Utah Phillips, 1935-2008

Radical folk singer-songwriter Utah Phillips, a key figure in the revival of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW/Wobblies) over the last few decades, died May 23rd at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 73.

Utah was the son of labor organizers in Ohio. He served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.

Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his elders with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.

A stint as an archivist for the State of Utah in the 1960s taught Phillips the discipline of historical research. Beneath the simplest and most folksy of his songs was a rigorous attention to detail and a strong and carefully-crafted narrative structure.

A single from Phillips’s first record, “Moose Turd Pie,” a rollicking story about working on a railroad track gang, saw extensive airplay in 1973. From then on, Phillips had work as a folk singer on the road.

When illness limited his touring in 2004, he returned to his roots at the Joe Hill House by founding Hospitality House, a homeless shelter in his rural home county where down-on-their-luck men and women were sleeping under the manzanita brush at the edge of town. It houses 25 to 30 guests a night. His family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144 www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org

Building the Future Today: A book review of Nowtopia

$18.00, AK Press 2008

By Cris Carlsson

“Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!” explores the subcultures of subtle and active resistance to the dominate US consumer culture. Author Chris Carlsson argues that today, the American working class is not able to organize through traditional union politics, since people work in jobs where they move around a lot or are more individualized in smaller units, like smaller shops or service jobs, with many different locations, as opposed to the factory setting of the 20th century. He says that active resistance focuses on creating a “nowtopia” approach rather than a far off future utopia. He touches on a variety of people in the US engaged in building this new world today, instead of confronting the old existing capitalist world order. Examples he gives include the DIY ethic, urban gardeners, bicyclist, hackers and internet freaks, the Burning Man, left-wing scientists, and free fuel activists.

Urban gardeners reclaim otherwise decaying urban cities, where drugs and crime plague neighborhoods, and try to get food from the land. The gardens take back private property, long abandoned by slum lords, and turn it into public land or a commons for the neighbors and by the neighbors, growing and sharing food. More often than not, women lead in rebuilding a sense of community by putting in gardens and caring for them. Green Philadelphia, a network promoting urban gardens in Philadelphia areas taken over by drugs, empowered residents to be in charge of their neighborhoods. In the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani saw the NYC vacant lot gardeners as a threat to private enterprise, even calling them communists, and basically declared war on the gardeners, forcing them to engage in active fights to preserve gardens and to prevent the land on which they sat from being sold to development schemes.

Carlsson also explores bike culture, like the Critical Mass protests that occur in cities throughout the world typically taking place the last Friday of the month. Bicyclists show that there is a viable, healthy, environmentally friendly and affordable alternative to car culture. Particularly in cities walking, biking or taking public transit provide valuable alternates to cars, lessening air, noise soil and water pollution. He interviews people who’ve opened up bike repair spaces to anyone who wants learn. In San Francisco, he focuses on programs that teach bike repair to children in low income neighborhoods. He also interviews people who rebel against mainstream bike culture, with its glossy magazines and spandex. The bike messenger culture, a highly individualistic, very punk subculture, has organized into messenger unions, but one in San Francisco fizzled out because the sponsoring union eventually pulled out and suffered backlash from the courier companies.

He looks at using open source software against corporate giants like microsoft. And he discusses the Burning Man festival. Although described by its organizers as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and self-reliance, and promoting an idea of attenders who are all participants with its “no spectators” concept, not allowing monetary exchange so that attendees allegedly learn to think outside of the capitalist structure and re-evaluate “value” by bartering skills and things, Carlsson acknowledges that the festival has become another for-profit enterprise.

Throughout the book, Carlsson asks various people what they think their class background is. They usually respond that they aren’t sure but thought they were some kind of middle class. He takes that to mean that the US working class is not something around which to organize. I think he might be forgetting that the US education system does not explicitly teach people about class. Even in the UK, where people often say they are working class even when they are not,

interestingly similar to and yet different from the US where everyone thinks they’re middle class from sanitation workers to US Senators. He berates unions over and over because they look at class from an outdated point of view. I agree: unions don’t organize people anymore (I think that is the fault of US unions not of unionism). Though unions and the labor movement have been slow to adapt to the changing economy, I don’t think that throws out a worker-driven movement.

A part I did like about this book is that it explained the concept of “Multitudes”, developed and used by people like Negri, in language that was more on my level, so I finally figured out what it means (there are multiple classes of people instead of one working class).

All in all, the book is an interesting read, though it is a bit choppy and maybe the author jumps to conclusions too quickly. Still, it’s cool to see what other people are doing to organize and agitate or self-organize as far as interests outside of my own. I’ve never been someone who’s thought that you can only do one thing (“either, or”), and all else is damned. For any movement to thrive, there has to be a whole lot of people doing all kinds of stuff¬ to resist and reject the dominant cultures, as well as organizing within it and for a better future beyond it.

Losing the Trees, Finding Community: The last stage of an urban tree-sit

People keep coming up to me, telling me how sorry they are that we “lost the tree sit in the end”. And I understand where they’re coming from, but clearly there’s more to say about our almost two year long occupation of the Berkeley Oak Grove than that.

Squatting and grass roots organizing are, by their nature, heartbreaking. And the more love we put into a place, the harder it is when they take it away.

For me, the Oak Grove has always been about the trees, but also much more. To see the Grove as a temporary autonomous space where, for a period of time, people came to build strong community and live satisfying, reasonable lives together, is to see us for our accomplishments. As for the Oak Grove as a permanent occupation poised to turn back the forces of capitalism in Berkeley ¬– well, maybe sometimes we don’t get everything we want. Yes, we’ve lost the trees. But we’ve done so much. Here is a report back from the last several months:

It’s been a hell of a summer. On June 17th, 2008- the day before our much-awaited “big day in court”- UC Berkeley, backed up by Williams Tree Service (extractors out of Watsonville, CA) and A LOT of cops, attacked the tree sit in a pre-dawn raid. Everything we thought we knew about urban tree sit extractions being safer and less unpredictable than deep woods extractions because of increased visibility and media exposure went very quickly out the window, as Williams Tree Service employees (being directed from the ground by the UC Chief of Police) showed over and over again that they were willing (even eager) to risk tree sitters lives to get us out of the trees. What we experienced during the extractions was basically a very high stakes game of chicken. Extractors cut and untied traverse lines that tree sitters were attached to, rammed us with heavy equipment, cut platforms out from under people’s feet, threatened sexual violence against women tree sitters, made super-close approaches with a crane on our precarious defense structure- “the god pod”, intentionally sliced into the flesh of two tree sitters with saws on poles, and physically fought and yanked on people who were free climbing with no safety ropes at the tops of trees- as though these were reasonable ways to get people down. The tree sitters fought back, damaging equipment and defending ourselves by throwing human piss and shit on the extractors, repeatedly getting them to back down from dangerous situations because it was just getting too disgusting for them to hang in there going after us. We did not lock down. Although we honor the tactic, we decided it was best to physically resist the extractions. Catch me if you can.

For three days straight the extractors moved in with overwhelming force, and were, for the most part, unsuccessful at removing people against their will. After three days, due to tremendous pressure on all sides, the university shifted tactics away from force to a slow starvation campaign against the eleven remaining tree sitters who continued to occupy the grove. The area surrounding the tree sit became completely militarized. A ground encampment swelled on both sides of the barricades, erected by cops down Piedmont Avenue as an extra compliment to the double barbed wire fence that had surrounded our grove since November 2007. For almost two weeks no substantial amounts of food or water made it up into the trees. The tree sitters were living entirely on emergency stores. Again, due to intense pressure from all sides, the University made the reluctant concession to provide a food and water ration to the tree sitters daily.

But the food ration was really bad. It was basically a flour, sugar, vegetable shortening diet, and for almost three weeks, Lemon-Vanilla flavored Emergency Ration Bars were the only food the tree sitters (whose numbers at this point had dwindled down to 3-4) had access to. A daring action brought two more tree sitters and a ton of really good food into the trees, and facilitated the brokering of a deal between the University and the ground supporters of the tree sit. A bag of food of our packing and choosing would go up every day. Tree sitters agreed to send down waste.

It would be several weeks before the weary peace between tree people and the cops would be broken. In middle August, Williams Tree Service was back to do strategic cutting of branches known to be pathways between trees. Tree sitters and ground supporters disrupted this work, but we all knew more was set to come. Cutting began for real on Friday September 5th, and by Tuesday all the trees slated to be cut and all the tree sitters were down. The tree sitters made a deal agreeing to voluntarily turn themselves over to the police after being completely surrounded by extractors, cops, and a scaffolding structure (built that day) which reached all the way (almost) to the top of the one tree which the remaining four tree sitters were occupying after the rest of the grove had been taken. The deal was for the formation of a community review board on future land use decisions in Berkeley. As a final stab in the back, the University promptly denied that any such deal had been reached, and shows no sign of intending to honor the agreement.

It’s been months since the siege against us began and it seems like a very long time ago to think back before the attacks. What were we doing with our time, I wonder? The tree sit has been an interesting place full of interesting people from the beginning. We’ve gone through several distinct eras both in the trees and on the ground and have made many friends, including, of course, the Grandmothers for the Oaks, who are such a tremendous inspiration, our hard working lawyers, and the Panoramic Hill Association (a neighborhood group) who stuck in there with us through the end.

For me, the easy part of my coming of age was figuring out that I didn’t want to turn my life over to a boss and a landlord. The hard part has been figuring out what to do instead. I’ve dedicated the last year of my life to the Oak Grove tree sit. Living in the trees has made me a much happier, more capable person than I was before I came here, and it has birthed a vibrant and radical community that will not go away just because they cut our trees down.

We went up against the largest, richest landowner in town and in the end, the might of the state and the landlord system prevailed over the good work and good intentions of community based organizing. Despite everything, we remain and the reverberations of these connections we’ve made within ourselves and among each other will be felt for years to come.