Inside the Activist Gym 

How a fitness center in West Oakland manages to stay underground.

Corky Splange is toggling a joystick and staring fixedly at his computer screen. He has a long, pale face and horn-rimmed glasses. Dreadlocks sprout from his head like tassels on a Japanese lantern. Behind him, a guy in madras pants lurches forward on an exercise bike. Splange leans over and asks him, "Brett, can't you move any faster? I started out with a full green energy bar, and now it's in the red. That means my lives are running out."

"Dammit, Corky, I've already been riding for 25 minutes," Brett replies. "Don't you know how hard it is to power your computer and read my FBI file at the same time?"

All at once the bike screeches to a halt and the computer screen goes dead. "Shit!" Splange shouts, pounding a fist on the table. Protein bars and water bottles fly off the display case in front of him, along with a large stack of flyers for next Saturday's Iraq protest. Splange looks up and sees two short, muscular women standing in front of him, brandishing crudely fashioned ID cards.

"Can I help you?" asks Splange.

"We heard you have — equipment," says the woman to his left, giving Splange a cold, hard look. "Perhaps of the sporting kind."

Splange stares back at her. "You have to know the password," he snaps.

The woman opens her messenger bag, pulls out a piece of paper, and hands it to Splange. He nods. The women holster their ID cards and pass through a corridor that leads to a funky atrium, packed wall-to-wall with exercise equipment. There are bikes, treadmills, elliptical machines, Pilates reformers, barbells, and giant plastic balls — much of it old and in apparent need of repair. The exercise bikes are each attached to a coffee-can-sized turbine, all of which are wired to a generator that seems to be harnessing their energy to power Splange's computer and several old televisions. Every once in a while a TV or computer blacks out, and drama ensues.

Take this exchange, overheard on a recent Wednesday afternoon:

"Yo, could you get back on the bike, man? I wanna watch CNN."

"But I wanna do the ball, man."

"How come every time I ask for one small favor, you resist? I feel marginalized."

"Wait. Hey — what are you doing? Why the padlock? Oh man, don't go chaining yourself to the bike again."

"Gotta do it man. I don't know how else to get through to you. I want my CNN."

On any given day you might find six or seven people chained to the equipment at West Oakland's Activist Gym, which is, to the best of anyone's knowledge, the East Bay's only underground fitness center — and the only one geared to an activist clientele. It's designed accordingly. There's a climbing wall made of industrial scrap and scavenged materials; a weight-training area where patrons can lift heavy, recycled machine tool parts; a "clothing-optional" steam room; solar panels on the roof; kiosks on the walls with flyers for protests and punk shows; a free pile at the front where people rummage for gym clothes; and several drain pipes where people wring out their sweaty clothes, so the sweat can go back into the gym's graywater system. Following a long, snarly battle over the use of scented products, Activist Gym now outlaws all deodorant that isn't hypoallergenic and paraben-free. "That was a tough one," said Splange, who helped launch the gym back in 1997 and still manages the front desk. "Some customers wanted prohibitions against anything with residue and a fragrance, and others wanted to require the use of crystal deodorant in our bylaws. We couldn't come to a consensus unless we phrased it in, like, this really ambiguous way."

With all these clever amenities, it might surprise some people that the Activist Gym wants to stay underground. The place tried to operate as a legitimate business when it first opened in a warehouse that used to manufacture auto parts. Yet plans changed after the gym failed two rounds of inspections. Then its founders learned they would have to raise about $300,000 to get the place up to code. "We were going to all these hearings and trying to get the permits, or whatever, and at the same time we had to battle this big douchebag landlord," Splange explained.

Then in 2000, the douchebag landlord converted his warehouse into condos, and the gym rented a new location from a much nicer douchebag who had some street cred in the punk scene (he played guitar in the Dookie Eaters). Relations between the club and the new landlord were a lot more amicable, and both agreed the health club would remain underground.

Ever since then, the gym has taken various precautions to fend off the code enforcement agents. Last summer, Splange and two of his co-workers built a fake facade in front of the gym's main entrance so that patrons have to enter an entirely different type of business before they know they're in a gym — unless the smell of body odor gives it away. Then there are the ever-changing passwords. Finally, there's the unspoken prohibition against advertising. Members pay a pretty low fee — just a $30 "donation" every month — on the condition that they never tell anyone about the Activist Gym, ever. "We go by word of mouth only," said Splange. "No billboards, no Facebook page, no e-mail lists. You'll only know about us if you're on the 'inside,' so to speak."

Members have every reason to be cagey — and not just because they could get shut down by the authorities. After all, aren't gyms about vanity and energy waste and, well, everything that activists don't stand for?

"Yeah yeah yeah," said Chaz, a tall, burly guy with an anarchist tattoo on his left shoulder. "I was dating this chick, and she was like, always admiring my biceps. I told her I spend a lot of time riding my bike around town and you know, resisting arrest and stuff. She would never guess it's from the elliptical."

"A lot of these kids see the irony in what they're doing, and get a deep sense of shame about it," said Susan Hossgross, author of the new book Rise, Resist, Reflect: Activists and Their Ambivalent Relationship to Vanity. "I mean, it's kind of taboo to be concerned about the world and also hyperconscious of your own appearance. If you knew Joan of Arc back in the 15th century, you'd never suspect she had a femme toilette regime."

But Splange notes that physical fitness is actually quite important for anyone committed to a protest lifestyle. "A guy like Chaz — man, you look at that dude, what do you see? He wants to save the world, but he also wants to look good at the next protest. When you think about it, that shit totally makes sense."

In his twelve years of working at the Activist Gym, Splange has seen a lot of infighting. "Over scented products, over whether or not it's cool to smoke weed in the locker rooms, over whether or not we should stock the snack machine with Power Bars, since they're not vegan," he said.

Apparently, such things don't phase him. Asked why he keeps working at the gym, Splange replied: "It's a great meat market. A lot of hot activists stop through here." After a moment's pause, he added, "And I'm trying to buff up for the next WTO."

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