A letter to Cynicism and the Circular Firing Squad that is Us
To Cynicism and the Circular Firing Squad that is Us
A reflection on the Common Ground Collective, leadership, myths and noble animals.
I am the son of my mother, and from the wrong side of the tracks. I am not who you think I am, nor who you think I think I am. Did I just say that? A riddle with meaning or meaningless riddles? I am just a person with hopes, ideas, shortcomings and insecurity and all the rest that shapes us. I say this all as a means of introduction to a part of who I am—to keep the conversation honest. I know you didn’t ask, but I thought I could interject if you didn’t mind, you know to help avoiding the continued confusion and awkwardness.
Sometimes I refer to myself as a jackass—with many apologies to the fine and beautiful creatures that are donkeys. I can be obstinate, I can kick up dust and run from ‘the masters’—those who assume Power-- of my own will. Like donkeys I am able to carry many things—real and imagined burdens and loads. I may follow when told or I may walk away if the mood hits.
I am not the one dimensional myth or really the caricature that you want to make me. My motivations for actions were not script written to be understood for television by a professional team of writers in a dumbed-down fashion for all to understand. I know this about myself, as many of you also know about yourselves. But for some reason—training maybe?—we want to reduce complex concepts into simplistic forms of our own makings. Why is that?
We have been lied to by leaders—mostly the self appointed type--for generations and the time before that. We have seen the most ‘virtuous’ reduced to flaming ashes under the microscope. Even pillars like Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King have been toppled for being, well, human. Our society and history taught by Power reduced them to unrealistic one dimensional shadows of themselves—and we held them to it—no matter how improbable.
Now I am in no way comparing myself to the real or imagined people mentioned above, but I have seen a similar phenomenon arise. One where people tell you who you are that have never met you or asked you about yourself. A myth. It can be flattering, disturbing and surreal.
We on the left and in radical circles in particular love—I mean love—to tear down leadership. It has almost become second nature. ‘They’ are the ‘leaders’—we must topple them. They need a good kicking to the shin—and maybe they do, especially when they claim a place on high that no one put them into. But what if the leaders are ourselves? I am speaking of the We, from the grassroots, in our various communities, who were empowered by our own people. Then do we kick our own shins until we fall?
We want transparency, we want democratic inclusion, we want our voices heard. These are beautiful and noble ideals for us to live. But who amongst us decides that time and place for that? My small voice would say we need leadership not leaders. If we promote leadership with accountability from ourselves we won’t end up with self appointed leaders who don’t represent us.
I came to New Orleans in the fall of 2005 not to be a hero but for survival of a good friend. It was part stupidity, part naivety—even at my age, and part willingness to do the right thing based on my political and social beliefs. And something happened. It was the right mix, right time and from that an organization grew.
But often stories change, evolve, and distort . We all like good stories don’t we? When I say I co-founded the Common Ground Collective, really what I want to say is I synthesized ideas, concepts and work that existed even before I was on the planet. I wasn’t beamed from a distant galaxy on a white horse with profound information and skills. Quite the contrary, I am a high school dropout who believes in collective liberation because I believe there are many people much smarter than I about solving problems—and I am glad for that. It gives my aching brain a rest and my soul assurances that we can all do it together.
Oh yes back to stories, so if we have been taught that leaders are assholes, not to trust anyone—not even ourselves, our voices have been diminished over and over, and that people who came before us did things we could never do because they were beyond human. Were Che or Mother Theresa even from this planet?
Because of these things we have formed in our circles of comrades, networks and affinity groups our own circular firing squads. If we cannot take down the enemy then let’s take down each other. “Oh that is too harsh or your skin is too thin” I hear you say. Upon looking at my skin closer it could be transparent, I will have to look in better light when the sun comes up.
On the other matter though, if we are reactionary to any perceived leadership and project our own distortions of the stories we hear and repeat then how do we avoid the circular firing squad pitfalls?
Common Ground was built upon anarchist ideals and actions mixed with old school top down organizing. It was like the sea and a river meeting in a brackish mix. Sometimes it was more salty, and other times much more fresh—but always changing. Our pasts and History are hard to overcome without practice, mistakes, practice, mistakes and practice.
And that was/is Common Ground. Like a drummers left hand arguing with its right to play the correct rhythm we always struggled to find the balance within.But an amazing thing happened along the way we did some things we set out to do. Our rhythm although syncopated, found voice within the cacophony of the aftermath of the levee failures. Our work, our goals which seemed important to us became important to those who really mattered—the communities we served. Not the predominantly white activist communities, not the government and not anyone who assumed to know what was best. But to the long term residents in the communities
we served from Houma to Algiers to the 7th, 9th Wards to East New Orleans. They told us day in and day out, from the churches to the homeless that pieces we did mattered in their lives and their communities.
And a strange thing happened—we became victims and inheritors of our own success. We grew too big too quickly. Our stories grew, they took on lives of their own. We didn’t have PR firms to controlling the message, we had the voices of people who participated and they often carried the myths within them too.
The brackish water churned more vigorously over who or what we were. And the stories became myths like simplistic daytime soap operas. As the waters churned a few became sea sick while others were thrown ashore. This left the taste of bitterness in their mouths, and they spread those words to people who didn’t know us or care. And the larger the myths became the greater the divide between reality and hurt. And in that divide it became harder to find the truth or any truth.
But things change, fruit ripens, sky’s shift colors and so has Common Ground—and it is ok. We opened a crack in history to stretch out ideas and our beliefs about how to make the world better. Not because our egos said to, but because our hearts said to do something. It is what it is.
Oh and myself I am who I am, a father, a worker, a neighbor, and an anarchist. Just because some want to believe things about me or the work I have been a part of doesn’t make it anymore true. I do take leadership but I also remember to wash the dishes, and take out the trash as part of that. When I put my life on the line sometimes I wish I was in bed, and sometimes when I am in bed and I hear of some injustice, I wish I was putting my body on the line with others to stop it. I am as confused as the next person who is looking for answers and solutions for a just world. I have ideas but I also have many questions.
Nothing is perfect and who would want it to be that way really. Even donkeys have good days. I can only represent those who I work with or share values and principles. The others are left to voice their own concerns. My voice as small or loud as it is has a place just as all of ours does. And the complexities that we are and the things we engage in will always challenge our voices. Could we let out some rope instead of pulling it tighter on each other?
Hopefully , someday we will as movements be healed of our reactionary nature to tear down the little good we have or build, we can cast aside cynicism—the tools of capitalism that separates us—and we will be able to believe and trust again; in ourselves and in each other. I will continue to kick the dust in the face of those who assume to have power over and walk with my comrades on our paths with our own burdens.
Still dreaming of Collective Liberation
From the Gulf Coast Basin