If there were ever a time that imagination is needed, this is it.

They say that the micro-climate of San Francisco has to do with the unique position of the city with the ocean and the hills and the bay, but if you were to spend an October there you’d probably think someone was just spinning a bingo machine and every six hours a new weather pattern is drawn and cast upon the city. Nevertheless, every day during the fall of 2011 I would leave the office at noon, pick up some lunch and walk six blocks to the Embarcadero where the Occupy San Francisco camp was in full effect. I’d find a bench or a patch of grass and just sit and look out at its wonder, occasionally talking to whoever was around or sharing some food.

OSF

Occupy San Francisco · October, 2011

It was the least I could do, as my days at the time were spent as an art director at a corporate job in the city. Every day at the office was an exercise in psychic stress, as it took everything I had to not up and join with the movement as something more than a side fixture or occasional photographer. These were my comrades, the people I understood—not those on the 14th floor of a skyscraper in business casual attire talking about Steve Jobs or mid-week network television.

Of course, I’d eventually finish my lunch and return to my job; it’s a strange feeling, when a survival instinct doesn’t come naturally. I knew that going back to work was looking out for myself first, and that at some level—a level that exists close to the invisible core of our being, resonant beyond our individual reach—it was the wrong thing to do.

Back at the office, it would be the same questions, day in and day out. What are they even doing? What do you all want anyway? It just seems like a big mess. Plus all the homeless people! Et cetera, on and on. It was the same rhetoric pervasive through the media: without a demand, what is the point?

Of course, the ambiguity was the point. I would watch curious minds drift in to the camp during my lunch break and there was such a palpable connection and understanding—that we can care for one another, and create a meaningful system of self-sufficiency together—they would leave in a glow of something one might dare call hope. There wasn’t one demand, we didn’t want one thing. This was all in—a play for the game itself. But it required people to imagine, to believe in something more, something better, yet still undefined. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask in the face of global economic collapse.

But that imagination had to be stronger than the survival instinct that would be a paycheck or a clean police record. It’s a soul-crushing walk back to the office and I probably knew then it was all fucked but didn’t want to admit it to myself, so I kept going back, day after day, regardless of the weather. I did what I could in designing propaganda and joining the strike but knew none of it would be enough.

Occupy Everything

Occupy Everything Poster, 2011

Strike

General Strike · Oakland, 2011

There was something particularly devastating about that period to me—it’s most aptly described using a scene in The Shawshank Redemption. Red is describing institutionalization as a process of longevity and dependency on a certain system after Brooks had been released after 50 years in prison. This was one of those generational moments that revealed the nature of capitalism as America’s Shawshank; a glimpse at just how long that tunnel of shit out really is.

It’s difficult for people to imagine a role in a system not governed by the principles of capitalism. I would have conversations about Occupy with colleagues and their eyes would dart about anxiously, the implied chaos just being too much. These were always the interactions that left a bad taste in my mouth; self-described liberals who, nevertheless, would favor markets and elections over movements and politics. Occupy was something that was favored in passing conversation until someone’s BART ride gets delayed, and then they’re just a nuisance.

Strike

Oakland General Strike, 2011

And so it went. The police were unleashed on the camps and the media spun it as a confusing mess. That, then, is when I lost hope. The social narrative in America was now established: abstract protest and social gathering without specific demands—ones that could undoubtedly be debated on-screen—are pointless and will be met with increasing force.

This is important, because by the looks of it, protesting is about to be back in a big way.

2007

Iraq Anti-War Protest · Portland, 2007

I had this specific moment of clarity while first photographing a major protest. I’d been to a couple anti-war marches in Portland after moving here first in 2005 and finally took my camera to the big Iraq invasion anniversary protest in 2007. There was a group of vets upset with the Black Bloc kids for their treatment of the flag, and it built over the course of five blocks where the arm-linked antifa crowd would halt the entire parade. A grayed man in a black hat sparked with rage, cutting off his own words to inhale and scream louder while pacing forward and then backward with the line. Cops in neon circled on subsidized bicycles like picky vultures and eyes would dart between the old man and the kid holding the flag at the front of the crowd. Suddenly the inevitable and the old man grabs at the flag and the black bloc kids break to help their own and the cops charge in and there’s a circle of people suddenly around this dividing American flag, pushing and pulling like a Rugby scrum, and I’m checking my exposure and punches are being thrown and the completely untethered nature of American identity and class despair is crystal clear right in front of me. And then I get hit in the head with an orange.

Confrontation
Confrontation
Confrontation
Confrontation

Protest photography became a habit and then an ambition—I attended protests regardless of occasion or location. Time passed, but the wars stayed constant and the anti-war movement only grew following the financial crisis. But as the miles of marches accumulated, my overall enthusiasm waned. These weren’t protests because people were mad about everything—the bankers, the politicians, the broadcasters. Their respective systems. The corruption. And these reactions were all so prescribed, tacit agreements of allotted civil disobedience as if protest is like vacation time in the contract of civic duty.

Every protest became more disheartening, watching people follow the police lines toward an inevitable conclusion with the return of regular traffic to downtown. Thirty-six million people marched against the Iraq War across the world and nothing came of it. There have been countless protests since about one war or another, one crisis or another, and they all end with no results and no conversation. Except Occupy.

This action against Iran is unconscionable. And there will be protests against war and they will fall on deaf ears and who knows where the fuck this world will be at in six months. Then comes the question: how much are people actually against this if they form in the same old marching lines, directed by police, offended by aggressive tactics, politely complicit with the status quo? Protest maneuvers must evolve with the times, but they must come from a place of belief, of need.

If there was ever a time where we need some imagination, it’s now.

Monsanto Protest

Protesting Monsanto · Portland, 2014

Beyond the immediate need to halt an inevitably disastrous confrontation in the Middle East, there will undoubtedly be a need to protest the state in the future. After the fizzled anti-Iraq movement and a public largely OK with how Occupy was handled, the concept of American dissent has been reduced to a meme. And while I hope we see a swing to the left this year, wars have started in far less time than eleven months.

And for this we need imagination, not just in tactics but in results. What is the vision of the future we’re fighting for? Is it so impossible to dream outside of a system of privatized, profit-driven structures of power? To believe in a world where globalization meant an international standard of labor laws and personal protections from both work and the state? A world that can see a future of shared resources and equal standards of living for all, but also refuses to give up on those being left behind here and now?

What is the best possible world we can imagine?

XR

Extinction Rebellion · Ibiza, 2019

Ibiza had a fantastic contemporary art museum nestled among an absolute nightmare of a tourist trap city, the type where all roads eventually lead to the Plaza del Parque by way of luxury shop after luxury shop. Walking through one last time to catch my ferry back to Mallorca, the Extinction Rebellion was setting up camp for what looked like a dinnertime protest in front of all the encircling restaurant patios.

A woman in red danced around a growing crowd of all ages, painting signs and constructing banners. I noticed her—in the red—stopping from time to time in her routine to embrace someone. She pirouetted around the crowd once more, stopping momentarily to dip her palms back into a tin of bright red paint. Removing them after a second to drip, she twirled twice and stopped directly in front of me, smiled, and squeezed her palms directly against my cheeks.

I had a beard at the time, and the sensation of palms on a beard is strange enough, but include fresh paint and the hands of a stranger in the equation and it’s unsettling at best. I am sure she could tell instantly my discomfort both in being singled out in a crowd and having personal space violated (and, to an extent, being painted red). She stayed completely silent for the eternity—or few seconds—her hands clasped my face, but looked me straight in the eyes with such an extremely calm and reassuring confidence: Yes, I understand. Do you?

I damn near smiled, even in my nervous dismay. She smirked and twirled away.

One of the most detestable traits of modern liberalism is that the conclusion of compromise governs a decision to enter political negotiations as being compromised. Lists of demands are written with the foregone conclusion most will be crossed out in one process or another.

We’re past the point where conviction and compromise can be tolerated as associations. In the face of a climate crisis and global inequality, a new potential for international conflict and a cabal of nationalists at the helm of power in various unstable regions, governance that focuses on pragmatism with a bias toward the free market is not how the world is going to be saved. The history books are getting ready to play connect-the-dots.

2016

Trump Election Protest · Portland, 2016

Nothing good comes next without the people showing out in force toward a common case for a better world. We may not know what that looks like or how it is defined specifically, but if we shrug off abstract nonviolence and contain protest to a routine then the vice of power will only tighten its grip.

If there ever was a time for imagination, even in just believing something better is possible, it is now. Yes, movements start and sputter. Yes, in times of structural corruption, abstraction can be a radical thought. But at this point, what is walking through a crowd with a little red paint on your face when the fucking world is on fire?

A Better World used to be an idea of peace and harmony, now it’s like we are in four-year cycles of trying to make things suck a little less. Society continues to accept subsidizing war and the wealthy for the sake of same-day delivery on a bar of deodorant is a good thing. And it should be so easy to imagine something better, because all of these systems and rules and ways of life are just invented anyway.

It’s time that actively pushing against power for the sake of humanity not be some social faux pas, that the red paint on your face is a badge of honor. But we have to believe, to hold that look in our eyes that says Yes we understand, it can be okay if we do this together.

Otherwise, history has plenty of examples waiting to repeat themselves.

Seattle

Global Climate March · Seattle, 2019