Resistance and recuperation – Tristan Anderson’s struggle to thrive past and present

Tristan Anderson is a long-time Bay Area activist and photojournalist who was documenting resistance to Israel’s separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Ni’lin. The weekly demonstration against the wall was winding down when Israeli Defense Forces fired a high velocity tear gas canister at his head, critically wounding him. He was taken to Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv, where he has undergone several surgeries to reconstruct his skull. I spoke to his partner Gabby on the six month anniversary of his shooting.

Dee: When you first met him, what was your impression?

Gabby: It’s strange to think back to our old life. We met in a tree, at the top of an occupied tree at the Oak Grove Tree Sit in Berkeley. This might be uninteresting to anyone who’s not a tree sitter, but he made an impression on me early on as an excellent climber, with a very cool, very unique climbing style. And it was so interesting because he was completely comfortable free climbing, but was mistrustful of the ropes; whereas I was always very comfortable with the gear and freaked out about the free climbs (moving with no safety line). I can remember him doing this crazy ninja crap, then almost losing it over a simple traverse. I think it says a lot about him. Tristan has a way of being very capable and very confident, and then very humble and goofy at the same time.

Eventually we became partners. We had such a funny awkward start to our relationship. I had this idea that a boyfriend would just slow me down and make me co-dependent, so I was a real pain in the ass to go out with in the beginning. And Tristan was so shy, he used to say “girls are scarier than riot cops”.

D: What are his odd quirks that people find endearing?

G: Oh shit, there’s a lot of odd quirks. For one thing, Tristan at heart is an archivist. He is a collector of things–some useful, some completely strange. And he’s very interested, not just in the preservation of other people’s reclaimed junk, but also in the preservation of radical histories. He’s been very slowly writing a book about his experiences in the anti-globalization movement. The book is part travel diary, part criticism of neo-liberal economics, part riot porn. But he’s had two problems with writing the book. One: he’s too busy running around being a crazy activist to work on his book about activism, and two: that archivist nature. The writing encapsulates every tiny detail of everything that was happening at that time, so what you get is more of a time capsule than a functional story. But this is his nature. It’s highly detailed, highly researched, highly accurate- and almost impossible to read! I love it, but I’m biased.

D: What are his talents, interests, hobbies, inspirations?

G: Tristan’s parents are Back To The Landers. He grew up in a series of stone houses in the woods and he lived with no electricity until he was 12. When Tristan was about 20, he moved to the Bay Area to find other punks and have an exciting life. He’s done a lot of world travel, but he always comes back home to the Bay.

Tristan is tremendously knowledgeable about California wildlife. He builds bikes and goes to protests, he screens patches, digs in dumpsters, eats weird food, reads history books, he watches birds, takes photos, keeps archives, does complicated math in his head, swims in cold funky water, climbs trees, stuff like that. We like each other a whole lot. Tristan’s facinating to hang out with.

He’s a person who believes in putting his beliefs in line with his lifestyle, scavenging food and participating in anarchist struggle. He’s been arrested over 50 times. I remember when he came when the Berkeley Tree-sit was going to be evicted saying, “Okay, I’ll get arrested with you guys but I have to start my new career on Sunday.” We all laughed about that because we knew it was going to be ridiculously dangerous, but he managed to face a 3 day long cherrypicker assault, get arrested, get out, post all the pictures of it on Indybay (search “cricket”), get arrested again, get bailed out, run to work sweaty and exhausted, only to get scolded by his boss for being 10 minutes late. Some people would not understand his lifestyle thinking it must be difficult to plunge into a dangerous, unpredictable situation, but it he took great emotional satisfaction and pride in collective empowerment through street mobilization. He especially has a history of going up against walls, i.e. the Israeli separation barrier, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fences they built at the Oak Grove tree-sit.

D: Can you talk about some of the struggles he’s been involved in? Some of the places he’s been? Even a quick list would be great.

G: Yes. Tristan’s gone to more crazy protests than anyone I know. And beyond just the local stuff, he lived in El Salvador at the end of the war in the early 90s during the death squads, he reported for Indymedia from Iraq shortly after the invasion, he was in Oaxaca… And he made it out. It’s still hard to believe he got shot while we were just standing around, relaxing. I mean ok, we were standing around in Ni’iln, but still, we were just standing around. We were away from the main body of the crowd. No one was throwing stones. Nothing was happening.. He learned a lot at Genoa during the G8 mobilizations. He’s done a lot of Latin American solidarity work and has strong ties with El Salvador and Mexico. He said the heaviest shit was Oaxaca. His friend Brad Will was a videographer covering the teacher’s strike in Oaxaca in fall 2006. He had plans to meet up with him, but when Brad was killed he flew there right away. He said it was the most amazing thing he ever experienced in his life. The level of solidarity and revolutionary feeling he experienced in Oaxaca was unlike anywhere else. He was out against the WTO in Seattle. Ecuador, Sweden. There are Justice for Tristan posters all over the squats of Berlin. He was in England for an extended period of time. He always joked that in Germany the feminists ran the scene, while in Greece he was often told “You should not talk to girls who believe in feminism”. He was in Argentina during the bank crash. Nicaragua. He’s been heavily involved in the anti-globalization movement. Pretty much almost all of the major mobilizations from the summit-hopping heyday, he was always there. He was a fixture. He also cared deeply for nuclear disarmament, and was arrested protesting the Afghan/Iraq War. The cops got so used to arresting him for San Francisco Food Not Bombs they would stop their cars and greet him with enthusiasm.

D: I remember he would love squatter christmas, which is the time when the students leave their “trash” at the end of the semester to go home. Are there any memorable garbage finds he seemed particularly proud of?

G: Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes he attached value to the most absurd things. I remember when we first started dating, and I was checking out his room full of weird stuff, I noticed he had a whole shelf full of bubbles- children’s bubbles- that he saved because he figured he could bring them to a Reclaim the Streets type party sometime, although I never saw him actually take them anywhere. And on the shelf he had several jars marked “BAD”. So he had found these children’s bubbles in the trash, tested them, seen that several jars didn’t work, labelled them as “BAD”, and then lined them back up on the shelf! We tested them again and indeed they were BAD bubbles. Grudgingly, and I think it was only because we were a new relationship and he was still trying to impress me, he got rid of the “BAD” bubbles.

D: He’s been a committed vegan for 10 and a half years, travelling to other countries where such dietary restrictions are a little bit unreasonable. What kind of weird food has he eaten in the name of keeping veg? This could also be expanded to generally rotten nasty food he’s eaten for the sake of not letting it go to waste.

G: Tristan was born with almost no sense of smell and therefore a greatly reduced sense of taste. I’ve seen him eat the craziest, most unreasonably rotten things, and love it. He normally keeps a special spoon in his pocket so he can scoop vile rotting things up everywhere we go and eat them. He’ll eat things out of the compost pile! Sometimes he’s not even hungry, he just considers it his solemn duty somehow.

But on travelling: One time, towards the end of the war, I think in El Salvador, he was in the mountains with the guerillas. He was watching a pot of soup being cooked for hours trying to see what they were putting in it. He was so hungry. Everyone was hungry, and what food there was he sometimes wouldn’t eat because he’s that kind of pain in the ass — I mean highly principled — vegan. So, he’s watching this pot of soup all day, and it’s almost ready and it’s perfectly vegan, and he’s licking his lips and then all of a sudden they drop a whole cow’s leg in the pot! And he says “Wait! Wait! you said no meat!” and his friend says, “What? Not meat, flavor.”

D: The people of Ni’lin and surrounding villages have suffered heavy casualties in their resistance to the separation barrier. A surprising thing I’ve noticed from videos of past demonstrations is the involvement of children in the struggle, which indicates to me the deep threat their community is facing. What are the demands of their movement? What does the Wall represent to their current way of life?

G: The Wall is an escalation of the Military Occupation which dominates every facet of life for Palestinians. To live under an occupation with no end in sight is an impossible situation. Villages that have organized to resist the wall being built through their land have been incredibly courageous. They’ve made important gains, and have also suffered a high price. The Occupation affects everyone, including children. It’s not uncommon to see young boys at the demonstrations.

D: In the time you spent in Palestine, what were the wishes of the Palestinians you met? What is their general attitude towards international activists?

G: We were here for only about a month before Tristan was shot, and our time was divided between Palestine solidarity work and hanging out with internationals and Israeli anarchists. I don’t feel qualified to speak for Palestinians, although some things are obvious. This is a struggle for national sovereignty and self-determination. There are people who will tell you that the Israel- Palestine conflict is infinitely complicated, but it’s not. They want reasonable things, like basic freedoms and control of their land and resources.

A large part of this struggle is invisibility and the general anti-Arab racism of the Western world. Internationals are very welcome. You will be fed until you can’t walk, you will marvel at the Arabic language, the beauty of the land, and you will make friends. But it’s dangerous here, so think about it hard before you decide to come.

D: As a Jew, do you see any parallels between the atrocities of the Holocaust and the situation in Palestine?

G: I see that in Israel the right wing exploits the Holocaust at every turn, and then attacks anyone on the left who tries to draw parallels between the vicious right wing militarism of the Israeli State and the right wing militarism of places like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, etc. The bottom line is that Israel does not get a free ride to human rights abuse because of Jewish suffering in World War II.

D: There seems to be a certain difference in the militarized societies of the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. fights its wars of conquest abroad and, with the help of corporate media, largely out of view of the American public, making it easy for the average person to claim ignorance, whereas the conflict in Israel is played out much closer to home. Does this geographical closeness bring it closer psychologically to the Isareli people? Or does it force them to distance themselves from it even further? Does it seem like the average person there is unaware of the plight of Palestinians, or are they aware of the atrocities and simply justify it as necessary to their national security?

G: I don’t understand Israelis. Invariably the first thing out of every Israeli’s mouth when they hear what happened to us is, “What were you doing there?” Most people here don’t know what’s happening in the Occupied Territories, but more importantly than that, they don’t want to know.

D: What is the experience of Israeli anarchists living in a highly militarized, socially conservative society?

G: It’s a difficult life for Israeli anarchists. First off, you have the draft. Every able bodied Israeli at the age of 18 (with exemptions for the ultra-orthodox) is expected to do several years of military service. The options are principled refusal (which means going to military prison), pretending to be crazy, or going along with it. Either way, this choice that they make as a teenager follows them around for the rest of their life. Those who opt out of the army have a very hard time getting jobs and are heavily stigmatized by mainstream society.

The struggle here is very high stakes. The activists I’ve known here (Palestinian, Israeli, and International) have been the most committed people I’ve ever encountered in my life.

D: When you see the weakness and debility Tristan’s injury has caused him, what do you feel? What does “Justice for Tristan!” mean to you?

G: I have been profoundly affected by this experience. I feel like shit all the time.

There will be no justice for Tristan. Our best hope is a harm reduction approach, trying to make this situation as least bad as possible. This includes access to top quality medical care for the rest of his life, accountability for those personally responsible, and errrr…ending the occupation?

D: Would he be alive right now if he were Palestinian?

G: No. We would have gone to Ramallah Hospital and he would have died, like Basem who was killed with the same high velocity tear gas canister that injured Tristan. He is missed dearly by Palestinian and Israeli peace activists alike.

D: What do the Israeli nurses think of your activism? Do you find yourself biting your tongue in the interest of ensuring adequate healthcare?

G: Some people here know who we are, others don’t. During the ICU time I was a completely traumatized lunatic and I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I was doing all kinds of creepy PTSD things. I used to think that every lazy nurse or uncaring doctor was a self-appointed agent of the state here to finish the job. They used to call security on me about once a week. Now I’m less crazy, no one’s called security on me in months.

D: How has your life been as his constant caregiver and companion? Frustrating, rewarding, both?

G: I believe that eventually life will get better than this for both of us. It’s a very difficult situation, not just because he got shot in the head, but because Tristan came to the Rehabilitation Center and got worse. Everyone else is getting better, and he’s gotten worse.

We waited a long time for a surgery to address the medical complication that was ruining our lives. He’s improved since the surgery, but has suffered other complications. Eventually, the stars will align in the correct way and we’ll be able to get on with the Rehabilitation process. But it’s been very slow going, and for better or worse, my health and well being is very interconnected with Tristan’s.

D: When did you make the decision to stay with him through the hospitalization process?

G: Of course I would stay with him.

D: What kind of support have you seen from the Israeli anarchist community?

G: We’ve gotten a lot of support not just from the Israeli anarchists, but also from their families. They cook for us, visit us, help us with translating, transportation, and countless annoying logistical things. They have been wonderful, which is a good thing because my relatives here have completely disowned me, and our Palestinian friends can’t get across the border. Without the support and friendship of the Israeli anarchist community, we would be totally fucked.

D: There were a number of demonstrations across the U.S. and the world expressing street solidarity with Tristan in the days following his shooting. Do you feel these played a role in exerting political pressure against Israel to provide medical care?

G: The solidarity demonstrations have been very important. Tristan and I went out into the streets for Carlo Giuliana killed in Genoa and Brad Will killed in Oaxaca, and I’m glad that our community has come out for us. There may come a time when we need to start the demonstrations again. Please support us if we call.

D: What kind of medical support is he going to need long-term?

G: Fuck if I know. But whatever it is, it’s going to be expensive.

D: What are the best ways for someone Stateside to support him?

G: The most important thing is to mobilize for justice and continue the Struggle. In smaller ways, we try to keep Tristan company here and surround him with comfortable, familiar things. Writing letters or sending photos, posters, art or music that he might recognize or enjoy helps keep Tristan tethered to his old life and his old self. It’s important in that way, and also it helps to improve our quality of life here and keep things interesting. (The best kinds of letters are not of the “sorry this terrible atrocity happened to you, free Palestine!” sort, but are personal anecdotes that are interesting or funny. We have quite a lot of freedom about what art to put on the walls of his hospital room and what music to play, but we try to keep his room a space free of police violence or allusions to police violence. And we can’t afford to alienate anyone who works here with free Palestine propaganda.

Of course there’s also the money thing. Money helps, benefit shows help and it’ll make a big difference to us, but we’d rather have you out in the streets.

Letters, photos, stories, and bad jokes about Ronald Reagan can be sent to Tristan Anderson c/o

Jonathan Pollak

10 Elazar St.

Tel Aviv, 65157 Israel