Journal of the Plague No. 7: Poetry

Photo of lavender and white asphodel flowers against a green field with rocks
“Asphodels. Asphodelus aestivus” by gailhampshire is licensed under CC BY 2.0

poetry makes nothing happen

W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Many years ago I went to what I like to refer to as the unfamous writing program at Iowa, but I hung out with a fair number of poets from the famous one, and both in and out of seminars, the Auden vs. Williams argument was perpetual. Does poetry make nothing happen? Or is it the thing that prevents us from dying?

Passionate arguments were made on each side, by people who themselves were spending two years of their lives doing nothing but reading and writing poetry (and drinking, smoking, staying up too late, getting involved in ill-advised relationships, and the other things one does in graduate school, although sometimes with good reason—I remember a friend telling me he’d left a workshop, gotten in his car, and driven halfway across Nebraska because he was so upset, which seemed like a perfectly natural reaction at the time).

When I applied to a writing program, I thought I’d be solidly in the men die miserably every day camp. I hated my limited experiences of the working world and wanted nothing more than to go back to a life where reading and writing were valued above all else.

Then, of course, just before I started graduate school, I got involved in Students Against Sweatshops. That summer I sent my union membership card back in the mail the moment I got it. (That year’s vice-president later told me he said, “We got a card back already!” in great excitement, and then the president looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s just Laura.”) By the time I sat down to read and discuss Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, it was hard for me not to scream “great writer and all, but he was on the wrong damned side of the revolution,” because regardless of where the revolution ended up, I couldn’t imagine not joining it at the time.

I tended, then, in these arguments, to come down on the Auden side: poetry makes nothing happen.

No side ever won, as I remember it, though these memories are distant, and based on too many nights of bad beer and secondhand smoke and too many drafty classrooms the next afternoon, marginally hungover and trying to impress everyone.

I never in my life imagined a time when I’d stop reading, but other than the book discussion books I read for work, I’ve barely read more than two pages together in the last month. Books are hard to come by for many people right now, especially if you lack money, internet, or an ability to read ebooks (confession: I hate ebooks) and you don’t have hundreds of them lying around on shelves in your house, many of them unread or worth rereading, as I do.

But as one of my coworkers noted today and as readers advisory experts have counseled for years, reading isn’t just about access: you have to be in the mood to read a particular book, and nothing seems quite relevant or right at the moment. In the weeks after 9/11–and trying to stop another war is another thing I did not have in mind when I applied to graduate school—I mostly lay on my sofa and listened to the radio (and swore at NPR for being such freaking nationalists) and read the hundreds of emails pouring in from the listservs I was on locally and around the country.

We didn’t stop the war—in fact, it continues to this day. We had some marginal success with SAS (and USAS continues fighting on campuses across the country to this day). And we didn’t have poetry, and I don’t know how much we had happen. But we had each other, and we had the things we said to each other, the things we repeated, and as C.S. Lewis says in another essay of his that I love, if you find a man who has read a book over and over again, no matter how bad you think the book is, you may be sure that it is for him a kind of poetry.

I am still looking for poetry that fits this pandemic, though it may not be able to end it. But I’ve come to believe we cannot win the argument—no one can. Poetry makes nothing happen, and we die miserably every day without it.

Journal of the Plague No. 5: Students Against Sweatshops 20th Reunion

Students Against Sweatshops in Jessup Hall, from UE News. I am third from the left.

Today marks the second day of the 20th anniversary of a six-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in the University of Iowa administration building, Jessup Hall. We were there after a year of research, coalition building, educating, and gathering support for our three demands—1) drop out of the Fair Labor Association, an industry sponsored “monitoring” group that did pre-announced factory inspections and then certified them as “sweat free”; 2) join the Worker Rights Consortium, a real monitoring group, and 3) draft a code of conduct for UI licensees to insure that all companies producing apparel and other items bearing the UI logo were required to adhere to basic human and labor rights. We gained endorsements from everyone from the UI Student Government to the UI Center for Human Rights to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and many in between.

We achieved the first demand on the first day of the sit-in. On the sixth day, at 11:30 pm, the UI suddenly became very concerned about our health and safety, and UI police officers raided the building, chained the doors shut, and arrested anyone who refused to leave voluntarily—ultimately five of us were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, threatened with assorted university disciplinary actions, and banned from Jessup Hall for a year. A year later, we finally got the UI to release its Code of Conduct, sort of—several companies, including Nike, Champion, and Jostens, were allowed to sign a “clarified” code that stripped collective bargaining rights from the code.

Twenty years later, we are still waiting for the UI to drop out of the FLA.

We were supposed to be holding a reunion this weekend—a time to reconnect, to visit the UI Archives, where much of the history of SAS is now preserved, and to hold a public event featuring talks from UI Archivist David McCartney on the history of student activism at the UI; John McKerley of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, who has documented much of our movement through interviews with several of us who were there; representatives from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Hall Workers on their fight to be recognized and win fair wages and conditions for their work; an update on the wildcat strike by graduate employees at UC Santa Cruz from Michael Marchman, who organizes graduate students in Oregon; and high school students from the Iowa City Climate Strikers. We’d have had tables from current activist groups and exhibits of SAS actions past. It would have been—and someday will be—a wonderful event.

Although our focus was on the garment industry, during its time at Iowa, SAS also fought for farm workers, prison workers, steelworkers, graduate employees, coffee growers, and so many other invisible laborers who make our world possible.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of our event along with many others, but I decided to record the introduction I planned to give as a message to all of you out their fighting for a better world.

The Sit-In, Ten Years Later

My friend the Rev. Sara says that she doesn’t care whether a service is high church or low church so long as it is not sloppy church. I always tell her that she probably shouldn’t come here, because sloppy church is about all we ever have. We are a tiny church in a tiny town, and our priest drives full time for FedEx out of Billings, which is several hours away, and we rely a lot on lay people, and we fumble from time to time, but we manage.

This morning’s fumble was that the person appointed to do the first reading inadvertently read the second reading, so when it came time for me to do that, I figured I’d better read the first one, and I’m glad that I did, because it might have passed over me otherwise. The sermon dealt almost exclusively with the Gospel, which was the story of Doubting Thomas, but it was the first lesson, from Acts, that caught me.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

We are witnesses to these things. That was the line that struck me: We are witnesses to these things, and we must teach about them.

This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the Students Against Sweatshops sit in at the University of Iowa, in which I participated and about which I wrote at great length at the time; the week was covered much more succinctly by the UE News (I am third from the left in the photo). Many of us who were involved did a little reminiscing about it on Facebook on Thursday, the anniversary of the arrests.* Several days later, I am still thinking about it.

The sit-in did not mark the end of the struggle, which continued for more than a year and, which continues today. A few weeks after the sit-in, we held a silent protest in front of Jessup Hall every day at noon for a week or two. We each wore taped to us a sign identifying a worker who had been abused in a sweatshop, and we wore red tape over our mouths to signify the various ways in which we, and they, had been silenced. I have a picture from one of those days, May 4, 2000, which was also the thirtieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State, and one of our number had made a sign commemorating those students, and the ones killed at Jackson State a few days later who are so often forgotten.

Today’s Gospel lesson is perhaps more relevant than I had first thought. Most of us had not seen sweatshop labor firsthand, and yet we believed. We were trying to stand as witnesses, that others might believe.

Mostly they didn’t, or rather they did but they didn’t think our solutions were the right ones, or they thought our solutions would cost the University a lot of money. At that time, the head basketball coach, Steve Alford, had a contract with the University and Nike guaranteeing him a base salary of $900,000 a year, a third of which was to be paid by Nike — unless for any reason Nike did not feel like paying, in which case the University had to make up the different. Kirk Ferentz had a similar contract with Reebok. We wanted the University to hold the people who made Hawkeye apparel (there are, or were, even Hawkeye coffins!) to certain basic standards: people who made the stuff should be paid a living wage and allowed to take bathroom breaks and not forced to take pregnancy tests and allowed to form unions and not have to work twelve hour shifts or work in buildings without proper fire exits. All of that and more still goes on, and we never thought we would end the practices single-handedly. The anti-sweatshop movement targeted collegiate apparel for strategic reasons — it’s a huge market, and the people who produce it are licensed to do so by schools, schools that frequently have human rights policies and thus a sort of lever that we could push. Of course, as you’ve seen, they also have hundred thousand dollar contracts with companies who are very interested in the status quo. The battle at the University of Oregon, alma mater of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, was particularly wrought: Phil Knight pulled a planned $30 million donation to renovate a stadium because of the University followed through with one of the protesters’ demands.

I was explaining the whole situation, or as much of it as could be explained during idle post-church coffee hour chat, to some people today, and they asked if we got what we wanted. That’s a hard question to answer. We had three demands; the administration gave in to the first one during the sit in. Over the course of the next year they gave in to the next one, sort of. (It dealt with drafting a specific Code of Conduct for licensees; the Code was written, but six companies (including Nike) were allowed to sign a “clarified” Code, one with modifications that stripped it completely of its purpose.** Our actions, and those of the many other students at many other schools, and our many allies, eventually resulted in changes at one factory in Mexico. It’s not much.

But, as the song goes, I think many of us got what we needed. We were fighting not for ourselves but for others, for people we had never met and never would, and I would like to think our efforts had some effect, and that our movement was one of solidarity and not simply of privileged white kids play-acting at revolution, although there was inevitably a certain amount of that. If you asked the administration or the jury that convicted us, that was all there was.

As I wrote way back then, though, that movement, and the ones that followed, and that follow to this day, gave us back tenfold what we gave to it. My work in SAS is part of who I am; in many ways it made me who I am. My understanding of bureaucracy comes from that movement, but also my understanding of courage, of camaraderie, of solidarity, and of hope.

Those of us who participated in the events of ten years ago aren’t currently occupying any buildings, at least not that I know of. But many of us are still working on the same things that led up to that occupation and that followed it — the bitter, hard, day-to-day work of teaching people and talking to people and being witnesses to these things, to poverty and exploitation, to intransigence and willful ignorance. We are witnesses to these things in a figurative sense, as we were then: we know they exist even if we have not stood on those factory floors. But we were witnesses literally to our own experience at that sit-in, to our own calling to obey an authority we considered greater than that of the building we sat in. We were witnesses to these things, and we are still here.

*Among other things, we were reminiscing about what changes technology has wrought. Back then, we had a borrowed cell phone, and to send out email updates, I had to unplug a phone in order to connect my 28.8 modem.

*I can provide documentation about the “clarified” code, but at present it would require going through some boxes and doing some scanning, as the newspapers that covered it don’t seem to have archives of the events online. (Some smart librarian will probably prove me wrong; please do post a link in the comments if you find one.)

The Medium is Not the Message

Blog-a-thon tag:

In the first week of April 2000, I wasn’t thinking about my digital rights. I didn’t have a blog–it was a bit before their time–though I did have a very basic web site. But I wasn’t thinking about my web site, either. I hadn’t slept more than three or four hours a night in days, but I wasn’t thinking about how sleepy I was, either. Mostly I was just thinking about whether the woman tapping her foot at the end of the basement of Jessup Hall was spying on me as I pulled the phone off the wall jack, plugged my modem and laptop in, and waited for the 28.8 dial-up connection.

It wasn’t a totally unreasonable suspicion. I was in the basement of Jessup Hall, the administration building at the University of Iowa, after hours because I was involved in a sit-in protesting the school’s refusal to take a few simple steps in the fight against sweatshop labor. It was the fourth or fifth day of what turned out to be a six-day sit-in–on the sixth day, we were arrested–and negotiations were at a standstill. The protest had started with fifteen people sitting down on the floor of the President’s office. At five p.m., security arrived and carried them one by one (or, in the case of Ned and Tye, who were joined at the hip by a bicycle lock, two by two) into the hall, where we were told we’d be allowed to remain. We spent our days holding teach-ins and our nights holding meetings in that hallway, and I spent the few spare minutes I had writing up little anecdotal updates on my PowerBook (a 1997 model with a long alphanumeric name) about what was going on. I was down in the basement that night because there was a public phone there, and I wanted to use it–or, more precisely, the jack into which it was plugged–to make the free local call to my ISP so I could send out the latest of these little updates in an e-mail to the hundred-odd people then on The New Rambler mailing list.

So the well-groomed woman tapping her foot at the other end of the hall had some reason to be suspicious of me. I was one of those protesters. I was not groomed. And I was doing something funny with the phone.

There was a little sign by the phone noting that it was for local calls only and exhorting users to keep their calls under 5 or 10 minutes. It generally took no longer than that for me to unplug the phone, plug in the line that connected to my modem, which in turn connected to my lap top, plug the modem into a wall outlet, turn on the modem, open the laptop, dial up Avalon, my local ISP, hit “Send Queued Messages” in Eudora, disconnect, and then unplug and replug all the appropriate pieces of equipment. It didn’t seem to me that there was a damned bit of difference between my using the phone to get online briefly and my using the phone to make a regular call, but I wasn’t at all sure that the woman at the other end of the hall saw it that way. It didn’t seem to me that I was doing anything wrong, or illegal, but I was beginning to think that the woman at the other end of the hall thought differently.

I don’t remember if it was that night or another, but at some point when I was in the middle of one of my quick dial-ups, she approached me.

“Do you need to use the phone?” I asked, as I did everyone who approached while I was connected. “I’ll be off in just a minute or two.”

“No,” she said, “but what if I did?”–implying, somehow, that I was interfering with her right to universal access.

“I’m just about done here,” I said, because I was, and I quickly disconnected, plugged the phone back in, and held it out to her, dial tone humming sweetly.

“Hmm. Okay,” she said, pursing her lips, turning on her heel, and walking away.

I went back up to where my friends were camped out and told them about the encounter, telling them all the things I hadn’t told her, like, “Hey, isn’t it after regular business hours?” and “Uh, don’t you have a phone in your office?” And, most of all, “Is this not a public phone? Is it not within my rights, as a member of the public, to use it to communicate and exercise my First Amendment rights? And so long as I am not violating the terms under which this phone has been made available–so long as I am making only local calls and using it for only short periods of time, should it not be as permissible to use it to send electronic communications as to send oral, auditory ones?”

As I read news reports now, five years later, about bloggers getting in trouble for their writing, I’m reminded of that moment in the basement of Jessup and of the inability, or unwillingness, of the woman at the end of the hall to see electronic communication as equal to oral communication. The attempts to say that bloggers don’t have the same rights as journalists stem, in part, from a belief that electronic print is not equal to hard copy print. (Such beliefs stem, of course, from a number of other things, perhaps most notably the belief in the power of institutions over individuals and the ideology of the center.)

My father owned a printing press–there are pictures of me at four years old, perched on a high bench, pulling the blue-black cast iron lever and printing out my name, which my father had set for me in various typefaces. He was fond of saying (quoting A.J. Liebling) that the only man with freedom of the press was the man who owned his own press. My father was an academic who published only a few things in the fifty-eight years of his life, and he printed little on his printing press beyond poems and Christmas cards. But I believe he liked having a press and knowing that he could use it as he wished.

He would not, I suspect, have had much respect for the bloggers of today–he was also the sort of academic who thought all writing ought to be put in a drawer for ten years before publication to see if it would hold up–but I believe that today’s bloggers share with him the satisfaction of knowing that they control their own words and their own publishing. A couple of years ago, Blogger’s front page still bore the slogan “Push-Button Publishing for the People.” That line has since disappeared, I suppose because it sounds too populist for something owned by Google (or, perhaps, because it sounds a bit too much like “Greetings to the people, this is Tania”), but it’s still how I think of blogs in particular and the Internet in general. And it was certainly the way I thought of the Internet sitting on that basement floor in April 2000.

Late one night a few of us would leave Jessup and head over to the computer center to make up flyers for the next day’s teach-ins, and Heidi, who was on the national USAS listserv, checked her e-mail. There were actions going on at over a dozen other campuses that week, and we read their names–Kentucky, Tulane, Michigan, Oregon, Yale, Wesleyan, Purdue–and their calls for action on the screen. Chills ran down my spine–the good kind. All over the country were all these people taking action, all moved by a shared belief and now all connected through these intricate webs of code that turned into words on the computer screen. It sends chills down my spine still. Who would ever have guessed that political action could take such a form? And who would have guessed then that electronic activism would take off in the way it has now?

Electronic communication was vital to that campaign, but my ability to access the means to electronic communication via that basement phone was also vital to my sense of myself and my rights as an autonomous, thinking human being. Like many people, I found a voice online, a voice I hadn’t had before, a voice I’ve never had talking on the phone, but one that, suddenly, a phone line gave me access to. And that moment, sitting on that basement floor, with a woman tapping her foot down the hall, was the first time it dawned on me that any kind of access to speech was another kind of access that someone, somewhere, might try to take away.

Last Bulletin, epilogue

After the meeting Saturday, several of us went to a forum on urban sprawl at the public library, at which mostly nobody said much of anything except to repeat, again and again, “But we can’t let that area turn into student housing! We’ve got to keep the students away!” “Okay,” I finally said. “I got a question. There are 20,000 students at the U of I. That’s a third of the population of Iowa City. That’s a sizeable small town all on its own. Where exactly are you proposing that all the students live?” Nobody had an answer).

After that, I returned home to Jessup, where SAS members were in a meeting with the UI delegation which had attended the WRC (the organization we like) conference in NYC this weekend. Well, actually, it was only one member of the delegation and three adminstrative lackeys. Laraine Carmichael Nelson, said member, was a part of the Human Rights Commission appointed by President Coleman specifically to look into the issue of sweatshop monitoring, the commission which voted unanimously in favor of our demands, a vote which Coleman chose to ignore. At this meeting, though, it sounded like she had swalled the administration’s take on things hook line and sinker. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to a blank wall before, but that’s sort of what it’s like talking to these people, except that talking to the wall can actually be kind of peaceful, at least. It reminds me of being on Student Senate in high school, when we couldn’t actually move to do anything, we could only make a motion “that somebody look into the possiblity of somebody looking into someone repainting the lines in the parking lot.”

After that dismal meeting, Doug and I went to finish up a flyer (now rather out of date) about the protests going on all across the country, from Yale to Purdue to Kentucky to Tulane to Oregon. And then I decided to stop by my mom’s house to take a shower (my second of the week–truly I was falling into decadence), pick up my mail, and pet the kitties. I got home and realized it was med students for dinner night, but not too many showed up, so there were lots of leftovers, including a whole pan of lasagna, which my mom kindly donated to our cause. I showered, picked up a few more clothes, packed up the lasagna and some Coke and such, and Mom drove me back to Jessup. We arrived around 11:15 pm to see Dean Jones (or Daddy Jones, as we like to call him, since he really does define the word “paternalism”) poking around the building again, as he’d been doing off and on all day. I should have been thinking, I suppose, but all I thought was “Does this man have a life?”

I went in, bearing the lasagna, and Mom drove off, and I settled down back home for a fairly relaxing evening–no teach-ins the next day, no work that had to be done right that minute, maybe even some time to catch up on sleep–at that point I’d had 16 hours in four days.

About five minutes later members of Public Safety entered the building, telling the guard on duty they were relieving him. They came in from all sides–I’ve heard numbers ranging from 8 to 20 in all, but I’m not sure. As soon as we realized what was going on, Josh ran for the cell phone to call our lawyer. Before he could even flip open the mouthpiece, he was told he’d have to hand over the cell phone or be arrested. Matt started running downstairs to use the phone down there and was stopped. By this time they’d swept all the floors of the building and chained the doors from the inside.

We were stuck in a hallway, we then realized, in the middle of the night, with a bunch of grown ups, police officers and administrators, and all our connections to the outside world had been severed. I kept my seat–I was by Heidi and Ned–and barely breathed. I cannot quite describe the sensation of the next few minutes–it was something like having half your brain be completely stalled, the way my car always used to stall in heavy traffic for no apparent reason–and the other half running, running, running, tripping, stumbling, trying to latch on to anything that would prepare you for this and coming up with some half framed notion of Miranda rights from too many half-watched late-night TV movies.

We were read statements explaining that we had willfully interfered with the carrying out of official business and that we had violated fire code. We were told to pack our stuff and leave. We were told that if we did not, we would face disciplinary action up to expulsion, that we would face criminal charges and arrest.

Somehow I got my computer into my backpack at this point. I guess at some point we were standing, milling around, everyone asking what to do, someone saying we’d all know this was a decision we all might have to walk, everyone looking to her neighbor for some sign.

Five of us were arrested. Four of us were taken down to Public Safety headquarters, seated in comfortable chairs, asked questions about what hand we used to write with (oddly, always phrased, “Are you right-handed?” not “Are you right handed or left handed?” I asked if they ever asked “Are you left-handed?” just for variety). We were charged with criminal trespass and signed and released. The fifth person, who had, in accordance with our civil disobedience training, gone limp, had been carried out and he was taken to the jail, charged with criminal trespass and interference. The other four of us, after we got out, went over to the jail, where 30 or more SAS members and friends had already assembled–word of mouth spreads like wildfire, or truth–and raised the $650 bail to get our fifth member out, after some confusion and some difficulty contacting our lawyer, who finally did make it.

We all went to someone’s apartment for awhile, all in some ways shaken. Our legal observer explained that he had made a list of every single item that security confiscated and that they had told us we’d be able to get it back on Monday (another good story which I should tell you all some time–I spent an hour and a half this morning talking to to administrators and lawyers and public safety, working out a scheme whereby we could get our stuff without filling out a whole lot of forms, in triplicate, with 27 eight-by-ten glossy color photographs with circles and arrows and all that rigamarole). Eventually we broke up, and, exhausted, made our ways home. Heidi, Holly, Susan, and I all crashed at Susan’s, and Holly and I got up early early, after about a two-hour nap, to go to David’s arraignment this morning. He plead absolutely not guilty. The judge informed us that the $650 bail would be returned and that he would be released on his own recognizance. Then we all went out to breakfast.

There’s much more to tell, of course, but that gives you the basics. We were arrested at 11:30 on a Saturday night for doing no more than we had been all week. The very same administrators and public safety officers who, all week, had commended us on how well we were conducting ourselves, the same ones who had been all smiles at our rallies–the ones, as it turned out, who were lying to us that whole time.

The fight goes on.

Yesterday afternoon we had a community video showing/discussion at the public library where we gained some more support. I spoke to a number of members of my church. We held a press conference today to explain that the arrests had only made us more determined, but that now was not the time to focus on them, now was the time to return our attention to the real issues at hand–to the UI’s continued affiliation with the (un)Fair Labor Association (FLA) and consequent complicity with corporate greed and human rights abuses. As I’ve told several reporters, yes, the experience of being arrested was somewhat terrifying. Yes, it was a shock to feel yourself robbed of your liberties in that way.

But at the end of the night I got to go home and sleep in a nice bed with a roof over my head, in a house with hot and cold running water. I ate a good breakfast in the morning. I lost none of my belongings. And when the time comes, I’ll have the best legal counsel that union money can buy. My experience, in short, pales and in fact disappears next to the kinds of human rights and civil liberties abuses which workers in sweatshops face every single day. I was patted down, it is true, but I was not locked into my place of work. I was not given mandatory pregnancy tests which I had to pay for from my own wages. To focus on our little arrests, in light of the seriousness of the problems we are trying to address, would seem nothing but the basest self-interest.

The sit-in is over, but the war is not over. Thanks again to all who wrote and all who thought of us. We will keep going. I will let you know what’s up, if you wish. And I will answer any questions you have. I urge you, though, if you wish to help, please do so, but know that the best way you can at the moment is to educate yourself. Sort through the alphabet soup until it makes sense to you, and then explain it to someone else. If you live in a place where protests are taking place, go talk to the protesters yourself, and maintain a healthy skepticism for what you read in the news. Question why the national media is not picking up this story.

As I have said, there is much more to tell. I welcome any and all questions.

Now, however, I must go to sleep. There is still much work to be done.



We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government. . . .

–Thomas Jefferson, 1776

Last Bulletin

The following is the last thing I had a chance to type up, Saturday afternoon.

Day 6, 3:15 pm

Ned’s been lying on the floor, listening to some sports type thing on the radio.

“Are you looking up my nostrils?” he queried Deb.

“Yeah. Do you feel violated?”


Apparently it’s baseball. The Cubs. Chicago folk are gathering round and Ned’s talking about games he remembers from 1977 when he was 6 years old (“10 years before Deb was even born,” he says, but he’s not right). Apparently Dean Jones is also from the South Side, and he and Ned were discussing this the other day. “He was analyzing my commitment to the Cubs in terms of this movement,” says Ned. “He said if I’m a Cubs fan I must be very committed, but I must be used to losing.”

We all laughed.

Meeting time soon. Much to discuss–but first we all have to eat some of this way yummy food from the Coop, where, thanks to local and state labor, we now have an account! Whoo-hoo! Now for the battle of the meat-eaters vs. the veggies.

Bob is still making nasty comments about the Cubs. I have just explained that although I don’t really follow baseball, I am a Cubs fan because my whole family’s from Chicago, and Bob’s saying, “Yeah, that’s typical of Cubs fans. They don’t know anything about baseball.”

“Oh yeah?” says Ned. “At least our slugger isn’t on steroids.”

“Yeah!” I say.

Now we’re debating Ned’s age, and whether or not he’s lied about it. I’m not sure just how this meeting is gonna work , but it’s time to get going.

Bulletin No. 10

[once again, if you’re getting duplicates or anything, just send me a note–I know a few of you have told me in person, but there are a lot of people I don’t fully associate with their e-mail addresses]

Day 6, around noon

It occurs to me that a few of you might like a little better idea of our physical surroundings. (It’s so easy to forget about the material world when you’re swept up by philosophy and action, you know–although I do think my back is starting to notice sleeping on the floor).

We are here on the main floor of Jessup Hall, one of the five buildings which make up the Pentacrest, which is more or less in the center of the UI campus and right by downtown Iowa City. In the center is the Old Capitol of Iowa, a beautiful limestone building with a tasteful gold dome and the most elegant spiral staircase you’ve ever seen. Spaced around it are the four other massive buildings–stone and columns and carved garlands and rotundas and all the rest–which make up the Pentacrest–Schaeffer Hall (history, Classics, College of Liberal Arts, and Actuarial Science, of all the random things), MacLean Hall (math and econ and stuff, I think), MacBride (home to Bird Hall and Mammal Hall and some departments I can’t remember) and of course Jessup, where the money is. Well, the top floors house Geography and the Office of Affirmative Action, but down here it’s all about cash flow. The bottom floor has the cashier’s office, the Registrar, and other such places where you have to stand in long lines and fill out lots of forms. Our hallway, directly above, is the real power base.

Seated at either end, behind locked glass-paned doors, are the Offices of the President at one end and of the Provost at the other. Finance and University Services, Student Services, and the General Counsel all have offices here in the central hallway. We think all these offices connect to each other, but we’re not exactly sure, since, as I said, we’ve been relegated to the hallway. It’s a pretty nice hallway, as these things go–terrazzo floors (which are pretty to look at but not great for sleeping), fairly wide–perhaps 8 or 10 feet across, so not quite as big as the halls in Main at Vassar, but getting there–and long enough do do some good pacing.

We have 2 tents pitched down at one end, a boombox and small TV/VCR (for video showing) and a borrowed cell phone (for emergencies) plugged in in the center. In the foyer outside the President’s stronghold, we’ve got a little display area with an old industrial-looking sewing machine (courtesy of Greta), lots of literature, and all the letters of support we’ve received, from Senator Tom Harkin to the UI Student Government to the Rhetoric TAs thanking us for talking to their classes to a card from Melissa, the girl from Ned’s class who brought us plates and utensils and cups and hand sanitizer the other day. Additionally, we’ve redecorated all the walls with our banners and posters and signs asking President Coleman to do the right thing and pictures from the paper and artwork people have done. Near the entrance, along with the ML King I put up yesterday, someone has made a sign that says “It was, for me, a Camelot house–where ideas were nourished into reality. –Elaine Brown” And there’s a checklist of our demands:

Join WRC (checked)
Drop FLA
Code of Conduct

Right now things are pretty mellow. The Hamburg Inn (voted No. 1 restaurant by Students Against Sweatshops!) sent over a fantastic breakfast–OJ and egg muffins, some with real bacon or sausage and some with soy stuff for the veggies, and animal crackers. They rock our world. Dean (aka Daddy) Jones stopped by to give us advice (he’s really fond of doing that) and said, “Gosh, I should bring the family over.” “Sure,” we said. “Come join us.” Oh, we are such masters of the double entendre.

We’ve got a meeting this afternoon to discuss various stuff, but basically today is a time to recuperate, catch up on sleep, and get in gear for next week. A bunch of people have gone over to check out the Pow-wow, going on all weekend at Carver Hawkeye Arena. My plan for the day is to do website stuff and maybe sleep some more at some point. I got up to 6 hours last night! Whoo hoo!

Well, I gotta get to work. More later.

Holding down the house,


Bulletin No. 9

Day 5, 1 am

Which would make it Day 6, of course, but I haven’t gone to bed yet, so it’s still Day 5. I did take a nap this afternoon, at long last.

Things have calmed considerably–perhaps the influence of the weekend. After the rally last night my friend gave me a ride back home so I could feed the cats, take a shower, and get some clean clothes. And then I came back here–the place that actually is home now–and chilled for awhile and wrote up the rally for y’all.

Today we had several more classes in the morning–the current estimate is that over 1000 students have been through. We are getting this teaching thing down. And from 11-12 on KRUI (the student-run station here) James Tracy and Matt Killmeier were on political discussion show called “Point Blank” with our dear friend Joel, the founding and perhaps only member of Students Against the Methods of Students Against Sweatshops. He’s a funny guy, but we’re grateful to him in a way because his existence got us our radio spot. And he does do some research–he’s just a little misinformed about how much work has already been done by SAS and perhaps a little inexperienced in just how bureaucracies work.

Anyway, Matt and Jim sounded _great_. They knew their stuff, and there’s an inherent confidence in them–they sounded relaxed, reasonable, well-informed–all the things that you want people speaking for you to be, and all the things that, increasingly, all of us are becoming. We all increasingly speak with the confidence that comes from deep questioning and good information combined with purpose and vision. (God, do I sound like I’m writing mission statement stuff yet? Blech.)

But really–there’s something in this. As I helped with the teach-ins today and as I listened to Matt and Jim, it struck me how very much this organization and this movement has been communal–how much we have all been the authors of the philosophy which guides it. Of course, I may be more inclined towards thinking in this pattern because I’m taking a class right now which focuses on just this question–on the differences and similiarities between authoring a book and authoring a movement and how it all works and what it all means. But listening to any of us talk these days, if you have heard the conversations that we have, you realize that you are listening to a human palimpsest, a book which we’ve all written. It’s like stone soup, really–we started out with nothing but stones, nothing really much at all, but as more and more people realized how great a movement, how great a world could be built with those stones, they each came bringing the other things that they had–the mortar to fill the cracks and the boards to make the floor and the pictures to hang on the walls. Wow, I realize I’ve just moved from soup to books to movements to houses, which may well make me nuts, but you take what you can get.

I have learned so much from the people here: I have learned facts and figures, I have learned history, I have learned current events, I have learned more rhetorical technique. I’ve even learned something about basketball. (Have I told you all the basketball metaphor? It’s so good! Matt came up with it originally, and now we all use it. Okay, here you go:

Imagine that the university here has a losing basketball team. I mean, they really suck. So what does the U. do? They hire a new coach, of course. This coach is called FLA. So FLA coaches for a year, but actually, he really doesn’t do anything. He barely even holds practices. After a year, the team is still terrible, hasn’t won a game. So the U. decides to hire another coach, and this one’s called WRC. He’s all gung ho, holds practice, kicks some people into shape, shows a lot of potential. But the U., instead of firing the old coach, FLA, decides to keep both of them on. When it comes to game time, FLA wants the team to use a zone defense, and WRC wants them to use a man-to-man defense, and when it’s time to play, the team can’t really do a thing.

We find this goes over really well around here–you get these guys saying, “You can’t play ball using zone and man-to-man at the same time!” It’s great. Then we try to get them to see how this won’t work when it comes to factory monitoring strategies, either. Anyway, the other day I finally got someone to explain the basketball end of it to me–I felt like kind of a dope for using this metaphor without really getting one end of it, although of course the end I don’t get is the one everyone else does. I myself have been using a health care analogy: the FLA is an HMO, and just as you don’t want your health decisions being made by insurance folks whose primary interest is profit over patient care, so we don’t want factory monitoring to be done by people who value profit over human rights.)

(I bet you forgot that was all paranthetical, didn’t you? I’m so snidely.)

But the movement’s philosophy is cohering, despite–or perhaps because of–the way we work, the way we all get to talk at meetings, the way we don’t have a president or a spokesman or a PR department. What Ned–who gets quoted most often, it is true, because he’s such a master of the well-turned phrase (“Physically, we may have been moved a few feet, but in our demands we have not budged a single inch”)–says is true: we’re all spokesmen. Even if we don’t all get quoted directly, we all speak because the things that we say have all be influenced so much by each other. Now while there could be some disturbing things going on here (silencing of authorship or disappearance of certain people–namely women, I suspect some of you might say), from the midst of it I still find it terribly exciting.

Well, the weekend looks like it will be pretty mellow. We all need a little break. I mean, I find just teaching my kids at Willowwind is tiring enough–talking to all these classes that have been pouring through here, plus other random people who just stop in, plus the occasional administrative type who deigns to address us, is positively draining. And yet I haven’t felt tired. My mom wrote me an e-mail all about the effects of adrenaline on the body long term, but I don’t remember what they were.

Right now we’ve got maybe 12 or 15 people spending the night–we’ve started signing up for shifts so that people who’ve been here all week can go home and take showers and check their mail and maybe even take a little nap. Ned finally went home to shower because he figured his students shouldn’t see him in the same clothes he taught on on Monday. And I think we even got Heidi to take a break for awhile. (That Heidi–she’s indefatigable).

Dave and the security guard who’s been assigned to us are chatting about guitar playing and music right now; someone else is strumming away. Jamie and Cara were just saying “Ooh, it’s a slumber party! We have to talk about boys now.” “Or play Truth or Dare,” I added.

Oh, one last note: Today I made a huge sign–two big pieces of posterboard–with the quotation that I’ve been reading from classes from time to time:


A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

That’s Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, from his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, an account of the Montgomery bus boycott. Anyway, as i was putting this together, Ann Rhodes (VP for University Relations) stopped by and said, “Oh, you have such nice handwriting!” “Thanks,” I said. “Lincoln Elementary School.” A couple of other people (though none of them higher-ups) made similar comments, but none of them, I should add, bothered to read what it is I was writing. Anyway, I stuck it up right in the little alcove outside the Office of the President, which is the first stop for all our visitors. We’re not just a bunch of kids who wanted to take over a building, dammit–we’re creating the beloved community right in here. I guess some people just don’t want to join it.



Bulletin No. 8

Day 4, night

There were two No. 7s by accident. I could go into a long statistical thing about the number of hours of sleep triangulated around the number of mistakes made in a given 29.6 hour period, but as you’ve probalby realized, it would be a lot of BS.

I would also like to apologize if you’ve gotten anything twice, or if you’ve missed some. You can let me know and I’ll try to remedy the situation.

Down to business: the SAS Occapation of Jessup Hall is now officially online!!! After some fiddling around, I’ve managed to hijack the phone line down here in the basement (mostly a matter of having the right cord, it turns out), so I’ve been catching up like crazy. We were thinking we should just get a computer up here with the UISAS website up permanently, but I’m not volunteering mine. (After all, we’ve been getting Warnings About Our Safety lately. We find this rather humorous. Then again, we’re starting to find many things rather humorous, which is perhaps the thing about being in a situation with so many dire issues at stake).

But enough on that for now: I’ve got some actual news for y’all.

Today continued with teach-ins like crazy, more handing out of flyers outside, more administrators avoiding us altogether or shooting us dirty looks. We’re all tired and a lot of us had been in the same clothes for days and eating random food and generally just feeling like we’re getting nowhere–not, I should add, that we have any plans to give up. Ha.

But this evening at 5 we had a rally. We had a BIG rally, 250 people or so, including (and this is the really kick-ass part) a busload of steelworkers who came in from Des Moines. Forty or fifty union guys from out there got on a bus and rode two and a half hours out here _just to come to our rally_. They all came filing in together (’cause we started inside, around the time we figured Mary Sue Coleman was sliding through her bathole) and you could just feel the energy level rise.

The rally moved outside for speeches, MC-ed by Heidi, who started out by asking for shouts from all the different groups represented. My God! It was amazing. COGS-UE (the grad student union, who have been terrific about letting us use their office and are generally a nifty bunch of people whom I’ll be joining next year) had their own little rallying cry going: “Who’re we? UE!” And the steelworkers–wow! Not to mention all the other unions who’ve come out, and various current and former City Council members (some of whom came to visit us yesterday, too–shouts out to Karen Kubby, Steve Kanner, and Irvin Pfab!). I should mention that the City Council has decided to do some looking into where City apparel is manufacturing. (Or did I say that already?) Anyway, we’re spreading.

Well, we all made a lot of noise outside of Jessup, and we heard some great speeches–a few notable lines (sorry for the lack of attribution in some cases; I’ll happily add it if anyone can remember):

  • Back in my day, the teachers taught the students. But nowadays, it’s the students teaching the administration!
  • And what is the definition of a corporation? A body without a soul! (Greta Anderson)
  • Thanks again to the steelworkers! (Everyone)

We even got a new old labor song, specially adapted for us by the guy Patrick Hughes from the Iowa City Federation of Labor (sorry I’m blanking on names again!!!)

And then Heidi said, “Well, we’re thinking about taking a little walk, since we haven’t seen Mary Sue all day. . . want to go over to her house?”

Aww yeah.

So we all marched the five or six blocks to her house, chanting about Mary Sue=Kathy Lee and the old standbys of Hey hey, ho ho, sweatshop labor’s got to go (changed by some to “has to go”–probably the same people who changed the Pennsylvania state license plate motto from “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania” to “Keystone State,” whatever the hell that means) and Workers United Will Never Be Divided and Hey, Herky, take a stand, living wages we demand and of course Here, there, everywhere, sweatshops make your underwear!

Campus security was on site when we got there, so we all stood carefully behind the dotted line and made a little more noise (that little is a dramatic understatement, just in case that wasn’t clear). Tons of cars honked in support for us. And Ned made a fantastic speech. He said (as best as I can recall):

“I think we scared a lot of people on the way over here. And I think the reason that we scared them is that they know we’re right. [Cheers] Everybody has to draw the line somewhere on this issue, and we’re drawing it RIGHT HERE. [And now you’ve got to imagine the way we’re all standing spread out in front of the President’s house, which is this big mansion-type affair with pillars and red brick and all–I think it looks like a Southern plantation home, actually.]

(NB this next part is really paraphrased–I wish I had a tape of the real thing) “We’re not trying to cross over the line into disorder and violence, but we are not going to give up until our demands are met. That’s where we draw the line.”

“We’ve got a busload of steelworkers from Des Moines who came in today just to show solidarity with us. And I understand that they’re having a rally out there on April 29th to mark the anniversary of the second year of their strike, and let me tell you, SAS will be there with you on April 29th!” [HUGE cheers].

He talked about our sit in, about us talking to classes and students and using the time-honored methods of passive resistance and managed to hit that exact note between militancy and civil protest that we all strive for, the one that gets everybody fired up with out making anyone explode. I’m feeling so frustrated right now because I’m realizing the total inability of print (or pixels, if you want to get into that debate, which I recently wrote a whole article about and I’m actually getting kind of sick of it, but more on that later) to express the power of a really good speech–and Ned’s was the culmination of a whole evening full of them.

He ended, though, by saying, “For now, though, I’m going home, which for me means Jessup Hall.” And we cheered assent.

So we marched back, and on the way the steelworkers met up with their bus, and we all went around shaking hands with them. I had tears streaming down my face at that point, just telling them how much it meant to us to see ALL THOSE PEOPLE coming out to support us (and they’re steelworkers! I mean, that’s like the coolest of the cool!–at least to us bookish liberal arts wimp types). I told several of them, as I’ve been telling people over the past few days, about when I was 9 or 10 years and my mom took me shopping for school clothes one fall. I was trying on a new pair of jeans, and as I took them off, deciding that I liked them, she pointed out to me the union label and told me about why it was there and what that meant. Since then I’ve learned a lot more detail about unions and their history and all, but I still remember that day–it’s as vivid a picture in my head as the time I had a magician at my birthday party when I was seven or the day in August of 1990 that I moved back to Iowa City when I was fourteen and my best friend called me up and asked if I wanted to go to a meeting that night about opposing the stuff going on in the Persian Gulf.

So we waved the steelworkers off with a chorus or two of “Solidarity Forever” (we have got to learn the lyrics) and came back home.

Now a number of us have had the opportunity to go to our other abodes and shower and pick up some new clothes, and everybody’s pretty mellow (although actually I’ve been down in the basement working on e-mail stuff for the past several hours, so I’m not really sure what’s going on.

I had a great conversation with one of the janitors down here–she’s totally behind us. And someone from one of the business offices down here said some kind words to me on her way out. That’s the kind of thing that keeps us going–that and the steelworkers, of course. I’m sorry to keep bringing it up, but they made our day. Really really really.

So that’s what’s going down around here. For those of you who’re in NYC, let me mention again:

Demonstration at Niketown
Sunday, April 9 at 11 am
57th Street and 5th Avenue

We’d love to hear a report–and if any of you heard anything about the one in Boston today, we’d love to hear about that, too. I’ve heard we were mentioned on WNYC and briefly in the NY Times, so maybe the national press is picking up on this. But keep your eyes peeled and let me know–it’s good to hear from you all, as I’ve said. Thank you SO MUCH again for the e-mails I’ve gotten, and I’m sorry if I haven’t responded to you personally. But I often read your stuff to people, and it makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

Yeesh. I’m thinking maybe I ought to get some sleep.



Bulletin No. 6

Day 4, 9 am

Ned just delivered the Gazette to Deb, who is still in bed (she’s quoted in it, it would seem). “Oh thank you personal slave,” says Deb.

“That’s right,” I said. “We have no spokesman, but we do have personal slaves.”

KRUI‘s been playing that song about “gonna smack her when I see her.” We tend to agree. (Figurative smacks only, of course).

Dave’s live on KRUI! Our message is goin’ out to the masses! He’s talking all about differences in monitoring and sounding intelligent and much more together than anyone who’s spent the past 3 days on the floor should.

In other media, this morning’s DI is a riot. CEO Coleman wrote a guest opinion all about the usual crap and how she hoped that we’d be part of the solution blah blah blah blah blah. Then, right next to it, was Jim’s column, a sort of expansion of the thing he sent to the listserv, where all the questions are answered with “I too share your concern. I think that this is a very important issue. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.” Etc. Except this time instead of just answering sweatshop questions this way, she answered all questions like that–from educational funding to racist e-mails at the dental school to the Tiger Hawk logo.

And so another dawns at the SAS Occupation of Jessup Hall. (I do love it when we answer the phone that way). General plan for the day: more teachin’, more preachin’, more getting out the word, and then a HUGE rally, which may be taking a little field trip. (After all, fresh air is good for us). There’s a possibility that Holly and I may go over to West High at some point, but given how loved we were by the administration when we were there, we’re not sure how well that will work.

Dean Jones just stopped by to tell us we had to post guards during the night because we could not assume that everyone who came in here was our friend. Duh. He then repeated himself about eight times. I swear, these adminstrators, they’re all like broken records.

I’m gonna go get some more of this mailed off. Keep those e-mails coming. Keep on rockin’ in the free world.

Oooh ooh! The KRUI DJs are just chatting about us and how cool we are and how we’ve bucked generational apathy and how human rights are important, and all that.

11:20 am

I got to answer the phone! The chick from West High called and said she’s going to bring a posse over here to get some learning this afternoon, so that rocks. Ever since then I’ve been teaching. We had a great African history class come in and talk about the ways in which the US has produced the conditions which lead to sweatshops in other countries, and the legislation (something like “Opportunity and Growth in Africa Act”) which would allow that to spread to Africa. More of that fun doublespeak–“fair” labor, “opportunity and growth,” and, of course, President Coleman’s “respect” and “concern” for our issue.

Now I’m really going to get some more of this sent off. We will overcome, dammit.

And the latest, just as I’m typing this up–apparently we got mentioned on the radio, WNYC. Right on!