t quite see, and my hand is radiating burning pain past my wrist for an hour. But I’m fine. I survive, largely without incident.
Now, I want to go home and get to know my place better. I’ve never thought to run naked through a temperate forest, partially because I’d probably be close to well-frequented trails, but really because I just haven’t been trying hard enough to actually be outside. I don’t go into Discovery Park at night and run around without a headlamp. I don’t sit nestled between the roots of a hemlock tree and sketch the plants near me or close my eyes and see if I can hear the wind over the sound of my own thoughts. I haven’t even snuck back into Cleveland Memorial Forest, the Seattle School District-owned piece of old-growth where my high school ran outdoor program trips, to run around on the trails that used to be my home almost every weekend during the school year. I’ve been spending too much time reading, as usual, and not enough time getting to know the plants I live near.
When I come home to the US, I’m going to feel very homeless. Since I left for Ecuador, my cousin has moved into my room. My stuff is mostly in boxes in the basement. I have stuff in storage at Whitman, but I’m not moved into my house there either. I need focus and purpose for the month I’m home, or I’m going to drive myself crazy sitting at home and feeling like I don’t quite belong. And so, I want to try to re-learn the forests of my childhood, to connect with them better, to teach myself botany like a scientist and teach myself to see place like a tracker. I want to spend a good portion of a day or two every week in the forests by my house, not hiking, but just sitting and observing things and drawing leaves. So many indigenous people raised in the Amazon are able to walk through their tropical forests with completely confidence, knowing which plants are safe to eat and how to get where they need to go. I’ve been blessed to grow up near a forest that’s safe, a forest where I’m not going to get bitten by a poisonous snake or attacked by a bullet ant. And it’s time for me to start taking advantage of that.

The gay conversation

My host brother, Nico, had one of his friends over last week (they play in a band together), and I was chatting with them about music. My brother’s friend studied in the US for a while and has a gringa girlfriend, so his English is even better than Nico’s (he’s more or less fluent, but you can tell English isn’t his first language). He always wants to speak English with me, so we usually talk in a mixture of the two languages. The boys were discussing songs for their band, and Nico mentioned loving some song by John Mayer. His friend agreed, and I shook my head.
“What?” the friend asked me.
“Nothing, he’s just an asshole and a womanizer,” I responded. We discussed this for a little while—they wanted to know how I knew this (“Have reasons, Rachel,” said Nico). I said I saw stuff about him on supermarket tabloid covers. Eventually, we agreed that his music was one thing, but as a person, he was probably an asshole.
And then Nico’s friend says, “Well, at least he’s not gay.”
Quito as a city looks pretty developed. The more rural areas of Ecuador seem more classically “third world”, but Quito might as well be a major city in the US, at least in many regards. So sometimes I forget how different cultures can be here. But this is one of the most striking differences between the US and the Third World that I’ve noticed. Say what you will about the US’s policies towards gay people, but at least among our urban, well-educated population, being gay has become almost completely normal. Not to say that there isn’t discrimination, but being gay is not the awful, secret thing it was fifty years ago. A friend coming out to me wouldn’t elicit anything more than, “Oh, ok, cool.” I’ve almost gotten to the point where I stop assuming gender when someone mentions having a significant other.
So here I am, radical feminist/ally Rachel, sitting across the table from two nice, well-educated guys who happen to believe that about half of my friends are disgusting. Cultural sensitivity is one thing, but I wasn’t letting that one slide.
“What does that mean?” I asked. Nico’s friend said something I don’t remember about gay people being gross. I said, “You know, like half of my friends at school are gay.”
He countered with, “That’s ok because you’re a girl, though. It’s not weird if they’re lesbian.”
This sentiment, that somehow lesbians are ok, or aren’t really gay, is something I also noticed in Ghana. While I was there, homosexuality was causing quite the controversy in the local papers (this all started when the main government-owned daily paper ran as a front page headline: 8000 HOMOS FOUND IN TWO REGIONS. The deck was, “majority infected with HIV/AIDS”. The actual story was that the UN AIDS program was trying to get people to come forward and get tested for HIV as a public health measure, and some of them happened to be gay.) So the whole time I was there, there were opinion columns and articles debating the ethics of tolerating homosexuals, one of which defined bisexuality as “when someone is married but maintains sexual relations with the same sex.” And yet invariably, every single article would spend paragraphs bashing gay people and then say something to the effect of, “Lesbians are totally cool, though.” I think it’s a pretty common attitude in general. For people threatened by gay-ness, lesbians are much safer. First of all, girls don’t have sex (because we’re all proper and don’t have any libido and are just waiting to be seduced by nice guys). So if someone says they’re lesbian, no one pictures two girls going at it. Also, lesbians come with the possibility of girls making out with each other! Which many straight guys seem to think is the most exciting thing in the world.
Anyway, back in Ecuador, I was shaking my head and trying to figure out what I could say to these guys. I said, “No, they’re not all lesbian, I have guy friends who are gay too.”
And then, Nico’s friend says, “Oh, that’s scary though…” He motions cutting himself and blood dripping, and says, “…and then you’ll get HIV.”
At that point, I just got mad. I said, no, that’s absurd, most gay people do not have HIV. He said, yes they do, because they all have anal sex. I said that not all gay people have anal sex, and anyway, that’s why condoms were invented. He said, no, condoms were invented for guys and girls to use, not for gay people. Clearly, I was not getting anywhere here.
And so he kept talking with Nico, and I thought about straight privilege. It hurts me to hear people talk this way about people I know and love. Two of my best friends from high school are gay. Another one is trans. My roommate freshman year was queer. About half of my friends at Whitman are not straight in some capacity. And yet, as a straight person, I can travel to countries where the prevailing attitude towards gayness is one of disgust and judgment, and I can feel safe. My relationships will never be questioned. I am normal. I fit the mold.
As I’m sitting here, thinking, he asks me what I’m thinking about. I shook my head, not sure how to explain. He says, “You’re thinking about them having sex, aren’t you?” I said no, I was thinking about all the people I know and care about who happen to be gay, but also happen to be people with characteristics other than their sexuality. He laughed and said, “But now you’re thinking about sex.” I said yes, since he brought it up. He said it would just be weird to have gay friends, because they might start liking you. I said, so what, I’ve had guy friends who liked me when I didn’t feel the same way, and it’s weird, but it wouldn’t  be any weirder if it was a girl. He shook his head and employed the standard Latino guy defense. “It’s just because we have a machista culture”, he said. That’s why we’re not ok with the gays.
Machista culture is obviously something I have a hard time with. It’s employed during orientation to tell women that we shouldn’t drink much and need to be extra careful (not that this isn’t true, but I would rather live in a world where we educate men not to rape women, rather than educating women about how not to get raped). It’s the excuse given for the men who whistle at you on the bus and creep on you when you’re walking home. It’s the go-to explanation for behavior that I would label as obsessive, bordering on stalking, when dealing with men my age in Latin America. I’m just worried about you. That’s why I’ve texted you every ten minutes for the past two hours to ask you why you weren’t responding to my first message. It’s probably the reason that when I left the club I was at on Friday night at 2am, a random strange man asked me where I was going, and when I said home, he asked if he could come with me and got offended when I said absolutely not. I can get on board with cultural sensitivity when it’s about the fact that Ecuadorians will tell you a time for something and mean an hour later. Or when it’s about the fact that food=love, so you have to finish everything on your plate lest you gravely offend your host mom. But the machista thing, I don’t buy. Cultural differences are great, but some things need to evolve. Sexism is one of them. Homophobia is another.
And yet, during this conversation with Nico and his friend, I asked them if homosexuality was illegal here. Both of them said no, absolutely not. How could that even be illegal, they asked? I said that gay sex had been illegal in many states in the US until 2003, that it was absolutely illegal in many other countries, especially in Africa, and that in Uganda, it was punishable by death. They looked at me incredulously and said no, we don’t do that here. And both of them seemed to think that the notion of making anyone’s sexual orientation illegal was absurd. I suppose that’s progress of a kind. And given how far the US has come on LGBT issues in the past fifty years, I’m optimistic that the rest of the world will soon follow.

Fútbol in Ecuador

Mostly, I write about ideas and politics on here, but I thought I’d take a break and describe some of the things I’ve actually been doing in Ecuador. Last Friday afternoon, the Ecuadorian national soccer team played the Venezuelan team in the first round of eliminator games for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Naturally, our whole group decided to go. Fútbol is almost more of a religion here than Catholicism is. The stadium was surrounded by people selling team jerseys (which we all bought), people doing face painting, and perhaps most comically, people filling giant bottles (we’re talking gallons) of beer to take into the stadium. Apparently Ecuador hasn’t caught up with the US in terms of concessions monopolies, so you’re absolutely allowed to bring beverages into the stadium. My group elected to buy a bunch of rum, three liters of Coke and some limes before we went in, so we had a great time mixing Cuba Libres on the sidewalk outside of the stadium while trying to look nonchalant when the police walked by. In the end, we were able to walk into the stadium with three liters of rum and Coke without incident.
Seats are not assigned at the stadium, and by the time we got there (an hour before the game started), every single seat was full. I use the term “seat” loosely, since they’re really concrete benches, and everyone’s goal is to squeeze as many people as possible onto them. Somehow, I talked a nice guy into giving me and a friend seats that he’d been saving, so we were able to actually sit down for most of the game.
One of the things about going to a national sporting event (as opposed to say, a baseball game in the US), is that supporting the team boils down to a thinly-disguised fanatic sort of nationalism. It’s like how everyone in the US gets during the Olympics, except when you’re actually watching the game, it’s right next to you and much, much louder. Ecuadorians have a fútbol song, which I’m convinced every single person in the country knows the words to, and people just started singing it all the time before and during the game. The words are, “Vamos, Ecuatorianos, esta noche, tenemos que ganar,”
 which translates to, “Let’s go, Ecuadorians, tonight, we have to win.” (It sounds a lot better when it’s being sung in Spanish). My favorite part of the game was when they announced the Venezuelan team. I didn’t even realize they were announcing anything—the sound system wasn’t much of a match for the noise made by a full stadium of fútbol fans—but as soon as they called the first player’s name, the entire stadium raised their fists in the air and chanted, “¡Hijo de puta!” (son of a whore). All of this, perfectly coordinated, for every single player on the team. I was impressed.
Ecuador won the game (thank god), 2-0. The whole experience made me wish soccer was more of a thing in the US. I’ve always been a baseball girl, though I stopped watching pros when the Mariners started sucking so much. But soccer is so energetic and fast-paced, and it’s so easy to appreciate the athleticism of someone who can head a ball into the goal. Plus, I love the rowdiness of soccer fans, though I think a lot of that has to do with the extremely lax rules about alcohol consumption in the stadium. (The section next to ours had a guy who was repeatedly chugging beers, which prompted the entire crowd to form a circle around him and cheer him on, breaking into applause when he finished.) There were a few minor fights, but nothing serious, probably because almost everyone in attendance was supporting the same team.
I’m always amazed by the unity of sports fans, and sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen if we could get so many people to come together so clearly for something that actually mattered, or if even a fraction of the money and time and energy spent on professional sports franchises were spent on health care or improving education or something socially beneficial. And yet, sports seem to be the great unifier in the world—regardless of country, race, class and increasingly gender, most people can appreciate watching a team, feeling part of something bigger, having common ground with strangers. Marx may have thought religion is the opiate of the masses, but I’m starting to think that it’s soccer. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Occupy Wall Street, cynicism, and power

Wall Street has been occupied for over three weeks now. (If you’ve been living in a cave and are unaware of the existence of Occupy Wall Street, you can read up on it here.) That sense of rage, the slow-burning knowledge that things are not ok, has finally come to the surface. I’ve been praying for this for almost a year. Watching the Arab Spring unfold, seeing the protests rippling across Europe in the wake of austerity measures, I asked again and again, “What will it take for us to wake up? What will it take for Americans to take to the streets?” I wanted our moment of revolution, the rejection of existing methods of expression, a truly grassroots expression of uncompromised anti-establishment action, desde abajo y a la izquierda.
I want to believe so much that this movement can accomplish something, that there are policy changes which would meaningfully address the growing wealth gap. I want to let this be the re-growth of my idealism, my faith that a group of committed citizens can spur lasting changes in the power structure of the state. I want to believe that the state is not irredeemable. Even President Obama said that the protesters were expressing legitimate grievances, that growing inequality is an unfortunate fact of our society. And for a split second, I thought that might mean things would change.
But there’s always reality, and power. Or more accurately, the reality of power. And the reality of power is that the United States government, regardless of the party the president happens to belong to, exists primarily to defend the interests of business and capital. The government does not exist to protect your family, or ensure access to health care, or protect your grandchildren from the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their food. The government exists to defend existing power structures.
In this case, that means setting forth new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Specifically, the agreements submitted by the Obama administration to Congress yesterday would allow foreign companies to be bailed out by the US government if changes our environmental and labor laws cause them to lose money. These agreements are literally the antithesis of everything that Occupy Wall Street stands for, and their timing seems like cruel irony. In the wake of the State Department’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, these things have ceased to shock me. But my lack of shock is in itself, surprising to me. Every time Obama does one more thing I disagree with, every time I shake my head and say, “It figures”, I can’t help but wonder—when did I become this cynical? And more disturbing than my cynicism—which has reached levels more appropriate for a 70-year old man than a young college student—is the fact that it exists in spite of my best efforts to the contrary. In spite of spending months trying to find reasons for hope, trying to believe that the abuses of those in power were not systematic and deliberate, that government could be redeemed—I can’t help but feel that the deep level of cynicism I’ve sunk to is nothing more than an accurate assessment of reality.
Even Ecuador has failed to provide a safe haven from the cruel reality of power. My host dad just returned from the Amazon, where he works as a petroleum engineer (he spends twenty days in the field, then ten days back home in Quito). Upon his return, he told me that he had talked to some indigenous people who live in Yasuní National Park. Yasuní sits on top of ample reserves of tar sands oil, which President Correa says he’s willing to leave in the ground if the international community pays Ecuador half the value of the oil—$3.5 billion over a ten year period. German delegates just visited Ecuador to see Yasuní, and have committed millions to the proposal. Correa went to the UN to raise support, and has $55 million pledged (he needs $100 million by the end of the year, or else he says he’ll open Yasuní).
I asked my dad about the Yasuní initiative. He said the indigenous people he talked to told him that there are already wells in the ground in the park, that the oil sitting underground has already been sold to China. He said that Correa’s efforts to raise money for the proposal amounted to nothing more than political theater, that he will be shocked if Yasuní doesn’t open for oil extraction eventually. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after everything I’ve heard about the Ecuadorian government, this seemed inevitable. Of course we’re going to take the most biodiverse place on earth and extract oil from it. Correa may succeed in painting himself and his country as victims of capitalism at the hands of Western neo-imperialist powers. “We wanted to save Yasuní,” he’ll tell the cameras, “but we needed money, and since the rich countries wouldn’t pay us to not destroy the rainforest, we had no choice.” I’ve never met the man; I can’t say whether he truly cares about conservation or just pays lip service when he knows it’s politically expedient to do so. But given that oil accounts for at least 50% of Ecuador’s export earnings, 15-20% of GDP and 30-40% of the government’s total revenues, the Ecuadorian government is logically going to defend extraction. Correa, unlike Obama, at least has the justification that the revenues are going to finance social programs to benefit the poor (at least in theory).
Knowing all this, I’m paralyzed by inaction. I know the Keystone pipeline cannot be built; I also know that I’m powerless to stop it. Even the group that’s organized to defeat it, Tar Sands Action, doesn’t seem to have a plan B. I asked them on Twitter, “Do you have a plan besides asking Obama nicely not to kill our planet?” Their response: “Yes, two weeks of sit-ins [at the White House] in August”. Then they linked to their action proposal, which included demands that the pipeline not be built, but no tactics beyond asking those in power to act against their own perceived self-interest. I tweeted back, “Sit-ins seem like a slightly more militant form of asking nicely.” I never received a response.
Putting faith in the state is an ineffective strategy for activism. If your entire plan consists of getting Congress to pass some piece of carefully-crafted legislation, what do you do when they refuse? If Obama’s State Department can say with a straight face that the construction of a major oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast will have “no significant adverse impacts” on the environment, how can any reasonable strategy for action rely on asking them to change their mind based on rational argument? Sure, you could tie a project up for years with lawsuits, but if you make it all the way to the Supreme Court and lose, what recourse do you have? Yet even knowing this, I can’t come up with plan B. We need the same critical mass that was willing to get arrested sitting peacefully in front of the White House to go sit in front of the bulldozers that break ground for the pipeline. We need a steady stream of cynics and idealists who care about the living planet to put themselves between power and the things it seeks to destroy. We need people willing to sabotage the pipeline. But as much as I believe in defending our earth, I have to wonder if we can win at all, even if we’re willing to break the law. Stand in front of bulldozers, and you will be arrested. Fight back, and you will get shot. Attack the pipeline, and you’ll shut down production for a little while, causing an oil spill in the process. And then it will be fixed. You’ll have to attack it again, and again. You will be caught and arrested. You’ll get a life sentence for domestic terrorism, if you’re lucky. In Ecuador, they don’t always bother with sentencing you. Assassins can be hired in Coca, an oil town in the Amazon, for less than $50. Naturally, oil companies have made use of this fact get rid of problematic activists. One way or another, you will be silenced, and maybe someone will follow in your footsteps, but the overwhelming odds are in favor of power. They always are.
I have to believe that some of the people who are occupying Wall Street know this. And perhaps that’s why they’re out there, day after day, without a cohesive platform or leader or proposal for action. If I were home right now, I’d be in the streets too. I’m angry and cynical and exhausted just trying to keep track of the latest abuses and casualties of those in power. But I don’t have a plan for fixing it all. There are reforms that would help, that would put sufficiently large Band-Aids over the gaping holes in our social structure to make the lives of average people better. I’m in favor of anything that marginally improves the lives of average Americans, that helps to close the gaping wealth gap. I’m in favor of job creation programs and more progressive taxation and the whole laundry list of liberal reform goals. But it won’t be enough. It never is. And knowing that scares me unspeakably. It makes me terrified for the future, not so much for myself, but for indigenous communities and the working poor and the rare species of amphibians that live in Yasuní. It makes me want to do something, anything. It makes me want to take to the streets, placard in hand, chanting about democracy and wealth distribution and power, because I don’t know what else to do. I’m hoping that someone will figure that out before it’s too late, and I say that knowing that hope, just like putting faith in the state, is the antithesis of meaningful activism.

Best of the Oriente

I just got back from a week in the Oriente, which is what Ecuadorians call the Amazonian region of the country (basically, everything east of the Andes). I’ll update later with some thoughts on ecology, oil and all the rest, but for now, I’m just going to list the coolest things I did.
1) Saw an anaconda eating a caiman. We were out on a night boat ride to see wildlife, and we’re apparently one of only two SIT groups to have ever seen an anaconda, much less one strangling its prey. This was, naturally, the same river we were all swimming in every day. It also has piranhas and little fish that can swim up your urethra or vagina and stick there (they’re fish parasites that live in fish gills, but sometimes they get confused).
2) Got up at 4:45 to hike up to the canopy tower in the rainforest and watch dawn break over the tops of the trees, with a soundtrack of scarlet macaws, thousands of insects, and howler monkeys.
3) In response to a severe rainstorm, we all put on our bathing suits, covered ourselves in mud and formed a tribe called the Goops. It was kind of a lot like Avatar, and involved running around mostly naked, making up a nature song, finding our plant souls and sliding down a muddy hill into the anaconda-infested river to rinse off.
4) Spending a few hours in the canopy tower in the dark, on a half-moon night with stars, getting completely naked 120 feet above the forest and watching the heat lightning in the distance before hiking back to camp wearing nothing but my rain boots.
5) Teaching several of my fellow program participants how to navigate using a compass, take bearings on a map and triangulate. And then, for the first time in my life, getting lost in a forest and actually using a compass successfully to get unlost! I knew all that high school outdoor program stuff would come in handy sometime.
6) Explaining to a group of woolly monkeys in a tree that if the land across the river opens for oil exploration, they should try to sabotage company operations by throwing feces at oil company workers and destroying their machinery. Not sure they understood me; they kept eating and throwing leaves at me instead. Maybe they don’t speak English.
7) The moment when Taylor accidentally let a snake loose in the classroom and I had to go outside (other than flying/takeoff, snakes are the only thing I’m really afraid of, though in a pretty rational fashion). And then I got to watch through the window while four people attempted to find and recapture the snake (which they eventually succeeded in doing).
8) Leaving the hotel where we were waiting for our bus to take us to the Coca airport and wandering around town by myself for ten minutes. Probably the most interesting ten minutes of my week that didn’t include wildlife. I was the only gringa on the street and got a lot of whistles, catcalls and greetings from men. The stores and general smell reminded me of Ghana—a hot, humid place where most of life takes place outside and there are giant cuts of raw meat dangling from awnings on the street. It also underscored how coddled we are on this program—I wasn’t supposed to leave the hotel, supposedly because of “safety”, which I understand is important to an institution, but still struck me as a bit odd. After all, it was broad daylight, anyone trying to hurt me would have had to do so in plain view of about three dozen other people, and the only thing I had on me other than my clothes was fifteen dollars tucked in my bra.