We are all taught from birth that the world is shaped exclusively by the wealthy and powerful. The brave souls, who put their bodies on the line and organize people to pressure the powerful, are erased from the historical record. Last week, we lost one of those brave souls, and he deserves to be remembered. A man died in Washington, DC, who did more to affect change than any of the empty suits that scurry about on Capitol Hill. His name was Brian Anders, and although he’d reject this description, he was very special.
Dynamic, charismatic and razor sharp, Brian could have done anything with his life but was compelled to be a fighter for social justice on the streets of DC for nearly thirty years. The bulk of his work was focused on fighting for the rights of the homeless and affordable housing by any means necessary. If there was a protest, a speakout, or an occupation, Brian Anders was there. Brian was also an African-American Vietnam War veteran who wrestled with his own PTSD for decades and always, particularly since 9/11, made every effort to connect imperial wars abroad with the war on the poor at home. He saw the connections and put his passion, his pain and his personal history at the service of getting others to see that connective tissue as well.
Brian always reminded me of Julian Bond’s line about Muhammad Ali: “He made dissent visible, audible, attractive and fearless.”
Brian Anders worked with everyone but was associated most closely with two remarkable institutions. In the 1980s, he was at the heart of organizing at the homeless shelter CCNV (the Center for Creative Non-Violence) and over the last decade sat on the board of the social justice organization Empower DC. Both entities, due in no small part to Brian, have distinguished themselves by the fact that they don’t fight on behalf of people but organize affected communities to fight for themselves.
As his friend Kirby ably described in her remembrance of Brian, CCNV became in the 1980s “a vibrant community of anti-war and social justice activists, who succeeded, through direct action, in forcing the federal government to hand over the massive building at 2nd and D St. NW, so that CCNV could turn it into a shelter and community center for people without housing.”
CCNV’s activism was at the heart of the passage of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, one of the precious few federal actions that has actually aided the homeless. He showed all the professional politicians what real politics could look like when removed from the lobbyists and big-money donors, and reclaimed by the people.
But Brian’s most lasting contribution was how he affected those closest to him.
Fellow Empower DC board member Farah Fosse said at a service/rally for Brian after his death, “He spoke truth to power, motivated people, worked tirelessly for justice, provided direct services and trained new activists.”
Marcella McGuire, director for Behavioral Health Homeless Services for the city of Philadelphia and an old friend of Brian, said to me, “Without Brian’s support and guidance at a key time in my life, I might not have stayed on this path. We have some incredible models and stories. And I have to honestly say that anyone I and our staff and programs have assisted owe a debt to Brian, because I would not have stayed on this path without his guidance. He gave me the strength and wisdom to stay on this path and have the meaningful life I have today.”
As Brian’s body was attacked by cancer in the last year, it didn’t stop him from being a regular organizer and presence at Occupy DC. He was the sort of person that when you saw him, you just knew that you were on the right side of the fight. But cancer, especially without platinum-plated health insurance, is a remorseless opponent. It didn’t stop him from organizing and it didn’t rob him of his charisma, but he was in pain.
Brian passed away at Joseph’s House, the only free hospice for the homeless in DC, surrounded by the people he affected so deeply and loved him for his generosity. Howard Zinn, the great chronicler of how US history has been shaped by struggle from below, would have had nothing but blank pages before him if not for people like Brian Anders.
The best tribute to Brian would be to make a donation to Empower DC or Joseph House. Even better would be to follow Brian’s last wish and agitate for a winter shelter and high-quality healthcare facility for the homeless of Washington DC. As Ms. Fosse said, “He told me that he wanted not just his life but also his death to raise some hell.”
Goodbye my friend. If there’s a heaven, I know you’re there raising hell.
(Photo credit: Vasudha Desikan)