The Power of Activist Journalism

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This story originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.

Stories
are central to our existential job description: making sense of both the world
and ourselves. From creation myths to scientific explanations, from political
ideologies to the quirky narratives that knead our own amorphous lives into
some kind of distinctive shape, stories are essential — not only because they
nudge the disconnected bits of reality we face moment to moment into a
plausible and graspable form, but because they go to the heart of our identity
and purpose.

This
goes for navigating our lives. But it also goes for changing the world.

When
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that life poses two fundamental questions —What
are we willing to live for? What are we willing to die for? —
he presupposes
a story that makes these questions intelligible. For Dr. King, this story
centered on a harrowing and improbable expedition to what he doggedly called
the Beloved Community, a world where all human beings will one day sit at the
same table, live together in The World House, and make good on the hunch that
the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. This story does not come
with a warranty or scientific proof. Instead its truthfulness depends on how
far we’re willing to go to embellish and inhabit it. This story’s power flows,
not from its lyrical metaphors, but from its ongoing, risky embodiment.

The monumental challenges we face
today — poverty and economic inequality, climate change, military intervention
and surveillance, unjust immigration policies, handgun violence, white
privilege and many others — resist transformation for many reasons, including
the stubbornly enduring frames that keep them in place. The monumental change
we need will hinge on a new way of looking at the world, and this in turn will
be spurred on by powerful stories that bring that new worldview alive.

Violence
draws life from the endless stories that push its power. But things can work
the other way too. Stories of the nonviolent option can unexpectedly seep into
our right brain, disturb the certitude of the violence operating system, and
open breathing space. We are living in a time when, despite the tsunami of
violence, we are hearing these counter-narratives more frequently. Part of the
reason for this is that there is more nonviolent action than ever. But another
is that we are on the lookout for these stories more than ever. When we put on
the nonviolence eyewear and start poking around — as this site does — we start
to see the power of nonviolent change everywhere.

One
of our most powerful alternative storytellers is Terry Messman. Messman is the
editor of Street Spirit, a
monthly newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee that is
sold by 100 homeless vendors on the streets of Oakland, Calif. Reporting from
“the shelters, back alleys, soup kitchen lines and slum hotels where mainstream
reporters rarely or never visit,” the newspaper runs stories on homelessness,
poverty, economic inequality and the daily grind of human rights violations
that poor people face. But Street Spirit doesn’t simply deliver the grim
news of poverty. It also chronicles and raises the visibility of the movement
that is dramatically working for human and civil rights, challenging
inequality, and demanding — and winning — change. This month’s issue, for example, features stories
on the challenges and successes of the local anti-foreclosure
movement
, a campaign countering the erosion of the human
rights
of homeless people and on affordable
housing
for the growing senior population. Month after month for the last
17 years Street Spirit has been getting the story out on the reality of
the structural violence and consequences of poverty, but also on campaigns that
are challenging this reality.

Increasingly
Street Spirit has highlighted the tools of powerful and audacious
nonviolent movement-building, with extensive coverage of the Occupy movement
and interviews with Erica
Chenoweth
(on the ground-breaking research that she and Maria Stephan
published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works demonstrating that
nonviolent strategies are twice as likely to succeed than violent ones) and
with nonviolent action campaigner and scholar George
Lakey
. Last month the newspaper profiled the Positive
Peace Warrior Network
and one of its key trainers, Kazu
Haga
, who was trained by Bernard Lafayette and is organizing a growing
community of activists grounded in Kingian nonviolence. (Haga’s essay, “MLK’s
final marching orders,”
was published this week by Waging Nonviolence.)

By
documenting injustice and building the capacity of the movement for justice, Street
Spirit
not only spurs nonviolent action but also has become a form of
action itself. Its reporting was instrumental in shutting
down the East Bay
Hospital in Richmond, Calif.,
which was a dumping ground for homeless, poor and severely disabled people by
nine counties in the region and was responsible for widespread violations of
low-income psychiatric patients.

Terry
Messman has long integrated telling the story of nonviolent action with action
itself. In the late 1970s he was a reporter in Montana sent out to cover a civil
disobedience action at a U.S. Air Force base. A lone Lutheran minister had
crossed the line at the base and was sitting in the driveway, awaiting arrest.
Messman was so moved by this solitary witness that he dropped his reporter’s
notebook and sat down next to him. He netted six months in federal prison for
this action.

Not
long after this I met Terry. He was leading nonviolence training at the
Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley,
where both of us were then studying. He and several other workshop facilitators
were preparing a group to risk arrest at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, a nearby facility that had designed 50 percent of the U.S. nuclear
arsenal. I was immediately struck by his vision of the power of nonviolence,
especially his stress on it being active, audacious, challenging and dramatic.
Struck by the picture he painted that morning, I shook off my hesitations about
engaging in civil disobedience and took part in the action at the lab, which
netted 30 of us a week in the county jail. For the next two years I essentially
put my studies on the shelf and took action with Terry and the action group he
had helped form named “Spirit Affinity Group” and, in effect, enrolled in
Nonviolence 101 with Terry as teacher. Terry vividly and actively shared with
me, and others, the story of nonviolent change, rooted in the vision of Gandhi,
Dr. King, Dorothy Day and a rebellious, law-breaking Jesus, whom the theologian
and activist John Dear would later characterize as a “one-person crime wave.”
But Terry’s story of the power of nonviolent transformation was rooted not only
in studying history but also in a series of actions he had taken throughout the
western United States.
This story — reinforced by the string of nonviolent actions that we organized
and participated in together — was gradually changing me.

After
years of anti-nuclear activism, Terry brought this spirit to his work
challenging poverty and homelessness in Oakland
in the late 1980s. He and others formed the Union of the Homeless that launched
an action campaign that included occupying — and winning — an unused federal
building and occupying a series of homes that the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development had repossessed and was essentially turning over to real
estate speculators. They won these homes for poor and homeless families,
including a house that Terry and members of the movement (including myself)
occupied overnight one time. (I will never forget a large Oakland police officer at 4 a.m. kicking open
the room I was sleeping in and dragging me off with the others to jail.)

Through
it all, Terry was telling the story. Two decades ago I interviewed Terry and
his colleagues about their campaign, which by then had mobilized government
support to build housing, a childcare center with a Head Start program and a
multi-service center supporting homeless people, all run by a nonprofit
organization whose board was predominantly homeless people. In one of the
interviews Terry said, “We did a four-year series of nonviolent direct actions.
And all we did in the early years was say, ‘We’re going to go to jail for two
or three years, and then we’re going to have housing.’ Which was a totally
magical prescription that we just said… And it was really something, that power
of belief. We just kept saying that all over the community.”

This
story — this magical prescription — was key to driving the dramatic actions
that created change. Now, all these years later, Terry is still at it as he
continues to call out the myriad of ways homeless people are dehumanized and
excluded, but also continues to report in a detailed and thoughtful way the
stories of the movement that is challenging this dehumanization and exclusion.
While Street Spirit is Oakland-based, all of us everywhere can all draw
new life every month from this
powerful platform that’s getting the story out for justice and nonviolent
transformation.

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