All posts by Teresa Smith

Rest in Power Pirate Mike

Pirate Mike / photo by Brooke Porter

by Teresa Smith

Stephen Michael Clift, known as “Pirate Mike,” prolific treesitter of Occupy San Francisco, outspoken member of Veterans for Peace, and a part of the Slingshot Collective, died in the line of duty on Friday, October 30, 2015. He was on a cross-country bike tour that he helped organize in honor of homeless veterans when he was struck and killed by a car in Texas. In his last video post on his blog, Mike spoke fondly about returning to San Francisco so someone could cut his hair, which had just been whipped into a wild mess as he rode through a New Mexico hailstorm. He glared back at his disheveled image in the camera-phone with amused disapproval.

…a Soldier for Peace in the battle to keep our planet alive.

Mike was someone who treated everyone like they mattered, especially the trees. His passion wasn’t that bleeding heart liberal goo, but rather was marbled in wingnutty radicalness — he wasn’t afraid to pound nails into oaks as he worked to save them, building forts with flags and verve. His vest was covered in patches, his body with tattoos, his laptop with stickers. He was a hacker, a pirate, a proud veteran who orated about the need to dismantle the military and also to care for our wounded and homeless vets. He frequently joined groups of folks who needed emergency housing, and together they pitched camps and cracked squats. He always had a good speech in him, and also knew how to pause and listen to what everyone had to say.

I met Mike at the Hayes Valley Farm Treesit in June of 2013. I was joined that day by a student photographer from Mills College, Brooke Porter, and the goal was to write an article about the place, which had just been renamed “Gezi Gardens” in solidarity with the uprising in Turkey. Brooke seemed pretty thrilled about the whole thing, but I felt terror in the pit of my stomach as we walked around the green, sunlit permaculture garden, plagued by post-Occupy-Shutdown PTSD flashbacks. Every time I see something wonderful happening in public, I feel the presence of the police now, as if they are just past the edges of my vision, ready to leap out and start gassing and hurting everyone again. I sat down and grabbed my knees and breathed for a while, and nearly left the treesit, but then Pirate Mike introduced himself. Mike was grinning and ridiculous (yet awesome!) in his patch-covered military fatigues, all big handshakes and serious nods with that glimmer in his eye. If my catholic mom had been there, she might have proclaimed, “this guy’s an authentic saint!” But what I believe is that Pirate Mike was someone who had really learned to love himself, which is pretty much the bravest thing anyone can do, and that’s what gave him the courage to be so present with people, which is probably why he seemed to glow sometimes (ask around, I know I’m not the only one who noticed), and why something that I might call “meaning” seemed to sprout organically from Mike’s simplest gestures.

Mike’s Bag / photo by Brooke Porter

Mike gave us the grand tour of the 2.5-acre farm, which was buzzing with artists and musicians and radicals, and there was even a library and a kitchen, one group was making a music video with a saxophone player, while another group was putting sprouted plants into the ground. One young man was shoveling sod in big bunny slippers. Mike knew everybody’s names, and he also introduced us to the treeforts, taking us to their bases and pointing out all the neat construction hacks he’d used to make them. At one point, I turned away for half a minute to talk to some of the freshly planted vegetables, suddenly I turn back to see Brooke strapped into a harness, flying up into a tree! Mike was holding the rope, hoisting her up—could there be a better way to spend a Tuesday?

Hayes Valley Farm Treesit / photo by Brooke Porter

Yeah, sure, a lot of liberals in San Francisco got really huffy about that occupation—“We promised to give the permaculture farm away to developers, and now these radicals are making us look bad!” But Mike saw himself as a Soldier for Peace in a much bigger battle, the greatest battle known, the battle to keep our planet alive. Mike understood that every time we give up a local, permaculture farm, we are handing our food production over to corporate growers who are killing our oceans by dumping nitrogen on their crops, and pumping CO2 into our atmosphere. Mike understood the importance of holding on to every piece of land where local food might be grown.

Hayes Valley Farm Treesit / photo by Brooke Porter

Two days later, the Department of Homeland Security raided the treesit on behalf of Wall Street real estate corporation AvalonBay (NYSE: AVB). The 100-year-old trees were felled and some 45,000 square feet of farmland was destroyed to make the real estate commodity. A book Mike had written about his life was taken by Homeland Security during the raid, and never returned. Now I really wish I could get a hold of that book. I guess that’s just a grief reaction. I want to see him again. I really want him to emerge from the sidewalk crowd and say “Hey puffinstuff!” and give me some of his weirdly intimate random life advice.

“Veterans from all walks of military life need to step up their duty and reclaim some fresh living. Our hearts may still weep, yet our stories can inspire and our hands can teach.”
~ Pirate Mike

Mike was good to have at urban farming meetings. He didn’t always stay on topic (he tended to veer towards “so when do we start building tree forts?”), but he also had a knack for taking emotional stack, for offering subtle nods of encouragement to the people who seemed to be struggling to speak. As an anarchist, he helped remind us to make space for each other, to hold on to our basic humanity even during the most tyrannical of consensus meetings (like the ones that get taken over by those with the most privilege? Yeah, those ones). Mike would check in with people if he thought their feelings got hurt during a meeting, and would offer these pep talks, like a gentle drill sergeant, about how we have to stay in it for the long haul, sure sometimes it’s good to go cool off, but we can’t stop working for the things we believe, no matter how fucking obnoxious other anarchists can be.

Mike’s Patches / photo by Brooke Porter

In spring of 2015, Mike showed up at a Slingshot meeting with an article, Military Veterans and their Role in Revolution, which we ran on the front page. In the article he wrote: “Veterans from all walks of military life need to step up their duty and reclaim some fresh living. Our hearts may still weep, yet our stories can inspire and our hands can teach. If we can provide some safety; some collective wisdom, learn from what it means to be under constant stress and hungry, and how through team work and dedication we were able to overcome our challenges, we can become an invaluable asset to the “revolution”.”

After Mike was killed, newspapers across the country printed the announcement of his death, a testament to the many, many friends Mike made everywhere he went. He was never just passing through; Mike was always at home. Accounts of his adventures can be found at his blog: occupyveteranssanfrancisco.weebly.com.

How do we move forward without our friend? How do we honor him, and keep alive all the things he gave us so freely, simply by being himself in public?

Last time I saw Pirate Mike was in early spring of 2015, I was standing in line in front of a bank on Shattuck Ave, trying to figure out my life, when suddenly he was there with his gear-laden bicycle, and we talked for twenty minutes, and he was telling me about all the other places I could easily be: hitchhiking across Europe, tree-sitting in Oakland, anywhere but a place that is boring you! He orated passionately about the necessity to live the most full and authentic life possible, about the lengths one must go to at times to keep their soul alive.

I know I’m not the only one he reached, that so, so many people are feeling this loss right now. How do we move forward without our friend? How do we honor him, and keep alive all the things he gave us so freely, simply by being himself in public?

Urban adventurer. Loving provoker of lost girls and boys. A man ready to grab a stranger by the hand, strap her into a harness, and hoist her into the illegal occupation of a tree. Goddammit Mike, I’m going to miss your silly face, your thoughtful interjections, your inability to follow stack, the light you brought to a community on the edge of darkness. Occupy the afterlife, my friend. If it turns out there’s a heaven, you better be squatting the shit out of it.

Above: Mike’s last video post to his blog.

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Share your memories, stories, and photos of Pirate Mike at the online memorial.  

 

I can almost see the stars

I can almost see the stars… (TRIGGER WARNINGS: rape, war, capital, human extinction)

by Teresa Smith

Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. ~MLK

In autumn of 2004, I joined the astronomy club at a small university nestled in the Cascade Mountains. Eager to share our view of the stars, we built a wooden cart for the school’s telescope (a high-powered soviet-designed scrappy-looking thing we lovingly called “The Light Bucket”), and every clear Friday, we wheeled our scope out to the footpath next to the Science Building and enticed passersby to join us: “Want to look at another galaxy?”

Some nights, the football team was practicing in the field next to us, and the sky seemed lost behind the blinding haze of stadium lights. That didn’t stop us.

How can you see through all that light pollution?” confused passersby wanted to know.

See for yourself,” one of us would reply. Such a jolt of surprise overtook the person when they held their eye to the little circle of glass and saw a stunning globular cluster, the rings of Saturn, or whatever delightful glowing mass we’d been gazing at.

How am I seeing this?” they always wanted to know.

Unlike magicians, scientists always explain their tricks: “Our pupils constrict to protect themselves from the light, but telescopes don’t. These tools can see past the optical illusion of light pollution, reminding us that even under a seemingly blank sky, the light of the stars still reaches us.”

Ten years later and a thousand miles away, a rapist is at large in the East Bay radical community.

One of the collectives received an email warning from a comrade in a distant city, and now the rapist has been spotted at local infoshops and hacker spaces. Some of us are in a dilemma: “Do we ban him?”

So far, no formal decision has been made. No one wants to deal with it until we have to. Banning accused rapists is seen as a distraction from the real reasons we are here. And it can be, especially when it devolves into a “rape tribunal” lasting weeks or months in which people are driven away from boredom or by triggers.

While my friends struggle with the dilemma of whether or not to bar him from our space, I am faced with a rather different problem: I am grappling with the desire to kill him.

The sky is filled with rape, you know. The Greeks and the Renaissance astronomers painted the stars with abuse, naming so many of them after victims and their rapists.

As the lone literature student at astronomy club, I always looked forward to hearing the physics students raise their voices, clearing away these ghosts, explaining the simple, yet powerful laws that actually govern the glowing blobs of matter that populate our sky.

When I was seven, my head was torn open in a car accident, and after the experience of having my body repaired at a hospital, I was suddenly home again, with a face full of stitches. The problem was: I couldn’t feel at home anymore. I had fallen into a sort of Trauma Place. A place where time changes. The present dilates, the future is obscured. Catastrophe seems to lurk in every shadow.

Humans have deeply social nervous systems. The vagus nerve runs from the base of our brains to the seat of our gut, and it is stimulated by social interaction. When volcanoes blow, seas rise, or cars smash into us, we are confronted with the anti-social nature of our random universe, and this can freeze up the vagus nerve and other connected nerves and organs, impeding our ability to learn new things, remember the past, feel emotions, digest food, and repair tissue.

Luckily, after the car accident, a parade of my favorite people came to visit me. They gasped when they saw my stitches, and wanted to hear the tale of how I survived. This showed me that I mattered. Even though the universe is a chaotic, uncaring place, people are able to create bubbles of intention and care within that chaos. Bubbles of community. And sure, communities can’t guarantee your safety, but if you are hurt they will help pull your consciousness back from that place of chaos.  Engaged by my community, I began to regain my sense of being at home, and I could approach the future again with curiosity and joy.

My senior year in college, I was raped by someone in a theatre community that I’d joined off campus. Reeling in the post-trauma weirdness, I sought emotional support from the people closest to me.

I called my foster mom, who promptly informed me that “this is why we shouldn’t be so friendly to people.”

Hoping for a female mentor to tell me I was okay, I went to my boss and a professor. Instead, they also informed me that my “friendliness” had brought it on.

I went to my friends and classmates, who asked questions like, “What were you wearing? How much time did you spend with him beforehand?”

I was starting to get defensive now. I began revising my story, trying to tell it in such a way that I wouldn’t be blamed. I tried leaving out labels like “rape” and “sexual assault,” and just described the bare details of being touched without my consent. Still, I was questioned, blamed every time.

The terror that I felt on that first day never dissipated.

I spoke to people in the theatre community about it, and they told me it wasn’t their problem, “Go get a restraining order.” I did so, and discovered that this wouldn’t prevent the rapist from going to the theatre meetings. “Was there alcohol involved?” the judge insisted to ask at the restraining order hearing.

Everywhere I went for support, I was put on the defense for my clothing choices, my personality, my behavior. Even the people who blamed the rapist said things like, “You should have been able to sense he was going to do that.”

I was back in that Trauma Space I knew as a child. But now, catastrophe seemed to lurk inside all other human beings. Anyone could violate me—anyone could bypass the will of my mind and touch my body without my consent—and that I would be blamed for it.

I am no longer a friendly person. Fear has settled into my bones, and I’ve found that I become exhausted if I spend too much time in the presence of others. An entire community had rallied, one by one, in their own ways, to show me that rape was supposed to happen to me.

In her writings on war, Judith Butler explains that English-speakers have invented rhetorical devices like “War Zone” to make it seem okay when a bystander dies in an armed conflict. We tell ourselves, “That’s what you get for living in a War Zone.” This rhetoric lets us normalize the catastrophe that is war.

I believe we also have created a nasty rhetoric of Rape Zones, which is a social space in which (some people) believe there are circumstances that make it okay to touch someone without their consent.

After my rape, I learned where everyone in my community had laid the borders of the Rape Zone, based on the questions they asked me as they attempted to assign blame.  Some people believed being friendly to someone birth-gendered differently than you makes you zoned for rape. Others will tell you drinking alcohol or attending music festivals zones you for rape. I’ve spoken with people who believe that when a woman gets married, she is now zoned for rape by her husband.

It is the subjectiveness of it all, the way the borders of a Rape Zone expand and contract depending on who you are talking to, that make it all so terrifying.

I am terrified for certain bright-eyed young women in my community—women who, when I see them, the first thought that pops into my head is “looks like she hasn’t been raped yet.” And I realize I am thinking this because, according to some people, acting friendly and loving in public makes you zoned for rape. I am terrified for these women—sometimes at political and social gatherings, I spot creepers lurking around them. That is when I make my presence known, and flash my hate-filled eyes at the lurker. And then the adrenaline release, and the urge to kill.

Perhaps the desire to escape these socially constructed Rape Zones is why we’ve seen the rise of “sexually sterile zones”—suburbs and artificial communities marketed in such a way that it seems rape could never happen there. But anyone with their eyes open in the burbs will tell you otherwise.

After spending my teen years in the East Seattle sprawl, I’ve come to think of the suburbs as “Rapetopia” because I knew so many kids in their perfect-looking middle-class suburban families who got raped or assaulted by their dads, neighbors, church deacons, grandfathers, bosses. Of the dozen or so people who spoke to me about their experiences of assault, only two of them chose to report it publicly.

It’s the wall of silence that allows Rapetopia to continue—people keep buying into the myth that they can move to a “rape-free zone,” but it is in those spaces, lacking any kind of community cohesion, in which rapists end up having the most power over individuals’ lives.

Before the rape, I used to travel alone, by Greyhound, by train. I hitchhiked in Alaska. I made friends easily, and made a point to talk to strangers, to pull people into loopy philosophical conversations. I read a book a day or more and dated people of multiple genders. I was also very protective about how and when my body was touched.

After the rape, I no longer liked being with people, but being alone was even worse. I moved in with one cis-man after another and pushed them into protective roles. I continued volunteering, but my role in community was very different. My conversations became linear and didactic; I was afraid to display my propensity to wander. I stopped traveling, and didn’t like to leave the house alone. I couldn’t concentrate: reading, watching movies, so many pleasures fell away. I didn’t care how my lovers touched me anymore. My body was the site of my betrayal, it no longer belonged to me.

The human animal is at such a beautiful, but dark point in our evolution. Only 50,000 or so years ago, our ability to use tools blossomed into a region of the brain known as Broca’s area, the seat of language. Mix that with our highly-developed prefrontal cortices (which facilitate planning), and you get a creature with the uncanny ability to hold symbolic tools inside its head, and to use those symbols to direct its actions.  This ability has allowed us to travel to the moon, but it comes with a dark underside:

After I was raped, I thought my rapist was simply insane. But as I’ve slowly come to chart the borders of Rape Zones, another possibility has lodged itself in my mind: he likely did not know he was raping me. He was likely interacting with symbols in his head, rather than checking in with me so I could communicate what I actually wanted.

This is a chilling thought for me personally. Then I thing about how so many of the worst abuses are rooted in a failure to communicate.

I was raped quite badly in my teens,” a sex worker friend recently told me over tea. “First by a stranger, then by the friend I went to for support.”

How have you kept your sanity?” I asked.

The sex work really helps,” my friend said cheerfully. “Personally, I think sex work may be the key to ending sexual violence.”

She explains that in her work, she sets her boundaries upfront: she is paid beforehand and can walk away from a client if she no longer feels comfortable. Intimacy is no longer an ambiguous space for her, but a clearly communicated transaction between an empowered businesswoman and a client.  

As she speaks, I wonder if this is the shadow of the future—a future in which the circumference of the market is everywhere, and ambiguity is not to be found. A future in which children are educated to be business-owners of their own body-commodity.  Perhaps this is the role trauma plays in what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”—the fencing off of the commons, the moment of taking things that were once free and turning them into commodities, creating a society where people must sell their labor to buy things that were once free.

This is capital’s cruel bargain: As sex flees rape, it is metamorphosized into exchange. In a world ruled by capital, where else does it have to go?

Capital is coercion,” I say to the group of young men. I’m visiting a permaculture farm in Oakland, a group of male permies in their early twenties has gathered around me. This place is known for sexual harassment, and I’ve been quick to route the conversation towards economic theory. I begin to perform a reverse magic trick my favorite Marxist once taught me.

Would you rip up this $20 bill?” I say, passing around a Jackson twenty. “Feel the weight of it. It’s not like ordinary paper. It’s been blessed as capital.”

I take the bill back and hold it up, “What is this?”

It’s people!” a young man ventures.

Right!” I say. “This is congealed human labor! With this, I can access a system that compels someone who doesn’t even know me to make my shoes or grow my food.”

We’re all getting excited now. 

Man!” a welder among them is on a roll: “how many people do you think you’re coercing to labor for you? How big is your invisible slave cloud? Ten people? A hundred? All those people out in the burbs who only use money to get things, I’ll bet if you add all the hours up, they’ve got slave clouds of thousands of people. And they don’t even know it because this money stuff stands in for the labor—for the real human connection of wanting to do stuff for each other.”

In the excitement, one of the young men offers me a bottle of homebrew, “I made this myself, I insist!”

I take the gift and I thank him, but my face contorts with fear. A gift.

A common tactic used by rapists is forcefully giving things to their targets.

In the month leading up to him raping me, the guy from my theatre group started forcing favors upon me – fixing my computer without asking, buying me food, giving me gifts I didn’t want.

InThe Gift of Fear, violent crime investigator Gavin de Becker warns women to watch out for gifts and favors—they are a tactic used by rapists to disarm their targets, to make them feel guilty, like they owe something to the rapist. This allows the rapist to swoop past their boundaries, enter their homes and assault them.

This is also the pattern in the logic of colonial invasion: “We’ll come in and give you books, Human Rights – we’ll even give you democracy, the greatest gift ever!” And watch the local people’s shock as tanks roll in, as armed soldiers are shooting their teenagers, drones dropping bombs on their dinner parties.

Is capital really congealed labor? Or is it a symbol of the tension between those who wish to give, and those who take without asking?

I still haven’t been able to forgive my rapist, though I’ve run circles inside myself trying. The emotional pain seems to be stuck in my body. It could have been released with the help of my friends, but they weren’t ready.

Not long after he raped me, my rapist became general manager of the volunteer theatre group. I later learned that several other women were raped by him during his ascent. All of us left after being raped—it is insanity to be in the presence of your abuser, especially when you both know they could do it again anytime they want and no one would care or believe you.

What has been mindboggling is the prevalence of this pattern as I have moved on to organizations and projects. So, so many community spaces are held by a league of abusers and their apologists. As I move through the communities in the Bay, I inevitably meet the victims who were pushed out of those communities.  They are many. I am losing my trust for cis-men in power. Every time I meet a charismatic, forceful man in charge of something, I immediately wonder how many women aren’t in the room because of him.

Why do I want to kill rapists? That much should be obvious by now.

Why do I bother to hope? That is the bigger question.

Anarchy is self-control.  Before I came to think of myself as anarchist, I saw these words carved into the cement near my home in NW Portland.

Anarchy is self-control. These words were a glimmer of hope that stayed with me, and after a partner’s job led me to move with him to the Bay Area, I found myself seeking out Anarchists, joining the Slingshot collective, moving into cooperative housing.

Gradually, I’ve come to realize that Anarchy is not just self-control.

Three years ago, I spent some time at Hellarity House. It was my first experience of a radical open-door squat governed by anarchist consensus process. At my first house meeting, I saw an amazing thing: a traveler was asked to leave—without malice or punishment—because he had touched someone without their consent. Over the next few weeks, this happened several more times. There were never tribunals questioning either party, or moments of forcing the target to “provide evidence” (consent violation, by definition, can only be expressed as the word of one person against another anyway). Watching this process, I saw the women in the house becoming stronger, more outspoken. I felt stronger. Even though the space was filled with rowdiness, arguments, and all sorts of spontaneity and danger, I felt drawn there because I knew that if I asked someone to back off, they’d respect me, and if they didn’t, they’d have to leave. A few years later, I found myself at the Sudo Room hackerspace, and similarly witnessed a consent violator being asked to leave. There was no malice—this wasn’t an punishment thing—it was simply a way to respect the target for speaking up. It meant the community could be a space for victims to heal, rather than harboring their abusers. And in these spaces, it wasn’t just one person or group upholding the safe space—cis males were equally vocal and committed as everyone else to creating consent-based community, and often did the hard work of asking people to leave.

This new wave of anarchists understands that addressing abuse is not some afterthought, but is the core of creating post-capitalist communities. But like any policy, consent-based safe space could easily be overused. As one space-keeper explains, “Safe space shouldn’t be treated as a decision-making process, but as a problem-solving tool.” Safe Space practices are not a cave to climb into, but something to help us see through the haze in those moments when abuse does arise. Some people are afraid of safe space practices, afraid they will be misused by liars. They are justified in that fear, because that risk is always there. But if we fail to create equitable and thriving self-supporting communities, we stand facing a far bigger problem.

The myth-weavers of capital dazzle us with a pseudo-mathematical fantasy world of random chance, a world of competition that is supposed to be “natural,” even though it defies our deeply cooperative evolutionary disposition. We are forced into this system because our food, clothing, shelter, and care is held hostage by it. But many of us choose to enter this system because we are afraid of individuals, and we don’t trust our communities to protect us from abuse. Capital offers easy shelter by sterilizing the whole messy chaos of social reality, and distilling it into a single question: “How to I assist the creation of profit?”

So, collectively, we scrape the tops off of our mountains. We create famines throughout the Global South. We tear out the public rail systems and replace them with roads. We inflict armed occupations within our borders and around the world. We raze forests, and pump poison into our air, into our water, into our minds with advertisements. We inflict unfair trade laws upon entire nations, leading droves of people to cross our borders to take back the value that’s been stolen from them.

Abuse is one of the strongest motivating forces that compels us to invite capital into our lives. Capital feeds upon the forces of fear and produces an artificial randomness.  It holds us in a place of stasis, walking dead, traumatized, trapped in the fantasy of “profit is the only thing that matters.” As we organize ourselves to compete for profit, it is the bullies, rapists, and murderers who rise to the top, directing us as we destroy each other and ourselves–with the destruction of our planet’s life support system as “collateral damage.”

Imagine for a moment that the apocalypse isn’t something in the future, but something that is happening right now.  It is something that has been happening since humans gained the power to justify raping and murdering each other. Look into our past, and you’ll see there never has been a golden age.  

Archaeological sites new and ancient show mass graves—horrors beyond our wildest nightmares—we are just becoming aware of this apocalypse.

From this nightmare we are only just now waking up.

Consent.

I want to write the word in the sky every day for each person I’ve known who was hurt or raped.

Consent.

Can the defense of single word, a single concept help bring back light back into the eyes of the traumatized, help us reactivate our parasympathetic nervous systems?

Consent.

Sing life back into our species with a single word.

Consent.

Wake up! Here is a splash of cold water in the face:

Consent.

Pray for consent.

Ask for consent.

Destroy the ideas of a Rape Zone, a War Zone—no one deserves to be touched without their consent. We need to dismantle the last of the cultural myths that are holding the apocalypse in place.

Consent, consent, consent.

Demand consent.

Defend consent.

Uphold consent in your spaces. And as the haze of abuse diminishes, watch as communities emerge from beneath capital, like the stars coming out after the lights are finally shut off.

The Speculation Chopblock: Living at the Knife’s Edge

by Teresa Smith

 A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It cuts the hand that uses it. ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Six years ago, I lost a teenage cousin to suicide, and while I know that he was responsible for making the decision to end his life, I believe that his experience of growing up in poverty guided his hand. As I grappled with my grief, I became determined to dismantle the system of power that had pulled care away from my cousin, a system that pits everyone against each other in a race towards psychological and ecological destruction.

I envisioned a new society where everyone would be empowered to meet each other’s needs and their own, and to create meaningful connections between ourselves and the planet, without our actions being tainted by the cold logic of capital.

In 2011, that vision seemed to be emerging with the public square movements popping up around the world. There was the Arab Spring followed by Europe’s Indignato Summer, culminating in the fall with Occupy encampments sprouting up in hundreds of cities across the United States. People were gathering in public squares to feed each other, to share their stories and art, to understand the real needs of their communities, and to dance through the streets together with colorful banners.

Then in October the raids came. The police coordinated with paramilitaries hired by the banks to shut down every major Occupy encampment in the U.S., and they did it within three weeks.

In Oakland, folks refused to let the vision go. We re-occupied, again and again, until January 28 of 2012. On that day, hundreds of us marched through Oakland to try to liberate an abandoned building. Our hope was to transform the long-empty, publicly-owned Kaiser Building into a true community center, a place where people could feed each other, and sleep in a bed, no questions asked. It would be a space with a roof where we could work together to continue to understand and address the evolving needs of our community.

But the social disease that is capitalism will not let itself be healed so easily. And on J28, the mass arrests, tear gas, and police batons finally beat the hope out of us.

We realized we wouldn’t be allowed to create a new care-based social space, and the logic of capital re-inhabited many our lives. Most of us still had rent to pay and debts to keep. With heavy hearts, many of us went back to seeking work.

$

Last year, a professional poker player named Ballard moved into the Birdhaus co-op in South Berkeley, where I was living in a cupboard at the time.

Ballard had a certain sparkle to him. When he won at the tables, his eyes shone all the brighter, glinting like pieces of gold. When he lost, the air around him seemed heavy, his motions stifled.

Ballard claims he can feel it, the exact moment when his luck is about to run out during a game. The trick is knowing when to pull out. Good players will try to keep you in, trick you into staying at the table when you know you’re losing. Poker is a game played with magnetism, and I might say a spark of something animal.

Last week, I was drinking tea with Ballard at his new apartment, and I asked if he’d ever thought of extending his gambling skill into the speculative market. “You’d be good at flipping houses,” I said, baiting him.

He scrunched his nose like I’d loosed bad air.

“I could never do that,” he replied, and later explained: “When you play poker, everyone at the table knows the rules—they’ve consented to be there.” House-flippers are gambling with people’s homes and neighborhoods, and they do it without anyone’s consent.

$

A few weeks ago, I was buying wine at the Black & White Liquor Store when three rambunctious men came bouncing in like they owned the place. They were knocking things over, tossing bags of chips back and forth. One of them turned to a young man with a bicycle and said, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks, cash, for that bike.”

Moments later, the young man was walking out of the store with the money while the three men clustered around their new bike, high-fiving each other: “We could sell this bike on Craigslist tomorrow for two hundred!”

I left the store, wanting to escape whatever mania they were flinging as quickly as possible. While walking home, however, I was followed by the man who had bought the bike.

“Hey, hey lady!” he was saying as he rode at my heels, “I just bought a house! Right here, in this neighborhood!”

He veered in front of me and suddenly his two henchmen were at my flanks. Three men to one woman: very bad odds. I grabbed my bottle of wine, ready to defend myself if needed.

The men were all talking fast.

“You want a job?” said the one with the bike. “I’ll let you guard my new house, super cheap.”

“You’re a house flipper!” I realized.

“I’m a family man!” he protested, and pulled out his smartphone to show me photos of his wife and kids. His first granddaughter had been born just two days earlier.

The man introduced himself as Jack and he was born in Mexico in the 1970s, just as globalized trade began its stranglehold of that nation’s labor market. His family moved to up East L.A. when he was a boy, and Jack grew up in dire poverty there. But now, thanks to his luck flipping houses, Jack’s granddaughter was going to grow up rich, Rich, RICH! She would go to nurturing schools, eat healthy food, and never have to sleep with gunfire as a lullaby—just as long as Jack flipped his houses right.

I followed the three back to the beautiful 102-year-old Victorian that Jack had just purchased on MLK Blvd. The other two men had been hired by Jack to remodel the the house so he could sell it in 6 months for much more than he paid for it.

When we entered the house, I was shocked to see that the beautiful built-in bookcases had been pried from the walls, and that the antique molding was lying in pieces on the floor.

“We’re scrapping this junk,” Jack explained. “It will be all new wood!”

He was erasing the personality of the house, just as the whole South Berkeley neighborhood is being gradually sterilized, replaced by something less funky, less interesting, by investors trying to predict the tastes of the next set of investors. And here was century-old woodwork being sent to the landfill, to be replaced with the bones of fresh trees.

As a teenager in the mid-90s, I watched a real estate boom rip through the Seattle area. During that time, investors from around the world descended upon the region, buying up land, flipping it, developing it, and flipping it again. Massive housing tracts were erected in the hills, displacing the creatures that had lived there for uncountable generations. In the middle of the day, bears and cougars could be seen wandering the streets like ghosts, searching for their vanished ecosystems.

As the Seattle housing bubble peaked, fueled by the flipping frenzy, only the highest paid industrial workers in the nation (tech workers and a few aeronautical engineers) could afford the inflated housing prices. When the tech bubble burst and the Boeing layoffs came in Year 2000, the housing market collapsed as well, and hundreds of new homes were left empty in the woods, haunted by a the specter of a future that never came.

The investors who were left with those houses when the downturn hit lost a great deal of money, while those who sold early enough made off like bandits.

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“House flipping is less like poker, and more like old maid,” said X.lenc as we were putting together this issue of Slingshot. “In Oakland, it’s like the speculators are pulling cards right out of your hand.”

Last month, X.lenc was evicted from his apartment in San Francisco, where eviction rates are horrific. Between March 2010 and February 2013, housing prices in SF surged by 22 percent and evictions rose by 38 percent, with 1,716 households suffering eviction in the city in 2012.

After the eviction, X.Lenc relocated to East Oakland, where he has had to confront widespread fear about “gentrifying the neighborhood.” Folks are scared of doing social work in their neighborhoods in Oakland because they don’t want to risk raising the housing prices, which would surely bring the plague of evictions over from across the Bay.

A few months ago, Phat Beets and Arizmendi, two radical Oakland collectives dedicated to urban farming and making pastries, discovered that their organizations had been listed on a map that was used by real estate agents to sell the neighborhood. The real estate people had even renamed or “rebranded” the area as “NOBE,” in an effort to erase the Golden Gate neighborhood’s working class roots and to make houses there seem like a trendy commodity.

“It’s like, you try to do anything good in a neighborhood, and suddenly your work becomes a card in the speculators’ hands,” says an exasperated Xander.

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As radical squatters continue to liberate empty buildings in Oakland, creating beautiful community gardens, libraries, bike shops, and free schools in abandoned buildings, they often have to face that lingering fear that the speculators will move in and evict them, reaping the profits of their free labor.

Two winters ago, the radical squat known as Hellarity was shut down in West Oakland after a glorious 12-year run. It was purchased, sight unseen, in 2006 by a house flipper from India who spent 6 years fighting the squatters in court. In 2012, a judge ruled in the house flipper’s favor and Hell was evicted.

Even though adverse possession laws seem to be in their favor, squatters rarely gain legal ownership of the spaces they fix up.

In the only known case of a radical squatter gaining legal ownership of a house in California, the original owner had died, leaving no next of kin. This situation is quite rare. If the squatted building has a living owner or is owned by a bank, it is often only a matter of time before the property is reclaimed by the market.

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Mike Delacour, who is known in the Bay Area for coming up with the idea for People’s Park, believes house flippers killed his wife Gina Sasso, who was known for her longtime advocacy for homeless and disabled peoples’ rights.

Early in 2011, a pair of eager young real estate flippers purchased the South Berkeley apartment building in which Gina and Mike were renters. The new building owners insisted that Mike and Gina remove decades of projects that the couple had accumulated on the back patio.

Gina was exhausted from her work fighting measure S, and it was the rainy season, but the investors where quite pushy, anxious that the real estate bubble might pop, and they wanted to remodel the patio before selling the building.

Gina died of pneumonia on May 25 of 2011, midway through cleaning the deck. The building has changed owners half a dozen times since then.

$

Life is a hustle in the Bay. Between rent and debt, the costs of food and fees for healthcare—you have to make money somehow. Even most squatters I know work jobs or find some way to bring cash into their lives.

Last year, I started a booth where I sold jewelry made out of garbage. The booth itself was a statement about capitalism—every item was to be made of something that I had saved from going to the landfill. “Do you realize there are villages in China that have no garbage!” I would orate to passersby, “Garbage is necessitated by the system, but we can undo it!”

Anti-capitalism must have been a hot commodity that year, because my garbage jewelry was selling fast. When winter came, I found myself in a dilemma: three craft fairs in a row and I was out of garbage to make new jewelry with—and I had already pre-paid to have my booth at the events! So I broke my vow to myself and bought new feathers and buttons.

In Catholicism, there is the idea of the “original sin.” For those not indoctrinated, the legend goes something like: Eve and Adam were these two hippies, and they ate some fruit they weren’t supposed to. The fruit gave them a new type of awareness, but it must have been a pretty bad trip, because afterwords they were spiritually severed from their creator, who kicked them out of her garden, and they couldn’t hang out naked or forge for their food anymore, but instead had to wear clothes and work the land to eat.

Perhaps, when we surrender to the logic of capital, we each have a kind of “forbidden fruit moment” which comes when we make our first decision to do something that we are morally opposed to in order to receive cash.

After I broke my vow to make jewelry only with garbage, a sort of numbness settled in. I felt as if I had surrendered a bit of myself to the logic of of the system. Capital had been allowed to rewrite a part of me, to eclipse me. Since then, I have felt more detached from my work, and have found it easier to take on new jobs and bring money (care/power) into my life.

Rather than knowledge, the forbidden fruit of capital offers a lack of knowledge of good and evil: this “initiating sin” delivers a claim to innocence and ignorance. “I was just doing my job,” says my inner capitalist, “and I am not responsible for the things my job makes me do.”

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Last week, an intense storm blew over the East Bay, with lightning striking houses and setting off car alarms. I was in Oakland during the storm, treating myself to lunch with my favorite Marxist and his partner while the rain poured in buckets outside.

When I told the Marxist I was planning to write about the “disease of speculation” and the “gambling class,” he wanted to caution me against moralizing the behavior of capitalists. After all, they are just following the rules.

“If you could describe capitalism in one simple sentence,” I said, “What would it be?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “You spend money to get money.”

It is upon that basic mechanism—spending money to get money—that so many other mechanisms whirl into play. Often folks don’t realize that, when we choose to allow the logic of capitalism to invade our interactions, other things we might not consent to—like deforestation, homelessness, colonialism, and gentrification—are built into the system.

Capitalism is a closed system of logic—it is only concerned with its function of perpetuating itself by turning more things into commodities. Community needs and ecological protection simply aren’t built into this logic of perpetual expansion of value, so they are not factored in to capitalist decision-making.

This logic of capital is self-perpetuating: it aims to rewrite all human activity. This is why we’re seeing the rapid privatization of what were once public services—post offices, schools, hospitals, prisons, low-income housing, and more. Under capital, everything is to be transformed into a commodity ripe for speculation.

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In June of 2013, tree sitters attempted to stop a permaculture farm in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood from being developed into apartments. The farm had been sold by the city to a giant real estate corporation, and proponents of the development claimed that there was a desperate need for housing in the city. But according to the 2010 census, an estimated 30,000 homes in SF stand vacant, held by speculators who do not want to burden themselves with renters. These are enough homes to house every homeless person in the city—five times over.

On June 13th, 2013, dozens of riot police raided Hayes Valley farm and arrested the tree sitters in a raid orchestrated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Exactly a month before the Homeland Security raided Hayes Valley Farm, researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory clocked the atmosphere’s CO2 levels at 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest ever. In the mid-1980s, CO2 levels climbed into the “climate change danger zone” of 350 ppm, and now, at 400ppm and climbing, mass extinction and global starvation is already happening.

If you live in America, the average distance your food travels to reach you is 1500 miles. Creating urban farms where residents can grow their food locally is a vital first step towards reversing the fossil fuel emission that leads to climate change.

Under capitalism’s cold logic, however, our society’s biggest priority is for Wall Street investors to flip their stocks—to make their publicly traded corporations worth more this quarter than when it was when they bought its stock. That is the logic that leads a 45,000 square foot urban farm to be transformed into apartments in a city with 30,000 empty homes in a time of climate crisis, and is pushed through by an internal national military.

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During last week’s storm, Ballard, my poker-playing friend, was in a building that was struck by lightning. “I could feel it in my feet!” he later said, laughing, as if exhilarated by the thrill of it.

To be alive is to risk death. When our lives are on the line, we are reminded, quite viscerally, of how much those lives are worth to us. This is the value of taking risk.

The smalltime commodities investors get to experience the thrill (and stress!) of great risk because they are often putting everything on the line—the wellbeing of their families, their future social mobility—with the hope of making more money.

As you move up the wealth ladder, however, you find that speculation begins to take on different forms because “risk” is no longer actual risk to the investors’ livelihoods, it is simply an abstract part of an equation. And as risk becomes more abstracted, extremely risky decisions are made without fear of failure, because the failure may be considered smaller than some other success.  This is the logic of an investor with many types of holdings.

Just look at the role that risk played in the CDO-driven subprime housing collapse. Invented in 1987, a CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) is a financial instrument that is essentially a promise to pay investors in a prescribed sequence based on the flow of cash that the CDO collects from the assets that it owns. CDOs buy debt, so it is in their best interest for more debt to exist. In the early 2000s, CDOs actually gave lenders incentives to make the risky home loans that led up to the 2007-9 mortgage crisis, leading to the “Great Recession” in which nearly 9 million American jobs vanished, and strife spread across the global.

The decisions made by CDOs insured that millions of people would lose their jobs, but the investors who pulled out at the right time made a fortune. The subprime home loans were a huge risk that had been factored in to the equation of creating wealth for a group of investors over a set period of time.

On the macro and micro levels, the system of often capital encourages investors to bet against the public good–or at least, the public good isn’t factored in to the decision-making–and if these investors play their stocks and financial instruments right, they will walk away rewarded.

A majority of the globe’s resources and labor have been hijacked by this game of creating temporary profits for those who are able to gamble for the highest stakes. But as this system attempts to replace all human relationships with its broken own logic of perpetual growth, all of us are bound to lose.

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As a person with epilepsy, I have found that the money helps me get the care I need to reduce my seizures, and to do the projects that lend meaning to my life.

Every day, I struggle to justify my interactions with a system I despise, telling myself that I am worthy of the care that the money I make brings, but also vowing to keep my eyes open, to take every opportunity I can find to liberate care from the system, to de-commodify the things that matter to us, liberating care from the market, one commodity at the time, to the extent that is currently possible.