America vs The Beautiful

America is a goddamned dumpsterfire.

Okay, so that’s not fair. America is a lot of things: for many, it is hope. For many others, it is fear. For a lot of us, I think it’s many things at once; hope, fear, love, despair, opportunity, suffocation, emancipation, incarceration.

All that, and a dumpsterfire.

Why? Why is it this way? Why is this a nation of opportunity for a select few, and a nation of capitalism-fueled indentured servitude for so many others? Why is a nation asserting itself to be the land of the free the nation with the largest prison population? How can we celebrate the Statue of Liberty as a national emblem while denying basic human rights to citizens and non-citizen immigrants alike?

How do we reconcile the ideal of what America purports itself to be with the cruel, ugly truth of what it has become? What, in fact, it has always been? Can we set right the course of our nation? How can we possibly fight to combat climate change, the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex, wage slavery, immigrant abuse, a crumbling education system, a corporate-purchased pseudo-democracy, and a decimated economy? How do we do all of that at the same time?

I find myself asking these questions regularly. As a radical feminist, as a community organizer, as a storyteller, as someone interested in the human mind as well as the human condition, I find myself caught in a space between trying to solve this puzzle of How Do We Save America? and trying simply to avoid the cold, dark, deep sea caverns of despair and depression over my total inadequacy to solve any of, much less all of, these problems.

In 2011, I, too, was a dumpsterfire, and continued to be for several years thereafter. Early that year, I didn’t yet know it. I wouldn’t say I was average in every way, I had recently dropped out of school to dabble in the film industry in the Midwest, and in January of 2011, I moved to Los Angeles with two suitcases of clothes and the dreamy optimism that only a life of upper middle class entitlement can provide. In other ways, I was very average; I was politically apathetic, uninterested and uninvolved in engaging with the world around me. Not yet old enough to drink legally, I was already drinking as much as, if not more than, many of those around me (read: too much). I was socially anxious, trying too hard to pretend to be the sort of person that other people liked. I wasn’t good at it.

That September, Something Happened. A group of protestors with some serious complaints but an ambiguous message overtook a park in New York City. They proclaimed themselves Occupiers, setting out to Occupy Wall Street until corporate greed and crony capitalism were vanquished. I was a fairly liberal person who had been raised at a fairly conservative school – I remember hearing my peers mimic their parents, children of conservatives shouting down the few liberal students, calling their critique of George Bush and The War “un-American.” I remember high school being hard enough already; I remember learning not to talk about politics. So at this point, in this September of 2011, ten years after two planes crashing into two towers led me to question – only secretly, only to myself – how one could possibly declare war on an idea, questioning what, in fact, is a “War” on “Terror?”, I had learned to ignore political discussions. My two roommates in Los Angeles, fellow liberals, would embark on a simple conversation, perhaps an ideological critique of democrat governor Jerry Brown, and I would politely leave the room and shut my door, asking to be informed when a stressful conversation such as this came to its end.

And then, genuinely, things changed overnight. On October 2nd, I opened Facebook to find what became one of the most famous videos of the movement, a video of a NYPD Lieutenant pepper-spraying white women who were sitting peacefully behind an orange police fence. I was enraged. This is not right. That day, I saw an advertisement for an Occupy Vegas. If Vegas has an Occupy, why not LA? I googled, and there it was. It had begun the day before, they had posted a list of supplies they needed donated. I walked across the street to Rite Aid, packed a bag full of tampons, paper plates, batteries, and other supplies, and set off to City Hall. I planned to take the train down, drop off my supplies, give some high fives, thank people for their work, and go back to my life.

I stayed for two months.

For the first week, I commuted every day from my apartment. That first evening, I was on the local Fox News station. As I arrived home that evening, my roommates called me over to a computer incredulously; “Why are you on the news at a political protest? You won’t even talk to us about politics!” They teased me and threatened to make “Che” style t-shirts with my face on them. I’m grateful they never followed through.

By the second week, I had been given a tent from those donated to the cause, I began sleeping at the camp and became a point person for the Action Committee, leading meetings every day, running actions, liaising with the police until we decided against talking to the police at all.

A month in, I’d been taken on by a local organization called The Center for the Working Poor. The founder of the organization, Paul Engler, took me under his wing and took me to a coffee shop two or three times a week to teach me how to build upon my instincts and to be a proper organizer.

Six weeks in, I was leading trainings on Non Violent Direct Action. We were teaching people how to get arrested. We escalated the scope of our actions from marches and vigils to sit-ins and property takeovers.

At the end of the two months, I was arrested along with 291 other Occupiers during the police raid we called “The Eviction.” The arrest took hours. Once at the jail facility, I mouthed off and was placed in solitary. My mother tried to bail me out. I refused to go.

During these two months, I was radicalized. I was a woman who had always been “left leaning,” but who lacked any real knowledge about the insidious intersections between prison, war, race, education, and individual and corporate greed. I learned about systemic racism, I learned about the prison system and the war machine and indefinite detentions and peak oil.

I was naïve enough to believe that camping on the lawn of LA’s City Hall was going to change all of that. I was arrested. They took away our camp, and with it, our hope.

I was devastated. We were devastated. Our home, our island of hope had been overtaken by a sea of political warfare and excessive use of police force, and we were all drowning.

Out of this moment of despair, the folks I worked with at The Center and I collaborated to build a new movement, one we hoped could capture the energy of Occupy but with a more focused direction and message: We set out to tackle the Goliath of Money In Politics. This new venture gave me hope, but I was still drifting in the abyss of loss, as were countless others I’d lived and organized with for those two months in the fall, what felt like the longest and most important two months of my life. We were drowning, and this new organization, 99Rise, was meant to be a new ship, better built than the ill-fated Titanic that Occupy had been, but so many of us were hanging on to crumbling life rafts, and we couldn’t build the boat fast enough.

I started drinking more. And more. And more. By the summer, I barely left my house other than to go to mandatory organizing meetings, to pick up takeout, or to go to the bar. A year before, I had been drinking to numb the dullness of a dissatisfying yet “normal” life. Now I was drinking to dull the sensation that we were catapulting to our collective doom. Newly enlightened, freshly “woke,” I now knew about all the ways America was fucked up. Without the framework of Occupy, I felt entirely powerless to do anything about it.

And so, I drank. For two and a half more years, I drank. I would get caught in endless spirals about the fate of America, the fate of the poor, the fate of the people of color getting killed in their homes and in the streets every day. Trayvon Martin was murdered. Drink. Eric Garner was murdered. Drink. Michael Brown was murdered. Drink. Tamir Rice was murdered. Drink. Drink. Drink. I was an alcohol fueled internet warrior, screaming into the void, helpless and hopeless.

The world is overcrowded. If you’re gonna take up space, you’d better contribute. More and more, I felt I couldn’t contribute. Day by day, the world got darker. Hour by hour, my depression grew deeper. If I can’t save the world, I concluded, I should at least stop taking up space.

On December 5th, 2014, I decided to kill myself. Drunk and despairing, I’d reached the end of the road.

On December 5th, 2014, I reached out to my best friend in the world. She encouraged me to call my therapist, and to live another day.

On December 5th, 2014, drunk out of my mind, I put the instruments of my planned suicide back in the bedside drawer, downed a glass of water, and went to sleep.

December 6th, 2014 was my first day sober.

I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my life learning how to be a person in the world, learning how to take responsibility for myself, learning resilience, reminding myself every day that these are things I do not have to do on my own. The world, regardless of what my ego claims, does not rest upon my shoulders and mine alone. I spend every day asking myself how I might make the world a better place, and how I might do that while taking care of myself. I repeat a borrowed mantra: You can’t serve soup from an empty pot. I’ve had to learn that taking care of myself is, in fact, taking care of my community. It’s taking care of America. It is, as Audre Lorde tells us, an act of political warfare.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel devastated and hopeless sometimes. But now I have my community to support me, as I support my community, and together, we might just solve the puzzle and figure out how to save the world.

Maybe one day it won’t smell so strongly of burning trash.