Writing the Revolution
The light above the tiny clearing had faded from amethyst to indigo to cobalt, and still the old woman could see the silhouettes of the treetops encircling the patch of open sky like a lacy necklace. She hunched over the dying fire, a gnarled stick in her gnarled hand, and carefully lifted the embers one by one, smiling as they sent up little licks of flame. She had kept the fire burning all afternoon and into the evening to welcome her comrades when they returned. But she was already bone-tired, and certain that the young women would not be climbing through the forest so long after dark. They would probably be here by the time she woke, but they would have to start a new fire. She had only to finish today’s entry in her journal, and that could be done by lantern light.
She held her breath and winced in pain as she lowered herself into the rickety Adirondack chair and settled in among the pillows. Reaching over to the stump beside the chair, she turned up the lantern flame and slid a spiral notebook into her lap. She leafed through pages filled with small, neat handwriting. There were only a couple of blank pages left. Maybe she should have asked the women to bring her another notebook. Even though most stores were empty now, looted of anything useful, and those that weren’t were heavily guarded, they had connections and were usually able to find what they were looking for. The old woman began to write.
I’m coming to the end of my narrative (or my part of the grand narrative). There’s not much left for me to write, except to tell the story of how we came to be here. Everything changed so fast, it’s taken me a long time to understand how the pieces fit together and to see where the story is going. I have lived to see a new world emerging, even as the old one crumbles. It’s a joy and a vindication. I know what it’s like to go to sleep hoping you won’t wake up in the morning, and that’s how it is for many people. There is so much suffering and despair these days. If they can hold on just a little longer they’ll see changes that will give them enough evidence to believe that it really is happening. The signs of new life are never obvious in the beginning, unless you know what you’re looking for. But they are there, like the little purple flower I saw that had pushed its way out of the rubble of an abandoned building the day after it collapsed—improbable, shockingly delicate, but impressive, inspiring awe for the life-force that gave it the courage to confront such hostile conditions. It’s like the circumstances that brought together this old woman, four young women and a hectare of heavily forested land. It started with a stroke of luck, literally.
She chuckled as she wrote this. She had inherited this land from her brother, who had died ten years before. Only 56, five years younger than she, and apparently in good health, he had suffered a massive stroke and died in a gourmet restaurant only three blocks from the abandoned warehouse where she slept at night. This land, with its comfortable little cabin, had been her brother’s weekend retreat from his daily life as a stockbroker. He came here to kill animals. He once told her that it relieved his stress, and that, anyway, there was nothing wrong with killing animals because he had a hunting license. Just after she inherited the land, Blue, one of the soup kitchen volunteers, had brought her here to have a look. But living outside the city, with no vehicle and no access to food, was not a realistic solution to her homelessness at that time. Then one day, three years ago, everything changed.
Things had been bad for most people for a while, but the die-out started among homeless people. It was normal for people to disappear for a while and then come back, usually after a few days or a week, with a bandaged head, an arm or leg in a cast, or a week’s worth of antibiotics. Pneumonia was common; so were beatings by police and other thugs. Some of us stayed close to one another in the park during the day for protection and strength in numbers. Others panhandled in front of downtown stores, or rifled through garbage cans and unlocked dumpsters looking for something to sell, use or eat. We thought of ourselves as a community. At least we all knew each other’s names. And almost every day we met up at the soup kitchen in the basement of the church, just around the corner from the park.
The soup kitchen was completely run by volunteers. I met Blue the first day she and some of her friends started serving meals, but I’d seen her several times before in the midst of a noisy throng of mostly young people in one of the marches that often wound their way through the neighbourhood heading toward the police station or City Hall. There were times I was tempted to join in, for old times’ sake, but I was afraid of the police. I read the literature the marchers handed out. They were calling for the complete overthrow of the State and all of its institutions. I remember wishing them good luck and hoping that they would carry the struggle farther than my generation had. I worried about what would happen to them when the State decided to deal with them.
For most of the people in the homeless community, the soup kitchen was the place where we gathered and shared our news of the day over a meal that was as fine as any in a gourmet restaurant. That’s where we began to realise that people were disappearing. It seemed that almost every week someone else went missing. On the day that everything changed, a middle-aged man named Roger was sitting beside me. He was telling us that he'd overheard two guys talking at the bus stop, a few feet away from the bench beside the subway entrance where he was sitting, reading a newspaper retrieved from the trash bin. According to Roger, one of the men was “blabbing on” about the union finally talking about starting to step up pressure on their issues after being wishy-washy for so many years, but that it was probably too late. The other man said that his father had worked all his life as an orderly at the hospital, and had owned the family home, raised three kids, and retired on a comfortable pension.
“And just look at us. We’ll never have that.”
The first guy said, “Yeah, and your father never had to deal with what we have to, either. I don’t trust those masks they give us to wear in the isolation ward—not when the docs are practically wearing hazmat suits.”
Roger said he was thinking this was just more working class complaining—something he seemed to resent, probably because he’d had a good job before alcohol took him down the rabbit hole and he wound up jobless, wifeless and homeless.
He said he was about to go back to reading the paper, but their conversation caught his ear again when he heard the second guy ask, “What do you know about all those deaths?”
The first man answered, “Well, I know there’s been at least 20 over the last month, mostly older people and homeless people, men and women—some young people. I should know,” he laughed. “I get to cart ‘em down to the morgue.” Shaking his head, he said, “Thing is, most of 'em weren’t circling the drain.”
Roger told us he had wanted to hear more, but the bus had come and they were gone. His recounting of the story sparked a heated exchange among a few people at the table. Some said Roger was making it up. Others said Roger wasn’t a story-teller. A drunk, maybe, but no liar.
Roger just put his hands on the table, leaned forward, looked at everyone and said, “Okay. Then where is everybody? Where’s Petey? And Alice? And those kids, Marnie and Scavenger?”
Everyone fell silent, digesting the possibilities.
Suddenly, the doors of the church basement burst open and about 20 cops from the SWAT team thundered onto the landing just above us. One of them bellowed at us to stay in our seats while the rest streamed down the stairs on either side of him. They swarmed the tables, shouting at some of the men to stand up, and grabbing them out of their seats.
Screaming into each wide-eyed, terrified face, the cops wanted to know: “Where’s Carlos Ortega?”
We looked each other, surprised. None of us knew anyone by that name.
I was speechless with fear as I watched my friends—many of them older than I am, frail, disabled, frightened and confused—being brutalised by huge, strong, angry cops. I have a snapshot in my mind of what happened directly in front of me—of Wilbur, barely five feet tall, and maybe a hundred pounds, being held up off the floor by the front of his shirt scrunched in one beefy cop-hand; and Wilbur, a gentle and kind man, too terrified to blink even to keep the cop’s spittle out of his eyes. And then I heard a commotion coming from the kitchen behind me—pots and pans clanking, dishes and glassware breaking; and two gunshots, followed by a truncated scream. In a blur, the cop in front of me threw Wilbur across the table so hard that his head sailed into my chest, knocking me backward onto the floor, chair and all. In the same moment, the cop who had been terrorizing someone behind me took a giant, heavy step toward the kitchen by way of my ribs. I remember the pain, being unable to breathe, and the coldness of the basement floor against my cheek as I watched heavy, black boots pounding toward the kitchen. After that, I don’t remember anything else until I felt gentle hands all over me feeling for broken bones. I opened my eyes and looked up at Blue. Her eyes were filled with tears, and her face was bruised. Her lip was bleeding from a gash where one of her lip rings was missing.
She said, “I’ll get you to the hospital.”
I whispered, “Please, no.”
The old woman put down her pen, leaned back and squeezed her eyes shut to hold back tears. That day had cost a precious life and resulted in the closing of the soup kitchen. With a deep sigh, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve and continued writing.
That day I went to live with Blue and her housemates, Nasrin and Nadia, in their loft. They gave me a mattress on the floor, with fresh sheets and a warm blanket. They brought me soup and green tea. If I hadn’t been feeling so much pain, I would have thought I had been transported to paradise. With the warm sunlight streaming in, and a beautiful black cat curled up beside me, I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke, it took a few moments to realize that I was not lying in a sleeping bag on five sheets of cardboard in the warehouse. The sky was dark and the loft was suffused with candlelight. I could hear voices. They were talking about what had happened in the soup kitchen.
As I listened to their muted conversation, I realised that they were all members of the same collective, and that Carlos Ortega had been one of them. Blue had been injured when she leaned her small body against the kitchen door, trying to give Carlos time to escape. The Robocops had burst in, shoving Blue into the prep counter, with its two metal shelves stacked with dinnerware. Two cops each fired a shot at Carlos as he tried to open the kitchen exit door. It was Blue’s scream that I'd heard. The cop’s reaction had been to grab her face in his leather-gloved hand and shove her to the floor. The following day, Blue told me the whole story. Carlos had been ordered deported back to Honduras, even though he had been a well-known human rights activist there (or, considering the friendly relations between “our” government and military dictatorships all over the world, perhaps because of it). He would probably not even have made it from the airport to his village alive. Instead of showing up to be deported, he had gone underground. For a full year he lived with comrades in a loft down the hall. Every day he helped to prepare the soup kitchen meal from whatever had been gleaned from rich people’s larders by comrades who worked in their kitchens, and from dumpsters behind grocery stores, conveniently left unlocked by other comrades. Day after day—after sweeping the floors, making sure there were no dirty dishes in the sink, feeding the cats and cleaning their litter boxes—he exercised for a couple of hours, read anarchist literature and dreamed about the revolution. He was happy to have the time to read books he had only heard of and would otherwise not have had time to study. But it wasn’t the same thing as being free to move around in the world, feeling it change, sensing its possibilities. He had put it out to the collective, making the case that Immigration Control had probably forgotten about him, and that he could be helpful in the soup kitchen. Most of the collective had doubts that this was the case, but everyone had agreed that individual freedom was an essential value. After some discussion they had decided that “Rafael” should arrive at the soup kitchen by a different route than the others. He would leave the same way, and earlier. If apprehended, he would say nothing about the collective—where they lived or what they did.
The raid on the soup kitchen and Carlos’ assassination set in motion a course of events that took the revolution to a new level, beyond anything I could have dreamed of. Now it was clear that the collective was already under surveillance. The comrades had earlier decided to cellularise their activities, spreading out to different neighbourhoods and coordinating through the secure communications network the hacktivists had established. The time to make a move was now!
And so, here we are. Three strong young women who still make forays into the city to bring food to homeless people and distribute supplies to the cells of the collective; and an old woman who can no longer walk, who sits by the fire and writes a part of the history of the revolution.
The old woman closed her journal. She leaned back, closed her eyes and slipped into a deep sleep.
"Writing the Revolution" was originally published in Subversions, Vol. ll