Nancy Scheper-Hughes


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

“Just remember, Nancy, that you and I are just ‘passing’ as academics.”
—George A. DeVos (“the Fox” in Flemish), University of California professor of anthropology

The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people. We are raised to be obedient; it requires considerable discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our sociable inclinations to conform, to not make waves, as my beloved Dad put it. The phone or the doorbell rings, and we answer it. The Star-Spangled Banner strikes up at a baseball game, and we rise to salute the flag and strain to reach the impossible notes of a ghastly anthem with its “bombs bursting in air,” its references to fire, destruction, blood, and the “pollution” of our enemies, the “terror of flight and the gloom of the grave.” But sing it we do, on cue. Then, suddenly, there is a tipping point that brings one to their senses. Following the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, something snapped back home in the United States. Some ordinary people began to sit tight during the singing of the national anthem in our ballparks. The bench sitters were pelted with hot dogs and mustard, with snow cones and soft ice cream. They were told to stand up like men, even if they were women. They were called traitors, scum, cowards, and Commies, and told to get out of America. But, like Horton the Elephant, they sat and they sat. They refused to remove their baseball caps or place their right hands over their hearts in a display of patriotic loyalty. That took a lot of moral courage.

As a young Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Northeast Brazil, my band of nonspecialist “sanitary engineers” (latrine diggers) and “barefoot paramedics” arrived soon after the 1964 military coup (fully supported by the CIA) that clobbered the impoverished sugarcane cutters who had begun to organize with the Ligas Componese, the Peasant League Movement. The military officers in Recife learned that the “squatters” of the shantytown, Alto do Cruzeiro, in rural Pernabuco were holding mass meetings and that Dona Nanci was organizing a squatters association (UPAC, the Union of the People of Alto do Cruzeiro) to address the lack of potable water, the hunger, the infant mortality, and the premature deaths from uncontrolled infectious disease. But it was the indignity of pauper burials in shallow, collective graves using borrowed municipal tin coffins that poor people could no longer endure. UPAC organized around the slogan “Six Feet Under and a Proper Coffin.”

One afternoon, two sweaty men in uniform came to my mud hut, perched near the top of the hillside shantytown, and accompanied me to military headquarters in Recife, where I was questioned. I spoke of the useless suffering and meaningless (premature) deaths of infants and “angel babies.” I was released but placed under surveillance and a form of house arrest. I was not allowed to leave the town of Timbauba during the military investigation of UPAC. I could not meet with more than three people at a time. No elections of local leaders could take place. All organizing had to stop, and I had to give a daily report of my activities to a local judge, Dr. Geraldo. Three months later a verdict was reached: UPAC was banned and my visa was to be revoked. I was told to leave Brazil.

My Peace Corps directors threatened that if I was forced to leave my post, they would pull the other 500 volunteers out of the country with me. A compromise was reached: UPAC could still function in circumscribed ways. Our infant-toddler daycare center (the crèche) ran as a parent co-op alongside a community kitchen to feed those who were in the greatest need. Over the protests of sugar plantation owners and cattle ranchers worried that thirsty squatters would squander water needed for agribusiness, the Secretary of Public Works provided water pipes. The pipes were installed, and a water pump and a large water tank were installed on the top of the shantytown. Literacy classes continued at night, and a few rural workers learned to read, write, and use alfabetizaçao within the forbidden contest of political conscientizaçao. I could leave with my head up and with a collective that kept the crèche working for several years after I left Brazil.

On return to the United States, I wasn’t ready to resume my studies and I joined SNCC (the Black-power-oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and spent two years (1967 and 1968) in Selma, Alabama, and its rural surrounds, especially Wilcox and Lowndes counties where we gathered household, medical, and family data to support a class action suit (Peoples vs. the US Department of Agriculture) representing 500 Black farm families, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers who were being denied federal subsidies, food commodities, FHA loans, and cotton allotment checks that were due them. It took more than twenty years for that suit to wind its way through the federal courts.

In the spring of 1969, I moved to Berkeley to work as a research assistant for my undergraduate mentor, the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker, who had retired from Queens College and moved to North Berkeley where she lived next door to the Alfred and Theodora Kroeber compound on Arch Street. Her last research project was a study of “time and youth culture” in the Bay Area. Thanks to Hortense’s pressure, I applied to the graduate anthropology program at Berkeley. When Hortense died suddenly that summer, I was bereft and threw myself into the local political scene. I joined the first ragtag group of students and local activists to occupy the area that became known as People’s Park. Mayhem followed, including police shootings and demonstrations. I became pregnant and then became a single mother. But having lived among many single parents and grandparents with children, I learned from them how to manage.

Founding UC Berkeley Child Day Care Services

I joined a group of community activists and students who were trying to begin a student-parent child day care co-operative on the Berkeley campus. It was during this time that I met my husband Michael, a Harvard graduate and football player who suffered an injury that had disqualified him from the draft. His work as a child day care teacher alleviated some of his guilt about not serving in Vietnam. He had demonstrated against the war but would have fought in WWII, he said.

By the fall of 1970 we had negotiated with the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) and the university administration to use a vacant small redwood building on Galey Road, Girton Hall, while looking for a larger location. Girton could not handle more than fifteen children per hour, and the hours were distributed by a weekly lottery. Our attempts to be recognized and supported by the university administration failed. “We are not in the business of babysitting,” an assistant in the chancellor’s office told us. The collective decided to apply pressure by “occupying” the chancellor’s office with our infants and toddlers. We were to have been about twenty demonstrators or so, but when I arrived at 200 California Hall with my baby daughter, Jennifer, who I carried in a side sling, only two other mothers turned up. We managed to get inside the glass doors of the chancellor’s office and sat on the floor with our curious and playful toddlers; we said we would not leave until we could speak to then Chancellor Roger Heyns. However, the tables were turned, and we were locked down inside the reception area for several hours. The media came and dozens of our daycare parents cheered us on from outside. As our babies began to cry and needed their diapers changed, the university police finally let us leave without penalty.

What would we do next? I shared my experiences about the tactics of “occupations” that I learned in Brazil among the rural squatters who had occupied a rocky, steep hill (a rural favela) that they called Crucifix Hill, Alto do Cruzeiro. There, we had built a crèche for the children of rural workers whose infants were dying like flies as they left them home alone or in the care of other children or old neighbors—none of them capable caretakers. We did what Brazilians were doing all over the country, occupying land that was not being used.

We decided to apply the same tactics to our student-parent co-operative while we continued while we continued to investigate other buildings on campus that were under used. We chose a large basement in a high-rise university dorm on Durant Avenue and conducted a survey of the student residents to see if there were any objections to our using the site for our second childcare unit. The students were positive, and one morning we seamlessly executed the plan, bringing in cribs, playpens, blankets, and toys so that another thirty children of UC Berkeley students had access to the daycare co-operative.

There was one incident that put a chill on our project. An older graduate student with emotional problems related to a breakup with his wife set fire to a mattress that was used by the toddlers to play on. Luckily, the fire was set after the children had gone home, and it was immediately detected. Fire trucks arrived and extinguished it. Then the UC administration wisely closed that ad hoc childcare center and seriously began negotiating with us for the first time. The result was that the volunteer daycare teachers were employed under the title “lab technicians,” which they protested to the administration saying that they were not taking care of white mice or rats in a cage. By 1972, the Associated Students of the University of California administered the daycare program. Additional sites were negotiated, including childcare centers at the old Anna Head building near People’s Park, another in the basement of The First Congregational Church at Dana and Durant, and a year later at the Smyth-Fernwald UC Berkeley married student housing complex at the top of Dwight Way.

People’s Park: Installing The People’s Café

After I completed my doctorate in the anthropology department at Berkeley in 1976, my husband and I moved to Texas (Southern Methodist University) and then to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I taught for several years, returning to Cal in 1982 to join the anthropology department as a professor. It was the Golden Age of Anthropology at Berkeley, and I was lucky to have enjoyed sharing Kroeber Hall with so many brilliant scholars and dedicated fieldworkers. Meanwhile, however, People’s Park was going to seed: runaway teens, Vietnam vets with PTSD, and former patients of the old state asylums vied for space in the park. Faculty and students avoided the place, except for the occasional weekend concerts. The crack epidemic brought some unsavory people into the park, where they were wheeling and dealing. In the late 1980s, we met John Cooper, the founder of The Berkeley Catholic Worker. Every morning he rode into People’s Park in his green pickup truck bearing steaming vats of hot coffee and donuts. Cooper was an impossible, irascible Berkeley saint. He had a Ph.D. from Stanford in physics and a tough addiction to alcohol. When he hit rock bottom, he lived as a tramp. He managed to recovered enough to drive a taxi around town and it was during one those long rides through the city that he had his Saint Paul on the way to Tarsus moment. He looked at the homeless denizens of the Berkeley streets, empathized with them, and decided that he would spend the rest of his life trying to make their lives easier and more dignified. John claimed to be an atheist who had a single God experience, the one that pulled him toward a radical love for the homeless of People’s Park and his dedication to the Catholic Workers, an anarchist-socialist movement founded in NYC by Dorothy Day and Peter Marin in the 1930s to respond to the basic needs of the homeless during the Great Depression by opening Catholic Worker hospitality homes and ‘agronomic universities.’


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

Catholic Worker philosophy was based on a few principles: personalism, intimacy, pragmatism, and respect for the dignity and freedom of excluded individuals. In People’s Park, these included people without names and known only as “the Hate Man,” “Pig-Pen,” “the Orange Man,” Rosebud, and Gypsy. The Catholic Worker’s playbill also included radical action as needed. Over time, the Berkeley Catholic Workers broadened their commitment to include antinuclear protests and arrests at the Livermore Labs, along with various peace initiatives encouraged by our chaplain, the famous Father Bill O’Donnell, who taught us how to get arrested so as to maintain the dignity of both cops and demonstrators.

But primarily, the Berkeley Catholic Worker’s brief was to prepare and dispense gourmet breakfasts—old-fashioned Irish oatmeal and fresh cream, grits and cheese, hot croissants and Peet’s coffee (caf or decaf), and some weekend evening meals of hearty soups and stews (meat or vegetarian). “Why shouldn’t the homeless have choices?” John insisted. But serving hot meals out of an open, flatbed truck was not very convenient or dignified in the rainy season, and so John managed to wheedle some $50,000 from local donors so that our group could rent a nice, dry, and well-lit place in the vicinity of People’s Park.

An ideal space, managed by the university, close to the park was found, and John Cooper and I met with a dean—I forget who he was, but we called him the “Dean of Monies.” We explained our plans and how we would make sure that our CW hospitality house would be as well run and as integrated into the university community and campus as the ASUC child care program of which the university was quite proud. The dean’s answer to us was No, No, and Never. I recall looking at John, who for once in his life was totally defeated. He had worked so hard to pull together a significant amount of funds, and he had won the respect of the divided and divisive residents of People’s Park. It was heartbreaking; and although I was a full professor, totally dedicated to my students, to our doctoral program in critical medical anthropology, and to my research and writing, I was not willing to sacrifice the other part of my life, the life of a radical. I took one last look at John, and I said spontaneously to the dean: “Well, I guess we’ll just have to implement option two.” “And what would that be?’ the dean asked while John cocked his head at me, wondering what I had in mind. I replied, “We’ll just have to build a hospitality house in People’s Park.” “You do anything of the sort,” the Dean of Monies replied, “and it will be curtains for you,” or something along those lines.

Endless “clarification of thought” meetings took place among the Berkeley Catholic Workers. In the interim, we borrowed time by operating out of the basement of Mary Magdalene Church in North Berkeley, but it was too far from People’s Park where most of the homeless gathered. Finally, John Cooper and a small band of hard-core Berkeley Catholic Workers members—including my husband, Michael; my daughter, Jennifer; and me—agreed to take the more radical path.

Those who prayed—not John Cooper, who always insisted, “I’m not a Catholic; I don’t pray, and I don’t work”—went to Saint Joseph the Worker Church where Father Bill O’Donnell dedicated a monthly Mass to the Catholic Workers and advised us. We were a motley crew. John Cooper came to the Mass, but he sat grumpily on a folding chair at the back of the basement room where the Catholic Worker Mass was taking place, and he ducked out as soon as the “bloody kiss of peace” went round, and again when Holy Communion was distributed.

After one of those Masses, we decided that we would plant a People’s Café in People’s Park, occupying university-owned land. We purchased a beautiful (if such could be said) seventy-four-foot house trailer that we hauled from a construction site to the Berkeley Marina on the evening of 8 May 1989. A dozen of us spent the night at the marina in quiet contemplation. Father Bill came to give us a blessing. He reminded us that we would be breaking the law; we said we understood and would accept the consequences.

I annoyed the hell out of John Cooper every time I asked him during the cold night watch:

“John, what is the plan after we carry the trailer into People’s Park?”

“Dammit, Nancy, we’ll make a giant cauldron of oatmeal and one of grits, and we’ll start feeding people.”

“Yes, but what do we do when the police arrive?”

“Bag your negative energy. When the police come, we’ll know what to do.”


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

I shut up and put my head on my knees, wanting the morning light to appear. At 5:00 A.M. we got into our cars and accompanied The People’s Café as it was hauled by union-motorists down University Avenue. John, seated inside the cab of the truck, blasted a tape of the Hallelujah Chorus, as we held our breaths. Arriving at People’s Park, we took our assigned posts and set to work following a minute-by-minute schedule. Our carpenter-member sawed down some wooden posts that boarded the park, so the trailer café could be driven inside the park. We punctured the tires of the mobile café so that it would be a permanent fixture. We arranged picnic tables with tablecloths and lit up the gas stoves. By 7:00 A.M., when campus police arrived, we had already served more than 150 people a hot breakfast under the white flowing banner “The People’s Café.” The first cop said, “Holy shit!”

In the months that followed, The People’s Café provided more than good food. Guests were welcomed inside the café where card tables, dominos, chess, and checkers were set up. Free haircuts were given, and basins for “washing up” were provided, as were small lockers to store small, special possessions. Then mayor of Berkeley, Loni Hancock, praised The People’s Café, which she was cited in the Berkeley news as calling “a little piece of heaven dropped down on People’s Park.” During its tenure, there were no violent incidents at the park. When crises arose, they were dealt with on the spot. Weapons were sometimes confiscated, but we never had to call on or involve the police. The People’s Café was a weapon-free and police-free zone. We were respected—but, of course, the university wanted us out.

After several months of failed negotiations with UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services, the university filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court asking for a court order to forcibly remove The People’s Café. The judge rejected the case: “You want to remove the café; you can,” she said. “It is on state property. Don’t ask the county to be party to this.” The judge said that she was a great admirer of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. But ultimately after four wonderful years, the university police, armed and dangerous, entered the park and forcibly removed and eventually chopped up and destroyed The People’s Café. In its place, the university built volleyball courts for students.

Although he and a few companions reverted to bringing hot meals into park in the original green Catholic Worker pickup truck, John Cooper fell into a deep depression. It was never the same after that, and bad luck—bad ‘cess the Irish would say—followed. Gypsy, a much beloved street person, choked on a chicken bone while standing on his head in front of the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. Soon after, a nineteen-year-old runaway with a history of mental problems, known as Rosebud, who lived in The People’s Park, broke into University House, the campus home of the new and much loved Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. Rosebud had a small machete. A security device alerted campus police, who arrived with a particular Berkeley police officer who had a history of violence and civil rights abuses. They found Rosebud cowering in the bathroom of the chancellor’s residence, and they shot her point-blank. Rosebud was a disturbed person, but John Cooper believed that her death could have been averted if The People’s Café and its staff of homeless veterans had been available to counsel her, just as we did many other disturbed people in People’s Park. Mad Lives Matter!

A few years later, John Cooper gave up and died of emphysema, neglect, and a broken heart. We grieved John’s death deeply, and I still miss him. John was a difficult man, a temperamental man, and at times a tempestuous man—but he was also a visionary. John confided that it all began in 1985 when, while driving his taxicab through the dismal backstreets of San Francisco, he experienced what he called gruffly, “an abrupt feeling that I should serve the poor.” John was also an educated man, and he left behind his bound Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He had a problem with alcohol but never had a drink before 5:00 P.M. He was a “disciplined” alcoholic and the first to admit it. He wrote weekly reflections in our Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper that captured the spirit and writings of the original Penny Catholic Worker socialist newspaper that I read as a child in New York City. Cooper was an itinerant and virtually homeless intellectual, similar in spirit to the French worker-priest Peter Maurin, who accompanied Dorothy Day and helped her to think. John had a single vision: to dwell physically, psychologically, and spiritually with the homeless. He never turned back.


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

In my 1995 article, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,”I suggested ways of bringing together scholarship and moral and political commitment. In Death Without Weeping,I argued for an anthropologic-pe-no-chao, anthropology-with-one’s feet on the ground, a committed, grounded, “barefoot” anthropology. We can write books that go against the grain by avoiding impenetrable prose so as to be accessible to broader publics. We can make ourselves available to the poor, the displaced and disgraced, as companheiros and companheiras. We can exchange gifts based on our labors, use royalties or awards, to support radical actions. We can seek to avoid the death-dealing treadmill of academic/professional achievement. We can be scholars as well as upstarts. We can take advantage of the incredible freedom that the academy has given us and not squander it on useless or obscurantist arguments. “Theorists and Methodologists—Get to Work!” Finally, in “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Anthropology,”I argued that there are times to “play the court jester, that sometimes mocking, sometimes ironic, but always mischievous, voice from the sidelines…to put on the white face of the harlequin…Don’t be seduced, be the seducer! Don’t be subverted, be the subverter! Laughter is the best medicine and the Rabelaisian love of the absurd, the grotesque, and for the tumbling of received wisdoms.”

There are times when civil disobedience is a just path toward human liberation. Today there is still hunger in the streets and newly exposed shocking hunger among our Berkeley student body—some of whom are so financially stressed by the rising cost of tuition, rent, and books that they limit themselves to one meal a day fortified by snacks of tortilla chips. I think of John Cooper as John the Good and wonder what he would say and write in his wise reflections in the Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper, one cent per copy, just as Dorothy Day never changed the price. I think he’d say: Feed the hungry; visit the prisons; make friends with the drug dealers and the gangsters; open the doors of the university to the undocumented, to the former gang members, and let the homeless sit in on your classes. They all have a lot to teach us.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,” Cultural Anthropology 36 (1995): 409–440.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology,” Social Science and Medicine (1991): 189–198.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes is the Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her books, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland and Death without Weeping: the Everyday Violence of Brazil (both by UC Press) have received multiple book awards including the Welcome Medal (Royal Anthropological Institute) for anthropology applied to medical problems and the J.I. Staley Prize for innovative work beyond traditional frontiers, adding new dimensions to our understanding of the human species.

Posted by Boom California