Dancing on the Grave of No-7-Eleven-NYC

Back in June, I wrote that the anti-worker group No 7-Eleven NYC had “packed it in”. They had gone from meeting weekly in front of the 7-Eleven store on Avenue A and East 11th Street, to meeting only on the first Sunday of every month.

Well, at most, that amounted to two meetings. I wasn’t around to see, but I’d bet anything they didn’t meet the first Sunday of September, which was Labor Day weekend. And this was the scene in front of 7-Eleven at 1:30pm yesterday:

_MG_2596

Unfortunately, the sentiments that gave rise to them in the first place have not disappeared. No doubt they will reform in some other guise to fight efforts by DeBlasio to raise the minimum wage in New York City.

* * *

Spoiler alert!

Back in November of 2013, I wrote something that I scheduled to post automatically in October of this year. That’s all I’ll say about it, other than that it pertains to the 7-Eleven in question.

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Notes on the Brecht Forum Meeting of April 16

I was caught completely off guard when I received this email:


    Date: Sat, 12 Apr 2014 11:10:03 -0400
    From: Brecht Forum
    To: Quilas
    Subject: An Ending is Also a Beginning

    Dear Friends of the Brecht Forum,

    It is with a heavy heart that we, the Brecht Forum’s Board of Directors,
    write to you, our beloved community, of our decision to close our doors.

    As many of you know, these last few years have been financially tenuous for
    us. While our space on West Street in Manhattan provided a crucial home to
    the movement over the years, we struggled to keep up with its costs, and
    the four months that we were closed following Hurricane Sandy only served
    to exacerbate our troubles. Rising Manhattan rents forced us to Brooklyn,
    but we have incurred debts and costs that are insurmountable.

    Despite your continued support over the years, the economic climate,
    combined with the realities of real estate in New York City, have simply
    made the provision of space impossible for an organization of our means.
    Unable to pay what we owe and struggling to maintain daily operating costs,
    we made the heartbreaking decision to close the doors of the Brecht Forum
    so that the larger project we all care so deeply about may survive in a
    different form.

    We know that this announcement is coming as a shock to many of you,
    particularly in light of our recent move to the Brooklyn Commons and our
    hiring of a visionary new Executive Director. We too were hopeful for our
    new beginning, but it has become clear that in a rapidly gentrifying city,
    we have been living on borrowed time, and that despite the strong support
    of our community, this configuration of our project is unsustainable. As
    the Board, we feel that we will best honor the incredible legacy of this
    organization by closing the Brecht Forum with dignity.

    Despite closing our doors, the larger project of the Brecht Forum is
    clearly not over. We believe closing only signals the need to organize
    harder and smarter, to find a sustainable way to build movement power and
    support popular education in New York City. The four decades of
    revolutionary thinking and building that took place at the Brecht Forum
    will live on in the next steps taken by all of the important individuals
    who collectively make the Brecht Forum so special.

    Each of you has played a vital role. We thank you for the many years of
    dedication, love, labor, and thought that you all have contributed to our
    community. Without you, we could not have done it. We’re also asking you to
    make one more contribution to our community.

    Please help us move forward by bringing your questions, your love, and your
    rage to a conversation on April 16th at 7:30pm at the Commons in Brooklyn
    where we reflect and begin a conversation on what kind of organization our
    movement can and will sustain in the future.

    Thank you for your years of support, dedication, and love.

    In solidarity,

    The Board of Directors of the Brecht Forum

***

After the shock had set in, commenting on Facebook, I wrote: “At least they had the dignity to dissolve, instead of morphing into some bizarre entity like WBAI.”

I went to the meeting. I had to. Of all of the Left institutions in New York, the Brecht Forum was the one I felt the closest kinship with. I’ve been a subscriber for at least twelve years, and was a somewhat-regular attender of classes and lectures for even longer. And! the Brecht Forum was the first place I performed publicly as a mime!* This was when they were on Leonard Street, in March of 1991. Anyway…

There were as many people there as at any well-attended event they held in the past, which is to say: about 75. I got there late but it seemed as if everything was being said repeatedly, so the gist of the first part of the meeting (What Happened?) was that they had fallen seriously behind in their rent payments to the Westbeth complex during their time there, and the management company was demanding immediate payment of all arrears and for the duration of the lease (an additional 12 months). When they left Westbeth for The Commons in Brooklyn last year, there had been an informal agreement that when they surrendered the keys and vacated, they would not have to pay the rent for the duration of the lease. These types of agreements are never worth the paper they’re printed on, and the lawyers for the Westbeth management company proceeded to demand the entire amount. At one point, the figure of $500,000 was mentioned. I don’t know if that was the total they’d owe Westbeth, including the additional year, or the total amount they owed in general, because in addition to the money they owe Westbeth, there are loans and other debts that they carry, some of them decades old.

Probably the single-most troubling lesson to emerge from this was the complete incompetence of the board. Not that they incurred insurmountable debt, but that this remained a secret for so long, that they never made an appeal for support, and the magnitude of the problem only became known after they made the decision to dissolve the 501(c)3 corporation, in order to avoid having to pay Westbeth.

This is where a problem emerges. They don’t want to renege on the other debts they owe. They want to pay back the loans that were made, the salaries they owe their staff, etc. And they don’t want the mission of the Brecht Forum to stop. They want to continue in another guise, sponsor as many fund-raisers as necessary to raise the money they need for these other debts, and continue. Some of them actually seemed to think that they could do this surreptitiously, that by dissolving the current corporation and starting another with a different name but the same mission, that the lawyers couldn’t come after them. During the second part of the discussion (What Next?), one straight-thinking man (STM) told them that if the same people were involved, whatever assets they controlled could be sought by the lawyers, that they can’t stop a case from being brought, and that a judge could rule against them, no one being fooled by their subterfuge.

During this part of the discussion, ideas were presented as to what steps could/should be taken now, both in the immediate-term as well as the longer-term. Everyone agreed that the project of the Brecht Forum should continue. Proposals can be distilled into two: 1) that they continue with the current board in place, or that a new board be constituted (either soon, or very soon); and 2) that they be located in a single location, or without a single location — that they present classes/speakers in different spaces, and not just in New York City.

Some seemed to think (the board members, mostly) that they (the board members) could continue in their roles, but after the STM spoke, they were the only ones left thinking that. More than one person suggested that an interim committee be set up to start working on the Brecht Forum 2.0. The board said that they shouldn’t rush into such things, but if you ask me, this is hardly rushing — this is catching up! One participant said one reason not to proceed at this meeting was that many of the organizations associated with the Brecht Forum were not present, but I had to wonder, why weren’t they? They knew of the meeting just as the rest of us did, and not one of them showed up? Who knows what the relationship is between them now? There could be a lot of bad blood at this point.

If there’s anything I came away thinking it’s that the current board is now irrelevant. They should take care of whatever is left of dissolving and stay out of the way of what takes their place. It’s not in retribution, but because if their names are attached to any new organization, the lawyers will go after any money they are able to raise. It will stymie them for years. Given this, they are in no position to decide whether or not an interim committee is set up.

With a new board soon to be in place, it’s unlikely they will be able to continue at The Commons, which means the likelihood of their being a floating organization is great, but which also means that they don’t really exist. Any group of people can present speakers at sites in a 50-mile radius. What is likely to happen is that all of the political differences that have existed since the beginning will assert themselves and half a dozen groups will lay claim to the Brecht Forum mantle. Most will devolve to presenting in their own spaces, and the ones who don’t have their own spaces will present in other spaces. But there’s really no difference between Rick Wolff (for example) offering a class at the 92nd Street Y (for example) under the rubric of the Brecht Forum in-exile, or under that of the 92nd Street Y.

I started by saying that at least they were going out with dignity, unlike WBAI, but to WBAI’s credit, they let people know when they need money. The Brecht Forum never did; they never gave people the chance to come to their (our, as a subscriber) aid. They simply packed it in. So unless the current 501(c)3 configuration is able to quickly raise a lot of money, pay off all hostile debtors, all friendly debtors, and maintain itself in its own space, I think it’s the end of this project, and that’s sad, because it was unnecessary.

***

Not to lay all of the blame at the feet of the current board members — none of whom I knew, although I’ve known a few previous board members — the problem of lack of money didn’t just start with their move to Westbeth. One of the board members said this has always been a problem (as evidenced by the loan made decades ago). So there’s the problem of lack of funding, but also, specific to the Brecht Forum, the problem that this was never addressed. At no time that I remember did any configuration of the board hold a meeting to discuss the Brecht Forum itself. Not just problems or finances, but direction, membership, anything! At no time were minutes of board meetings made available. At no time were financial reports made. In fact, none of the usual reports that are required by any non-secret-society’s by-laws.

The woman who owns The Commons building was at the meeting, and she told us that four years ago she approached the Brecht Forum board and offered the building to them, at a below-market price, and even proposed financing it for them so that in 15 years they would own the building outright. She told us first of the difficulty she had determining who the board members were, but that when she did, she said that they never responded to her offer. When they finally moved into The Commons, they gave her no financial information. She was able to piece together something based on their tax forms, but they never told her about their debts. And when they talk of staying at The Commons after the dissolution and trying to raise money, she said they never approached her about that either, even though they’re in arrears with her also!

***

Another meeting is planned for May 15, and another for June 15! (I’m not sure of the dates, but definitely one next month and another in June.) Supposedly, some of the member organizations that couldn’t be bothered to attend this meeting will be at the May meeting.

Some of those who were proposing setting up an interim transition committee suggested meeting next week (this coming week). It’s likely that some of them will, but without the Brecht Forum’s contact list, there won’t be many people in attendance, so I don’t know what sort of mandate they’ll claim.

It was announced that the party scheduled for April 24 will still take place. That’ll be festive! Also, the Summer Intensive is also scheduled to take place, as planned.

Finally, none of this is mentioned on the Brecht Forum’s web site. Not a word.

=-=-=-=-=

* There were four of us, and the show was called “Off the Street” — to distinguish ourselves from street mimes.

Robert Ashley, 1930–2014

He works with forwardness, and backwardness. He works with what things are ahead of us, and with what things are behind us. I guess the other kind would be… to work with things that are along side us.

Yesterday (March 4), I learned from WFMU’s tweet that Robert Ashley died.

(The link in the tweet is to Peter Greenaway’s documentary on Ubuweb,

“4 American Composers”, that includes a segment on Ashley.)

I first came to know Robert Ashley (’s music) through my then-girlfriend, back in the mid-1980s. She had a Master’s degree from UW-Madison in Piano Technology. I mention the degree only because, for her recital, she was permitted to play a prepared piano, “like John Cage and Robert Ashley”. She had a cassette tape of her favorite pieces from Ashley’s “Private Lives” that I listened to often.

Eventually, I no longer had access to that tape. Time passed, and one day in the early 90s I decided to buy the opera on CD. Quite by coincidence, it was in 1991 that it was first made available on CD! (I must have sensed it.) I went to J&R Music, and when I couldn’t find it, I asked the sales guy if they had it.

“Oh, that’s Lovely Music,” he said.

“Yeah,” I thought to myself, “lovely.” I didn’t know that Lovely Music was the publisher!

They didn’t have it, but he was able to give me the address of Lovely Music’s office, which was not too far away, on West Broadway. I walked over there and bought a copy from them.

I never get tired of listening to this. Every now and then it goes back into rotation. This is one of those CDs I still quote from. I even use it on my Flickr profile page:

robert-ashley-flickr-quote

***

Robert Ashley was probably the first of the contemporary classical composers that I became familiar with. And as much as I liked “Einstein on the Beach” or “Music for 18 Musicians” or “Dolmen Music”, “Perfect Lives” resonated with me in a way the others didn’t, quite possibly because: 1) it has lyrics; and 2) it tells a story; and 3) sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

In the preface to the libretto, Melody Sumner writes:

robert-ashley-libretto-quote

There is an absoluteness to surprise, he thinks. He applies this simple thought to the problem of how to move the shot. Incredibly slowly our view begins to slide, but “begins” is a problem. … How can it begin to change? How can the beginning go unnoticed? How can we pass from one state to another? Is it possible, if one already has a certain experience of life, to start directly on the path, or is there danger involved in trying to do advanced practices without having the proper foundation? And they came to believe that, unless one has actually gone through the preliminary experiences, conclusions may be drawn on the basis of insufficient information, and that these conclusions may produce just the opposite effect of the one which is intended.

In other words: one never knows.

I do this. It’s probably a Midwestern thing.

***

You had to know I would include a video clip at the end of this! I thought about putting the last movement, which is my favorite, but I decided against it. It’s the conclusion of the journey by one of the characters, and her transformation should not be your introduction. The introduction should be your introduction! So here is the introduction to Robert Ashley’s “Private Lives”:


 
***

You might think that a moment like this would be a good time to contact my then-girlfriend. I had the idea, but I’m not going to. It’s not that we don’t speak, we just don’t keep in touch.

Six of one… two times three of one… five plus one of one… nine minus three of one… half a dozen of another.

She’s Midwestern too.

Janet Abu-Lughod

I have been so busy at work these past three weeks that I haven’t had any time to keep up with anything that’s been going on. Only today did I read Exiting the Vampire Castle, and this is from a month ago (to the very day).

But as you are probably accustomed to by now, this is not what I’m writing about. On the occasion of the death of Janet Abu-Lughod, I have a story to tell.

I went to a small college in Kentucky (which has since grown, and is now a small university). I had recently graduated and was hanging around thinking about what to do next, when Israel invaded Lebanon. This was 1982. I was appalled, and decided I was going to do something about it. I asked a Political Science professor from the school for his ideas, and he told me a cousin of his, who lived in Chicago, had just returned from Beirut. Her name was Janet Abu-Lughod, and she had with her the first photos of the invasion to make it past Israeli censors.

I had no idea who she was. I knew she was married to Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, but only after being told by the Political Science professor, and I didn’t know who he was either! It didn’t matter though. The Israeli army was censoring information of their attack, and we were going to make it public.

He contacted her and she agreed to come down and talk at the college. I arranged with the administration for the use of the auditorium, wrote a press release and invited all the newspapers and television stations within fifty miles, and advertised the event on local radio stations and newspapers.

We had a really good turnout, especially considering that school was not in session. Her talk was mostly about her work with the Palestinian government-in-exile in Beirut, the schools and hospitals and such, everything that existed that was being destroyed by Israeli bombs.

The reporting that evening and the next day was amazing. They really were the first images of the bombing; I think the reporters were probably just as ecstatic. The story was picked up by CBS Morning News and was scheduled to be broadcast the next day. However, during that time, President Reagan announced that the U.S. was considering sending troops, and our story got bumped. At the time, I thought his announcement was designed specifically to kill our story, but all these years later, I’m less certain of that.

So that’s it. That was both the first event that I organized, and my first brush with an academic notable. But I have to say, I was so busy running things that I barely remember her. We didn’t spend much time together, and back at the professor’s house, they talked mostly about family things. I still have the copy of a book she gave me though, that had just been published, a collection of essays titled: Palestinian Rights: Affirmation and Denial.

Two months later, I was on the bus for New York.

Marshall Berman, 1940–2013

The truth of the matter, as Marx sees, is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down. “All that is solid [melts into air]” — from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighborhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all — all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.

The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development that they celebrate. Even the most beautiful and impressive bourgeois buildings and public works are disposable, capitalized for fast depreciation and planned to be obsolete, closer in their social functions to tents and encampments than to “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals.”

=–=-=-=

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin, 1988) p. 99.