Osha Neuman: radical street fighter, outlaw artist, and lawyer for the homeless and activists, is now an author. He has known resistance since he was a child growing up in a home of Jewish intellectuals who fought against fascism and irrationality. He cut his teeth as a young adult in the new left with an anarchist-like action group The MotherFuckers. They were so underground their name couldn’t be printed in most papers. He never abandoned the movement over the subsequent years. Though he maintains a low profile around town his presence is felt — by helping keep Berkeley seem “Bezerkely” to the Straights.
The most public part of Osha is the mural he painted at the center of Telegraph Ave. It depicts real revolution as it was being played out globally and locally. One may see his sculpture at the Albany Landfill or his massive mural across the face of La Pena Cultural Center. Inside the Long Haul is an impressive four panel painting depicting the post-industrial forces of death in opposition with the forces of life.
With the release of his new book UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERFUCKER: With Notes For Next Time, we had several chances to see him read and speak around town. He even came to the offices of Slingshot and spoke on a rather warm January day.
In his presentations Osha will often cite that, “I never wanted to write a nostalgic memoir. Capitalism is in a crisis, but it’s not a terminal crisis. It’s not quite clear what the Alternative is.”
When I share with Osha that I felt the Clinton era was depressing, how no one seemed to care how bad capitalism was then, he agreed.
“Clinton for me is part of that whole counter-revolutionary period of the past forty years. It was awful. Made more distasteful by the way he represented some counter-culture progressive kind of lifestyle — like he’s one of us. Yet somehow he pushed through the most nauseous [policies] — he aggressively consolidated the multi-national corporations. Destroying the safety net. He’s done major damage. Plus the war, the blockade [of Iraq].”
During our talk, he examined a book on Franz Fannon, left out at the Longhaul. Fannon was championed by people worldwide, and inspired those willing to go from protest to resistance. With the countless stories sparked by Fannon, Osha doesn’t even need questions to get him started up.
“When you read this now you realize how all that revolutionary momentum was defeated. [You see] how all those movements were crushed or compromised. Look at Algeria, the forces of liberation was defeated, They were not as strong as we thought they were.”
When Osha speaks to a crowd of baby-boomers, he speaks of their own defeat in a poetic yet pragmatic way. “We were surfers of the wave that we were creating, and unbeknownst to us, we landed in the present. We became hyphenated radicals; Radical-doctors, radical-lawyers, radical-teachers, not revolutionaries.”
“The 60′s may not have fundamentally changed the power balance, but a profound cultural change did happen. Though that change could be turned into commodity capitalism and used to sell commodities, that is clear. You can go to a supermarket and hear 60′s rock n’ roll as muzak. They can do that and there’s still a sublimation. The 1950′s are over and done with. There’s much more diversity today in terms of race and gender, yet the system has been able to absorb that. The issue then is how do you link again to a vision of a radically different world, a vision that confronts the worst aspects of capitalism.”
But Osha is not one to get caught in negative thinking, nor does he dwell in false hope.
“It’s really an extraordinary time. To me there’s been a forty-year counter-revolution bookended by the sixties, and whatever is coming now which seems [to be] different. How different we don’t know. I think Obama was brought in to save capitalism basically. The previous administration was not good for business. They are hoping that Obama will put the ship on course. Now the question is; to what extent will capitalism keep it’s basic structure … There needs to be some resistance. There will come on the agenda a more radical transformation of genuine social control of capital. And a diminishing of free market sector where government takes over and provides basic rights or needs. I don’t think it’s going to happen unless it comes from a strong movement from below, from the streets, from poor people. I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I think right now there’s a fan club for Obama.”
Yet Osha is not entirely dismissive of the Obama fever getting people out and together.
“I think there’s a lot there that’s genuinely compelling. He’s a person that has compassion. I think Dreams of My Father is a quite amazing book from anybody much less from someone with the power that he has. The question is can the person with that consciousness remain that way while dealing with a foreign policy, or whatever they have to confront. He has a job to do and it’s not a pretty job.”
Osha wrote an op-ed piece in our local paper the Berkeley Daily Planet about the occupation of Gaza and slaughter of over thirteen-hundred people in the days leading up to the inauguration of Obama. In it he rallies against Obama’s silence on the matter: “What’s happening in Palestine, in Gaza to me is unacceptable.”
You’ve been to Palestine — what part? “I’ve been three times. Both West Bank and Gaza with the Middle East Children’s Alliance. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was like living with a pressure that pushed all the air out of your lungs so you couldn’t breathe. Living under that occupation there’s no escape even for a moment. It was amazing that people could live that way for an hour, much less all the time.”
Did you see a noticeable difference with your subsequent visits there? “Well of course, there was in the sense that the first Intifada was a popular uprising in which all sectors participated. With children throwing stones at tanks. After then it became more professional.”
In the book you mention a protest you went to in London as a youth that protested a massacre that happened in SharpVille South Africa. Was this your first protest? “Yeah, another long ,drawn out struggle. It was one of my firsts. It was my first arrest. We have not produced that kind of movement and those kinds of leaders. It was inspiring because that ability to continue that resistance and keep your society together in the face of that. In the U.S. a few casualties can destroy a movement, but they had suffered innumerable casualties.
“One of the issues in the left in the U.S. is continuity. You don’t have depth without continuity and that keeps getting interrupted over and over again. There was a break with continuity with the old left and the new left. And also there’s been no organizations that’ve been built. There’s been a counter-culture that continued. There hasn’t been a development of institutions.”
And why is having institutions important? “What structure they have is an open question. Somehow we haven’t been able to create those and sustain them. Just have to keep working them to the next stages. It isn’t that tradition gets echoed back. I think we know a lot. What’s good about the 60′s was that the liberation movement was global. Despite the fact there wasn’t an internet, there would be sparks that started in NY, Chicago, Paris, Czech, Japan — there were influences that went back and forth. It wasn’t coordinated. You couldn’t do this intentionally. There was a contagion. Now it’s almost the opposite. The problem isn’t so much information, there’s an astounding amount of information. The problem is how to break out of bubbles and reach people. It’s very hard to get outside of those bubbles organizationally. Much easier to stay inside your little world and not go out, than to confront and encounter people.”
Osha is even starting to imagine how we can create a new movement that would snowball in the best possible ways.
“Where I work we do sort of a legal self-help. We get people who give a human face to the economic crisis. We get every kind of person facing eviction, being sued for their credit card debt. They’re facing all kinds of desperation. I would love to see someone, say who is disabled and the bank wants to foreclose and kick them out of their house, go to their house, move her belongings back in, prevent the sheriff from taking her out, prevent the house from being sold. That would be a very exciting intervention at this point.”
A lot of Osha’s book poses many-tiered reflections on the nature of rational thought.
It is what the subtitle of the book gets at: “Notes for Next Time.” The rest of the book is tied to the question of rational thought, how during his upbringing he took it for granted that he would grow up to be an intellectual. Being raised by professors he thought he would surely become one. Then for a short time he studied art, but quickly found it only heightened the isolation he felt as an intellectual.
The book spends much time observing this tension and how it was ample fuel in his days with the MotherFuckers influencing the practice of confrontational politics. Their influence was seen in higher profile groups like the Yippies and Weather Underground. But the Motherfuckers were the first to take their message into the comfort zone of unchecked power. When a peace protest came to the Pentagon, they were the only ones to break their way into the Hall of War. They squared off with hip rock promoter Bill Graham and cornered him into doing free community events at the Fillmore East. And when their neighborhood suffered under a garbage strike they took their trash to the posh Lincoln Center, exchanging garbage for garbage culture.
The book spends about equal time with his formative years and the years around the MotherFuckers days of 1967-1969. Then it goes for a short time into the experimental communities of New Mexico and California’s Black Bear Ranch. He then found himself settling in Berkeley where he took up practicing law and looked again to making art. “I found a way to do art that didn’t isolate me in the studio and that was to do murals. And the Albany Landfill is a fairly incredible story in itself.”
After the book was printed did you realize that you left anything out that you would’ve liked to have put in? “Initially when I wrote the book there’s a whole section about art that was just too long. It’s where I’m thinking about art, its role in the world and what art does, why there’s obstacles in making art these days. Now I think that’s a separate book. That had to go. There was lots of other stuff in there. In the course of finding a publisher it got paired down.”
On speaking of his most high profile piece of work, the People’s History of Telegraph Ave, Mural, “1976 was the bicentennial of the American Revolution. I thought ‘where was any public memorial or monument to the revolutionary period in Berkeley’ — there wasn’t any. So we approached the Villa Hermosa Restaurant. We didn’t ask anybody for money, we didn’t ask anybody for approval. We didn’t go through any design reviews. We put a can in the street and just painted it. Then we started an arts organization called Common Arts.”
Another mural Osha worked on is a few blocks down on Telegraph on a building at WiIlard Jr. High. It was partially painted over a few years ago and that story may indicate the story of Berkeley. A few die-hard radicals push to make a mark in this world. A few other people are annoyed by this and work to erase the gesture. Then there is the rest of people new to town who are confused by the outcome.
You painted Willard Jr. with them? “With Willard the way I got in there was because the junior high was closed. They tore down the old building and they were in the process of putting a new school there. The arts magnet school was temporarily there so nobody had control of the site. So basically I got to do whatever the hell I wanted. Generally since then it has been pretty difficult — because partly you have to get a community that’s going to support you, and you have to get an institution that’s willing to be identified with the content that you put there. Usually looking at the public art in Berkeley, by the time you go through the design review part, pretty much what you end up with is crap.”
And it’s true most of the art in Berkeley today is crap.
So you were working on the People’s Park Mural around the same time the park itself was going through a rebirth. After the years it was fenced in 1969-72, around that time the garden people really started to open it up as a free space again. Were you aware of them? “I was. That was a period — it always was a battle. The University has never been happy — they never accepted not having control of it. The battle the last upteen years has been over homeless people. It’s still going on. An endless fight.”
Many people new to town and ready to live in a radical new way ask me about the paradox of progressive Berkeley not having a simple food co-op. But we used to have one until the mid 80′s. Just as the once-thriving co-op was a representation of Berkeley as a hub of revolution in the USA, the plastic alternative of today’s Berkeley signifies Osha’s theory of counter-revolution. When I ask about its demise he cites the usual response about the co-op’s poor choice in over-expansion. But adds, “They had lousy vegetables, I don’t know. I think they were stuck in a bad contract.”
Seeing Osha speak, he will reveal as much of himself as he does when you read the book, except in concentrated form. He is at once vulnerable, frank, intelligent, yet he’s still a Motherfucker as he deconstructs it and reveals the wrong headed thinking behind their actions — the pompous quick impulse for violence, the male posturing. The movers and shakers of the 60′s often only lead to revolutionary egomaniacs — not revolution. Yet he doesn’t entirely denounce their struggle, and more importantly he shares with us that it’s still essential to act.
When speaking to an audience at the Neibyl Proctor library, Osha swims in a water he knows well. Much of the audience expect to hear theory and he can talk the talk. A young anarchist (pushing 40!) among the grey haired Marxists grew impatient. During much of the Q & A time, the old-timers gave long speeches using words that teem in old Marxist books. Osha often just smiled when they would raise their hand and talk for five minutes, usually without asking a question. At one point he called the intricate brain puzzles being raised another version of the Labyrinth — his book’s main metaphor for the system. But the young Anarchist in attendance raged. He raised the issue of today’s generation gap. The people in the room splitting hairs over theory do not interest people his age. What is worse, they interest those who are younger than he is even less. What was happening this day in the library soon may be a thing of the past. Osha agreed, “We’re just a room full of old men, we’re not out there in the street.” (Actually there were several women in attendance) “I’m not interested in the theory of doctrinaire anarchism, but in the power of the deed, in direct action.”
This Motherfucker used to go up against the wall in a naked gesture of exposing the oppressive nature in our reality. Now with vision and wisdom, Osha suggests other options. Perhaps we will decide to walk through the walls that have loomed for so long — that are seemingly untoppable.