Listen to TheFightBack‘s 2010 interview with Brian Anders
Brian Anders, a tireless D.C. activist and homeless advocate, passed away August 28. He asked that he be remembered not with tears but action. When the D.C. Council returns from summer recess on Sept. 18 activists plan to honor his request. “We want to dedicate our Welcome Back the Council action this year to Brian,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of the grassroots organizing group Empower DC, where Anders served as a longtime board member.
“Brian led a life of action and he wanted to be remembered with action,” said Farah Fosse, a housing organizer who knew Anders for over ten years and served on the board of Empower DC with him half that long. She spoke at an Aug. 30 action/service honoring Anders outside the John A. Wilson Building. “He wanted not just his life, but also his death to be about raising hell,” Fosse said.
When he finally succumbed to cancer, Anders was staying at Joseph’s House, D.C.’s only hospice center for the homeless, where he was well cared for in his last weeks. Despite having worked as a physician’s assistant, Anders struggled to find healthcare in his hour of need. It’s a “total irony,” said Adrian Madsen, who also served with Anders on the Empower DC board. “[Look at] how ass-backwards it is that [for] someone who is… providing healthcare to other people, there’s literally one place in the city where he could go,” said Madsen, who commended Joseph’s House for the care it provided Anders.
Before Joseph’s House, Anders stayed at Christ House, the city’s only 24-hour residential medical facility for the homeless. Situated in the midst of the bustling Adams Morgan neighborhood, Christ House gave Anders the opportunity to catch up with many friends and activists with whom he’d worked over the years. As Fosse and I sat with him one afternoon, Anders thought about what his epitaph might be. I annoyed all the right people, in the right way, at the right time, he told us.
Anders activism didn’t swing into full gear until several years after he returned from Vietnam. Like countless other veterans, he suffered from PTSD. It was through organizing with the homeless that he found his voice. “He was one of the core members of Community for Creative Non Violence, including when it was at its most active in the 80s,” wrote Jennifer Kirby, a longtime friend of Anders who worked with him on housing takeovers in the early 2000s with Homes Not Jails. “CCNV was 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,” Kirby noted in her obit of Anders.
Anders’ activism was a constant over the years. In a 2008 interview he told me, “We continue to eliminate services and dismantle the important and critical safety net for people who are at the bottom of the economic scale, who this revitalization and all this development have not benefitted.” In a 2010 interview with TheFightBack he discussed the pending closure of La Casa Shelter in Columbia Heights and said, “They’re just pushing people further and further away from the business corridor… In my head the rationale is ‘out of sight and out of mind.’ If you don’t see homeless people in your community you assume they don’t exist.” But for Anders, the homeless did exist. He knew many of their names, their stories, their struggles. While working with CCNV and then as a service provider with Neighbors’ Consejo, Anders worked to connect homeless men and women with services in an effort to help them get off the streets.
Looking back on my time with Anders it seems we were usually walking. And as he walked, he talked and taught, offering lessons about the hidden history of activism in the nation’s capital. “What he talked about was radical history in this city,” Kirby said at the speakout at the Wilson Building. “He gave young activists a foundation to build their work on.”
It was Anders who taught me the history of Franklin Shelter, among other struggles. The historic Franklin School first opened as a shelter in 2002 after activists with Mayday DC took over the building in an effort to highlight the need for shelter following several deaths from hypothermia. In 2006, the city attempted to close Franklin in an effort to turn it into a hip hotel, but that effort was thwarted. Then in the fall of 2008, the city once again moved to close Franklin and once again activists joined with men at the shelter to try and keep it open.
As a result of Anders’ history lessons, I realized the importance of the struggle to save Franklin Shelter and joined the effort. We spent countless hours passing out fliers, protesting, lobbying city council. Anders was at the shelter each afternoon, organizing, but also checking up on me as this was my first experience with round-the-clock activism. “Go home and get some rest,” I can still hear him saying. “This s*** will be here tomorrow.” In the wake of the shelter’s closure, and angered over the lack of media coverage it received, I became a journalist. In retrospect, maybe I have Anders to thank for that.
As recently was November 2011, Anders was in the thick of things helping advise activists affiliated with Occupy DC in their effort to takeover Franklin, which had sat empty since 2008.
Writing in The Nation, author Dave Zirin concluded his piece on Anders with these appropriate words, “Goodbye my friend. If there’s a heaven, I know you’re there raising hell.”
La Casa Shelter To Close, Oct. 13, 2010