Getting the Story Out — Terry Messman and the Power of Activist Journalism

Reporting from “the shelters, back alleys, soup kitchen lines and slum hotels where mainstream reporters rarely or never visit,” Street Spirit runs stories on economic inequality and the daily grind of human rights violations that poor people face. It also chronicles the movement that is dramatically working for human rights.

by Ken Butigan


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 wiling 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. The January 2013 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.

The cover of the May 2010 issue of Street Spirit.


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.

Ken Butigan is the director of Pace e Bene, a peace-and-justice organization dedicated to fostering a just and peaceful world through nonviolent education and action. Ken writes a regular column for the Waging Nonviolence website. See his story about Street Spirit as it appeared In Waging Nonviolence:

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