I was twenty and about to be a father. He had just turned twenty-one and was on his way to Redwood Summer, a call for people to come participate in direct action to save the redwoods and old growth forests of Northern California. We ran into each other at the local hardware store. It was May 1990. We had been friends during the school year at UCSB, studying together, attending environmental meetings on campus, talking politics, becoming more radical like many college students. We had fantasized in hushed tones during class breaks what it would be like to join hundreds of others attempting to make a change. But as the spring quarter came to a close, we saw less of each other; he, in fact, was actually planning on participating; I, however, was planning on preparing the small home I shared with my girlfriend for our first child.
So there we were standing in some aisle; it had been a couple weeks since we last talked. He was holding a back-pack full of stuff for a road trip. I was holding a bag of supplies to baby proof the electrical sockets in my house. He was picking things in preparation to camp out for weeks. I was going to pick up a few more shifts at the used bookstore that I worked for to help with the bills over the summer.
I remember the look on his face when he asked for the last time, ‘can’t you just leave the baby with your lady for awhile; they’ll both be here when you get back, but, right now, the earth needs you; right now, not when your child’s eighteen or nineteen.’
Now despite all the ways that this statement is fucked up, it’s painful for me to admit that it almost worked. I saw Rainbow Summer as my big chance, my opportunity to do something more. I feared that the pending birth of my son would be an impediment to my abilities to participate in creating social change. Up north in the trees: that’s where the action was, not singing lullabies and changing diapers.
And so I squirmed and gave some lame excuse about how I would love to go but that my lady won’t let me. Pathetic to blame family, to see it as a burden. But I did.
Now as much as I hold myself responsible for those former attitudes, and I do, I believe there is a larger issue also at fault. As a burgeoning radical, I was surrounded by a mythology of revolution that celebrated only one way to be a revolutionary; and, believe me, there were no newborn infants involved.
So at the time, I felt cheated at having to miss this event because of my other responsibilities; I mean all my radical role models seemed to have chosen otherwise. Che (and who didn’t love Che at twenty) left his kids behind and wrote oft-quoted, eloquent letters home; Ulrike Meinhoff, who haunted my dreams as one of the few revolutionaries who had kids and chose to commit herself anyways, had to send her children into hiding and then sever connections with them entirely; my chicano icons Joaquin Murrieta or Gregorio Cortez, didn’t saddle up with their two year old. In the corridos about them, there were only guns, whiskey, and getaways.
None of the stories my friend and I shared about radical politics included parents or children or grandparents or safe spaces.
So he left, and I remained.
I went on to evolve into a radical parent through reading and studying and working to create a small community of like-minded parents. But during those first few years, I secretly dreamed of the chance to once again be “able” to participate like a “true” revolutionary. The mythology of the revolutionary created a chasm between what I was “doing” and what was “important;” someday, I consoled myself, I could return to the fray, just as soon as I got the kids to bed.
So I longed for the road to the next demonstration even as I sat worked to create a childcare cooperative in my neighborhood. I imagined campfires in the forests of Northern California while I changed diapers on my feminist studies teacher’s desk. I dreamed of delivering fiery orations as I read Where The Wild Things Are over and over to my son, both of us yelling, ‘let the wild rumpus begin.’ However, it finally dawned on me: why the hell couldn’t there be a kid friendly wild rumpus?
And, yes, I know there were parents who have been able to participate in various forms of resistance throughout history (a testament, I’d bet, to the people who surrounded them). I have even had powerful support from my family to dedicate time, energy, and finances to various projects. So it can be done. But it shouldn’t be so daunting, so isolating. I am calling for an end to the dangerously powerful myth that revolutionaries leave their families behind. We shouldn’t have to choose? That’s a false dilemma. I sometimes dream about what might have happened had my friend encouraged me to come with my lady and my baby. Perhaps I still would not have gone. Or perhaps I would have. Perhaps some else like me would have. Perhaps a bunch of us would have. If the entire event was kid friendly, family friendly, with various actions and spaces, some of which, of course, could be more “direct” than others. But the possibilities, the potential, seem unlimited.
How about a new mythology, celebrating revolutionaries who refuse to leave anyone behind and refuse to remain silent? If I have learned anything, I have learned this: whatever we are involved in, it should take into account the ability for multigenerational participation. That’s sustainability, that’s revolutionary, that’s the pre-figurative politics I want to commit myself to.
My son is now nineteen; I am at peace and, in fact, grateful for the choices I have made. Looking back over the time that has elapsed, I have no regrets. I often wonder what my friend is doing. I want to ask him how that summer turned out. What was climbing those tall trees like? What craziness happened around the campfires? Did he fall in love with a little earth mama like we joked about? I’d also like to thank him. He was one of many people I have met in the radical community who have inspired and revolutionized me.
In fact, when I think about being a radical parent and an anarchist, I remember fondly all the strange, amazing people that I‘ve met in this loose-knit diverse thing we call a radical community who continue to challenge my thinking and expectations: the ones who organize anarchist conferences with childcare and parenting panels, the mamas and papas writing zines and the allies who buy them, the infoshop volunteers who do it year after year, the anarchist parenting listservs with their thoughtful reflections on how to parent in radical ways, the wandering crusties I encounter as I travel, sometimes alone, sometimes with my children, the artists who plan midnight mystery murder bike rides, and the strangers in distant cities who welcome me into their homes.
Because whether I’m home or on the road, whether I’m with my children or not, I am always a parent as well as a radical, and I will not be silent about demanding we consider ways to include everyone. And when I’m old, I want to embellish stories of my swarthy figure, similar to the Chicano banditos of old, only instead of the reigns of a horse, I am cupping the palm of my child.
Welcome to rad dad 17!