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Grand Forks vs. Philadelphia by Dana Williams

 

I spent the better part of four and a half years in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Coming from St. Cloud, Minnesota, a town only slightly bigger, it wasn't a huge adjustment for me. The people didn't look remarkably different, the landscape didn't look completely foreign, and the weather... well, it's still damn cold. After graduating from the University in Grand Forks, I left for home again, and then jumped all the way to Akron, Ohio, where I'm now attending graduate school. That was a much more radical change, one that makes me put my experiences in North Dakota into a telling perspective.

There are a few things you notice when you step into North Dakota.

The first thing you're struck by is how homogeneous everyone looks. Sometimes I wondered if Grand Forks was a time warp or a cultural void spot on the continent, or if maybe laws of spatial interaction didn't apply for some weird, supernatural reason.

Then you notice how slow and relaxed the pace is. People take things easy and patiently. It's rather refreshing compared to other places in the US, where you feel mandated to walk fast, drive fast, talk fast, act fast, eat fast, sleep fast, and generally live fast.

The biggest thing I noticed during my time in North Dakota, however, had less to do with how the people looked or how fast they moved, but what they thought and what they did. I agree with George Orwell when he said that there is no separation of "private life" and politics in this age; everything is political. Yet, you wouldn't know that from speaking with the majority of North Dakotans, who don't seem to know what is going on in the world around them, or if they do, don't seem all that bothered by it.

I suppose the reasons for this are obvious: the state is smack in the middle of the continent, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and often miles upon miles of snow and ice. The population is so low it threatens to all but disappear. There are many cities on the west and east coasts that have the population of all of North Dakota in the area the size of Grand Forks itself. And then some. Finally, what goes on in North Dakota doesn't seem to affect what goes on in the greater U.S. or world. And vice-versa. Sure, North Dakota produces lots of agricultural goods, but the dynamics of the world market doesn't allow the poor farmers of North Dakota any leverage in selling the product of their toil. Not counting the military bases in the state, North Dakota therefore remains removed from the political map (and agenda).

Rewind to the final days of July 2000. I found myself traveling to Philadelphia with a group of people ranging in age from 18 to late 50's. We all lived in Ohio--mainly North Eastern Ohio--and we were going to Philadelphia for one reason: the Republican National Convention!

Now, before you throw down this issue of Fresh Cow Pie in disgust and yell, "Farmer P's lost his marbles for putting this Republican idiot in his zine!!"-- hear me out. We converged on the city like so many others in the US did, not to stand inside the convention, but to stand outside it. We went there to protest the Convention, the Republican Party, the "two" party "democratic" system, that sick, sick little aristocrat George Dubya Bush, and the whole crooked, rotting infrastructure of US politics. We went there to give voice to the people who don't have the millions it takes to run for president, who don't have the access to CNN and the New York Times, who don't believe that "global capitalism" is benign, and who don't believe that there is any remarkable difference between the Democrats or the Republicans--the two pro-business parties.

When I went there, I brought with me my experiences from North Dakota; the memory of people I'd met and places I'd seen. When I attended a march held by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union who demands economic rights, an end to poverty and hunger, and a readjustment of national priorities to people instead of corporate profits, I took with me the memory of people living in shrinking farming communities. I took with me the flood of 1997, and how it would have been nearly impossible to rebuild the city of Grand Forks without support from the federal government or an out-pouring of help from other concerned people who care more about helping those in need, as opposed to tax write-offs and corporate profits.

When the same march took place in August in Los Angeles, at the Democratic National Convention, the LAPD decided to open fire on the march with rubber bullets and pepper-spray. We didn't face such a crackdown on our march in Philly, but the day before I discovered what a Police State really looks like. Me and not more than 20 other protestors stumbled across a huge phalanx of 400 Philadelphia cops (a notoriously violent police force in their own right) who had decided to encircle a mere 40 protestors whose violent, destructive, and terroristic act was not being on the sidewalk. The horror!! During the course of one rally through the streets of downtown Philly we noticed a surprisingly large number of police officers stationed outside of hotels, large up-scale fashion boutiques, and huge corporate buildings. It became painfully clear to me who the police truly protected.

It was also painfully clear whom the police did not protect. I spent many hours in a warehouse in West Philly making puppets for street theater. The neighborhood was the poorest I've ever seen in my entire life. The poverty in this community hit me full on in the face, and I couldn't get over the contempt Philly's city government held for these people, who, of course, were also "coincidentally" poor blacks. Boarded up houses, cars abandoned on the road with piles of trash, vacant lots filled with refuse, and buildings missing their fronts. It was clear that city garbage pick-up hadn't happened in months, nor had the streets been cleaned (downtown where the Republican drones were, the streets happened to be sparkling). I also considered it highly unlikely that even one penny of city funding had gone into that neighborhood in recent history. The entire scene gave me a chill as I was reminded of downtown Grand Forks after the waters had receded and the fires had gone out.

It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy for these Republicans to come to the city of Philadelphia and eat at multiple-hundred dollar plate "fundraisers", while only a few miles away some people didn't have enough food to eat each day, let alone a plush hotel room to stay in. The city of Philadelphia tried as hard as it could to pretend that it was the birthplace of American Democracy, and (despite the fact that it has one of the lowest Republican voting constituencies in the country) they welcomed the Republicrat regime along with the despicable Bush monarchy.

This is the same city that bombed an entire neighborhood in the middle 80's (the first and perhaps only aerial bombing on US soil in history) and shot thousands of bullets into houses of poor blacks that had the audacity to question and challenge the racist and violent Philadelphia police department.

In North Dakota you don't often have the pleasure of speaking with non-whites or get to ask them how often they got pulled over driving their cars in Grand Forks or in Fargo or in Bismarck. However, talk to nearly anyone in Philadelphia (or here in Ohio) and everyone has a story to tell. They have no illusions, whatsoever.

We were in Philadelphia to demand inclusion of issues that are being left off the plate of political discussion in the upcoming election.

As the candidates debate and bicker over their miniscule differences with education, abortion, and how "small" the military budget is, we were out demanding attention on corporate influence in politics, economic rights for all people, and calling for control of the out-of-control criminal injustice system (the Prison Industrial Complex, police brutality, the death penalty).

Our country not only has the largest prison population in the world, but also the highest percentage of prisoners in the world. How's that for the most "free country" in the world? Down in Texas, where the Bushes reside, George Dubya has overseen the building of the largest wall in history between two countries--since the time of the Great Wall of China--between the US and Mexico. He has stood by and watched (in fact encouraged) the largest executing machine in the US; 138 people have been killed in Texas on his watch, including the mentally handicapped, minors, and women. Many of them non-white, all of them poor, and all of the disenfranchised and voiceless.

But, that's not all that dissimilar from the rest of us, is it? How much voice do you really think you have in the machinery of American politics? If you're like the majority of adult Americans, you didn't vote in the last national election. And why not? The candidates are SELECTED for us, not elected! The media picked the candidates, and gives you the choice between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee... it's not that big of a difference!

So, I ended up in Philadelphia, the "City of Brotherly Love". During that time I became increasingly paranoid of police on bikes, police on horseback, police on foot, police in helicopters (endlessly circling overhead). While I was there I met some of the most vibrant, intelligent, passionate, and vocal people I've ever met-the true leaders of our society. I slept on the floor next to them in houses, I marched along side them in the streets, and I worked with them in a warehouse making beautiful tools of personal and political expression.

And what did I "get from it"? I got an overwhelming feeling of unity and solidarity. I felt a part of a massively growing movement, one that is coming to assert itself everywhere, demanding change. I was swept up in the vision that life can be better and that problems have solutions. And they don't have to be "safe", conventional solutions, either. Me, you, and next-door neighbor Joe can figure them out if we try hard enough.

But, what did that movement get in Philadelphia? It got ignored by the mass media, derailed by politicians and critics, and beaten and brutalized in jail by the cops. Four of my friends from Ohio were arrested for being in the aforementioned warehouse. They were making puppets, but the police raided the private property anyways, arresting everyone, holding them on a school bus for 9 hours under terrible conditions, threw 'em in jail for a week (with limited access to food, lawyers, and bathroom "privileges"), and charged them with shitloads of offenses, such as "Conspiracy to create Weapons of Crime" (read: the puppets) and "Blocking a highway" (from a friggin' warehouse?)

This is what the powers-that-be don't want you to know. They don't want you to find out about the infringement of human rights in Philadelphia jails (whether they're protestors or the inmates residing there). They don't want you to know the real reasons people were in Philadelphia to protest (no, not just to "fuck shit up"). They want you to watch the evening "news" and get your daily sound bites and your pre-processed propaganda straight from the mouthpieces of the Republican (or Democrat) Party and from Philadelphia Police Chief John Timoney. They don't want you to read alternative forms of news and expression (like FCP), because then you might start question the assembly line, cookie-cutter approach to politics and culture that somehow makes George Bush and MTV your only choices.

They don't want you to question what the future of North Dakota may hold (because there might not be one, if drastic changes don't occur). They don't want you to consider the urban sprawl of metropolitan areas (and what "white flight" and "gentrification" mean). They don't want you to consider why the only way North Dakota can get money is through military bases. Nor do they want you to think about how family farmers and their small communities will be able to survive the onslaught of Monsanto and Archer-Daniels Midland. And heaven forbid we actually discuss the future of Native American reservations and the looting that goes on via government complacency in ignoring tribal resistance to mining companies (the Republicans announced before their Convention their intent to eliminate all reservations in the US-unilaterally turning over centuries of treaties in the final act of the invasion of Columbus).

This is why I was in Philadelphia--to say as loudly as possible "You can lie to us and try to break down our will, but we know what is right and we're going to keep fighting for it!" I was there for myself. I was there for every person who shares my commitment to social and environmental justice. And I was there for a state that part of my heart still remains in--far away, but not forgotten--in the Northern Great Plains.

 

(Fresh Cow Pie)