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How I Became a Feminist and Learned to Empower Myself, by Laurie Baumgarten

1 Feb
Laurie Baumgarten first became politically active during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. She later taught grades K-8 for 35 years in the Berkeley schools. In the past seven years she has been active in the climate movement, working with the Sunflower Alliance in Richmond, CA, a front-line fossil fuel community. She helped develop a basic climate education curriculum for adults based on the dialogic methods of Paulo Freire, which has been used in over 30 local workshops. Her current political concern is how to incorporate a democratic decision-making structure into organizations as they build a mass movement for change.

When I came out to California in 1964 from Connecticut to go to the University of California at Berkeley, there wasn’t yet a second-wave women’s movement on campus, but obviously there were foundational things happening that I was not aware of. Betty Friedan had by then written her book, The Feminine Mystique (1963). The whole environment of growing up in the suburbs—the isolation of women there and their infantilization as wives and mothers in these isolated communities—was already giving rise to a kind of despair that she picked up on and wrote about.

At Cal I got involved in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). At that time the Berkeley chapter of SDS was doing a lot of civil-rights organizing on campus, fighting against segregation in various industries in Oakland. Things were pretty segregated in terms of hiring practices at the auto shops and restaurants, so SDS would join with the Black community and picket these establishments on the weekends. While SDS was part of the New Left, and believed in participatory democracy, it was still male-dominated. My feminism grew out of this involvement.

The women in SDS played fairly traditional roles. We were typing the leaflets, getting the refreshments together, and doing a lot of the legwork of running the organization. We would go to meetings, but it seemed that we were essentially there to be playmates for the men. Many of these male leaders were married, and their wives were taking care of the children and putting their husbands through graduate school, but the undergraduate women on campus were being “horizontally organized,” as the joke went. I wouldn’t call it sexual harassment in the way that term is used today, but we were playing a particular role with which we became increasingly uncomfortable; we felt that our own identities were invisible.

I remember one specific meeting at the beginning of a semester, in which it was suggested that the women organize a little auxiliary to bring refreshments to all the meetings. There were a few women, of course, who were not in that mode. There was Bettina Apetheker and some of the women who had played more leadership roles in the Free Speech Movement. But they were kind of masculinized in the sense that they were seen as a little bit oddball up there as women with essentially male leadership.

But I was not coming from that place; I was one of the troops. In SDS, we began realizing that there was something wrong with this picture, that we were not feeling confident in our own abilities to think through political positions within the struggles taking place in SDS. There’d be meetings with votes on various positions and a lot of us didn’t know which way to vote—we would just vote the way our boyfriends did. The roles we played as women were not as full-fledged members of SDS. This unease grew as the struggles within SDS became more intense and the factionalism, which was rampant in the organization on campus, increased.

So a group of us women on the Berkeley campus got together, as was happening all over the country in different contexts, and decided to form a women’s caucus to think through the issues together before the meetings. This was probably in ’65 or ’66. I do remember the first leaflet that we wrote. We decided to go public with it to the students on the Berkeley campus. Its title was: “Do Your Politics Change When Your Boyfriend Changes?” It continued, “If so, join the women’s caucus and let’s talk about the issues.” And so we began meeting regularly in a women’s group; there would be between ten and fifteen of us, mainly women who were active in SDS. We met at my home on what was then Grove Street. We would look at the upcoming agenda and develop our own abilities to think through the issues. We would debate, talk, and try to figure out where we stood on each issue both individually and as a group. That was my first experience with what later became known as consciousness-raising groups. As SDS grew and developed different campaigns such as the SDS Anti-Draft Union, we women stepped up more easily to leadership roles.

These small, informal, local groups were the backbone of the second-wave feminist Women’s Liberation Movement. They spread like wildfires all round the country, and eventually a women’s movement developed. We would meet and get down to the nitty-gritty of supporting each other—first of all, by reading feminist literature that was coming to the fore, and then defining issues in our lives.

After graduating from college, I became a teacher. A group of us teachers in the Bay Area who opposed the Vietnam War formed a collective called Bay Area Radical Teachers Organizing Collective or BARTOC. The group was multi-gender, and we mainly developed anti-war curriculum for our students, but we also formed as a spin-off of a women’s group to address problems we were having as working women.

I remember one meeting where we decided as a group that we were going to go home and ask our boyfriends to do the dishes. We were doing the cooking and the cleaning, and we were working. We felt we shouldn’t have to cook and do dishes at the same time: we had two jobs and they only had one job. So we decided we were going to get up the nerve to go home, sit our men down, and tell them they should do the dishes. Then we were going to report back how it went. At that time I was living with a man named Dennis. I said to him, You’re going to do the dishes from now on, and he agreed! So we all went back to the next meeting two weeks later, and everyone reported in. Some men were more cooperative than others, but at that point that struggle for the division of labor was primary.

Then there were all the issues of how we were feeling about ourselves—the self-hate, the feelings about our bodies never being good enough, no matter how skinny or how big-breasted, or whatever we were; we realized that all of us hated our bodies—they didn’t meet up to the image of what we thought a perfect body should be. So there was a lot of discussion about that, and about birth control, abortion, and other issues of female anatomy.

It took a long time of meeting in small groups for us to understand that the personal is political. That was the deep message that we were trying to get out: that what was going on in our personal lives had this political dimension, that it was a reflection of our own status in society.

There were struggles within these small “consciousness -raising” groups, of course. There were personal things that came down. Women were divided sometimes. I remember I was at one feminist meeting in which the speakers were dressed very sexily and wore high heels, and my friend said to me, Slaves. They’re dressed like slaves. So there was a lot of judgmental stuff going on, like How come you’re not wearing your overalls? There was one very painful split that happened in our BARTOC group. One woman kept suspecting that another woman in the group was having an affair with her live-in boyfriend. Everyone kept denying it: Oh, that couldn’t be, you’re just paranoid, we’re sisters and sisterhood is powerful, and it turned out that the affair was true. That was painful because sisterhood wasn’t so powerful in that group after all!

There were also political differences and struggles amongst us. There were women who wanted to liberate women only from the confines of gender restrictions. These were more liberal, more reformist women, women who identified more within the Democratic Party. And then there were feminists who were more radical and identified themselves as Marxists. They wanted to do away with the capitalist system. We were all women, but first and foremost we were young people trying to sort out our world-views.

Women like myself who were active in the New Left were fighting for equality for others, but we ourselves were not being respected. Men did not want to give us equal speaking time at rallies and would laugh when women stood up and started articulating a feminist position. It was quite a struggle to change men’s consciousness and for them to get it. And as we know from today’s revelations about sexual abuse, there is deep down in the male psyche a tremendous objectification of us as women. I don’t think all men were equally insensitive. There were clearly some who got it, as Frederick Douglas had in the early suffragette movement when he attended the first women’s convention at Seneca Falls. But most men didn’t—then or now. Even ones who were considered “heavies” in the movement—I mean, some of the most respected of the leftist men, building the student movement, building the anti-war movement at the time, building the Black Power Movement—still didn’t grasp the nature of sexism.

In the early ’70s, I was living in San Francisco with a man who was an activist and with whom I had previously worked on The Movement newspaper, a national SNCC/ SDS paper [SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. I’d been living with him for nine years and had helped raise his child from a previous marriage since the age of two. I began to realize that this relationship was feeling more and more oppressive to me. I was tolerating a lack of closeness and respect that I did not want to live with anymore. I wanted to break free from patriarchal dynamics. My two closest friends in San Francisco, who also lived with well-known movement men (one had actually written a book on the family and became well-known for it), were also breaking up. The men weren’t getting it, they weren’t changing. Maybe they were changing at an intellectual level, but not in their personal lives.

There was progress around some of the division of labor issues, but at a deeper emotional level, the men could not grasp something about our interior landscapes and who we were as full human beings—that was, and still is, very difficult for many males. Even if they agreed to do the dishes or share some of the childcare, we were still objects for their pleasure or their needs. We were still supposed to look and act certain ways, be subservient in certain ways. That was certainly true in my relationship, and I wanted to break free from all that. A huge part of my coming into my own was in leaving this guy, whom I had greatly looked up to as an influential leftist. I had gotten some vicarious kudos from being with him. We’d been in study groups together, and he had a certain gravitas because of the role he’d played in the movement. But it was oppressive. I felt stupid, depressed, and self-hating most of the time.

I think I stayed in the relationship so long because in some basic way it imitated the family I grew up in. My mother had internalized a lot of self-hate, too. She wasn’t allowed to fully express who she was. She was supposed to just take care of those kids and get the food on the table. There was a whole artistic side to her which she never got a chance to develop.

It is always painful to break up, and even though I had made up my mind to do it, I felt like I was losing my family, my home and my security. The day I moved out from the our house into a tiny apartment, I said goodbye in the morning. The Black Muslims had a moving service; they were supposed to come and move me. I wanted to be out before 4 o’clock. (He was working in the steel mills and his shift ended about then.) It was getting later and later and the moving truck had still not arrived so I called my friend and said, What am I going to do? And she said, Call them up and tell them they have to get the truck there because your boyfriend threatened to beat you up if you were still there when he got home. So I called them.

Oh, lady, they said, we’ll be right there. Our truck broke down in Oakland; we’re going to get you another one and have you out of there by 3:30. I guess they didn’t want to be responsible for my getting beat up.

So I moved out. That night I had this dream of moving from a dark room into a room full of light and sun. It was sort of a “power dream” about being liberated from the confines of this traditional relationship. That dream kept me from going back. It was so clear when I woke up in the morning.

That dream set me on the path to emotional independence just as my teaching credential had given me my own paycheck. I had freed myself from this oppressive relationship, and I began putting myself at the center of my own life. I would be alone and without a partner for many years, but I became a committed activist. I started writing poetry and reading more feminist literature. I studied tai chi daily, and I built a social network of friends I hold dear to this day. I felt as if the cellophane I’d been wrapped up in all my life was being peeled off. I could finally breathe.

I started linking up with other feminists in San Francisco. I became a good friend of Judy Brady (Syfers) who had written her famous “Why I Want a Wife,” the iconic piece that was first published by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and then later included in the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful. She realized that even though she was married to a leftist, she was cooking and cleaning and sexing and raising the children and chauffeuring and doing all the things that she wished she had a wife to do for her. I also met and became good friends with a woman named Chude Pam Allen, who had written a book called Free Space in which she advocated the strategy of consciousness- raising in small groups. She was the editor of the newspaper for an organization called Union W.A.G.E. which when I joined the group organized working class women into unions and focused on women in construction trades and on downtown clerical workers.

The group had been around for awhile, and many of the younger women in that group like Chude and me wanted to broaden the issues to bring a feminist consciousness into the organization. We wanted to raise issues about the structure of the family, about parenting and marriage, about the role of teachers and nurses. The organization became very divided over how broad or how narrow its focus should be. For example, the gay and lesbian movement was emerging, and some of the women in the construction trades were lesbians and wanted Union W.A.G.E. to essentially be a single-issue organization which would support them in becoming unionized and gaining equality with the men in the trades.

There were also issues with the African-American women with whom we were becoming connected through an African-American social worker and psychotherapist on the East Coast named Patricia Robinson. She had been a founding member in 1960 of the seminal Mount Vernon/New Rochelle women’s group composed of poor and working class Black women—often single mothers—who had published their important work called Lessons From the Damned about class struggle in the Black Community. Through Pat we began to anonymously share across ethnic and class differences the letters and essays and poems that we were all writing to our fathers and brothers and husbands and sons as we struggled to understand how the patriarchy was coming down in our lives. Chude, as editor, turned over one issue of the newspaper to the Black sisters of New York to have as a voice for themselves. Many of us supported that move. But some of the trade-unionist and narrowly- focused women were furious that Chude would give over the editorial control of our newspaper to a group of outsiders. Eventually Union W.A.G.E. fell apart over these conflicts after decades of a long and reliable history. Lots of things were coming to an end. Organizations come and go.

The group of us in W.A.G.E., who were trying to build a broader base in San Francisco formed a readers’ theatre called Women’s Words. Women’s Words put together readings in coffee houses based on the poems and letters we were all sharing. We would speak the words of women confronting their families about how they felt. We often included excerpts from earlier struggles, from women fighting in the Labor and Suffragist Movements. These readings flowed back and forth from highly personal stories to deeply impassioned, political narratives.

Pat Robinson was an early Marxist feminist and had been connected with Chude through Chude’s first husband, Robert Allen, the editor of The Black Scholar. Pat was helping women, including myself, deal with how we negotiate, how we function in this patriarchal world that we find ourselves in, in terms of being married or not, having children, working for a living, etc. We would talk to her on the phone, visit with her when we were back East and write her letters, and she would respond as a clear-thinking mentor and therapist.

Finally I confronted my father personally. Robinson felt that if your father were still alive, you had the opportunity to confront him directly. To stand up and own yourself to your father was one way to move beyond that internalization of the patriarchy that we had acquired growing up. So I felt the need to confront my father after an incident at work in which I had been intimidated by my boss.

I was a fifth-grade teacher in the Berkeley public schools, and I was being called on the carpet for not using the mandated spelling program. It’s absurd when I think back on that stupid program that they were using for spelling. It just wasn’t right linguistically; it made no sense. It was some kind of fad that had gotten sold to the district. I refused to use this program so I was considered insubordinate. I knew there was another teacher at the school who was highly respectedyears earlier she’d been my master teacher—and I said that she wasn’t using it, either, thinking I could gain a little bit of “cred” using her name. Immediately I realized that I had done a terrible thing by mentioning her. I felt horrible and ashamed. I went home and wrote to Pat, saying, Oh my god, what was this about, and how could I do something like that?

And I realized it was my fear of authority, my fear of getting in trouble, and that in some way my intimidation dated back to my fear of my father, who had been an authoritarian, and that I had grown up and still was frightened of him. He was passive-aggressive, but still he was a well-meaning man. He was born in the U.S. to a poor, German-Jewish immigrant family. His father had been a roofer. He grew up in the Bronx, worked his way up by going to night school, and became a lawyer. After marrying my mother, he moved his family to the suburbs because he wanted his children to grow up in fresh air. He worked very hard, was never a wealthy man, but his home in Connecticut was his castle, and he was proud of his upward mobility. I had always been intimidated by him.

Through my work with Pat, I came to believe that my intimidation of the principal had to do with this internalization of the patriarchy through my father. Pat was working with women in the movement who were struggling to stand up to the system, to stand up to the “Man”—the internalized Man and the real Man. How do we find the strength and the power within ourselves? For women that often meant taking on the father figure.

So I wrote a letter to my father. I said I thought he had been fascistic towards me growing up. And he had been in the sense that I was scared, and he used to yell at me and make me feel I didn’t have freedom to be myself or express how I was feeling. He was controlling. He was that way with my older sister, too, but I think I was more of a rebel at home than she was, and so I somehow triggered more of an authoritarian response. I had been the easier scapegoat for his anger, as I did not look like or sound like the successfully and fully assimilated Jew. He disapproved of my friends and the type of bohemian crowd I was drawn to. He tried to keep me from seeing these friends, and there was no way to talk through or negotiate our conflicts. So I wrote him this letter where I told him I’d been frightened of him, he’d been oppressive, that he hadn’t considered my feelings.

My mom was kind of his lieutenant. She went along with his ultimatums and did not defend me. She was a typical housewife. I’ve come to understand her strengths and skills, but she was basically a suburban housewife, and of course her livelihood was through his paycheck. He would dole out an allowance, from which she had to manage the household. She didn’t have her own paycheck, which immediately puts a women at a terrible disadvantage. By the time I confronted my father, I was earning my own living. I didn’t want to “be like my mother” and be dependent on a man, so I was happy when I became a teacher and got my own job. It was such a relief to know I could support myself in the world and would never have to be dependent on my father or on a husband.

My father was furious with my critical letter. For two years he didn’t speak to me. He was hurt that I called him a fascist, which was the worst name you could call someone who was Jewish. I regret it now and realize I could have toned it down a little. Finally he did speak to me again. I went home to visit at one point but the confrontation continued because something I said triggered a furious reaction, and he started screaming at me, and I said, don’t you ever scream at me like that again. Fuck off. He picked up a chair!

He had never hit me—my mother did some of that—but he picked up a chair and came at me. He was so enraged that I’d stand up to him in that way, and I just looked at him. He stopped, and—this was a most embarrassing moment—he got down on the floor and started kicking and screaming like an infant! I couldn’t believe it! My mother came running into the living room and said, What have you done to your father? What have you done to your father?

Now my father was a dignified man, a well-respected lawyer; he was on the school board, he was brilliant, had worked his way up by getting all the awards from the public schools in New York, and now he was down on the floor. A shift occurred in me when I saw that. He was internally dethroned. I began seeing him as a kind of vulnerable human being who’d suffered a lot of anti-Semitism, a lot of pain in his family; he was a traumatized individual, who had worked his butt off for his kids. His masculine power was a bubble that had burst. It was a paper tiger. The next day he was driving me to the airport to return to California, and it was strange but I do remember this kind of opening in my heart toward him, and I think I felt love for him for the first time. I felt a softness toward him that I’d never felt before because I’d been so frightened of him. You can’t love somebody in a deep way if you are scared of them. This confrontation of our parents and confronting the male authority that we had so internalized was part of the process that many of us were going through to become stronger, more liberated, for ourselves and for our children. We had been inculcated with patriarchal and hierarchical power relationships in our childhoods that had left us feeling helpless, and we were determined to overcome them.

I eventually moved back to Berkeley and got involved in the anti-nuclear struggle with the Abalone Alliance. This state-wide network organized a massive civil disobedience of Livermore Lab with 1600 arrestees. It relied on small affinity groups and feminist process. And when I went to jail with my comrades, I never thought for a minute about whether my father would approve or not!

 

Laurie and her husband Michael today

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Long-time Activist by Anonymous

10 Nov

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles, more precisely, in the South Bay, a post-WWII suburb of mainly aerospace workers—the “white collar” of the “blue collar” workers who strongly identified with the patriotically conservative, non-political, hysterically anti-communist 1950’s “Leave It to Beaver” image of a white picket fence, two-car garage America.  My parents were the absolute antithesis: children of Communists who grew up in the depression and the radical ‘30s.  Although my schools were racially mixed, my little neighborhood was Caucasian, except for the family of a Mexican-American doctor who, at any rate, lived in the adjacent area of the cheaper, “flat-roof” slab houses.

Because my parents were very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements, I had a number of African-American (at that time, the politically-correct terminology was “Negro”) friends.  I had to walk over to their neighborhood to play with them—they did not feel comfortable coming to my house as it meant being stared at as they walked through the streets of my White neighborhood.

I felt more at ease with my non-Caucasian friends because I felt I could be more myself with them – I didn’t have to hide my parent’s political views like I had to with my (White) neighbors who lived closer to me – although I still didn’t feel that I could acknowledge my parents Marxist beliefs with my non-Caucasian friends—that I had to hold in check until the weekends, when we either went to visit my relatives (and their friends) in the bohemian (and by my era, hippie) neighborhood of Venice, or to visit the children of friends of my parents who lived in the city of Los Angeles and who were also “fellow travelers”.

The racial disparity became even more apparent starting in middle school—what was then termed Junior High School.  The classes were divided according to IQ test, and in my grade, there was only one Black/African-American in the “smart” class. Due to this, and  because her mother, who ran the local Head Start program. was an acquaintance of my mother’s, she became one of my closest friends.

In June 1967, there was a large protest in Century City against the war in Vietnam.  My mother, who was involved in Women Strike for Peace, took me and my siblings.  At some point, the police started to break up the demonstration.  They yelled through megaphones to disperse—but nobody could understand what they were saying because the sound was so distorted.  They had their billy clubs out and were indiscriminately swinging them at anyone in their path.  They almost hit my gentle, diminutive, grey-haired mother, and they did get one of my brothers, although he wasn’t seriously hurt.  I was so incensed by this—even more so than not allowing a legitimate, legal demonstration to take place—because the police were so stupid that they were shouting dispersal instructions which no one could understand through these ridiculous bullhorns.

By the time I got to high school, I was totally alienated from all but one or two of my neighbors and longed to go to an LAUSD high school where there were identifiable groups of student anti-Vietnam war activists.  So I got out of there as soon as I could, skipping my last year of high school and going to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade in the fall of 1970.  We traveled in a cross-county bus, headed to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, where we would sail to Cuba. This was at the time that Angela Davis had gone underground, when she was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.  Angela’s sister Fania was with us, which gave the police an excuse to continually harass us and stop the bus to haul her out—each time insisting that she was actually Angela in disguise.  The FBI disseminated all sorts of rumors and negative publicity to the local population in the towns we went/traveled through, stoking McCarthy-like panic.  By the time we got to Bangor, Maine, the hysteria was so frenzied that our bus was attacked—shades of Peekskill!

We boarded an old Cuban cargo ship that had been specially retro-fitted for us by slinging hammocks down in the bottom deck for us to sleep—separated into women’s and men’s sections.  It was hurricane season and we sailed through some rough seas—everyone, i.e., the Brigadistas (not the Cuban  sailors), got seasick and for a few days, the only food we could hold down was a few bites of hardtack.  The only relief was from a Brigidista, a gay guy from New York, who led us in mindful meditation.  Lying stretched out on the battered deck, his hypnotic voice led us–or at least me–into a euphoric state in which I actually felt that I was floating above it all.  It was such a soothing feeling which I continue to replay in my mind even now.

We were supposed to help in the Cuban campaign for the “Zafra de Los Diez Milliones”, but by the time we arrived, sugar cane season was over, so we were sent to the Isla de Juventud to pick citrus.  When we were done, Fidel Castro came to personally shake each of our hands in thanks for our solidarity against the blockade. In addition, we were toured all over the country, and as it was also the anniversary of “El Camino del Che”, we hiked through the mountains in the footsteps of that long march.

On the cross-country bus trip back from Canada, I decided to not return to Southern California, so had the bus drop me off in San Francisco.  I had the address of an acquaintance of my parents, a nurse who had gone to Spain to drive an ambulance in the fight in their civil war against fascism.  She lived at the very top of Portreo Hill.  I didn’t have any money so I trudged all the way up those steep streets, dragging my heavy duffle bag, only to find out when I finally got up there that she wasn’t home, but out on Alcatraz, as a nurse volunteer in the Native American occupation of the Island.  I hitchhiked back over the Bay Bridge and found a place to stay in a communal-living house on Channing Avenue in Berkeley, a few blocks from the water.  It was not a particularly safe neighborhood in general for a naïve teenage girl, but I quickly found out that I didn’t have to worry because it was around the corner from the West Berkeley Black Panther headquarters, which had the neighborhood kids marching around military-style, patrolling the streets.  I liked to watch them, dressed in army fatigues with their red-capped berets covering their Afro-styled hair, shouting out their revolutionary slogans as they paraded by in formation.

I needed to find work, but there was a recession on, so after days of systematically walking down the commercial streets, one after the other, knocking on the door of each and every establishment asking for a job, I finally managed to get hired at the MacDonald’s in East Oakland, on Hegenberger Road.  Also not a safe neighborhood, but I had become very friendly with a Venceremos Brigade member from New York, a Borrinqueno leader of the Young Lords—it turned out that his cousin, quite co-incidentally, was one of my customers, and as he was in the local gang, he looked out for my welfare.  The supervisor at McDonalds was intrigued because I had gone to Cuba illegally, and he tried to recruit me into training for their management program—go figure!  I barely made enough money to get by but the manager let me take home the food that was left over at closing.  As my roommates were vegetarians, we usually fed the hamburger meat to the dog.

One day, I was with a roommate at the Berkeley Co-Op (Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley) supermarket, and she took a piece of fruit while we were in the store and offered me a bite.  The store had two-way mirrors all around, up at the top of the walls, to catch shop-lifters.  They saw this happen, accused us of stealing, and called the police.  They let my friend go but because I was underage, they arrested me and I was sent to juvenile detention.  I was in jail two days. There were some pretty rough girls in there and at the beginning I had some trepidation. But after hearing how I had had the bad luck to be so stupidly arrested and was being shipped back to my parents against my wishes, they became sympathetic and friendly and we passed the time chatting. My parents had to pay the $10 it cost to fly me back–that was a day’s wage for me—but as a consequence of my sudden departure, all my things were left behind, including my most prized possession: a bust of Marx carved by a comrade from a bar of Ivory soap.

Now being back in L.A at my parent’s house, I was visited regularly by the FBI as a result of going on the Brigade.  My bedroom was adjacent to the front porch, so whenever there was an early Saturday morning knock—which was always when they came–I peered through the curtains of my window to see who it was before answering the door.  If I saw two young men dressed in suits, I knew it was agents and not Jehovah Witnesses –who always came with at least one woman–so I’d yell at them to go away.  For years after I moved out, they continued to hassle my parents about me, although more sporadically.

Although I consorted with various political groups, my favorite was the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL, or “the League”).  I thought they had the best “revolutionary line” because not only were they affiliated with the CPUSA and therefore multi-national and determinedly anti-racist, but a number of the members were also in the Black Panthers, which gave them considerable cachet to my way of thinking.  Most importantly, besides the serious stuff like classes on Marxism, the League knew how to go out and have fun—plus, they held the best Soul Train-style dance parties!  I still remember how to do the Funky Chicken!!

The local YWLL organizer had a contact in a factory near my parent’s house that made “Hot Pants” for New York’s haute couture fashion industry.  Me and three other YWLLers got a job there.  Most of the workers were undocumented women from Thailand.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up learning some basic Thai.  They were very concerned that I wasn’t married, and were constantly trying to get me to come to their cultural events so that I could meet an “eligible” man. They even taught me some of the traditional arm and hand movements of traditional Thai dance.  Occasionally there wasn’t a lot of work coming in, so the company owner, wanting to save on labor costs, would announce that the INS was going to make a raid, which scared those workers who were undocumented, so they would not come in for a few days.  It would always be a lie!  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU or “the ILG”) was trying to organize the shop, so we were supposedly helping with that.  However, I didn’t like some of the ways the ILG was conducting its campaign.  The female workers had the lowest-paying, menial jobs, while the male workers had the higher-paying jobs as “pressers” and “cutters”.  The Union officials were all men and this disparity didn’t concern them.  It was what they were used to in the industry and they didn’t want to hear my complaints about it.  As the union struggle intensified, the four of us were eventually “outed” and subsequently fired.  I remained in touch with a few of the women for many years, so I was able to practice the Thai phrases that I had learned.

I worked in various other factory jobs after that–assembling disc brake pad kits (until the manger’s sexual harassment got too much to bear, so I quit), at the Papermate factory in Santa Monica doing quality control of Bic pens on the midnight shift, and then, finally, a better-paying union job as an International “O” Operator for Ma Bell (AT&T).  I worked a split shift, which I really liked because I could do political work in between.  But the union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) was not a very progressive organization—at least not in Los Angeles at that time.  The supervisors were all men, and we had to raise our hands and wait to be acknowledged if we needed to take a bathroom break.  It was not the most exciting work, so I would take “Black Beauties” to help me focus.  I’d arrange my switchboard so that the telephone cords were all nicely positioned, precise and straight, which the supervisor would praise me for–clueless that it was only due to the effect of the speed pills!  I took pride in being able to get a call through in an emergency, such as a hurricane—even routing the calls through other countries if necessary.  Because I worked near the city of Gardena, at that time a predominantly Japanese community, I learned rudimentary Japanese in order to place my calls more effectively.  I remember one intriguing co-worker who lived in South Central but was originally from New Orleans.  She had a side business raising rabbits in her backyard, peddling the meat out of her house but would occasionally bring some to work to sell out of an ice chest.  She would cook the rabbit southern-style and share with me at lunch.

At this time I was living near Banning Park–in Wilmas13 territory, so the rent was lower than in other areas—but it was still 50% of my salary.  I would hear occasional gunshots, and to get home I’d have to walk by a bunch of young men hanging out along my back fence, but they pretty much left me alone.  I had an open dirt space in the backyard, where I tried to plant vegetables, although the only thing that grew was corn, but it was delicious and sweet–it could be eaten raw, right off the cob. It also attracted mice; I’d see them sticking their noses up out of the gas rings in my stove top.  The landlord just told me to buy traps, but I wouldn’t.

I was volunteering at what is now the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research but strongly disliked the way that the proprietor treated his spouse, so I decided I wanted a change. Having been awarded $100 because an elderly man rear-ended my car, it was enough to buy a ticket to fly overseas. I didn’t return to Los Angeles for some years.

“Volunteers of America*: Organizing for McGovern,” by Karl Kasca

29 Sep

karl-todayKarl Kasca is a former web entrepreneur who also taught Social Media and New Media Marketing at UCLA Extension. He was a popular speaker in the U.S. and internationally on ‘The Power of Social Media’ and ‘How to Know Anything at Anytime’.

Previously he had an information research business focusing on market research, competitive intelligence, due diligence, and information for businesses and attorneys to make decisions and act on. Prior to this he was an internal auditor and fraud examiner for a Fortune 500 company. Also he taught algebra, pre-algebra, and basic math. Karl is currently retired and living happily—and peacefully—in Pasadena, California.

 

I was in Napa High School in 1971-72 when I volunteered for George McGovern’s campaign for presidency against Nixon. Even back in junior high school, we students were aware of student protests, the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, and other unrest. I and many other students were peace-loving, against the Vietnam War, and also of draft age. Therefore, McGovern appealed to us.

If you look at it from today’s perspective, you might call us “self-serving,” campaigning for McGovern only because we wanted to avoid the draft. However, there was so much more to it than that. We supported the troops but passionately hated the war. We were also influenced by “make love, not war,” the San Francisco State College (now University) student strike, and college president S.I. Hiyakawa1, who tried so hard to squash it.

We had just gotten the 18-year-old vote, so this was to be our first election. We went door to door campaigning for McGovernkarl-kasca-asb-officers_napa-high-school_napanee-yearbook_1972. I had a junior high school teacher who had campaigned for JFK. He told a story of going door to door and talking to a lady who asked for a photo of the presidential candidate to put in a picture frame on her mantel. “Yes,” she said, studying the photo, “that looks like a president. I’ll vote for him.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have any memorable canvassing experiences like that, but I wish I had.

Napa was fairly rural and simple, like a sleepy little Italian town, with fragrance of night air and sky full of stars. There was little pollution except in winter when used tires were burned in the smudge pots, causing an ugly brown layer of smog above the lovely green hills, making us aware of the environment. The wine-tasting craze hadn’t hit yet, but after it did around the mid-1970’s, the valley became much more shi-shi and upscale.

In fact, before the wine craze, Napa was probably more well known for Napa State Hospital, which was thought of as a mental institution. I volunteered there by playing my accordion in the drug rehabilitation unit. After finishing playing for a long time, one young woman came up to me and said, “Wow, Man, what a far-out guitar!”

We went to McGovern rallies and to a wine-tasting event in a Yountville winery (north of Napa), where we met his daughter, who was a featured speaker. We were joyful and ebullient about McGovern. His main plank was anti-war.

The first Earth Day happened around then, too. The environment concerned us. We were into ecology and the Green movement; we volunteered at the recycling center. We believed in the slogan: “Think globally, act locally.”

We read the book The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around (1971) by Neil Postman,2 and the teacher version called, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969). We felt empowered by the influential ideas in these books. We even asked some of our “coolest” teachers to read and implement the suggestions in the teacher’s book.

The senior class before us wanted to make things better for the students at our high school. They came up with a platform—sort of the ‘70s version of what Bernie Sanders stands for (ecological and specific to U.S. life). For example, we called for a free zone on our high school campus for smokers where they could smoke cigarettes without being suspended. This seems counter-intuitive now, given what we know the dangers of smoking, but at that time it was something that a certain percentage of the student body wanted.

When these seniors graduated, they passed the torch to us to implement their platform. Like The Torch Is Passed about JFK’s death, and passing a legacy of goals, but leaving the heavy lifting to us. Using this platform, one of my female classmates and I launched “The Party” and began the process of working for change.

Students were divided into a number of groups, such as: The Cliques, The Hards (think of Fonzie in Happy Days), the Welders, etc. Our group, The Party, was probably more nerd-like than anything else. I ran for president of the student body on The Party ticket and lost.

There was a walkway across campus that we called Route 66, which passed by a giant billboard-sized wall in the middle of our school of 3,300 students. The billboard was meant for student graffiti. Anyone could post anything. The administration hated it. The re-painting of the wall incurred more expense for them. They asked the custodians to paint over the graffiti every day. Then the students would spray/paint graffiti again. On and on. The administration blamed us since we were instrumental in having it built in the first place. But we thought that student expression was paramount and that the re-painting was a small price to pay for exercising one’s first amendment rights to free speech.

We started a movement for a counter-graduation. We thought of a way to cancel the traditional graduation ceremony: wekarl-kasca_capfull-gown_napa_1972 would tip off the fire department about how flammable the light plastic graduation gowns were. The fire department came and burned a graduation gown and determined that it was indeed flammable but no more so than the inner lining of a man’s suit coat, and therefore, not dangerous. So while our prank worked to some extent, it wasn’t enough to thwart the traditional graduation ceremony. If the alternative graduation had come off, it would have shunned tradition yet honored the students in non-traditional ways. In any case, it fizzled and we graduated—traditionally. We were admitted karl-kasca_capgown_napa_1972to college, so everything ended up OK in our eyes.

 

 

 

We read Mao’s The Little Red Book and Marx/Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. I remember my dad seeing those books and saying, “You can read that stuff but don’t leave it lying around where people can see it.”

We read and read and read…anything we could get our hands on. The more diverse or different the better. Like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater just because it sounded so weird. And Candide by Voltaire because it was French and philosophical-ish. From Dr. Pangloss in Candide we learned that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and that was really saying something considering that he’d lost an eye and an ear to syphilis. Given that, we knew we lived in an amazing world too…but one which could be improved.

Our high school was mostly white. Nothing much ever happened there outside the typical high school activities, certainly nothing even remotely bordering on radical. It seemed very Happy Days-esque at that time. We complained about our town’s (Napa’s) complacency, being stuck in the status quo, and called the apathetic condition ‘Napathy.’

Many of the secondary students in our town were part of Napa’s “Model United Nations” (MUN) on campus. I’m not sure who founded the MUN in Napa, but every secondary school had an advisor and many students whkarl-kasca-mun-officers_napa-high-school_napanee-yearbook_1972o actively participated in it. I was President of the General Assembly in my Senior year. We had 300 delegates from high school and junior high school, representing various countries. Students wore “their” country’s national dress and tried to pass resolutions. We were hopeful that through a legislative process and through people working together that meaningful change could be effected. This was pre-“globalism.” We thought conflict could be solved through peaceful means. Of course, the John Birch Society was still in existence then. They called the United Nations a Communist organization. But nevertheless, we saw the possibility of a peaceful future for “mankind.”

After volunteering on McGovern’s campaign, I was deeply saddened when I got to U.C. Berkeley and discoveredkarl-kasca_uc-berkeley-sather-gate_san-francisco-chronicle_10-11-1973 Nixon posters everywhere in my dorm complex. This was the first year after the last year of tear gas at Berkeley at the end of the free speech movement (FSM). Apparently there were a lot of Berkeley students from Southern California, where Nixon was favored. Also I was living in the engineering/science dorm, and these students must have been more conservative than those in the liberal arts dorms. But this experience taught me something—things aren’t always what they seem initially (or on the surface), and nothing can be taken for granted—even in an allegedly “liberal” campus like Berkeley!

I voted in my first election with great pride and am still proud of that vote. We all believed that this love of brothers and sisters would spread around the world.

I couldn’t believe it when Nixon won by a huge number of votes. I had tried to convince my dad, whom my high school friends all secretly nicknamed “Arch” after Archie Bunker of All in the Family, to vote for McGovern, and we argued daily about it. I had no success with him. However, after the election was over he admitted to me that he’d voted for McGovern. I was shocked. Apparently he’d been leaning for McGovern the entire time; he’d just wanted me to learn how to justify and argue for my positions. Ironically, I had to wait until after the election to find out that I had been able to convince at least one person to vote for my candidate. Luckily this wasn’t as difficult when volunteering for Bernie, as several people I talked to told me that they’d vote for him. So I guess my Dad’s apparent stubbornness (orneriness?) had worked and I learned something after all.

The draft lottery was now in place. Vietnam seemed like certain death to me. There were body counts in the nightly news and much commentary about the war. We prayed for high lottery numbers. I heard that if drafted I’d go to the front since I was colorblind, and it was thought that colorblind people could see through camouflage. And actually there might be something to this: Do coulor-blind people see through certain kinds of camouflage? Also I was an Eagle Scout and rumor had it that they were more likely to be tapped as officers. This would have been bad news since more U.S. officers than enlisted men were killed in Vietnam.

Since I didn’t want to be in front of a platoon on land, I decided to apply for the Navy since they were probably ‘safer’ at sea. I thought I could beat the test, but I failed because of my colorblindness. I got a letter to that effect, and it said, “But don’t worry, you can join the Marines.” But that was even more certain death to me, since they go first into situations, and I thought I’d be in front. Years later my dad told me he would have sent me to Canada if I’d been drafted. As it ended up, my Dad was always for me and my interests, I just never knew it at the time while everything was going on. When I was an older adult, I was asked to teach at UCLA Extension. My dad asked me, “Can you do that?” And my answer was, “Yes, I can do that!” But again, I think he was challenging me to give it my best and do a good job, which I did. And I’m sure that he supported my teaching and professional speaking, but unfortunately he died before he could let me know that one last time.

In later years I turned my search towards inner peace through meditation. This seemed like a way to help others as well as myself—and perhaps generate more “outer” peace in our country and in the world too. After all, if the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas (a la “The Butterfly Effect”), then perhaps inner peace can influence outer peace the same way. Yeah, it could happen!

And so it went until Bernie Sanders ran for President, and then I felt that political action was also imperative to assure that we’d have a candidate with a success plan for America.

 

* Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane. This iconic group and their song Volunteers gives the flavor of the era and is definitely worth a listen and a look at the powerful images from that time.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SboRijhWFDU

  1. “S. I. Hayakawa became president of San Francisco State College (now called San Francisco State University) during the turbulent period of 1968 to 1973, while Ronald Reagan was governor of California and Joseph Alioto was mayor of San Francisco. In 1968–69, there was a bitter student and Black Panthers strike at San Francisco State University in order to establish an ethnic studies program. It was a major news event at the time and chapter in the radical history of the United States and the Bay Area. The strike was led by the Third World Liberation Front supported by Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers and the countercultural community.

“It proposed fifteen “non-negotiable demands”, including a Black Studies department chaired by sociologist Nathan Hare independent of the university administration and open admission to all black students to “put an end to racism”, and the unconditional, immediate end to the War in Vietnam and the university’s involvement. It was threatened that if these demands were not immediately and completely satisfied the entire campus was to be forcibly shut down.[3] Hayakawa became popular with conservative voters in this period after he pulled the wires out from the loud speakers on a protesters’ van at an outdoor rally.[4][5][6] Hayakawa relented on December 6, 1968, and created the first-in-the-nation College of Ethnic Studies.”  (Wikipedia, “S. I. Hayakawa,”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._I._Hayakawa#Student_strike_at_San_Francisco_State_University)

 

  1. “This is a postgraduate primer for their 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity — a book of alternatives to help promote a revolution without violence since “”violence changes the subject”” and is counterproductive. The alternatives consist of “”advice, maxims, homilies, metaphors, models, case studies, rules, commentaries, jokes, sayings and a variety of other things”” such as a certain amount of flak. All of it is designed to help students (school or college) achieve a non-coercive, non-regulated kind of education and the college is at one point equated with the public library where you can go to find out what you want to know. The authors are iconoclasts, albeit peaceful ones, and there are many kinds of recommendations (often taken from what has been done all over the country) on how to achieve a more fluid system.” (Kirkus Reviews, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/neil-charles-weingartner-postman-2/the-soft-revolution/)

Seminal Events of the 60s Revisited–New York Style, by Steve Fine.

15 Mar

Steve-Fine_Me_and_Junior

Originally from New York, Steve Fine has been living in Los Angeles since the mid-seventies with his wife, Jocelyne.  They have a son, Matthew, and now two backyard cats. He became active here in L.A. in the vigil movement, which sprang up in opposition to the Iraq War. For years he “vigiled” weekly in Silverlake and then in Studio City. Currently he has a book in progress.  Photography is his other passion.

 

Photographs from the Spring of ’67, and
A Walk Through the Wall Street Demolition Zone, circa ’69.

The five series of vintage photos you will find displayed at my site are resurrected from the deep archives, the years 1967 and 1969. Somehow the original negatives survived all these years. One sample is here for each of the five series you can view at:

steveposts.wordpress.com

pudkwwhApril ’67 Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam

The four galleries in the “Spring ‘67” series reflect the spirit of the times and the activism in the streets just as the antiwar movement was shifting into high gear and the counter-culture aborning.  I was eighteen and living with my mom at her West Side apartment right off Central Park in the high 90s, so it was literally a walk in the park to cover the antiwar march, draft card burning, and ‘be-ins’.  The ‘sweep-in’ was a subway ride down to the Village; I brought my camera along with a broom and bucket.

Steve-Fine_Sweep-In67_firehydrantSpring ’67 Sweep-In on the Lower East Side

My approach is to tell the story of the event rather than just select a few of the very best photos to highlight, so overall there is an unedited street-photography feel, a mix of my favorites with markers to guide you along the way.

By the expressions of some of the people in the photos you can see that for them this journey is entirely new and surprising, not the historical clichés of today.  Enter and you will be moving through a time of possibility, defiance and hope with enormous creative potential. It was all suddenly and unexpectedly happening that spring. For example, the look on the face of the sandy-haired, sport-jacketed draft resister as he burns his card. The year before, or even a few months before, he would not have been emboldened to take this step.

Steve-Fine_Draft67_resister1April ’67 Draft Resistance

 On a lighter note, there are the faces of the gawkers at the first “Be-In,” the opening shots in the series where the trees are bare in the background and the people are wearing jackets.  They are trying to fathom what exactly this is that is happening here.

Steve-Fine_Be-In67_peaceflag Spring ’67, Central Park Be-In 

The joke is, most of the people grooving in front of them on the cold cold ground were not certain either.  “Hippie”, “flower power”, “psychedelic” and even the phrase “counter-culture” have yet to enter common usage. That would come a few months when Time and Newsweek put out their big “summer of love” issues to explain it all and sell merchandise.  As a matter of fact, although I went to the park with my friends and we acted as if we knew, obviously, since we were eighteen and very cool, the truth is I had absolutely no idea what was happening. But like Ringo, I knew it was mine.  

Steve-Fine_WallStreet69_WTC-1

 

Moving on. Circa ’69, the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan was in the midst of a major period of demolition to make way for the World Trade Center and other new buildings. One Sunday morning I went down with my camera because I’d heard that on the weekends the place was deserted, like a ghost town. I was not expecting to find entire blocks razed and more slated for the same fate.

 

Organizing, by Patty Margaret

22 Feb

Patty is a retired nurse and mother of three grown children and three grandchildren. She grew up in San Diego, and lives in Pasadena. She likes to hike, bird-watch, travel and read. She is presently completing a healthy house project on her home to eliminate toxic chemicals and mold.

 

What particularly started my opposition to the status quo was my reaction to my father, who was a ferocious racist from Texas and had been in the navy all his life. When I was growing up, he abused my mom, my brother and me. I empathized with the victims of my dad’s wrath. I remember my dad going “Huh!” with disdain in his voice whenever a person of color was mentioned. My grandmother did the same thing. Phrases like “Those damn wetbacks!” were common around our house.

When I was in third grade, we sailed to Hawaii on my dad’s navy cargo ship. It took seven days to get there and seven to return. We stayed in Hawaii three months and went to school there. This was in the late ‘50s. It gave me the experience of being around Asians.

In junior high school my good friend had straight black hair and brown skin. When I brought her home one day, my dad asked, “Who’s that girl?” She was standing right there listening to this. “You can’t bring her into this house ever again,” he said. “She can stay now but that’s it.” Dumbfounded, I asked my mom why he didn’t like her. “Because she’s Mexican,” my mom explained. Eventually the girl moved away but years later while watching the San Francisco Mime Troup in Los Angeles, I met her again. She was working with the Troup and remembered me.

My high school was newly built to ensure that white kids didn’t have to go to a black school. One black kid lived on the “wrong” side of the line and ended up at my school but was told she would have to leave. We students gave her a lot of support, even electing her as student body president. As a result she didn’t get thrown out after all.

In 1965 I finished high school and started college at California Western University, a Methodist college at Point Loma near San Diego. (The college no longer exists.) The Methodist Church had a history of not allowing dancing. I joined a college church dance group. We were rebellious and wanted cultural change, in line with the rest of the movements of the ‘60s. We preformed modern interpretive dance to sacred music that included comments about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers strikes, and the inhumanity of poverty. We toured the state and surprised the Methodists because we preformed right by the altar in the church.

Another influence was my mom, who was supportive of women’s equality. She was sympathetic to feminists (which enraged my dad). My mother had been accepted as a student at Berkeley, but because of the Depression hadn’t been able to attend. She praised my great aunt, who was a math professor there—highly unusual for a woman at the time.Vietnam.Napalm.KimPhuc

At college I became particularly aware of the contradictions in our society when I found myself staying up until 4 a.m. writing and mimeographing leaflets about the Napalm being used by the US Army to burn children in Vietnam. After gazing the night before at the well-known picture of the girl running away from the napalm, I would stagger into my 7 a.m. philosophy class the next morning, where the teacher would knock on the blackboard and ask “Is this real?”

Follow the Drinking GourdWith a group of Methodist students at college I continued my activism. Then I quit school and hung out with Methodist students at San Diego State College. We began working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Having come from a working class family, I was becoming aware of the power of the workers when they united and withheld their labor. I saw the influence workers could wield on government policies on war, poverty, and racism. I loved music and sang protest songs. I remember “Follow the Drinking Gourd” about the Underground Railroad.

Some of us SDS folks formed a nationwide sub-group called Workers for a Democratic Society. There had been some animosity between activist students and workers who didn’t understand that the war was not in their interest. Our outlook broadened from organizing just students to organizing the rest of the working class as well. I got a factory job at Ratner’s in San Diego making men’s suits. Our goal was to meet workers and talk to them about their issues and about the war.

garment workersMy job at Ratner’s was to match a bag of suits and a bag of sleeves so they could be sewn together. It was piece work. Each suit got a ticket which showed how many suits you’d sewn and assembled that day. If the number wasn’t high enough, you’d be reprimanded and made to take long breaks off the clock and then work overtime when supplies came in. For 35 hours they had to pay us minimum wage. There were fibers in the air. One woman got her finger caught in a sewing machine. Once someone opened one of the sewing machines and found a thumb inside.

There were three women in my work area. One spoke only Spanish and the other mainly French. We were all the same age. The Mexican woman lived in Tijuana. I was learning some Spanish from her. We had just turned 21 so we went out to bars, shared our lives, and talked about the war.UAW

When I came to Los Angeles to get more politically involved, my first job was at Harvey Aluminum. It was a large shop, organized by the UAW. They processed aluminum heads for bombs directed for deployment by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I remember that once our multiracial group of women workers refused to process these war products. I was so impressed with them, it confirmed to me that workers felt as we did.

In 1969 I joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that had broken off from the Communist Party USA.

Progressive Labor PartyThe PLP read Chinese Communist as well as Soviet literature. It organized factory workers within SDS for Workers for a Democratic Society, and I became dedicated to that work. When I was laid off by Harvey Aluminum, I found a non-union job in electronics and learned to solder computer boards for airplane radios in South Los Angeles. I took some classes at the local high school in reading diodes, and I met a man there, whom I later married. Some of the other students moved on to a nursing attendant class, so I went too, again getting to know more working people. This is where I discovered that I loved working in the intensive care unit.

We tried to concentrate our organizing in an IBM electronics factory in El Segundo. My job was to wind and solder copper wires onto computer chips. We made friends, helped each other learn about racism, unions, and the anti-war movement. However, the rules made it difficult to do this because no talking was allowed, we worked long hours, and our breaks were strictly supervised. The three of us in the PLP weren’t careful enough and were fired before we finished our six months’ probation, at which time we would have been protected from frivolous discharges. All the charges were different: mine was for “talking too much.”

We were assigned by PLP to work in Long Beach, California. There we sold our newspaper Challenge to navy sailors.

PLP Challenge newspaper

We met and made friends with them, talking about the war, their draft experiences, racism on board the ships, and the need for a communist society. Recently I heard that our work was mentioned in a book by a sailor who wrote about his decision to become active against the war.

About that time my husband and I had a baby, and when she was three weeks old and I was out of town at my brother’s wedding, he unexpectedly packed up and left. He hadn’t agreed with some of my politics so maybe he was overwhelmed by my activities. Or perhaps I was too insistent on his helping with the housework. At any rate, he disappeared completely, and to this day I’ve heard no word from him.

I collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) to support my child and me. Along with other mothers I organized sit-ins at the welfare office when recipients weren’t getting their checks on time or were denied welfare, food stamps or Medi-Cal. We were fighting for our checks and our rights as well as the needs of other welfare recipients. When one person didn’t get her check, then we’d have a sit-in at the welfare office with our babies and diapers until she got her check. We took women with us to demonstrations and meetings, we made friends, and we canvassed the poor housing complexes in order to grow the group. We discussed PLP’s place in the struggle, and communism as an answer to unemployment. We became well known, with many new faces later becoming active in welfare struggles, although they didn’t join the PLP.

A group of us fought to get admitted into the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which would pay for our education. Many of the women were on welfare. When I told them about WIN, they started to cry; they had never thought they would actually be able to go to school. During a day-long sit-in on the floor of the unemployment bureau with our babies, a man told us we had to do “whatever possible” to get enough money to support ourselves. When we asked him if he meant walking the streets, he said, Yes, if necessary. The problem was that only men were considered for education classes to support their families; women weren’t admitted. but we were a multi-racial group and succeeded through our militancy in getting into nursing school and other WIN programs.

I loved nursing and became an LVN. I remember one incident when I was assigned to the communicable disease admitting area. By 11 p.m. we usually closed up the place. A doctor from an upscale hospital was working at White Memorial Hospital to learn about communicable disease. About 3 p.m. a man in jeans and an English sports jacket came in. He’d been bitten by an animal and wanted to know if he had rabies. I was only an LVN so couldn’t give IVs. I asked him what bit him. I didn’t speak Spanish but it sounded like he said a possum. The doctor went to the library to find out if possums ate meat. She came back fuming—it wasn’t in the books. After talking to her, I found out that she was looking up “possum” instead of opossum. By now it was 6 p.m. They do eat meat but we didn’t know what had happened to the animal. The man’s brother had banged it against a tree and thrown it over a fence. His mother wouldn’t put in in the refrigerator.

possom

The doctor called the public health department. A man at a holiday dinner was beeped. He told us to call the pound. It was now 10 p.m. “Well, Ma’am, who is this?…No, our fridge is not for possums, just for cats and dogs.”

The doctor finally convinced him to take our possum. We asked if he could pick it up. NO, we needed to pick it up and bring it in. The doctor called another pound and got the same answer. By this time I was trying hard to suppress my laughter.

At L.A. County General Hospital I joined with other PLP workers. My special problem, though, was that I would try to read the PLP newspaper cover to cover and feel unable to finish articles or read other literature. I would quickly forget what I had read. It turned out that I was allergic to the chemicals in newsprint. The allergy caused a sort of amnesia in me. Because I couldn’t study a lot of the theory of the party, I couldn’t discuss deeper theoretical problems in order to develop party proposals. But I did have influence on issues like welfare, medicine’s role in a profit system, and workers’ problems. We sold the communist newspaper weekly on our outings, and I was often the top seller.

I married a leader of the group. We raised three beautiful children. I later became an RN and organized workers until retirement. I sometimes think back to a talk with my mom when I planned to distribute leaflets about voting in the African-American streets of San Diego; she was so worried. I reminded her that I would soon be 18, and that I would be doing this the rest of my life. I was right.

 

A Political Turnaround by David Drum, Part 2 of 2

17 Dec

Part 2 of 2

David Drum 007

 

David Drum is the author of eight nonfiction books in the health area, as well as one book of poetry and many magazine and newspaper articles. He is also the author of the satirical novel, Introducing the Richest Family in America.

 

 

Somewhere along the line I lost my belief in Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Acting selfishly helped me get what I wanted, but it didn’t take other people’s feelings into account. I didn’t like what came with selfish actions — the guilt feelings, disappointments, and broken hearts.

I was accepted into the Iowa City Writers Workshop. When I arrived in Iowa City, I got some financial help from the school, and earned additional money through the university’s work study program. My second wife and I moved into a metal Quonset hut in married student housing. One of my fiction instructors, the novelist Robert Coover, was particularly encouraging my first semester of grad school. When he asked me to help him work on a film he was shooting, I leaped at the chance.

By the winter of 1967, campus sentiment was shifting heavily against the war. The University of Iowa campus was in turmoil. Every male student could be sent to Vietnam after he graduated, and TV news was revealing the Vietnam War to be a horrible quagmire. Students for the Democratic Society and other groups organized opposition to the war. The idea of revolution lingered in the air. Revolution could be heard in our music and our long-haired, restless, cooperative, love-making, pot-smoking campus culture.

Robert Coover wanted to make a documentary about a particular campus demonstration against the Dow Chemical Company. Dow made napalm, an insidious substance that our military was dropping onto Vietnamese civilians. Napalm burned all the way through the flesh and bones everywhere it touched the skin. And Dow was recruiting on campus. Students objected to Dow’s recruiters since their presence implied university support for the war and products like napalm. My role in the documentary was to carry a tape recorder and get some authentic crowd noise during the demonstration.

I remember that the winter air was cold on the morning of December 7, 1967. The sky was overcast. I was given a reel-to-reel tape recorder and shown how to use it. As students gathered, demonstrators set rubber dolls on fire to graphically dramatize the destructive effects of napalm. Angry speeches began on the steps of what I think was an old campus administration building. In the winter cold, I lugged my tape recorder up the steps to be closer to the speakers and the restless crowd. Suddenly one of the speakers shouted, “Let’s go get Dow Chemical!”

The front door to the building was locked, but students surged like a wave of water to the left side of the building. Someone opened an unlocked door. Protesters streamed into the building. I followed them, trying to stay in the middle of the crowd with the tape recorder.

I remember hurrying down a hallway. I remember seeing double doors burst open at the far end of the hall. I remember a wall of law enforcement officers running toward us, carrying batons.

One of them arrested me, and confiscated my tape recorder. I remember saying, “You’re making a mistake.” Reporters were supposed to have some immunity from arrest, but I didn’t know how to make that point, and anyway the officer who arrested me wasn’t listening.

I was handcuffed, led outside, and forced down on the sidewalk with some other arrested students. We were put into a police car and taken to jail. I wound up a group of about twenty other student protesters in a cell at the Iowa City Jail.

We were held for several hours. I remember all of us being walked into a small crowded courtroom, to enter pleas. Photographers were there, with flash cameras. Most of us were charged with disorderly conduct. I pled not guilty, as a lawyer I had never seen before advised me to do. I remember the rather distraught face of Robert Coover, who gingerly approached me when he had a chance and asked me how I was holding up.

Somebody posted fifty dollars bail for me. We were all released. The police kept the tape recorder, even though over the next several months I heard that the university made great efforts to have it returned.

My student life went on. I found another part-time job as a fry cook, working Friday and Saturday nights at an all-night diner and truck stop just off Interstate 80. I also stayed busy at school, where I had a full load of classes. A couple of my poems were published in little magazines. I worked on a novel. I reviewed visiting poets for the Daily Iowan, the university newspaper. It was a kick to see my articles in the newspaper, and wondered if I could do that for a living.

Although I had registered Republican, in the 1968 presidential election I voted for Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat, because I felt he was most likely to end the war. By 1969, the Vietnam War was raging. Lots of young men were getting draft notices, or joining up. A few weeks before I graduated, I was called to a pre-induction physical in Iowa City. My classification was now 1-A, which meant that I could be drafted as soon as I got out of school.

I had decided I didn’t want to serve in the military. However, I didn’t want to move to Canada. I didn’t want to amputate my trigger finger, or pretend that I was crazy. I didn’t want to find a psychiatrist who would write me a letter stating I was unfit for military service, as some of my friends did. My grandfather had hinted that he might pull some strings with the draft board, but I didn’t think that was right. My mother was urging me to volunteer. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

My second wife and I drove cross country to San Francisco, where we rented an apartment on Haight Street. While in San Francisco, a draft counselor with the American Friends told me that if I changed my address every three months that the draft board would never catch up with me, since it took at least three months for them to update their records. Other options for avoiding the draft included applying for conscientious objector or CO status, which would keep me out, too.

Changing addresses worked for a while. After San Francisco, I lived briefly in Lake Tahoe, California, in two different apartments in Reno, Nevada, and in Los Angeles, always waiting until the last possible minute to send in change of address notices. Finally I got on at a newspaper in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. I was hired as sports editor for the Madera Daily Tribune, the first job I’d had in which I was actually paid to write.

In Madera, I learned journalism the old way, by practicing it on the job. But the draft board caught up with me. When I received an induction notice, I filed for conscientious objector status. I submitted a written statement to the board, and I was granted a hearing with the local Madera County draft board. Basically, I argued it wasn’t Christian or right to kill other people.

Before the draft board could decide my case, President Richard Nixon cleverly split the antiwar movement. The first lottery in December of 1969 assigned potential draftees numbers according to birthdates drawn from a hat. Number one was the first to go. My birthday was drawn number 318, meaning that it was unlikely that I would ever be drafted for anything short of an all-out nuclear war. I never heard from the draft board again.

At the same time, politics beckoned. An organizer for the George McGovern presidential campaign blew through our dusty little town, desperate for someone to chair the long-shot campaign. All the old politicos in Madera County were committed to Ed Muskie, a senator from Maine who was heavily favored to win the nomination. On a lark, another reporter and I volunteered to co-chair the McGovern campaign. I had more enthusiasm than he did for the job, and I more or less ran our long-shot campaign in Madera County.

McGovern’s campaign was a continuation of Bobby Kennedy’s very progressive 1968 presidential campaign, which ended with his assassination. A former Methodist minister turned senator from South Dakota, and a personal friend of Bobby Kennedy, McGovern was campaigning on immediately ending the Vietnam War, drastically slashing the Defense Department budget, and more. In order to vote for him in the primary, I changed my voter registration to Democratic.

By late 1971 and early 1972, great numbers of Americans were staunchly against the war. Local people of all ages and races volunteered to help our campaign. Volunteers streamed into California from other parts of the country, and we put several of them to work canvassing precincts for the Democratic primary in June. McGovern won the California primary, and the Democratic party nomination, but unfortunately he lost the 1972 election to Nixon, who continued the war.

Sometime in there, I was surprised to receive a check for $50 from the Iowa City courts. Without explanation, they returned the money that had been posted for my bail. I wondered for years if Robert Coover ever got that tape recorder back, and if he was able to complete his film. Just last year, I corresponded with him and learned that the answer was yes. His 29 minute documentary film, “On a Confrontation in Iowa City,” was completed in 1969 and posted online in 2011 by the University of Iowa’s Digital Library. The film includes a brief shot of me and two other protesters being led to a police car just before the closing credits. I was also credited for helping with the sound.

After my political turnaround, I’ve remained more or less an antiwar liberal, or a progressive as it’s now called. I’m conservative in spending money, but I have marched in many demonstrations and given money to many good causes. As a registered independent, I now vote for the most sensible progressive Democrats or third party candidates I can find.

Like any good citizen, I read and think about the issues. I write and email my elected representatives. As I have done in the past, I sometimes jump up and demonstrate for a good cause when I hear the call.

END Part 2 of 2

Blasting Caps, Musical Challenges, Women’s Rules, and Vietnam. By Kathy Green

22 Nov

davis mesa 2006.with Chuck

Kathy Green was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. After majoring in geology, she became a National Park Ranger for five years. During that time, she met Chuck Kroger [the editor’s brother], whom she married in 1978. They settled in Telluride, Colorado in 1979, where they co-founded Bone (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction company. When Chuck died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Kathy and co-workers continued the company’s projects. Kathy enjoys hiking, running rivers, making art (including silk dying), and working for environmental and social justice in her region.

 

I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. There were only about 2000 students. The students and the faculty were liberal. When I arrived, I found out that Joseph McCarthy is from Appleton and is buried in a cemetery there above the Fox River and near our college campus. It had already been popular for students to go out there and have picnics and dance on his grave. I went to some of those parties and had my own personal vendetta to achieve; Joseph McCarthy had called my grandfather a communist on the U.S Senate floor! Our family considered that an honor. It was ironic to end up at a place where I could dance on his grave.

The administration at Lawrence was afraid of us, that we’d have a riot or something. But we weren’t very active. We did a few protests. Jesse Jackson came to speak to us in 1968 about the election when I was still 17. (I couldn’t vote then; the voting age was still 21. By the time I turned 21, the voting age was 18, and by that time my younger brother and cousin were 18. We all voted together for the first time even though I was older. I thought that was unfair.) We had a lot of black activist speakers come to our college; maybe it was an appeasement by the administration for the fact that Appleton had produced Joseph McCarthy. My education about civil rights continued to develop there, due to the civil rights movement and the war injustices. With Vietnam, the black and Hispanic and poor white kids went in first to the military and war. If you were white and rich, you had options. So in a way Vietnam and the draft were also civil rights issues.

We took over the president’s office once—I forget what our demands were, but we won them. Mostly I think the college administration was trying to protect us from overreacting and doing something horrible, resulting in students getting hurt. We students never got real active because the administration caved in on everything.

We were very concerned about the war. It was coming to a climax, the draft was changing—more rich white kids were needed for the war. The poor kids and kids of color were not enough anymore. I was a senior in college when the lottery occurred. Wisconsin was an “18 state.” (18 to 20-year-old kids were allowed to legally drink 3.2 beer) so our college had a bar in the student union that served 3.2 beer. When the lottery happened, we all jammed into Union Bar to see who got what numbers in the lottery. The lottery numbers were by date of birth. My brother and my cousin got horribly low numbers, but the war ended before they were old enough to be drafted. If you stayed in school you were OK but the minute you got out, depending on your birthday, you were going to war. Either you were number 364 and had nothing to worry about or you were number 19 and in trouble. Therefore many of those demonstrations that were occurring at other campuses were more about the war than about social justice.

Vietnam was the war for the my generation and totally affected everybody. People were planning: friends were trying to gain a lot of weight so they’d be disqualified; others were not eating at all so they’d be too thin; some were plotting to go to Canada; lots of lives were on hold and at risk. A little earlier when I was a sophomore, a guy came back to campus who had been a former student at Lawrence, and he had dropped out, been drafted, and was sent to Vietnam. He was older than most of us by five years. He was in a couple of my art classes. Another woman, Jane, who was also in my art classes, would attack him for going to the war. Why did you go? You shouldn’t have gone. She wasn’t at risk. She was from an extremely wealthy family, and had she been a guy and at risk, her family would have figured out a way for her not to go. This guy wasn’t from that kind of family, and when he dropped out of school and was going to get drafted, his family didn’t find him an alternative. He was left in the lurch and had to go. He didn’t start the war. I thought it was strange that some of my privileged classmates couldn’t sort that out. You needed to be attacking the presidents and the senators and some of your dad’s friends, the CEOs of some major companies. They were the ones making the war happen, not the 18 and 20 and 22 year olds that were forced to go and fight and have their lives messed up forever or lose their lives.

We didn’t understand about PTSD although I knew a little because World War II had affected my dad pretty badly. The opposition to the Vietnam War was more than the draft and the impact of having friends and family go to fight in the war. We, most of the students, felt that Vietnam was a war that the U.S. shouldn’t be in. We, the U.S., were doing the wrong thing.

A lot of changes occurred for women students over the time we were at college. The hours of the girls’ dorm were changed; the 10 o’clock curfew was done away with. Girls no longer had to wear dresses all the time—dresses or skirts had been required even in the winter. (If it was below -20 degrees we had been allowed to wear pants under our dresses.) Now we could wear pants any time without dresses over them. Boys were positively affected as well. They had to wear coats and ties to Sunday meals, and girls had to wear heels. Boys and girls both had to dress up for classes. No jeans. The next year all that went away (fall of 1969). No more dress codes. By the time I graduated in 1972, there were even co-ed dorms. There had been a silly rule that when a boy came to visit, you had to keep your door propped open the size of a trashcan. They had these round metal trash cans that were 16 inches in diameter in every dorm room but everybody was running out and buying trashcans that were six inches wide instead. We were bending all those silly rules.

It was ironic that when I was a senior, the incoming freshmen women didn’t understand that just three years earlier they would have had to put on fancy clothes to go to a meal on Sunday. It was amazing that as young, often silly adults, we already had this sense of history and societal change. The social changes paralleled the political changes that were going on. The women’s movement played a large part in the changes that were made.

So it was my senior year, the last trimester. My girlfriends all told me to take this Early 20th Century Music History class, and that it would be simple and fun with not too much homework. I started the class, and my musical challenge was that I couldn’t tell by listening who we were studying: when played by an orchestra, Beethoven or the Rolling Stones, it was all the same to me. I was like, Oh my God, this will lower my grade average, and what if I want to attend graduate school in a few years? On a long weekend we went on a geology field trip. We were isolated from the rest of the world. When we were in the car, the radio was on and you could hear the news, but much of the time we were cut off. So we were driving home and we heard about Kent State. People had been killed. A huge deal. We were shocked. I arrived back at campus and the next day the administration announced that you could take any class you wanted on a pass-fail basis. The rule had previously been that you had to switch to a pass-fail grade within the first two weeks of a trimester. But I hadn’t realized in time that Bartok, Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones all sounded alike to me and that I shouldn’t be taking this music history class. So despite the horror of Kent State, half-way through the trimester I got to switch to pass-fail. (I was really mad, however, that I hadn’t taken something simple like another math class. But it worked out.)

Flashback to the spring of 1970. I was a sophomore geology major. We took many geology field trips on weekends, especially on long holiday weekends. We’d go someplace and look at rock layers and drive around Lake Ontario, etc. On one field trip we went to an area where they had been blasting, and there were all these blasting caps lying on the ground. The first thing I asked was Are they safe? The tour leader said yes. I think we threw rocks at them just to see, and they didn’t explode.

I thought they were pretty and kind of cool. They were copper things, maybe a half inch or 3/8 inch in diameter, and about three inches long, and they had this piece of colorful braided rope coming out. I recall yellow and red. When there was dynamiting, you’d light the fuse, which is the rope, and it would make the dynamite blow up. Dynamite is dangerous, and we didn’t see any on this trip. but we did see those blasting caps. So I picked up a handful and put them in my pocket. They were intriguing to me on many levels. I thought I might make an art piece out of them.

We returned to school and I kept the blasting caps in my room. I was heading to Germany for a fall school program so I packed my foot locker with things to leave in the basement of the dormitory. I put the blasting caps in there, along with some books and winter clothes, and stored them. I went off to Germany for six months and came home. While I was home in January of 1971, there was a big anarchist explosion in Madison. Since the Lawrence administration was afraid of the students, any time anything would go wrong in Madison and people would get hurt or killed, Lawrence would panic and change things. Just after the Madison explosion, somebody made a threat to our little ROTC program. I heard that the FBI was there looking around Appleton.

I suddenly started to think about those blasting caps in the basement of Ormsby Hall. I went up there in February for an event, telling my parents I needed to go back for a visit because I missed everybody. They bought me a plane ticket. I stayed at Ormsby Hall with my girlfriends who were in school that trimester. I said, Oh, I gotta go down to the luggage room and look in my trunk and retrieve things. So the next morning I went down there early by myself and found the blasting caps, and I put the caps into a paper bag, packed everything back up into the trunk, and went upstairs. I said, I’m going for a walk.

You have to understand that going for a walk in Appleton, Wisconsin in February, it is likely to be cold, although that day I don’t think it was as extreme cold, like -40 degrees, which happened every year. It was probably only -10 or -20: practically mild. I put on my parka and stuffed the bag with the blasting caps into my pocket. I always wore my hiking boots then; it was kind of trendy. I got all bundled up. I went outside and dug around in the snow, found a little rock, and added it to my pocket with the paper bag. My campus is right along the Fox River, which was heavily polluted, so we didn’t hang out by the river much, but the campus is several blocks long, and at each block there’s a bridge across the river. I walked out into the middle of one of the bridges; it was cold and windy and snowing. I got the paper bag out, put the rock in, and crumpled it all up. I decided to use a paper bag instead of plastic because I wanted the caps to erode and go away. I threw it into the river and watched it sink into the water, which for some reason wasn’t frozen. I went back and had some tea with my friends. I told no one.

Years went by and a song came out about Billy Joe throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I had a different interpretation of that song than anyone else had. Every time I heard that song I got a little nervous and looked around to see if anybody was watching me. More recently I’ve heard of blasting caps blowing up spontaneously and causing damage to people or things. I think, Oh my God, what was I doing with them? I really liked them and during college I was enamored with being a revolutionary. I think we all were. There was some magic in that dream. I had really wanted to make a piece of art with them or to use them. I’ll never know if they were truly dangerous.

I got my first real job as a National Park Service ranger. The feds do an investigation into your background, and I never would have gotten the job if I’d been busted with the blasting caps. It wasn’t illegal to have them; they weren’t a controlled thing. Anybody could buy dynamite at that time; there were no regulations. They are definitely bomb-making materials and that step was not for me. I realized that I wanted to read about revolutionaries but not be one.

***

From 1973 to 1977 women’s issues became much more apparent to me. I was a federal employee in the National Park Service (NPS), where you’re not allowed to be an activist about anything and barely allowed to vote (the latter of which I say partly in jest but not really). It was obvious in my short career as a very young adult, that there was a long ways to go to achieving parity for women. Some of the first black female rangers were my roommates during our various training programs. Even today, the NPS is very much a “Good Old Boys” club and male-dominated. Many of the few female rangers of that era were treated badly by some of the men they worked with or for. Many of the women in administrative jobs were really making the parks run well but getting no credit and being paid at a lower wage level than men with the same jobs. One of my male fellow rangers told me that he was giving an incompetent male a good annual review because he had a family to support. Conversely, he was giving a very competent female ranger he supervised a bad review because she was too assertive and really didn’t need a job. She just needed to get married.

The NPS is much more militaristic than I had realized from the outside. The military aspects partially come from the U.S. Cavalry running the parks until the National Park Service was set up 50 years after the first national park. I learned a lot about the military by working for the NPS. One odd thing was that there were all-black Cavalry groups that were major caretakers of some of the parks before the NPS existed. The role and importance of those early black soldier caretakers are only now being recognized and celebrated in the 2000s. Today the NPS has new programs to attract both more diverse visitors and employees. Women of any color are being treated somewhat better today.

When I think back on it, I would say that in my high school and certainly my college years, I was the most conscious of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. After I went to work, I became more conscious of women’s rights and inequities. Flash forward: for 35 years, I have lived in a small remote Colorado mountain resort town and worked in construction. Our town was very lily white when we moved here. Our Hispanic population has increased a lot and we have to face and deal with discrimination and racial issues now. In the resort era of this town, women have played a major role in leadership, especially in government/elected positions. Today, I often wear a dress over my jeans (but by choice). I am used to being a female working in a “male” job—after 40 years.

I really wish I had those blasting caps – I would put them in one of my mixed media groutless mosaic art pieces.  The blasting caps were both very visually interesting and would convey an implied message – like blow up the dams on rivers – which the government is actually doing more and more – it is how you remove dams and restore habitat and bring back fish like salmon.