Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mark Andersen interview (from 2001, still very good)


A Conversation with DC Based Humanitarian Activist & Punk Author Mark Andersen

By Sujewa Ekanayake

[from 2001, re-posted here as a part of the Humanitarian Activism Blog-A-Thon project]

On a warm, sunny July afternoon in 2001, I visited the Washington, DC based humanitarian activist, punk and author Mark Andersen (and his cat Demo) in order to learn more about Mark’s activist work. Mark is a founding member of the punk activist collective Positive Force. He has also worked for the Washington Peace Center and has volunteered with Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). At the time of this interview he was doing outreach work for the Emmaus Services for the Aging, helping to bring about an artist/activist center called the Flemming Center and was a recently published author. Mark’s book "Dance Of Days: Two Decades Of Punk In The Nation’s Capital" (co-authored by Mark Jenkins) was published by Soft Skull Press in early 2001. The following conversation touches on many diverse topics and outlines how a kid from rural Montana came to devote his life to punk rock and to helping others.

Sujewa
How did you get interested in activism? And can you define what activism is?

Mark
For me activism is turning rhetoric into action. If you say you believe in something then it doesn’t matter a whole lot if you are not living that way. There’s a great song called "Modern Times" by New Model Army, which I think in its own way speaks very well about what activism is and what punk might be about. The song modern times is basically kind an autopsy of the punk movement, kind of a requiem, looking back and seeing what was accomplished, what failed and where are we now and it ends with three very simple lines, simple but I think very profound:

" It matters not what you believe in,
It matters less what you say,
It matters what you are."
And an activist is somebody who has ideas of compassion, and creativity and justice and resistance and love in action. For me, the whole thing started, it’s actually really funny, I had a conversation with a friend of mine and he has this wonderful line where he says "you know you start out young with a big mouth, and then you open your mouth and your mouth writes out a check your ass can’t cash," (laugher) he says, and so you kind of screw up, you see things that are wrong and you talk about it, and then if you don’t do anything you kind of make a mockery of what you said and so what he said was that when that happens and it inevitably happens to anybody who is young and idealistic, you have to rise to the occasion, you have to do what you are talking about, in some way you have to be in action and that can be a bunch of different ways. For me the way it was is that I grew up in North Eastern Montana on a farm in a very conservative kind of narrow culture...

Sujewa
In the late sixties?

Mark
Yeah, late sixties and into, I was born in ‘59 so I guess I am ten years old in ‘69 and I am going to be twenty in ‘79, so around 1975 I guess I heard this woman named Patti Smith and I had already been listening to some of the ‘60’s artists who were really big: The Doors, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, Melanie, Hendrix, Joplin, folks like that, and I kind of picked up on their idealism and the passion that was in there, but it was kind of history that I was listening to. Wasn’t what was happening in my life. Patti Smith, and not that long afterwards the Sex Pistols, from a new angle, brought that same kind of passion and idealism to bear in a way that was relevant to me and so these different influences exposed me to a radical critique of American society. Well not even just American society, the world society, like looking at the gap between the rich and the poor, looking at the ways that people were being channeled into kind of the corporate, consumer, conformist culture and they were basically generating a psychic rebellion, at the very least, something spiritual or psychic rebellion against that culture. And I bought into that. It made sense to me in a way that nothing else made sense. For a long time my real friends and community were these little collection of punk records and magazines and whatever.

Sujewa
In Montana?

Mark
In Montana, yeah, the very rural part of Montana. Now I did go away to college.

Sujewa
before you go so far from that point, was there a religious background that pointed you in the activist direction?

Mark
It’s an interesting question, because at the time I saw, I was raised in the Christian religion, I saw it as a part of the problem. I didn’t see it as a part of the critique. Although it is interesting, because as time went on I began to see that the ideas of Jesus were revolutionary and actually offered up much of the same critique. But at the time I didn’t see it, I just saw the institutional church as it existed as largely a repressive force.

Sujewa
So at the time you weren’t a religious kid?

Mark
Oh, I was absolutely religious but part of the punk thing was my escape from it because I experienced it as a repressive thing. Now years later I come back and I can see that actually a lot of the values that led to activism were formed by my encounter with the revolutionary ideals both of Christianity and of this country. Because of course this country was born out of a revolution and even though we often forget this, those ideas are there and they still carry a power and a meaning. But I couldn’t access that power and meaning until I kind of created my own identity and had a place of my own from which to look towards them and then to be able to say "Oh, I can distinguish what’s real and beautiful about this tradition from the stuff that has been dumped on top of it." I felt very much like I was being buried alive, so for me a chance to go to college which not everyone from where I grew up would have, definitely was kind of the ticket out but what happened is that I was in that phase then of you know, running off at the mouth (laughter) and I actually was very much of a hermit, very withdrawn. I was a pretty good student, a pretty lazy student, but a pretty good one. Didn’t have much of a direction or much of an identity other then I knew I didn’t want to be these things that society was telling me that I should be. So I ended up doing my first public speaking actually as a result of punk. I gave a talk at one class at college about the ideology of punk rock/new wave music. And that was really the point when the things I was saying started to expand beyond just talking with friends, most of whom didn’t agree with me. Now all of a sudden, I was speaking in a way that was very public."

Sujewa
Early punk wasn’t necessarily about activism, it was about kids being rebellious, not necessarily directed towards re-structuring society, right?

Mark
Well, it depends on what you mean by activism because there were always activists in punk. But punk today is not necessarily even about activism. I mean there are different communities and different takes on it.

Sujewa
What about like the Sex Pistols and all those people back then?

Mark
The Sex Pistols had a very powerful, radical critique in their lyrics. Patti Smith certainly had a very radical critique and actually Patti Smith in a lot of ways is a child of the sixties. She’s kind of the bridge between the sixties folks and the eighties folks if you will. So I do think it is fair to say that it was not always front and center, the connection of punk to activism. For me it became the logical way to express it initially partially because there wasn’t any social grouping there. It was really these records and the ideals that were there and and so once I was talking about the ideals how could I not start try to live them? And so what actually happened is that I was wrestling with this distance between what I was saying and what I was doing, you know talking all this revolutionary stuff but basically hiding out in my room and reading books.

Sujewa
Right.

Mark
And I was on my way to class one day and lo and behold the janitors were picketing the administration building at Montana State University where I went to...

Sujewa
This is in the 70’s?

Mark
This is in 1980, the spring of 1980.

Sujewa
Got it.

Mark
And my dad had been in a union, a farmer’s union, one of the few things he took time out of his work to do, that and church basically. And I don’t know, I just stopped and I read what their demands were and it seemed really righteous and I had been talking all this stuff and so I felt like well I gotta do something or I am just as much a fraud as people I am critiquing, so I picked up a sign and walked with them on the picket line. Then I got involved with a group of students to support the strikers group and at the time I was kind of distressed that I did not have as much time by myself with books and junk food in my room and I was just like "well you know I’ll just do this until the strike is over and then I can go back to the way things were", you know, as life would have it, activism is kind of something that becomes a way of life, you can’t just walk away from it, that’s not in my experience because the music opened the door to this whole other world, every step I took further into that world there were more doors and windows opening and I never really looked back, and that’s over 21 years ago.

Sujewa
Not being able to walk away is probably like art or religion. People I know are into both of them and it fills up all their time and they just can’t clock out.

Mark
Well you see, to me all those things are ultimately connected because in one sense I am an activist, maybe that is the main definition but I also would consider myself an artist and I am certainly very interested in the spiritual life. One of my basic beliefs is that you can’t separate the personal and the political and the spiritual and if those are really happening they’re going to be intermingling in your life and so the things that you believe spiritually or the art that you do inevitably is going to have to reflect the political and social concerns that you have or its not going to be real and that for me is the ultimate basis of my search as a punk or an activist. It’s towards what’s real, towards what is true. Towards these big lofty words which of course are very amorphous but it’s kind of like what the Supreme Court once said about pornography. Well, what is injustice? Well, they said what is pornography? And the guy said I know it when I see it. Well, what is injustice? Well, I know it when I see it, you know (laughter), unfortunately you don’t have to look far.

Sujewa
Right, once you are tuned in.

Mark
Yeah, exactly. And that’s a good way to put it, because the art helps you to tune in, the spiritual stuff helps you to tune in, whatever work you do in your personal life helps you to tune in, and then you are just aware of the immense suffering and injustice in the world and the deal for me is that if it weren’t for the fact that I felt that I was somehow a part of the solution, and that was something that I got out of the 60’s, straight out of an MC5 record actually, are you a part of the problem or are you a part of the solution? That’s kind of simplistic and sometimes it’s hard to tell but I think it is a really important tool for us to think about and we should always be trying to be a part of the solution though inevitably to some degree we are also going to be a part of the problem.

Sujewa
How did you end up in Washington, DC?

Mark
You see, this is the cool thing for me is that a lot of my life before punk and even the early part of punk was about hiding out and kind of trying to find the easy way, avoiding challenges, and I wasn’t very happy (laughter). It just wasn’t a lot of fun, and so it’s funny then when I found purpose and kind of things that seemed important to do, I worked my ass off, but then I was a whole lot happier then before when I was in the pursuit of creative laziness. And so one thing led to another and I became kind of tagged as the 60’s throwback even though in some ways I consider that an insult because of course I was punk rock, that’s not about the 60’s, and secondly also because you know it made it easier to people to try to dismiss me like "oh, he wishes he had been there in ‘68" or like "you’re nostalgic." I wasn’t nostalgic for the struggle they had then, there were plenty of struggles in 1980 to deal with, there are plenty of struggles in 1985, there are plenty of struggles in 1991, there are plenty of struggles now here in 2001

Sujewa
Absolutely.

Mark
And it’s not about me wishing to be there back then, it’s about me being here right now and feeling like, as a human being, I have a responsibility or as an artist I have a responsibility or as someone who is trying to live a spiritual life I have a responsibility. So basically what happened was that when my life found a sense of purpose and I started taking classes not because they were going to be easy but because I was actually interested in them, even though I was more challenged, I rose to the occasion, I did really well in school even as I was doing all the activism stuff and it’s kind of counterintuitive ‘cause you think you take all this time for activism and it’ll take time away from school, not for me, because all of the sudden I found a reason to be.

Sujewa
All those things were connected and you had to excel in them.

Mark
Yeah, exactly, and it didn’t even feel like work, it just felt like, love. Really, I mean just like when you are in love. Why do you do all these things? Why do you go through so much agony? Well, you know it’s worth it.

Sujewa
It feels good.

Mark
Well, it doesn’t always feel good, but you know it’s worth it. That’s the thing. That’s how it was with me and I ended up having a very high GPA and I did really well on my GRE’s and then came to this point where, "well now I am done with undergrad, what next?" I had a bachelor’s in political science and history, not immediate job prospects leaping up around that, especially for someone who is as idealistic as I, so, what’s the answer? well, more school (laughs), and so I came out here to go to grad school.

Sujewa
When was this, ‘84?

Mark
‘84, yeah.

Sujewa
And you knew about the DC punk scene?

Mark
I knew some about the DC scene.

Sujewa
But you weren’t connected personally with it?

Mark
No, I wasn’t connected to them personally and to be quiet honest, it wasn’t in the top 3 of the reasons why I came to DC.

Sujewa
So at that time people who eventually became really important people in the DC punk rock scene were really young kids, compared to you.

Mark
Some of them were, some of them were more or less peers, I mean people like Henry Rollins, of course Henry wasn’t here at that time. Or Ian Mackaye, a couple of years younger then myself, but not much. I was old enough in punk rock terms. I was kind of in a different generation but that was one of the things that was actually kind of beautiful. I came here to this school.

Sujewa
Where did you go?

Mark
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I studied Latin American studies there, focused on Central America. This is of course during the wars in Central America, death squads and Liberation Theology and all those things were happening.

Sujewa
And the incident in Latin America that you wrote about in "Dance Of Days" where you saw someone getting killed, did that happen around this time period?

Mark
Um, yeah, it’s a hard thing to talk about.

Sujewa
OK

Mark
I don’t know. I am glad to talk about it. It happens of course after I’ve come to DC. I came to DC, started school, and I spent much of the summer of ‘85, "Revolution Summer", in Central America, which was appropriate for me, and what happened (pause), it’s one thing to read about things in books, and I’ve read lots of books. I came to, I guess I have to start talking about DC, the first step in this was coming to DC, I though I, you know, I’ve read a lot of books about the inner city, the gap between the rich and the poor and so forth, let me tell you, I learned more painful lessons in like three days of living in Washington, DC and just experiencing that dramatic gap then I have in years of reading about it. And it was, it was really heartbreaking. So that’s part of what’s going on as I come in, well, if you can imagine I was that impacted by coming from my small town country background to Washington, DC, imagine suddenly I find myself in Guatemala, in the middle of one of the more terrible wars of the century in our hemisphere. I mean literally a couple of hundred thousand people were probably killed. I was there near the end of the most brutal period in the whole time, I mean the period like ’81 to ’83, ’84, just horrendous. This is according to Guatemalan governments own figures: hundreds of villages disappeared off the map during this time, now that doesn’t mean everyone there was killed but they weren’t taking them off to the health spa, and there were of course hundreds of thousands of refugees in a relatively small country, seven million total population. So you’re talking about two hundred thousand people dying, that equivalent of, i don’t know, millions dying here in this country, so a tremendous (pause)...

Sujewa
Loss?

Mark
It kind of goes beyond words. I entered into Guatemala into a climate of fear that I never encountered before. I wasn’t a big fan of the police here, and I’d seen some not so fun things happen, but in Guatemala people went out of their way to avoid the police.

Sujewa
They might kill you.

Mark
Yeah, well, exactly. And you just didn’t want...what little people would say about the government was to try to stay away from it. And you try not to say anything or do anything that possibly could draw attention to you because attention is not good. Anyway, that’s the context and I actually went to the archdiocese, the cathedral in Guatemala City with the intent of speaking to folks who worked there because the Catholic Church was really the only institution that was protected enough to be able to do any human rights work. That’s how brutal things were. Two of the leaders of the only other human rights group there which was a support group for the relatives of the disappeared, which there were of course thousands, had been murdered just months before I came, in terrible ways. And so there was a lot of pressure on and a lot of threats directed at the Church and I stopped in to see what the Church was saying about this. I met with somebody, they were very careful about what they said but they made it clear that forces near the government were the sources for all this. I mean you would see all the time all these bodies turning up in the papers and they wouldn’t be identified and their killers wouldn’t be identified and it would be passed off as if they were killed by unknown men or they were victims of a robbery. But you basically knew that it was all political killings.

Sujewa
I saw the same thing in Sri Lanka in ‘89.

Mark
Well I bet, there’s terrible struggles there.

Sujewa
Death squads sponsored by the government to put down the oppositions.

Mark
And that’s the Tamil Tigers?

Sujewa
Well, in Sri Lanka in ‘89 when I saw two dead people on the side of the road, kinda similar to what you experienced, the government was fighting the Tamil Tigers, an extremist separatist group that came out of the minority Tamil community, and there were also, from the majority, who are the Sinhalese, a guerrilla group called the JVP, Janatha Vimucthy Peramuna, a Marxist inspired group that once tried to violently overthrow the government in the early 70’s and failed. The JVP were fighting the government once again in ‘89, so the government decided to deal with the JVP threat by carrying out killings to scare people, young men mostly, from joining the JVP. And death squads would kill young men in the country side and let the bodies lay in intersections as a warning. So the bodies of the young Sinhalese men I saw on the road side at a Sinhalese village in ‘89 got there because of the government death squads.

Mark
Well, exactly, which is interesting. I am going to jump out of the story I was telling to bring back to what you are talking about, which is like religious imagery. This is something that most people don’t realize, when you see the image of Jesus on the cross, like the cross has come to represent something now, not necessarily always good, but it is entirely removed from what it meant at the time. Because at the time crucifixion, and the symbol of the cross itself, was precisely the symbol of the most horrific tortuous public humiliating death the Roman Empire could devise. That’s why they did it. They did it just for the same reasons that death squads in Central America did what they did or what you’re talking about in Sri Lanka. The point is you kill somebody, you kill them in an awful way, and you do it publicly and it sends a message, which is don’t fuck with us. Because you will get this. And that is what Jesus on the cross represents. He was one of thousands tortured and executed by the Roman Empire precisely as a punishment for sedition, for being seen as a threat to the Empire and to discourage other people who might be so foolish. So there’s a radical, I would say revolutionary, basis in the Christian religion in its inception and in its founder. So, political killings were carrying on in Central America, and it had kind of risen again, and the church had actually become one of the few voices defending the poor, the people who were being oppressed, and in Guatemala it was primarily the native population, the Mayan Indians. So anyways, I am there for this meeting, it’s a fairly short meeting, it’s a friendly meeting, basically I find out what I pretty much know, I thank him and then I walk out the cathedral through the back door. Now I had come in maybe half an hour, 45 minutes before, and there was nobody out there. I come back out the back door and there’s a body there. And I, just riveted for a second on the body, but then all of a sudden I see ten feet away two policemen with like mirror sunglasses and these big boots just standing there. I mean, I don’t know what, to this day I still don’t know what was going on there but they had a couple of street urchin kids like shining their shoes, like there’s this dead body standing here and the police are sitting here, they obviously don’t seem to care very much. My interpretation in that split second is they have killed this person and left him here to leave a message, part of their message is being put through right now by the fact that they’re just standing there, they’re getting their shoes shined! How much more impunity, how much more arrogance could the authorities have and in that moment I found myself out of the shoes of a privileged North American white male, well educated person, and saw just how powerless people were in the face of that kind of a threat. And I was just a coward, I didn’t say a word, I don’t know what I could’ve done, there were things probably I could’ve done like if I’d had gone back, who knows? I don’t know. Now the bottom line is I didn’t do anything, I put my head down, I got out of there, and I didn’t talk about it for a couple of years. And it was a good experience to have in the sense that it showed me what the stakes really are.

Sujewa
The lengths the bad guys would go to.

Mark
And also to some extent that I am a part of the bad guys, ’cause you know I came there wanting to be on the side of the poor people and I saw this dramatic disparity between the rich and the poor. Hello, I am one of the rich, and I still haven’t really sorted out what all that requires from me, but I did know that it required a lot from me.

Sujewa
So what were the activist work that you did after you returned to DC?

Mark
I felt like a fraud in graduate school, the next thing I know is that I’m organizing an Amnesty International chapter there, not really the thing most people did. It’s an interesting school, folks from all over the world, in a way a very elite school, you are also there with career professionals from embassies, from the FBI, from the CIA, from different militaries, there was a guy from the Honduran military there, a nice guy, basically you’re being trained...

Sujewa
To lead the empire?

Mark
Yeah, you’re, you know, to be relatively minor functionaries in the empires machinery. Some of the people would actually be players in that, so, if you want to go into the foreign service, to get security clearance, you probably do not want to be doing some of the things that I did, bottom line is, my experience in DC, certainly my experience in Central America, made me feel like I couldn’t do that, go in that direction that graduate school was pointing, which is fine, people should follow their heart, and I started to figure out where my heart laid. And it wasn’t in serving the empire, you know. I had friends who went into that world and I wish them well , if they were sincere, I’d rather have them there then Oliver North, who I did encounter. The Reagan administration was in office and they did briefings for us and some other I guess aspiring elites in some other schools and the White House around Central America and I encountered Oliver North there, boy, what a jerk.

Sujewa
(laughter)

Mark
An arrogant ass, but anyway, enough about Oliver North, I am sure he is created in the image of God and a really precious human person, but he is not really a very nice guy from my point of view. Anyway, that was happening, and then there was this whole other thing, which again I have to talk about punk because as I am progressively getting disillusioned with the adult world I am starting to encounter the underground, the punk underground. Now, admittedly, some of the parts of that punk underground not only weren’t about activism, they weren’t really even about life. They were pretty much on a death trip, and that was pretty depressing, but the positive thing was I met a bunch of the other folks, like kind of the Dischord crowd who were brewing up this Revolution Summer thing and I met some other folks who helped start this punk activist collective Positive Force and that became a very important venue for the mixing of my interest in the arts and my interest in radical activism.

Sujewa
So the idea for Positive Force came from that community and not necessarily something that you brought to DC?

Mark
Well, the idea was there, implicit in the fact that I was an activist, an activist inspired by punk. I’ve come for the first time in my life to a big city punk scene and I don’t see much activism. What would be more natural for me to say then, well, hell, I am going to start something like this, and there were other people who kind of felt the same way and it was just one of those times where kind of the stars line up or whatever and things happen and you don’t really understand it until far after. And that’s the way it should be, you are there in the moment and you should try to do what’s real, what makes sense to you, what seems honest, and that’s what I did and at the end of my two years in school Positive Force became the center of my life and it continues to be a very significant part of my activist life.

Sujewa
What did you do after graduate school?

Mark
Positive Force is totally volunteer, so, you have to have money to survive. I already knew this but I understood it more profoundly once I was out of school and realized 1/3 of my day was going to be spent at a job, so I have to do a job I believe in or my life is not going to be good, I am not going to be happy, no one is going to be happy around me because I would be a beast. So, I did a little bit of work-study stuff at the library of my school. When I left there I worked at a really cool radical bookstore called Common Concerns. That started feeling like a little too constricted, not challenging enough, so I ended up working as an outreach person for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Ironically, I didn’t work there very long, that was my step clearly not only into the animal rights world, I mean I had been involved with animal rights stuff with Positive Force, but this was a big step in that direction and it was a really powerful experience but it actually didn’t last very long because soon I was offered the job of being the co-coordinator of the Washington Peace Center, a small organization, which was arguably the single most important little peace and justice organization in the city. Because its kind of the hub of all of this, this clearinghouse, this thing that connects all these communities, the justice and the peace and service, the radical activist community, together here. They’ve done good enough of a job that they’ve gotten burglarized by the FBI (laughter). They actually were a part of a class action suit and won a settlement from the FBI for the violation of civil rights and civil liberties in that whole affair. And so coming to the Washington Peace Center was exciting for me. When I came there we were largely focused on international issues and I had had a couple of visits to Central America which was powerful in forming my activist life, and I also went to the Middle East. I went to the Middle East as a representative of the Peace Center during the first Intifada, very powerful stuff. But part of what was happening was that I was feeling like the Washington Peace Center didn’t seem to do much to bring about peace here in Washington. So I began to, together with a co-worker there, to just kind of start steering the Peace Center towards focusing on what was happening in DC.

Sujewa
What was happening in DC?

Mark
What was happening in DC at that moment was, beside the fact, the basic thing in DC: DC is a city that is majority black and the main power is in white hands and it’s also the most affluent metropolitan area in the whole country, single most unequal in terms of distribution of wealth, you got neighborhoods like Shaw which are adjacent to Capitol Hill and the White House, the centers of power and privilege in the whole world, and you encounter levels of infant mortality which are at "Third World levels", you encounter in parts of those neighborhoods where the major economy is illegal drugs and at that time a horrific explosion in the number of murders had occurred.

Sujewa
When is this?

Mark
We are talking now in ’88, when I come to the Peace Center, and during my first full year in DC there were 148 people murdered in the city. Almost inevitably it was poor, African-American males. It was similar folks doing the shooting, but, basically what it pointed to was that there was something really scary, out of control here and I thought it was really out of hand when I came here. It was like clearly these people are expendable, that’s why there wasn’t more of an outcry.

Sujewa
They were being left alone to kill themselves.

Mark
Yeah, and it was not even worth focusing on, folks in Capitol Hill can see Shaw out of their office windows, I could, I worked in Capitol Hill briefly, part of my time in school, but for them it might have been a million miles away. And at that point basically the crack explosion had happened, which was throwing a lot of relationships out of whack in neighborhoods like Shaw, leading to dramatic upswings in the murders. You can look back and see, it’s almost like making a cake: you got the marginalized population, right next to the super privileged population, systematically denied access to wealth and all the things they are told that would make them worthy persons, add in, on top of this poverty, desperation and obvious inequality, add in guns, which are just available like candy, toss in this crack cocaine thing, opens up these new avenues to getting this wealth that you are systematically denied otherwise, and then just kind of stew, leave them there to kill each other basically, or to go to jail, which was the other thing that was happening, and its almost like it was set up to happen that way. I mean I wouldn’t go that far but I do think that the systems dynamics tend to chew up certain expendable people, these were some examples of that. As this was unfolding, going from 148 people killed in 1985 to, by the end of the cycle by 1992, it was close to 500, the murder rate more then tripled.

Sujewa
Yeah, I remember that.

Mark
DC became the murder capitol. I did some work trying to draw attention to this and seeing it as a peace and justice issue that the Peace Center should work on, but it began to feel for me still like I was a little too distant from it. And after working with the Peace Center for a year, it’s an organization that I totally respect and I think it’s very, very important, but I just felt called to something else. And we got a job announcement from the Emmaus Services for the Aging and I went to work there doing direct services. I was and am an outreach worker to low-income mostly African-American women elderly, here in the Shaw neighborhood, which I live on the edge of now. And that has been a really, really transformational experience for me as an activist, which very much informs how I view the work in general. Just as I see the experience in a new context, my experience growing up in the rural working class really, impacts how I view activism needs to be done in order for it to be something that is not just merely counter-cultural-this kind of inherently marginalized in-group-but that it actually has the potential for drawing together disparate groups and building a movement that can actually challenge entrenched corporate power. And in a certain sense my trajectory was putting me at tension with some of the versions of punk which are very much about that in-groupy kind of thing. Like you’re holding out in your subterranean enclave against the world. That has its value, but its a limited value in terms of actual transformation.

Sujewa
You could be punk in that subterranean enclave way while you’re growing up, and then you should move beyond.

Mark
Exactly. And hopefully you can remain in touch with that community and bring in these other experiences so that the community itself continues to grow and flourish so it can be a place that is a jumping off point, a home community, that nourishes resistance and activism and education in radical ways. And through Emmaus I got involved with another organization, actually two, that became very powerful for me. One is Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) because as I work here in this neighborhood I started encountering street sex workers, initially didn’t know how to related to them, so I just kind of ignored them, that became harder to do when it was somebody who I knew by sight, who I knew was trouble and, like most street sex workers, very vulnerable. She got murdered, and that got me to rethink. Emmaus actually allowed myself and others who were working there to in effect step out of the role as Emmaus employees and become HIPS volunteers when we encountered these folks and hand out condoms, and cards with HIPS hotline information that can help them on getting support and advocacy and ultimately a route out of the street sex trade. It helped in terms of the neighborhood, because people understood what we were doing. So HIPS was another big step in my activist world. And also, it’s a complicated subject so I won’t go into it very far, but it also brought me in closer touch with faith based activists who I encountered in Central America in particular and known through a lot of their work and was increasingly drawn to that and through a kind of a particular friend who was very influential on me ended up joining arguably the radical Catholic parish here in the city, St. Al’s Parish which is right on the edge of the neighborhood that I work in. And fully embracing that part of my past, which has a revolutionary legacy, the fact that the revolution that was being annunciated there, through the life and teachings of Jesus was radical beyond my ability to live probably but it seemed like a beautiful world to strive for. So, those were a lot of the different things that shaped me as an activist and to this day I honor all of those things, like the kind of the radical secular organizing folks like the Peace Center might represent, the counter-culturists, the artists-activists like Positive Force, the faith based folks like the Catholic Worker or Liberation Theology folks, my inspirations from the feminist community in the activism there, like HIPS. And a lot of that is being brought together in the building which is actually...

Sujewa
By my old house! 10th & O NW.

Mark
Right, which is going to be the recipient of the royalties from my "Dance Of Days" book, which is the Flemming Center, a cooperative project of Positive Force, and most centrally the Emmaus Services for the aging. Right now construction is on the way and hopefully by September of 2002 it will be up and running and hopefully it will be an outpost for radical arts stuff. Positive Force will be there, we’ll have a gallery and an archive and a creative space, we’ll have direct service stuff, the Peace Center will be there, Catholic Worker bookstore will be there. Also the Brian Mackenzie Infoshop. You’ll have the Catholic anarchists on one side of the wall and the secular on another side of the wall (laughs). And an office space, at night, will be a performance space where you can show movies, have concerts, have political meetings, have poetry readings, all sorts of stuff. A building with a lot of powerful possibilities. Because I think there is a common spirit between all of these groups and we need all of these elements, we need the arts, the creative element, we need the direct service stuff, because as much as we want the revolution, the revolution is not going to be here tomorrow. To ensure a long-term vision of transformation you need to make sure people are being fed, clothed and housed in the short term. Hopefully the Flemming Center will bring a lot of people together across cultural and racial and faith lines and it will create in a small way precisely what we need on a larger level.


Thanks Mark!

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