Monday, October 17, 2011

Week 6: The New Tide Grows

The new tide grows. From last Thursday through this Thursday we have seen a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment reflected in the photograph from this week. In it you can see some of the range of people and signs among at least 8,000 protesting at the beginning of OCCUPY PORTLAND –a demonstration on October 6th that was the largest in this city since attempts to prevent the Iraq War from beginning in 2003. Inspired by the OCCUPY WALL STREET actions that began two weeks ago in New York, the demonstration in Portland was entirely illegal, with no permits providing permission to march or rally – and certainly none for hundreds of people to put up tents by the end of the day and camp out in downtown public parks.

Our week began with two day seminar long-planned at Portland Community College (PCC) and organized with the help of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. Entitled ``Trade Winds: Asian Trade Today``, the seminar used a U.S. government grant to discuss expanding (free trade) opportunity with VIP speakers including a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and renowned scholars relating to China. Unable to attend most of the seminar myself because of my own teaching duties, it would seem very little (if any) questions were raised regarding the expanding gap between rich and poor in the U.S. and elsewhere which are a direct byproduct of the free market globalization of the world`s economic systems.

When Stany Thomas and I, together with our wives, were invited out twice to dine this week, OCCUPY WALL STREET was included in the conversations at the home of our PCC political science colleague, Herman Washington as well as later with Marlene Eid and her family – but not prominently. Pleasantries predominated, though personal sharing turned to some serious issues primarily relating to Mr. Washington`s experiences as an African American, and Marlene`s early life as a Palestinian in occupied Jerusalem. None of us could have predicted the events of October 2nd (Gandhi` birthday and the date St. Francis of Assisi died). Maybe the spirits of Gandhi and St. Francis are more present than is commonly accepted! On that day 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and serious organizing began mushrooming in cities all over the U.S…

The week was so busy for us that I hardly had time to follow any news. Ascension Parish was hosting 15 homeless people (including 5 families, with one woman nearly ready to give birth). My wife or I slept overnight on three consecutive nights to keep the shelter open and filled in periodically to perform other needed tasks. Another evening out had us sharing the Hindi holiday of Durga Puja at the home of a PCC college from India, Usha Ramanuja. On separate days, two of my courses were open to the public as I had consented to feature an anti-war speaker (Paul Chappell) whose analyses were made more persuasive by his experience as a veteran of the war in Iraq who was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In addition, I had two committees that I chair with meetings this week with one promoting weekly free speech events (in a series now seven years running called Open Mind, Open Mic) and another seeking to lay the groundwork for future international exchange programs.

In the midst of all my personal commitments, it was my students who made me aware of the expansion of OCCUPY WALL STREET to include an OCCUPY PORTLAND. Several of these students were planning to attend an illegal march on October 6th and, it was partly out of concern for them that I also decided to attend. Not knowing what to expect from the police or potentially undisciplined demonstrators, I had cautioned my students to prepare for potential tear gas and arrest. When I arrived near the Portland waterfront that afternoon, I was mentally prepared for trouble myself, but quickly realized (from police body language) that the prospects for trouble would be remote. The why of this became obvious as I saw the head of the March coming at me and stretching back as far as I could see. Filling the streets were such a mass of people that any police actions would have been overwhelmed. There would not be enough jail cells. To attack the remarkably peaceful crowd of demonstrators would have also risked harm to many families with children, senior citizens, and no small number of military veterans.

On October 6th, law enforcement was neutralized this day, as people chanted slogans like``This is what democracy looks like``, ``Bail out us, not the banks,``, and ``We are the 99%``! (of people who are not the super wealthy). A festive atmosphere emerged in which many people thanked individual police officers for stepping aside as the downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square was filled nearly to its 10,000 person capacity. After much chanting en masse, some dispersed (including myself, as I had a 3-5pm course to teach) and others proceeded to Chapman Square (a park near City Hall) which would become the site for an illegal encampment that the city had announced it would (at least temporarily) allow. With both great energy as well as exhaustion, this week would end for me with cautious hope for the future. Can these calls for change be collectively sustained? How far will this new tide take us into the future?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 5: A New Tide

The weekend prior to the start of classes was simple too beautiful not spend the day 100 miles away at the Pacific Ocean. Taking advantage of the rare sunshine of a late Saturday in September, we enjoyed the two hour ride over the coastal mountain range with some trees beginning their autumn colors and made a traditional family pilgrimage to what had been the oldest living thing in Oregon, a Sitka Spruce Tree. A sapling about the year 1215 (the time of St. Francis), it had grown to a diameter of over 30 feet (10 meters) towering over 300 feet into the sky until 2006 when the sky struck it with lightening boy which split the truck vertically and made it in danger of collapse. Now a monument cut off at about 30 feet up, it is left to celebrate a generation of new saplings that are emerging around it. As I have now gained senior status by some estimates, in the presence of this now deceased giant, I feel myself young and full of hope. Life will carry on when life leaves our bodies also. A new tide of time will begin to be grown out of the compost and debris we provide.

From Bapu Sitka, Stany, Shanty, Kristine and I stood in awe of the views from Ecola State Park, occasionally surrounded in the morning mist which comes and goes with the coastal winds. The sun break while traversing Cannon Beach was most welcome, though Shanty still found the waters there far more chilly than those common to the coast of Kerala. Gazing upon Haystack Rock we can see the power of the sea to wear away the stony surface reflecting millennia past. Enjoying a modest lunch with a window seat at Mo`s Restaurant, we were entertained by kites and bikes and people of all ages basking in the pleasure of the low tide. An afternoon stroll through the nearby old growth forest of Oswald West burned off what calories we had gained as we marveled in the glory of nature largely untarnished by human contact. So as to still appreciate what human hands can give, before the journey home we all enjoyed ice cream at the famous creamery in Tillamook with its vast choice of flavors. The diversity in nature can be joined by the diversity born of human hands.

Back in Portland this week multiple meals and fine company were plentiful . With David Rule and his wife Jean we shared with a number of faculty and staff from Portland Community College (PCC) who had never before been to the home of the PCC Rock Creek Campus President. A few days later, Stany and Shanty inspired an evening out with Linda Gerber (President of the PCFC Sylvania Campus), her husband Charlie, as well as Linda`s Administrative Assistant Kate Chester and Kate`s friend Canaan Canaan (a Moslem Palestinian now International Student Advisor at Portland State University). Conversations were rich in personal sharing as well as the discussion of issues transcending the normal superficiality common to most social gatherings. It is as if the presence of Stany and Shanty provide an opportunity for community building that many folks hunger for but are reluctant to find time to engage in on their own.

Fall Term classes began this week also like a tsunami! At Portland Community College the incoming tide of students is approaching 100,000 (a full Crore)! Of my five 4-credit classes four are full to overflowing, filling every chair in the room. The other is at 2/3 capacity, in part because it was added late and has never been taught in its evening time slot. With our open enrollment policy, a great many people take classes because of the poor economy using the time made available by their unemployed or underemployed status to improve their education (and so also their future job prospects). Pell grants and some other financial aid (including bank loans) are clearly used by some people to simply survive, signing up for classes (which little energy may be devoted to while books remain unpurchased) so as to be able to just pay rent and buy food. Hungry (and even homeless) students are among those enrolled, distracted by their severe personal circumstances so seriously as to have little prospect of academic success. As an instructor, I do all I can to be helpful – quite aware (and very frustrated with the fact that) no matter how much attention I devote, for many it will simply not be enough.

The beginnings of the OCCUPY WALLSTREET action reflect the desperation of a wide range of people, including many of my students and myself. Thus far largely unreported in the mainstream media, some of us are following in through Democracy Now and other alternative media and see it as a sign that an awakening of consciousness is possible. Sooner or later a critical mass of people will realize that government can serve the people – and need not primarily behave as a lapdog to the corporations and wealthy elite who feed their campaigns for electoral victory. Sooner or later and awakened public can circumvent the media controlled by the wealthy and their government proxies and demand that democracy become more real. We have seen it in so many contexts from the Movement for Indian Independence led by Gandhi, to the overthrowing of such dictatorships as that of Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia, and Mubarak in Egypt. More recent struggles for popular control in places like Yemen and Syria as well as in Greece and Spain may help inspire more people in the U.S. to act. Hopefully OCCUPY WALL STREET will become an outgoing tide and spread the message of people`s democracy more broadly.

Last but not least, this week we celebrated the birthdays of our two biological daughters. My wife Kris and I were joined by both Mira (21 last week) and Sonrisa (27 this week) in a family gathering including my son (Shaman), his friend and our housemate Tom Worth, as well as our housemates Iris (from Mexico), Shanty and Stany. Rare it is these days that we all are together in the same place! From Mira we learned of her recent band tour to British Columbia in Canada (why is a father so late in hearing a daughter has left the country and returned?), as well as her plans to spend two weeks later in October in New York and Montreal! From Sonrisa it was good to hear some of her adventures upon just returning from three weeks in Costa Rica working on an organic farm and learning to milk goats and produce methane for fuel! As a parent I greatly value these moments of sharing and wish that American cultural traditions valued family time as much as I have seen in India and elsewhere.