RIP Cosmic Cowboy
On Jan. 20 I received the following voicemail: “What do you say, Brother Buffington? You just forget your ole ghetto buddies when you move up in the high ranks of the bureaucracy, don’t ya? Give me a call when you get a chance, bud.”
The individual responsible for the voicemail was the pony-tailed, scruffy and often politely irreverent Dennis Beavers.
Dennis, who passed away Feb. 20, was a longtime community organizer, social activist, homeless advocate and self-dubbed “cosmic cowboy.” Dennis, easily identified by his long white hair, natural charisma and suspiciously empty pack of Pall Malls, was the founder of The SOAR Network. It officially launched in the summer of 2009 after Dennis recruited a group of ragamuffin AmeriCorps members, homeless volunteers and friends of the un-housed from all over Little Rock. I was one of those AmeriCorps members, and I spent almost every day for a year and a half with Dennis. The experience changed me forever. He was my greatest mentor. Some days, he was even my friend.
The SOAR Network has long since inspired collaboration in a way that was previously unprecedented in Little Rock. Which is exactly what Dennis wanted when he said people needed to “share their toys and play nice together.” The thing about Dennis was that he didn’t always play by the rules. Or any rules, for that matter. As far as I know, he was the first person to ever bring homeless folks to the city-sponsored Homeless Coalition meetings. A novel idea, I know. Dennis was tired of people in offices making decisions for people on the streets. He wanted the homeless to have a seat at the table, to be a part of the solution to their own problems. He knew that people on the streets had a piece of the puzzle, as he would often say. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle.
Dennis took the hardcore homeless (his words) into his home, and he worked tirelessly to help them find their way. But Dennis knew he couldn’t do this alone. He wanted the SOAR Network to be a community effort, a community barn raising, as he would put it. He wanted us to come together to help Arkansans in need. In his words, he wanted us “to bring the cosmic to the concrete.” The SOAR Network was the culmination of one man’s endless journey to do the work of the “cosmic coach.” The SOAR Network is his living legacy. I would dare say Dennis was a prophet. See, prophets don’t just foretell the future, but they confront the present. That’s exactly what Dennis did. Every day. He spoke truth to power. He spoke truth to the unjust systems in our society that disenfranchise people based on their economic status, race, physical abilities and sexuality.
Cornell West said, “There is always a fundamental tension between a commitment to truth and a quest for power.” Dennis was committed to truth: finding it, speaking it and living it. For Dennis, however, this obviously wasn’t about partisan politics. In fact, I never heard Dennis talk about politics, other than to occasionally refer to office-holders as “chumps” when they didn’t act with the best interests of the community in mind. He wasn’t very political. Probably because he understood that politics, by its most basic definition, means “a struggle for power and wealth.” Dennis understood that we would never create the community we wanted if we were in a constant struggle for power and wealth, while simultaneously ignoring the truth. The truth about the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly, the lonely, the immigrants and the dehumanized. A deep commitment to truth and justice, a deeper commitment than I’ve ever witnessed, wasn’t enough to ward off cynical criticism, stubborn political agendas and ingrained cultural beliefs. The Archbishop Helder Camara could relate to this when he said, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.” I believe this is because people will never be more defensive than when you challenge the validity of the systems, which they know little about but believe wholeheartedly in. However, even when facing perceivably insurmountable obstacles, Dennis would say, “Things are going wrong, so I must be doing something right.”
We lost Dennis on a Thursday. A Sunday memorial took place under the Broadway Bridge in downtown Little Rock, a place of great significance for the local homeless community, their advocates and friends. Hundreds of people turned out for the memorial, undeterred by the sturdy gusts of February winds blowing down the adjacent Arkansas River.
We laughed and cried, sang and sat silent, hugged and stood somber. We honored our friend. We made light of his eccentric behaviors with which we were all familiar, and we shared stories of personal, and more intimate, encounters. For many involved, Dennis’ memorial has been a call to continued action, which is exactly what he would’ve wanted. I can say that with honest certainty.
Recently, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a story about the punk band, Pussy Riot, but deleted the band’s name throughout the entire article. In other words, they censored the “who” in “who, what, when, where and why.” Yet, it was in the original AP version, and numerous other papers around the country printed the article uncensored. Even Brian Williams enunciated their name on prime time news. Ironically, the D-G had no problem publishing a picture of Pussy Riot being viciously attacked with whips by a member of the Cossack militia. But they can’t print the band’s name? Allow me to make this perfectly clear: The D-G decided that a photograph of a woman being whipped in public was acceptable, but publishing the name of her band was not. Family values at its finest, eh? The members of this feminist band have suffered numerous atrocities for speaking out against Putin, including jail time. They deserve more respect than to have their name erased because some copy editor determined that readers are too delicate to handle the name of a punk band (even though AD-G has, in fact, published its name in the past). And readers of the D-G deserve more respect than to be treated like children or idiots. Ignorance, thy name is that of a Puritan and anonymous copy editor.
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