Occupy Worcester is now officially homeless, having left the lakeside park in which they were encamped. So far, they haven’t found anyplace else to go: the city won’t give them a permit.

I am broadly in favor of the Occupy Movement. It’s good to see the left in general and youth in particular stir from their multi-decade political hibernation. But this strikes me more as Civil Obedience than Civil Disobedience.

Before I rode my bike downtown to the kickoff march for Occupy Portland I scoured my office for a press pass. Although I’ve worked for several large media conglomerates ( I think they’re separate but may have merged into VerizonDisneyFrance) I’ve never remembered to ask for one. Three years at AOL News and it didn’t occur to me. What about my press badge from Comedy Central? It’s four years old and expired but I thought it might work like Doctor Who’s psychic paper. If only I could locate it.

The only thing I could find was a laminated badge from the 2009 Oregon Country Fair. Inside its swirling psychedelic border is my photo and the name “Hunter.” In light of all the suggestions from my lawyer friends  about this march, like “don’t take weed,” “don’t make eye contact with the cops,” and “don’t take weed,” I nixed that one.

It was important for me to attend the protest march as a journalist, or at least an observer. Not that I really have a problem with being arrested in the general sense, but our lame duck mayor was suggesting people stay home and the Portland Police is notoriously, um, colorful in the “accidentally shooting people” way. OccupyPortland didn’t get the proper demonstration permits beforehand and also: I had a thing later that night that I didn’t want to miss.

Not that I was entirely unprepared for arrest. As a canny protester I had sharpied the phone number of a local attorney named Bear on the back of my hand just in case. Yeah, his name is Bear. Shut up. In college I knew a kid named Stargazer, who was the son of the guy who provided acid to the Grateful Dead. Stargazer became a veterinarian, but sadly, not mine. In my world only the dealers have proper names.

If I appeared as a journalist at Occupy Portland, or at least an embedded protestor I could attempt to witness the  event objectively. Not from a political standpoint, because I’m with most of these folks 1000 percent of the way. Or at least 99% of the way. But philosophically I’m ambivalent about protests.

In a personal sense I like them. Exercising my right of free speech and freedom of assembly are important to me. A march is like voting, but with exercise! The day before the Iraq War started I was part of the Portland protest that shut the city down and cut off freeway access. It was a great democratic cluster fuck! I knew the next day that the bombs would still drop over Baghdad but it was important to put my body on record and say that this was wrong, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and we would be in this for a very long time.

Protests are part of our democracy and my eyes fill with small-d democratic tears when I see a multiracial, multi-age group of people chanting together, a grandmother with a “Legalize It” poster and a toddler with a sign that reads “Corporate Personhood Subjugates the Constitution.” I’m not kidding. They start chanting, I start weeping. So much for objectivity.

But I’m not sure that there’s a point in Occupy Portland. Even if the cops don’t beat the piss out of the occupiers and make them vacate their camp, if it becomes a wintery Northwest version of Tahrir Square, will it accomplish anything?

Then I become annoyed that I’ve become conditioned to ask that question.Nobody questioned the efficacy of protests when the Tea Party was doing it. But now centrists and the media are asking “what’s the point of these protests?” Don’t you remember that the Tea Party practically had Obama over a barrel over health care a few summers ago? Why is it that only left-of-center  protests deserve scrutiny?

When conservatives say “we should build a wall at the Mexican border,” the media accepts this at face value, even though large sectors of our economy, such as tourism and agriculture, are totally dependent on this work force, or if America could curtail its thirst for Mexican drugs (buy local, people) and we stopped allowing gun show operators to arm Mexican cartels, we wouldn’t have a need for a wall.

And when liberal protestors say, “we want our government to regulate derivatives and tax hedge funds at a higher rate,” the media hears, “after we put LSD in the water supply we will teach mandatory knitting in schools which everyone knows is code for lesbianism and we’ll replace our kids lunch box Thermoses with big black dildoes.”

So I went to see it all for myself. What were these people demanding? Were they just the kids from Reed College on a study break?

There were people from all walks of life. It was not all dirty hippies. Okay, there were some dirty hippies, people in dreads on double decker bicycles in circus costumes, but these are people who own homes and walk their kids to school in my neighborhood. There were the young marching along with the elderly and people of every ethnic background. Guys in hard hats stickered with their local union number.

There was one well-dressed white man with a Ron Paul sticker on his bullhorn but he looked a little uncomfortable. Perhaps his libertarian friends sent him there on a dare.

As we marched around downtown the protest put a gum in afternoon traffic but many of the drivers trapped in their cars got out to cheer, as did some of the strippers working at Mary’s Club (All Nude Revue), showing off their long legs for democracy. Chants included “This is what Democracy looks like,” “We are the 99%,” and “Good Jobs for a Good Wage.” Nobody appeared to plot to overthrow the government. Yes there were the oh so stylish Guy Fawkes masks but they were outnumbered by grandmothers holding toddlers, faces in full view.

Most of the signs were what we’ve been seeing all along from Occupy Wall Street. Things like “Tax the 1%,” “End Corporate Personhood.”

This is Oregon, and under the bongwater gray skies there were plenty of “Legalize it” posters. And there were a few disappointed teenage Blazers fans holding “End the Lockout,” signs. Even basketball players are union men! My personal favorite sign: Krugman’s Army. Unlike certain Tea Party events, everything was spelled in the traditional manner.

A few days ago I was in a coffee shop debating issues around Occupy Portland with the owner and another customer, because apparently I live in eighteenth century France. We talked about the possible impact, and another friend of ours had just left for New York to take part in Occupy Wall Street. Half kidding I said that I’d believe it would only make a difference when the rural poor started to occupy the parking lots of Walmart.

This is why I was excited to see one skittish Ron Paul fan. Until protests make it to rural and conservative Congressional districts, movements like Occupy Portland won’t create change. Portland’s a relatively small city and the state’s Congressional delegation is 6/7ths Democratic and largely progressive.

What’s at stake here needs to be solved by both legislative and judicial processes. Legislative, because among the demands of the 99% are higher taxes for the 1%. This isn’t going to happen with the current House of Representatives and we can only hope that ongoing protests could trigger a political sea change, like the Tea Party election in 2010, might swing the House back to the left in 2012. Also it would help if any of the elected Democrats had backbones but now I’m just spewing like a schizophrenic gorilla.

The second aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement is judicial, because there are people at Goldman, AIG and other financial institutions who belong in jail and there’s enough evidence to send them there. If protests around the country go long enough, some young New York DA with the prosecutorial zeal of a pre-hooker Eliot Spitzer will start moving against these financial criminals.

I’m still ambivalent about the larger impact. I’m not too cynical to believe that the movement will bring results. The Portland protest was about solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a fist bump from 3000 miles away. While I was updating Twitter at the protest I noticed a status message from a friend at the Occupy Boston site. I responded, “You’re at Occupy Boston, I’m at Occupy Portland – on the count of 3 turn west and wave!”

We are the ninety-nine percent.

Two Pilgrimages

By Ryan Day

Essay

“Which way is Chueca?” asked a girl, American, about twenty with a pink streak in her hair and a shirt that proudly announced the Pope’s upcoming visit to Madrid. “I am B-O-R-E-D to D-E-A-T-H with these pilgrims.”

I pointed down the road.

“Are you going to the kiss in?”

I shook my head.

“I didn’t come all the way to Madrid just to pray.” With that she was off in the direction I had pointed her.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.

Four days ago, at a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer’s re-election campaign, President Barack Obama found himself dealing with protesters who called for action on the Pentagon’s policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, an issue which has been drawing more and more attention through factors such as the declared commitment of the current Administration to repeal DADT, and the actions of demonstrators such as Lieutenant Dan Choi and Captain Jim Pietrangelo, who, along with others, handcuffed themselves to the fence of the White House in protest against the policy.

Zoe Nicholson was one of the protesters at the Boxer fundraiser, and took the time to shed more light on her actions, the protest, and the wider background of the current state of DADT.

You got in trouble. For heckling the President. What happened?

I find the word ‘trouble’ kind of funny. Being 61 and never the quiet one in the room, I feel almost impervious to being in trouble.  And being an avid devotee of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul, Gandhi and Dolores Huerta, I was just answering a call. It was literally a call, by the way. The phone rang with a request by the most radical US LGBT group, GetEQUAL. While this group is new, on the heels of the National Equality March (10/11/09) and the terrible loss of Marriage Equality around the US, it is founded on the principles of Act Up; the famous group of the late ‘80s when queers were dying in record numbers from HIV/AIDS. The founder Larry Kramer met with people who were on fire as they knew that silence =death. Their actions are legendary and inspiring – and, most importantly, successful. Government funding came through for research, pharmaceutical companies sped up meeting this new disease and support organizations unfolded all over the country. Frankly, I think one reason they were so effective then and there are so many “casual” activists today is, in the late 80s, death was present in every circle of gay friends.

My phone call asked if I would join people from GetEQUAL and interrupt the President at a pricy fundraiser for Barbara Boxer. They told me to buy a ticket on line and they would reimburse me. You may find it interesting that you never know who it will be, how many or even the nature of the interruption. You either say yes or no. A Satyagrahi* just says yes. That is the commitment. I hung up and bought my ticket, sealing the commitment (good to do before the nerves kick in). Over the next week, there were conference calls, rehearsals, changing messages, tee shirts made; bringing it all into focus. Of course you don’t know what the room will be like – seating or standing; what the law enforcement will be – friendly or stern; what are the real unknowns. In this circumstance the worst of it is that we would be alone in a crowd of people who paid a lot of money to see their beloved President and we would be embarrassing them.

Embarrassing the audience?

If you read Gandhi – his key word is EMBARRASS. The opponent’s embarrassment is the goal. That discomfort is the quaking of their conscience in the light beam of your truth shining on them. However, as in my case, a nearby man was very, very angry. He was so aggressive and violent that I knew it was about a whole lot more than me and it made my Secret service escorts switch into protecting me! But I lurched ahead in the story.

OK. So, the event had begun, all the pieces were in place…

We agreed that once the initial applause quieted and POTUS was selling his party to the crowd, one by one, we would shout a chant, “Mr. President, it is time to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  We are waiting for you to show leadership, Mr. President. Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do. Get Equal.” Between each of us, we would wait 2 minutes. I was third (and last – obviously no one would know that).

And then… showtime.

Plants in the audience chanted out the first disrupter with, “Yes we can.” Clapping drown out the second one.  I waited for POTUS to get back to his easy rhythm and the room to quiet down. I took off my jacket – revealing my GetEQUAL tee – put my head down, invoked Lady Gaga at the National Equality March, took a deep breath and let it rip. I bellowed, “Mr. President.  Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do,”  twice. At that moment, he invited me to the podium saying, “If you have something to say, come up here and say it.” I raised my right hand and replied, “I would love to.” (Funny thing to know is that I would be more comfortable up there than in the crowd).

I started to walk to the podium, people began to allow me through until 1) the Secret Service kindly took my elbows to escort me out, 2) a violent angry man slammed his feet into mine, his face into mine and screamed at me – “You are the ugliest cunt in the room – get out.” I must say that was unexpected – whoa.  No rehearsal for that! He just kept going, inching his feet, shouting in my face and saying his hateful sentence. I am sure he has quite a proud story to tell his golf buddies on the 19th hole. But for me, the good news was that it made the SS act on my behalf and peel him off of me. I was then passed through a succession of SS and peace officers to make sure all of us were off the property. At the end of the parking lot, we were released.

Everyone seems to be a little bit upset with Obama right now. On both sides of politics, activism is on the rise and getting more and more media coverage – what was it that made you decide to go to a gathering of the faithful and ‘heckle’, as they’re calling it?

You can ask any woman who is 9 months pregnant; it is time to push. Equality is breathing, looking for life, reaching for light; it is time to push. The radicals in every human rights movement start to act up because there is something to be won. There is a sense of urgency.  Finally, after 18 years, POTUS says he is willing to repeal DADT, pass ENDA, and has identified himself as a “fierce advocate.” October 11, 2009, at the HRC dinner he said again that he would repeal DADT. We have military who are willing to sacrifice their freedom for this and officers stating in Congressional hearings that it should be repealed.  We have a super majority in the 111th House – hey, it looks like it is time to push.

Do you think the LGBT community on the whole is becoming impatient with Obama?

Not as a whole, as you put it; but activists (my political peers) are not mapping to the whole.  It is the duty of the activists to stretch convention so the “whole” can step a bit toward the goal, maybe with no personal risk. The activist is moving the red velvet rope so the crowd can move. As an activist, I will share that I am impatient with the “whole”  and it is time for everyone to get on board and MOVE – as we are holding the rope for them.

What was your response to Robert Gibb’s statements about the DOD timeline on the investigation into repealing DADT?

Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if anything concrete and succinct and ringing of truth has ever come out of the press room. To expect that is naïve. We are coming to the end of this Congressional session, elections are on the move, fundraising is happening, a Supreme Court Judge is about to retire and let’s all break out into a chorus of “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat,”  (and you know that is the cue to ROCK).

What about Obama’s own response to the ‘heckling’: “When you’ve got an ally like Barbara Boxer and you’ve got an ally like me who are standing for the same thing, then you don’t know exactly why you have to holler because we already hear you. It would make more sense to holler at the people who oppose it.”?

Answered above

There’s been a lot of commentary, both on your personal media networks and in the larger media about the disturbance you caused. How have people tended to react to your actions?

When I got up the next day and looked at my facebook page, there was a single sentence posted by an overseas soldier – thanking me. It doesn’t get any better than that. Amen brother. The second thing that comes to mind is a post today that a F2M trans kid at CSULB was stripped, molested and “it” was cut into his chest. That is why we do this – we have to integrate our hearts and become the diversity we are seeking. We have to love one another and if one kid, one person, feels that somebody out here gives a damn – that’s all that matters. Today I posted, ‘There will be no graveside folded flag for a lesbian widow.’

We made a ruckus and collectively we made history. I am proud to have been a part of it. Activism is a vocation and I am still upright. There is so much to do.

Zoe can be found online here.

*Satiagrahi: One who adheres to the truth and demonstrates active non-violence.


This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.