No Commons Without Community; No Community Without Commons
The “Kopkind Room”
Usually called ‘the Big Room’ I preferred to think of it as ‘the Kopkind Room’ because JoAnn came in once and explained that the two glass-enclosed book-cases on either side of the window on the north wall, filled with Andy’s books, belong to the living memorial named for him; in fact they were the only things in the house that were. Nothing surprising here. Tree Frog Farm, home of the Kopkind Colony, is not a mausoleum. Yet the room will be the site of my historical/political projections and ruminations.
Andrew Kopkind died twenty years earlier in 1994, the most brilliant radical journalist of the era, one I admired immensely. In accepting JoAnn Wypijewki’s invitation to be one of the two “mentors,” the other was Scot Nakagawa, for a week at the “summer camp with attitude” with eight young radical activists and writers, I had an emerging agenda of my own.
The themes for the week were The Commons and Alienation. I didn’t feel I could teach much to these people apart from some nomenclature and a handful of dates and facts. I accepted JoAnn’s invitation so readily because it gave me a chance to explore the sources of my admiration for Andrew Kopkind, “Andy” as they called him. I prepared for my visit by reading him and I ended it by reading him aloud.
In ‘Kopkind’s Room’ I could pause alone for a moment to collect myself from the mild ribaldry of the kitchen and what they called “the breezeway” or from the performances one might be called upon to make down below, in the barn, on the patio, in the kitchen, or the lawn. Here I might jot down a few notes in my notebook. Here I wondered what made Andy a writer I so much admired. He did the work, the research, he used his intelligence, his sentences were beautiful, what else?
JoAnn visited me in my room and showed me the scrap book kept on Andy’s birthday parties. Alexander did much of the cooking apparently. The scrap book was filled with his handwritten menus, all in French. These radicals strove to live well: to eat well: to love long: to fight hard. They loved le mot juste. There was nothing archival or musty about the room. The spirit was alive and unperfumed. Be as radical as reality. They wrote aware of “the unbelievable harshness of the now,” in JoAnn Wypijewski’s great phrase. That gave them courage to take from the whole human past whatever they needed.
I believe we are never far from the commons. The “commons” was not Andy’s thing at least not with that exact word, though he was certainly a man of community – radical and gay, and there is no commons without community. As a journalist he listened very, very closely to those who were making history while they were making it.
After we finished dinner but before getting up and clearing our plates an angel of silence passed over as digestion began to set in, both from the meal and the week’s intense work. JoAnn broke the silence, “Doesn’t anyone have any words?” Here’s Andy on the Vietnam war.
“The lessons of liberation certainly came the long way around; they could have been found much closer to home if I had been prepared to look. But I wasn’t prepared. With the example of Vietnam slowly sinking in, I could experience the black movement, class struggle – even what is sometimes called ‘existential’ or personal liberation – in a different way. Vietnam is often credited with ‘turning on’ people to a wide variety of issues. But what that means, I think, is that the radical implications of the Vietnamese resistance gave people a consciousness that made sense of all those other issues. In particular, the war and the resistance have helped me to make sense of privilege and power: what it means to be white, American, bourgeois, a man, technologically competent; how the power that flows from those privileges is used to oppress others; and what it feels like to be on the short end of the stick, as well as the long one. The quantity of oppression (if measures can be made) differs hugely from case to case. But there is a common quality of anger, fear, intimidation, threat, selflessness that a Vietnamese in American-occupied territory shares with a black person in an urban ghetto, a woman typist in a male-dominated office, a Native American in this Europeanized land … the list is long, but true for its length…. [He says he was lucky]: “I learned enough to make myself permanently and constitutionally unable to accept America, and its external and internal empires.”
What I treasure in this passage is how experience must “sink in”. I also treasure that ever so crucial “I think” right in the turning point of the passage, not as a mark of modesty but a reminder of thought. You have to admire his metaphor for class because it is both perfectly apt and colloquial; it is the “stick” of the hierarchy. Do you hold the short or the long end, or something in between? Finally, considering the “long list” at the end, what else is on it? What lies on the other end of it? Is there a “social class” of some kind? Does a great transformation lie ahead? How shall we break the stick? What sort of revolutionary struggle will it take to make ourselves permanently and constitutionally fair, equal, human?
Finally, one more scene from the past: Andy’s in Lowndes county, Alabama, in 1966 with the Black Panthers. He’s standing on the ground in front of a share-cropper’s simple house while John Hulett is on the steps going up to the porch putting the case for registering to vote despite the dangers, the dogs, the insecurity, the racism. Andy’s standing there, and he hears the conversation, “You know it, we need good schools and running water for our houses.”
Almost fifty years ago, black folk came north to the auto plants, looking for good schools and running water, and now the auto companies have moved out, abandoning a city, and taking with them the common wealth of three generations of toil. They close down the schools and shut off the water. I’m not saying that Andy could foretell the future. He listened to those who make it. Kopkind could write as though the earth and its waters belonged to the people! This is what I was looking for. Earlier I wrote that he did not condescend, he did not write down to us. But he wrote down to them, the one percent. It is in his style, I think, in his experiences of coming out as a gay man and refusing that silence that equals death, that enables us to sense in his writing the inevitable, historic collapse of capitalism, the breaking of the stick. It shall pass, though not without a snap.
No commons without community, I said. But it’s truer the other way around, no community without commons. There is nothing more dangerous to the ruling class than when we get together. That explains why they’re turning off the taps in Detroit. The water is ours!
Peter Linebaugh taught history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance. He can be reached at:email@example.com