Short Story: “Scaling K2”

What have you meekly acquiesced to, and then regretted it?  (This series began withCrossing the Line.)

“Scaling K2”
(Part 3 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Les said, holding a splayed hand up for respite. “You’ve made your point, Ifan. I agree. Caving to the mayor’s new rule was profoundly stupid. But it’s done. We folded. The General Assembly voted, and that’s that. The question is what do we do now?”

Ifan Davies glanced around the depressingly deserted public square that the capitol city’s Occupy Wall Street community had called home for the past year. The two were sitting on the wood and iron bench from atop of which the GA was usually called into session.

A few days earlier, the police department’s new surveillance drone had monitored a run-through of Les’ latest street-theater project, in which several competing speakers found common cause as their separate contingents of the people’s mike began to synch up. The following morning, the mayor issued a new executive order designed to make the event illegal. In the interest of public safety, he’d said, he was prohibiting groups larger than ten people from saying or doing anything in unison. As Ifan had pointed out during the GA, the rule may have been intended to hobble the people’s mike, but it was so badly conceived that it also applied to everything from high school cheerleaders to the mayor’s favorite church choir. Nevertheless, the GA succumbed to the illogic of it, and voted to acquiesce. The whole thing left a bad taste in Ifan’s mouth, but there it was.

“What we do now, Les,” he said, “is figure out how to turn this turd to our advantage.”

“What, like there’s an upside to having the Occupy bound and gagged?”

“That was how the people’s mike came about in the first place. No bullhorns in Zucotti Park and all that. It was a workaround.”

“Maybe so,” Les said, “but there’s more to it than just parroting the speaker. The mike demands involvement. Even if you aren’t making proposals or running a SIG, you still play a vital role because the people who do speak can’t be heard unless you participate. This abomination is going to eviscerate us!”

“Cut the drama okay? There’s always—.” Ifan was suddenly distracted by the sight of the Occupy’s tech team hurrying towards them with an open netbook in her hands. Angela Scarlotti was left holding the community’s tech bag solo after the others beat shoe leather following yesterday’s GA. As far as Ifan was concerned, their exit spoke more about their value to the community than anything they’d done before adversity had stared them down. He grinned as she slowed to catch her breath. “What’s up Ace?”

“You’ve got… to see this,” she said, dropping to a crouch in front of them so they could both view the small screen. “Early this morning, the rule we’ve been saddled with was also imposed on the downstate Occupy, only for them it was pre-emptive. They hadn’t done or planned anything to scare the power structure like we did. I guess they were ticked off about the rule, because they just about invited the cops to enforce it. Someone called for a mike check to greet the stormtroopers, and they dutifully started making arrests. Started. But then, one of them changed sides, and his buddy shielded him when the CO ordered him taken down. Anyway, they hauled everyone off and rent-a-fenced the site.”

“But if they’ve been shut down, what were you going to show us?”

Angela flashed a subversive grin. “The resurrection. Downstate’s Occupy has been reconstituted, and their mascot appears to be a kid named Kendrik. I’ve downloaded the interview he did for their new livestream. Have a look.”

When Ifan unpaused the video, the camera pulled back from what looked like a short stack of logoed cyclone fence sections with crude tin-can cornstalks and cattails growing out of it, and panned to a fortyish woman wearing pink coveralls. “I’m Althea Gordon. As you can see, we’ve converted the JonesCo porta-fences that were brought in to keep the city’s Occupy Wall Street community from re-entering this building site into a piece of public art. It’s a visual reminder that we grow through adversity. I’m here today because a friend of mine was arrested this morning for calling a mike check to greet the riot cops. Her name is Natalie Knox. When she’s not helping people with their research at the downtown library, she helps people to understand their power as citizens with a little help from the books she’s promoted from supporters in the wider community. This building site was re-occupied a few hours ago because of some advice she gave to a brave young man named Kendrik Knox, her grandson. But he prefers to be called K2. Would you tell our viewers why?”

The camera shifted to a kid about ten years old who was busy examining a chunk of concrete. “Sure,” he said, nodding. “It started as a joke, really. My initials are KK, but there’s also a K at the end of my first name, so I started signing my homework KKK.”

Angela grimaced. “I’ll bet that went over big.”

“Well,” Kendrik continued, “my teacher sent a note home to my parents, and they asked me to stop doing it.”

“Did they tell you why?”

He shook his head. “Nope. And that just made me mad.”

“So what did you do?”

Kendrik grinned. “I asked my gram Natalie. I figured since she worked at the library, maybe she could help me figure it out.” He suddenly got very serious. “So, um, she showed me some history books and some pictures about the Ku Klux Klan. It’s pretty scary stuff. I guess that’s why my folks were afraid to talk about it, but my gram wasn’t. She said it was important to know history, because we can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t know about them. She also showed me some stuff about how people who tried to do or say something about bad things have been treated.”

“Oh? Like who?”

“Well, there were a lot of them, but the two that stick out in my mind are John Brown and Bradley Manning.” He twitched uncomfortably at the thought. “Private Manning was—. Can they really do that sort of thing to people?”

“Sadly, yes,” Althea said. “But what does all that have to do with why you call yourself K2?”

He nodded. “My gram called it a nem… a mnemonic, something to help me remember. There are three Ks in my name, but the third one, the one in my last name, is silent. She said that if it doesn’t speak out, if it doesn’t make itself known, it doesn’t count. And that’s true for people, too. That’s why I couldn’t just go to school when I saw her being arrested for talking to the police. I couldn’t be quiet about that. I had to do something, to make what she did count. That’s why I came down here on my own, and that’s why a lot of other people are here as well.”

Ifan stopped the video and closed his eyes for a moment. “Jeez,” he said at last, “and we’re arguing over how to deal with a stupid rule?”

Angela took the netbook back and stood up. “Sometimes,” she said, “a little perspective can be a real kick in the pants.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Les, rising to join her. “So what are we going to do?”

Ifan looked up at them for a moment before standing. “I think we should leave the square, get out into the community, take this fight where it belongs.”

Angela crossed her arms. “And where, exactly is that?”

He hooked a thumb towards an older section of town. “The Lunchpail district. If there’s anywhere in this city that speaks of the ninety-nine percent, that’s it. This city started as a factory town, after all, and that’s what’s left of the original workers’ community, from back when the unions were still a force to be reckoned with.”

Les shrugged in confusion. “What the heck for? Isn’t that the slum where JonesCo wants to put up more overpriced condos and strip malls?”

“To stop them, that’s what for.”

He was aghast. “Stop them? Are you nuts? What are we going to do, wave some signs in their faces?”

“Have you been living under a rock?” Angela said in exasperation. “The whole point of being here, in fact the whole point of Occupy Wall Street, is to focus people’s attention on how those with power have been using it against those without it. If waving signs makes that happen, then we’ll wave signs. But this fight isn’t about the square we’re in, any more than Wendell Jones’ subsidized housing developments are about serving the underclass. They’re about power, who has it, and who doesn’t.”

“Oh, right,” Les retorted. “If you think the two of you are going to have any effect on his plans, you ought to check yourself into the psych ward and get fitted for a rubber room.”

“Look,” Angela said fiercely, “you don’t have to be part of this if you don’t want to. But please don’t get in our way. C’mon Ifan.”

*     *     *

The neighborhood that Wendell Jones had targeted for rebuilding was abuzz with activity when Ifan and Angela stepped off the bus. Rented vans were parked in front of several of the tidy little post-war homes on the block, and people were hurrying about with boxes and furniture. They walked to the nearest van and approached a white-haired man who was sliding a heavy book box into the back.

“Excuse me, sir,” Ifan said. “I heard that JonesCo was helping people in the neighborhood to move. How’s that going?”

The man took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Y’know,” he said, “it’s really not fair of them to force the issue like this.”

Angela glanced back at the man’s home. “You didn’t want to move out?”

“Hell, no. My wife and I had this place paid off years ago. But then the insurance company threatened to cancel if we didn’t replace the roof, and the only way to afford that was to remortgage the house. When the crash happened, I lost my job as an expediter for the factory and haven’t worked regular since then. We limped along on whatever part-time work we could find, but then my wife took ill. Miss a couple of payments and the bank wants to foreclose. JonesCo offered to clear our debts if we moved to their subsidized housing complex on the other side of town, so it was either that or the street. We’re moving, but we’re certainly not happy about it.”

“So you’ve already sold your house?” Ifan said.

The man gave them a puzzled look. “Sold it? No. They told us they’d take care of everything. Right now, we’re just trying to get moved out.”

Angela nudged Ifan. “Doesn’t Jones deal in CDOs?”

He nodded. “I’m Ifan Davies, and this is Angela Scarlotti. We’re from Occupy Wall Street. If there were a way to keep your house, would you be interested, Mr…?”

“Carver.” He extended his hand. “What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know how much you know about the man behind JonesCo, Mr. Carver, but a good deal of Wendell Jones’ fortune, and most of his construction empire, was built by slipping through gaps in the law. He did a lot of trading in collateralized debt obligations – bundled mortgages like yours – in which the chain of custody was broken.”

“He what?”

“It’s like this,” Angela said, “in order for Jones to legally buy your house, the outfit that holds your mortgage must have clear title to it. Since Jones prefers to trade in CDOs, there’s a good chance that your mortgage-holder has actually sold the loan, and its only acting as payment agent for all the investors who own a piece of it through the bond it was cooked into. Unless someone can prove that they own your mortgage, he can’t buy it from them.”

A twentyish young man with a neatly trimmed beard quietly slid a box into the van beside Carver’s, turned, and glanced expectantly at the newcomers.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Carver said sheepishly, and introduced them to Thad. He was a volunteer from the First Assembly Church who’d been helping him to pack out. Thad explained that he’d come down with a group organized by John Avendale Simms, the church’s Pastor, to welcome their new neighbors into the religious community in the complex that Carver and several others on the block were moving to. But when Angela explained that she and Ifan were part of OWS, he excused himself, and said he’d be back shortly with Pastor Simms.

“That’s friendly of them,” Ifan said. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

Carver glanced into the van, and then turned back towards his house. “Now I’m not so sure,” he said. “If what you say is true, maybe I shouldn’t take their offer after all.”

“Whose offer,” Angela asked, “JonesCo’s or the First Assembly Church?”

“Both, maybe. Simms’ congregation is deeply into outreach, as you can probably guess from their presence here. Well, they also encourage their parishioners to open their homes to people who are living on the street.”

“Kinda like what the city’s been doing to the Occupy lately,” said Ifan. “How strong is their encouragement?”

He frowned. “Very. I got the strong impression that it might as well be mandatory. And as much as I’d like to help others, that’s really got to be a personal choice.”

Angela nodded. “So you’re feeling pressured from both directions.”

Carver eyed her suspiciously. “What’s your angle anyway? I mean, why are you two here in the first place?”

“To be perfectly honest, it’s partly out of frustration. A few days ago, I was helping a bunch of folks work the kinks out of a new street theater project. Unfortunately, the mayor’s new tech toy — that police drone he got from Homeland Security, caught us on video, and he pushed through an absurd new rule to shut down Occupy Wall Street’s ability to conduct business or stage a protest.”

“I’ve never been much a fan of the guy. What rule was that?”

“Believe it or not, it’s now illegal in this city for more than ten people to do or say anything in unison.”

He chuckled. “But that would shut Pastor Simms’ choir down, too. Our mayor isn’t too bright, is he?”

“Well,” Ifan said, “I figure it’s going to be enforced about as uniformly as the statutes on financial crimes are. They’ll probably just use it on us, and leave everyone else alone. But getting back to your move, what are you going to do?”

“Yes, Mr. Carver,” another voice asked, “what are you going to do?”

“Oh,” Carver said as he turned around, “Hi Pastor Simms. We were just discussing the mayor’s hardline stance against churches. He’s just declared war on religion. What are you going to do about that?”

The man’s eyes widened. “He’s what?”

“It’s true,” Ifan said solemnly, “according to the new rule, if more than ten people say ‘amen’ together, they’re breaking the law.”

“After I helped to get him elected? Well, “ Simms said as he turned to go, “we’ll just have to see about that.”

Thad, who stood directly behind Simms, hastily stepped aside while glancing back and forth between his boss and Carver, unsure of what he was supposed to do. But just as he started to ask for directions, Pastor Simms ordered him to follow.

Ifan lost his composure about the time the pastor angrily pulled out his cell phone and started barking orders at some ecumenical underling. “You are quick, Mr. Carver,” he said. “Remind me never to get on the wrong side of an argument with you.”

Angela murmured agreement, but she seemed a bit upset about something.

“Thanks. I tell myself never to let anyone steamroll me into something I don’t really want to do, but it’s not so easy when it’s someone you don’t want to offend, or someone with power over you.” He nodded towards Simms. “The worst part about it is that when a jerk like that get’s the better of someone, it boosts his confidence.”

“Maybe,” Ifan said with a chuckle, “that’s why they call them ‘confidence men’.”

“What do you think he’s going to do now?”

“Well, with that fire you just lit under him, I’d guess he’s going to threaten his buddy the mayor with his warped version of hell if he doesn’t rescind that rule of his.” He turned to Angela. “Is something wrong, Ace?”

“Yeah, there’s something wrong.” She said, glancing back towards Simms, and brandishing her cellphone. “You two just started a delicious political avalanche, and I didn’t get it on video.”

While Ifan was laughing, Thad approached, minus the pleasantness he’d shown earlier. He spoke brusquely, and seemed somehow more at ease for it. “Okay, Mr. Carver, here’s the deal. Pastor Simms said to give you one last chance to accept our help moving, but if you refused it, I can toss your crap on the street.”

“Gee,” Angela said, angling her cell phone screen towards Ifan so he could see that she’d been recording the audio all along, “what a gallant offer. You’re a real gentleman, aren’t you?”

Thad elbowed them aside and reached for a book box. “Well,” he said, balancing it on the edge of the bed, “what’s it to be?”

Carver steadied the box and looked Thad in the eye. “You’ll let us unload my stuff, squirt, or you can explain it to the police. Or didn’t you see the Block Watch sign on the corner?”

He took a step back and crossed his arms. “You’ve got three minutes, grandpa. After that, I’m driving off with whatever’s still inside.”

Ifan quickly slipped into the van and started shifting everything to the rear, while Carver and Angela scrambled to ferry it to the sidewalk. Two of Carver’s neighbors came running over to find out what was happening, but one look at Thad was all it took for them to pitch in as well. With their help, the van was emptied with time to spare.

“That was a really stupid move,” Thad said as he closed the rear gate. “JonesCo’s gonna evict your ass one way or another. When it does, don’t expect to be able to buy or rent from anyone in this city’s religious community. Pastor Simms is a very powerful man, and he doesn’t take acts like this lightly.”

“What was stupid,” Angela said, taking a step closer, “was making a threat like that in public. We’ve got witnesses.”

He laughed. “Who can be bought or scared off.”

“Maybe. But we’ve also got a recording of the entire exchange. This isn’t going away. Now go run to your pastor.”

Thad snarled ineffectively as he boarded the van, then slammed the door and drove off. Carver’s neighbors immediately grilled him about what had happened. After he got them up to speed, and while they were all hauling Carver’s stuff back to his house, Ifan and Angela filled them in about the mayor’s new rule, the fact that it had been instituted downstate as well, and how it affected their ability to stage any kind of unified protest.

There was a knock at the door while they were mulling over what to do next. It was a uniformed member of the capitol police. According to the officer, Pastor Simms had called 911 to report a disturbance.

“What sort of disturbance,” Carver asked, beckoning the officer to enter.

“Well,” he said, glancing at each of the people in the sparse living room, “according to the report, he said that two people from outside of the neighborhood had come in to incite the residents to violate their contracts with JonesCo for the sale of their homes.

“Oh?” said Ifan, approaching the officer. “Does that mean Pastor Simms is acting as an agent of JonesCo?”

“Are you one of the people he’s talking about, sir?” the officer said, gesturing for him to keep his distance.

“They’re my guests,” Carver said protectively. “So what happens now?”

“That depends. Is what Pastor Simms said correct? Did you have a sales contract with JonesCo?”

Carver was about to answer when Ifan interrupted. “If he did, officer, it was obtained under duress. All we’ve done is to question the chain of custody on the deed to this property. You can’t violate an invalid contract.”

The officer thought for a moment. “Are you acting as his attorney, then, Mr…?”

“Davies. No, sir, but in my role at the Occupy—.”

“You’re part of Occupy Wall Street? Then what are you doing here?”

“It’s not like we’re prisoners of that city park we’ve been using,” Angela said. “Besides, with the mayor’s new rule against unified action, it seemed wise to change our strategy.”

“By engaging in what I suppose you could call community outreach and enlisting people like Mr. Carver here to take individual action?”

“Now that you put it that way,” she said, “that’s exactly what we’re doing: empowering the ninety-nine percent. Have you ever though about going into marketing?”

“Or political activism?” Ifan added, chuckling.

“All that aside,” the officer said, “I do have to file a report.”

“In that case,” Carver said, “wouldn’t you have to establish whether this contract I’m accused of violating actually exists? And since Simms contends that my friends have come to incite my neighbors to do the same thing, wouldn’t you have to ask them as well?”

The officer eyed him suspiciously. “Are you trying to get me to take sides in this? I’m supposed to be impartial.”

“You’re right,” Ifan said. “The executives in any organization would want their enforcers to play at being impartial. But the fact remains; you are part of the ninety-nine percent. We’re doing this to protect your rights, just as much as we’re protecting Mr. Carver’s and all of his neighbors’. So yes, I’m trying to get you to take sides. I’m trying to get you to cross that line they want you to toe and be a protector of the people, rather than of the likes of Pastor Simms, Wendell Jones, and for that matter our not-so-beloved mayor.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Angela said, digging out her netbook. “This morning, when the riot police were ordered to arrest a group of downstate occupiers for violating a rule patterned after the one we’ve been saddled with, one of them switched sides.”

He nodded. “Yeah. I heard. He would have had to arrest his own sister, a city councilwoman. Not that it did any good. They still arrested the lot of them, then cleared and locked the site. All he gained from his foolishness was trouble from his CO.”

“Not exactly,” Angela said. “He also gained something else: the self-confidence you get from standing up for your convictions. The grandson of one of the people arrested there this morning, a ten-year-old kid named Kendrik, put us all to shame today. He singlehandedly convinced the people of that city to retake the building lot their Occupy was using, and he did it because of something his grandmother told him: if you’re silent, you don’t count.”

“Okay, okay. But what can I do? I’m just here to respond to a call.”

“Simple,” Ifan said. “Do what Mr. Carver suggested. Speak to his neighbors.”



[The story continues in ‘Representation‘]

Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack


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