There are times when, as if by some mysterious alchemical process, mere ink and printed typeface can bring an actual human existence to life, and a person’s voice seems to rise, almost audibly, from the page. In this case, the voice belongs to a Black woman named Emma Tiller who lived in West Texas in the 1930s and worked as a cook for some of the better-off white folks. She and her husband had previously been sharecroppers, and she is speaking of her solidarity with other poor people.
“When tramps and hoboes would come to their door for food, the southern white people would drive them away,” she recalls. Many of these homeless men were white, yet Tiller remembers that when a Black person came to the door, her white employers would offer food and sometimes money. “They was always nice in a nasty way to Negroes,” Tiller observes. And so she and other domestics went out of their way to help the white men who were driven off.
When the Negro woman would say, “Miz So-and-So, we got some cold food in the kitchen left from lunch. Why don’t you give it to ’im?” she’ll say, “Oh, no, don’t give ’im nothin’. He’ll be back tomorrow with a gang of ’em. He ought to get a job and work.” . . . Sometimes we would hurry down the alley and holler at ’im: “Hey, mister, come here!” And we’d say, “Come back by after a while and I’ll put some food in a bag.” . . . Regardless of whether it was Negro or white, we would give to ’em.
Tiller’s words were recorded and quoted, along with those of more than 150 others who lived through those years, by Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times. It’s a period that’s been much on my mind this past year, as Americans have suffered mass unemployment and social upheaval on a scale not experienced since the thirties—a time when the American system appeared on the brink, and a wave of radicalism, of desperate people and emboldened social movements, rose to meet the moment.
There are plenty of political and economic histories of the period, but they tend to lose sight of the daily realities of lived experience. Which may be why, last spring, when life as we knew it fell off a cliff—when our converging catastrophes, political and planetary, were overtaken by the coronavirus pandemic—I became preoccupied with what it was really like to survive through that earlier decade of crisis, how it was that people and communities and movements held together or came apart under extreme conditions. And so I reached for Terkel’s book and other such documents, and I was reminded of the great value, especially in a theory-heavy time, of oral history as a form: its testimony to the unavoidable and not always convenient fact that history and politics, economic forces and mass movements, are driven not simply by ideological and demographic abstractions but by individual, living-breathing human beings.
I’ve wondered what it was, exactly, that I went looking for in those histories and voices from another time. No doubt the word “solidarity” has been worn out, overused to the point of abuse, but I don’t know a better one for what I’m seeking—and for what seems so needed now, at a time of national, global, and for so many, personal crisis. It’s hard to see a way forward without it.
Of course, “solidarity,” as a concept, is entirely abstract. And yet surely the thing itself, if it exists at all, is anything but. How can there be such a thing as solidarity with a merely abstract “humanity,” or a “people,” or “class”? What if, in fact, it’s only possible to be in solidarity with another person—and then another, and another?
I’ve come to know a lot of people, in my work as a journalist and activist, who are engaged in the intersecting struggles for survival in this country—fighting against planetary destruction and for social and economic justice. A good many of them have put their bodies on the line for others, which seems like a particularly literal form of solidarity. And every so often, I meet and speak with someone whose voice I can’t get out of my head. What if I listened to them, really listened, the way I’ve listened to those voices from the 1930s? What would an “oral history” of our present intersecting crises—or a few strands of it, anyway—sound like alongside those earlier records? Do the stories and voices of living individuals still have something to tell us about solidarity—something that can’t be learned except by listening?
Emma Tiller remembers the men to whom she brought food and clothing in the alleys. “They would sit and talk and tell us their hard luck story,” she tells Terkel. “It’s very important you learn people as people are. Anybody can go around and write a book about a person, but that book doesn’t always tell you that person really. . . . It’s very important to see people as people.”
Nobody Knows Who I Am
Isaac Petersen is a twenty-five-year-old poet and activist who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On December 7, 2019, he walked beside me in the snow along an empty stretch of railroad tracks through the woods south of the junction in Ayer, Massachusetts. The temperature was in the low teens, the air was still, and the sun was setting across a frozen pond. We were scouting. Before the sun rose again a dozen of us—part of a New England-wide grassroots climate justice campaign—would stand on the tracks in front of a halted coal train, preventing it from moving north to the coal-fired power plant in Bow, New Hampshire, until we were arrested by local police. Isaac, who is white and transgender, and looks very young with his fair cheeks and short blond hair, was on the support team.
Every so often, I meet someone whose voice I can’t get out of my head.
That evening as we waited for the train, Isaac and I walked along Main Street, where the annual Christmas tree lighting celebration was going on at the historic Victorian-brick town hall. We wandered among the families with children excited to see Santa Claus. We admired the ice sculpture of an old-fashioned train. The town is proud of its railroad history. “These people think I’m normal and that I’m here to look at this Christmas tree,” Isaac remembers thinking to himself, “but actually I’m here to trespass on the train tracks and help block a coal train to shut down a coal plant to help mitigate the climate crisis because people are going to die. I had this very definite sense that, like, nobody really knows who I am.”
Isaac grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and went to graduate school at San Diego State University. His family, who attended a fundamentalist Christian church, lived in a trailer outside of town until he was thirteen. Isaac and I spoke in December 2019 and again in July 2020. His voice is low yet boyish, with no discernible accent.
I was homeschooled, and went to North Greenville University, which is a Baptist college up in the Appalachian Mountains, about forty-five minutes from where I grew up. There’s, like, nothing there. It was five miles to the nearest gas station. I was young when I went to college, sixteen.
My family was definitely poor when I was growing up. My dad was disabled—he had paranoid schizophrenia, and he also had some really serious fibromyalgia—and in addition to that, because of the ideas that he had about women and gender roles, he wouldn’t allow my mom to work. We got a lot of help from family members. There was a really strong sense of shame about the fact that we were always financially dependent on somebody.
My mom and I are very similar people. [chuckles] We’ve always had a really close connection. And, I don’t know, for me to move in a direction that was really unfamiliar to her was a thing that, like, she was going to try her best to understand. Some of the first things I talked with her about, politically, were Ferguson and then Standing Rock. And climate change.
Did you have an awareness of class while growing up?
I think I became class-aware, started to have emotions about it and awareness about it, in late elementary school. My dad lost a lot of jobs, because of his paranoid schizophrenia, and there was this feeling of that reflecting on our family—whether we were, like, good people, whether we were working hard enough. We had to ask people for help a lot, like, to borrow vehicles because ours broke down all the time. I remember being, I don’t know, probably ten-ish, and offering my parents money that I had saved up so that they could get a rental car for a day. That kind of thing. And when I was in high school, there were times when I contributed to paying bills and buying groceries.
I know that so much of the suffering in my life could have been so much more easily remedied if money had not been an issue. My dad, apart from being mentally ill, was also abusive, but if my mom had been able to be financially independent, so much would’ve been different. Or, like, my family didn’t have good health care access, and if class were not such a horrible divide in our country, that would be so different, and would’ve been so different in my dad’s family growing up, and maybe we would never have had this situation whatsoever. It feels in so many ways that it’s an underlying thing, that if you pulled that thread, so many things would change.
Do you think solidarity is possible across class divides?
I think it’s not only possible but very necessary. Like, in my friend Olivia’s family, people went to boarding school—which I think is ridiculous! [laughs] To be clear, I was not aware that that was a thing that still happens. I knew that it happened in novels, but in real life? And then all of her dad’s siblings went to Harvard! Like, anyway, I may think that it’s absurd, but the economic difference, between my growing up and Olivia’s growing up, and between the multi-billionaires who are wrecking this country and wrecking people’s lives? Like, Olivia is my comrade. We can laugh about boarding school. I love Olivia. I can trust her.
Olivia and I are protest buddies. We’ve been going to a bunch of the racial justice protests in Boston, the actions against police violence and the Black Lives Matter-adjacent actions. And this week we went to a protest action for undocumented immigrants, an encampment at the State House organized by Cosecha, and I went to an allies action.
When did it first occur to you to get involved in activism?
As a kid I read a lot of history, my mom was really excited about history, and she bought us Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I was really invested in his autobiography. And the next time we went to the library I got several other first-hand personal narratives of enslaved people. I think that was one of the first places I gained a strong sense that sometimes there are things in the world that happen, and you have to do something about them, even if they’re not happening to you.
And then the summer of 2014, I had moved home from college, and I did not know what I was doing. My mom was starting to think about separating from my dad. And I was feeling really unsure about my own agency, but also determined not to be helpless anymore. Like, I really wanted my abusive dad out of my life, and my mom and my siblings to be happy. And at the same time, I was watching things unfold in Ferguson, and reading articles and reposting things, and like, you know, petition signing—the stuff you can do when you’re trapped in your parents’ house and you don’t have any money.
And then when I was in grad school, I did a relatively significant amount of labor and immigration-related action in San Diego.
How do you personally relate to the idea of solidarity in social movements? Is it something you think about?
It’s hard to describe. [long pause] You probably know the quote from a group of indigenous organizers in Australia, the one that goes, like, “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I know on an objective level, and believe on a heart level, that my liberation is bound up with everyone’s, but I have a hard time tapping into that emotionally—a hard time thinking about the impact on me rather than other people, seeing myself as a human among other humans. Sometimes that’s even the case when I’m working on a trans rights issue that’s very clearly about my liberation. I’m still trying to sort out my tendency to remove myself from the equation. Because, actually, in the world we’re trying to build, nobody’s self is diminished, but rather, everyone’s liberation is worked for.
Aaron Barkham was a coal miner in West Virginia. His father was also a miner, and died in a coal camp. “People worked fifteen hours a day, loaded a four-ton car, they got a dollar out of it,” he tells Terkel in Hard Times. “If the company could, it’d take that.” He remembers:
It got bad in ’29. . . . One day they was workin’, the next day the mines shut down. . . . They didn’t have the privilege of calling their souls their own. Most people by that time was in debt so far to the company itself, they couldn’t live. Some of them been in debt from ’29 till today, and never got out. . . . The company got their foot on ’em even now.
One time they had to haul a dead mule out of the mine. “They fired the guy that got that mule killed,” he says. “They told him a mule’s worth more’n a man. They had to pay $50 for a mule, but a man could be got for nothin’. He never had worked another day since. Blackballed for costin’ ’em that money.”
“I came from a very small town in northern Wisconsin,” says Hank Oettinger, a linotype operator and labor organizer in the 1930s. “It has been ravaged by the lumber barons. It was cut-over land.”
“I had it drilled in me,” he tells Terkel, “there are no such things as classes in America. I awoke one day. . . . gradually got involved in the union movement.”
Looking back on that time, three decades later, he doubts that the younger union workers have any notion of what those early, life-or-death struggles were like.
“We used to sing, in the organizing days of the CIO, ‘Solidarity Forever.’ The Communists were active in it,” he recalls. “Hell, we’d even sing ‘The Internationale’ on occasion. Could I get a young printer today, who drives a big Buick, who has a home in the suburbs—could I get him to sing, ‘Arise, ye prisoners of starvation. . . .’?”
And then it occurs to him: “It’s like when I was in the civil rights marches of 1965, they’d start chanting, ‘We want freedom.’ Here I am, a printer making $200 a week. It sounds silly as I chant, ‘I want freedom now.’”
“I know it’s theirs I’m asking for,” he says, “and, in a way it’s mine. But it does sound silly, as I say it.”
All One Fight
Morgan Mead, a fifty-seven-year-old carpenter from the small town of Wendell (pop. 901) in western Massachusetts, sat across from me in a jail cell at the Ayer police station. It was the morning of December 8, 2019, and ten of our comrades filled the surrounding cells. A few hours earlier, we were standing on the tracks blockading a coal train on its way to New Hampshire. Now Morgan and I, two middle-aged white guys, he in his work clothes and with a long and unruly grey beard, were trading train song lyrics. Johnny Cash. The Stones. Curtis Mayfield. Gary Clark Jr. We’d only met the day before, and we talked nearly the entire seven or eight hours we were locked up together. When I asked him what he does for a living, he answered, almost sheepishly, “Oh, I swing a hammer.” When I asked him why he’d stand in front of a coal train, he suddenly teared up, his voice catching. “Because I love where I live,” he said, “and I don’t want it to be destroyed.”
A couple of weeks later I drove out to Morgan’s house in Wendell, where he’s lived for the past twenty-five years. He’s divorced, and has an eighteen-year-old son he remains close with. When I entered the house, I was suddenly surrounded by vibrant paintings on every available wall space. They depict the natural world and all manner of creatures, human and nonhuman, mythological and real. The style is what you might call ecological psychedelic. Though he’s too self-effacing to mention it, he’s a talented painter.
Morgan was born in Stamford, Connecticut, and grew up in New Canaan, where his family had been since the 1640s or so. He did not have a smooth childhood. “I didn’t see eye to eye with the dominant culture down there,” he told me. “I got in a bunch of trouble with the law, which was a particularly bad move because both my father and grandfather were judges.” We spoke that day in late December and again in July 2020. He has a big, low, gruff voice, full of feeling.
As somebody said, I was a little late for the Summer of Love, but I was right on time for the Summer of Drugs. A friend of mine was going to UMass Amherst, and I came up here to live with him, and I just stayed. Moved to South Deerfield, got a job doing carpentry. Been there pretty much ever since, same job. Finally quit drinking, sobered up, in 1990.
Yeah, and then, as I got my shit together, I was living in my boss’s backyard in a little cabin, I started looking for a place to put down roots, and I somehow found myself in Wendell.
I just love the hell out of this town. There’s an odd combination of blue collar, service jobs, and academic. Wendell is a special place. It’s not just another bedroom community. People take care of each other here.
When did you decide to get involved in activism, and why?
I’ve never really been comfortable with mainstream American society or culture. But I never really considered myself an activist. I’d show up at a rally now and then with a sign. I remember during the build-up to the Iraq War, going down to Amherst, having my son on one shoulder and my “Fuck Bush” sign or whatever it was in the other hand.
But when this logging project came to Wendell State Forest, this past summer—I hated the idea of this logging going on. I had been feeling pretty isolated for a variety of reasons, and really, really concerned about the world situation. I had this complicated mix of rage that these bastards are doing this to our planet, and heartbreak for the results of it, and terror about what’s to come—what’s my son’s life going to be like?—that had been building for years. It led me to a very dark place.
“In the world we’re trying to build, nobody’s self is diminished, but rather, everyone’s liberation is worked for.”
So I went down and started talking to these people protesting the logging. And, you know, the machine that’s eating the world has come to my hometown, and here are some people who are gonna try and do something about it. And they were really nice. And I’d never really been averse to getting in trouble or speaking my mind. I’m thinking to myself, I’m not really sure on all the details of this particular fight, but I’m fuckin’ pissed off, and I’m scared, and I’m heartbroken, and here’s an opportunity. Let’s go rage! Let’s do something! I was sitting in this dark corner by myself, watching the world go to shit, and I must have been blind but I didn’t really notice all the people who were trying to do something.
So, two members of the Wendell State Forest Alliance, Gia and Priscilla, had been arrested earlier. And they showed up at a protest, and I was like, “Are you going to do it again? I’ll go get arrested. It’ll be the first time I’ve been arrested for a good cause.” “Yeah, come to our meeting on Sunday morning.” So I went to the meeting, and I wound up standing in front of the logging truck with Jim Thornely.
Yeah, and obviously that didn’t stop ’em. So then, like, two weeks later, before the logging started for the day, Lynn, John, and I went to one of these giant feller buncher machines—they’re huge industrial machines, literally the machine that is eating the world—and Lynn sat in front of this thing, and John sat back of it, and I crawled underneath it, and we wrapped a chain around all three of us, so this machine couldn’t go anywhere. We’ve got a policy of not touching the machines. We didn’t want any more bad blood with the loggers than there had to be.
There were about thirty arrests, total, over the three-week period. And we went down to Boston to the State House and testified in favor of this bill, H.897, which is an act to prevent commercial logging in our state forests and state parks. We had good support from our local reps and senators. The issue hasn’t gone away.
I think a lot of people look at the Wendell State Forest Alliance as a bunch of old hippies, who have this emotional attachment to the forest, and they’re worried about their karma or something like that—I actually am an old hippie, who does have a spiritual thing going on with the forest—but as I got farther into it, I was like, no, we’ve really got the science on our side with this. It gets kind of technical, but a mature forest sucks in an awful lot of carbon, and we ought to just leave it alone.
And yes, I am concerned about climate change, and there are many facets of that fight. But I really do think this is all one fight. And it’s not just the fight against the climate change itself, but against the mindset that it’s OK to burn coal, it’s OK to blow the top off a mountain in West Virginia, train the stuff up to New Hampshire, burn it, make money off it, and let somebody else clean up the mess. You know, we’re gonna privatize the profits and socialize the damage. Same mindset that makes it OK to cut down the forest in Wendell, a public forest. I think they’re called externalities in the corporate world. I’m tired of being an externality. And, you know, I don’t know what else to say except it’s one fight.
Do you find a sense of community or solidarity in the movements you’re part of?
So often, when movement people talk about “community,” they’re leaving out a lot of communities, if you know what I mean. Like the coal miners. We should be making a more positive appeal. You know, we can rebuild our communities—like, everybody’s communities—we could rebuild your communities on the values you claim to espouse. Values beyond growth and money.
And then Black Lives Matter. We had a small—as everything is in Wendell—I don’t think you’d call it a protest so much as standing in solidarity with BLM. But there was a much larger rally in Greenfield that I went to, and that was pretty impressive. A lot of people came out. There must’ve been at least 2,000 people there. We took over the street, and marched up the street, and had a rally in front of the police station. And a dozen people of color came and told their stories of problems they’ve had with the Greenfield police department. That was very inspiring, seeing how many people came out for that.
I strongly believe that it’s all one fight. The mindset that allows people to be treated as less than people, I have a hard time articulating it, but there’s just a mindset that’s at the root of so many of our problems. If you’re willing to dump coal slag into a river, it’s the same kind of mindset that you’re willing to kneel on a Black guy’s neck until he’s dead.
Rose Chernin lived in the Bronx in the thirties, helped organize Unemployed Councils in the city neighborhoods, and became a member of the Communist Party. Years later her daughter, Kim Chernin, interviewed her about those years for the book In My Mother’s House (1983). The account was later reprinted by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove in Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004).
She tells of the rent strikes and the organized direct actions against evictions—how they held large rallies around the evicted family’s furniture out on the sidewalks and carried the furniture back into the apartments. She remembers the police would mount machine guns on the roofs of the buildings and aim them at the people in the streets. “Our fight was successful,” she tells her daughter. “Within two years we had rent control in the Bronx.”
“We organized around our basic needs,” she recalls, speaking about the early years of the Unemployed Councils.
We’d ask people to come and told them to bring whatever they could spare. There was always something to eat in the councils. . . . Coming off the street in those days, out of that despair, you can imagine the impact the council made upon them. . . .
In Harlem the starvation was legion and soup kitchens couldn’t supply the people with enough food. We used to move whatever we could from the council to Harlem. . . .
This struggle of people against their conditions, that is where you find the meaning in life. In the worst situations, you are together with people. If there were five apples, we cut them ten ways and everybody ate. If somebody had a quarter, he went down to the corner and bought some bread and brought it back into the council.
“Life changes when you are together in this way, when you are united,” she remembers. “You lose the fear of being alone.”
Lost in a New World
Emma Schoenberg, twenty-seven, is a nonviolent direct action organizer and trainer who lives in Burlington, Vermont. On September 28, 2019, under a hot sun, she led a group of fifty-some-odd marching, singing, nonviolent protesters, this author among them, to the unfenced rear entrance of the coal-fired power plant in Bow, New Hampshire, where we were met by a line of cops behind concrete Jersey barriers. Hundreds of supporters were massed outside the plant’s main entrance. Inside the plant, a platoon of state troopers in full riot gear was prepared to meet us. A police helicopter circled overhead. Emma called us to gather around and take a knee. She asked us to remember why we were there, what moved us to this action, what we trained for together. She asked us to look around at one another’s faces, into one another’s eyes. She asked if we were ready to move forward. The answer was unanimous. We stood, we helped each other over the barriers, we clasped hands, we walked slowly, deliberately toward the police. Emma, who is white and short-statured with long dark hair, walked in front and was among the first arrested. Many of us made it through and were met by the riot cops inside the plant. In all, sixty-seven were arrested that day.
Emma grew up in Montpelier, Vermont, and has lived in the Winooski Watershed her entire life. We spoke at length that October and again in July 2020, as she was returning from Portland, Maine. Her voice is a calming, melodic alto.
I was raised in a very atheist setting, but in the last couple of years I’ve been curious about my own Judaism, because that’s my culture. On my father’s side, my great-grandparents and grandparents were these poor New York City Jews who were among the very first social workers, and some of the first card-carrying Communists, in the country.
My father is a psychologist. I grew up standard middle class. I remember, in high school, I was embarrassed by wealth, and I didn’t want other people to see my house or my parents’ car. When I went to college, at the University of Vermont, I learned that I was actually middle class, that there are people far, far wealthier than me out there in the world.
I was studying agriculture at the time, like, soil science and ecologically sustainable farming. And then suddenly the Occupy movement came along and cracked me open to social inequities in a very real way. I was a sophomore, and I was sitting in this hippy-dippy dorm room in this eco-housing frat house thing, and I saw Occupy unfolding on my computer screen, and three days later I was at Occupy Wall Street. And that was pretty much it for me, starting with Occupy. I very deeply identified as an anarchist.
When I got back, I wandered down to the very first night of Occupy Burlington, and I helped set up the encampment with a group of people in downtown. That lasted for almost a month. I dropped out of school at that point, and got really nerdy about consensus and facilitation and those wiggly fingers, if you remember. And I did some traveling to teach other encampments how to use the facilitation skills. College went on the back burner.
Occupy gave us, I think, a generation of organizers from the small encampments. And the way Occupy fetishized its tactics and the way it dribbled out in the end, people my age, and so many people in Occupy in general, were just dropped. And I thought about this so much, what it would’ve been like if we had found mentors at that time. I think people walked away from that movement with shame and embarrassment. Because it was this huge thing, and then we didn’t accomplish any immediate gains, and people thought it was a failure. I was embarrassed to mention Occupy for years. We needed mentors. We needed to be picked up.
A lot of people think that when we all show up en masse, that’s collective power. But it’s actually when people are acting from a power within, when they’re channeling that to be with one another and to take action together. That’s collective power.
That July, Emma helped organize an encampment for unhoused people in Portland. She spoke to me from her car on the way home to Burlington.
I came up to Portland to visit my friend Jay, and he invited me to a protest of houseless folks outside of City Hall. And it turned into an encampment, and I’ve been running trainings and helping the medics, and putting shoes on heroin addicts—like, I was literally helping a heroin addict put on his shoes.
We just met with the mayor of Portland this morning, because there are concrete demands: overdose prevention sites; decriminalizing camping; extending the eviction freeze; affordable housing initiatives actually in consultation with houseless people.
Black Lives Matter had a rally at one point, right next to us. They marched through, came to City Hall, onto the steps. There were these young Black activists, who are housed, saying, “These [houseless] people’s struggle is our struggle.” That was a powerful moment.
This is the mutual aid that’s happening in the time of Covid. This is Occupy, in terms of the social services that those encampments became. The first morning, the police showed up and they wanted to break up the encampment because they had heard reports of drug use, and at that point we informed them that we had medics, food, water, de-escalation, mental health services, and recovery personnel. All there at the encampment already.
So, what is solidarity? Is solidarity that aid that creates a new world that is an alternative to the police? Maybe. It might not look like the intersectional or political solidarity that we expect when we sing “Solidarity Forever.” So many of the moments when solidarity is reached, and there’s a felt sense of it—it’s quite different than when it’s been pledged, like, people “pledge solidarity.”
Solidarity is not obedience. There’s an assumption of obedience when we talk about solidarity in activist circles, like, a new set of rules that are supposed to mandate and control behavior, things that allies can and cannot do. Like, white women cannot cry, is a rule.
Occupy was born from ideology, and this encampment was born from survival—literally, people dying. And if we’re talking about the visceral qualities of this, this was—it just felt tender.
Like, this woman wandered in, her name was Louellen. Someone described her as one of the “lost ones,” you know, the schizophrenic elderly folks who are muttering on the sidewalks, and you can’t quite get them to come back. She was severely dehydrated, and she sat in the medic tent for hours. And I sat with her. It was maybe one in the morning, and two people, one of the medics and a volunteer, one of them had undone her hair and was slowly brushing it. And the other, the medic—this ex-Army guy—was washing her feet.