An Interview with Terry Messman
by Jess Clarke
Street Spirit is one of the longest-lived publications on poverty, homelessness and human rights in the United States. Terry Messman produced the first issue in March 1995, and has edited and designed every issue of the newspaper for nearly 22 years.
Messman has been organizing for peace and justice since the 1970s when he was arrested several times for committing civil disobedience at nuclear weapons bases at Rocky Flats in Colorado, the Trident naval base in Washington, and Malmstrom AFB in Montana. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he spent six months in federal prison for repeated acts of civil disobedience. After prison, he attended seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, graduating with an M. Div. degree. Last year, he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the Pacific School of Religion.
In 1986, Messman became the director of the Homeless Organizing Project for American Friends Service Committee. As co-founder of the Oakland Union of the Homeless, he was arrested in many takeovers of abandoned housing, and in welfare rights protests, sleep-outs, occupations of HUD homes and the vacant federal building.
He worked with Religious Witness with Homeless People to protest the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco, organizing many acts of civil disobedience at S.F. City Hall and occupations of vacant federally owned housing in the Presidio.
In 1995, Messman and homeless advocate Sally Hindman founded Street Spirit, sold by homeless vendors in Oakland and Berkeley. Subtitled “Justice News and Homeless Blues,” Street Spirit has tirelessly defended the human rights of homeless people.
You can listen to the interview on the Street Spirit.
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Jess Clarke: As the founder of Street Spirit, you’ve seen some of the important political trends in homeless organizing and human rights advocacy in the Bay Area. Looking at the big picture, when and why did you first found Street Spirit?
Terry Messman: We put out the first issue in March of 1995, so we’ve been going steadily for nearly 22 years. It’s one of the most long-lived media of any kind in the nation to document the history of poverty, homelessness, and the movements to overcome economic injustice.
We founded Street Spirit after I’d been an activist for many years on homeless issues in Oakland and Berkeley, doing housing takeovers, and mobilizing homeless people to demonstrate at welfare offices and in many other struggles for their basic human rights.
We got a lot of positive media attention for those actions, but I grew more and more concerned that corporate media outlets were completely denigrating poor and homeless people. It was a form of character assassination in the news columns, and we got really fed up with that.
Then, in 1995, a friend of mine, Sally Hindman, who I’d known at seminary in Berkeley and who was also working on homeless issues in Oakland, advocated that I begin Street Spirit because she knew of my background in journalism. So we put out the first issue. I was the editor and Sally Hindman organized the first team of homeless vendors that sold the newspaper on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland.
Clarke: Prior to that you’d been organizing direct actions as director of the Homeless Organizing Project for the AFSC. What was the reason behind switching from organizing with homeless people — where you were organizing for policy change, building housing, and doing civil disobedience — in order to create this form of media?
Messman: We really didn’t switch away from community organizing, not at that point. I continued organizing protests and civil disobedience for many years after launching Street Spirit. I had been doing housing takeovers and other forms of civil disobedience in Oakland and Berkeley.
Then I moved across the Bay to work with Sister Bernie Galvin in San Francisco, organizing protests against the criminalization of homeless people, as part of Religious Witness with Homeless People. I wrote the mission statement for Religious Witness and was instrumental in working with Sister Bernie to organize all the protests in the first few years.
Bernie Galvin was a fine organizer, and we worked closely in partnership to protest the Matrix program initiated by Mayor Frank Jordan, the former police chief in San Francisco. Jordan unleashed the police in full fury against homeless people, issuing thousands of citations, fines and arrests that criminalized virtually every aspect of their existence.
Clarke: Religious Witness with Homeless People organized very large, visible demonstrations of religious leaders for many years in San Francisco.
Messman: Sister Bernie was a highly successful organizer in mobilizing many of the Bay Area’s priests, ministers, bishops and clergy to do acts of civil disobedience in solidarity with homeless people. She mobilized hundreds of religious leaders and members of congregations to demonstrate for their rights, and I worked closely with her to design our campaigns and plan our acts of civil disobedience.
In the middle of that multi-year campaign to defend the human rights of homeless people, we realized how crucial the media was in this struggle, because the main newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, had an incredibly reactionary position on homeless issues.
It was just amazing to me to see how unfairly they covered this issue, how they just ignored massive, newsworthy protests, and how they berated and beat up on homeless people in their editorial columns, and constantly campaigned for the criminalization of homelessness.
So we realized that forming our own media could help break the bias of the corporate media, and enhance the strength of homeless organizing by making our protests more visible to the public. When I began Street Spirit, I was still working constantly with Religious Witness. As the years went by, though, I found that Street Spirit took over my entire life and consumed all my program work at the AFSC.
Clarke: So it was an evolutionary process? Through the 1990s, it was a hybrid project?
Messman: Yeah, I had a twofold emphasis in the 1990s on Street Spirit and also on the community organizing, takeovers of vacant housing, and the civil disobedience I had always done. I was juggling those dual commitments, but it was becoming more difficult to do everything.
Actually, Paul Boden of the Coalition of Homelessness was crucial in my discernment here. When I consulted with Paul in 1995 about whether we should launch Street Spirit — because I knew it would take a lot of time and energy — he told me then that their Street Sheet newspaper was the single most important tool in their arsenal, the single most powerful. He said, “You’re not going to be sorry,” and he was right. I liked the work of the Coalition on Homelessness and their Street Sheet paper was one of the first street newspapers in the country. And so I trusted Boden’s guidance.
So even when Street Spirit began gradually taking over my life, I wasn’t sorry because I saw the great power it had and the meaning it held out for many people.
Clarke: At the time, I know Street Sheet was being sold in San Francisco’s North of Market and Tenderloin areas. Why did you think another street paper was necessary for the East Bay?
Messman: Because the Street Sheet was focused in San Francisco, and we wanted Street Spirit to cover issues in Oakland, Berkeley, and further inland in Contra Costa County, Concord and Richmond. We felt the issues in those areas were vital. Those were the issues and the cities I knew the most. I’d always been based in the East Bay, not in San Francisco. So Street Spirit was formed to cover those issues in the East Bay.
The Coalition on Homelessness told us they were glad we were doing that because there hadn’t been a paper there in the East Bay. Even though Street Spirit became a very different newspaper, we very much followed the model of the Coalition on Homelessness. I still think it’s the best model in the country, because it carries out hard-hitting advocacy journalism that never apologies for being on the side of homeless and poor people.
It accepts no advertising because advertising can really distort editorial freedom and independence. And we gave it for free to homeless vendors, unlike virtually all of the homeless newspapers in this country and in Europe, who all charge their vendors. So when people buy it, they know the homeless person is getting all of the money. It’s economic redistribution from the middle-class commuter to the homeless people and no nonprofit gets a cent from it.
Clarke: I think that many people haven’t really recognized the amount of media that’s getting distributed on the street. Even though people see the vendors, they don’t see it as a news channel. They don’t realize 20,000 copies of Street Spirit are being distributed every month in the East Bay, and another 30,000 copies of Street Sheet in San Francisco. Can you talk a little more about the vendors and what the impact is on the reading audience when they’re buying a paper from a homeless person on the street?
Messman: It has always been extremely important to us that homeless vendors sell it directly to the public. Really, we should distribute Street Spirit at newstands and in libraries because it would get the word out to the public more and be seen more as a “legitimate” news source, but we have felt from the beginning that a very different model was important.
The vendors sell it because we want everyone who buys it to have a one-on-one encounter with a homeless person, hoping it’ll begin to erode this terrible division in American society between homeless people and the general public. That’s why everyone has to buy it from a homeless vendor.
It’s also modeled on the early days when a revolution was brewing in the American colonies in the 1770s. That’s very much always been my model. Thomas Paine distributed revolutionary pamphlets through street vendors on the street corners to get the word out that we needed a revolution to break away from England. “Common Sense” and all of these other great writings of Thomas Paine were distributed that way.
We feel that approach is very important for us because we want to break free from the corporate chokehold on publishing. If you publish a normal magazine or newspaper, you’re dealing with corporate advertisers, giant media corporations, and corporate stores that sell these things. And we just want nothing to do with any of that.
So that’s always been our vision. Now, Street Spirit is just as well edited, well written, and as well designed as any newspaper out there. But the problem is that even though we do excellent reporting, the general public may not respect it as much as another publication simply because if a newspaper is sold by homeless people, then all their bias against homeless people carries over to the newspaper and they look at it as a poverty publication, and not a real publication.
And that’s their loss. It’s just a blindness that afflicts American society in general about homeless people. It’s passed onto us, as the homeless newspaper of record. Nobody in the middle class thinks homeless people are worthwhile.
Clarke: “Nobody” might be a little strong.
Messman: Well, almost nobody. Believe me, I’ve been out there and there aren’t many. Too many people think that homeless people are a public blight or an eyesore. That’s why cities criminalize them and that’s why cities attempt to banish homeless newspaper vendors.
Clarke: Let me back up to an earlier point. You talked about the American Revolution. I’m also interested in the historical continuity of different kinds of advocacy journalism over time. The Abolitionist papers were also probably not welcomed by a lot of the community. Maybe you could talk about some of the other historical antecedents.
I think one of the things people can come to appreciate is that this is a subversive form of journalism that actually has a real deep political intent. And it has fused the process of its sale, the content, its attempt to break away from restrictions on it being supported by advertisers and corporate controllers of speech. Can you talk a little bit about the civil rights struggles of the 19th century, anti-slavery struggles. How do you see this effort fitting into the history of the left press, the alternative press, and the resistance press now in the 21st century?
Messman: There is a long and really beautiful history of advocacy journalism and radical social justice journalism in this country. I call the work that Street Spirit does “Justice Journalism.” This kind of conscientious and principled journalism has long historic roots in America. But even though it is an honored part of our nation’s history, this kind of politically engaged journalism has been rejected and suppressed by the corporations in control of the nation’s major media outlets.
I went to a very good journalism school for four years and we never heard about it in our journalism classes. Today, the only form of journalism permitted is so-called objective journalism where the reporter pretends to not have a conscience, and that’s ridiculous.
In fact, every reporter has a point of view and a conscience, but they’re not supposed to admit it. Basically, there’s a corporate bias in all newspapers today. That’s what their bias is. They don’t attack very hard the Wall Street system and the bankers and the Pentagon and the White House. They’re part of that system. That is their bias, but they don’t acknowledge it.
So when you do advocacy journalism in this country, the first thing they’ll say is, “That’s not legitimate because you’re not objective.” And, no, we’re not. We’re on the side of poor and homeless people. We see a great injustice being done. We see unprecedented levels of human rights violations that would not be tolerated for any other minority. Shocking human rights abuses are being unleashed on homeless people and the mainstream media just doesn’t get it. Even worse, some of the mainstream media supports these human rights abuses and champions laws that criminalize this minority.
So our advocacy journalism is important and, as you said, it has long historical roots. I look back at Thomas Paine and his pamphlets and “Common Sense” is a great inspiration to me personally.
An even greater inspiration for me has been William Lloyd Garrison and his fiery abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and the way that he attacked the system of slavery in his news columns in such a profound way that there were often riots by pro-slavery forces when he spoke in public. That’s journalism to me!
The pro-slavery forces often laid siege to William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist reporters such as Frederick Douglass. They often attacked them physically because they saw how powerful these kinds of advocacy newspapers were.
Another great example is Ida B. Wells, a crusading African American writer and editor who published an expose of lynching in the South and went around the country denouncing the horrible crime of lynching. She was repeatedly attacked and had to find the courage to keep telling people that lynching was a more massive crime than they realized, and had to be ended. And the way to end it was to give a voice to its victims. I really take that to heart today. The way to end human rights violations against homeless people is to give a voice to its victims.
Then on to the 20th century, there are all these beautiful models of advocacy journalism in our nation. There are all these wonderful writers like Ida Tarbel who took on Standard Oil, and exposed the corruption of American big business; and Edwin Markham who investigated child labor. These reporters were called muckrakers and they exposed the criminal political machines of their time.
There are powerfully revealing passages in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle that aroused the public and led to reforms in the meatpacking industry. In England, Charles Dickens was an advocacy journalist through his novels. He got untold reforms of child labor laws and workhouse abuses through his work, and taught his society the hellish conditions endured by the poor.
Clarke: What about the role of advocacy journalism during the Vietnam War and anti-war movement in the 1960s?
Messman: During the Civil Rights era, there were crusading advocacy journalists that bravely risked everything to tell the truth about the movement to overcome racism and the brutality of segregation. Then, in my generation, the anti-war movement of the 1960s built up an incredible array of underground newspapers in dozens of cities all over the country that gave a powerful voice to the counterculture and denounced the war machine of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, spoke out for civil rights, and spoke out for peace and justice and human liberation.
When the counterculture and all of those underground newspapers fell by the wayside, a really terrible thing happened. About the only legacy of the underground press were the so-called alternative weekly papers that basically were doing a lot of yuppie reporting on gourmet restaurants and books and consumer products, with a whole lot of advertising and just a little bit of political reporting. I’m not going to name their names.
Clarke: Most of them have gone under.
Messman: Yeah, most of them have gone under anyway. So I really see the resurgence of the homeless press as a very wonderful re-awakening of that spirit of advocacy journalism coming from the least likely place in society, the place where people have seemingly been silenced by poverty — but they have not been silenced. They’re not voiceless and the homeless press is not voiceless.
Clarke: The human rights of homeless people have very direct connections with the civil rights era. There’s a huge African American population that’s homeless. With the upsurge of activism in the past several years as young African Americans and young people in general are becoming more politically conscious, they’re ready to receive alternative information in new ways.
What are the issues and the coverage that you’re going to be bringing to this new millennial audience, to the Black Lives Matter audience, to the engaged, young, and really passionate activists who are coming of age in their teens, twenties, and thirties?
Messman: That’s been a remarkable development. And who would’ve predicted that? Everyone assumed that young people were apolitical and passive, and were buying into the consumer society. Instead, beginning with the Occupy movement, continuing to the Black Lives Matter movement and all the protests that have risen up against police brutality and police murders, all these things are incredibly heartening examples of the human spirit.
They show us that organizing is never defeated. It never, ever will stop. As long as there are human beings there will be human rights movements. That’s what I love about it.
In terms of Street Spirit, our job is not to be an all-purpose movement paper. Our job is to do what seemingly no one else in society wants to do, which is to continue our systematic coverage of poverty, homelessness, tenants facing eviction, the urban removal of homeless people, and disability rights issues. Even movement people generally ignore those issues.
So we would be more popular if we did more stuff on peace or environmental issues, but for the past 22 years, we’ve stubbornly focused our efforts on giving poor people a voice — because they get it nowhere else in our society. Yet, still, there are many connections, as you say, between Black Lives Matter, the anti-police abuse movements, the Occupy movement and the homeless movement.
Clarke: Street Spirit gave a lot of coverage to the Occupy marches in Oakland.
Messman: When the Occupy movement first began, Street Spirit did article after article and then we kept reporting on the marches and tent cities in every issue for a year or so. We went on the marches in Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, and interviewed people about Occupy and discussed what kinds of nonviolent strategizing might enhance its ability to affect the powers that be.
I went on many Occupy marches and was just amazed and overjoyed. Even though there wasn’t a great sense of strategy, there was a vital outpouring of anti-corporate, populist kinds of organizing, with young people and older activists championing economic rights and denouncing the banks and resisting economic inequality. It was wonderful. So we gave it a lot of coverage. The same with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Street Spirit is constantly reporting on the criminalization of poverty, the way that poor people are turned into criminals, and many of the same patterns in law enforcement that turn African Americans into criminals and treat them as enemies, also are in play against poor people, with political officials ordering the police to treat them as criminals. So we speak out against that kind of police repression and political discrimination.
We’ve covered many demonstrations against police abuses. In a recent issue, we had a long, great article by Carol Denning, who covered the police review commission hearings in Berkeley that looked at why the police erupted in fury against the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Berkeley in December of 2014. We’ve covered that over and over.
In the past several issues, we’ve also focused on the attacks on poor and homeless recyclers by the Oakland City Council and police. We have collaborated with Amir Soltani, the director of the film Dogtown Redemption, to show that even when poor people work so incredibly hard to make a living, and do the kinds of tough work most people don’t want to touch, they’re still condemned by the powers that be.
The hatred and loathing of the public gets translated into anti-homeless laws that, in this case, are forcing the closure of an Oakland recycling center that gives a solid income to hundreds of poor people. It’s a stunning case of bigotry against mostly African-American recyclers.
So in those areas where the criminalization of poverty meets the criminalization of other minorities in society, Street Spirit covers those issues. The other thing that we’ve done that I think is most important is we have tried to resurrect the incredible wisdom and courage and visionary brilliance of the Civil Rights movement and remind this new generation just how great that organizing was and how much it can teach us today. We’ve done that through a series of interviews and articles about the Freedom Movement.
Clarke: Yeah, maybe you can talk a little about the great practitioners you’ve interviewed. What’s the experience like being in the room with these people and how do you distill hours of conversation with somebody like Phil Lawson or these people that have been engaged in political actions for decades, almost a half century in some cases?
Describe who you’ve been talking to, and what’s the process like in terms of getting inside the head of somebody that’s been living out these issues? And why did you begin doing these interviews in the first place?
Messman: Well, remember, the key part of Street Spirit is giving a voice to the voiceless. During a trip to Alabama and Mississippi in 2012, I walked into a civil rights museum in Alabama and experienced the tragic dimension of voicelessness in American history. It was stunning and led to my series of interviews with nonviolent activists and veterans of the civil rights era.
My wife Ellen Danchik and I had attended a retreat on Gandhian nonviolence given by Narayan Desai, organized by Jim and Shelley Douglass in Birmingham, Alabama. After the retreat, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an incredibly significant museum that honors the Freedom Movement, located in one of the most important cities of the civil rights era, a city where demonstrators were brutalized and churches were bombed. Once inside its doors we entered the living history of the movement. It was an amazing experience and one that I’ve never been able to forget — one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
Clarke: Why did it affect you so powerfully?
Messman: The Civil Rights Institute is right across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where Martin Luther King and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth led the children to march on the city of Birmingham, demanding justice and an end to racial discrimination.
The museum is also right across the street from Kelly Ingram Park where Sheriff Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and water cannons and brutal police who clubbed the children and the clergy and everyone who stood up for justice.
When you tour that museum, it breaks your heart because the 16th Street Baptist Church — right across the street — is the church where the Ku Klux Klan blew up four young Sunday School students and injured many more.
Those senseless murders galvanized the movement and shocked the nation. Martin Luther King led the memorial service for the four girls killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and then went on to organize against the naked face of brutality that Bull Conner carried out in those terribly repressive days.
You feel that history all around you so deeply that it’s inescapable. It’s shocking to the conscience. While I was going through the museum, I saw the courageous role that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth played in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. He and his family were threatened. He was beaten. They were threatened with bombing. They eventually had to leave the city, and he’s a hero to many people in that city.
So it was all the more moving that when we walked out of the museum, we saw the statue of Rev. Shuttlesworth right outside. I had just been talking to people inside the museum who had known Fred Shuttlesworth and I suddenly had this terrible sadness that he was not alive. He had just died the year before we visited and I could never interview him.
When we left Birmingham, we flew out of the Fred Shuttlesworth Airport! The Civil Rights movement has taken over the very identity of Birmingham, one of the most racist cities in the South, the city that was known as “Bombingham” because there were so many bombs. Now the city is home to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, the Fred Shuttlesworth Airport, and all the statues of civil rights protests at Kelly Ingram Park.
I was really heartened by that. And I realized I needed to interview some of these people before it was too late and they became voiceless on the historic stage.
Clarke: So your trip to Mississippi and Alabama led you to begin interviewing veterans of the civil rights movement and also the later movements that they inspired.
Messman: Yes. I’ve interviewed people like Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s trusted lieutenant. Dr. Lafayette was the man who King asked to head up the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, and was also instrumental in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965.
I interviewed Vincent Harding, who was a very close friend of Martin Luther King, and who wrote King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech that he gave at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967. Vincent Harding has written two books about Martin Luther King, in addition to writing the powerful anti-war speech that became such a lightning rod in King’s career.
Before that, Vincent Harding had been an organizer against both nuclear weapons and also against segregation in the early 1960s. He went on to have a really important career as a voice for peace and justice and as a professor and author and activist. He wrote the book There Is a River about the historic struggles against slavery in the United States.
I interviewed Rev. Phil Lawson, who is a pastor in the East Bay, and am also interviewing his brother, Reverend Jim Lawson, who is absolutely one of the most important figures in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Phil Lawson began organizing in the 1960s in many areas of the Civil Rights movement, and then he continued working his entire life for economic justice in Richmond, California, and the Bay Area.
I still feel that the interview I did with Rev. Phil Lawson is the most important single interview I’ve ever done. It was just amazing, the way that he interweaves all of the social change movements of modern times and shows the relationship between the struggle for immigrant rights and civil rights, the struggle for gay rights and African American rights. He put that all together so brilliantly. I knew Phil because he had been a mainstay in Religious Witness with Homeless People and had slept out on the cold streets with us in solidarity with the homeless people being targeted by San Francisco police. Phil also was arrested at an abandoned housing takeover in East Oakland that I organized.
Clarke: You also have interviewed several prominent anti-war activists.
Messman: I interviewed significant peace activists like David Hartsough, Country Joe McDonald and Jim and Shelley Douglass, who have been involved in an unbroken way for more than 50 years in the peace movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-nuclear movement. They have so many lessons to give to today’s activists.
I knew that I had to capture those lessons, and show how Jim and Shelley Douglass were able to interweave the message of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and other great nonviolent fighters for peace and justice, and how they carried those lessons forward into the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the struggle against the Trident submarine.
I interviewed Kathy Kelly, a remarkable activist who is greatly admired by many people because she spent months in federal prison for organizing against nuclear weapons and doing civil disobedience. But she has also worked with people in Afghanistan and Iraq, violating U.S. law by carrying medical supplies to those people. Just like Rev. Lawson, Kathy Kelly interweaves all the movements until you begin to see it’s all one movement. It’s all one movement. It’s a movement to protect human life in the face of a system that deals death.
Clarke: In terms of the commonality of values of those you interviewed, they’re all nonviolent practitioners for the most part. When you’re looking at the core of what they’re saying, is the linchpin of nonviolent direct action the willingness to risk one’s own life in confrontation or is it building a big social movement? What’s the interplay between the values and priorities of making an individual moral witness versus organizing a mass movement?
Messman: There can sometimes seem to be a disconnect between making a prophetic moral witness on an individual level versus building a mass movement, but I don’t think there’s a contradiction at all. In fact, the anti-nuclear movement is a great example of that. Many of the first anti-nuclear activists in the late 1950s and early 1960s were very much moved by their spiritual and moral values to offer a personal witness that involved risking their lives in defense of life and peace.
They did incredibly brave things, like the people that sailed the Golden Rule ship right into the nuclear testing zone of the Pacific and literally risked their lives to prevent the atomic weapons testing that was polluting the entire world with radioactive fall-out. Yet, although that was a personal moral statement by a handful of activists, they were not just offering a one-shot moral witness. They inspired people for decades afterward. They’re still active in the peace movement, and they’re traveling around the country, speaking and writing books about their actions for nuclear disarmament.
Look at the prophetic moral witness against nuclear weapons carried out by Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker. Catholic Worker activists in New York City refused to take cover during the scares over nuclear weapons when the government was forcing people to take shelter in civil defense drills to prepare themselves to survive the Holocaust, which is absurd. Dorothy Day refused to take shelter and, instead, was arrested for her resistance.
Now that was a small action, seemingly just a personal moral witness by a handful of religious activists, and yet it inspired so many people in a process that I call the chain reaction of conscience. The chain reaction can begin anywhere. It can begin in the Pacific Ocean, when someone sails the Golden Rule against nuclear tests, or it can begin in a park in New York City, when protesters refuse to take part in civil defense drills. Yet wherever it begins, it can ripple outward until millions of consciences have been moved into action.
Clarke: So acts of moral witness are one of the factors that can inspire a larger movement for social change, and result in many more people becoming involved?
Messman: Yes, and I think you can see the linkage between the moral witness and the movement-building strategy very clearly in the work of Jim and Shelley Douglass at the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. The Douglasses and other members of Pacific Life Community began doing very costly kinds of moral witness against the Trident nuclear submarine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was part of those protests. I was arrested at them and did time in federal prison.
We climbed over the fence into the Bangor Naval Base and were arrested and sentenced to several months in federal prison. My friends Karl Zanzig, David Armour and I walked inland to the nuclear weapons bunkers where Marines literally had “shoot to kill” orders, willing to risk everything to say “no” to nuclear madness.
My then-wife Darla Rucker and I sailed in the Trident boat blockade in 1982 when the first USS Ohio Trident-class nuclear submarine came into Puget Sound. There were about 50 of us in the water in sailboats and rowboats. The U.S. Navy sent 99 boats to destroy our little flotilla. That was a bigger navy than the navies of every other country in the world and they mounted it against a small group of nonviolent activists in rowboats and sailboats. It was a brutal assault on us, and it was front-page news all over the country.
So you can assume that these actions were a moral witness by a small number of people, and that’s fine and good, but what about building the larger movement?
Yet even as Jim and Shelley Douglass were organizing actions that expressed an individual moral witness against the destruction of life, they were also doing the organizing to educate, mobilize and inspire people all over the country. The next step in that campaign was when they discovered that the Department of Energy’s White Train was carrying hydrogen warheads into the Bangor Naval Base. They were able to organize people in hundreds of communities to sit on the railroad tracks all over the country to block those train shipments.
Ultimately, in fact, these blockades stopped the Department of Energy from being able to ship nuclear weapons on the trains. It was a very dangerous shipment of radioactive warheads, and people risked long jail sentences to stop them. Thousands of people became involved.
So the lesson is that you never know when an individual’s moral witness is going to provide the right strategy and the right inspiration to help ignite a larger movement. But they often do.
Clarke: The risky acts of the Berrigans and other activists in the Catholic Left helped to spark the mass movement against the Vietnam War.
Messman: Yes, the anti-war resisters from what came to be known as the Catholic Left played a prophetic role during the Vietnam War. Daniel and Philip Berrigan and their fellow activists raided Selective Service offices and burned hundreds of draft files in resistance to the Vietnam War. It was a personal moral witness and they paid very high costs in terms of their lengthy prison sentences; yet they were also tied to a massive movement against the Vietnam War that was inspired by their brave actions.
So I don’t think it’s either/or. I don’t think it’s either an individual moral witness or organizing a mass movement. I think it’s both/and. You need both. You need very militant actions by people willing to risk a lot to challenge an unjust system, and you also need the strategy that will then show millions of people how they can participate.
As you recall with the nuclear weapons movement, those few people that sailed their boats into the waters of the Pacific to stop nuclear testing, those few people that were arrested with Dorothy Day in protesting the civil defense drills, those became millions of people that voted for a nuclear freeze, and rallied outside the Pentagon and worked tirelessly for peace and disarmament.
In the worst years of the Reagan era, these movement activists were an incredibly important force. It jumped the ocean. The anti-nuclear movement spanned the continents. Peacemakers in Europe began holding equally large and important protests against Cruise and Pershing missiles and Trident submarines based in England. I think the way it has always worked in the history of social-change movements, is that you need those few people that are willing to risk anything. That inspiration can trigger a mass movement. I think it’s always worked that way.
Clarke: What are some of the moral lessons that you’ve seen emerge in the movements fighting poverty and homelessness that you try to bring to light, using the newspaper and other media?
Messman: You know, the most important thing I learned from working on homeless issues for 30-plus years with the AFSC is something that’s really simple to say: I love the homeless movement. In a sense, it’s the smallest and most beleaguered movement in the country because even a lot of peace movement people, a lot of social justice people, don’t get involved with the homeless movement. I think they’re often afflicted with the same prejudice that homeless people really are beside the point.
The presupposition is that folks are out there languishing on the streets and living in shelters and maybe can’t be organized very well. Well, we did a ton of organizing in Oakland that shows homeless people can be organized to do really intelligent actions. We won a lot of permanent housing, transitional housing, and emergency housing in Oakland by doing civil disobedience solely with homeless people.
We did very confrontational actions, like seizing an abandoned federal building in Oakland, going up to the rooftop and barricading ourselves inside the building, demanding that it be used to house homeless people. We occupied vacant homes repossessed by HUD, and also did takeovers in vacant city buildings.
We did a wild theater piece where we trained with the Los Angeles Poverty Department theatrical troupe and then performed a drama that confronted the abuses of the welfare system — a radical piece of theater we held inside the Oakland welfare offices! We protested when the City criminalized sleeping by holding sleep-outs in Oakland parks, and then disrupting City Council meetings the next day. Those years were a blur of arrests.
My approach in Oakland was to work only with homeless people, because I wanted homeless people to build their own movement.
I’ve had a lot of good experiences working with peace groups, anti-nuclear groups, and anti-intervention groups, but what I’ve loved the most in my life is working with the homeless movement. All the people I admire most have been activists in the homeless movement, both the housed advocates and the homeless advocates. They have a great level of intelligence about these economic justice issues, and a deep dedication to fighting for human rights. They’ve figured out how to do this very difficult organizing and what’s important in the lives of poor and disabled people, and their commitment really takes my breath away.
When I’ve traveled to other cities and met homeless activists there, I’ve been incredibly moved. Before doing this work on homeless issues with AFSC, I would have said my favorite people were the activists in the religious peace movement. They have the deepest souls, the deepest commitment, and they stand for the right values. I still love that spirit, but I love the homeless movement even more because they are so much the underdogs, and they are so committed and dedicated.
Clarke: How can a small movement that faces such huge odds hope to become a large movement that works effectively for social change? Homeless people are such a small minority. Where do you see their allies coming from?
Messman: Well, when I think, “How do we build this large, glorious movement?” I don’t really think about that. I just think, “How can I serve this homeless movement that is so ignored in our country?”
Having said that, there are a lot of ways you can build connections with allies. We try to build connections with tenant movements because there are millions of tenants that face eviction and poor living circumstances and skyrocketing rents. Many of those tenants become homeless people. We’ve always tried to build connections with people fighting for the rights of those on welfare, people fighting for living wages that are being screwed over by the corporate powers that will not pay them a living wage.
We’ve always made common cause with people that have a vision of economic justice, like Rev. Phil Lawson. He’s always worked on these larger issues of economic justice. And when the Occupy movement came along, I always used to say, “If you go to an Occupy march, read the signs that these young activists have created.” Their protest signs were like a primer on economic justice, a primer against the banks and the corporate powers and Wall Street. It was like a class on economic justice in America just to read the picket signs on the marches.
I would’ve never dreamed that was going to happen. It was such a heartening uprising. It made me understand something else about social-change movements: You never know when the chain reaction of conscience will strike.
People have done this organizing for years and even decades. They have done everything right — the right strategies, the right actions, kept going with unfailing dedication for years — and have often only been able to mobilize the same relatively small numbers of people. Then, all of a sudden — and I think for reasons that cannot always be predicted ahead of time — a movement will blossom. Its day will come. The spirit of the times will change, and it will enable the movement to become bigger than we might have dreamed.
We’ve seen that pattern over and over in this country. You know, radicals working for social justice in the 1930s suddenly became a massive labor union uprising, and also a massive uprising of unemployed and evicted people. It’s often happened that way, with long periods of hard, uphill struggles followed by amazing growth in these populist movements.
So I think, for me, the lesson is not so much how you strategize and how you organize — although that’s important and I have done trainings on how to strategize and organize. But, to me, the most important thing is: How do you stay inspired? How do you stay faithful and true to the cause of justice? That’s going to be what truly matters in the long run.
In the end, that is the meaning of our lives — whether we keep going, keep working for peace and justice, or give up in despair. It’s the very meaning of our lives whether we keep going long enough to pass the torch to the next generation that will rise up and learn all these lessons and live them out anew.
Of course, some of those new movements will, in turn, wither away and people will despair about that, as they did with Occupy.
Clarke: It’s a life cycle.
Messman: Yes, it’s a life cycle. And you never, ever should despair. Because there’s always an ability to create a new movement for human rights. Always.
Clarke: You have the sung heroes like Lawson and Hartsough and Kathy Kelley. Maybe you can talk about some of the personalities and some of the people that live out on the streets and serve the people on the street — just some of those human beings and some of the stories and how you’ve interacted with them through the paper and your homeless organizing?
Messman: Yeah, that’s a good phrase, “The sung and the unsung.” The unsung heroes and heroines — that is exactly how I conceive of it.
When I began working in Oakland back in 1986, I had a vague idea that we could somehow apply the methods and strategy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience to the life-and-death issues facing the homeless community.
The minute we called homeless people together in Oakland to discuss these issues, I was just amazed to see how quickly they were ready to begin organizing and doing really serious actions, like takeovers of vacant housing to win affordable housing, and sleep-outs in city parks to end the arrests of homeless people.
It was incredible to see how quickly they mobilized and how skillfully they built campaigns for better treatment. They were ready to move, and just needed a few friends and allies to organize actions with them. I learned so much respect for the people organizing at an East Oakland shelter like Denise Gums and Lorenzo Carlisle and Rev. Carl Bennett, people who had already walked this walk.
Then, when we formed the Oakland Homeless Union, I got to meet Dorothy King. She had been homeless due to domestic violence, and she was a fighter, a highly skilled and dedicated fighter for African Americans left homeless on the streets. She was a very moral person and insisted on moral accountability from all of us, so I jokingly called her the middle-class conscience of the Homeless Union. She was a fighter and a brilliant organizer. She taught me more than any other single person has taught me about how you organize: How you make sure homeless people are a majority on the board of your activist group, and on the board of directors of the housing corporation we formed; how you make sure that African Americans are not cheated out of the jobs that arise out of what we created; and the values you fight for with all your heart.
And she did fight with everything she had. So did Gerald and Angie Waldron and Andrew Jackson and Tienne Grey and Glenna Jackson. All these people were mainstays of the Oakland Union of the Homeless. They were all homeless. None of them were veteran organizers and yet they were the best activists I ever worked with in my life — the most faithful, the most completely dedicated. They were the unsung heroes of their community.
Clarke: The Oakland Homeless Union was one of the first groups to organize housing takeovers. How did it happen that homeless people were able to plan and carry out dozens of occupations in Oakland in the late 1980s and 1990s?
Messman: We would literally organize a housing takeover with only a day’s notice — and the members of our Union were there: “Bang!” They were there with their boots on and ready to be arrested and totally wonderful, lively spirits. They were facing every kind of bad thing in life: eviction notices, welfare cut-offs, substance abuse, marital breakups. But when it was time to march on the welfare office or take over an abandoned federal building, they were always ready. Not a shadow of hesitation. I’ve never seen that kind of complete dedication anywhere else.
In one of our most important actions, we were arrested on the rooftop of this large vacant federal building in Oakland. We planned that action in a single day, and people were ready! That action turned out to be a three-day standoff, with us living on that rooftop for three days and nights, barricaded up on the roof, until the Oakland police used a battering ram to break down the door to the rooftop that we had barricaded, and arrested us.
People were ready and willing to carry out that heavy-duty action with only a single day’s notice. I’ve never seen that level of willingness anywhere else. I hate to use the phrase “middle-class activist” because peace activists, for example, are not all middle class. Many have a lot of dedication, but I have never seen anywhere else the dedication I saw in the members of the Homeless Union. And that level of great dedication among homelessness activists carries forward to this day.
Clarke: How does it carry forward?
Messman: I know some of the people organizing recent actions in Berkeley and San Francisco and Santa Cruz, and Street Spirit reports on their actions, and their level of dedication is remarkable. Homeless people and advocates in Santa Cruz just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Freedom Sleepers vigils. They have been sleeping out and risking arrest every week for an entire year in their never-say-die effort to defend the rights of homeless people in a city that keeps finding new ways to criminalize them. And they have been dedicated to this struggle for decades in Santa Cruz!
The homeless people who took part in the Liberty City occupation in Berkeley last December were almost unimaginably brave and determined. They carried on that occupation for weeks on end in the cold of winter, and did a great job of organizing. It was so instructive because it began with just a couple activists, like Sally Hindman, who wanted to resist the criminalization of homelessness in Berkeley. Sally decided to hold a sleep-out just before the City Council voted on a new set of anti-homeless ordinances. I didn’t even think we had the energy to carry it off, given all the other commitments people had at the time. And it was a very small effort, at first.
Sally Hindman and Moni Law and a few other people did this sleep-out of about five or six persons on the steps of old Berkeley City Hall the night before the City Council passed these sickening anti-homeless laws by a 6-3 vote. That was a terrible blow, but it was also beautiful even in defeat, because hundreds of people came to the council meeting and spoke out passionately against the anti-homeless laws.
That would have been the end of it, except that on the night the City Council voted for these cruel laws, a bunch of homeless people came and saw that a few activists had held a sleep-out the night before. So they put up tents all over the grounds at the old Berkeley City Hall and stayed there for weeks in a self-governing occupation to protest the inhumanity of the anti-homeless laws. They called their occupation Liberty City, and it was governed by consensus, dedicated to no drugs, no alcohol, and used the tent occupation as a base to keep organizing on these issues. They remained night after night, week after week, until the Berkeley cops finally raided them.
The small group of housed activists who had slept out for a couple nights before the City Council voted told the council members about the hardships of the experience. They were kept up all night by the noise of the streets, and the freezing weather. This was in late November, early December. It was a terrible ordeal for them to undergo those long, sleepless nights for a couple nights.
But then, all these homeless people joined the sleep-out and made it their own. Dozens of them slept in those tents in cold weather, night after night after night, and then got up and organized all day. It tells you something remarkable about the human spirit. It tells you that poverty doesn’t weigh it down, doesn’t always defeat it. It tells you that people have deep resources of caring and commitment, and that they can shine in actions like Liberty City. Yet, can you get middle-class activists in this country to ever understand that? That they can make common cause with the people that are forced to sleep outdoors all over this country? No. They’re not there yet.
Clarke: What about Occupy? They spoke out against poverty and the concentration of wealth and how the banks and corporations controlled the economy.
Messman: Even with Occupy, there was very little solidarity with homeless people. Very little. Even though all their rhetoric was great, even though their direction and inspiration were admirable, they mostly failed to include homeless people. They didn’t find a way to do that.
But it can be done, and we found a way to do it in Oakland in the Homeless Union for several years. We made the long march all the way from civil disobedience on the streets, through dozens of housing takeovers, and then all the way to actually developing permanent housing for homeless people. And if we did it, anybody can do it, because we were a ragtag handful.
Clarke: What would a larger movement for social justice look like? Is there a way to link all these economic rights groups together in a common strategy?
Messman: All the peace activists and university students and tenants groups and environmental groups could make common cause with homeless people. I thought that was going to happen when Occupy hit the streets, but it still has never really happened to any large extent. Some day it will happen. Some day there will be a movement — I predict — where tenants will join with homeless people and those who have been evicted will join with those about to evicted, and they’ll join with the low-wage workers and with the idealistic young people that care about human rights, and the anti-war activists, and there will be a movement.
That is the movement that I’m still hoping to see. That’s the movement Martin Luther King tried to organize in 1968. And what baffles me endlessly is why people don’t want to resurrect the Poor People’s Movement that King launched. Everybody gives lip service to what a great leader he was, but he was more than that. He was a brilliant strategist, and a prophetic visionary calling a nation to conscience. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were truly brilliant organizers.
King’s last prophetic vision of justice was the most important blueprint for social change we have been given. He saw clearly that we have to fight racism and militarism and poverty all at once. And where it begins is a Poor People’s Campaign that brings together poor people across the country and joins forces with peace activists, labor activists and religious activists and creates a movement for economic justice. Then we will see social change.
People think King was a prophet. So why don’t they look at what the prophet was actually doing when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968? He was building up to the encampment of poor people in Washington, D.C. But nearly the only echoes of King’s last, best dream that I have seen in my lifetime are the homeless sleep-outs, housing protests and vacant housing takeovers around the nation.
King’s last dream was a vision of building the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged — affordable housing for the poorest people, full employment and living wages, and a guaranteed income for those unable to work. He gave his very life in the pursuit of that dream, and spent his last days organizing a poor people’s march on Washington, D.C., and marching for justice for striking sanitation workers in Memphis. The ragtag homeless protests around the nation may be small, but they have great heart. They are the only legacy of King’s last, best dream that I have seen in my lifetime.
Clarke: You’re referring to the model of Resurrection City that happened in Washington, D.C., after King was shot.
Messman: Yeah, it’s a resurrection of Resurrection City. You’re right. Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968, and Resurrection City took place a couple months later, despite his death. People were broken-hearted and despairing after his assassination, and yet they carried out Resurrection City anyway, with 50,000 people demonstrating in Washington, D.C. Many positive strides forward for hungry people were made in Resurrection City. It also helped kick-start a welfare rights movement.
But King’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination right afterwards tore the heart out of people. But we should have recovered by now! There should be a resurrection of Resurrection City. It was King’s last, best dream — and he was right, people.
If you want to see clearly the best vision for social justice in America, look very closely at Martin Luther King’s life just before he was gunned down in April of 1968 and ask what he was doing. He was marching in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, and he was organizing a poor people’s march on Washington, D.C., that would then set up a shantytown encampment that would be used as a base for a series of protests for economic justice. Those are the things that need to be resurrected.
Clarke: All right. Thanks for sharing with us the history of Street Spirit — Homeless News and Justice Blues in the San Francisco Bay Area.