Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Deciding for Ourselves

[Text from the forthcoming Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism (PM Press), a collaborative book of picture-essays by Cindy Milstein and Erik Ruin]

* * *

On the bleak terrain of a gray city,
Gray with misery & memories of death,
Where invisible hands devise “natural” disasters,
Constructing levees that break in hurricanes &
Nuclear power plants that melt in earthquakes,
While other invisible hands steal land & erect prisons,
Or shutter factories & schools,
While still more invisible hands privatize water,
Piling devastation on poor & marginalized people,
Black, indigenous, female, queer, disabled, non–English speaking,
Anyone who is “other,”
The haggard rainbow of humanity,
Thrown out like so much trash
Into a landfill of socially constructed sorrows—
No one ever took credit,
But one morning, chalked on the sidewalk,
A message appeared:
“Meet here at 7:30 p.m.”

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes
To stare at the neatly printed words,
Here on her street corner. The letters weren’t there yesterday.
She was sure of it.
Every day, on her way to work,
This slab of pavement was her bus stop.

She always looked down,
Waiting silently among strangers,
Memorizing the gray concrete patch,
Then silently riding to her gray office.

“They’ve shut all the banks!”
A frantic voice exclaimed behind her.
She rubbed her eyes again & then widened them.
The bus pulled up, wheezing to a halt.

“Come on, let’s go downtown.
I hear people are smashing ATMs!”
This stranger, her neighbor who never said hello, smiled.
The driver smiled too: “No charge today.”

The city was in pieces.
A financial collapse, it was said,
Based on fears of an ecological collapse.
She knew the metropole was already in tatters.
In her neighborhood, there was plenty of nothing.

At 7:30 p.m., every one of her neighbors,
People who never gave each other the time of day,
Filled the usually empty intersection.
No one ever knew how,
But that night, an assembly was birthed.

At first men spoke more often, because patriarchy wasn’t gone.
Soon, though, women & other genders demanded to be heard.
White people interrupted brown ones, because racism wasn’t gone.
Soon people of many colors demanded to be respected.
Nearly everyone wanted to exert control, because hierarchy wasn’t gone,
Because they were all born into a world of states & capitalism & oppression.
Soon people learned, through trial & error, how to listen.
They also learned how to dialogue,
How to resolve conflict & problem solve.
Slowly, they learned how to decide for themselves.

Someone suggested they meet every evening.
Another person proposed that anyone, even kids, could participate.
Hands went up & heads nodded.
Yet they were unsure how to affirm decisions.
So they debated until they stumbled on a process:
Full consensus on weighty issues but two-thirds on minor ones;
To vote, people must attend regularly & live in the neighborhood,
But yes, given that, everyone can decide;
Decisions will be written out & wheatpasted on public walls;
All agreements can be revisited, if needed, after careful thought.

Over time, people increasingly found common ground.
They came to know & trust each other, so decisions seemed easier.
The assembly became more efficient & meetings were shorter.
Working committees, accountable to the nightly body, were set up.
The neighborhood, the neighbors, came alive.
Other neighborhoods did the same.
No one ever recollected how,
But effortlessly, cooperation between districts emerged.

Across the bleak terrain of this gray neighborhood,
People were determined to supply what they needed,
Settling on interdependent, collective spaces as the means.
Those with doctoring & wellness skills created solidarity-not-charity clinics.
Those who knew how to run machines reopened factories, without bosses.
Children designed their own schools, picking their teachers & curriculum.
No one ever knew who painted them,
But soon, banners proclaiming victory appeared on lampposts:
“Para todos todo”
“Occupy everything”
“This is only the beginning”

Looking back, a few years later,
Long after her & her neighbors’ assembly had fizzled out,
She wondered if it had been a dream.
No one ever grasped how,
But imperceptibly, “order” had been restored.
Financial markets & politicians took charge.
Hipster-pioneers migrated into the still-decimated city.
It hadn’t been a total backslide; lovely remnants survived:
The collective theater troupe, squatting a former bank building,
A few of the block-by-block barter networks
& the hardy posse of free pedicabs.
Still, she wondered why many of her neighbors had abandoned self-governance,
Falling again under the sway of “comfortable,” passive compliance.

One gray Monday at her bus stop,
Her neighbor who now always said hello
Paused before boarding to add,
“No one ever recalled how,
But one day, states were no longer natural or necessary.
It’s not too early to reconvene our assembly.
What do you say?
Tonight at 7:30?”

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2012 by in Essays.
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