The September 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Police Raids on Fresno Homeless

Memorial to Mary Who Died

New Orleans After Katrina

Troubles for the Berkeley Housing Authority

Link Between Foster Care and Homelessness

An Epidemic of Rising Poverty

Angel Behind Prison Bars

Blaming Street People for Cody's Demise

MASC Storage Lockers Offer New Help

Interview with Osha Neumann, Artist/Attorney

Resisting Unjust CEO Pay Rates

Liberation from Hell of Addiction

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Social Change

Sept. Poetry of the Streets

Review of Jan Steckel's Poems


July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A Life of Art, Legal Advocacy and Activism

The Street Spirit Interview of Osha Neumann by Marianne Robinson

These remarkable statues were sculpted by local artists in an outburst of freewheeling creative expression. Their work can be viewed at the Albany Landfill. Photos by Marianne Robinson

Osha Neumann (right) and Jason DeAntonis (left) have worked with other artists to create striking, massive sculptures at the Albany Landfill. Photo by Marianne Robinson

"I think the fact that we keep doing art out there helps anchor that place against the forces that want to homogenize it and purify it. The fact that it remains a place where there's a certain degree of wildness, where the art and the dogs can be off leash and run free, is an act of resistance." -- Osha Neumann, describing the freedom found at the Albany Landfill

Osha Neumann's dedication to art and activism is well known to readers of Street Spirit. Along with his article, "Anonymous Artists of the Albany Landfill" [see Street Spirit, January 2001], Street Spirit published articles in 2001 and 2003 on his political activism and advocacy for poor and homeless people.

I knew of Osha's work as an activist, muralist, and lawyer, and I had seen him working on large sculptures at the Albany Landfill with his son-in-law, Jason DeAntonis, and fellow artists Scott Hewitt and David Ryan. His obvious joy in making these larger-than-life sculptures from materials washed up onto the untamed shores stirred me to learn what drives Osha the artist.

Osha's activist history shows an abiding commitment to the cause of peace and justice. He was arrested at the anti-nuclear protests of the Livermore Action Group and anti-apartheid protests at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. He spent eight years on the Berkeley Police Review Commission dealing with issues of police misconduct. He traveled in solidarity to Palestine during the intifada and to El Salvador's zones of conflict. He joined the WTO protests in Seattle and was arrested in Washington, D.C., at the World Bank protests.

Osha has an unbroken record of effectively defending the legal rights of homeless people over the past 18 years. Despite health problems, he continues to fight the good fight, even though the odds are stacked against those who would defend the poorest of the poor.

Osha was instrumental in designing and painting two of Berkeley's renowned artworks: the beautiful mural at La Pena, a montage of workers, musicians, and peasants on the march with Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, and the tribute to People's Park, a mural depicting the "People's History of Telegraph Avenue." Between 1973 and 2003, he helped to create more than 10 murals on both sides of the S.F. Bay, some funded, some labors of love. Some still survive, some have since been destroyed or painted over.

We met to talk in Osha's law office, an orange and white Victorian just down the street from the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley. Back in 1987, when he was a newly minted lawyer, Osha helped form a legal collective called "Fleagal Aid" that dispensed legal advice from a pin-striped tent set up in a stall at the Flea Market. Now he represents Community Services United, which operates the market.

During our interview, Osha described how the stages of his life -- from studio painter to political activist, muralist to lawyer, and now outdoor sculptor -- have added up to one life of commitment, and how he believes art needs to find a connection to the real world.

Street politics & public art

Marianne Robinson: How do you see the relationship between the art you make and your political and legal activism?

Osha Neumann: My view has always been that art serves human liberation best when it's not chained to a political program. That said, you can convey a lot about what's going on in the world in how you paint a bowl of cherries. Before I started going out to the landfill and doing sculpture, I'd worked primarily as a muralist. My inspiration was the murals I'd seen in the Mission. Then I got turned on to the great Mexican muralists -- Orozco, Siquieros, and Rivera -- whose work was just incredible, awesome, humbling.

In the Sixties, my politics were essentially "street politics," anarchist in the form of organization, Marxist in interpretation of the world, with civil disobedience at the core. After plunging into movement politics feet first, I gave up on art completely. I'd been painting alone in my studio and I just stopped. I thought that the liberation that art promised could now actually happen in reality. The art I had known in New York was primarily gallery art. I saw it as bankrupt, a dead-end act playing for an extremely narrow audience.

I didn't take up art again until the mid-'70s when I was living in Berkeley and began painting murals. I realized that what I had been taught about the stages of art history progressing like a train on a track from one European avant garde to another left out some of the greatest art of the 20th century. I'd thought art and politics didn't mix, but in the great Mexican murals I saw them melding in a way that didn't compromise either the art or the politics.

MR: Talk about some of your experiences painting murals in collaboration with other artists.

Osha: The La Pena mural done in 1978 was a wonderful experience. I didn't get paid, but I was collaborating with some great muralists, among them Brian Thiele, Daniel Galvez, and Ray Patlan, with whom I've worked on a number of other projects.

When I designed the People's Park mural at Haste and Telegraph, I was living on unemployment insurance. We put a can out on the street and collected donations to pay for supplies and lunch. It was all volunteer labor. Then I won a competition for a mural on the back of the Co-op Credit Union at University Avenue. The last really large mural I did was the one on the Willard School gymnasium on Telegraph Avenue. I was teaching art at the Berkeley Alternative School under a grant from the California Arts Council. That mural got wiped out by an overzealous architect remodeling the building. We were able to save a remnant.

The problem with my mural career was that the opportunities to make the kind of murals that I wanted to make -- about popular movements and resistance -- were few and far between, and the money dried up.

Politics and law

MR: What made you decide to become a lawyer? It seems a long way from painting and radical politics to a career in law.

Osha: How I got into being a lawyer is that I had had doubts about my own abilities as an artist, and about the opportunities for doing the kind of art I'd wanted to do. The woman in my life at the time had been a ceramic artist and decided to go to law school. Until then, it had never occurred to me in a million years that I'd go that route. It seemed totally antithetical to the way I'd lived my life.

Mostly I'd been on the other side of the law. I'd be in jail and some lawyer would appear and represent me, and I never thought about it. The idea of being a lawyer just seemed crazy. But I was reaching a point where running around in the streets throwing things, breaking the law, was becoming a little ridiculous. This was not an adequate political expression, and I felt outside the "art world." How would I make a living?

I started law school when I was 45. There are no pictures in law books and it was too late to be indoctrinated in thinking like a lawyer, so I have always had this dual existence of doing a kind of unusual, marginal law, working a lot with homeless people, sometimes getting deeply involved in their lives. I've found myself taking someone to a detox facility and having him nearly die on the way, or being with a homeless guy as he was dying of lung cancer. I stopped doing murals, but I never stopped doing art. For a while, I mostly did drawings, graphic art, prints and so on. Then I discovered the landfill.

MR: When did you hear about what was going on at the Albany Landfill, and what attracted you to the place?

Osha: In 1999, Jimbow, a homeless man I'd met at People's Park and represented in court, introduced me to the landfill. I'd go out and visit him, and he showed me around. The landfill opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I could make these large sculptures and do whatever I wanted with no one looking over my shoulder. I'd loved doing murals, but I felt they were conceptually constrained in certain ways, and I'd ended up with a style that was sort of watered-down Diego Rivera and not really me. My drawing and graphic art were much wilder and more obscure and ambiguous than my murals.

Art and public space

MR: How would you describe the difference between the experience of painting murals on city walls and making art at the landfill?

Osha: When I was doing murals, I wanted them to reflect the community. I had to be careful. Out at the landfill, there were no such constraints. I immediately felt at home in that untamed environment, where I could make a personal art that was also public. That was a new experience.

MR: Would you say that the art you make at the landfill is less "political" than your murals?

Osha: What came out of me when I started working at the landfill was art that wasn't overtly political in content; but I feel that just making art out there is a kind of political statement. It is like the art is a placeholder for this public space. Nobody knows anymore what the purpose or function of art is, or how it can possibly relate to the level of catastrophe in the world we live in, so I haven't been able to develop a theoretical framework that works for me.

I think the fact that we keep doing art out there helps anchor that place against the forces that want to homogenize it and purify it. The fact that it remains a place where there's a certain degree of wildness, where the art and the dogs can be off leash and run free, is an act of resistance, even though the art we make is not directly political in the way the murals were.

For me, the landfill remains a place outside all the ways in which the system is shaping our consciousness; and because of that, it has attracted an amazing constituency of people who care about it. It's a refuge. You can get farther out into the bay there than anywhere else on the East Shore. The city, the traffic, I-80, all fall back, and you are there with the birds and the foliage, the changing seasons, the blackberries, and the dogs.

MR: I gather you don't have much use for the contemporary "art scene."

Osha: I'm not much interested in galleries and museums and the whole narrow, self-serving, pompous art world. That is where art goes to die. If you're focused on trying to figure out what the next "in" thing is, or whether you're avant garde or postmodern or some other label, I think your art's going to suffer. Real art has to find a connection to something more vigorous than that. I liked the graffiti murals on the New York subways in their heyday -- that art had an incredible vitality. I'm a fan of graphic novels and comics.

When I first went out to the landfill, Jimbow showed me paintings on big concrete blocks made by a group of artists whose names no one knew at the time. They signed their anonymous artwork SNIFF. I love the SNIFF guys' art. It was direct and playful and fun, and not concerned about immortality or fame. The kind of art they did was in some way inspired by the landscape -- it came out of a playfulness that allowed them to play together, to jam, and that was partly a function of the landscape, the freedom from restrictions. I've since gotten to know them. They are very talented artists, and it's remarkable the number of people who come out there and see their stuff and say, "This is as good as anything I saw at the MOMA."

Outsider art

MR: What would you call the art of the landfill? Is it "outsider" art?

Osha: There's a great interest these days in what people call "outsider art," which is art made by mad people and self-taught and "primitive" artists and people with developmental disabilities. Some of it is incredible stuff. People are drawn to this art partly because of dissatisfaction with the hyper-sophisticated, overly intellectualized art that's so common.

Some people want to peg the landfill art as outsider art. Some of it is and some of it isn't. The SNIFF artists went to art school. I had some art training. Jason, with whom I've been collaborating on big wooden sculptures, is an incredibly talented artist who went to art school. On the other hand, a lot of anonymous artists have made their mark on the landfill.

"Picasso Mike" started painting on large rocks after he met the SNIFF artists. When you wander around, you find little constructions of stones and all kinds of found materials against the backdrop of weeds and rocks and the concrete, bricks, and rebar dumped there years ago. The larger pieces we make attract people who get inspired to make their own stuff. It's become a destination. The old-timers remember the Emeryville mud flats by the side of I-80, where people built things out of scrap. That was great, but the artists and the environmentalists clashed; the flats were made part of a bird-nesting sanctuary, and the artists were kicked out. Now there really isn't any other place except the landfill to make art without oversight in a public space.

Homeless people, art & off-leash dogs

MR: Have things changed at the landfill since the homeless folks were evicted?

Osha: It's sad that since 1999, the landfill battle has been about making art and walking dogs off-leash, and not about people. 1999 was the year they kicked out the homeless people who had been living there by wiping out their encampments. At the same time homeless people were fighting to stay at the landfill, the whole struggle for KPFA was going on. Everybody knew about KPFA and it got lots of media coverage; but nobody paid attention to the homeless people on the landfill, and they lost.

The homeless community on the landfill was an amazing example of how, if you left homeless people alone, they would survive and flourish. It worked and it wasn't hurting anybody. "Bums' Paradise," the film about their eviction, shows clearly that being homeless at the landfill was a lot better than being on the street in Oakland or sleeping in some dumpster and getting jumped or whatever. Just the fact that you were living in an outdoor place with spectacular views made a difference.

A lot of homeless people who lived on the landfill were what they call "service-resistant." They weren't going to go into a shelter with everybody else. "Mad Mark" was one of them. His castle is genuine outsider art. It's an incredible structure, truly an achievement, an example of what a person can do with nothing, by himself, by hand. That's what the landfill is about.

MR: What kind of legal work are you doing these days?

Osha: Most of my work now is defending homeless people who are living on the street and constantly hassled by the police. I work under contract with the East Bay Community Law Center supervising Boalt Hall law students who go to drop-in centers and clinics, and I talk with people who have gotten tickets sleeping in the wrong place or sitting on the sidewalk -- minor stuff that shouldn't be a crime. The students work up the cases and some of them go to court and do the trials. By working with these students, I can do a lot more than I was able to do by myself.

I also represent the Ashby Flea Market, which a lot of people depend on for their livelihood. It's engaged in a life-and-death struggle because of the move to build a huge housing development on that site. Right now it's in an early round, but there's strong community support for the Flea Market and I think we'll be able to save it.

Check out Tomas McCabe's film, "Bums' Paradise," about the eviction of homeless people from the Albany Landfill and his DVD, "Off Leash Art, Osha Neumann and Jason DeAntonis off leash at The Bulb," available at

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

© 2002-2006 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee

Editor and Web Design: Terry Messman