Early last week I was still wearing my winter coat around Portland. It was 55 degrees and mostly rainy. By Friday we had beat all previous heat records for this time of year; the temperature hovered around 95 and remained in the upper 80's throughout the weekend. It was purely by coincidence, but the drastic change in weather seemed to usher in a series of galvanizing events, as if it were not the sun but some sort of fire upon us.
On Friday I went to see a live performance of Voices of a People's History of the United States (based on the book by the same name, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.) I knew nothing about the event beforehand, only that a friend had secured me a ticket and a seat in the front row, and that Eddie Vedder would be performing a few songs. I drove down to the venue, the 1st Baptist Church, arriving as the performers were walking on-stage. These days, it is rare to approach something or someone without expectations; no written preview, no word of mouth recommendations, no clip off of YouTube to provide visual clues. When I am taken by surprise, the experience makes me feel refreshingly naive, unaware; it gives me a sense of wonder and awe; that life and art and events can unfold despite our best efforts to know what happens beforehand. It was with this sense of amazement that I witnessed Friday's readings. The reenacted speeches—by radicals, agitprops, dissenters, and activists of past and present—came to life as if happening in that room at that moment.
Below is a brief excerpt from Eugene Debs' incredible 1918 court speech, as performed in Portland by actor/teacher Eric Levine:
They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.
And here let me emphasize the fact-and it cannot be repeated too often-that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.
If war is right let it be declared by the people.
The audience responded with tears, applause, and verbal affirmations, moved both by the words and the delivery. What felt most intense was how many of the speeches and songs—by John Reed, John Brown, and Bob Dylan among others—could have been written today (though this very fact filled me with a sense of futility as well, as in 'why is the refrain still so much the same?') And I couldn't help but wonder, despite cries from the audience in approval of ending the war in Iraq, who among us would risk personal harm, jail, even death (as these figures from the past had done) for a cause? Yet I did not leave the church feeling inert but instead inspired. As a side note, it turns out that many of the people at the event were there to see Viggo Mortensen aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. It made me happy to think that in exchange for a picture with the actor after the show, these fans had to sit through two hours of fiery speeches. Maybe this should always be the price we pay for frivolity, after all, bribes often work: One hour of history lessons equals one minute with your favorite star. Or, you must watch five documentaries or read two novels before you get to watch American Idol.
Below is a clip of poet Staceyann Chin performing a speech by Cindy Sheehan. This piece ended the reading portion of the event in Portland and was met with a standing ovation. This video is from a different performance.
Later that night I went to see Quasi at the Hawthorne Theatre. The band was the perfect complement to the Zinn event. Singer/keyboardist/guitarist Sam Coomes has never shied away from politics in his lyrics and the duo is a perfect analogy for lively conversation and debate: a combative meshing of ideas and sounds, of coherence and cacophony, discord and harmony, always willing to take the listener to the brink of agitation before easing up and delivering a moment of bliss.
Lastly, on Sunday, Barack Obama held a rally at Portland's waterfront. Over 70,000 people attended, a record number for his campaign. I rode my bike downtown and merged with a crowd of unfamiliars. My friends were far behind me in the audience or way towards the front and I floated in the middle, feeling perfectly content to experience the event on my own, mostly because I was hardly alone at all. I admit to getting chills when the Obama family took the stage, the crowd surging and cheering and allowing ourselves to imagine a new set of possibilities. Certainly that's been the part of me, of us, that needs rebooting when it comes to politics: optimism, and the will to fight.
Below are photos from the event.
The first photo was taken from my phone, the next four were taken by Chelsey Johnson, who was clearly quite close to the stage, and the last photo is by Chris Carlson/AP.
Oregon's primary is tomorrow, May 20th.