Michael Shenker RIP
I just got a call from Aresh about Michael. Michael was one of the leaders of the Lower East Side Squatter movement. He helped connect More Gardens with the Esperanza Community Garden. And was later quoted Sophocles when he was arrested as Esperanza was being bulldozed. I spent thirty hours in jail with Shenker that night. His good humor through the whole event was parallel to none.
When Reclaim the Streets New York held a rant-a=than Shenker was awarded the honor as the top neighborhood ranter. And the competition was steep, including David Graeber and Steve Duncombe, but he gave a prize winning final rant about anarchy and nature, which inspired the standing room only crowd at KGB bar to roar with laughter at his self deprecating rant, in the Lower East Side speak-out tradition which was his own. He was always ready to put his body on the line if needed. When the US planned to attack Iraq, Shenker was arrested several times. I was lucky enough to again be arrested with Shenker and spend the next few years seeing him as we successfully sued the city as result of the Carlyle arrests. Fortunately for me, I had the pleasure to interview Shenker five years ago for my book Play, Creativity, and Social Movements. Here is the full interview.
Interview date, 8/22/05
Michael Shanker is a long time
Lower East Side squatter and garden activist.
1) Age and place of birth?
49. I was born in
2) What brought you to this type of community organizing? Biography question…
I’ve never considered myself an organizer. Organizers to me always struck me as people born in Appalacha who draw a salary for it. Sometimes its necessary to organize people to maximize the impact potential. Through squatting was where I learned how to do that and that it became an absolute necessity for people to organize in order to defend their homes.
Started this in 1984. Before then, I came to the
Lower East Side in 1971, ’72. Back then, apartments cheap, relatively affordable. You could get an apartment for $100.00. They hadn’t burned the neighborhood yet. I moved around. Lived on seventh street, 12th Street, and I lived on Avenue B Right over Madonna. Kate’s joint is actually Madonna’s old apartment. I lived up on the 6th floor. That was my last place before I started squatting. In 1979, 80, 81, the landlords started to see the potential for reclaiming the neighborhood for real estate. And rent kept going up and it kept going up and it kept going up. And they were going up faster than my ability to generate revenue and income.
So I lost my last apartment on Avenue B. There was a fine in the building. Half of the people had to move out. Nobody was paying the rent. There were horrible mosquitos coming up from out of the basement. I wasn’t paying the rent. The landlord was pissed.
My girlfriend’s dad was living in the other side of the apartment and it was time to go.
And I used to hang out at the Life Café. Like in that play, the Life Café was quite a scene back in those days. There were a lot of things before that, the Fillmore, lots of things. …Yea, I hung out at the Life Café and that’s where I met Natasha and Rick.
The new wave of the squatting movement was just getting started then. Before that some people had made some moves with their buildings in the late 1970’s. Three of them are part of the current UHAB deal. As of today, its eleven buildings. The UHAB is the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.
(plug in seth t. argument about the two guys... and the humor of the moment).
3) What were/are the names of the groups you were involved with?
4) Have you utilized elements of creativity, play, direct action, or performance in your organizing? Where has the rambunctious playfulness been part of this struggle for housing.
Well, there wasn’t a lot of it. Our survival was not dependent upon it. I think its a very brief phenomenon. I don’t think its going to make much of a difference. As a matter of fact. I think it tends to be counterproductive.
BS: Why?. Shenker notes that music and cultural production was part of the movement.
I mean, we did a lot of art. And visual artists were particularly effective. We did a particular amount of propoganda, which was influential for people. It created sympthathy or empathy. It opened up people’s minds. So visual arts were particularly effective, concerts sometimes being done.
Yet, the spirit levity, which often accompanies play, was deminished by the seriousness of the endeavor.
But our struggles in the buildings sometimes came down to physical confrontations, beatings; cops got beat; it wasn’t something to rejoice about.
THe result of a failed action had a direct impact, which was that people were in the streets. Sometimes they go to jail and they get out all their belongings have been taken out of their home. So, it wasn’t too joyful or playful.
5) What best experiences with the use of play and creativity in your work?
What are high high points...
Yet, paradoxically Shenker smiles and acknowoledges: “We had a blast the whole time. It was like fun. Yea, it was a pain, but the other side of that was great joy and pleasure. Incredable culture too, smoking parties and stuff like that.
BS: So there was a great deal to this. It was a great time. The stakes were incredably high. You could lose your apartment if you had a bad demo.
Some people died. Homelessness kills....
You have to remember this is a very, very diverse population. There is this amazing diversity in the building. There are people who are like family people. People who have kids. And a lot of conservative people. People who just got a pad to see whats going on.... There were a lot of people who never really did political stuff.
And there were a lot of people over the years who supported the squats who were not even squatters. People like this had apartments but they saw that there was a movement and they got invovled with it and they played really instrumental roles.
The apex is right now because we are codifying the entire process, which means we are going to be signing some contracts with the city and the state government. And these contracts kindov summarize the struggle cause they are going to be binding for 32 years or whatever. And so we’ll see what’s in writing, you know.
6) Is creative protest and community building a viable alternative to traditional models of organizing and politics? Is there a contrast?
7) What is the politics of playful creative protest as opposed to conventional protest?
How do you use play?
8) When you use play, theatre, and creative direct action, what kind of audiences do
you have in mind?
9) What responses have you gotten?
10) How do you think that theater, creativity and play work to effect change?
Can creative playful fun approaches to organizing practices result in practical shifts in people’s lives?
11) To what extent is the community you are seeking to create embodied in your protest tactics? Is creative protest most useful for connecting political actors with formal political channels or for creating an image of a better world in which activists hope to live? Like a syringe ex, or a bike ride, whats so interesting with the squatters is people actually built their own world in some ways. Its interesting to talk about that prefigurative work where wins came out of that organizing and community building.
What did you need? You needed a place to live. You needed a place to hang out. You needed a place to touch nature. We won pretty much all of those. We won buildings; we won gardens to a large degree; and we won ABC No Rio. And we pretty much used the same sets of tactics in all three of those struggles.
BS: What were the tactics you used in the garden movement?
Well, in the first place Giuliani created a problem for himself there. He set himself up by trying to bite off more than he could chew, by trying to take 400 something gardens at once (and attempt to auction them off). Before that they were effectively taking a few gardens from small numbers of gardenners.
BS: It worked in the
Bronx – take two or three at a time.
Well, they’re not stupid. But then they tried all of them and he thought if he demonized the gardeners, called them communists, he could succeed. And so he tried to take everything all at once in a big hand over to real estate. And basically, it was pretty like a thousand different groups got involved with it. One of the groups that I was particularly involved with was
. I’m a founding member of More Gardens . More Gardens’ original members were: Harry Bubbins, Michael Shanker, Rafael Bueno, and Emily Nobell Maxwell. And really what motivated the formation of More Gardens More Gardens was that on that list of 400 gardens was . That was the Garden Next to Casa Del Soul. Its always a great motivator to movements when they are directly impacted by the outrage which was occurring. Cherry Tree Garden
There was another group which was involved, which was the Lower East Side Collective, which played a really crucial role in it. And they were very, very effective. And one of the archetects of that group kindov brought in what you are describing, which is a joyous aspect. But there wasn’t a lot of that in the gardens. Its first manifestations were with the crickets and Charas. And that went straight down the hill.
BS: They gave it away. They didn’t fight for it.
They didn’t know how to fight for it, the people there. That would definately be a fascinating case study of what not to do. But its really clear. Its transparent. This inherent distrust of people and a heirarchical structure in juxtoposition to a horizontal movement. And ultimately they did not trust the people. And ultimately if you want to make a popular movement, the great gift for the people is the opportunity to be creative and to realize their own individual potential, creative potential. And heirarchical structures tend to neuter that.
BS: What I loved about
was you walked in and you were welcomed and plugged into the movement. The barrier to participation was nothing. You showed and you wanted to do something. More Gardens
What can you do or give it a try.
BS: Thats an incredably empowerring thing, even if you can only do it for twenty minutes a week. The barriers were reduced to the point that anybody could participate and lots of people did. It felt very empowerring.
People need to have that feeling. Its rooted in us as a species. A lack of empowerment means you might die in the forest. Our survival is contingent upon it.
BS: With the bike rides, the squats, the gardens, they were all movements in which many were invited to be involved.
Aresh was the great master of that. He really brought that spirit way into the garden movement.
Shanker recalled four tactics used in the garden struggle in NYC. “The first was direct action; the second was a judicial strategy, a fundraising strategy, and a legislative strategy, which is a real risk because it’s a real snake pit,” he explained. Direct action combined with a joyous approach played out through tactic including a ‘sing out’ disrupting a public hearing, as well as an ecstatic theatrical model of organizing which compelled countless actors to participate in the story themselves. The aim was to convey their messages and engage an audience without being excessively didactic. Thus groups such as made of range of crafty approaches which engaged audiences in playful engaging ways, lulling audiences with stories which seduced rather than hammered. This theatrical mode of civil disobedience had a way of disarming people and shifting the terms of debate.
“But really the fundraising, the judicial, and the direct action components of that front worked synergistically. And its always important, when you are dealing with a guy like Giuliani, because they left him with a face saving way out of a dilemma. And there was that exact quote, which he said at the end of the struggle. ‘It’s a win-win situation.’ Those were his words for it when he actually received one of his major defeats. The way we did it was with a lot of great civil disobediences. We took over City Hall. And sixty seventy year old people were doing it. Gardeners from all over the city were getting involved. The very first civil disobedience where we did our cd training was a sing-out.
… I think it
Rector Street, where it was one of these things where it was going through this mortibound administrative committees. And this guy has a little plackards which says he stands for the mayor and he sits there and they are going through the necessary steps in the legal process of disposing of property. There was this wonderful woman named Lisa, who went to Casa, and she wrote the songbook. And it had things like ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and we re wrote the thing to be like a garden song. We went into the hearings and we distributed the songbook. And people at key moments would just sing for long periods of time, which brought the hearings to a halt in a very, very unthreatening way. And it kinda got people’s feet wet to challenging authority. And it began to give them that feeling of collective empowerment through that collective challenging of authority and also was spiritually inspiring by joining together in song. And we began to say, ‘Aha, if this works here then we can make it work there in such and such a way.’ More Gardens
And it wasn’t such a stretch to ask people to go into City Hall and not leave. And City Hall has great acoustics. (see Tim Becker account). There was a hearing at the legislative wing and people took over the lobby. There was like 40 or 50 people arrested in that.
BS: And LESC stripped down to sports bras, like the US Women’s Soccer Team, back in 2000. The other case that stands out if the image of someone getting arrested in a tree in city hall park dressed like a sunflower.
That was Aresh. They took him out with a boat, some boat on top of a truck and they dropped him into the truck. Or was it Mario up in the tree? I think it was Aresh. And then we did the auction with like 80 arrests and I think we’d already won by that point. And that was to drive home the point that you’d better make sure that we’ve won.
So direct action has done its job. And the state’s got a delimma. Holy Mackerel, people express popular support and look what power they have. We don’t want that to get out. So can we confuse them? But we also have the fundraising and judicial strategies. So on a parallel track we have Elliot Spitzer, the state attorney general, come to the rescue. And all the various city council people are lining up. Lawsuits are filed in
Brooklyn. And this is happening simultaneously to all the direct action. Meanwhile the angels from heaven come, we have the Trust for and Better Middler arrive. And this is a great way to get rid of the horizontal concept of power and say here’s our savior Bette Middler. Aren’t get grateful that she showed up. And I talked to people a matter of months later and they said, ‘oh Bette Middler saved the gardens.’ But that was part of strategy, which was fundraising with the Trust for Public Land , the New York Restoration Project, that there would be opportunities for funding instutions to come in. And basically Bueno cooked this whole thing up. And we discussed this strategy before the whole thing. So Elliot Spitzer and these people who had standing brought suit to stay the bulldozing through the courts. And all these things worked in synergy. And my job was to do the direct action component. Public Land
A we interfaced very effectively with the Lower East Side Collective, with Leslie Kauffman. Though I pay her all sorts of tribute, she was very creative and very dedicated, and fine posters too, great posters; and they really did get those posters up. I wish she had an equally nice voice to say things about me…
The first campaign was to save
. It a beautiful garden. The campaign got everybody warmed up. But I liked the ones when we actually won. Chico Mendez was a great sacrifice. Of all of the sacrifices, ones that we’ve lost, one that I thought we kindov transcended our defeat was Esperanza. Chico Mendez Garden
BS; Why was that?
Just because it was so beautiful. The Coqui was just so magnificent. People’s involvement and the winter and the fire pit over there and the solidarity with the Torres family, their willingness just to say ‘do it.’ And also it gave a bruising to some of our quasi-socialist housing activists, Margarita Lopez, who have no concept of the importance of green space.
BS: I felt the same way about the campaign, there was enough witnessing. Back to the idea that people were articulating the world you wanted. You wanted a garden as part of a healthy community. The Times quoted Shenker quoting Sophocles as he was being arrested during that action, Giuliania fooliani, the furies will be following you for the wrest of your days.
You’ve talked about a horizontal organizing model and creating an image of the world that people want to live in within the protest, do you want to elaborate on that, when that worked and didn’t work?
Well, I think that people are individuals, even when they join within collectives. Some kind of balance is needed between what kind of action creates the maximum potential within the collective and what the needs of the individual to even join the collective. People want to be creative. They want to be a crusader. They want to go out on a journey of self discovery. We’re not getting paid. No one is being forced by anyone, except maybe by circumstances. People have different personal needs. Realization and utilization of individual potential. And then the joy of working collectively with other people so that that is recognized by other humans and esteemed by others and appreciated by the collective. And that in essence is non heirarical. It doesn’t mean that there are not structures in place.
This is why I have problems with groups such as ANSWER and UFPJ.
was an incredible inspiration for me. It appeared we were moving in a direction of popular brilliance of small collectives. And all of a sudden when things get really serious. We have this war in Seattle , lets just turn things over to fy and z. You go to one of those marches, you feel like a cog. You feel like a cattle. Then you get the recording at the end of the march which says you’ve been photographed and counted. And then George Bush says, ‘it’s a focus group.’ And that’s what you are cause you are not going to disrupt anything. And the day of the march nothing is going to be open. Its uncontionable that we didn’t confront Colin Powell at the UN. And we have a quarter million lives on our hands as a people cause we didn’t make some kind of effort to confront the aggressor at the time. Iraq
BS: We certainly could have done more.
I’m not blaming the people. I’m blaming the hieratical structures. On February 15th, a million people were on the streets. People were so highly motivated. If you want to manage a movement, you have to think a little bit. And maybe work with two hands. There are things that are the best that the movement has to offer. If we can get a million out on a Sunday, maybe we can get 75,000 out on Monday so maybe Colin Powell has to be brought in on a helicopter. So that a billion people do not have to watch the streets of
do not have to be clear as Colin Powell drives in to make one of the most aggregious speeches in human history. I know the vibe at that point, a hundred thousand people could have come out at that point. The computers were clicking. New York
12) Are you fighting to build community or create external changes? And are these aims mutually exclusive?
I’m kindov conservative in that I’m trying to keep the world that I grew up. I wanna keep the Forth Amendment. As a squatter, it was my favorite amendment, cause it guaranteed my security here in my building. They couldn’t come in with thirty days.
I thrive off the
Lower East Side. But I really don’t like politics.
13) How do you define success and find meaning on this work?
14) What are the strengths vs the limitations of playful, creative protest and direct action?
There was a style of things that came out after the gardens where you can’t really go to a demonstration unless you give out the party toys. You know, I can’t get with that. The mode of the expression and the tenor of the expression needs to be proportional to the injury being inflicted. So if a quarter million people have died, it’s a little difficult to say we are going to go have a good time without paying some type of tribute through the collective expression which could actually create a deeper level of expression of the human experience. Some type of tribute needs to be made to the people who are sufferriing. There comes a time when we need to transcend ourselves and say we are not Americans or Iraquis, we’re human beings.
BS: Play does not need to be in opposition to that.
Its just like going to a Socialist Worker’s party. Who wants to do that?
Bs: The dour stuff does not get anyone anywhere.
There is no need not have some sort of creative expression. You might as well have a good time. I tell you, a lot of our best parties, the best parties I have been to were the parties after the demo. And not even just after a win, sometimes when we didn’t win, a lot of dancing and people going crazy and having some art.
I look at groups like Billionaires for Bush and I think that’s all right but that’s not winning right now. Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink, those folks have really got something. And nature has chosen them to do this. Here is a person who has lost her loved one and women. And there is a real movement. And Code Pink is a joyous example to put that example right out there. There she was at
Union Square with her chi wa wa dog the other day. And you know she can have a good time. But you could feel the connection between her joyous expression and her with the hardship and suffering that the Sheehan family has obviously experienced.
Steve Questor said: Cindy is the one who got me out there (for the last anti war march 2005).
I think that Critical Mass is the perfect expression of the fusion of joyful experience and a projection of a better world and a new world and also taking the hard knocks as they do it. People are getting busted and they are still doing their thing, coming in costumes and just rejoicing in doing what they are doing.
BS: I agree with you. I think there were four things that worked really well. 1) Critical mass which is non-heirarchical, 2) syringe exchange programs – it save a lot of lives, 3) gardens, and in some ways 4) food not bombs – what is your action – giving food away. Its not perfect, but its still a gesture of care to the world.
And it tastes good.
BS: Three out of four times (laughs).