Building eco systems of community – Andrea Prichett wins Slingshot award for Lifetime Achievement

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Slingshot awarded its 7th annual Award for Lifetime Achievement to Andrea Prichett at our 24th birthday party in March. Andrea is a corner stone of the Berkeley radical scene and a remarkable presence at street protests — usually standing close to a scary line of police filming what they*re doing. During all the occupy protests recently, we counted on running into her during the tense moments. She has a sly smile and carefully chosen words, chewing on a toothpick while sitting on her bike.

Slingshot created our lifetime achievement award to recognize direct action radicals who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for alternatives to the current system. Front-line radicals frequently operate below the radar and lack widespread recognition, which is too bad. While awards can be part of systems of hierarchy, a complete lack of recognition for long-term activists robs us of chances to appreciate and learn from the contributions individuals can make during a lifetime of organizing. Thanks, Andrea, for your continuing contributions to the struggle. Here*s a short biography of Andrea.

Andrea grew up in Connecticut and remembers being fascinated by the American revolutionaries and the US Constitution, which were a big part of the culture in the area. “Tri-corner hats were cool.”

When she was 13, she moved to Hollister, California. She was struck by how Latinos and Anglos were segregated, coming together at school but mostly living separately in the community. She wanted to escape the constraints of the small town. In high school she went to Model UN conferences in Berkeley and loved the culture here. She remembers sneaking away from the Model UN to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. When she finished high school, she only applied to the University of California (UC) Berkeley. “If I hadn*t gotten in, I wouldn*t have gone to college,” she recalls.

At Berkeley it took her awhile to get involved in the radical scene. She attended a meeting of a Maoist front group, met some members of the Sparticist League and then gave up any affiliation with them once it became clear that they had no appreciation for spiritual ideas and beliefs.

During the summer of 1984 Andrea joined an affinity group to do art actions around campus in the middle of the night. A group of people got arrested and a community coalesced around their arrest. “Everybody had to come together to defend our comrades. It was our fear of university repression that made everyone feel like they couldn*t just walk away and go home,” she explained.

Andrea*s community got organized just as the international anti-apartheid movement was heating up. Apartheid in South Africa was a legal system of racial segregation and enforced white supremacy. Less than 20 percent of South Africans were white, yet whites controlled most of the wealth and power. In 1983 and 84, black South Africans protested daily against a new racist constitution and were met with vicious force. Daily TV coverage of the repression sparked international protests against apartheid and reinvigorated efforts to get US businesses and governments to stop doing business with the racist South African government.

Andrea describes the anti-apartheid movement in Berkeley as a perfect storm. Activism in South Africa was inspiring and motivating students abroad. “We were ready to take their lead” she explains. Students at Berkeley started having direct actions outside of University Hall demanding that the University of California divest from South Africa by dropping investments in companies doing business in South Africa. In December 1984, students and celebrities got arrested for sitting down in front of University Hall, where the bureaucrats running the whole 9-campus University of California system were based.

At the same time, connections were being built between students, radical elements in the labor movement, and radicals from the community off campus. These connections inspired even greater student activism. At the time, The Daily Cal, the campus paper, published numerous investigative articles exposing UC connections with South Africa.

Andrea became a key student leader in the UCB anti-apartheid movement and remembers talking to black South Africans who were saying, “Why aren*t you being more active — why aren*t you taking on the system more directly?” The movement in Berkeley confronted complex dynamics of race, class and political differences that prepared her for later activism in which she has observed those dynamics playing out again and again. Some parts of the movement favored symbolic actions, while other parts favored more disruptive direct resistance, and there was race baiting between the factions. She advises, “You don*t have to take it personal that these are things that come into play. But if it fits, take it personally.”

In late March and early April 1985, students occupied Sproul Plaza in a five-week long sit-in at the center of campus in front of the administration building. Andrea recalls that the sit-in faced, “the same challenges that Occupy Oakland faced with a prolonged encampment” — dealing with nightly police harassment employing divide and conquer tactics and trying to address the basic needs of homeless people who joined the sit-in. Despite the challenges, the sit-in was successful in confronting the university on a daily basis and building a thriving protest community of students and non-student fighting for divestment. 400 people were arrested over 44 days, including 156 arrested during a 6 am raid on April 16 that caused 10,000 students to boycott classes. The plaza was renamed “Biko Plaza” after South African student leader Stephen Biko who was murdered by South African police in 1977. The occupiers published the Biko Plaza News on a daily basis — which inspired creation of Slingshot 3 years later.

Despite the sit-in, the University failed to divest from South Africa in 1985. The next year, radicals constructed a shanty town in front of University Hall, sparking 2 nights of rioting on campus. Andrea hadn*t seen such extreme police violence — and resistance from the community — before. She remembers it being like “warfare without guns” including intense police beatings and the crowd throwing objects. She realized “a raw and ugly fact that the university doesn*t just represent capitalism but it is the gears of capitalism. . . . When people are resisting the university they are resisting control.”

With rumors that the National Guard was going to be called in, she was surprised to see how quickly the situation changed from “oh we*re having a little protest here; to resistance; to they*re really bringing down the hammer here.” It was an important lesson: the university is crucial target and a viable place for radicals to restrict the functioning of the system. In the wake of the shanty town, the university announced that it would divest from South Africa.

From 1987-89, Andrea lived in Zimbabwe traveling and working as a teacher. She worked at a school for ex-combatants who fought in the Zimbabwe revolution, which still existed when she returned to Zimbabwe in 2007.

Upon returning to the US, Andrea dropped by People*s Park although she hadn*t been involved in its struggles previously. She was struck by the prevalence of poverty in the US, which she saw with a new eye because of her time in Africa. She began organizing around the park, poverty and homelessness, and around Telegraph Avenue, which at the time functioned as a town square permitting discussion and interactions between many types of people.

But her efforts kept running into problems with the police who were harassing radicals and poor people alike around Telegraph Ave. In March, 1990 she and two other women called a meeting to start the first Copwatch group in the US. Her original idea was to mount patrols to watch and photograph the police to both limit and document their abuses. At the time, she says they weren*t thinking about similar patrols that the Black Panther Party had operated. Copwatch had an office on Telegraph, did a couple of patrols a week, and published a quarterly report. At first, it focused on Telegraph but eventually expanded to other areas.

In the pre-internet 1990s, Andrea mailed out copies of the Copwatch handbook and a video tape entitled Refuse to be Abused to anyone who asked. She went to national conferences of the National Association for Police Accountability and wrote articles about Copwatch*s successes in Berkeley. Copwatch also ran a class at UC Berkeley that took students out on patrol. During weekly discussions of policing, students would say “I never thought about things this way before.” Gradually, Copwatch chapters spread throughout the US and around the world thanks to her tireless efforts.

While Andrea has been a mover and shaker with Copwatch for over 20 years, she*s also done many other things with her life. She taught at a private school and did some construction before earning her teacher*s credential in 2005 and becoming an 8th grade English and history teacher. “Being a teacher is wonderful — it*s like a garden where something is going to grow, as opposed to activism where you can put in years and not necessarily see anything happen.”

Andrea played music with Rebecca Riots for 8 years and enjoyed being in a band that could play benefits for radical groups. “I don*t think it*s enough to do music but maybe its not enough to just do activism either” she notes.

Being involved in a long-term project like Copwatch, Andrea explains that the project needs you and you need the project. “Copwatch gives me a way to connect to what rises and falls.”

“For all the activism I*ve done, the thing I*ve learned is that change is possible when we have relationships and community. Unless we have those relationships I can pass out fliers but nothing is really going to happen. We don*t have vast resources but we have social capital– built year by year that is crucial in the success of our projects. In the time of the internet, knowing a face and having trust is invaluable.” Andrea is focused on the “ecosystem of the community” — trying to figure out what is going to be good for the community and how to achieve it.

Thanks Andrea, and keep struggling!