Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Charlottesville On My Mind—Part 2

In Charlottesville Antifa mingled with other counter-demonstrators opposing the Unite the Right White Nationalist/Neo-Nazi'KKK rally.

Note—Last week in part I of this series I looked at the relationship between a growing and empowered Alt-Right/Neo-Nazi/KKK movement, Trump, and Trumpism.  Today we look at that other side that the Cheeto in Charge says was equally to blame.  Who were the counter-protesters anyway—Terrorist, terrorist, anybody got a terrorist?
In the chaotic hours Saturday afternoon as events unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia around the Unite the Right marches and rallies, I sat at a computer in Crystal Lake, Illinois trying to make sense of it via internet live feeds, news bulletins, and social media posts.  Early in the afternoon a garbled report from the scene was posted on a Facebook page for Wobblies—members of the Industrial Workers of the World, my old union outfit.  A Wob had been killed it said and several other badly injured when a car rammed a group of Anti-fascists.  Contradictory reports followed—three had been killed, the victim was a 16 year old girl, she was and was not an IWW member.  No matter, word that she was a Wobbly quickly spread and was repeated in numerous sources, including some news accounts, and repeated the next day in remarks by Black Scholar and a leader of a religious counter-protest.  Cornell West.
Cell phone video from several angles was soon posted and we got to witness the horrific incident over and over.  Even as sporadic street fights continued, national outrage spread.  Condemnation of the violent and frightening hate groups that had descended on the Virginia college town was nearly universal, despite tight lipped silence from the White House.
By late Sunday evening it was clear that there was only one death associated with the car attack and that the victim was a young Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer.  IWW members were scrambling to determine if she was actually a member of the union.  When hit she had been with, or at least among, IWW members.   The union has no chartered branch in that city and a handful of individual members. The Wobblies she was with were from the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.  Some thought, or assumed, that she might be a member from somewhere else who as attracted by the group’s distinctive red and black banners and flags.  At General Headquarters (GHQ) in Chicago no membership record could be found and a search got underway through as yet un-posted Delegate reports that might show that she was newly signed up.  Nothing there either.  The last dwindling possibility was that she was on a Delegate report that had not yet been sent to GHQ.

Heather Heyer commemorated in a mural painted on Charottesville's Free Speech Wall.
By Sunday we knew more about Heather Heyer.  Images of her smiling face lifted from her social media posts had gone viral along with the words of her last Facebook Post—If you are not angry yet, you haven’t been paying attention.  She was a 32 year old single woman with deep local roots, a wide circle of friends, and a good job as a paralegal for a busy law firm.  She had also, apparently, long been concerned with and outspoken about social justice issuesracial injustice, White supremacy, gender bias, and patriarchy.  But as well as anyone can determine she did not belong to any specific organization.
She had frequently attended marches, rallies, and demonstrations especially the massive actions since the election.  Like so many millions of others she was ready to heed a call to action without necessarily being a day to day activist.  She was one who might be called a member of the ready individual reserves for social action.
It is unclear, but likely, that she joined counter protestors at either Richard Spencer’s Take Back the Park action in May or the KKK rally in July. At any rate, she was determined to join the pushback on the Alt-Right’s big unity march.  On Friday she told a close friend and co-worker “I want to go so badly but I don’t want to get shot. I don’t want to die.”  Despite these reservations she showed up on Saturday along with another work friend.
Did Heather Heyer and Marissa Blair intend to join the anti-fascists—those ready to oppose the Neo-Nazis and skin heads with force if necessary or did they end up among them by happenstance?
To answer that we may have to look at just how the two to three hundred folks who were targeted by the rogue driver got to where they were and who they were.
Earlier in the day both side geared up for a confrontation over Emancipation Park where the statue of General Lee still stood.  Under a court order the Unite the Right rally had a permit for a rally at Emancipation park.  Some counter demonstrators had a permit for a near-by park but no one expected that they would stay there.  Declared Anti-fascists were determined to take to the streets to confront the hate groups regardless of permits.  Local and national religious leaders had been trained in non-violence and civil disobedience and were committed to attempting to try and prayerfully block access to the park.  Many expected not only possible violence from the Neo-Nazis but arrest by police.
About eighty of the clergy took up a line in the street outside the park which was had a wrought iron fence a few yards across a sidewalk and some grass.  They sang and prayed and then knelt facing several self-proclaimed security guards in camo armed with semi-automatic weapons, members of white nationalist Militia groups.  The streets started to fill with both Alt-Right marchers, many of them carrying shields and armed with poles and clubs, and counter demonstrators of various stripes. Several fights and melees had broken out. 
As the appointed hour approached a group of the ministers and scholar/activist Cornell West moved to block the gated entry to the park by linking arms across a sidewalk at the top of a short flight of steps.  (More about the ministers later).  A phalanx of White Nationalists carrying death head shields violently pushed their way through the clergy.  Nearby Black Lives Matter members were under attack.  The shaken clergy attempted to re-form their line to prevent another wave from entering the park.  A group shouting obscenities slurs, and threats while brandishing clubs and other weapons prepared to charge them.  Some of the clergy members reported that they were sure they would be killed.

An Antifa contingent, including members of the IWW--note banner on the right--protected threatened clergy

That’s when a group of Anti-fascists arrived.  At first some of the clergy thought that the black clad, helmeted new arrivals might be more Nazis.  Other tried to turn them away.  Instead the Antifa shielded the ministers giving them time to escape safely then took their place trying to hold entrance blockade.  The next day West acknowledged “The antifascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”
Shortly after that the City declared an emergency, canceled all permits, and ordered all demonstrators and all sides out of the park.  Using massed forces, shields, and tear gas police cleared the park and adjacent streets forcing all sides to scatter in smaller groups onto side streets and nearby thoroughfares.  Brawls continued and spread.  Groups of counter demonstrators chased clots of fascist, White thugs attacked isolated Blacks and small knots of counter demonstrators.  It was a violent game of cat and mouse in the city.
And after clearing the park, the police mostly pulled back and let violence unravel without intervention.  Authorities would later claim they were simply overwhelmed and that the Neo-Nazis in particular were better armed and equipped.
That was how Heather Heyer and her friend found themselves a few short blocks away after a running battle or two.  The crowd she was with by accident or otherwise was diverse.  The crowd included members and supporters of Black Lives Matter; a group from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a Marxist/Trotskyist tendency; the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), moderate Social Democrats descended from Eugene V. Debs’ old Socialist Party whose numbers have recently swelled exponentially with people energized by Bernie Sanders; the IWW/GDC contingent; and a number of unaffiliated local residents like Heyer. 
It was clearly an assemblage created out of the chaos around the park and by chance, not by internal cohesion.  Although all, I am sure were ardently against fascism, not all would be comfortable to be labeled Antifa, which is understood to be willing to use force not only against Neo-Nazis and the like, but against police brutality and other threats to working class and minority communities. And even if they did agree on self-defense might not be acknowledged or welcomed by those who self-identify as Antifa, who tend toward anarchism and can be disdainful of both those who they consider merely reformist and those they think are authoritarian vanguardists. 
The IWW itself is not an anarchist organization, but has always had anarchist members and has had historic relationships with Anarcho-syndicalist unions around the world. It’s black and red banners are the colors of militant international syndicalism. The General Defense Committee is open to non-IWW members and has tended to be more anarchist than the parent organization in recent years.  The GDC has evolved from its original role as an auxiliary organization to raise defense funds and provide support for class war prisoners.”  It now has several active locals many of which have moved to an emphasis on worker and community self-defense in the wake of nationwide attacks on the Occupy Movement, police brutality protests, and Black Lives Matter confrontations.  In doing so they have become identified with the Antifa movement.

This unofficial logo is now widely used by IWW General Defense Committee (GDC) locals.
In some cases Antifa street militancy has run afoul of traditional civil rights leaders and organizations and others who are philosophically and practically committed to non-violence.  Even the younger activists who have led the Black Lives Matter have been critical that aggressive or violent Antifa action not only because they are used to discredit the movement and potentially risking the safety and freedom those engaged in peaceful protest.  On the other hand, in the deeply racially troubled Twin Cities and other places the GDC has made strong alliances with militant community members.
Even within the IWW the GDC’s identification with the Antifa movement and militant street actions has been controversial.  Some traditionalists view it as a distraction from on the job organizing and building effective solidarity unionism.  They have proposed reigning in the GDC and bringing it more directly under union administration.  Supporters of an aggressive GDC have responded furiously and even proposed drastic structural changes that would weaken the General Administration and decentralize authority.  Although most IWW members are likely to fall somewhere between these poles, the controversy has roiled the organization for months.  In the aftermath of Charlottesville both sides have dialed back their rhetoric and respect for Anti-fascist action has grown.
That internal drama aside, the IWW/GDC contingent that day was the only part of that crowd that fully identified and met the expectations of the label Antifa. Heather might have gone to the very recognizable black and red banners that day because what she had seen made her want to fight back or even because she felt they were her best protection in case they were attacked again.  Or maybe by a stroke of fate she just happened to be standing There.
Part 3 Tomorrow


Monday, August 21, 2017

The Solar Eclipse—Science, Superstition, History, and Mystery

The Big Event is today.

Note—This blog began an unplanned hiatus for a week and is resuming today.  My apologies for the interruption.  My announced second post ruminating on the distressing events in Charlottesville required significant research and I struggled with my evolving interpretations and views.  I want to get it exactly right so I concentrated on that work and did not attempt to fill days with reprises of old posts, which still can require hours of re-editing and time spent selecting and captioning illustration.  Then late last week I thought that I had lost pages of work in sending a draft by e-mail from my work computer home.  I was finally able to find that and resume work.  I did get this entry together, which is obviously very tied to today’s event.  That long delayed essay on Charlottesville will run tomorrow, I promise.
The U.S. seems to be in the grips of Solar Eclipse mania, and has been all summer.  The media has been abuzz with articles showing the path, describing the best viewing points, telling how to safely view the phenomena, and explanations of the astronomical particulars. 
It is not that solar eclipses which occur when from a viewpoint on Earth the Moon seems to pass in front of the Sun briefly covering it are rare events.  Partial eclipses occur somewhere in the world a half dozen or so time a year and total eclipses once or twice.  But because the orbits of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth they are seen rarely in the life of any individual who does not travel just to observe them.  An octogenarian might get a chance to see two in his or her life. 
The eclipse that is causing all the excitement will be visible in its totality over a much longer path in the United States than has been the case for many decades.  A swath about 70 miles wide will be darkened bisecting the Continental United States from near Portland, Oregon to Columbia South, Carolina today.  That will put it over a huge chunk of the population and within a reasonable driving distance of many more.  The entire rest of the Lower 48 states will be able to witness a partial eclipse, the sun obscured in diminishing percentage the further from the center-line of the total eclipse path.

The path across the Lower 48 States.
Those who can view the Totality under clear skies will experience a dramatic event that almost never fails to be awe inspiring.  The Moon will seem to create a crescent bite out of the Sun when viewed safely through special safety lenses to protect the eyes from damage.  Over the course of several minutes the bite will grow.  At first the sun will not seem dimmed.  Even when it is mostly hidden it emits enough light to illuminate the earth.  And then, seemingly quite suddenly, the disk of the Moon will totally cover the sun.  A sudden darkness will drop like a curtain. A golden ring—the corona of the Sun—will surround the black Moon.  A little more than two and a half minutes later, depending on where the observer stands, just as suddenly a corner of the Sun will emerge with what seems like a blinding light and the darkness upon the earth will disappear in the snap of a finger.  

Much of the reporting has gone to explaining the physical details of the motions of the three orbs involved—Sun, Moon, and Earth.  Science, we are assured, knows exactly what is going on which is why this eclipse and other events thousands of years into the future can be precisely predicted as to location on Earth and time to the nanosecond.  
The Connecticut Yankee Hank "summons" the solar eclipse to get himself out of a Camelot jam.

That extremely wise man, Mark Twain, once wrote a book called A Connecticut in King Arthur’s Court.  Today we would call it science fiction, but no one had invented the term or genre yet in 1889.  In the yarn a capable New England mechanic mysteriously awakens in Camelot after a head injury.  Taken prisoner, he is sentenced to death as a sorcerer but saves himself by claiming to be responsible for a solar eclipse which he was able to calculate with the help of his trusty Almanac.  Not only is he saved, but he is elevated to King Arthur’s right hand man and made Sir Boss with the power to remake the kingdom with modern technology.

But eclipses-as-omens played a very real part in history.  The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by a cosmic dragon devouring the Sun and for various mysterious reasons then disgorging it.  The very word for the event—shialso meant to eat.  Around the world many cultures had similar myths.  In Korea it was fire dogs, Vietnam a toad, India the severed head of an immortal demon, the old Norse had wolves, and some North American Amerinds had serpents or the celestial turtle that carried the earth on its back. 

Nonsense, you may think, but even most of these people understood these stories as a metaphor for something mysterious and powerful—so powerful that an eclipse had to be an omen of something grand and terrible—the fall of a dynasty, the death of a king, a catastrophic loss in battle, or a natural disaster.  Both the ancient Chinese and Babylonians became careful chroniclers of sky events, especially eclipses, and today we can accurately date many historical events and the reigns of dynasties and kings by those observations.  They also became adept, without apparently understanding anything of a Copernican system, at developing precise calculations that could reliably predict future events

More than two thousand years ago, the Babylonians were able to calculate that there were 38 possible eclipses or syzygys both lunar and solar within a period of 223 months which is about 18 years.  Not quite perfect, but pretty damned good.  They especially needed these calculations because they believed a solar eclipse foretold the death of the King.  Armed with this knowledge a ruler temporarily abdicated and a substitute King placed on the throne who was given all honors and lavished with wealth until the eclipse arrived and then was quickly dispatched allowing the old king to return safely.  Clever, those Babylonians.

But this kind of record keeping and prediction may go back far earlier than can be found in Chinese scrolls or Mesopotamian clay tablets.  Archeologists recently discovered Neolithic stones at a site in Cornwall from between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago that seem to record, predict, and trace the paths of a couple of hundred years of eclipses.  Stonehenge as long been thought to be used to calculate eclipses as well.  

This New Mexico petroglyph may be the first ever image of the sun's corona during an eclipse and record the one seen there on July 11, 1097.

In the New World a petroglyph on the south face of Piedra del Sol, a free-standing rock in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, may depict the solar corona observed during the total solar eclipse of July 11, 1097 CE.  

Clearly a lot of folks were gazing at the sun and searching for answers to big mysteries.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus on May 28, 585 BCE a solar eclipse that had been predicted by the philosopher Thales of Miletus interrupted a battle between the Medes and the Lydians causing them to immediately cease fighting and make peace in their long-running war.  How reliable Herodotus was is debated, but scientist/science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day and described the prediction as “the birth of science.”
Heroditus claimed that a solar eclipse during the Battle of  Halys between the Medes and the Lydians in 595 BCE stopped the battle and ended the war.  The event had accurately been predicted by the philosopher Thales.

But we sophisticates are beyond all of that myth and omen business, aren’t we.  Yet it might not take a deep analysis by a social psychologist to recognize that some of the extraordinary attention being paid to our eclipse is due to the deeply unsettling times in which we live. We find ourselves with President/king who has made sweeping changes to decades of policy in every conceivable era, who is regarded by some as a despot and/or mad man and as a literal savior by others, and who is playing nuclear chicken with a tin pot dictator.  Might not some corner of our psyches hidden behind our seeming rationality, look on the celestial event not as a science lesson or entertaining diversion but as an omen?

I once wrote in a different context:

Wheels turning within wheels—
     an astrolabe,
          Tycho’s observatory,
               gears in some fantastic machine,

Today, just today—
     Point A on Wheel X, spinning urgently,
     comes to kiss Point B on Wheel Y,
     rotating on its own good time,
     for just a nano-second
     having just brushed by
     Point C on cog Z.

These precise events will come again,
    I suppose—
     you do the math if you wish.

But if I wore stars on a pointed hat,
    I might conclude that there was something
    beyond mere physics at work here.

Call it an omen, if you wish,
     or the flat hand of something Greater
     slapping us up side our
     merely mortal heads
     and scolding us—
               “Spin as you will,
                you spin not alone.”

Patrick Murfin from We Build Temples in the Heart, Beacon Books, Boston, 2004.