Political Connections: Lafayette to Montpelier

19 Sep

On the one hand I’m involved in projects in my neighborhood (Lafayette in Jersey City, NJ), most notably a community garden, but also an anti-litter campaign, and I’m looking to do something with music. On the other hand I just got back from a trip to northern Vermont where I was part of a five-state aggregation of nine musicians that provided music for a conference on Vermont independence, which means Vermont seceding from the United States and establishing itself as a sovereign nation once again (Vermont was a republic between 1777 and 1791).

What do these two spheres of activity have to do with one another? What are the connections?

Some People Links

There is, of course, the fact that I’m involved in both sets of these arenas. I live in the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City and am working to make it a better neighborhood. Lafayette’s my home.

I traveled to Vermont at the behest (when was the last time I used that word?) of Charlie Keil, an intellectual and musical compatriot. Charlie is an anarchist, as am I, and a pacifist, ditto. We were both conscientious objectors during our years of draft eligibility. And we’re both musicians.

In particular, Charlie is interested in getting more people to make live music and he’s interested in what he calls a 12/8 Path band, which is a strolling brass band at home in 12/8 time. We’ve played many demonstrations together in New York City, including a large anti-war demonstration prior to the invasion of Iraq and an anti-nuclear demonstration where Japanese and out-numbered everyone else.

But, how’s that get us to Vermont celebrating the future independence of Vermont? Simple, really. Charlie believes in “small is beautiful” and I’m OK with it. Breaking the USofA into a number of smaller and more flexible states seems like a reasonable thing to do. That’s something advocated by Thomas Naylor, an economist and an activist for Vermont independence. It’s Naylor who brought Charlie to Vermont and I came along.

Me and a bunch of other guys. Since this post is about connections I could legitimately talk about these others. But I won’t. For one thing, that could easily go on and on and on as I start moving out along those networks. For another, I don’t know much about most of them except that they’re good and versatile musicians, which I learned from playing with them, some of the for the first time in Vermont. But I’ll mention one, trombonist Steve Swell, who’s sympathetic to Charlie’s politics and mine. You can track his musical links through his Wikipedia entry. Also, Steve’s loosely familiar with my neighborhood as he went to college in Jersey City.

Common Issues

OK, so I live in Lafayette and have interests in common with the folks that gathered in Vermont. So what?

Well, the community garden in Lafayette serves various functions. The full name is “Lafayette Community Learning Garden.” Learning what? About plants and how to garden, about food and nutrition; and also more generally about biology and the environment. Such gardens are beginning to spring up all over Jersey City and, for that matter, the country. And people are thinking about doing urban gardens on a large enough scale that they become a significant source of food. We’re certainly not there yet in Jersey City, but some of us ARE thinking about it.

And so are the folks in Vermont. One of the panel discussions at the conference was “Feeding Vermont Independence.” Vermont is rural, Jersey City certainly is not—it’s in one of the largest urban areas in the country, the New York City metropolitan region. Still, increasing and diversifying the local production of food is an issue in both places. And maybe me and my Jersey City folks can hook up with some Vermont folks and exchange seeds and ideas.

Who knows?

The Vermont conference also had panels on finance and on energy. The finance panel included discussion of local currency, which is not, as far as I know, under discussion in Jersey City. But it certainly could be. And energy as well. People in Jersey City are keenly aware of the costs of heating a house or an apartment and the costs of fueling a car.

None of this is surprising. Vermont and the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City are very different hunks of land, but they’re both on the same plant, and that planet is getting badly squeezed by human extractive and occupation activities. We’ve got the same issues in very different geographical contexts.


I use that word in preference to “empowerment” which, for some reason, I don’t much like—perhaps because it’s been appropriated by management-speak where it’s another way of saying “toe the line with a smile.” The Vermonters want to secede because they’re dissatisfied with a wide range of national activities, including the war state and destructive energy policies. They regard secession as their best chance of gaining control over their collective destiny rather than being dragged over a cliff by the United States Federal Government.

The people of Lafayette are in a very different situation, of course. For one thing I’m talking about a group of people defined rather narrowly by where they live, a certain area in the southeast of Jersey City. The Vermonters at that conference live across a much larger geographic area and certainly do not represent a random sample of the population of Vermont. The group is self-selected on the basis of their political and social beliefs and desires, which is certainly not the case with the Lafayette neighborhood. People live here because they’ve always lived here, or because they can afford the rent or purchase price (it’s cheaper than other areas of Jersey City), or because they like being near Liberty State Park, or they know people in the area, or whatever reason.

As far as I can tell there’s no neighborhood sentiment for seceding from Jersey City—though the City sometimes treats us a bit like a foreign country; much less from the Union. Power means things like getting construction projects in the area to hire local workers (rather than undocumented aliens hired under the table at low wages) or having the ground-breaking on construction of a new park face the neighborhood rather than face away from the neighborhood.

A week ago the neighborhood had a block party, the first in a long time. We got permission from the city to close down a block on Pacific Avenue, which is the main North-South street through the neighborhood. We had permission to close down the street until 6PM. So why’d the police shut down the block party at 5PM? That’s the kind of power issue we face.

And that street closing IS a pretty big deal for us. You see, litter’s an issue here, as it is in many urban areas. Why do people throw candy wrappers, soda cans, and this that and the other on the street? I’ll bet part of the reason is that they don’t feel that the neighborhood is their own in any deep way. It’s where they live, but that’s about it. Throwing litter on the street is of no account because it’s not their street. It belongs to The City. Whoever, whatever, THAT is, it’s Over There Somewhere, or In Your Face hassling you. It may occupy the same turf, but it’s foreign.

So, when the neighborhood got The City to close the street, the neighborhood got control of that street. It became our territory, where the kids chased one another with water guns and everyone danced the electric slide. When the cops closed things down ahead of time, well, it’s no longer our street, is it? The City showed us, didn’t it?

And if it’s not our street, then we might as well toss litter into it, no?

That’s where we are in Lafayette. But, in small compass, it’s like those citizens in Vermont who don’t want their lives messed up by a Federal Government over which they have little or no control.

The Matter of Scale

So, those independent Vermonters are acting at the state and national level, though with little chance of success in the short term. Action in Lafayette is much more local, but with a greater chance of success.

Now, the interesting thing is that Jersey City has a total population of about 250,000 people while Vermont has a population of about 600,000. In the small the population of Vermont is much larger than that of Jersey City, over double it. But in the large, each is small in comparison to the population of, say, New York City, at roughly 8 million, or the United States, over 300 million. That is, in the large, we’re roughly the same populationwise.

Now, when Lafayette’s community garden had its grand opening back in June of this year, three city councilmen attended, one represented Ward F (where Lafayette is located), one at-large, and one representing Ward E, but who is also running for mayor. I’m pretty sure that, to some extent, their presence reflects the status of June Jones within the City; she’s the one who organized the garden. And she’s lived in Lafayette her whole life.

My point then is that, despite the fact that the police chose to shut-down a block party an hour early, the neighborhood is not powerless. We can, and do, reach City Hall. But it’s tricky and I don’t pretend to understand how these things work.

Jersey City, in turn, belongs to Mayors for Peace, which was founded by the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1982 to bring about an end to nuclear weapons. Over 5000 cities have joined the organization. Jersey City joined in 1989, long enough ago that I suspect that the current city administration doesn’t much know that it belongs to this organization. New York City doesn’t belong—how could it, after all it’s an adjunct to the Federal government?—but both Burlington and Montpelier do, as does Marlboro. Montpelier’s the capitol of Vermont; the independence conference was held in the Statehouse.

Now, I don’t know just what I want to make of this. It’s something I find interesting, that over 5000 cities in the world should take it on themselves to have a strong position on an issue that’s nominally one of national policy. On what other issues are cities appropriating national prerogatives to themselves? Will we see more of this in the future? There is, for example, a world-wide movement of Transition Towns, over 400 local communities working toward energy independence and self-sufficiency.

Something to think about, no?

What I’m suggesting (and hoping, certainly) is that, in the long run, more and more political action which shift to cities and thereby ‘hollow out’ the increasingly sclerotic system of nation states which governs the earth and the global level. In a century the nation states will be husks of what they are now and most of the world’s civic business will be conducted by shifting coalitions of cities and regions. In such a world a neighborhood in Jersey City and a group of citizens in Vermont are within hailing distance of one another in terms of political power.

As for just what that means . . . . we’ll have to see, won’t we?

A Latourian Afterword

Graham Harman has been commissioned to do a book on Bruno Latour’s political philosophy, which will be quite a trick as Latour’s stated political views seem to be few and far between. But he’s certainly very much aware of politics as a mode of human action on various scales.

Here’s what Harman says of the project:

You’ll never fail to score points by calling someone “bourgeois” or “neo-liberal,” but from now on we need to do more than score points. In order to help raise the level of actual political debate in continental philosophy, we need to end the posturing of continual rhetorical left-flank moves, we need a wider range of positions with a less monotonous range of complaints, and we also need a clearer focus on what is really at stake in political philosophy, both Leftist and otherwise. Latour is a very interesting test case for this exercise, though his lack of an explicit platform makes a bit of assembly work necessary.

Harman is right, of course, that left-flanking moves have become tiresome and fruitless. We need, as Harman says, a wider range of positions.

Within the United States, for example, my buddy Charlie Keil has been hoping for an alliance between Tea Partiers and Occupiers, and he’s not the only one. Others have seen the possibility of that and other alliances outside the boxes of Republican and Democratic oligarchic sclerotodoxy.

And that’s one of the things that makes Latour interesting, as he’s interested in identifying currents of social activity before they have ‘solidified’ into ‘society.’ That’s something we very much need to be able to do, to identify networks of actors on the verge of self-organizing into new social formations. That’s what Charlie Keil is trying to do and that’s what I’m up to as well.

The discussion of political connections in this post is thus an exercise in Latourian political practice. It’s vague, lacking in detail, but can be fleshed out. It’s a crude map to uncharted territory.


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