Jessica was on her way and I was still standing by the interstate with no clue where I was exactly. I had to relocate. I walked a couple more miles in the dark with nothing but the fleeting headlights of passing cars illuminating my path. I followed the first exit to a nearby Burger King, where I used the restroom and wifi until Jessica arrived to pick me up. She drove from Charlotte, the Mecca of this pilgrimage, still an hour and a half away. Meanwhile, famished, I ate an order of small fries.
We agreed to get all-you-can-eat anything but I was rather insistent on Mongolian. We drove back to Charlotte and made it just in time to get our fill at an establishment called Genghis Grill. We caught up over dinner and agreed to go dutch. I could tell that the waitress was judging me for being a stingy cheapskate, not paying for my date - I've been hitch hiking my way back to NYC, for crying out loud! We agreed that I could pay for the already-discounted drinks at the restaurant where Jessica's sister worked. After drinks we headed to their apartment, where they insisted that I spend the night. After these past forty hours, I was happy to take them up on their hospitable offer. I stayed up still later playing songs and getting a little delirious.
Jeremy Gilchrist picked me up at the transit station in Durham some hours later. He's a musician and meteorologist, heavily involved with Occupy Raleigh. He had intercepted my messages on their facebook page and offered to transport me to their occupation. The encampment was rather new to this group. They had tried camping for some weeks outside of the state Capitol building but were constantly harassed by Capitol police. Finally they accepted a donated lot a few blocks away where they could live, organize, eat, sleep, protest, and otherwise occupy hassle-free.
They had recently staged a very successful action, the "mic-check" of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf at a local university. The video was well on its way to becoming viral and there was a palatable energy at the occupation. But there was also some tension about a man who posed a safety threat to the group; they hoped to establish certain guidelines for better management of their new kitchen; even moving to the new space had been so divisive that several members left the occupation altogether. In many ways this was a new occupation, not unlike OWS during that first week at Zuccotti Park. I was newly inspired, as I had been on September 17: through conflict, trials, solidarity, and perseverance these people would be the change they hoped to see in the world.
We met outside the capitol building for the evening GA, catching up on all the pressing matters that the group faced. We then walked back to the encampment in the early winter chill and ignited a campfire for my show. Everyone took their seats and listened intently as I played through my set. They called for an encore at the end of it all but my usual encore selections didn't seem appropriate for this particular moment. They lacked a certain gravitas.
I decided to play a song that I had never played before in public, and which I've still not played again since. For this one I would need volunteers.
I wrote #TakeWallStreet soon after OWS first started in downtown Manhattan. Inspired, I composed the chorus, intended to be sung by a large group like an Irish pub song. The verses were to be improvised by volunteers as they simply shared why they occupied, what it was that brought them to a place like this, to sleep in the cold, to tolerate harassment from police and passers-by, to build community with such a rag-tag group as this. On September 19 I posted a short video with just the chorus to YouTube and advertised that I would play it at Liberty Plaza. But the right moment just never presented itself; not until this frigid night in Raleigh.
I called up three volunteers and explained to them what they were to do. Then I sang the chorus once and opened the floor to the first volunteer. Then the chorus again and another volunteer. Each volunteer shared a heart-wrenching testimony about the troubles they faced, the fear and anger they had endured for so long, the loneliness and helplessness they had felt through it all. And, on the flip side, the great triumph they shared as a community. By the third volunteer, many spectators had learned the simple chorus. They sang along:
We're gonna hashtag occupy Wall Street,
We're gonna hashtag take Wall Street back!
We're gonna stand up for justice and peace at home,
In Afghanistan and Iraq.
Because the government's not serving its people,
For the 99 they ain't doin jack.
So it's our duty to occupy Wall Street,
It's our duty to take Wall Street back!
I repeated the chorus twice at the end but before the last chord could fully fade into the night, a man in the crowd shouted "another!"
The crowd agreed. They wanted - nay, needed - to hear more stories. They wanted to know these stories, to share each other's struggles and help bear each other's burdens; to be reminded of their triumphs and stand firm in solidarity together. A fourth volunteer shared, then a fifth, and on and on til almost everyone in the group had spoken. These occupiers had struggled so much to establish themselves that they had hardly got to know each other at all, even after so many weeks. They now cherished testimony after testimony, each a personalized anecdote of pain, joy, anguish and hope, often punctuated with sobbing. Then we sang together - loudly, insolently. It was a powerful moment that I'll never forget, a moment that I could hardly believe I helped to create; and I remembered yet again the very reason that I do what I do.
After the show I went out to a bar with some of the Raleigh occupiers. They treated me to dinner and great conversation. Back at the camp I had the guest tent waiting for me, an enormous one complete with queen-sized mattress and plenty of heavy blankets to weather the cold. What a way to camp!
Jeremy drove me back to the bus terminal the following morning where I caught a bus to Richmond, the last stop on the Zombie Music Tour. I stopped in RVA nearly a month prior on my southward swing, but the occupation had been rolled up and I spent the night with the Wingnut Collective instead. I resolved then to stop in Richmond on my way back, to play for the occupiers. Now, on December 5, they found themselves occupying the mayor's front lawn!
You see, the publisher of a local progressive paper lives next door to the mayor and even shares the lawn with him. So he figured that since the mayor was responsible for so many of OccupyRVA's troubles, he might help them get some leverage by having them redress their grievances right outside the mayor's living quarters. This was where I spent most of the afternoon, with just one or two other busy occupiers.
By the time the GA was to start there was a campfire with just four or five of us sitting around. Apparently they'd had a very contentious general assembly the previous night and most of the occupiers just didn't have it in them to make an appearance on this one. I played a few songs after the GA but there was a very odd energy - interpersonal conflict was happening all around and my music was clearly not helping. I arranged a morning ride with one of the occupiers to get back to the megabus stop and then headed to bed.
But most importantly: I boldly looked the devil in the face and brought hope, peace and love wherever there was violence and hate. I challenged everyone that I encountered to be the changes in the world they wanted to see. And as I sang on behalf of the oppressed, resurrecting a canon of protest, I left behind me the corpses of the undead, Zombie Music for a new generation of people dreaming and imagining a better world into existence. Perhaps I proved that protest songs are not dead; and perhaps God proved to me, in no uncertain terms, that being the songwriter, artist, and activist that I am, I was made for just such a time as this.