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Activist has deep roots in helping social change

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Saturday August 04, 2001

When he speaks about the book he wrote in 1999, Ken Moshesh describes it as the narration of a tragedy, his tragedy.  

It is the story of a man who once taught at UC Berkeley and is now a homeless person banned from campus. 

“It’s an insider look at what this situation is like in terms that a person that hasn’t experienced it would hopefully be able to relate to it,” he said holding one of the three existing copies of his manuscript – “Cobblestoning Quicksand Mazes.” 

Since he was arrested for sleeping outdoors Jan. 18, Moshesh has been one of the most vocal advocates for Berkeley’s approximately 1,000 homeless people. After his arrest, he decided to challenge the constitutionality of the so-called “lodging law,” which forbids people to sleep on any property without the owner’s permission. He soon became the leader of an active campaign against the criminalization of the homeless in Berkeley. 

Within a few months, the movement registered two important victories. In April, the City Council voted for a moratorium of the enforcement of the lodging law, and earlier this month a local judge ruled the law unconstitutional in Moshesh’s case. 

But Moshesh’s activism started much earlier. Like many people of his generation, he first got involved in social movements in the 1960s. 

Born in Oakland in 1946 as the second child of a family of 10 children, Moshesh grew up in a low-income environment but made his way through to higher education. He received a degree in sociology and teaching credentials at UC Berkeley, while participating in the People’s Park movement.  

Ever since these days of protest and strategic meetings on the rooftops of Telegraph Avenue, Moshesh has had one purpose in life: to make sure that even the most disadvantaged sector of the population has equal opportunities. 

“Even if I had managed to go through coming from a very large very poor family I realized that the actual instruction was not set up for a person like me,” he said. “So I was trying to make it more likely for persons coming from my background to reach their goals.” 

With this mission in mind he later became one of the co-founders of the African American studies program at the university’s Department of Ethnic Studies and a teacher in Oakland’s elementary schools. 

“My goal was to bring the university closer to the community rather than move it, in an elitist manner, away from it,” said Moshesh who also advocated in favor of early childhood education. “We needed an effective feeder system to get our students where they were to be.” 

Harvey Dong from the Ethnic Studies Department remembers Moshesh as a level-headed person who taught martial arts and Asian philosophy. He also remembers his political fire.  

“There were a lot of African-American students who were involved in establishing Ethnic Studies at that time and they put in a lot of time and energy to fight for the department,” he said. “When there were problems in terms of funding, Moshesh got himself involved supporting the students.” 

Moshesh’s ideas on education however were not always appreciated. Increasing discrepancies between his views and the administration’s goals ultimately forced him to leave the Ethnic Studies Department in 1972. The same happened 14 years later with the Oakland school district. 

Moshesh soon found a new way to serve the community. In 1986 he started working in low-income housing construction in west Oakland. But by that time serious issues that affected him for years had become hardly manageable. In Moshesh’s mind, these problems were in large part the result of the FBI counterintelligence’s effort to stop his activism. “Quite a few people were commissioned to do whatever they could to stop people who were involved in creating social change,” he said. Moshesh said his family members were involved in drug trafficking. He thinks they were bribed into intimidating him. Among other things, he said he was attacked several times on his work site. He consequently quit his job and became homeless. That was in 1993.  

Moshesh receives Supplemental Security Income benefits for a mental disability. 

Since then, Moshesh has found ways to write a book, work with a multi-media publication specializing in low-income issues called Poor Magazine and make seven video films on homelessness. One of them, “Endangering the Species,” won an award for excellence at Berkeley Video Festival last year. 

His style combines images, prose, poetry and music. Creativity, Moshesh thinks, is the best vehicle for his fight for social justice.