At Slingshot’s 18th birthday party, the Slingshot Collective awarded the second annual Wingnut prize for Lifetime Achievement to our comrade Michael Diel. A short biography of Michael appears below. Slingshot created the Wingnut prize to recognize direct action radicals who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for alternatives to the current depressing, rotten system.
Wingnut is the term some of us use to refer to folks who walk on the wild side of reality — rejecting social, political and economic norms while fighting for a different world. A wingnut is more than just another boring radical, and more than just a nutcase — he or she is a blend of the best parts of both.
For 2007, we hope to award two Wingnut Awards for Lifetime Achievement: one for the East Bay scene, and one global award. Please send us your nominations along with why a particular person should be awarded the wingnut title for 2007. Someone must have at least 25 years of “service” to get the award.
Biography of Michael
Michael showed an early proclivity for activism in fourth grade in Windham, N.H. when he refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance and when he organized a boycott of music class because the students were being forced to sing Christmas music. He notes that this atheist action is ironic since he finally ended up as a dedicated pagan. In high school in the 1970s, Michael published an underground high school paper called Threshold. He organized a petition drive against mid-term exams which he got 80 percent of his fellow students to sign. “In high school I came to realize that in my writings I was espousing an anarchist criticism of the school system,” he notes. He recalls hating school, although he also founded an alternative school called the Alternative Learning Project which still exists today.
Michael attended Antioch college but because there were so many activist oriented students, he got into other things, among them, mid-1970s punk rock. He notes that he was “really into dancing” (he still is) and that he had “a lot of anger — punk gave me an outlet.” Michael dropped out of Antioch for a while and ended up in Berkeley for the first time in 1976 as a homeless street squatting gutter punk. He eventually finished school with a degree in early childhood education which he’s never used all that much.
During the 1980s, Michael was mostly homeless and was less explicitly political. He made art and got deeply into meditation. It was meditation that eventually told him that he should “get back involved in the world.”
Michael joined the 924 Gilman Street Project, an all-ages, volunteer run punk club, in the late 1980s. He was first involved in the art committee — he wanted to paint the walls. He eventually became manager and helped the club become a collective and a non-profit corporation — it was originally a project of Maximum Rock’n'Roll/Tim Yohannon. When the city wanted to close Gilman down, Michael helped organize 150 punks to show up to the city zoning commission meeting, and the city backed down. Gilman will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. Michael’s involvement in Gilman street brought him back to politics when he was involved with the club’s stand against racist skinheads. Michael spent a lot of time at Gilman offering counseling and advice to the younger punks, leading him eventually to the Berkeley Free Clinic, where he has focused on mental health and peer counseling.
Michael originally worked for the Free Clinic as a fundraiser but eventually became a key part of the Peer Counseling Collective which provides alternative mental health services. Michael is currently chairman of the Berkeley Mental Health Commission, a mental health advocate, and a member of the Radical Mental Health Collective.
In the 1990s, Michael became involved with the struggle to defend Berkeley’s People’s Park from University of California efforts to gentrify the park by building a volleyball court there. At around the same time, he devoted significant efforts to homeless advocacy, struggling to defeat city efforts to ban panhandling and harass homeless street youth. He helped win a federal court case against the city’s anti-panhandling/sitting on the sidewalk law. He was involved with an 11 day, 60 person strong Berkeley Homeless Union camp out in front of City Hall.
Michael became a member of the police monitoring group Copwatch to try to limit police abuse. In 1999 he helped Copwatch stand down the police chief and 40 officers who were trying to break up Camp KPFA outside the threatened radio station. He also got a radio show on pioneering unlicensed micro-radio station Free Radio Berkeley. He is rumored to still be involved in micro-radio on Berkeley Liberation Radio, 104.1 FM.
When asked why he deserved the 2006 Wingnut Award for lifetime achievement, Michael murmured “because I’m crazy!” Michael is well appreciated in the east bay for his unique ability to mix politics, punk, crazy dancing, paganism and street action. Michael walks everywhere he goes. “I got my top hat handed to me by a homeless woman and since then have been known as ‘the mayor of the streets’.” he added. Michael’s wise, radical and joyful presence is the very definition of wingnut-ism.