TBI: My post to Jason

Anitra Freeman (anitra@speakeasy.org)
Fri, 20 Feb 1998 08:05:11 -0800 (PST)


The initial post of this to HPN bounced, because it was a reply-to a post
by Robert Norse and the cc list was a yard long.  I'm trying to make it a
practice from this point forward to post individual copies to the
listservs.

I hope getting the posts slightly out-of-sequence doesn't prove very
confusing to anyone who is trying to follow this discussion.

---

Jason, I think your post makes clearer the concerns of those who feel that
Jennafer is being put in an unfair position, and I appreciate your
contribution.

I can see that the picture of "large, well-funded paper with advertising
revenue" v.s. "small activist paper operating on one shoestring and half a
bootstrap" looks like Goliath looming over David.  And I appreciate the
point that those who are not earning an appreciable revenue from their
publication feel freer to speak out.  I have compared the freedom of
opinion I have as a volunteer writer and general-laborer, with the
comparative restraint shown by those earning a salary, and felt that I was
better off even at the times I live on donated bagles.

But I still feel that the picture you draw is slightly distorted, as if you
were asking, "If parents can get professionally produced music cd's, will
they stop going to their children's school performances?"  And in another
part of your argument, "Because some service agencies -- and individual
staff members of those agencies -- neglect and even abuse the true
interests of the poor, we must shut them all down immediately."  Or, "Some
families are abusive -- abolish the nuclear family."

The Big Issue and Making Change *are* doing two entirely different things.
There are going to be vendors who will want to sell The Big Issue, and
readers who want to buy it, because they like what The Big Issue is doing.
There are going to be vendors who want to sell Making Change, and readers
who want to buy it, because they like what Making Change is doing.  And to
some extent those groups will even overlap.

I have been asked if I would be as calm if a big corporate production
looked like it was going to swamp a project I was involved in.  In many
cases frankly, my dear, I wouldn't give a damn.  I usually pay attention to
what I am doing, and very little attention to "competition".  I have put on
events on what turned out to be the same night as a major basketball game,
severely cutting into the attendance at my event.  Those of us who
attended, however, had a great event.  I have put on event and had it turn
out that I was in competition with a reading by a major author that I
actually would have liked to go to myself.  Ah, well - none of us can do
everything and go everywhere; neither can we please everybody and have
everybody come to our own event.

We have a self-managed shelter system in Seattle, run on one shoestring and
half a bootstrap by the volunteer labor of the people who benefit from the
program.  There are other, service-agency-provided shelters, administered
by bureaucracies with much higher budgets and much lower degree of
self-determination for the residents.  Our self-managed shelter system has
to struggle for its tiny amount of funding all over again, every year, in
competition with the agency-run shelters that get much more funding much
more easily because they are run in what the funders perceive to be a
"professional" manner.

Some people in need of shelter choose to go to the agency-run shelters
instead of to the self-managed ones.  Their reasons vary from a perception
of being safer in a shelter with staff on duty; a desire to be "taken care
of"; a desire to just get on with getting a job and other personal
activities and "not wanting to be bothered with" shelter meetings and
shelter maintenance; disagreement with our politics; a distrust of other
homeless people, not willing to identify with them, trusting employed staff
as representatives of a world they have unaccountably slipped out of and
are desperately tring to rejoin; knowing someone at a staffed shelter, and
not knowing anyone at a SHARE shelter; location; and many other reasons.

We continue to run our self-managed system, and we continue to grow  --
without demanding that the Downtown Emergency Service Center be shut down,
because it threatens our own survival.  We wouldn't even oppose the
creation of a new service-agency shelter, because more people need to be
brought inside than any of us have room for -- and because we serve,
really, the most self-motivated and active segment of the homeless
population, and we cannot help some of the population that the
service-agency shelters can.

To me, this is a fair parallel to the situation of The Big Issue and Making
Change operating in the same area -- and possibly a model for how the
relationship could work out.

While SHARE and the Downtown Emergency Service Center, as an example, have
occasionally competed for the same resources and had sharp criticisms of
each other's shelter administration, we also perceive ourselves as being on
the same side in a city that wants all of the homeless to just shut up and
go away.  We are unwilling to let any disagreements with each other get to
the point of damaging the advancement of the poor and homeless in general,
and we have actively cooperated on joint projects.  We each have adopted a
different square inch of the puzzle to solve, but we also help call each
other to account and keep each other "on our toes."

In the matter of my accusing Jennafer and others in this discussion of
being loud, abrasive, extremist and even childish: on the one hand, I have
admitted myself to having violated my own principles of dialogue and
indulged in some of the personality-attacking and name-calling I was
criticizing in others.  I have apologized and I am attempting to improve my
own behavior.

On the other hand, I do still believe that it is irresponsible and
dangerous for anyone to claim "I have the right to be abrasive, say
whatever I please, and disrespect the other side as much as I want to,
because My Cause Is Just."  What roused my emotions and drew my fire was a
consistent pattern of vilifying Tim Harris and anybody who defended The Big
Issue or even advised patience in dealing with them as corporate lackeys
and betrayers of the poor, without any redeeming social conscience
whatsoever.  Robert Norse and Terry Messner have both implied that anyone
who does not absolutely demand immediate withdrawal of the Big issue from
North America is somehow hoping to make money off of their opening up shop
here.  And I notice that when they and Jennafer talk like this, make angry
accusations and throw insults around, that it is "passion", "idealism",
"righteous indignation" and "understandable, considering our survival being
threatened, and everything we've gon through."  But when Virginia Sellner,
or I, or anyone else who disagrees with them grows angry and gets
sarcastic, it is "vindictiveness", "hysteria", or "defensiveness".  With no
reflection of the idea that we may see a threat to the best interests of
the homeless and the things that will benefit them, and be reacting to that
ourselves -- or to any other possible explanation for the pot suddenly
boiling over.

As I have said in another context, and will repeat in the future in many
contexts, *any* time we demonize those who disagree with us we are
betraying the principles of social justice that we profess.  It may be more
difficult to stay calm and treat others with consideration the closer a
situation is to our home and our bones.  But I have sat with my friends
from our shelter group and faced 200 screaming yuppies attempting to stop
our shelter opening.  If they had succeeded in their challenge we would
have been out of shelter, in the middle of winter, because our current
shelter space was closing and we *had* to move, *now*.  But everyone there
representing the shelter remained calm and gave thoughtful answers to all
questions.  We swung the crowd, and our new shelter space opened on
schedule.

It would have greatly relieved my emotions to have yelled back at the woman
who was screaming into my face "Prove to me you aren't going to molest my
daughter!  Prove it!" with something like "Prove to me that you're sane!
Prove it!"  I think I would have been morally justified.  I also believe
that I would have been betraying my principles and my cause.

We all have to practice a lot of self-care and self-nurturing to stay
anything like remotely sane under the combined pressures of poverty and
activism and living in the country that made dysfunctional famous.  Staying
calm in the heat of debate is not, for me, a passive act.  I do a lot of
venting and a lot of self-examination behind the scenes, including a
lifelong process of finding my own buttons and dismantling them.  And as
you have all seen, I ain't anywhere near done.  I am not saying, "Look at
me, I Who Am Perfect, and model thyselves unto."  I am saying don't try to
tell me Jennafer is justifed in lashing out at others "like an abandoned
dog" and I'm not.  I am saying that we should both be held to a standard of
behavior that includes respect and consideration for all parties in a
discussion, that it *is* humanly possible, and that *any* excuses are
betraying the principles that Food Not Bombs, and other social activist
groups, profess.

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Write On!
-- Anitra