The Amtrak rumbles into the back end of Baltimore past block after block of abandoned, boarded-up row houses ripe for burning. This city of such magnificent renegades as Edgar Allen Poe, John Wilkes Booth, and Billie Holliday is mapped by grimy pocket ghettoes that made Baltimore a perfect stage-set for “The Wire.” When contrasted against the gleaming, refurbished downtown, these crime-scene neighborhoods incubate urban uprising. Red Emma’s is one of a skein of anarcho bookstores with names like Sedition, Monkeywrench, and Bluestockings that have welcomed me on this grueling odyssey across the underbelly of Obamalandia. I’m enlivened by the energies these oases exude. Contemporary anarchists seem to have little time for the crippling ideological jousting that drained the lifeblood of my generation. Those bad old days of Marxist Leninist Maoist Trotskyist Stalinesque backbiting seem an absurd nightmare on the barricades of change these days.
Tiffany, a tenor saxophonist who day gigs at OSHA over in D.C. and puts in after hours at the bookstore-cafe, and I pitch in to unload a busload of Bread & Puppet props for a zany, Zen show at a cavernous performance space Red Emma’s maintains in a vacated church. I get to trundle in the head of Ben Franklin, the villain in B&P’s latest mini-extravaganza in which $100 bills are the most pertinent puppets. A half century after its founding even before Vietnam caught fire, the puppeteers are still serving bread and aoeli to grateful audiences.
In D.C., I speak at the Institute for Policy Studies, a perennial leftist sounding board four blocks north of the White House and a billion light years from power, about how Washington has hooked Mexico on drug war. It is my first visit to the nation’s capitol with a black president in residence in the house that slaves once built. The Capo de Tutti Capos of the most grotesque criminal conspiracy on earth is too overwhelmed by swelling catastrophe offshore in the Gulf that will make Katrina look like a summer squall, impending car bombs in Times Square, and an economy that continues in freefall, to take time out for a chitchat.
On the day I speak in Washington, Teabaggers and their ilk are massing across the Potomac in an open-carry anti-Obama rally — newspaper photos depict white American males with what look like rocket launchers slung over their shoulders. The threats of this nativist scum are not idle ones. The economic collapse has stoked the bumfires that burn fiercely in the dormant craters of the American volcano.
II. New York
My roots on the North American landmass snake under the lower east side of Manhattan. The Ross (nee Grossinsky) DNA is imprinted everywhere on these mean streets. My grandma Mamie Zief (Ellis Islandese for “Jew”) relocated from Poland to a Rivington Street tenement at the turn of the 20th Century. Although I grew up in the West Village, I went east at an early age; after fleeing the family nest I squatted in the Shastone Monument building on Essex and Houston before escaping to Mexico in the late 1950s. Two of my kids grew up on Second Street and Avenue A, and my son the hiphop mogul still lives 500 yards away from the old homestead (Dante and I are working on a book that bounces off our mutual addictions to black music.)
My presentations in the Big Apple fit neatly into this geographical schema. I lecture at NYU’s King Juan Carlos Center, once the site of concrete basketball courts where I expanded oodles of adolescent energies. I talk to the Friends of Brad Will at the Sixth Street Community Center where the slain Indymedia journalist, a lower east side rabble-rouser during the darkest days of the Giuliani dictatorship, regularly practiced yoga. Justice for Brad Will remains undone.
And I am lured into Amy Goodman’s state-of-the-art lair for 20 minutes of fame. Democracy Now even sends a car to fetch me up to Chelsea and I induce the stern goddess of left radio to smile — but perhaps it was merely a grimace.
New York is chockablock with “I Love/Hate New York” minutes. One morning I descend from Dante’s sixth story inferno for a double espresso and the Lowisaida is infested with cops. I approach one of New York’s Finest, an amiable Caucasian, and inquire about the blue plague: “it’s the Will Smith show,” he smiles mischievously. Just then a motorcade of 50 bullet-proofed black vehicles swings off Houston with their lights flashing and sirens screaming and heads down the Bowery to Cooper Union where our commander-in-chief is to make a major speech addressing financial “reform” (in Mexico, we call this “plugging up the hole after the baby has drowned.”)
Goldman Sachs vultures in dark suits and furrowed brows listen intently but go mum to the press when they deadhead downtown back to Wall Street to continue fleecing the public’s pocket.
I step around the corner onto Houston, where a large enigmatic Shepard Fairey montage that references climate change has just been tagged (Dante who is well-versed in such iconography, speculates that the culprit is a tagger named “Nah” who is dedicated to dissing the public art of the stars of this genre.) Gallery slaves have been bussed in to erase the offending stains. I am wearing my Mexican Electricity Workers tee-shirt, whose black and red colors and clenched fist logo match Fairey’s throw-up, and I am suddenly surrounded by a bevy of documenterians, at least one of whom is just off the boat from Andalusia. They pose me against Fairey’s wall for a thousand-click fashion shoot. New York New York!
Ironically (a word that doesn’t have much scratch here in Gotham), the Banksy flick “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is playing at a grind house across Houston, a cheese ball mockumentary that destroys this world-famous outlaw’s once-pristine reputation for thumbing his nose at power. Indeed, the best thing about the movie is that it is playing right next door to the Yonah Schimmil knishery. I order a kasha knish and sign the guest book with Subcomandante Marcos’s rubric.
Also a mandatory dining stop in the old neighborhood: the immortal Katz’s (“Send a salami to your boy in the Army”) where pushy New Yorkers of the Hebraic persuasion scuffle to be next in line at the counter of this now 100% Puerto Rican-run deli. The brisket is still to die for.
New York City and environs is now home to a half million Mexicans, mostly from Puebla state, whose slow country drawls are a foil for the tropical machine-gun accents of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The Poblanos work in the kitchens of yupped-up food palaces (16 Oaxaquenos were burnt to a crisp walloping pots up in “Windows On The World” on the 108th floor of the Twin Towers on 9/11 day) or slave in 24-hour grocery stores run by Arabs and Hindus and Koreans.
Mexican elites who have fled here from their imploding fatherland do not much rub elbows with their impoverished compatriots, except when they employ them as maids and babysitters One of the few upsides of the new Arizona Breathing While Brown law is that former pundit and Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda might be jailed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his storm troopers and forced to don pink underwear if he were to be stopped without papers in Maricopa County.
The new Boston Tea Party that catapulted Scott Brown into the suddenly Kennedy-less Senate is not an anomaly in a city where the name of Charles Stuart (Google him up) still rings a bell.
I speak at the Harvard Coop to a handful of bedraggled Harvard Square denizens who have found sanctuary from a driving rainstorm in this hallowed readery. I am invited to the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies to rant at the future leaders of Latin America — but none show up. I spend an engaging evening with Jack Womack, whose “Zapata & The Mexican Revolution” is still the definitive text on the struggle of the incorruptible revolutionary. Jack, now emeritus in Harvard Yard, recently rebuked the Mexican government by turning down a literary prize because of President Felipe Calderon’s role in the firing of 43,000 workers in an undisguised ploy to privatize electricity generation in Mexico, and is currently chipping away at his life work, a history of working class struggle in the state of Veracruz. Jack and I converse in an argot stippled with so many arcane references to social upheaval south of the border that FBI eavesdroppers could surmise we are planning a new Mexican revolution — which, 100 years to the date of the last one, is not such a bad idea.
I warm up for May 1st rallies by urging attendees at community meetings at the UNITE building in Chinatown and a U-U church in Jamaica Plains to join the protests. There are two marches and rallies set for International Workers Day in Beantown, the bitter fruit of a split in the movement the seeds of which I could not divine.
On the Boston Commons, I spiel about the first May 1st back in 1886 when 80,000 immigrant workers stomped through Chicago to demand the eight-hour day, a day of solidarity and struggle around the world everywhere except in the country where it was birthed. The Haymarket Martyrs join us for a stroll through the streets of downtown Boston, held aloft by the ubiquitous Bread & Puppet comrades.
All across Amerikkka, immigrant workers, incensed by the enactment of a law that makes inhaling the air of Arizona a jailable crime if you are a person the color of the earth, were on the march, perhaps a half million (high end estimates) strong — as many as 200,000 in Los Angeles and another 100,000 in Chicago; 25,000 more in Dallas and significant turnouts in New York and Washington but only 6,000 or so in Boston to which Mexicans have migrated in smaller numbers.
This year’s surge, which was dwarfed by the gargantuan outpourings of 2006, featured a marked absence of Mexican flags as undocumented workers chose to cloak themselves in the Stars and Stripes in response to the feeding frenzy of the Fox News lynch mob.
Although the condemnation of Arizona Goddamn was vibrant, it must be noted that there have been as many ICE raids under the Obaminators as under Bush and the crackdown on employers is targeting union-organized janitors. David Bacon, whose reportage remains a light in this darkness, recently noted that 175 SEIU janitors are about to be fired in San Francisco, once a sanctuary city for labor.
The People the Color of the Earth rolled through the streets of east Boston with gusto. “No One Is Illegal!” Sandra, my displaced Chilanga guardian angel, and I yodeled in unison with the compas. “Do I Look Illegal?” read the homemade banner draped around the shoulders of a skinny pre-teener. Many high schoolers wore caps and gowns to highlight the prohibitions on financial aid that doom their college educations to MacDonald’s Hamburger U.
Speaker after speaker in a park down by the harbor — where, indeed a few hundred years back down the pike the original Boston Tea Party was staged — raged against a system that still consigns immigrant workers to the lowest step on the American food chain. “Justicia! Justicia!” they clamored and their cries were no less relevant than those uttered by the “Martires de Chicago,” as the Haymarket martyrs are known throughout Latin America. By the time I took the mic, all the words had already been spoken but I finished up with the chant of the pensioners’ movement in Mexico City in whose ranks I am enrolled: “Parar Es Morir!” — To Stop Is To Die!
Me and the Monstruo have come to the end of our three month 66 performance journey through Obamalandia but there’s one thing you can count on: “Parar Es Morir.” I’m not planning on stopping (or dying) any time soon.
John Ross will be returning to Mexico in mid- May to begin work on a new book, “From Bebop To HipHop – Fathers & Sons.” You can consult him on particulars at firstname.lastname@example.org