My Second Week On The Streets Of San Francisco




Hey friends,

I probably won’t be updating Kloncke for the next week or so, and that’s because, for my second time, I’ll be joining the Faithful Fools in their annual Street Retreat: seven days and nights living, sleeping, and reflecting in the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood, in San Francisco.

Coming to terms with the street retreat as a reflective and humanizing practice has been difficult for me.  To be honest, I still feel significant resistance to the idea.  Fortunately, though, over the past few weeks I’ve been able to sit with this resistance and discomfort (a time when the dhamma practice has come in handy), talk with friends and other Fools about it, and work through it in a positive way.

Before getting into my reservations and reconciliations, here’s a nice, basic description of what the street retreat, from fellow Fool intern Josh Mann:

Starting this Saturday, I will be participating in my first week-long Street Retreat through the Faithful Fools. I’ll be leaving my money, cell phone, and keys behind and taking a sleeping bag and backpack. I plan to sleep outside and eat mostly in soup kitchens, and I anticipate a lot of searching for public bathrooms. Twice a day, I’ll be meeting up with eight to ten other people to reflect on the experience. And, some of us will be sleeping as a group.

Part of the mission of the Faithful Fools is to “participate in shattering myths about those living in poverty” and to help people discover what is common to all of us regardless of our economic standing or housing status. As a Street Retreat participant, I am asked to reflect throughout the retreat on what keeps me separate from others as well as what connects me.

Ever since my first term in college, I have felt compelled to engage the social issues of poverty and hunger, and I expect that this retreat will help me better understand these issues including the way that public policies, laws, and urban planning affect people with little to no money.

At the same time, the founders of the Faithful Fools put great emphasis on the fact that we are not pretending to be homeless. I will begin the retreat knowing that it has a specific end time on Saturday, October 30th. It also seems important for me to acknowledge that I go as an able-bodied, college-educated U.S. citizen who is white, male, and straight, which will no doubt be a factor in both how other people respond to me and how I experience the streets.

Please keep me in your thoughts this week. I seek to know my own heart, and I need all of the help I can get. I also invite you to participate with me in some way or another wherever you are. I recommend setting aside a little time one day to wander and see who and what you encounter. The spirit of this retreat as I understand it is to meet more deeply the people and places that we sometimes hurry past.

So there’s a little bit of background.  As you can see, the retreat is not a study or experiment, nor is it a gimmick for “playing homeless.”  The spirit is one of renunciation.   We wouldn’t fast in order to “understand what it’s like to be a starving person,” but in order to push and expand our own views of the world we inhabit right now, as we are.  It’s not about appropriating or trying on someone else’s experience (the simplistic idea of “standing in someone else’s shoes”), but about peeling off the layers of ourselves, the skins thickened by routine and dualism, that pervert our own views of reality — including our views of ourselves.

What had been bugging me so much, I think (and it disturbed me so strongly that I very nearly backed out of the whole thing), wasn’t the idea of the street retreat itself, but its purported connections to mechanisms of social transformation.  I’ve talked on this blog before about what I see as the dangers of believing in a method for changing the world one mind at a time.  This approach rightly observes that human social “systems” are made up of individual people, but wrongly induces that these systems are therefore merely the sum of their parts, and that persistent hearts-and-minds education can eventually (through influencing voters and “those in power”) translate into large-scale fundamental social improvements.

I disagree with this approach for various reasons; now isn’t the time to go into ’em.  Suffice it to say, now that I’ve managed to decouple the reflective, community side of the street retreat from positive claims about its structural effectiveness, I feel a bit calmer about participating.

One common concern about street retreats is that we are “taking away resources” from people who need them, by eating in soup kitchens and sometimes sleeping in shelters (if we can get in).  I sympathize with the concern here, but the way I see it is: we do far more to support poverty and homelessness through our everyday complacency with the capitalist system than we could possibly do by individually taking a couple dozen free meals.  The scarcity (of beds, less frequently of food) is artificial.

Another frequent worry, especially from my dad: YOU ARE GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED.  IT IS DANGEROUS OUT THERE.

Don’t worry, papa.  (And others.)  From my observation over the past year, there is little danger of random violence on the streets of the Tenderloin.  The main types of violence we see here are (1) interpersonal violence among acquaintances, (2) low-level police violence in the form of harassment and enabling rape culture, and (2) structural violence, like the abovementioned artificial scarcity that keep families homeless while apartment buildings sit vacant for years, or the racist, sexist, homophobic criminalization of mental illness and drug addiction.

I guess both of these ‘responses,’ intended to allay fears, kind of sidestep the issues by pointing out how they are dwarfed by larger problems.  Well, that’s sort of how it goes for me, at the moment.  We’ll see if any more insights come during the week.

Wish me luck!  I will try to log some time on the computers in the public library, but the lines are generally long, the connections slow, and the time limits brief.

Take care, friends.


Billie’s Wisdom, Rumi’s Insight

Good morning, heartache
You old gloomy sight
Good morning, heartache
Thought we said goodbye last night
I tossed and turned until it seemed you had gone
But here you are with the dawn

Wish I’d forget you
But you’re here to stay
It seems I met you
When my love went away
Now every day I start by saying to you
Good morning, heartache, what’s new?

Stop haunting me now
Can’t chase you no how
Just leave me alone
I’ve got those Monday Blues
Straight through Sunday blues

Good morning, heartache
Here we go again
Good morning heartache
You’re the one who knew me when
Might as well get used to you hanging around
Good morning, heartache — sit down

Stop haunting me now
Can’t chase you no how
Just leave me alone
I’ve got those Monday Blues
Straight through Sunday blues

Good morning, heartache
Here we go again
Good morning, heartache
You’re the one who knew me when
Might as well get used to you hanging around
Good morning, heartache — sit down

Reminds me of that famous poem by Rumi:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Sidewalk Sit

Sarah Weintraub, Michael Bedar, Tyson Casey and Michaela O'Connor Bono sitting off of O'Farrell Street, with a sign reading "sidewalks are for people; NO on L." photo by Sr. Carmen Barsody

Sorry I didn’t get a chance to post on Friday, folks — this weekend was a particularly busy one. Starting Friday evening, we (at the Faithful Fools) hosted about 16 participants in a three-day gathering for Buddhists and friends dedicated to social justice. “Working for Liberation,” we called it: the culmination of, oh, about six months of co-planning between me and the lovely Tyson Casey of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, with guidance from Carmen of the Fools and Alan Senauke of Clear View Project (also vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and author of the newly published The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines).

I wanna say more — much more — about the weekend, but I gotta run back to Sacramento. So for now I’ll leave you with these two images of our final weekend ‘activity’: a performative outreach effort in the Sidewalks Are For People Campaign, or “No on Prop L.” A grey, drizzly Sunday morning; chilly but thoroughly enjoyable.

Sixteen of the eighteen meditators sitting on wet Franklin Street sidewalks, sheltered under neighborhood trees. photo by Sonny of the UU Church


Guilty Pleasure: Cee Lo’s “F*** You”

Guilty aspect number one: I actually prefer the radio edit version to the original. Not because I’m so scandalized by the phrase “fuck you,” but because I like the lilt provided by the extra syllable in “forget you.” Am I alone in this preference? Both versions are below; help me out, folks.

Guilty aspect number two: I like the video, even though it’s full of classic patriarchal tropes, also reflected in the lyrics themselves. As assets, women’s beauty and bodies are comparable to men’s money. Yeah, we get it. Still, I’m feelin the vignettes and backup singers/dancers — what can I say.

Guilty aspect number three: Not so guilty but actually kind of rad, when I first heard this song on the radio and knew nothing about it, it struck me as a genderfucked kind of affair. The singer’s voice seemed androgynous to me, and I couldn’t really tell, from the lyrics and who was being addressed with a “forget you, and forget her, too,” whether a girl had left her girlfriend for another girl, or a girl left her boyfriend for another girl, or a girl left a translady for another someone, or what. So even though I now know it’s a typical script, I still have positive associations of driving my parents’ car, hearing this come on the mainstream radio, and all smilin like, “Are they really playing this so casually on the radio? Neat!”

[Update: Oh, also! The sobbing/singing interlude? Could easily have turned out annoying, but I actually find it very impressive! Musicality and vocal control with the bawling. Nicely done, Ze Lo.]

Neighborhood Happenings: Housing Occupation

Today, in honor of World Homeless Day, folks with Homes Not Handcuffs and other groups hosted a “Creative Housing Liberation”: a rally, unpermitted march, and occupation/liberation of a 68-unit apartment building that has been vacant for years now. Coincidentally, that building happened to be right around the corner from our home at the Faithful Fools — a stroke of luck that allowed us to run back and grab a couple of “donations” (a chair and a vase of flowers) to offer to the building.

The event was really well done, and so far everything has gone off without a hitch. Crowd energy was strong; the occupiers had the banner drops all ready for us as our march turned the corner down Eddy Street; they had a dope sound system, powered by a generator, that transformed the corner into a dance party; Food Not Bombs even hooked it up with a tasty dinner for everyone.

Also fortunate: the landlord could not be reached by the police. And since the cops can’t break in and apprehend people without first getting the go-ahead from the landlord, the occupiers will hold the building at least until tomorrow morning.

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Tomorrow, if I have time, I’ll try to add a bit more of my own perspective and analysis on housing occupation as a response to racist, heterosexist state violence in the form of denying people adequate housing. According to the event organizers, 30,000 housing units remain vacant in San Francisco, a city with 15,000 people living in homelessness. In light of this, does occupation of empty buildings seem morally wrong?

More germane to my line of questioning these days: what role can fun, vibrant, direct actions like today’s play in a larger strategic movement to transcend an economic system where, as Introducing Capitalism: A Graphic Guide puts it in a euphemistic half-truth, “the means of production are privately owned”?

(Note: very first chant of the march, as we took the streets? “Homelessness is not a crime! Capitalism IS a crime!”)

Happy Failures

Some of the smartest people I know — including my friend Ivan, and what I’ve read/heard by Suzuki Roshi — excel at failing.  They know how to fail in ways that allow the flow to continue, if you know what I’m saying.  The failure is not crippling, but just part of taking on a difficult challenge.  Generally speaking, I think that people with scientific minds (including serious meditators) are pretty good at failing happily.  Failing in ways that reveal new opportunities, even as they foreclose the ones we thought we wanted.

Endeavoring to improve on my ability to fail doesn’t mean tackling tasks that seem doomed from the start.  That would be too easy!  The kind of failure I’m talking about does not come cheap.  I am invested.  I want to succeed.  Each attempt, each step, is made with confidence, commitment, and openness.

Suzuki Roshi says that this is how we move toward enlightenment.  Through repeating small moments of enlightenment — those moments of a letting-go mind, a mind that is being, not chasing — while at the same time working hard to deepen and strengthen our practice.

I hope this is somewhat clear, what I’m trying to say.  As an example of a recent, happy failure of mine, I wanted to share a letter I wrote to all the people I’d talked to with an interest in building a disarm BART police campaign.  My intention in sending it was (1) to let folks know that I would no longer be pursuing the courses I’d proposed (for instance: organizing a direct action of civil disobedience for the day of Mehserle’s sentencing), and Why; and (2) to thank them for the inspiring connections we’d made in the course of the (eventual) failure.

It felt good to write this letter, not only because I have a lot of admiration and goodwill toward each of the recipients (including those with whom I disagree politically), but also because it was an exercise in observing and accepting reality as it is — rather than as I would like it to be.  A little inroad into rooting out dukkha.

I’d love to know your thoughts, resonances, and criticisms.

Hello everybody,

Hope this note finds you well!

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been talking with BART workers, Oscar Grant movement organizers, Oakland peacekeepers, Marxist feminists, reverends, priests, meditators, lawyers, non-profiters, poets, anarchists, communists, peace activists, radicals, progressives, friends, and random strangers about the possibility of coalescing a campaign toward disarming the BART police. I and others envisioned this as one small step in aiding a shift from weaponized, racist, capitalist-serving security culture toward community-controlled safety initiatives, dual power, and restorative justice.

Continue reading

Repost: Panthers at Peralta

My friend Aaron recommended this piece to me (a historical essay written by local Laney College Student Unity & Power folks) as an encouraging example of demands done well.

Boy, is it good.

I’ll quote from the conclusion, but really — read the whole thing (and check the other re-post, with commentary, at Advance the Struggle).

We are often confronted by a legacy of the Panthers as either a detoothed community service organization or all claws. But the BPP experience at Peralta shows the work of a multifaceted organic expression of a specific section of Oakland’s working class to overturn institutions that claim to serve them and remake them into bases for struggle. When the Panthers spoke of occupying a building, it wasn’t (only) to appeal for more funds from the state, but to keep the state away from self-organized community programs. This meant not simply a negation of racist, authoritarian educational institutions, but their redefinition and reuse. As the editorial of the first issue of The Grapevine wrote,

To the continuing students and student-workers, right-on to the work you have done and the work you have inspired your communities to do, right-on to your moves to secure your community institution, to moving for freedom from oppression, to moving to make this a real community college – in practice. We still have work to do, but we have reached a higher level of organizing and our work will be even more effective in the future. We will win our fight to keep our community college and control it.

This is a message to today’s student movement. Beyond “demand[ing] affordable, accessible and quality education” or “keep[ing] California’s original promise of higher education” lies the seizure and re-invention of these institutions around fundamental principles of self-determination, self-management and freedom from oppression.

Hike with Zeno

Hopefully by November I’ll have a little time to actually learn how to use this new camera.  So far I’ve just fiddled chaotically with it, and since I got it used I don’t have a manual or anything.  (Nor even basic knowledge about photography.)

So until I can study up on my own or take a free class, I’ll stick with appreciating the colors.  Mmm, colors.

Rethinking “Classism”

Friends, I am running around all day today, but wanted to share a half-formed thought that’s been germinating for the last few days.

What the hell is “classism” supposed to mean?

Seriously though.  I know it’s a fixture in the litany of “isms”: sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, colorism, etc.

But isn’t the notion of “discrimination on the basis of social class” a little . . . redundant?

Don’t the existence of social classes already imply discrimination?

Like, oh, it’s okay that you remain lower-class, as long as I don’t make fun of you for being lower-class, or exclude you entirely from my middle- or upper-class institutions.

. . . ?

Does classism boil down to cultural chauvinism, and not much more?  That’s the impression one might get from the “Classism” section (nestled between the “Racism” section and the “Homophobia/Heterosexism” sections — there’s that familiar chorus, again) in famous U.S. feminist Jessica Valenti’s book, Full Frontal Feminism.  I’ll quote it in its entirety.


I’ll tell you a little story about something that made me acutely aware of classism—it was the craziest wake-up call ever.  I went to a public high school in New York that tested students for entry (it was kind of a dorky math and science school).  The majority of my friends in high school were Jewish gals from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They had awesome apartments and college-educated parents who were professors, artists, judges, and so on.  I grew up in Long Island City, Queens, which at the time was not considered the best neighborhood in the world.  My parents grew up in Queens and Brooklyn, got married when they were still teenagers, and never went to college.

But hey, it was all good to me.  My friends were my friends, and we were all the same.  Then one day, after a couple of my girlfriends spent some time at my house after school, one of them remarked, “Your mom is so cute!  Her accent sounds so . . . uneducated!”  They all laughed.  I don’t think she meant it to be cruel, or even realized what she was saying.  But after that moment, it was difficult to be around my high school friends.  I had this overwhelming feeling of not belonging.  I didn’t know if they were laughing at my potty-mouthed jokes because I was funny, or because I was playing up the Italian Queens girl stereotype.  I wondered, when they told me they didn’t like something I was wearing, whether it was because of a difference in taste, or because they thought I looked “trashy.”

Later, in college (at a private Southern university—I lasted a year before transferring back to New York), I would try to tone down the behavior I thought marked me as “lower class.”  I tried to drop cursing so much, the Queens accent slowly disappeared, and I continued to hang out with kids who went to boarding schools and to pretend I knew what the hell “summering” was.  But you can’t pass for long.  I would later realize that a lot of the hellishly sexist experiences I went through in college were completely tied up with classism.  I was called a slut not only because I had the gall to sleep with a guy I was dating, but because I dressed differently, talked differently (no matter how I tried to hide it), and was seen as the trashy Queens girl on scholarship.

So I know this is a little more personal than academic, but hey—the personal is political, right?

I understand that the experience of class stratification manifests partly in moralized judgments, ridicule, vitriol, and warped denial of other people’s humanity.  This is the flavor of class ideology.  But what about the structure?

Perhaps classism is not the real problem.

Perhaps CLASSES are the problem.

From Wikipedia:

The most basic class distinction is between the powerful and the powerless.[1][2] Social classes with a great deal of power are usually viewed as “the elites” within their own societies. Various social and political theories propose that social classes with greater power attempt to cement their own ranking above the lower classes in the hierarchy to the detriment of the society overall. By contrast, conservatives and structural functionalists have presented class difference as intrinsic to the structure of any society and to that extent ineradicable.

What do you think?  Classes, ineradicable?  So we should swell the middle class as much as possible, knowing there will always be people systematically and categorically deprived of equal power because of their economic and social standing?

Reality is weird, people.  Very weird.

Meantime, happy Friday!  And here is a lovely song for you.  See y’all on Monday.