CELLspace – 10: War in Iraq – 3

The spring equinox passed Monday, reaching the beginning of year 4 for the Iraq morass as well as year 11 for CELLspace.

Three years ago, I co-produced the Funky Puppet Supper at CELLspace. At that time, CELL had just been shut down by the SFPD and the collective scrambled for ways to keep the space open. We couldn’t allow more than 49 people in the space and went about 7 months with no events. Jonathan Youtt and others started the Mission Village Market, hoping to bring in the rent money. Mia Rovegno and others produced a series of “Save the Cell” events in other venues. Zoe Garvin and others furiously wrote grants. Even our landlord gave us a few months break on rent to help out.

CELLspace was not shut down in a vacuum. After the gentrification fights, and during the organizing against the coming War on Iraq, a newly-appointed SFPD Mission Police Captain, with ties to the Feds, began to clamp down on illegal spaces in the Mission. Spanganga shut down over electrical issues. Xeno got shut down a few times. In other parts of the City, bars were fighting new, richer neighbors who hated the noise and rabble. Venerated places like Tosca in North Beach had to spend thousands on soundproofing. 1015 Folsom was cathing hell on many fronts.

During this time, my main contribution came via CELLspace’s 7th birthday benefit. Along with Stephen Bass, Nathan Holquin, and others, we co-produced the Third Funky Puppet Supper as a birthday benefit for Cell. With the bombing of Baghdad looming, along with a major act of civil disobedience in San Francisco’s Financial District, we wrote a story about a dictator who hadn’t dealt with his childhood anger around not becoming an artist. So he invaded CELLspace, shut it down, revoked our artistic licenses, and his buffoon goons wouldn’t allow anyone to be creative. The puppets struck back and overthrew the Little Dictator, so all was good at the end. The hero, an active member of the CELLspace collective, got his girl and continued the fight.

Our pay-what-you-can preview was set for March 20, 2003. I had bronchitis, was running a fever, but still doing many production tasks. The night before, the U.S. Air Force bombed Baghdad in its “Shock and Awe” campaign. Word was already out that there would be major disruption of normalcy the day after the bombs dropped, so that meant that the day of our preview was the day of civil disobedience against Bush’s war. Sick, I biked downtown with Mia and a few others around 7 AM. We didn’t have a plan and ended up parting ways once we got down there. Alone, I wandered to various actions, watched pissed off commuters scream at protesters and ran into friends and comrades.

I hooked up with a group of bikers and disrupted traffic at the exits off of Highway 101. CHP motorcyclists hazed us, driving through our group at high speeds. Masked militant protestors would hop off their bikes and push dumpsters into the streets. Having to run a Puppet Supper errand, I split off and headed up to the Culinary Institute to give money to the Puppet Supper’s chef. I found protests elsewhere, but headed home early to rest for that night’s show.

As soon as I got home, I turned on the TV and saw the horrible local news coverage of the protests. What I had personally seen didn’t jibe with what they were reporting. The reporters began to mention arrests, and my phone started ringing. Kirsten, a CELLspace caretaker, had just been hit several times by a SFPD baton and was surrounded by cops. She was delirious and scared, calling the first person on her cell’s recent call list. I told her to get the hell out of there, and she did with the help of a few masked militants who gave her a foot up over a fence.

The phone rang again and it was Mia. She was part of the shadow puppet play that showed the Puppet Supper’s Little Dictators childhood nightmares. She ended up with the Black Bloc and was surrounded by hundreds of police. “I don’t think I’ll be at the preview tonight.” And she wasn’t because she got arrested with hundreds of others that day.


Arriving on time to CELLspace, tired, sick, and feverish, I suggested canceling the preview. At call time, Mia was detained and others hadn’t showed up. Deborah, playing the female Lover, told me to suck it up. “The show must go on. Plus, the people that come tonight are going to need to laugh after watching the war and protesting all day.” She was right of course.

Paradox, the stage manager, showed up late after a day of protesting. He agreed to speak at the beginning of the night, to sooth nerves and announce that members of the cast were exhausted or had been arrested that day. The show ran bumpy, but the message we had crafted, via commedia, buffoons, and puppets, was poignant. We took the new war home to the very space we performed the show in, and the audience appreciated the break from the shocked and awed reality that we all were now in.

Three years later, while I was sitting in the circle to celebrate CELLspace’s 10th year, the energy, message, and creativity of that Funky Puppet Supper still resonates in the center’s Main Space. Cell folk were telling stories, getting real, and emotionally connecting to the entity that is CELLspace. I kept my comments short and light, but others really spoke from the heart. Hearing the idealistic comments from the current collective crew warmed my heart. They were there to fight the system, support the artists, youth and community, and to allow amazing creative endeavors to happen.

CELLspace sucked them all in like it did for me. Working for a 10,000 square foot dream factory, allowing groups to organize protests, teaching classes, making metal art, throwing a circus event, the new crew, 25 years-old on average, got it like I did in 1998. Their drive and energy, plus the new amazing diversity of cultures and ideas, can only mean good things for CELLspace. We were also asked to give a wish for the next 10 years. Many folks wanted to see more multiuse facilities running with CELLspace’s model. I wished that CELL bought the 40,000 square foot building that it lives in.

Whatever the case, as the war rolls on and our liberties continue to be boxed in, CELLspace will stand as an example of working outside of the system, then using part of that system to move its agenda forward, allowing the fringes to continue to thrive in our community. If times do get tougher, say illegal immigrants need to seek refuge and find space to organize against anti-immigrant legislation; CELLspace stands to become an example of how to provide an “off the grid” center for community support.

On her Market St. mural’s slice of the future, Mona Caron painted a building with a banner hanging over it. It said “CELLspace #13,” showing all of us that CELLspace is part of that better world we’re all struggling. After listening to the stories in the birthday circle Monday, and feeling that continuation of the idealistic energy, that better world may be possible… and closer than we can see.

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