By Betty “Crawford” Cupcake

We know about confidence men in Backwater Bay, about the grifters, swindlers, con artists, and smooth talkers who resort to ridicule, condescension, suppression, coercion, and force – and sometimes brutality – when people repeatedly challenge their lies.

They aren’t all obvious monsters, although we’d like to think so. They often hold high, sometimes the highest, offices. They can be found in corporate suites, in pulpits and at podiums, even in some nonprofit organizations, often smiling broadly. They  know how to market fear as if it were mortal danger itself. They know how to sell ecological  death and destruction as economic wellbeing and the key to progress. They know how to present justice as unremitting punishment and policing of “danger.” They know how to avoid saying “eugenics” (the orchestrated winnowing and withering away of the “unfit”) by focusing on budget cuts. They know how to present increasing deprivation for the many as freedom and equality. And they know how to present from-the-dung-heap supremacist notions (raced, gendered, classed, ableist, and religious) and economic exploitation/violence as “common sense solutions.”

And in order to do all this, they have refined the squashing of an authentic sense of wonderment – human and ecological together, no separations – by saying it is impractical, sentimental, pie-in-the-sky, and wishful thinking. Best leave business and decisions that matter to The Practical Men, and to the women who prove themselves to be honorary Practical Men.

We’re having none of that crap. We’ve learned that without a sense of wonderment  – and the imagination it incites and the thresholds to joy that it reveals – transformative change is impossible.  In fact, this is the very matter that spurred the now-almost mythic Backwater Bay Rebellion in which we turned the tide and began moving toward health, wholeness, and a much vaster, in fact cosmic (as well as much more nuanced)  understanding of “community.”

It started with the sit-ins.

Not the kind where we just sat down and refused to leave the August Chambers of the Practical Men. We sat on them.  In massive numbers. They weren’t expecting it. We didn’t actually crush them; we simply rendered them immobile, although we provided water, treats, and good books to read. Then we changed the government. And when I say “changed,” I mean changed.

It had to be this way.  They didn’t care what we had to say, but we did. And we did because to break through the deadly flim-flam of The Practical Men, it took  wonder and imagination and a sense that we could really chart a new future if we took ourselves and each other and ecological realities seriously enough. Once we really thought about it, we realized the Practical Men were holding us in a kind of civic murder-suicide pact, and we decided to get out. In the end, all of their violence would consume them, too, but it would consume the rest of us first. Especially black, brown, Indigenous, Muslim, trans, homeless, poor, and disabled people, and everybody who exists at the crossroads and intersections of those identities. And it wouldn’t stop there.

Well, hell no. We were angry, with a kind of steely determination. All necessary.  But also, in itself, not enough. Then we realized that almost everything that felt wrong was some kind of criminalizing/punishment/extraction process, whether it involved people or ecologies and the environment or the economy. Austerity is a criminalizing dynamic. So is environmental destruction and removing species from the “endangered” list, every bit as much as using jail to handle bigger social problems. And the more we saw this, the more we realized that humankind/ecologies and biosphere/economies are not separate. We’re all part of…what? We aren’t sure, yet. But whatever it is, it’s huge.

And we do know for sure that we can and will no longer separate out human and ecological/environmental and economic health and well-being. They are all aspects of the same thing. Our fates are joined: us, the otters, and the owls and the bears and the plankton. But for better or worse?

We decided it was finally time to join them for better. In some kind of powerful way, not in a begging, pleading way. So we sat in and sat on The Practical Men and began governing in very new ways. We didn’t remake the world so much as see it, and ourselves, and the biosphere, in a new, interrelated light! We reinvigorated our own sense of joy in seeing each other and the lake and the streams and the forests and the fields thrive because nobody was under constant assault again.  We changed our relationships to one another and the earth.

Yes, there were those who said sitting on The Practical Men was not civil. We laughed. Har-dee-har-har-HAR! And then we laughed some more. In fact, we still haven’t stopped laughing.

I mean: “civility”?!!!!! Hey. We didn’t shoot The Practical Men in the back or put them in jail On Suspicion of Something/Anything. We didn’t Tase them or make them pay for electronic ankle bracelet monitoring. We didn’t wrench their children from their arms or deny health care to those who needed it. But we did remind them that the community is much bigger than they are. And we remade the government and now governance looks and works differently. It has different priorities. You’ll learn about many of those differences over time and in future discussions of some of our community accountability practices. But they are all rooted in wonder: wonder about the astonishing things that become possible in a society focused on human and ecological well-being.

Here are some of our learnings:

  • Rage is essential. But it’s not enough. And it’s not everything. We also need to find and create joy along the way.
  • Vision and imagination are also central components of creating lasting change. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you any different.
  • Soak up as much love for land, sky, air, water, flora, and fauna as you can. Never stop! We are all part of this – not separate from it. Don’t listen to those who tell you we’re superior and dominant and blah blah blah supremacist crap. Garden, on farms, in plots, in window boxes. Take walks! Admire wolverines! Send rhino poachers to game reserves with strong complements of lions! Grieve with whales and all living creatures who have experienced great loss and hold the capacity for great love.
  • It’s impossible to “prove” the extent and nature of injustice to those who don’t want to know. Educate ourselves and each other in the best ways possible, but don’t waste too much time trying to convince those who prefer to stay stuck in their iron-hard indifference.
  • Don’t be so predictable! Tried and true measures of protest and working for change have their place. But so do disruptive and wondrous ideas and actions! The women-led Montgomery Bus boycott was a wonderful and effective act of disruptive imagination. ACT UP changed the HIV/AIDS landscape much for the better, although there was a lot of mainstream hand-wringing over their tactics at first.  We don’t have to be perfect; we have to risk being powerful and, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Fight to win!”
  • Change the terms of debate. It won’t be easy, but it’s easier when we simply don’t accept the usual narrow, reductive framing of “issues” and insist on introducing our own ways of seeing the world. In Backwater Bay, we asserted a new understanding: “All Together Now: Just and Thriving Communities, Ecologies, and Economies.” And that framework gave us lots of creative room to move and to join struggles. You decide what works for you.
  • It never stops. We don’t get to a point where we can sit back and say, “OK, we won.” But we can change the nature of future work by going for what we really need. Nobody ever gets anything all at once. But we built toward what is needed, and toward evolving needs and changing conditions one strategic step at a time. There’s a different spirit and momentum when you know what you’re going toward and not just fighting to put out an out of control fire.
  • We know that we have to hold ourselves accountable. Some of us used to be Practical Men. There are still Practical Men here, though they no longer wield the same power they once had. Some of us once openly or tacitly supported the Practical Men. Some of us would be more comfortable just flipping who gets control rather than going for much deeper, more foundational transformation. But we don’t police each other. We hold ourselves and one another accountable and that feels like a good, not an onerous or oppressive, thing. It’s another way of fundamentally improving our relationships, individually and collectively.
  • Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons” and Howard Zinn’s “The Optimism of Uncertainty” when you get a chance. (You can also listen to a full reading of Le Guin’s essay here, but please note that the images that accompany the reading, not chosen by Le Guin, are all white).