A man I met recently gives away produce from local community gardens and farms at a park in a still mainly — or largely — working class San Francisco neighborhood called the Mission. It was once working class white, now it is mostly working and middle class Latino and white bohemian. A long-time urban farmer, an admirer of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, and a member of long-gone local collectives, he writes a weekly blog about the Free Farm Stand that speaks to his gentle idealism that life outside the money system is possible, that a gift economy is as close as we want it to be. I don’t know if he is right, but I sometimes help him glean fruit from street trees and peoples’ yards, and plant garden beds in a few lots he works, or join in at the farm stand, and I read his blog religiously. Last week I was shocked to learn there that a young woman after his own heart, who had started an ongoing gift economy flea market in another San Francisco park, was shot and killed in New Orleans.
The rest of the details, when I learned them, raised a queasy, less certain complex of feeling. Kirsten Brydum was shot in the upper 9th ward, apparently while riding her bike through the ward after leaving a dance club, sometime after 2 am. She was from suburban southern California, she had never been to New Orleans, had arrived only days before, on a road trip, the point of which was to look for “collective autonomy…strangers helping strangers for free,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As I read about the circumstances of her death, I began to feel any sense of the “real” Kirsten, whom I did not know in any case, slipping away into the realm of metaphor, a metaphor of what the shiny, youthful idealism of people from comfortable backgrounds is up against when it makes contact with people and places that have also become iconic: as the products of malign, genocidal neglect by a system interested only in the protection of privilege.
Some would say that where murder is involved, such symbolizing does no justice to victim or perpetrator. In a legalistic sense, none of this metaphorical stuff matters. That is true, under “our” current system of law—a criminal case rests on the behavior of individuals and a determination of their actions. Nor is it necessarily helpful on the psychological level of trying to comprehend and grieve a real person’s violent death. But that doesn’t mean that events involving individuals don’t simultaneously take place on a social and political plane where they can become highly symbolic. How we understand what such events mean determines what political actions we will ultimately take or support. New Orleans had already entered the symbolic realm as of August, 2005, when the drowned city became an example to the bizarre haters on the Christian right of God’s efficacy at ethnic cleansing. (I haven’t heard what the word from the pulpit has been on the more recent divinely-inspired destruction in Dubya’s home state—His ways are indeed a mystery…) The upper 9th ward, the addled mind of the mainstream news consumer tries to remember: isn’t that where “those people” (now an acceptable, even mild euphemism at Republican campaign rallies) ran amuck when the city broke down, looting and shooting?
But these were not the only symbols in the mix in Katrina’s wake. The left had its analysis, which I’ve summarized above, environmentalists of any political stripe saw Katrina’s New Orleans hit as a menacing sign that Nature would be up at bat again before long: last in the lineup at the bottom of the ninth. Only environmental justice activists, long accustomed to making the connections others ignored, between race, poverty, politics and the environment, saw Katrina as merely the largest event so far demonstrating the link they’d been desperately trying to disseminate for decades, in one locality after another, reviled by business interests and ignored by mainstream environmentalism.
What Kirsten might have represented to me is less familiar to most people, at least those who live outside the Bay Area, or a small number of progressive hotspots clustered in or near university towns or coastal cities.
Because while small towns in Red States disappear like buffalo on the frontier, becoming nothing but two-block main streets of dingy ghost shops with gigantic Wal-marts attached to their outermost unincorporated parts like engorged ticks, while prison populations explode and livelihoods dwindle in the heartland and even many coastal cities as well, leaving economic Nagasakis overhung with despair, the San Francisco Bay Area has been and remains a place, like Oz, where a luminescent green glow of optimism hangs in the air. It persists in being a kind of hot bed of utopian ideas, silly and serious, straight and queer: street pageantry and performance, secularism, post-capitalism abundance, sexual freedom, direct democracy, pagan earth-worship, permaculture, local self-reliance, recycling and freecycling, urban gardening and gleaning, green entrepreneurship, bicycling, muralism, you name it. But when, particularly in the boutique-y San Francisco epicenter, you look at the rents, and the people who can afford them, and (to the symbolically minded) the astounding number of large, pretty, well-groomed dogs on display on the streets, who are treated almost like beneficent house deities and so are in better shape than many if not most of the children in the city’s southeastern neighborhoods (with access to better health care) and simultaneously somehow exempted by many progressives from prevailing concerns of environmental sustainability, veganism/vegetarianism or even animal rights (to me, San Francisco’s legions of pampered dogs are creepily reminiscent of Roman love-slaves, but let’s not get into that), it is hard to escape the suspicion that the cheerful promotion of many of these ideas in this so-pretty city by so-pretty young (mostly) white people is part of an enormous and still largely unheeded and misunderstood disconnect between the most under-resourced parts of the country, and its most highly (not to say over-) resourced. This doesn’t mean many of these utopianist ideas aren’t powerful, feasible, or useful. It doesn’t mean some of them, particularly the most rational ones, have no resonance or validity in marginalized communities. They are already being championed there, and have been for some time — but it’s easy to see why a fresh fruit and vegetable van in a low-income neighborhood gets a lot less attention and support than the Slow Food Festival. The city gets kudos for hosting a Green Cities summit, while handing over development of a toxic former Naval base to a corporate developer whom the mostly working class residents have fought against for years, knowing that neither full clean up of what the Navy left behind nor affordable housing stock for those who have lived with the contamination for decades is likely to be the result. So how green are we?
But stepping outside of Oz for a minute — a lot of youthful idealism has been unleashed by the Presidential campaign, not all of it among the privileged. The Onion’s recent barb about Obama capturing the Joe Cabernet –Sauvignon vote is irresistibly true of course, as a non-statistical tally of the window signs in San Francisco’s million dollar homes attests, but I’m willing to venture that the 1.3 million new voters ACORN has registered nationwide are not primarily well-fed oenophiles. The idealistic refrain one hears again and again is that, regardless of what happens in the election, these people are not just going to “go away,” as in, to demobilize afterwards. Really? What will keep them together? Under what structure will they be mobilized? The Democratic Party? Please. And for what ends? Sorry to harsh your mellow, but . . . I’ve heard this before: the “Teamsters and Turtles” (labor and environmentalists) coalition from the Seattle WTO protests, those apolitical everybodies who swelled to massive the ranks of those marching against the Iraq invasion — where are they now? Are progressives a nation of Charlie Browns, doomed to keep kicking at this football forever, only to end up on our backs every time, the face of the system looming over us, madly grinning?
My own most fundamental experiences with idealism, organizing and social movements have a somewhat exotic frame of reference: the Central American insurgencies of the 1980s. I went to Central America as a young, abstractly idealistic person from a relatively privileged background because I answered a call to do so; it was thought useful in those years for some of us to hold our little blue eagle-embossed passports up as shields between Central American progressive organizers and the guns that hard-working U.S. Americans were buying to shoot them with. The degree of usefulness of our presence was debatable at every step of the way, and of course it was full of the contradictions of our status. But whatever the larger usefulness or not of direct solidarity, I did manage to learn a thing or two about idealism that is grounded in actual struggles for survival instead of stemming from the pleasant state of abstraction that privilege makes possible. Not to mention learning in very concrete ways about how to survive in “life during wartime,” no longer just a Talking Heads song (though surprisingly, that song gets a lot of the details right. I always wondered how they knew).
Idealism wasn’t injected into the Central American guerrilla insurgencies, or the civilian movement that supported them. (This “radical” struggle had begun with students and farmers calling for mild, Roosevelt-like reforms to a feudal economy). It stemmed from them, from the sheer ability to survive collectively, and even, in a strange way, to thrive, against a seemingly implacable enemy. Yes, young college educated folks went into the mountains with rifles, but the idealism that drove them was translated in concrete ways to the people who joined them: though many died, their survival rate was better than thousands of others who trusted the system these idealistic kids opposed. Not only that, but their lives were actually enhanced in many ways: through the discovery of dignity, self-worth, mutual aid. For as long as this was true (and of course it was not universally true, just generally true), the idealism survived, and a positive feedback loop was created between ideals and actions. That feedback loop is hard to find in the U.S., where collective identity is weak and bread and circuses have always been more widely available — but not because only something as drastic as a guerrilla war can generate it. Wherever the connection between enhanced survival and transformative ideals becomes explicit and concrete, through whatever form of struggle, say, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, that loop is created. Where transformative ideals are just a haut-cuisine part of the available menu of consumption, they are inert; “transformative” becomes a non-sequitur.
The day Kirsten Brydum was shot in New Orleans, my husband and I were standing in a crowd that may well have contained people who knew her. We were watching another addition to San Francisco’s remarkable collection of murals unveiled in Noe Valley, celebrating the local, organic farmer’s market there. Noe Valley, which borders the Mission, is a world — or at least a continent — away racially and economically. It’s been called a suburb of Silicon Valley; the tech firms run their own shuttles from there. But the residents were mostly busy pushing strollers or eating brunch, and the parking lot site was filled with pretty bohemians, all falling into one another’s arms with those gentle, smiling, extended embraces that create a somehow incongruous sense of exclusion. A well-known local activist, one of the main organizers of the Seattle WTO protests, presented a lively puppet show featuring a rousing battle between evil corporate GMO crops and intrepid family-farmed organics. In it there was a brief but eloquent plea to help the hungry here in our own city who couldn’t afford the high prices that family farmers have to charge for their labor intensive product, by supporting people growing their own food in empty lots, the kind of thing my farm stand friend is trying to do. But most of the crowd was distracted, chatting away with cocktail party zeal — there was no sense of urgency in this pleasant moment among them. An old, ragged man with a twisted back pushed a shopping cart full of plastic bottles around the space, eying the eco-conscious audience for possible throw-aways. This had been billed as a “utopian” moment by the organizers, but I wasn’t feeling it. “Yes,” my husband remarked, “when privilege disappears, things will look very different.” (He has never abandoned the Marxism of his youth, perhaps that’s why he can say “when.”)
This is the question the sad death of a young idealist forced upon me: can a truly worthwhile idealism stem from enclaves of relative social and economic privilege? Maybe, but somehow it has to be transformed along the way into the concrete actions of people aware of their privilege and consciously intent on betraying it. In any case, a transformative idealism can flourish outside the economic cushion that privilege provides, but only so long as it is seen by those who suffer the worst systemic abuses as directly connected to their enhanced survival. The test of that shiny idealism that people like Kirsten have wanted to carry out from its bases in coastal California to the world at large, is, firstly, does it work as a part of a closed system that enhances the survival of those who most need it, and secondly, does it understand the world enough to survive out there — for the long, long haul?