All posts by Samara Steele

Crossing the Desert: the art and tech of the Transborder Immigrant Tool

by Hayley Steele

Each year, hundreds of people lose their lives crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States. In response to this tragedy, members of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab have designed the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT).

To create the TBT, they took a Motorola i455 cell phone and cracked the GPS applet to create a simple compass-like navigation system. Motorola i455s can be obtained for less than $30, and are even cheaper on eBay. Besides assisting with basic navigation, the TBT shows where to find water left by Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers, how far you are from the highway – things that could save the life of someone making the crossing.

Besides being a practical navigation tool, the TBT is also a work of art, and includes recordings of poetry on sustenance and survival in multiple languages written by poet Amy Sara Carroll, a member of the group.

As Amy explains, “…often—rightly enough—conversations about crossing the Mexico-U.S. border refer to disorientation, sun exposure, lack of water. The Transborder Immigrant Tool attempts to address those vicissitudes, but also to remember that the aesthetic—freighted with the unbearable weight of ‘love’— too, sustains.”

The design-phase of the TBT was completed two years ago.  In November 2009, the group was preparing to distribute the device through NGOs, churches, and other communities south of the border. However, the mainstream media – with Fox News at its forefront – threw a fit, leading to investigations of group members, three of whom are professors at the University of California in San Diego. “Can public funds be used to break the law?” was the premise of these investigations. But since when was it illegal to save people’s lives?!

Ricardo Dominguez, a spokesperson for the project, recently did a brief interview with Slingshot member Hayley Steele, revealing the latest news.

Hayley: How has distribution been going? Has it been difficult getting the Transborder Immigration Tool into the right people’s hands?

Ricardo: Due to the intense investigation of the project during 2010 by both my own institution (UCSD) and the call by three Republican Congressmen to have the project stopped – we (Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab) were not able to move forward with the distribution of the project. Our/my legal counsel advised against doing this part of the project till the investigation was over.

Hayley: A few people at the Slingshot Collective expressed concern about Border Patrol agents finding a way to track people who are using the TBT through the surveillance devices embedded in cell phones. How was this issue addressed in the TBT’s design?

“…often—rightly enough—conversations about crossing the Mexico-U.S. border refer to disorientation, sun exposure, lack of water. The Transborder Immigrant Tool attempts to address those vicissitudes, but also to remember that the aesthetic—freighted with the unbearable weight of ‘love’— too, sustains.”

Ricardo: TBT is a single-bounce GPS device, only to be turned on once at the start of the journey and then turned off—and not to be turned on again until it is needed. This single bounce activates the database of locative wave-points to current water caches left out by NGOs in Southern California. From that point on TBT does not attempt to connect to any GPS signal or any other signal. This disallows any triangulation to take place—unless the user who is lost in the desert turns on the cell phone function and is lucky enough to reach a signal to dial 911 and allow for possible triangulation.

Hayley: Is it possible for individuals to independently download the TBT onto their own cell phone? If so, would they need to disable certain surveillance devices on their phone to prevent being tracked?

Ricardo: As I mentioned, it is a database, so it can be altered to create any kind of walking tool. Brett Stalbaum, a new media artist and co-founder of EDT 1.0/2.0, has a website where you can download the code (without the water cache location wave-points). This will allow anyone to develop a TBT-like gesture for any border situation or for any type of locative art project.

Hayley: If someone is interested in assisting with border-disturbance technology, how might they best get involved?

Ricardo: We always need cell phones, so if you have a working cell phone of any type and want to send it to us – that would be great. Just contact us: rrdominguez@ucsd.edu. Or if you want to download the code and work on expanding it in other ways. Also if you speak and write in another language, we welcome translations of the poems on TBT. Or if you have extra funds—please donate to Water Station Inc.  or Border Angels, they are really the core of what is the most important aspect of TBT. Of course if you have the time to come down on the weekends to help fill up the water caches around the Imperial Valley Desert, Anza Borrego Park and the surrounding areas that would be of great help.

The members of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab are: Micha Cárdenas, Dr. Amy Sara Carroll, Elle Mehrmand, Brett Stalbaum, and Ricardo Dominguez. Check out their website at: bang.calit2.net or www.walkingtools.net for the code.

A New Mode of Self: How Pharmaceutical Companies Hijacked the Brain

by Samara Steele

A few years ago, I was given a prescription for Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SRIs) for a seizure disorder. Like cocaine (which is technically an SRI), pharmaceutical-grade SRIs prevent your brain from reabsorbing serotonin (“the happy chemical”), causing old serotonin to float around with nowhere to go, creating a sort of pleasant “hazy” feeling. SRIs are usually used to treat depressive disorder, but my neurologist explained that they sometimes prevent seizures.

For my first year on the drug, it seemed to be helping my epilepsy. But after two years, I started having problems. My thinking got fuzzy, it became difficult to use language, and for the first time in my life, I found it nearly impossible to make new friends.

I spent another year feeling like a zombie before I realized the SRIs were to blame. I stopped taking them, and after a painful period of withdrawal, I started feeling like I could think again. Recovery has been slow, though, and in the two years since I’ve been clean, I’ve had to gradually rebuild the skills I lost. Everything from my balance to my body-awareness to my short-term memory is still screwed up.

Sadly, I am not the only one who has been royally screwed  over by psychiatric medication.

In his latest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Rise of Mental Illness (2010), journalist Robert Whitaker shows how each type of psycho-pharmaceutical drug has its own unique way of damaging and debilitating its user. According to Whitaker, before psychiatric drugs came into mainstream use, 85% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder could return to their jobs within a year of diagnosis, and suffered no long-term brain damage. But now – with drugs being prescribed to a majority of bipolar patients – less than 30% can return to work, and most of them suffer from long-term cognitive impairment!

Whitaker’s book contains a bounty of scientific studies that show how the drugs used to treat “anxiety,” “depression,” “bipolar disorder,” and “schizophrenia” cause more harm than good. The author has made these studies free to the public at the Mad in America Website.

The bottom line is: Psycho-pharmaceutical drugs are not safe. They prolong the illnesses they are supposed to treat and cause long-term brain damage. (Not to mention the “official” side effects: liver damage, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, kidney failure, birth defects, increased risk of suicide among children – the list goes on and on!) Yet, today, 1 in 8 Americans is on a psychotropic medication, with these dangerous drugs being prescribed to children less than two years old!

This creates a bit of a mystery: if these drugs are so bad, why are people taking them?

I believe the foremost cause is the rise of an idea/practice of the treating the brain as self: treating yourself as if you are nothing more than a passive brain.

For the last two decades, pop-science writers and have been working relentlessly to convince people that they are their brains. The goal of these writers often is connected to opposition to religion. They think that, by convincing people they are simply brains, the idea of the soul will disappear and religion will vanish.

A good example of this kind of writing can be found in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1994) by geneticist Francis Crick. On the opening page of the book, Crick writes: “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” The book goes on for several hundred more pages, promoting the idea that the “self” is completely isolated to the brain.

In contrast, cognitive theorist Alva Noë is an adamant opponent of the idea of the brain-self, and in his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain (2009), he explains, “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. ….consciousness is the achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.” Alva also says that the idea of the brain-self is dangerous to individuals who use it.

But Alva’s words often fall on deaf ears. For decades we have been conditioned by “educational” magazine articles, books, and TV programs to think of ourselves as our brains. This leads us to believe that our thoughts, feelings, and urges are the results of “brain chemistry” over which we have no control.

So, when a believer in the brain-self has behavioral problems, unwanted thoughts, or uncomfortable moods, she observes herself passively and does not feel empowered to change. She is locked out of her own internality. Furthermore, traditional aspects of human culture like “love” and “free will” come into doubt. “If these things exist,” the logic goes, “they must already be hard-wired into my brain.” So the individual stops working to cultivate these things – she stops developing her personality. And she begins to feel miserable. Then she sees an advertisement…

The 40-billion-dollar psycho-pharmaceutical industry has hired a small army of advertisers and lobbyists to manipulate people into believing that their drugs will provide happiness, completeness, and a quick fix to all of one’s problems. And when someone believes they are their brain, these drugs seem like their only hope.

Many drug ads are also designed to make people think they have a mental illness when they don’t.

So the individual makes an appointment with a “psychiatrist” (they really should just be called “dealers” now…or maybe “priests” would be a better term).

Just as the Catholic Church stole the Platonic soul by claiming that their priests were the only ones with access to it, the institution of brain-based psychology has co-opted Freudian terms, (the word “psychology,” for example) and claimed that their agents are the only ones who can access an individual’s internality. Just as the Catholic priests held souls hostage, these new psychiatrists hold brains hostage.

Unlike Freudian psychiatrists of the past, these new brain-based psychiatrists do not talk to patients about their thoughts and feelings. Instead, like a Catholic priest in a confessional, a brain-based psychiatrist asks for a list of “symptoms” (sins) for which she administers a “medication” (absolution/communion). And, like medieval peasants on communion, patients fetishize these drugs (“These pills are saving me from my brain disorder!”), developing a deep emotional attachment. But unlike communion wafers, these drugs alter a person’s basic ability to think, express emotion, and feel desire – making it even more difficult to get away.

So, instead of dismantling religion, the idea of the “brain-self” has given rise to the Cult of the Psycho-pharmaceutical, with both patients and psychiatrists sucked into this oppressive structure of beliefs and rituals.

That’s right, the psychiatrists are believers themselves. One reason for this is that many “trusted” leaders in the field have sold out. For example, Dr. Joseph Biederman, a full Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, received 1.6 million dollars from drug companies from 2000 to 2007. In exchange, Dr. Jo authored dozens of “scientific” papers promoting the use of ADHD medications. Countless other field leaders let the drug companies buy them out, creating a sea of mis-information disguised as science.

On top of this, drug companies market directly to psychiatric practitioners, using even more intense propaganda than what the public sees. Additionally, a majority of psychology professors have been converted to pharmaceutical psychiatry, so most psychology students are only exposed to the doctrine of medication.

And it’s hard watching someone suffer. Who can blame psychiatrists for wanting there to be a quick fix for their patients’ problems? In their desire to help patients, they are led by their emotions to believe that the drugs work. The neurologist who put me on SRIs, for example, was also using them herself.

But the reality is, we have problems no pill can fix.

The global economy has entered a phase of Late Capitalism in which individuals are becoming increasingly isolated, environmental conditions are disintegrating, and the majority of the populace is working harder and harder for the benefit of a handful of elites. Then, when people are unhappy in this shitty situation, they are told they have a “brain disorder.”

By blaming our emotional problems on our own biology, we fail to look outside ourselves for alternative causes. Reality disorders – problems with the environment, social order, and workplace – go ignored while people obsessively drug their brains into oblivion.

Thanks to the idea/practice of the brain-self, the capitalist mode of production has infiltrated our bodies and penetrated our core beings. Our moods, thoughts, and emotions have been transformed into commodities to be sold back to us. And, as Late Capitalism slouches towards Neo-feudalism, we are stripped of our revolutionary potential.

Michel Foucault once wrote, “The body is the prisoner of the soul,” but more than ever, the body is becoming prisoner of the brain.

Lately, I’ve started seeing an acupuncturist once a week. Besides the needlework, she prescribes herbs and helps me plan my diet. My epilepsy has gotten much better, even though she isn’t specifically treating it: she and I are working together to take care of my whole body.

In the meantime, I’ve been obsessively reading real scientific articles about the brain, trying to get a better idea of what it actually is.

One thing I’ve learned is that the brain doesn’t just “stop learning” at some stage in development. The brain can actually stay “plastic” throughout adulthood, meaning you have the ability to learn new things your whole life. No matter how old you are, your brain isn’t written yet. You always have the power to change.

The brain is just part of the nervous system, which is just part of the whole body. Whatever you do with your body is going to have a direct effect on your brain. If your body receives healthy levels of exercise, wholesome food, sunlight, fresh air, and frequent human interaction, the brain remains healthy and “plastic.” But if the body doesn’t receive these things, the brain becomes “depressed,” impairing the brain’s ability to make new connections. This makes it harder for the person to learn new things, and can lead to other disorders.

Our Late Capitalist system keeps most people too busy to engage in the healthy lifestyle needed to keep the brain “plastic.” If, as a culture, we had time to prepare and eat healthy food, exercise at least three times a week, hang out in the sun, breathe fresh air, and actively socialize for an hour or two a day, most of the “illnesses” psycho-pharmaceutical drugs treat would be cured.

Ultimately, the brain is the tool of the spirit. Whatever we strive to become, the brain will re-wire itself to support us. If we practice love, our brains become better at loving. If we cultivate free-will and practice making educated decisions, our brains will become better at that. The active-brain is a reminder that all of our thoughts and actions matter in this huge task of forming our identities as liberated human beings.

The Slow Mood Movement

It is not enough to merely reject the brain-self. New ideas of the self must develop to take its place. The Slow Mood Movement is all about re-thinking the way we think of ourselves. Inspired by the Slow Food Movement’s rejection of fast food, Slow Mood aims to resist the buying and selling of “fast moods.”

Here’s an excerpt of their manifesto: “We are taking it slow. Slowly learning to feel our inner states. Slowly developing the cognitive tools needed to make healthy decisions for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Slowly learning to expand our emotions to connect with other people as people, not functions. We know these things can’t be given to us instantly. We have to build these things ourselves, over time.”

To get involved, see their website: http://slowmoodmovement.wordpress.com

 

Occupy is Not a Photo Opp

Amy doesn’t tend to wear clothes. When I first moved into Bird House, a co-op on the Berkeley-Oakland border, I was a bit startled whenever I encountered Amy’s curvy, bare, tattooed body passing me in the hall, washing dishes, sitting down for dinner–completely exposed, no shame, not a quiver of fear.

It took me a few weeks to get used to my new housemate, and to realize that, for Amy, being naked isn’t about sex or being sexualized. She simply isn’t ashamed of her body so she doesn’t hide it.

So, a few weeks ago, Amy was volunteering at the Occupy San Francisco kitchen, ladling baked beans onto the plates of hungry occupiers. As she did this, she was wearing pants, but had left her bra and shirt back in the tent.

As folks moved through the line, some grinned and blushed at Amy’s bare breasts. Others hardly seemed to notice the toplessness and thanked Amy for preparing the food. As Amy does at home, she smiled at everyone who moved through the line, warmly telling them, “I love you.”

And then a woman in a shoulder-padded blazer pushed through the line and confronted Amy.

“And what exactly are you trying to prove?” the woman spat.

“…nothing,” came Amy’s soothing, gender-neutral voice.

The woman’s eyes darted from Amy’s bare breasts to her Mother Mary tattoo to her unconventional haircut (half of Amy’s head is buzzed, while the other half has chin-length locks).

A tight frown crossed the woman’s face and she said, “I hope you realize you’re mis-representing the whole movement with your childish behavior!”

This type of internal-policing has broken out in Occupy encampments nationwide.

Unable to grapple with the idea of a true autonomous zone, self-conscious occupiers obsessively try to force everyone else to fit their preconceived notions of what the movement should look like. These people mistake representation for reality: they think that the news blurbs, photos, and videos are the movement. It is as if these people have internalized the media–news-cameras gazing out at them from within, driving them to perform Occupy instead of living their experience of it.

But Occupy is not a photo opp.

At encampments from New York to San Francisco to everywhere, people from all backgrounds are revealing themselves to each other, talking out their differences, agreeing to disagree, and healing from all these many years of suffering under an oppressive system that values symbols (grades, money, status, etc) more than the quality of our shared experience.

“Well,” the woman continued to yelp at Amy, “I hope you realize you’ve made yourself into a sex object to every male here!”

“Now that just ain’t true!” interjected a middle-aged man who was sitting nearby.

He stood up and calmly explained that the Occupy SF encampment is a place of love and community, and that seeing Amy’s breasts wasn’t going to make anyone stop loving her. “It’s Amy’s body. And if she don’t want to cover it, she don’t have to.”

Throughout our media-saturated lives, we are conditioned to believe that our naked bodies are a symbol. A symbol of sex. A symbol of shame. A symbol of liberation, even. But our bodies don’t need to represent anything. Symbols need only penetrate as deep as we let them. To Amy, Amy’s body represents nothing more than it is: a body. And by letting go of the symbols society has attempted to attach to our flesh, we can begin the slow process of occupying ourselves.

The shoulder-padded woman shook her head in disgust and walked away.

Amy thanked the man for his words.

He smiled. “I meant them.”

Beyond Adverse Possession: Seeking Revolution in Oakland’s squats

by Samara Steele

This year unlikely revolutions have blossomed around the globe, with whole populations rising up, riding the wave of their own rage, dethroning dictators and denouncing disparity. It is hard not to be caught up in the euphoria of it all–the people of Egypt dancing in Tahrir Square as Mubarack’s regime crumbled, the people of Tunisia carrying the flame of Bouazizi all the way to the capital, the anti-austerity protests sweeping through the town squares of Europe, the burning of London as disenfranchised youth released their rage in Tottenham.

Watching so many moments of human expression on the news, I couldn’t help but celebrate the emotional victories of all of these people. However, I harbor strong doubts when I hear activists claim that these revolts mean “capitalism is collapsing.” The myth that capitalism can somehow “collapse” is perhaps Marx’s greatest error in his nearly flawless economic theory.

It can be fun to fantasize about the fiery end of capitalism–be it a collapse or a revolt–but economic modes of production don’t die quite so easily

Capitalism has already collapsed about 8 times now. The worst was perhaps the Recession of the 1890s, during which entire countries went bankrupt and the populace overthrew various governments around the globe. Individual political and economic systems entirely toppled, but capitalism just started over. The people couldn’t imagine anything new, so from the rubble of their burnt out cities they just began re-enacting capitalist exchange.

In building our strategies to end capitalism, it’s worth investigating the “fall” of the previous mode of production, feudalism.

During the reign of feudalist distribution, a handful of noble-born aristocrats owned the land and means of production, while over 90% of the population served them as serfs. Starting in the 1500s, a merchant class arose who (at first) sold goods to the aristocrats. As these merchants accumulated wealth, they were able to create a new “capitalist social space” with a value system that allowed non-aristocrats to own land and acquire wealth. Eventually–after 200 years of developing this capitalist space and social practices–the merchants no longer needed the aristocrats. The so-called “revolutions” in America, France, etc in the 1700s were simply the gesture of shrugging off the parasitic aristocratic class. The real revolution had begun in the 1500s, when merchants built the foundations of the capitalist practices that would eventually make feudalism unnecessary.

In that vein, I am convinced that if we want capitalism to actually stay collapsed at some point, there will need to be a new type of economic distribution to replace it. We must work to build new social spaces in which post-capitalist identities and practices can evolve.

I was mulling over these ideas when I moved to Berkeley a few months ago and began to get involved in activism here. I was surprised to discover that many local activists live in houses they neither rent nor own–these activists are part of the Radical Squatting Movement. This movement can be traced back to the European Autonomous Movements of the 1970s, when revolutionaries turned away from the overtly political tactics of the Revolt of ’68, and instead began to build underground “autonomous” social spaces outside of the values of capitalist exchange. This kind of squatting quickly spread to the U.S., gaining momentum in NYC of the 1980s, and continuing to grow in fits and starts through the 90s and 00s. The more I talked to folks about these squats, the more I wondered if they were the sort of social space from which new types of economies could grow.

Boasting hundreds–or perhaps thousands–of squats, the city of Oakland could be called the West Coast Capital of Squatting. This summer, I explored several explicitly radical Oakland squats, primarily focusing on two houses, Comedia and Spackle House, because these two houses represent opposite ends of the spectrum:

Comedia is a mural-bedecked open-door squat that hosts travelers, punk shows, a bike shop, and a small zine library; whereas Spackle House is a white-walled invite only squat where a small group of activists and their friends quietly relax between activities.

All names of people and houses in this article were changed to protect privacy, with the exceptions of Steve De Caprio and Heather Wreckage.

COMEDIA (open-door punk house)

The gate to Comedia bares a giant circle-N. As I push through the gate and enter the yard, it seems I have entered a very different sort of space; a space where the false hierarchies of capitalism have been abandoned. Dolls hang from trees. The sides of the house are painted with intricate murals. As I walked through the halls, the paintings on the walls and ceilings steal my attention. Symbols, animals and blurs of color abound. I find myself thinking of the Chauvet Cave Paintings in France. But this art was not created by long-dead prehistoric humans: the living artists are all around me, cooking, writing, talking, braiding hair. They may be fully modern humans but to me it seems like there is a sense of wildness about the squatters. No one is acting “businesslike.” Moods seem to flow, unrestrained: bursts of joy, exhaustion, annoyance, and anger are expressed, instead of hidden behind customer-service-like masks. These people are very different from the “professional” activists I encountered in college and while working for NGOs–instead of scrambling to bolster their resumes, these people are concerned with honestly expressing themselves as part of their work to change the world.

In the past Comedia was a duplex, but a stairwell has been constructed uniting what had once been two separate homes. I dash up the stairs and make my way to the living room that doubles as a show space and for guests to sleep in, just in time for the weekly house meeting. About twenty people are seated in a large circle. Some of them have brightly colored hair and piercings. Others are dressed a bit more formally, as if they just got back from a part time job.

Pris, one of the house members, facilitates the meeting. She is swathed in black lace, a tutu, and combat boots. If you count the chicken coop and the two tool sheds, Comedia only has space for eight permanent house members at one time. Almost everyone in the room is a visitor.

Pris asks everyone to go around the circle and say their names, and how long they plan to stay at Comedia. One young woman says she’s staying here until she spanges enough cash for a bus ticket home to San Deigo. A pack of dreadlocked travelers are on their way to a treesit in Oregon, and are grateful to have a floor to crash on tonight. A longtime house member introduces himself as Turnip and says he’s either “staying until next week, or until a thousand more Comedias spread across the globe.”

As the house denizens introduce themselves, one person stands out. He is a middle-aged man who introduces himself as Bill. Bill has grey hair and talks like an engineer. He wears a brand-name fleece jacket and gold-framed spectacles. Bill was recently laid off. “I will be homeless within the week,” he says, explaining that he hopes to come live at Comedia in his time of need.

Pris bites her lip. “Why don’t you come hang around the house this week, to make sure you can… tolerate it.”

On the living room wall, just behind Bill, the words “Safe as Hell” are painted in black.

Just last week I rode my bike to Comedia after work and Billy, a Comedia house member, showed me the giant red welt on the back of his head where just a few hours before, a long-time visitor beat him repeatedly with a broom handle. The visitor had been acting strange all day, muttering under his breath, then he just hauled off and attacked Billy. Lavender, a flute-playing traveler with long dreadlocks, pulled the attacker off Billy and calmed everyone down. The attacker was immediately kicked out, but everyone was still jittery and shaken.

“This kind of fucking bullshit happens at least once a week,” says Barleycorn, a house member, in an interview a few days later. He explains that it’s often visitors and travelers who bring the violence.

Comedia strives to be a safe-space, so house members don’t tolerate violence, harassment, or non-consent. The house also has a no-hard-drugs policy, and a ban on alcohol (except during house shows). But some visitors disrespect the house’s policies, leading to disturbing scenarios followed by people being told to leave.

Members of Comedia have considered ending the open-door policy, which allows anyone to stay for at least 3 days. But for every disrespectful visitor, there are at least ten awesome ones: solid folks who come and learn about squatting and self-governance, and occasionally get plugged into the activist community. Several writers and artists for Slingshot have been Comedia visitors, and many Comedia visitors have gone on to spread squatting elsewhere. “I estimate at least 1200 people come through Comedia a year,” Barleycorn says. Comedia is a community space that builds something beyond itself, and the open-door policy is a part of that.

Every few weeks, there’s a musical extravaganza going on at Comedia, often drawing over a hundred people. One night it was Holy! Holy! Holy!, who played in the nude, encouraging the audience to also throw their clothes off as they rocked out to the intense tunes. This was followed by a hip-hop group, with backup dancers in chains. This evening was immortalized in Dreams of Donuts #13, a zine put out by Comedia member Heather Wreckage. Almost everyone at Comedia is either an artist, writer, musician, model, and/or photographer. Living in a squat allows them the time and flexibility to weave artistic expression into their lives.

Additionally, almost everyone at the house has been involved in activism in some way, be it marching in the Oscar Grant protests, feeding the homeless with Food Not Bombs, working on new squats with Homes Not Jails, staffing local infoshops, or defending animal rights.

When a bedroom in Comedia opened up in August, dozens of people vied for it. As the house members deliberated who to give the room to, of the major things they considered was how the candidates spent their time. Two candidates had been staying in the Comedia bunk room for nearly a year, but did not actively engage in activism and spent much of their time away from the house working and taking university classes. These two were well-liked by many house members, but the collective ultimately chose to give the room to two newcomers who were involved fulltime in the activist community.

“The house tends to have far more cismen than other genders,” Pris tells me in an interview. Cismen (short for “cissexual men” or “cisgender men”) are people who were assigned the male gender at birth and continue to identify as male. Because Comedia has more self-identified males than other genders, several people from a nearby queer-only squat have accused Comedia of being “male-dominated.”

“It’s really frustrating to hear people say the space is male-dominated when there are so many complexities with gender and powerplay going on [at Comedia],” says Finch, who lives in the Comedia Attic. Last winter, house members collectively decided to turn the Attic into a safe-space for women, trans folk, and queer people. Straight males are not allowed in the attic, except by invitation. The Attic has its own meetings, separate from the rest of the house, where gender issues can be discussed without the presence of males. “Living in Comedia, I have become more vocal and a powerful woman,” Finch says.

As I continue dropping in on Comedia, I notice how much I enjoy being in the space. Even though some of the travelers terrify me, I find myself missing Comedia when I’m away for too long, wanting to come back. Being there feels good, feels comfortable.

One day, I run into Turnip at the Long Haul infoshop, and Turnip tells me that, the night before, he had asked some drunken travelers to leave Comedia because they had broken the drinking ban. As these travelers staggered away, their dog was hit by a car and killed in the street in front of the house. Immediately, people from Comedia banned together to help them bury their dog and struggle with their grief. These sorts of convoluted interactions have no right or wrong answer.

As we discuss the issue further, Turnip eloquently states, “There are a lot of problems at a squat like Comedia that are rooted in poverty, violence, despair, and social injustice, but at the same time there’s a direct engagement with life’s dramas. A lot of people are insulated from these conditions by spending all of their time maintaining their status in the system, but they are missing out on a real life experience.”

SPACKLE HOUSE

(invite-only chillout zone)

As I climb the steps, I worry I’m at the wrong address. Spackle House seems so quiet, so white-walled, so… normal. I knock on the door, and am greeted by a long-haired man in a collared shirt who introduces himself as Steve De Caprio. Steve is often called “The Squat Guru” by other squatters, and has dedicated the last decade of his life to defending the rights of squatters in court.

We sit down in the living room, and have a lengthy discussion about the philosophy and legality of squats. Steve explains that one of the biggest critiques of the Squat Movement is that it is not sustainable because it depends on capitalist waste. But squatting itself isn’t supposed to last forever: “Squatting is a tactic towards building a revolutionary infrastructure.”

In the late 1990s, Steve traveled through Europe, staying at legendary squats in Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. Many of these squats had cafes, libraries, schools, and daycares. Shortly after returning to the U.S., Steve was laid off from his job, but instead of looking for a new one, he moved into Comedia, which was the only explicitly radical squat in Oakland at the time. Seeing the need for a network of squats, Steve began cracking new houses.

Steve envisions a future squat-based society, in which there are open-door houses like Comedia, but also lots of small, specific houses–houses for writers, houses for parents with children, houses for people recovering from addiction. This world wouldn’t be a true utopia–squats are too complicated to fit everyone’s needs all the time. But something magic does happens when we stop distracting ourselves with jobs: navigating our convoluted relationships with other humans becomes the work of our lives.

Spackle House may soon become one of the first houses in the State of California to become legally owned by a squatter. Steve explains that, according to Adverse Possession laws, if you live in a house for 5 years and pay all the back taxes on it, it should become years. “But it’s never that easy: the city will always try to screw you.” Currently, the city refuses to recognize Spackle House as a legitimate structure until Steve pays a contractor to redo much of the work he’d done himself. Perhaps, on some level, the city officials are scared of what Steve is doing: if a squatter succeeds in legally obtaining property, what would that mean about capitalist ideas of ownership?

A few years ago, when the cops came to shut down Banana House, a previous house Steve cracked, Steve had lashed out aggressively, leading him to spend some time in jail. “I should have just walked away, cracked a new house,” Steve says, “But I put my emotions ahead of the revolution… me being in jail didn’t accomplish anything.”

Another criticism of the Squatting Movement is that these squats gentrify poor communities by bringing white people into minority-only neighborhoods. But Steve explains that “In a world this convoluted, there is no clear, neat path to being revolutionary.” In the 1960s, strikers could take unemployment, and there were more resources available for people who wanted to work for social change. But now those who want to make change must make complicated choices to create the time and space they need. “When you do something positive in this society, you always get some revolutionary backlash,” Steve says.

*

Weeks later, as I finish up this article at the Long Haul Infoshop, several folks from Comedia have shown up to help with the Slingshot layout and design. Some of them have read my article and have mixed feelings: everyone seems to have a different idea about what squatting is, what it could be, and how it should be represented. But I’m beginning to suspect that no one–not even Steve De Caprio–knows exactly what squatting is.

Climbing the hills of Oakland, looking out over the sea of houses, it is impossible to tell which houses are owned and which are squatted. As we try to grapple with the complexities, words escape us, and the movement roils beneath the surface.

The economic theory at the beginning of this article was heavily influenced by the work of Evan C. Buswell.

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TEXT BOX 1 (can go anywhere on page):

Terminology

crack a squat / open a house – to begin the process of transforming an abandoned building into a home

to dumpster – to rescue food and other useful items from going to the landfill

Homes Not Jails – a squatter activist group

right of adverse possession – the part of English common law that allows anyone who has lived in an abandoned building for 5 years to become the building’s lawful owner (local laws may vary)

to spange – to engage in the age-old art of asking pedestrians for excess cash

traveler – someone who journeys form squat to squat, usually by hoping trains, bike touring, and hitchhiking

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TEXT BOX 2 (can go anywhere on page):

“Squatting is occupying unused territory. It is creating an autonomous zone amidst a proprietary world.”

–Breez, a radical squatter

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TEXTBOX (can go anywhere on page):

“If a chieftain or a man leaves his house, garden, and field and hires it out, and someone else takes possession of [it] and uses it for three years: if the first owner returns and claims his house, garden, and field, it shall not be given to him, but he who has taken possession of it and used it shall continue to use it.”

–Hammurabi’s Code, Law #30,

written 1700 BCE

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TEXTBOX (can go anywhere on page):

Three Tips for New Train Hoppers

1 – Find an experienced guide to go with you on your first trip.

2 – Hopping off a train while it’s moving (“hoping on the fly”) is dangerous as fuck. Even if it’s only going 2 miles an hour, your clothes can get caught very quickly. A couple of our friends have lost their legs this way.

3 – Don’t feel pressured to drink. Yes, drinking is a big part of train culture, but you may feel more comfortable staying sober around trains. Trust your instincts on this one.

Love,

Slingshot

Anonymous: hacktivists defend free information

For the last four years, a loose collective of hackers has been causing trouble all over the Internet, pissing off oppressive governments, religions, and corporate tycoons alike. They call themselves “Anonymous,” and in youtube appearances, they wear Guy Fawkes masks like the hero of Alan Moore’s classic anarchist comic book, V for Vendetta. Indeed, following the exploits of Anonymous feels somewhat like reading a comic book.

Anonymous’ mission is simple: to protect human rights and keep information free. Their “hacktivist” activities include cyber-attacks against the Church of Scientology, Egypt’s Ministry of Information, the Fine Gael Party of Ireland, the white supremacy websites of Hal Turner, the Zimbabwe Government, the (ex)-Tunisian Government, the Americans for Wealth website, and perhaps my favorite:

In February 2010, in response to the Australian Parliament’s motion to use internet censorship software to prevent its citizens from viewing some types of porn (namely, porn with female ejaculation and with small-breasted women), Anonymous launched ‘Operation Titstorm’ in which they defaced the Prime Minister’s homepage, crashed the parliament website, and spammed legislators with thousands of naughty pictures. A few hours before this occurred, the group sent an email to journalists, stating:

“No government should have the right to refuse its citizens access to information solely because they perceive it to be unwanted… The Australian government will learn that one does not mess with our porn. No one messes with our access to perfectly legal (or illegal) content for any reason.”

During Cablegate of December 2010, Anonymous declared solidarity with WikiLeaks. Then, when MasterCard and Visa blocked online donations to WikiLeaks, Anonymous retaliated by crashing their websites. The group also launched Operation Leakspin, which involves sorting through the 900,000+ leaked military documents on WikiLeaks and spreading important ones that may have been overlooked.

In the meantime, the FBI has been running around in circles trying to stop WikiLeaks and catch members of Anonymous. In February, Aaron Barr, a self-described “master of counter-hacking” from HBGary Security Firm, announced to the media that he could take WikiLeaks down and dismantle Anonymous. Barr threatened Anonymous by telling the Financial Times that he had obtained personal information on many of the group’s leaders, including their real names. Anonymous responded swiftly and thoroughly: They took down Barr’s website, stole his emails, deleted his company’s backup data, trashed his twitter account, and remotely wiped his i-pad.

“Ddos!!! Fckers,” Aaron sent from his iPhone as a DDoS attack hit his corporate network. (This and all 30,000 other messages Aaron Barr has ever sent via the web are available for immediate torrent on piratebay.com.)

Neither the FBI nor corporate security firms can stop Anonymous as they patrol the dark corners of cyberspace in the name of truth, justice, and information freedom.

Who are these masked marauders? Whoever you are, W3 CLUM51LY 50LUT3 Y0UR 1337 H4X0R 5K1LL5.