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Street Spirit and the Homeless Human Rights Movement

Street Spirit

Movement Making Media
Street Spirit and the Homeless Human Rights Movement

An interview with Terry Messman by Jess Clarke

Terry Messman has been organizing for peace and social justice since the late 1970s when was arrested at a civil disobedience protest in Montana. For the past 25 years he has worked for human rights for homeless people, organizing direct actions and legislative change, and editing and producing one of the longest-lived poverty rights publications in the United States.

Jess Clarke: Big picture, when and why did you found Street Spirit?

Terry Messman: We put out the first issue in March of 1995. It’s one of the most long-lived media of any kind to document the history of poverty, homelessness and economic injustice. I’d been an activist for many years on homeless issues in Oakland and Berkeley doing housing takeovers, mobilizing homeless people to demonstrate at welfare offices, and other human rights struggles for their rights. We got a lot of positive media attention but I was more and more concerned that the corporate media was completely denigrating poor and homeless people. It was kind of a form of character assassination in the news columns, and we got really fed up with that. I became the editor and Sally Hindman organized the first team of homeless vendors who sell Street Spirit on the street.

Clarke: At that time, Street Sheet was being distributed out of San Francisco. Why did you think another street paper was necessary for the Bay Area?

Messman: Because they were focused on San Francisco and I was based in the East Bay. We wanted to cover issues in Oakland, Berkeley and further inland in Contra Costa County—Concord and Richmond. We felt those issues were vital and we knew them best. So Street Spirit was formed to cover those issues. The Coalition on Homelessness was really glad we were doing that because there hadn’t been a paper here. Even though it’s a very different newspaper, we followed the model of the Coalition on Homelessness. I think it’s the best model in the country for three reasons: (1) It’s hard-hitting advocacy journalism that never apologize for being on the side of homeless and poor people; (2) We accept no advertising because it can really distort editorial freedom and independence; and (3) We give it for free to homeless vendors, unlike virtually all of the homeless newspapers in this country and in Europe which charge their vendors.

Street Sheet in San Francisco and Street Spirit in the East Bay have always been given for free to our vendors. So when people buy them, they know the homeless person is getting all of the money. It’s like economic redistribution from the middle class commuters to the homeless people and no nonprofit gets a cent from it. We want everyone who buys [the paper] to have a one-on-one encounter with a homeless person, hoping it’ll begin to erode this terrible division in American society between homeless people and the general public.

It’s also modeled on the early days when a revolution was brewing in America and Thomas Paine distributed revolutionary pamphlets through street vendors on street corners to get the word out that we needed a revolution against England. Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense and all those other great writings were distributed that way. That’s important for us because we want to get out of the corporate chokehold on publishing. If you publish a normal magazine or newspaper you’re dealing with corporate advertisers, corporate media and corporate stores that sell these things. And we just want nothing to do with any of that. That’s always been our vision.

Clarke: I think one of the things people can come to appreciate is that this is a subversive form of journalism that actually has a real deep political intent. Can you talk about some of the other historical antecedents?

Messman: Well, there is a long and really beautiful history of advocacy journalism and radical social justice journalism in this country. I went to a very good journalism school for four years and we never heard about it. Today, the only form of journalism [taught] is so-called objective journalism where the reporter pretends to not have a conscience, and that’s ridiculous. Every reporter has a point of view and a conscience but they’re not supposed to. Basically, there’s a corporate bias in all newspapers today. They don’t attack very hard the Wall Street system and the bankers and the Pentagon and the White House. They’re part of that system. That is their bias, but they don’t acknowledge it.

To do advocacy journalism in this country, the first thing they’ll say is, “That’s not legitimate because you’re not objective.” And no, we’re not. We’re on the side of poor and homeless people. We see a great injustice being done. We see historic levels of violations of human rights that would not be tolerated for any other minority. Those human rights violations are being unleashed on homeless people and the mainstream media just doesn’t get it. So our advocacy journalism is important and, as you said, it has long roots. I look back at Thomas Paine and his pamphlets and Common Sense as a great inspiration. An even greater inspiration for me has been William Lloyd Garrison and his fiery abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. He attacked the system of slavery in his news columns in such a profound way that there were often riots of proslavery forces when he spoke. They often laid siege to Garrison and the other abolitionist reporters and attacked them physically because they saw how powerful these kinds of advocacy newspapers were.

Another great example from that same era is Ida B. Wells, who was a crusading African American writer and editor who published an expose of lynching in the South and went around the country denouncing lynching. She too was attacked and had to find the courage to keep telling people that lynching was a massive crime and had to be ended and the way to end it was to give a voice to its victims. I really take that to heart today. The way to end human rights violations against homeless people is to give a voice to its victims.

In the 20th century, there are all these beautiful models of advocacy journalism, these wonderful writers who took on Standard Oil, who took on American big business. Exposes in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair of the meatpacking industry created reforms. In England, Charles Dickens was an advocacy journalist through his novels. He got untold reforms of child labor laws and workhouse abuses through his work. In this country, during the Civil Rights Era, there were wonderful crusading advocacy journalists that risked everything to tell the truth. In my generation, the anti-war movement of the 1960s had an incredible array of underground newspapers in dozens of cities all over the country that were a mouthpiece for the counter-culture. They denounced the war machine of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, spoke out for civil rights, spoke out for human liberation.

When those underground newspapers were silenced a really terrible thing happened. About the only legacy of the underground newspapers are these weekly papers that are basically doing a lot of yuppie reporting on gourmet restaurants and books and things and have a lot of advertising and a little bit of political reporting. I’m not going to name their names.

Clarke: With the upsurge of activism in the past several years, young African Americans and young people in general who have become more politically conscious are ready to receive alternative information in new ways. What are the issues and the continuing coverage that you’ll bring to this new millennial audience, to the Black Lives Matter audience, to the engaged, young, uninformed, and really passionate activists who are coming of age?

Messman: That’s been a remarkable development. Who would’ve predicted that? Everyone thought that young people were apolitical and were buying into the consumer society. Instead, beginning with the Occupy movement, continuing to the Black Lives movement, all the movements that have risen up against police brutality and police murders, all these things are incredibly heartening examples of the human spirit. They show us that organizing is never defeated. It never, ever will stop. As long as there are human beings there will be human rights movements. That’s what I love about it. In terms of Street Spirit, our job is not to be an all-purpose movement paper. Our job is to do what seemingly no one else in society wants to do, which is to stay covering poverty, homelessness and disability rights. Even movement people generally ignore those issues.

Still, there are many connections, as you say, between Black Lives Matter, the anti-police abuse movements and the Occupy movement. When the Occupy movement began we did article after article covering that in a positive way virtually every month. We interviewed people about Occupy and what kinds of nonviolent strategizing might enhance its ability to affect the powers-that-be. I went on the Occupy marches and was just amazed and overjoyed, even though there wasn’t a great sense of strategy. There was a great sense of vital, anti-corporate, economic rights kind of organizing from very young people. It was wonderful, so we gave it a lot of coverage. The same with the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are constantly covering the criminalization of poverty, the way that poor people are turned into criminals. Many of the same patterns in law enforcement that turn African Americans into criminals and treat them as criminals also are in play against poor people to treat them as criminals. So we speak out against that kind of political repression. We’ve covered many demonstrations. In the current issue we have a long, great article by Carol Denning, who covers the police review commission hearings in Berkeley that look at why the police erupted in fury against the Black Lives Matter demonstration in December of 2014. We’ve covered that over and over.

So, in those areas where the criminalization of poverty meets the criminalization of other people in society, Street Spirit covers the issues. The other thing we’ve done that I think is most important is, we have tried to resurrect the incredible wisdom, courage and visionary brilliance of the Civil Rights movement by reminding this new generation of how great that organizing was and how much it can teach us today, through a series of interviews.

Clarke: What are some movement-building possibilities you want to cultivate and bring to light using the newspaper and the other media you’re building?

Messman: We try to build connections with tenant movements because there are millions of tenants that face eviction, poor living circumstances and skyrocketing rents. Many of those tenants become homeless people. We’ve always tried to build connections with people fighting for the rights of those on Welfare, people fighting for living wages and being screwed over by the corporate powers that will not pay a livable wage. We’ve also made common cause with people who have a vision of economic justice, like Reverend Phil Lawson, who’s always worked on these larger issues of economic justice. When the Occupy movement came along, there was an incredibly heartening uprising of young people. I always used to say, “If you go to an Occupy march, read the signs that these young people have created.” It’s a primer on economic justice. It’s a primer against the banks, the corporate powers and Wall Street. It’s like a class on economic justice in America just to read their signs.

All these middle class activists could make common cause with homeless people. I thought that was going to happen when Occupy hit the streets, but it still has not happened to this day. Someday it will happen. Someday there will be a movement—I predict—where the tenants will join with the homeless people. Those evicted will join those about to be evicted. They’ll join the low-wage workers and all these idealistic young people that care about human rights, and there will be a movement. That will be the movement that I’m waiting for.

That’s the movement Martin Luther King tried to organize in 1968. And what baffles me endlessly is why people don’t want to resurrect the poor people’s movement that King did. Everybody gives lip service to what a great leader he was. He was more than that. He was a brilliant strategist, him and his whole team. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were brilliant organizers, and King’s last message—his last prophetic message—was a blueprint for social change.

He said we have to fight racism, and militarism, and poverty all at once. And where it begins is a poor people’s campaign that also peace activists, labor union activists and religious activists join and together force a movement for economic justice. Then we’ll see social change. People think King was a prophet. Why don’t they look at what the prophet was doing when the prophet was assassinated on April 4, 1968? He was building up to the poor people’s encampment in Washington, DC. The only echo of that beautiful legacy I have seen in my lifetime is in all the homeless sleep-outs and protests and housing takeovers that I’ve witnessed.

Clarke: Like Resurrection City—that happened after King was shot.

Messman: You’re right. After King was gunned down people were broken-hearted and despairing, and yet they carried out Resurrection City anyway with 50,000 people in Washington, DC. Many positive strives forward for hungry people were made in Resurrection City. It also helped kick-start a welfare rights campaign. But King’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination right afterwards tore the heart out of people, but we should’ve recovered by now. There should be a resurrection of Resurrection City because it was King’s last best dream. He was right, people.

If you want to do the right thing in America, look at Martin Luther King right before his assassination and ask what he was doing. He was in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN and he was building a poor people’s movement in Washington, DC. Those are the things that need to be resurrected.

Jess Clarke is project director/editor of Reimagine! and a web producer at Street Spirit. This is an edited excerpt of a podcast interview available at