After 23 years, Street Spirit editor Terry Messman retires
It was Easter Sunday, 1979, and Terry Messman was out reporting on a nuclear weapons protest for the Montana Kaimin—the University of Montana’s student newspaper. Terry stood with his reporter’s notebook ready as he watched a lone Lutheran minister, Reverend John Lemnitzer, cross the white boundary line at the front gate of the Malmstrom Air Force Base. Terry was so moved by this solitary witness that he suddenly dropped his notebook and sat down next to him. After this action, a night in county jail—and a lifetime of activism—would follow. (The next year, Terry protested again at the base, and this time earned six months in federal prison.)
Following his first arrest, another University of Montana student wrote a detailed account of Terry’s participation for the Kaimin. One of his journalism professors took the opportunity to give the class an ultimatum: You can either be a journalist or an activist, but you can’t be both. In that moment, Terry chose to cross a different line—from journalist to activist. He finished his degree and graduated with a BA in journalism in 1981, but it would be years before he picked up his reporter’s notebook again.
When I met Terry, he was leading a nonviolence training at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where both of us were studying. He and several other workshop facilitators were regularly organizing groups of fellow students to risk arrest at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nearby facility that had had designed a significant percentage of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I was immediately struck by Terry’s belief in the power of nonviolence, especially his emphasis on being active, daring, and dramatic. His passion allowed me to shake off my hesitations about engaging in civil disobedience, and join them in their fearless activism.
On one memorable day in 1982, thirty of us decided to risk arrest by nonviolently blockading the laboratory’s gates. At the last minute, Terry decided to climb over the chain link fence that surrounded the lab and enter the facility. Initially, his plan was just to sit and pray in front of the doors to the building. But after jumping the fence, he noticed an outdoor staircase that led him up to the seventh floor, where he found an unlocked exit door.
Terry went inside, where he discovered stacks of papers on nuclear fusion, nuclear chemicals, and particle beam accelerators. He gathered up as many papers as he could and threw them into the wind. On his third such trip, he was confronted by an armed guard who pointed a gun to his chest. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in Santa Rita county jail. “It was a deeply liberating moment,” Terry later said to a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. “I thought it was the greatest statement I could make against the arms race.” Three years later, the lab spent $35 million in security improvements. They claimed it was unrelated.
For the next two years I essentially put my studies on the shelf to take action with Terry and the action group he founded with then-wife Darla Rucker, which was called “Spirit Affinity Group.” Affinity groups were small circles of activists that the anti-nuclear movement organized to provide support for one another in nonviolent protests. In Spirit, we were mostly theology students who did one nonviolent action after another, focusing on the nuclear arms race and the U.S. wars raging in Central America.
During this time, Terry shared with me his vision of inspiring nonviolent change, which was rooted in the tradition of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and a rebellious, law-breaking Jesus. But his faith in the power of nonviolent transformation wasn’t just rooted in the history of these figures. It was also borne out in his own activism: from his years of anti-nuclear action and the time he spent in jail.
In June and July 1985, we spent six weeks in federal prison for protesting US policies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. I was shipped to Boron Federal Prison in California’s Mojave Desert, and Terry ended up at Lompoc prison north of Santa Barbara. As strange as it may sound, that summer stint in jail was a time of deep contemplation for Terry, during which he reflected on his life and work and found a new calling: Joining his sisters and brothers on the streets of urban America in the struggle for survival. Specifically, Terry set out to tackle poverty and homelessness in Oakland.
Terry finished his Masters of Divinity studies later that year—though he missed his own graduation ceremony because he was still in jail, serving out the end of his sentence at Boron. After graduating, he took a job as the director of the Homeless Organizing Project at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). During his time with the AFSC Terry organized countless non-violent actions, many of which resulted in concrete changes that remain beneficial to homeless people in the East Bay.
In 1987, he worked with other activists to form the Oakland chapter of the National Union of the Homeless, a homeless advocacy organization. “Since it was started…the homeless union has gained a reputation for using direct action—most notably the takeovers of abandoned buildings—to press its demands for low-income housing,” an article in the East Bay Express declared in 1990.
Indeed, in 1990, Terry and the Union launched an action campaign to occupy an unused federal building, as well as a series of homes, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had repossessed through foreclosure. The government’s plan was to sell them in private auctions. To Terry, this was unacceptable.
“The streets of Oakland are filled with 4,000 homeless people, and these houses just sit here like an insult,” he told the Oakland Tribune. “We’re going to force HUD’s hand here—they’re either going to turn this house over to us or have us kicked out.”
Terry and other activists knocked down the doors with sledge hammers and occupied the empty houses alongside a number of Oakland’s homeless residents. Their goal was to push the government to make them available to be developed for homeless people and low-income families. During this campaign, Terry invited me along on one of the housing occupations in East Oakland. We arrived at a large, comfortable rambler with a big front yard, and once Terry had loosened the hinges on the front door, a handful of us spent the night there, determined that this property would become a family’s new home. I will never forget the moment when a large, Oakland police officer kicked open the door to the room I was sleeping in at 4 a.m., and dragged me off with the others to jail. Ultimately, some 17 of us were arrested. In the end, Terry’s prediction came true: HUD relented, and turned this and some ten other properties to be developed for families in need.
The Union also won the funding from the city to turn these properties into permanent, low-income housing. With this money, they partnered with the Oakland Community Housing Inc—a developer of nonprofit housing—and the First Unitarian Church, to form Dignity Housing West. Their first project: Constructing 26 permanent affordable housing units in downtown Oakland, equipped with in-house counselors and tenant peer-counseling teams.
As with many of Terry’s projects, Dignity Housing West not only served the homeless community, it was also constructed and staffed by homeless people. At the time, many referred to the complex as “the housing that protest built.
This apartment complex—named James Lee Court after a homeless man who died of exposure in an abandoned house—still stands in downtown in Oakland.
But Terry’s work was far from finished. One year later, he and his peers found out that the city had quietly abandoned their plans to build an $8 million multi-service center (MSC)—a housing program intended to help break the cycle of homelessness—in a series of closed-door meetings. Staring down the barrel of funding deadlines fast approaching, Terry and the Union decided to break into a vacant, earthquake-damaged downtown building that had once housed the city’s social services.
They draped banners from the building, saying things like “We claim this as our MSC,” and “Homeless, not Helpless.” Again, they were successful in pressuring the city to build the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, which still remains today under a new name: Housing Fast Support Network (HFSN). Under the leadership of Bay Area Community Services, HFSN can house 137 people at a time. It also provides other services, such as employment supports, leadership programs, and mental health services.
Speaking later about these actions, Terry underscored how “right” these efforts felt. “This feeling of rightness is a real deep spiritual awareness,” he told me several years later. “I think that the closer our actions get to direct action that restores the balance of justice, the more you’re graced with that feeling.”
Then, in 1995, journalism found its way back to Terry. Distressed by the way that homeless people were characterized in the mainstream media, Sally Hindman—who is also the founder of Youth Spirit Artworks, Street Spirit’s current publisher—approached the AFSC with the idea of starting a street paper in the East Bay, a sister publication to San Francisco’s Street Sheet.
“Terry and I had been homeless activist allies for some years. He was a mentor and someone I deeply admired and respected,” Hindman said. “Terry had been doing brilliant, extremely powerful work organizing homeless people…in his role at AFSC.” And he was a strong writer. “It was really clear that Terry was meant to be the Editor,” Hindman continued.
So Terry became Editor in Chief. Street Spirit’s first issue hit concrete later that year.
Much like the work he did with the Union of the Homeless, Terry wanted to include homeless people in the pages of the newspaper alongside articles written by professional journalists. He quickly established Street Spirit as a place where homeless people could write about the injustices they face while living on the streets.
“When he started Street Spirit, it was a voice of, by, and for the homeless,” said David Hartsough, lifelong activist and former Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Nonviolent Movement Building Program. “People who are kind of left out of the equation got to have a voice. He shared stories about the lives and the important work that homeless folks and their supporters were doing to help create the kind of world we would all like to live in, where each person is valued as an important part of the human family.”
In Street Spirit, Terry was able to do journalism his way: Storytelling as a radical act and a vehicle for direct action. Over his 23-year tenure as Editor, he published many stories that led to exactly the kind of nonviolent change that defined his career as an activist.
Perhaps most notably, Terry churned out a chilling, 16-part series that uncovered the abuses and deaths at East Bay Hospital in Richmond. The first article, titled “One Death Too Many at East Bay Hospital,” details the abuse and neglect that lead to the deaths of five individuals—a number of whom died in physical restraints—who had been transferred to the hospital’s psychiatric unit from other critical care facilities in the Bay Area. “For many years, the mental health directors of Alameda and Contra Costa counties have been sending hundreds of the poorest, most disabled and most vulnerable patients, including many homeless people, to East Bay Hospital,” Terry wrote in the article, which was published in Street Spirit in 1996.
“The Alameda and Contra Costa County Boards of Supervisors continue to send Medi-Cal patients to the psychiatric unit at EBH despite a long trail of chilling tales of abuse from psychiatric patients and their families.”
Soon, the mainstream media began picking up the story as well, and slowly, Bay Area county health departments stopped sending patients to the hospital. As the news spread, Contra Costa County Mental Health Director Donna Wigand formally ordered county supervisors to suspend all referrals, because of the abject quality of care. The hospital was forced to permanently close its doors on July 15, 1997, one year after Terry’s first investigative article. Terry wrote about the closure in a celebratory Street Spirit article: “Now and then, poetic justice breaks through the walls of oppression.”
Under Terry’s leadership, Street Spirit did more than just report the month’s news—it also became a crucial historical document, recording the histories of people who might otherwise be forgotten. But along the way, he also included the voices and writing of some of history’s most influential civil rights leaders—the sorts of people who were fighting for society’s underdogs along with him.
One such interview is with the late Vincent Harding, the historian and scholar who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr, and wrote a first draft of King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In their interview, Harding spoke extensively about Dr. King’s commitment to the poor and vulnerable. When Terry asked about what created King’s urgency to seek economic justice for the poor, Harding gave this intimate response:
“Martin was, as much as anything else, a deeply compassionate pastor. He saw himself, ultimately, as pastor to a country, and as one who tried to help the country develop its most humane possibilities. And he understood that we could not become our best and most humane self, as a country, if we ignored the poor.”
Harding died in 2014, but his insights live on within Street Spirit’s pages. The same can be said for many other greats of the civil rights era, such as social justice advocate Reverend Phil Lawson, who has spent his career on the front lines of social justice movements with the likes of the Methodist Church and the Black Panther Party; Country Joe McDonald, the folk musician whose song “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag” was a veritable anthem for the 1965 anti war movement; and Sister Bernie Galvin, the Catholic nun and activist who founded Religious Witness with Homeless People in 1993.
Through it all, Terry was telling the story. Few people know that behind the scenes, he was working as a one-man band, editing every article and carefully laying out every page of the newspaper each month. He often contributed news articles, scathing editorials, and interviews. Throughout its 23-year history, Street Spirit seamlessly wed Terry’s two supposedly opposing passions into one, allowing storytelling to inspire direct, hands-on change. In an interview with Jesse Clarke in the August, 2016 issue of Street Spirit, Terry put it succinctly.
“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 the poor and homeless people. We see a great injustice being done.”
Alastair Boone and Ariel Messman-Rucker contributed reporting.
Ken Butigan is a long-time activist and organizer that currently teaches at DePaul University in Chicago.