art culture politics music humor

number 4

Let's Take Ellis Island

by Shannon Manning

This month I discovered Alcatraz, as the cover of the brochure in the photo below promised. I discovered Alcatraz “The Rock,” the frontier fortress, the lighthouse, the military jail, the US Federal prison, and the US National Park complete with tide pools and pelicans (los alcatraces). I discovered Alcatraz the place, the idea, the promise, the escapes, the movies, and the damned good $3 audio tour.

Before our departure, they took a photo of our group, for souvenir purchase like on a log ride. I suspected this was a cover for more surveillance by the Feds. Historical and aesthetic discovery nerds that we are, though, we spent so long on The Rock that our photos had already been removed and “filed inside” by the time we got back. Or so they said.

But one Alcatraz discovery moved noisily into the section of my brain labeled “Use These Experiences and Info Now!” (All of my mental file names contain imperatives and punctuation. It helps!)

In the Sixties, I discovered, there were three Indian occupations of Alcatraz, first two short and symbolic ones, then the final true occupation lasting nineteen months. The story was told in an exhibit featuring the documentary We Hold the Rock. In 1969, led by dreamboat Richard Oakes, a 27-year-old Mohawk (below right), they came by rafts and boats under cover of night, dove into the bay, and peacefully climbed ashore while the lone government guard screamed, “the Indians have landed!” into his radio.

They claimed the island, which was being put to no other use at the time, for “Indians of All Tribes” and proposed to set up an autonomous Indian land, a university, cultural and spiritual centers, and many other cool plans that you can read about in The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and his People 1969. It’s smart and serious but also kinda funny. Kinda like Jefferson’s Declaration.

They offered to purchase Alcatraz for $24 in glass beads and red cloth. Not only was this amount more than had been paid for Manhattan but also, as they argued in the Proclamation, “Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the $0.47 per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their lands.”

Besides the goals stated in the Proclamation, the occupation was also a reaction against the official US policy of breaking up tribes. In a scenario with echoes of the present, the Nixon administration had been revoking the few remaining Native American treaties and terminating the Indian reservation system. No alternative social plan was in place, and the land was given over to oil, timber, and developer interests. There had been little public interest in these policies, and what little outcry there was went unheeded.

The Alcatraz occupation fascinated and delighted the public, and so Nixon’s administration was hesitant to move in against them. Thus the Indians were able to hold the island for over a year. Eventually, the Feds cut electricity and water to the island. A few days later fires broke out in several historical buildings. Finally, with the movement in disarray and public sympathy turning against the Indians as the government blamed them for the fires, the Feds landed and ended the occupation, leveled many other historical buildings for inexplicable reasons (which remain today in heaps of rubble), and eventually turned it into a primo tourist attraction.

But the aims of the occupation had been a success. The American public was awakened to the plight of Native Americans, and “Indians of All Tribes” were awakened to their own tribal identities after hundreds of years of murder, subjugation, poverty, and forced assimilation.

Most importantly, Alcatraz gave a voice to the movement for Indian self-determination, which is now the official policy of the US government. Alcatraz also sent positive ripples through the whole Civil Rights movement, galvanizing activists in their shared struggles for autonomy, respect, and self-determination for all people.

As I sat there in the damp screening room I thought, What a great story! What a dreamboat! And what a fantastic idea!

Which brings me to Ellis Island. Let’s take it.

We are at the beginning of a new movement, though we don’t know the name of it yet. It’s taking shape as an awakening of consciousness about the use and abuse of corporate, military, media, and political power. It’s waking up and roaring for democratic self-determination. It’s around the corner. It’s at our doorstep.

We will find a handsome and charismatic media star as dreamy as Richard Oakes and we’ll dress up like Indians and we’ll take the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Circle Line ferry. We’ll throw some Tazo tea into the harbor for good measure. We will remember what it feels like to be an American. To resist, rebel, speak out with manly firmness against King George’s usurpations.

Some of us will land at Liberty Island, to take the statue with her torch of “imprisoned lightning,” to defend her against those who would send her back to the French, defend her against those who would sacrifice the ideals she represents for their own self-interest. We will claim Lady Liberty, and all the figurines in the giftshop, as the symbols of our struggle, of the promise of liberty and democracy, of what is possible when people rise up and make their voice be known and take power into their own hands.

And then we’ll take Ellis Island.

At first it will seem like a happening, an art event, but by day’s end our numbers will be strong and we will stay. We will set up camp in the lush and ample setting of Ellis Island, complete with lovely promenades and beautiful buildings with ample bunk and office space.

By day we will work, plan, meditate, live, and love (and telecommute, if necessary). By night we will host rock concerts in the spacious halls filled with dioramas and put on small entertainments for one another. Bring the kids, and bring the dog!

More people will join us each week as word of our occupation spreads. We will capture the nation’s love and alliance though our whimsical and peaceful nature, and then with the eyes of the world upon us, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind will require that we should declare the causes which impel us to this separation, and so we will say:

* We who took these boats to join Ellis are the “New Americans of All Tribes”. We are the Native, native-born, immigrant, and naturalized citizens of America. We knew there was once something called American democracy, which had once defined us, empowered us, but we had lost our way. We didn’t even know which tribe we belonged to anymore, which tribe represented us. If we voted, we trusted that our tribe represented our interests and were doing the job for us. That’s how we thought it worked. And sometimes it did, but true servants of the people didn’t stand a fighting chance against power and money, against purchased elections and corporate-mandated policies. Often we felt so hopeless and cynical we neglected to vote at all.

* We knew there was something about the word “America” that sent a flicker of joyful, not boastful pride through our hearts and believed that this thing called democracy could be and should be a beacon of hope for people all around the world. But we knew that missteps and hypocrisy had burned out that flame deep inside us and among our allies. We knew this flame could only be rekindled through direct action to cultivate more democracy at home and to show respect for the world.

* And so we are taking Ellis Island and claiming it as our own to re-inflame those who will fight against tyranny and oppression, here and everywhere. We do this now because we feel it is not too late to reverse America’s insane course towards empire and away from democratic ideals. We did not choose you, Great White Daddy’s Boy, to represent us. Our votes should have counted. We protested against your holy war. Our voices should have counted.

* We decided against any other forms of disruptive civil disobedience because our hearts are with, and our numbers include, the office workers, laborers, and the peacekeepers (police and firefighters) whom you have now forced to the frontline of your insane war. We did not choose to be on the frontline of this war that your hatred continues to blow back to our shores. Our shores. Our streets.

* We commandeer the Ellis and Liberty websites so tourists can still come for nostalgic virtual reality tours of the old official glossed-over story of open immigration and happy assimilation. But our downsized programmers will be put to good use, documenting our new glorious adventure without the racism, poverty, greed, and fear that have so often contributed to the failure of the American Dream. We take back the telling of our history. Our history. Our stories.

* Then we take back the airwaves. They belong to us.

* And we take back the corporations. They are not citizens, and shall enjoy no Constitutional privilege, nor vote, nor voice in the governing of the people. They will receive no more welfare, no tax breaks for incorporating overseas, no secret government contracts to develop not-yet-destroyed infrastructure of “liberated” oil-rich and drug-rich countries. Transparency, regulation, and accountability will ensure that only honest capitalists will remain, using only the honest tools of capitalism.

* Next, we take New York. We heart New York and so we take her back from the current auction winner and we take her back from fear and towards safety and happiness. Bloomberg you can come get your red cloth and go back to whatever tribe will have you. Never again will an election go to the highest bidder.

* Finally, we take back Federal power. We now claim Ellis Island as the seat of government of the United States of America. By what right? By these truths, which we hold to be self-evident: that we are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it. We are the people. We have the right. We are the popular vote. We are the New Americans of All Tribes.

* You have 5 days to vacate the White House, Congress, the courts, and the Pentagon. All of you. Shred all you want, it doesn’t matter. All we need to start anew is this copy of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and new fair elections with open televised debates about the issues. The electoral college will be abolished and runoff voting instituted. No citizen shall be denied the right to vote, and all votes will be counted. And until we’re sure all is on the up-and-up, the United Nations will provide monitors.

* Those who will be elected will be public servants, deriving their power from the consent of the governed. They will be subject to the checks and balance of the three separate and equal branches of government, as stated in the Constitution of the United States of America. What we propose to institute is nothing more radical than democracy, nothing less magical than life, liberty, and justice for all.

* We hold the rock!

Shannon Manning is a filmmaker and comedian who lives in Brooklyn.

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