Interview w/ Carly Miller ~ CLOTHING OF THE AMERICAN MIND ~ Echo Park
8:38 AM PST on February 22, 2007
Clothing of the American Mind ~ 1284 Sunset Blvd. Echo Park, CA ~ (213) 481-2004
I don't know about other women, but there comes a day when, hearing another girlfriend moan about commitment-phobes, and finding yourself once again justifying my...I mean, their behavior, you realize it's time to ditch your tomboy days, become a real woman, and commit to someone, or at least something, greater than yourself.
"Why not take refuge in Buddhist precepts?" was my first thought. I had been living by them for years now anyway, being broke and far off-the-mainstream path. I didn't have to agree with everything, my critical mind would have to endure, I could still think for myself. I joined a silent retreat to meditate upon this most serious decision. I promised, in writing, to observe the facility's three rules: no lying, no killing of insects, and no engaging in sexual activity. I moved into an adorable cabin, absolutely thrilled by this chance to show my undying commitment. Maybe I was a little too excited. I quickly fell from my Buddhist Nirvana, deep in the woods on day three, when a beautiful male deer lunched near my humble shack, sunbeams striking me, warming me, through the trees like Cyclops' laser, dissolving what little clothing I could stand to wear in the first place. Something about the deer's big, brown eyes, and the way this proud buck stood so perfectly erect, rekindled vivid memories of my latest fling.
Accepting what a bad little Buddhist I'd make, I decided, instead, to take refuge in the Democratic Party back in Los Angeles. I called the neighborhood branch of my soon-to-be unit and told the lady who answered that I wanted to join them. What would I have to do to be invited into this esteemed house?
"We pay $5," the lady blurted. (awkward silence) "There must be some mistake. You don't understand. I want to earn this. This is a big step I'm taking in my life. I want to prove myself worthy. Tell me I will be grilled for hours by the Central Committee, tell me I have to hike up Mount Kennedy, tell me I have to go to Democrat School for two years... "We pay 5 bucks." As usual, when I don't get my way, the repressed bigot in me took over. "Is this legal?" What she meant was they were paying volunteers $5 to register people to vote on street corners. "What about me? How do I become a Democrat?" "You gotta register to vote." "I'm not a citizen." "Then you can't be a Democrat." You can't say I didn't try.
When meeting Carly Miller at the store CLOTHING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, filled with haberdashery virulently opposed to the war, my conflicted thoughts on U.S. troop extraction, and just about every other topic, felt instantly like half-hearted cop-outs under the gaze shining intensely from this 21st-century crusader. My 'Joan of Echo P-Arc' wore a "STOP WARS" T-shirt and denims, her pure heart emblazoned by fiery dedication to the progressive cause, and a stone-solid conviction that we need to bring U.S. troops home that I can only dream of having. I sat down with Carly last month while she was getting ready to go to Washington DC for the January 28 anti-war march for a chat.
(Carly & Taamy)
LA Taco: I met you after the screening of THE GROUND TRUTH and the Q&A you organized here. You told me you wanted to do more than just putting a bumper sticker on your car to support the troops. The first thought that came to my mind was: "or wearing a T-shirt." Is there a difference?
Carly Miller: With a T-shirt, you can't go through a whole day without someone making a comment. So you can physically start a dialog, whereas a bumper sticker is something you stick on your car, and people see and it gets the message out there, but it's not really doing anything. For me, it's trying to get the troops home. This week, we're going to D.C. for anti-war demonstrations, and we are meeting with our Congressmen on Monday to talk to them about these things. To me that's really getting active.
Our clothes also give people an outlet to do every day activism. You may not have thousands of dollars to donate to causes, or hundreds of hours to spend dedicating yourself to the anti-war movement, but you can put a T-shirt on in the morning and have a dialog with people during the day. Wearing a T-shirt makes the political personal.
LA Taco: You are wearing the "STOP WARS" T-shirt today, can you tell me of an interaction you may have had with that logo?
Carly: When I wear this T-shirt, the feedback is usually, "I love your T-shirt," or "Great shirt." One of the shirts that provokes a lot of conversations is the "MY BUSH IS PRO-CHOICE" T-shirt. Like I was in a supermarket a while back and this woman - it's usually women - came up to me and said "It's really great to have the balls to wear that shirt." My response to them is soon we're not going to be able to choose what we want to do with our bodies, so I feel wearing a shirt is the least I can do.
In 2004, we did a cross-country voter registration campaign. We got an RV and we drove from Los Angeles to Boston for the Democratic National Convention. We stopped in, like, 20 cities in swing states along the way. When you go to areas that are not heavily Democratic, when we're setting up, people come to us and say "The reason why you're here speaking out against this war is because our troops are fighting overseas." It's about having a dialogue about why we feel the war is wrong and the occupation illegal. Whether or not we can change their minds is a different story. This weekend we'll be at the one in DC but Taamy, my assistant, will be here at the rally in Downtown LA.
LA Taco: Can you talk about the Washington DC March?
Carly: It's been planned for the last 6 months. It's not just the march, there are also meetings and legislative trainings, and Monday is the Congressional Lobby day where people sign up to meet with their Senators and Congressmen, like we're doing. It's a big national mobilization planned by United for Peace & Justice, and there are a lot of peace groups around the country doing their own stuff.
LA Taco: When you say "we", who are you referring to?
Carly: Me. (laughs) Clothing of the American Mind. Taamy, my assistant, and I are the only paid employees. My partner Caitlin Blue founded the organization, but she had her first baby this summer. A lot of times I travel with Taamy or my boyfriend Matthew Gerbasi who worked for us at one time. He's the National Coordinator for the Impeachment Movement with Progressive Democrats of America.
LA Taco: Your web site is great. It has an amazing display of links to various progressive causes. Is the store funding your full-time activism?
Carly: We opened the store this summer, but we've had the business since 2004, and we were working out of Caitlin's house. We always had stores around the country that carried the shirts, but we always wanted to have our own space, not only to have a store where we can sell shirts, but also a place to do events like we did with the screening of "THE GROUND TRUTH." When it's election time, we can do voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts. For the mid-term elections, we ran a Video the Vote campaign out of here. You're dispatching teams of videographers to go out and record people who had problems at polling stations and stuff like that.
The store doesn't necessarily fund our full-time activism. The organization is about full-time activism. The T-shirts are just a vehicle to get the message out and to raise money because we donate so much of our proceeds to progressive causes. This business is not about making money for us. My partner Caitlin and her husband, Eric Waterman, finance it because they believe that we need something like this. The store enables us to have a greater presence in the city.
LA Taco: Why Echo Park? You would have better foot traffic in Santa Monica or Venice?
Carly: Caitlin lives on the Westside, which is an area populated predominantly by wealthy, White, Registered to Vote Democrats. If we opened a shop there we'd be more successful monetarily, but will we be making a difference in terms of who we want to reach to inform about these issues? Not really. I live in Silverlake. We looked for spaces in Los Feliz and Silverlake, and it was really expensive. We know that the gentrification of Downtown is moving Eastward, so in a couple of years this might be a bustling area. When we moved here, we joined the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, we're trying to make this block a better block rather than letting it fall by the wayside like before we moved in. We also wanted to be in a place where we can reach out to the immigrant population.
LA Taco: Do you speak Spanish?
Carly: I don't. I grew up at a time where they didn't start us on foreign languages until we were 16. Now it's difficult, but it's something I hope I can do. Any pertinent event, we will bring in a translator. We want to bring in Latino voter registration organizations.
(Progressive Democrats of America: Matthew Gerbasi, Carly Miller, Caitlin Blue, and Eric Waterman)
LA Taco: Who designs the clothes?
Carly: Caitlin and I conceptualize all the designs, but we have a graphic designer (waiting for Carly to give me his last name) who executes the designs. Sometimes we brainstorm with other people in the organization.
LA Taco: The COTAM website says "No animals or children are harmed in the making of our clothes." Can you expand on that?
Carly: All of our stuff is sweatshop-free and made in America. We buy our blank t-shirts from American Apparel. They are the biggest clothing retailer in America right now. So many American-based retailers have outsourced their production overseas. Whether they open factories in Mexico or China or Guatemala or wherever, I can't go there and know that kids 4, 5, 6, 7 years old might not be given fair wages, health care, and are not provided with safe and healthy working-conditions. We can't be talking about promoting and raising awareness and money for issues of social and political justice and have our shirts made in sweatshops.
"We are committed to bring informed dissent back into vogue, figuratively and literally."
LA Taco: Tell us about the 100% organic T-shirts.
Carly: We introduced our first organic cotton t-shirts in 2005, and any new design from this point forward is going to be made on 100% organic T-shirts. Non-organic cotton is grown with pesticide, which is poisonous. It pollutes the water in the ground, the soil, it will negatively affect the farmers picking those crops. They are actually touching poison which can seep through their skin and eventually if they're exposed for longs periods of time, it can cause cancer. Cotton is one of the most heavily "sprayed for pesticides" crop throughout the world. Going the organic route is what we want because once again we don't want to be involved in poisoning people, water, and land. For all of our new products, we use the American Apparel sustainable line which is 100% organic, with cotton grown in America and manufactured in Downtown LA. Other organic companies have their cotton grown overseas because it's cheaper. We really want to keep jobs here.
One more thing about the organic crops is we do not have those shirts silk screened. All our organic shirts are printed with a company called T.S. Design which is located in North Carolina. They're the only company in the entire country that uses this printing process called REHANCE. It is totally environmentally safe and non-toxic. We don't want to have a t-shirt that's organic and then print silk-screen that uses something called PLASTISOL, which is non-organic and toxic. T.S. Designs' factory where they do all the printing and dyeing, is non-toxic and they run their entire operation on solar power which is insane. We're really proud to be working with them because it's such an innovative technology and it also contributes to the longevity of the product, you can wash it for years and the design won't crack or fade.
LA Taco: Why isn't everybody doing this?
Carly: It's not cheap.
LA Taco: ...and Americans like a good deal.
Carly: (laughs) Exactly! When we go to anti-war rallies, we sell our shirts for $20-$25, and down the street there's someone selling their shirts for $5 or $10. Those customers may not realize that those shirts are made in a sweatshop. Our customers come to us because they're looking for sweatshop-free, American-made, good-quality stuff, and they're willing to pay a little bit of a higher price, especially knowing a percentage of the profits are going to progressive causes.
LA Taco: One of these organizations is Moveon.org. When you receive messages from them in your inbox almost every day asking you to host a screening party of "The Inconvenient Truth" or a voter registration party or to join a virtual march on Washington, after a while you have to admire their commitment and say "OK, I'll do it!!!" Do you think their brand of internet organizing had an impact on the November elections?
Carly: Oh yeah. I think MoveOn.org has pioneered the use of the internet to reach millions of people, and not just in their e-mails, but the way they do their parties. Like, we've hosted several MoveOn events here, and at the same time on the computer you can check where all the other events are going on around the country. They also have nationwide conference calls. I think it also affected the 2004 election. It didn't come out in our favor but I believe it was stolen in Ohio, and it has a lot to do with voting machines. If it weren't for Ohio, I think that John Kerry would be in the White House and we wouldn't be in the mess we're in right now, but it's a whole other story. I do think that MoveOn has inspired other organizations to use the internet to their benefit to not only raise money, but raise awareness, and get more people to sign up to their e-mailing list. It had a huge effect on the elections of 2006 and it will have a huge effect on the elections of 2008. In this day and age, it is the way to organize.
LA Taco: What impresses me the most is that MoveOn.org was created by two people, and they now reach 3.3 million members. How can you stay passive when they write a letter of protest for you and give you the names of the Senators to send it to and all you have to do is Cut, Paste and Send and you don't even have to read it?! Despite all this reinvigoration of the anti-war soldiers at home, you can argue that the Republican party's message is still a lot stronger than the Democrats. One month into holding the majority in Congress and the Democrats haven't been able to define a clear policy on Iraq. They still sound as if they are reacting to the Republicans' position rather than having one of their own.
Carly: It's pretty obvious that the Republicans have dominated the political discussions for the last decade or so. The theory behind that is pretty much language and linguistics. I don't know if you've heard of George Lakoff, but he's written a book about why the Republican messages resonate so much better, simply because of the languages and tactics that they use. I do believe there is a widespread problem among Democrats in terms of defining their message, but I also feel especially that Democrats who are running for President have to be careful. Middle-of-the-road American Democrats may not be ready to bring home the troops now. The way to change the dialogue is bringing new people in. Over the next decade, you will see the conversation shifting and Democrats getting a lot stronger.
LA Taco: You say on the COTAM website, "We feel we must not remain silent while Bush, Cheney, Condi, and Rummi chastise us for not believing in their version of the truth." One of my early culture shocks when I moved from Paris, France, to LA, was witnessing kids in an elementary school yard pledging alliegance to the flag. Seen through the eyes of a Parisian exposed to strikes and demonstrations from an early age, pledging to the flag seemed to me an early training in submission.
Carly Miller: We're taught in our history books that Columbus was a hero. The history that we are forced to learn is not even the truth. We're not taught about the slaughter of the Indians and the taking of their lands. That's why you don't see millions of people in the street protesting the war. A lot of people are just complacent and wrapped up with their own lives and for a lot of people it's instilled in them not to question the government. To me it's our responsibility as citizens. The best I can do is try to change an many people's minds as I can and to encourage them to think for themselves.
(caption: "Official clothier of the politically disgruntled.")
LA Taco: In 2000, I spent a few weeks in France, and as usual, there is some upheaval going on. Companies dependent on oil for their business are angry because the government increased the price of gas by taxing it, so these companies are blocking the way out of fuel storage facilities, and there is no gas at the pumps nationwide. I told my family the government should tell the trucking companies to lift the blockades before they engage in talks. They turned around and looked at me like I was a total stranger. Before they threw me out, I tell them it's my American mind speaking. In France - for better or worse - people act, the government reacts, and often bows down to popular pressure. In the US, the people may react, but they don't necessarily act.
Carly: We can't make things like that happen here also because the past 6 years our civil liberties have slowly dwindled away. Cindy Sheehan tried to deliver thousands of petitions to the White House and they didn't take her stack of papers. We don't have a voice in the White House. A lot of people are scared. I was, in 2004, in NY for the Republican National Convention to protest in the streets. They were setting up Free Speech zones. I didn't realize I had to be standing in a cage to speak my mind!
It makes me sad that our parents' generation went into the streets millions strong and were able to affect change and we can't. It makes me sad that people in Europe or even third-world countries take to the streets after an election is stolen and they make that change and we don't do that. I believe the 2000 election was stolen, and at the time I said if the 2004 election is stolen too, the only thing the American people could do to change that outcome would be to stay at home and not go to work the day after the election, but that will never happen. Sometimes, I get even more depressed after a demonstration when I see how few people showed up. But there is a movement of people who are seriously committed to ending this war and show up every week on street corners.
LA Taco: I'm in San Pedro every Friday. A group of 8 to 10 people with anti-war placards have been standing at the same street corner religiously every Friday for at least 2 years.
Carly Miller: Up here at the big intersection of Sunset, Hollywood and Virgil, there are people every Friday too.
LA Taco: What makes you an activist? What was your upbringing like?
Carly: My parents were hippies (laughs) and grew up in the era of protesting the Vietnam war. They weren't activists but their open-minded attitude had an influence on me. It was OK to be different and to be you. I grew up in a very white, very homophobic area, and I always revolted against that. I wanted to get as far away from that place as I could from the minute I got there, even when I was 12 years old (laughs). Now if you were raised Evangelical, it's a different story. 75% of home-schooled kids in America are Evangelicals. They're being taught that science is not real, global warming doesn't exist. But kids in middle schools and high schools are also being taught the wrong history. I often wonder how this period of time will be written about in history books...probably favorably. We dropped atomic bombs on Japan and that was written about favorably.
LA Taco: President Truman said in his speech (click for a quick audio excerpt) that the bombings saved "thousands and thousands of young Americans' lives" because it put a stop to the war. He never mentioned the estimated 240,000 Japanese men, women, and children who died. I recently met people in their 30's and 40's who believe the official version, because that's what they were taught in school. They weren't taught the more critical views. It reminds me of Bush talking of "creating peace" in the Middle East after the Iraq invasion rather than calling it "creating war, death, and destruction."
Carly Miller: I do think there is a fascist element in the way the Bush government is running America, and the way mainstream America is being herded and brainwashed into not questioning the government.
LA Taco: But what exactly is mainstream America? Is it white America? I would venture to say the majority of African Americans, because of their history, don't trust the government. I remember seeing a news segment during the Anthrax fear after September 11. They were interviewing people - mostly white - at the Pentagon and asking them if they were willing to get the Anthrax vaccine, which is controversial, and they were all saying 'yes.' Next thing you know they're interviewing people at a post office and they're mostly African Americans, and they say 'no way' they're getting the government's vaccine.
Carly Miller: I think, since 2004, there's been a total sea-change in the way the American people are thinking. They're definitely more opposed to the war and Bush than they were back then. Sometimes I wonder what it will take for people to get in the streets if they are not in the streets now when we are all wire-tapped and spied on, we went into Iraq illegally, and there were no weapons of mass destruction. The Founding Fathers talked about impeachment and impeachable offenses so that the people can do something about it. That's why we have a Constitution.
LA Taco: I see "Impeach Bush" signs in your store.
Carly: We were having a freeway blogging workshop. It's inspired by Ian, the freeway blogger. It means creating signs like these and hanging them on the road or freeways and highways for people who would not otherwise be exposed to messages like these. It's sort of guerrila style tactic. You want to do it in the middle of the night, or early morning so you don't get caught, it is not illegal to do, but it's about putting the signs up and taking photos of them, recording them on videos. We feel like the issue of impeachment and the fact that the US government is planning to attack Iran in the next few months are issues that are not talked about in the mainstream American press, so it's important to bring the issues to people's attention. It's one of those things that's fun to do.
LA Taco: I wanted to ask Taamy, your assistant, if she wanted to comment on what we've been talking about.
Taamy: Why people aren't on the streets like our European counterparts? Europeans work hard but there is a time for leisure and traveling.
LA Taco: 5 weeks paid vacation after a year working for a company. And don't waste your time trying to explain to a European the concept of cashing in your vacation time, they will not understand.
Taamy: Here we're so driven by money and capitalism; it's so integrated in our structure. People are very self-centered, not because they don't feel or they don't care, but because they feel they don't have time. They have to go to work, and put food on the table and it sucks, but that's what we have to do for us. It's nice for me to have a job where I can put food on the table and at the same time make a difference and make life better for others.
LA Taco: Can you give examples?
Taamy: On top on the political ideology, COTAM is also doing things to better the neighborhood, like recycling or making the streets cleaner. Carly is a Block Captain with the Chamber of Commerce. If we plant flowers outside, more people will walk this street and take pride in where they live. They don't feel neglected. When individuals feel there is a difference today and we care about each other, I think it has a huge domino effect.
LA Taco: Taamy, have you had any interesting interaction wearing on the T-shirts?
Taamy: I haven't had any negative experiences yet. I've just been working for COTAM for 3 months, and I go to mostly progressive areas, so if I have any interaction, it's mostly positive. I wore the "VOTA!" T-shirt at the post office here in Echo Park, and a man said he loved the shirt, and he appreciated that it was in Spanish.
LA Taco: What in your background made you become an activist?
Taamy: My parents were liberal, but maybe not as much as I thought. My parents are from Eritrea and Nigeria. They came to the US when they were in their 20's. Because of their own experiences with the US, they've been very critical, as well as having an objective point of view. I grew up in an homogenous, upper-middle class neighborhood where I was the only Black kid, and also being African, I had a different name. So I feel an affinity with people who feel ostracized or different, I feel that is what influenced me.
Carly: One of COTAM's slogan is "Changing the world one T-shirt at a time." It's not something that happens over night. Even if it's just giving clean clothes to a homeless person, it's doing one positive thing every day.
(I WOULD end on this..but alas, my editors insist)
LA Taco: One more important question to both of you. What is your favorite taco joint and your favorite LA hang-out?
Carly: It's important for us to support local businesses, like our store front was painted by local artist Ernesto de la Loza. There's a taco stand at the bottom of our street at Sunset and Lucille, it's called Tacos Delta, that's where we go for authentic Mexican food.
Taamy: Mine is Holy Guacamole, it's on Main Street and Ashland in Santa Monica, it's a little taco shack, it's more expensive, because it's not a chain, but it's really good.
Carly: For fancier food, there is MALO at Sunset/Fountain/Hyperion. When I used to go out, I went to DEEP on Sunday nights. I like to go to Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz to the Skylight Bookstore, and the movie theaters. And there is a great toy store in Silverlake called Monkey House.
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