Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Waking to Revolution

(From the forthcoming Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations in Everyday Anarchism, picture-essays by Cindy Milstein [essays] and Erik Ruin [pictures], on PM Press)

My alarm & cell phone conspired that morning.

Both startled me from sleep at once.

“8 a.m.!” chimed my clock.

“Mubarak stepped down,” declared a text message.


I nearly always get up at eight, here in San Francisco.

But I’ve never woken to a revolution before.


In faraway Egypt, liberation had been squared in Cairo’s Tahrir.

A thirty-year dictatorship was toppled.

As a friend later quipped, the strategy for success is: don’t leave.

Occupy a key spot, by the millions & don’t leave.

Yet the victory was not simply due to sheer numbers.

Nor was it the result of occupation alone.

The triumph resided in the constitution of a self-managed commons.

In the almost-mundane fact of that community’s working existence.

For eighteen days, people enacted & reveled in their own power.


I’ve long believed that self-organization works—better than any other form.

That people, all of us, can & want to self-determine.

That we can & want to self-govern, guided by dignity & even love.

But what I realized that morning was, deep down, I had also come not to believe it.

Since utopian notions are negated by almost everything today,

I had unconsciously lost that trust.


The uprising began with a surprise, as if from nowhere.

Overnight, people discovered their collective strength.

A euphoric self-confidence took hold.

This jolted other people—like me—to recall that possibility begets possibility.


Those of us who are heretics are also archaeologists.

We sift through the shards of past experiments,

Buried in the rich subterranean,

For evidence of what Hannah Arendt called “the lost treasure” of revolutions,

The “organizational impulses of the people themselves”:

Councils, militias, confederations, soviets, consultas, assemblies . . .

The infinite lived innovations in bottom-up social relations.

We string these gems together,

Tossing them in the air, as new celestial bodies to guide others.


In Cairo, from these glittering scraps,

People built their own city in a square, rapidly, without leaders.

An impromptu prism,

Affording partial answers to the lowliest & loftiest of questions:

“In the absence of coercion, who will take out the trash?”

“How can we transform gender relations?”


That morning, when Mubarak fell, my mind was flooded with images,

Gleaned from the eyewitness accounts I’d hungrily read,

Of how people crafted their autonomous society,

Out of necessity & under sometimes-deadly adversity.


Of how people protected each other:

The makeshift helmets, from buckets & bottles, saucepans & foam.

The self-defense committees & their temporary barricades & checkpoints.

Whistling as a signal when assistance was needed,

Or people sleeping & sitting on tanks, to neutralize them as weapons.


Of how people cared for each other:

The clinics & pharmacies, in alleyways & a now-former fast-food spot,

Where volunteer doctors in white coats freely dispensed medical aid.

Or the pop-up kindergartens,

So families & children could protest & play.


Of how people provided for each other:

The communal kitchens that also served as skill shares,

In which each volunteer would show the next person what to do before leaving.

The daily arrival of tents & blankets & newspapers publicly posted.

Almost everything for everyone, free.


Of how people organized with each other:

A young woman made a video, others wrote handbills

& from twenty-one decentralized spots, people initially converged on the square.

Neighborhood assemblies arose for decisions,

While committees invented systems for garbage collection, recycling & cleanup.

People devised a public sphere of indie media, speakers’ areas & art

& martyrs’ walls to remember those killed in this battle.


The afternoon of the morning when Mubarak was deposed,

I went to a solidarity celebration in San Francisco.

“Can you believe it?” said an Egyptian emigrant,

Fresh from another celebration at his mosque.

We’d never met.

He introduced me to his family here,

Explained that he’d been in constant touch with relatives in Tahrir

& for an hour, told me about all that had changed.

“My people did it themselves, sharing all.”

“Muslims & Christians were united.”

“Women were equal participants & sexual harassment seemed to disappear.”

His four daughters, all under ten years old, smiled up at me.

“It was never like that before.”


Nothing lasts.

Relationships end.

Friends die.

Even capitalism will be history someday.

It’s what we do to reawaken each other that matters,

Breathing life into self-organization, the working actuality of freedom.

That’s the victory, the revolution,

The truth of our power:

That we know how to create lives worth living,

Knowing that such moments, too, won’t last.


Yet afterward, when the squares & capitols are forcibly emptied,

The world never fully goes back to normal.

We aren’t the same people.

Some of our experimentation sticks,

Making us a little less estranged, a little more heartened.


Even when presidents & property, police & prisons, crushingly return,

Memory, like some scrappy carrier pigeon, transports our courage upward

To the next rebel commune,

So the next time & the time after that

& perhaps even now,

We’ll know how to do-it-ourselves even more beautifully.


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This entry was posted on May 7, 2012 by in Essays.
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