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Mike Lee, RIP

Mike Lee

Gus "Mike" Lee, an anarchist militant, passed away this week in Berkeley, California at age 64. He spent decades living on the streets and struggling with other homeless people. He was a wingnut and could be extreme, but was also the most fearless radical I've ever met in my life.

At the bottom of this post is an obituary lifted from the Daily Cal (the University of California at Berkeley semi-independent student newspaper), which gives a mainstream, watered-down account of his life that is a piss-poor depiction of what made Mike relevant.

I first met Mike in 1991 during the riots over UC Berkeley's attempt to build sports courts in the middle of People's Park, a liberated piece of land located 3 blocks from the campus in the Southside neighborhood. It was hard to miss him, as he was the most uncompromising protester, never backing down in confrontations with the cops. He was also generous to a fault; he'd give you his last nickel and the shirt off his back if you needed it. This despite the fact that he lived his entire life without any of the material comforts of American consumerism (unless they were liberated; see below).

On November 2, 2011, during the Occupy Oakland attempted "general strike," I ran into an old anarchist comrade who had flown into town from the East Coast to participate, but had lived in Berkeley in the early 1990s and participated in the efforts to defend People's Park. We talked about the banal pacifism vs. violence debates during the struggle, especially liberals denouncing looting. He remembered our collective line on looting: "if we didn't unconditionally support looting, Mike Lee would never get new clothes." After one particularly intense riot down Telegraph Avenue in 1991, many shops across the street from the campus were ruthlessly looted. For the next half year, Mike always sported brand new clothes: a baseball cap and windbreaker which had matching "Cal" logos (the shortened nickname for the university, especially its sports teams) in the the school's colors. Which just added to his absurdist charm when ranting about the misdeeds of the university.

The next year, the Rodney King Rebellion sparked riots once again down Telegraph Avenue. Suddenly Mike was producing a slick anarchist newsletter, called something like "Steal the Fire," and was suddenly able to mock up really good looking fliers for various protests. I soon saw why. Mike was toting around a top-of-the-line laptop computer, ironic for a guy who practically lived on the streets. During those riots, an electronics store on Telegraph was looted of almost everything. Suddenly, communal houses of radicals in the neighborhood had high end audio systems and brand new computer equipment. At that time, I read in the Daily Cal that the owner of the electronics shop didn't have video of the looting, but had an audio recording. When he listened back, he was astounded that as looters removed security cables attaching computers to their displays, they were comparing notes and started selecting their bounty based on their knowledge of the quality of the commodities. Kinda like looter-connoisseurs, doing their own [anti-]Consumer Reports.

I can't remember the exact chronology, but around that time Mike and half a dozen others created an anarchist living-organizing space in North Oakland, called the "Info Shop Cafe." It was located near the corner of West MacArthur Blvd. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way (across a vacant lot from where the infamous RCA Squat was during the Occupy period). It was in a ramshackle 3-story apartment building, where the cafe was a street-level storefront, with living quarters in several backrooms. At the time, the neighborhood was still predominately black, but had been heavily scarred by the crack wars of the 1980s. It's also the neighborhood where the Black Panthers were born. The Info Shop Cafe had some great organizing events, but also some totally insane ones that were unhinged, boozy and that earned the scene the label "wingnut." I have hazy memories of late night parties leading to confrontations with the Oakland pigs that led to hand-to-hand fights on the street out in front -- and usually ended in a few arrests.

Mike was also a strident supporter of Irish unification and the IRA, which was strange as I remember him telling me that his father was of Korean descent and his mother was Filipina (I stand to be corrected on this). It seemed like whenever he got the mike or bullhorn, he would end his speech with an exhortation to "REMEMBER BOBBY SANDS!" His brogue intensified by the amount of beer he'd consumed. I didn't share his soft spot for Irish nationalism, but I did learn a lot about the conditions of Northern Ireland from talking with him. So much so that once in the early 1990s he dragged me to an IRA bar in San Francisco, The Dovre Club (at that time in the Women's Building on 18th Street in the Mission District), where we met some Irish ex-pats on the lam from British authorities.

Regretfully, in the last 25 years I only talked with him once. It was at a Labor Notes "Troublemakers School" event at Berkeley City College in 2015. They provided a free lunch and he wandered in off the street, looking to scam a bite -- almost like he had radar and knew it was available. He grabbed a sandwich and sat at a table across from me, but didn't recognize me. I got his attention and said, "Do you remember me?" He looked closely, took a long minute, then said "Fucking aye!" and said my name. We small talked a little, but I wish I had found out more. Yet it was good to see him still alive and apparently sober.

Despite once having a love of nice big bottle of malt liquor (fortified beer, which he usually drank in the 40 oz. size), he was a reliable comrade who could be counted on to show up on time, ready and prepared to fight. And he was also always the last guy to back down against the pigs, fighting fearlessly to the end.

Sadly, Mike's end has come. He will be sorely missed. Especially his mordant humor and shit-eating grin.

Mike, Rest in Power!

--Hieronymous

___________________________________________________________________________

The obituary below doesn't do justice to his revolutionary politics and doesn't mention his anarchist perspective (and glosses over the fact that had contempt for all politicians):

Daily Cal wrote:
Longtime activist Guy “Mike” Lee died at the age of 64.

A passionate advocate for homeless rights, Lee was heavily involved in community activism for years. Notably, he participated in the occupation of People’s Park to protest UC Berkeley’s plan to build a volleyball court and ran for mayor on a platform focused on homelessness and housing affordability.

Lee moved from Portland, Oregon, to the Bay Area to live with his uncle in Daly City at age 13. In his later teens, Lee moved to the Bay Area permanently and spent much of his life living on the streets of Berkeley.

When he was 62, Lee left the South Berkeley homeless encampment that he had been living in and moved into an apartment he acquired through the city’s Coordinated Entry System.

“I am saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Mike Lee. Mike dedicated his life to fighting for justice and cared deeply about Berkeley,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a statement. “He worked to protect People’s Park, save our Downtown Berkeley Post Office and was a powerful and effective voice for the homeless.”

According to Arreguín, Lee’s 2016 campaign for mayor made the needs of the homeless population a central focus for Berkeley. Arreguín added that Lee’s activism resulted in policies and programs to help the most vulnerable people in the city.

According to Andrea Henson, former lead organizer of the “Where do we go?” homeless encampment and advocacy organization, Lee was known for his strong opinions and supported “Where do we go?” from its inception.

“We need more of that. We need more people who are ready to run for public office and engage in a dialogue,” Henson said. “He was an active participant in democracy who didn’t compromise what he believed in.”

Berkeley mayoral candidate Aidan Hill said Lee would often go to Berkeley Homeless Commission meetings. Hill, vice chair of the commission, said Lee’s comments at the meetings inspired them to do more advocacy work on the ground level.

According to Henson, Lee could always be counted on to attend meetings surrounding homeless issues, never letting his struggle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease stop him.

“He was a complicated guy; ‘uncompromising’ and ‘hardheaded’ would be the words that would come to mind. Also, ‘kind,’ ” said People’s Park Committee member Lisa Teague. “He always was very concerned about making sure that people get fed, and that comes from kindness.”

Teague added that Lee had a “wicked sense of humor” and was never afraid to “shake up the status quo.”

City Councilmember Sophie Hahn recalled how Lee worked hard to help homeless individuals while living on the streets himself and how he continued to advocate after his own rehousing.

“He was a brilliant and persistent advocate, and worked hard to help the homeless find comfort and stability, even while living on the streets,” Hahn said in an email. “He expected more from society and government, and always knew he was fighting not just for the homeless, but for basic human rights.”

A retort to the above: Mike's mayoral campaign was a prank. He detested politicians and I'm shocked to see them say such polite things about him. In the early 1990s, the University of California tried to censor him with a SLAPP suit, along with 3 others, during the struggle over People's Park (2 others passed away, Dave Nadel and Bob Sparks; Carol Denney is the lone survivor).

Posted By

Hieronymous
Aug 7 2020 04:53

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  • Remember Bobby Sands!"

    Gus "Mike" Lee

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Comments

Black Badger
Aug 7 2020 17:58

definitely the quintessential wingnut, but he maintained a sense of (absurdist, almost surrealist) humor, about himself included; he would agree that he was a wingnut. at various times in his adult life as a tireless annoyance to the Berkeley establishment, he might have taken a backseat, but he never backed out of the struggle. with all the challenges in his life, it was amazing that he stayed active and involved as long as he did. rest in power.

Hieronymous
Aug 24 2020 05:57

Today was a very emotional day for me. Having written the above post about Mike, so many memories came cascading back. And lots of sadness. It wasn't just the loss of Mike, because so many other from that generation died much too young. I'll get to that later.

Mike and I worked together at a lefty call center in downtown Berkeley (I wrote an account of my experience there called "Predicative Dialing for Dollars"), literally starting the same day in 1991. I remember after the orientation the guy who trained us went out with us to a restaurant for an evening meal break. That guy pitched unionizing with the ILWU, while both Mike and I argued back and preferred the IWW. The ILWU won out. We became a union shop, but over the next several years we had an informal work group at the call center, around a core of a half a dozen of us -- including some of us who were housemates at a communal house in Oakland. We had each others' back and this helped us exercise control of the work process, but we also covered for each other when we missed work for radical actions like demos and riots. Mike got arrested at a few of the latter, and we usually could cover for him. My memory isn't clear, but I think he got busted during the Rodney King Uprising and when he missed too many days the bosses fired him.

Thinking back on it now, Mike was a great comrade to have as a workmate. When fighting the boss, he could be super articulate and strong. Yet at mass demos, like when the 1st Gulf War started in 1991, he was a loose canon and was most likely the first guy to throw a brick through a bank's massive plate glass window in San Francisco's Financial District. I'm sure he was part of the militant group that broke through police lines, clearing the way for the tens of thousands of the rest of us to rush onto the Bay Bridge.

As Black Badger mentioned, it's a miracle Mike made it to his 60s, especially since in his youth he drank and smoked too much. Another comrade, Chris Delvecchio, worked with us at the call center, lived in various collective house with us as well, but died in New York City a week shy of his 24th birthday in 1993. Chris and I had our own 2-person study group, as we read all the Situationist classics together; he gave me my first copy of Jeremy Brecher's Strike! Another People's Park activist, Dave Nadel, who was co-founder of the amazing Ashkenaz music club in Berkeley, was killed after being shot point blank in the head at the venue in 1997. He was 50 years old. A couple years before, another defender of People's Park who was also an anarchist, Bob Sparks died at 57 in 1995.

The most controversial to die young was the propaganda-by-deed anarchist Rosebud, who was shot by UC campus police after she'd broken into the university chancellor's mansion in the pre-dawn hours in 1992, probably on a kamikaze mission to kill the chancellor. She was 19. Her death occurred in the early a.m. hours of the first day of the semester and when our protest turned into a riot, many fresh new students joined in and helped us fight the cops all night. It was also one of the rare occasions when we outflanked the cops a couple times, even chasing them down the street as they attempted to escape a fusillade of rocks, bottles and bricks.

Again, Mike was a wingut, self-admittedly so. But if you were arguing with your boss, or battling in the pigs in the streets, he's the guy you'd want to have your back. He was always dependable in that way. But so were Chris, Dave and Bob. To outsiders, they were a bunch of troublesome nuts. But they were my heroes, warts and all. I miss them all.

Winstanley
Aug 10 2020 07:02

Great memories. Mike Lee was an inspiration to me too, showing me how not to be afraid of cops. A true fighting spirit, he will be missed.