[Part of a brief series about protest songs, in honor of the Occupy Movement]
“Which Side Are You On” is a protest song that came out of the labor movement. It was written in the early 1930s by Florence Reece, whose husband was a miner and union organizer in Harlan County, Kentucky. One version of the story that’s told about the song is that Reece and her kids were at home when Sheriff J.H. Blair and his goons violently busted in looking for her husband, at the behest of the mining company boss. They stood guard at the house waiting for Florence’s husband to come home, terrorizing the family. After they left, she wrote this song:
Last week at my new job, we had to tell our “personal stories.” I’ve never done this before; most of the staff jobs I’ve had involved pointedly not telling your personal story, or else having to glean it and its context slowly from one another during the daily press of office-stiff bodies at the coffee shop around 3:30pm. But in a ‘movement’ job, it is expected and understood that our personhood informs and drives our work.
So at a meeting, in the light of a December sun as seen through small windows of a nonprofit organization in an office building that was formerly a hotel, after the cinnamon rolls are all eaten up, we go around the table to say who we are, how we got here, and why we have landed in what is generally called “social/economic/racial justice work.” I’m really nervous, even though my union organizer boyfriend has prepped me for this. I’m wondering what my story even is; there are so many seemingly distinct experiences in my much-lived-in life that I often fear others might view me as patched together, impulse-driven, wild at heart. My coworkers are serious ass-kickers of the system; what am I gonna do, talk about working at a record store and writing poems?
But the basics of storytelling tell us that a turning point in a story may occur when a character’s frustration turns to action. So, I asked myself, when did everything break for me? When was a moment in which I realized that if you’re not on one side, you’re on the other side, and when did I decide that this—whatever this is, this thinking and talking and fighting about making things a little bit different for some people, maybe, we hope—was more important than other things I could do with my days? When did I answer the question, Which side are you on?
Here’s a story I didn’t tell:
It was way past midnight on Christmas day two years ago, in Pennsylvania on a train barreling from Chicago to New York City. The train stopped, which woke me up. Everyone in our car was asleep; Max’s head was on my shoulder and my feet were tucked beneath a large fake-leopard-skin coat I’d borrowed from a friend just for the occasion of a winter vacation spent in a place where it actually gets cold. I looked up, forward, as people on transportation invariably do when their forward-motion ceases. I saw two young men wearing dark blue uniforms. They had guns. They walked down the aisle shaking people and waking them up. They looked at me and then quickly passed me over for two women sitting behind me, students with skin darker than mine. I tapped Max silently, urgently, wake up.
The young men with guns stopped behind me and asked another woman, also with skin darker than mine, for a certain type of piece of paper. She shook her head and motioned as though shaking out the contents of her purse; she didn’t have it. The two young men with guns demanded her papers again. We are on vacation, she said. My papers are at home. The two young men with guns then picked her up from her seat and walked with her, pinning her arms behind her, toward the front of the train. I saw her feet, still in thin pink socks, as they passed me. Max rose to follow and watch them, disappearing to the front of the car where, I could hear, more men with guns restrained the woman’s travel companion as he tried to exit after her, pushing him back into the train car as the doors slid shut.
Seconds later we were back in motion. The woman’s travel companion—her father—sat with me and Max in the observation car looking out at the black snow, moving at 100mph away from the detention cell in which his daughter now sat. As we tried to figure out who to call, which government agency concerns themselves with taking travelers off trains in the middle of the night on Christmas, we told each other little bits about our lives. As he told us his story – his recent marriage to his wife, a lost and re-found love from childhood in the Philippines; this family train trip to New York to celebrate their first anniversary; his earlier years of occupation as an airplane mechanic for the U.S. military; a grown daughter proudly about to finish medical school in Los Angeles—the man couldn’t stop shaking his head. No matter what he said, his body moved back and forth in a silent “no.” He was wearing a baseball cap that said: USA. Beneath the brim of the hat I could read in his eyes a helpless bewilderment—a search for some sort of justification, realization, or understanding of how and who and what had just taken his daughter away from him.
Much later, I helped the man and his wife hail a taxi outside of Port Authority in a freezing rain in the madness of Times Square. It was their first time in New York, and their daughter had planned to take them to museums. Now they would be spending the week trying to get back to Erie, to find their daughter and hopefully take her home. As the man thanked me profusely, I looked at his eyes beneath his baseball cap again, and a bitter grief was forming. All his life, he had told me on the train, he’d thought he was accepted. That he was one of ‘us,’ or ‘them’—American. Those young men with guns had finally made him understand that he never would be. And now he didn’t want to be, anymore.
There isn’t only one of these moments, for me and for others. There are many, and they are cumulative. We have seen more moments like these lately, or at least seen them more publicly: increasingly, people who used to think of themselves as safe realizing they are not safe. We see in these people’s eyes their brutal reckoning. And we’re going to keep seeing more.
I never even really liked “Which side are you on” as a song that much. I tend to resist being a ‘joiner’, and the song always felt… too much. But really, what the song espouses is not even about having loyalty to a union, or following ‘the union’ blindly. Unions are systems like any other; prone to fucking up but also pretty fucking useful at doing what they’re set up to do. A union is a way we have of dealing with problems–namely, the little problem we have in which the people who own things tend to exploit the people who actually make the things or run the things or… you know, do the work. So we have this thing called a union to give some structure to the gathering and exerting of power over those in power. But when we talk about the union, we are really talking about placing ourselves—our bodies, our intelligence, our power, and our weaknesses—in opposition to those who would place us beneath them. That’s all. Which side. People or property. Bootstraps or love. I’m getting sentimental but it’s real, you guys.
At work that day, I didn’t tell the story about the woman on the train in part because I’m not the main character of that story, but also because I wanted to talk about storytelling itself–about who gets to tell their stories and why. So instead I talked about working in a nightclub in New York in the late 90s, and how one night a brilliant and very rich, famous musician wanted me to let him into the club for free, and how at that same rock club where the rockstar didn’t want to pay the $8 entrance fee, I made $20 for an 8-hour shift with no tips, and I couldn’t afford to buy a guitar to replace the one that had just been stolen from my apartment.
I talked about how as a writer, I often see the same people getting to tell their stories, because they have money or power, and then they just go on and tell the same stories again and again, and promote the stories of other people who have similar stories. I talked about how some of the most brilliant artists and thinkers I’ve known have to work to live, and so usually just end up getting drunk after work instead of making art. I talked about how I want to use my working life to tell and promote different stories, even if it means I don’t get to be a prestigious author or a rockstar or a member of the literati, because at some point, you have to look around, and see.
We all have personal moments of realizing: it’s rigged. Then we just have to figure out: are we the ones tying the knots, or the ones making them come undone?
Sometimes I’d flirt with you, machinery of the system, but we never really had a thang.