War and Peace (1967)

In 1812, Western Europe was doing pretty much the same thing it’s trying to do today, trying to destroy Russia and its Orthodox Christian civilization. Indeed, when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River at the head of what was up until that point the largest army the world had ever seen, the Russian people, like the people of Spain and the royalist French counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee in the years before, saw him as the anti-Christ, the beast on horseback who would bring the godless red terror of the French Revolution to their doorsteps. They weren’t entirely wrong. The French sack of the fortress city of Smolensk was not only brutal, it threatened to destroy an icon of the Virgin Mary that Russian legend maintained had been rescued from the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Later that year, just before the Battle of Borodino, the Stalingrad of 1812, the Russian Army held a religious service where the Smolensk icon was displayed in front of over 100,000 soldiers, many of whom would die that day in the great battle that finally broke Napoleon’s aura of godlike invincibility. While Napoleon would drive the Russian Army from the field, then go on to occupy Moscow, the West had lost the apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Orthodox Russia would survive for another 105 years until 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks destroyed it for good.

Or did they? That Sergei Bondarchuk could make his epic movie War and Peace in 1967 with the full state support of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is something of a miracle. If it’s one thing the Soviet Union was good at it was putting history on screen. October by Sergei Eisenstein not only captured the storming of the Winter Palace on film, it became almost a historical event in and of itself. Bondarchuk’s film, which features tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers as extras, and which includes a full length reenactment of the veneration of the Smolensk Icon, is most emphatically not a communist movie. It is, rather, a resurrection of the Russia of Czar Alexander II, of the first Great Patriotic War, of the grand aristocratic society the Soviet Union had supposedly replaced. If we American love tabloid stories about the British Royal Family, we have nothing on those Russian communists of the 1960s who pretty much built a complete live action museum of a Christian empire that was gone forever. Compared to Bondarchuk’s epic, American attempts to recapture their history, from the silly Ted Turner Gettysburg of the 1990s, to classics like Gone With the Wind, seem almost primitive and childish.

Nevertheless, if Bondarchuk’s film is not a communist film, it’s not exactly a reactionary one either. Rather, it is a herculean attempt to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and his deeply mature humanism, to cinema. Having read War and Peace twice, in English translation of course, I can say almost without reservation, that this film comes pretty close to succeeding. It’s not just that Bondarchuk manages to recreate a realistic facsimile of the world of 1812, it’s that he also manages to dramatize how small, relatively insignificant humans interact with gigantic historical events that threaten to crush them. In the burning of Moscow, for example, the film’s climatic sequence, and it does register as a climax after almost 6 hours of exposition, Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who’s played by Bondarchuk himself, has stayed behind as part of a quixotic desire to assassinate Napoleon. The French, who had marched into the city in good order, have degenerated into a rapacious mob, looting and murdering civilians, raping women, and shooting at random civilians who they believe responsible for setting the fires. When a woman calls out that she has lost her child in the fire, Bezukhov forgets about his plan to assassinate Napoleon and bulls his way through a group of French soldiers in the direction of her house. The French, who had just finished looting it, tell Bezukhov that the child was indeed in the courtyard. They had made no attempt to rescue her, but don’t seem particularly interested in stopping the would be Russian hero from doing it himself.

Pierre Bezhukov succeeds in rescuing the child, but cannot find her mother. Did she die in the flames? Was she killed by the French? We never find out. Then the mood of the French soldiers changes just as suddenly as a fire changes direction in a strong wind. Even though he’s clearly got a child in his arms and he’s clearly looking for her mother, the French soldiers accuse him of being a saboteur, an incendiary who helped start the fires. They force him to abandon the child and lead him off to his execution. In the end, as anybody who’s read the novel knows, Pierre Bezhukov is not executed by the French. Rather he’s taken west on the retreat, death march of the French Army back to Western Europe, where, one by one, his companions are tied to a post and shot, the vulnerable 19-year-old boy, the kindly middle-aged man who had prevented him from starving, a few innocent peasants they picked up along the way, until he’s miraculously rescued by Cossacks. During his rescue, is he thinking about the child he saved from the fire but couldn’t save from the mob? We never find out. But Bondarchuk has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations of what it’s like to be caught in the maelstrom of history.

If the film has a weakness, it’s probably Bondarchuk’s decision to cast himself as Pierre Bezhukov. Pierre is a giant, physically powerful young man in his 20s on an elaborate philosophical and spiritual quest. Bondarchuk is a square, plain man in his 40s. He’s certainly better in the role than Henry Fonda was in the King Vidor version (what kind of drugs do you have to be on to cast Henry Fonda a Russian?) or Anthony Hopkins in the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, but the role really calls for a young Gerard Depardieu or Liam Neeson, a burly, brute of a man restrained only his cultivated spirituality. Then again, perhaps it’s not a flaw so much as an aesthetic choice. Bondarchuk feels so stiff and unemotive in the role that perhaps he decided to cast himself, not as a character in the novel, but as a witness to the novel’s events. Indeed, in real life, Pierre’s decision to stroll around the Battle of Borodino, a meatgrinder that made Gettysburg or Antietam seem almost bloodless in comparison, would have gotten him killed in the first five minutes of the battle. It would be impossible to depict these passages in Tolstoy’s novel realistically without spending the entire time with Pierre huddled behind an earthwork desperately trying not to get hit by shrapnel. Instead he becomes almost a disembodied presence, the angel of history recording one of history’s most hellish moments.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the brooding, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky is somewhat better. Tall, spare, with aquiline features and graceful movements, he embodies Tolstoy’s tragic aristocratic hero. Anatoly Ktorov as Andrei’s father is even better yet. Somehow he manages to evoke in 1967 the wistful nostalgia of an old man in 1812 for old world that had vanished decades before 1812. How exactly did the proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union end up with so many actors so good at playing aristocrats? Ludmila Savelyeva, bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who played Natasha in the King Vidar film, but a Slavic Audrey Hepburn with none of the original’s — all apologies to fans of Ms. Hepburn — Anglo Saxon brittleness. Savelyeva’s Natasha, like Bondarchuk’s Pierre, is an abstract portrayal, but it’s on the opposite end of the scale. Savelyeva at times comes off like the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But at other times she comes off like a petulant, almost stupid child. She embodies all of the contradictions of aristocratic Russian girlhood as seen through the eyes of a mid-20th Century Soviet filmmaker.

Natasha is also the focal point of the film’s recreation of Russian society, the “peace” half of the novel to Andrei’s and Pierre’s “war.” Bondarchuk’s depiction of the grand balls of Alexander II are filmed with as much painstaking detail and elaborate choreography as his battle scenes. You can’t do any of this with CGI. At her coming out party, when Natasha attends her first grand ball thrown by the Czar himself, the camera follows her entrance into the palace. We weave our way in and out of the crowd, like children approaching the beach for the first time hearing seagulls and smelling salt water. When he have finished climbing to the top of the staircase and can finally see the length and breadth of the ballroom, the elegance and splendor of the guests, it almost takes our breath away. “So that was the world that was lost,” we think. We don’t even bother to remember how that beautiful world was built on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of impoverished serfs. But we don’t care. If a communist filmmaker can enjoy such a spectacle of the aristocratic past, so can we.

The Emigrants (1971) The New Land (1972)

On December 26, 1862, 38 Lakota Sioux men were hanged in Mankato Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in United States history. For Jan Troell, the Swedish director who stages a vivid recreation of the execution near the end of his seven hour epic about Swedish immigrants in the north Midwest, it was just punishment. While one of the film’s characters carefully explains that the Lakota were driven to war by an artificial famine created by the United States government, the scenes of Indian atrocities against white settlers, one clearly inspired by the Manson cult’s murder of Sharon Tate, create a much stronger impression. This is not a revisionist western about the suffering of native Americans. It is an epic about the struggle of a group of Swedish settlers to establish themselves in the “new world.”

The Emigrants, the first half of the epic, begins in Småland, a province in Southern Sweden. Now a wealthy, prosperous region of the European Union, the headquarters of IKEA, in 1844 it was a harsh, repressive backwater, dominated by narrow-minded Lutheran fundamentalism, and a rigid social hierarchy. Karl Oskar Nilsson, a peasant farmer played by Max von Sydow, and his wife Kristina, played by Liv Ullman, try to make a go at farming, but it is clearly hopeless. They are hard-working, pious, industrious people, but the land is too barren. The population has outstripped the region’s carrying capacity. There is no upwardly mobility in mid-19th Century Sweden, only an inevitable slide into poverty and debt.

Robert, Karl Oscar’s younger brother played by Eddie Axberg, a likeable if somewhat dim romantic dreamer and rebel, is an indentured servant at a neighboring farm. His master is a cruel, physically abusive tyrant, in one scene boxing his ears so hard that it would give poor Robert a bad case of tinnitus that would last for the rest of his short life. But unlike his older brother, Robert is not without imagination. Obsessively reading a book about opportunities in North America, especially the passages about there being no rigid European style class system, he imagines himself as an American. Lacking the fare for the passage across the Atlantic, his dream remains a dream until Karl Oscar, Kristina, Kristina’s uncle Danjel, a freelance evangelical minister who’s persecuted by the local authorities for holding unsanctioned prayer meetings, Ulrika, one of Danjel’s parishioners, an ex-prostitute played by the Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, and several of their neighbors decide that emigration is their only hope of ever making a decent living. They sell all they have and buy tickets on a clipper ship bound for New York.

Arriving in the port city of Karlshamn, Robert spots a magnificent sailing ship just off the coast, its sleek lines and intricate rigging looking like the culmination of his romantic dreams. It’s an astonishing scene, imagination become reality, mind meets matter, a depiction of Robert’s world opening up right in front of his eyes. But the voyage across the ocean is brutal, excruciating, not quite a slave ship or an Irish coffin ship, but dirty, lice ridden, harsh, claustrophobic, and in several cases fatal. Kristina, who is pregnant, barely survives. Ulrika the ex-prostitute, is scapegoated for the lice. Robert’s wonder at the sight of the magnificent clipper ship off the coast becomes passive, bored misery, lying back in his bunk, his tinnitus growing ever worse. Only Karl Oscar, the tough as nails patriarch, manages to keep his head, and only because his concern for Kristina outweighs any urge he might have to indulge himself in his misery.

Indeed, the Emigrants above all is the story of a marriage, a marriage the the term “happy” would be inadequate to describe. Karl Oscar and Kristina share a bond so deep it goes beyond romance, and represents economic and social necessity. Running a farm takes a man and a woman, a husband and a wife. Their marriage is a harsh Garden of Eden, full of trials and tribulations, but ultimately what defines being human. Von Sydow and Ullman, both good looking professional actors, are perfectly believable as plain Swedish peasants, their physical beauty not detracting from the movie’s credibility, but on the contrary, lending an air of dignity to the working class that only a great artist like Jan Troell could make us believe. Through everything, the brutal voyage, the long journey west, the dangerous Minnesota winters, the struggle to build a homestead out of raw materials, they not only survive but prosper. Just before Kristina’s death in childbirth at the close of The New Land, Karl Oscar hands her an apple, the fruit of the tree she had planted years before. They have reestablished paradise in the new world, the painful birth of Scandinavian America.

Robert, on the other hand, dies young, doomed as all single males are inevitably doomed. On the voyage across the Atlantic, it first appears that he may pair off with Ulrika’s illegitimate daughter Elin, a pretty young woman who at first glance would appeal to any young man. But Elin is the female version of Robert, the impractical romantic dreamer. When he offers to teach her English, she argues that there’s no need to study. She genuinely believes that when she sets down in New York she will be so filled with the holy spirit that God will give her the ability to speak the new language, almost as if she were one of the early martyrs in Acts of the Apostles. They are clearly not the pair to settle down and grind through the decades long process of building a farm in Minnesota.

Instead Robert and his friend Arvin head out for California to prospect gold. They have no idea how to find the gold — someone will help us, Robert says — or how the trek across the high sierra and the California desert will make the voyage across the Atlantic seem by contrast like a stay at a first class hotel. Somehow Robert makes it. Arvin, who has never taken the trouble to learn English, dies after he drinks water that is clearly labeled “poison.” Yet in the end Robert’s abilities fail his imagination. While he does know enough English to get by, he mistranslates signs that say “Beware of Yellow Fever” to “Beware of Gold Fever,” mistakenly thinking a hard practical warning is a conspiracy to limit his American dreams. When he returns home to Oscar and Kristina with a large wad of counterfeit bills he had been scammed into accepting in exchange for actual gold coins, Oscar can barely hide his contempt. Becoming an American is hard, grinding work, not aimless dreaming. The United States is a place for practical men willing to look to the future, not romantic poets with no grounding in reality. Yet ultimately Robert is the most likeable, sympathetic character in Troell’s epic, the stand in for Troell himself, a tragic figure born before Swedish Americans would enter the middle-class, then the intellectual elites, and produce their own playwrights, poets, painters, actors and film directors.

Happy 100th Birthday Victor Lundy

This was a building in my hometown. They demolished it 32 years ago and replaced it with a dull office building. The architect turns 100 years old today.

The architect’s name is Victor Lundy.

He was born in NYC in 1923. But his parents took the family to the Soviet Union for most of the 1930s. They returned to the USA just before World War II started and he served in the US Army at Normandy.

He’s probably one of the last Americans alive who voluntarily emigrated to the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. So far he’s outlived the Soviet Union by three decades. He was 5 years old when Eisenstein filmed October.

On Losing a Grandparent to Alzheimer’s

When I was 23-years-old, my grandmother died. My grandfather, to whom she had been married for over 70 years, quickly lost his mind, and spiraled into mental oblivion. Honestly, back then I didn’t really care. Elderly people, death, losing a spouse of over 70 years, didn’t concern me. I was too busy dreaming of myself as a poet and a writer, anxious to tear myself away from these curiously ancient, not quite humans, and get on with my life. I What I didn’t understand that the inspiration for whatever poetry I thought I would be capable of was right there in my grandfather’s eyes.

Claire Pommet is a 26-year-old singer/song-writer from Lyon France. She’s been writing songs and poetry for over 20-years and has an astonishing maturity for someone so young. Three years ago, she lost her own grandfather to Alzheimer’s, but, unlike me, she knew how to engage the moment. The result was a song called La Lumière. This young woman might be the great romantic poet of our age. The fact that she utterly looks the party only adds to it.

In the end, I would not succeed in becoming a writer. I didn’t have the talent. But had I had the courage to look into my grandfather’s eyes, I might have found the inspiration, my muse, La Lumiere.

The light
If I did not find the light in your eyes again
It’s because your heart let go of your lungs, a river
In the castle of secrets you are the youngest
We know secrets about it, you tell them to not forget them,
forget your children, and the children of your children
Forget your name, and the path of the house
The precious things of your past, of your joys, your angers.
You cannot remember it, its the wind that always scares you Theres still light in your eyes,
We could find it again, in the heat underground.

And forget your children, and the children of your children
Forget your name, and the path of the house
And forget your children, and the children of your children
Forget your name, and the path of the house

Dara of Jasenovac

While Dara of Jasenovac, a Serbian movie about the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, has gotten a number of bad reviews, most notably from Variety, for being Serbian nationalist propaganda, it’s also film Americans should watch. Since “we” intervened in the Yugoslavian Civil War of the 1990s, and still maintain a gigantic military base in the newly independent state of Kosovo, supposedly to prevent genocide, we should probably learn something about the history of the region. If anybody wants to recommend a Croatian movie defending their collaboration with the Germans, I’ll watch that one too.

When the Germans conquered Yugoslavia in April of 1941, they set up an “independent” client state under the Ustaše, an ultranationalist organization founded by Ante Pavelić. The Nazi attitude towards various Slavic nationalities in Eastern Europe was actually a lot more subtle than they’re usually given credit for. In the long run, Hitler planned to repopulate all of Eastern Europe with Nordics and various other western Europeans, but in the short run he was very good at playing various types of Slavs off against one another. For the dominant Slavic nationalities, Russians, Czechs, Poles and Serbians, it was quick and immediate genocide. For the smaller and less well-known Slavic nationalities, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croatians, Lithuanians and Latvians, the Germans presented themselves as “liberators,” and gave them a chance to establish their independence under the protection of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.

In the opening of Dara of Jasenovac a group of Serbian men, women and children are being marched off to a concentration camp past a group of Croatian women women working in the fields. “Why aren’t they taking those women too,” a young girl, Dara, asks her older brother. “Because they’re Croatians and not Serbians,” he answers. “What’s the difference?” she asks. “They cross themselves differently from the way we do,” he says, the Serbians being Orthodox Christians and the Croatians Catholics. Aside from that there is no difference at all. One of the Serbian women catches the eye of one of the Croatian women, then quickly puts her newborn child down on the ground behind a thick row of hedges. The Croatian woman picks the child up and takes it home to raise it as her own. It’s important scene, not only because it makes it clear that the director isn’t condemning all Croatians, only the Ustaše, and because it provides a hint of the horror to come.

Dara of Jasenovac is at its strongest when it deals with the question of why so many Croatians were willing to collaborate with the Germans in a genocide against their fellow Slavs. At its best, Dara of Jasenovac reminds me of Passolini’s film Salo, a movie that so accurately captured the fascist mentality that Italian fascists assassinated Passolini in retaliation. The fascist torturers and murderers in Dara of Jasenovac aren’t fascists because they’re Croatians, any more than most Nazis were fascists because they were Germans, or most Ku Klux Klan members were fascists because they were Anglo Americans. There’s no essential fascist nationality. Rather, the Croatians who run the Jasenovac, the chain of death camps where Serbs, Jews and Roma were condemned to an almost certain death, are the kind of people you see in every country, petty little assholes who suddenly get power over their neighbors, upwardly mobile, aspirational dickheads the ruling class finds it convenient to elevate as long as they’re useful to the ruling class, the “ruling class” here being the Germans and the “working-class” being the Slavs.

Most of the Ustaše members in Dara of Jasenovac are based on eyewitness testimony and thus have historical antecedents. Miroslav Filipović, for example, was a real Croatian war criminal, and Catholic Priest, who was hanged in 1946 wearing wearing the robes of the Franciscan Order. Somehow I don’t think genocide was what St. Francis had in mind.

Filipović is a minor character in the film. The real monsters of Dara of Jasenovac, Vjekoslav Luburić, Ante Vrban, and Nada Šakić, a sexy young female guard played by Alisa Radaković, are low rent versions of The Duke, The Magistrate, The Bishop and The President from the above mentioned Salo. While a visiting German officer thinks of genocide as a necessary but thoroughly distasteful task to be carried out in the service of the Thousand Year Reich, the low rent Croatian torturers and murderers under his command positively love it. They don’t just herd their Serbian and Jewish prisoners into gas chambers. They play an elaborate game of “musical chairs” where Serbian men are made to run around a circle of chairs before one is pulled away. Whoever is left without a chair gets shot through the head. They eat, flirt, laugh. At one point, Nada Šakić gets so turned on by the carnage all around her she has to duck into a car with her boyfriend for a quick fuck. This isn’t necessarily the banality of evil. It’s the frat party of evil. Dara, by contrast, is the “virgin” to Nada Šakić’s “whore,” literally. Played by Biljana Cekic, and charged by her murdered parents to take care of her sick little brother, she’s filmed as a pre-adolescent Virgin Mary cradling a sick infant Jesus, an austere Christian witness to a vulgar, fascist orgy.

If the Croatians are portrayed as human trash utterly carried away with the fact that the Germans have suddenly given them a little power over their Serbian neighbors, the film’s Jews are portrayed as noble, not because Jews are essentially better than Croatian Catholics, but because they know there’s no chance of escape. Indeed, the visiting German officer seems most offended that the Croatians are wasting so much time killing Serbians when they should be killing Jews. People who know they’re going to die have the capability for heroism and self-sacrifice, even in the most impossible situation. Dara of Jasenovac isn’t a pleasant film to watch, and I fear many of the child actors might have been traumatized by the subject matter, but I do think it’s an important film about the Holocaust that deserves a larger audience.

Troy Davis 1968-2011

Broadway Near City Hall (September 20, 2011)

Whether or not he ever realized it, and I doubt he did, Troy Davis, a 42 year old man who was executed in 2011 for the murder of a police officer — he had always maintained his innocence — probably had more to do with the early survival of the Occupy Wall Street than anybody.

Davis maintained his innocence up to his execution. In the 20 years between his conviction and execution, Davis and his defenders secured support from the public, celebrities, and human rights groups. Amnesty International and other groups such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took up Davis’s cause. Prominent politicians and leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. Congressman from Georgia and presidential candidate Bob Barr, and former FBI Director and judge William S. Sessions called upon the courts to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary hearing.


Near City Hall New York, September 20, 2011

In spite of how Occupy Wall Street was later accused by establishment liberals of being too white or too class based and not sufficiently “intersectional” the first two weeks of Occupy Wall Street often resembled a Black Lives Matter protest. Without the established New York City left who saw the movement as a platform to continue to protest Davis’s impending execution, I’m quite convinced that Occupy would have fizzled out before it even got started. Of course Davis was quickly forgotten almost as soon as the state of Georgia strapped him into the death chamber (and to be honest I had to Google “man executed who inspired early Occupy protests” even to remember his name). But even though he was executed for a crime he probably didn’t commit, Troy Davis didn’t die in vain. The largest protests in and around Zuccotti Park during the first week of Occupy Wall Street mostly involved the “one demand” to stay that very execution. That it’s has largely remained unmentioned among high profile commentators indicates that most of them probably weren’t at Zuccotti Park until the infamous pepper spray video went viral the next week.

Broadway, September 20, 2011

An Early Occupy March in Downtown Manhattan

There’s a pretty good writeup about Occupy Wall Street in the Financial Times. It’s mostly about the “leadership” behind the scenes but they do have a pretty good account of one of the early unpermitted marches that helped the movement gain its initial momentum.

Around noon on September 24 2011, a young black man named Robert Stephens fell to his knees in the middle of the road outside Chase Bank headquarters on Liberty Street, New York City. Wearing a white fleece and black-rimmed glasses, Stephens pointed at the Chase building and wailed: “That’s the bank that took my parents’ home.”

Looking through some of my photos from late September of 2011, I realize that I was at one of the incidents the article describes.

Near Chase Plaza in Lower Manhattan (September 24, 2011)

One thing that I can’t help but notice 10 years later is the number of photographers. For every protester willing to risk arrest and help build the movement there were at least a dozen people (like me sadly) who just wanted to take photos. I think in some ways that might provide some insight into why the Occupy movement fizzled out after it was evicted from Zuccotti Park. It really didn’t fizzle out. Many of its supporters went onto “careers” in alternative media. How many leftist YouTubers, for example, got their start covering Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Wall Street was as much about the birth of the new leftist media as it was about protest. In many ways it’s inevitable that the most prominent leftist politician in American today, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, is essentially the politician as social media influencer.

Near Chase Plaza in Lower Manhattan (September 24, 2011)

This of course was the same march that continued up Broadway and ended with the famous incident of the NYPD pepper spraying kettled protesters near Union Square. I didn’t get any photos of the pepper sprayings because I left the march as soon as it reached its destination. I had learned, from going to anti-war and pro-Palestinian marches during the Bush years, that it was always a good idea to leave the area after the official march was over since right wing counterdemonstrators usually hung around to pick up stragglers and provoke them into fights that would inevitably lead to arrests. In the Bush years almost nothing interesting happened after the least official speaker had had his turn at the podium. But at Occupy Wall Street that rule had changed. Anything could happen at any time. A march would break out when you least expected it. The police could launch an attack at the moment you felt most at ease.

Broadway ( September 24, 2011)

But that chaotic atmosphere also made it inevitable that the NYPD would win the running battle between police and protester. There was nothing more demoralizing than watching the “shift change” every night near Zuccotti Park, when one army of police officers was replaced by another. You realize after awhile that you the protesters were the barbarians facing up to disciplined Roman legions. The police got a paycheck. They got to go home every night and watch television. They could call in sick or request another assignment. Repressing protest for the bankers and the ruling class wasn’t something they necessarily wanted to do. It was their job. And how many people in the world really like their jobs?

Broadway, September 2011

For protesters however, demonstrations are a strange amalgam of love and will. You’re not only doing it for free, you’re essentially paying to protest (in the form of arrests, court dates, missed work days, fines). Unlike the police, you can’t just clock out, go home, and sleep it off. You have to guard against two opposite and yet equally dangerous states of mind, disillusionment and fanaticism. On one hand, there was always the temptation after a particularly grueling “General Assembly” to just say “fuck it. I’m going home.” On the other hand, there was also the tendency to put yourself in a state of mind where you would dismiss any criticism, to hate the media even more than is logically warranted (to forget that like the police they’re only doing their jobs), to accuse other protesters of being provocateurs or traitors. It’s an almost impossible balance to maintain, which is why most protest movements in the United States tend to fall apart after a few months, and why I don’t really blame the leaders for allowing themselves to get coopted. A job is always easier than an act of love.

Occupy Wall Street 10 Years Later

Zuccotti Park (September 17, 2011)

The financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, which killed the euphoria around Barack Obama victory over John McCain, produced two competing narratives. On the left there was the familiar idea that corporate America had too much power, that in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagall the big investment banks had gambled heavily on the real estate market and lost, making it inevitable that they would have to be bailed out by the federal government. On the right, on Fox News and among the various libertarian subcultures that had grown up in the wake of Ron Paul’s run for the Republican nomination in 2008, they blamed the government. The Clinton administration, they argued, had issued too many government backed loans to people unable or unwilling to pay them back.

From 2008 to 2011, in spite of the fact that the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, the far right bullied the media and the Obama administration into submission. Any time a small group of “Tea Party” protesters decided to disrupt a congressional town hall on healthcare or a not too subtly racist conspiracy theorist shouted “where’s the birth certificate” it received extensive, and at least from my perspective, largely favorable media coverage. The left just seemed to be in shock, blindsided not only by Barack Obama’s stacking his cabinet with corporate neoliberals like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emmanuel, but by the fact that everybody in the Republican Party and on cable news seemed to consider him a secret Muslim and a socialist born in Kenya. Arguing with your racist Boomer uncle at a family reunion felt a bit like being part of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. The more you pointed out how Obama had protected anybody and everybody in the financial industry from prosecution or how he had continued George Bush’s “war on terror,” the more your racist Boomer uncle seemed to believe that he was a secret Bolshevik being manipulated from behind the scenes by Bill Ayres and the ghost of Saul Alinsky. “Where’s the birth certificate!”

On September 17 2011, a small group of protesters met near the Wall Street Bull on lower Broadway, a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve. Neither the NYPD nor the few tourists in the area — it was a Saturday — seemed to think very much of it, another small left wing protest that would go nowhere, yawn. After being turned away from the New York Stock Exchange and Chase Plaza, the protesters finally set up shop in Zuccotti Park, hardly a park at all but a dreary slab of concrete near the old World Trade Center. For the next week, the small encampment lingered on, largely kept alive by the fact that some people on the traditional New York left were willing to use it as a base to protest the impending execution of Troy Davis. Remember him?

Lower Broadway (September 20, 2011)

Nevertheless, all through that first week, momentum was building, mainly through the daily breakaway marches that would emerge from Zuccotti Park, do a loop around the Federal Reserve and One Chase Plaza and continue up Broadway to Union Square. There was no ideological consistency. Some of the protesters carried signs with Karl Marx, hammers and sickles. Others carried signs that said “End the Fed,” but everything seemed to be a refreshing change of pace from the authoritarian, top down anti war protests of the Bush years, where you showed up at a permitted rally, held up a sign for an hour or two while listening to a long list of speakers drone on and on, and then went home feeling vaguely demoralized and useless. As small as those early break away marches were, you felt that they were your marches, not some shadowy organization’s, that you were in control, that you were finally at long last speaking for yourself, not just parroting someone else’s canned talking points.

On September 25, a week after the original occupiers set up in Zuccotti Park, the NYPD “kettled” a group of protesters near Union Square, trapped them behind barricades and started making arrests. A high ranking NYPD inspector named Anthony Bologna who decided that he wasn’t going to leave the dirty work to some 23-year-old recruit, took out a can of pepper spray and assaulted a group of young women at close range. The video, which can still be seen here, “went viral,” and suddenly Occupy Wall Street came to symbolize an American working class under attack by corporate America and by the government. Just a quick note, “Bologna” is a major city in Italy that is not only the site of the first university in Europe, but also a traditional stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. Perhaps, like in an Assassins Creed game, “Tony Baloney’s” intellectual and left wing ancestors were using their moronic descendent to spark an anarchist revolution in the United State of America.

Occupiers Kettled on the Brooklyn Bridge (October 1, 2011)

In any event, the NYPD, who had initially taken little notice of the protests, now considered Occupy Wall Street to be their enemy. Their patience was wearing thin, so thin that on October 1, after a huge crowd showed up in Zuccotti Park after an ultimately false rumor that Radiohead was going to play a free outdoor concert, the police trapped another large breakaway march on the Brooklyn Bridge and started arresting everybody in site. Their intention, of course, was to isolate the leaders, trump up serious charges on anybody they considered to be a threat, and slap the rest of us with a summons and the hassle of a court date. But that’s now how it played in the media. Occupy Wall Street, it seemed, had stormed the Brooklyn Bridge, as iconic a structure in its own way as the Bastille, and the revolution had at long last arrived. Suddenly Occupy Wall Street, like the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, had captured the zeitgeist. It was the place to be. Everybody in the media wanted a piece of it. Every photographer in New York wanted a photo. Every radio talk show host wanted an interview. It didn’t matter that the typical Occupier didn’t know exactly why he was protesting, that the ideological spectrum of the movement as a whole ran all the way from communist to to fascist, or that the shadowy “leadership” refused to issue any demands, a large group of protesters had taken over the financial district in New York City, had “stormed Wall Street.”

The NYPD at that moment had to know had badly it had fucked up. It had birthed a left wing movement that spawned copycat occupations in every major city and on almost every college campus in America. For a brief moment, Occupy Wall Street had become so popular that on October 14, when New York City’s plutocratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear out Zuccotti Park on the pretext that the occupation was a health hazard, so many people showed up over night that the NYPD decided not even to make any arrests, and the encampment would survive for another month. But of course, as I should have realized at the time, the outcome was inevitable. The beautiful late September, early October weather wasn’t going to last forever. What’s more, the NYPD and NYC tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily News, which had never been sympathetic to the movement, began to coordinate their efforts to smear and discredit the occupiers in what eventually amounted to a low level counterinsurgency.

Zuccotti Park (October 14, 2011)

It’s important to remember that the NYPD and the city government initially tolerated the occupation of Zuccotti Park because the entire area was at the time essentially a construction site, the “Oculus” (the huge upscale shopping mall at the site of the old World Trade Center) and the Battery Park Subway station that would anchor the hypergentrification of downtown Manhattan, still works in progress. But it was still valuable real estate and local merchants and property owners were already howling for the movement’s destruction.

Occupiers Arrested near the Federal Reserve in Lower Manhattan (November 12, 2011)

While it took a few weeks, the writing was on the wall, Occupy’s 15 minutes of fame were up. The tabloids and local cable news outlets got to work in earnest, effectively painting Zuccotti Park as a filthy homeless encampment full of rapists and criminals so dangerous unless you were a heavily armed police officer you would be better off avoiding the area altogether. The New York Post published so many stories about rapes at Occupy Wall Street it began to feel like Berlin in 1945. Needless to say, the “me too” movement was still far off, and nobody in 2011 had any suspicion that the American ruling class was full of rapists, perverts and pedophiles like Andrew Cuomo, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, that your daughter was in far more danger of being sexually assaulted at Goldman Sachs than she was in Zuccotti Park. The American people are, if anything, fickle and easily propagandized. By November 15, when the NYPD finally cleared out Zuccotti Park and surrounded it with barricades, few people even bothered to take notice.

Social democrats and liberals, it seems, have decided that Occupy Wall Street was ultimately a success, that it “pushed the Democrats left” and created the conditions that would eventually give rise to the Bernie Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter. Was it? I could offer up an opinion of my own but as we all know opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. The rich have more money now than they ever had. The 99% and the 1% are more like the 99.999999% and the .0000001%. Medicare for All, while briefly a serious topic of debate, has all but disappeared from the national conversation. In March of 2020, all it took to destroy the Sanders campaign was one phone call from Barack Obama (the same man who probably coordinated police attacks on Occupy encampments in the Fall of 2011). But there’s no question that in some important ways the culture has changed. Looking at this video of Michael Moore getting booed at the Oscars is quite frankly shocking. Even the Hollywood liberal elites used to love George W. Bush. Protests against the police, even during the Covid pandemic, are so common they’ve essentially become part of American life. Unlike Barak Obama, who refused to shut down the American torture colony at Guantanamo Bay and allowed Hillary Clinton to destroy Libya and Syria, the moldy old right wing Democrat Joe Biden defied the military industrial media complex and pulled American troops out of Afghanistan. While Occupy’s demands — what were they again? — were never achieved, the political style Occupy invented on September 17th, 2011, has become mainstream, the way Americans protest. Occupy’s medium has become the message.

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Rahway New Jersey the Morning After the Big Storm

Last week in New Jersey we experienced the kind of natural disaster most of us have only heard about. While my home state may be the butt of a lot of jokes, we also tend to be free from horrible things like earthquakes, tornados, mass shootings and Republicans. Nevertheless, after a hot rainy summer (which is far from over) the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped over 10 inches of rain on the already water logged ground. Twenty three people died in the floods. Some people died through no fault of their own. Four people in Elizabeth drowned in their basement apartment after a river overflowed its banks and made escape impossible. Other people died out of sheer stupidity. For some odd reason an 83-year-old man in Union felt he needed to get in his car and drive and another man in Maplewood felt it necessary to clear the debris out of a culvert near his house.

As for me, I was doing my best to get a Darwin Award. I live on the second floor of a very well-built house on top of a hill. I could have easily slept through the storm and not even realized it happened. As soon as the storm was done, however, I jumped on my bike to explore the area, because, well, why not? Not far from my house, at the bottom of two steep hills, there was a small body of water where, only the day before there had only been the street in front of the local topless bar. There were also dozens of abandoned cars, their electronics shorted out when they tried to make it through what turned out to be at least two feet of water. I road through without a hitch, my feet soaked, but my pride swollen. My bike has no electronics, and it turned out I was stronger than 2 tons of Detroit metal (well these days fiberglass) powered by a V-6. I wound up riding through three large bodies of water, each more deep than the other, the last one lapping over the side view mirrors of cars parked on the street, a couch that had formerly decorated someone’s back porch floating by as I chugged through the brackish muck.

When I got home I couldn’t help but turn on Pete Seeger performing his now all but forgotten song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.

Pete Seeger

For Seeger, the song, which tells the tale of an infantry officer who drowned on a training exercise while foolishly trying to bully his platoon to ford a tributary of the flooded Mississippi (a stream that turned out to be the Mississippi itself), was a metaphor for the Vietnam War. The same military industrial media complex that recently attacked President Biden for his surprisingly courageous decision to end the American Occupation couldn’t admit they had made a mistake intervening in the Vietnamese Civil War. Like the idiot platoon commander in Seeger’s song, they were determined to drag the American people down with them. But Seeger’s platoon was smart enough to turn back and barely make it to dry land. The American people in the 1960s were smart enough to protest the occupation of Vietnam and demand we leave.

In 2021, I wish the “big muddy” were the war in Afghanistan. But it’s not. It’s something much more dangerous, to be specific, global warming, the weather patterns that have turned the Northeast into the Southeast, complete with deadly tornados, hurricanes, and floods. And the foolish platoon commander is not the American ruling class. It’s all of us, every ordinary citizen who just has to get into his car every day to run the rat race that’s killing the planet. Will we make it out? Or will we condemn our grandchildren to a dead, flooded planet. One can only hope for the best .