David McKinney, Homeless Activist, Dead

“The body of a man burned beyond recognition is still being examined to determine identity and cause of death after the body was found in a homeless encampment near Ashby Avenue and Interstate 80 on Wednesday night.” So read the Oakland Tribune of Friday, Dec. 13, 2002. The man was homeless. The body could not be immediately identified. His kerosene heater had somehow ignited his makeshift shelter.

The man was identified as David McKinney. He was a Bay Area activist, active especially in issues in regard to the Homeless. Homeless himself, he had finally been approved for treatment of a mental disorder. Before that could happen, with who knows what positive results, he died in this horrible way. His case makes us wonder, in our wealthy society, why are people sleeping on the streets? There are those who think the homeless “deserve” to be homeless. They are not like you and me. Knowing some details of David’s life, people who think like that may be surprised.

He has a family that mourns him; he had a degree in religion from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He had studied to be a teacher, attending San Francisco State. He worked as a substitute teacher in East Bay public schools, and taught as a student teacher for a while in the 1980s. He was involved with Slingshot, the Long Haul, Food not Bombs, and could be counted on to participate in protests or actions involving progressive issues.

I would like to quote from his sister Lauren’s eulogy, delivered Jan. 11, 2003 at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, PA. :

“My brother David was a gifted and passionate person. How ironic that with his commitment to the marginalized and dispossessed people in our society, having even written a novel about the homeless, that he became homeless himself. His own demons made him quarrelsome and disorganized, making it hard for him to give and receive love, make constructive decisions, and just live day to day. Given his disability, what a gift that he lived as long as he did, and as well as he did. He never hurt anyone, and never lost his ideals.

“The world needs more people like David. How can we receive David’s unworldliness and deep empathy into our spirits? David never blamed or labeled the powerless. When we use a label to define ourselves against others, we close off the connection, we lose compassion, we kill. Sometimes we do that to stay sane in this world, to feel separate from chaos and darkness. But the chaos and the darkness are part of us, as all great literature reminds us. We cannot undo what happened to David, but if we see the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, the dispossessed, as fully human, then we carry on his legacy.”

A memorial service will be given in the East Bay for David and information should be available from Steve Weiss at the Homeless Action Center.

Slingshot ALumnus Remembers

Slingshot’s 15th birthday makes me feel kind of old, because I was in on it from just about its beginning. I was an English grad student at Berkeley when I became “Experienced” in Jimi Hendrix’s term. I was working on my dissertation, serving as Coordinator of the student Recycling Project, where I met members of the Slingshot Collective. Most of us were Berkeley students. At the time, U.C. Berkeley was hardly radical. Despite the university’s reputation as a hotbed of dissent, a legacy of the 60s, there was a need for a leftist voice, and Slingshot filled that need. Those first issues were printed on white paper, sometimes subversively copied on university copiers.

For one Slingshot article, marking the anniversary of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, I went to the Bancroft Library Special Collections department, where I looked at their collection of radical papers from the 60s. I am proud to have contributed to a paper that will go into that collection commemorating voices of dissent against the repressive aspects of mainstream society. This despite remarks by “friends” which satirically contrasted my academic writing with the kinds of rhetoric of Slingshot.

I remain an academic — I have a job as a professor in a Southern university (hey, it’s true what the right says about the “liberal academics” corrupting our youth!) — but the articles I write for Slingshot are read by a lot more people than my cerebral studies of William Blake and Victorian novels. Slingshot, I note, now has a circulation of 12,000, and is distributed nationally, including to a sizable incarcerated population. Slingshot has allowed me to spread my strong views on things that confronted me as I became a mother: my belief in “natural” childbirth; my conviction that the practically universal practice of male circumcision in the U.S. is nothing short of genital mutilation. As an environmentalist, Slingshot has allowed me and the branch of the Sierra Club I’m involved with here, to express our opinion on clearcutting, pollution, and genetic engineering.

So, while teaching a class this semester on literary utopias, I read Slingshot as the collective shout of voices that promises an alternative to our present dystopian society, a wave of energy that may help to bring about an ideal society. Without voices of dissent, without resistance to a society whose values are destructive, distorted and demented, utopia will always remain “nowhere” (the literal meaning of the word). It is only by imagining an alternative and articulating opposed values that change will ever come. Viva Slingshot!