Meeting in New York

Manhatten from near the entrance to tne Lincoln tunnelIt would be hard to imagine a tour of the US that didn't include New York City and my visit there was fourth time I'd been in that city in about 8 years. I spent a few days in New York City, which is when I did both the public and private talks, before heading off south to Virginia. And then I spent a couple more days there a couple of weeks later to break the long Greyhound trip from Richmond, Virginia to Syracuse, upstate New York.

In terms of left history New York is best known as the birthplace of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union in 1900. It grew rapidly though the organisation of two mass strikes in 1909 and again in 1910 among female migrant workers who had previously been seen as unorganizable by conservative union leaders. Politically today it reminded me of London, for New York much more than Washington is the capital of radical politics in the USA (or at least the East coast), with all the problems that brings with it.

I'd first visited New York (and the US) for a week in December 2000 for a visit to my ex's sister in a posh area of Brooklyn. The 2000 visit had been a new experience; the sister was an investment banker and a member of ‘The Sky Club’, a private club in one of the skyscrapers. We arrived the night they were having their Christmas party which meant that after a search through her partners wardrobe for some suitable clothes for me my first experience of the city was on the 56th floor of the Met Life building. There was a great view over Manhattan and as the MetLife building is reckoned to be one of the ugliest New York skyscrapers another benefit of this view is you can’t see the building itself. The party featured free drink, frogs legs, girls dressed in skimpy Santa suits and a whole lot of bankers. Not really my scene but once I'd got some drinks (and frog legs, they taste quite like chicken legs) in I passed time over an argument about the Irish peace process with a banker involved in Friends of Ireland.

All in all that 2000 trip was pretty educational. I discovered there were shops that sold scarves for 500 dollars (Hermes ), met some of the people who bought such things, had a night at the New York Opera, drink some very expensive whisky by the pool on a freezing night in Southampton while arguing politics with the sisters boyfriend, and sprayed soda out of my nose at a stop at McDonald's on the way back to the airport over an argument about the minimum wage (he thought it was 12 dollars an hr or something similar). I hadn't had much exposure to actual rich people before this trip.  I also got to touch the caravan sized solid iron meteorite that is in the Science Museum beside Central Park.  That is one scary sensation as you imagine the effects of this super dense bit of rock hitting the earth at incredible speeds, if your in NYC its well worth the trip to the Science museum for that alone.

If there is a load of personal baggage as a backdrop to the trip as a whole for these reasons and more from subsequent visits this was particularly true of the New York stop over. My second trip to New York was en route to my wedding in the North East Kingdom, Vermont and this my fourth time was due to the ending of that marriage and my need to distract myself from the misery of that process. This was at a very raw part of the breakup, way before I was even comfortable telling people that this was part of the reason I was suddenly able to go on the road for three months. Raw in the sense of long period's when I was alone or among strangers on the Greyhound of staring into space for hours or more simply of crying. It's fair to say I was in an emotional mess, and deeply depressed, I fear I made rather bad company but then who wants the company of strangers on the Greyhound.

New York is one of the few places I've been where there was no sense of disappointment, no sense of the place not living up to its expectations. Egypt is really the only other destination I can say this of for sure. The skyscrapers of the New York financial district reminded me of the Pyramids, vast edifices built in the worship of strange forces, which most mortals can have no real hope of understanding but which will shape their lives and that of their children. That feeling hit me the very first morning of the 2000 visit when we went to the Museum of the American Indian which is housed in the Customs House at the tip of Manhattan. The original statutes and painted ceiling of the building represent a worship of trade as deep as the worship of the promise of eternity, which motivated the pyramids.

New York is the largest city in the US and one of the largest urban areas in the world. It's also one of the oldest settlement points in the America's, a Dutch fur trading post was created there in 1614 first some 90 years after the European discovery of the region. The Native American inhabitants prior to settlement were the Lenape who mixed hunting and gathering with slash and burn agriculture. There social organization was matrilineal and land was owned collectively by the clan rather than by individuals. Agricultural was mostly the task of the women and men carried out hunting. The establishment of the Dutch trading post and the new wealth it brought as elsewhere-destabilized relations with surrounding Native American groups leading to war and the defeat of the Lenape by the Susquehannocks in 1634. Over hunting of beaver was another result, which then led to the Dutch shifting their trading post to upstate New York.

The Lenape were the first Native American group to sign a written treaty with the United States government and during the revolutionary war they supplied warriors and scouts in return for food under the terms of the Treaty of Fort Pitt. The treaty also recognised them as a sovereign nation and contained the suggestion that they might form a 14th state. However as it became clear these provisions would not be enacted the Lenape sent a delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia but they got nothing. White Eye's, one of the signers of the treaty, had already been murdered by American militiamen while acting as their guide during the war. This led to many of the Lenape switching sides to that of the British during the remainder of the war but some of the christian converts who did not were massacred on 8th March 1782. As they knelt praying 28 men, 29 women and 39 children had their skulls crushed with mallets, they were then scalped, their bodies were piled in the mission buildings and their town burnt to the ground. The events of the Gnadenhutten massacre became known elsewhere but no charges were taken against the militia involved.

In the aftermath the Lenape was constantly shifted west wards by settler expansion, with most ending up in north east Oklahoma by 1860 and the remainder being scattered across three other states and the Canadian province of Ontario. The Susquehannocks who had defeated the Lenape in the Dutch period fared no better. At the time of Pontiac's rebellion a vigilante group of settlers in Pennsylvania initially murdered six of them who had also christanised and although the remaining 14 were put under protection in a workhouse the vigilantes later broke in and brutally killed and mutilated those sheltering there.

Back in 20002 right after the trip to the Museum of the American Indian we visited the New York stock exchange which is just up the street. Inside a somewhat cheap feeling interpretive centre led to a cage suspended above the floor of the exchange from which you could view the action on the floor below. I remember being under whelmed by the security and thinking how easy it would be to disrupt business as usual by the simple act of releasing tear gas which would pass through the bars. A thought which captured the innocence of the times, an innocence that would crashing down just a few blocks away in space and a few months removed in time.

I have a picture taken that day from the base of the World Trade Center which shows the two towers vanishing into the cloud. We didn't ascend to the viewing gallery above, we figured we'd be back in New York before much time had passed and they could wait. Just over nine months later on a sunny day in Rome I was drinking a coffee and listening in on the conversation of the Irish film crew who had co-incidentally sat at the table behind my chair. It switched from the difficulties they were having with Italian union regulations to something about two planes flying into towers in the US.

Here we reconnect with the back-story. In Rome two friends of mine had very kindly put us up for a week while we wondered the routes of the ancient Roman roads of the city. Their initial reaction as the meaning of that day's events became clear included one common in many places, that America was getting a taste of the terror it had rained down on civilians in many corners of the world. My ex whose sister had until recently worked in one of the towers and who, like millions of others, was unable to connect to her at that moment by phone remained silent but remembered and occasionally mentioned that conversation. It was probably one point from which the many gulfs between our worlds started to seem unbridgeable.

This perhaps gives some sense of where my head was at as the 5pm Greyhound hit the rush hour as it traveled down through the Bronx to Port Authority. I would be staying with Skip from NEFAC in New York whom I hadn't yet met but who I had been in a lot of communication with over the past year in relation to NEFAC proposals including the speaking tour. This had included a number of Skype based conference calls, a form of communication I had discovered as a result of the needs of my (as it turned out brief) migration to Canada.

Port Authority is vast, decrepit and dark. It's a confusing place to arrive so it as well just as well they were able to ring my burner and get the arrival gate off me. By the time I got in late they were at the gate and easy enough to spot. Skip actually lived in New Jersey so we exited PA and headed a few blocks downtown to intercept the NJ subway, a separate system from the NYC one but whose stations in NYC are alongside but without an underground connection to the NYC subway. All a marvelous demonstration of how the competition between the difference subway operators meant the market constructed the most rational system possible!

We exited at Hoboken Terminal, the first stop on the other side of the river in Jersey City. There was a brief moment above ground before the four of us plunged into a huge shopping mall, then a car park and then at last a street of brown stones a few blocks of which took us to our destination. In the course of the walk I discovered I was in the company of geeks, all were working in something to do with computers. After dropping off our bags we headed out for food at a Cuban restaurant where I believe I had some variation on pork and beans.

On the way back we stopped at an off license where I decided to try the peculiarly named Yelling (sp?) brewery 'Black & Tans', a curious combination of a stout and a lager named after the British Army death squads from the Irish war of independence. This in turn led to a conversation about another weirdly named US drink, an 'Irish car bomb'. I assured them nothing of that name was known back home and that it probably wouldn't be wise to ask for one, no more that you might ask for a 'September 11th' in a New York bar.

The 'Black & Tan's turned out to be relatively drinkable although I remain unconvinced by the basic idea behind them. Skip's partner arrived back and was reassured that I smelt better than some of the other anarchists who had crashed there over the previous months. For my part I was delighted to find that I had my own room, an inflatable mattress and access to both a washer and dryer. One major requirement of traveling as light as I was is a chance once every 6-8 days to do a laundry.

Next morning I had the place to myself after they had headed to work so it was off with everything but a towel and into the machines. Back when I was on the dole in Ireland at the start of the 1990's it was part of the folklore that this was the ideal way to answer the door when the social welfare officer called to assess your means. Having only one pair of trousers was a convincing demonstration of a level of poverty which would entitle you to the full whack. As Skip had wifi I was able to entertain myself with the one item I was carrying unsuitable for the wash, my laptop. That I doubt would have met with the welfare officer’s approval.

The laptop was something of a magic device that made the whole extended tour possible. Not only did it contain my slides and my notes but it was also my audio recording device for the 17 interviews I conducted and for a good selection of the actual meetings. On the Greyhound it provided me a way to start blogging the tour and to edit the audio of the interviews. Or for the frequent times when I was too exhausted for that I played an open source game called Wesnoth to pass the long hours. The one luxury in my small bag was an extra battery, with both fully charged and the screen turned low I could squeeze as many as seven hours of life out of it.

Whenever I arrived somewhere with a wifi (which was about 50% of stops) I could go online, blog the previous stop and upload the audio interviews. Accessing my email I'd find queries coming in from other points on the tour or invitations to yet other locations. When I crossed the border only the 14 stops of the North East leg and a couple of possible mid west stops existed. Once we advertised the tour online queries poured in from elsewhere allowing me to put together the Florida, Georgia, Mid west and west coast legs on the fly. The realistic possibility of organising in this manner had probably only existed for a couple of years, if that.

I was greatly helped by the number of people who choose (or unwittingly) left their wifi open, allowing passing strangers or their neighbors to access the net via their account. Back in Canada we'd left our wifi open for others because over the previous years we'd used other people's open signals in DC and elsewhere. Skip had his locked down but this was because he was near a school and when he had noticed it being slow had checked and discovered there were in the region of 50 computers simultaneously logged onto his system.

We had run into a problem with the venue for the New York public meeting. This was to be held at Bluestockings, an infoshop / women's bookshop on the lower East side. We'd received late news that there had been a double booking and so our booking had been canceled – apparently there was some tension between NEFAC and the bookstore owner. So at the last minute an alternative venue had been found in the Muste Institute nearby in what had been the old garment district.

AJ Muste was a socialist and union activist involved in war resistance and the civil rights struggle. Shortly before his death he traveled to North Vietnam and met with Ho Chi Minh. In 1978 the Muste Institute purchased the building, a 3-story loft, and lets out offices cheap to radical organizations.

The building is used for office space by eight different radical organisations including the (anarchist) Libertarian Book Club and War Resistors League. We used the Muste room at the top of the building which was essentially just an over size office. As we couldn't get a digital projector so made do with a large flat screen display balanced on top of a box on the office table. The room rapidly filled up, with several people having to stand in the doorway, I counted over 40 people but it was hard to see everyone who had squeezed in.

Afterwards we headed off in the falling snow looking for a bar. Being a Friday night finding one. with enough room to fit the 15 of us was a bit tricky, the first announced destination proved to already be standing room only with no room for 15 more. Eventually we found a somewhat run down place with enough space around the pool tables for us to squeeze in for a while. Everyone was pretty wrecked though so after a couple of beers we began the long enough journey back to Jersey City.

Before the meeting one of the original WSA members who posts as 'Syndicalist' on AnarchistBlackCat.org had picked Skip, myself and the flat screen up in Jersey City and driven us under the river to the venue. I'd been aware of the WSA through their publication 'Ideas and Action' back at the start of the 1990's and was familiar with 'Syndicalist' from a number of internet forums so it was good to be able to put a face to another internet persona.

The WSA had an office in the Munste building and as I was traveling towards New York a pretty stupid online row had developed. They had offered to allow the New York synthesist anarchist group NYMA use of the space but one of the NYMA folk frustrated with the speed at which the room was being cleared out published this long online denunciation of the WSA and the state of the room complete with photos. Once more I was arriving in the middle of some local intra movement conflict!

When I saw the office it looked pretty typical for any space that has been used by an anarchist organisation for more than a decade. That is most available space had been filled with files, in particular back issues of various publications including Workers Solidarity. This reality made the online outburst I had read all the stranger. In any case the New York WSA members where less than impressed by the whole thing.

While in New York I attended part of the monthly NYMA meeting with some of the NEFAC members who wanted NYMA to formally deal with some of the bad feeling that had arisen from the row. There were about 40 people at the meeting itself with a small core of 4 or 5 obviously constituting the informal leadership of the group. This was quite visible after a few minutes of watching the 'consensus' process in action, the individuals in this small group were always looking at each other and exchanging nods etc before announcing how business was to proceed. Otherwise in terms of the discussion their seemed to be a collection of individuals and groups in the room with their own individual and group projects but very little overlap of either politics or perspectives. NYMAA itself seemed to simultaneously want to be a network and an organisation and as a result seemed to be filling both roles badly as they inevitably came into conflict with each other. Perhaps I was at a particularly bad and unrepresentative meeting but it did seem to fall into a pattern that I have observed and read about in many other locations

We left the meeting early and went in search of a bar. This time we passed through Time Square around dusk which was lighting up in its dazzling glare of neon billboards. Down one of the side streets was a large Irish bar which advertised regular Black 47 gigs. We took a seat at the upstairs and actually managed to break the normal two-beer limit that most drinking on the tour involved while talking over the meeting and the difficulties of organising in New York among other topics.

I also attended the New York union meeting of NEFAC. This meeting had emerged quite recently when the two NEFAC collectives in the city had merged. Open City was the smaller by far of the two but also composed of older activists with considerable experience. Antithesis was three times larger but all its members were in their early twenties. Throw into this mix the difficulty of getting space, and hence a regular venue for meetings in New York and you end up with an organisational process that was still very much finding its feet. It was very useful for me to sit through the meeting as I realised that a lot of process that I had to that point considered obvious and self-evident was in fact built on lessons I had picked up without even realising it from older activists in the more established Dublin left. The experience prompted me to write a piece on the conduct of local meetings for AnarchistBlackCat.org. That piece has been subsequently translated into Turkish and Danish.

New York was a city of four meetings; the fourth was an internal one for NEFAC members and their friends in the city. For this we all crowded into the WSA office and I re-went through some of my slides and talked about the organisational details behind some of the struggles I had highlighted. I got to meet one of the guests later in the year when he visited Dublin for a couple of weeks in connection with work and we got him to give a brief talk on the group he was involved in, Bring the Ruckus, to my WSM branch.

I left New York the following day for Philadelphia but returned for a couple of days about a week later as I stopped overnight to break what would otherwise have been a stupidly long bus journey from Richmond Virginia to Syracuse, upstate New York.  The Greyhound came in through the Lincoln tunnel.  On the New Jersey side the road does a long spiral down to the entrance of the tunnel and traffic was backed up along it.  I took the picture at the top of this blog from the bus at the top of the spiral and listened to The Best of Blondie for the 40 or so minutes it took the bus to make the long crawl down the spiral and through the tunnel.


You'll find blog enteries for all 44 stops of my North American speaking tour on the site, I'm slowly returning to them and fleshing these out, you'll find the ones I have done this with at the Extending the accounts of my North American speaking tour page.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

Comments

Good to have ya here. The

Good to have ya here. The discussions were very valuable. We are translating much of your message into our New York style.. Sorry ya had to come at such a silly/dramatic time!

  


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