Though we've still a week to go until the month T.S. Eliot famously dubbed "the cruelest," March has been pretty darn mean already.  The winter is, albeit not as bad as it could be, clinging with a bit of a vengeance, having taken a holiday last year. Today was brisk and cold, with a bracing wind and spitting snow.

Such was the backdrop in Chicago's Federal Plaza for a rally in support of marriage equality, on the eve of Supreme Court arguments on the Prop. 8 same sex marriage case, and 2 days before oral arguments on a DOMA case (the backstory for this particular DOMA case can be seen in the documentary, Edie & Thea.)

I stopped by the rally early, and immediately came across Violet, her brother and Mom. I normally feel a little queasy about seeing kids holding signs at political events, but Violet--and her sign--were pretty irresistible.  She cut out pictures of pretty bride ladies and put them into marrying couples. Her collage reminds me a little bit of a scrapbook I kept as a kid which consisted mostly of my cutting out pictures of various objects that I liked (say, table lamps) and pasting them in. Only Violet's is much girlier (and um political). Anyway, she was nice enough to let me take her picture (and you can just make out her brother behind her with his boy version).

The NYTimes published  a great and easy-to-read guide to the possible paths SCOTUS could take on these cases. I'm no expert courtwatcher, but I'm betting that they'll take the most politically neutral and limited path possible, at least on the Prop 8 case. (You can hear the oral arguments on the SCOTUS website this Friday, apparently) But it feels like it's just a matter of time now until sex isn't a barrier to marriage. I teach about marriage, and I long for the day when I can cover same sex marriage in a sentence rather than a convoluted, extended lecture that requires a patchwork map. I know that we'll look back on this time and view restrictions on same sex marriage as simple prejudice, much as we look back on racial restrictions on marriage. Odd to be living in that knowledge.

A couple of activists spoke before I scurried home, one of them a woman who came out as a lesbian at Woodstock in 1969. She spoke about the married-like lives of so many same-sex couples she knew. And while I usually hate the narratives of "we're paying taxes so we deserve X," there was something very compelling about her taking this approach to same sex marriage: we're paying the Sup Ct justices, we're fighting in the military and we can't marry, can't rely on shared property rights, etc. Nothing like a normative argument wielded by a non-normative voice. 

Weddings pretty much always bring a tear to my eye, and today the wedding talk--the aspiration to union and commitment, with all its flawed human yearning for perfection--also brought a tear to the eye.

I don't expect much from this Court, but I left the rally feeling alive with hope; bubbly with color and humor from the high spirits and occasional quips; invigorated by the human, petitioning congress. Married to everyone.

I strolled down to LaSalle and Jackson, birthplace of Occupy Chicago, on a newly brisk morning last Sunday. The website said a march was scheduled at 1:00 pm, but when I arrived at 1:30, there were just a couple of disparate groupings of people set up. The march, I discovered, was scheduled for later that day--a little too late for me to stick around for. Either my intell was out of date or Occupy just rolls that way.

A group was set up next to the Chicago Board of Trade, writing up picket signs, chatting and eating birthday cake someone was circulating. There was a balloon artist(?) crafting various inflated contortions, hawking his intent to "keep the kids occupied."
Lucy, The Occupy Wonder Dog
Across from the Federal Reserve, on the corner where I first encountered Occupy on a sunny September day a year ago, was a group of folks hanging out. A group of drummers were pounding out a respectable beat. Folks circulated; occasionally some one would offer you a pamphlet on an upcoming march against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan or on a vaguely mystical sounding obscure organization.
Drummer Boys
The occasional Chicago architectural walking tour wandered by, looking a tad uncomfortable. One Occupy tourist had his photo taken with an Occupier holding a happy birthday sign. (He came back later to take a similar picture of his female companion).
I remained a fly on the wall. People were friendly enough, but there was clearly a small knot of Occupiers who knew each other, and it was a small enough gathering that I didn't really feel like part of a mass. Instead, I felt separate without the luxury of anonymity that a crowd affords. But maybe that's just how BloomVox rolls.

So I hung out for awhile, idly scanning a section of the Sunday NYTimes while surveying the scene (an Occupier informed me that the Times "rots your mind", then backpedalled from the snarky remark in typical friendly Midwestern fashion by acknowledging he had the WSJ in his bag). I lent my presence to the scene, another body to be counted, and then rejoined the civilians wandering the empty weekend canyon in the burgeoning autumn light.
Happy Birthday, Occupy Chicago
Happily Occupying LaSalle & Jackson
Today was warm and sunny, vistigially summery. As I was hunting for the city clerk's office to update my address with the Board of Elections so I'm registered to vote for the Prexy election, I came across a small but evidently tenacious gaggle of Occupiers. It's OWS' birthday, with events scheduled nationally. The fellow holding the birthday greetings tells me Occupy Chicago will be having its birthday celebration/march Sept. 23. (he also had a lot of nice things to say about Chicago, the city, in a decidedly northeastern accent). I hope to make the march and will post on it if I do.
Occupy Amherst (Amherst, MA)
Last fall, when Occupy Wall Street first began its marches and occupation of Zuccotti Park in NYC (AKA Liberty Park), many of us wondered if it could survive the impending winter.  And when the Mayor and police cleared out the park in November, many wondered if the movement would last.  Loyal BloomVoxers will recall that I've seen evidence of the post-Zuccotti persistence of Occupy in Chicago, and places like Grand Rapids, MI and Detroit.  Most recently, I was delighted to find a group from Occupy Amherst protesting in front of a Bank of America in Amherst, MA. When I asked how long they've been at it, they said "from the beginning."  They maintain a presence in front of the bank for an hour every Monday.  They were a cheery, all-ages bunch, with the flavor of that Amherst-Northampton-Mt. Holyoke collegetown braniac vibe. Amherst had had a pretty heavy snow the two days prior, but Occupy was standing tall.

The relatively mild winter nationally is pretty much over, and Occupy still stands all over the country.  This past weekend, a few hundred Occupiers reclaimed Zuccotti Park to celebrate OWS'  6-month birthday for a brief, shining moment until ousted by the police.  There was also an evening march. (There were arrests made, the NYPD claim under 100, amid allegations of police brutality.  Check out the somewhat indecipherable video on the OWS site.) There have been commemorative gatherings in Chicago as well. As always, the OWS website is a great source of news on the Occupation. (I tend to find the Occupy Chicago website less helpful to outsiders.  It rarely posts press releases or news and mostly seems to serve as a bulletin board for upcoming events, which include supporting student protests on local college tuition hikes, certainly a good cause).  Some Occupiers are citing the increasing relevance of the movement in an election year, and some political candidates (e.g. Elizabeth Warren in Mass.) are channeling aspects of Occupy's message.  What I find most encouraging in my Occupy tourism is the ability of the movement to maintain fragmentation and localization:  that is, each Occupy takes up the issues and arguments that impact its community, yet still under the banner of more global concerns with exploitative corporate capitalism. Not bad for a six-month old. Bloom on, Occupy!

(from Adbusters Blog)
BloomVox was all set to enter the fray with the G-8 conference scheduled to arrive here in Chicago in mid-May, so I was bummed when the G-8 was moved to Camp David.(News seemed, for once, to travel faster in Chicago than nationally:  I got the scoop last week from a friend here before it was in the national media). BloomVox January interviewee and Russian specialist Julie Hemment passed on an article from the Russian Kommersant Daily that suggests that one of the reasons the G-8 was moved was to make Putin more comfortable. 
Loyal BloomVoxers should know that I was planning on applying for a press pass to get myself into whatever publically-restricted areas I could to bring you the skinny.  As of 2010, Chicago  allows bloggers to apply for press passes, which is great.  But who knew you have to apply for a press pass to the police?  I somehow missed that civics lesson in school.  I suppose it fits into the so-called rather broad "police power," which allows, among other things, for police to maintain 'order' in public spaces.  While I have no evidence of any abuse in issuing passes, you can imagine the potential for such abuse.  Apparently, the publication seeking a pass is thoroughly scrutinized--hard to imagine a deeply critical or 'smash the state' type blog would be granted a pass (in the past, applicants were fingerprinted and required to show 'good moral character.') When I visited the Chicago Police Dept. website and the City of Chicago website, I could not find the press pass application readily available.  Surely that's no accident.
NATO will still meet here, of course, and apparently you can apply for press passes through the U.S. State Dept..  Not sure I'll take that route (and I'm betting I'd be applying too late to get it in time anyway). Complicating all of this is Illinois' 'eavesdropping' law that not even police action may be videotaped by private citizens without consent of all parties (this law is currently being challenged in the courts). Check out the Occupy Peace blog for some great background info. I don't know what Occupy Chicago's current plan is, but they had a General Assembly meeting on strategy last week. There are protests planned for NATO on May 19; stay tuned to this Bloom station, where I'll try to bring back some intel from the streets.

The 2012 campaign season is only 2 months old, but already the electorate has been treated to two presidential songfests. There's been a bit of media buzz about Obama's brief homage to Al Green at the Apollo Theatre in January:
And when Mick Jagger hands you the mike, you don't say no:
There's always an uncanny feeling evoked when presidents step out of their typical performance as world leader, commander in chief, party leader, etc. When they instead perform (explicitly) as entertainers, it makes us aware that they are always already performing as head of state, while we simultaneously get a sense of their humanness. We also may be somewhat easily impressed by their revelation of a new skill. (Though Obama's turn on 'Let's Stay Together' is really not too shabby! Note his shyness, like the awkwardness of a geek caught showing off a hidden talent) Part of that uncanny feeling must come from what political scientist Anne Norton refers to as the peculiar quality of the president as sign: he is at once representative of nation, and a particular body. So there is a kind of "double identity" inherent in the figure of the president, and a sharing of resonance and meaning back and forth between the office and the officeholder.

When I first viewed these videos, it struck me that one aspect of the particular uncanniness of these moments is that Obama here is channeling key cultural achievements of African-Americans:  Soul music and the Blues. He is thus, really for the first time, embedding those deeply American traditions in the heretofore quite white White House.  And there's something really wonderful and profound about that.  As Norton says, every office undergoes a transubstantiation by its occupier--the specific President leaves the presidency different than when he found it.  And despite deserved critiques of Obama's failure to directly, explicitly address persistent racial inequality, he has made the office a little more reflective of all of America by his sheer presence in it.

Other great moments in the annals of the presidential uncanny include Presidents dancing.  Obama cuts a respectable rug in 2008 on the Ellen Show, as does Michelle Obama. I hate to end things with Pres. Bush, but I'm reminded of his (rather frequent) White House dancing. A lot of folks made fun of Bush at the time for this clip of him trying out some African dance moves.    But as much as I disdain Bush's politics and actions in office, I think he puts himself into it here, which is pretty likeable:
Occupy GR Banner
It's probably antithetical to the anti-acquisitive ethos of the Occupy movement to be notching your belt every time you visit an Occupy encampment, but alas, I am a bit of an Occupy tourist. (January seems to be the month of confession here at BloomVox). So when I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan last weekend, I tracked down Occupy Grand Rapids (or "GR" as many Michiganders call it), my 4th Occupy.
I arrived in GR (for a first time visit) in the midst of a snowstorm, and the weekend was bitterly cold. So I didn't have high hopes for Occupy GR's survival. Their web presence is a bit minimal compared to other Occupy movements in larger cities, but they do have a wikispaces page, a Flickr group pool, and a Facebook page.

One of my nieces who lives in GR helped me find Occupy GR's encampment, which is nestled on a porch of the Fountain Street Church, tucked in behind Kendall College of Design.  They had their banner proudly displayed, and behind it were chairs, a table, and a white board of events, which proclaimed that the occupation was in its 99th day. Occupy GR has been supported, and even embraced by the non-denominational Fountain Street Church, whose pastor has been open about his support, and connected the goals of the movement to the goals of Christ himself.(Other religious institutions have also seen Christian resonances in Occupy's approach). The Mayor has also been supportive of Occupy GR, inviting them to a city meeting last fall. Undoubtedly, this institutional support has allowed Occupy GR to persist.

There is a tent on the Fountain Street porch, suggesting that Occupy is indeed occupying on a 24/7 basis.  No one was present when I stopped by on a cold, wintry Sunday. But I was glad to see that the movement seems active.  While I'm new to GR, it seems like a particularly ripe city for an Occupy movement. Obviously, any part of economically eviscerated Michigan provides rich fodder for resistance movements.  But GR has extraordinary infrastructure--a 4 year old, stunning art museum (The GRAM), a large sports arena, a new building for its 35 year old Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts--surrounded by not insignificant poverty and racially segregated neighborhoods.  In part, the infrastructure is owed to the presence of many corporate heavyweights such as Steelcase, Frederick Meijer's empire, and AmWay--and the founders and heirs of these institutions remain in the area, and contribute to its amazing cultural institutions.  GR also has many colleges and funky small businesses, making it a very likeable town.  But it is a town with clear haves and have-nots, which is evident as one drives through lower-end neighborhoods of this racially and class segregated city.

I had pretty much given up hope of seeing any actual occupiers, and was contenting myself with having found the encampment, when who should I see tromping across the street but an Occupy GR contingent!  Of course I lept out of the car to go talk to them.  They were a cheery band of fresh-faced young people who happily agreed to pose for a picture for BloomVox.  When I asked where they were headed, banner aflutter, they said "sledding!"  And indeed, it was prime sledding weather, with probably 6 inches of snow having fallen in the last few days. I was glad to see Occupy having a sense of humor and fun; Occupy sledding!--hell yeah. The Occupiers told me there were still some "residents" at the Occupy site at Fountain Street church, presumably camping in the tent. (Though one wonders how often in the sub-freezing temps GR can sink to).
Overall, I was struck by their enthusiasm and energy; the kind of down-to-earth ease and humor that I feel is a staple in my beloved, newly-adopted home-away-from-home Michigan. And I was aware of their youth, and grateful that young people are once again reinvigorating progressive politics.  Bloom on, Occupy!  Bloom on, GR!

This time of year, "top ten" lists abound. The NYTimes last Sunday published its top ten lists of the best culture of 2011; VH1 is showing the top top 40 of 2011, and Time Magazine has named its person of the year for 2011.  These neat categorizations and summations of the year are a guilty pleasure for BloomVox.  Assessing the past year, in world events and private lives, certainly has value, though we should probably be suspicious of neat, hierarchical lists.
But when I take up the challenge of ranking 2011's world events (if anything, it makes for a fun parlor game), I am struck by a global continuity of events.  Not since the 1960s has it been possible to point to a synchronous political spirit expressing itself in countries around the world.  So while Time's naming of the "Protester" as the person of the year for 2011 is a bit cheesy, it does get at the extraordinary trend of global uprisings that marked 2011.  Three weeks after I left Cairo, Egyptians were standing up for democracy in Tahrir Square, in part inspired by earlier uprisings in Tunisia.  The flowering of resistance known as the "Arab Spring" followed.  Not much later, people in Wisconsin stood up to the government's suppression of unions. In the summer, people took to the streets in England (not always peacefully) to protest police abuses, and in the fall, Occupy Wall Street took up residence in Zuccotti Park, spawning offshoots throughout the U.S. and the world. 
Obviously, it's important to not lump all of these movements, grievances, and protesters together. But the economic climate is clearly key to many of these protests. (That said, the economic marginalization and poverty of protesters in the Arab world is far more profound than their Western counterparts). At the core of many of these movements is an attack on income disparity, the oppressive power of what OWS has dubbed the "1%," and a general complaint against austerity measures. And OWS, at least, has been explicit about its connection to other global political uprisings, describing itself as a step in the recent lineage.
Where we end the year with all of these movements is of course another matter. Occupy camps are being cleared out throughout the U.S., some Egyptians have returned to Tahrir Square, while some are joining with the military to oppose continued protests, and the crackdown has become increasingly violent.
But when I contemplate whether to see failure in the current state of these movements, I am reminded of a saying passed on to me by an Iranian-exile livery driver in Boston:  "When you ask the Chinese what they think of the French Revolution, they say it's too soon to tell." I don't know enough about Chinese culture to know how to locate that assessment, but it strikes me as a good position to assume regarding world events. (In a similar vein, check out Nicholas Kristof's great NYTimes video post on the need for patience in assessing Egypt's future).
The top stories of the year amount to one story:  global awakening and action. BloomVox's wish for 2012 is that this awakening leads to peaceful action, greater knowledge, an enhanced sense of unity and community, and greater economic and social justice globally.

Grand Circus Park, Post-Occupy, Detroit
BloomVox was excited at the prospect of a visit to Detroit in late November, only to have that thrill diminished by the news that Occupy Detroit had its permit to occupy Grand Circus Park expire 2 days before I got there. While the removal of Occupy in Detroit appears to be peaceful, and with no incidents with the police, it still feels like this displacement of Occupy, like the others nationwide (most recently in Boston and Baltimore) further deflates public attention to the movement.
But Occupy Detroit has remained quite active. Even the briefest visit to its website shows how effectively Occupy Detroit has linked its concerns to local issues and mobilized in very practical ways.  Most recently, OD has announced it will be joining in an event for Dec. 17 to show solidarity with the United Steelworkers involved in a plant lockout. (OD has joined with unions in activism before, in this city where union struggles are so central to its character.) OD also recently co-organized "Occupy Our Homes," where Occupiers stood tall with 2 Michiganders who were subject to foreclosure actions, one of whom apparently has been reprieved from eviction since the protests.

Traces of Occupy Detroit
Despite the news of Occupy's ouster, I made a sojourn to Grand Circus Park in the hopes of finding perhaps a small rally, or other traces of the occupation. It was a warm November day, and the park's occupants were limited to a circle of down-and-out looking Detroiters who sat around the defunct central fountain.  There was one poster for "Peace Zones for Life,"  a project of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality (see above), but otherwise there were no banners or slogans or posters to indicate Occupy had been there. 

Occupy Footprint
The only way you would know the park had formerly hosted the progressive shot-in-the arm of Occupy Detroit is by the footprints left in the grass by the Occupy encampment. In the dwindling lawn of late fall, the squares of burnt-out ground fringed with electric green dying grass constitute the ruins of the historic movement.  But these traces are only the archive of the movement's buildings, which were transient themselves. Occupy Detroit, soul without a visible material body, lives!

Bob Palmer (second from left)
Bob Palmer is a Chicago housing rights activist, as Policy Director at Housing Action Illinois. Palmer spends a lot of time advocating for state legislation to improve access to housing for low-income people.  But that's just his day job: when Palmer takes a vacation, it's often to participate in international, grass-roots peace efforts which take him to various conflict zones around the world.  Palmer has visited Israel-Palestine with a peace delegation, as well as Colombia.  In August 2011, Palmer went with a different organization's delegation to Afghanistan.  I asked Palmer to reflect on his experiences there:

BV: What was the nature of the group you traveled with to Afghanistan, and what were its goals?
BP: I participated in a peacemaking delegation to Afghanistan with Voices for Creative Nonviolence [some of whom are pictured above].  Voices, based in Chicago, is a grassroots group dedicated to active non-violent resistance to U.S. war-making.  People may be familiar with the work of Kathy Kelly, who is the best-known member of Voices.  [Access their website here]
BV:  Where were you in Afghanistan, and were you able to roam around, or was it fairly controlled?
BP: Because of safety concerns, we were largely limited to traveling within Kabul and a couple of nearby areas.  Even within Kabul we didn't wander freely, just to minimize any risks.  In Kabul, you can be on one block and not readily see the impact of the war.  However, you can go around the corner and it's all bombed out, and around the next corner there is a refugee camp with people living in mud huts or under plastic tarps.  The refugee camps are full of people who fled other parts of the country for the relative safety of Kabul.  The traffic in Kabul is horrible; the population of the city has supposedly more than doubled over the course of the last ten years because of the war.

BV: What kinds of things did you do in Kabul? Were you able to meet with people one-on-one?
BP: We did the usual delegation-type activities, primarily meeting with representatives from NGOs working on a range of issues, such as human rights, legal system reform, women's economic empowerment, public education and social service provision.  Most of the people we met with were Afghans or Afghan-Americans.  I was very impressed by all the good work going on to build a civil society.  When we talked with people, I didn't have the sense that people were holding back from telling us what they really felt.  Overall, there was not much confidence in the current government, because of concerns about incompetence and corruption; and there was an overall sense that the U.S. is mostly looking the other way since U.S. foreign policy goals are tied to its success.
Obviously, what I learned was limited by the people we were able to meet, some of whom are insulated from the daily impact of the war themselves.  In a way, going to Kabul and trying to get a sense of the country is like going to Manhattan, or any big city, and trying to make generalizations about the United States as a whole. 
 Our hosts and guides were three members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers [some of whom are pictured above]--a group of teenagers and young adults mostly from the Bamiyan province--who have been working since 2007 to promote non-violence and help people beyond their borders empathize with the suffering endured by people in Afghanistan because of the war.  You can visit their website, where there is a great short video of a march they had earlier this year.