Voices of America series 5: the radical

The Scotsman, November 4 1988

Mitch Snyder is a nobody from nowhere. He is also a personal pain in President Reagan’s neck, the subject of a Hollywood film about his life, and – according to whose story you hear – either an egomaniac blackmailer or the last Good Samaritan in America.

When the city of Washington DC built fences around its underground railway stations last winter, so that the homeless could not use them to escape from the cold, it was Snyder who went on a very public hunger strike until the city forked out for some alternative shelter.

When the Giant supermarket chain refused to allow poor people to collect unwanted food from its rubbish skips, it was Snyder who organised a beggar’s banquet on Capitol Hill of gourmet food culled from the skips; who picketed Giant stores; held a sit-in in the chief executive’s office; and persuaded a Congressman to climb into a skip to sample the food for himself. Giant changed its mind.

When the former Attorney General, Ed Meese, declared that people who ate at soup kitchens were nothing but freeloaders, it was Snyder who organised a round-the-clock vigil outside Meese’s home until he apologised.

When a posh Washington church decided to spend $400,000 on restoring its splendid neo-classical building, it was Snyder who picketed the church, starved himself to death’s door and stood in gaunt rebuke at the back of Sunday services to try to persuade the congregation to divert some of their funds to the poor. The church refused, and Snyder was given the last rites before admitting defeat. He claimed a moral victory.

Snyder, now 45, lives and breathes protest: sit-ins, pickets, at least ten hunger strikes, mock funerals, real funerals. He sues. He massages the media. He pours passion into crowds. He fights the bureaucracy all the way to the White House. At a time when America is swaddled in a cosy consensus, he and his small cohort of Christian anarchists in Washington DC are among the last exponents of the great American art of grass-roots democracy.

When Hollywood made a TV film of his life two years ago, Snyder’s role was played by Martin Sheen, veteran of Apocalypse Now and probably the most outspoken radical in contemporary Hollywood, who has himself been repeatedly arrested for civil disobedience and protest. The millionaire actor has since formed a strange bond with the penniless High School drop-out. Sheen’s reason is simple. “Mitch Snyder is the biggest damn troublemaker I have met in my entire life,” he told me.

“We don’t have enough people who care,” the actor continued, jabbing his forefinger in the air. “We don’t have enough people with the courage of their convictions. We don’t have enough leaders. We don’t have enough people who will risk their very lives for social justice.”

Snyder’s trouble-making and risk-taking is fuelled by unquenchable anger, particularly over the thousands of homeless men and women who litter the streets of Washington and other US cities.  He tells stories of frostbite and gangrene, of homeless women selling their blood to feed their children, lone vagrants who have been doused with gasoline and burned alive, old men crushed to death after falling asleep in rubbish skips.

He replays the same line time after time to anyone who will listen:”This is the wealthiest country the world has ever known. The fact that millions of its people have to eat out of garbage pails and live on the streets is really insane. It’s wrong anywhere, but particularly here.”

He is almost entirely isolated in Washington, where his protests receive little press coverage and even less support. He acknowledges that he is out of step with his times. “There has been just about no real activism in this country since the 1960s. There is no truly radical movement. Homeless people don’t vote. They don’t finance campaigns. So, they don’t count.”

Although his activism makes him an isolated outsider in Reagan’s America, Snyder is himself a classic product of the mainstream, a middle class Jewish family from Brooklyn. His father worked for the electric company. His mother was a good suburban housewife. Snyder grew up and found his own middle class niche as a management consultant on Madison Avenue with a wife and two children in a neat house. Then the mainstream changed course with the upheaval of the 1960s.

“One day, I woke up in a cold sweat,” he said. “I realised that this was not what I was supposed to be doing. Working for money was stupid. There’s probably no other creature in the universe, certainly not on this planet, that has to punch a time card in order to live.” Snyder threw it all away – the job, his wife, his two children, his security and his future – and went on the road. It was 1969. The road was the place to be.

A year later, he was arrested and jailed for three years after hitching a ride in a car which turned out to be stolen. “It was a bum rap,” he says. It was also the real beginning of his new life. In prison, he met activists who had been jailed for protesting the Vietnam war. They politicised him. Their leader, Father Dan Berrigan, baptised him as a Catholic and confirmed him as a rebel.

When he was released, he worked with Christian pacifists against the Vietnam war and joined a political co-operative, the Community for Creative Non Violence, which was run by radical priests in Washington. As the war ended, the tide of American protest receded, but CCNV moved on to domestic issues of poverty and homelessness, and a newly politicised Mitch Snyder became the dominant figure in its work.

“Just as we resisted the war in Vietnam,” he said, “through direct action and civil disobedience, so we decided to work with those who are homeless and hungry in the same way.” Fifteen years on, he is still angry and still fighting.

He has made a speciality of tormenting Ronald Reagan. When Republicans produced a 17-foot diameter apple pie to symbolise the ‘bigger slice of the pie’ which Reagan’s tax cuts were supposed to provide for all Americans, Snyder and friends dressed up as fat cats with morning suits and whiskers and leaped all over it in their own attempt at symbolism.

Reagan became a target principally because he showed no interest in the homeless, who die in frozen handfuls on the government’s doorstep every winter. Reagan cut housing programmes from $30 billion a year to $8 billion and assured America that there was no problem. As the 1984 election built to a climax, Snyder set out to make him regret his words with his most effective protest of all.

Over the previous Christmas, Snyder and CCNV had persuaded the federal government to let them have an old government building in the middle of Washington as a temporary shelter for 1,000 homeless men and women. But the building was damp and derelict, and the White House refused to restore it. On September 15 1984, as Reagan’s campaign for re-election built to its peak, Snyder and eleven others started a hunger strike in the public square opposite the White House and demanded the funds to restore their shelter.

For weeks, they were ignored, even though two of their number were hospitalised. On the 40th day of their fast, they sat down on the White House lawn and were arrested in scenes of violence which made the TV news. Still the White House was unmoved. CCNV embarked on a series of marches and public prayers for the homeless to keep their action in the news.

A week later, Snyder and the others were skeletal and weak. Press interest rose. A national TV documentary on the fast was scheduled to be shown 48 hours before polling. CCNV’s doctors warned the hunger strikers they were going to die within a week. On the 50th day, with voting only 72 hours away, Snyder was finally contacted by Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker. He agreed to provide the funds and, the next day, President Reagan personally signed an order.

Six months later, however, after reels of red tape and with the election safely out of the way, the White House changed its mind. After a further six months of manoeuvring, Snyder started starving himself again and after 33 days without food, he finally forced Reagan’s new chief of staff, Don Regan, to put up $5 million. But six months later, the White House had still not paid. Snyder stopped eating yet again and also refused liquids, and eleven hundred others around the country offered to join him. The White House finally coughed up.

It was Mitch Snyder’s finest hour. But he knows it was only a tiny victory. “I know this winter, just like every winter, I am going to have to bury friends who freeze to death on the streets of this city. That is not a nice experience, having to break their limbs, which are frozen solid, to get them into their coffins.”

A few weeks ago, his long campaign against the White House bore fruit when he formally opened the new, restored shelter which now provides a roof for 1,400 people. As the VIPs and the Congressmen swarmed through the building, shaking hands on all sides, I found Snyder’s Hollywood counterpart, Martin Sheen, in the crowd. Like Snyder, he was not content to see the victory as the end of the fight.

“The homeless are just one issue,” he said. “You can’t separate them from the other issues, like the arms race. That’s where all our money goes – for paranoia and greed. It’s taken away from the poor. You can’t consume over 60% of what the world produces and not expect some retribution. And now they have this election: all this poverty, 27,000 dead in Nicaragua, 70,000 dead in El Salvador and they spend their time talking about the pledge of allegiance. I never heard such horseshit in all my life.

“I listen to this actor in the White House, and I know something about acting. What kind of fantasy is he living? There are people dying in the streets. There are 34 million people living in poverty. Does he realise the difference he could have made if he had just once invited a homeless family to the White House? I’m telling you we need Mitch Snyder. Thank God for Mitch Snyder. Thank God.”

UPDATE: In July 1990, two years after this story was written, Mitch Snyder went into the wardrobe in his room at the CCNV shelter and hanged himself.