May 22nd - California
29 May 2004
On tour in the US
The newspaper at Birmingham airport said civilians have been killed in Nasariya. I thought of Maha and Kenaan and got on the plane. The immigration officer at Los Angeles didn’t flick through my passport to notice all the pre-war Iraq visas, being more concerned about the saxophone I was carrying. I promised on my honour that I wouldn’t be playing any professional concerts, confiding reassuringly that I’d only been playing for three days and knew a grand total of seven notes. Apparently looking more like the illegal worker type than a terrorist I was allowed in without further questions.

LA is enormous and the way around is by a mass of six lane highways with an inordinate number of signs, giving directions, radio frequencies for congestion information, religious and moral advice and invitations to Adopt A Highway. Unlike the more common adoptees such as children, dolphins and large mammals, which require either a lifetime of parenthood or a standing order at the bank, highway adoption apparently demands a commitment to litter clearance. Taxes apparently don’t cover removal of roadside rubbish.

The first talk was in a community centre and radical bookshop called Flor y Canto in a Latin American part of town. Run by volunteers, it’s got meeting space, a little kitchen and a row of four computers where Latino kids were surfing the internet. That part of the city had signs in Spanish or dual Spanish and English and murals to “Libertad, pobre, solidaridad”.

There is also a big Iranian population in LA, one man who left Tehran in the 1970s because of repression, lived in the UK for a couple of years and then moved to the US, who wanted to know about what had happened to women since the invasion of Iraq because his sense, like mine, was that their oppression, in the name of fundamentalism, had got worse and their rights were going unprotected. The Iranians know better than anyone what that’s like.

But back in LA, there was talk of the prosecution of Greenpeace for the actions of its members in Florida. The activists themselves have already been tried for boarding and putting up a banner on a logging ship which was bringing illegally felled rainforest timber into the US, which still accepts the wood.

Later the Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to take the organisation to court as well, for the actions of its members, making unprecedented use of a law a couple of centuries old intended to prevent brothel owners or their representatives boarding ships and luring poor innocent sailors into their houses of ill-repute.

If the prosecution succeeds in twisting that law to prevent political protest, it will also be a step on the way towards closing down Greenpeace and other non-profit organisations whose members are involved with protest, by continually summonsing and fining the groups. It’s a way of suppressing activist organisations without the controversy of announcing a ban.

And another thing: pharmacies are allowed to refuse to fulfil prescriptions for the birth control pill or the emergency contraception pill, even if the woman can’t get it from anywhere else.

Hummingbirds live around the hill behind the house we stayed in. From the top, one side was all twinkles of light, the other – Downtown LA – was blotted out by smog. Petrol has just gone up to $2.50 a gallon because of the oil price rises: a Black Hawk helicopter flaps its rotors in Iraq and the car economy in the US stays exactly the same because there’s no real public transport system in LA. Still, it costs more than that for a litre in Britain.

Lost, in the morning, we stopped behind a white car with both its front doors open. The woman inside was reading a book, signs in her back windscreen asking for work. She lived in the car at the side of the road, eschewing a quieter spot in favour of one where her job request and any possible attacks against her were more likely to be seen. It’s not uncommon, apparently, for people to live in their cars in LA, a stepping stone between becoming homeless and living on the street.

In the end we got directions from lurid lycra man, who was thrilled about our destination: “Dude! I live on that street. OK, trip out – you go down that way…” There’s a whole array of different churches I’ve never seen anywhere else, the Ark of Refuge, the Fundamentalist Trinitarian.

Another thing I’ve never seen is the array of community radio stations. KPFA’s studio in San Francisco’s East Bay was built by listener donations and there’s a pledge drive going on now which enables the station to stay independent of advertisers and means it’s able to carry much more radical content, much more political content.

After 1945 and the end of the war, a percentage of the available bandwidth was set aside for public radio. A lot of the stations are becoming commercialised but there are still community radio stations in a lot of towns which, again, are able to serve a much wider spectrum of interests because they’re not dependent on advertising revenue, with a show called Rocking the Boat on Santa Cruz radio and another called Pissed As Hell airing in Chicago (that’s ‘pissed’ as in angry, not as in drunk).

We talked in City College, San Francisco, a community college, and in a Filipino community centre in the East Bay, among some sculptures inspired by the artist’s visit, fully suited and masked, to Chernobyl, where empty fairgrounds, houses and streets waited in silence. A wheelchair bound metal suit with giant eyes and a gas mask sat in the middle of the room like a robot, its claustrophobic innards the only liveable space in the toxic world the nuclear mishap left behind.

We talked at the Long Haul Info Shop in Berkeley, the name referring to the commitment required to make real social change, the understanding that a few demonstrations won’t be enough. Berkeley is home to one of the most prestigious and conservative universities in the country. Slater and Julie were there, friends I haven’t seen since we were playing football in the park on a scorching day in October in Bristol, Julie who used to sustain me with beautiful e mails about sparkling snow and maple syrup in Vermont in the winter.

We talked in Santa Cruz, stopping at a wild and gorgeous beach on the way, and to a packed lecture theatre in New College in San Fransisco. With us were Eddie Yuen, who co-edited the book “Confronting Capitalism” and Rebecca Solnit, who wrote “Hope in the Dark” about all the victories of the global justice movement, more than most of us have noticed or remembered. It’s easy to forget how much has changed, that once seemed impossible: the end of slavery took time, as did the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, civil rights and everything else that was ever worth achieving.

Meanwhile there was a demonstration of three hundred people in Houston, Texas, against Halliburton, the Dick Cheney offshoot which is taking vast amounts of money through contracts in Iraq and overcharging the US government for services in Iraq. It was unprecedented to see so many Texans out for a demonstration like that.

Coming soon in San Francisco there will be a huge meeting of Biotechnology industry delegates, working on the next phase of foisting genetically modified crops on the world. So the Bay Area talks also included a bit of explanation about that, what the biotech industry means for most of the world. 25 thousand people a day die of hunger.

These same companies and organisations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, forced so many people off their land and now they claim their products and their free trade and privatisation policies are the answer to world hunger, neglecting to mention that there is already enough food.

Through loans and arms sales they create debt. Through debt they enforce privatisation of public services, external control of natural resources and abandonment of subsistence growing in favour of cash crop production and an economy dependent on international markets. The hunger, displacement and devastation which result are a means of creating a pool of cheap labour. In Iraq the agricultural economy and cash crop production are less central than elsewhere but the themes and the perpetrators are the same.

The We Are Everywhere tour is about all of that and the resistance to it from all over the world. The book consists of stories from the uprisings in Mexico, India, Nigeria, of farmers burning Monsanto crops, women in Bolivia confronting police who were preventing them getting access to water, South Africans in the poorest areas reconnecting people cut off from basic amenities because electricity and water are human rights. It’s about telling the stories that are not part of the news, of ordinary people’s history, which is much more inspiring than the mainstream version.

The murder rate is more than a hundred a year in Oakland and in some other districts of San Francisco, Rob told me. Do you mean I’m in more danger here than I was in Iraq? No, he said. You’re white and you’re staying in an OK area. But the local newspaper was talking about the murder of a young black woman who was about to go to law school and her father’s agony, blaming himself for not moving the family to a safer district.

Vietnam is still everywhere, maybe even more so than Iraq. The bridge across the Sacramento River is called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge – not that anyone has yet apologised to the bereaved families for sending those thousands of boys to their deaths there and the poster wall which peacefully coexists with the luxury apartments at what used to be the Mission Police Station. The political art of the day is pasted there: a famous picture of the chief of Saigon’s US appointed and maintained police force executing a suspect in the street.

The chief’s head is in clear focus, encased in a television screen, the rest of it pixelated outside that. “If Vietnam were now, this is what you would see,” it said. The Vietnam war came at a time when small cameras and video technology were newly available and yet real images and opinions were coming out because the soldiers did not expect to be criticised for killing civilians and celebrating. Now the military authorities are much more cautious , much more aware of public relations and so more controlling. Along with the censorship comes self-censorship, by editors and by journalists who know what their editors want.

In California the Humvees are black and shiny, instead of beige and dusty, driven by middle aged rich white men, perhaps towing a boat, instead of a poor black teenager trying to dodge an as-yet invisible roadside bomb and I wonder if, instead of telling those kids they were going to free a population and protect their own country, the government had confessed that it was about protecting the privilege of the fat-ass fools in power, with the ancillary bonus of dumping the recently-inconvenient Saddam, if they’d admitted that arms and legs and lives were to be lost not to eradicate the Baath party but to change its leader and its name, then instead of blast walls proliferating all over Iraq there might have been walls around the gated estates of the company execs torn down all over the USA.