Tanya Ciszewski, an early Slingshot collective member from the 1980s, animal rights activist and sensitive, compassionate person, died October 18. She was 48.
I don’t know much about Tanya’s life before I met her around the time Slingshot started publishing in 1988. She was finishing up her undergraduate degree at Berkeley and taking a good, long time to do it. She and I, along with Ian and K, became best friends within the activist scene at Berkeley. We all worked on Slingshot — writing articles, doing layout, handing out papers, and going to meetings. The four of us were always together during those years. We were part of an affinity group we joking called “people with jobs” because of the critics at protests who would yell “why don’t you get a job?” We all had jobs. I can’t remember precisely which actions Tanya and I went to jail for in those days because the emphasis was on the group and the action. There was a lot of hugging, a lot of talking and laughing and a great sense of engagement.
It is hard to pick out which articles Tanya wrote for Slingshot because no one signed most of the articles in those days — not even with pseudonyms. She was focused on animal rights — she was vegan and wore no leather. She was amazingly compassionate towards everyone and wouldn’t preach at you or act self-righteous. When Slingshot was publishing its first Disorientation issue, she ended up siding with a troubled individual who was disrupting the meetings because she always sided with the underdog, even if they were a pain in the ass. Tanya would refuse to kill ants if they were in her kitchen or mosquitoes if they were flying around her in the woods.
In many ways, Tanya was too sensitive and compassionate for this harsh, modern, capitalist world. She was often a frustrating friend because she would spend her rent money taking a stray cat to the vet. I would dread that we would meet a sick animal when I hung out with her because she was so aware of pain around her — physical or emotional, human or animal — that she couldn’t walk past: she would stop what she was doing to help. Tanya could be extremely stubborn and fierce. She mostly lived in poverty because she refused to work jobs that contributed to oppression in any way. That meant she mostly worked low-paying caretaking jobs. Tanya felt most comfortable caring for animals and people who needed help: sick people, the elderly and children.
One of her finest activist moments was when she and a group of animal rights activists occupied a 140 foot tall construction crane that was building the Northwest Animal Facility at UC Berkeley — an underground animal research lab where animal experimentation could be carried out completely hidden from animal rights advocates. She and the others climbed the massive crane in the middle of the night with backpacks of food and water, barricading the trap door at the top so they couldn’t be arrested or removed. Then they unfurled a banner and sat atop the crane, demanding an end to construction. They lasted a week atop the crane before they ran out of supplies and surrendered to police. A ground support crew gathered across Oxford street near Hearst with loud speakers and signs and you could drop by to say hi to Tanya over the loudspeaker. I’m pretty sure Tanya was afraid of heights. Her passion and commitment to ending suffering gave her super-human courage and determination in that action and at many other protests and actions. Tanya was generally mellow but she could be fierce when it came to fighting for animals or the oppressed.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Tanya was pregnant while she occupied the crane. She had a home birth on December 7, 1989. Aside from her activism, my main impression of Tanya is her incredible devotion to her daughter Leila who she raised as a single parent. Tanya never had money and struggled heroically to give Leila an amazing, alternative, loving upbringing. Leila started college at UC Santa Cruz just a few weeks before her mother’s death.
Everyone who knew Tanya will miss her sensitive, caring presence. We write obituaries to say goodbye to those we love, but also to share clues we’ve learned from others about what is meaningful in life. Tanya lived her life caring deeply about other people, animals and the earth and putting her body on the line to fight for what mattered. She didn’t let the American empire distract her with money or power, but instead concentrated on relationships and life.