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The River Composes Us in Concert Together: A Multispecies Tribunal in Defense of What’s Common

    The River Composes Us in Concert Together:

    A Multispecies Tribunal in Defense of What’s Common

    In October 2020 the Ecosocialist working group of the Santa Cruz DSA, in collaboration with the Anxiety Caucus, Abolition Ecology Walking Tours, the Pre-figuration, Pleasure and Play group, and Love Boat, organized the first in a series of Multispecies Tribunals in Defense of What’s Common on the banks of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, CA.

    “The River Composes Us in Concert Together” unfolded as a call and response by megaphone across the banks of the river. Human and non-human speakers testified to the pressures, stresses, and anxieties we, as a multispecies social body, feel because of the ways that the regime of private property has separated us from each other and stolen what’s common. 

    As we marched on both sides of the river, we heard testimonies that spoke to the ways in which private property has created unlivable, degraded and degrading, separating and isolating conditions that deny our basic and common needs; testimonies about housing, food, health, education, jobs as these issues reflect on the violence of privatization. 

    We heard testimonies from non-humans as well, translated to language and other sonic forms, about the stresses of pesticides, of fossil fuel and other extractions, of drought, heat, of neglect and humiliation, of being deemed expendable. 

    We amplified these testimonies to de-privatize and de-monetize our anxiety, to make it public, shared, collective, political – and to allow the flow of the river to bring us together while reaching across the distances that separate us. 

    To amplify is to disrupt – to be loud, to make noise in order to be heard, to make public what is supposed to be kept private. We amplified voices to call attention to the disruptions and contradictions that we already live in, that make it impossible for all lives to flourish.

    At the same time, the act of testifying manifests what we can make together that is different than what is.

    Following the testimonies, participants from both sides of the river gathered on the Laurel Street bridge to form a processional that marched to San Lorenzo Park, where we distributed mutual aid and performed a version of Take Me to the River on the Duck Stage. 

    Thanks to all who came to walk with us, all who contributed testimonies from afar, and all who played a role in helping to compose us. 

    Testimonies came from:

    A writer in Santa Cruz

    All the plants, animals, and fungi, viruses, and bacteria in the soil and in the leaf litter, in the air and in the water, all the homes and farms crafted with so much labor and care, all burning, all in terror, all reduced to ash, gas, and toxic snow, falling to earth, falling into this river, into this water, drawn into these lungs, these gills, this bay, these insect trachaea, these plankton, into these human and more than human beings. Making rocks that will be read, someday, by some scientist somewhere who loves layered sediments of the dead.  But now we are not yet sedimented; we are merely poisoned. This is domestic terrorism. Be afraid.

    Suffering. Cultivating the capacity to remain with the suffering, remain with the terror. Remain. Remains.

    Refusing double death, the killing of ongoingness. Matching terror with fury, matching terror with love, burning slowly, reigniting living and dying together. Refusing to burn alone. Burning together. Not as a Phoenix, but as mortal, vital human and more than human people of an Earth that is not finished. We will breathe, we will draw oxygen slowly back into living beings, together. Be afraid, all those who perform double death. You will not even be ash; you will fertilize nothing. You will not remain.

    We, the earthlings, will be afraid together so that we can be powerful together. Something unexpected can still happen. Chicken Little told me that the sky has not—yet– fallen. The sky is falling. Hold up the sky!

    A community activist working in the oil fields in Kern County

    Have you seen the sun lately? Or gone outside and taken a deep breath? Instead, you’ve seen an orange orb, hanging amid a thick gray fog. You’ve watched ash dripping from the sky and breathed in toxic smoke, reminders of the price we are all paying for failing to take the climate crisis seriously. 

    In 2019 the Federal Bureau of land management opened up 1 million acres of federally owned land in central California to fracking.

    This massive expansion of drilling and fracking for fossil fuels would exacerbate the problems already facing California communities. Wildfires have now burned over 3.1 million acres of land in California. As they burn they are contributing further to the crisis of toxic air pollution in California’s Central Valley. Here, we live in areas that have been out of attainment with clean air standards for decades, and residents can’t safely leave home without consulting air quality graphs or purchasing a portable air monitoring system. 

    In fact, the Central Valley is (regularly) home to the worst air quality in the United States, a result of the rampant oil and gas drilling that takes place here. This polluting puts residents at risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as elevated rates of heart disease and stroke.  

    (Our) communities (are) referred to as “sensitive receptors.” That means places where people of color have made their homes, not because they want to live next door to toxic waste, but because that’s what they can afford. 

    Our public lands should belong to the people, not to the highest bidding oil corporations that will pollute our air and worsen the climate crisis we see raging around us. 

    At this point we are on the precipice of just being pushed over. We’re on the edge of a cliff. Can we really afford to not care about land being opened up to more contamination?… we are already past that threshold. It’s not just the old, it’s not just the young, all of us are in this together because we all breathe the same air.

    A Crow
    The Fence

    We enclose public space, prohibit entrance, evict occupants, uproot inhabitants, our language of “no” translates into physical barriers, the metal of chain link, concrete walls, with full spectrum surveillance, we police the crisis, we spatialize brute force, we privatize the commons, our nation’s fortress, shutting down migration, we mutate into our cities’ partitions, ejecting the houseless, shelter in place but without shelters, refugees without refuge, emergency powers attack the most vulnerable, in times of crisis privatization becomes the rule, political being, the right to the city, evacuated, in its place absent space, hollowed out, contempt of the public, images of control that fail to control, walled states, waning sovereignty, compensatory, fearing the ungovernable, a world beyond, this is the US, of the people, by the people.

    A COVID contact tracer living in Salinas

    Who gave you my name and my number?

    The school is closed now.

    It started with one student positive

    Sister Catherine now in hospice with San Quentin convicts.
    Convent to convicts COVID-19

    Construction worker goes for surgery
    Names foreman as contact when test results positive COVID-19

    Who gave you my name and my number? As he belts out instructions to crew.
    No puedo entender.

    Surgery prep and now nurse saying only a mask, patient not expected to have COVID-19.
    First two, his nurses, now there 13 
    3 shifts of surgical wing going COVID-19

    He keeps going to work. He’ll ruin my business! 

    We brought her home. The hospital said her symptoms were minor. She died.


    Right now, can I call you later?

    Whole families COVID-19.

    Grandma died.

    Papa died.

    Mom in hospital. 4 kids at home. I want mama. We need her.

    They don’t test minors. I’m positive still after 20 days. The schools won’t take my kids without negative test.

    Who gave you my name and my number?

    You should be talking with my housemates. 
    I need your help to get their contact info. Get it yourself, my daughter tests negative COVID-19.

    Spanish, English, Vietnamese
    Fijian, Pilipino, Persian, Chinese
    Convicts, Nuns, teachers, boutiques
    Minors, construction, engineering, 
    Nurses, caregivers, casino, groceries

    COVID-19 connects
    Quietly bringing us to our knees
    enlightenment please

    The Redwoods living by the rent-a-fence in back of the County Court House in Santa Cruz

    We too feel rented, rented for design. Reproduced without kin in a line not a circle. The line hurts our roots and torments our branches as they reach across greater and greater distances of concrete to try to touch each other. The lilies reach towards the sun and get hit with flood lights. The birds don’t really like this spot as there are no sorrels or slugs to keep them company. The park and the county building should not be private property. And yet… and yet they defend private property. They don’t protect the interests of the soil. They protect interests not rooted here.  We need to testify here today so we can remember this trying time in our old age. Our circumferences will eclipse these confines.

    A community activist living in Gonzales, on the Salinas River

    One of the things we hope to do with this particular project is build up an awareness for our place in our community, for our place with nature.  This is a long term project,  like all our long term projects we have been involved in this for a long long time, some of you weren’t even around then. It’s been a long struggle and it’s going to continue for the rest of our lives. In that, what we are aware of is the constant change of society in terms of demographics, incomes, politics, that kind of stuff. We have to go with the flow. We had WW1, WW2, Korea, Desert Storm, blah, blah  and here we go, Vietnam. It’s one of those challenges where the government takes all this money for us and then says we ain’t got no money for this and that because we are spending it, investing it, in other things. This involvement gets us involved with local stuff right? A few others were invited to go for a people’s summit in Chicago. And that people’s summit in Chicago summons people from all over the United States.  There were 1000s of people there, at least 5000 people there, and from that came this plan to push for the Green Deal that’s coming on now that we all see. That conversation is developing to where it is now where it’s about local issues, local concerns. And if everyone does something locally, then it’s happening nationwide. Right? It’s happening nationwide. It’s happening nationwide if everyone is doing it locally.

    A PhD student

    I testify to a desire for a commons that I have never experienced, except as the subject of a contingent and uneven belonging. Even as a working class and visibly transfeminine person, whiteness acts as a force field of respectability that conditions my ability to pass in and out of the commons without fear of losing my life at the hands of the state. As ritualized police violence against Black, Brown, Indigenous, and unhoused people exposes the contingency of access to both public and private space, “we” must conclude that there is in fact nothing common about the commons. The commons is instead a space of violent struggles for survival that are rendered invisible by those of us who feel that something about so-called public space is worth preserving and expanding. The preservation and expansion of an unequal commons is the preservation and expansion of de facto white supremacy. Whether liberal or socialist, it partakes of the progressive fantasy that a national sovereignty based on ongoing colonization could ever become ethical, multicultural, or universally inclusive.   

    Armed with the means of preserving life and  producing death, the interlocking functions of capitalism and the settler state preclude the possibility of a commons worth its name. If a collective “we” can cohere around a commoning project, it will emerge in a decolonial struggle against the white space of the settler commons which, contributing to the same regime of privatized value, forms an extended boundary of the enclosed spaces of private property. There is nothing common to be preserved or defended on settled land because everything must be taken back or given away–to each according to their need, from each according to their ability

    Coyotes living on the UCSC campus
    A political theorist and activist

    What does it feel like to stock up on canned beans and toilet paper and bottled water and a back-up power pack for my devices? It feels good. Gives me a sense of control in an out-of-control world, a sense of being prepared for what may come, of being responsible, caring for my family, getting us ready. No help is on the way? OK, but I’ve got mine and I’m gonna protect us. It feels good, sort of secure. 

    And neoliberalism makes me lonely.

    In Cairo, in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution that overthrew a ruthless dictator, occupants of the Square set up a medical area, a clothing swap, a kitchen, a trash collection contingent, a lost and found. People turned in all sorts of things to the lost and found: sunglasses, id cards, cell phones, money. Someone lost some money—maybe it fell out of their pocket—and someone else found it, this material thing with no markers linking it to one person rather than another, and they turned it in…

    What does it feel like to be in it with others? It’s hard to describe, don’t you agree? It’s opening, energizing, full of unknowns. It can be hard, scary even. But when ‘we’—I mean that ‘we’ in an aspirational sense, it’s always in process, and complex—when ‘we’ make that being-in-it-with-others work, it’s amazing, transformative, and once you taste it, you may find yourself willing to fight to hold onto it.


    Honestly, we are pretty pissed. We are outshined by the birds of prey. We would rather not testify; we spend all day trying to ignore the humans that encircle us. Well, we do like the breadcrumbs and resent the signs that discourage feeding us. Throw us a crumb!! Our migration route has more and more luxury apartments less and less luscious grass. They give us concrete ponds. No more concrete! More crumbs! The lily pads that live in this enclosure are depressed. We get it. The optimism of the poppies is kind of annoying. The geese prefer a more aggressive approach to the whole thing. It’s hard to rest when we are always on guard. We just want to glide across soft familiar waters and quiet skies.

    The Virus

    We are legion, and without limits. Private property is our ally, despite its protective walls, and secure spaces; it, like us, feeds on an endless supply chain, of disenfranchised, impoverished, undocumented, essential worker, and frontline,populations, our lifeblood. Omnivores, our opportunism knows no bounds.Anthropocene, Necrocene, Virocene. Privacy isn’t immunity, but false security; machines of extraction, privatize forests, factory farms, global markets, our zoonotic pathways; we worship private property, as our god; we thrive in your dysfunctional, commodified, health system, your corrupt, political economy. We fear most coordinated, communal care, a symbiogenic ecology, sealing off our biopolitics, of viral colonization.Parasitical, not symbionts, our virions invade cells, for proliferation, inflation, assimilation. Our disaster capitalism, knows no limits, multispecies life, our medium of endless growth.


    Algae was abundant and so were we – free to be magnificently sluggish, slowly expanding and creating iridescent traces to leave behind for contemplation, adoration, adornment. As we eat kelp, so too we were eaten –a risk of being alive but not an inevitability. It happened with increased speed and aggression. As our population dwindled the water got warmer and sharper. The sleepy purple urchins sprang up from long slumbers to ravage kelp forests.  There is now so little ground to slide around on or plants to sustain. We co-created cultures and traditions with human allies. The forces that have wrecked our habitats and ways of being are the same that attack theirs. Our sacredness is now packaged to benefit an idea of the individual divorced from any connection we have to the sea or each other. Crimes against the commons in the name of profit- warming land and sea and breaking bonds of solidarity and splendor.

    A prisoner on Death Row in San Quentin

    Wilderness, a poem by TIMOTHY JAMES YOUNG

    Wilderness, a poem by TIMOTHY JAMES YOUNG
    I walked through the wilderness
    A forest of new dimensions
    Asphalt for grass, gun towers for trees
    A zoo of rats, roaches,
    And the shadows of men.
    In this new nature
    An enigmatic vision
    Roses crack through concrete
    And butterflies rest upon
    Military grade razor-wire.
    Permanently encased
    In a matrix, a maze
    Creatures of misfortune
    Phantoms without names
    Exhibits of no escape.
    In the wilderness lies the bones
    Of an endangered species
    Numerical skeletons waste away
    Compost for systemic machinations
    Black ecology—a cry unheard!
    The Lichens

    They don’t recognize us. They don’t see us.
    Because they think —we do nothing. Are nothing. Mean nothing. 
    But our doing is waiting. We’ve been waiting while they’ve been doing, doing so much that they have stolen, captured, and destroyed time.

    When all we’ve ever had is time. We want it back, for everyone. Time that is explicitly not productive; time that can’t be harvested, commodified; a present-tense, immeasurable common time that cannot be stolen by private property, which cannot be transformed into something to buy and sell. 

    All we’ve ever had is time. And we are waiting.

    Not that we’re unaffected. Taking in the nitrous oxide, the sulfur dioxide, the mercury, that they produce and release, and fixing it, holding it in our collective bodies, to try to keep it out of the common air.

    Our “I” is already us, our bodies are already “ours” – understood as shared across species boundaries, symbiotically engaged in mutual aid and recognizing the unpayable social debt and sociality that binds us together, that makes us strong, makes us possible, and allows us to persist. 

    We’ve been practicing — practicing becoming us, becoming we –we have been practicing  “changing the world without taking power” 

    Why don’t they say hello?
    Hello hello hello hello hello hello to the many worlds that share and create this one.

    Thank you to videographers Jordan Freeman, Kenton Card, and photographer Sarah Bird.