In April 2002, I remember gathering up the courage to introduce myself to Mike Mease, the co-founder of Buffalo Field Campaign, at a small march for the buffalo of Yellowstone in Washington, DC. In February 2008, I introduced myself again to him on the snowy streets of West Yellowstone, MT. In between, it feels like I have lived a lifetime. And, yet, in that lifetime, it seems that little has changed in respect to many of the social struggles I have engaged myself in whether it be the anti-war movement, the global justice movement, or the struggle related to the buffalo in Yellowstone.
I remember marching with 600,000 in the streets of New York City in February 2003 trying to stop the war in Iraq. I knew then that the war was going to happen, that the hard part would come when people realized that a large march in the streets was not going to be enough to change the mind of the Bush Administration. Yet, in those moments, there was a sense that something was possible if people took that march as a starting point rather than the decisive moment in the struggle. As I marched in 2003, it was a beginning for me in the anti-war movement both locally and nationally. From there, I organized and organized and organized until it seemed pointless to continue on as I had been. But, what a ride that time was! What a sense of possibility I learned from the streets of Boston and New York protesting the major party political conventions, from standing up to police abuse in the streets of Washington, DC, to organizing a 15,000 person counter-inaugural protest on a budget of less than $2,000. What I learned about the diversity of people who call themselves radicals. I learned more about socialists than I ever cared to and learned to embrace the anarchism that my heart had always believed in but had never dared to think possible. I learned that I was not alone in the struggle; I learned what a mess everything was.
Yet, wars raged on, the movements slid into obscurity, and off in Yellowstone where my heart truly always was, the buffalo slaughter continued.
Personally, it was also the ride of my life. That will be quite a story to tell as well - it involves a lot of twists and turns and put me in places I never expected to be. It wasn't all good, but it's been the happiest time of my life.
Yet, the purpose of the action has always failed to produce the results. Wars continued, people starved on the streets of my city, the people I loved in the movements squabbled like there was no tomorrow and ripped themselves to shreds (or were helped along the way by certain people with nothing better to do). And, Yellowstone remained this conflicted place in my mind, the most beautiful and enchanting place I have ever known which was enveloped in such ridiculous absurdity.
The sense of meaning and purpose in my life, the joy and happiness of it, is often confounded by the sense of relentless failure to resist the overwhelming force of injustice in our world. That failure is not only global but even deeply personal. Of course, I am hardly the person I would like to be.
Since moving to Bozeman, if I have missed anything about Washington, it's been interacting regularly with the area's small but dynamic radical community. As nice as people are here and as ruthlessly petty as they can be in Washington, I have still missed the sense that at any moment I might be on my bicycle with a half dozen other people going to the house of a torturer and war criminal like John Negroponte and making his evening miserable - the least one can do to a person who lives in relative tranquility, having triumphed by advocating and promoting the torture of so many other people. I will never forget that night when we saw him in his own garage, when he unsuccessfully tried to get one of our friends arrested. There was a sense of exhilaration. This was really the jerk who wielded such power over others, and he was mortal just like one of us. In that place at that moment, his haughtiness was nothing; it was reduced to the maddening noise of the night that we were giving him.
In Bozeman, such a community where such things are possible might exist, but I have not found it here yet in the short time I have been here, that sense that in the moment something exhilarating was possible.
On Saturday, in West Yellowstone, joining Buffalo Field Campaign for their rally, I sensed that community I had known so well on the streets and small meeting rooms of the District of Columbia. This was a group of people I could understand, a small group of determined people doing their best to take care of each other and watch out for the buffalo in the fields, who were out there every day carrying out their plans. They organized the way I understood organization, by some form of consensus. It honestly felt like I was in an outpost of one of the convergence centers that I had some part in helping to organize.
If this sounds foreign to you reading this, if I am not being clear about what I am talking about, the point isn't for you to get an inside look into the rally (I wrote a little article about it for National Parks Traveler) or into Buffalo Field Campaign or into the ins and outs of the day I had with my girlfriend Genevieve and our son River (or the hidden gems like seeing my first bighorn sheep) but rather to get at the paradox of failure to protect the buffalo while thriving in the struggle despite the failure. Yet, that failure is still unacceptable, which perhaps drives the activism all the more no matter how many years have gone by.
When I met Mike Mease and spoke with Dan Brister in 2002, I was a relative neophyte in the world of activism. I had dabbled a bit with a grassroots group in 2000, who protested the failure to count votes accurately in Florida (a group ironically made up with at least as many Greens who did not vote for Gore as there were Democrats), but I was certainly a bit lost from activism and found myself in awe of Buffalo Field Campaign. I was very shy. In 2008, with a world of experience at almost every level of organizing, I still found myself very shy to again meet Mike Mease and this time speak with Stephany Seay. And, I was still in awe. But, just as Dan impressed me and made me feel at home in 2002, Mike and Stephany and others we met were the same here in 2008. Within minutes, Mike was extending my family an invitation to dinner. Despite feeling too shy to mingle much with most of the volunteers, I still felt incredibly at home. It was as though I had stepped into my first DC Anti-War Network meeting.
Only, this time ... wow ... this was at the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and somehow this matters more to me.
So, the feelings, the positive sense of a group that cares, one that I understand, one that makes me feel welcome - even as I usually don't look like I should fit in based on the way that I tend to dress and look- and yet this unrelenting sense that after so many years, things are still so bad out there. We have been hoodwinked into thinking that war in Iraq has actually gotten better (as though any decrease in the rate of death makes it any better for those who are still dying), and many are hoodwinked into thinking that somehow the war in Afghanistan is some great triumph of virtue. And, yet, the death and destruction rage on - for what? Doesn't it have to do with something we think we are owed? And, yet, are any of us actually better off for it? The debt collector (IMF), the torturer (Negroponte), and the tyrant (Bush) are probably the most miserable of all (and if they are not, they should be hassled until they are). And, in Yellowstone, that same day, more bison were being shipped to slaughter for the supposed sake of cows, themselves slaves to the civilizing impulses of humankind. In fact, it's for the sake of no one at all, except...
It seems to be only good for the sake of those who fight against it. The only ones who seem anyhow content as can be with life are those who stand in solidarity against injustice. As we go down to defeat after defeat, failure after failure, our pain probably only strengthens our resolve and probably brings those moments of connection all the more joyous. It meant something more that Mike and others invited us to dinner; it meant something in the course of struggle.
And, yet, it's still not good enough. At some point, we have to do better, we have to break through. It may not be in our control, but we have to make the best result possible. And, what is that best result? The best result is the break down of the social barriers that make our profoundest friendships the exception rather than the norm. That is, there are too many arbitrary borders, whether we are talking about the U.S. border with Mexico, the border of one person's race versus another's, sex, or even - and perhaps especially - the border of one species or being from another. If we are going to hate each other, fall apart into chaos, at least we should do so without also the added notion that our hatred has some other rationale that should be codified for all others to follow. If we are going to be people who slaughter and kill buffalo, please let it be simply because we are hungry and starving and not because we think we need to protect some profound social order.
When I met Buffalo Field Campaign, shy and afraid of rejection though I was and am, I knew at the same time that I was home. This was an alternative social order. Was it perfect? Of course not. It's only the privileged like us that can travel so far to volunteer one's time to do something like this. In fact, to see a group able to do this suggests that some compromise has been made with the system in order to exist. It's a compromise we all make; the privilege is something we must all own up to. Yet, that privilege is no excuse for fearing being called hypocrites and not doing what one can. In a world between those paradoxes, between privilege and resistance, it was a homecoming of sorts, much as it was in 2002, much as it became in the DC Anti-War Network.
However, the question of my previous essay remains. What in fact is next? It is clear that the buffalo are still being killed and wars are still being waged. Can something else be done? I actually now have a few specific ideas I'd like feedback on, but I don't want to share them here in the netherworld of the internet but with the people who also care. They probably won't work, but if I can be part of the process, than I think that over time the possibility for success increases. What I'd suggest to others is to find a community where that is possible; if you need ideas on how one might go about finding that community or even forming it, please ask. I also have some ideas I can share about that.
Other recent essays by me on this topic: