Hitting Pause on ‘the Violent Act of Looking Away’
Rupa Marya, MD, an Associate Professor of Medicine at UCSF, is an internal medicine specialist whose focus is the care of seriously ill patients. She has done extensive research on social factors in illness and is Faculty Director of the Do No Harm Coalition, a group of more than 450 UCSF health workers and students dedicated to ending racism and state violence.
Rupa, a Bioneers alumna, asked us if we would publish an interview with a remarkable, one-of-a-kind activist she has great admiration for and had long wanted to talk to in depth, Tiny Garcia (aka Lisa Gray-Garcia), a formerly un-housed, formerly incarcerated “poverty scholar,” revolutionary journalist, lecturer, poet, visionary, teacher and co–founder of a unique publication: POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE/PoorNewsNetwork. She has authored over 200 stories and blogs on poverty, racism, incarceration and displacement.
Tiny has also previously presented at Bioneers, so of course we were wildly enthusiastic about the idea. See Tiny and Rupa’s full bios and links at the end of the post. This is an edited version of their recent conversation:
RUPA MARYA: I have long been wanting to have a conversation with someone I admire very dearly, someone who has taught me a lot about how to be a human in this territory and about what we will need to do to get through the challenges of this particular moment, so it is a great joy to be able to introduce Tiny Garcia. Can you tell us a little about yourself, Tiny?
TINY GARCIA: I call myself a “poverty scholar.” I’m that houseless mama, that houseless daughter, one of all those people you never wanna see, you never wanna be, that you look away from. I’m a poverty scholar. I brought my jailhouse attire because my poor mama and me both did jail-time, just trying to stay alive in this occupied indigenous territory. I’m a poverty scholar, a welfare queen, and I’m honored to be here with sister Rupa who’s definitely infiltrating to liberate and has dedicated her life to walking in a different way.
RUPA: Thank you, Tiny. I want to talk to you about this situation with COVID-19 right now. What are your experiences with COVID in the work that you’re doing and in your personal life: can you tell us about that?
TINY: Sure, and even before we get started I want us to remember to honor the land that we’re both standing because both of us are always walking humbly on Mamma Earth.
RUPA: Yeah, this is Pomo territory, beautiful, beautiful land that we’re in. I’m very grateful to all the ancestors here who have stewarded this land so that it still retains its beauty, even in its current, colonized state. And I’m very inspired by the land liberation movements that I see happening, and I feel very grateful to our friends Cooper and Lea who’ve given us shelter in this home while they’re away. I’m very grateful for all this.
TINY: I want to say thank you to all the ancestors, not only those who were first here but those who have died every day in these occupied streets in poverty and in this new pandemic. When I was 11, I was with my disabled, mixed-race mama who was always one paycheck away from homeless, who was actually unable to continue in the capitalist survival wheel, and we ended up on the street. That didn’t end overnight, and I was incarcerated for 3 months for the act of being houseless, so it’s very important when we have any conversations about COVID to also talk about the other pandemics—the pandemics of poverty, PoLice Terror and the ongoing terror of colonization. And those intersect in never ending ways. I was incarcerated for the sole act of being houseless because on this occupied land, there are certain colonial laws that make it illegal for someone to not have a roof.
So just straight up, people need to understand and “overstand” that, whoever might be listening to this or reading this, even conscious and good and beautiful hearted people who want to walk a different way, might not really know or fully get what it’s like to be poor. Our bodies are criminalized for the sole act of not having access to a roof, for being black and brown, for standing on a street corner together because that’s the only place we can. The poor and black and brown and Indigenous are continuously predated on for profit: there’s money to be made in those incarceration nations.
After the incarceration, my mama and me weren’t able to even do whatever we needed to survive, and everything shut down. I talk about poverty, but I don’t glamorize it; it almost killed us multiple times. Poor families are criminalized and what happened to us multiple times was like a murder of the soul. Most people avoid looking at you. I call it the violent act of looking away. People think: “It’s too much, I don’t wanna look at it, let me keep it moving.” They disengage because they don’t want to think it has anything to do with them, but we as humans have everything to do with it, because we enable it; we live within the criminal injustice system and all of these systems of oppression that you and so many others are looking to untangle and dismantle.
My mom could be resourceful though. Poor people have to be. She found a revolutionary lawyer. She was going to get me out of jail by any means necessary. And that lawyer with race and class privilege lifted me up and got me out of jail and saved my life. Ocean Newman is his name. He comes from privilege but dedicated his life to a different way. I had to do 3000 hours of community service, but I was able to transform it into “Revolutionary Love Work” by becoming a writer and doing positive work. It literally not only saved my life, but it made me understand that my voice was important. I had an opinion; I had a voice, and I had solutions. I told a lot of that story in my first book, Criminal Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America.
RUPA: How old were you at that time?
TINY: 18, essentially the minute I became of age, that was when the system could incarcerate me, and they did. They would do sweeps of the camps we were in. But I was sent to an adult prison for adult offenses. When I got out, a whole trajectory of things started to happen. In an act of Revolutionary Redistribution of Resources, which was that a landlord, who I usually call scam lords ‘cause I don’t believe in the lie of being allowed to buy and sell mama earth as a commodity, but this one actually happened to be a real human, donated a space to some of us poor families.
And at that time, for the first time in my life, I was able to think. Just think. When you’re struggling to get one dollar, believe me, you can’t think straight or plan ahead. It’s what we call “organizational privilege,” something a lot of poor folks don’t have: the time to think, dream, conceive, things that aren’t seen as privileges, but they are. My mama and me started to have a vision of something we called “homefulness,” a way of living, a community solution to homelessness, and we started to organize it. We were able to get some property. Even though I don’t believe land should be a commodity to be bought and sold, we had to get funds together and get involved in the “realsnake” market to “unsell” it and start building houses for houseless families.
Then in 2011 we started the Sliding Scale Cafe, making sure that families in poverty struggling with gentrification and displacement got supported with things they need and were shown love every week. We were able to raise funds by what I call “community reparations and radical redistribution,” which is folks who have more privileges kicking in dollars and resources to give back to the community. Among other things we started a PeopleSkool and a Poor Mammas Diaper Fund. And now since COVID hit, we give masks and diapers and wipes and cleaning supplies to over 400 people. Folks line up at 6:00am. I don’t think it’s something to celebrate; I think it’s something to mourn—that that’s where people are at with this pandemic called poverty, with the way our economic system is set up. We know “crapitalism” is not a human system, and it never was, not before COVID, and not now.
RUPA: I’m so inspired by and so deeply honor your work and the work of all the Homefulness people that I’ve met. I’m impressed by how you’ve all been in community, educating each other and exploring ways of liberating yourselves from capitalism, from the privatization of property, the selling of Mamma Earth, mass incarceration, the terrorism waged against poor communities, the degradation of women and women’s work. Has the COVID crisis put all these issues into even more hyper-focus for you? And what do you think people with privilege from different backgrounds here in occupied and stolen land can contribute to the evolution of our society right now?
TINY: I think COVID provides us with a pause. A lot of us folks were always running around trying to do too much with too little, or too much with too much in some cases, but we never stopped for a moment to look around and pray and ask ourselves: “What is it that I’m actually doing? What is it that I’m actually engaged in?” So, for some people, it has helped them stop doing that “violent act of looking away” I talked about before. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and so many others for so many generations…) were really seen. A lot of people didn’t look away. Some of them joined the fight against organized terror. This global pause, this pivot moment, has helped people look at stuff that’s long been absolutely wrong, from the hero worship of statues of racist rapists, to a system built on terror, weaponry and brutalization. So, yeah, in a way, this time of COVID has in a way helped people see more clearly.
RUPA: I also feel in my heart that this is a great pause, a very important pause. I’ve been researching my heart out and talking and interviewing people like you, these amazing revolutionary, mostly women, on the front lines of our imagination right now. I have been asking what this portal is opening through COVID. It’s definitely causing us to pause, to not continue the violent act of looking away. We cannot look away. We’re all stuck at home, and we see the murders, we see the violence of the cops and the federal response of militarized secret police now coming into our communities on all sorts of bodies now, including on white bodies, on allies who are standing there in Portland. And so, as the portal is open and this grotesque ugliness that has always been there and has always been terrorizing communities of color, indigenous communities, now it’s out in the middle of Portland. So now we’re seeing it, we’re all witnessing it and understanding its contours, understanding the whole narrative.
At the same time, this portal is also opening a possibility of a new world, a new way of relating. By looking at that violence, people with moral compasses are now in this moment of asking themselves: “What do we do? What is the vision for the way of being together, here? Recognizing we’re all on stolen land, recognizing that we’re part of this system that perpetuates the degradation of women, of the earth, of all things that are sacred that our lives are dependent upon, what is the way forward?”
So, Tiny, what is your vision of a decolonized world? What would that world look like? How do we do that healing? What is that world that’s just waiting to be born, and is this just the painful labor that we must go through as we midwife the birth of this new world?
TINY: I want to lift up the elders and the ancestors here, for without them there would be no us. Besides decolonizing we also have to do some “de-gentrifying” because in poor communities we’ve been suffering violent acts of terror and displacement and removal that are killing us for a long, long time. I think this is actually a moment when our ancestors and liberators can be heard, and so my teaching is the same as it was before COVID, but I’m excited that now more people are listening. It’s why we do the “de-gentrification” and decolonization seminar of which you were a beautiful student.
The vision for the world I’d like to see is to un-sell Mamma Earth. She shouldn’t be under the control of wealth hoarders, but everyone in this crapitalist system has been lied to about what success is, and about how the accumulation of dollars and resources is what life is about. So, before I’ve taught you, I don’t judge you for being a resource hoarder. I know that we have all engaged in this sick system in ways that we’re not even clear on. It’s been pounded into our heads that the way you make it is through hoarding and accumulating, stealing and removing. This is what is taught.
And that system causes the torture of Mamma Earth. At the same time as we deal with the torture of poor, struggling and incarcerated human mamas, we are dealing with the torture and the eroding of Mamma Earth, and they are most definitely interlinked. And so we must not continue this ravaging, predating, buying and selling of Mamma Earth and the attacks on its best defenders, Indigenous peoples. Mayan elders teach that this pause is happening for a reason, it’s intentional so that we can actually embrace a different way of walking. But to be clear, COVID is not a wonderful thing at all; it’s a terrifying reality: I almost died from this illness, so I’m not at all pretending it’s not a real problem or that I’m happy about it because it provides us with this pause. It’s a horror…but so are poverty, hunger, land theft and colonization.
RUPA: I think about the wealth hoarder syndrome you discussed. It’s definitely affected me as a child of immigrants. My parents came to this country with $7 in their pockets, and my dad eventually accumulated wealth, but he died at the age of 52 because he worked so hard. And he worked in the system in Silicon Valley, and I see a lot of my son’s brilliance coming from my dad. He loved electrical engineering. He helped build the architecture of Silicon Valley, because he was captivated by what we could do with electronics and technology. And I remember one day before he died, he stood in our home in Los Altos, and he said, “Look at this! I didn’t mean to acquire all this wealth. I came here with this dream and this idea.” But when I was younger, there was a constant fear of being homeless. When we were little children we survived on dahl and ground beef and rice, and so he hoarded, and I was taught that I had to always make sure I wasn’t going to be out on my ass.
And now I’m in this position as a doctor, and I make a good living for my family. I’m married to a farmer who makes delicious food that is grown on healthy soil. And so I have this abundance, but what do I do with it? I still feel in myself that terror of needing to hoard, which I had inherited from my family. So this problem you speak of is a global problem. We all feel it. How do we heal from this sickness? How do we understand the real wealth that we possess: our love for our community, our friends, for the people who won’t let us fail; our connection to the earth; the power we have to give life.
So I want to thank you, Tiny, and acknowledge how you have been a real teacher to me in this realm, helping me see what I have to do and helping me understand how I can do this work at this time, and it’s never felt more important to me as I witness what COVID is exposing in our society. So, I would ask you how you think those of us who come from wealth hoarding backgrounds can find creative ways to help not just those in need, but also to help heal that sickness in ourselves?
TINY: Those are big beautiful questions, so thank you, and thank you for your story. First of all, I want to go back and thank your father. To thank him, and to thank you for being a good daughter and for doing your best to unpack the ways that these systems are violent. The way you just described how he literally worked himself to death should be a lesson for all of us. You hear people say: “I worked for my money.” Well not all rich people did, but for those who really did I’m really sorry if that took a violent toll on your physical body, which it often does. This system is violent all around, not just for the poor. The whole system is based on different types of violence at all levels.
I wish I could just give you a really beatific, healing, visionary answer, but I can’t. The violence is so real on folks like myself. We’re on the street, and there are literally almost hundreds of migrant families who are barely holding on in this pandemic, and whose scam-lords are threatening them with 3-day notices. This is an emergency, which has already been on and has now gotten much worse. We’re talking about almost 50,000 people just in this area who are getting evicted. How does a situation like that happen? It happens because of the same things we’ve been talking about. Half the scam lords are people who worked hard for their money, who desperately got that money out of all kinds of labor and then bought these “ugly houses” and then flipped them. Those people are oppressed too, but those are acts of violence, and if we talk about deconstructing colonization, we have to root ourselves in reality.
But we always have to ground everything we do in love, and hopefully we can start moving in different directions. I hope folks who might be seeing this reach out to me, reach out to you and recognize that they can learn a different way to be. They can come to the next session of PeopleSkool on August 29th. They can start to shift their consciousness and understand and over-stand the emergency that we’re in.
RUPA: So how can someone who is listening or reading this and wants to get in touch with the Bank of Community Reparations, do that?
TINY: Go to poormagazine.org, or google “Bank of Community Reparations.” You can also just email.
RUPA: When someone donates money, what do you do with those funds?
TINY: A lot of folk don’t understand that it’s not an actual bank. We’re using the word bank as a container, but what happens when folk give reparations is that we have 4 different funds: Poor Mammas Emergency Fund, which goes directly to families; the Tech Reparations Fund, set up so folks in tech whose industries, not necessarily by design, have contributed to the displacement of folks, can help build black and brown equity; and the Homefulness Fund, a model to unsell Mamma Earth and provide housing.
RUPA: When I look at COVID as a doctor, it’s really shocking the way it is disproportionately hurting black and brown people. It’s really driving home the deep inequities in our society in a blatantly obvious way. So, I hope that all of you listening to this or reading it can use your voices in whatever ways you can in your spheres of influence. If you’re a lawyer, you can get in the face of your public officials; if you’re a doctor, go get in the face of your hospitals. The fact is that we should have no one having to live the streets, ever, but especially now unhoused people are 2-4 times more likely to contract COVID, and they’re 2-4 times more likely to die if they get it. Being unhoused should not be a death sentence, and if they continue to suffer, it will also contribute to keeping the virus in circulation and affect all of us. So, even from a purely selfish perspective, making sure everyone has healthcare is the safest thing for all of us.
I feel passionately as a doctor that everyone has to have complete healthcare coverage, which means the abolition of the private healthcare industry, the abolition of healthcare for profit, which is another act of violence. I’m tired of the financial abuse of my patients and seeing people in the hospital break down because even as they watch their loved ones die, they are worried sick about the bills they’re gonna have to pay. That’s the reality in America, that’s the reality in this toxic structure that we live in, and we have to change it.
Tiny (aka Lisa Gray-Garcia) is a formerly unhoused, incarcerated poverty scholar, revolutionary journalist, lecturer, poet, visionary, teacher and single mama of Tiburcio, daughter of a houseless, disabled, indigenous mama Dee, and the co–founder of POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE/PoorNewsNetwork. She has authored over 200 stories and blogs on poverty, racism, incarceration and displacement. With her Mama Dee, she co-founded Escuela de la gente/PeopleSkool– a poor and indigenous people-led skool, as well as several cultural projects such as the Po Poets Project / Poetas POBREs Proyecto, welfareQUEENs, the Theatre of the POOR/Teatro de los pobres, Hotel Voices (to name a few). She is also the author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, co-editor of A Decolonizers Guide to A Humble Revolution, and Born & Raised in Frisco. Her second book, Poverty ScholarShip: Poor People Theory, Arts, words and Tears Across Mama Earth A PeoplesTeXt was released in 2019. In 2011, she co-launched The Homefulness Project – a landless peoples, self-determined land liberation movement in the Ohlone/Lisjan/Huchuin territory known as Deep East Oakland, and co-founded a liberation school for children, Deecolonize Academy. She has taught Poverty Scholarship theory and practice in Universities, street corners and encampments from Columbia to Skid Row. In the Covid19 Pandemic, she and other poverty skola leaders at POOR Magazine have galvanized folks with race and class privilege and solidarity community so POOR Magazine could increase their already existent street love-work, education, service and support to supply food, masks, gloves, healing and sanitation to over 700 unhoused and no-income housed communities per week across the Bay Area as part of healing, surviving this Corona crisis. She has dubbed it “interdependence” and Radical Redistribution. She also launched a web-based media series called “From Katrina to Corona: Poor People Solutions versus Government solutions” and is visionary and co-editor of an anthology/resource guide called “Po Peoples survival Guide Thru Covid19 and the Crisis of Poverty” which is available at a sliding scale. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @povertyskola. Find her books at PoorPress.net
Rupa Marya, MD, an Associate Professor of Medicine at UCSF, is an internal medicine specialist whose focus is the care of seriously ill patients. She has done extensive research on social factors in illness and is Faculty Director of the Do No Harm Coalition, a group of more than 450 UCSF health workers and students dedicated to ending racism and state violence. Currently working with health leaders of Lakota and Dakota tribes to create a space for the practice of decolonized medicine at the Mni Wiconi Clinic and Farm at Standing Rock, where she serves on the board of directors, she is also a co-investigator on the Justice Study, a national research effort to understand the link between police violence and health outcomes in black, brown and indigenous communities. A passionate, award-winning health and justice activist, Rupa has also worked with the Open My Heart Foundation, which seeks to end disparities in outcomes for black women with cardiovascular conditions; serves on the board of Seeding Sovereignty, an international entity promoting indigenous autonomy in the context of climate change; mentors undocumented college students who want to pursue careers in medicine; is the composer and front-woman for the international touring band Rupa & the April Fishes; and was also lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that liberated “Happy Birthday to You” back to the public domain.
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