Thomas: They, Them, Theirs

Dec 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Feature, Misc

Thomas ButlerUsually when I have nothing to write about and lots of important schoolwork to do, I head downtown from my boring-ass little college island on my hip little ten-speed, tie said ten-speed up at the Green Bean and set off around the streets with my little notepad and pen, waiting for something to happen. “Looking for action.” I have special glasses for when I do this.

And downtown is usually good to me. I never have to wait long before I run into some oddball or another. Wednesday night was no exception, as, within ten minutes of stalking South Elm St, I spotted walking slowly up the opposite sidewalk a young man with a HUGE backpack on, complete with blanket roll and tent gear, a second bookbag strapped to his front, several layers of collared shirts, a mop of dirty curls, and a dazed and far-off look in his eyes. All this coated in a healthy wash of brown, like some time-warped Dust Bowl refugee. Bingo!

When I asked if he needed directions, he wanted to know if Occupy Greensboro was still camped out in Festival Park. I convinced him it wasn’t, and in an attempt (that worked!) to lure him into telling me his secrets, I offered to treat him to the Green Bean and help him find the phone numbers of some fellow revolutionaries. Enticed by the promise of fair-trade coffee beans and probably starving, he let me pay with my Bank of America credit card and proceeded to extemporize at length on life, the road, revolution, and Occupy. Here I present to you the story of Thomas Butler, Vagabond Yogi and DIY Bike-Tourist.

Sitting across from me amidst probably sixty pounds of baggage, Thomas wore a round, white, sharpie-scrawled pin on his shirt: “Thomas: They, Them, Theirs…” He spoke clearly and thoroughly for an hour; either he was a god-gifted orator or I wasn’t the first wet-behind-the-ears journalist to trade him coffee for story-time. “I’ve been going from Occupy to Occupy, helping out where I can,” he said. “A lot of places have packed it in; I’m not very surprised to find out there’s no physical Occupation here.”

Outside a train whistle blew, and suddenly Thomas leapt to his feet and jogged out the door, leaving me to watch all his shit. 30, 45 seconds passed. The girl who was sitting behind him stared at me. Finally he came back in, a little winded, explaining “Sorry about that, I just wanted to see how fast it was going” (he did this two more times in under an hour).

Originally from Austin, Thomas attended the University of Texas and lived in the 21st Street Co-op–a legendary institution at UT, a 100-student community where $4.28 plus 34 minutes of labor per day will earn you food, shelter, and concerts by Andrew WK and LCD Soundsystem (if you’re into that sort of thing). Clothing is optional. At the 21st-Street Co-op, Thomas became head of labor and a representative for the co-op to the North American Students of Cooperation consortium.

DIY Bike Tour Zine

The Zine – DIY Bike Tour

When he graduated from UT, Thomas had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. for the 2010 NASCO convention. With nothing else to do, and “sick of the academic ball-and-chain [he]’d been dragging around,” Thomas decided to leave Austin a month early and bike to D.C.

After working in D.C. as a bike cabbie for a short time (“You can make $400 a day if you use your own bike”), Thomas heard about a caravan organizing to travel to the second U.S. Social Forum, a triennial rally of social justice activists, in Detroit, and was soon on the road. The oldest person on the Grassroots Caravan was 60, the youngest was one. “Seymour [the youngest] was crying like a baby on a bike tour basically the whole time.”

In Detroit that June, he and his fellow Grassroots bikers advocated for social justice when they weren’t partying or farming–Detroit, with its abundance of vacant land and its populace’s desperation for something to do, is a vanguard for urban farming in the states. But after a week of humanitarian debauchery, Thomas, now a month and a half out of college, decided this whole Grassroots bike tour thing was too restrictive for him, and set out on a solo bike tour to “places where nice people were.”

Some tidbits Thomas picked up while riding the country solo:

  • “Residential dumpster-diving can be gross because there’s used diapers and sharp things, but industrial dumpster diving can be pretty fun.”
  • “I’ve heard that every McDonald’s has a ladder leading to its roof, if you ever need a place to camp.”
  • “Hitchbiking works really well… For some reason people assume you’re safe to pick up if you hold a bicycle.”

Perhaps seeing that I wasn’t believing anything he said to me, Thomas started to rummage through his bag for proof. And proof he drew from a water-tight bag labeled “steak jerky,” in the form of a black-and-white 20-page zine, bound with a wheel spoke and bearing the cover: “DIY Bike Tour by Thomas Butler.” Inside were photos of Thomas and other odd bikers scaling McDonalds, hand-drawn diagrams on how to fix derailleurs, and not a few last-minute margin manifestos against capitalism, cars, and, of course, the man. He also had a patch given him by an L.A. bike gang with “Thomas” written in reflective tape, which was pretty sweet.

“Bike touring on your own is far more possible than most people assume,” he said. “Of course, I have it to my advantage that I’m young and able-bodied and fairly-charismatic–” The train whistle blew, in a second and I was on my own again. After a minute he came back, smiling and slapping his hands together. “Oh yeah, they hardly crawl out of here,” he told me reassuringly.

Thomas ButlerBut back to the matters at hand–namely, how Thomas wound up in Greensboro, where he was going, and how come he smelled like he did. In February of this year, another co-op conference had Thomas in Chicago at the start of the Madison, Wisconsin protests against the 2011 Budget Repair Bill. For those who don’t remember, the Madison protests gathered thousands of citizens against a bill that would damage workers’ ability to collectively bargain. At its height, the action saw 100,000 participants camped outside and inside the capitol building. In Wisconsin. In February. The protests started on Valentine’s Day; Thomas was there by the 18th.

In comparison with the Fall’s protests, Thomas said “I don’t want to call them more civilized, because I don’t believe that civilization is necessarily a good thing. But they were less barbaric in some ways…” He saw Madison as the start of a change in the popular mindframe. “In my mind that was the first real Occupation… People realized for the first time that another world was possible, and they collectivized to try to bring it about.”

Thus, Thomas was little surprised when the Occupy movement began spreading across the country. “I was back in Austin for the first time since I’d left school, and the second day I was home I heard about a General Assembly. They were expecting 30 people, and about 400 came, and I guess after that it seemed like a pretty sure thing.” Thomas, for two weeks, stayed and helped out in Austin, but, unsurprisingly he took to the road again by October, beginning his current tour (hint: he’s not using a bike this time).

“At most Occupations, there’s a check-in, a desk, or some sort of centralized point like that. I go there, point to my silly little name tag, tell them about my skills,and ask how I can help out… Sometimes they’ll hand me a broom right away, sometimes they’ll ask me if I can help them out with structural problems.”

Though he had yet to go to Wall Street, Thomas saw a similar pattern among the Occupations he’d visited. “I feel like I’ve seen a lot of burnout,” he said: movements start, people are electrified for a while, then for various reasons the scene tapers off. Thomas sees the reasons as “police repression,” “finding out it’s not cool anymore,” and especially “people realizing it’s sort of hard to start a revolution.” Case-in-point, our own deserted Festival Park.

Which begged me to ask, if Occupiers across the nation are half-assing or packing it in, what inspires this man–not six years older than myself, carrying his water bottle inside a brown sock and carefully eyeing the contents before drinking, questionably procuring apples to eat on his way back from the bathroom, working on an addendum to “DIY Bike Tour” that includes how to get your bike onto a freight car–what inspires him to keep up his travels?

“People get down, they say the movement’s not what it was. They get so defeated, and I tell people it’s okay… it’s about long-term community building.” Happy that “people are getting clued in to consensus,” Thomas saw positivity in people’s willingness to advocate for themselves. And he had no problem with the oft-accused lack of focus attributed to the group. “Yeah, the corporations owning the government is a problem, but so is our butt-fuck health care system, so is homelessness, so is gerrymandering… everybody’s got their own opinion,” which, he said, is the beauty and the curse of consensus decision-making. “It’s slow–abysmally slow.”

Thomas thought the movement would continue to grow so long as people kept up covert actions like the recent mic check at N.C. State and local events like wednesday’s Occupy Music at the Blind Tiger. “Banner drops can be really empowering, too, but you’ve gotta be willing to spend a night or two in jail.”

However, with no physical occupation in Greensboro, Thomas wasn’t planning on sticking around. In a generous move to make the Gate City’s nickname relevant, he re-arranged his plans to catch a train to New Orleans the next morning. When I asked if he meant the Crescent, he politely informed me that he didn’t take that kind of train, which I had actually sort of guessed. Thomas was going to push a broom, or help with sanitation, or, he said, “honestly I might just party with some people I know down there.” After Nola he planned to go home to Texas “for the Christian holiday,” then he told me he wanted to go visit Argentina, study how they manage industrial ventures with low fossil fuel usage, and bring what he learns back “so we can apply it for sustainability in housing co-ops.” And as I parted with that crazy bastard, watching him read a Slingshot in the Green Bean and clean his fingernails with a hunting knife, I believed he’d do it. Thanks for never disappointing me, Elm Street.

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