Monday, October 10, 2011

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple; by the relief office, I've seen my people

The rest of the oft omitted lyrics to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" go something (as with most folk songs, there are a number of versions) like this:
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie wrote the lyrics of "This Land" as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" which he saw as too sugar-coated and indifferent to the actual American reality of most. By the time the song gained popularity among 60s folk singers and even the general public, the last two verses had been omitted from popular memory, yet they, and not the manifest-destiny echoing first verses, truly capture the spirit of a very American dilemma; how to be patriotic, when your country is a mere shadow of what it claims to stand for?
One of the biggest problems I, and many Europeans have with America, is how complacent its population by-and-large seems. In a country with a written, accepted mainstream history so short and full of upheaval, one might think that Americans would be a nation ready to embrace protest in the manner of say the French (the government does anything but anything and the whole country shuts down ;); as well as being well aware of its riotous past.
After all, some of the greatest moments of this nation, the ones its kids proudly read in their history books, were acts of protest, civil disobedience, or even plainly against the rule of law. The Boston Tea Party? The Underground Railroad? Property damage and theft. Vote for women? A series of peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience. The abolishment of child labor, the creation of the 40 hour work-week and the weekend ("Socialists-the folks who brought you the weekend";), as well as many other worker's rights? Civil disobedience and "unpatriotic" revolutionary activity (A hundred years ago the Seattle shipwrights union sparked the first and only successful general strike in America over an industry attempt to divide the union by offering skilled labour a raise, while stagnating the wages of unskilled labour. This capitalist technic failed miserable when all the union members walked out, then called all of their comrades in the IWW to join them. During this time the unions basically ran the city-feeding its people, policing the streets and organizing infrastructure). The civil rights movement? Women's liberation? Peaceful protest, civil disobedience, outright revolutionary activities.
Perhaps, one could speculate, the American individualist is not as likely to join a mass movement as the more communally connected Europeans. The self-sufficient homesteaders and self-contained suburbanites they begat, often seem more concerned with the well-being of "me-and-mine", than the well-being of the Nation, its collective values.
And, of course, the powers-that-be play into this wide spread disinterest in rebellion. Even as other Western nations have come to view peaceful protest as a fundamental right of the people, as well as a way to keep the public discourse diverse, America has never truly embraced its citizen's right to protests. Especially if those who protest happen to have leftist agenda, or a radically different view of the direction the country should be taking. The American establishment's antagonistic policies towards protesters hark back to a much earlier and less enlightened era.

In the face of the institutional brutality that so often makes an appearance in an American protest rally, it seems no wonder the American people don't take to the streets more often.
Nowhere else in the "first world" have I ever felt such a oppressive police presence than in the land of the free and I can't say that I don't sympathize with its people's fear of standing up to "the man". Being a recent immigrant, I certainly feel vulnerable at the thought of being arrested at a protest. Or heck, even writing about this.
Liberty Square Library
However an ideal nation represents what's best and bravest of its people. Their resilience, their moral and physical courage, their willingness to admit their short comings. These are also traits I believe each individual person should try to embody in their actions.
Protester with sign on back
Which is why I'm writing this post. Because finally, in this year of turmoil in the Middle East and Greece and other old European nations, it seems America is waking from its slumber. Instead of investing our hopes in one man battling the corporate establishment for us, it seems we are realizing our own powers.

What I'm trying to say is, that in a Drop Dead Gorgeous -small-town-beauty-pageant-contestant-kinda-way Occupy Wall Street makes me proud to be a future Finnish-American.
Thousands of ordinary folk from all over the country joining in a peaceful protest, speaking for themselves and those who cannot speak for themselves in a powerful voice, demanding that justice and common sense prevail, while organizing their own, utopian society (with a very nice library, mind!) in a city park, to me represents what is truly great about this nation.
This is the America I believe in and want to belong to. And though I can't be there in person, there are other ways to participate. I'm hoping to check out the scene at Occupy Seattle, or the protest in Bellingham, soon, and in the meantime will be sending care packages to both Occupy Seattle and Occupy Wall Street.

The folks on Wall Street say they're currently running low on food and will take canned and dry goods of any kind. They also need scarves, blankets, hats and mittens and all kinds of items to warm the growing number of bodies. I think some organic soap, toothpaste and hand-sanitizer might be nice too, as well as something for the library. Perhaps a little Kerouac, some Jack London and a that extra copy of Civil Disobedience that's been kicking around.

It's the least I can do in exchange for some social change.

(Perhaps this is why we've been honing those care package sending skills. A few none-protest-related just took off today ;)
This is a year of turmoil and all these different protests, to me, represent a positive force, something to believe in, a gathering of kindred spirits.
CREDIT: Anjali Cadambi
What do you think about the rise of the new American protest movement? Got stories from the trenches or past glories? What would you be willing to fight or sleep out in the cold for?

For more info:

And Happy Anti-Columbus Day, too!
Please enjoy it with this awesome post from Nicole.

Yours in dissent,


  1. this post has left me here with tears in my eyes. angry, happy, proud, pissed of tears. and you guys know i am not one to get all emotional. usually i will shake it off with some smart ass remark. i was the first person in my family who was born here in america. my dad immigrated here at 5 years old, and my family lived the american dream of coming as peasants to the new world to find their fortune. its the immigrants who are the true americans, in my mind. this country is an immigrant country. the things that make it powerful and great and new and so damn cool all come from the fact that immigrants come here and they remember, when those of us who have alwys been here forget, what the fuck this place is all about, what it's capable of, what it's meant to be. thank goodness for immigrants, i say. they are the truest americans, because they haven't forgotten why this land was made for you and me.

  2. i am just re-reading Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie's autobiography. i had forgotten that "this land" was written in response to "god bless america"....of course and thank you folk singers and rebels of this land for making that difference. oh milla this post is so inspiring and reminds me how my REAL life, the one i want to make and live, consists of being an activist for beauty, truth, simplicity, goodness, respect for the earth and each other. connection and not isolation. community and togetherness and growing and life. thank you for the reminder to do something SOLID to show solidarity, not just in my mind but with my hands, in the world, with my voice. i love brigit's comment above too, and nicole's post...altogether proud, lucky, and strong to be part of this tiny online feisty women community and the larger one that we all support together and represent with our hearts, minds, and words.

  3. Nicely written piece my friend. Occupy Santa Rosa is goin' down this weekend, woot woot, Clover's first protest!

    I love the care package idea too, what a wonderful way for all of us expert care packagers to contribute :)

  4. been listening non-stop to mermaid ave, as i mentioned last post, and thinking about woody these past few weeks and all he represented. funny you should mention him too.

    also: have you seen this utter gorgeousness yet?

    and on yet another music-related note, this song from 1971 has been stuck in my head fer days:

    i am strongly considering moving my money to a credit union. shoulda done it years ago, in fact.

    let's hope for even more gathering and celebration of that old, weird america too (as greil marcus dubbed it...).

  5. great post mistress milla! you perfectly echoed the exact same sentiments zipping around my own head. especially the piece re: mainstream cultural dissuasion against protests...for all that the counter-culture of the 60s brought us, it also gave us our most recent stereotype of the leftist individual...and lordy have mercy, don't wanna be one of them! before that it was the threat of being deemed a commie. it's nothing new.

    for my own part, i stopped protesting, or even having faith in the power of gatherings, in 2001-2002. i had always been an activist, working with street theater teams to fight gmos, the wto, etc. san francisco had a massive mobilization against war in afghanistan and iraq. over a million people assembled and marched up market street. i couldn't wait to hear what people would say, what would be shown on the news...except it wasn't. there was only a brief, dismissive blip, and the number of protesters was counted at a low "10,000". we went to war anyway.

    part of me loves the occupy wall street movement, and part of me thinks it's pointless. it's hard to have faith that our voices count anymore. protesting often feels like preaching to the choir, if government and news hardly take note. i also wish the movement had more focus. but i still think it is exciting and beautiful, and the passion it exhibits is the most promising thing. thank you so much for this post, your thoroughness, the links, and most of all, the infusion of your big heart. xoxo

  6. Thank you for this Milla! We are not getting much coverage at all over here, its hard to imagine why, and one might not want to either. I have been very interested to see what's happening and taking a look through the Huffington is not enough. This is just what I wanted to hear, and your perspective is particularly interesting to me as I love america too: ) as an outsider, Yet I am still loving from afar.
    I have hoped for this for america, A stand, that no matter what the outcome, is an outpouring of what must be expressed. I have been so impressed by the placards I have seen, the words are so beautiful in many and there seems such a strong and consciously peaceful tone that has managed to hold itself within such a broad spectrum of protest sites and peoples.
    Its beautiful to see!!!!
    I love the french for their through utilization of their rights to protest, so much so its ingrained in their cultural mentality. I have spent some time in Paris and almost every day came upon a protest of something. Its a wonderful country an its passions spill over into its social structure in a way I wish could be bottled and added to our waters here, Its seems so difficult for Ireland to evolve out of our past in so many ways.

    Its so enlightening to me your explanation here of why americans might be cautious, and also Mary's comment above, brings home to me why that apathy might be so. Thanks for your efforts and time and links. I will link to it as much as I can here to share with others here who support their american counterparts and wish you well.

    xx E

  7. I got my package Today!!!!!!!!!!!! I cant thank you enough. I am sending you the greatest hug and a kiss to both cheeks gorgeously kind lady. Your island came spilling out onto the sunny morning floor of my home. Madeleine and me felt so loved and flew about in butterflies so poeticly. You brought such smiles to our faces. There is nothing like it. xxxxx E

  8. This post said a lot of things I've had trouble articulating. I'm really excited about the Occupy movement and have been getting as involved as I reasonably can given school and work. I went to the big rally in DC on October 6th, and am trying to be at Occupy Baltimore as much as possible. It's been a really cool way to meet other activist-minded individuals in my city as well! It's also neat to see people just trying to help in whatever way they can. I work for an older lady as an artist assistant, and on Saturday we spent a few hours making up a huge vat of soup for me to take down to the protestors.

  9. well said my friend. This protest picking up such huge momentum is pretty damn inspiring. And Lord knows I appreciate any reference to W. Guthrie, and that big, beautiful song. Best song ever written (In My Own Opinion) Thanks for highlighting the forgotten verses. I don't think many are aware that they were ever cut.

    Power to the people,

  10. SO SORRY I NEVER SAW THIS POST!!!! These are being held in New Zealand also. Peacefully. My husband goes and mingles in them in his lunchbreak...trying to figure out what it's all about. Depending on the person he speaks with, he gets new answers. This is a beautiful post, as I've said time and time again, you write so SPLENDIDLY.