"We are armed... with pens"

root - Posted on 20 August 2001

Several hundred very low and no income journalists, editors and economic
justice advocates convene in San Francisco

by Lisa Gray-Garcia/POOR Magazine(PNN)

"I'm Marsha Rizzo-Swanson from The Homeless Grapevine", an older woman of
Native American descent dressed in her Goodwill finest belted out her
presence to the crowd at the Friday morning introduction session of The North American Street Newspaper (NASNA) conference that convened this weekend in San Francisco. In one hand was her homeless newspaper, or "street Newspaper", The Homeless Grapevine from cleveland, Ohio, and a video camera in the other. The beautiful paradox of poverty and media resistance was a constant throughout the NASNA conference that I had the privelege to attend..just think.. Over 200 other people like myself, coming out of poverty and homelessness still caught in the so-called cycle of poverty, resisting that oppressed position everyday with their "voice", through their own form of grassroots media- publishing daily, weekly, monthly or bi-yearly..By Any Means necessary.No, we weren't the mainstream media - we were better, we were the People's Media. And I Was home.

The NASNA conference, co-sponsored by The STREET SHEET, POOR Magazine and
Media Alliance ran from Friday through Sunday (jul 27-29) and included workshops on everything from poetry to civil rights, but most importantly it included the sharing and networking between poor folks who are normally viewed as just trying to stay alive - which of course we are - but we are also creating hard-hitting journalism, photo-journalism, poetry and solutions.

"So what do we do with those images of people sleeping on the sidewalk?"
Anthony Williams, photo-journalist from Picture the homeless and Street News
in New York asked me after my lecture on the power of "the photographic
gaze" in a photo-journalism class POOR Magazine offered at the conference.

"Its very simple", I replied, ask yourself if when you were there
(referring to our mutual experience of being one of those people on the
sidewalk) would you want someone to take your picture and publish it - "No"
he replied "no I wouldn't ..his answer was echoed by two other formerly
homeless photo-journalists in the class. Our interchange was what was so
unique about the conference. I was privleged to be in a room with other
people who really understood that question , who understood the difference
in being reported on rather than reporting, being talked with.. rather than
talked about, given justice rather judged. This reminded me of an
incident three weeks ago where myself and fellow PNN journalist Kaponda
encountered a photographer from The Miami Herald taking a picture of a man
sleeping out at City Hall. We asked him why he was taking that "shot" and
he replied, " Because I am trying to show the dichotomy between the
beautiful City Hall of San Francisco versus the situation of homeless
people in San Francisco. Both Kaponda and I thought that was a noble and
interesting story idea, but that it was not necessary to objectify the man
who was sleeping to prove his point, that in fact that "image", of an anonymous man sleeping on the sidewalk had been "seen" a million times and that if Mayor Brown found out that the Miami Herald was "seeing" that homeless man on the City Hall lawn- he would step up the police patrols so to be sure that not only were the benches removed from City Hall/Un Plaza but the grass as well. But most importantly, that "homeless" man had not given his permission to have his picture taken. He had not even been asked.

"I am an armchair Revolutionary" Gordon Hilgers from Endless Choices in
Dallas, Texas recited his stream of conscousness style of spoken word at
Displacement, a performance at the Women's Building on Friday night in honor
of NASNA which featured The Bay Area's own Po Poets Project , Raising Our
Voices, Peter Plate, Tanyica Simmons and George Tirado . The artists
performed poetry/spoken word and prose on issues of racism, gentrification
poverty, and homelessness. The conference also included talks by authors and scholars, Ben Bagdikian and Bruce Jackson

On saturday night (july 28th) it was time to take our truth to the streets, or more aptly to take the streets to the mainstream media. First there was a "vend-off at POWELL and Market featuring - all the street newspaper vendors who wanted to participate including Ms.Rizzo-Swanson who won by a landslide with the sale of 63 papers. Then a group of at least 100 media activists began a rally and march to the San Francisco Chronicle building at 5th and Mission to address the lack of truthful coverage of poverty and homelessness by the mainstream media. We began our march with "Hey.. Hey.. We won't rest - til the Chronicle covers our protest" When we arrived at the Chronicle front door, Terry Mesmen from The Street Spirit Newspaper in Berkeley, in collaboration with several folks from the Independent Media Center and The Coalition on homelessness led the act of civil disobedience when they began wheat pasting artistic renderings of mainstream media stereotypes on the Chronicle building, created by the Bay Area Print Collective for NASNA.

The police showed up after about ten minutes and threatened to arrest us so we retreated- sort of… but not really… and eventually we went around to the other side of the building.Several writers from PoorNewsNetwork(PNN) were present including PNN staff writer, Ken Moshesh who had won a victory in the courts just last week over the lodging (homeless) laws but was dismayed to find a small paragraph in the Chronicle placed next to a picture of a homeless sweep in the tenderloin, that barely even recognized the significance of that court decision as well as the fact that he was a writer/artist and former UC berkeley professor.

After much joustling and the eventual ejecting of Robert Norse from Santa Cruz and Terry Mesmen at the front door by Chronicle security guards when we attempted to enter the building, we got a commitment from the Chronicle to meet with some of us to address the flagrant lack of coverage of poverty and homelessness as well as the promotion of stereotypes about poor folks in the mainstream media and more specifically, in the "one hearst town" of San Francisco.

In the end, the people, the people's media.. were heard.. not only by the mainstream press.. but by each other.. because we were armed..with Pens!!


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