Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Building Bridges Everywhere, the Unifying Vision of Ron Casanova

I learned yesterday that my friend Ron Casanova died. 

(Our friend, a voice in my head corrects....because so many people I know shared a connection with Casanova, and a connection to Cas was somehow inherently intimate.)

I haven't yet learned the details of his death, but I knew Cas was HIV positive so early in our relationship that it seemed he'd always been staring death down.  And I haven't seen Cas in ages either, not since a Poor People's Summit in Philadelphia in the late 90s. 

So it's almost shocking how much this hurts. I can smell his pipe and his paints, together the fundamental incense of his home on 34th and Garfield, the home he shared with his girlfriend, Karen and her son Ethan.  Re-reading passages from the memoir he wrote with Stephen Blackburn, I can hear his soft gravelly voice insisting on a point, sussing out the heart of what he really wants to say. 

I can hear him laugh, too. In the memoir, he claims that he never had much of a sense of humor, but that doesn't mean he didn't laugh.  He had a warm laugh, a booming extension of that voice, and it was a laugh that was acknowledging a point of connection.  With Cas, there was no discernible break between the political and the personal.  Every bond mattered.

I don't suppose Cas ever took bonds for granted.  A Puerto Rican African-American, he grew up in the 1950s in a racist environment outside of even his own ethnic community, the only support network he had scrounged out of a life on the streets on the Upper West Side of New York.  Some of his earliest memories involve running away from his orphanage in Staten Island seeking out his sisters and brothers on 104th and 115th street.  At 16, burglary landed him in Coxsackie Correctional Facility; his own version of a Randall P. McMurphy ploy then put him in Matteawan State Hospital in Dutchess County, Beacon, New York--an experience that led him to call One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a "good story" but a whitewash. 

When I met him in 1991, he'd lived a lifetime of activism after prison, starting with the Greenwich Village Scene of the early 60s and culminating in his key role in the Tompkins Square homeless movement.  In all of that time, Casanova had lived close to the edge, battling heroin addiction and often living on the street. He arrived in Kansas City a self-proclaimed "born again," but he never once preached religion to me.  He was too politically savvy and pragmatic for that.  Also, I knew how certain memories stung--preachers preaching at the hungry on the promise of food.

Cas taught me a lot about such humiliations caused by people pledging to do good.  He taught me more than I could ever list here.  Those lessons started the very first time I met him when he showed me and a group of friends the movie Takeover, by filmmakers Peter Kinoy and Pamela Yates.  That movie documented the 1989 Housing Now! march on Washington,  resulting in a May Day housing takeover coordinated across the United States.  The movie starred Casanova as a key leader who emerged in that struggle.  But the line I always remember is something Cas says about the strong women leaders at the front of the movement.  At a crucial moment, they don't hesitate and debate strategy as he implies men would.  You can hear the smile on his face when he says, "They led, and I followed."  It plays in my head like a mantra.

He taught me in earnest when I attended his Saturday morning meetings with the homeless at Metropolitan Lutheran Ministries Homeless Center on 10th street.  He invited those in the center to share their stories, and I learned the details of how hard it was to look for work, trying to get out of the shelter system.  I learned about showers and shoes.  I learned about shelter trustees and other reasons so many of the homeless hated the shelter system.  They didn't argue so much as confirm each others' experiences.  Cas's role was to invite them to discuss possibilities.

Cas and I formed an early alliance because he so clearly understood and articulated the connection between homelessness and other social issues, including freedom of expression.  I was a co-founder of the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, and Cas's vision and message helped to illustrate the limits of conventional wisdom about free speech.  He could tell anyone willing to listen how and why the media really only showed one side of poverty issues, talking to "experts" for guidance instead of the people who lived it every day.  Because of our alliance with Casanova and the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless, the Coalition went beyond its established Culture Under Fire anti-censorship activities to co-host a nationwide Break the Blackout Summit, which featured leaders from poor peoples' organizations who came together to discuss common strategy and arrived at a landmark media sharing agreement.

Cas would show Takeover anywhere and everywhere he could and talk to people about the connection between his homeless movement and their lives.  I will forever be thankful to Michelle Markowitz at Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club, one of the most popular music clubs in our city then as it is today, for letting us hold regular events in what was then a small space.  Cas would show Takeover, and then he'd get up and say a few words that drew a bar of weary regulars into impassioned discussion.  (Howard Zinn might have been happy to know some of us first heard of A People's History of the United States during Cas's barroom testimonials.) He would enlist Kansas City's legendary Sin City Disciples for a terrific event (one of those nights when a sense of community and shared ideas seemed far more important than the money) at Harlings Upstairs, and his call would find response from many others on the local music scene, including the Midwestern Musical Company.

Out of all of this support, he worked with a band of local homeless to build three Empowerment Houses, where people lived together collectively.  Though all but one of those homes would collapse after only a short while, Cas never quit working to steer resources to the local homeless community.  When the house of cards would come tumbling down, he'd still be standing there looking for a way to rebuild.  What didn't collapse was a vision of possibility he planted in more hearts and minds than we could ever possibly count.

Over the four years he lived here, he turned more and more to his painting.  I felt like I watched his art grow exponentially more accomplished and more powerful over those last couple of years, living in that little house on Garfield.  Maybe, in some ways, it was because, his health uncertain and medications making him sick, he knew his vision was his greatest strength. 

It could also be argued that he knew vision was the greatest poverty in the world surrounding him, the one he most needed to address.  Toward that end, he found new ways to work with art. In addition to neighborhood reading classes he'd held for some time, he enlisted art students, such as Jeremy McConnell from the Kansas City Art Institute, to hold free classes for neighborhood kids in his front yard on Saturday mornings.

At one point, Cas and I made a trip to my hometown in Oklahoma, Bartlesville, so that he could show his art at the town's West Side Community Center as well as one of our churches.  He received enthusiastic reaction drawing connections between those using the town's new food pantry and shelter and those who weren't necessarily on the streets but who had lost their jobs in the decade's corporate downsizing. Cas's constant message was that we needed to come together, as he always signed his name "through peace, love and understanding."  Two decades before Occupy, he showed such bridges could be built everywhere that he went.

So now Occupy is here and Cas, the man I knew and loved, is somewhere else. In his final days, he no doubt took some satisfaction in the hope that his inclusive vision was catching fire. As suggested by the name of his book, Each One Teach One, he never wanted to leave his work without finding someone else to take over.  The only thing is no one can truly take Cas's place.  No other vision is quite his.

Perhaps that's why one seemingly minor passage choked me up when I was re-reading his book today.  It's that passage where he talks about his sense of humor:

"Most jokes make me angry rather than amused because most jokes are at the expense of another person. I don't see the humor in that....But I draw and paint a lot of cartoons. I like to do cartoons because of the lightness that goes into them. Painting something happy helps me have that mood."

There's a contradiction there that's as simple and complex as being human.  And that's what Cas did best--boldly model what's best about humanity and call on us to share it.  His whole life was an argument why.

Please checkout Takeover, available at

And Each One Teach One,