A room of one's own

When I’ve been homeless, the hardest part has been the lack of privacy. The “privilege of privacy” is something many take for granted, but for those of us who have experienced homelessness firsthand, privacy becomes a mindset, rather than a physical reality. And that fortress of privacy within one’s mind adds to the wide chasm between the housed and the homeless, often making homeless people seem “crazy” to housed folks. And when one has been forced to make mental doors that shut, since physical doors to shut for safety are nonexistent, it is as if there is a change to one’s soul.

Homeless people are burdened with an obligation to hide, while given no privacy. Often homeless folks learn to “hide” mentally, like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It is a sanity tactic, even if it appears “nuts” to people with privacy privilege. The ability to shut a door with 4 walls is something many take for granted. Such privacy affords a human a moment to let down his guard, emotionally and physically. Physical privacy allows a person some rest, a moment to rejuvenate. But homeless folks never get that moment to relax, let down their guard, and rejuvenate. Kept on alert at all times, guarding all belongings, and self, in public, is exhausting, both physically and mentally.

To many people who have been homeless and lived on the street, getting away from people is their greatest dream. Already tainted as untouchables or the unwanted, people have collectively left a bad taste in many homeless people’s hearts. And the constant exposure to other people is as eroding as any physical weather elements. Honestly, I found the constant exposure to people to be much more dangerous to my mental and physical health than the exposure to cold, rain, etc., when homeless.

This human need for privacy to regroup, to heal and recover from life’s traumas, to feel safe, emotionally and physically, is something the “housing first” movement understands. A movement to HOUSE the homeless, with no strings attached, is a big step forward, being promoted by organizations such as “Pathways to Housing.”

Pathways says it is inhumane to hold homeless people “hostage” with a laundry list of obligations to get stable BEFORE receiving help with housing. And it is true that many people WITH housing, and large incomes as well, cannot conquer their drug addiction and mental health issues. So to ask low-income folks who are homeless to conquer those demons FIRST, as a prerequisite for housing, truly is cruel and inhumane.

Pathways believes “only housing cures homelessness.” That sounds so simple, but it is quite profound. They are saying that the issues of drug abuse, mental illness and homelessness are separate. They are saying those 3 issues entail separate remedies, and that the remedy for homelessness is actually quite simple compared with the other issues. Curing homelessness merely entails providing stable and secure housing for the homeless. “Pathways” provides permanent housing of the tenant’s choice, and then offers voluntary, not mandatory, programs to help tenants with other issues, such as drug addiction or depression.

“Pathways” understands that when homeless, survival is first and foremost. Self-improvement tales a back seat to survival, when homeless. By giving homeless people some privacy, some alone time, and some safety, and by giving them a “physical” door, so they can open the “mental” doors they shut long ago, “housing first” programs are healing the souls of homeless folks.

Often privacy is the most necessary missing element for the recovery of a homeless person’s hope and faith, and a return of their dignity. Often privacy is the missing prerequisite for peace in the souls of many homeless people. The privacy becomes a symbol of safety, even. We come to know we are safe, because we have privacy.

Although many homeless people appear to be anti-social, due to shutting emotional/mental doors to compensate for no physical doors to shut, I think there is a process to opening back up to people, to trusting again, to re-integration…and ironically, getting alone time, and privacy, can be the first step to overcoming anti-social behaviors.

I was a homeless kid: in institutions, foster care, as a homeless teen. The message I got was I was an unwanted party crasher on this planet. I was taught to hide myself in this society as a child. I have been homeless as an adult in my past, as well. I have reoccurring nightmares involving doors. I will rent an apt., move in, then realize the front door has a 10 inch gap under it, between the floor and its bottom, making it easy to enter under the door, even when locked. Or I move into an apt. and the front door literally falls off when I shut it, as if it has no hinges, etc. My father broke down my locked bedroom door in a drunken rage in my teens. As a child in MacLaren Hall, a torturous holding place for unwanted and severely abused children in Los Angeles, I had no privacy, no doors to lock out the violent guards and children who were acting out what they had seen adults do to them. Doors are a big thing to me….and many others like me.

“What is a room without a door, Which sometimes locks or stands ajar? What is a room without a wall, To keep out sight and sound from all? And dwellers in each room should have, The right to choose their own design And color schemes to suit their own, Though differing from mine.” – Pete Seeger

Read the author’s other work at www.kirstenanderberg.com. Also, check out www.pathwaystohousing.org.

Interview with Navy Resistor PABLO PAREDES

Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes became the first member of the Navy to refuse to fight in the Iraq war when he refused to board a Navy ship bound for Iraq in December. Pablo tried to submit a conscientious objector (CO) application, but it was dismissed as not meeting proper criteria, leaving Pablo vulnerable to prosecution.

He was convicted by a military court martial May 11 but received a lighter sentence than expected: two months restriction, three months hard labor without confinement, and reduction in rank to E-1. The prosecution had asked for three times as much hard labor.

During sentencing Paredes was permitted to explain his reasons for refusing to participate in the Iraq war: “I am guilty of believing this war is illegal. I’m guilty of believing war in all forms is immoral and useless, and I am guilty of believing that as a service member I have a duty to refuse to participate in this war because it is illegal.” He introduced expert testimony showing that the war was illegal because it was not in self-defense or authorized by the United Nations.

Prosecutor Lt. Brandon Hale commented that Paredes “is trying to infect the military with his own philosophy of disobedience. Sailors all over the world will want to know whether this will be tolerated. Sailors want to know whether doing what he did is a good way to get out of deployment.”

I interviewed Pablo by email on May 6, 2005.

Kirsten: This was a very courageous move. What did you do the night before this action?

Pablo: I just kept it very simple. A few friends and an early night. I spoke with my wife over the phone for hours and hours, and got very little sleep. I guess it all happened too fast to prepare adequately.

How did you weigh out these choices? How did you finally decide to take action and to let your conscience trump your fears?

Well it was very spontaneous. One moment we were discussing irrational ways to get kicked out of the military, like drugs or injuries (self induced) when in the mix of all that, a calm and collected e-mail from a good friend in Japan changed everything. My friend said ever so innocently, and with no idea it would be an eye opening comment, “Why don’t you just refuse to go?” This was such a simple solution to a very complex problem, but often times that’s the best way to go. At the root of everything, I didn’t want to; I refused to take part in this illegal and immoral war and why not just say so and forget all the outlandish ideas that don’t address the root of the matter.

Did anyone else’s courage help inspire you in this act?

I have been inspired after the fact by people like Camilo Mejia and Carl Webb, but at the time I was not familiar with their situations. I don’t know how to explain it, but it wasn’t a scary moment, it was an opportunity. After four and a half in, and being at a point in my life where my beliefs and values were completely incompatible with military service, I was looking for an event like this to act on my conscience and not against it as I’d been doing for some time now. So in some ways it was liberating, it let me make some sacrifices that cleared my conscience of the stain that assisting our armed forces in the cause of war had put on it. I felt like I was doing a sort of penance. When my mother confessed at church (she’s Catholic), she’d always come back feeling like her conscience was clean and a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. That is what I felt.

In some reports I read, you say a stay in Japan recently changed many of your views in life. I wondered if you could expand on that?

Japan today, is a very good place to compare to the US — in many ways to think critically about our state of affairs. It is a mirror economy and yet there are stark differences. In Japan homelessness is insignificant in comparison to the US. Crime is also minimal in comparison. In Japan the moral values that most people harbor, though more agnostic than we tend to think of ourselves in the states, are very strong. The culture values life, not just in rhetoric but in action. It is more obvious in their defense forces which can not be used for attack, or in their push for the Kyoto Protocol. But specifically what changed me most about Japan is the nationally accepted idea of personal responsibility to the whole. It sounds very simple and it is but it does not exist as social doctrine in the states, we tend to be more about accountability to ourselves. In Japan every one from the guy that packs your meat at the supermarket to your auto salesman are committed to excellence and treat the customer like the boss. This makes certain things work so well. I reflected on this social doctrine and how humanity could be if it were internationally accepted. This is the root of my objection to war. It’s understanding how I am part of a human race that each member of which must work for its success and not in opposition to it. War is the ultimate example and expression of opposition to humanity.

Have any of your friends died in the Iraq war?

No, I am a Navy sailor and spent most of my days in a small ship that did not have much to do with the current aggression. No one I know, nor friends of friends have died in Iraq, but it doesn’t take that to realize how wrong this war is. I had a very safe job in the Navy. It consisted of maintenance and troubleshooting of a missile system. A missile system that has never in the 30 + years our navy has had it been used in a conflict. The current aggression does not use navy war vessels for anything more than cargo ships, realistically this is not a naval battle. I say this to emphasize the safety of someone doing my job, and to explain that my actions had not a thing to do with fear. I did what I did because it will take folks in safe cushy places to resist to bring this war to an end. When our politicians who never see the real images of war decide to resist and act on conscience not money and politics, then the killing will stop.

I see some reports say you were denied CO status partially because you made public statements to the media saying you are not opposed to all wars, but did oppose the Iraq war. Did you understand before you made those comments the distinction between an objection to all wars and an objection to a specific war, as it applied to CO status? In light of your CO experiences, what advice would you give others who are considering refusal to fight and/or are applying for CO status?

I never said I am not opposed to all war, I most certainly am. What the military has done is edit a few media excerpts into making such a case. For example, in one interview I spoke of how politically Afghanistan made more sense than Iraq, I never approved of the attacks on Afghanistan, I was merely expressing how ridiculous, even politically, the invasion/occupation of Iraq is. I encourage every service member to ask him/herself what is in their conscience and to act on it. If that means filing for CO then do so, if it means business as usual then who am I to judge?

I would encourage anyone who is planning to file for CO to seek counseling from the GI Rights Hotline (girights.objector.org or call (800) 394-9544). First, the system is rigged for you to shoot yourself in the foot in applying for CO so if you don’t have counsel you will do exactly that, even then it is not easy to get approved.

What advice would you give to others considering joining the military?

Become very informed, and consider the source of your information. Ask yourself ‘what if the US invaded my mother’s or father’s home country? Do I want to give up my right to speak out against unjust war? There are millions of questions, and actions one should consider before joining, but unfortunately they sign you up at 18 and 17 when you are most likely to not ask those questions.

Do you feel you are being used as an example and that other soldiers are watching you and your case to dec
ide if they should risk following their conscience and refusing to fight the Iraq war? How does That responsibility feel?

I am sure the Navy is aware I am the first Navy resister and in some ways that makes me an example. As far as other military members, I don’t encourage anyone to do what I did, it was my decision, it did not come from pressure, and so no one else should be pressured into such a decision. I would actually encourage people whose conscience is troubling them to seek CO. Imagine if half the military thought it out and filed a CO claim, there would be no illegal action, no one in jail, but it would definitely have an effect. If you think War is wrong, then you would be ill-advised not to consider CO an option.

Now that you’ve taken these actions, what are your future plans?

I take it one day at a time. I hope to teach at the university level one day, and I want to travel very much.

How has this experience made you feel about America and “freedom?”

I really hate borders, they do nothing but what they are designed to do and that is divide people. Freedom is a beautiful word but we know nothing of it, we speak of freedom in the context that our government allows us to, that in itself is not freedom. Two years ago freedom meant checking out books in a library with no one investigating you, not anymore. Lawyers used to call it freedom to represent their clients without fear, after Lynn Stuart that has changed. Freedom is freedom always; if it’s constantly redefined it never was freedom.

Your impending court martial must be terribly frightening. How do you handle the stress so as not to just fall apart?

I keep very active. I have been involved in so much since I took my stand, from forums to anti-recruitment, to March 19th protests, that it is hard to stop and realize the severity of the situation. Also, I want to keep grounded and know that as long as people like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier, and history with people like Nelson Mandela, provide me with role models who really faced persecution for their beliefs, then my cross is very small to carry.

In a best case scenario, what do you hope to accomplish through your actions?

End the War and Occupation in Iraq, and move only forward from there. Kind of ambitious, right?

What have you learned from this?

I’ve learned that individuals can make a big difference.

Check out: www.kirstenanderberg.com

Torture: As American As Apple Pie

United States Senators and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld are declaring the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel “un-American.” But when I look back upon U.S. history, it seems this type of dehumanizing behavior by soldiers upon the perceived enemy is common, if not an integral part, of the lure to participate, as a soldier, in war. In the systematic education of paid killers, the dehumanization of the opponent not only serves as a reason to kill the enemy, but also enables a person to detach from the humanity of another, and kill on command, like a robot, without thinking. We see this type of insulated, authoritarian thinking exhibited in the military, in police, and in the criminal (in)justice system in America. Anyone who has ever been dehumanized by a cop on the street, by guards in jail, or has been shredded through the U.S. criminal (in)justice system understands unwilling humiliation by a government authority figure, right here in America, land o’ the free. It is as American as apple pie. My theory is that part of the spoils of being in war is abusing prisoners of war, whether we are talking about cops breaking in doors and brutalizing people in the “war on drugs” on the TV show “Cops,” or riot police acting like robots with brutality against unarmed anti-war protesters in the “war on terror,” or prisoners of war being humiliated to titillate American soldiers in Iraq.

Philip Caputo, in his classic book, “A Rumor Of War,” says men he knew joined the Marines as a way to escape being an ordinary guy, and as a way to get out of living in their parents’ basement, as well as a means to prove something. I grew up during the Vietnam War era, and I honestly hated all soldiers who had any part in that war throughout most of my teens and 20’s. I thought they needed to NOT PARTICIPATE by any means necessary. I had more compassion on drafted soldiers, but even then thought they should have chosen jail over fighting the war. But then I took a university graduate seminar on the Vietnam War. I studied that war I had lived through as a kid, for months. I grew to see the soldiers themselves as victims of deception by the U.S. Government (and I am seeing something that looks and smells really similar right now in Iraq). I began to realize that Vietnam Vets Against the War, and I, were on the EXACT same side. And these vets had BEEN to war, so their arguments outweighed anything I have to say about it. I began to understand why Vietnam Vets were mad, and felt used, by American government. I see a cousin to that anger now, as people who did support this Iraq war now turn against it, angry they were lied to by their own government, about why we are in this war to begin with.

Caputo talks about the “methodology” of war, and how they were brainwashed as soldiers to talk and think in twisted terms. Maps of Vietnam were blocked off and numbered so they referred to what number they were bombing on the map, rather than village names. They used words like “aggressive defense,” for an assault. The indoctrination of the military, with its patriotic fervor, chanting in unison, “pray for war” was a source of excitement for Caputo, as a young soldier. He was happy when he finally got to “see some action” during 1965-66 in Vietnam, and felt he was helping to rid the world of Communism. But that broke down, once in the height of war. He said once in war, the reason soldiers fought changed. When one’s buddy was killed in action, a soldier wanted to take revenge on all Vietnamese due to American racism. He said General Westmoreland had said that the more Viet Cong dead, the better, basically, and saw war as arithmetic of who lost more people. Thus killing more of “them” was “good” and meant we were “winning” the war. Caputo said soldiers also killed because they got into an odd survivalist mindset, brought on by a sort of culture shock, and exacerbated by the reality that they were only rewarded for killing. As Caputo puts it, “There was nothing familiar out where we were, no churches, no police, no laws, no newspapers, or any of the restraining influences…” He comments on many experiences that are horrific and numbing in war, including seeing wild pigs eating napalm-charred corpses, and him thinking how odd to see a pig eating roasted people, as well as soldiers who saved pieces of Viet Cong fighters they killed, as savage prizes, they would display to one another. Everything is foreign in the war experience and disorienting, he explains. He goes on to say “Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country, and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.”

In the Vietnam War, the U.S. soldiers could not tell ordinary Vietnamese citizens from “the enemy,” mirroring our experiences in the Middle East right now. So they shot farmers as well as guerrilla fighters. This caused an outcry, so the military told soldiers only to shoot Vietnamese people “if they were running.” When that system failed also, the policy often became, if they were dead and Vietnamese, they were just considered Viet Cong (or the enemy). Caputo knew much of what he was experiencing in Vietnam was criminal activity, against humanity itself, but he also was honest enough to admit he liked the power he got from war. When Caputo returned from Vietnam, back to his parents’ basement, he longed to return to Vietnam where he could command fighter jets to bomb a village over a radio. He felt guilty about this desire to return to something as sick as war. He also now felt alienated from his home in America due to the war experience, which also made him want to go back to war where people understood his mindset he had grown into. You cannot just pull people out of military actions like we had in Vietnam, and expect them to reintegrate immediately into society, in my opinion. Thus when soldiers returned from active duty overseas recently, and killed wife after wife, at military bases in Washington state, I thought about this assimilation challenge. We brainwash soldiers to become killing machines, but we do not seem to invest the same time and effort into brainwashing them back to NOT be soldiers with guns aimed to kill once we send them back out into everyday society! The huge rates of homeless vets testifies to the need for better assimilation processes for more productive transitions. Caputo said he could not do basic auto maintenance, but he could assemble an M 14 rifle blindfolded. Often vets return with skills you can only use in a war, bombing villages is not usually in an ordinary job description.

We see examples of how power corrupts in the fabric of American life daily. And I think that the desire to have power over people is a driving force behind many who join the military, whether they desire to control U.S. soldiers as management, or enemy soldiers as prisoners of war. Prisons, jails, the criminal (in)justice system, and police departments, all over America are dealing with this issue of abuse by the authority in charge. It is not just happening in Iraqi prisons, it is also happening in American prisons. Dehumanizing behavior from cops, jail guards, and prosecutors, is often the first red flag a U.S. citizen gets that their rights are about to be trampled upon by the state. It is not that hard to imagine American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war, if you have ever seen the brutality of American police in the poorer neighborhoods, or on minority citizens. Anyone who has been abused by cops or jail guards is not “shocked” by the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by American soldiers. It is as American as apple pie.

I thought it was telling that Defense SECRETary Rumsfeld was asked in hearings today by a U.S. Senator if perhaps the recent abuse of prisoners in Iraq was “used to soften them up for interrogation.” An outrageous statement, yes, but abuse of people is justified as normal interrogation technique all the time by police and criminal prosecutors. Very often the
police justify the end result of a plea bargained confession (or bullied trade of a confession for their life, such as in Gary Ridgway’s case) and disregard the means used in interrogation such as sleep deprivation, lying about evidence, charges and witnesses, yelling, violence, threats, etc., things I would consider abuse under normal instances. Caputo details Marine training abuses, saying the first goal of that abuse was to simply eliminate the weak. Then he says those abuse techniques are used to destroy each man’s sense of self worth. Which is why this dehumanization abuse is also employed by police, jails and prosecutors, in my opinion. I do not find it a big leap to find evidence of U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war. That is why we sent them there, in many ways. That is how we trained the soldiers themselves, through yelling and humiliation and all kinds of strange degradation, to become soldiers. Abusing prisoners of war is what we trained those soldiers to do, in many ways, no matter what dainty words we use to give it a pretty package. There are probably racists in America who feel that the Iraqi prisoners should have NO rights, and they are “getting off easy” with degradation, as opposed to death. These same Americans feel the only prisoners of war who need to be treated as the Geneva Convention outlines are WHITE people. The U.S. female soldier pictured with an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, in her hands, with the prisoner forced to act as a dog, has supposedly said she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I have to wonder if she is referring to her behavior in the picture, or her getting caught? Read Kirsten Anderberg’s articles at www.kirstenanderberg.com.

Nettles, Nettles Everywhere

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) grow like weeds in the woods where I live in the Pacific Northwest. Spring is the time to collect the top 6-8 inches of stinging nettles before they flower. You can dry them for later use, or make fresh oil or vinegar infusions, tinctures, hair tonics, herbal drinks, etc. Nettles have been used for centuries in medicines, cosmetics, dyes, teas, and also as an edible, calcium-rich green, like spinach.

Nettles sting with the little hairs under their jagged, heart-shaped leaves, and on their stems. They don’t sting once they are boiled. They usually do not sting once dried, but be careful, as I have been stung by dried nettles. What stings is the formic acid and histamine on the hairs. Harvest the tops of nettles with scissors, gloves, and caution. You can put string up between two corners of a room and hang the nettles up to dry. Once dry, store in containers for later use.

Nettles are good for hair. Pour one quart of boiling water over about 10-20 chopped fresh or dried nettle leaves, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Strain, then put into a bottle to use as a hair rinse. It stays fresh about 2-3 days. If you can add some comfrey root or leaves with the nettles, in the boiling water bath, your hair will be well-nourished from nettles, as well as silky soft from comfrey. To use the hair rinse, shampoo and crème rinse as usual, then pour the nettle water over your hair and do not rinse it out. You can also pour heated vinegar over nettles (and optional comfrey) and let it steep 30 minutes, then use it as a dandruff treatment…but the vinegar stinks, so you may want to rinse that one out afterwards. Nettles are also used cosmetically for facial steams, and as a deep cleanser for oily skin (due to astringent qualities).

Nettle vinegar can be made by soaking fresh herbs in white vinegar. The vinegar leaches the calcium and other minerals out of the nettles, and then you can sprinkle the vinegar on salads, veggies, stir fry, and it will be nourishing. Purple nettles will tint the vinegar a nice rose hue. You can steam young nettles picked in spring, just like kale or spinach. Use the leftover water as a hair rinse. You can add the leaves to soups, stews, and basically any recipe calling for spinach. Nettle tea makes a delicious, nutritious drink just to sip. Some people make nettle beer.

Nettles are high in calcium, iron, magnesium, chromium, potassium, and zinc, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and D. Nettles may nourish the adrenal glands, and are also rich in carotene.

Nettle tea has been used traditionally as an arthritis treatment to break down uric acid crystals in joints. Nettles may also help expel mucous during colds, and are a diuretic. Nettles have been traditionally used to treat asthma, anemia, itchy skin, kidney and bladder infections and stones, diarrhea, dandruff, and as a general tonic. You can rehydrate vaginal tissues by drinking the tea and using it for sitz baths.

Roman soldiers stung themselves with nettles to keep warm in the cold winter. Some people sting local areas with nettles for arthritis pain, saying once the initial sting wears off, they find arthritis relief for hours. In the past, people have inhaled powdered nettle leaves like snuff to stop nosebleeds, as the astringent properties may help external and internal bleeding. Use nettles to replenish your blood and tissues. There are warnings that ingesting large quantities of nettles can cause constipation, stomach ache, skin burning and urinary problems.

Nettles also make a nice yellowish-gray-green wool/silk/cotton fabric dye when mixed with alum. Nettle fibers have been used to make rope, cloth and paper.

As you can see, nettles are some useful plants. Wild plants do not cost money. They can be hand-harvested, hand-dried, and used for better health and beauty, for free. Many people raised in cities cannot identify basic wild edible and medicinal plants. This is a shame. To reconnect with the earth, pick nettles to help you appreciate the gifts the earth gives us, and remind us we need to protect the earth. Take some time out in the sun to harvest plants in the woods. It is anti-capitalist. It is empowering. It is FUN and it is FREE!

Note: Do not eat or drink tea from any plant you have not fully studied and identified properly.

Rogue Birth

Women helping other women deliver babies is as old as humanity. It makes sense. So why do mainstream doctors and hospitals act like midwifery is some radical, dangerous, medically-irresponsible quackery? In Scandanavia, the UK, and the Netherlands, female midwifery is a thriving occupation. Yet in America, it has been constructively outlawed as a profession, for 100 years. While I was in labor, during my home birth, I actually asked the midwives, “Are you sure this is okay to do at home, and not in a hospital?” They said, “Kirsten, think about it. THIS is the way women birthed for thousands of years before doctors and hospitals.” That made sense, but I had to ask, due to my years of American medical brainwashing.

My midwives were rogue outlaws, in many ways. They fully understood the political activism involved, they fully appreciated the anarchist nature of what they were doing. They birthed approximately 200 babies in the Seattle area, between the years of 1980 and 2000, and they did so with no licenses, and no medical credentials. They delivered my baby at home, illegally, and I am eternally grateful. When I gave birth in 1984, there were no hospitals allowing midwives to birth in them, no insurance plan would pay for a midwife, and Swedish Hospital was the only hospital in Seattle “experimenting” with birthing rooms. There were no single or gay mom childbirth classes, so I quit going to childbirth classes, as they were filled only with middle-class, heterosexual couples. One of my midwives, Miriamma Carson, was bisexual, spoke fluent Spanish, was a radical activist and feminist, and she offered me a safe place, when nowhere else felt safe. For $300, I was given private childbirth classes with other single moms, and pre/post natal exams, as well as a 30 hour labor and home birth attended by two midwives. When I had trouble paying it, Miriamma let me barter cooking dinners for her kids instead. I could never have afforded such superior health care under the status quo, for-massive-profit, medical system.

Both of my midwives, Miriamma and Barbara R., had sons living at home while they were midwives. And they helped homeless teens often. One night Miriamma’s son woke her up at 3 am, saying he had stumbled on a teen girl, in a car, behind the 7-11, in labor. She would not leave with him, so he asked her to wait, and said he would send his radical midwife mom to help her. Miriamma grabbed her birthing kit, and charged out the door towards the 7-11. Miriamma delivered the baby, in the car, in the middle of the night, with dignity, no questions asked. The girl refused to leave with Miriamma, but Miriamma invited the girl to her home, and gave the girl her home phone number before she left. I am wildly impressed by this. Some would say that was irresponsible of Miriamma, and that she should have called the cops, or CPS, or forced the mother into a hospital. But Miriamma understood the difference between trauma and empowerment, and via her gift of birthing assistance without authority trips, she often saved women unnecessary trauma, allowing the joy of birth to prevail.

Once Miriamma had a woman who only spoke Spanish, in labor, in her car, trying to drive her home for the birth. They got stuck in a traffic jam. Miriamma called her nearest friend and told her to prepare a room in their home for a birth. She got off at the next exit and drove to the friend’s house, where the woman had a healthy birth. Miriamma spent years living in poor Mexican villages, and she knew there had been mass marketing of corporate baby formulas in Mexico, as well as in the U.S., shaming poor moms away from breastfeeding. So Miriamma asked the friend whose house they had landed at, to start breastfeeding in front of the new mom, who just delivered, to set a positive tone for breastfeeding. Miriamma was very good at finding healthy ways for moms to learn from each other.

These midwives were also incredibly gifted at networking. They led me to Doctor David Springer, one of the first M.D.’s to graduate from John Bastyr’s Naturopathic College (http://www.bastyr.edu/), with an N.D. He became one of Seattle’s finest holistic health pediatricians and took grand care of my son for 18 years. They hooked me up with La Leche League (www.lalecheleague.org), when I had breastfeeding problems. They taught low-income moms about the WIC program. They facilitated safe homes for domestic violence victims. They arranged safe abortions when asked. As a matter of fact, Miriamma took me to a safe abortion clinic, when I asked, years before she attended my birth. She bought the equipment abortion clinics use, and hid it in her basement, when she feared abortion may become illegal again. Miriamma is from a long line of radical women who saw access to safe birth control, abortion and delivery, as a woman’s right. Emma Goldman took formal training in midwifery in 1895, and was saddened by the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies, as a matter of fact.

Long have the fields of midwifery, women’s health care, witchcraft, and feminism, been associated. In the article, “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses,” (www.blancmange.net/tmh/articles/witches.html) by B. Ehrenreich and D. English, they say, “Women healers were people’s doctors, and their medicine was part of a people’s subculture. To this very day women’s medical practice has thrived in the midst of rebellious lower class movements which have struggled to be free from the established authorities. Male professionals, on the other hand, served the ruling class…Witch hunts did not eliminate the lower class woman healer, but they branded her forever as superstitious and possibly malevolent.” Calling self-help, preventative and traditional medicine a “radical assault on medical elitism,” traditional healers named “King-craft, Priest-craft, Lawyer-craft and Doctor-craft” the “four great evils of the time,” according to the article. By the 1840’s, medical licensing laws had been repealed in almost all of the states. But by the 1900’s, racism was also playing into the sexism, classism, and medical elitism, and since it was mostly immigrant and poor women who were having and assisting home births, white women of the Victorian brand, were asking for the white male doctors in sterile hospitals for birthing help, not poor immigrant midwives with birthing experience and herbal knowledge. And elite, white, women doctors, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, turned on the women midwives too. The article says in 1910, 50% of all babies born in America were delivered by midwives. And although traditional medicine was primarily a political and economical issue, the mainstream medical profession tried to say it was a medical and/or scientific issue. The medical profession has attacked the autonomy of midwives as health care providers, yet DIY women’s health care continues, as a liberating force.

When I was about 20 hours into labor, I started wimping out, and asked to go to a hospital for drugs, as I was exhausted, and sick of the pain. But my midwives reminded me that if I went to a hospital, the midwives would be locked outside, I would be forced to do a lot of authoritative things I would want to rebel against via doctors, and it could end up in a C-section. Those threats kept me at home trying to birth naturally, which finally did happen. And I am so thankful for them talking me through it. Miriamma died in the mid-1990’s, due to cancer. It was an emotional loss for the community. Her memorial had a cast of hundreds. Woman after woman bore witness to how Miriamma saved her life when in crisis, giving her dignity and comfort, when many of us had felt like “untouchables.” Whether we were homeless teens, battered wives, single welfare moms, gay moms, Spanish-speaking moms; we were all welcome on earth, according to Miriamma’s open-arm policy. We all deserved superior health care. We all deserved safe births and breastfeeding without stigma. Due to these beliefs, my midwives were two of the most radical anarchists I have ever met.

My friend Beth, in Santa Cruz, Ca., gave birth to her daughter, at night, on the sand, at the beach, with the help of her friend/midwife Moon Maiden. Birth is a tremendously powerful event and being drugged in a sterile hospital with paternalistic doctors is not the ultimate birth experience for many of us. Many of us want to birth, with our friends and families, in nature, without drugs. And such freedoms around birth are barely legal, if at all. So rogue midwifery continues on, under the radar of the mainstream, as political activism, as feminism, as alternative health care. Even with the recent advent of birthing rooms and licensed midwives, this field is a rogue one at best. Even mainstream midwifery resources, such as Midwifery Today magazine ( www.midwiferytoday.com), and Midwives Online ( www.midwivesonline.com) have a very anti-authoritarian tone. Doctors are not women’s bosses, and radical midwives understand this. Groups such as the Radical Midwives group ( www.radmid.demon.co.uk) in the U.K., see midwifery as a political issue, as well as a health issue. Midwives have been doing this as long as humans have existed. No laws can change it.

Busking Without Boundaries

When I ask all my street performer friends why they think there are so few career solo women street performers, they all hint to the sexual safety issue. So, as a visible, veteran, solo woman street performer for 27 years, I thought I would tell ya my take on it…

Everyone agrees street performing, or “busking,” is hard work. Someone once said about acting, that they do not pay you for the acting, they pay you for the waiting around. That is true in busking, too. Performing talent is about 30% of a good street act. The ability to persevere under harsh conditions, to battle police and merchants over air space, to assert free speech rights at every corner as they are questioned, to spontaneously gather and hold a crowd, and to keep up with hecklers, makes the profession a die-hard one, at best. You spend little time on musical rehearsal, as compared to holding your place in line for a good spot, or “pitch,” and then defending that pitch from police when they show up to shut you down. Street performing is not for the weak. And being a solo woman street performer has extra unseen entanglements, due to societal gender stereotypes.

Solo woman street performers directly conflict with the traditional American desexualized, meek and dependent ideal oursociety upholds for women. They make their own money, they are loud and independent, they speak their mind, they talk about politics, they compete with the boys, sometimes stealing the spotlight with women’s issues, and they encourage other women to do the same, as visible role models in the public square.

If you are a woman breaking gender roles by commanding street corners for entertainment, your safest bet is to sing sad love songs, depicting yourself as lovelorn and lost, still looking for a man to save you. Or as Joni Mitchell sings, “There’s a wide, wide world of noble causes…but all I really want to do right now is find another lover.” Although people are uncomfortable with your use of the street venue, as a woman, they are consoled by the material, which fits the female stereotypes and keeps a male focus. When I began street performing at age 18 in 1978, I followed these gender rules. I had a confident stage presence and strong voice, yet I sang about needing a man, and of men who left me heartbroken. One day a male street performer came up to me and said, “Is love all you can sing about?” It made me take notice of what men sang about. They sang about sex, and getting drunk and high. They were singing about traveling, and wars, and whaling, and politics. And about trying to stay away from women who would marry them. They were not singing forlorn love songs.

Holly Near had released a song called “Get Off Me Baby” around this time. She said she liked singing blues, but hated blues because the lyrics usually victimized the women. So she wrote the song where the woman is empowered, and the difference was marked. Immediately I saw the power in taking traditional forms of music, and twisting them to empower, rather than victimize, the women. Often, sadly, it was as easy as switching the genders in songs, to make the woman end up the victor. I began to sing “Summertime,” as “Your mama’s rich, and your daddy’s good looking,” as one of my first gender lyric switches. I began to focus on issues that were relevant to me, as a woman and mother. While the men were singing about balling all night, I was singing about men’s responsibilities in birth control and child support, and was developing lesbian comedy. Many people felt I should be jailed for such behavior in public.

I have asked many street performers, male and female, why they think there are so few solo women street performers. Predominantly, women buskers show up with a male street performer they date, play with them until they break up, and that is the end of their busking career. A very small handful of women can, and continue to, perform as professional solo women street performers in America. The ratio of male to female solo career buskers is about 9:1. The most common reason buskers gave me for why they think women do not busk solo is a fear of rape. They are afraid it would be construed as “asking for it” if they sang on a street and then were raped later. They fear they will be mistaken for prostitutes, the way male performers can be mistaken for “bums.” Yet I found I was safer than most women I know in downtown areas I busked in, because I knew the street people, and they treated me as an asset to their world. Street people protected me from harmful people, intervening, explaining I give good free music, so to leave me alone. But the main reason women tend to avoid performing on the streets alone is this sexual safety issue.

If women are scared doing male-centered, meek love songs on the street, imagine the fear in doing a sexy Bessie Smith song out on a street corner as a woman. Men perform songs about their sexuality freely in public, but those gender stereotypes kick in hard and fast as soon as women start singing freely about their sexuality in public! Especially if it leaves men out altogether, as in lesbian comedy. I found that men’s jokes about women’s genitals were accepted, even by families. No one noticed. That is what men do. But you make a joke about men’s genitals as a woman performer on the street, and the police are there within minutes! Testing these boundaries, I decided to sing sexy songs covered by Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt, et al, instead of sad love songs by Joni Mitchell. I began to get large, clapping, stomping crowds like the men got. No longer was I surrounded by hippie men who wanted me to join their cult, or hippie “chicks” who could “relate, man.” Respect for me doubled among my male performer peers. Ironically, I felt even more safe on the streets after asserting my sexuality in my music, like the men.

But singing about sex with men, in songs like “Women Be Wise,” still does not rock the boat, as it is still male-centered. Issues of pregnancy, birth control, child care, women’s sexual fulfillment, and lesbianism, DO rock the boat. Until the insertion of feminist material into my act, all loved me. No one cared if men balled all night, or if women cried in longing all night. But singing about women having sex together with other women all night, and not crying over men, was suspected criminal activity! Not only were authorities called in, but my own male performer peers backed up in confusion too. I received 8 “peace disturbance/obscenity” tickets in Santa Cruz, Ca. for busking. This happened while the famous busker Artis, the Spoonman, was screaming, “Give Me Back My Foreskin!” in his street performances up the street. I was ticketed for the word “penis,” when I said in my act, “What do you get when you cross a penis with a potato? A dictator.” I got another ticket for the word “bitch” in a song lyric saying, “Girls have got to act a certain way, or else, they ain’t A-OK, always be willing, never get mad, or they call us bitch, they tell us we’re bad.” Interestingly, that same song was later used in Seattle, Wa., at the Pike Place Market, as potential grounds for banning my performances there. The double-standard for obscenity on the streets for men and women became painfully apparent after I fought off 8 obscenity tickets with the ACLU in Santa Cruz, and attended hearings to fight for my free speech rights in Seattle.

After seeing that double-standard, my whole performing career came into focus. Police are present to reinforce societal norms, and the status quo. And it is not clear where the status quo stands on solo women street performers. Much less, solo women street performers who make fun of the sacred male genitalia, and talk about women-centered sexuality and other dangerous feminist issues. Some would ban solo women street performers altogether if they could. Some have tried that with me. Others would allow solo women street performers, but would censor their material to be male-centered. T
hat has been tried on me too. In 1989, I was so sick of being hassled by police for performing, I put on a nun’s habit, thinking it would confuse the public. I was not sure if the public would side with a cop or a nun, but I found the nun’s habit effectively intimidated police. I have not been ticketed once since I have performed as a nun, and I can do material that is MUCH more racy than I ever did before! My journey as a street performer continues on, but it is a different journey than my predominantly male peers’, for many reasons. The biggest reason being the lingering gender stereotypes in our society.

Buy Nothing Day November 29th: Whirl-Mart Revisited

Whirl-Mart is a participatory, anti-consumerism, performance trend started by the Breathing Planet Troupe. A group silently pushes empty shopping carts through the aisles of a superstore, wearing Whirl-Mart smocks. Utilizing tactics of occupation, Whirlers call this symbolic spectacle a “collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for shopping and buying.” Averting outright protest of the “emptiness of material consumption,” they mimic the absurd shopping PROCESS instead. When asked by Wal-Mart employees what they are doing, and knowing that protests are not permitted inside Wal-Mart, they respond that they are participating in a “consumption awareness ritual,” confusing store employees and shoppers alike. And the good news is, Whirl-Mart is coming to a superstore near you! Buy Nothing Day on November 29 has been declared a global Whirl-Mart day of action.

Whirl-Mart began outside of Troy, NY, in response to a challenge from Adbusters magazine to do something foolish on April Fool’s Day, 2001. Inspired by that successful action, Whirl-Mart rituals began popping up all over the country, and even in the UK. By 2002, many groups in many states were whirling. On March 3, 2002, rituals were performed at Wal-Marts in NY, TX, AZ, PA, and more.

The Austin, TX ritual had 8 whirlers and 2 documentary filmmakers. For the first 45 minutes, they walked alone and in pairs with their carts. Then they formed a parade of empty shopping carts in the jewelry section. As soon as they heard a call for help in jewelry, they disbanded. Shortly thereafter, one Whirl-Marter was cornered by the manager, who wanted to know what he was doing. He said he was trying to decide if he should buy something. When the manager asked what he was looking for, he said “something.” The manager took the cart from the shopper and forced him to leave. All of the Whirlers were told to leave except one. He went into the longest checkout line possible with an empty cart, and at the end, thanked the cashier and left.

At a Wal-Mart in Indianola, Iowa, in April 02, Whirlers tried to enter Wal-Mart with a live chicken. Their plan was to grab a pair of men’s pants made in El Salvador or Pakistan or India, and then to go to the cashier and try to barter the chicken for it.

At a Wal-Mart in Austin, TX, in 2002, Whirlers entered the store one by one, and in no time had a Whirler on every aisle. After 10 mintues, they formed a train around women’s wear. Suddenly, the store’s loud speaker repeatedly announced “Managers, Code Sunshine” and told shoppers to secure their children. One Whirler said he feared the Wal-Mart SWAT team was being activated, with big yellow smiley faces on their riot shields. They disbanded into pairs again, yet the manager took one Whirler aside and asked “What exactly IS Whirl-Mart?” She feigned being a completely spaced-out hippie, saying it was a peaceful, nonviolent meditation she did where she didn’t buy anything for one hour a week.” He responded by saying, “Well, as long as it’s nonviolent, then you can do it for the next 20 minutes. What the heck—today’s free.” So does it cost money to Whirl on other days?

In the Bay Area, whirlers wore “Hi, My name is Whirl-Mart” stickers because they did not have matching shirts. Some of the Bay Area whirlers waxed philosophical about what they think about while whirling. One whirler said he liked to think, “How am I like an empty cart?” during the ritual.

For more info: www.breathingplanet