A prison, a protest, an art exhibit, a family farm, an antiwar conference, rent control, World War 1 and Hunter Biden
"Are you going to write something about this? If you do, I'll share it."
This wasn't exactly a writing assignment, from one of the co-founders of the venerable anarchist newspaper from Detroit, Fifth Estate, but close enough to prompt a travelogue that I'd likely have written anyway...
Peter Werbe and I were walking away from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, after spending most of the afternoon visiting our mutual friend, Marius Mason -- prisoner number 04672-061.
I don't tour in my own country much anymore for financial reasons that my regular readers and listeners have already heard too much about, but occasionally a short regional tour works itself out, and this was the case last week in the northeastern US.
Months ago, Peter had told me he was planning to visit Marius in prison in September, and so I poked around to see if there might be a gig out there that would cover my airfare so I could join him in that endeavor. Sure enough, there was -- my sister Bonnie decided to throw her formidable energies into helping to organize a movement to end the ban on rent control in the state of Massachusetts, with last weekend being a sort of kickoff for the campaign. As my accidentally good timing would have it, there were also other events for me to participate in during the week I was around there in my old stomping grounds.
Peter and I both flew into Boston and headed up in our rental car towards Waterville, Maine. The first sort of gig on the little tour would be the opening for an exhibit of Marius's artwork, art made in prison over the years, that he mailed to different people. Various people were involved with organizing the exhibit, including someone I hadn't seen in decades, back when he lived in the Boston area. Now far from Boston, Peter and I spent our one night in Maine deep in the woods north of Waterville, in a very impressive homestead full of organic vegetables, a maple sugar shack, big solar panels, and all sorts of sculptures and such embedded in the landscape. If a political prisoner has gotten a letter postmarked in Maine in the past 25 years, there's a good chance it came from here. Posters with the faces of Herman Bell and other current and former political prisoners adorned various walls.
It was, coincidentally, the day of lots of climate-related protests around the world, including outside the UN in Manhattan with Greta Thunberg, and in thousands of other towns and cities, including Waterville, Maine. Peter and I got into town early enough to explore it a bit, and to participate in a small protest, after spending the night at the homestead. As with so many other protest vigil type things in the US, the focus was on a major intersection in town. People with signs faced the traffic. I understand why this is done, but I always find it disheartening that we have to be so oriented towards people in their cars, in order for anyone to know we're there. It also means we're not paying attention to each other, but only to getting the attention of people who are in their cars. There were two people with acoustic guitars, but you couldn't hear them over the traffic noise. Being a fair-weather sign-holder myself, I didn't stay long.
Another old friend of Marius's, former spokesperson of the Earth Liberation Front who is part of a book store collective in Buffalo, New York these days, Leslie James Pickering, gave a talk, along with Peter, where the exhibit was happening, in the lobby of an art cinema in Waterville, and I sang. One of the movies being shown was Official Secrets, so whether people had come for the art opening or for a movie, it was a good crowd.
The art we were looking at included pieces that the artist himself had not been able to look at in years. They were made, and mailed off, never to be seen again. There are ways, but as with most things involving prisoners, there are, at least, extra steps involved. Forget about mailing packages or exchanging emails. Only a handful of people are allowed to email with Marius, and then it's on a special platform run by the prison, that doesn't allow for things like pictures, or music.
Peter and I headed back to Boston after the opening, getting in late. The next day was filled with events around the rent control campaign, my favorite of which was the dinner event attended by many veteran organizers from around the Boston area, some of whom I first encountered myself when I lived in Boston in the 90's, like former city councilor, Chuck Turner.
Visiting hours at the prison are from 11 am to 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, more or less the same as at the federal prison in Ft Worth, Texas, where Peter and I had made several prior trips to visit Marius. The events in Boston were on Saturday, so early Sunday morning we left for Danbury, Connecticut.
I was born in New York City, and raised in Wilton, Connecticut, which is a bit south of Danbury on Route 7. In the summers, my family rented half of a dilapidated farmhouse north of Danbury, in Cornwall Bridge, a sparsely-populated part of northwestern Connecticut in the foothills of the Berkshires, a bit more than a stone's throw from the borders of both New York and Massachusetts. As a young man, my father moved to Danbury, and I have long had friends in the little city as well. So basically I had driven past the federal prison there on the road between the center of Danbury and the town of New Fairfield, probably a thousand times or more. Last weekend was the first time I ever actually turned in down the road that leads to the prison, and the first time I ever went over that hill and got a good look at all the barbed wire.
I was glad to hear that Marius had been transferred from Texas to Connecticut. I live on the west coast these days, but I still manage to get back to Connecticut more often than I have reason to go to Texas. Also, my assumption was that being imprisoned in Connecticut would be better than being imprisoned in Texas. After visiting Marius there, I'm not at all sure that's an accurate assumption.
The climate is nicer, for sure. And you can see mountains with trees on them, which is better than being on the outskirts of the sprawling city of Ft Worth, adjacent to a huge military base. There is no gate you have to go through to get into the prison complex, so it seems slightly less unwelcoming for visitors, at first.
Inside it's the same. The same barbed wire, the same manicured little lawns outside the same impossibly thick, automatic steel doors. Three plastic chairs and a plastic table were set out for us to sit around in the visiting room. In past visits in Texas, we visited Marius in a room that was only for certain very scary prisoners like him, where we were alone with Marius and a guard. Later, we'd visit him in a bigger room, with other prisoners and their visitors, which was the situation in Danbury. But in Texas, we could go outside and hang out in one of the little manicured lawn areas. Here, we couldn't. I also learned that Marius has even less access to guitars and materials for writing and art in Danbury, compared with Texas.
The vending machines in the visiting room were full of the same dire, nutritionless crap as the vending machines in Texas. For a vegan like Marius there's nothing edible. We had almost three hours together, but it went so quickly, as always. It's much longer than the fifteen minutes we're allowed to talk on our rare phone conversations, so you'd think three hours would seem luxurious, but it doesn't. There's far too much to say, much too much to catch up on -- personal lives, logistics of various kinds, political analyses. There are no clocks on the walls and no watches, given that visitors aren't allowed to bring their phones with them, and no one wears watches anymore. So when it was 3 o'clock, Peter and I were both caught unawares.
Though once the guard announced the time, I realized that other people around us knew the time was coming. This, I realized, was why there were two different small children having meltdowns in the room. Their time with their mother would be ending, and they had to leave the prison with their father, who had taken them to visit their mother. Seeing the children processing their environment the whole time we were in there was constantly heartbreaking. The children's father was kind and loving, and if he hadn't been like that, it's hard to imagine how much more heartbreaking it might have been to witness them walking away from their mother once again, clearly not wanting to leave without her, clearly resigned to the profound injustice of their lives, knowing the procedure, what was coming next, and how no tantrum would be enough to cause anything to change at all.
Driving from Danbury to New York City the next day, I wondered how another long-term ELF prisoner, Daniel McGowan, is doing. Last I saw him, he was under house arrest in Manhattan. Then he spent many years in prison, and now he's out again. We exchanged a letter once. Too many things slip through the cracks.
The event I was singing at in Manhattan was radically altered in terms of the speakers who'd be speaking, due to the fact that two of the people who were supposed to be the main speakers, diplomats from Cuba and Venezuela I believe, were suddenly not allowed to leave the United Nations. Traditionally, diplomats from the many countries that had bad relations with the US could travel freely within a 25-mile radius of the UN, but the Trump administration had just informed certain diplomats that they were now only allowed to travel from the airport to their residence, and to the UN -- nowhere else.
My last gig on the trip was back in Danbury, where the organizer, an academic named John Coleman who is starting up a little school of some kind, wanted me to focus my set on the end of the First World War, a period I've written about fairly extensively. 1919, like 2019, was a period of great uncertainty about the future, and conflict within this and many other societies. It was a crossroads, a period where the future was being determined, largely by those advocating some form of socialism, or those advocating some form of fascism.
Flying home, catching up on rapidly-evolving news developments, with the Democrats announcing their latest impeachment plans, it is once again abundantly obvious why people like me and John keep on coming back to these historical parallels between the present time and the interwar period that began a little over a century ago.
As I have pointed out on various occasions in song and prose, the rise of fascism in Germany was born out of the failure of democracy, basically. The democratically-elected government, led by social democrats who supposedly were interested in the welfare of the working class, failed to harness the immense wealth of the country -- ravaged, of course, in so many ways by World War 1 as it was -- in such a way that would have allowed the German people to eat.
Fascism became more and more popular while the left remained both fractured and inept. And now I learn about the extent of the corruption of the Biden family dynasty, which is perhaps going to be attempting to represent some kind of more progressive alternative to Trumpism in the 2020 US elections. This man whose son made $50,000 a month lobbying for a Ukrainian gas company, after his father helped orchestrate a coup against the former government there, is to be the guy who is ostensibly going to bring together the working class and all kinds of other folks to defeat Trump, who is also the current patriarch of a family of corrupt lobbyists and business people.
To be clear: barring Trump's imminent impeachment, assuming the 2020 election goes forward, we are being given choices between one politician who is accused of being compromised by Russian money, and another who appears to be compromised by Ukrainian money. And both of them are in bed with the arms industry. Welcome to the auction.
On the bright side, it would seem entirely possible that Marius will be joined in the federal prison there sometime soon by someone with either the last name of Trump or the last name of Biden – maybe both!