Stopping traffic in Sacramento-disability rihgts activists fight to remain independent!

The Terminator was not home to see the women in wheelchairs and hospital beds hauled away by Sacramento police. Over 20 people blockaded the street outside California’s state Capitol with tents and wheelchairs. A military man in a Hummer revved his engine as he yelled, “Why do they gotta be out here in the streets like this?!” With passion, a woman replied: “Because I’d rather get arrested in the streets than die in a nursing home!” The cops were their own comic relief, slicing our larger-than-life Schwarzenegger effigy with knives, shoving it over in a dramatic enactment evocative of Saddam’s statue being toppled during the fall of Baghdad. All in a day’s work, they dragged the gruesome, axe-wielding puppet into custody.

California’s budget deficit has led politicians to cut essential social services yet again, pushing those teetering at the margins of society into grave uncertainty. The latest round of cuts affect the potential independence of 470,000 elderly and disabled Californians who depend on the landmark In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) to accomplish daily tasks of eating, bathing, cleaning, and going to the bathroom. The program was once a shining example of the transformative power of assisted living in keeping folks out of nursing homes and other live-in medical facilities. Should the cuts go through, more than 308,000 elderly and disabled Californians could lose their health care workers and be sent to nursing homes or county hospitals. Activists in the disabled community contend that this forced institutionalization is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In June, a coalition of disabled and their allies began a month-long camp-out on a median strip outside a Berkeley supermarket to protest Sacramento’s proposed reductions to health care services. They called it Arnieville, a modern-day version of the Hoovervilles that cropped up across the country during the Great Depression. For 30 days, they camped outside, screened films, held workshops on disabled culture, and spoke with passersby about the difficulties the Berkeley disabled community faces. The intent of the encampment was to focus the frustration and anger felt by many into actions that would empower people to change the course of their destiny. “Most people you see on the streets are either disabled or foster care kids. The government is failing its end of the social contract, to be a safety net for those with no support network,” according to Mandy DeMuff.

Forced institutionalization violates peoples’ basic right to live in community, and it does not save money in the long run. A study by Connecticut College Professor Candace Howes shows that California could save nearly $300 million per year if, instead of eliminating the IHSS program, it transitioned one-third of its nursing facility residents back into the community. Housing one person in a nursing home can be as much as 5 times costlier than paying the wages of a health care worker to provide services in the home.

“The politicians don’t realize that one day every single one of us will be disabled,” community organizer Sheela Gunn told me. “They have no idea that half the people in this country live one paycheck away from homelessness.”

Sheela is one of thousands who depend on social security to supplement income lost due to disability. They pay for rent, food, and medical care on a shoestring budget. But the balancing act of social security is a double-edged sword — the government’s guidelines for those living below the poverty line make it impossible for an SSI recipient to save money, keeping them perpetually on the brink of disaster. Even basic purchases like a new wheelchair or respirator must be routed through advocates and friends to avoid having their bank accounts seized. The penalty for savings means recipients must spend their meager earnings month to month, making it nearly impossible for those without a support network to rise above their situation.

Disability and houseless rights advocate Dan McMullan talks about the need for popular uprisings throughout California to confront the symptoms of poverty in afflicted communities. “The Arnieville encampment broke through the myth that people are disabled and poor because they’re bad or unwilling to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. This story of the American Dream is what the rich tell us every day so they can continue wiping their asses with $100 bills.” He suggests that decentralized actions throughout the state have the power to apply grassroots pressure to turn the tide against cuts to disabled services

The harsh prospect of being forced out of their home into an institution is causing some to make grim preparations. I spoke with a woman in a wheelchair who matter-of-factly described her decision to undergo surgical sterilization. Her reasoning was, when she lost her health worker and moved to a medical institutiion, she would not become pregnant if sexually assaulted by an aide at the nursing home. This woman’s story is a grim reminder that the cold statistics of Sacramento’s balance sheets have real human consequences.

The adversity faced by many in the disabled community creates a pluck and determination that is greatly inspiring. Their grace and humor displayed by those in terrifying circumstances remind us to confront these grave times with a light heart and share our experience compassionately, even with those who may not have the ability to listen. They show us the richness of experience those with little material resources can share, and point out the spiritual bankruptcy of wealthy politicians who amass their riches at the expense of others.

We Love 'Em Vertical! Eureka Redwood Tree-sit Continues

“Everybody loves redwoods trees. Trouble is half the people love ’em vertical and the other half love ’em horizontal”–Anonymous County Supervisor.

The redwood tree is the tallest living organism on the planet. Their massive trunks can grow over 20 feet in diameter, and seemingly individual trees are more like communes, growing in patterns to shield each other from strong winds and interweaving their roots beneath the soil in a network that sucks up water and communicates it to the thirstiest individuals in times of need. This capillary action pushes thousands of gallons of water every day to the topmost needles. As the trees mature and lose their tops, the crowns shoot off new trunks, called reiterations, which accumulate organic material from the canopy that breaks down into soil. Huckleberry bushes, bay laurel trees, tan oaks, sword ferns, lichens, and smaller redwoods have all been reported to grow in the massive branches of old-growth redwood, making a mature tree more like an aerial grove connected to the ground by a main trunk than like an individual organism. Salamanders are born, reproduce and die all in the canopy, without ever touching the ground. The trees’ preference for misty, cool climate will likely mean global temperature rise is going to affect them drastically, making them a unique barometer of the effects of climate change. Formal scientific research of the redwoods’ canopy system is still in its infancy, knowledge that will be lost forever if the practice of commercial logging extinguishes the remaining stands of old-growth trees.

Before 1850, the coast of Southern Oregon and Northern California was populated with over 2 million acres of redwood forest. Of that original acreage less than three percent remains today. The ancient ones were milled and chipped into high-end lumber, shingles, artwork, and other construction products valued for their beauty and workability. Most of the Bay Area’s redwoods were cut to build San Francisco, much of which burned up in the earthquake fires of 1906.

Humboldt County’s wild forests have been its main form of economic output for a century. The settlers from California’s gold rush were awed by the enormity of the trees and immediately set about building bigger and better saw mills to cut them down to size. The settler’s drive to conquer the wilderness was put to the test in Humboldt and Mendocino’s seemingly inexhaustible forest. In those times, words like “carrying capacity,” and “global climate change” did not factor into their plans for harvesting timber. Photographs show lumberjacks caressing the fallen redwood carcasses with toothy smiles as proud as new fathers.

The faces of Humboldt County’s tree sitters are lined with the memories of tree friends gobbled up in the maw of commercialism. Their hands are calloused from hauling fistfuls of rope in the sun and rain. Their steps are careful, calculated with the knowledge that gravity is a force of nature, which must be respected in order to be defied. The soft, shifting mist and ethereal shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy fill the crevices of their souls with deep joy. They have suffered tragedy and triumph, watched their human comrades tortured, arrested and even killed defending the forests they love. At night the trees echo ancient melodies in oceanic dreams, swaying sitters to sleep gently like a mother. Canopy wildlife flits, climbs and crawls, ever vigilant for an unexposed nut to secret away. On good days the tree-people who spend their lives suspended in the canopies of Humboldt’s ancient and residual redwoods forests shoot the shit with the timber workers, arguing the tension between the need for local jobs and living ecosystems with good humor. Other days it’s a frantic struggle to survive, trees falling on either side of them as professional climbers ascend the tree to hogtie them with ropes.

Tree sitting was first used as a defense tactic in New Zealand but it became popular during the mass movement civil disobedience days of direct action group Earth First! in the early ’90s. At first people climbed threatened trees just as one-off publicity stunts, but eventually they began to construct tree villages and conduct their lives aloft in the canopy with the help of rope, platforms and buckets. The political tactic of blockading began to merge with the deep spiritual fulfillment activists found in returning to the wild. Many people came into forest defense with the idea that they were going to save the trees, only to later understand that it was the trees who saved them. Most of the time, a tree-sitter is like a hospice worker caring for a loved one whose prognosis is unhopeful. They form a relationship with trees on the chopping block in order to remember their legacy and help the spirits of the forest transition into the next life with dignity. The love and attention does not always revive, but through the simple act of fighting against what we are told is inevitable, the cycle of hopelessness is broken. In this way, tree-sitters must aim for the best and prepare for the worst–it is the connection to the Earth that creates something alchemical, magical moments and events that have the power to change history.

Headwaters Forest was and is an 80,000-acre complex that contained 6 groves of old-growth forest equaling roughly 10,000 acres. The campaign to protect some of the largest known stands of old-growth redwood trees in existence mobilized thousands of unlikely participants, from traveling Deadheads, druids, environmental lawyers and local residents to journalists, labor organizers and timber employees, over the course of a decade-long struggle. In those years there were always fliers to distribute, midnight supply runs to make, logging trucks to blockade. At times there was such a flurry of activity that not even the main organizers were aware of all the actions taking place.

Ten years after the call went out to save Headwaters, the federal government paid Pacific Lumber’s CEO, Charlie Hurwitz, $480,000,000 for 7,500 acres, protecting two of the six old-growth groves in question. (A third grove was saved in a later campaign). The Texas-based logging giant had used public sympathy for the forest to increase its profit margin by a factor of ten. While the solution financially rewarded Hurwitz’s planet-raping ways, the 7,500 acre parcel six miles south of Eureka, CA stands as a testament to the ability of grassroots activists to galvanize the public locally and nationally in order to protect the majesty of the old growth forest for future generations.

Just like the fairy rings of smaller trees that grow around the stumps of the dead Ancient Ones, Earth First! resistance to commercial development of Humboldt’s temperate rainforest continues to pop up with tenacity. A proposed housing development outside of Eureka has sparked the construction of a tree village occupying one of several imperiled second growth groves. Green Diamond (California’s largest single owner of redwood forest, managing over 420,000 acres) owns an area known as the McKay tract which is an important habitat for spotted owls, coho salmon and black bears. Local residents hunt the rich soils for oyster mushrooms. Some say the soil and climate in the area is the worlds best for growing redwood trees. Green Diamond, the owner of the McKay tract, threatens to extinguish the intricate relationships between trees, streams and wild animals built up over the past century by clear cutting and intensive herbicide spraying. Erosion caused by clear cutting has been shown to cause massive mudslides that damage salmon spawning grounds with fallen debris and endanger the homes of those whose property borders the area. Clear cutting devastates the land and wipes out complex ecosystems, whereas selective logging practices could allow human use of these beautiful second-growth forests while preserving the area for future generations.

Earth First!ers are organizing in the area to find a balance between h
uman need for land use and protections for the forests and streams that salmon require in order to continue their millennia-old cycles of spawning and rebirth. In times of severe ecological degradation and global climate change, the protestors call on Green Diamond to live up to their “environmentally friendly” image and end the practice of clear cutting.

Twelve years after the timber industry’s murder of David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, killed when a tree was cut so as to fall on him, tree-sitters continue to face violent harassment and reckless disregard for safety from timber company workers as well as law enforcement. Green Diamond employees recently severed, and then hastily retied, the support lines of a tree-sitter, allowing their platform to slide over 35 feet down the tree. This hostility towards nonviolent protestors endangers lives unnecessarily and will likely continue until the company changes its policies. Visitors with any level of climbing experience are always needed and welcome. To find updates on the McKay Tract Tree Village and other actions visit

Earth First! chapters across the country seek to build a movement of self-motivated love warriors to use nonviolent direct action in defense of free and wild spaces. As the endgame of industrial capitalism accelerates the destruction of the natural world, we too must quicken and intensify our resistance to the incessant conversion of the living into the dead. While the band-aid of frontline opposition is essential to preserving what wild spaces we have left, we must also radically alter our relationship with the planet from a reductionistic, objectifying form to one that recognizes the regenerative powers of the Earth as the highest intelligence. At the best of times, our organizing efforts would protect lands outright, or defeat plans to cut before they make it off the drawing board. When our efforts fall short, the experiences our community shares in the struggle inspire new forms of resistance. If your heart is free, the ground you’re standing on is liberated territory–defend it!

Old Growth Redwoods face loging to build highway

Richardson Grove is a stand of majestic, ancient redwood trees bisected by the iconic Highway 101 north of San Francisco, preceding one of Humboldt County’s biggest tourist attractions, the Avenue of the Giants. Richardson Grove State Park represents some of the 5 percent of this nation’s last remaining old-growth forest.

The California Highway Department Caltrans has proposed straightening and widening the section of Highway 101 that runs through the grove. That section is a choke point — a short section of twisty, thin road with a slow speed limit surrounded by a more modern highway. The Caltrans plan calls for the removal of dozens of trees from the grove, cutting into the root systems of old-growth redwoods and disturbing Marbled Murrelet and other threatened species’ habitat. There is no guarantee that cutting roots will not harm the health of, or eventually kill, old-growth trees.

Public safety and concerns for commercial robustness are Caltrans’ stated reasons for moving forward on their proposal to widen 101. They want the stretch of road to be wide enough to accommodate the largest trucks legal under California state law. But many environmentalists and local business owners say that widening the highway to allow more semi-trucks may negatively impact the local economy by opening the gates of Humboldt County to sprawl and ugly development. The ecological impacts are also considerable. Richardson Grove is federally designated Marbled Murrelet critical habitat. As many as six endangered species make the old-growth forest of Richardson Grove their home.

Community members, tribal leaders and environmentalists are coming together to strategize about how to protect Humboldt county — with its rural charm and tight-knit local economies — from the threat of increasing gentrification / commercialization that opening up the highway would pose. Caltrans’ Environmental Impact Report is currently under review. If it gets approved, Caltrans could start construction — that is, unless massive protest and direct action stops them. Keep posted. For more info contact the Environmental Protection Information Center

War is Peace – Obama expands nuclear power & weapons for . . . disarmament?

“Is there any man or woman–nay, any child–who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is commercial and industrial rivalry?” — President Woodrow Wilson, September 1919

Unlike some gullible chaps who have faith in electoral politics as a representative democracy, I did not experience a yawning chasm of disappointment or abandonment upon the realization that Obama is not the messiah who will rid the world of all pestilence, trickery, and wrong. To this day the mainstream media is touting Obama as a great conciliator and philanthropist in his single-minded quest to rid the world from the threat of mutually assured nuclear extinction. But the more you unravel Obama’s political alliances and network of election financiers, the more you come to understand how deeply beholden the President of the United States is to the nuclear energy industry as well as nuclear weapons development.

Obama made his way into office at the hands of corporate financiers, who are heavy hitters in the financial industries as well as “essential services” such as the nuclear power industry.

They helped elect him, they were thrilled to death when he won, and his cabinet is no stranger to the business of building new nuclear power plants.

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, had a previous position with nuclear energy firm Exelon to win public support for rate increases. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was instrumental in the creation of that company, which went on to become the nation’s most valuable nuclear utility based on market value.

His nuclear family close at hand, he pledges to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.” In his climate change policy, Obama openly embraces nuclear power as a carbon-free alternative to petro-energy. The government plans to subsidize the construction of over 30 nuclear reactors in the coming years. While the carbon imprint is less than coal or natural gas, there is no known method of safely storing or disposing of the spent fuel rod waste from nuclear reactors. Each one has a half-life of 10,000 years, which means any facility built to store them must last at least that long.

Creating deadly poisonous waste and stockpiling barrels of it along fault lines at seismically unfit facilities is ecological suicide. But so is the government’s nasty habit of dumping this waste on Native reservations and sacred sites, often targeted for their “sparse levels of human habitation”.

But more nuclear reactors responsible for more nuclear waste only promises to kill people slowly, over time. Obama’s investments in the nuclear arms industry is more distressing. With an arsenal bulging upwards of 10,000 nuclear warheads, Obama ordered large increases to pad the budgets of the National Nuclear Security Administration (13% raise) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, up 22% from last year.

This funding increase to the National Laboratory in Albuquerque is to begin construction of the innocuously named “Chemistry and Metallurgy Building Replacement Project”, a multi-billion dollar laboratory capable of manufacturing over 200 plutonium pits per year, a crucial ingredient of the nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is making strides towards the world’s first “subcritical” warhead. It’s for projects like these that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, formerly of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, proclaims we must train and recruit a new generation of nuclear scientists to build a new generation of warheads for America’s arsenal. It’s these lab managers, nuclear scientists, and military planners who create livelihoods from sowing the seeds of political instability the world over.

How can you pay lip service to a nuclear free world (see his magnanimous “Yes, we can!” speech in Prague) one moment and up funding to the nuclear laboratories to build MORE bombs the next? We have 24,000 plutonium pits in the arsenal, only half actively deployed in weapons. We have 50,000 warheads in the world and enough enriched uranium for the production of over 200,000, enough to blow to smithereens every man woman and child on Earth. With so many avenues of annihilation already available, why must we produce more under the banner of arms reduction?

This leads us to a few possibilities concerning Obama’s intentions. He might be a hypocrite, a political flip-flopper, or a mastermind of Orwellian inversion, most poetically displayed when he asserted the necessity of war while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with absolutely no hint of irony. Anyone who believes Obama is truly interested in ridding the world of the threat of nuclear warfare hasn’t studied history hard enough. The American economic empire is predicated on perpetual warfare and the threat of warfare as an engine of commercial growth. Ultimately, we need to blame the free market system that rewards this sociopathic and genocidal behavior, but that doesn’t remove Obama’s personal culpability in constructing a dangerously deceptive nuclear policy in a supposedly post-Cold War world.

Where have all the funds gone? fee hikes, layoffs and wage cuts spark rebellion on campuses throughout CA

The shockwaves of reduced state funding for public education are felt in sickening lurches throughout California, across all levels of public education, from the university and community college system down through high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. Education has been under attack for over a decade as undergraduate studies are pushed into the background and “research” becomes about student tuition financing development, and student labor being harnessed for a private corporate research agenda. Yet, the solution to the current crisis, according to the powers that be, is to privatize more, and to raise tuition. This not only affects the quality of education, but also the accessibility of it, which more directly affects low-income students and students of color.

Actions across the state express outrage at the overtures towards privatizing what has long been held as a public good, responding to the human impacts of the layoffs and fee hikes, as well as highlighting long-standing reluctance on the part of the UC to give answers or listen to anyone.

“It’s now a toll road”

President Yudof and Chancellor Birgeneau play the blame game with legislators in Sacramento to cover up their inability to manage the University’s budget. Managers who pull in six figure salaries say they have no choice but to cut the pay and hours of University workers who are already living on poverty wages. The administrative class at UC is expanding and growing, up 293% since 1992. In 2008, 21% of student fees went to pay the salaries of management. By comparison, only 8% of these fees went towards instruction. The current budget crisis is not a lack of available resources, but a crisis of priorities.

Many students raise concerns about increasing privatization of a public university, and recognize this trend coursing through the K-12 system as well. They beg poverty in a year where the University received $23 billion in endowments. Where is the money going?

The University of California is run like a multi-billion dollar corporation, with the governor-appointed Board of Regents with extensive connections to the banking, real estate, and media industries serving as chief financial decision-makers. Their goal is to eventually privatize the university system, tying tuition paid by students to loans for capital construction projects that keep the lucrative contracts flowing to their business partners. Transparency and democratic representation are desperately needed if this privatization is to be averted.

Mismanagement and outright theft is the real story behind this so-called budget crisis. Why is the football coach the highest paid employee in the UC system? Who did they think they were fooling when they awarded UC Police Chief Victoria Harrison a $2 million retirement package and then rehired her with a raise? There is no public accountability or transparency because budgetary decisions are made behind closed doors and any public comment is ignored. Public awareness occasionally generates enough shame to change policy or force tactic shift, and because the University is vaingloriously obsessed with their image, now is the time to call them out.

Occupy Everything

“Freedom for everybody! Occupy everything!” Is spelled out on the ground in green Easter eggs outside the occupation of Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley. Pride softened my throat and moistened my eyes as the most ordinary of days exploded with a vitality no one anticipated and for which everyone yearned. In the days surrounding the student walkouts of November 18, 19, and 20, occupation fever swept campuses across California. 150 students at UC Santa Cruz called for the creation of a sanctuary campus during an occupation of the administration building that lasted three days. At UC Davis 53 arrests were made during the occupation of Mrak Hall. At UC Berkeley, 43 students occupied Wheeler Hall as a crowd well over 2,000 by the end of the day surrounded the perimeter of the building, preventing police in riot gear from taking the protestors to jail. Administration officials later issued an apology for unnecessary police force used against the Wheeler demonstrators. An occupation and picket of the business school at SF State electrified the campus with revolutionary spirit and supporters blocked the streets when occupiers were evicted at gun-point by riot police.

Through this flurry of activity students learned the picket line is an education unto itself, the best way to learn the subtle intricacies of democracy where everyone is entitled to a piece of bread and we help drag each other bruised and bloodied from the barricades. To learn what it means to hold the hand of a stranger and weep with joy, shame, grief for our inheritance, tinged with cautious expectation for our telekinetic ability to electrify the world. There is a growing understanding that only by uniting in struggle with K-12 educators, middle and high-schoolers, parents and workers can provide the continuity and base of support necessary to radically transform the status quo.

This is the start of statewide grassroots movement coordinating actions cohesively to disrupt business as usual in an increasingly corporatized and repressive system. It’s an uphill fight against a system controlled by the nation’s corporate elite but one that has massive appeal to millions of working class Californians struggling with student debt, foreclosures, crumbling schools, wage cuts, unemployment, and higher costs of living. This is an issue with interest not only to students currently enrolled in school, but graduates who wish to see their children educated, and working class would-be students who could never afford private education. The forces of privatization have pushed too far and they may see themselves buried in a wave of popular uprisings as people struggle for the survival of their class, communities, children, and livelihoods.

What began as a reaction to worsening conditions is evolving into a vibrant and vociferous demand for a complete renegotiation of the way the education system is administrated. A growing macro-analysis acknowledges the relationship between massive spending on imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now potentially Yemen and the lack of money for basic services like education and housing assistance. As President Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

What has been a tremulous murmur of dissatisfaction on campuses and at meetings is building up into an explosion of student militancy as students come to realize only decisive, disruptive action will give them the leverage they need to hold the University of California accountable to its original purpose of providing affordable, quality education for all eligible students. The response to this latest round of fee hikes, furloughs, and layoffs has reflected the urgency of their livelihoods at stake. As class consciousness among the student population bubbles to the forefront of their political discourse this group of students, faculty, and workers endeavors to address issues of racial and economic injustice as integral to the dialogue on liberating the education system. Through conferences, listservs, meetings, potlucks, concerts, teach-ins, and speaking tours students are deepening their connections across the state, sharing evolving experiences and perspectives on the most strategic way forward. Many educators are committing themselves to extended general strike actions, breaking from corrupt union leadership if necessary, supported by teach-ins, volunteer kitchens, and sympathy strikes.

The student walkouts of November 18, 19, 20 at Berkeley and around the state gathered national media attention. Some hard lessons were learned about the inherently oppressive force represented by state violence. But students who feared disapproval from their parents
were surprised to hear delighted and proud responses from their parents and family members.

Maricruz is a professional organizer for AFSCME, the largest public employee and health care workers union in the United States. She’s seen many a roaring picket line, and stared down more than one profit-driven asshole at the negotiating table. Her passionate articulation of the need for organized labor to return to its militant roots has mobilized fellow workers to march against increased workloads, imposed furlough days, and layoffs.

“The last strike it was only workers, this time the students are turning out with us and you can see the numbers growing day by day, month by month. The struggle will continue to grow as long as the Regents hold onto their power and legislate pay raises for themselves. Our message is students and workers are united in making enormous changes to the university system, and we’re not going anywhere. We won’t rest till we eradicate poverty from the UC.”

Campus labor unions AFSCME and CUE paid for 1000 students from all over the state to converge on the Regents’ closed-doors vote to raise fees at UCLA. The Regents hold another meeting behind closed doors as we go to press where more layoffs and cuts are likely to come down. The coming showdown promises to be epic no matter what happens.

MARCH 4th is not just a date, it’s an imperative! It is a day when people across the state of California will participate in decentralized direct actions to shut down the public education system with teach-ins, rallies, dance parties, marches, and the creation of liberated space. Our unity of purpose will strengthen the interconnection of our struggles and send an unequivocal message to the robber baron bureaucrats that their days of thievery are numbered.

Resistance and recuperation – Tristan Anderson's struggle to thrive past and present

Tristan Anderson is a long-time Bay Area activist and photojournalist who was documenting resistance to Israel’s separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Ni’lin. The weekly demonstration against the wall was winding down when Israeli Defense Forces fired a high velocity tear gas canister at his head, critically wounding him. He was taken to Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv, where he has undergone several surgeries to reconstruct his skull. I spoke to his partner Gabby on the six month anniversary of his shooting.

Dee: When you first met him, what was your impression?

Gabby: It’s strange to think back to our old life. We met in a tree, at the top of an occupied tree at the Oak Grove Tree Sit in Berkeley. This might be uninteresting to anyone who’s not a tree sitter, but he made an impression on me early on as an excellent climber, with a very cool, very unique climbing style. And it was so interesting because he was completely comfortable free climbing, but was mistrustful of the ropes; whereas I was always very comfortable with the gear and freaked out about the free climbs (moving with no safety line). I can remember him doing this crazy ninja crap, then almost losing it over a simple traverse. I think it says a lot about him. Tristan has a way of being very capable and very confident, and then very humble and goofy at the same time.

Eventually we became partners. We had such a funny awkward start to our relationship. I had this idea that a boyfriend would just slow me down and make me co-dependent, so I was a real pain in the ass to go out with in the beginning. And Tristan was so shy, he used to say “girls are scarier than riot cops”.

D: What are his odd quirks that people find endearing?

G: Oh shit, there’s a lot of odd quirks. For one thing, Tristan at heart is an archivist. He is a collector of things–some useful, some completely strange. And he’s very interested, not just in the preservation of other people’s reclaimed junk, but also in the preservation of radical histories. He’s been very slowly writing a book about his experiences in the anti-globalization movement. The book is part travel diary, part criticism of neo-liberal economics, part riot porn. But he’s had two problems with writing the book. One: he’s too busy running around being a crazy activist to work on his book about activism, and two: that archivist nature. The writing encapsulates every tiny detail of everything that was happening at that time, so what you get is more of a time capsule than a functional story. But this is his nature. It’s highly detailed, highly researched, highly accurate- and almost impossible to read! I love it, but I’m biased.

D: What are his talents, interests, hobbies, inspirations?

G: Tristan’s parents are Back To The Landers. He grew up in a series of stone houses in the woods and he lived with no electricity until he was 12. When Tristan was about 20, he moved to the Bay Area to find other punks and have an exciting life. He’s done a lot of world travel, but he always comes back home to the Bay.

Tristan is tremendously knowledgeable about California wildlife. He builds bikes and goes to protests, he screens patches, digs in dumpsters, eats weird food, reads history books, he watches birds, takes photos, keeps archives, does complicated math in his head, swims in cold funky water, climbs trees, stuff like that. We like each other a whole lot. Tristan’s facinating to hang out with.

He’s a person who believes in putting his beliefs in line with his lifestyle, scavenging food and participating in anarchist struggle. He’s been arrested over 50 times. I remember when he came when the Berkeley Tree-sit was going to be evicted saying, “Okay, I’ll get arrested with you guys but I have to start my new career on Sunday.” We all laughed about that because we knew it was going to be ridiculously dangerous, but he managed to face a 3 day long cherrypicker assault, get arrested, get out, post all the pictures of it on Indybay (search “cricket”), get arrested again, get bailed out, run to work sweaty and exhausted, only to get scolded by his boss for being 10 minutes late. Some people would not understand his lifestyle thinking it must be difficult to plunge into a dangerous, unpredictable situation, but it he took great emotional satisfaction and pride in collective empowerment through street mobilization. He especially has a history of going up against walls, i.e. the Israeli separation barrier, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fences they built at the Oak Grove tree-sit.

D: Can you talk about some of the struggles he’s been involved in? Some of the places he’s been? Even a quick list would be great.

G: Yes. Tristan’s gone to more crazy protests than anyone I know. And beyond just the local stuff, he lived in El Salvador at the end of the war in the early 90s during the death squads, he reported for Indymedia from Iraq shortly after the invasion, he was in Oaxaca… And he made it out. It’s still hard to believe he got shot while we were just standing around, relaxing. I mean ok, we were standing around in Ni’iln, but still, we were just standing around. We were away from the main body of the crowd. No one was throwing stones. Nothing was happening.. He learned a lot at Genoa during the G8 mobilizations. He’s done a lot of Latin American solidarity work and has strong ties with El Salvador and Mexico. He said the heaviest shit was Oaxaca. His friend Brad Will was a videographer covering the teacher’s strike in Oaxaca in fall 2006. He had plans to meet up with him, but when Brad was killed he flew there right away. He said it was the most amazing thing he ever experienced in his life. The level of solidarity and revolutionary feeling he experienced in Oaxaca was unlike anywhere else. He was out against the WTO in Seattle. Ecuador, Sweden. There are Justice for Tristan posters all over the squats of Berlin. He was in England for an extended period of time. He always joked that in Germany the feminists ran the scene, while in Greece he was often told “You should not talk to girls who believe in feminism”. He was in Argentina during the bank crash. Nicaragua. He’s been heavily involved in the anti-globalization movement. Pretty much almost all of the major mobilizations from the summit-hopping heyday, he was always there. He was a fixture. He also cared deeply for nuclear disarmament, and was arrested protesting the Afghan/Iraq War. The cops got so used to arresting him for San Francisco Food Not Bombs they would stop their cars and greet him with enthusiasm.

D: I remember he would love squatter christmas, which is the time when the students leave their “trash” at the end of the semester to go home. Are there any memorable garbage finds he seemed particularly proud of?

G: Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes he attached value to the most absurd things. I remember when we first started dating, and I was checking out his room full of weird stuff, I noticed he had a whole shelf full of bubbles- children’s bubbles- that he saved because he figured he could bring them to a Reclaim the Streets type party sometime, although I never saw him actually take them anywhere. And on the shelf he had several jars marked “BAD”. So he had found these children’s bubbles in the trash, tested them, seen that several jars didn’t work, labelled them as “BAD”, and then lined them back up on the shelf! We tested them again and indeed they were BAD bubbles. Grudgingly, and I think it was only because we were a new relationship and he was still trying to impress me, he got rid of the “BAD” bubbles.

D: He’s been a committed vegan for 10 and a half years, travelling to other countries where such dietary restrictions are a little bit unreasonable. What kind of weird food has he eaten in the name of keeping veg? This could also be expanded to generally rotten nasty food he’s eaten for the sake of not letting it go to waste.

G: Tristan was born with almost no sense
of smell and therefore a greatly reduced sense of taste. I’ve seen him eat the craziest, most unreasonably rotten things, and love it. He normally keeps a special spoon in his pocket so he can scoop vile rotting things up everywhere we go and eat them. He’ll eat things out of the compost pile! Sometimes he’s not even hungry, he just considers it his solemn duty somehow.

But on travelling: One time, towards the end of the war, I think in El Salvador, he was in the mountains with the guerillas. He was watching a pot of soup being cooked for hours trying to see what they were putting in it. He was so hungry. Everyone was hungry, and what food there was he sometimes wouldn’t eat because he’s that kind of pain in the ass — I mean highly principled — vegan. So, he’s watching this pot of soup all day, and it’s almost ready and it’s perfectly vegan, and he’s licking his lips and then all of a sudden they drop a whole cow’s leg in the pot! And he says “Wait! Wait! you said no meat!” and his friend says, “What? Not meat, flavor.”

D: The people of Ni’lin and surrounding villages have suffered heavy casualties in their resistance to the separation barrier. A surprising thing I’ve noticed from videos of past demonstrations is the involvement of children in the struggle, which indicates to me the deep threat their community is facing. What are the demands of their movement? What does the Wall represent to their current way of life?

G: The Wall is an escalation of the Military Occupation which dominates every facet of life for Palestinians. To live under an occupation with no end in sight is an impossible situation. Villages that have organized to resist the wall being built through their land have been incredibly courageous. They’ve made important gains, and have also suffered a high price. The Occupation affects everyone, including children. It’s not uncommon to see young boys at the demonstrations.

D: In the time you spent in Palestine, what were the wishes of the Palestinians you met? What is their general attitude towards international activists?

G: We were here for only about a month before Tristan was shot, and our time was divided between Palestine solidarity work and hanging out with internationals and Israeli anarchists. I don’t feel qualified to speak for Palestinians, although some things are obvious. This is a struggle for national sovereignty and self-determination. There are people who will tell you that the Israel- Palestine conflict is infinitely complicated, but it’s not. They want reasonable things, like basic freedoms and control of their land and resources.

A large part of this struggle is invisibility and the general anti-Arab racism of the Western world. Internationals are very welcome. You will be fed until you can’t walk, you will marvel at the Arabic language, the beauty of the land, and you will make friends. But it’s dangerous here, so think about it hard before you decide to come.

D: As a Jew, do you see any parallels between the atrocities of the Holocaust and the situation in Palestine?

G: I see that in Israel the right wing exploits the Holocaust at every turn, and then attacks anyone on the left who tries to draw parallels between the vicious right wing militarism of the Israeli State and the right wing militarism of places like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, etc. The bottom line is that Israel does not get a free ride to human rights abuse because of Jewish suffering in World War II.

D: There seems to be a certain difference in the militarized societies of the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. fights its wars of conquest abroad and, with the help of corporate media, largely out of view of the American public, making it easy for the average person to claim ignorance, whereas the conflict in Israel is played out much closer to home. Does this geographical closeness bring it closer psychologically to the Isareli people? Or does it force them to distance themselves from it even further? Does it seem like the average person there is unaware of the plight of Palestinians, or are they aware of the atrocities and simply justify it as necessary to their national security?

G: I don’t understand Israelis. Invariably the first thing out of every Israeli’s mouth when they hear what happened to us is, “What were you doing there?” Most people here don’t know what’s happening in the Occupied Territories, but more importantly than that, they don’t want to know.

D: What is the experience of Israeli anarchists living in a highly militarized, socially conservative society?

G: It’s a difficult life for Israeli anarchists. First off, you have the draft. Every able bodied Israeli at the age of 18 (with exemptions for the ultra-orthodox) is expected to do several years of military service. The options are principled refusal (which means going to military prison), pretending to be crazy, or going along with it. Either way, this choice that they make as a teenager follows them around for the rest of their life. Those who opt out of the army have a very hard time getting jobs and are heavily stigmatized by mainstream society.

The struggle here is very high stakes. The activists I’ve known here (Palestinian, Israeli, and International) have been the most committed people I’ve ever encountered in my life.

D: When you see the weakness and debility Tristan’s injury has caused him, what do you feel? What does “Justice for Tristan!” mean to you?

G: I have been profoundly affected by this experience. I feel like shit all the time.

There will be no justice for Tristan. Our best hope is a harm reduction approach, trying to make this situation as least bad as possible. This includes access to top quality medical care for the rest of his life, accountability for those personally responsible, and errrr…ending the occupation?

D: Would he be alive right now if he were Palestinian?

G: No. We would have gone to Ramallah Hospital and he would have died, like Basem who was killed with the same high velocity tear gas canister that injured Tristan. He is missed dearly by Palestinian and Israeli peace activists alike.

D: What do the Israeli nurses think of your activism? Do you find yourself biting your tongue in the interest of ensuring adequate healthcare?

G: Some people here know who we are, others don’t. During the ICU time I was a completely traumatized lunatic and I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I was doing all kinds of creepy PTSD things. I used to think that every lazy nurse or uncaring doctor was a self-appointed agent of the state here to finish the job. They used to call security on me about once a week. Now I’m less crazy, no one’s called security on me in months.

D: How has your life been as his constant caregiver and companion? Frustrating, rewarding, both?

G: I believe that eventually life will get better than this for both of us. It’s a very difficult situation, not just because he got shot in the head, but because Tristan came to the Rehabilitation Center and got worse. Everyone else is getting better, and he’s gotten worse.

We waited a long time for a surgery to address the medical complication that was ruining our lives. He’s improved since the surgery, but has suffered other complications. Eventually, the stars will align in the correct way and we’ll be able to get on with the Rehabilitation process. But it’s been very slow going, and for better or worse, my health and well being is very interconnected with Tristan’s.

D: When did you make the decision to stay with him through the hospitalization process?

G: Of course I would stay with him.

D: What kind of support have you seen from the Israeli anarchist community?

G: We’ve gotten a lot of support not just from the Israeli anarchists, but also from their families. They cook for us, visit us, help us with translating, transportation, and countless annoying logistical things. They have been
wonderful, which is a good thing because my relatives here have completely disowned me, and our Palestinian friends can’t get across the border. Without the support and friendship of the Israeli anarchist community, we would be totally fucked.

D: There were a number of demonstrations across the U.S. and the world expressing street solidarity with Tristan in the days following his shooting. Do you feel these played a role in exerting political pressure against Israel to provide medical care?

G: The solidarity demonstrations have been very important. Tristan and I went out into the streets for Carlo Giuliana killed in Genoa and Brad Will killed in Oaxaca, and I’m glad that our community has come out for us. There may come a time when we need to start the demonstrations again. Please support us if we call.

D: What kind of medical support is he going to need long-term?

G: Fuck if I know. But whatever it is, it’s going to be expensive.

D: What are the best ways for someone Stateside to support him?

G: The most important thing is to mobilize for justice and continue the Struggle. In smaller ways, we try to keep Tristan company here and surround him with comfortable, familiar things. Writing letters or sending photos, posters, art or music that he might recognize or enjoy helps keep Tristan tethered to his old life and his old self. It’s important in that way, and also it helps to improve our quality of life here and keep things interesting. (The best kinds of letters are not of the “sorry this terrible atrocity happened to you, free Palestine!” sort, but are personal anecdotes that are interesting or funny. We have quite a lot of freedom about what art to put on the walls of his hospital room and what music to play, but we try to keep his room a space free of police violence or allusions to police violence. And we can’t afford to alienate anyone who works here with free Palestine propaganda.

Of course there’s also the money thing. Money helps, benefit shows help and it’ll make a big difference to us, but we’d rather have you out in the streets.

Letters, photos, stories, and bad jokes about Ronald Reagan can be sent to Tristan Anderson c/o

Jonathan Pollak

10 Elazar St.

Tel Aviv, 65157 Israel