Bureauccupy Ashland: A Parable

The Occupy movement has done the world some good. It helped thousands break that spell of everyday hopelessness which keeps the machine chuggin on towards nowhere, and opened not a few eyes to the plight of life here on our tortured planet.  A great deal of rambunctious spirit, rolling laughter, and tender humanity was resurrected in the Occupy camps—accompanied by heaps of joyously broken glass piled in the arteries of that old, decrepit wasteland-machine: the State. What more could we ask for in these grim hours? But in the proud tradition of all radicals, I have my gripes.  My own little unsung battle with the Occupy movement was set in the town of Ashland, Oregon, population 21,000.  My misadventures there display both the many layers of occupation which blanket our landscape like so many strata of geology, and the way Leftist structuralization smothered any tiny embers of resistance before they could ignite an enduring flame.

When I first heard about the wave of rogue occupations sweeping the country, I was already busy occupying a vacant strip of land in Ashland with a band of homeless kids—ages 16 to 56. Our daily lifestyle was naturally communal, rambunctious and relaxed, based on sharing the bounties of our days’ adventures. Our versions of General Assemblies were our nights around the campfire, playing guitars and hatching schemes. I called our little squat the Farm, after the rickety barn-like ruins of a wooden garage that served as our commons. The acre or so was on the edge of a creek which had flooded the previous house away a few years back.  The only things left standing were the worn down garage, some crumbling stones huddled around a dirty well, and an apple tree. The field, creek, and surrounding forest provided our hickory and oak firewood, our indestructible madrone walking sticks, our night time hideaways, our wildwood gymnasium, the water and chicory for our morning coffee, the ragweed (a devilish plant that blooms a five-pointed star of sharp spines) to pierce our tender toes, the willow for our headaches, the wind-through-the-trees music of our musings, the open theatre for our vaudeville entertainment, the closed coliseum for our hellish fireside fights, and our overall sanctuary from a world where it is illegal to be broke, free, or openly happy. We had managed to somehow come up with a trailer and two broke-down cars for additional shelter, on top of a nifty ramshackle shanty made of some pallets and an old camper shell (for couples, or the lucky guy and his dog). We occupied our little piece of ragamuffin paradise like filthy royalty.

When word got out that the Plaza in the center of town was going to be occupied, I was the only one in our little camp to so much as twitch a whisker. Even then, I was skeptical. Mainly because about 90% of the 99% regularly treated me and my friends like stray dogs for our economic standing. But I had been involved in protests and activism since early teenagery, and although I was jaded by mainstream dissent I felt obliged to place some faith with the disaffected crow who had gathered in the center of town to assert their scatter-brained demands on limp placards. The first day’s rally was initially a couple hundred strong (not that “strong” is the word for it), gradually dwindling throughout the night until perhaps twenty were left to being the occupation.

I spent the first night on the ground with some other kids from the Farm crew, and the only trouble we had apart from the occasional police patrol coming by to tuck us in (I’m sure) came with a rude awakening by the 3AM sprinkler system. A good swath of blankets got soaked, and my bedroll (which I called “home” at the time) was right in the line of fire, rendering me not much more than a damp, cold, somewhat ornery one man freak show. But all in all, the night went well. We rumbled with jokes like kids at a sleep over, dreamed our impossible dreams, ate from a garbage bag full of popcorn dumpstered from the movie theater (you’re welcome), and made good sport of the town’s only evil wingnut (start locally). Good times all around. The next morning, I shook out one last shiver in the morning sun as breakfast and coffee arrived (on the wings of an angel), and spread out some blankets to dry. I gathered up all the half-stray dogs of the occupiers onto my bedroll, letting them warm up on its plush coziness and get some good rest. I declared myself Puppy Camp. (“This place is goin’ to the dogs!”) I did some chores and errands, washed dishes, went and dumpstered some cardboard and spread out markers for a sign-making station (no one needed to watch the pups, they would have slept through a rain of Milkbones). Meanwhile protesters gathered in the square for the noontime rally.

At about 10AM, an older woman coasted into the square on her bike, surveying the hubbub like a circling vulture. She jolted to a stop right in front of Puppy Camp. The dogs were all comfortably and adorably cuddling on my sleeping bag, nose to belly, butt to nose, stirring not a hair. Another blanket was laid out on some hedges behind me, drying in the sun.  “We need you to put away all these blankets,” she said abruptly.

Now hold on just a plum pickin’ second. “Are you from the anti-dog committee?” I said, lighting a cigarette. “I didn’t think they were coming ‘til noon. And who’s this ‘we’ anyway?”

“They’re dogs,” she barked (har har). “They can lay on the concrete.” The same concrete, I suppose, that I had slept on the night before while she Occupied a warm cloud of feathers. She took my stunned silence as a cue to continue. “The authorities were very clear that they will allow us to be here, but we that we couldn’t have any camping equipment out.” I shuddered a little as hollering sirens and steam whistles and clanging fire bells all rang and whooped and resounded somewhere in the back of my mind. The authorities? Allow? Oh for the love of holy mother of anarchy no!  I knew that I was dealing with a beast even more dubious than an undercover international super spy (they are everywhere): something much more sinister: an organizer.

“Listen,” I said, scratching one of the dogs behind her ear, causing a dreamy bout of involuntary kung-fu kicks, “I don’t know what you think I am, or who you think you are, but no one’s the boss here,” I demonstrated this, using my hands, “not in my world.  Besides, this is an occupation, I’m not going to pretend I’m not camping.  I am.  That’s the idea.” At this point I was completely baffled.  Who is this ‘we’ anyway, and what does ‘we’ have against these lovable hounds; why does ‘we’ care more about what the cops say than the need to have dry sleeping gear; is ‘we’ all of us or does us just overlap ‘we’ in some cases but not when ‘we’ disagree with us or me or them?  It was all very confusing.

“Well,” she continued, “we [!] need this space for tables and the authorities [now watch your step, young man!] were very clear that they didn’t want to see any camping gear laid out.” She was getting impatient. So was I. My cigarette trickled smoke at my side, becoming ash.  Nary a hair wriggled on my head. I was rooted like a Mojave mesquite, way down into the caliche. With one final glare, she whizzed off, trailing some fumes behind her, with a swift kick off and a buzz of spokes.

But as the day wore on the onslaught continued. Apparently Puppy Camp was on prime real estate, and the damned pioneers were coming (“On HO!”). As the noontime rally swelled in ranks, not-a-one of the tablers had any problem with setting up so close to Puppy Camp that looking to either side too quickly would have earned me a sore nose.  I slowly edged myself out of their way, rousing the sleepy-eyed mutts each time for a short sojourn further to the outskirts (where a man can keep his dignity and sit up straight without being treated to an endless parade of crotches). Before I knew it Puppy Camp had ended up right where it apparently belonged: by a grimy dumpster in the backwoods of the rally along with all my friends.  They showed up with signs that said OCCUPY, and evicted the occupants. Great.

I still don’t know why, but this whole thing hit me where it hurts. The night before had promise. Sincere human hearts had come together to share their wild dreams of a better world. But suddenly, as the ranks swelled, the spectacle of International Socialist newspapers, Cause Specific Flyer tables (Save The Salmon—Eat Orcas!), and Entitled Liberal Crusaders sure enough stole the show, all hocking their brand of Organization, Change, or Justice and drowning out any sense of humanity or immediacy beneath an abstract appeal to the Cause.

I spent a few more nights with the Occupy camp, watching as the tides of Leftists left each night (pun intended) to sleep indoors, only to roll back into the General Assembly to mercilessly impose bureaucratic structures on what originally had been a naturally harmonious commune. Case in point: the humble donation jar that we used spontaneously for group needs was quickly delegated to a one-man Treasury, and only then did people whisper about deep pockets.  As Old Tan says in the Tao te Ching, “The more laws you have, the more criminals there will be.” One poor woman was put in sole charge of the food table, quickly becoming frazzled and edgy as a wet cat in a cactus thicket. It wasn’t long before the suggestion of cutting off free food for the homeless was suggested. This was immediately blocked, thank the good Horde, by some well connected activists, but I wager it would have passed without a trifle otherwise, barring our access to easy any-time downtown snacks, which ironically might have sparked a real revolution. I was alone in standing against these petty divisions of labor, this utter lack of faith in the commune, this utter insult to human intelligence, but no matter, for to the old hat organizers I was just a scruffy street varmint (hallelujah!).  I stopped showing up regularly for the GA, swinging by half-drunk sometimes to wax poetic about all the glorious things they didn’t know, prowling around the little clusters of factions bad mouthing each other to spread good tidings, once calling a wildcat heart circle to magically stop their bickering if only for an short time, only to disappear into the night, back to my own occupation of the Farm. But other than that, the Bureauccupiers had their day.

The first night that it was too cold for even these cold-hearted bureaucrats or their younger minions to sleep outside (fall is a poor time for revolution), the police swept the Plaza clean and Occupy Ashland was over—or so it seemed. Our little community, of course, prepared to outlast the storm. But November came around with its endless assault of cold rains and wooly stormclouds, and alas, the owner of the hippy campground next door to the Farm (Doctor Gerry of the Jackson Wellsprings) finally managed to buy it from the bank. He’d tried for months to shoo us off with the most pitiful tactics, threatening week after week to call in the cops (apparently a desperate stab at intimidation considering neither he or the pigs had any legal right to evict us), attempting character assassination against the most well-liked and best known of us, and brutishly banning us from his camp’s restrooms while whining about how we might be “contaminating the water.” He even tried chaining up the entrance gate and posting a “No Trespassing” sign. We responded in kind by breaking the lock, unhinging the gate, and nailing it to a telephone pole (you’re welcome). But with the title changing hands, we had no choice but to pull up stakes and leave our cherished home so that god damned Doctor Gerry, the “six figure hippy,” could turn it into a parking lot, just as he had turned the sacred birthing springs of the native Takilma people into a crash pad for pot growers and semi-wealthy New Agers. (Ah, the Jackson Wellsprings, where enlightenment has a price tag and it costs extra to sleep in the tipi!)

I skipped town for my winter hideout just days before the ax came down. The friends I left behind tried to leapfrog the trailer around town, but it was inevitably impounded, leaving everyone to scatter like oak leaves, like mice with their basket kicked over, like coyotes in a lightning strike. I’ve since read in Ashland’s local paper The Daily Tidings that Occupy has finally organized to bring its demands to City Hall (huzzah! freedom!). The Bureauccucrats loudly declare their utter flop of a movement as a classic victory of Democracy—and rightly so. Democracy, after all, has a long proud history of tyranny. What was once a living experiment in asserting the peoples’ right to freely inhabit and reimagine literally common ground has devolved into yet another pitiful Organization (with nothing organic about it), and is now painstakingly, and fruitlessly, trying to navigate a system which everyone knows is failing us to the point of ruin, misery and beyond.

Despite their lowly perception of me, what these Bureauccupiers failed to recognize is that I wasn’t homeless purely because of my natural disposition towards loafing—not purely.  Like many others, my poverty was and is a reflection of my very sense of reality.  After all, who can own life or land? All life holds this earth in common, this air, this water—and my very body is not something I own, but is a borrowed gift from the cosmos.  The rain and breath and bread that give me life are only passing through me like water through a ripple in a stream.  They belong as much to my grandfathers and great grandmothers of old, and even more to my grandchildren unborn as they do to me.  How, then, shall I pay for an apple?

Why should I adorn myself with the tin badges of titles and duties—the kind that turn one’s voluntary role in communal wellbeing into a compulsory role as a mere cog in the collective burden? It is the law of nature that these burdens will wither away, proving utterly meaningless under the great eye of the sun. “Merest breath, said Qoheleth, merest breath. All is mere breath!” I hold to what endures, what is true, the anthills and the clouds, the deer in aspen groves, the burgeoning life of mountains, the endlessly harmony of wilderness—that most quintessential and ancient, that most ultimate commune! Its very nature defies domestication, and domestication at its very root is its defilement.

The Bureauccupiers failed when they imposed the hubris of organization onto a naturally balanced, anarchic group of folks trying to recapture a sense of wholeness— as we had on the Farm—in a public space.  And tellingly, they did so through democratic consensus.  The Left again shows itself to be an emperor parading around without any clothes. Their desire for change lacks all faith in the natural, the organic, the unpretentious, and thus is bound to suffer the fate of merger with the system. Their logic is just too compatible to resist the snug fit. (As they say, vermin of the sewer flock to manure.) The only worthwhile, sustainable rebellion is one that refuses to trade tangible freedom for tenderfooted democracy—one which wholeheartedly believes in the sovereignty of all beings without compromise. A rebellion that holds to the great unwritten laws of nature and the liberty inherent in life as its guiding star and its inner light.

For the wilderness, for the spirit, for anarchy.


2 thoughts on “Bureauccupy Ashland: A Parable

  1. The Occupy Movement was hijacked by people living in their heads. You were the real spirit of what the Occupy Movement should have been about, not those who abstracted it into a head trip.

  2. Pingback: Could abstraction be a major cause of the ills of society? « The Liberated Way

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